Archive for May, 2012

On ‘Entitlement’

Posted in Family, Rural Australia, Social Justice, Writing on May 28, 2012 by ladyredjess

I had been intending to write this post a little later, when I’d gained some distance from my novel, but given that Saturday was National Sorry Day and today is the centenary of my relative Patrick White’s birthday and ten years to the day I walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with H and his friends for reconciliation, I thought now would be more opportune.

Entitlement is almost done, aside from the proofreading over the next couple of weeks. The last two months have nearly killed me.  My final edit, then the copy edit, went incredibly fast and the weekend before last saw me at my desk for some 30 hours, sending it off to my editor not long before dawn broke.  I didn’t go outside or check the news or any kind of social media, not wanting to break open the world I was writing.  And then, going to sleep, the characters were still interacting in my head and, for a few days afterwards, they were still walking with me to the bus stop.

I had forgotten how much these things sap you.  I haven’t been able to shake this cold and flu that has lingered for a month now.  I’ve lost weight, I’ve barely seen my friends, the pain from an old root canal flared, I haven’t been skating, although I tried to keep swimming, and some of my pet fish have died, either through negligence or because I introduced too many new ones to their tank, although they do have a history of carking it when I am phenomenally stressed.  I did, at least, put on a lovely new blue-and-red Elise frock from Birdsnest and go dancing.  Now, having finally stopped, my body is letting me know how truly bone tired I am, but I’m trying to cobble together some remnants of energy to start socialising again.

However, it was worth it.  The novel feels good which, coming from a perfectionist, means that it probably is.  The writing is polished, the plot is superb, we have a cover which I love, and it will be on the shelves in September.

Entitlement is about Cate McConville and her brother, who went missing 8 years ago.  Their parents want to sell the family property, but Cate is vehement that they can’t.  ‘What if Eliot comes back, and he doesn’t have a home?’ she asks them. An old Aboriginal friend, Mellor, whose country is owned by the McConvilles, offers Cate a solution, but it’s one that nearly tears her apart.

The idea for Entitlement came to me ten years ago when I’d just started writing A Curious Intimacy and was flatting with an historian in Sydney, in a terrace house in Paddington which features in the novel.  She asked me if I had ever considered how my life of privilege had come from the Indigenous people whose land we owned.  I was 23, and the thought had never occurred to me, which was appalling.  However, at that stage my education regarding Aborigines largely consisted of that delivered to me by Mrs Woodley in Year 2, when I had diligently copied down information on hunting tools and glued a picture of a bark humpy into my exercise book.

I started wondering about the Indigenous people who had walked over the property on which I’d grown up, a mixed farm of 5,500 acres, which must have been taken from them not long ago.  I also remembered a black stone my father had found which was smooth and heavy in my hand, and sat in the wooden marble-topped table on our verandah.  Later, when my sister married an Indigenous man and I began doing research for the novel, she pointed out that Native Title could never have been claimed for our property because there was no record of unbroken descent, despite the fact that that tool showed they had obviously lived off that land.  That seemed to me to be wholly unfair.

I can’t remember when I started to learn about the Stolen Generations, though it must have been while at university in Wollongong.  I don’t know why I can’t remember one defining moment, nor why the horror of it didn’t become apparent to me until I read Anna Haebich’s Broken Circles.  I think it was because I never listen to the radio or watch the news as, being deaf, it takes too much effort (and the spelling errors in teletext drive me mad), so if I learn something it’s usually through reading.

Nor can I remember how I arrived at the plot device on which the novel turns and which involves Cate, the protagonist’s brother, which frustrates me because usually my memory is very good.  I chose to write about my relationship with my own brother (although it has been largely fictionalised) because I wanted to write about our childhood and, on the farm, we were rarely ever apart.  To this day, he is my closest friend and seems as much a part of me as I am of myself.  We have the same sense of humour, complement each other and think alike, as evidenced by the fact that one year we gave each other the same Christmas present.  To lose him would mean losing much of myself, and this is tied up with our childhood on the land.

