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Sam van Zweden

Writer

Let’s get up to speed

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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  • In December it was announced that my manuscript, titled Eating with my Mouth Open, won the 2019 KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award.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.

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”

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