‘Tis the season for highlights and reflections! In a busy year of school camps, public speaking competitions, parent interviews, marking, reporting writing and teaching, I managed to squeeze a few literary moments into my calendar. Here are some that stood out, including events, books and my own small endeavours.
Top 5 Events
1. Tim Winton on Toxic Masculinity
Promoting his latest book, The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton spoke with his usual mix of humility, intelligence, heart and humour. I always enjoy hearing him speak and this topic felt especially relevant. Here’s my good friend Alex Bisley interviewing Tim for Macleans.
2. Neko Case at Melbourne Writers Festival
I enjoyed many events at MWF and finding them in strange and unfamiliar corners of the city was fun too. I heard Neko Case first as part of a panel on the texts that influenced panel members’ feminism, then saw her again solo at ACMI. I’ve been a fan of her music for a long time and always love hearing artists talk about their craft. Neko’s latest album is Hell-On.
3. First Chapters Series at Brunswick Bound
I feel so lucky to have this amazing bookstore just around the corner (and down the road a bit) from my house. In this series, the store celebrates the work of local authors on the first Friday of each month, by inviting them to read a chapter from their work and engage in a Q&A afterwards. Highly recommended, and more information here.
4. Launch of Close to Home by Alice Pung
Another wonderful event from Brunswick Bound. Alice’s new collection of essays was launched by amazing Helen Garner and is such an insightful and engaging collection. I enjoyed chatting to Alice afterwards and she assured me her young adult novel, Laurinda is NOT based on the school I teach at, despite the suspiciously similar names. If you don’t know Alice’s work, definitely check it out!
5. Melbourne Writers’ Group Anthology Launch
The Melbourne Writers’ Group know how to throw a party! I was so proud of my friends who worked so hard to launch this book as writers and editors, readers, speakers and book sellers. This is their third anthology and they keep getting better. Find out more about the Melbourne Writers’ Group and come along to the weekly social nights and writing times here!
Top 5 Books
1. Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong
This is such a beautifully crafted collection, where poems shift form and are experienced through all senses. I was totally captivated by it. You can read ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ here.
2. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton
I never miss a chance to remind you all how much I love Tim Winton’s writing. In fact I’ve already mentioned this book here.
3. There but for the, Ali Smith
I’ve read so many good books this year, but this one stands out as it stuck with me: the quirky conversations and lack of resolution. Ali Smith might not be for everyone, but I think she’s a master of dialogue, voice, structure. I trust her completely and enjoy being taken for the ride. Here she is talking about the power of the novel.
4. Solar Bones, Mike McCormack
This was a startling book. Written in one gasping breath without a single full-stop, I suspect I read it with my mouth open. The style might seem gimmicky, but it’s completely in fitting with the theme and plot and works surprisingly well. Stream of consciousness is not technically correct for this book … anyway, it won Mike McCormack the International Dublin Literary Award.
5. Take Three Girls, Cath Crowley, Fiona Wood, Simmone Howell
A shout out to the many young adult novels I read this year. This one stood out as it had three strong and distinct female characters who work together to fight the system. Very cleverly and convincingly created by three awesome Australian writers.
Top 5 Writer Moments
1. Photos of the Sky launch week
Obviously launching my third poetry book and spending a week reading it to small crowds of people was the highlight of my own writerly year. I was thrilled that Tim Jones was able to launch the book, and greatly enjoyed reading at Unity Books with Nicola Easthope and again at Volume in Nelson. There’s even a lovely review of Photos of the sky by Sarah Lin Wilson here.
2. Girls on Key Open Mic
When Nicola Easthope and I knew we were going to be reading together in Wellington, we made sure to meet in Melbourne first! Luckily, Nicola was on her way to the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, so we had the chance to catch up, meet with the lovely Jennifer Compton and read poetry together at an open mic night. Girls on Key is a monthly event hosted by Open Studio.
3. Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand
I was unable to attend any of the launches for this, but I loved being included in the anthology. There’s a new poem from Photos of the Sky in there and an old one from Wit of the Staircase. The anthology is edited by Michelle Elvy, Frankie McMillan and James Norcliffe.
4. BBC Culture: The 100 stories that shaped the world
There’s something pleasing about adding my top 5 into my top 5 and something even more satisfying about being quoted in the BBC. I admit there are many names on this list, but being asked to contribute was a nice writerly moment for me.
5. Teaching and Writing balance
I still haven’t nailed it 100%, but this has been an excellent year for me in terms of balancing my teaching and writing life. I am so lucky to work at a school that supports me with a day off each week, constant queries about how the writing’s going (!), acknowledgement of my achievements and actual promo from the marketing team. Watch this space for more news from my school, but in the meantime here’s a small fun, thoughtful, creative corner of the school I’ve enjoyed helping create.
