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Sam van Zweden

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Review: Shibboleth, ed. Laurie Steed

shibbolethIn Jo Riccioni’s short story, ‘Shibboleth’, ex-lovers visit the Tate Modern to see Doris Salcedo’s installation, ‘Shibboleth’. The story’s protagonist feels ‘a primal shock, the life-sized rupture of it in all that civilised space’. The story runs for a short 12 pages, but gestures far more widely than those confines without feeling too ambitious. A shared past is cobbled together from snippets. The dialogue glows with the warmth and idiosyncrasy of talk between familiar people. This is the story that won the 2016 Margaret River Short Story Competition, and the story which provides the title for a new book from Margaret River Press, compiling outstanding entries from that competition.

I know little-to-nothing about what happens in the writing world of Western Australia, and I’m both apologetic for and embarrassed by this. I suspect it’s unconscious urban south-eastern literary snobbery at work. But WA accounts for such a large portion of our country, it’s silly not to make a priority of knowing what’s happening there – such as the good work done at Margaret River Press. This collection features writers from Australia and New Zealand, but also (importantly) new and exciting voices from WA, including the winner of the Southwest Prize, awarded to a writer from south western WA (this year, Phil Sparrow’s story ‘Theo’).

The vast majority of writers in this collection are female. The experience level of the writers included varies greatly, ranging from a first publication, through to the winner of this year’s VPLA for an unpublished manuscript, and others with major awards and big-name publications under their belts. Casting an eye over the author bios at the back of the book, it looks like this collection could, in years to come, be a bit of an early who’s-who in the world of Australian fiction.

Salcedo’s art work, alluded to in Shibboleth’s cover art, is a huge installation. It’s a fissure in the gallery floor, the kind of damage done by a massive earthquake, only this is man-made. It’s a stunning image that stands at the centre of the award-winning story, but it also provides a wonderful unifying motif for all the stories in the collection.

Again and again, these stories riff on that gap – for better or worse. Maybe it pulls people apart. Maybe it’s something to be overcome. The crack’s still there though. These stories acknowledge the existence of the gaps, and all our attempts and failures to bridge them. In ‘Shibboleth’ it’s what comes between the central characters, and its protagonist scoffs at the tactless metaphor. Throughout the collection, these chasms also exist between carers and patients (’It Used to be a Boyd’, ‘Flight’, ‘Theo’), and between who we are and who we’d rather be (’Teacher’ and ‘Fork in the Path’). It’s the space between the limits of human behaviour – the awful, as in ‘Fork in the Path’ and ‘Composition’, and the redeeming, as in ‘Teacher’ and ‘Flight’. Between the familiar and the strange; exploring the rub of strange places and new experiences, or the moments where the the repetition of the same-old reaches breaking point. Sometimes it’s literal, where physical structures separate us, like animal enclosures (‘Thirsty’) and wards (‘Theo’). Or perhaps it’s the space either side of death (‘Flight’ and ‘A House’) or grief (’Before they had Teeth’, ‘The Sea also Waits’). Again and again, the stories in Shibboleth act as meditations on what brings us together and what sets us apart. It looks at the tears – large and small – that appear in the fabric of the things that make us human. The faults and cracks. And the tiny, skipped rhythms of everyday life.

The Southwest Prize winning entry, ‘Theo’ (Phil Sparrow) is about the ease with which we can slip away from being able to care for ourselves. It talks of those complacent to this reality as ‘They who thought they were safe’. Shibboleth, as a whole, cumulates as a study in the faults in that safety. At any moment things could change; these stories are pivotal moments.

The collection is at its best when the stories act as a catalogue of things that the form does so well: tiny moments of unease, glittering language, and stunning central images (such as Shibboleth, or the baby trees at Tana Toraja).

I didn’t love all the stories in this collection – with 24 stories in there, that was always unlikely. But the ones that got me really got me. ‘Le Farfalle’ and ‘Before they had Teeth’ both left me wanting more. My favourite story, ‘It Used to be a Boyd’ is about a mock wedding that happens every week in a nursing home, because ‘everyone loves a wedding’. The aged care worker at its centre, and the resident with whom she connects, felt very real.

There’s a paradox in really good short stories where they manage to feel bigger than they actually are, for their gesturing beyond the bounds of their page length. At their longest, the stories in Shibboleth run for 12 pages. At their shortest, just four. They’re very ‘just-one-more’ish, and fit easily into commutes or before-bed reads.

