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2, 2 and 2: Laurie Steed talks about You Belong Here

Laurie Steed 2Laurie Steed
You Belong Here (Margaret River Press)
NOVEL, LITERARY FICTION

Laurie Steed is a Western Australian writer I have long admired for his excellent short fiction, so it was exciting to hear that a book was on its way—and surprising to hear that it was a novel. I had the pleasure of listening to him read at his first session at Perth Festival Writers Week last weekend, and it was a huge success. The novel sold out before I could buy a copy, but I will be getting myself to a bookshop this week!

Here’s a little about Laurie:

Laurie Steed’s fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, Island and elsewhere. He is a recipient of fellowships from the University of Iowa, the Baltic Writing Residency, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the Katharine Susannah Prichard Foundation and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA). He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his wife and two young sons.

And the blurb for You Belong Here:

Jen and Steven meet at sixteen and marry at eighteen. Soon they’re the parents of three young children.

Initially, the kids keep them together until love turns to lies and the family implodes. As they become adults, each child faces love and loss in the shadow of their family legacy.

You Belong Here is a book about trust and connection. About what keeps us going in spite of ourselves.

About a place where we belong.

And here’s Laurie to tell us more…

YouBelongHere_front+Small

Two things that inspired my book

1 The Doppler effect

In 2009, I began a short story called ‘The Doppler Effect’, about a boy and his Mum in a park, an astronaut in space, and an overworked NASA employee called Jason. As the story progresses, we discover that (of course) the boy from the park is the astronaut and that Jason is the boy’s father. That the boy travelled continents to reunite with his father, and that, more poignantly, the last voice he’ll hear, while in space, will be his father’s.

I became obsessed with the astronaut—how the boy would both want closeness with his parents, and yet simultaneously need such distance. The idea of the Doppler effect then kicked in, but extrapolated to emotions, as opposed to the distortion one finds in, say, an ambulance siren as it comes near one’s vicinity.

While the story never fully clicked, the idea was immovable: how some families crave intimacy but instead create distance; how one can love and hurt at the same time; and particularly, how, in the face of trauma, intimacy breeds intensity, and so a person might seek numbness over closeness, fear over love.

2 A life of stories

My family is born of stories, tales and anecdotes.

It started when, as children, we made audio plays such as the inimitable Night of the Carnivore and Maniacal Murder, a radio adaptation of an earlier crime chapbook written by my brother James, at age seven. James had, in fact, already written five of these, known loosely as the Victor Drago books.

James Steed -The Victor Drago Books

At the same time, my other brother, Shane, would send me to sleep with stories of Granny and Rangi, two everyday superheroes who fought bullies and righted the wrongs of an unjust society. My mother and sister, meanwhile, were busy acting in the local production of Annie. Even my father, Dr Duncan Steed, had gifted us his father’s cabinet of medical slides for microscopic narratives, a virus, clot or abnormality given stories, songs, in which to grow and develop.

Soon after we moved to Perth, my mother joined Playback, a theatre group where audience members told their stories, and then had actors play it back to them. I acted too, mostly in high school, and indeed my rendition of Carrickfergus from Louis Nowra’s Summer of the Aliens has been known to make dogs cry.

Given such a pedigree, it was not so much a matter of if I’d tell my stories but when, and how. My family had forever been weaving tales; once the dust settled, with horror metal, blues, poetry and graffiti all conquered by the family Steed, I took my turn at the helm with words. They are, to be blunt, the only things that have ever made sense to me.

Two places connected with my book

1 Hamer Park

I’ve nominated Hamer Park (it appears in both ‘The Family Mixtape’ and ‘The First Test’ chapters of the book). But it’s worth noting that Inglewood Oval is next door, and it’s the edge of Inglewood Oval that Alex tumbles down in ‘The Family Mixtape’ and revisits towards the end of ‘The Knife’.

