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Sam van Zweden

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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

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

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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: 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.

Summer is here. It’s billowy and disgusting outside today, but it’s summer. It’ll do.

Here are the books I’ll be working my way through during the muggy season.

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Green Cleaver podcast

Earlier this week, I sat down on stage in front of a really pretty large room of people, to speak with Sam Cooney, Richard Cornish and Tammi Jonas. We talked about meat. We talked about why meat-eating is tricky, why it matters to us so much, and how we can do better with our meat-eating.

In a conversation that too often swings to extremes (vegans vs ‘carnivores’), I think it’s important to create space for nuanced consideration of the issues involved. I feel hopeful about our ability, as a society, to do better. I think part of the key to doing better is removing the myth that if you can’t (or won’t) give meat up entirely then you may as well not think about your meat-eating practices at all.

The Wheeler Centre have been super efficient in sending the podcast out into the world. So, if you missed the event on Tuesday, you can now listen to it online.

Many thanks to The Wheeler Centre for having me, and to my fellow panelists (and chair) for a generous, clever, enjoyable, nuanced discussion.

So Sad Today review

 

sosadtoday

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

150709_SBR_Coates-COVER.jpg.CROP.original-original.jpg

 

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.

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