In just a few sittings, Shibboleth took me around the world, into lives I’d never heard of. It introduced me to characters both sympathetic and not, and to writers I can’t wait to hear more from (Magdalena McGuire and Cassie Hamer, I’m looking at you!). It pivoted gracefully around the chasm introduced in Jo Riccioni’s title story, and made me consider the turning points and breaks in my own life.

Entries for next year’s Margaret River Short Story Competition are open, with Ellen van Neerven editing. If this year’s shortlist is anything to go by, the competition will be fierce.

So Sad Today review

 

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So Sad Today presents unique new possibilities for our relationships with our mental health in an age where severing painful thoughts and sending them out into the void of the internet can serve a number of functions: defusion, therapy, confession, meaning-making. These essays, and the @sosadtoday Twitter account work so well because they defuse awful thoughts by flattening them to black and white marks on a screen or page, drawing out the power of thoughts and observations that might otherwise take your breath away with despair.”

I reviewed Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today – a collection of essays exploring themes from the Twitter account of the same name.

You can read the whole review over on Killings (the Kill Your Darlings blog), and purchase the book here.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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I’ve just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. It’s a book about racially-motivated violence in America, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son. It looks at how the ‘progress’ of white America is built upon the decimation of the black body.

You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None if that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have your descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world (pp. 107-108).

There’s nothing I can say about this because it’s not useful for me to speak. This is a book for shutting up and listening. For doing your best at understanding and being better. This is a book that represents a huge gap in both my reading and my understanding of the world, and one I’m going to make a conscious effort to address. This is required reading. Not optional. Go, now.

A Week of One’s Own

I spent last week as a writer in residence at RMIT non/fictionLab’s new creative space, the Urban Writing House. It’s a gorgeous studio on campus in the city, decked out with comfy and stylish furniture, and all I needed to put my head down for a week to work on my book.

I spent the week working on structural and formal elements of my manuscript. It was in dire need of a print-up-and-shuffle-around, having grown in dribs and drabs without too much attention to order – and so I took to the walls with a bunch of blu-tac and shuffled to my heart’s content. I was surprised to realise that some of my short vignettes belonged together as longer bits, and I worked on building a map of the different narrative and conceptual strands that weave throughout the project.

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This cleared the way for more words to be written, and for greater purpose in my moving forward: I have more of an understanding of where the work’s going, and for the shape of what I’m saying in it.

What was most interesting about the time, for me, was what it was like to spend intensive time with my work. I haven’t had a chance to do this in a long while – usually I’ll be writing smaller things alongside work on the manuscript, or have days where I don’t touch it at all after coming home from the day job too tired. When I was doing Honours, I was in the lab most days. My process then involved approximately equal parts jubilation and despair. I’d have an awful day and be utterly convinced I’m incapable of doing good work, and particularly this work. But that day would be followed (perhaps not immediately, but eventually) by a day where things click into place and I take a large step forward. My week at the Urban Writing House replicated this pattern.

Throughout the week, I softened. I walked in on Monday with a militant, no-nonsense attitude to my need to work. By the Saturday, I was being much kinder to myself, and this helped open my mind up to creating worthwhile work. After an awful day on Wednesday (wandering, crying, crying, crying), and many kind and encouraging words from many wonderful women, things picked up – or at least evened out. This shift can be seen clearly through the mantras I wrote on the blackboard in the space, as reminders of what I thought was important and helpful at the time.

They appear below in order. The shift in my attitude toward myself and my work is pretty clear.

There’s one more, from my first day, which for some reason has deleted itself from my camera roll.

They read:

Monday: The thing about writing a book is, you have to write the book. (Possibly inspired by this wonderful post). 
Tuesday: Just do the things.
Wednesday: Be deliberate.
Thursday: You won’t finish it today. Stop trying.
Friday/Saturday: Allow discomfort.

‘Allow discomfort’ was such a good fit that I kept it for two days.

While it was only a week, I feel like I learned a lot. I got good work done. It was a great reminder to be more present (working more regularly helps), and more kind to myself.

This gorgeous little space is evolving. It’s documenting itself. I left my gratitude and story in its guest book, along with the words of the residents who stayed before me. I left a little keepsake on the shelf – a tiny jar with a few sprigs of rosemary in it. I work best when there’s some leaves nearby, and rosemary is often used as a mnemonic prompt in rituals – weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies – so it appears in my work.

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I’m so grateful to the non/fictionLab for providing me with this space – my work and my process have benefited greatly.

