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

Here’s a guest post on Amanda Curtin’s blog, ahead of the launch of The Historian’s Daughter on 31st August.

looking up/looking down

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

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

Here is the book’s blurb…

In an old house with ‘too many windows and women’, high in the Indian hills, young Hannah lives with her older sister Gloria; her two older brothers; her mother—the Magician; a colourful assortment of aunts, blow-ins and misfits; and her father—the Historian. It is a world of secrets, jealousies and lies…

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A short story – When the sky breaks

This story was first published by Sonic Boom in 2015 and the fact that we are still ‘debating’ the incarceration of human beings in detention centres, saddens me deeply. Here’s a story I wish I didn’t feel the need to write.                                        

Names and numbers, she thinks. Names and numbers have such powerful resonance, especially when synonymous with catastrophe. September 11, 2001. November 11, 1918. Osama. Hitler. What happened to the German children called Adolf in the decades following the war? She wonders this as she thinks of her own sweet Sam, her beautiful, round cheeked baby boy, her Osama. It is a family name, passed down from generation to generation, one of the few connections to the old country that endures in this one, this new country whose sky is broken into little squares.

There are other numbers too.

One hundred and fifty six. The number of people who drowned when the stinking boat flung itself against the swell of foam that obliterated the world when she thought she would die. She would die and her boy would never hear stories about brown hillsides and olive trees and the way the sky looked where he was born. And how the rain was scarce and temperamental, but enough to grow grapefruit and orange and basil and spinach and a renegade almond or two. Those trembling attempts at growing food; despite trucks rumbling through their villages, flattening, blasting, scattering layers of concrete and dust. Despite boys who never came back and fathers who never spoke again.

These jailers are not unkind. She takes Sam every day to the makeshift schoolroom at the end of the long grey corridor. There, with 15 children of varying ages, she has moments of restfulness, moments when she can close her eyes and not feel the prick of a thousand knives behind her eyelids or hear the screams of the drowned ones. The older children scrawl misery on cardboard boxes and the younger ones draw neverending circles on a square blackboard.

Osama, she whispers, Osama, and the boy looks at her. She clutches him hard against her chest and he squirms. The Afghani girl with green eyes keeps moving the red yellow green beads of an old abacus back and forth and the thin dark boy hugs his knees and rocks. She wishes she could show them some kindness, some affection, some understanding. She wishes she could speak but her sibilant whispering would scare them, so she says nothing.

She tries to imagine a future for all of them. A future that includes olives and flat bread and the smell of sea and tobacco and kind men. Outside this cage, there are real people waiting to take the thin boy and the skittish girl to their homes, to love them as their parents would have, had they survived. She will walk out of here with Sam. Look up that glaring sky and thank whoever it was who allowed her to live. Get her voice back. Find a school and wait for Sam to teach her how to read this wrong-side-of-the-page language. Never call him by the name of his father and grandfather. Osama.

 

 

Review: Veils, Halos and Shackles

 

Book Review: Charles Ades Fishman & Smita Sahay’s ‘Veils, Halos & Shackles’

The Historian’s Daughter

My publishers have just told me that The Historian’s Daughter is now featured on their website as a forthcoming title. This is tremendously exciting and is now starting to feel real. I will post updates and other book related news as it happens 🙂

I’ll be speaking about my novel at the New Norcia Writers Festival in August. Meanwhile my face is beginning to crack with the smile I haven’t been able to wipe off since this afternoon 🙂

An editorial and some stories

 

A few months ago I was invited by Cafe Dissensus to guest edit a special issue on Female Genital Mutilation in India. A topic close to my heart, for reasons that will become evident when you read the editorial here and the other stories in this issue. The extraordinary transformative power of grief in the shared narratives of over a dozen women from all walks of life and all corners of the world, stunned me. Naturally stories like these cannot be told without a backlash. The Facebook page dedicated to ending the practice of mutilating young girls has been attacked by those who perceive their control is slipping. Men and women whose only recourse seems to be heckling, post daily diatribes against the women who have taken on legal and religious establishments in India in a bid to end this horrendous practice. Australia, U.K, Canada and the U.S.A have legislation that makes this practice punishable by a jail term. India does not. And it is in India where this is clandestinely practiced on girls between the ages of 5 and 7. Worse, women who live overseas take their young girls to be cut during holidays in India. Bringing this out into the open, voicing our opposition loudly and continuing to support those who speak out seem to be the only available options at the moment.

 

Neglecting the Blog

I have been doing a bit of that lately – neglecting the blog, I mean. I’ve been immersed in submissions for two journals I’m currently editing (both, as guest editor). Then I was distracted by the fabulous Perth Writers Festival which coincided with my sister’s soul-warming visit. And finally, I’m pinching myself because I actually have a publisher for the story I’ve been living with for almost ten years; the story that became the novel that I submitted for my PhD. The year so far has been busy!

I find I’m happiest (and saddest) when immersed in the stories of women who triumph against odds. Most of my PhD research was linked to stories of survival and as I edit the special issue on Female Genital Mutilation for Cafe Dissensus, I find myself drawn back into the spirit that enables women to go on, often after everyone else has given up. But I feel angry as well, especially when I see and hear women being heckled or abused for doing what they can in order to circumvent the awful misogyny, that in Australia at least, seems to be just waiting in the wings to swoop.

