Sydney…

is torrential downpours and flooded gutters that build to flowing creeks under waterlogged cars in minutes. Sydney is sea-green and gun-metal-grey skies clashing into each other in sheets of shockingly white lightning. Sydney is kurrawongs and magpies and flocks of green winged lorrikeets every morning. Sydney is busy. Sydney is thong-wearingly* hot with bare-skinned babes wandering about in sunglasses so big their reflections cause car accidents. Sydney is everything in walking distance. Sydney is traffic lights and traffic gnarls with buses not stopping and trucks careening down every road. Sydney is friends. Sydney is humid, humid, humid. Sydney is full of hand-filling voluptuous white magnolia flowers and velevety soft gardenia petals. Sydney is late night parties and impromputu calls. Sydney is summer. 

Sydney feels new but is familiar: the same but different. Although that hotel has gone, and that garage is now apartments, and no they don’t live there anymore. Sydney is my past but it is also my future. Sydney is now, and again, my home. 

*thong in both senses of the word

 

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Fear in Kabul

I came across this terrific Letter From Kabul by Fotini Christia the other day. She writes about Afghans fears for themselves and their country when the US troops withdraw. Of what state the country will be in economically, politically and socially. Of the diplomatic strategy that Obama is choosing not to use right now. And she says what I think. The deals have been done. The money has been made. The Taliban will be back. People are expecting war. But she also asks this question of the Obama administration:

‘The administration has so far avoided defining what success in Afghanistan actually means and it cannot be vague any longer. There is much confusion on the ground, and the Afghan girls and women attending school and the others sacrificing their lives fighting against the insurgency deserve a straight answer as much as the people in the United States do.’  

I first felt fear, real life or death fear, in Kabul in 2008. While I was there volunteering for Mahboba’s Promise, I was savagely attacked by my guard dog, Mike. No, it wasn’t a Taliban raid or kidnapping. It wasn’t an IED or a shoot out. It wasn’t a roadside hold up or robbery. It was a dog attack. Something that could have happened in my own backyard in Melbourne. Something I never thought would ever happen to me.

It also wasn’t the ‘ordinary’ fear of sending your children across the city to school with the threat of suicide bombers every day. Or the fear of being in a room full of men you don’t know because your last experience of this wound up in rape. Or the fear of neighbourhood men, men you have known your whole life, lording their power over you as you shop. Or the fear of being seen outside your house after dark. Or the fear that all of this (and worse) will return, get worse, in months to come.

I can’t really imagine what it must be to be an Afghan woman (or in fact any Afghan without access to money or power) right now. The fear could almost be debilitating. Paralsying. And yet, Afghans keep going. Afghans are a resilient people. The nation will probably get through whatever is to come, but it would be so much better if they didn’t have to ‘get through’ anything ever again. The Afghan people have been let down by us, their Government, their police and their army. They don’t deserve the widespread bloodshed and terror that is probably inevitable now. And the freaky thing is, that we escape it because we happen to live in this country. Luck. That’s all it is.

You’d think we’d be acutely aware of our luck, everyday, and therefore be more actively empathetic to asylum seekers and refugees of all descriptions. You’d think that, wouldn’t you.

 

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Anger

I should be out jogging right now – I’m even dressed for it – but no, here I sit, eating chocolate, drinking tea and blogging…which I haven’t done in quite awhile. The blogging, I mean.

I find it an interesting thing, the blogging thing. I have bursts of energy and routine where I blog every week. And then nothing comes to mind or I become embedded in other things and can’t extract myself long enough to think to the end of the next sentence. Until something happens and then – here I am.

So, apart from having an all but complete stranger comment on one of my posts and worrying what he might think of my slackness re blogging, I’ve also just read a book that has made me a bit angry. Well, actually, if I’m being truthful, it made me very angry. I don’t like reading books that make me angry – unless the anger is connected to something about me (lack of knowledge, ignorance, assumptions etc) that I can think through and change after having read the anger-inducing book. Challenging and questioning books are terrific – in the end.

But this book, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, left me decidely uneasy and angry. The book is out in Australia next month and I read it because I reviewed it for the Readings Monthly. The story is of Evie, a missing 13 year old girl and is told by Lizzie, her best friend and next door neighbour. It will be sold as The Virgin Suicides meets The Lovely Bones and Abbott is certainly canvassing the same world of teenage sexuality, sexual vulnerability and paedophilia that those books worked into bestsellers. 

