Category Archives: Essays

Hot Chocolate

Day One – A red and white tape stretches along the curvaceous corridor, like a scene of crime. I cannot think of crimes – I must focus – I am here to save my life, I think. The whine and blast of the thing that may indeed save my life is all around me and the women I share this space with. Assembly lines. Sit. Stand. Change. Wait. In. Out. Next. Repeat.

When it’s my turn, two young women escort me in. They have cheerful faces and lilting voices. I wonder if they work at Woolies on weekends as they ask me how I am and the plans I have for the rest of the day. So normal. So many women.

Inside the tunnel room a bed of sorts. A machine with paddles. I lie down and am lifted up and shifted about and numbers are called out and everyone runs away – like they do at the dentist when they x-ray your tooth before regretfully informing you it cannot be saved.

I am alone in this terrifying space I have never encountered before. And in my ears, Errol Brown whispers – you sexy thang. It brings me back briefly to my body and I wonder if they will let me take this unutterably ugly blue gown and put sequins on it. I believe in miracles, continues Mr Brown, where you from, you sexy thing? I close my eyes and he croons. The paddle thing churns around, the whine and blasts echo down the corridor where the next woman waits. The cheerful women come back in and lower me. I have twenty-four days to go.

Day Five – The lovely woman in the white turban nods at me. Sheesh, she mutters. Groundhog Day. I grimace in sympathy. We’re practically old friends now. We know each other’s names because the woman behind the police tape calls out each name clearly. Even mine. See, it’s not that hard. Anyone can pronounce it. Inside the ‘treatment room’ after the young ones run away, Cat Stevens informs me it’s a wild world. I agree. Oh baby, baby.

Day Six – So many people in the room today, including a red-haired young man. I stifle anxiety and wait for the café-style chatter to ease. They wave me towards the plank, and the boy comes to stand beside me. I’m sorry, I say, looking into his clear eyes. Would it be possible for you to swap with one of the girls? He looks back, nods, leaves the room. A grim-eyed woman takes his place. I’m in trouble, I can smell the coffee she’s had to leave. Afterwards, she informs me there are men ‘on the team,’ it’s not always possible to swap, there are rosters in place, what exactly is my objection anyway? She becomes grimmer with every sentence she bites out. Eyes as cold as the room she scolds me in, she says she will ‘make a note’ of my objection to men. Eighteen days.

Days Seven to Fifteen – I have two ‘reviews.’ In the first, the radiologist seems empathic. Asks how I’m going. I murmur how, despite the note made of my request, there’s been a man in the room each day. The doctor nods, agrees it is entirely reasonable for women to request women in the treatment room. He’s been to positive communication classes, I can tell. Nothing changes. I notice the women walking away from the station as I walk towards it. Coincidence. Mentally I dub them ‘mean girls.’ Adele tells me I almost had it all. I couldn’t disagree more. I read a review of Porochista Khakpour’s memoir on the day the machine breaks and I wait in my non-sequinned blue gown for an hour. Different illness, different health system, same shit. Porochista recalls gripping a paramedic by the arm and telling him not to take her to the racist people. I tell my husband I don’t want to go back to the mean girls. His face rearranges into the same planes as the day our cat died. The face that says – I cannot change this for you.

Day Sixteen – It is the morning after the Bourke Street stabbing. The Sudanese woman shifts slightly in her seat, edging closer to me. I move my elbow towards her and we touch, briefly. Today no names are called out. The man just nods at the African lady and she rushes into the change room. I try to beam solace, entirely approving of Enrico today because he’ll be your hero baby – he will kiss away your pain.

All the days after – Claustrophobia is a bitch even when we are family, and I’ve got all my sisters with me. The panic increases each time. I learn not to respond when they ask how I am. I’d caved in once and told them about swollen eyes and exhaustion and insomnia and they said, perfectly normal, nothing we can do. So, why ask? I learn that the mean girls and the wispy boys are called ‘therapists,’ a term which strikes me as being as satirical as the choice of music each day. I learn that my body endures, even when I don’t. And yes Natalie, I know the perfect sky is torn – because I’m all out of faith.

