Author Archives: amandacurtin

About amandacurtin

Author of novels ELEMENTAL and THE SINKINGS and short fiction collection INHERITED. looking up/looking down is an occasional blog about writing, reading and watching the world...

Resources for students studying The Sinkings

This post is for students studying The Sinkings as part of the ECU unit ENG3170 Diverse Voices in Literature.

Active websites with information on intersex

Accord Alliance

AIS DSD Support Group

Intersex Initiative (US)

Intersex Society of North America (in 2008 changed direction to become Accord Alliance, but the ISNA website remains live)

OII Intersex Network (Australia)

OII Intersex Network

The UK Intersex Association

The reading list below is by no means exhaustive; obviously, there would be many more publications now than were available during my research in 2003–05. However, these are the principal sources that informed the development of The Sinkings and may provide useful perspectives on intersex, cultural labelling and gender fluidity.

Books

Colapinto, J., As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl (Perennial, 2001). The Colapinto article (first published in Rolling Stone in 1997) that preceded this book is available here.

Domurat Dreger, A., Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex (Harvard University Press, 2000).

—— Intersex in the Age of Ethics (University Publishing Group, 1999).

Fausto-Sterling, A., Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (Basic Books, 2000).

Frank, A. W., The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Goffman, E., Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Penguin, 1963).

Haynes, F. & T. McKenna, Unseen Genders: Beyond the Binaries (Peter Lang, 2001).

Kessler, S., Lessons from the Intersexed (Rutgers University Press, 2002).

Articles, chapters

Chase, C., ‘Affronting reason’, in D. Atkins (ed.), Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity in Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Communities (Harrington Park Press, 1998).

Epstein, J., ‘Either/or—neither/both: Sexual ambiguity and the ideology of gender’, Genders, 7 (Spring 1990).

Fausto-Sterling, A., ‘The five sexes, revisited’, Sciences, 40 (4), July/August 2000.

Preves, S. E., ‘Sexing the intersexed: an analysis of sociocultural responses to intersexuality’, Signs, 27 (2, Winter 2002).

Turner, S. S., ‘Intersex identities: locating new intersections of sex and gender’, Gender & Society, 13 (4), 1999.

sinkings_cover copy

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2, 2 and 2: Nicole Sinclair talks about Bloodlines

2nd Nicole's photo 2016

Nicole Sinclair and I have been connected in a variety of ways over some years. I first came into contact with her work—anonymously, of course—when I chose one of her stories as winner of the Down South Writers Competition. (Not long after that, she won the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award—the first writing award I ever won.) Later I discovered what a skilful and generous interviewer she is when she took that role in a conversation session with me at the Margaret River Writers Festival. And in 2015 we appeared together in an issue of Review of Australian Fiction. I’m delighted that we are now friends as well as writing colleagues.

Nicole’s short fiction and non-fiction has also appeared in Westerlyindigo Journal and Award Winning Australian Writing, and forms part of the artworks along Busselton Jetty. Bloodlines (Margaret River Press, 2017), which was shortlisted for the 2014 TAG Hungerford Award, is her first novel.

You can meet Nicole and hear more about Bloodlines at the Bookcaffe Book Club, at the State Library of WA, on 8 June (5.30–7.00pm). Bookings and more information here.

Here is the back-cover blurb:

Thirty-one-year-old Beth, who grew up in Western Australia’s wheatbelt, is running from her past when she heads to an island in Papua New Guinea. Interwoven with Beth’s narrative about the joys and brutalities of island life is the story of her parents’ passionate, tender love for each other. But Clem and Rose’s union is beset with tragedy, forever marking the lives of those around them.

Shifting between the perspectives of five memorable characters, this ambitious, big-hearted novel heralds an exciting voice in Australian literature. Above all, Bloodlines asks us to consider what it means to make a home, and what we might owe to those who dwell in it.