At the recent Perth Writers Festival, I was privileged to attend a panel discussion with the fabulous Charlotte Wood, author of The Natural Way of Things. When the time came to ask questions of the writers, who included Helen Ellis and Guinevere Glasfurd,  a man in the audience stood up and instantly made me ashamed I was breathing the same air as him. This man told Charlotte Wood that most of the characters in her novel were “pathetic” and one of the main characters, Yolande, “was just like a man” and that’s why he liked her. Charlotte Wood maintained her grace and composure but some of the women in the audience that I spoke to afterwards wanted to howl with rage or shout him down. But we didn’t. We behaved like nice girls; ironically Wood had started the discussion by saying that she didn’t write about nice girls.

So why do women play nice when men don’t? Are we taught perfection and niceness instead of bravery and fairness? And why is our silence always construed as weakness? As I transcribe the interviews and read the testimonies of the women who have come forward to speak of female circumcision, I hope this will change. I hope our voices will be louder than the ones that shout us down. I hope we will continue to say uncomfortable things and I hope that my voice doesn’t falter the next time I need to raise it.

The books I loved in 2015

2015 was the year I submitted my PhD and the year I intended to read ‘differently.’ I wanted to step out of my comfort zone by reading writers I had never read, or had not read for a long time. For several years now, my focus, while reading fiction and memoir, has been to read Australian women, followed closely by Indian and Iranian women. I thought I should make an extra effort to read more books by men, especially men of colour. I decided to make 2015 the year of reading more of the world, particularly because I knew I would be attending the Edinburgh Writers Festival in August.

I started the year by reading four American and one Canadian writer. Teju Cole’s Open City is about a Nigerian doctor who walks the streets of Manhattan, seemingly aimlessly, and encounters his past and present lives. A meditation on identity, race and love, this is a deeply introspective and cerebral novel.

I followed this by reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. Strayed walked in far more inhospitable terrain than the streets of New York. She trekked 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail along the west coast of America, after her mother’s death from cancer. It’s honest, funny and difficult and details the casual misogyny she faces along the way.

Junot Diaz’s This is how you lose her, is a hybrid beast of a novel that reads like memoir, especially because the author/narrator, Junot/Yunior appear interchangeable and mercurial. The language and themes are often confronting but also poetic.

Finally, Toni Morrison’s Home rounded off the quartet of Americans I had decided to read. Morrison’s spare, elegant and devastating prose quietly tells the story of a black soldier returning home in 1950s America. “There was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win and, save for someone else’s quiet death, nothing to survive or worth surviving for.” Sentences like these mark the brutal emotional landscape of Morrison’s characters.

Padma Viswanathan’s novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, takes its inspiration from the real life tragedy of the Air India flight which exploded over the Irish Sea in 1985. It was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and you can read my longer review, published in Westerly.

The Edinburgh Writers Festival in August 2015 introduced me to a raft of writers, both Scottish and international and despite taking virtually empty suitcases to stuff with books, there is a limit on how many you can lug around a little island for 4 weeks. I was pleased (and guilty) that I bought 14 books, and could have bought a dozen more. Here are some of the books I bought and read.

Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Fishermen is rightly described as magnificent and remarkable. There is a strong dream-like quality to the storytelling but the story itself is grounded in tangible things like family secrets and nation building.

In Edinburgh, I listened to Val McDermid perform her stunning short story, The Road and the Miles to Dundee, from her collection, Stranded. I read, too, her re-telling of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, set during the Edinburgh Festival, a delightful and easy read. And I bought poetry, lots of it, Auden, Morgan, Burns; in Scotland it seemed impossible not to – the landscape demanded it and I obeyed.

Finally, my world literature list would not be complete without Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. A beautiful, clever, poetic, maddening book – fitting sequel to that other equally maddening Life After Life. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

Then, it was time to come home. I finished the year with 4 stunning Australian women writers. The first of these was Karen Overman-Edmiston and The Avenue of Eternal Tranquillity. A richly philosophical novel about the vagaries of chance meetings and deep love, snow-bound landscapes and heartfelt conversations, this is a reflective and gentle book, almost languorous in its unfolding tragedy and hope.

In stark contrast is Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. This novel has been described as a howl of despair and fury, and it is a fair description. I have never read anything like it and I don’t suppose I ever will. It is chilling, furious and brutal and it requires emotional strength to finish reading it. But I had no doubt whatsoever that the dystopian world these characters inhabit is real, or has the potential to be. As a woman, it was a reminder that men can and will hunt, capture and control women if they are not stopped. Read Karen’s excellent review here.

S.A Jones’s novel Isabelle of the Moon & Stars is beautifully West Australian in its evocation of how fraught our lovely city can be for a young woman battling her ‘dark place.’ I fell in love with Isabelle and Evan and was reluctant to let them out of my life and was only able to do so when another delicious book appeared – Susan Midalia’s third short story collection, Feet To The Stars. The stories in this collection glow with intelligence, humour and compassion; a different, refracted light shines on each story. The title story of the collection explores the relationship between a teacher and his student, full of insights, dark truths and hope. It’s hard to pick a favourite so I’ll pick three – Feet to the Stars, Inner Life and Because were the ones I went back to.

There were several other books I read, and not all of them were wonderful. I realised something I’ve always known, as the song goes – that I feel most at home when I read Australian (women) writers. The further I travel, the more I need to come home to them.