 

 

 

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Peddling my wares

IMG_0822These days I write the word ‘writer’ on forms that ask me what I do. I know I’ve earned it. I am that person – a published novelist. Publication has changed the way I view my profession. The secret is out. I can own it. Even when I’m questioned and occasionally challenged. ‘What do you write?’ is the inevitable question and these days I have an answer. Sometimes that answer – fiction, is followed by another question – what sort?  This leads to conversations, which in most part are educational, entertaining or informative. I may hear the idea of a story I really ought to write or I may be asked to read 500 pages of this story they wrote when their dad was a lad during the war. Of course, everyone knows someone who writes and surely, as a writer I must know them too. Occasionally the conversation turns to my ability to speak English so well, the colour of my skin and my good fortune that Australia allows me to do whatever I want to. Because in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Fiji or wherever I come from, opportunities for women are so limited, you know, because they don’t even let women drive there.

Once, at a regional writers’ festival I participated in two well-attended, thoughtful panels on writing, loss and culture. Discussions ranged over the conditions of loss and the ability to make sense of that loss as an immigrant writer. At the end, there were questions and after that, book signings. A tall, lovely looking woman with a colonial accent chatted to me while I signed her book. I handed over the book and looked up at her and smiled. She frowned down at me and asked, ‘why is it that you people never talk about the advantages this country offers you? Why aren’t you grateful you are living here? I’ve been to your country – women don’t have toilets and go in the fields.  That’s where you come from – and now look at you. I get it – you’ve lost that, but have you gained nothing?’

Racism can be insistent (like a sty in your eye) or unseen (like a tumour).  Mostly I ignore daily micro aggressions. Everything from having conversations directed to my white husband, and the assumption that I must need him as an interpreter, to having my name mispronounced to the point of hilarity. A consistent micro aggression is the old white guy who comes really close and touches whichever part of my anatomy is accessible; arm, face or hair, followed by a stumbling pat or hug because he once went to Nepal or Pakistan and ‘knows’ women like me. Except they couldn’t speak English and wasn’t I lucky to find a man here? Apparently, I am the generic South Asian/Middle Eastern woman, and I should be able to answer for everything from a lack of toilets in India to Saudi women being unable to drive cars until recently.

Then there was that time I was at a library. Another well-attended, sold out event, with several books sold, to the delight of the local bookseller who also attended. I read from my novel, spoke about the length of time required to write and re-write, the path to publication and the thrill of seeing my story in people’s homes. An elderly woman sat in the front row and stared at me all through my talk. Now, as people stood up and moved, lining up for signed copies of my novel, this woman continued to sit, a sturdy foot out firmly, obliging me to go around the back of her chair to get to the signing table, delicious with multiple copies of my novel. She tapped my arm as I tried to slide past and I looked at her. ‘Don’t you get tired of peddling your wares?’ she asked. ‘If this is what I had to do to sell a few copies of a book, I know I wouldn’t bother. I suppose you don’t have an Australian publicist who can manage these things for you.’

My usual reaction to racism, (and I have had over 34 years to get used to it), is always the same. I shut down. I lower my eyes. I smile weakly. I walk away. I was raised to show respect to people even when they were entirely undeserving of it. But I was never taught how to respond to racism. That I had to learn on my own.

Why do white people assume that asking rude questions is okay if addressed to a person of colour? Do they think brown people are incapable of understanding nuanced racism? Why does a statement that includes my good fortune in being allowed to live here follow every compliment? Would the tall white woman at the writers’ festival ask a Jewish person why the Holocaust continues to haunt entire generations? Would the woman at the library ask Jodie Picoult why she was peddling her wares after an author talk? I am by no means suggesting that my stories are as gravely important as those of the Jewish diaspora or as popular as Ms Picoult’s. And I’d be really interested to know how many of my white female friends are randomly touched by strange men during conversations.

I am a writer. I am an introvert. I am entirely comfortable in my own skin and company. I have consciously shrunk my world to keep out a steady barrage of ‘harmless’ comments. But I still want to be able to interact in my own city and country without needing several days to recover from each encounter. Perth is a modern city with over 2 million people, of whom about 41% come from non-English speaking countries. How long must I wait to feel like this is my home and not a colonial outpost, used to ‘women like me’ being subservient and voiceless?

First published, Southern Crossings

 

 

A Ministry, a Garden, a God

Image result for blind man's garden image Image result for a god in every stone image Image result for ministry of utmost happiness image

I read a lot of books. For research mainly, or so I tell others and myself but also for pleasure, for comfort and to know myself better. I read fabulous books and ordinary ones, heartbreaking books and healing ones, smart books and hilarious ones, and I have a system of shelving these in idiosyncratic ways. I give away a lot of books too, sometimes because I can’t stand to have them in my house and sometimes because I realise guiltily I have multiple copies I don’t need. And I rarely loan them out. I’m sure the ones that I do loan to very special friends burn in their hands until they return them. The bibliotaph’s burden. We all have something to carry, do we not?

