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Sam van Zweden

Writer

Reading in May 2020

May has been the calm before the storm. After what felt like endless weeks of slow time, the clock has suddenly started moving at double-triple-quadruple speed. The object of everyone’s anxiety has shifted from what it means to be alone to what it means to be together, and the world outside of all of our bubbles has been making itself known in the most urgent of ways.

It’s been a good month of reading – three fantastic reads, and lots of hours with my head in books. I’ve turned toward long works more often that short ones – is my attention span returning? Who knows.

Here are some thoughts on the things I read this month.

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by MR Carey
I don’t read zombie novels. But I am living through a pandemic, and this zombie novel is different. Is it? Maybe I’ve given zombie novels a bad wrap.

Melanie is living at an army base in the middle of nowhere in England, sheltering from ‘hungries’ – zombies, whose spread has taken over the world to such an extent that humans live in small enclaves, behind protective fences and walls. Melanie’s routine is reliable: each morning music plays, her teachers march past the cell where she sleeps, and the day begins. Two soldiers execute their morning routine: one holds a gun on Melanie while the other straps her into a wheelchair, then she’s taken to the classroom, where things are better. In the classroom she learns about populations and spring flowers and Greek mythology. Her favourite is Pandora. Best of all, the teaching is sometimes done by Miss Justineau, who’s beautiful and clever, and when she speaks to Melanie it seems like everything is good and perfect.

Melanie’s an intelligent kid – she notices when kids go missing from the classroom. She picks up staff members’ first names, what they’re reprimanded for, and the inconsistencies in their stories. When Melanie and a band of grown-ups are forced off the base, she unleashes all the secrets and terrible things, just like Pandora.

I don’t have a lot of zombie stories to compare this to, but the logic of the disease in this one makes sense to me. It’s based on a real fungal disease that spreads among ants in a particularly horrific way; taking over their bodies and eventually shooting like a tree from their head to spread spores. Perhaps it’s the hypervigilant awareness of contagion that we’re living with right now that makes me feel that this is such a convincing conceit, but I was 100% sold on it and the precise level of horror it brought.

The morning after finishing this book I see three kids and two teachers at a nearby school playing ‘Mother May I?’ on the playground.

“Mother may I… walk like a zombie?”

“No, you may not!”

YOUR OWN KIND OF GIRL by Clare Bowditch
I listened to this as an audiobook – it’s the first whole book I’ve listened to with a fancy new Audible subscription. This one was a great place to start – fantastic production, Clare’s voice is wonderful for storytelling. It includes sung passages, and Bowditch impersonates her mum’s Dutch accent surprisingly well, and there’s an utterly delightful section right at the end where they talk about appeltaart (Dutch apple tart). The book itself is about body image, creative life, and mental health. I so appreciate someone with this kind of platform talking about these issues, normalising the struggle. This is both accessible and beautiful, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

FATHOMS by Rebecca Giggs
Did you know that whalebone and whale bone are two different things? Or that in the 18th century whale products were akin to modern plastic in their wide-ranging uses? Not just candles, soap, and corsets – the ones I brought easily to mind before reading FATHOMS – but in spectacle frames, umbrellas and fishing rods. This is just one of the deeply fascinating topics covered in Fathoms. The book’s broken up into discrete essays looking at topics including whale as a source of resources in the human world; whales as metaphors; the sonic landscape of the oceans as whales experience them; and Japanese whaling. These essays revolve around a central experience: on a beach in Perth, author Rebecca Giggs watches the spectacle and tragedy of a stranded whale’s death. Each essay in this collection returns in its own way to that central experience, but isn’t tethered or forced to speak to it. This gentle through-line allows for a wide-ranging meditation on the interplay between whales and humans, but also – and importantly – what whales might experience and face in their own right, completely aside from being a metaphor, an example, or a charismatic exception. Packed full of poetry and flawlessly executed research, this wonderfully balanced deep dive (heh) provided such a perfect distraction from… all this.

February baby

When I signed the contract with NewSouth for Eating with my Mouth Open, we agreed on an August 1 release date – this would position the book well for 2020 festivals, and it would be a six-month turnaround of editing, layout, design, marketing, the whole shebang. It was overwhelming and fast – exhilarating.

