Sam van Zweden



carmel bird

Cherry Ripe

I picked up my copy of Cherry Ripe at the closing-down sale of City Basement Books, when they left Elizabeth Street. I got it for only $1. For this reason, it’s sat on my shelf for quite a while, and I’ve felt no pressing need to read it quickly in order to get my money’s worth. And having been written quite some years ago (1985), I didn’t feel the need to read the book or else fall behind in my reading. So now, about a year after I bought the book, I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.

The story is of three generations of women in Tasmania, mixing the real and fantastical in a way that makes the line blur – pure Carmel Bird.

I’m a big fan of Bird’s short fiction, “Automatic Teller” being one of my all-time favourite short story collections by a single author. I’ve only read one of her novels (she’s written about ten), Red Shoes. I loved Red Shoes for its amazingly rich narrative, a really intricate combination of wonderful story-telling and some really great research into myths and traditions.

While I’ve read it later, Cherry Ripe was a precursor to Red Shoes, and it certainly has that same feeling of being incredibly well-researched, and a strange mash-up of realism and magic. Like the hugely entertaining glossary in Red Shoes, Cherry Ripe is also a kind of vehicle for magical stories which sit outside the main story itself, and these stories are delivered through Aunt Agnes. She hands stories down to subsequent generations, telling of girls flying off cliffs from grief, and girls who drink vinegar until their blood runs dry. Having said that, even the action in the main story is quite fantastical – a girl eats a daffodil to show her love for a nun, and the Sacred Heart and a Fairy Queen commentate on the lives of the women.

The book is heavy with knowledge and iconography – much of it to do with tradition, femininity and religion. As a writer, I struggle to even begin to think about what the research for this novel would have looked like.

The book is a quick read, with large print. The chronology jumps around, and the reader never becomes bored with where the book is going, because the logic of the book doesn’t act in a forward-moving motion, it jumps around all over the place, linking the experience of one generation of the women with that of another, and jumping backward when reminded of another image or scene.

Though descriptions are dense (“Pearly just cred louder, big long tears, confetti runny rainbow teardrop tears”), they are also economical in a way, with every word working hard for its place on the page. Carmel Bird is a veteran of the art for a reason – she has such tight control over her words.
I regret that it took me a year to read this, and had I known it was going to be so enjoyable, I would have paid more than a dollar for it.

The Facelessness of Writing

Writing is a weird business. The main part of what we do is faceless – we spend time alone, curled over keyboards or notebooks, looking inside ourselves and picking things apart. When we do send things out into the world, it rarely involves live-action relationships with editors and the like. Emails, forums, blogs. So much of what we do happens under layer after layer of facelessness.

I don’t know what many of my favourite authors look like, or how they present in person. I was shocked to find John Marsden is such a confronting mixture of crude and intelligent. I’ll admit that Camus’ theories are more palatable than Sartre’s based on their author pics. Last week at the Emerging Writers’ Festival I was surprised by how much Carmel Bird just looked like someone’s mum. I love Alan Bissett’s writing all the more for his outgoing personality, and I’m reading Death of a Ladies’ Man in his very attractive accent. The way authors look and present themselves in person, face-to-face, can be worlds away from how we imagine them through their writing.

This made the Emerging Writers’ Festival an amusing space to meet and greet. The main thing that struck me over and over again during the two weeks was how weird it is that the two sides of our job are such polar opposites. Absolute isolation versus schmooze-fest. I’m not saying that either is preferable – I love both. But when someone talked about me without knowing I was in the room, or when I had the “a-ha!” moment where I connected someone’s writing projects to that person I’d been talking to for the last hour, it really struck me how singularly bizarre writing is.

The World’s Most Affordable Lit Festival

The program for the Willy Lit Fest has been released, and I’ve scoured and circled and am about to purchase tickets.

“But you’re a student!” you may exclaim, wondering how I can afford such things.

Here’s how: tickets to the Willy Lit Fest events are (mostly) $5.50 for concession, $7.70 full price. Isn’t that just nuts? I can’t afford NOT to go!

On my list of must-attend:

A panel with Steven Amsterdam (who, has anyone else noticed, was in the last Big Issue holding chickens?), Jon Bauer and Jonathan Griffiths, titled “Getting Your First Novel Across The Line”. Sure, I don’t have a first novel, yet. But school’s mentioned its importance to my graduation; it’s come up. They’ve even got me taking a course which hopefully insists on referring to “Your Novel” (capitals and all). So eventually, the advice from this panel will surely come in handy. And Steven Amsterdam makes me happy.

