F*ck Covid: An Online Literary Affair (2)

This is the second of my two posts on the F*CK COVID online-only event. My first post introduced it and covered the fiction session. This post will report on the non-fiction session. I’ll start by noting that while the first session involved established authors, this one, I think it’s fair to say, involved emerging writers, who were also both from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Past-present: adventures in non-fiction with Shu-Ling Chua and Sneha Lees

While Gold’s and Brandi’s books were both novels, the two books covered here represent different forms, Shu-ling Chua’s Echoes being a collection of essays, and Sneha Lees’ Good Indian daughter (published under the name Ruhi Lee) being a memoir.

On their inspirations

Shu-Ling was inspired by the surprising discovery that a pop song in Crazy Rich Asians, “I want your love”, had been loved by her grandmother. This led her to researching the soundtrack, and exploring “lineages and inheritances” from various perspectives, including cultural, literary, fashion. This core theme held true, she said, through the three essays, which focus on domestic life, fashion, music, and water. Nigel suggested the word “intricate” described her book, but Shu-Ling prefers “intertextual” because she layers different cultural sources. She talked about the pressure she felt to be original (but I’ll leave that to the Q&A where it came up again!)

Sneha‘s book started with her wanting to understand why she was disappointed to discover, when pregnant, that she was having a girl. She came to realise that it was not about the baby but about how she felt as a woman in the world, and that this went back to psychological and physical abuse she’d experienced growing up. Her challenges in writing her story were: how to maintain a relationship with her family on whose watch this abuse had happened; and how to retain her culture. She talked about the high suicide rate for Indian woman, and her wanting to break the silence.

On wounds, scars and critiquing culture

Nigel said there was a heart of forgiveness in her memoir. Sneha laughed and said that Hard Copy program’s Nadine Davidoff had advised to write from the scar not the wound, but she’d often written from the wound. She admitted, however, that she had developed empathy for her parents, as their own stories had been tough, and this had given her a kernel of forgiveness. (This reminded me of Alice Pung coming to understand her parents.) Sneha’s book is about self and inter-generational understanding.

Shu-Ling talked of writing about wounds and scars – regarding sexual trauma – in her earlier writing, and the need to write about these things in ethically, responsibly. You need to consider, she said, the ethical, social, cultural, historical backgrounds. 

Sneha, sort of expanding this, spoke of needing to be mindful when writing about Indian culture in Australia. She was writing, she said, for white editors, publishers, readers, and didn’t want to make it easy for white people to see her critiques of her culture as evidence of their culture’s superiority. She loves her culture, but she also wanted to critique it. She’s interested in what it means to be Indian, what it means to be Australian.

Nigel wanted to explore this more, particularly how to critique dominant Australian culture?

Shu-Ling spoke about being part of a bigger group of writers trying to broaden Australians’ understanding of migrant culture, away from the expected traditional voyage and first generation stories. They need to be able to write about things important to them. Activism can take different forms and newer writers are carving out their own space.

Nigel asked whether the current bland simplification in Federal politics regarding migrants – like the “stop the boats” mantra – makes it hard to write about. Sneha commented on how distressing the short-term understanding behind these policies is. How can a white person proudly say “send back the boats” when they themselves came by boat and ruined the country. This thinking devalues what migrants and refugees bring: it ”feels like shit but you just write through it”.

On writing openly, honestly, respectfully about family …

… when they are still alive!  

Sneha talked to her parents about publishing her story, being anxious about airing “dirty laundry” and not wanting to attack the family. As a result, she agreed to publish under a pseudonym, Ruhi Lee (she’s now out!), but she also quoted Ann LaMott’s

If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

For Shu-Ling it was different. Her book is mainly about her mother’s side and her mother was part of the process. There were, however, uncomfortable conversations, such as about premarital sex. She agreed with Sneha that it’s not easy to write about family, but said that Echoes is a bit removed. She used music, for example, to create a bridge with her mother (and grandmother).

On the role of place in their writing

Shu-Ling said that, while she wrote the book in Melbourne, it is very much about Canberra because She’s exploring nostalgia. Also, she sees Canberra as “her” city, because neither her mother nor grandmother lived there.

