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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.


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Intention

I’m back in Beijing after almost three months away – the first two on an adventure, and the third at a residency in the US working on stories for a new collection. I’ll respect the privacy policy of Yaddo by not describing it in detail here, but i cannot refrain from expressing wonder at the extraordinary value and privilege of such places. Working in a colony alongside other creative people, in a place where so many other people have created, does something to the mind. I had some transformative conversations, exceeded my modest goals, managed to do three months’ worth of work in less than one, and have returned to my real life with a decent-sized pile of new stories for the monster collection I have brewing. This week I’ve been sorting them into those that are finished, those that will need another draft or two, and those that are lost causes – by some miracle the third column is empty and the first two are even, so apparently the gold spun in the palace still weighs something in the town. I was half expecting it all to fall apart in my hands like salvage from a dream.

I’m giving myself the rest of the year to put a rough tracklist* together and look for gaps and links and balancing-places. I am aided in this quest by some tidy money from the Australia Council (kindly proffered just before the Minister snatched much of it away), and hopefully that will enable me to continue in the vein of miraculous efficiency resulting from extraordinary privilege.

Meanwhile, I have an essay out in Overland about Detroit, which I visited last year and found I couldn’t not write about. It’s online here, and in print in issue #220. The thinking in it is really the culmination of a lot of thinking I was doing in the writing of the novel, Dyschronia, which I still can’t tell you more about just yet – I think I succeeded with that book’s mission to break time, but not in the way that I intended. Hard to believe the universe is composed completely of accidents crashing into other accidents when it has such a sharp sense of humour. Or maybe that’s a simpler case of cause and effect than I think.

Oh, if you’re into poetry in a big way and you want to contribute to the intellectual space that Overland makes, you can apply to be the new poetry editor, which would make you my counterpart but with more blank space. Being part of a literary journal is a bloody rewarding gig, if you’re up for the effort. The clever comrades are also looking for volunteer readers at the same link, deadline this Sunday.

*if the last one felt like a mixtape, i guess this one’s an album


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Free the arts!

The present Australian Arts Minister and A-G George Brandis wants to take a big chunk of $ from the peer-reviewed, democratically accountable national body the Australia Council and use it for his own personal “excellence” [read:slush] fund. This is the same guy who gave $275000 cash to Melba Records last year without any competitive peer review process and without bothering to tell the taxpayers (whose money it was).

So Overland literary journal and the MEAA and a bunch of writers and artists are putting our signatures to this letter. I’d encourage people to share it widely and sign it too:

Australians for Artistic Freedom

Democratically accountable public institutions are as vital for a healthy society as diverse arts and culture, and this move by the Liberal government is an attack on both. On the upside, we can take this move as an acknowledgement of the importance of free artistic expression to Australian culture right now – if it didn’t matter so much, the bullies in power wouldn’t bother to smash it to pieces in front of us.

Small organisations and individual arts grants will suffer most from this, as we are worst positioned to attract other funding sources such as corporate philanthropy. Without small orgs and individual artists, the sector as a whole is impoverished – and so is Australian culture in all its diversity.

It’s well and truly time to mount a broad campaign to shake these treehouse thugs out of office, and I hope this statement will contribute something to that effort. It’s an effort that is going to have to come from the grassroots, the very people they are counting on silencing here. So not shutting up about it is a good first step.


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Whirly-whirly

at beijing bookworm before the festival

This is me before Australian Writers Week in China. The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind (or should I say a whirly-whirly). I spoke at four different universities, two of which were in Inner Mongolia; I met translators, publishers, and writers from China and the world; I learned ten thousand things about China and the world; I hung out with ambassadors and academics and was fed splendid banquets; I stumbled my way through bilingual conversations with new friends; and finally, I read a story and spoke on a panel at the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival.

There is no ‘after’ picture because sleeping, but here are a few highlights.

With Zohab Z Khan and Maxine Beneba Clarke at Foreign Studies U. Pic by Aus embassy

With Maxine and a poster. Pic by Aus embassy

With Maxine Beneba Clarke, Prof Wang Jinghui and students at Tsinghua U. Pic by Aus embassy

Hohhot

Many thanks to the Australian Embassy and the Beijing Bookworm for making all that possible, especially the part where I went to Hohhot for work because I really enjoyed that. I once set a story in Inner Mongolia (Architecture) and it was good to actually go there. I want to go back and look around the ghost cities and visit the lovely people I met and continue having interesting conversations about the parallels between Inner Mongolia and Central Australia.

In the middle of that hectic fortnight I found out that I have a residency at Yaddo in August this year, yeah that’s Sylvia Plath! James Baldwin! Laurie Anderson! Yaddo, so I will be heading back to the US for a month after the summer break to write like the wind.

I like you, 2015.


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