Monthly Archives: August 2016

Northern-bound…

I will be setting off soon, bound for a northern autumn—some familiar places and some I’ve never been to. The trip will be a combination of book promotion (for Elemental in the UK) and book research (for a work of creative non-fiction coming out in 2018, and my fiction-in-progress which is still, well, in progress).

As well as visiting various bookshops in Scotland and England, I’ll be doing a couple of author talks. One is at the Shetland Library, Lerwick, on 14 September, where I spent some time researching in 2007. As you can see, I still have my library bag!

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The other is at the delightfully named Madhatter Bookshop, Burford, on 19 September. How could anyone resist a shop that sells books and hats?

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Details and links are on the Events page.

In the meantime, here’s one of my favourite photos of the autumnal north…

DSCN2384 around monmattan

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2, 2 and 2: Rashida Murphy talks about The Historian’s Daughter

Version 2It’s my great pleasure to be introducing Rashida Murphy’s accomplished debut novel twice this week—first, here on looking up/looking down; second, on the occasion of her book launch on the 31st (details here)

I absolutely love The Historian’s Daughter—the intelligence and vulnerability of young Hannah; the tender relationships between the sisters, between them and their mother, and between Hannah and her ‘mad aunt’; the novel’s pace alongside its sophisticated use of restraint; and the lyrical prose that sings from the page as the narrative takes us from India to Australia to Iran and back to ‘home’.

Here is the book’s blurb…

In an old house with ‘too many windows and women’, high in the Indian hills, young Hannah lives with her older sister Gloria; her two older brothers; her mother—the Magician; a colourful assortment of aunts, blow-ins and misfits; and her father—the Historian. It is a world of secrets, jealousies and lies, ruled by the Historian but smoothed over by the Magician, whose kindnesses and wisdom bring homely comfort and all-enveloping love to a ramshackle building that seems destined for chaos.

And then one day the Magician is gone, Gloria is gone, and the Historian has spirited Hannah and her brothers away to a new and at first bewildering life in Perth. As Hannah grows and makes her own way through Australian life, an education and friendships, she begins to penetrate to the heart of one of the old house’s greatest secrets—and to the meaning of her own existence.

And now, over to Rashida…

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2 things that inspired the book

1 A sentence I wrote in my journal in 2007: This is not the story he wanted me to tell. I thought it would be the start of a short story. I had no idea who ‘he’ was and what the ‘story’ would be. In 2008–09 my husband and I moved to Melbourne and I wrote a few short stories that didn’t go anywhere. I started writing The Historian’s Daughter in 2011 and this sentence began to make sense. Now it’s the first line of my novel.

2 An incomplete memory. I grew up in a fairy chaotic household (in India) with itinerants wandering through, often with little explanation. I remember a group of Iranian students who lived with us at various times and one boy in particular who stayed with my family for several years. I don’t know what happened to him. This bothered me, especially when I made friends with Iranian refugees in Perth, so I imagined (and researched) what life would have been like for a young person caught up in a revolution. The novel is, in part, my attempt at bringing closure to events I cannot inhabit anymore.

2 places connected with the book

1 Iran—in particular, its capital city, Tehran. I’ve never been there but I based some of the action of the novel in the city. It was strange to be ‘writing a place’ I’d never been to and I wondered several times whether I should choose another place. Especially because all ‘good writing’ should come from ‘what you know.’ But the Iranian Revolution of 1979 placed my characters firmly within that history, so it was hard to avoid. I steeped myself in Iranian films and novels and history and drove most of my Iranian friends to distraction by asking them endless questions about food and culture (and eavesdropping on their conversations). I don’t speak Farsi but I can follow some of it.

2 Perth. Funny, for a novel partly set in India and partly in Iran, it’s actually Perth that has the strongest resonance for me. Perth’s sunny disposition provided the perfect background for a novel about darkness and family misdemeanours—in a way that (I hope) West Australians can relate to. And despite the fact that my writing always seems to locate itself in ‘other’ places, Perth is home. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Except, maybe, Florence.

2 favourite characters in the book

1 Jarrah the dog. I am not a dog person—most definitely a cat person—so I have no idea why or how Jarrah padded in so firmly, and settled into my writing life so comfortably. Jarrah’s appearance caused us both (me and the main character Hannah) much consternation and surprise. I think Jarrah and his owner, Gabriel, arrived at the same time and I just went with it. But Gabriel has a function as the laconic Australian romantic interest, whereas Jarrah gads about, reclining under kitchen tables, rebuking Hannah, making friends with her sister and generally behaving better than most people in the novel.

2 Gabriel. I chose the name in honour of one of my literary heroes, Farmer Gabriel Oak from Far From The Madding Crowd. ‘My’ Gabriel is a woodworker (which is probably why he has a dog called Jarrah) and volunteer firefighter, a good Aussie salt-of-the-earth type, whose straightforward thinking confuses Hannah, who can’t fathom why he’s so cheerful and confident. Hannah doesn’t have much to be cheerful about. Here’s the first time Gabriel appears in the novel.

Bent over a large plastic bag filled with sawdust and wood shavings, hands and arms plunged into its depths, he muttered small curses and agitated the dust that settled on him like brown snowflakes.

I watched from the door as he straightened up holding a small round object and said, ‘Gotcha little bugger.’ Then, his right hand over his eyes to peer at me, he sneezed loudly again and said, ‘Oh heck. How long have you been there? Come in please. I’d lost a router bit in there somewhere.’

He stamped his feet, whacked his chest with his hands and came towards me, trailing curls of wood and smelling of smoke, a tall man with green eyes and laughter in his voice.

‘What can I do you for?’ He offered me a warm, dusty hand and gripped mine firmly in exchange.

Easy to see why Hannah falls in love with him, right?

Version 2

Speaking at the New Norcia Writers’ Festival, 2016

 

The Historian’s Daughter will be in bookstores in September
Visit Rashida’s website
Find out more at UWA Publishing

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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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