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Journey to the West and back

I have a feature essay up at the Sydney Review of Books about reading Journey to the West while traveling in Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan last year. I have always felt uncomfortable about travel writing – surely we have heard enough from white fools stumbling through the Orient – so I disguised it as a book review (or recommendation, really). It’s a long read but I hope entertaining and at the very least it will give you an excuse to look at clips like these:

Journey to the West really did teach me a lot about Buddhism and China and the power of storytelling, especially fantasy fiction, and I encourage you to read the whole saga if and when you get a chance. Mostly I wrote the essay as a means of coping with the reality-adjustment of leaving Beijing and moving back to regional Australia, the two places being more or less polar opposites (Monkey would not be fazed).

I also have some short fiction of my own in the new issue of Meanjin, a story called Miracles (now free to read) – it has a place in a new collection I’ve put together and will probably take apart and put together again after the novel is out*. There’s a lot of great reading in this issue of Meanjin, from Ben Walter’s beautiful essay on the burning of the Tarkine to Frank Moorhouse’s cover essay on the politics and economics of the writing life, so do buy/subscribe. Frank has inspired me to keep a list of all the work I do for a year as a kind of self-audit. It’s already quite long, so I shouldn’t be doing it at all.

The last few weeks I’ve been away at a residency at BigCi in Bilpin, NSW, on the edge of Wollemi National Park. It was a beautiful place and a very interesting setting in which to think through some ideas about landscape and art and climate change that have been worming their way through my mind of late. I did this residency with my mother, who is a painter – she hadn’t done anything like it before and it was wonderful to share the experience with her. I’m putting some of those thoughts together in another long essay now… essays take a very long time to write but I am enjoying them, perhaps as an antidote to the modes of brevity and instant gratification that seem to dominate daily media.

*I should have a publication date for Dyschronia very soon – watch this space!


the landing party

It’s been nearly three months since we landed back in Australia. People still regularly ask me if I’m settled. Having never been quite settled anywhere, I have to keep answering ‘almost’. Four chickens and a halfway planted vegetable garden will have to do for now. The best things are planting and planning, going camping, breathing this pure good air and the sunshine, but since our town has been subject to extreme rains and winds, a cyclone, and the worst flooding in decades, I am also finding being ‘home’ an anxious return to responsibility for place, as we come face to face with the challenges of climate change. I am thinking a lot about what resilience means – for me and my various communities, and for this landscape.

I have signed a contract with Picador for my next novel, Dyschronia, a fact that readers of this blog may note with some fraction of the relief that I feel. That relief has quickly been replaced by excitement – I am itching for this book to be out in the world. It’s been a long time at sea, and it’s exciting to think that soon I’ll be steering my way through the edits to shore. I hope to have a publication date for you before too long.

My essay ‘Detroit, I do Mind’ which appeared in Overland #220 has been included in this year’s Best Australian Essays – a first for me, though I’ve been in the Stories a few times. The essay form has hold of me lately, perhaps because of that same unsettled feeling, or an urgency that comes with mortal time. I trust that my usual longing for fiction will slink back to me like a half-domesticated animal, a bit rougher around the ears and yowling with hunger.


turning and turning

Hello from deep inside the temporal spiral that is Dyschronia. Despite trying to give up on this book a few times, I’ve burrowed back in over the last couple of months to work on another draft. It feels like some epic karmic struggle that will carry on into other lifetimes … I guess we are stuck with each other. I’m being a bit more ruthless with this draft than I was last time, and I think the eventual book will be stronger for it, if it ever sees the light of day. So, apologies if these updates are becoming repetitive.

The short stories are generally a bit happier. The new collection is looking for a home now, though I haven’t really been pushing as hard as I could be – I’ve been avoiding thinking about publishing because the business side feels so antithetical to doing the work I want to get done. Hmm, self-sabotage? I don’t know. It’s been a very hectic year so far, very challenging, and I have had to work on several levels at once; I suspect it’s more about self-protection.

To tide you over, a few of my little fictions are out and about this month, doing their weird peacock-spider dances in the following fine publications:

A new story called Stigma in the RAF (my third appearance in that fine journal, this time with the super talented Jennifer Down for company – attack of the Jennifers!) ;

Another new story called Blue, red, blue, red, blue in the 10th issue of Canary Press along with the likes of Etgar Keret, Patrick Lenton, and Julie Koh;

And a third new one called Ex in an anthology of feminist work called Better than Sex coming out this month through Hardie Grant, with a few women you might have heard of… oh just Lena Dunham, Roxane Gay, nbd.

I also started a new novel in January, cause I still haven’t learned my lesson. It’s set in Beijing and Sydney, and I’m excited about getting back to work on it later this year. My relationship with this city has really shifted in the last few months. It’s been feeling a lot like “home”, with all the restlessness and exile that word evokes for me. We’ve also decided to leave at the end of this school year.

At first I was pretty sad about this decision not to stay on for a 3rd year, though it was plan A and had to be made and for various reasons is obviously the right move. But the closer we get to going, the more I’m looking forward to returning to Australia in general and South Australia in particular. It has been an amazing couple of years in this remarkable city, and I will miss being baffled and delighted by it. But I also have olives to brine, wine to make, and a proposed nuclear waste dump to stop.

And countries to visit, with two trips between here and home – one to Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan, to explore the ancient Silk Road, and another to Borneo, where I hope to spot a Rafflesia in flower, and then on to Indonesia, before landing in the wet tail of a Clare Valley winter. Leaving Beijing will mean an end to this peripatetic lifestyle for a while, so we are milking it for all it’s worth.

