Living History

Getting my COVID vaccination was a lot more emotional and momentous than I thought it would be.

Warning, no reading or writing, just life in this post.

Some days you feel like you’re living history more than others.

We’re alive and events are happening all around us, so of course we’re part of history. But the fact that things are always happening can also make life feel very unhistoric and just….normal.

You go about your days in much the same way with history happening elsewhere but I feel like the pandemic has changed that. It’s pretty clear that this is historic. However, there’s so much that feels normal now about the pandemic, even it doesn’t always feel significant, unless you’re in lockdown, of course.

I live in Newcastle and when I got my first Pfizer shot a couple of weeks ago, it really felt like I was part of history.

Walking in to the John Hunter Hospital had a definite dystopian movie vibe with people in PPE, queues and questions, masks on all faces and marks on the ground. Thermometers glowed and clicked and people were waved onwards.

It felt almost war like, with people moving forward en-masse in the same direction, as if we were all looking for an escape – which we were, I guess. We’re looking for a way to keep ourselves and loved ones safe and to somehow get things back to ‘normal’.

In a movie the line would end in a cavernous hangar. There’d be people running in and out, and probably the noise of choppers landing in the background to add to the general sense of action and crisis.

Where I was, things were moving pretty fast. It wasn’t in a hangar but by the time I got to the administrative check-in, it did feel like we were at the front line. People were bustling around in high-vis with iPads and clipboards. The post-vaccinated sat in rows waiting to go home. The rest of us were in lines waiting to be sent in to see nurses along an ad hoc extension of tables and counters which really was the front line.

The whole thing made me feel quite emotional. I really did feel a sense of this being the small thing that I could contribute to something much bigger. I felt like we were all in it together and doing our bit and I desperately wanted to hug my nurse and tell her she was doing something amazing.

Of course, you’re supposed to keep a good distance, so instead I just said ‘thanks’ and turned away because of the tears in my eyes.

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The bedside bookstack – April 2021

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this month.

Lucky ticket by Joey Bui, Text Publishing, 2019

This collection of short stories was one of my favourite picks of the month. I was totally absorbed by the stories and binged on them more than I usually do with an anthology. I often go in and out of anthologies reading a few at a time in between novels. This collection however, made me want to move on to the next one and then the next..

The stories move from Vietnam to Australia to America to Abu Dhabi where we meet Vietnamese locals, migrants and expats as well as a Pakistani-American professional and a Zanzabari guest worker.

Bui writes in first and third person and skips from the distant past to a familiar present. One of my favourites was Mekong Love. Set in a more traditional Vietnam, it proves that lasting love can start in many different ways.

Both ways is the only way I want it by Maile Meloy, Text Publishing 2009

Thanks to @zbradley’s tweet about how long it had taken her to discover Maile Meloy. I wouldn’t have found my way to her either and what a loss that would’ve been.

There are 11 stories in this collection and they’re all achingly beautiful. I use that word deliberately. She’s doing something and I don’t know how she’s doing it. I go into a story as one person and come out slightly changed. I had to sit for a moment after some of these and just savour that feeling before jumping straight into the next one. I also had to reread paragraphs and flip back a page or two to see if I could trace her tricks and trap what it was she did to write such a good story. That in itself is the magic, I guess.

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed, Tinder Press, 2017

God bless Kinokuniya bookshop in Sydney which had a booklet printed around the time of the March for Justice about kickass women’s reads. This was on that list.

If you’re not into island-bound traditions of women forced into submission and condoned abuses of power by the patriarchy, then this may not be for you. However, for every state of slavery there is a seed of revolution and the girls of this island are starting to question just why everything has to be the way it always has been.

Kept on the island by fear of the Wastelands on the horizon, girls adhere first to their father’s will and then their husbands. This is like a Handmaid’s Tale for pre-teens. Sometimes, when adults write kids, the voice is too laboured, but these girls are nothing but themselves and I never doubted their narrations.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, Granta, 2020

Whoa. This one is unlike anything I’ve ever read. “Out of this world” was one of the cover quotes and it’s right on because Natsuki and her cousin believe they are from another planet. They don’t understand the rules adults make for them and earthlings are confusing.

Kids trying to makes sense of adult behaviour and rules isn’t easy. They internalise who adults say they are and make leaps of deduction in doing so. Feeling like aliens because they don’t conform is a fair-enough link for children to make. As adults, life is no less confusing as they grapple with taboos and their place in the world.

