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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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