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Sam van Zweden

Writer

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.

Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards shortlisting

lmcwa-text-250x118 I’m entirely thrilled to share that I have been shortlisted for the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards, in the narrative nonfiction category. This shortlist is packed with talented people, and I’m humbled to be in the fabulous company of some of my favourite Melbourne writers including Else Fitzgerald, Laura Stortenbeker and Alice Bishop.

The title of the essay that I’ve entered may sound familiar – it was also shortlisted for the Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Prize in 2016, and since then has been significantly expanded for this competition. It’s about self-harm, body image, the ways people read one another’s bodies and finding peace with permanent scars. It’s fragmented and it was difficult to write, and it’s a piece that I’m proud of. This LMCWA shortlisting is lovely and validating, and I hope that the piece will find a good home in the near future.

Congratulations to everyone on the shortlist – this in itself is a big achievement, and worth celebrating in its own right.

The award winners will be announced on 8 December – best of luck to all!

Review: Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down

In the moments before a plane takes off there’s a pause, where it sits at the end of the runway. This is my favourite part of any flight. It’s better than the clouds or the glimpses of ocean or city below. That runway pause is a deep breath full of hope and heartbreak, where you learn a lot about yourself and your fellow travellers. It’s the moment before the impossible thing happens. Jennifer Down’s second book, Pulse Points, inhabits a similar space. Many of its stories live in the moments before epiphany or cataclysm – the telling moments. With a knack for the old advice to enter a scene late and leave it early, what’s offered in this collection are flashes of incredible truth which suggest that the most important moments in life aren’t necessarily the loud ones.

Pulse Points coverAs demonstrated in her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, Down explores expressions of grief with great skill. In Pulse Points, grief shows up again and again, but it never quite looks the same in any given story. ‘Vox Clamantis’ sees Johnny grieving his dying mother as he races to her bedside from across the country, ‘with the pain in his lungs, bellowing out smoke from the grief’. ‘Aokigahara’ frames a sister’s grief after her brother’s suicide as some liquid thing, ‘rising in weak spasms’, making itself known in dreams of ‘flooded fields … water-damaged crops’. Every story in Pulse Points contains this creeping sense of loss in some way – in facing death; in separating from an old sense of self either by choice or force; in surviving. Continue reading “Review: Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down”

Review: A New Tense, by Jo Day

A New Tense
Image source: JoNoMercyPress

A New Tense (by Jo Day) is a fast-paced novel exploring grief, friendship, and the unavoidable distance created by time – between friends, between loved ones, between places and understandings of self.

After the death of her friend Pete, Laurie moves to Berlin. Life there seems great. Laurie’s in a band, and spends time taking photos and making zines. She’s keeping busy – with massive oceans between her and her grief over Pete’s death, everything is stable. This is all upturned when Laurie learns that her estranged mother has died – she returns to Melbourne for the funeral, staying with her best friend Jones and his family. Jones is acting distant, and Laurie has increasing trouble facing her renewed grief over Pete’s death, with his absence newly apparent in this familiar setting. Through a series of well-placed flashbacks, we learn the circumstances of their relationship and Pete’s death. Laurie must learn to navigate life at home without Pete in it, and learn that each grief expresses itself in new and surprising ways.

Continue reading “Review: A New Tense, by Jo Day”

Moleskine Coffee & Create at MWF

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In case you haven’t caught it on my social media: I’m really excited to be appearing at a Melbourne Writers Festival event this coming Sunday morning (3 September 2017). The session will be hosted by Madeleine Dore from Extraordinary Routines – this is a really great blog featuring the stories of creative people’s routines, giving insight into how they keep it all afloat. Maddy’s a fantastic interviewer, and one of the warmest people I know, so I feel really lucky to be sharing a stage with her.

Also part of the event is Karen Andrews, who I have worked with and called a friend for many years now, and whose most recent (very gorgeous) book of poetry I reviewed not so long ago. Karen’s also got a book of creative tips and tricks coming out soon.

Karen and I will be talking with Maddy about creative routines, how we manage our sanity (or don’t) while writing, and providing some solid advice that people can apply to their own practice.

The event is free and unticketed – I’d love to see you there.

There are no words to describe the incredible hopefulness of my work flow right now.

Yesterday I managed to mark the final card in Part 1 (of three parts) of my manuscript. The first third is drafted. Look at all these ‘draft’ stamps! I believe I might even be able to finish this thing in the near future. What a feeling.

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Review: Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

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In Art and Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland ask of artists, ‘Why do so many who start, quit?’, pitching their enquiry at visual artists, but also at writers, actors –  anyone whose creative pursuits might cause them any doubt.

Pinpointing fear as the main reason we stand in our own way as artists, the first half of this book is pretty useful. Drawing on the documented experience of a broad range of artists throughout history (creating something of a ‘suggested reading’ mountain), the first half of the book provides insight into the idea that all the things you fear, and which can stop you from making art, are necessary. Your self-doubt, your anxiety, your fear of unoriginality, your particular world-view: all essential. Artistic fear takes many different forms, but at its root, it’s all fear.

These ideas are not groundbreaking, but it is nice to have it all researched and put together in one place – it’s kind of like a series of Brain Pickings articles on artistic process, plus some real talk, bound between covers.

The second half of the book tries to put these fears into the context of the world, and identify real-world barriers (i.e., external things that, unlike your fear, aren’t necessary or so easily harnessed for good) to your artmaking. Unfortunately this half of the book reads more like a list of vendettas: Bayles & Orland aren’t very keen on academia, or critics. Where the first half of the book winds up to kick some ass, what follows doesn’t satisfactorily deliver on that promise. Instead, it gives the impression that Bayles and Orland don’t have much to offer by way of solutions. It’s disappointing that the book didn’t narrow its scope to recognition and acknowledgement of the fears tied up in artmaking, because in my reading, that would have been enough.

The last chapter brings the book full-circle and this left me feeling energised; it’s a call-to-arms and insistence that only you can make your art, even if you’re fearful.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the ways that Bayles and Orland call bullshit on ‘the struggle’, without denying its existence altogether. As the authors observe, ‘We live in a world where the ready-made observations about artmaking are typically useless, frequently fatalistic’. They don’t romanticise the difficulties of artmaking, and the fears that they tackle are approached pragmatically, as real, solid blocks to artistic career success.

Overall, not mind-blowing, but worth a look, even if you only skim-read the second half and check back in to the final chapter.

Review: On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take

manyshapes
On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take is a new poetry collection from award-winning writer, poet, editor and long-time blogger (and friend, full disclosure) Karen Andrews. The collection explores, with brevity and precision, the many phases our bodies move through, and the ways our bodies respond to their places in the world. The poems explore themes that have emerged in Andrews’ mixed collection ‘Crying in the Car’ and through her long-running blog, such as grief, motherhood, intimate relationship dynamics and body image.

Andrews’ language is direct and chosen with obvious care. The poems are short, only occasionally running over a page in length. With a strong narrative thread, and a linear progression through the poet’s life, this collection should appeal to poetry lovers as well as those simply looking for a considered meditation on the body’s impact on and in the world.

What emerges through the collection is a retrospective look at the body’s fallibility and vulnerability, but also its strengths and power. A body is never one thing, never static, and never final. Andrews’ collection explores these permutations with tenderness and skill.

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