I try to read the world in the voices of the world. Three recent books have been on my mind so much that I feel compelled to unpack their hold on my consciousness.

Kamila Shamsie’s A God In Every Stone follows the journey of Vivian Spencer from England to Turkey to Peshawar in the troubled years from 1914 to 1930 when colonialism compressed the lives of a disparate band of people and left a trail of personal and global destruction. Vivian’s legacy is loss. She loves the Turkish archaeologist Tahsin Bey and follows him into the ancient city of Caspatyrus (modern Peshawar) but betrays him anyway, echoing the subcontinent’s colonial enterprise; the aftershocks of which its people continue to feel today. Years later she befriends Najeeb Gul, a young Peshawari boy whose troubled older brother will unleash his own brand of destruction within the countries that have used and discarded him. Shamsie uncovers the layers of the ancient landscape where her story is set, turning an unflinching eye towards the lives buried beneath and superimposed over those layers. This novel is fiction at its truth-telling best. “Why sigh over lost mulberries instead of giving thanks to the engineers who saved the city from floodwaters? said Qayyum and Najeeb threw his hands in the air in exasperation. Lala, why can’t you see that the past is beautiful” (p263).

Nadeem Aslam is another writer who walks confidently into the murky territories of war, loss, race and religion. I read The Blind Man’s Garden on a recent plane trip from India to Perth and remember feeling like I couldn’t take my eyes off the page in case I missed something. Aslam’s writing always evokes a sense of doom. When this writer decides to place his characters inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while their families attempt to live lives of ideological beauty, the result is beautiful, raw and intense. And scary. The slow build-up of horror swept me up entirely and dumped me, metaphorically on the other side, bleary-eyed and stunned. Rohan, the blind man of the title, knows that “history is the third parent.” When both his son and foster son leave him in his garden of memories to go and help save wounded civilians from the Taliban, Rohan remembers that his ancestors had played a part in the loss of Muslim lands to nonbelievers. “This was the century-old taint that Rohan had tried to remove by spreading the soils of Allah’s six beloved cities here. Mecca. Baghdad. Cordoba. Cairo. Delhi. Istanbul” (p11). Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie both know their landscape, their people and their sorrows and understand how the world will always come to the doorsteps of those whose lives are considered expendable. We live in times when the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ cause fear or at least discomfort in a Western context. Here are two contemporary writers (and there are several) unafraid to write the complexities that define the politics of terror, fear and justice.

Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness took me through a journey of the country of my birth and showed it to me in ways that confronted, broke and made me whole again. Roy uses myth, larger-than-life landscapes and people, and the minutiae and particularities of lives lived under fear and despair to describe love and joy. Aftab/Anjum lives his/her life in the crumbling graveyard of an Old Delhi neighbourhood. Anjum distances herself from her genteel family of birth after deciding to live as a woman despite being born a hermaphrodite. And yes, there are troubled boys across the country with legacies they cannot contain in their bodies; boys like the enigmatic Kashmiri Musa who loves the South Indian Tilottama. Under the vast canvas of modern India and the lives she follows, Roy’s fierce, iconic politics is never disguised. “Today, as the saffron tide of Hindu Nationalism rises in our country like the swastika once did in another, Naga’s ‘foolish faith’ schoolboy speech would probably get him expelled, if not by the school authorities, then certainly by some sort of parents’ campaign” (p165). Roy has her detractors, most of whom appear to think she ought not to fiercely criticise a country that shelters her, but like Shamsie and Aslam, Roy’s truth shines through the refracted prism of fiction.

These were difficult books to read and grieve over. They fed my pessimism. They made me long to hold those I love fiercely. They made me wish someone would ask me to run a course on reading that elevates you and makes you want to be a better person and a better writer. They spoke to those nerve-endings that tingle when I know I am being transformed. And most of all, they taught me how hard it is to write elegantly about difficult things and how astonishing it is when complexity and tragedy combine to create beauty.