This, then, became the crux of the novel: I wanted to describe what it was like for a white person to lose their identity and their family through the loss of their land, in the hope that readers would then understand what it might be like for an Indigenous person to lose their country.  Of course, this is a very basic premise and, not being Indigenous, I can hardly begin to conceptualise the entirety of such a relationship.  There are many who will argue that I’m presumptuous to even try, given my background, which is similar to that of my forebear Patrick White’s: I come from pastoralists who made their wealth from the dispossession of the Indigenous.

My great-grandfather F.G. White descended from James White, who had arrived in Australia in 1826 from Somerset as manager of stock for the Australian Agricultural Country.  F.G. White bought ‘Mittabah’ in Exeter, NSW, and a swathe of other properties in NSW and Queensland.  He married Ivy Voss, a Queenslander, who hated the cold and was happier on her property in north west NSW, which she bequeathed to my grandparents, and which my father and his two brothers came to run.  There was an element of snobbery, pride in a blueblood heritage, and of learning to speak ‘properly’ hovering in our family.  ‘Are you from England?’ people would ask me, although my lack of a strong Australian accent has also been as a result of some speech therapy because of my deafness.  Somehow, despite this background – probably because of my paternal grandmother’s more democratic background and my own mother’s levelheadedness – my brother, sister and I have become hardened leftists.  This position manifests in my writing through a constant return to the lives of those who are on the margins: lesbians, Indigenous people, the disabled, refugees and so on, which no doubt also stems from my own marginalisation on account of my deafness.  And, while I am in no way comparing my writing to that of my illustrious forebear, it is true that discussions of his similar background, and of his literary intent and style, are often held in tandem.

In a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel titled ‘Is Patrick White anti-Australian?’, consisting of Gail Jones, Ivor Indyk and Geordie Williamson and chaired by Michael Cathcart of ABC Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily, the now-tedious question of Patrick White’s relevance and the inaccessibility of his work was raised.  My detestation of the term ‘anti-Australian’ must be reserved for another post as this one is already too long, but my impression of the questions delivered to this panel was that White’s background was somehow yoked with the impenetrability of his writing.  He was an irascible man, therefore his texts must be too, an insinuation which all three speakers heartily rejected.  Ivor Indyk referred to White’s identity as a homosexual which ran together with the many references to and compassion for the displaced and foreign in his work; Gail Jones, in her beautiful, delicate phrasing, noted White’s attention to physicality and how this was often rendered affectionately; while Geordie Williamson commented that, ‘To try and draw White into his social utterances and judge him by them is almost to come at it from the wrong angle’.  Gail re-iterated this, noting that White has been co-opted into cultural arguments, and she would like to see a return to his literariness, to the text themselves.

It’s true, Patrick White takes effort, but I have always found him amply rewarding, not least through the richness of his language, to which Ivor referred as ‘baroque’.  Besides, what kind of reader are you if don’t want a text to make you think a little?  There was some mention towards the end of the panel about White’s use of parody, and I was disappointed they hadn’t dwelled on this more, because above all, his writing is stuffed full of humour.  When I began Riders in the Chariot, I burst out laughing at his description of how ‘several barbs of several strands [of blackberry bushes] attached themselves to the folds of [Miss Hare’s] skirt, pulling on it tight, tight, tighter, until she was all spread out behind, part woman, part umbrella’.

Cathcart also mentioned White’s references to Australia as ‘the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions’.  This was taken by the panellists to mean a lack of cultural connection and a lack of spirituality, while I maintain it exists very strongly still in the recent actions of Queensland’s premier in scrapping the Premier’s Literary Awards and pushing this state towards a cultural wasteland.

