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Overwintering

大家好 and happy new year! First, an announcement: if you’re going to be in Beijing in March, you can catch me at the Bookworm’s international literary festival – a staggeringly awesome lineup of guests from around the world, including a small cohort of Australians. I can’t wait to be a part of it. It’s particularly exciting for me to be returning to the Bookworm, since they were my hosts when I first came to China on an Asialink residency in 2010, and have made me feel right at home again this time around. Keep an eye on their website for festival details over the next few weeks, and until then, here’s a taste.

Studying has kept me busy, writing and the Ministry of Public Security have kept me away from the internet, and Beijing winter has kept me indoors quite a bit what with the short days, the icy temperatures and the smog. It’s a very clear day today – I can see all the way to the mountains again – but last week when the AQI soared almost to 600 (a personal record) I couldn’t see the end of my street. When it’s not polluted the winter days are glorious. The canals freeze, the light is very pretty, and people go skating/sledding/ice biking on Shichahai (it turns out I can still ice skate like it’s 1991, so thanks, Macquarie shopping centre, for the life skill). This morning I noticed that the Eurasian magpies (Pica pica) who have been gathering twigs over the last couple of weeks are beginning to settle into knotted nests in the bare trees over the bike lanes, so somebody knows the ice will not last forever.

It’s nice to live somewhere with a proper winter for a change, even if I did cheat by spending a couple of weeks back in the land of cricket-beach-lazy-summer-xmas-then-fires-and-floods that I call home. Here, it even snowed. At first I thought the smog had solidified and was dropping from the sky in little flakes, like toxic dandruff.

Studying is going very well. I can now hold my own in a simple conversation like any self-respecting small child with limited vocabulary, assuming my interlocutor is extremely patient and kind. I’ve been taking some notes about the process of learning as I go, because there’s a lot about it that’s interesting – it might end up in an essay or a blog post someday. We are getting into a lot of grammar at the moment, which I enjoy. It’s still difficult, but having a base level of understanding in the classroom now means it’s less exhausting and more fun. It amazes me that small children who can’t even blow their own noses are capable of picking this shit up. Lends a little credence to team Chomsky, maybe. I didn’t know I would enjoy learning the language so much, but on reflection this should have been obvious, since Mandarin is a heaven for nerds. I am, like many writers, a great judge of all characters but my own.

As to the writing itself – it goes along. There have been some positive developments regarding Dyschronia, the novel I’ve been hinting about for way too long, and this will hopefully congeal into an actual official news formation within a matter of months so I can stop dropping irritating pseudonouncements. For now, the Book About Time requires yet another draft, so I’m still hacking away at it trying to find its final shape. Whatever it turns out to be, it will be supremely resilient! At the same time, I’ve started to feel my way around the edges of a new one, partly set here in Beijing. The early stages of a new project where I’m just feeling my way into it are a wonderfully pleasant counterpoint to the hard slog of the last. I’m trying not to rush either. This week’s stupid epiphany was that my default setting tends to be driven and obsessive – so I’m trying to enjoy a brief interlude of relative aimlessness. Of course, the short stories continue to crawl out of my head like crabs from a beached castaway’s ear. I am collecting those in a jar. It’s getting nice and full.

Oh, and I’ve also been making a ton of woodcuts. Have a look.


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Empires

Hello, unfairly neglected blog readers. I went to America. I came back to China. I turned 37, which isn’t one of those milestone ages, but for some reason has made me feel transformed. With my partner I visited the seaside town where the Communist Party has its summer policy meetings, and worked on a five-year plan. We looked at birds. I wrote some fiction and some non-fiction and studied some language. The latter is much more satisfying than the former, at the moment, because it’s so immediately useful (and fun). I thought about the future a lot. I took more nourishment from Ursula Le Guin than is probably fair when I read her recent speech:

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom.”

Like many writers, I owe that woman a great deal.

Speaking of women to whom I owe a great deal, let me share a couple of new publications with you. One is a short essay on re-reading Virginia Woolf in the internet age, which is in the new Island – which is a very fine magazine from Tasmania.