And now, over to Nicole…

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2 things that inspired the novel

Shearing sheds

Shearing sheds have been a part of Sinclair family culture for generations and my father was a shearer for over fifty years. As kids, we loved climbing through packs overflowing with soft wool, chasing lambs in the pens and sweeping the boards. We worked in sheds when we were older, earning money while at university or to go travelling, and we had greater appreciation for the back-breaking work Dad did to provide for us. Shearing sheds are such a rich source of story: old junk is often stored in them, watching a roustabout throw a fleece can be captivating, and the pranks and talk at smoko and cut-out are always interesting! Many people believe that shearing sheds are places full of crude talk and drink, and I wanted to present an alternative to this stereotype. I also hoped to represent the very act of sheep shearing as something skilled and graceful. Beth’s parents (Clem and Rose) both work in shearing sheds and, through them, I was able to pay homage to this very formative part of my life. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the challenge of depicting their tender love affair (without being sentimental and soppy) against the gritty grime and stink of shearing sheds.

Mothering

I could not have perceived how greatly my life would change through the course of writing Bloodlines. I began writing this novel as a single woman, and within a short period of time, I fell in love and had a baby. Within two years, we had another daughter. Motherhood greatly affected how I wrote and what I wrote about.

An impending baby makes a great deadline! For the first time in my life, I was disciplined with my practice. When the baby was born, and I was strapped for time and sleep-deprived, mothering made me work-savvy. I wrote willy-nilly on scraps of paper, receipts discarded on the kitchen bench bore jottings for a character, a plot point would be recorded on a serviette at a cafe on a much-needed escape from the house. The very structure of the narrative—the prose fragments or small chapters—reflects these small snatches of time afforded me. I was determined to write whenever I could (the house often in disarray) and gave up many of my idealistic, perfectionist attitudes towards creative practice. My work, like my mothering, had to be ‘good enough’.

I used my creative musings to explore the wondrous, often frustrating experience of new motherhood, and the narrative became the richer for it. Rose remains one of my favourite characters, perhaps because in her, I see so much of myself as a vulnerable new mother. Fellow-writer Robyn Mundy read an early draft and commented, ‘…I nodded several times at the moments from your own life: Rose’s challenges with baby Beth’s crying and sleep deprivation (could you have written that wonderful layer into Rose without your experiences?).’

Most likely not.

2 places connected to the novel

Bloodlines is told from five different perspectives, with shifting times and places. The two key settings of this novel are based on places of great significance in my own life. In many ways, the narrative is a tribute to both the physical landscape and the people to whom I felt a close connection in each place.

The first is Toodyay, a small town (or at least it was when I grew up there!) on the edge of the West Australian wheatbelt. The rolling hills, meandering river and small town characterise my fictional town of Hope Valley, which is drawn from my childhood memories of growing up on a farm near Toodyay. I think the wheatbelt is often overlooked or dismissed (it’s not the coast, the desert, the forested south, the city), and yet I find the wheatbelt landscape very evocative. Through Clem’s daughter, Beth, I explore some of the complexities of belonging and connection to a particular place; how we might long for it, yet also spurn it, hate it.

In 2007 and 2008, I worked as a volunteer in a Catholic school on an island in Papua New Guinea. The experience was intriguing for many different reasons, and I knew I ‘had’ to write about it. Few Australians know much about PNG except the violence and corruption emanating from Port Moresby or, more recently, the debacle of the off-shore detention centre on Manus Island, but it offers the would-be writer (and reader) an extraordinary backdrop: environmental biodiversity, hundreds of distinct cultural groups, locals who love drama, rumour and sharing stories. From the outset, I wanted to evoke the dense-jungled mountain interior and palm-fringed island where I lived and worked, and I wanted to pay tribute to the generous, friendly, hard-working people I lived and worked with—which brought me face to face with the challenges of writing about another culture, one (at times) so vastly different to my own. Bloodlines is my investigation of the outsider in PNG as they grapple with cultural difference and the legacy of colonialism.

Sunplus

These two quite disparate settings—the wheatbelt and PNG—allowed me to look at the ‘push–pull’ of places and tease out some of the inherent issues such as belonging and un-belonging, home and dislocation.

2 favourites lines about connection in the novel

In many ways, Bloodlines is about connection: connection to the past, connection to place, connection to others. Two of my favourite quotes about connection are as follows:

Clem and Beth’s connection (pp. 311–312)

He takes the bleating baby, slips down the hallway and out the back door. He grabs his raincoat and covers her with it, feels the tar-black night wrapping around them.

‘Here, my girl,’ he says, jimmying a swollen shearer’s finger into her mouth.

