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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.


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.


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.


Have 自行车 , will travel

Have bicycle, will ride around in the pouring rain for three hours with the Beijing manflu, actually. But having a bicycle makes me feel instantly at home, especially here, and returning to Beijing is (despite aforementioned manflu) nothing short of delightful. Yesterday’s rain has cleared the air of smog, and I can see the mountains from my new office window on the 18th floor. Settling in well, despite the adjustment to a new climate, altitude, language, and routine. Not being able to communicate much beyond the simplest demands has reduced me to some kind of giant white baby. I’ve enrolled in intensive language classes, so hopefully the vocabulary will grow. But it’s very humbling for a writer to be so linguistically helpless, and it makes me stretch myself at the desk when I’m faced with sentences in English, when I can show off some of my moves.

Yes, for those asking, I am still fiction editor at the most excellent Overland, and will be co-judging the third short story competition soon. The magazine is celebrating its 60th birthday at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, and it’s been wonderful to be a part of the year’s commemorations, including the Fancy Cuts project – the next one coming up is a very powerful story from Christos Tsiolkas that plays with language and translation. It’s been incredible to watch him push himself – there is nothing so satisfying to an editor than to have a writer of his calibre take up her challenge and double it!

I was sorry to miss the Pay the Writers meeting in Melbourne the other day but there are notes from it here and you can get involved in the ways mentioned therein. It’s incredibly rewarding to see Pay the Writers go from a simple blog post to a full-scale campaign, and I’m very pleased that it has developed in the way it has so far.

Blogging has taken quite a back seat over the past six months – moving here has been like picking life up by the heels and shaking it until all the crap falls out. Some of the systems and connections that seemed vital and necessary have simply fallen away. There is something in me that has a physical need for this kind of process. I love to shed a skin, to disrupt my stability. Some of the losses have been startling, but it is all beginning to feel worthwhile now, and to make sense. The joy and terror of risk. I can hardly contemplate what it must be to begin again in a new country with nothing, from sheer desperation, and to arrive in a place that apparently wants you to lose your mind.