Tag Archives: history

The semantics of slaughter

We know that language matters. As people of colour, especially, we know language matters. Pauline Hanson’s debut speech in Parliament in 1996 sent a shiver up my spine. Words like swamp, ghetto and assimilate spun in my mind as I hugged my daughter. She was still at primary school, old enough to walk by herself, young enough to make me want to always keep her in my sight. In those tender high school years that followed I watched her Chinese friends dye their hair blonde and follow gangs of lanky white boys. I watched her nod to the common mispronouncing of her name – ‘yes, it’s Sarah, you can call me that.’ I watched her turn away every morning from the signs on the bus stop – Asians out or racial war. I watched the blonde girls she deliberately chose over the black-haired ones; the punk music she listened to, the food she disdained at home, the clothes that became briefer and clung to her developing body. I watched my daughter disguise her brownness in a white country.

Then, a deli was firebombed in our neighbourhood. Two Indian families, recent immigrants from Kenya, moved to be closer to their relatives in Melbourne. A South African tradie informed me that he could see what was coming. In a bookshop an old man sidled up to me, looked at the book I was smiling at, (The Lonely Planet Guide to India) and said I was lucky I didn’t live in that hell-hole. At a job interview, a blue-suited man looked at my CV and told me it would be better if I added a prefix to my name so people could tell if I was man or woman because my name meant nothing to him. A group of uni students said they knew Pauline was racist, but she had a point there, didn’t she. You had only to look at shop signs in Queensland. We were being over-run by Asians. She was right about that. And all these mosques. This isn’t bloody Arabia. This is Straya.

In Perth, then, I was still homesick enough to look covertly at brown people in supermarkets or public places and think of ways to start up a conversation. We lived in blindingly white communities and brown people were rare. Once I heard Gujrati being spoken in a supermarket aisle and I stalked the speaker until she turned around and smiled. ‘I heard you speak Gujrati,’ I said, and the woman grinned.

‘Yes, I’m a Parsi from Mumbai. Dadar. You?’

‘Bohri from Mumbai, Marine Lines, opposite Liberty,’ I replied, also grinning.

We exchanged telephone numbers, promises to share dhansak and biryani recipes and keep in touch. Twisting to face me in the car afterwards, my daughter asked, ‘what did you tell the lady you were, back there?’ And just like that, language became inadequate. The dozen words I had exchanged with the woman from Bombay grounded me in a way I could not explain to my child. I could not explain the layers, the context, the familiarity of sharing a language but not a religion with the woman. I could not tell her how some things only made sense in one language/country/ religion and not another. How your friends were as invested in the quest to save your soul from damnation as your elders. You could eat dhansak but not sorpotel, chutney sandwiches but not salami. When you said Isa Masih, your Catholic friends instinctively crossed themselves, but you weren’t meant to. Jesus was your Prophet too and the Catholic girls knew that. The Sikh girls knew why your Quran was elevated and covered with a cloth because theirs was too. Except theirs was called the Guru Granth Sahib. Your Hindu aunties made sure you removed your footwear before entering their kitchen and told you to sit outside while they finished their puja. Some uncles never ate anything your mum cooked and their tea was made by the Brahmin next door. But when Diwali came around you could go to their houses and eat their sweets and touch the feet of their grandmothers. Our mothers encouraged that – ma ke kadmon ke neeche jannat hai – heaven lies beneath a mother’s feet. This was a phrase that went across religious divide and heaven changed from jannat to swarg, and God was also Khuda and Ishwar and Allah and Bhagwan. Just like that, my own words, ‘Bohri from Bombay,’ unravelled me.

How was I to explain, without India? Without context? Without aunties and uncles and cousins? How could I tell her about that community, a minority within a minority, where I was raised? The austerity, the fun, the subversion, the sin of faking a menstrual cycle to avoid going to the mosque on holy days? The bearded uncles and the veiled aunties who prayed every day, not just Friday, and allowed us to play our games near them. They gave us sweets that appeared miraculously from under their robes and dupattas. They folded their prayer rugs, blessed us, cupped our faces in their hands, kissed our foreheads, shooed us away. Every day. In every childhood like mine.

I didn’t talk about religion with my daughter. She did not speak any of the languages I had grown up with and I hadn’t figured out how to be a Muslim in a country that would harm us both. Especially after 9/11. I was briefly alarmed when names like mine became familiar, gained currency in the aftermath of the Twin Towers. But it was far better to be Asian. There was safety in numbers, however small. White Australians were more interested in the India I had come from without recognising the significance of my name. And for my daughter’s sake, I decided to keep it that way. Nod and smile. Yes, of course I speak Hindoo. So glad you’ve been to Kerala. Yes, it’s very pretty. No, I’m from Central India. Yes, it’s a nice name, very common. Yes, that’s how you pronounce it. Not a Muslim. No.

