Monthly Archives: February 2017

2016 speeches #3: Battye Library’s 60th anniversary

Here is the last of the 2016 speeches I’m posting here, this one given on the occasion of the Battye Library of Western Australian History’s 60th anniversary…

 

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The staff at the Battye Library saw a lot of me in the first half of 2016. I am writing a work of narrative non-fiction about the artist Kathleen O’Connor, and I spent about four months of this year here, in the reading room, working through collected papers.

One day someone asked me about what I was doing and seemed surprised that I do all my own research. While it’s true that somewhere in the world there do exist those rare and endangered writers who can afford to commission others to put in the hours, I’m not one of them. But what’s more important: even if I were, I would still have been practically living in the reading room this year.

I can’t even imagine how I would brief someone else to do my research. While researching, I am not only gathering what I set out to find; I am also discovering what I could not have imagined was there. I am slowly, incrementally, forming impressions that guide what else I might do. I am making choices. Asking myself questions. I am beginning to make connections between disparate things. For me, the threads of research and creation are sometimes so enmeshed that they can only be disentangled with the benefit of hindsight.

An example: One of the stories in my collection Inherited (UWA Publishing) begins with a young woman, Paige, who becomes obsessed with the watercolour paintings of an artist referred to in the story only as The Famous Politician’s Wife. Western Australian readers may recognise her as Margaret Forrest.

My interest in Forrest began when I edited the late Frank Crowley’s biography of her husband, John Forrest, many years ago. Noting that Margaret Forrest was an artist, I was intrigued by this creative woman of a very different time, and came to the Battye Library to find out more.

In the manuscript collection are original letters written by Forrest. The experience of handling those fragile letters in her handwriting was profound; it was a physical connection to the dead. Those letters, cross-written across the page to conserve paper, told me things about who she was, and helped to contextualise the world in which she lived.

In the stacks were biographical articles that contributed fragments to the pictures I was building in my head. And then I found a piece of ephemera: a catalogue for Forrest’s only exhibition, which reproduced many of her beautiful watercolours. One painting particularly enchanted me: there was something ethereal about it. I was unfamiliar with the botanical specimen, a Byblis gigantea, but after more research, I discovered that the mauve of the flower in Forrest’s painting meant that it was fading, close to dying. It was that small piece of information that, in a circuitous way, created the framing character of my story, Paige, who, like the flower, is fading from life.

Circuitous is the right adjective to describe what I do here. I try to think how I could have made the leaps of imagination that transformed an interest into that story some other way than by being here, hands-on, and I can’t.

All libraries, all archives, are important to creative writers. This year I have also worked in the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and libraries in London, Bath and Paris. I have relished these experiences; I have been inspired by them. But this library means more to me because its purpose is to preserve our heritage, and while I often make creative forays into places and histories unconnected to me, I will always be a writer fascinated by the stories and people of my place.

I have several more projects that I am itching to begin, so the library staff is going to be seeing a lot more of me.

Thank you, Battye Library, and Happy Anniversary.

 

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2016 speeches #2: Rashida Murphy’s The Historian’s Daughter

Here is a second speech from 2016, made on the delightful occasion of the launch of Rashida Murphy’s novel The Historian’s Daughter (UWA Publishing) last August. I decided not to edit out my concluding comments—a few tips on how readers can help books make their way in the world—as people often ask me about this…

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The Historian’s Daughter is a special book. First, and most importantly, it is a beautifully written, page-turning, multilayered novel with engaging characters and something worthwhile to say.

Second, it is a debut novel, which always occasions a particular kind of interest, because reviewers, the media, bookshops, readers are not only wondering What story do we have here? but also Who do we have here?

Third, this book started its life as a PhD. It has been loved and laboured over, even cried over, throughout many years and it has been the centre of its writer’s life through all that time. It has jumped through many hoops, been read by many eyes, been critiqued and reviewed and examined and, as a thesis, honoured with the Magdalena Prize for feminist writing.

And speaking of honours… The Historian’s Daughter made the shortlist of an international award for an unpublished manuscript, the Dundee International Book Prize—no small achievement.

And finally, it caught the discerning eye of Terri-ann White, and has found for itself a good match for publication.

The Historian’s Daughter had me hooked from the very first page, which consists of only one sentence: This is not the story he wanted me to tell. Is there a person alive who would not immediately want to know what is this story? Who is this he who seems to have some power and an expectation that what he wants is what will come to pass? And, especially, who is this narrator who is defying that voice?

