You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Writing is the best thing too’ category.

It has been quite a while – a couple of decades, to be frank – since I have written poetry for the page, as opposed to libretti or simply lyrics, so it is rather lovely to have a poem published in RABBIT, a prominent Australian literary journal. This issue, number 32, focusses on ‘form’, which is something I love thinking about, and then tie myself in knots trying to make work. But not just work; I want the whole thing to be alive.

The poem is called ‘Astronomical’ and is about how, even (especially?) in the depths of the night, it is possible to be infinite.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed writing the libretto for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT (commissioned by the Hume Conservatorium in New South Wales, with music by James Humberstone), and there are song lyrics in my new play-in-development, it has been good to worry about how a poem works on the page rather than about how the words might be sung and resonate with an audience hearing them in the context of a performed work.

A poem does not necessarily make a good song lyric, and vice versa.

So I am learning.

In any case, many thanks to guest editors Charmaine Papertalk Green and Stuart Barnes. Thanks also to Melinda Smith for introducing me to the concept of duende, which has changed my writing in so many ways. (If you would like to know more about duende, you may wish to check out this terrific essay by Tracy K Smith.)

If you would like to check out RABBIT 32, just drop a click here.

Over and out.

It has been a tough year and as usual books have saved the day – on a number of occasions I’ve found myself clutching my latest read to my chest, as though it was a hot-water bottle or a long-lost friend.

Here are a few that got me through.

Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton) is Bernadine Evaristo’s playful yet punchy joint-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. The novel explores the power and politics of race and love and art, among many other things, doing it in a way that verges on poetry. Adding to the beguiling mix is the fact that this is a collection of interlinked short stories. Despite all that, it hangs together so beautifully – it is peopled with characters who are fighting against the system, sometimes winning, sometimes not. To my mind this novel deserves all the accolades it has received. I have held it to my chest more than any other this year.

Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me (Penguin), as translated by Molly Ringwald, takes a familiar story – a man remembers a high-school love – and mines it for considerable emotional resonance. I have read a number of Besson novels and he is a master of conviction and brevity. With this latest work, he is devastating in the way he explores the trials and tribulations of love, especially gay love, and the final paragraph is one of the most powerful I have read in years. A book to read in one sitting, and be blown away.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books Originals) was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and I can see why: this is a novel that, like Girl, Woman, Other, powerfully explores and expresses the dynamics of race, this time on an American campus. It is truly heart-breaking; Taylor is a courageous writer – he is especially good at bringing to examining relationships between men, in terms of both sex and friendship. I read the novel across three days and I could not stop thinking about it, and I will not stop thinking about it.

Speaking of examining relationships between men, I read two novels by Garth Greenwell this year: What Belongs to You and Cleanness (Picador), both of which I found to be stunning to the point where I almost hurt physically. In a way both novels contain loosely connected stories, but the overall impact is truly stunning. Greenwell has an ability to start with the simplest of propositions – receiving an email from a father, who is unwell and will die soon – and the riff on it for pages, sometimes without any paragraph breaks; it is as though he just lets himself go – he is finding out what he thinks as he writes, and his readers are swept along in the process. Breathtaking.

Karen Wyld’s debut novel, Where the Fruit Falls (UWAP), is a multi-generational Indigenous epic that cuts to the core of the Australian psyche. This is essentially a realist work, but Wyld brings to it elements of magic realism as she tracks the impact of colonialism on First Nations people. By the end I cared deeply about the people of this story and was once again reminded that Australia as a country has so much work to do in terms of rebuilding a most equitable nation, one that values all life. Here’s hoping we hear much more from Wyld.