When I got my new job at the end of June, the hour’s commute was initially daunting to small-town me. I talked about moving to Richmond, I investigated cycle paths (and therefore a new bicycle), I accepted rides from kindly colleagues, but ultimately the silent hour each morning on a train with a book won me over. Here’s what I’ve been reading en route to work:
Cargo – Jessica Au
Set in the 90s and beautifully, gently written, Cargo tells the story of Gillian, Frankie and Jacob one summer by the sea. This is a coming-of-age novel in dreamy long sentences and alternating points of view (something I can either love or hate in a novel). Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and Cargo, her first novel, was highly commended in the 2012 Kathleen Mitchell Award for a writer under 30. http://www.jessicaau.com
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
I had been meaning to read this for a while. Obviously it’s a classic, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so post-modern in its telling (self-conscious narrator, leaps in time and perspective, historical fact mixed with absurdist fiction) and funny in that dark and quirky Vonnegut way. Not your average war story and probably hugely therapeutic to have written.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan
Somehow I have a class of Year 8s who are convinced I’m in love with John Green. It’s not even an English class! I guess I haven’t convincingly argued to the contrary, because seriously… he is wonderful. This book is so charming and funny and important. Written in alternating chapters by two outstanding young adult authors, the voices of the two Will Graysons are distinct and believable. It made me teary at times and the sweetness and bravery between the two boys who fall in love is pretty inspiring.
The Ties That Bind – Melbourne Social Writers’ Group
I’ve been so lucky to be part of two very active and supportive writing groups, both of which put together an anthology this year – no mean feat! The Ties That Bind is the second anthology from the Melbourne Social Writers’ Group and includes a range of work from writers at all stages of their craft. https://www.facebook.com/MelbWriters/
Wild Surmise – Dorothy Porter
This is an amazing work. A verse novel in different voices, following the characters, Alex, Daniel and Phoebe. It has a marriage breakdown, astrobiology, space travel, poignant poetic references, explorations of sexuality, death, love. The verse style is almost operatic and allows the tone to shift from light-hearted to heartfelt to heart-breaking, page by page.
The Transmigration of Bodies / Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera
Two novellas from a Mexican writer, I confess I’d never heard of before. I found this a bit of a stretch for me and out of my usual realm of poetic stories about human interaction. It had a fable-like quality with the main character called The Redeemer on a journey to restore peace. It’s hard to put my finger on the actual style of this, but I’m always happy to be challenged thusly!
Funny Girl – Nick Hornby
Shout out to Nick Hornby in the title of this post, by the way (‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’ is a phrase that belongs to him http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/stuff-ive-been-reading/ ). I enjoyed the lightness of this novel, which is both about and in the style of a 1960s sitcom. The main character is a determined young woman with a robust sense of humour. This is the kind of book most people probably read on the train – pure entertainment, leaving one with enough brain power to function effectively at one’s destination.
In the Dark Spaces – Cally Black and Because Everything is Right, but Everything is Wrong- Erin Donohue
Another slightly-out-of-my-comfort-zone book, In the Dark Spaces is YA sci-fi, while Erin Donohue’s debut novel is a poetic, gentle treatment of mental illness. You can read my full review of both of these here at The Sapling.
Midnight’s Children –Salman Rushdie
I’m supervising a student who is writing an essay on the narrative voice of this novel. It’s so complex and clever and in talking to my student I have a deep appreciation for the way Rushdie has combined so many styles and techniques to create a character who creates a world. Describing the first 30 years of India’s Independence by personifying it through Saleem, born at the exact moment of independence, the world seems to revolve around his every move. Every sentence is packed full and perhaps takes a little more concentration than standing on the train at 7am allows.
How Not to be a Boy – Robert Webb
I’m a big Webb fan, as in Mitchell and Webb, as in Peep Show, as in Jez. This is Robert Webb’s memoir, interspersed with reflections on masculinity. Webb’s trademark humour is present throughout, but particularly in describing awkward interactions and encounters. Typically too, he is quick to acknowledge his privilege and careful not to come across as too complainy. An important read in this era of calling men out on their behaviour – I recommend this interview as a taster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A4KHm3brJE&t=16s
A New Beginning – Women Who Write, Melbourne
The first anthology from the second writing group I feel so lucky to be part of! Another lovely collection and so much work has gone into making sure it’s a polished and cohesive range of writing, on the theme a new beginning. Women Who Write is a non-profit supportive group for women in Melbourne. They hold regular meet-ups and currently have over 600 members https://www.facebook.com/groups/wwwmelb/
The man who will become my Grandad waits by the gangway of the Devonport ferry. Yesterday, he missed his usual trip home and took the later ride. He’s decided now to always be late, deliberately miss the more convenient passage home and wait half an hour for the one ‘the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen’ will be on. He steps into the queue just in time to walk on board with her. Later, at a dance, she throws confetti on him like a prophecy. The woman becomes my Grandma, of course.