Sneha didn’t feel that where she was writing, Melbourne, had impacted her book, but admitted that, before she wrote it, she had seen India through rose-coloured glasses.

The readings

As in the first session, both authors read. Sneha chose a section about having to talk to her parents about her sex education homework. Her father was horrified by the “the debauched syllabus”. Being taught this was “so veritably un-Indian”. Shu-Ling read from the last essay in her book, “To fish for the moon”, in which she talked, among other things, about what “opting out of motherhood” means. Is this a beginning or ending or both?

Nigel asked Shu-Ling about the tenderness he perceived in her writing. She said she writes as if she is speaking to a friend. She also said that her favourite writers write tenderly.

For Sneha, the question was obvious – her humour. Sneha said that humour writing is her first love, and that books and memoirs by comedians were major influences. She grew up with a diet of humour in her family. Readers need humour, she said.

Q&A

  • On the pressure to be original. Expanding this, Shu-Ling explained that she loved, for example, Alice Pung’s work, but had felt she must be different from her and others, like Benjamin Law and Maxine Beneba Clarke. She wanted to move away from the capitalistic focus on the individual, so used the conversation idea. She sees herself as renovating rather than building a new building. What a great metaphor!
  • On feeling equipped to write about BIG issues. Sneha spoke about addressing the political in a personal way. The advice from Hard Copy was to “just tell your story”, and to “give the reader more credit”, letting them come to it. This lets her stick to what she knows. Shu-Ling spoke similarly on focusing on the personal, and also about not wanting to speak over others.
  • On relationship with editors. Sneha said she had a great editor, and really enjoyed what was a collaborative process. She felt she could push back, but she also respected their suggestions and probings. Shu-Ling didn’t feel comfortable with her first editor, but the second one was collaborative.
  • On whether their families have read their stories. Sneha was sad that she felt she couldn’t celebrate publication with her family, besides her sister, while Shu-Ling said her mother had read her final draft for inaccuracies.
  • On turning memories into memoirs, managing the gaps and creating a narrative. Shu-Ling starts with a moodboard, and writes her first draft using stream of consciousness, winding her way through her question to a conclusion. She then develops her narrative during polishing. Because her subject matter is recent, she has few memory gaps. Anyhow, she says, memoir is not about the past, but about your relationship with the past. Sneha, on the other hand, says regarding narrative that she is a big structure person, so puts that down first. Her memoir was structured along her pregnancy timeline; for her new novel she has mapped out her chapters. However regarding memory, she said her story was complicated by gaslighting so she had to cross-check with sister, husband, and friends. Nigel commented that he loved her memoir’s chapter titles, like “Thanks for the panic attack. Here’s a heart attack in return”.
  • On surprising post-publication emotions. Shu-Ling was initially “down” that her book hadn’t charged the world, but appreciated the positive responses. Sneha didn’t expect ”to feel like shit”, but this was partly due to her the lockdown causing her launch to be cancelled, and to the COVID crisis being so bad in India. She was surprised by how much women “felt” her book.

Tips for writing through the pandemic

Sneha said to go back to what you love, like rereading old favourites. She was reassured about the value of her work by Ethan Hawke’s TED talk’s statement that

art’s not a luxury—it’s actually sustenance. We need it.

Shu-Ling agreed with rereading old favourites, being for her, essays. She also talked about the importance of community, and that the pandemic means she can attend interstate and overseas writing events which revitalise her creative energy. (Hear, hear!)

Overall themes

Interestingly, two ideas recurred in both sessions: one related to trusting readers, and the other to the value of the editing process.

A big thanks to the ACT Writers Centre, Nigel Featherstone and the four panelists for organising and taking part in an event that felt so honest and reaffirming. Art is indeed sustenance.

F*ck Covid: An Online Literary Affair (1)

An initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and its Creative Producer Nigel Featherstone, F*CK COVID, was an online-only event. It comprised two panel discussions, featuring “four of Australia’s most exciting literary voices”, one focused on fiction, and the other non-fiction. I will report on these in separate posts.

Both sessions included the authors reading from their books for a few minutes, which, as always, was a treasure.