The thing about Abbott’s book I didn’t like is that at the end of the novel I was left with an unease and a sense of distaste that I don’t often acquire from fiction. Perhaps I just don’t choose to read those crime novels that always centre on females being routinely sexually abused, and you may think that that cuts out most of the literary, and non-literary, crime books in the market but I don’t find it does.

For me, its about the authorial voice and where the author makes me look and what I am told to see while I am looking, that makes a successful book. So, with crime novels, I need to know I am in safe hands if I am going to be forced to look at random acts of violence against women, or in the case of The End of Everything, against children. This is why so many crime novels have a police person in charge – an authority, even flawed – provides a perspective on or access to the story being told that feels safe for the reader.

And it isn’t that Lizzie in The End of Everything is an unreliable narrator in any way. It’s just that in the end, Abbott’s manipulative gaze, where she takes me as a reader, is to a place where all female/male relationships can be seen as potentially abusive, but in particular, where father/daughter relationships are inevitably latently sexualised. This is my unease. This is what Abbott leaves me with and I don’t think it’s enough to justify the writing of the book. In a potentially complex story of burgeoning sexuality, I don’t just want to be shown how a paedophile (or indeed the father) looks at 13 year old girls. I really don’t. And I don’t see the point in writing a book that only makes me see them in this way. I really don’t.

But, disappointingly, this genre sells. And sells truckloads. And it will probably be turned into a film as well. I think I have to go jogging now. Or finish the chocolate.  

 

 

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Foster Wallace, Anon and the End

I’ve just spent an hour or so on Twitter and I realised that what I love about this tool, this wise-cracking, mind-expanding, consciousness-raising, pleasure-loving ‘tool’, is that I can follow threads of information, mere snippy snippets of compressed web-links into the depths of knowledge and opinion. This morning, for instance, I followed a link to this emotionally raw and unmediated review (of sorts) of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King which has just been released. Foster Wallace hung himself in 2008 after battling depression. I’ve picked up Infinite Jest but have never made it through, so I can’t really say I’m a fan. Except something he said a few years ago made me sit up and pay attention. It was a line about being a Gen Xer and went something like ‘We are highly educated, highly successful and adrift’. It really struck a chord and I have often picked up his writing, his shorter essays and stories, since – one day I will work through it all.

But Anonymous’ review, which you must all read, has taken me down all sorts of highways (and dull, grotty back lanes) of thought, primarily because Anonymous writes so revealingly about suicide. He* puts the case for death not being an end. Despite death physically stopping us living, he says:

‘that the end is not the point’

and that we (the reader) must: 

‘forgive us our trips to the rafters, and don’t reduce us to that moment’.

Anon is referring to writers, specifically Foster Wallace and himself, when he writes ‘us’ but I think it could speak louder and wider than that. This forgiveness he asks for, speaks of a compassion and heartache for those who find no other alternative than to take their own lives, writers or not. And it implies the recognition that each one of us has a bigger ‘life’ than the physical body we walk around in. We have friends or colleagues or we have written or we think, or we have helped an old lady across the road. Kindnesses and conversations and moments that live on in memory or in hard copy despite our passing.

Near the end, Anon states:

‘The end is just an arbitrary point where we stop telling this one story.’

Here, he is referring to Foster Wallace’s habit of not making obvious or neat endings for the reader but he is also referring to suicide. And to our own eventual deaths. Lying in bed this morning, scrolling through the Twitterverse with my finger, Anonymous made me pause and think about all of this and to question again my ready answers and ‘made-up’ mind about a myriad of things. He made think about compassion in this complex and conflicted world where there is no arbitrary stop button. The story just keeps rolling on. And he also made me think about my place within this world, my power within it, small as that may be, and to remember to keep perspective not matter what. To maintain that knowledge of how lucky and fortunate I am, in thousands upon thousands of ways. And Anonymous pulled this breathtaking quote from The Pale King:

‘It’s all inside me, but to you it’s just words.’

I’m going to give Infinite Jest a go. And then I’ll aim for The Pale King.


*I am fairly sure Anonymous is a he.

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Portia, Patti and Proulx

I’ve been reading some memoir, partly because I think I should read more of them than I do, and partly because these three, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi, Just Kids by Patti Smith and Bird Cloud: A  Memoir by Annie Proulx appealed.