When I read a book about the Bahai Faith in the mid-nineties I thought I had found my spiritual home and attempted to unravel those threads for my daughter. A Faith that spoke the language of my heart. A Faith that celebrated difference and proclaimed the earth was one country and mankind its citizens. I became evangelical in my desire to offer up my newly discovered faith to my daughter, thinking she would ‘get’ it. I started a blitz of religious education and sent her to Sunday school, summer camps, youth groups, firesides, music evenings. After two years of patient and occasionally panicked acceptance she came home one day to say – ‘so let me try to understand this. You used to be a Muslim who believed in Krishna and went to a Catholic school and loved Jesus and got married in a mosque? And now you want me to be a Bahai? Think about it mum.’

The Christchurch massacre brought my carefully constructed secret identity crashing down. I looked at the pictures of Haji al-Nabi and little Mucad, young Sayyad and sweet Husna, and brave Naeem and helpful Mohsen. I read about the Afghan grandfather who welcomed the killer before he was shot. I read about Pakistani engineers and Indian newlyweds and the doctors, social workers, restaurant owners, farmers, students and children killed because they were Muslim. There was no other reason. They could have been the uncles and aunties and sisters and brothers and grannies and grandfathers of my childhood. Those who disciplined, loved, cautioned, blessed and gave me this life I have carried and tried to live without being noticed. The ones who gave me their version of Islam – the religion of peace. The ones who wiped my tears when my tongue refused to twist around anything harder than bismillah ur rehman ur raheem and whispered, ‘Arabic is difficult, don’t worry, we all struggled.’ The ones who showed me how to tuck my odhni around my head so it didn’t slip off when I went into sujood – the same position many in Al-Noor mosque were when they died. I remembered my grandmother’s blue masallah and cried.

In the aftermath of the Christchurch killings, the language that led to slaughter, continues unabated. From white supremacist politicians who get egged to comment threads on friends’ timelines which indicate that ‘ghettos’ are real, ‘assimilation’ is desirable, and ‘Muslim immigration’ must be curtailed. While a grieving Prime Minister across the Tasman shows compassion and resolve, ours talks of tribalism and promises to crank up security around places of worship, while cutting back immigration to ease the congestion on our freeways. There is no acceptance of responsibility – white Australia sanctioned the genocide of its indigenous population, then built this country on that violent narrative of dispossession. Every generation of migrants and Aboriginal people have been vilified in this country. Talk to any deman, nonna, yaya, yadah, ba ngoai, zu mu, mader bozorg, dadima, nanima – and she’ll tell you. The semantics of this slaughter have their origins in our nation’s inability to accept its bloodshed and prevent it from staining the white sands of our modern cities. We can continue to quibble about freedom of speech or we can call people murderous fascists. But we cannot turn the other cheek. We cannot label one a terrorist and another a lone gunman. We cannot ask one to condemn and another to forgive the same crime. It has always been possible in this country to kill people who are inconvenient. If there’s a way forward, we should begin by accepting that.

https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/the-historians-daughter

 

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Gardens of Earthly Delights

On an exceptionally kind February afternoon in Perth yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking to Annamaria Weldon and Moreno Giovannoni about goddesses and fireflies. The late great Mary Oliver wrote this: ‘creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration without interruption. It needs the whole sky to fly in.’ Both Annamaria and Moreno spoke of the physical and metaphorical flights they undertook for each of their works. Both writers are clear-eyed in their depiction of their homelands, Malta and Tuscany. For Annamaria, Malta is ‘a slight blemish on the sea’s glaze’ and for Moreno, the men of San Ginese are ‘trees that had half their roots hacked off.’ These compelling poems and stories are the source of two of the books that gave me most pleasure this year. Stone Mother Tongue is published by UWA Publishing and is available for purchase all weekend at the Writers Festival.  The Fireflies of Autumn and other tales of San Ginese is published by Black Inc Books and is also available at the Festival Bookshop in Perth.

I’m off now to immerse myself in the rest of this weekend’s bookish experience.

PWF 2019

Photo credit: Annamaria Weldon and Dennis Haskell

The Book Pile – 2018

Globally and personally 2018 was a difficult year, so I built a wall of books and retreated. Here are some of the books I read, and some that I abandoned. This year I managed to get the balance between Australian and international books right, I think.