Hard truths; Risky fiction, with Irma Gold and Mark Brandi

After introducing the authors and their latest books, Irma Gold (The breaking, my review) and Mark Brandi (The others), Featherstone launched into his gently probing questions, which resulted in some great insights, for readers and writers. We started with Gold and Brandi describing their books, but you can find that info elsewhere if you haven’t read the books! You can also read more about Irma on her novel in my report of a conversation in May.

On their inspirations

Interestingly, both authors’ novels started as short stories.

Book cover

Gold’s started as a story that is now, essentially, her first chapter. It was not initially about elephants and animal cruelty. She feels that if she’d started with that idea the novel would have been more issues-driven that the character-driven story it is. The two characters appeared to her fully-formed she said. She also said that her stories are usually dark, but she wanted to write something more joyful.

Brandi’s novel started as a short story (published in Meanjin in 2016). Unlike Gold’s non-autobiographical novel, Brandi’s story was based on a childhood experience that gave him his first insight into the complexity and contradictions of the adult world. However, he said that as he has talked about the novel post-publication, he has realised that the story was more inspired by his father’s life with his father’s father. It’s about nature versus nurture, and how events affect us later in life.

On challenges they faced writing difficult sections

For Irma, this was writing the animal cruelty scenes. One scene in particular was “very hard” to write. She wanted to not make the book so harrowing that people would not want to read it. Her aim was to give enough for people to understand the situation. Even so, one agent and some publishers found her story “too risky” and did not want to take it on. Gold said what she loves about writing is “seeing the world through other perspectives”, which is just what we readers like too, eh?

For Mark, the whole thing was challenging! He also likes “seeing world though other eyes”. The discussion focused mainly on writing difficult material through a child’s eyes. Brandi spoke about trusting readers. He believes that the reader’s imagination can do a better job than the author, so he creates the prompt to allow readers “to go to the dark place if they are brave enough to”. People, he said, can tolerate cruelty to humans more than to animals. (Why is that?) He also said he’s happy to read “dark stuff”, that it doesn’t give him a negative world view (which I relate to).

Nigel complimented Australia’s publishing landscape, believing we have publishers prepared to take risks.

On style

Nigel asked Mark about his “pared back” style, in which there’s barely a sentence that is exposition or description. Mark responded that this is what he likes to read. He likes to be trusted, respected as a reader. He wants his readers to bring themselves to the work, and to “paint the picture themselves”. Reading, he said, is a “dance between reader and writer”.

This led to a discussion about dialogue. Brandi tries to use dialogue sparingly. It must have meaning. Nigel quoted Francine Prose (Reading like a writer) who wrote that “good dialogue is when character’s thoughts are louder on the page”. Irma concurred, saying that every line of dialogue has to have a reason for being there.

On themes and perspectives

Nigel suggested that Irma’s overall theme was Hannah’s yearning to do the right thing and to find love. Irma replied that she wasn’t consciously thinking of these, but she has later realised that Hannah came from her observation of 20-something tourists she’d seen in Thailand. Their freedom looked “so delicious and wonderful” but she’d realised that, at her age, she had the benefit of knowing who she was, and where she was going. Uncertain Hannah came from this recognition! It’s interesting to explore a character like Hannah, particularly when you throw in someone like Deven who tests and challenges. Nigel commented that in good novels, the DNA is in the opening, and that The Breaking opens with a sense of tension, darkness, and humour.

For Mark, Nigel returned to the issue of writing from the perspective of an 11-year-old (Jacob). Mark confessed that the inner child is “close to the surface for him”! Then, turning serious, he identified the two main issues: a child’s limited understanding of the world, particularly when that world is closely mediated through his father; a child’s language and narrow “vocabulary palette”. He used Jacob’s imagination to convey things a boy’s language couldn’t.

Here a William Faulkner quote was paraphrased, as it seemed to apply to both Irma and Mark. The original is:

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

On bringing together character, plot and story

Nigel asked about their writing process, regarding how and when they bring all the elements together.

Irma said that for her character and place go together. She also talked about how her work as an editor has given her an insight, particularly, into pacing. She said that her first draft is very much character-based, with plot and pacing honed during editing.