Since then, the world has dropped into a pandemic, and the publishing landscape looks pretty different. The 2020 festivals have been cancelled or moved online in radically different formats; publishers everywhere are pushing back new releases; people’s reading habits and disposable incomes are both shifting. NewSouth and I have agreed to rethink the timeline given the current climate, and it seems smart to delay the release for a while to give my little book the best chance it can have in the world.

I’m pleased to share that Eating with my Mouth Open looks like it will be a February 2021 baby!

Work on the book continues apace – we’re currently discussing cover art, and have been sending the book to some of my very favourite writers and thinkers, asking for them to say some words about it that we can use for endorsement. The extra time before release also gives me time to write more tie-in essays, and do some work online to share the ideas I explore in EWMMO.

I can’t wait to launch the book in person with you all in February, to hug you tight and celebrate both the book and our being able to be together again.

Stay safe, stay well, look after each other. x

Reading in April 2020

I desperately need to do something for no reason other than itself, and so here we are.

Reading in April 2020 is to read with profound collective trauma as part of the equation: it’s slower, more luxurious (when I can read, I read for an afternoon or a day, sinking deeply in). At the same time, it’s often shorter – I can concentrate only for short periods most of the time, and under particular circumstances. Only after I’ve done something to quiet my mind, only after I’ve been away from a news stream for a few hours, only soon after waking, only when the house feels a little bit still.

My relationship with writing right now is a tricky one – I have more time to write, but less (essential) brain space. So I’m holding it lightly, and doing only what I can.

It’s been such a long time since I’ve felt the urge to blog. I blogged under the banner of Little Girl with a Big Pen for a good seven years or so, but as my practice has shifted so too have my posting habits. It’s moved to other platforms, or to publication over personal pursuits. But I’ve been reading lately, and I’ve been wanting to record, share, and connect again. So here’s what I was reading in April.


CHERRY BEACH by Laura McPhee-BrowneCherry Beach cover

Ness and Hetty are best friends who are caught in a one-way romance. Hetty has no idea of her best friend Ness’ adoration because she’s adored by everyone, but Ness has felt this way since they were kids. Joined at the hip, Ness and Hetty move from Melbourne to Canada to escape Hetty’s grief over an ex-boyfriend’s suicide. In Canada they grow apart, but continue to have moments of closeness. When Hetty’s personality shifts dramatically, Ness scrambles to pick up the pieces.

This book was so moreish. Short chapters meant that I kept staying up late for ‘just one more’. The writing is poetic, but doesn’t get in the way of itself. Small cameos by Margaret Attwood and someone I can only assume to be John Marsden are cute and rewarding, and other little generationally-specific detail makes it round and realistic. The tenderness of the relationship between Hetty and Ness, and between Ness and the people who move into her new life in Canada, is really moving. It’s in intimate book, full of heartbreak and yearning—one you curl up with over the course of a weekend and down it all in a few delicious sittings.

Off our trolleys – Bee Wilson, in The Guardian

While real scarcity is new to the vast majority of people engaged in panic-buying, the scarcity mindset may feel familiar to many people who have a pre-existing janky relationship with food. A large part of being okay around food—for me—has been about learning to listen to my body and recognise what I’m feeling. A line I’ve learned to use over and over (that I need to attribute to Dr Rick Kausman) when I’m feeling overwhelmed is ‘I can have if I want it – but do I really feel like it?’. If the answer is yes, then great, have it. If it’s no, then I remind myself that whatever it is will be there and available when I do feel like it. Right now, that doesn’t feel true—and it’s a struggle.

In this article, Bee Wilson—queen of impeccibly-researched food writing—has a look at the phenomenon of panic-buying during the Covid-19 global crisis. The situation in the UK (around numbers, deaths, dire outlooks) is different to what we’re experiencing in Australia, but panic buying is still having an impact on what’s available in supermarkets here. For weeks now, eggs have been in short supply, pasta has been scarce, and good luck finding a bag of flour. The illusion of scarcity (whether it’s true or not) makes the population feel like the food supply is drying up. Food security has been on my mind a lot lately—“empty supermarket shelves”, says Wilson “When you are not used to it, this sight does strange things to your insides.”

Pandemic dreams – Oscar Schwartz, part of Paragraphs

I love the deep disquiet that comes through in these paragraphs, and the ease with which Schwartz pulls together disparate ideas about pandemics and dreams. My pandemic dreams seem to be my brain taking the space to get wacky and process the pandemic, but using the very small isolation world I’m living in. There have been lots of MasterChef contestant cameos.

