2, 2 and 2: Isabelle Li talks about A Chinese Affair

Isabelle Li photoA Chinese Affair, a debut short story collection recently released by Margaret River Press, is a beautiful work of art, and I am delighted to be introducing its author, Isabelle Li. It was my pleasure to work with Isabelle in the editing of the collection and I was impressed by its intelligence and depth, and the haunting beauty of the prose.

Isabelle grew up in China and migrated to Australia in 1999. She received her Master of Arts and Master of Creative Arts from University of Technology Sydney, and is currently studying her Doctor of Creative Arts in Western Sydney University. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies, including The Best Australian Stories. Her poetry translation has been published by World Literature in China.

Here is the back-cover blurb for A Chinese Affair:

A Chinese Affair brings a new, exciting voice to the Australian literary landscape.

‘Be of service to the people.’ Chairman Mao’s command was once printed on posters, the front covers of journals, the flaps of school satchels, and I grew up believing that was to be my mission. But who are my people? Have I been of service to anyone? As if walking in a snowstorm, I look back to find that my footprints have been erased. I do not know where I am and can no longer find my way back.

In sixteen exquisite stories, Isabelle Li explores recent Chinese migration to Australia and elsewhere. Some are explicitly connected, through common characters or incidents; in others, the threads are both allusive and elusive—intergenerational and interracial relationships, the weight of history and indebtedness, the search for meaning, and the muteness peculiar to cultural dislocation and the inexpressibility of self in a second language.

The stories explore what it means to leave behind one’s familiar environment and establish a new life, the struggle to survive and thrive, the triumph and compromise, love and heartache, failure and resilience.

And here is Isabelle…

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2 things that inspired my book

The title story in A Chinese Affair opens with a dream: ‘I dream of my mother again. She is sitting in front of the sewing machine, crying.’ The first story I wrote in this collection, ‘The Floating Fragrance’, also opens with a dream, and is followed by another one later. All three dreams are real, though altered, and the setting is the house where I lived for the first seventeen years of my life. My brother was the last to leave before it was demolished. He told me he locked up the place as usual, to ‘preserve it for dreaming’. Dreams intrigue me. Their vividness and strangeness, the haunting quality and unbound lyricism, the disappearing nature of an oneiric experience, inspire my writing. The code switching between dreaming and waking presents infinite possibilities for drama and revelation. ‘Further South’ also opens with a dream:

On the morning of my twenty-eighth birthday, I woke up from a long dream. My body still carried the bittersweet sensation of an epiphany, but the memory was like the last wisp of incense, blown out of shape by the first movement of the air.

At the end of the story, the narrator recalls the dream and understands its message.

This collection is also inspired by language, and the lack or loss of it. The characters are mostly members of the new wave of Chinese migrants. Their cultural dislocation, combined with the inability to express themselves, results in what I have termed ‘endemic muteness’. They do not belong to any overseas Chinese communities or social organisations. Even if they are part of a group, few personal disclosures are involved in their social interactions. They filter or disguise, say one thing while meaning another. Their loneliness and longing are individual and not shared. They are not mute because they do not want to speak, but because they have nothing to say. Living in an English-speaking environment, they have lost the rich context of their Chinese language. As a result, they lose the ability not only to communicate with others but to recognise and articulate their inner feelings and emotions. An example is ‘Narrative of Grief’. Lily is forced to abandon her mother-tongue as a child. She is dissociated from her own feelings, evidenced by numbness to her surroundings and a lack of understanding of her profound sense of loss. To survive, she has to toughen up, and she’s made the enormous effort in English. Chinese, the mere utterance of it, makes her vulnerable. Her propensity for melancholy proves just how traumatic the loss of language can be.

2 places connected with my book

The migrant characters feel rootless, floating constantly between spaces and permanently disoriented. They yearn for a place to belong, for an identity that is certain, while leading a transitory existence in transient spaces, which are simultaneously here and there, now and then, but are also nowhere and in-between.

In ‘Lyrebird’, Ivy shares a unit with Sam but is often out house-sitting. She has been to a doctor’s apartment with five budgies, a pink lady’s house with two cats, and an engineer’s balcony with a collection of bonsai. Ivy says:

I move from one place to another, sharing the unit with Sam in between. ‘Don’t you want stability?’ Sam asks. He does not know that all the while I am saving up to buy my own place. It will be a small apartment with an elevated outlook on a quiet street, where I will rise with the sun and sleep among the stars.