The legacy of abuse and societal expectation make for a totally original but pretty heart-breaking read. It’s uncomfortable reading and won’t be for everyone because taboo is taboo and examining them from another angle doesn’t make them any less uncomfortable.

Sayaka Murata is best known for her book Convenience Store Woman which I haven’t read yet.

The Trespassers by Meg Mundell, University of Queensland Press, 2019

How was this book not on every pandemic reading list last year? This is the plague book that came out a year before COVID and its epidemiologic jargon became part of the vernacular.

The worst scenario of a pandemic future is already playing out in this book. The UK is a disaster zone and pandemic hotspot. There are no jobs, no supplies or stability and the death rate is constantly climbing. To get away, people are willing to take a ship to Australia where they are essentially indentured labour but unlikely to get sick.

On board are Billie, a Scottish singer who has experience of the death wards in Glasgow, Cleary, a deaf boy whose mum wants to give them a chance at a better future and Tom, a teacher from a wealthy family who now has no money to his name.

Three weeks into the journey a crewman is found murdered and people start getting sick. There are rumours and dissent and no way off the boat.

This book is a great read and a timely reminder that not every harbour offers safe haven and that it isn’t a crime to seek a better life.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall, Black Inc. Books, 2016

Set in the 1880s on an isolated cape in Australia, this book is about best friends Kate and Harriet. Their fathers are lighthouse keepers and the girls live with their families and workers in a small settlement. Things change for them when a fisherman arrives.

This book is a great read for elemental coastlines, intense female friendships, burgeoning desire, envy and the jumble of growing up.  

There is a foreshadowing from the very first page and as Kate continues her narration, she tells of regret and final moments and times before and after everything changes. As a reader you should get to enjoy all that anticipation and tension, so I’ll say no more.

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey, Text Publishing, 2020

Erica’s son has been given a life-sentence. Locked in her guilt and grief she moves to a small coastal cottage to be closer to his prison. She is a woman alone and doesn’t want company but she does want to build a labyrinth in her backyard and to do that, she needs people.

I liked the pace of this book, the wash of days into each other and the gradual revealing and healing of Erica. I also happened to walk the labyrinth at Cenntenial Park in Sydney a few weeks ago, and now understand the meditative appeal of Erica’s project more.

One of my pet peeves in novels is the description of dreams. This book had way too many. But, all good, I just skimmed forward until we got back to the narrative.

Family Life by Akhil Sharma, Faber, 2014

Ajay moves from India to America with his parents and older brother. It’s the 70s and the Indian community in New York is small. A few months after their arrival, Birju, the older brother has a swimming accident that leaves him with brain damage. He is bedbound, unable to communicate and in need of constant care.

Family Life changes to accommodate this. First, he’s in a nursing home and Ajay and his mum live close while his dad commutes. Later they move to New Jersey and bring Birju home for his care.

For a long time, Ajay feels like life is happening around but not to him. There are family friends who think they can heal Birju, the women who think his mum is a saint and the fact that his dad is drunk all the time. But time passes and as nothing changes with Birju, things slowly do for Ajay and his parents.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

Still in the pile. Still haven’t started it yet. Next month I say.

This tome was my only Christmas book (and it actually arrived in January). Anything over 500 pages seems to sink further down the book stack for sheer stability of the pile.

Billed as a generational family saga about Koreans in Japan, I missed the hype of this book when it came out but put it on my wish list after listening to this interview with Min Jin Lee on Conversations.

Sounds like once I get stuck in, I won’t be coming up for air for a while.

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Games you shouldn’t play

A few tips for your next game of ‘How old were they when they published their first book?

Before we start, a disclaimer. There is a small chance that playing How old were they when they published their first book? will make you feel better but a much bigger chance that it’ll make you feel worse. The older you get, the worse the odds are. Young players have a much higher likelihood of coming out satisfied.

Tip – Even young players might want to avoid the Romantic poets who have both early publication and death.

Here are a few authors you may want to try for a more reassuring outcome of how old they were when their first books were published:

Elizabeth Strout –42 years old

Marcel Proust – 43 years old

Julia Donaldson – 45 years old

J. R. R. Tolkien – 45 years old

Raymond Chandler – 51 years old

Daniel Defoe – 59 years old

Laura Ingalls Wilder – 65 years old

I usually only play this when I shouldn’t, when I’m already at a low ebb about where I’m at with my writing and publication possibilities. And of course, it usually makes me feel worse, which means I start avoiding the type of books I normally like to read because otherwise I’ll just do the maths and feel shitty again.