Mark’s response somewhat echoed Irma’s in that he’s very dependent on his editor and publisher for help with plotting. Again, his style of reading aligned with mine, when he said that he doesn’t pay much attention to plot in his own reading, and that he “will stay with good characters through whatever harebrained plot the author throws up“. I loved this, because I don’t care about plot holes. I care about characters and ideas.

Anyhow, he said that he leaves a couple of months after his draft, and will often see plot deficiencies when he returns to it, but there are always more when the book gets to publisher.

Q&A

  • On their writing sessions: Both writers said you need a routine, and described their own. Mark drafts 2-3 hours every day because “voice and character are crucial” and he needs to stay with them. Irma said her process/routine varies for each project depending on what’s happening in her life (as she works full-time and has three children). With The breaking, she could only allocate two three-hour sessions a week, but her subconscious worked away in between, making those sessions productive.
  • On writing violence, and how to dial it back when the subject matter is violent. Irma suggested that people tolerate more violence against humans so it may not be a big problem, while Mark says that you give the reader enough details, then trust them to imagine. The question is, he said: What are the violent scenes in service of? Are they to convey what it’s like day to day, to support characterisation, or? Answering these will help avoid gratuitous violence.
  • On titles, which comes first, the story or the title: For both it was clearly the story, but Mark said that The others came to him very early while The rip started as something else. Irma said The breaking came to her after the book had gone to the publisher.

Tips for writing through the pandemic

Mark said routine and ritual and hard work – and giving it your whole being and heart.

Irma admitted that, until now, we Canberrans hadn’t been greatly affected, but she agreed that routine is important. Now she is in lockdown, and has more time, she plans to grab that! Find your time and your routine, was her advice.

Live events are the best, but online ones like this can be just as good in terms of both content and warmth. Watch for session two’s report …

Sofie Laguna in conversation with Karen Viggers

Sofie Laguna and Karen VIggers

Sofie Laguna and Karen Viggers

What a treat it was to witness a conversation between two lively, intelligent Australian women writers in the company of other writers. I mean, as you can see from the post title, Miles-Franklin award-winning author Sofie Laguna and local writer Karen Viggers whose book The lighthousekeeper’s wife has just hit 500,000 copies sold in France!

I must say that I felt a bit like an interloper, given the event was organised by the ACT Writers Centre in their “Developing Writers and their Work” program, but I did enjoy eavesdropping on what writers talk about and want to know!

“I wasn’t ready to win”

The evening started with Sofie (I’m going to use first names) reading from the second chapter of her new book, The choke. Then we got down to business, starting with how Sofie handled her Miles Franklin win for The eye of the sheep (a book which still sits on the pile next to my bed, I’m afraid.) She had a new baby at the time and wasn’t expecting to win. She felt out of her depth. She had no speech prepared, and was suddenly surrounded by media and the press. It was both too much and something you want, she said. However, she felt the prize would be positive for many years to come, and said it made her feel her work was now validated by the literary establishment.

Karen Viggers, The lighthouse keepers wifeKaren then asked her about her experience as a woman in the industry, but Sofie turned this back on Karen – as she did several times during the conversation! Karen, though, was up for the challenge. She commented that she did feel her gender has impacted her career, including such things as the covers of her books.

Sofie agreed that she works in an unfair world, and that women get less attention. She talked about dealing with practical demands of winning the prize and managing a baby. It helps, she said, to trust your instincts. However, “you still have to empty the dishwasher every day”. That got a rueful laugh from many!

“Character IS the plot”

Sofie Laguna, The chokeMany times during the interview, Sofie returned to character. It’s clearly what she writes for, and about.

Karen asked her how she “found” Justine’s voice, the 10-year-old girl living on the Murray with her war-damaged grandfather in The choke. Sofie referred to her training as an actor, and how actors discover that some characters are easier to inhabit than others; she finds young voices easy. Young protagonists, she said, can have a fresh view on the world. Moreover, the more vulnerable voice of child characters frees her to comment on the adult world in a more powerful way.

Sofie then talked about Justine’s Pop. He’s narcissistic. He cares about Justine, albeit not necessarily as he should or could. She admitted that yes, he was another damaged character, but that seeing him that way was too simplistic. Many of us, she said, are damaged in some way. It was clear that she felt there’d been too much focus in interviews on “damage”!

