Tag Archives: Australia

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

 

 

 

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Brown girls who shout

Whereas we write and speak as members of a small minority of marginal voices, our journalistic and academic critics belong to a wealthy system of interlocking informational and academic resources with newspapers, television networks, journals of opinion, and institutes at its disposal. Most of them have now taken up a strident chorus of rightward-tending damnation, in which they separate what is non-white, non-Western, and non-Judeo-Christian from the acceptable and designated Western ethos, then herd it all together under various demeaning rubrics such as terrorist, marginal, second-rate, or unimportant. To attack what is contained in these categories is to defend the Western spirit.

Since Edward Said wrote these words in 1993, I can’t say much has changed. Recent events in Australia, as well as globally, in the past few weeks, have sent me scurrying to my boxes of books and tearing them open with the distress of one who usually retreats to literature when confronted, challenged, heartbroken.

Last week, the ABC program, Q&A made headlines as viewers were subjected to the spectre of Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie shouting the oft repeated refrains – ban the burka; deport Muslims; halt immigration. Lambie’s website explains that she puts Tasmania first, advocates the banning of the burka and thinks that Sharia law is an anti democratic cancer. When fellow panellist and Muslim writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied attempted to explain Sharia to the Senator, voices were raised, fingers were pointed and insults were hurled. The so-called moderator of the program interrupted Abdul-Magied when she raised her voice and she backed down. Later, those journals of opinion erupted in a frenzy against Abdel-Magied; the mildest, accusing her of being an apologist for Islam, going on tax payers funded holidays to extremist societies, and the vilest, calling her names that brought to mind the campaign against former Prime Minster Julia Gillard. Abdel-Magied’s sin, in part, appears to have been that she raised her voice in an attempt to be heard. Senator Lambie’s finger pointing and yelling appeared to gain her more support (Go Jacquie) in those bastions of public opinion whereas Abdel-Magied’s defence of her way of life inspired vitriol and a recommendation she be deported. Brown girls must not shout.

Not long ago a similar incident involving Jamila Rizvi and Steve Price on The Project also divided viewers. Rizvi, another brown girl, asked Steve Price to keep quiet because she was talking and refused to let him interrupt her. Well. A Change.org petition demanded an instant apology from Rizvi on behalf of the scowling, misogynistic Price who pronounced himself ‘humbled’ by the support. He also appeared to think that Rizvi’s shouting was unacceptable, but did not see any contradiction in attempting to interrupt her or speak over her to get his point across. A point worth noting here is that The Project’s co-host is Waleed Aly, also a Muslim, whose behaviour is scrutinised closely and whose every utterance is pounced upon. But Ali, because of his gender, star power and intelligence, is allowed to get away with occasional ‘misdemeanours’ as perceived by his white audience. Brown girls, however, cannot. We need to keep our heads down and our voices low. We must be nice. The sub-text appears to be – we understand that your origins, race and religion condemn you and make you inadequate but we are willing to help you if you’re nice. If you’re not nice, we’ll get upset and point out all the things that are wrong with having people like you in our country.

This is the message I hear when I emerge from my self-imposed burial in the books I turn to when I’m upset. As a brown Australian it’s hard to stay apolitical when the country slides publicly into bigotry, as this report indicates. It’s hard to stay positive when the people in my city greet Pauline Hanson enthusiastically. It’s hard to stay buoyant when men in suits order the destruction of Aboriginal and environmental sacred sites and ignore their humanitarian obligations.

But brown girls mustn’t shout. That’s important. And here’s the thing. Brown girls know they mustn’t shout. We were raised to keep our voices and eyes lowered. We were raised by patriarchs in societies emasculated by colonialism. When we left our brown shores for these white sands we already knew how to behave. Despite centuries of conditioning, we raise our voices. Think of the cost. The shame of our mothers. Why do we do it?

In the words of the magnificent Sarah Kay;

You keep your scissors in the knife drawer

I keep mine with the string and tape.

We both know how to hide our sharpest parts,

I just don’t always recognise my own weaponry.

Her Story

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I first met Shokoofeh Azar in Fremantle about 3 years ago after reading a story she had published in the Westerly. Within 5 minutes we were chatting as if we had shared a childhood and memories we both knew we hadn’t. At one stage we cried. She said she loved India and I said I was writing a novel in which Iran featured. Connections like this are rare and when they happen I need to ask why. Which is why, when I met Shokoofeh again in Fremantle, 3 years after that first meeting, I asked for permission to tell her story.

Shokoofeh Azar is an Iranian born writer and artist. She arrived in Australia 6 years ago on a boat – and says that is the thing Australians find most interesting about her. As if surviving a boat journey defines a person for life. It is a loaded existence, charged with a larger-than-life meaning that she does not own. How I got here is not what I’m about, she says. I have stories I want to tell. I paint. I’m a mother. None of what she’s about has anything to do with how she came to be living in Perth.

She is a writer of fabulous magic realist tales and a talented artist. I know the power of her stories because that is what led me to her. In my humble stalker fashion, I tracked her down, sent her an email and asked to meet her. At the time I was writing my own novel of intersecting histories and wanted (desperately) to connect with an Iranian writer who could be a sounding board.

And in that first meeting, I tell her what I’m trying to do. She nods and tells me about travelling the Silk Road on the back of a truck. I speak of the lost boy from Abadan I knew when I was a girl. She likes Delhi, she says, with a look in her eyes that situates her there in an instant. I tell her of my desire to visit Tehran. She provides a cautionary tale about trees and blind men and women standing by street corners, but it is not a description – it is a fable. And the conversation continues in this fashion with neither of us questioning its intent. I leave with a sense of purpose and work on my novel with joy. She, meanwhile, discovers another way to tell her stories – she paints and sculpts and potters. The mythical birds and beasts she writes about are translated into paintings and bas-reliefs and visions of beauty.

When I next speak to Shokoofeh in the shadow of the asylum in Fremantle, a weak sun slants over the rooftops, and I am reminded of stories my grandmother told me. Shokoofeh’s language is steeped in the lore and myth of ‘other’ places.  Her first language is Farsi; it sounds magical and lyrical to my untrained ears. When she speaks English she is translating ideas, thoughts and words that come to her from the language of Rumi and Firdaus, but also Marquez and Kundera. She reads copiously, in Farsi, and writes like a woman possessed, also in Farsi. Her first novel (The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree) is complete and waits for a publisher. She thinks it will be hard to find a publisher because it is not a story about surviving as a refugee; rather it is about surviving as a person, a political, magical, fabulous person. Her current project is about love, she says. She mentions Gilgamesh and Romeo, Shireen and Shakuntala and I remember again that this is how conversations used to happen in India, before I became Australian. Our myths breathe again, our stories resurface and our belongings straddle the cultural divide in the most unexpected conversations.

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Shokoofeh’s literary page is here and this is her artist page.

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.