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Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But The Mountains is lament and testimony, poetry and philosophy, reportage and heartbreak, sternly observed. The Australian government’s inhuman policy of incarcerating asylum seekers in Manus island and Nauru has resulted in this – such a tough read that I broke down several times and picked myself up and read some more. Simultaneously ashamed to be Australian and grateful for the gift of this book, I hope to be able to shake Behrouz’s hand one day when he is a free man.

Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip is brilliant. I loved the satirical, fast-talking, flawed and funny Kerry Salter (‘skinniest dark girl on a shiny new softail’) whose return to her hometown on a stolen Harley is bound to cause some strife. The cast of characters include talking crows and spooky lakes and people who endure, despite dispossession, abuse and colonisation.

Alice Nelson’s The Children’s House drew me into the power of language and story so quickly that I gave myself over to this tale of dispossession of another kind, completely. Never losing sight of white privilege, Alice Nelson tells the story of a Rwandan refugee’s mute struggles in New York, and a wealthy Jewish couple’s attempts to recover their own histories as they try to be everything to everyone.

Amanda Curtin’s beautifully reconstructed life of artist Kate O’Connor is that rare thing – the life of an artist rendered in language so visual and visceral, I was able to ‘see’ that life unfold as I read. Kathleen O’Connor of Paris introduced me to the famous daughter of an iconic West Australian (C.Y.O’Connor), about whom I knew very little. But more than that, it reminded me that intuition, chance, conversations, friendship and loss may choose the people and places we write about.

2018 was also the year where friends bought and recommended books to me which resulted in a different sort of reading. Han Kang’s The White Book is extraordinary and defies description and I loved it. Kanishk Tharoor’s book of short stories, Swimmer Among the Stars is lyrical, acutely observed and sumptuous. I have written reviews of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and The Blind Man’s Garden here.

And finally there were books I picked up because I had read other books by these writers, or read reviews and loved them. Sadly, none of these lived up to their earlier promise. I abandoned them after 50 pages.

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And here are the books I will read in January, in preparation for the Perth Writers Festival 2019.

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It was such a joy to read the debut novels of Michelle Johnston, Louise Allan and Susan Midalia, and Julie Watts’ award winning book of poetry, Legacy. The West Australian publishing industry is thriving and I’m so glad.

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

 

 

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/

 

The Persian Book Club

One of the unexpected joys of publishing a book is that I am sometimes invited by book clubs to speak about my novel. This can be slightly nerve racking because book clubs have savvy readers who are not afraid to read critically and question assumptions. This morning it was my absolute delight to spend time with a group of readers who all belonged to one nationality, and while they don’t call themselves that, they are the Persian Book Club. We met at the delightful Bodhi Tree Cafe and Bookshop. My novel The Historian’s Daughter is a story with a connection to Iran, especially post revolutionary Iran. I was excited and nervous when invited to speak with this group of readers. I needn’t have worried. They were an amazing, erudite, honest and discerning group. It was gratifying that they had read and identified with my novel. As a writer, ‘writing other worlds’ can be fraught, especially when the lines between cultural exchange and appropriation are blurred. Our conversation ranged over topics as varied as Tehran’s propensity to attract dust, Eastern hospitality, and the writer’s insistence on leaving words from Farsi and Urdu untranslated. The morning ended with the group extending an invitation to me to visit Iran, and I hope I am able to go, some day, preferably with one of the group as guide. I have a feeling it will be not unlike ‘going home’ as I am steeped in this country’s history, folklore, sights, films, literature and have an affinity with the people that feels like a cellular memory. Thank you to all the members of the club. I look forward to visiting again.

Literary Friendships #1

A little while ago I started thinking of literary friendships between women, and I turned naturally enough, to Professor Google. Despite trying the words in different combinations, the Professor thought I was enquiring about Elena Ferrante and the Neapolitan novels, which celebrate female friendship. I persisted and found a few blogs and articles that explored the power of literary friendships between women. I read that Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield were friends even though Mansfield’s friendship with D.H. Lawrence is more widely acknowledged. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton shared troubled love, poetry and tragic deaths while Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell were reportedly fond of each other despite the severe reclusiveness of the Bronte sisters, who, I imagine, supported each others’ attempts at writing. I wondered what my women friends thought about literary friendships and how these help the solitary profession we call writing.  Here, then, is the first writing duo, Liana Joy Christensen and Karen McCrea, who are not only good friends but in whose company I sometimes write too. Their responses are delightful and insightful. Enjoy.

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

 Liana: We met in the mid-90s at a meeting held at Murdoch University for student support staff.  Karen was with the Counselling Service and I was an Academic Skills Advisor. My first impression was that she was a stunningly beautiful person from a very privileged background. I found her a bit daunting, in fact. The truth of the first observation is self-evident; but I was very wrong about the second. Before too long we developed some highly successful courses together and found a deep compatibility in our team teaching.

