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Bearing Witness

Google describes bearing witness as a term that refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. This term has been on my mind most of this year as I grapple with the hashtags of empathy and wondering why I had no desire to add #metoo to my status on Facebook. Maybe I just don’t believe in the existence of a global sisterhood. Maybe I don’t believe in the implied solidarity of a universal womanhood in need of rescue.  More specifically I question the efficacy of a white sisterhood with its awareness of intersectionality and its commitment to being my ally. But that, as they say, is another blog post.

It is the publicity given to Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger and their co-authored book, South of Forgiveness, that I wish to mostly focus on in this piece. Icelandic Elva was raped by the Australian Stranger as a teen and started up a correspondence with him which resulted in the pair getting together to talk and write about their experiences because, apparently, women bearing witness isn’t enough. When a man points out that remorse is possible and rape is wrong, it is suddenly a game changer in the narrative. Stranger raped an unconscious Elva for two hours. Now he appears on TED talks discussing his ‘repentance’ while Elva speaks of her need to establish contact with her violator as a means towards acceptance and healing.

Online forums hummed with dissent over this particular book for a while. Discussions polarised women; some advised strident feminists to listen instead of indulging in binaries and tired arguments about safe, sacred spaces. In one such forum, a woman made this extraordinary statement to another – ‘lynchings get us nowhere.’ The commenter appeared unaware of the charged racial connotations of the word despite having it pointed out to her several times. She also saw no irony in making that comment to a brown woman, offering up an apology of sorts a few comments later; acknowledging that words can be ‘funny’ sometimes and that a ‘fear of trampling’ over people’s feelings may prevent women from speaking out. It was hard to see the apology in that comment so I concluded that none was intended, and the word ‘lynching’ hung in the discussion like the proverbial post upon which the act was carried out in America. The concept of intersectionality came up often in the discussion as well, as a plea for understanding the perpetrator instead of condemning him. I prefer Kimberle Crenshaw’s take on intersectionality, where she advises bearing witness to the reality of multiple forms of exclusion. Such as the exclusion practiced in this particular forum when language was used specifically to disempower rather than authorise.

There are, however, other books written by women that put forward several passionate and reasoned arguments that may help change the narrative. One such book is Feeling the Fleshed Body by Brenda Downing. Downing uses somatic enquiry, lyrical prose and performance making responses to the trauma of rape. ‘Once touched, the body cannot be untouched,’ she says quietly at the start of her erudite and wide-ranging work on the body’s subversive capacity to express trauma through symptoms that are not always readily understood.

Feeling the Fleshed Body proposes that trauma significantly reduces the body’s capacity to be compassionate to itself, and that unacknowledged grief causes a fracturing of the mind and body that needs to be restored before acceptance and healing can begin. Downing refers to her ‘raped and censured body’ as crucial in finding the imperative for embodied forms of post-traumatic expression. ‘The struggle to speak and be heard’ is at the forefront of this enquiry into the aftermath of rape. The emphasis on ‘the feminine language of our bodies’ positions this work beside neuroscientific, philosophical and therapeutic contexts to argue that a separation of mind and body (inevitable when rape occurs) must be acknowledged before change can happen. As I read first hand accounts of the women Downing interviewed for her thesis, it is harder to accept that bearing witness must include a male perspective, as posited by Elva and her supporters. This is because women often relate their experiences of ‘not being heard’ by (male) health professionals, partners or parents.  They speak about feeling claustrophobic, disconnected, discounted and unheard. They report that they struggle with lifelong issues of trust and safety.

‘But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognise the humanity of those who commit it?’ asks Elva. Really? Tom Stranger discounted the humanity of Thordis Elva when he raped her. He was a guest in her country and her home. He violated the expectations of her parents who thought he would look after her. He left her and went on with his life of privilege, education, employment and family, while hers fell apart. He did nothing to find out how she coped. She contacted him. And gave him a forum, a stage, a book deal. He accepts being labeled a ‘rapist.’ Should we applaud this enormous concession made by a man who raped a woman?

Clementine Ford speaks about the ‘mechanics of internalised misogyny’ in her excellent book, Fight Like A Girl. She says that women who dare to name and shame and call out patriarchy when they see it, are set upon by their own as well as men. She points out that she ‘doesn’t position men and their feelings front and centre.’ And this is an important point, which appears to be missing in the race to acknowledge Elva as ‘brave’ and her abuser as ‘perceptive.’ By positioning the feelings of a man at the centre of a narrative of rape, we discount the humanity of women like Ford who are routinely threatened and abused online by men for her activism and candour.

When women like Elva tell us their story, duly authenticated by a man, they push back the conversations Ford and Downing have made possible. Thordis Elva simply perpetuates the myth that a man’s acknowledgement of his crime will change the narrative of violence. Elva is entitled to her delusions but it is crucial to remember that the reality is far more dangerous. South of Forgiveness is not a game-changer. A 2014 news report revealed that one in six Australian women experienced sexual assault, making sexual crime in Australia, the third highest in the world. A man shoots his wife in front of her 4 children. Media reports indicate that he was a ‘nice’ man and this was ‘out of character.’ Ford suggests that society always finds ways to explain violence against women as an aberration, as a glitch on the radar, as the sudden breakdown of an otherwise ‘good bloke.’ Which is why reading Elva and Stranger’s story of redemption cannot be the only story. Humanising, normalising and validating a rapist because he happens to be educated and good-looking and remorseful, does us no favours. We need to continue to have nuanced discussions that truly bear witness.