The second is a long short story in the upstart journal Stilts, put together in Melbourne by some fantastic humans and being launched there and in Brisbane over the next couple weeks (details are on their website). The story’s called Flock, and it deals with the future and nature and the ways that we have of imposing our belief systems on animals. And how to get our heads around unexplained mass death events.

I’ve been reading This Changes Everything and thinking about what has to change, and how this is going to affect what I do for a living (if you can call it that). Often as artists or writers we see ourselves as doing something decorative, a little fey. Certainly the market has not been kind to creative people lately and the dominant ideology puts us a fair way down its list of valuable things. But there’s work, and then there’s Work. Books are more than a job to me. They are the business of life and death. Books are just what make hard times survivable. It’s worth noticing that the old structures of genre and form are collapsing just as the old economic structures are going to have to be taken down or break under their own impossible weight. It’s not easy to sustain a career right now, but it’s a hell of a privilege to be around to watch this, let alone take notes.


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Turning ten

tenth birthday cake

Today marks ten years to the day since I started blogging! Happy birthday to W&F.

Rather than rehash my old posts or generate any kind of interesting new ones I thought I’d celebrate by giving the website a bit of a visual overhaul. It was starting to show its age (aren’t we all). I went for a cleaner presentation. If anything doesn’t work on your device or it’s hard to navigate please let me know, unless it’s something I don’t know how to fix, in which case you had better not mention it.

I’d love to spend some time reflecting on how things have changed since I began writing this thing as I went off to hitch-hike around half the world in 2004, and to point out the way it’s evolved into more of a thinking-out-loud-about-writing place, but I haven’t time for reflection/nostalgia today – there’s too much work to do. I’m in the thick of Overland short story prize judging, and I just had my final test for beginner’s Chinese class (nailed it, thanks for asking). The novel is somewhere in the middle, breathing but unresponsive. Under that, the housework lies hopelessly buried.

I’ll be taking a break from language classes from tomorrow before heading to the US for a few weeks in September-October. Mostly because a few beloved old friends live there, and I miss ‘em, but I’ll try and squeeze a little bit of work in somewhere. This book will make its way out into the world eventually. It is certainly taking its time, which makes sense when you know what it’s about. We’re very, very close now.

Never fear though – there is always something to read. I have a short story called ‘Damage’ in the new Meanjin – it’s about flaming sinkholes. Fine journal, fine lineup. Grab yourself a copy. Eat yourself some cake.


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More work

My partner, who recently completed a Masters subject comparing the evidence on first vs second language learning and adult vs childhood language acquisition, reckons the jury’s still out on whether it’s harder, but it certainly feels harder when I sit down to my homework after a long day of classes followed by writing. Two hours a day at Culture Yard is making a dent in my day but also in my ignorance! I am enjoying it. It is very humbling learning new things, and (slowly) very rewarding.

I wrote a little about failure in this essay reflecting on the digital writer in residence project that’s been published at if:book (I have never been described as a “bonus n00b” before!) I’ve been trying to take a leaf out of my own book, and enjoy the process of being stupid as an essential part of learning and being in the world. Starting to recognise a few more characters and build a sense, not of competency, but of the distant technical possibility that I may one day be able to read a street sign or set up my mobile phone without translation software – well, a person can dream.

In the spirit of trying to enjoy failure, I’ve gone back to the *redacted* novel-about-time, which I thought I’d finished in April, to find it still needs work. It’s grudging work, but it’s something I’m happy to do – I feel the book is somehow unreconciled with the idea of the book, and even if I don’t get it published, I will somehow make that reconciliation for myself, through the brute force of my own persistence. Some days I’m convinced it’s useless work, but I am being very Taoist about uselessness. Everything is ephemeral, after all. Especially words.

I’ve been reading some of the old Simon Leys essays that have cropped up after his passing, and trying to spend a little time before class each morning watching women practice Taiji in the park (jianbing in hand, of course). These things are keeping my mind in some semblance of order as it builds new neural pathways – not at the rate of Beijing’s infinite construction, but there’s certainly an affinity with the readymade metaphor coming up all around me. A glance out the window at the workers lifting huge cement blocks by hand on a rooftop in thirty-two degree heat is enough to put my own small labours in perspective.


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