 Karen: Ah yes – we met a thousand years ago in a former lifetime. My overriding recollection of meeting Liana was relief – at last, here was a person who could get things done, was easy to be around and who had the capacity to think outside the institutional bunkers we happened to be allocated to – and as well as relief, there was quite a bit of delight. Working together never felt much like work, more like fun, a dance, and we worked so well together we wanted to keep on doing it, and have in different ways and in different mediums. That impression of privilege and daunting-ness was such a good con – the advantage of an accent and a long nose – that covered up a huge deficit in self-confidence in anything but the work itself. I could relax in Liana’s warm and kindly ambit, and then we started cracking jokes.

 Liana: In short order we found that we were that rare combination of two people who can team teach really well. Our skill sets were complementary; we can both think on our feet; and we are skilled at sharing power. I’m really proud of the work we did together in those early years. I know many students benefitted  . . . and so did we. We gained a lifelong friendship that has allowed us to explore many creative endeavours.

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

 Liana: At the time we first formed a friendship, I was only writing part-time, and Karen not at all, other than professional writing.  Fast forward a few years, and I was ready to begin making the commitment to full time writing. As part of this process, I did the Artist’s Way’s course with Karen, and her husband Michael, a songwriter. Within an extremely short time, Karen began penning a marvellous novel, with the title Rosalie’s House, which instantly captured our imaginations. (I’m still waiting for that book!)

 Karen: That’s right – I left the university to take up full-time private practice and spent a few years developing that. Then Liana came up with the idea of doing The Artist’s Way together, and I thought why not? Besides, if I did it, then Michael definitely would too and I thought it might be fun. So we three did it, my friend the writer, my husband the songwriter, and me, the imposter. I had no idea what creative medium to pick up, but words seemed the obvious one, so I started with them. And discovered an essential bit of myself I’d never paid the slightest heed to, but which now would not be ignored. Talk about starting a riot! It set in motion an internal process that has actually changed my life completely.  In terms of writing together, we’ve done a few different things – writing in cafes, writing with others, taking classes together, particularly the very marvellous Writers Passage with the very marvellous Horst Kornberger. Then, I moved to Victoria in 2014. Now we have writing dates and the occasional writing marathon via Skype – as many days as time differences and schedules allow, which varies, but is a consistent and important part of each of our writing practices.

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?

 Karen: We have been each others cheer team, grammar police (for me, Liana doesn’t need it), critique master, well-filler, spirit nurse, and often we just work together and fly off to the next needful thing in the day. We also have been each other’s first readers and first commentators on works in progress; we trust each other very deeply, so it’s ok to share the embryonic, wonky, nascent stuff as well as the more fully realised work – and that’s a precious, precious thing. If Liana should tell me something needs more thinking through or more work of whatever kind, then I would believe her. And ask why, and she would tell me – I can agree or disagree and both responses are ok. Very often we are a vital source of singing each other’s songs when we have forgotten the words, to paraphrase Arne Garnberg’s lovey quote, and that is also a precious part of working together.

Liana: Yes, everything that Karen says rings true for me. For the most part we are simply silent companions pursuing our own work in amiable solitude. Occasionally, during the process we may share a little or ask for specific feedback or assistance. It’s a particularly useful process for long-haul projects such as novels where the aim is simply to keep working until you produce a draft.

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?

 Karen: Well, writing together doesn’t really work like that for either of us, I think. I write my stuff, Liana hers, and Liana may hear or read mine, and I will take her responses into consideration, but the writing itself is its own fulsome, hairy, hot-breathed beast. When it’s not being a delicate, tender little blossom, that is. The gaze of another person does not change that.  However, having said that, Liana and I have come to this place of freedom after years of writing together and developing our own, particular-to-us modus operandi within which we both feel deeply heard and respected, leaving us free to be our absolute writerly selves – that bit is essential and comes first.

Liana: It’s certainly a possibility in theory. However, our writing is quite different and remains quite distinctly so despite the close process of writing together. I suspect that high levels of trust allow us both the freedom to be fully ourselves in our writing, which, in turn, leads us to grow stranger and more individual fruit in our gardens. It may be that in a less secure dyad convergence or conformity might result in the writing being unduly influenced by the other.

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?

