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Strands of Jupiter

Our resident astrologer was a strict vegetarian Hindu who wore his caste marks on his forehead. With stained fingers he spread out charts and filled the room with the smell of ink and cigarette smoke. His hands were papery; his breath a sigh, and his stooped hunch suggested a lifetime of poring over the lifelines of the rich and entitled.

Why and how he appeared on our doorstep, I have no idea. We weren’t his usual clients. For a start we had no money, or that’s what our father told us anyhow. And Dad wasn’t about to part with the little he had to find out if his sons were going to America or if his daughters were marrying rich men next year, which appeared to be what the astrologer promised. I knew this because Sujata’s parents, unlike ours, had money. They had been told that Sujata would marry a rich boy with an MBA from Harvard and have several boy children before she was thirty. Sujata’s parents placed a large sum of money into the astrologer’s open hands and praised his talents to all who cared to listen.

Maybe that’s why he was at our place. From the outside, we looked entitled. We had a large home, a couple of servants, a garden where we grew sugarcane and we went to private schools. But Dad said we were living on borrowed money. Borrowed from uncles and grandfathers and cousins who lived in Africa. The sugarcane was supposed to make us enough money to pay back the rich cousins in Africa. Mum said it was another of Dad’s grandiose schemes. It would come to nothing and we would all be tossed on the street when the cousins returned.

The astrologer disagreed. He knew he could change our fortunes. He sat cross-legged on the floor, resting his head briefly against the wall behind him. He drew lines across constellations and explained the power of the stars over our puny lives. His fingers were blue and yellow and his palms wrinkled and brown. Occasionally he looked hunted and we felt sorry for him, squinting at dusty books and charts and reading the futures of an ever-increasing number of people.

We stared, us kids, our mouths open at first then giggling behind our hands. Mum warned us with her eyes as he told us about Aquarius and Saturn and the moons in Venus and how we could, if we were clever, channel the power of those heavenly bodies before they harmed us. Because harm us, they would. Unless we diverted the wrath of the planetary gods away from us by choosing the right gemstones. Sapphire, diamond, cats-eye, topaz, ruby. He knew a gemstone dealer who could help. We must allow him to help us. Mum asked where the money for diamonds would come from. He ignored her and focussed his fierce eyes on Dad. He could see fortune, he told Dad; a home filled with happy, singing children, more money than we needed and certainly more than enough to place on his upturned palm after what he’d just told us. Mum said all that would be placed on his palm was a cup of tea. Dad laughed and said he could come back when everything he’d predicted came true.

The astrologer looked unhappy but bowed his head. When he coughed the air filled with rustling and thunder, and as he walked out we thought we saw planets revolving in the space above his head.

He came back, day after day, sitting stooped and cross-legged in the same position for hours, drawing, writing, sketching, and occasionally asking us questions. He seemed not to like us much. Occasionally I saw him frown terribly and mutter to himself. Intricate charts, however, emerged – Dad and the boys first of course. Dad’s fortunes were especially luminous; all the planets had kindly aligned at the hour of his birth to ensure an extremely long and prosperous life. He didn’t need the enhancement of jewels. Sustained, regular donations of money to charity were recommended instead. Mum said homeless astrologers were considered charity cases, and wasn’t that a nice coincidence.

Our brothers and cousins were next. Saturn and Pluto and Jupiter were explained over several cups of tea and samosas. Jewels were discussed. Topaz, amber, cats-eye, perhaps a yellow diamond for one of my brothers. To be worn on the index finger of the left hand. The oldest cousin could wear a diamond but sapphires were not recommended. Apart from Dad, it appeared all of us were in need of shiny interventions.  Jewels that would augment the pathetic lives we were destined to lead because Saturn was in the ninth house and Mercury was rising and Jupiter ascending.

When he started doing my chart, it was on Mum’s insistence. ‘Why can’t the girls also have their fortune told,’ she said crossly. ‘It’s not like they aren’t people too.’ The astrologer resisted, trying to explain how my chart, like my stick-legged body, was still developing. Mum looked at him and he huffed and shuffled and said he would do his best.

He frowned as he wrote down the exact time of my birth, muttered and coughed as he calculated, shook his head to clear a blockage and finally stood up and walked out of the house. I had been watching him all day and ran to Mum and told her I was going to die.

‘Don’t be so silly’ she said.

