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another story from the bush

here i am settled in country SA, making preserves from stolen harvests and bookshelves from whatever’s to hand, and chatting with the 90 year old neighbour who, on hearing we had moved in next door, responded with “you’ll want to get rid of those milk thistles.” she loves us really.

I have scavenged and fixed up a desk and am sitting at it, slowly getting back into writing sentences. I fear I will constantly be distracted by all the work there is to do on this house, which is 152 years old. But today, i’m distracted by discussions on twitter about rural australian voices and gender bias, which we all start talking about whenever there is an award. i have a few thoughts on the issue, having recently written what is really a very masculine book about outback australia, but which is not, i hope, empty of real-seeming women or other qualities.

I don’t think we can assume the rural narrative is gendered any more than we can the urban. The equation of rural australian with a masculine voice seems quite odd to me, in a nation whose foundational myths include The Drover’s Wife and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and the closest thing we have to the Great Australian Novel was written by a Waanyi woman.

So about gender for a minute. The short story i am writing at the moment (it’s not going well, hence i am dashing off a story-avoiding blog post) is about men, and particularly emotionally repressed men, but i don’t know that i have a particularly gendered voice; i have never been a very gendered person, and to be honest i think that helps my writing. A writer can’t see the world in binaries; she must be able to get inside other people’s heads regardless of what’s in their pants. Or their past, or their postcode, for that matter.

In many of the interviews i’ve done for Gone, people have asked me if the male voice was difficult. The short answer is hell, no. Having written in the voice of a 70-year-old for The Diamond Anchor, and written so many short stories with so many different voices, and then having to contend with all the other complexities of Frank’s mind, like his mental illness, his refusal to articulate, and the brevity of all his encounters, the masculine part barely registered (though I did have to ask around about shaving). I think if you practice writing, read widely, and travel, you eventually get good at imagining other people’s lives, no matter how different they are from your own. In the end it is not my body that goes into my work, or my experiences, but a combination of imagination and observation, neither of which are gendered abilities. I do think the authority of a story comes not from the voice of the writer but from its authenticity to character (i don’t care if it’s anachronistic to talk about authenticity).

There are advantages and disadvantages to being a regional writer. One of the advantages is being miles away from what’s fashionable. This is also a disadvantage, i suppose. But the important thing for me is to be true to the story that needs telling. I don’t think there is a problem with the rural Australian voice as such, or that that voice restrains writers from writing other things. I think that the prevalence of such stories is a result of living in a colonising culture which still has fractures along its frontiers. Yeah, we need diversity in our voices. But we also like to scratch the itches of our culture and i don’t think writers are the sole determinants of where their cultures itch. There are great books written here about a million different things and the more the merrier. I’m not going to start by thinking about what i should be writing, because that’s a surefire way to silence myself.

But i am bothered by the fact that anyone not from sydney and melbourne is constantly asked to speak about “place” in their work, as though the most interesting thing about it is its setting.

In my new and interesting place in the world, I’m writing a new and i hope interesting book. I’m also building a fence, baking biscuits, fixing the plumbing, stitching and learning Chinese. Which of these do i have permission to do? I choose to tick all of the above.

Oh and despite my remoteness from fashion etcetera, i seem to have signed up for this blog popularity gimmick, so click through to the Ws and cast your vote for this one:

People's Choice Award


  1. wrote:

    Was not aware that you had left the Alice. We love it down here. Our house isn’t as old only 120, but it has its own history book.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    Brava. Your comment on out-of-city writers being expected to be exclusively about ‘sense of place’ struck home. As if, to paraphrase, the most interesting thing about us is where we live. And while writers may need not to see things as binary, or be better writers at least when they don’t, I don’t think readers often share the same openness.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  3. jenjen wrote:

    thanks for your comments.

    david, i agree, i think the problem is with the judging, not the writers. an ‘australianness’ prize is always going to be problematic. i should have said congrats to all three shortlisted authors – i look forward to reading the two i haven’t read. i loved bereft.

    we’re almost neighbours i think. also, we have a plaque. take that!

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  4. wrote:

    I also loved Bereft. I posted the comment below on the Meanjin blog before I read your post (which I totally agree with.I also know about distraction!)

    I have only read Bereft: yes it may be historical and have a male main character, but it also has a very strong female character in Sadie. It’s rural setting is important to the almost gothic feel to the novel. I found it more about love, loss and longing than what could be termed a ‘male novel’ – whatever that means.
    As a writer I believe it’s not a case of ‘oh, if I write this particular novel it might win a prize’, but rather exploring the stories which sometimes just come to you and you feel have to be told.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  5. wrote:

    If we are almost neigbours, how’s your coffee situation, after this long weekend I am down to international roast 🙂

    We are south of Port Broughton, great for growing veges down this way.

    Well I’ll up your plaque with a original pot belly stove that we have rescued from a rather sad life as a garden ornament will hopefully make a great outdoor heater

    Monday, April 25, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  6. jenjen wrote:

    sean, we are a little out of popping-in-for-a-cuppa distance, but if you are ever in the clare valley, drop in. there is always coffee!

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  7. wrote:

    We pop over to Clare at least once a month and as an alternative shopping location to Kadina and so I can see a real bookshop – love talking to Nigelle-ann at Miss Gracie Taylor’s.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink
  8. wrote:

    hey, i’m just reading gone (gifted to me by a visitor passing through) and love it very much. as a regional writer, and one who is finding sentences difficult at the moment, i relate to your notes here about ‘place’ and the rural voice. i shall follow this blog for inspiration. i read the diamond anchor while in alice, after i had hitched from sydney to alice, so it’s serendipitous that this book was gifted to me, since i can see through frank’s eyes the countryside from the big rigs… thanks. enjoy regional living. i do. thanks.

    Monday, May 2, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  9. jenjen wrote:

    thanks for your comment. it’s a joy to know my books are being given as gifts. take good care of frank for me, and happy reading,

    Monday, May 2, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

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