So much happened there in my childhood and adolescence, little of which is captured in You Belong Here. Amy Stark dropped the ball in year seven pass ball (it could have happened to anyone); a boy stormed across the middle of Hamer to take on his little brother’s bully, and promptly had his arse handed to him; and, in one particularly memorable exchange, a guy we called ‘Blue Glasses’ (he wore blue glasses) mused that if our principal were to confront him, and tell him to stop smoking, he’d simply blow smoke back in his face and say, ‘Hi, Mr Torr.’

Not exactly Oscar Wilde, but then Blue Glasses was always his own man.

In the book, as in life, Hamer Park is not good or bad, but a place to make memories, both home and not, all at once.

Hamer Park

2 The Gap

The Gap is a rock formation fifteen-minutes-drive out of Albany, on the southern tip of Western Australia. It’s known for its sedimentary strata, part of which form a natural bridge, and for a stunning twenty-five metre drop from its highest point down to the frothing, foaming ocean. It’s a popular tourist destination for many, and yet to me, it’s also a full-on space, with cold, whip-like winds, and the exhilarating/terrifying experience of looking down into enraged, tumultuous water.

In relation to You Belong Here, it seemed a fine place for Alex to escape; it’s cold, isolated, and away from mobile reception. And yet, even in such surroundings, and despite his hurt, he’s inclined to reach out. It’s here he meets Dex (short for Dexter), a surly teen with his own reasons for revisiting the rocks, as he does every year.

Dex matters to the narrative fabric like The Gap matters, as both are wake-up calls; reminders of choice and of consequence. The Gap is a tourist spot, but not one you’re likely to revisit by choice. It’s a place you go, to feel the weight and then leave. Or, as Dex puts it, there’s ‘only so many times you can come’.

Two favourite aspects of the book

1 What do you mean by that?

One of my favourite aspects of You Belong Here, and one that only really took flight once I started the editing process with Kate O’Donnell, was a willingness to call bullshit on ignorance, gender or cultural bias within the characters. Towards the end of ‘Half-life’, Jay and Emily originally talked mostly about him. Emily was insignificant. Rather than making it about her insignificance, though, we chose to call it out, and it reads better for it:

‘You enjoying the course?’ said Jay.

‘I love it,’ said Emily. ‘A bit lonely, but.’

‘All guys?’

‘Talk shit,’ said Emily.

‘Well I don’t know,’ said Jay.

‘There are lots of girls,’ said Emily. ‘It’s not the girls or the boys. It’s just lonely.’

There’s another exchange in ‘Give or Take’ that I’m particularly fond of but won’t get into here. I guess I’m enamoured by this aspect of the book because we never really say what we think, or we do, but it’s embedded, and so there’s joy in teasing that out, in casting a light, and showing blind spots, if and when they occur.

2 Sincerity, nostalgia, and a willingness to be tragically unhip

In characters like Jay, I found the chance to embrace my inner dork, who’s unaware of how incredibly cool the world would become. How trends would signify not popularity but a dogged desire to be both individual and incredibly predictable at the same time.

Of his literary landscape at the time, David Foster Wallace wrote: ‘Postmodern irony and cynicism have become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.’

I’m with Dave, I think, in that irony has a point—to ridicule absurd traditions or preconceived notions, and to debunk society’s illusions—but what then must we do? Be insightful but sad? Be willing to mock beliefs but never have the courage to believe?

For me, beliefs, and particularly beliefs based on love, compassion and adoration, are joyous things. Some would argue that much traditional religion does this, but to me, one’s beliefs are compromised once too strongly governed by outside influence.

It’s probably naïve and perhaps a bit dorky to say so, but I think love as a concept is incredibly liberating. That it’s exquisite to shout clearly and confidently, ‘I love this.’ That there’s freedom in holding the entirety of the past, good, bad, trivial and significant in your hand, and saying, ‘This matters to me, and maybe this matters to you too.’

 

You Belong Here is in bookshops now
Follow Laurie via his website
More at Margaret River Press

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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…

cover1

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: 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…

chineseaffair_blacktext

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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