Schwartz’ regular reading lists are part of what’s prompted me to return to sharing mine. They’re intimate and comforting, poetic and open-ended.

Home is a cup of tea – Candace Rose Rardon on Longreads

My favourite things—food writing! Watercolour food illustrations! Nostalgia! This incredible graphic mindfulness meditation is so comforting, at a time when we all need to take that wherever we can get it.

TRY THIS AT HOME by Frank TurnerTrythisathome cover

I’m a big Frank Turner fan. I have a tattoo after some of his lyrics. His album Be More Kind dragged me through the hell that was winter of 2018. I was looking forward to his April show in Melbourne, before Covid-19 shut it down. I admire Frank’s work ethic so much—a touring muso who’s played over 2000 shows, and released an album most years since 2005. ‘Try this at home’ was the song that got me hooked on Frank Turner (belting it out on the stage of the Arthouse back in the day), so when I saw that he’d written a book with this title I jumped on it. The book is a look at Turner’s back catalogue, explaining the songwriting process track by track. It helped that I have a passing knowledge of music, but the book isn’t so music-theory heavy that you wouldn’t be able to get around it if you weren’t fluent, either. I was struck, while reading this, by how much Turner has grown, and how open he is to the idea of regret around his work. A few songs he talked about being sad he hadn’t expressed better, or feeling disappointed that he hadn’t waited for a better arrangement to land before recording. Very open to self-doubt, but not so much that it’s frustrating. A good read for a fan.

RALLYING by Quinn Eades Rallying_cover_1024x1024

 

Rallying is an accessible and gutpunching collection of poems about parenthood, bodies, togetherness and separation. I love Eades’ ability to communicate clearly in poetic forms, but also to absolutely blow the roof off convention when it’s needed. This tender, sweet, painfully honest collection is one of the best poetry collections I’ve ever read. I’ll be revisiting.

 

 

 

A couple more

Let’s get up to speed

Decorative image

Hello! It’s been… too long. I’m sorry. So very much has happened. Let’s get up to speed.

What’ve you been up to?

It’s been a busy time. I’ve been cross stitching, and walking the dog, and learning to drive. In more writing-related news though:

  • Back in October, I went to Ubud (Bali, Indonesia), where I spent a lot of time in a pool and read a lot of books, and also attended the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. It’s a magical festival in an absolutely bonkers setting—there’s jungle everywhere, and monkeys looking to loot your belongings, and teeny tiny lizards that make a lot of noise, and bigger and scarier lizards that are determined to poop on you from your ceiling if they can get there. It’s humid and the people are so kind and curious. It’s cheap, and the food is very good. I was lucky to see some faves at the festival including Lindy West, Kate Richards, Yotam Ottolenghi, and Fiona Wright. New faves include Raymond Antrobus, Lemn Sissay and Lindsay Wong. I came back with a lot of books. I’ve compiled my tweets and ‘grams from the festival, so you can catch up if you want.
  • While in Ubud I was lucky to sit at the edge of the jungle with Lindy West, eating some kind of magical coconut pancake and chatting about Zelda and Stardew Valley for a while. Then it got serious and we discussed her latest book, The Witches are Coming. West is actually as much of a dreamboat as she seems to be from her writing. I wrote this interview up into a profile for the Saturday Paper.

BOOK NEWS!

You probably know by now that I’ve been working on a manuscript for a very long time. It started as my Honours work at RMIT in 2014, and grew from there. After almost a year of rejections and dead-ends, things have finally started to fall into place.

  • In December it was announced that my manuscript, titled Eating with my Mouth Open, won the 2019 KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award.
  • The manuscript has been acquired by NewSouth Publishing, a nonfiction-specialising publisher based in New South Wales. It will be available in book stores in August 2020—that’s just six months away!

The publication process is in full swing, and it’s full of surprises and new things to learn. I’m posting regular updates on Twitter, Instagram, and I’ll be blogging more regularly in the lead-up to publication.

KYDUMA shortlisting

Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award 2019 banner

I’m so excited to share that I’ve been shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award (KYDUMA). This award is built to support emerging writers in the development of a manuscript. At the start of July I was lucky to be longlisted alongside seven others. I was so proud to have made that list, and I’m blown away to have now made the shortlist, too, and I’m in fantastic company.

This shortlisting means that I receive a KYD/Varuna Copyright Agency Fellowship. In September, I’ll be be heading out to Katoomba along with the three other shortlisters. At Varuna, we’ll have dedicated time (a week!) and space to workshop our manuscripts, with help from Bec Starford from KYD.