Hannah is the narrator. I love her, and I think you will too. She comes to us first as a little girl, a daughter, a sister, a sharp observer of all around her, growing up in India in a ramshackle house with too many windows and women—and, drawing on a rich literary image, a madwoman in the attic. It is ruled equally, and unequally, by her father, The Historian, and her mother, The Magician, and overrun by largely unpleasant aunties who remind me of a flock of nasty budgies—Hannah describes them more musically as dervishes with their dusters and dupattas and constant chatter who fill the house like smoke on a winter’s day. Hannah adores her older sister Gloria, who smells of honey, and tolerates her brothers, who are named Clive and Warren after two of the conquering thugs celebrated in a set of ornate books in her father’s library called The English Conquistadors of India.

The uneasy equilibrium of young Hannah’s world is disrupted when a stranger arrives, one of her mother’s strays, and a revolution in Iran strands him in India. These events, and the secrets and lies threaded through the weave of the family, lead to its fragmentation, and by the time we meet Hannah as a young woman in the second part of the novel she has taken a life-changing journey to Australia not of her choosing and is soon to embark on another, more dangerous, one to Iran that is.

I have been skimming across a brilliant surface of plot and relationships and family, a seemingly domestic sphere, but The Historian’s Daughter has depths and layers that resist any attempt to classify it. It is indeed a feminist novel. Hannah’s childhood world is patriarchal, where women’s voices are silenced within the family and within society. It is also post-colonial, portraying an India that bears the traces and the consequences of a most complex colonial past. And the novel reaches into a world where extremism and violence can break from the margins and make a refugee of anyone. The novel is written with great compassion and intelligence, with a sensibility that the personal is political. It reminds us that notions of self and other, home and elsewhere, centre and margin, are always contingent—and what a timely reminder that seems to be in the world we live in now.

Perhaps the things that shine most brightly for me are the great heart of this novel, its hopefulness, the empathy and compassion it has for its flawed and endearing human characters. The first of two short pieces I’d like to read for you is a beautifully realised little childhood portrait of Hannah and Gloria, with a glimmer of the humour that can also be found in the writing:

It was a quiet afternoon. Most of the aunties and cousins were out on mysterious errands, and our brothers were playing badminton outside. They were supposed to be looking after us. The Magician was busy with the tailor all day, measuring the windows for summer curtains. After that, we were going to be measured for new dresses. Gloria was in a dilemma. She wanted new clothes but she couldn’t stand the tailor. Abdul Master was a ratty little man with greasy hair, brown teeth and a leery laugh. The Magician thought he was worth his weight in gold. He raised our arms and circled our bodies with measuring tape, brushing his fingers over our chests and hips and stomachs while coughing up phlegm. He had sour breath and stained fingernails. I didn’t like him either, but reckoned it was a small price to pay once a year for clothes that hadn’t been previously worn by Gloria. We dawdled in the library with Grandpa Billy and his conquistadors, and I gathered up old newspapers to spread under our feet before the toe-painting ritual. These were rare, these moments alone with Gloria, without her noisy friends, without the Magician or the Historian, without the aunties calling us unfortunate half-breeds. Here were were—the two of us.

In the second piece, just a short paragraph, we fast-forward to Australia, where Hannah has just moved in with the man she loves, Gabriel. I love it for its lyrical qualities, its gentle restraint, and the sensory nature of the prose:

Afterwards, in the quickening chill of early winter, we made coffee and sat on the verandah with an open packet of Tim Tams resting on my lap. The garden smelled of crushed peppermint and chocolate. White cockatoos flew past the marri trees, their calls fading as they disappeared over the crest of the hill. The sky glowed briefly before plunging us into a moonless night. Silence then, except for the crickets, cidadas and butcherbirds.

You can tell, can’t you, that Rashida is also a poet.

The Historian’s Daughter deserves to be recognised and discussed and intelligently reviewed. I hope that it finds a very wide readership. And it struck me that, in a gathering of friends and family and well-wishers keen and willing to help out, I could give you a few suggestions on how you can do just that.

Obviously, please buy many copies tonight, and have them signed. But there is more. Talk about the book, recommend it to the readers you know—the good people of the world, as I like to think of them. Make sure your local library has copies and that your local bookshop orders it in and that it’s displayed prominently on their shelves. When you do see it on a shelf, take an ‘in the wild’ photo and post it on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. If you belong to a book club, consider choosing it when your turn comes up next, and you might even be able to persuade the author to visit. If you’re on Goodreads, post a review, even if it’s only a few words. If you have a blog, or write reviews, or take part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge or any other reading challenge, please know that whatever attention you choose to focus on this book will make a difference, because genuine enthusiasm and engagement always do, and those of us who write are immensely grateful for it.

Rashida talks about The Historian’s Daughter here

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2016 speeches #1: Robyn Mundy’s Wildlight

Late last year, after I gave a brief talk at a function celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Battye Library for Western Australian History, a writer friend who attended suggested that I publish it here. Good idea—thanks, Ian Reid! Taking that a step further, I’ve decided to post three of the speeches I made in 2016.