First published in Southern Crossings

http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/a-ministry-a-garden-a-god/

 

Cultural Knowledge

Such a loaded term – cultural knowledge – coming as it does with its own set of expectations and hints of secrets. When I try to unpack it a little, I think about how knowledge differs from appropriation and what the keepers of cultural knowledge can do to protect themselves from stealth and theft. And the answer is – very little. We live in times of exchange and borrowings and slippages and it is hard to skid to a stop, metaphorically speaking, and say – ‘You have gone too far.’

My cultural knowledge is a concentric circle that extends out from family and memories of family, to the community I grew up in, the school I went to, the families I married into, the town I left and the city I adopted; and the country I settled in and everything between. Growing up Indian in India, as a member of a minority sect within a minority religion taught me about culture from the inside. Growing up female in an orthodoxy that disapproved of girls and discouraged them from forming opinions or making decisions taught me to write in secret. Raising a female child outside the confines of country and cultural knowledge allowed me to trust my judgement and own my mistakes. This came at a cost – and a loss of language, tradition and family. I never imagined interpreting this complexity for easy consumption. I still can’t make dal-chawal-palida like mum does. I still shiver walking past death-scented marigolds. I still miss the drama of eid-ka-chand and diwali-ke phatake. But for more than three decades in this country, and counting, I’ve tried, and lost, translation.

Creative writing degrees across Australian universities have marketed the desirability of ‘the other.’ It is actually an advantage to write a story that falls outside the white, heterosexual norm and ‘people like me’ can tell those stories, supported by research and financial aid from our institutions. And for that we are very grateful. We need to be, because it is pointed out to us frequently by seemingly disingenuous white people. The grateful immigrant is as desirable as the grateful refugee. And in the halls of education, we share our culture carefully, because, you know, we don’t want to appear ungrateful, and after all, we are creative colleagues. It’s what we do. We imagine other realities so we can critique patriarchy and draw attention to the plight of women and children in those theocracies and pseudo democracies we come from. We stand together, white, brown and black people, in this new country of informed debate we have fashioned together, within the halls of academia.

So, in the spirit of ‘giving back’ we give away our cultural knowledge. We speak of those layers within the countries we grew up in, those of us who dream and speak in several languages. We explain the differences between our people, our food and our religions. We resist the familiar tropes that seek to define us. We agree to speak at seminars and meet colleagues for coffee to unpack that tricky terrain inscribed on our bodies and in our minds. We talk, we write and sometimes we rage at the lack of self-awareness evident in the language of appropriation. We notice the namastes and salaams and references to shakti and bhakti and try not to mind when we are encouraged to attend workshops on how to write ‘the other.’

Knowledge slips into appropriation so comfortably. It’s a marriage made in heaven, really. Gayatri Spivak, back in 1986, well before cultural appropriation was even a ‘thing,’ said she does not “make the tired nationalist claim that only a native can know the scene,” and in principle I agree. In these days of easy travel, when it is cheaper to go to Bali than Broome; when Australians regularly travel to India and Vietnam and Cambodia and come back transformed by poverty; you don’t need to be a native to know the scene. When you have experienced the country and the natives, and walked among their dusty streets, wearing their costumes, what harm can there be to sit down with one of us in Australia and ask about the things that puzzle you still, weeks after your visit, and after your tummy has settled down? And really, what harm can there be in writing about these experiences, in the interests of eliding differences or building bridges across cultures? The white gaze interprets, interrupts and translates, telling me that my cultural knowledge cannot be the sole interpretation of my reality in Australia.

I think about all I know, all that still informs my writing to this day, and realise I started writing as testimony. So I could have something for my daughter as she grew up and realised what it meant to be a young brown female in Australia. Of course, no amount of cultural knowledge and the thousands of years of ancient Eastern wisdom prepared me for the pitfalls of parenthood. Now that we are finally brown women together in a white country, one young and one not so young, the conversations with my daughter take on an urgency I did not anticipate. There is so much to tell her. So much to show her. Culture. Knowledge. Secrets. Family. Language. Grief. Outrage. To wear a sari without falling down. To understand instinctively that the word Masi always comes after my sister’s name but Aunty always comes before her name.

I don’t have answers and I doubt if I ever will. Uncertainty marks the immigrant passage much more effectively than gratitude. I have been fortunate and people have been generous. I try to give back more than I get. I am not an inexhaustible supply of cultural knowledge. Nor am I a culture hoarder. But my stories are mine to tell and cannot be bought for the price of a cup of coffee by intersectional feminists ‘exploring the idea of difference.’ And I guess that I am still able to grieve over, rage at, and feel the imposition of such selective cultural exchanges.