Speaking of debuts, Sam Coley’s State Highway One (Hachette) is a moving tale about returning to New Zealand to put together the pieces of a young life. Coley is a writer who brings a delicious sense of humour to his characters and their dialogue. He is terrifically good at bringing to life the sometimes fraught relationship between siblings. What is especially appealing about this particular novel is the novel can – and probably should – be read twice, because there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber) is one of the best novels about male friendship and music I have read in years. In the first section of the novel a group of friends celebrate finishing school by going on a series of benders, taking drugs and seeing bands – in a way it is familiar territory, but O’Hagan’s characters are intelligent and culturally and political aware, so their banter is hugely entertaining. In the second section, we have moved on thirty years and one of the friends is now dying of cancer, meaning the tone of the novel changes significantly. O’Hagan’s rendering of the conclusion – that true friends will be supportive, no matter what – will stick in my mind for years.

In terms of non-fiction, Olive Cotton: A Life in Photography (4th Estate) by Helen Ennis is a masterclass in compassionate biography. Cotton was once married to Max Dupain, arguably Australia’s most famous photographer, giving us the iconic ‘Sunbaker’ image. Cotton and Dupain were teenage sweethearts but their marriage took a toll on Cotton’s own photographic practice, as was common at the time (and no doubt still is). The marriage failed and Cotton left Sydney to start a new life, in the country with a new man. Due to the depth of Ennis’s research and the warmth of her writing, Cotton well and truly comes to life and I was deeply moved by the end.

Tegan Bennet Daylight’s The Details (Scribner) is a collection of essays about writing, parenting, and death – I read some essays twice and will no doubt read them again. Daylight writes with extraordinary precision and, at times, a confronting honesty. There is so much skill in every sentence: nothing is overwritten; the meaning is crystal clear. The Details, I think, compares with the best of Helen Garner’s work.

I also loved Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler (UQP), which explores the devastating impact of industrial agriculture on Australia’s landscapes and their ecologies. This is a brick of a book and it is filled with science and philosophy, but Massey writes in an accessible and engaging way. As someone who spends so much time driving through farmland, I now can’t stop looking at what is growing in the paddocks and what isn’t, and I also can’t stop imagining what might have been if the British colonisers had been more open to appreciating the existing systems and cultures rather than imposing one from the other side of the world.

For the poetry lovers, Melinda Smith brings misogyny to its knees in Man-handled (Recent Work Press). This collection is necessarily angry, but as always with Smith the skill is evident in every line – she is a poet who knows exactly what she is doing, and there are frequent fireworks. What I love most about her collections is the terrific variety, especially in terms of accessibility: one poem will stretch me as a reader (a good thing), the next will open out immediately and delight within seconds.

In The Other Flesh (UWAP) Robbie Coburn reveals the loneliness and isolation he has experienced in regional Australia. Despite being still in his twenties, Coburn has been writing and publishing poetry for some years. He is especially good in writing about mental illness. This is very fine poetry, and Coburn asks you to sit within him as he shares his experiences. Yes, this is emotionally raw, but every line has been worked and worked some more until there are depths and layers, encouraging slow reading, and re-reading. No doubt we will be hearing a lot more from Robbie Coburn.

Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word, edited by David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu (UQP) is an extensive and timely collection of poetry written for the stage (rather than for the page). The editors have a longstanding commitment to holding space for writers from diverse backgrounds who have a diverse range of subject matter. I was incredibly moved by the work in Solid Air and my being has been exposed to issues and predicaments that have otherwise passed me by. Highly recommended.

Snowfalls. Orange skies. Face-masks. Raging flames. Ash on the letterbox. Hail the size of apples. Half a billion animals gone. Dead trees. Lives lost. Floods.

It was the Summer from Hell in Australia.

And now the daffodils are coming up. In March. As they say in polite society: what the fuck?

Still, writing manages to happen.

Firstly, I was chuffed to have been asked to write a piece for the special Australian Issue of the CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW, which is now out. I wrote about my childhood in the Blue Mountains, Patrick White, and one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made.

The opening paragraph:

I stood on the edge of the lane and stared at the black house, at the old concrete water tank, at the lawn stones that might have been foundations. Some minutes later, after deciding that as it was midweek and the house likely a weekender, I took a step, then another— until I was standing in the garden, in the very place where my bedroom had once been. I stretched out my arms as if to touch the missing walls and said, “This is where it happened.”