The other two were on the occasion of launching books, which is always as much a pleasure as it is undoubtedly an honour. I’ve edited the speeches to focus on why I loved the books concerned, and I’m happy to have another opportunity to do just that!

Here is the first, for the Perth launch of Robyn Mundy’s novel Wildlight (Pan Macmillan/Picador), at Beaufort Street Books last March…

 

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As most of you know, Wildlight is Robyn’s second novel. Her first, The Nature of Ice, announced a huge talent: a superb storyteller, a writer with an ear for the music of language, a writerly architect of place, a writer capable of the beautiful and the profound.

Wildlight, too, delivers all these things and more.

To give you the briefest of sketches: it begins in 1999 with 16-year-old Stephanie West travelling with her parents to remote Maatsuyker Island, just off Tasmania’s south-west coast. The family—now only three since the death of Stephanie’s twin brother Callum—are to be stationed there for five months as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. Five months without a social life, without mobile coverage, without basic home comforts like heating, without email. Unsurprisingly, Steph isn’t there by choice.

Into this scenario comes Tom Forrest, a 19-year-old deckhand on his brother’s crayfishing vessel which works the dangerous waters surrounding the island. Tom doesn’t have much choice in his situation, either, and his predicament is made worse by the tyrannical Frank’s dodgy fishing practices.

The narrative alternates between these two characters, Stephanie and Tom, allowing us to know them both, and sometimes to know more than they do.

I’m guessing that the first thing that reviewers of Wildlight are going to remark on is the setting—Maatsuker Island—but it is a great deal more than a novel of place, however atmospherically and beautifully that place is brought to life.

The subtle strength of the novel, for me, lies in the complexity Robyn brings to her small cast of characters. This is especially evident in the young characters, young people still in the process of becoming, unsure of who they are or could be, tentatively testing what they think they want against what is expected of them. Robyn’s respect for these young people, her care for the problems they face and the decisions they make, is clear, and never more so than in the way she shows them gaining the ability to turn to the adults in their lives, seeing their flaws, and moving beyond impatient teenage judgment.

Robyn also respects her readers. We come to understand many of the whys of character and story through threads of the past looping through the present, but there is no tight stitching here, no neatly tied bows. Robyn gives us enough to work with but resists over-explanation, allowing us space to speculate on, for example, the truthfulness of Stephanie’s mother’s idealised memory of her childhood on the island when her father was lightkeeper; Stephanie’s barely formed feelings about the changes in her twin before his death; her parents’ relationship; the vulnerability in Tom’s mother, the fearfulness underlying her blind deference to Frank. This is sophisticated writing.

Wildlight is also a portrait of grief. Here is Stephanie recalling her grandmother’s words:

According to Gran, this second year should have felt easier than the first. By the second year, Gran said, you could no longer look back the way you had the first, thinking this time last year we were all together, this time last Christmas, last birthday. The last of everything, drifting from your reach. You medicated yourself on the distance of time—a sedative that dulled the sharpness, then locked you in its murk. It was a kind of worn-out grief you couldn’t easily share, not once the time allowed for sadness had elapsed.

Stephanie and her parents, Gretchen and James, are a lost and broken family, each one locked painfully in themselves, confused and struggling, tiptoeing around the others for fear of opening cracks that might let the unbearable into the light. Callum’s death haunts them individually and haunts the family. And this lost boy haunts the narrative, too—not just as sadness, but as disturbance. There are no stereotypes here, no easy emotions.

But there is breathtaking writing—images you can see and hear and, in this example, smell:

Steph stood by her bedroom window staring at the night. The fishing fleet’s cluster of lights sparked through the dark. She opened the window to the air. The moon had finally appeared, a broad silver blade pressed down on the water… The bleats and groans from seals carried through the night, mournful as a cattle yard. She inhaled the cloying smell of mutton-bird, air rancid with their oil. The endless chatter of birds. An orchestra of discord pulsating through the night.

And so to the setting, to the exhilarating creation of place that comes from a writer who has lived it and allowed it to enter her cells. The ocean, the Needles and the Mewstone emerging from the sea, the lighthouse and all the history trapped within its lens, the freezing, comfortless, ‘skanky’ lightkeeper’s cottage where the family lives, the deafening sound of those crazy, odiferous muttonbirds, the clouds, the rain, the cold. And the wind—a relentless, infernal wind that we cannot begin to comprehend.

The Maatsuyker of Wildlight is raw and wild and utterly compelling, and this timeless place cannot help but shape the lives of its characters as they head into a new millennium—and for all the years beyond.

Wildlight is a coming-of-age story, a story of first love and first flight. A story about the fragility and concomitant strength of family, and the ravages of grief. And yes, it is a story of place—wild, unforgiving, unforgettable.

Robyn talks about Wildlight here

 

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