That aside, how might someone who is ‘born of the conquerors’ (Judith Wright, ‘Two Dreamtimes’ 1973) and who may have, as Brigid Rooney writes of Wright in the marvelous Literary Activists, a similar ‘characteristic fearlessness and principles certainty of view … legible as signs of a born-to-rule patrician outlook’ (UQP, 2009, p. 10) attempt to reconcile their privileged background with the effects of that background, namely the disenfranchisement of ‘the persecuted’ (Wright, ‘Two Dreamtimes’)? I have tried to do this through Entitlement by using empathy.  Regardless of my background, I still have the capacity to feel for those whose children and country were taken from them, and I hope that this novel communicates that to its readers and that they, too, might pause and consider how their lives have been shaped by Indigenous history.  Certainly, it’s a risk that I’ve taken, because I can be accused of speaking for Indigenous people with a white voice, and with a White surname, but I’m not the kind of person who will ever stay silent on issues about which I am passionate.

On Good Stories

Posted in Books, Writing on May 8, 2012 by ladyredjess

‘What’s the point of living if I can’t write anymore?’ I said to H recently in a small moment of melodrama. I’d been thinking about video piracy and the increasing instances where artists aren’t paid for their work, which means that they can’t afford to create good art or good stories, which means that people’s expectations of quality work diminishes, thereby shrinking the demand and market for such art/stories, and so the cycle continues.

Yes, sometimes I don’t like being in my head either.

However, it’s impossible to be an author these days and not engage in at least some sort of contemplation of e-publishing and its effect on the literary marketplace.  I read and collect things from time to time.  An edition of Australian Author on self-publishing has been floating in the piles of paper surrounding my desk since December last year.  In it, an article by Brian Lawrenson charts his steady success on Amazon after persistent research and marketing of his books.  Both businessman and writer, he worked out how the game worked and played it successfully.  Many writers, however, can’t be bothered with the business side of things (yours truly included) or with the demands on their time taken up when they become wildly successful (I haven’t reached this point yet; hence my handbag collection remains limited), which is why I have an agent with Curtis Brown.

On that note, the managing director of this agency, Fiona Inglis, gave an address in late 2011 on the advent of e-publishing over the last five years.  She opened with stats on the proliferation of books (a conservative estimate of 26,500 per month) and noted the difficulty of those books finding readers.  It was through marketing by the traditional publishers, she maintained, that this was likely to happen; something that was reiterated through a Digital Rights seminar panel I attended a few weeks ago at the State Library.  It was organised by the Australian Society of Authors, who go into battle for authors to make sure they are paid something more than peanuts for their work. For example, the ASA requested a meeting with Campbell Newman after he axed the Qld Premier’s Literary Awards, but he was too busy (no doubt potholing with the $240k he saved) to dust off his hands and have a conversation for ten minutes.

I went to the seminar my own, as is my wont, which meant I met new people, including the prolific Marianne de Pierres and, briefly, Simon Groth, Manager of if:book, both of whom were on the panel.  From my notes scratched onto the back of a bill floating around in my handbag, it appears that, while publishers are not being nimble enough to respond to what is going on, they do have established networks of booksellers and reviewers that make them a more desirable avenue for publication than self-publishing via the likes of Amazon.  De Pierres also noted that publishers produce quality control through the provision of editors and copyeditors, and that each of her books was made better through this professional input (something I can testify to myself, especially at the end of this process when you’re so close to your work that you can’t see how to fix it).

This concern of quality over quantity is one that often manifests.  According to this article in The Atlantic, people are reading more than ever.  However, it isn’t clear if what they are reading is of quality.

Despite these harbringers of gloom, it isn’t all bad, for the advent of e-publishing has given rise to some innovative ventures.

Cue the Review of Australian Fiction.  Captained by the brilliant, twice-doctored, Derren Brown devotee Matthew Lamb and managed by able seaman Phil Crowley (who, with his background in economics, understands fiscal logistics, a weak spot for many a writer, at least certainly for this one), the RAF publishes two short stories every two weeks.  Using a mentoring arrangement, one is written by an established author, and one by an emerging author.  The issues are published via the ebook platform Book.ish, and can be read via anything with a web browser.  Never again might one be stuck in a hotel room with only a Gideons Bible for company (certainly, it’s the RAF to the rescue).

