Negative Capability

Foreign-ness

I was delighted to speak on this panel on 20 September at the Io Myers Studio, UNSW with Ouyang Yu and Roanna Gonsalves, on the subject of Foreign-ness in our writing and our lives. We spoke about, and through, the trauma of being a minority writer, navigating the hurdles, surviving the racism and cultural dynamics; about gender fluidity and fictional worm holes.
Photography by Leilah Schubert.

The podcast can be downloaded here

Grateful thanks to UNS Writing, Anne Brewster and Su Goldfish from the Creative Practises Lab, UNSW

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The air I breathe …

It has been quite a literary weekend for me; attending Poetry on the Move festival at the University of Canberra, curated by Paul Hetherington, Paul Munden, Jen Webb, Owen Bullock and Shane Strange. Guest of honour was Simon Armitage who gave a poetics lecture on Thursday, and a stellar reading on friday evening before the announcement of the Vice Chancellor’s Prize in Poetry. The festival has a dynamic spirit, and I think this is in part due to the diversity of its participants, and even the judges. For the second year, the prize has included judges from Asian Australian backgrounds, something I’ve advocated for as editor of Mascara, and much to my satisfaction the organisers have positively responded. (It’s an exciting team!)

As one of the longlist judges I also had the privilege of reading from my very soon to be released collection, The Herring Lass. Having worked on book edits with James Byrne and Angela Jarman from Arc in Todmorden it was a thrill to read some of the poems, which are themed on human and animal migrations. Also fantastic to catch up with Singapore poet, Alvin Pang, as well as Merlinda Bobis and to meet Jack Ross from Auckland. (And younger poets whose work I have been reading in journals: Chloe Callistemon and Jackie Mailings.)

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Then, on Saturday, I spoke on a panel with Rosemary Huisman and Sue Woolfe at the Rose Scott Womens’ Festival in Sydney about writing the personal. Why the personal? Because the minority story enriches and expands the collective narrative it needs to be spoken. But there are difficulties and pitfalls of having to represent oneself, of establishing the simulacra of an entire and complex identity which has been erased by the age of history. Referring to the concept known as ‘catachresis,’ I spoke about how language can help. Aristotle described catachresis as ‘verbal transcendence.’ He asserts that the language of metaphor can be used to name something which does not have a proper name. Derrida described catachresis as the original incompleteness in systems of meaning, while for Spivak, it is only by acknowledging historical limitations, that silenced narratives can be renegotiated, even if not retrieved. So poetic language can be put to good purpose in narrative structure, by connecting the rhizomic threads of contingent stories.

Writing Letter to Pessoa, I found that one way to avoid the crudeness of the confessional, was to graft my narratives to mainstream writing through the letters. I read ‘Letter to Virginia Woolf’ and it was a thrill to share  the story with other strong, talented women.

In other  news, a researched program about Vishvarupa produced by Prithvi Varatharajan was broadcast on Earshot; the podcast available as part of the Confluence India-Australia Arts Festival. I’m so pleased that the interview touches on the book’s pointy themes of an Anglo-Indian subjectivity, the Tibetan refugee experience and its feminist reconfigurations. While it’s not always easy to listen to one’s own voice speaking through trauma, as I have been, I’m delighted with the results.

Also, as part of Confluence, Nidhi Kumari, the editor of Indus Age, ran this interview with me about Letter to Pessoa  Nidhi’s questions invite me to consider the experimentation, the fragmented narratives and how my Goan-Anglo-Indian presence manifests as traces in the stories, for which I’m grateful!

Book launch, #LettertoPessoa, #MichellePower

It was wonderful to have my book launched by Commonwealth Prize and Miles Franklin Award winning novelist, Michelle de Kretser on Saturday afternoon in Sydney. She spoke of the book’s double narratives in the letter form to authors I have enjoyed reading, its figurative language, political themes, the presence of mobility, of ships and boats, of refugee narratives and sensitivity to animals; to cats, birds, dogs, monkeys in Letter to Pessoa. She also spoke of the presence of cities in the stories; Lisbon, Barcelona, Kathmandu and particularly Sydney — not as monumental, but pedestrian in its quiet street vistas, terrace gardens and northern beaches.