This week, I played a few rounds and got so disheartened that most of my reading pile became off-limits. When that happens, I usually head to the classics. They seem too out of my world for a direct comparison. I picked up Silas Marner and yet somehow, I found some things to envy in George Eliot’s literary trajectory.

My solution was to get out of fiction altogether. I headed over to Jonathon Driori’s Around the World in 80 trees where there is always solace and beauty to be found no matter how low my spirits.

Here are the rules but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Step 1

Read a book that you like written by an author who is a similar match to your own demographic (age, gender, genre….).

Step 2

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when the author was born.

Step 3

Read the bio/blurb to find out what their first book was.

Step 4

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when their first book was published.

Step 5

Head to Wikipedia for the above information if you can’t find it in the book.

Step 6

Do a detailed Google search to find any information that is not in the book or Wikipedia.

Step 7

Do some simple maths.

year of first book publication – year born = age that first book was published

Step 8

Compare their age to your age and react accordingly.

Final note – This game isn’t exclusive to writers. You can play by changing the author for any person in your chosen field and by changing a book to any achievement that you’re aiming for.

Have you got any more later-life debut authors that I can add to my list of reassurance?

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Subscription conniptions

It’s time to reassess the prescription when the anxiety of all your unread subscriptions overtakes the pleasure of actually reading them.

I’m way over-subscribed. There are so many great magazines, journals and newspapers whose writing I love and who need readers and subscribers. But for the past few years, and this year in particular, they’ve just piled up next to my bed. They don’t get mentioned in my monthly bedside bookstacks, because they don’t get read.

There’s a novel, whose title I can’t remember, about the editor of an English-language newspaper on the continent. My recall of exact plot details is as uncertain as my memory of the title (but that’s for another post and apparently something that Helen Garner and I have in common) but I think the owner of the paper is dead. His widow is still alive and here’s the part I do remember; she has a copy of every issue stacked up in her house and is slowly working her way through and reading them.

She’s years behind but just keeps ploughing on through them. It’s the only part of the book which has stayed with me, because sometimes I feel like that. My pile is more varied but the slog of ever getting through it, once it’s so big, just feels like a chore and obligation.

I have an early association about newspapers which still shadows how I treat these subscriptions. I seem to think that you have to read everything. Yes, that’s every article in order of the pages, regardless of whether it engages you or not. No one told me I had to do it like that but I was definitely shocked when I found out that most people were skipping around the pages based on what interested them.

This year all I wanted was fiction. I think my news capacity was filled with COVID-19 updates and all the ensuing fallout.

I’ve subscribed to the Monthly for around 20 years because I think it’s got some of Australia’s best journalism in it. After this year’s issues slowly stacked higher, I finally went through them two weeks ago. And the only way to get through the backlog is to pick and choose what you read. It still feels like a novel concept. I stopped my previous subscriptions to The Saturday Paper and Harpers after a couple of years because I hadn’t caught onto the skip and select method yet.

I got a gift subscription to Audrey Daybook (now Mindful Puzzles). It has the most gorgeous graphics and a mix of articles and puzzles but until my time has more realistic slots for a cup of tea and some time out, I won’t be renewing it.

I also have a subscription to Australian Book Review and Island because I think at any time, a writer should support at least one of the publications they submit to. I usually share my literary journal subscriptions around and over the years have had subscriptions to Westerly, the Lifted Brow, Overland, Meanjin, the Griffith Review and Granta. All of these are great journals with some great writing that are worth checking out, but my rule now is, one at a time.

I still love a subscription arriving in the mail. I love the flick of the pages and the tease of a front cover. I also think it’s important to support writing, especially in local publications. But the anxiety I get as my unread pile grows and the sense of obligation I then associate with getting through it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. It also hasn’t been a year of financial bounty.

So, I’m going to keep it simple for next year and stick to two subscriptions; one newsy and one creative. And if one of them is quarterly rather than monthly and I remember that it’s OK to skip or skim, then I won’t get buried in the backlog.

…..and if anyone knows the name of the novel I can’t remember, please let me know.

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The comfort of shared writing experiences

You’re not the only one who used to write limp internal characters that did nothing.

When I heard Australian author Charlotte Wood read an extract recently, I felt as though she’d taken it straight from my life. But this wasn’t fiction, hers or mine. She was talking about our younger writing-selves and how our uncertainty as women and as writers stopped our characters from actually doing anything.

I’ve never read a novel and thought, ‘This is me. This is my life!’ But last week, as I was coming back from the day care drop-off and listening to the First Time Podcast, Charlotte Wood’s answer to an Agony Aunt question made me stop. I leant against someone’s front fence to let her finish and delay the busy road that would’ve drowned her out. As she continued, she articulated everything I’d never been able to fully connect about the way I used to write.