Under the stars he walks up and down the back lawn, round and round the weeping willow, past his vegie patch where the corn quivers in the pre-dawn breeze, past a whimpering Dog, past nappies forgotten on the line. He walks past the tractor with the flat tyre he’s been meaning to fix, past Rose’s Cortina and the ute, til he’s facing east and can see the first pink softening of morning. He holds his little girl, inhales the sheep and sweat of his raincoat mingling with the sweet, soapy smell of her, until the little body stops shuddering at last and her mouth gives up the suck.

Val’s connection with Beth (pp. 380–381)

(Val is Clem’s cousin and Beth goes to work with her in PNG.)

Val knows Beth will be leaving soon—whether it’s now or next year—and something in her feels like breaking. She’s spent over thirty years up here trying to avoid most white people and now Beth, on the island five minutes, is so far under Val’s skin it hurts. She’s got used to having her around, likes knowing she’s in the far house in their compound: two white meris bookending the others, keeping them safe. She’s going to miss their gin and tonic musings and those hot Sundays after church when she loads the ute with Beth, Lena and Grace, Delilah and Ruth, and they all escape to a waterhole down the highway.

signing with oona

Bloodlines is in bookstores now.
You can find out more at Margaret River Press.
Read Lisa Hill’s excellent review here.

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2, 2 and 2: Tracy Farr talks about The Hope Fault

Tracy-Farr-2016-Photo-by-Grant-Maiden-08

Photo by Grant Maiden

Tracy Farr is a Melbourne-born, Perth-raised, Wellington-based writer—which, had it been planned, would be a pretty good networking strategy for a writer!

Her first novel, the original, intelligent and lyrical The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, introduced a brilliant new talent to literature and was one of my favourites of 2013. Literary award judges were impressed, too: it was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Award and Barbara Jefferis Award, and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Tracy’s new novel, The Hope Fault (Fremantle Press), was recently released, and I am delighted to be featuring it here.

Here is the novel’s back-cover blurb:

In Cassetown, Geologue Bay, Iris and her extended family gather on a midwinter long weekend, to pack up the family holiday house now that it has been sold. They are together for one last time, one last weekend, one last party.

The Hope Fault is a celebration of the complexities of family—aunties and steps and exes, and a baby in need of a name; parents and partners who are missing, and the people who replace them.

It’s about the faultlines that run under the surface, and it’s about uncertainty—the unsettling notion that the earth might shift, literally or metaphorically, at any moment. It’s a contemporary novel that plays with time and with ways of telling stories. It finds poetry and beauty in science, and pattern and magic in landscape.

And now, over to Tracy…

The-Hope-Fault-front-cover

2 things that inspired your book

1 Rock-paper-scissors Very early in this novel’s life, when I was struggling to work out what it was about and where it went, I started referring to it (almost mockingly) as ‘my rock-paper-scissors novel’. Referencing the playground game that I’m sure everyone’s familiar with, it was a shorthand that encompassed some key elements of the book that I’d decided on very early in the process, even though I wasn’t at that stage clear about how I could or would bring them together: rock for geology, and the Hope Fault, a geological feature that runs across the South Island of New Zealand; scissors for Iris, who works with fabric (I thought she would make marks on fabric by dyeing, but as I wrote, Iris turned to stitching); and paper for fairytales and photographs, poems and maps, and letters (whether delivered or never sent).

As I wrote, I came to think of rock-paper-scissors not just as a convenient shorthand for the novel, but as an organising principle, and as a theme. I became interested in rock-paper-scissors—the game itself—for its universality and its history (it’s existed, in some form and across cultures, for centuries), for its elegant simplicity, but also for its circularity and democracy. As Kurt says in the novel:

‘It’s circular, never-ending, that’s the beauty of it. No one thing wins over every other thing. Any choice you make might win, or it might lose. There’s the potential to win with each choice, each move, but there’s also the potential, each move, to lose…Even paper can win. Paper wraps rock.’

Circularity is important in the novel, and so is the number three (most obviously in the novel’s three parts). Rock-paper-scissors is a fairytale three, a lovely prime number (Kurt’s keen on primes, too: ‘Three’s just one of those numbers. There’s something about primes, but three in particular.’).