Such an honour to share the pages with writers such as Claire G Coleman, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Krissy Kneen, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Behrouz Boochani, Van Badham, David Malouf, Kim Mahood, Simon Cleary, Quinn Eades, and Inga Simpson among many others.

While writing for the page continues to be my focus, writing for the stage is something I’m doing more and more, even though I never intended to go in this direction. Ah, the twists and turns in the writing life.

So, it was rather exciting to be informed recently that three of my songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT will be performed in November this year at Carnegie Hall’s Recital Hall in New York by international baritone David Wakeham.

To be frank, this is rather special: the song cycle, the score for which was written by the amazing James Humberstone, is about a high-raking Australian soldier who returns from his latest tour of Afghanistan with a dark secret; all he wants to do is heal on his family’s grazing property on the Southern Tablelands – what he doesn’t know is that his family have a dark secret of their own.

To have elements of the work performed in the US? Mind-blowing.

Finally, earlier this month I spent two days at The Street Theatre in Canberra. Three songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT may well be off to New York, but I have a new work for the stage in the very early phase of development i.e. crappy words on bits of paper.

Is it another song cycle? Perhaps it’s more of a play with songs?

Thanks to some lovely funding from Create NSW, I was able to spend two days with Wollongong-based dramaturge Anne-Louise Rentell. Together we talked about big ideas and then we tore the draft into small pieces and started putting it back together.

Not all the words are coming together yet, but here are a few:

A boat, I see

an empty boat blown by the wind

to the shore

 

of a lake filled to the brim

with life-giving water

that’s no more, like three boys

 

They drowned, they said,

and I believed them

Is the script in a better shape now? Yes. What’s the next step? Who knows. But I do love being in the creative space, both physically and mentally.

Thanks again to Create NSW for the opportunity, The Street Theatre for hosting these preliminary creative-development sessions, Anne-Louise Rentell for pushing me into some uncomfortable terrain (almost literally), David Sharpe for joining the dots, and Paul Scott-Williams from the Hume Conservatorium, who, by commissioning me all those years ago to write the libretto for what became THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, sent me in this exciting direction.

Perhaps if humanity survives long enough there might be a new work on the stage before long?

Quite honestly, who knows.

Who knows.

This year, which was bonkers (and not in a good way), was one that was both softened and enlarged by reading. Every year there are truly spectacular books, those that genuinely get under your skin and you think about them for weeks, if not months or longer. What follows is not a list of books I consider ‘the best’ (as if I’d know) but ones that have resonated in a way that was surprising, or beautiful, or funny, or shocking, sometimes all at once – and more.

Although I don’t usually break my reading down into genre or geographic categories, I have this time, only because the list is long and some structure might be useful.

Australian novels I enjoyed this year include Melissa Lucashenko’s cheeky but powerful and very necessary TOO MUCH LIP, Charlotte Wood’s moving and piercingly astute THE WEEKEND, RWC McDonald’s wondrously joyful THE NANCYS, and Simon Cleary’s THE WAR ARTIST, which is a timely addition to Australian literature that dares to question our apparently unbounded love of military history. Other novels that packed a necessary punch are Andrew Goldsmith’s intricately drawn INVENTED LIVES, THE BREEDING SEASON by Amanda Niehaus (my review for the Canberra Times here), and THE ORCHARDIST’S DAUGHTER, Karen Viggers’ study of Tasmanian forest ecology and the human lives that depend on it. THE PILLARS by Peter Polites puts a dagger through Sydney’s obsession with real estate; the novel actually does so much more. INVISIBLE BOYS by Holden Sheppard is a no-bullshit exploration of growing up gay in regional Western Australia – the novel and its author are attracting a huge fanbase and it’s not hard to see why. Finally, three novels that deserve to be widely read are Julie Keys’ THE ARTIST’S PORTRAIT, which is such an ambitious and unique historical novel about art and memory, HITCH by Kathryn Hind (my review for the Canberra Times here), and IN WHOM WE TRUST by one of Australia’s greatest living prose writers, John Clanchy.