I am a self-taught writer. I’ve never been a protégé, had a mentor, done a writing course or had a group to bounce things off. And it’s a slow apprenticeship when you do it that way around (I don’t recommend it).

My writing was good but it was muffled. It was as if any action happened in the shadows and any discussion was turned down low. I didn’t want to offend or get things wrong and so it was all slow-motion interiors and nicely phrased details. It was more like a written still life.

Charlotte Wood talked about how her younger writing-self believed that beautiful sentences and a good eye for detail should be enough to sustain a book and a reader’s interest. That was definitely me. Quoting from a speech explaining what Kate Jennings book Save Me, Joe Louis had taught her she said:

“My characters were invariably Sensitive Young Women. Inexplicably, men treated them callously. My young women observed their worlds closely – they noticed things… like dust motes floating in the air, or the dropped flower of a frangipani on a wet footpath…….

They arranged themselves in picturesque domestic scenes and, by keeping very still, themselves became decorative. They watched, and felt things, and ‘said nothing and turned away’.

The one thing my characters never, ever did back then was act – because to act would be to show yourself, to take a risk. And I was not ready for that.”

It was so comforting to be in good company and know that I wasn’t the only young female writer who had muzzled herself with self-doubt and didn’t trust herself to ask questions and take risks. I was looking for approval and to be liked.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still looking for approval. But one thing that passing time and an output of words does is liberate you. Charlotte Wood mentioned that fiction can lack a certain type of energy when you don’t take risks. It’s true. You’re clipping your own wings if you spend all your time needing to be liked, so it’s lucky that you eventually get bored of your characters being so passive and listless.

It’s a reminder though, that putting your name to words is no small thing. But with curiosity and a bit of courage comes liberation.

You can find the transcript of Charlotte Wood’s complete speech here. And if you’re going to listen to the First Time Podcast episode (which I recommend, I got a lot from her advice to the writer of a ‘quiet novel’) she reads the extract at 23 minutes and 20 seconds in.

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What you can learn as a writer from Robbie Arnott’s Flames

This bold and unpredictable debut novel is worth reading once as a reader and again as a writer.

Flames is the debut novel of Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott. The quote on my cover, from Richard Flanagan, declares it a ‘strange and joyous marvel’. He isn’t wrong.

Readers can get caught up in the language and leaps of magic realism that take you from the brine and obsession of a tuna fisherman to an anthropomorphised ember. Writers can watch and wonder how he does it.

In the early pages, it’s declared that women from the McAllister family sometimes come back after death. Half landscape and half person their re-arrival always ends in flames.

This sets in motion the flight and pursuit which sustains the novel. Levi McAllister wants to make a coffin for his sister, so she won’t have a chance to re-incarnate and can rest in peace. His sister Charlotte sees this as a good reason to leave.

With each chapter, everything shifts; the point of view (POV), tense, text type and even genre. As a reader you can move through the magic of this and as a writer, take your time to enjoy what he’s up to and how boldly he does it.

He moves from the crime/detective narrative of a private investigator, to the diary entries of a mad ranger, to the narrative of a water rat, the magic realism of his main character and the pure poetry that is fire’s own monologue.

If you’re scared of writing a novel, and think it’s too big to take on, maybe try slicing it up. These chapters could be separated and stand independently as short stories but turn into something unique when presented together.

Who knows if it was pure experimentation or something much more deliberate on his behalf? Strategic or not, the result is so interesting and strange. There’s plenty in there to inspire mixing things up a little in your own writing and seeing where it takes you.

Bookshelf bliss

A shelf full of books will always be a comfort and delight.

I recently watched a movie and at different times a son and a father moved into new places and had to find things to put on their empty shelves. Empty shelves? The idea just doesn’t compute.

I don’t think our place will ever have enough shelf space. We have books lying horizontal across vertical rows. I think there are one or two shelves which even have double rows. I know, not fair at all to the inside titles who never get to see the light of the lounge room. There are book piles by our bedsides and piles that have collected where children left them.

I know people love their negative space but for me the joy of a bookshelf is to see it full. There is something so comforting about a full bookshelf in all its proud coloured glory. I love walking past houses where people don’t shut their curtains, especially at dusk. I’m a bit nosy anyway but seeing into rooms with a bookshelf at capacity is just a delight.