It was a full house at Gleebooks. Warm thanks to everyone who attended to support my debut fiction, to colleagues from UOW, fellow CALD writers, fellow poets, to Gleebooks and to my wonderful publishers, Giramondo. Michelle’s launch speech will be available to read on their site soon.

Copies of the book are available at gleebooks, Readings and at Giramondo.

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Then I realized I had been murdered…

 
Then I realized I had been murdered. They looked for me in cafés, cemeteries and churches…but they did not find me. They never found me? No. They never found me.”

So wrote Frederico Garcia Lorca in his play “The Fable And Round Of The Three Friends”. It almost sounds like David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Stole the World,’ which Nirvana recorded. In a way it was a prediction about society’s values as it stigmatises and shatters the life of a writer, removing his or her presence. This liminality is part of an intensity inherent in the artistic project. In Lorca’s case this happened with acceleration; he was only 38 when he died. To kill a character might be the most difficult task a writer attempts, and yet we need to renew our foundational myths. The symbols and themes of sexuality, death and mortality abound in Lorca’s poems: the moon, blood, still water, the horse and rider. I remember reading his poetry in my youth and being intoxicated by their imagistic mysteries. 80 years ago today, on August 19, 1936, he was shot by Franco’s Falangist guards, a matyr to the republican anti-Fascist cause as world powers teetered on the brink of war. His writing had been anti-Catholic in sentiment but it was his homosexuality that was targeted.

In ‘Theory and Play of the Duende’ he writes of the relationship between creativity and the divine, between life and art; the cost extracted by art, the dying of the self as we try to inhabit two worlds, impossibly. He was Spain’s queer avant-garde, as Jorge Luis Borges was Argentina’s genre-bending solterón, or Pessoa was Portugal’s priestly, polyphonic modernist. It is  fascinating to read how Pessoa’s work has been classified, going by his own possibilities for the non-existent volumes kept as loose folios in his trunk. I sometimes think blogging can be like this; that these fragments and epistles can be arranged and sorted in many forms.

When copies of my book, Letter to Pessoa first appeared, they were announced by my cat Chester darting across the courtyard entrance to my modest townhouse. The courier had arrived with a box, which on opening revealed its treasure. I feel it is perfectly beautiful, the cover image, the design, the fact that when I turn the pages the names of writers I love appear on its pages as precursors: Lorca, Derrida, Woolf, Nabokov, Borges, Genet, Coetzee, Pessoa, though not quite in that order….What I love as well is that there are a few words I have changed in my mind, as privately, the editing never stops, or as I’ve paused, here and there, to postpone a preference.
 

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On the malleability of voice

My edits are finished and my book is now at the printers…I am indebted to Ivor Indyk for his sensitive appreciation of the malleability of voice in Letter to Pessoa. It will be launched next month in Sydney by Michelle de Kretser.

A few weeks ago I went to the Frida Kahlo exhibition; wonderful to see this collection of self-portraits, paintings, drawings, inscriptions, photographs, videos from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman. I was particularly taken with one, a photograph by  Lola Alvarez Bravo from 1944, which invites a consideration of the painter as subject:

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Writing can do this; it’s a part of why I blog, it’s part of my interest in the fragment self and the double life of performing and erasing who we are.

Because I want to go back as I go forward, is why I write. Because of whom I left at the terminal, what thoughts and feelings came to me as the plane ascended, the vast sweep of a city, its forests and glittering skyscrapers, its river tributaries reclaimed, reaching farther into places foreign to my eyes, the vista of cumulo nimbus cloud …

I am going back to Negative Capability, which for several years was the title of this blog. Keats wrote  that the ‘poetical character… has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character and enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet… A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because (s)he has no identity, (s)he is continually filling some other body.’ (the bracket(s) are mine.)

I felt I wanted to be Michelle Cahill, but deeply, incoherently, there are things within which I cannot apprehend: my pains, my past uttering itself in fragments. It may happen abruptly but also slowly like a glacier retracting indiscernibly so that the effect is visible. “I have suffered two serious accidents in my life,” wrote Frida.

I turned after such an incident and in the distance I could see a speck: a boat dashed against rocks. The wind had entered my life and changed me; there I lived and was held and carried safely.

Saturday Night

….So, I survived last week’s Hokusai waves.