Nonetheless, Karen commented, Sofie did write demanding books, to which Sofie responded that she’d grown up with war-caused loss and damage in her family, something she hadn’t talked about before.

The conversation then returned to Justine, who is dyslexic and generally powerless. Karen asked whether there were ways in which Justine was powerful. Sofie said that while Justine’s in a difficult world, she has the power – can choose – to respond in positive ways. She’s able to form connections. Unlike Pop, she’s not self-absorbed, and can enter other people’s worlds, can empathise. Sofie believes there’s much positivity in the book.

Sofie said that it’s the characters and the tensions between and within them that drive the narrative.

Later, when asked whether her books are character- or plot-driven, whether the plot fits the character or vice versa, she said that character IS the plot.

Place

While character is Sofie’s focus, Karen noted that place is significant in the novel. Sofie described how the Murray River and the Barmah Choke inspired her setting. She said the Murray is brown and gritty which works metaphorically in her story. The choke is where the river becomes narrower. Trees in the choke may look like they’re dying, but they don’t die, they keep growing, which makes a lesson for Justine.

Hope

Sofie believes that hope is important. She quoted a writer’s adage, which is that you want readers thinking:

“I fear she won’t, but I hope she will”

Writing to this tension keeps readers reading. (I love this, and will try to remember it.)

Around here, the issue of writing about disadvantage came up. Sofie said that people living disadvantaged lives often find themselves in self-destructive patterns. And yet, like the women in her book who don’t have much power, they can find ways to survive. However, she said, her subject is the richness of world, not specifically poverty and disadvantage. Her stories would not work if she decided to write about disadvantage. She sees her job as being to endow world with life not to be a spokesperson for marginalisation. Anyhow, privilege doesn’t save people from suicide, crime, etc, she argued.

The writing process

Given that the session’s focus was “developing writers”, Karen concluded by turning to the writing process. A lesser interviewer would have been flummoxed at this point when Sofie responded that she had “no answers for questions about how she does it”. But, of course, she did have answers, and she shared them. She:

  • plunges in with a plan
  • writes millions of drafts
  • doesn’t always write from beginning to end, and sometimes stops when she has more to say which can make it easier to start next sitting
  • has found that, with experience, writing has got faster over the years
  • knows her character’s “soul”, but the rest she gets to know as she writes. She noted that initially she found it hard to differentiate Justine from The eye of the sheep’s Jimmy, but Justine’s character developed as she kept writing
  • prefers one-person to multi-person narratives
  • doesn’t choose to write for a specific audience (i.e. young people or adults) but writes for character, and the audience falls into place
  • likes to have some time and space between books (partly because of the promotion she needs to undertake for the most recent book)

It felt at times that Sofie was discovering more about her book as she discussed it with Karen. Her excitement and Karen’s flexibility in going with it made the conversation fun and engaging. It was one of the liveliest I’ve been to, and we all laughed when Sofie said that she wasn’t like this at the breakfast table! I’m glad I decided to go.

Monday musings on Australian literature: ACT Writers Centre

Do you have a writers centre in your neck of the woods? We do in Australia, but I’ve barely written about them before. They generally provide support and/or training for writers, via online and face-to-face mechanisms, some free-of-charge but most fee-paying, and tend to be membership organisations. Over coming months, I’ll share what’s happening in different centres around Australia, but I’m starting here with the one in my city, the ACT Writers Centre.

First though, a little anomaly – to do with apostrophes! I note that the ACT Writers Centre has no apostrophe in its name, while the Australian Writers’ Centre does. Whyfor this thusness? A quick survey around the various Australian state centres revealed that most do not use the apostrophe (with the Northern Territory appearing to have a foot in both camps, depending on which page you are on!) It’s like Mothers/Mother’s/Mothers’ Day. I prefer the no-apostrophe approach. As in, what sort of (adjectival) day is it? It’s a mothers day, that is, a day for mothers. Rather than, whose (possessive) day? It’s mother’s day, a day owned by mothers. It seems that most writers centres in Australia see it the adjectival way. Either that or they don’t know their apostrophes, and that would be a worry!