Novels from overseas that I adored include HAPPINESS by the always wise Aminatta Forna, THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez, and Max Porter’s utterly magical – and devastating – LANNY. I finally read works by Rachel Cusk – TRANSIT – and Elizabeth Strout – OLIVE, AGAIN – and, oh my goodness, both were extraordinary and I will be reading more of both. To my mind, the novel of the year, if not the decade, was Ocean Vuong’s ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, which knocked my socks off, partly because it gently though forcefully reveals the inter-generational impact of war and partly because the language is so poetically exposed.

I read some very moving Australian non-fiction this year, including GROWING UP QUEER (edited by Benjamin Law), Laura Dawes’ FIGHTING FIT, which scientifically and entertainingly explores the many ways Britain kept its home population healthy during the Second World War, Chloe Higgins’ tragic and remarkably vulnerable THE GIRLS, James Halford’s wonderfully drawn essays about his love of Latin American literature as collected in REQUIEM WITH YELLOW BUTTERFLIES, and Patrick Mullins’ impeccably researched and thoughtfully written biography of the much-maligned Australian prime minister Billy McMahon – TIBERIUS WITH A TELEPHONE. I found THE SATURDAY PORTRAITS by Maxine Beneba Clarke incredibly moving and does a lot to reveal the challenges presented by contemporary Australia. I very much enjoyed Peter Papathanasiou’s LITTLE ONE, which is a joyful memoir about determination and crossing boundaries (in many ways). NO FRIEND BUT THE MOUNTAINS by Behrouz Boochani is an extraordinary – and deeply poetry – chronicle of ‘life’ in this country’s deplorable refugee prisons, and THE ERRATICS by Vicki Laveau-Harvie shows how powerful prose can be, especially when focused on a highly dysfunctional family.

I didn’t read as many poetry collections as I would have liked, though the form is a regular part of my reading. I loved ANOTHER LANGUAGE by Eileen Chong, and I had my own celebration of Mary Oliver, lapping up the Pulitzer Prize-winning AMERICAN PRIMATIVE and LONG LIFE, which is a collection of essays, many playful, interspersed with Oliver’s typically accessible though always moving poetry.

Surrounded by the paintings of Myuran Sukumaran , April 2018. Photo credit: Tuggeranong Arts Centre

One of the joys – and, to be frank, surprises – of the last few years has been collaborating on music projects. I’ve spent much of the last three decades in my writing room with only a cup of coffee for company, so it’s wonderful to work in a different form and with others, even if, in the main, I continue to be focused on the words.

There has been THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, for which I was commissioned by the Hume Conservatorium to write the libretto for a new song cycle, with the music composed by James Humberstone – this work was developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra, where it had its premiere in 2018, before being performed in Goulburn and Sydney. During the writing of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, James and I took a few days out to write ‘Yes of Love’, a song in support of Australia’s push to enshrine marriage equality. Late last year, Andrew Bull AKA Hyperconfidence, asked me to write and – gasp – perform some spoken-word lyrics, which he turned into a dance track called ‘We are Freedom’.

There’s been a fourth music project bubbling away.

Back in February last year, the Tuggeranong Arts Centre invited me to spend a day sitting in ‘Another Day in Paradise’, a travelling exhibition of paintings by Myruran Sukumaran, a convicted drug smuggler who the Indonesian Government executed by firing squad in April 2015. Other artists participated in the event, which was called ‘The Final Hours’. I decided to invite my old friend Pete Lyon to join me – he is a singer-songwriter who for many years has performed with the popular acoustic-pop duo The Cashews. I first wrote about this project here.