First published in: http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/cultural-knowledge/

 

Bearing Witness

Google describes bearing witness as a term that refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. This term has been on my mind most of this year as I grapple with the hashtags of empathy and wondering why I had no desire to add #metoo to my status on Facebook. Maybe I just don’t believe in the existence of a global sisterhood. Maybe I don’t believe in the implied solidarity of a universal womanhood in need of rescue.  More specifically I question the efficacy of a white sisterhood with its awareness of intersectionality and its commitment to being my ally. But that, as they say, is another blog post.

It is the publicity given to Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger and their co-authored book, South of Forgiveness, that I wish to mostly focus on in this piece. Icelandic Elva was raped by the Australian Stranger as a teen and started up a correspondence with him which resulted in the pair getting together to talk and write about their experiences because, apparently, women bearing witness isn’t enough. When a man points out that remorse is possible and rape is wrong, it is suddenly a game changer in the narrative. Stranger raped an unconscious Elva for two hours. Now he appears on TED talks discussing his ‘repentance’ while Elva speaks of her need to establish contact with her violator as a means towards acceptance and healing.

Online forums hummed with dissent over this particular book for a while. Discussions polarised women; some advised strident feminists to listen instead of indulging in binaries and tired arguments about safe, sacred spaces. In one such forum, a woman made this extraordinary statement to another – ‘lynchings get us nowhere.’ The commenter appeared unaware of the charged racial connotations of the word despite having it pointed out to her several times. She also saw no irony in making that comment to a brown woman, offering up an apology of sorts a few comments later; acknowledging that words can be ‘funny’ sometimes and that a ‘fear of trampling’ over people’s feelings may prevent women from speaking out. It was hard to see the apology in that comment so I concluded that none was intended, and the word ‘lynching’ hung in the discussion like the proverbial post upon which the act was carried out in America. The concept of intersectionality came up often in the discussion as well, as a plea for understanding the perpetrator instead of condemning him. I prefer Kimberle Crenshaw’s take on intersectionality, where she advises bearing witness to the reality of multiple forms of exclusion. Such as the exclusion practiced in this particular forum when language was used specifically to disempower rather than authorise.

There are, however, other books written by women that put forward several passionate and reasoned arguments that may help change the narrative. One such book is Feeling the Fleshed Body by Brenda Downing. Downing uses somatic enquiry, lyrical prose and performance making responses to the trauma of rape. ‘Once touched, the body cannot be untouched,’ she says quietly at the start of her erudite and wide-ranging work on the body’s subversive capacity to express trauma through symptoms that are not always readily understood.

Feeling the Fleshed Body proposes that trauma significantly reduces the body’s capacity to be compassionate to itself, and that unacknowledged grief causes a fracturing of the mind and body that needs to be restored before acceptance and healing can begin. Downing refers to her ‘raped and censured body’ as crucial in finding the imperative for embodied forms of post-traumatic expression. ‘The struggle to speak and be heard’ is at the forefront of this enquiry into the aftermath of rape. The emphasis on ‘the feminine language of our bodies’ positions this work beside neuroscientific, philosophical and therapeutic contexts to argue that a separation of mind and body (inevitable when rape occurs) must be acknowledged before change can happen. As I read first hand accounts of the women Downing interviewed for her thesis, it is harder to accept that bearing witness must include a male perspective, as posited by Elva and her supporters. This is because women often relate their experiences of ‘not being heard’ by (male) health professionals, partners or parents.  They speak about feeling claustrophobic, disconnected, discounted and unheard. They report that they struggle with lifelong issues of trust and safety.

‘But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognise the humanity of those who commit it?’ asks Elva. Really? Tom Stranger discounted the humanity of Thordis Elva when he raped her. He was a guest in her country and her home. He violated the expectations of her parents who thought he would look after her. He left her and went on with his life of privilege, education, employment and family, while hers fell apart. He did nothing to find out how she coped. She contacted him. And gave him a forum, a stage, a book deal. He accepts being labeled a ‘rapist.’ Should we applaud this enormous concession made by a man who raped a woman?