Carmel Bird is one of my favourite short-storyists, and she’s running a workshop on writing memoirs, which gets me excited also. Both time with Carmel and the memoir-writing tips.

And a session with Angela Meyer about blogging. As you may have noticed, this here blog has been receiving some re-vamping lately. I’ve been trying, world, I really have. So let’s hope Angela has some tips which will make me (blogger) and you (, dear reader) happy.

Willy Lit Fest, the world’s most affordable literary festival is happening on the final weekend of 30th April-1st May. For those of you who (like me) didn’t know, Williamstown is only 30 minutes train ride out of the city, so not only is this cheap, but accessible also. Write-ups of above events, of course, to follow.

It Started With a Beach Backdrop…

It’s been a big weekend. It started with a beach backdrop about 25 metres long taped to the back of a stage, and the general excitement that comes with Piranha Party – if you ever get an opportunity to see these guys, for the love of God, do it! They’ve only been around for about 6 months, but this party ska band will make your feet move without asking you and your smile will switch on. They’re heaps of fun.

This was the last night of Madonna‘s August residency at the Royal Derby Hotel in Collingwood, and what a month it’s been. I’ve seen Madonna many times, and the once-a-week offering at the Derby hasn’t disappointed. This band has an explosive energy driving their music, and total abandon to making shit work. While this week’s set was a bit short, it was packed full of pure awesome. Somehow crowds give themselves over to Madonna – foot-tapping, swaying, or all-out moshing. This gig there was even something akin to excited galloping. Madonna’s urgent effects-swirl and constant forward push pays off. While they’ve been their best in front of very responsive crowds (more so than any other band I’ve seen), even when crowds are reticent to start with Madonna blow the roof off any venue they touch. Their next gig is at the Birmingham Hotel in Fitzroy, and will be a Joe Strummer tribute night with a slew of other amazing bands – get down there, it promises to wrinkle your skin with how good it is. So good your toes might fall off. (Take spare toes.)

Saturday night was a truly fantastic gathering of RMIT Creative Writing students – we got together, someone bought cupcakes, others bought goon, we read poetry and stories out to each other, astounded as always by how great everyone’s work is.

Sunday night saw the Toff in Town pack out for Dog’s Tales, a storytelling night that usually happens each Tuesday down at Dog’s Bar in St Kilda. For the MWF it’s took up residency at the Toff for the evening, and my goodness it was lovely! I haven’t been down to the St Kilda event yet, so it was very exciting to see the set up there on the Toff stage: a wonderful “real plastic!” chair wrestled for lovingly at an MTC garage sale, and a little green lamp that I think everyone remembers from their grandparents’ study. Such an unassuming set can only mean good things, thought I.

I was right. The night had readings from both local and international artists, and a really wide variety of stories being shared, from Josephine Rowe’s ad-libbed account of her relationship with her father, to DBC Pierre’s tale of the adverse (perhaps…) effects of tequila at storytelling events, where people sprout tails and wings, and step right out of their own skin. Carmel Bird stuck out to me as an incredibly strong reader, with such an obvious love of sharing stories. I discovered Carmel many years ago, when a literature teacher slipped me a copy of Automatic Teller and I fell in love. A few years later Red Shoes confirmed my suspicion that Carmel is freaking amazing, and then it was on. I think she’s great, and absolutely loved the fact that she read as well as I imagined she would.

Kalinda Ashton read a story about a girl working in a Christmas department store hell, which provided many laughs but these were perfectly juxtaposed with some great poignant moments. Kalinda is my non-fiction lecturer at RMIT, so I’ve only ever heard her speak in a lecture setting before. Her reading is really engaging, it sucks you into the story world for the length of the piece and you forget that you’re listening. I’ll be looking out for her events in future.

This evening finished up with a story from Tiffany Murray, which absolutely knocked my socks off. It was brilliantly honest, and Tiffany made me want to quit my course and move to the UK to study under her. I wish I could tell stories half as wonderful as hers!

This bonza weekend finished by scooting around the corner from the Toff to Shanghai Dumpling House (the one with the pink walls in China Town, not the laneway one! I don’t like the laneway one. I know others do. They haven’t discovered the pink walls one yet). $27 dollar feed for two people – a great way to finish a weekend!

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