Inspired by Sukumaran’s work, Pete and I left the Tuggeranong Arts Centre at the end of the day with the sketches of five songs, most of which were recorded on Pete’s phone. We then developed the songs: I rewrote, edited, and polished the lyrics; and together we reflected on the music we had made in the Arts Centre, slowly rebuilding them into songs that people might be interested in listening to. Although my musicianship is extremely limited, from the beginning of this project I said that I would like to try and play some of the music, even ‘write’ some of it – in other words, put my fingers on a piano’s keyboard or on some guitar strings and see what happened.

Gear in Goulburn, June 2018

For the rest of the year, once every few weeks, Pete and I met up to work – in Goulburn, before we moved to his place in Canberra, where he has a small studio. Slowly we layered up the tracks, adding vocals and harmonies. We put the work aside, before we came back to it, adding new elements and re-recorded parts that needed improving.

One of the things I love about collaborative projects is the discussion about creative choices, and both Pete and I were keen to make simple songs in which listeners would be able to find room to reflect on Sukumaran’s work, either directly or indirectly. Even though we both have a longstanding position on the death penalty, we were not making a protest album – our goal was to make a suite of secular hymns. We also chose to limit our musical pallet to piano and acoustic guitar, which would be recorded as raw as possible. Imperfections were embraced.

Although our original intention was to finish the work by the end of 2018, we decided to put the songs aside for much of the summer (my mother died just after Christmas) before doing one or two final sessions. The songs were then mixed and mastered by by Kimmo Vennonen of KV Productions. An album cover was designed by John Fry of Six Heads.

And now, here we are with THE FINAL HOURS available for listening and purchase through Bandcamp.

All proceeds of the songs will be donated to an Australian art-in-prison program.

Art work by John Fry, Six Heads, Melbourne

Four of the songs were directly inspired by particular paintings of Sukumaran’s. For example ‘If I Were You’ is a response to his portrait of his mother; and ‘Indonesian Flag’ is a response to the last painting he made, which is of the Indonesian flag – when exhibited it was shown away from the wall so viewers could see that on the back were the signatures of those to be executed, some of whom took the opportunity to leave messages about wishing Indonesia well. The last song, ‘He They I We’, Pete first recorded in the last half an hour of the original day in the Arts Centre – singing in Indonesian, a language he learned while living for a time in Sarawak, Borneo, he says in essence, we will not forget Myruran and his fellow executed prisoners.

Making THE FINAL HOURS has been an intense, exposing, and rewarding experience. Intense because of the subject matter (in more ways than one); exposing because for the first time I have directly helped make some music; and rewarding because it is always thrilling to make new work, no matter what the form, and because it seemed that one minute Pete and I were spindly 20-year-olds housemates and strumming guitars at midnight, the next – i.e. 30 years later – we had the opportunity to make something tangible, maybe even lasting.

As always, I’ve learned that taking risks can be a good thing, although I know I’m sufficiently privileged to not be in a position where I feel that I have no choice but to risk my life.

It is, in a way, an act of withdrawal, and I worry about it sometimes.

I am spending more and more time reading and alone. How healthy can that be? But let’s be honest: for a natural hermit, it is very healthy, especially when I am fortunate to have a room dedicated to books—a private library.

Eight years ago, partly due to good luck and partly due to a desire to put literature at the centre of my being, I left Canberra for a town an hour away, in regional New South Wales. Although I would need to continue earning an income, I could, if luck kept smiling on me, live on the smell of an oily rag. My plan was to spend the majority of each week writing, but I have found, thankfully, that I am spending as much time reading—day after day of it, all in the smallest room in my crumbling old cottage.

In the library is a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that were there when I moved in, as well as an old green Hordern & Sons wood-heater (it is rarely used, because it tends to smoke out the house) and a tartan couch that I bought for $30 from the local Vinnies but is a bit too short for my body. In winter, when the mornings sometimes start with a horrifying minus 10 degrees, I read under two blankets: one, a mix of oranges and reds, was my grandmother’s; the other, which is as green as the wood-heater and the couch, was my mother’s and given to her by a school friend—my mother is now in a nursing home and battling dementia, so the gift came to me earlier this year.