Works cited:

Crenshaw, K. (2016) The urgency of intersectionality https://www.ted.com/taks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/ TED Woman October 2016

Downing, B. (2016). Feeling the Fleshed Body. Berlin: Peter Lang

Elva, T. & Stranger, T. (2016) South of Forgiveness.  Melbourne: Scribe https://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconiliation/ TED Talks February 2017

Ford, C. (2016). Fight Like a Girl.  Australia: Allen & Unwin

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Books I loved in 2017

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I started the year as I always do, with a selection of books by Australian writers, this time because I was fortunate enough to be on a writing panel with Carmel Bird, Josephine Wilson and Nicole Sinclair at the Perth Writers Festival. Also on one of my panels was Rajith Savandasa whose debut novel Ruins situated me into the heart of family I felt I already knew, so rich and immediate are the details of intimacy that appear effortless in this novel. Bloodlines by Nicole Sinclair, another debut novel, follows the Australian Beth, running away from something she cannot come to terms with, to Papua New Guinea, where she encounters the ‘ugly Australian’ expat community but also immerses herself in a country whose culture will always remain a mystery to her. Carmel Bird’s Family Skeletons made me laugh out loud while feeling like I knew these people in their rich mansions, their extraordinary secrets, their humanity and their cruelty and their inability to let go of a way of life they consider their birth right. And Josephine’s Wilson’s luminous Extinctions which has since won The Miles Franklin and The Colin Roderick Awards, reminded me of the writerly skill it takes to care about a mostly unlikable main character. Frederick Lothian frustrated me while simultaneously allowing me to care deeply about his bumbling and failing relationships. I know brief musings do not do justice to the depth, richness and literary truth of these exceptional novels. Therefore I recommend them with all my heart. Collectively they made me a better reader and human being.

It did seem to be the year of reading debut novels – the next on my list is Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It is hard to describe in a sentence, so I invite you to read my review here. Persian myth intersects with political reality and a poetic sensibility that filled my heart with music. And as this is a translation, one of my resolutions over the coming year is to teach myself Farsi, so I can read this in its author’s original language.

Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl reminded me of all the things I had either forgotten or learned to live with. And misogyny in all its forms, even when practiced by other women (Ford calls this internalised misogyny), must always be called out. And Ford does this with wit, clarity and anger. I have bought copies for most young women I know, especially the ones that tell me, ‘there’s no need for feminism anymore you know; we ARE equal.’

For different reasons completely, I loved Toni Jordan’s, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts. A farce about couples and marriage and fidelity and integrity, Janice’s sanity is at risk because she is surrounded by the most selfish collection of individuals that would send any vestige of normalcy right out the window.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a book, that I, along with millions, waited 20 years for, plunged me into the iconoclastic philosophy of a writer who will always be hard to define. Both lament and howl, both narrative and politics, this is a tough book, a sprawling and messy book – utterly beautiful and heartbreaking. It made me whisper to myself – my India, what have you done? What have you become?

 I came late to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. I learned so much reading this fierce, sumptuous, honest novel. Every time there was a reference to a piece of American history I was unsure about, I asked Professor Google and came back to the novel with a deeper sense of recognition about its concerns.

I ended the year with Aboriginal Australian writers, as seems fitting.  Kim Scott’s Taboo is written with lyrical precision and invites us to witness years of dispossession and the excesses of colonial abuse. You can read my review here. Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby sings – that really is the only way to describe it. It sings to country, motherhood, loss and love in a way that only a writer like Lucashenko can do. Language and landscape are inseparable and we are such a small part of an ancient connection that predates us, that I’m freshly grieved these stories are not more mainstream. They ought to be required reading in every school. Maybe the power of story can make us better. Maybe we can start treating the men in Manus with the same respect we accord to our trees and wetlands.

The books that disappointed me thoroughly were ones I had long looked forward to reading. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, despite its intriguing setting in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was tedious in execution and lost its way several times in bylanes that went nowhere. And Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, again, despite the fascinating Marina Abramovic as subject, introduced me to Arky Levin, who will go down in my reading memory as the most irritating and irredeemable character it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter. His sudden transformation at the end into a caring husband inspired me to fling it across the room.

And finally, 3 slim volumes of poetry made me grateful for the gift of being able to read. Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths by Sholeh Wolpeh with its precipice of loneliness and women who unfold, sin by sin, is a deeply evocative and sensual commentary on the things we didn’t know could break our hearts. Charlotte Guest’s Soap reminded me of those lodgings at the end of girlhood and how when things become bearable; it is actually the most unbearable part. Lovely, musical and highly recommended. Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms made me care about snakes and algae and insects and told me that black water fish shudder once to light/then darken into gone. The woman is a magician and everyone should read her.

Writers who trusted me to read their finished first drafts were a special treat. While I cannot reveal the names of these wonderful and hopefully-soon-to-be-published writers, I can say that one of them has been shortlisted for a major award, another two have found literary agents, while yet another has won a writing residency. I anticipate being able to add them to my next year’s reading list.

And before the year is done I look forward to reading Kohinoor by William Dalrymple & Anita Anand, and The Golden House by Salman Rushdie.

 

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!

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

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

looking up/looking down

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

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

Here is the book’s blurb…

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

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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 🙂