This is also a dirt cheap way of sampling a wide range of contemporary Australian fiction.  Each issue costs $2.99, or, alternatively for subscribers, each volume of 6 issues is $12.99. That means if you give up 1 coffee per month, you can afford to read roughly 250 pages of fresh and engaging writing.  For a writer, it’s also an extremely efficient means of finding out who’s doing what in the industry.  I’ve learnt more about Australian fiction in the last four months than I have probably over the last decade.  That might say more about my laziness with reading (or rather, tendency to default to 19th Century fiction or A Song of Fire and Ice when at a loss for a book) than the dissemination of info about OzLit, but you get the picture.

The most recent issue contains one of the best stories yet, James Bradley’s ‘Visitors’, although I am biased, as I found Bradley’s The Resurrectionist a startling and tightly-drawn marvel, and it’s up there with my favourites (du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ishiguoro’s Never Let Me Go).  In this story, Bradley uses botany and aliens to elegantly render a familiar concept: how someone you know, or thought you knew, can become alien to you.  Using the language of symbiosis (though the invasion of alien botanical life sprouting in the forests), he articulates how any relationship is a risk, and how it always alters you:

‘The ecosystem is changing, they say, new organisms invading the biomes, changing them.  In Guatemala and Burma, trees bear strange fruit, spread alien seeds.  In the ocean, phosphor drifts, its DNA hybridizing with the phytoplankton, creating new life that darts and swims beneath the surface of the waves.  Whether it is good or bad seems impossible to tell, simply that it is happening, that we will not be the same any longer’ (17).

It’s a lovely metaphor, also documenting how, in a relationship, what you create together is always something new.

Other stories I’ve enjoyed have been those by Kalinda Ashton, Susan Johnson, Geoffrey Dean, Marie Munkara, and the most peculiar story written by Meg Vann in which the protagonist had a disorder that was, as far as I could work out, some cross between anorexia and autism; whatever it was, I found it drawn with a creepy delicacy that contrasted with the blunt ending.  Irrespective of what was going on (and I like that I’m confused) I’m never going to be able to think of the State Library of Queensland in the same way again.

Clearly, regardless of the medium, good stories are continuing to be published, which is pretty much the conclusion I came to in my conversation with H.  People want to read good writing, and they will seek it out.  I urge readers to subscribe to the RAF.  At the very least, it’s a reminder that Australian fiction is diverse, entertaining, and worth supporting.

Meanwhile Ewan Morrison, writing in The Guardian at the end of January, employs the ideology of economist Hyman Minsky to postulate that e-publishing is a bubble that will burst.  Not really having much concept of economics aside from how to afford my next frock (ie. starve for a week), I can’t comment on this in any way.  I’m just going to keep on writing, and see what happens.  After all, I’m incapable of doing anything else.

On Reading when Rundown

Posted in Books, Feminism on May 7, 2012 by ladyredjess

Sometimes when I forget to stop working, my body makes an executive decision for me and puts me to bed with an illness.  The only positive thing about this state of affairs is that I can lounge about feeling sorry for myself, bake carrot cake and eat it, and read incessantly without guilt.

Which is just as well, as 2012 has been designated the National Year of Reading, although our newly elected Queensland premier would appear not to be cognisant of this.  In a wonderful initiative, Elizabeth Lheude of Australian Women Writers has set a challenge to read and review books by Australian women.  The motivation for this approach is, as she writes, ‘to help counteract the gender bias in reviewing and social media newsfeeds that occurred throughout 2011 by actively promoting the reading and reviewing of a wide range of contemporary Australian women’s writing’.  Already 696 links to reviews have been posted on her site, which is a fantastic response, and through this I’ve added another three.

