Literary Traversings

After meeting H and having lunch with C on Chapel Street, I walked back to the hotel to meet my publicist. I was still grumpy, but feeling less violent than in the morning, and as I walked I rehearsed my speech and decided that the sun was uncomfortably warm on my shoulders. A* turned out to be wonderful – young, vibrant and friendly – and she carried my backpack around for me, which made me a little uncomfortable. H had been the designated packhorse but due to a change in plans he couldn’t go back to the hotel to collect the bag for me.

A* and I went first to a gay and lesbian bookshop down the road and signed their two copies, then went on to a beautiful bookshop in Albert Park. ‘The book’s been selling quite well,’ said the manager, rather solemnly and quietly, and I wondered if this reserved estimation was characteristic of all bookshop managers. A* then got us a cab to Dymocks and the manager there was lovely, and gave us cups of tea and hot chocolate from the cafe. She told us about her camping trip for the upcoming weekend, on a plot of land which several families had grouped together to buy, and now she and their descendents kept up with the tradition and still went there to stay. It sounded a bit like life on the farm so I told her about that. Then A* and I went across the road to an independent bookstore and signed some more copies, and then we caught a cab to Brunswick Road for dinner – Malaysian this time, at Blue Chillies. H texted me in alarm to say that there were people queuing on the footpath outside and he wasn’t sure if he could get a ticket. Then he wrote again to say they were the overflow from the previous event, which had a comedian in it, and my heartbeat subsided fractionally.

It surged again as we entered the bookstore, where there were quite a few people. I flapped around trying to get the FM set up so I could hear, and introduced myself to the two women writers beside me, Jesse Blackadder and Susan Hawthorne. There were three blokes, Dallas Angguish, Todd Alexander (Sydney) and Henry von Doussa, sitting in front of us but I couldn’t hear them and was too stressed trying to remember my spiel to try to hear them. Four writers spoke and then there was an interval, in which I caught up with my publisher, who’d come back from maternity leave, and met the head of marketing at Penguin who’d also come along. H chatted to them too then excused himself to attend to his blind date outside – a meeting engineered by L. After the interval a woman got up and sang a song, murmuring into my FM microphone, ‘This song is for you, Jessica,’ then she sang into the microphone for the audience. I giggled, embarrassed by the attention; it was the first time I’d been serenaded by a lesbian, and she was a good singer. Finally I got up and said my bit and gave two readings from my novel and, despite feeling very nervous and ill-prepared, it was fine.

I was utterly relieved when I got back to my seat and forgot that we had to do Q&A. So we all went up and sat on the plush red velvet couch, and everything was fine and dandy until I got asked the question by the MC, ‘Now Jessica, you’re a heterosexual, so how did you go about writing about lesbians?’ Fortunately I’d rehearsed an answer to this question with H, though he assured me that I wouldn’t get asked it because a thing like because it was passé. I explained that the relationship between Ingrid and Ellyn was based on a relationship with a man that hadn’t been working and wasn’t ever going to work, but that the reason why I’d written about two women instead of a man and a woman was because I was a very strong feminist and my ideas about female autonomy and independence were better expressed through a relationship between two women. They seemed happy with that, though I was affronted and, later, quite angry, for the same reason that I was irritated by the review written by Peter Pierce.

Pierce had maintained that I’d chosen quite a conventional structure and genre (ie a romance) to write about an unconventional topic – namely, lesbians. The must frustrating thing about reviews is that you can’t defend yourself or give the reviewer one of your famous expressions of withering scorn. The whole point I’d been making had been that lesbian love is no different to heterosexual love – therefore as a heterosexual writer I’m entirely qualified to write about love. As for the sex scenes, as I pointed out to the MC, I used my imagination – which is what writers tend to do.

After thinking about it some more, I understood that the MC might feel defensive if a heterosexual writer was writing about gays, namely because I was infringing on the very thing that defined them – their sexuality. But to use that line of reasoning would be to say that deaf people can only write about deaf people and black people can only write about black people, which is patently ridiculous. Then I thought about it some more and figured that it might have been a generational thing – maybe that’s how people like the MC thought (and he was at least in his late 50s), and how people like Pierce think – ie that lesbianism is something radical, when in fact it’s not that different – sure, you’re still marginalised, but marginalised in the way that deaf people might be. I can recall one of my writing lecturers (also around the same age as the MC and Pierce) saying in a faintly disparaging tone to a lesbian in my class that the lesbian novel she was writing was the sort of thing that might get picked up by a left wing women’s press but it would never make it to the mainstream. Well, look at where we are now, folks.

Anyway that’s enough of my ranting. Someone then asked a very sensible question about the role that landscape of Australia, both in the city and country, played in our work. I’d already spoken about this before I gave my reading, so I talked about how homesick I was, and that the only good thing about being out of Australia was that I didn’t have to listen to John Howard, and I got a round of applause for that one.