My manuscript, Eating with my Mouth Open, is something I’ve been working on in some form or another since 2014. It started as my Honours thesis, which looked at how the lyric essay could shed light on the relationship between food and memory. Beyond Honours, the idea grew to look at memory more deeply, but also mental health, and the difficulties of embodiment. It puts these things in their cultural context. It explores shame and celebration in equal parts.

Getting to Varuna on a fellowship has been a long-term goal of mine. Finding a home for this work is another. It’s nice to know that these things are now dovetailing, and that the achievement of one can hopefully aid the achievement of the other.

Feminartsy relaunch event

feminartsyrelaunchimg

I’m thrilled to have been invited to read at the 2019 relaunch of feminist lit mag Feminartsy. I’ll be reading poems – some old, some new – as part of a super exciting lineup featuring Shu-Ling Chua, Natalie Kon-Yu, Eloise Grills, Aparna Ananthuni and Emilia Schnall.

The event will be at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre (that big heritage building on the edge of QV shopping centre) at 6pm on May 23rd.

I’d love to see you there.

More details on the Feminartsy website.

Toward better mental health support for writers

One of the last things I did in 2018 was participate in the City of Literature Parliament at the Wheeler Centre. As part of the Senate, I presented a reflection on what it means to be a city of literature, and what I hope for going forward. This is that talk.


The nonfiction writing that’s coming out of Melbourne in 2018 is vulnerable and deeply important. The stories in increasingly mainstream publications are more queer than they were, and they include the voices of more Indigenous writers and people of colour than they used to. The stories being told are more feminist, more marginalised, and more chronically ill. They’re stories from regional towns and unceded lands; from beaches and commission flats. I’m proud to be part of this City of Literature, and of the willingness of Melbourne’s writers to tell and its readers to listen. We’re doing important work to raise unique voices and story forms here.

This work often sits close to the author: essays, poetry, memoir, graphic narratives and more. Who better to tell a story than someone who’s lived it? Who better to represent experiences, identities, or beliefs than those who inhabit them?

This kind of writing also takes a toll. Honest, raw stories can be taxing to mental health. Sometimes that’s because they deal explicitly with mental health issues. Sometimes it’s because the most vulnerable people do the heaviest lifting to tell difficult stories. During the same-sex marriage plebiscite, queer writers shouldered much of the burden of advocacy. Mental Health Week every year sees writers with experiences of mental illness share their most complex parts. And this is as it should be – people’s stories should be told in their own voice wherever possible. But alongside the commodification of personal stories, we need to acknowledge that the people in the best position to raise awareness and start difficult conversations are also those most vulnerable to mental illness.

Freelance writers in particular live with multiple factors that can compromise mental health and wellbeing. These include unstable work and income, an inability to access expensive or exclusive treatment, isolated working conditions, a lack of benefits including sick leave and holiday pay, and a culture that often encourages burnout.

At my part-time job, I edit course content for universities. Recently, a colleague worked on a course including content about domestic violence. Immediately, the company’s HR department reached out to check in on her wellbeing. They made sure she knew about the employee assistance program, which allows her access to a counsellor free of charge.

For freelance writers dealing with similar content, there is no HR department. There is no employee assistance program. There are no paid mental health days. For freelance writers, the responsibility is on them to know when to reach out, who to contact, how to ask for help, and how to look after themselves.

There is more we can do to support one another as writers. The strong and safe systems we’ve built into our City of Literature can do more to support the wellbeing of writers.

This can take place on a number of levels. For free, we can check in with those around us. These are difficult conversations, but many of us have gotten better at them by necessity – we have learned through loss, and burnout, and close calls. This checking in can help reduce the isolation of freelance work. But we need to upskill, too, so that we know what to do if and when someone isn’t okay, and how we can best support ourselves for wellness.

With some funding, it would become possible to support writers through peer support training and self-care workshops. With significant funding, I’d dream big about income support, which would allow a freelance equivalent of mental health days. I’d wish for psychological services tailored to writers. As a City of Literature, we hold space for vulnerable and honest storytelling from a diverse range of writers. We’ve spent ten years building a resilient, varied, exciting infrastructure for literature in Melbourne and its surrounds. It’s time to create a similar infrastructure that looks out for the wellbeing of those doing the creating.