Liana: Seeking feedback is a secondary part of the process for me. Even without that aspect, the benefits of being writing companions are immense. Having said that, though, there are times we have been able to offer each other sustained feedback on completed drafts, which can be really useful. I feel we have a definite advantage in this process, as we both have high levels of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills – as well as the benefits of well–established communication to help us navigate any tricky or sensitive areas. We are also sensible in outlying what kind of feedback would be helpful at a particular stage.  Before any creative work is exposed to the rough and tumble of the outer world, it’s lovely to be able to share it in a delicate, newborn state with someone who has been there through the labour pains, and stands in relation to the work as a caring sister or aunt.

 Karen: What she said! We have built enough trust into our relationship that should anything need to be said we think the other person might find difficult to hear, we can do it in the safety and containment of that understanding. We are both sensitive to the other and we are both pretty resilient. We know where each other’s tender spots are, and know not to tromp in there with our Big Critic boots on. Not that we would anyway!

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?

Karen: There are two questions in that – first, writers groups. Writers groups are a bit of a crap shoot I think, depending on how they get formed, who forms them, what for, and who ends up in them. I’ve been lucky – I’ve been in very small writers groups – with Liana – and now in Victoria I’m in two fairly big writers groups. It depends so very heavily on who is in the group – even in the bigger group I’m lucky; the writers are all lovely people and serious writers. We took some time to work out how we wanted to use the group and how we would actually attend to the work given we consist of very different writers that cover the whole gamut – novelists, short story writers, screenplay writers, children writers, YA, poets and a playwright. Broadly speaking, we send work out by email to critique by a certain date and then bring those critiques to the next meeting. The upside is getting a lot of feedback, and if everyone loves or hates a particular thing you know how you’re going with it. The challenge (I have learned) is to not send stuff out too early, because opinions can be so diverse (everyone loving or hating the same thing is pretty rare) it ends up killing off your little bud of an idea. Conversely, I’ve had the group really encourage me to develop a story that I might otherwise have dismissed too soon. And, the company of fellow writers is worth its weight in gold in what can be a terribly isolating endeavour. That’s important to me in and of itself.

The second question – what makes our literary friendship work – gives me pause, since I haven’t really considered that question until now. Off the top of my head, I think it works for a few reasons; we like a lot of the same books and ideas, certainly enough to share a literary universe, but also enough different things that we aren’t just clones of each other; we understand the demands and delights of creative living in many dimensions; we have similar values about what’s important both in the literary sense and in general life, and we both have a bit of grit in us that keeps us going despite lack of fame or fortune! We have some things in common in terms of what made us who we are as most friends do, and we have history. We’re important to each other and we know it. That, I think is as good as it gets!

 Liana: I believe it’s an individual matter whether writers groups are useful. They certainly can be, but you have to find one with aims and methods that are productive and safe for you. Less is more, for me personally. I have great enrichment from a couple of writing groups I belong to which encourage the members to live a writing life, provide a forum for sharing work, and just a very occasional opportunity for critique. That’s the balance I find works best for me. (I am wary of writing poetry-by-committee, and acutely aware of the damaging effects of feedback that is too much, too diverse, and too early). I would much prefer to work with just a few people, whose work and views I regard highly.

As to the second question Karen teased out above, I cannot add anything but wholehearted agreement to her answer.

Can you give us a brief description of your current writing project? Also a brief bio, along with links to blogs, writings, website or anything you find interesting, really!

Karen: My current project is a novel; actually my fourth attempt. The first three are learner novels and each is parked with its nose against the back of a cyber-drawer, awaiting surgery and resuscitation. Each one, however, has taught me something about writing, and given I knew absolutely nothing about it when I boldly set fingers to keyboard that first time, that is a very good thing. I’ve completed a first draft and now that I see what it’s actually about, I’m rewriting, and contemplating the virtues of plotting before pantsing. I have a relatively new discipline of logging my reading on Goodreads, and I do have a reading blog created specifically for the Australian Women Writers Challenge where I review books written by Australian women. I had no idea how many fantastic women writers there are in Australia until I stumbled over this challenge and went looking for them. I called this blog Karen Has Things To Say (https://khtts.wordpress.com) — after thirty odd years of listening to people in the role of Clinical Psychologist, it was time for me to spout forth, hence the name. Now I wish I’d given it a something a whole lot shorter!

LianaI am beginning a novel called Passing Strange. It is the second in a series of YA speculative novels with the collective title of The Cantor Quartet. My agent Clive Newman is currently seeking publication for the first of these novels, The Seeds of Revolution. Some of my very eclectic writing pursuits can be found at http://www.lianajoychristensen.com/, including an extremely intermittent blog.

Any closing comments?

 Liana: My friendship with Karen, both literary and otherwise, is based on immense reservoirs of mutual respect, affection and trust. I consider it to be one of the great blessings of my life.

Karen: I can’t say it any better than that!