I read an article by a writer who had dumped all her books in favour of a digital library. She wrote of how bereft she then felt, looking around and suddenly being a person without books. Marie Kondo copped it when she said people shouldn’t have more than 30 books. I think it got taken out of context. Her philosophy is about keeping what you love and she’s obviously not that big on books. I’m happy to thin the ranks and pass on what doesn’t mean anything to me anymore but the physical presence of books on a shelf is what sparks joy for me.

I am also prone to bookshelf envy. But it’s a light envy, because really, it’s love. Pinterest sends me the most dazzling shots of bookshelves and I love reading library features with their angled shots of tiered shelves. My friend recently had bookshelves built into her study, two wonderful stacks that reach the ceiling. Bliss. Her sister has a reading room. I wasn’t sure they even existed outside Austen novels. Swoon.

Even drawings of bookshelves will do. Julia Donaldson’s wonderful picture book The Detective Dog follows the mystery of some stolen school books. There’s a page near the end when the book thief is introduced to the local library. We’ve read it hundreds of times and I still love turning the page for the big reveal – a double page covered in bookshelves.

Thousands of books from the floor to the ceiling. The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.

The Detective Dog, Julia Donaldson

That’s exactly how it feels.

Who will you be when the masks come off?

What will you do differently when the hand sanitiser is put away and we can hold each other as close and tight as we want to?

Six months ago, COVID-19 came along. Under a microscope, it looked like a red wedding bouquet but coronavirus turned our little lives inside out. Our mortality and vulnerability were suddenly obvious. Touch and proximity disappeared. Industries and their jobs vanished.

And we were all told to stay home. No school or office. Commutes disappeared, so did most weeknight obligations. No visiting family or friends. No swimming lessons or yoga practice. No movie nights or catch-up coffees. No park play-dates. No live music or after show eats. No leg waxing or window shopping. No street vendors. No travel. No hugs and kisses.

As I pined for connection with family and friends, I also realised how much I needed to get outside. I craved nature, greenery, ocean air, any contact with the world other than the four walls I lived in. We took walks, discovered new pockets of our area and talked to neighbours we didn’t know.

The weekends stretched out to become almost spacious. I had time to walk to the pace of my two-year old and was sad to realise that I usually tugged him along. And how nice was it to see the parks with people in them and families riding their bikes together?

With all the white noise of normal life muted, there was more time to think -not about the bigger picture of globalisation or economic models, but on a personal level about what really matters. I certainly won’t take touch and its connection for granted. I’d like community and kindness to be a bigger part of my life. I’d like to keep the pace in step with my kids and have time to cook and play and walk as a family.

When the world went on hold, my to-do list shrunk and I was liberated from all the other mental ‘stuff’ that constantly hovers on my periphery. Now the restrictions are being eased and I hope that I can hold onto some of my lockdown lessons. 

It’s human instinct to reassess when your life has been interrupted in such a dramatic way. What will you jettison and what will you keep when the masks come off?

Shakespeare, me and an unchanged signature

Anyone else still using the loopy mess they invented when they were 10?

Apparently when Shakespeare was bored he would practise signatures over and over to decide which one he liked the best. When I was ten I, like Shakespeare, was bored and decided it was time to invent my signature.

A signature was such an adult gesture. I wanted to emulate the sophisticated copperplate loops I’d seen. However, my cohort at school didn’t learn copperplate handwriting. Our cursive was called ‘foundation’ handwriting and it was really just print tenuously held together by little curls from one letter to the next. There was nothing romantic or slanted. Foundation handwriting was all function and no flourish.

There are a few decisions to be made when you create a signature. Do you use your full name, initials or an initial and a surname? I decided on a very loopy N Cullen. I was proud that the N was surrounded by the C of my surname. It seemed like a clever touch. And, yes, it’s as bubbly and tween as it sounds. It’s lucky I didn’t use Nina, because there’d probably still be a heart over the i. This was supposed to be my understudy signature while I perfected some neat and impressive cursive squiggle worthy of the important documents it would one day grace.

Then I started signing things; a kids’ bank account, a passport, birthday cards. 10 years later when I wanted to dissociate myself from this loopy embarrassment, I’d signed too many things. I had a driver’s licence and a bank card. Every official document that’d been pushed under my pen had the same signature.

I never sat down again to nut out my signature and create something with a bit more dignity. Luckily, signatures don’t matter now as much as they used to. Cheques barely exist and I don’t even think you sign the back of your credit card anymore. Legal and medical documents still need you to make your personal mark but I’ve made peace with my squiggles now. It makes me look young.