 

Review: You Belong Here by Laurie Steed

YouBelongHere_front+SmallI’m listening to PJ Harvey, having spent the morning devouring the second half of Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here. It lead me to remember how close I once felt to PJ, how much Dry and To Bring You My Love meant to me. Now I’m unsure where the discs are—on a spindle somewhere, I think. They’re burnt discs, and they were ripped for me in Glen Waverly by my friend Karl (his tall and sloping handwriting on the front of the disc). Karl’s dad had become animated telling me how much he believed I’d find something resonant in PJ. And I did. I still do.

When I listen now, my body still somehow anticipates the little aching hiccups she does at the end of a verse or track, the audible inhalations, the yelps. I remember the house in Glen Waverley with its overgrown yard, and the boys who lived in the house. I remember the walk across the oval from the station, and making tacos together, and tacking blankets to the walls to sound-proof a band rehearsal room… I remember the comfort that PJ brought me in later sharehouses, and in bleak moods… All these things are attached to her sound. From one track unfolds a world.

Musical memories are some of the strongest ones, and this idea is what pulls together Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here (released March 2018 from Margaret River Press), whose cover features an artfully destructed cassette tape. This debut novel follows the Slater family across three generations, in only 247 pages. We first meet Jen and Steven in 1972, and follow their love affair and the beginnings of their family. Three children later, Jen and Steven struggle to remain connected. After Steven leaves the family, the reverberations of his decision are felt long into the future, impacting not only his children (Alex, Emily and Jay), but their children too. The book closes on the family in 2015.

Nostalgia plays a big part in these stories, and readers are rewarded for their era-specific knowledge not only of music but of cultural touchstones like Street Fighter II.

The chapters at first seem ambitious, skipping forwards and planting the sweet beginnings of family life. By the time things go sour for the Slaters, a slipstream of inevitability has tied everyone together—and as a reader, I was invested in the family’s happiness by this point. The love between Jen and Steven seems unstoppable, their move to Perth necessary. When Dad (Steven) leaves, Jay watches on: ‘In the end, it was okay without Dad around. They wouldn’t have chosen it had they been given the choice of three doors, but they’d only been given the one, and when you were only given one door there’s not much else to do but go through’. Fate and choice may be an illusion, but the really sticky and interesting bits—the stuff that makes characters interesting—is how they respond to forced and unchosen situations, and whether they subscribe to familial patterns or push back.

The highly enjoyable musical elements in You Belong Here begin with Just Hits ‘85 – a cassette the family enjoys together. Throughout the book, characters meditate on the music that matters to them, through extended critiques that fit beautifully into the context of the stories. Alex gives a full-page critique of Faith No More’s Angel Dust; Emily an even longer reflection on PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. When big-hearted and compassionate ‘Baby Jay’ gets his opportunity to think over music, he does so only as a reaction to his siblings’ tastes. ‘You’re joking about this album, aren’t you?’ he asks of Alex’s obsession with Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward SpiralYou Belong Here underscores the reasons that music can affect us so deeply, and how we hold it close, until it becomes a container for moments within our lives.

Steed’s background as a short story writer allows him to artfully capture the arc of a number of lives through well-placed episodes which centre the experiences of different family members. The novel’s precise language hints rather than prescribes, creating moments that gesture beyond their frame—expanding in much the same way that musical memories inflate.

Steed has compressed an incredible story between these two covers.

‘But Still’ on The Lifted Brow

[Content note/trigger warning: self-harm]

Some pieces are difficult to write, but they get written anyway – because there’s no other choice. My essay ‘But still’ started as a seed of an idea about two years ago, when I ran into someone I used to know, who immediately raised the topic of my history with self-harm.

I tried to write this down and write it out, but all I managed for the longest time was to write about my body: its reality, its contradictions, its undeniability. While this is where most of my writing comes from, I also knew that in order to make the thing sing and reach some new sense of truth, it would need to more than just describe what my body is. And so ‘But still’ became a project of gathering evidence and parallels, and searching for something on the other side of my confusion and frustration.

As the piece grew, I started submitting it to prizes, and it was shortlisted (in different iterations) for the 2016 Lifted Brow & non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Prize and the 2017 Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards.

The essay has finally found its forever home at The Lifted Brow, who published it yesterday. People’s support post-publication has been overwhelming, as has the generosity with which people have met me in this open and vulnerable place.

Many thanks, much love, go gently.

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