The protagonist in ‘Further South’ is also feeling out of place. She wakes up in a rented room in a country where she feels physically uncomfortable, goes to work in a corporation where she does not fit in, meets her friends in a restaurant where she is humiliated, and ends the day in her room where she receives anonymous phone calls. Late in the night, she says:

I sat on my bed, leaned on the windowsill, and opened a corner of the curtain. The city was asleep and I was peeping into a dream that belonged to someone else.

2 favourite character names

I named myself Isabelle after one of my favourite characters, Isabel Archer, from The Portrait of a Lady, though I prefer the French spelling. Likewise, my characters have chosen their English names for a range of reasons. In Chinese culture, given names are made up of one or two characters, carrying with them positive associations, good wishes and high aspirations. So my characters, in deciding on a name, have given hints to their inner selves.

One of the heroines, Crystal, explains her name:

People give me good-hearted advice: ‘You’ve got to be yourself. Why don’t you use your Chinese name? It’s very special.’ I do not want to be special. I am not an exotic bird and have no interest in showing off my plumage. I am Crystal, perfect in structure and form, hard and clear in every molecule.

Ivy, on the other hand, adopts her name for a completely different set of reasons:

‘You are what you eat,’ says my book of English proverbs. I believe in the power of food. When I feel tired, I eat ginger. If my eyes lose their shine, I eat goji berries. If my hair looks dull, I eat seaweed. I tend to myself like a gardener tends a plant, and that is why I named myself Ivy—hoping for low maintenance.

On the surface, the characters blend in by giving themselves English names. Deep down, they have demonstrated a distinctively Chinese attitude and carried forward their Chinese heritage.

A Chinese Affair is published by Margaret River Press and is available in bookshops now
See Margaret River Press for more information
Review by William Yeoman, The West Australian, here

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2, 2 and 2: Sarah Drummond talks about The Sound

It’s a pleasure to welcome Sarah Drummond to looking up/looking down to talk about The Sound. 

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Photo: Nic Duncan

Sarah is a sublime writer. I was delighted to find that we both had pieces in the anthology Purple Prose (2015), and hers— ‘“Is a magnificent story”: Interviews with pigeon fanciers’—is one of my favourites.

Her first book, published in 2013, is the much lauded Salt Story (2013), a memoir of her time deck handing on the south coast of Western Australia. It was shortlisted for the Emerging WA Writer Award in the 2014 Premier’s Book Awards and longlisted for the prestigious Dobbie Award in the same year.

Sarah has also published essays and short fiction in Shadow Plays: an anthology of speculative fiction, Short Stories Australia, Creative Nonfiction, indigo journal, Best Australian Essays 2010, LINQ Journal, Overland and Kurungabaa.

Her new book, and first novel, The Sound, is based on the true story of the Aboriginal women and sealing crews who sailed from Van Diemen’s Land to Western Australia in the 1820s. Here is the blurb:

Wiremu Heke of Aramoana joins a sealing boat on a voyage from Tasmania to Western Australia. He is on a quest to avenge the destruction of his village but soon finds himself a part of the violent and lawless world that has claimed the lives of those he’s known. It’s a world inhabited by men from many nations. Men who plunder seal colonies and steal women and children from the indigenous communities who live on the islands and shorelines of Australia’s south.

Over to Sarah…

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2 things that inspired my book

1 Selkie stories have guided a lot of my historical fiction. For those who don’t know the tale, selkies are an old Orkney legend about the female seals who shed their seal skins to turn into women on the full moon. They sing and dance on the shore like sirens. When a man finds their shed skin, the woman has to follow him. Often she will spend years searching for her skin, yearning for her sea people. She may have children with him, she may love her husband, but she still wants to be beyond his control, to return to her people. Every day, she searches for her skin. I saw the Tasmanian women as searching for their skins after the sealers took them to the islands as wives and workers.

2 Working on small boats with Salt directly inspired my first book, Salt Story, of sea dogs and fisherwomen, but it also inspired and informed much of The Sound. (I was writing both books at the same time.) My boss, aka Salt, is descended from a sealer who died when he was accidentally shot through the neck in the 1850s. Fishing the south coast was rich with stories, experiences, landscapes and seascapes. There is nothing quite like being out on the water at night and seeing phosphorescent whale tracks.