2 A bunch of people Another throwaway line I used early on for this novel, when people asked me what it was about (when, honestly, I didn’t really know the answer to that question), was that it was ‘a novel about a bunch of people’. Behind that uncertain answer was one certainty: that it was important to me that this novel featured a cast of characters, with each of their voices coming up in the mix at different times, and with, at times, all of them talking in chorus, speaking over one another. I knew I wanted them stuck in a house, tripping over one another, in a sort of turned-around version of an Agatha Christie-type country house murder mystery (but without a murder). I was particularly inspired by (obsessed with) the Man Booker–shortlisted 2012 novel Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy. I loved that novel’s bunch of people (the family, the friends, the stoner maintenance man, the elderly neighbour, the beautiful stranger), their range of ages and relationships, the sense of unease, and the set-up of the book, where they’re all at a holiday villa in the south of France.

My novel’s bunch of people was also inspired by the bunch of people in Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse (after which one of my novel’s later chapters is named). The Hope Fault’s three-part structure echoes aspects of the structure of To the Lighthouse (including the central part, titled ‘Time Passes’ in Woolf’s novel, which in my novel had a working title of ‘Time Passes (backwards)’), but it was Woolf’s bunch of people—family and friends, out of time, out of place—in their holiday house, the shifting perspective, the sense that nothing much happens (yet everything happens), that interested me. I was interested, too, in the ways that both novels play with time. And would my own bunch of people make it to their lighthouse?

2 places connected with your book

1 There are so many real places connected with this book that I felt I had to invent a fictional place to contain those multitudes. The contemporary sections of the book take place in a family beach house in Cassetown, on the shores of Geologue Bay. There isn’t (as far as I know) a Cassetown, nor is there a Geologue Bay, but I’d hope that Western Australian readers might get a cheeky little zing of recognition and think of Geographe Bay, and recognise in the name of my Cassetown an echo of the real-life town of Vasse. If I had to point to Cassetown on a map, I’d wave my finger over the south-west of Australia, vaguely in the vicinity of Cowaramup, Busselton, Dunsborough and Vasse, but without actually touching down on the map, because Cassetown isn’t quite any of these places. Rather, it’s a mashup of those places, which I know reasonably well from spending holidays there as a child and through my teens and twenties.

I decided on this fictional place for a number of reasons, not least because I imagined a local geography for the house (the house here, by a river that leads to the bay) that none of the real places quite provided. I really like the sense of the universal that’s provided by a fictional place (rooted in real places)—one lovely comment I’ve had from New Zealand readers of the book is that they didn’t realise that it’s set in Australia, they read it as a rainy New Zealand setting. If I’m honest, that’s a response I was sort of hoping for—that WA readers get that pleasing jolt of recognition, but for non-WA readers, Cassetown can read as an Everyplace that’s close to them. The fictional placename also picks up the thread through the novel of names and naming, and of things (and people) having more than one name. And the fictional setting is a nod to the importance in this novel of fairytale, fiction and make-believe.

Tracy-point-whale-Dunsborough-1967

Tracy on the beach at Dunsborough, 1967

2 The house in the novel is an amalgam of several real-life houses, mixed and mashed and added-to in my mind to come up with this particular place that forms the stage on which the majority of the novel is performed. Closest in feel and layout to the house in the novel—though furthest in geographical distance—is a house near Te Anau (on the way to Milford Sound in New Zealand) that I found on a holiday home rental site, and stayed at for two or three nights with my extended family back in 2010. Like the house in my novel, it was an old farmhouse on a decent bit of land, though now more or less in the suburbs, surrounded by close neighbours. The hallway at the beginning of the novel is the hallway in the Te Anau house; the big music room at the side, the deck leading off it; the large number of bedrooms (were there eight?!), leading off the hallway, or off each other; the dogleg to the kitchen at the rear of the house, and family meals eaten at the table in the kitchen—they all come from that house in Te Anau. There are other houses that are part of the house in the novel: Normandell House, the home of New Zealand Pacific Studio, where I had a rainy writing residency while writing the first draft of the novel; Olive Cottage in Mildura, where I lived for a midwinter month when I was Mildura Writers Festival writer-in-residence, and where I wrote the last scenes of my midwinter novel; my uncle and aunt’s rambling old house near Vasse; my ex’s parents’ house in Cowaramup; the back verandah and outside laundry (a place of cubbies, dress-ups, and playing schools) of my childhood home in North Cottesloe.

