Tag Archives: UWA Publishing

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

 

 

Advertisements

Her Story

sa1

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.

sa3   sa2

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

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

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

looking up/looking down

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

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

Here is the book’s blurb…

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

View original post 865 more words

The Historian’s Daughter

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

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

The books I loved in 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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