Clementine Ford speaks about the ‘mechanics of internalised misogyny’ in her excellent book, Fight Like A Girl. She says that women who dare to name and shame and call out patriarchy when they see it, are set upon by their own as well as men. She points out that she ‘doesn’t position men and their feelings front and centre.’ And this is an important point, which appears to be missing in the race to acknowledge Elva as ‘brave’ and her abuser as ‘perceptive.’ By positioning the feelings of a man at the centre of a narrative of rape, we discount the humanity of women like Ford who are routinely threatened and abused online by men for her activism and candour.

When women like Elva tell us their story, duly authenticated by a man, they push back the conversations Ford and Downing have made possible. Thordis Elva simply perpetuates the myth that a man’s acknowledgement of his crime will change the narrative of violence. Elva is entitled to her delusions but it is crucial to remember that the reality is far more dangerous. South of Forgiveness is not a game-changer. A 2014 news report revealed that one in six Australian women experienced sexual assault, making sexual crime in Australia, the third highest in the world. A man shoots his wife in front of her 4 children. Media reports indicate that he was a ‘nice’ man and this was ‘out of character.’ Ford suggests that society always finds ways to explain violence against women as an aberration, as a glitch on the radar, as the sudden breakdown of an otherwise ‘good bloke.’ Which is why reading Elva and Stranger’s story of redemption cannot be the only story. Humanising, normalising and validating a rapist because he happens to be educated and good-looking and remorseful, does us no favours. We need to continue to have nuanced discussions that truly bear witness.

Works cited:

Crenshaw, K. (2016) The urgency of intersectionality https://www.ted.com/taks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/ TED Woman October 2016

Downing, B. (2016). Feeling the Fleshed Body. Berlin: Peter Lang

Elva, T. & Stranger, T. (2016) South of Forgiveness.  Melbourne: Scribe https://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconiliation/ TED Talks February 2017

Ford, C. (2016). Fight Like a Girl.  Australia: Allen & Unwin

Mothering under different skies

I was a paranoid mum when my daughter was growing up. Raising her in a city/country/continent far removed from where I was raised made me paranoid. My daughter always knew which two people in the world she could trust implicitly, no matter what. One of them was me. I went through every scenario in my mind that could potentially harm her and told her how to save herself if that happened. This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. As a woman of colour living in Perth in the 80s and 90s during the ascent of Pauline Hanson, I needed my daughter to be prepared for the day someone would tell her to ‘go back where she came from’ as this happened to me on a reasonably regular basis. I also needed to warn her about the effects of drugs, alcohol and under-age sex, (this was the 90s after all). I attempted to enrol her in judo, karate and ju-jitsu classes but she drew the line at that. Once, I became hysterical because she was five minutes later than she said she’d be. She learned early to tell me things I don’t remember ever telling my own mother. Only people who had been through a stringent vetting process were considered safe to be around her. One of them was me.

I worried so much about the effects this policing of her young body would have on her. But what choice did I have? How could I raise her as I had been raised? In a country and a time so far removed I may as well have grown up on a distant planet. My mother had a relaxed parenting style. (I was her third and whatever paranoia she may have had was well and truly over by the time I arrived). And we were good girls, by and large, with no concept of drugs, sex and rock n roll. Our rebellion consisted of sneaking out for a movie when we were supposed to be at school. Or stealing loose change so we could buy berries from the old woman who wasn’t allowed inside the school. But we were never warned about what a tricky world it is to negotiate when you are young, brown and female. We were never instructed on how to protect ourselves when we were fondled and touched by people considered ‘safe.’ We did not know that our words would be automatically discounted because we were girls so we chose not to say anything. We had no idea that girl bodies were fair game to every male in the vicinity. We only learned about these things when we went to college and acquired a vocabulary for that which we felt but could not describe.

Yes, I became a paranoid mum because I had a name for all those things I did not want my daughter to know. Patriarchy mostly, and all that it covers, hides, discounts, allows, promotes.

And now, as a young woman, my daughter tells me that she knows how fiercely loved she was. How protected. How cherished. ‘You raised me without burdening me with gendered expectations’ she said to me once and my heart stilled at that. Of course she slashed at restraints. Of course we clashed. Of course she tested those boundaries. But she knew how to fight back. She knew how to prevent people from burdening her with their expectations. Sometimes she stopped me. That’s how I knew I could stop policing her body.

 

Literary Friendships #2

My second pair of guests are Sue Braghieri and Hannah van Didden. I first met them at a writing workshop a few years ago and we have been friends since. Their responses remind me how important it is to celebrate as well as create.