‘What else does it mean?’ I wept. ‘He was doing my chart. I will die.’

‘Oh yes, you’re going to die,’ my sister said. ‘Because if you don’t stop blubbering, I’ll kill you.’

‘Stop this nonsense, both of you.’

He came back a week later and summoned the family to his side. My sister put her arm around me and looked worried.

‘I have bad news,’ the astrologer said. ‘But it could be worse. It could have been one of the boys. However, it is the girl.’

‘How dare you,’ Mum said, pulling me away from my sister and putting her own arm around my shoulders. ‘I’ve had enough of your rubbish. You are no longer welcome in this house.’

The astrologer looked at Dad. ‘The girl is a mangli. Tuesday born. Under the influence of Saturn. No one can outrun a planetary influence like that. But here’s the curious thing. I see a long life-line. So she will live. However, she must never marry. She will, umm, bring bad luck to the husband. Possibly death. I’m sorry. She’s your responsibility for life, because if you give her to another family, you will be cursed. However, a sapphire will help ease that burden. Yes. You must get a sapphire ring at once.’

‘Is that all?’ I grinned and hugged Mum. ‘I wasn’t ever going to marry anyway. Boys are so silly. Sister Mary Ascension says they are full of sin.’

‘You’re such a freak,’ my sister pulled my hair and tapped my head before linking arms with me and dragging me out of the quiet room.

Our parents and brothers became more remote and less willing to mediate the fights I had with my sister when we were finally teenagers together. She fell in love with a sinful boy and married him and Mum watched me carefully for signs I might want to do the same one day.

‘It’s fine, Mum, don’t worry,’ I said to her at least once a day until she died. ‘I have no desire to be a husband killer.’

And in my thirtieth year, as we watched the sun set over the Indian Ocean from the balcony of my house in Perth, my sister said casually, ‘he killed himself, you know.’

‘Who?’

‘The astrologer who told you you’d be a spinster all your life, that’s who.’

‘What?’

‘Yes, shot himself. Very messy. One of the cousins found out about it and told mum.’ My sister spoke slowly, her eyes distant, cup of tea forgotten.

‘Why?’

‘Nowadays we would recognise it as depression. Remember the signs? Didn’t want to be around people, for a man whose profession put him in direct contact with people …’

‘How long have you known? And why have you waited till now to tell me this?’

‘Mum told me before she died. Besides, none of the other stuff he said came true anyway. Except for you.’ She reached out and tapped the sapphire ring on my left hand as we thought about moons in Jupiter and suns in Saturn and the unfortunately short lives of both my husbands.

First published in the Newcastle Short Story Award Anthology 2018

 

 

 

 

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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/

 

Books on Shelves

When a friend sent me a photo of my novel on her shelf, my preoccupation with books and how they appear on shelves, inspired me to find pictures of The Historian’s Daughter on various shelves, in bookshops, libraries and homes. Those who know me understand my idiosyncratic shelving of my books – I sort by gender and country in the first instance and may occasionally swap around to accommodate writers who no longer live in the country of their origin. I situate myself on the Australian Women Writers shelf, although I could equally live alongside Indian Women Writers. This system confuses any reader who looks at my shelves, but it works for me. Clearly my friend has a system that works for her – there are men and women, mostly Australian, in this mix. I just know that to be sharing a shelf with Amanda Curtin, Hannah Kent, Josephine Wilson and Khaled Hosseini among others, works for me 🙂

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When I was invited last year to launch my novel in Melbourne at the Eltham Book Shop, I was gobsmacked to be sharing a shelf with Arundhati Roy, whose second novel was surely the most anticipated book in recent times. The bookshop itself is amazing and I could have lived there, happily and secretly, because there are so many shelves to hide behind and enough books to last me this lifetime and more.

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And here’s this picture. I was at the Perth City Library and found myself under Modern Fiction. In my travels as a sneaky author hoping to take pictures of her novel in the wilderness, I have found a reciprocal idiosyncrasy in the way librarians and bookstore owners categorise my novel.

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And this final picture is from the 2017 Perth Writers Festival, where, for the first time I saw multiple copies of my novel snuggling up against others. I look forward to this year’s festival, where I’ll be speaking with writers Fiona Harari, Leigh Straw and Fiona Palmer about their new books.

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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 #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

 

 

 

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!

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.