Enough pedantry, let’s get on with the ACT Writers Centre. It describes itself as:

the leading organisation of writing-based culture in the ACT. Our mission is to develop writers and their work.

How do they do this? Well, by running programs, offering prizes or awards, and providing services such as manuscript assessment, editing, and mentorship. Most of these are fee-based. They also have a blog, Capital Letters.

In this post, I’m going to focus on four special programs offered, but they also offer various courses. Currently, the ACT Writers Centre runs four main programs:

HARD COPY

HARDCOPY 2015 flyerI’ve written about Hard Copy before, in a previous Monday Musings post. The first program was held in 2014, so this year’s will be its fourth. They describe it as “a national professional development program that helps build the capacities, aptitudes and resources emerging Australian writers need to reach their potential.”  Its aim is not specifically to achieve publication for its participants, but to help them with manuscript/project development, to arm them with an understanding of how the Australian publishing industry works, and to help them “build connections and relationships within the industry/writing community”.

This program, which is run by our local centre, receives funding from the Australia Council for the Arts, and is offered nationally, that is, not just to ACT-based writers. Also, it alternates between fiction and non-fiction writing. This year’s program, as the one run in 2015, is for non-fiction writing.

All this is pretty dry. For an insider’s perspective, do read Michelle’s posts on her blog, Adventures in Biography, on her experience of the 2015 program. She had a great experience – and I was pleased because I got to meet her while she was here! She found the program very helpful, to say the least.

Between the Lines

Hetherington and Webb, Watching the worldYou know that mantra, the one that says to be a writer you need to be a reader? Well, the ACT Writers Centre clearly believes it to be so, because this year they are offering “a facilitated book discussion group for writers with an active practice”. This sounds a bit like a reading group, but with two big differences. First, it has  a professional leader, in this case Professor Jen Webb from the University of Canberra (whose book with poet Paul Hetherington, Watching the world, I reviewed a couple of years ago). And secondly, the focus will be on “authorial technique and achievement, rather than subjective personal judgements on whether or not the book is ‘good’ or ‘bad’”.

The focus this first year will be Australasian literary novels. You can see the list on the link I’ve provided on the heading. There are 6 books, as it’s a bimonthly program: three are by men and three by women, three are by New Zealand writers including one by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, and one is by a woman of indigenous Australian background (Melissa Lucashenko). I’d love to see their discussions written up on the Capital Letters blog!

ACT Writer-in-Residence

This is the program which, when I read about it last week, inspired today’s post. It’s a new three-year program offered by the Writers Centre in collaboration with the University of New South Wales (Canberra) and with support from the Copyright Agency Ltd. Again, you can read the details of what the program offers and expects on the link I’ve provided. Like HARD COPY it is not limited to ACT Writers. It is mainly geared to established writers, but “suitably qualified developing writers” were also encouraged to apply.

Last week the three writers were announced:

  • 2017: Isobelle Carmody, fantasy writer, particularly of the immensely popular, much translated, Obernewtyn Chronicles. (Daughter Gums was, and still is, a big fan.)
  • 2018: Jane Gleeson-White, prize-winning non-fiction writer who plans to research a novel set during World War II.
  • 2019: Angela Gardner, poet who apparently has a project on “Air” which will “include some novel public programs for Canberra – including balloon flying”.

I was initially surprised to see that all three writers have been announced now, but I guess it does enable the later writers to plan their lives, something I suspect writers often don’t get an opportunity to do!

ACT Literary Bloggers

And now comes the one close to my heart! It’s another new program, and another collaborative one, this time with the National Library of Australia. It “provides an opportunity for two emerging ACT-region writers to attend events at the National Library of Australia and document the experience for the ACT Writers Centre’s Capital Letters blog. The program, which will run from May to December, includes a mentorship with ….” yep, me, Whispering Gums! What an honour, and how interesting it’s going to be. The program is particularly aimed at writers who’d like to write about “the literary arts for the online environment”.

The two bloggers have been chosen: playwright and performance maker Emma Gibson, and blogger/podcaster and writer Angharad (Tinted Edges).

I am looking forward to working with Emma and Angharad, particularly to jointly exploring ways in which blogging can be used to further promote literary culture in the (our, any) community. You may hear more about this later in the year.