The other man who becomes my Grandad quietly follows his son to the bus stop, where a significant goodbye takes place. His son stays on board with the woman he loves for as long as he can then watches the bus leave. As it happens, they meet again, become my parents, but now he needs the comforting arm his father predicted. Both men walk home together, tears along the dusty road.
I’m on a train, swiping left, left, left. Attraction exists not in digital form, a few bad snaps of your weekend shenanigans and a poorly written bio. I look up to see people interacting with the space around them, the way they hold themselves as they stand, their expressions, absorbed in their own distractions – paperbacks and podcasts, a phone conversation. Someone photographs the sunrise. I hear a favourite song tinnily through someone else’s headphones. But I’m just trying to get to work these days.
That summer I was reading A brief history of seven killings, a weighty hardback issued from the library. Too heavy to lug out to parks or café courtyards, it anchored me into my new home. I lounged on the daybed and when people asked aloud what I’d been doing, the book’s title drew out my kiwi accent almost as thick as the tome itself. A reminder of the recency of my migration.
An odd choice of book, perhaps, but held in place by it I felt the sun pass through the house and, when I needed a break from the intensity, I walked to the supermarket in my new neighbourhood; each day a little taller, feeling more present. Roses bent their heads over picket fences and I learnt to recognise those worth stopping to breathe with. I took in the street names, smiled at locals, became one.
It’s been a difficult couple of months. Individually, universally. Hell, it’s been a tough few years if you really want to start scraping back through it all and trying to remember the last time you sat still, looked around at your personal, professional and creative life and thought, Yeah, things are okay. I wish I’d made better note of those moments of contentment, but perhaps that would have shifted them out of the present and it’s being present in those moments that makes one content.
I’ve been counting words – proud of a year spent launching a novel and working on two more. Gathering poems into a third collection and reading everything I can find. But in there somewhere I lost count. Lost track of how to hold onto what was mine, lost count of the number of job applications, inquiries and rejection letters, the social interactions cancelled or rain-checked beyond redemption. I can’t bear to try and count the heartbreaks and moments of self-doubt of the last few years.
I have, however, counted the flights. 21 international flights in the last two years, 10 since moving to Melbourne. There have been adventures and family celebrations and always something good waiting at each end – but counting and losing count has made me exhausted.
My last flight back to Wellington landed 24 hours before the 7.8 quake last month and as lovely as it was to see my family and friends and know they wanted me there so they could check in, hug me and try to settle me after what felt like a complete life-fail, I got the strong sense Wellington was trying to shake me free. Again.
But slowly the after-shocks stopped and things seemed to shuffle into a shape I could make sense of. The feeling that home wasn’t quite home anymore, the outrage or compassion my friends expressed on my behalf at the situation I’d found myself in, the daily routine and purpose my brother provided and the obstacle-ridden journey my mum endured to come and see me, care for me and give me a copy of Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me all helped me feel like me again.
There’s something pretty special about Sarah’s book. Reading about her journey juxtaposed with that of our shared literary hero, Katherine Mansfield, reminded me of what I need: To stop counting, stop flying, sit still again and write. To be somewhere that could become home, somewhere bright, open, flat and stable beneath the feet. Somewhere I can keep putting my words down, one after the other and build something, anything, that looks like a life. And sure I need love and connections; to be honest with the people around me, to ask for help and show others I can help them too, but right now I just need to stay alive and to write.
Back in Melbourne and every day I feel slightly different. Last week, when the moment felt right, I cycled round to look at a spare room in a cottage on Mansfield Street. Stained-glass bay window, picket fence. In Thornbury, but it would not be out of place in Thorndon. I thought of Sarah moving to New York and Katherine moving to London and me, now, with all this hope and determination despite what feels like months of disappointment.
So I’ve moved to Mansfield Street, into a room of my own. The wifi’s dodgy and we don’t have a kettle, but my optimism is boundless. It surprises me sometimes.
Those waterproof pants
haven’t seen much use
bought on another whirlwind trip
ferrying towards family surprises
old friends and the waves
rolled through us.
I roll myself through Royal Park
cross the tram tracks
follow the train
cycle past pale trees
reflecting back morning light, faint
eucalyptus smell of Here Now.
to gloved extremities
my angled reflection
in the Red Rooster window
turns to habit and blossom
blows gently over the schoolyard fence.