I am back in Sydney, of course; have been for a  few weeks, highlights of which have been the recording of poems from Vishvarupa with Prithvi Varatharajan (from the University of Queensland) for the ABC. His questions were engaging, and allowed me to reference some new research (into the terrain of Anglo-Indian identity.) Prithvi’s PhD on the radio program Poetica explores the poetry and social politics of John Forbes, Ouyang Yu, Vicki Viidikas and others. I think it’s going to be a fascinating and erudite contribution to understanding contemporary developments in Australian poetry.

 

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I also attended the Sydney Writers’ Festival; an event with Ivor Indyk, Kate Lilley and Kent MacCarter, curated by Toby Fitch and Australian Poetry. There was such a calm and intelligent atmosphere about the session on editing and the mysteries of poetry, thanks to Indyk’s moderation. I admire his work in Australian literature, his scholarship and engagement with avant-garde and migrant writers over the years. He has not entirely escaped being the target of a political correctness; the flourishing new wave of Australian anti-intellectualism. But this can happen to any of us who dare to deviate from what is perceived as popular knowledge towards a particularly individual interpretation of a text or of a cultural dynamic. To be literary is an indulgence. A writer must wear such appraisals, and be prepared to shrug them off and keep going with the task of writing.

I know for instance that some feminists may take offence at my story ‘Letter to Coetzee’ simply because it allows desire to be expressed by the ‘victim’ or subject of a misogynistic encounter, such as portrayed in Disgrace.  And some readers might question why my Nabokov story does not have a moral to its ending, refusing to ‘unlearn’ its narrator’s experience of anticipation and consummation being exquisitely intense and precariously balanced.  Why is it that a female writer, and especially one of colour is rarely permitted to articulate or embody this very desire, her own desire, as a speaking subject? (Rather, she is the fictional object of pleasure, commodified by others.) Well, it seems that after a protracted time fueled by writing, editing, digressions and beautiful distractions, I am almost ready to defend these concerns.

But it is Saturday night walking into Sunday. I have been meaning to write something here since returning, but couldn’t find the words. Have been reading Submission (in translation) by Michel Houellebecq, a very amusing satire, notorious for its Charlie Hebdo associations though surely not Islamophobic. It was released the day of the attacks with its author on the cover of the magazine. I’m enjoying the voice of its feckless professorial narrator, François. Have also been reading poems by Tina Giannoukos from her stunning collection of sonnets, Bull Days, and David Herd’s Through. I love the music of his adverbs and his broken syntax.

 

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Letter to Pessoa

It’s wonderful being in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I am teaching a Creative Writing Workshop at UNC’s campus. It’s an inspired, welcoming faculty and a privilege to be here. I am teaching on memory, time and narrative with a focus on the poets Bronwyn Lea, Natasha Tretheway and short story writers, Andrew Porter, Ellen Van Neervan and Tom Cho.

I am also in final editing phases of my short story collection, Letter to Pessoa. In many ways it is experimental writing that resists or suggests an alternative to the stable identities and structures of conventional narrative. There are homage stories in the epistolary form as well as the ghosting of a single voice. I am thrilled about the book and looking forward to sharing my fictional prose with new readers. Here is the gorgeous cover designed by Giramondo, taken from the German-born-Australian-based artist, Madeleine Kelly, whose work I love.

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“I wasn’t meant for reality, but life came and found me.”
― Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Photograph Nicola Bailey

Photograph by Nicola Bailey

 

Mise en abîme

It’s been necessary having some time to myself; to prepare for travelling, to try and write often despairingly through distractions, overwriting, bewilderment, false beginnings. Virginia Woolf once spoke of the wildness of words being to blame, how words belong to themselves. I think my fiction manuscript is taking shape. Soon it will be time to select a cover and I have one in mind. A “Letter to John Coetzee” has been received, and accepted for The Lakeview Journal. As a #fangirl this delights me.

My “Loss”, an otter poem, has appeared in Meanjin, the last to be edited by the lovely Judith Beveridge. I’ve had another, ‘Museum of Natural History’ accepted for The Kenyon Review (It was fun to make an iPhone audio file for that.) And in the new issue of Island, I have a poem, ‘The Castle’ after a castle and Kafka’s Amalia. It might seem impressive, but this isn’t recent writing. I’m pretty sure that when these poems and the collection I’m preparing with the wonderful team at Arc are published, I would like to restore myself and renew my poetic sensibilities. I would like to have time to process the impact of technology, environmental contingencies and globalisation on the lyric.