‘Hating Your Guts’ over on the Wheeler Centre

During his Interrobang talk late last year, Adam Liaw said, “I’m really not big on food trends at all. I don’t think they add a lot other than novelty. And to me, food’s not about novelty. There are huge issues that the world has with food, rather than indulging the novelties of a very privileged few of us.”

This really clicked with me, as much of my writing revolves around alternative food narratives and speaking back to the ‘food as saviour/ultimate comfort’ dialogue we’ve built our food-obsessed culture around.

I got thinking about offal, and how it operates in a different way to most other food trends, in that it doesn’t trade on scarcity, and offers a possible solution to some of those ‘huge issues that the world has with food’. But at the same time, we seem to have a heap of trouble getting on board with offal – and like so many foody things, it seems to revolve around our bodily reality, and the stories we tell about the significance of what we eat.

Luckily, the Wheeler Centre asked me if I had anything to say about food trends for their blog, and were kind enough to let me tackle this weird and wonderful set of ideas. That went up on their blog this week, as a post titled ‘Hating Your Guts: Why we struggle with offal‘.

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My essay planning process involves post-its and my study wall. Not all of this is in the final piece, but it’s a great way to start!

 

Never for nothing

Last week I went and saw The Decemberists play at Hamer Hall in Melbourne.

Their lead singer, Colin Meloy, is masterful at between-song banter. Because of this, Decemberists shows seem to be as much about the theatrics between songs as the music itself – which is exactly what makes crazy Arts Centre ticket prices worthwhile.

Meloy shared a song with us which he’d written to encourage his son, Hank, to eat. This is obviously ‘a bit’ that’s been appearing throughout the tour. You can view a similar bit that someone on YouTube filmed below.

This seems like a cute and entertaining ditty a dorky dad has written, until Meloy sings a riff that fans already know. They know it because it shows up in ‘Calamity Song’, from the latest Decemberists album. Meloy morphs into Calamity from there, the crowd goes wild.

What’s not included in the clip above is some preamble we got in Melbourne – Meloy described ‘Hank, Eat Your Oatmeal’ as ‘utilitatian’, explaining that sometimes little bits of creativity seem silly, but they just haven’t found their home or application yet. It’s just part of the process. You never make something for nothing.

It reminded me of why hold onto everything I’ve ever written, which I wrote about recently. Seeing Meloy’s entirely endearing explanation of the same thing, I wanted to immediately rush out and get a tattoo reading ‘Hank, eat your oatmeal’. I didn’t know where to put it, so that didn’t happen.

Point being, it’s so important to remember this. It’s never for nothing. It’s all useful. Keep coming back.

 

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About to embark on a new food-themed project, it seems like a great time to use one of these gorgeous Bold Ideas ‘a cup’ notebooks.

For what it’s worth, I went with the peach spritzer.

Today’s research

Some days the research I’ve done in the name of writing just looks plain strange.

Today’s search terms:

Offal
Gyutan
How to cook tongue
Tripe
Define: duplicity
How long should a book outline be?
Landscape with the fall of Icarus
How many people in Australia eat offal?
Lucky Peach lava cake

Some writing up online

I’ve had a few pieces published in the last few months.

After my Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre, an extract of my work-in-progress was published. During the fellowship, I was working on my nonfiction work, Eating with my Mouth Open. This is a collection of lyric essays which consider our complex relationships with food, family and memory. I read this extract at a public reading at The Moat. I’m thrilled it’s up online, and have found all the feedback on the piece so encouraging. In the long journey of writing a book, it’s these kind of milestones that keep me going.

More recently, I wrote a piece for ArtsHub about how important it is that we make an effort in creative communities to normalise the idea of doing less. While I recognise that not everyone is in a position to make this decision, it’s one that I’ve found has helped me immensely. By cutting down my workload, I’ve opened up space in my brain for good work to be done. I’m happier overall when I put restrictions on my creative output. It seems backwards, I know. I also interviewed some amazing creative babes (Jessica Alice, Estelle Tang and Sophie Allan) for this, and they were articulate and insightful.

The most eye-opening thing about writing this piece was the response I received after it was published. A whole bunch of people – some I know well, others I don’t – got in touch to tell me how overwhelmed they often feel, and how much they feel like their creative lives are unsustainable. Mostly these people contacted me privately, and every one of them is someone I admire for their work ethic. This really underscores the fact that there’s a problem – we’re all overwhelmed, and we all feel like it’s taboo to say that we’re overwhelmed. I don’t have an answer for all this, apart from suggesting that we talk about it.

Please, please. Take care of yourself.

xx

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