In summer I am sprawled only in black T-shirt and grey shorts, the soles of my feet gritty with dirt because I like to get up every hour or so and hand-water the garden…

*

Keep reading over at Meanjin, which commissioned this piece and first published it on 26 September 2018.

‘Self-Portrait’ by Myuran Sukumaran (2015, detail)

The closer it got, the more agitated I became.

Back in February this year the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in Canberra invited me to participate in The Final Hours, a day-long, vigil-like residency to be held in conjunction with Another Day in Paradise, the exhibition of paintings by Myuran Sukumaran, an Australian man convicted for drug-trafficking and sentenced by the Indonesian government to be killed by firing squad. (Another Day in Paradise was first presented, in 2017, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre.) I’ve been a long-time opponent of the death penalty and had followed the story of ‘The Bali Nine’, as did most Australians, so I said yes to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s invitation, but decided that I would collaborate with Pete Lyon, a singer-songwriter and good friend – no doubt I didn’t want to do this alone.

In the weeks before The Final Hours, Pete and I met twice. At our first meeting, we talked about our approach – we decided that it might be best to simply see what happened on the day and when surrounded by Myuran’s art work. At our second meeting, we sat down with Pete’s proposed equipment set-up to confirm what we’d take with us (it had to fit in the back of a small car); this discussion also included making notes on the preliminary themes or ideas we might explore, such as raw, authentic, reflective, compassionate, hope, and the possibility and redemption of change.

While our proposal was for Pete to write the music and I would write the lyrics, we had also indicated that I might try and write some of the music, which is a bit like asking a dog to be a cat. Not wanting to make a fool of myself – the gallery would be open to the public – I practiced a set of very basic guitar chords as well as some scales and notes on the piano in my house, the piano I used to play by ear as a teenager. While I adore music, my musicianship is extremely limited; Pete has spent the majority of his life writing, performing, and recording.

But when in doubt (which is almost always the case), just jump in, hey?

After all, that was my approach to THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, a song cycle I wrote with composer James Humberstone, which has gone on to become something much bigger than either of us and is still being performed.

In the gallery and to work. Image courtesy of the Tuggeranong Arts Centre

The day came for The Final Hours to commence and by 8am Pete and I had set up the gear in the gallery. It was time to get down to work. We chose the nearest series of paintings, titled ‘Prison Life’, plucked out some notes on guitar and keyboard (one of which was another instrument from my childhood but ended up in Pete’s hands); meanwhile I banged together some lyrics – we practiced the song once, then pressed the record button on the laptop. We chose another painting, selected some more notes and lyrics, and pressed record again.

Until, rather miraculously, we had five demos, or sketches.

Done, for now

It was intense, of course, and gut-wrenching – Myuran’s work is powerful, unapologetic, intellectually and emotionally open, and confronting for those of us lucky enough to have to do nothing more than engage, reflect, and respond. However, the experience was also surprisingly uplifting, even joyful: the human spirit, even when extinguished, is a mighty beast. But also because Pete and I have known each other for thirty years; back in the late 1980s we used to live in a Canberra share-house together and mucked around with guitars in the living-room, eventually recording some songs together but never releasing or performing them. I threw myself headlong into literature, and Pete found collaborators who could actually play their instruments and sing a note. But there we were, on 29 April 2018, sitting in a corner of a gallery, passing guitars between us, pressing keys and buttons, creating music.

What happens now? Both of us are committed to developing the songs as much as we can, eventually making them available by the end of the year on a platform yet to be decided. Right now we are not sure how the development process will unfold, or what the final outcome will be, but we very much would love to share the experience given to us by Myuran Sukumaran and the Tuggeranong Arts Centre.

Orang ini tak akan terlupakan.

This year has been a wild ride in so many ways (more about that at a later date) and, as usual, reading has provided solace, sustenance, challenge, and adventure. I’ve reached the point where I’d like to be given home-detention so all I can do is read; being given home-library detention would be even better. For what it’s worth – very little, most likely – the following are the books that got beneath my skin this year. Needless to say, if I made the list tomorrow, it would probably be different. In any case, here goes.