When did you two meet and what were your first impressions of each other?

Sue            Hannah and I met in 2013 at a year-long course run by the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre in Perth. I remember being incredibly nervous on the first day of the course as I didn’t know any of the other writers. My first impressions of Hannah were that she was very tall and elegant, and exuded a genuine warmth and openness to those around her. As the course progressed, there was a rapport that developed within our group and we began to feel more comfortable sharing our writing. I remember we were given an exercise with the prompt: ‘He wrote that he was coming back and she …’

We all came up with very different follow on lines, but Hannah’s response was something like: ‘She went inside and turned the gas mark on the stove to four.’ A few of us commented that we thought her character was going to meet a rather untimely end, but Hannah’s explanation of where she intended to take the piece was completely different to what I had imagined.

Hannah    We met at band camp— I mean, writing class. We had a very motivated and talented group in that course, supporting each other and growing together. I met more than one kindred spirit in that PCWC boardroom. I was impressed with Sue’s focus and experience, in writing short stories and plays, and I felt an affinity with her pieces, even though our voices, styles, and subject matter were all very different.

 How long did it take you to become writing buddies? How often do you write together?

Sue            I think the turning point in our writing friendship was the group decision mid-way through the course to produce an anthology. Hannah and I were both on the publication team, and were in a buddy group together to develop our short stories for the anthology. After the launch of Other Voices: a collection of short stories, Hannah and I were keen to continue as writing buddies. We were both writing short stories regularly, and would meet to exchange pieces and provide each other with feedback. Our writing friendship has now evolved to regular writing sessions together. We generally meet at least once a month, but often manage fortnightly sessions, and if we’re really organised, a weekly session.

Hannah    Once we had buddied up and pulled together the anthology, our bond was cemented: if we didn’t write together afterwards, we were destined to be friends. Fortunately for me, we are both. I think we started writing together regularly within a month or two of the anthology being launched. As well as writing together, I love that Sue is someone I can trust to cast a discerning eye over new stories, chapters, poems, essays, manuscripts… I do send you an awful lot of stuff, Sue! It does work both ways, but I think I get the better deal.

Sue            I’m keeping this up my sleeve for when my novel is finished. It will be a weighty tome!

What is the process you follow when you read each other’s work? Do you comment, edit, offer feedback, or are simply present while new work is born?

Sue            Early in the friendship, we were providing each other with copy and structural editing suggestions, and general impressions on each other’s work. We still do this from time to time, but for the most part, we are now present as new work is being created. We tend not to give detailed critiques at these writing sessions as we know giving comprehensive feedback at this point in the creative process would kill our stories before they’ve had a chance to be born. There will be time enough for that later during the editing and revision process.

Sometimes it’s just about sharing what’s going on in our personal lives that may be impeding our writing. And we support and encourage each other, particularly when the inevitable rejections land in our Inboxes, but there is also the joy in celebrating each other’s successes!

Hannah    We usually start with a coffee and a chat. Because we like each other. We update one another on our latest submissions and rejections—and sometimes we have an acceptance to celebrate. Then we get stuck into whatever we’re working on. Or something brand new and unplanned. It all depends on what grabs us at the time.

Most often, we use a marathon writing process of free-writing in timed segments [with thanks to you, Rashida, for that introduction], however we also use writing prompts from time to time.

Rashida     Liana Christensen introduced me to marathon writing, You’re welcome 🙂

Does the act of writing with someone affect how you write? Is it possible that your own writing can change if you read or listen to another, in the process of creating?

Sue            I find being in the presence of my literary friends while I create is incredibly conducive to the writing process. There is an energy there that you can’t replicate when writing on your own. I am more focused and driven in getting words onto the page. As for taking on someone else’s style, I haven’t found that to be a problem. Hannah and I write in different genres and have very distinct voices and styles, and to try and emulate each other just wouldn’t work.  But we’ve had some rather inexplicable coincidences where we’ve created pieces completely independent of each other, but have both ended up with characters with the same name, or with stories with a similar premise or theme. But the pieces we’ve created were poles apart.

 Hannah    I am amazed at the subjects we stumble into from opposite directions. And the characters! We each have a recent story featuring an ‘Ivy’ and there is a ‘Sam’ somewhere in there too. Utterly disparate characters and stories, but the synchronicity is there. That said, we have different ways of approaching our work, different inspirations, different voices. At first I treated our partnership gingerly, as a hopeful but wary experiment. I wondered if writing together might dilute our respective voices into one homogenous mass. Groupthink. But, from our very first writing session, it became clear that we were feeding each other’s writing instead of feeding on it. We draw from the same energy, but we don’t share muses.