2 places connected with the book

1 There are many places connected with The Sound. My favourite is the inlet Waychinicup. It is the setting for a scene in the novel where William Hook, Moennan and Tama Hine set a fishing net at night and they see phosphorescence, fire in the water. This scene is peaceful and sensual, a cultural meeting, and an intermission from the chaos and violence in their lives.

2 I say often that The Sound was written from the sea. A proofreader mentioned to my editor that, although many writers dwell on the Australian landscape, this was the first book she’d read where the landscape is experienced from the sea. I really liked that comment because I tried to write it that way. In the 1820s, European Australians were sea people and the Southern Ocean was their highway to transport goods and people.

2 favourite sources

1 The paper ‘Of Other Spaces’ by Michel Foucault helped me to explore how the Breaksea Islander community survived and negotiated living as a kind of separate society, lawless and away from the rest of the world. I think his final paragraph is quite magnificent:

Brothels and colonies are two extreme forms of heterotopia, and if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilisation, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development (I have not been speaking of that today), but has also been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

2 And this is not a quote but a painting by Louis de Sainson, artist aboard the French exploration ship Astrolabe that was moored in King George Sound while the sealers were there. The day after the Astrolabe left King George Sound, the sealers marooned five Menang men on an island so that they could kidnap those men’s wives and daughters. I realised one day on looking at the image that it gave me a tremendous amount of information, including how a European could include a grass tree on a beach shore to give an ‘authentic’ vision of Australia to the folk back home! It also gives me a sense of immediacy, a sense of occasion.

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The Sound is in bookshops now
Visit Sarah’s website here
Find out more at Fremantle Press

 

 

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2, 2 and 2: Dianne Touchell talks about Forgetting Foster

Author PhotoDianne Touchell is one of my favourite writers of young adult fiction. Among the many things I admire in her work are its fearlessness, its compassion, its humour, and the respect she so obviously has for her young characters. It comes as no surprise to me to hear that she thinks young adults are far more interesting than grown-ups.

Dianne’s debut, Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award in the Older Readers category. Her second, A Small Madness (Allen & Unwin, 2015), was a Notable book in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards, and you can read her 2, 2 and 2 interview about A Small Madness here.

I am delighted to be featuring her new novel, Forgetting Foster. Here is the book’s blurb…

Foster suddenly recognised the thing that rolled over him and made him feel sick. It was this: Dad was going away somewhere all on his own. And Foster was already missing him.

Foster Sumner is seven years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school and the beach. Best of all he likes listening to his dad’s stories. But then Foster’s dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. But the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.

A heartbreaking story about what it means to forget and to be forgotten.

Over now to Di…

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2 things that inspired the book

1 Two people I loved were affected by Alzheimer’s disease and psychotic dementia. Strong, opinionated, charismatic women with large personalities and a lifelong interest in their internal and external worlds. The sort of women you can never imagine would die at all, let alone slowly walk out of their own bodies long before death actually took them. It does something to you, watching them slowly leave you, watching them slowly leave themselves. It did something to me.

There’s the denial that anything is actually wrong, then the anger that you’re now caring for someone who should be looking after you, then the guilt about that anger, then the exhaustion of that caring, and then the fear that as this godawful illness seems to have its teeth in the women of this family I might go the same way. Every time I misplace my keys or walk into a room and forget why I’m there I laugh and then I panic.

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2 I began to wonder what makes a relationship. If a relationship is created and sustained through shared memories, mutual histories and love, what happens when one person in that relationship begins to lose their memory, their history. What happens the first time they look at you with fear instead of love. I struggled with this. I still struggle with this even though both these women are dead now and it doesn’t make a lick of difference.

2 places connected with the book

1 The grown-up mind, which hides in practicalities, logistics, rosters, medical jargon and medication regimes. The mind that takes comfort in turning emotional chaos into an Excel spreadsheet of what time this pill has to be taken and what time this doctor has to be seen. The mind that doesn’t breathe much because too much down-time will create a space for pain. An impractical landscape where I chose to pitch my tent. I spent a lot of time there.

2 The child mind, which hasn’t learned to prevaricate, hasn’t learned to white-knuckle things, hasn’t learned the need to control everything. The mind that acknowledges being frightened and feeling hurt and does both things loudly. The mind that can separate love and fear and can express frustration in words and in play. Their feelings are just as big and confusing but can be relieved by one big long scream. I spent time there too.