Position Doubtful: mapping landscape and memory by Kim Mahood (Scribe) is a fearlessly articulate – and appropriately dry-eyed – love-letter to the Australian desert, in particular the Tanimi. So very skillfully Mahood takes us through her decades-long experience of that part of the world, slowly revealing what to many (most?) will always be a place of both mystery and spirit. Threaded throughout are observations about friendship and the search for home. Sublime.

Despite, or because of, my advancing years, I very much enjoyed No Way! Okay Fine by Brodie Lancaster (Hachette). Sub-titled ‘a memoir of pop culture, feminism and feelings’, Lancaster adroitly explores a range of challenging issues, such as body image, love in all its often messy and confusing guises, and the pleasures and power of pop music. Even though at heart I remain a skinny-black-jeans-wearing indy-music kid, I was genuinely moved by Lancaster’s adoration of pop-music stars such as One Direction, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift. Thoughtful and entertaining.

Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (UWAP) won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award and deservedly so. The story focuses on a man, a retired structural engineer, who has recently moved to a retirement village. It takes an enormous amount of skill to build narrative momentum out of such a constrained scenario, but gradually Wilson goes deeper and deeper into the man’s history and his family environment. What especially appeals is the humour, the knife-sharp prose, and the sheer ambition. A unique reading experience.

Speaking of unique reading experiences, in The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin) Heather Rose takes a similarly constrained premise – a group of people watching performance artist Marina Abramović sitting at a table and staring at the ‘sitter’ opposite – and crafting a story that does exactly what it says on the tin: explores many facets of what it’s like to love in this day and age. Ticking two other boxes for me, Rose’s 2017  Stella Prize-winning novel also delves into music and architecture. Very memorable. Side note: it’s been reported that it took Heather Rose seventy drafts to get the novel right. How’s that for tenacity.

Pushing uniqueness to the limit, George Saunders’ Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) is all it’s cracked up to be. Like many readers, the first 30 pages almost had me tossing the novel into the nearest bin, but then something clicked and I was able to enjoy this fresh and eminently playful reading experience. What especially appealed to me was how the work busts out of all the known forms: in a way it’s a play, but it could also be a film-script, even a verse novel. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Staying with the playful, I’ve written previously about my admiration for Cassandra Atherton’s work. Exhumed (Grand Parade Poets) is another collection of prose poems that is such a delight it really is quite magical. Atherton’s work bounces from one word and phrase to another, without ever losing sight of the core idea in each piece. Do search it out and be delighted.

Back to more conventional storytelling, in To Become a Whale (Allen & Unwin), Ben Hobson tells a tale about a thirteen-year-old boy dealing with the loss of this mother and a father who is in all kinds of trouble. Setting much of the novel in the world of whale hunting (which, thankfully, in Australia is a thing of the past), Hobson explores masculinity in all its contradictions and strangeness. The prose is crystal-clear, and enveloping this rather sad story is a loving swell of emotion and humanity.

Being a resident of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, I’m fortunate to live in one of the most peaceful parts of the world. Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldma, in Kingdom of Olives and Ash: writers confront the occupation (HarperCollins), a diverse range of authors, from Geraldine Brooks to Colm Tóibín, experience what it’s like to live in Palestine under the occupation of Israel. Despite the variety of voices and the different writing forms, the conclusion is always the same: when one nation has a stranglehold on another, human beings are diminished. No doubt it is naïve, but one can only hope that this dire situation is resolved sooner rather than later – it certainly can’t be left to go on for another 50 years.

This year I also thoroughly enjoyed Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP), Wimmera by Mark Brandi (Hachette), and As the Lonely Fly by Sarah Dowse (For Pity Sake).

j-01j-02j-05j-04j-5-1j-06j-07j-08j-09

 

 

Toni Morrison‘Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was – there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard – but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular…Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage with this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me.’ – Toni Morrison, The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II, 2007

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 195 other followers