There’s one last thing I need to mention: the red velvet flock wallpaper of the bookstore. I spoke to the owner of the store afterwards as he got me to sign a stack of books and told him how much I admired it. He said that it had been a toss up between the wallpaper and the airconditioning and he wasn’t sure if he’d made the right decision. ‘Oh, I’m sure it was,’ I replied. ‘It’s like when I buy shoes – I always favour beauty over pain.’ He looked at me dubiously and said, ‘I don’t think you’d have been saying that if you were here last week when it was 40 degrees in the store.’ I had to concede he had a point, but now I am determined to have the same wallpaper in my house when I get back to Oz.

We went out for dinner afterwards, and as we stood at an intersection figuring out where to go, a girl, who was reasonably well-dressed, came up asking for money. H forked some out and handed it over, then the girl turned to me. I didn’t really have any idea of what was going on as I hadn’t heard her, so J+ patted her on the shoulder and said patronisingly, ‘I think you’ve done well for tonight, you should go now.’ I didn’t hear this until afterwards when H repeated it to me, but when he told me I started laughing, and matched up J+’s phrase with the girl’s expression of resigned agreement.

The next day we had a picnic with our cousins in the Botanical Gardens, which were beautiful, and the day after that indulged in the panacea of shopping. I found some lovely sparkly shoes to go with my Collette Dinnigan dress – $215 down to $75 – wohoo! And made the mistake of walking into Alannah Hill and walking out again with a red handbag. Ok it was kind of essential and I will use it everyday but I still felt guilty as it was a tad on the expensive side.

That night we went out with G and her boyfriend to the pub. H was supposed to meet up with his blind date again but after the previous night he was a bit reluctant to go. I drank twice my limit (which is a glass and a half – yes, am sad – but cheap) and eventually I got sick of his flaffing around and said, ‘For God’s sake, what do you WANT to do?’ and he said, ‘I want to stay here,’ and I replied, ‘Well, tell him that then!’ Many creative suggestions for texts were proffered and eventually, guilt-ridden, H managed to stay put. After freezing once again (honestly, I didn’t travel 2000 miles to end up shivering in a Melbourne beer garden in the middle of summer) we got up and I tottered after the others, flashing a brilliant smile at the bouncer for the heck of it. There was some kind of scuffle going on across the road. ‘What is it?’ I asked H. ‘A bitch fight,’ he replied gleefully. We walked on some more. ‘What are they saying?’ I asked again, but he replied, ‘Shhhh, just get a move on.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Shut up and keep walking, I’ll tell you in the car.’ When we got to the car he said, ‘Lock your doors, Jess!’ and I asked again, ‘What’s happening?’ and he said that he’d started giggling as we walked down the street and the man fighting with his girlfriend had shouted, ‘What are youse fuckin’ laughing at, you fuckers?’ Hence the reason for not talking and hurrying on. Next time, H said, he would laugh throatily like a man instead of giggling like a girl, and no one would dare to swear at him. At this I, too, burst out laughing.

I caught the plane back the following afternoon after having coffee with C and J* at a hole-in-the-wall cafe. I’d had a bad hangover and so settled on Vietnamese coffee, which was thick black coffee with condensed milk. It was a bit nasty and my tummy was upset so I opted for a freshly baked chocolate cupcake as well. When I got back to Sydney I texted L to tell me where to go but she didn’t answer her phone until 2 hours later (despite me having told her I would arrive at 5) by which time I was sitting at Eddy Avenue at Central in the sun waiting for a bus, angry as all fuck. Later I complained to Mum on the phone, ‘My life is organised, why can’t other people organise theirs?’ and she remonstrated, for the umpteenth time, that everyone was different therefore it wasn’t fair to apply my standards to them. I knew she was going to say this – she’s been saying it since I was small – despite the fact that both of us know it won’t make any difference because I will always be frustrated by disorganisation.

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2 Responses to “Literary Traversings”

  1. Dallas Angguish Says:

    Hey, this is Dallas Angguish. Just popping in to say hi. I wanted you to know that I also found the MC’s question to you a tad ridiculous. The problem is both generational but also around how people construct the categories of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’. There are a lot of people who buy into the idea that sexuality is inborn and therefore feel there is some kind of ownership around the cultural expression of that ‘identity’. I do not believe that sexuality is inborn. For me it is a behaviour that one selects, consciously or unconsciously, from a wide range of behaviours. However, due to the historical exclusion of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ people from equal representation and the oppression of these same people it is a sensitive subject. I look forward to reading your book but I live in a small town and it isn’t stocked anywhere. Wanna do a book swap? I’ll post you mine if you post me yours. Lots of love, Dallas Angguish.

  2. Hi Dallas, apologies for not getting back to you sooner – I had to figure out how to put my email address on my blog so you could contact me and it took a while (am fairly technologically illiterate). I appreciated your comments; I tend to think that sexuality is innate, as my brother is gay and there’s no way his preferences could be altered, but that isn’t to say it’s that way with everyone. I can completely understand that it’s a difficult subject but I don’t think that should preclude non-gay and lesbian people from writing about the topic, so long as what they write is done with sensitivity. But my next book is about Aborigines and land rights so I think I’m going to find myself in the same situation again.
    And I would love to do a book swap. Can you email me your address? Cheers, Jessica.

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