First off the rank is Romy Ash’s Floundering, recently released by Text.  A first novel shortlisted for the 2011 Vogel, it follows the journey of two boys picked up by their unstable mother (who has left them, without explanation, with their grandparents for a year), and driven across the country to a caravan park by the sea.  The prose is absolutely crystalline and the tension, up until about page 100, is superb.  After that it wobbles a bit, but takes off again.  The titular scene, in which the boys try to catch flounder in the sea with their mother by the light of a torch, stands as a perfect encapsulation of the story.  With ripples of disquiet created by the boys’ interactions with their old neighbour in the caravan park, the hint of prostitution learned from the mother, and a car accident with kangaroos that reminded me of Wake in Fright, the novel was on the cusp of springing into something truly disturbing.  Sadly, however, this didn’t happen, as it wrapped up in a somewhat pedestrian way and didn’t leave me with a huge amount to think about.

Alternatively, this might be because this is the fourth in a rash of first novels I’ve read recently about disturbed children, largely written in first person.  It began with Jon Bauer’s Rocks in the Belly (recently shortlisted for the IMPAC), which had no lyricism and left me cold.  Then there was Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game, which was very well-written and constructed, and finally Favell Parrett’s Past the Shadows, again finely-written (this one in third person), but largely unmemorable aside from the distressing ending.  Maybe I’m just a bit over this theme.  However, having said all that, I’m looking forward to seeing what Ash does next, as she is clearly a deft and dedicated writer.

On finishing her book, I picked up Kirsten Tranter’s second novel, A Common Loss.  I liked Tranter’s first work The Legacy.  Although, as with many others in my bookclub at Avid Reader, I felt the ending too convenient and clichéd, I was thoroughly impressed with her ambition in applying James’ The Portrait of a Lady to Sydney and America.  A Common Loss, also set in America (and evoking that country so well that I wanted to go back there) follows four college friends who meet annually in Las Vegas.  This year is the first without their friend Dylan, who died in a car accident and who, it transpires, holds secrets about them all. While the story had enough intricacy to draw the reader on, and while I liked the setting of Las Vegas and its attendant subtext of the blurring between reality and fiction (although this was too labored at times on account of its filtration through an academic character), the story failed to come to life, remaining stubbornly pinned to the page.  It also took me a good twenty pages to work out that the narrator was a man, and I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of masculinity throughout the text, despite all the main characters but one being male.  I wonder, too, if anyone can write a college novel these days without being overshadowed by and compared to Tartt’s sublime The Secret History, or if this even matters.

Then I got all hot and bothered and uncomfortable with Krissy Kneen’s Triptych, as it was designed to do.  As with Nabokov’s Lolita, referenced several times throughout the novel, Kneen’s skillful writing arouses her readers, despite her rendition of interactions that they may find confrontational (bestiality and incest, for example), making us question our responses and desire.  It follows the engagements, virtual and otherwise, between three sets of people: Susanna, daughter of deaf parents (a family setting I found beautifully done), who engages with Aaron online; zoophiles Rachel and Leda, who have couplings with animals and also communicate with Susanna online; and Aaron and Katherine, who are brother and sister.  I really enjoyed the novel, not least because it had narrative drive, unlike erotica such as Cleland’s The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which was initially entertaining but became tedious through so much repetition.  However the strands of the characters’ lives in each of the three stories, which looked as though they would be tied together, were left loose at the end – particularly Susanna’s, which bothered me.  If reading is anything like sex, a writer really oughtn’t leave their readers hanging.  Alternatively, Susanna’s disappearance might simply be indicative of the internet’s strange conflation of intimacy and distance: you can be close enough to see someone masturbating, but might never be able to connect with them again.  I still haven’t read Krissy’s much lauded Affection, which is very poor on my part, but have ordered it to the library.  Sometimes I think I’m the only person who keeps Stone’s Corner Library alive, as it’s so small I constantly need to pay to order books they don’t stock.  I console myself with the thought that at least every 80c goes to buying new books for other people to read, a concept with which our premier might be unfamiliar.

Beside my bed I still have Brigid Rooney’s Literary Activists, and Melissa Bellanta’s Larrikins.  These will have to wait for another day for review, however, as I need to get stuck into Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance.  And have another cuppa, a couple of paracetamol and piece of cake.