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2 favourite things about the book

1 Foster’s father loves stories and has created a love of stories in Foster that enables him to retreat to toy soldiers and dragons and myth as a way of interpreting and coping with confusion and grief. This gives Foster a lovely perspective, an understanding that the world is big and full of bravery. I particularly like this response from Foster when someone takes the time to ask him what he has learned from his dad:

He said stories are the most important thing. He said people don’t tell stories or listen to other people’s stories enough. He said people are mad as March hares but to love them anyway. He said battles are won or lost before the first shot is fired. He said babies need to get the finger of God on them. He said if God is real then so are Dragons. He said the brain is a super-hero and he said Mum is a princess. Oh, and he said an unkind word can clear a room quicker than a fart.

2 Foster has a way of making things that aren’t funny…very funny. He hasn’t learned to be self-deprecating or cynical yet, which means much of the humour comes directly from bald honesty. I like the scene where Dad takes all his clothes off because they are ‘itching’ him. Fossie simply announces that Dad has his Christmas socks on, without mentioning they are the only thing he has on. The grown-up response is shock, embarrassment, defeat. Mum is so appalled that she drops her phone mid-conversation into a bowl of cereal. Throughout the book I could always rely on Fossie taking the sting out of desperate situations by speaking his mind without fear of the consequences, the result of which is often very funny.

Forgetting Foster is available in bookshops now
Visit Di’s website
Find out more at Allen & Unwin

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June photo-poem

Lunar

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May photo-poem

Autumn

Untitled design

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Writers Ask Writers: early inspirations

Untitled design

It’s been a while since the Writers Ask Writers group has posted, but we couldn’t let the opportunity to celebrate two new releases go by! The main characters in those new novels—Georgia in Sara Foster’s All That is Lost Between Us, and Evie in Natasha Lester’s A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald—are young women who are inspired to pursue big dreams. Georgia dreams of being a champion fell-runner, and her flight through the Lake District becomes a matter of life and death, while Evie dares to believe she can study medicine when social conventions say otherwise. So the topic we’ve chosen this time is: books we read as young women that were early influences on our own pursuits.

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Links to the posts from Dawn Barker, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, Natasha Lester, Annabel Smith and Yvette Walker follow mine.

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There are probably many books I read as a girl and as a young woman that contributed to what I would eventually choose to do with my life, but it isn’t always easy to draw a direct line between cause and effect, especially when (as in my case) the journey has been a circuitous one.

Novels as diverse as Catcher in the Rye, Little Women and Great Expectations made lasting impressions on my literary sensibility, and in that sense were early inspirations. But on reflection, I’m surprised to find that I also owe a debt to a popular historical/romance novelist for scattering a few seeds—some that grew into a love of history; others into a vague dissatisfaction with who and what seemed ‘worthy’ subjects of history and historical fiction.

English writer Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert (d. 1993), writing under the pseudonyms Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, achieved sales of more than 56 million books during her writing life. In my late primary school years, I devoured the Jean Plaidy catalogue, jumping from series to series—the Queens of England, the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Georgians, the Plantagenets, Isabella and Ferdinand, the Medicis, the Borgias…

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These novels were enchanting, easy reads, and they took History—previously a dry subject consisting of dates and places and names and lists—and turned it into page-turner stories. I can trace the simple thread connecting the schoolgirl I was, eager to read about people rather than facts, to the writer I became.

But I also remember being curious about what went on in the margins of those stories. Fascinating though the lives of royalty and the powerful and the high-born were—not to mention the array of aspirants and pretenders and scheming mistresses—I would wonder about people who were not destined for a life at court or in other theatres of power. What did it feel like to be an ordinary person in such a society? What gave their lives value? Was life without status no life at all? Was the equation really that simple? It is only now that I can trace this other thread between the schoolgirl and the writer, and see that the debt I owe to ‘Jean Plaidy’ was part inspiration and part challenge.

As for those 56 million sales, I salute you, Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert! And I thank you for playing a part in sending me on the circuitous route that led me to convicts and gutting girls.

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Yvette Walker tells us why Graham Greene was the greatest influence on her young writing life.

Annabel Smith writes about her ‘beloved and much-underlined copy’ of Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home.

Natasha Lester was inspired by Jane Eyre, and through this book her ‘love of the epic novel, the love story…was born.’

Sara Foster recalls two very different novels that she says continue to influence her today.

Emma Chapman tells a beautiful story of a former employer who taught her that anything is possible.

Dawn Barker concedes her favourite was an ‘uncomfortable read’ but knows it helped her to realise ‘the power of words and stories.’

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A small photo-poem…

Dinner for one

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