Leaving will also mean drawing a line under the Beijing Block Book project. For the moment the plan is just packing and shipping everything back, but I hope to have a little exhibition sometime, and maybe put the prints together in some kind of artist’s book. It’s been such a good diary of noticing the city, and a great apprenticeship in woodcuts. Definitely entertaining fantasies of buying a press now, so I guess this printmaking thing is going to stick. The @bjblockbook insty will still be updating with new prints; I have a few left to make before I pack up the cardboard studio. But I am excited to move on to new methods, scales and tools, and the next chapter of relief print art-nerdery.

All of the above is proving good distraction from the fact of moving countries again. To offset the stress of working our way through the list of things we have to do, we’re also working our way through a list of things we want to do before we leave Beijing. It’s almost like being here for the first time again, having a list; it means noticing new things and noticing old things you thought you stopped noticing. Everything’s tinted with premature nostalgia, so has a kind of hyperreality to it. Even more than Beijing’s usual, I mean.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ll be able to stay away from the place for long.


Came, saw, monstered

Very glad to be able to say I have finished a new book! It’s another short story collection*, and it’s happened a little sooner than I expected, and still doesn’t quite feel real. But I think I’ve managed to get the lid on this crate of monsters at last.

I’m working on something else as well, of course, but it’s pleasant to take a little time out right now, to go through submissions and administrivia and attend to this oft-neglected blog. I know that I have to do something productive with the yawn of time that appears just after I finish something because otherwise I will start projects, volunteer for things, pitch time-consuming essay ideas to people, or worse, get involved in furious/hilarious discussions online. There are always plenty of those around. This loose energy is mostly an ephemeral high, but if you were thinking of asking me to write something for you, now’s a /really/ good time to pounce.

It’s been a lot of fun to spend much of the last three years thinking about monsters, and now I’m looking forward to letting myself write without that tendency. I won’t say constraint, because it hasn’t really felt that way, more of a magnetism around a certain subject, a leaning towards the ideas of estrangement and violence. I will probably always write about these subjects in various ways. I was recently asked about themes in an interview, and I had to answer that I can’t choose my preoccupations, just whether or not I pursue them. I sometimes wonder if certain questions are fixed in all of us at an early age and we’re forced to go on trying to make sense of them, and if so, why I couldn’t have been imprinted upon in this way by ice-cream, or baby pandas, or something a bit more delightful. Oh well.

I am still discovering it’s with the short story form that I find the most joy (file under stupiphany), even when the work is dark. It doesn’t really matter how many corpses show up; even the corpses can be playful. If only novels would leave me alone I’d be much happier I think. I will try to remember this next time one comes knocking. It’s very hard to get rid of them once you let them into your apartment.

The other thing I’ve noticed in the last month is how Australia has remained central to my imagination. I haven’t been home for over a year but the landscapes and the voices and the troubles and the smells of the place have persisted through this collection in a way that I didn’t really notice until I started putting it all together. It has worked this way before; I seem to become more interested in writing about places when I have left them. There’s that old overlap between imagination and memory again. Something special about fiction, the way it makes you think at a slight remove but conjures up secret intimacies. Images repeat themselves without my noticing: flocks of parrots, high among the things I miss, make a few passes. Reading over these stories has given me little waves of homesickness, mostly for Adelaide – things like riding my bike down the Torrens to the beach or dashing to Central Market for an emergency piroshki. I realise it’s a bit lame to miss Chinatown when you live in China. I’ve also been missing Yaddo, where I somehow wrote about a third of this book. What a dream that was.

Unfortunately for me, writing the stories is the easy part. Now I have to throw spores out into the universe until something germinates. This usually involves a lot of waiting, which I am not good at (hence the multitasking). But I am trying to be calm about it, and humble, and all ‘yeah whatevs nbd.’ Because after this worst & most terrible part, there’s another really good bit to look forward to, where it pops up out of the dirt and I get to hold it in my hands. Hopefully you do too.

I made gingerbread biscuits yesterday to protect myself from manically over-committing to things. Baking is excellent winter therapy for Beijing’s housebound days, and at the very least it makes the apartment smell good. The air quality has been great recently, beautiful blue skies, but also freezing and windy, so every time I go out for a ride under aforesaid skies I end up very stiff and certain that if someone hit me with a hammer I’d shatter like a cartoon. The gym is closed for renovations so I haven’t had a chance to swim, not that it’s that tempting when it’s -15 degrees out. Yesterday the smog wandered back in with a vengeance. I’ve almost missed it, the way it obscures the light; Beijing feels not quite right without it. But this country is making huge progress on renewables (simultaneously asphyxiating the Australian coal industry, hurrah); China has woken up to the problem and is taking steps to change. Toxic air won’t always be normal. There’s another odd thing to feel nostalgic about.

Maybe it’s not nostalgia but a good old winter yearn. The days are getting longer and spring festival decorations are going up everywhere, with cute toy monkeys appearing in all the shops and monkey king gifs appearing on WeChat. This should probably be the year I try to read Journey to the West but for now I’m just looking forward to a bit more contemporary fiction (suggestions welcome). We’re going to spend the break in the city this year and for a change I can’t wait to stay home. It’s all too easy to disengage from Beijing in the winter, and while some hermit time can be good for writing, there’s also a lot to be said for running around letting off fireworks in the street…

Speaking of fireworks, shout out to the amazing Mary Anne Butler who took home the Victorian Prize for Literature yesterday – she’s a huge talent and a very hardworking writer and I’m so happy to see her getting more recognition down south.

*Yes it’s got a name but I’m not ready