2 favourite characters

1 Luce was the last of the cast of characters that I came up with for the novel, and she is, in many ways, my favourite. She was the missing link, early on; once I introduced Luce, and worked out how she fitted into the family and the story, everything finally clicked into place. She’s the 15-year-old daughter of Marti. Kurt (20) is her cousin; Kurt’s mum (Iris) and Luce’s mum (Marti) are best friends, and ex-sisters-in-law. Luce, Kurt and Iris are the three point-of-view characters in the contemporary sections (the first and third parts) of the novel. I particularly love the way that Luce shines in the third and final part of the novel.

Names are important in this novel, and Luce’s is, on the one hand, dreadful (listen to it: Luce/loose!). She’s never known by her first name, Lucy; she’s Luce, or Lucinda-sky (with diamonds), or Lulu. I’ve been asked if there’s a lot of me in Iris, or partying Marti, the characters closest in age to me. But I think that Luce is the character in this novel who has the most of me in her. Though she’s forty years younger than me, I am, in many ways, still that confused and prickly teenager, socially awkward, both wanting and not wanting solitude, wanting to do the right thing but often not sure how to do it.

2 Iris was the first character I came up with for this novel, and she is the novel’s reference point. I’ve always thought of the cast of this novel (there’s a confession: I think of it very much as having a cast of characters, as if it’s a play or film) as a cloud or network of characters. I’d draw it on the page or whiteboard, and keep it on the desk or wall for reference as I wrote: a network with Iris in the centre, and the others arrayed around her, with lines connecting out from Iris like the spokes of a wheel, but also across and around, connecting character to character. Iris is in her late fifties in the novel, living on her own now that her 20-year-old son’s off at uni. It’s ten years after her marriage broke down, and she’s good mates (now) with her ex, and with his new wife. I always saw Iris as still, stable, quiet, dependable. She’s the person at the centre of the lives of her extended family, her circle of friends. I imagine her as the person who facilitates the celebrations of all those around her (her son’s 21st, her mum’s 100th, her best friend’s wedding), but without really stopping to celebrate her own milestones. She quietly gets on and organises all their lives. Everyone needs an Iris.

The Hope Fault is in bookstores now.
Visit Tracy’s website
Find out more at Fremantle Press

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Shelf Awareness — Amanda Curtin

Here’s my contribution to ‘Shelf Awareness’, a great new blog series created by my friend and fellow writer Maureen Eppen. If you happen to be a compulsive checker-of-other-people’s-bookshelves (which makes you one of my tribe), take a look at posts by Norman Jorgensen, Jane Rawson, Jennifer Ryan and Natasha Lester (as well as Maureen’s own), and sign up for the many more to come…

MAUREEN EPPEN -- WRITER

amandaThe first time I read the opening lines of Amanda Curtin’s novel Elemental I was utterly captivated by its protagonist, Meggie Tulloch. The wee Scottish ‘herring girl’ has rich red hair, which makes her a target of suspicious fishermen in the village where she lives, at the turn of the 20th Century. By the time I’d finished this poignant, sometimes harrowing but exquisitely crafted story, I knew this book deserved a place among my all-time favourites. I am now also utterly captivated by the gracious, soft-spoken and incredibly talented woman who created the tale. Amanda Curtin is a freelance book editor, occasional workshop presenter and an author of immense talent. Her other books include The Sinkings, a novel inspired by a mysterious death in the campsite of the same name, near Albany, Western Australia, in 1882, and Inherited, a collection of finely wrought short stories, as well as other…

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March 27, 2017 · 10:47 pm

In praise of the ordinary…

This week’s research reading unearthed a quote from James Joyce that I reacted to strongly in positive and negative ways.

I dislike the opposition it sets up. Joyce apparently did not accord much respect to journalists, and it’s clear here that he had an elitist view of who and what ‘writers’ were and were not.

Also, it’s a lofty, arrogant piece of ‘advice’—perhaps no surprise that Joyce was giving it to a female writer, Djuna Barnes. It made me wonder about who Joyce’s cosy little of club of ‘writers’ might actually be. I suspect that it would not include too many women.

And yet, and yet…Joyce’s words express something I believe about fiction, although not in the absolute and exclusive way Joyce seems to have intended it. They acknowledge the unremarkable, the quotidian, the minutiae of life as fundamental subjects of fiction.

A writer must never write about the extraordinary. That is for the journalist.

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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…

Historian_s_Daughter_Cover_grande

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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