De Rossi’s account of her battle with anorexia and her eventual coming out as a lesbian (and how the two issues were irrevocably entwined) is a compelling, first person narrative that is, pitch perfect and well written. Almost a page turner on obsession and denial, the book works as a warning to young women who fixate on weight as identity and life-purpose, and in extraordinary tell-all detail, de Rossi reveals her lowest lows and all the accumulative events along the way. We also get an inside look into what the Ally McBeal television show was like to work on (a grim and weight-obsessed place) and the curtain is lifted, to an extent, on how young actresses, seeking careers in Hollywood, are shaped into the ‘right’ dress size for auditions, fittings and characters. De Rossi is also funny and self-deprecating and she knows exactly what she is writing: a self-help, tell-all, not-quite-misery-memoir about confidence, self-belief, responsibility and honesty (and maybe mothers). Unbearable Lightness is a great read and should be widely foisted onto teenagers, as it is, after all, a ‘coming of age’ story. And, it helps that we know Portia winds up blissfully married to uber-celesbian, Ellen DeGeneres, because we know from the get-go that we are in safe hands – Portia found her fairytale, and maybe we can too!

Just Kids by Patti Smith is another type of memoir entirely. Smith purposely set out to document her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe who she met in 1969 in New York, and so, even though the rythmn and rhyme and description and point of view are singularly Smith’s, the story has Mapplethorpe, squarely centre frame. But, having said that, we find out a great deal about Smith, the young wide-eyed and hopeful Smith primarily, along the way. We also have a great slew of secondary characters from Jimi Hendrix to Sam Shepard, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Rimbaud and Allen Ginsberg who waltz in and out of diners, doorways and dire apartments and hotel rooms. She refers to Mapplethorpe as ‘the artist for my life’ and the book is a fascinating telling of creativity, inspiration, friendship and perseverance and serves as a brilliant documentation of the late 60s and early 70s music and art scenes in New York. Smith’s love of poetry shines throughout and at the very least, the despair and anger of a young girl growing up in a small town transformed by Rimbaud’s words and images, is an incredible read. The book though, is much more than that, and for any creative soul, struggling or not with the shaping of ideas, there is much to be inspired by and celebrate between the pages. Just Kids won the National Book Prize for Non-Fiction in 2010.

Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud: A Memoir is the most awkward and self-conscious of these three books. The book covers the buying of 640 acres in rugged Wyoming, her much-loved and written about state, then the design and the build of her dream home, hopefully her ‘final home’, and is presented as an edited diary of the time. Bird Cloud provides a rare insight into the desire for belonging, an almost tangible need to be linked in with the history of a place that seems at once both desperate and quite precious, but it also reveals the prickliness of Proulx’s character, her irritations, her joys and her ridiculously encyclopedic knowledge of the birds, plants and animals that grow and live on her property. Between some beautiful description and language, ‘Walking on the land or digging in the fine soil I am intensely aware that time quivers slightly’, the pace slows and unless you are a die-hard Proulx fan, you might end the book slightly disappointed.

All three writers set out with different aims, scope and reasons for writing but they have all written memoirs that possibly reveal more of them than any of them thought they would. We see the writers as artists, as people living large and pushing through boundaries and also as intimate observers of the societies they live in.  Perhaps this lifting, this resonance, is the marker of a good memoir, of good writing in general, the ability to not only reveal yourself on the page but to lift the writing until it resonates to a wider audience. I have a quote pinned to my wall, I don’t know who said it, that I read whenever I’m struggling with writing the real: ‘The best self-portraits reveal a depth of self-knowledge which speaks of a wider grasp of human nature’. I like it. It’s kind of saying the ‘A life unexamined, is a life not lived’ thing or as I have re-worked that line: ‘a life written, without full self-knowledge, is not writing at all.’

And for Patti Smith fans, I have come across this great website www.thisrecording.com which, apart from having video of a short interview and one of those iconic Smith performance’s of Horses on it, also has a superb article by Ann Freidman all about ‘Girl Geniuses’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Teaching of Amy Hempel

I’ve started teaching this semester at RMIT in the Creative Writing program and apart from it being fun (discussion is always fun) and scary (all those eager faces expecting to hear new things) and a little bit weird (who am I to say anything about writing really), it has also made me think harder about writing again. Specifically, it’s made me think about my writing and my influences.