How honest can you be with someone who is also your friend? If feedback is meant to feed the writing rather than kill it, how much do you hold back when offering feedback?

Sue            I think it takes time for mutual trust and respect to be established in any writing friendship. You receive from the relationship what you are willing to invest. It has been a learning process for me. Outside our writing circle, I have witnessed the damaging effects that being overly critical can do to a writer’s confidence, so I try to keep that foremost in my mind. With our writing friendship, I feel we are now at a point where we can be honest with each other, and trust each other’s judgement. It’s about commenting on what’s working well with the piece, and what may need further consideration and revision.

Hannah    It helps that we actually appreciate each other’s writing but that doesn’t stop us from getting to the point—constructively, of course! It’s tough to improve if you can’t take feedback. We are trying to get to the same place with our craft: we each want to be better than we were the day before. We spur each other on to write better, I think, than either of us did alone.

Thoughts on writers groups? Do you think writing with one or two other people is better than writing with several? What makes your literary friendship work?

Sue           I think writing with a couple of other people works best if you can achieve that. If you have too many in the group, it can become unwieldy at the sharing phase. And ultimately, I think there is a huge level of trust in sharing your writing and giving feedback in a smaller group. That relationship takes time to develop, and all parties need to know how the group works, what the expectations are, and the rules of engagement. That said, more formal, structured writing groups also have their place in that they are good for getting you into the habit of writing regularly, and can be a way to meet like-minded writers in your area.

As for reflecting on why our literary friendship works, I think it is like any friendship. You can’t quite quantify why you are drawn to certain people, but there is an easiness in developing the friendship. While Hannah and I are very different personalities, when we met there was synergy in the way we related to each other. The best way I can describe this is a feeling of connectedness and shared experience, even though we were still getting to know each other. We have nurtured the friendship, and ultimately, it is all about the respect we have for each other’s writing skill, and the support we can give each other. My writing friends have really helped with my development, and I hope that I have equally given back to them in return.

In closing, forming a small writing circle is something that we can both highly recommend. Writing can be a very lonely pursuit, and it can be hard to get over the rejections and the knock-backs that will inevitably head our way. Having some other writers to share your journey, makes that lonely path a little lighter, and will enrich your writing in more ways than you can possibly imagine. You will laugh together, cry together and lift each other up when the demons of self-doubt strike.

Hannah   I couldn’t agree more!

Current writing projects, biographies and website details

Sue           I am working on my first novel with the working title The Secret of the Fox. It is an intergenerational, historical fiction work set in Launceston, Tasmania during the late 1800s, and Kalgoorlie, Western Australia in the late 1970s. It reveals the secrets families keep to protect the innocent and the guilty, and the ramifications these decisions have on the generations that follow.

Susan Braghieri writes fiction, non-fiction, and the occasional play. Her writing has been recognised in Australian and overseas competitions, and is published online and in journals/anthologies.  Susan holds a Graduate Diploma of Arts in Professional Writing from Edith Cowan University. Her published work can be accessed here:

‘Black on Black’, https://westerlymag.com.au/issues/new-creative/

‘The Room They No Longer Enter’, placed second in the 2016 Scribes ‘Short Takes’ Prose Competition: http://www.scribeswriters.com/—2nd-short-story.html

Her website is located at: www.authorsusan.com

Hannah   I am editing two manuscripts while writing three others in pieces. I’ll tell you more when someone likes me enough to offer me a contract.

Hannah van Didden plays with words in the second most isolated capital city in the world. You will find pieces of her published or forthcoming in places like Breach zine, Southerly Journal, Atticus Review, Southword Literary Journal, and thirtyseven [http://37thirtyseven.wordpress.com]—and she hopes you’ll see her first novel on a bookshelf near you very soon. Her published work can be accessed here:

‘Mother’s Milk’, in Atticus Review: http://atticusreview.org/mothers-milk/

‘The Man with the Purple Halo’, placed third in the 2012 Trudy Graham-Julie Lewis Literary Award, first published in Southword Literary Journal and reprinted in Quail Bell Magazine: http://www.munsterlit.ie/Southword/Issues/26/vandidden_hannah.html