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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 That relief has quickly been replaced by excitement – I am itching for this book to be out in the world.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


Vantage points, vanishing points

I came to the end of 2015 feeling a little disappointed. I was angered by the Australian government’s attacks on the arts, annoyed with some of the institutions I’ve been dealing with over the last couple of years, and frustrated with the cloud of misapprehension that seemed to hover over my writing. Two ironies: that a book about time should take so long to find its place in the world, and that the fate of a book about foresight should be so unpredictable. But after three weeks offline and away from home, I can see the year more clearly. I can see everything else that got done under that damp cloud. And it’s not nothing. It even looks good from here.

I’ve almost completed a new short story collection, which happened as if I wasn’t looking – I am still so in love with short fiction, partly for this ability to sneak up on me. Of all the forms I work in it makes me happiest. I have also unearthed the ore of a new novel which I can’t tell you about yet, only that it’s been taking shape for months now and I’m itching to get started on it properly. This work has carried on amassing itself while much of my forebrain was occupied with earthly anxieties, and that persistence is something to be proud of. So even without the additional honours of time at Yaddo and support from the Australia Council, the two shiny gold bones that 2015 threw me, it was a pretty productive year.

I had some great adventures in between working, of course. I traveled a lot, and I felt damned fortunate to be doing so in a year when refugee crises became so much more visible. I breathed some good air and some terrible air and watched the world’s creaking efforts to move away from fossil fuel dependence with a mixture of hope and dismay. Laughing in the face of some low-grade nihilism, I flippantly started an advice column for writers, hosted over at Overland. I love the advice column as literary form, and Cursive Letters reminds me of the fun I had when I was writing the horoscopes at New Matilda. Do you want some advice? I am pretty good at dispensing it. If you don’t have any real problems, you are welcome to make some up. We’re all fictional here.

Apart from not losing my nerve, the thing I’m most proud of is the achievement of something like functional literacy in Mandarin. I’ve been going to classes on and off since I got here, in six-week intensive blocks, backed up by my own study in between. This time last year I was overwhelmed by how far I had to go: what I knew felt like specks of dust floating in a multidimensional fog of ignorance. Now it feels like a structure, like a net. Speaking – negotiating, questioning, apologising – makes me human, to myself and to others. I’m not civilised or graceful in Chinese yet, but I’m getting better. I am still an idiot, and still regularly overwhelmed by how far I have to go, but I can figure things out, and even play a little. Language milestones are sprinkled gravel, so it’s important to stop and be amazed now and then. Learning to read as an adult continues to be very humbling, and is among the hardest things I’ve ever taken on (I sometimes joke that I decided to learn Mandarin because writing books wasn’t driving me crazy enough). It’s been an object lesson in the many social and personal values of language, a mindfucking experience of outsiderness, and a win for the brick-by-brick strategy, the child’s lesson I seem to need to learn over and over again, that ‘slowly but surely’ is always the only way to get anywhere.

So I have slowly admitted that Dyschronia, the problem child, needs to be set in the corner for a while so I can work on my two new manuscripts, and I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll subject it (or myself) to another draft. I wish I had more solid news but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I took a huge risk writing it, and I have learned a lot about writing from it. I’m still very proud of what I made, and that matters more to me than whether it has a life outside my office. Maybe it’ll find its time and place eventually, and maybe it won’t. Writers, especially writers with advice columns, talk a lot about living with failure as a part of the work, but even though it’s a constant companion, it can rear up at times, feel overwhelming. I try to offset this by working on a couple of projects at a time and deriving satisfaction from other sources, like study and printmaking. With that in mind, I’ve planned my year fairly well in advance in order to avoid both excessive focus and excessive multitasking. Writing that sentence, I can already hear myself laughing this time in 2017, with the benefit of future hindsight. But between now and then, I have work to do! And I am very fortunate to be able to keep doing it.

Happy new year, friends and readers and survivors – wherever you are, whatever you’re working on, I hope you have started the year with good perspective.