It also means I get to introduce these eager writers to other writers they have never heard of, such as the delightfully specific and observant Amy Hempel.

Hempel is a short story writer and well-known for it in America. She teaches at a number of New York colleges and universities and her latest collection of short stories, The Dog of the Marriage is a stand out collection of wry, compassionate observations of characters, ‘Hempel people’ as I call them, doing ordinary things in the most ordinary of ways.

My particular favourite story is:

Memoir

‘Just once in my life – oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?’

Isn’t that great? One sentence and as a reader you know so much about what that person wants, wanted, feels disappointed by. It is a perfect creation. As Rick Moody, in his beautiful introduction to the collection says:

‘It’s all about the sentences. It’s about the way the sentences move in the paragraphs. It’s about rhythm. It’s about ambiguity. It’s about the way emotion, in difficult circumstances, gets captured in language…It’s about survival. It’s about the sentences used to enact and defend survival.’

I particularly love that: ‘…the sentences used to enact and defend survival.’ And it’s a terrific way of looking at Hempel’s work but also extends the idea that Mark Tredinnick in his The Little Red Writing Book uses:

‘…to write is to make sentences, and out of them to make a story or an argument, a business case or a poem.’

If I’m going to get from here to there – I’m going to need a sentence. So, it may as well be a good one.

 

 

 

 

 

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Inspiration and Dogs

I am a devotee of Cormac McCarthy. There is something I find deeply moving and expansive in all his writing. There is always landscape and men battling to save themselves (or weakly succumb) to the evil that faces them and, usually chases them. Odd friendships and respect built up over time in the most desolate of places. And the history, the history of land, language and civilisation that he seamlessly layers his work with, is a marvel.

And so, for me, it is a fascinating education in writing to read his early books, all in new editions since the success of The Road, and to examine his experiments with style, theme and material. Child of God is a book that was published back in 1974 and it is scarily intense. A growingly depraved man, Lester Ballard, with no ability or desire to stop himself, kills and keeps the bodies of women, in attempts to have an intimate relationship, something he has been excluded from in the ‘real’ world. It is set in a remote part of America in winter and summer, with Ballard being discovered in a cave with the decomposing bodies, some dressed in clothes he has stolen for them, by the police. Yes, it is about sexual violence, necrophilia and abject loneliness. It is also about survival. It is a gruelling disturbing read and one I have not been able to get out of my head.

As an example of McCarthy experimenting with the themes that have become central to his work it is revealing. He pushes the reader into  intensely uncomfortable and violent corners with no exit or even respite from Ballard’s madness, and has said that the character is actually based on a real figure in history. And of course, there is the biblical river that Ballard, the people he kills, the people who hunt him, and the reader, are forced down: we are all children of God.

So, I found it fascinating as I read Gerard Donovan’s book Julius Winsome that I couldn’t stop thinking about Child of God. A loner with no real connection to a community, insulated by his father’s books that line the walls of his low roofed, often snow-bound house and jilted by his one love, Winsome is a man who has had an austere life and who is deeply suspicious of other people. Then his dog, his only friend, is shot dead at close range. Winsome isn’t the mad, outcast from society that Ballard is at the beginning of Child of God but his emotional remoteness from the town he lives near, the isolation of his house, his inability to connect

The similarities are obvious, remoteness in landscape and relationship, memory serving as present, disappointment in love and the realization that they are never going to fit in, and revenge. And the fathers. There is always a father in McCarthy’s stories and similarly in Julius Winsome, the biggest relationship Winsome has is with his father (and grandfather). I wonder if Donovan has ever read Child of God. In this interview he doesn’t mention McCarthy but you never know. I’m NOT saying he has taken anything from McCarthy (if he even has) other than inspiration but perhaps these themes are universal for men?

I guess I find this interesting because writing is such an experiment, an endeavour, an idea realised as best a writer can, and that our influences and imagination are fluid and receptive and hopefully open to all comers, whatever form they take. And I think the idea of a fringe-dweller of any sort offers up a rich canvasfor a story to run across. Now that I’m banging on about it, I am also reminded of Mark O’Flynn’s lovely book Grass Dogs. It’s an Australian novel with similar themes, a man on the fringes of society and acceptance, with only dogs to keep him company. Until, of course, the dogs are taken away. The dogs are always taken away aren’t they? Could be a good panel discussion sometime or other.

 

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