The ghettoisation of some poetry, itself a marginalised genre, forces many of us to be reactive, defensive and that kind of noise is not a space for creative balance. Maybe I’ll take a long recess. I don’t want to repeat myself or force language into an exclusively theoretical frame.

 

Some New Work

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Many years ago I began to write a novel that was never published. It was called Ecstasy, and the ending was so exciting that I couldn’t bear to abandon it. So I shaped it, over the years, into a story called ‘Duende’, an Andalusian love story inspired by Frederico Garcia Lorca. It was rejected by Antipodes and Southerly, and The Best Australian Stories. With each rejection I kept editing until my luck changed last year and it was selected by Hilary Mantel as the winning entry in the Kingston Writing School short story competition. Writing ‘Duende’, I learned about the purpose of pacing and detail, the balance between style and the substance that makes a story believable, no matter how speculative or experimental its premise might be. I learned about homage; about taking historical facts and allowing my imagination to reconfigure them into something entirely unique; that it’s okay to be in conversation with writers from the past who have inspired me. (This is something I do in the collection I’m now finalising.) It appears in a recently launched collection of short stories What Lies Beneath, which has been published by Kingston University Press  along with stories by Rick Williams, Anne-Marie Neary, Catherine McNamara and a wonderful introduction by Hilary Mantel.

In other new work I’m thrilled that my poem “Twofold Bay, 1930” appears in The London Magazine. It’s a poem about the killer whales whose cooperation with Aboriginal and settler whalers on the south east coast of Australia came to a dramatic end.

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And Geoff Page has selected my poem ‘Bear’ for The Best Australian Poems, 2015. I’m glad; it was written a few years ago in my despair and appeared last year in Australian Literary Review, thanks to Jaya Savige.
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This month I’ve also edited the new issue of Mascara Literary Review, Between Black and White, which I’m hugely proud of. Do check out some of the excellent poems, stories and reviews. I’m also enjoying my research, reading the letters of Jean Rhys, edited by Frances Wyndham and Diana Melly. She writes: “A Zombie is a dead woman raised up by the Obeah woman, it’s usually a woman I think, and a zombie can take the appearance of anyone.” and in the same letter…”The Brontë sisters had of course a touch of genius (or much more) especially Emily. So reading Jane Eyre, one’s swept along regardless. But I, reading it later, and often, was vexed at her portrait of the ‘paper tiger’ lunatic; the all wrong Creole scenes, and above all by the real cruelty of Mr Rochester.”

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Borges and I

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The September issue of Australian Book Review is now in print with my story, ‘Borges and I’ which was shortlisted in the 2015 Elizabeth Jolley Prize. It is about the bibliophilic dreams of a physicist, who receives a mysterious book, signed by the Argentinian poet and it shares its name, with the brief, elusive fiction Borges wrote to unsettle the autonomy of narration.

This is a beautiful issue with reviews by Christopher Menz, James Ley, Catriona Menzies-Pike and Michelle de Kretser. It was a great privilege to attend the Brisbane Writers’ Festival on Friday and read from my story. I feel honoured to be the first writer of colour who has been shortlisted in the Elizabeth Jolley Prize, something I mentioned which may have raised eyebrows, though my remark was intended to pay respect to my colleagues of colour, whose stories are too often silenced in the margins of our national narratives. But how wonderful it is to see ABR selecting stories which test the geographical borders of nationalism and which move away from domestic accretions, from realist mechanics and cohesion into the tropes of dream, water, memory and ontological abstractions. Borges asks us to consider “Who is the writer?” and “How do we know the writer?” I have been reading a powerful book, Silencing the Past by the Haitian anthropologist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, which has deepened my awareness of this need we have to be both actors and narrators in history in order for our subjectivity to reach its capacity.

Here are photographs from the event in Brisbane. And there is a link to my story, edited and presented with great care, which you can read by subscribing to Australian Book Review

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Peter Rose, Michelle Cahill, Harriet McKnight, Rob Magnuson Smith