Articles

Eleanor Catton vs New Zealand

New Zealand’s Man Booker Prize winner (for The Luminaries), Eleanor Catton, has told audiences at the Jaipur Literary Festival that ‘she is uncomfortable being seen as an ambassador for New Zealand which she says is dominated by neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, shallow and money hungry politicians who do not care about culture’. This follows the comments last year by 2014 Man Booker winner, Richard Flanagan, that he is ‘ashamed to be Australian’ because of our environmental policies. Will we southern hemisphere colonials gain a reputation for being politically outspoken?

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Triple J vs Buzzfeed

You might (or might not) have been following the – ultimately unsuccessful – attempts of internet publication Buzzfeed to propel Taylor Swift into this year’s Triple J Hottest 100 (even though the station has never played Swift, not ever ever ever). Their motivation? To annoy hipsters, apparently. Triple J has answered back with a very clever listicle of its own, designed to look just like Buzzfeed, with ‘8 Hilarious But Totally True Reasons You Won’t Hear “Shake It Off” In The Hottest 100’.

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How a spelling error ruined a company

Do you think spelling and grammar fiends are kind of precious? Maybe it’s for a reason …. as this you-couldn’t-make-it-up story demonstrates. A 124-year-old Welsh company has gone bankrupt due to a typo of a single letter, after Companies House, part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, ‘erroneously recorded that the Cardiff engineering firm Taylor & Sons Ltd had been wound up’. (The unlucky firm was actually Taylor & Son.) The loss of customer confidence due to the misunderstanding ruined the business.

Games writers play

Did you know J.K. Rowling winds down with Minecraft? That Alex ‘The Beach’ Garland plays first-person shooter? And that A.S. Byatt loves snooker? The Guardian shares the favourite games of some notable writers.

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Nabokov playing chess.

Are you a book addict?

If you think you might be a book addict, check these 15 warning signs … and then self-diagnose, as is the way of the internet age. Do you have so many books in your bedroom that they’ve spread off the bookshelves onto the floor? Is 90% of your gift wishlist taken up by books? And … be honest here … are some of your best friends, well, not exactly ‘real’?

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30 January 2015

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Last night, in a garden party ceremony on the lawns of Parliament House, winners of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were announced in the categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama and writing for young adults. There was also a People’s Choice Award and an overall winner: the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature, Australia’s richest single literary award.

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The category winners of the Victorian Premiers' Literary Awards 2015, with Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley and Premier Daniel Andrews. From left to right, back row to front: Claire Zorn, Alan Atkinson, Premier Daniel Andrews, Creative Minister Martin Foley, Jill Jones, Tim Low, Rohan Wilson and Angus Cerini.

‘We’re home to more writers than any other city in Australia, so it’s only fitting that we have the best literary awards,’ said Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley.

Premier Daniel Andrews quoted Joan Didion: ‘We write to find out what we’re thinking, what we’re looking at, what we see and what it means. What we want and what we fear.’ With this in mind, he concluded, the shortlisted works reflect ‘our state, our city and our people – the dreams that we share widely and the fears that we harbour quietly’.

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People’s Choice winner Tim Low with Premier Daniel Andrews.

Tim Low won the first award – the People’s Choice, voted via the Wheeler Centre website by readers around Victoria – for his book, Where Song Began, which locates Australia as the source of the world’s songbirds, and tells the story of their evolution and what it might say about Australia’s landscape and character.

‘We’re people, so we’re inherently more interested in other people than we are in anything else,’ said Tim in his acceptance speech. ‘So it’s tough for a book about birds to compete with books about people, particularly at a time when Australians are increasingly urbanised and spend most of their time looking at screens and gadgets. For a bird book to be popular, it means there’s a lot of yearning out there for nature. I’m trying to connect people with nature, so I’m really pleased about that.’

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction went to Rohan Wilson for his second novel, To Name Those Lost, a tale of revenge and hopeless (almost comic) tragedy set in Tasmania’s violent past. ‘I’m glad it wasn’t a Liberal Premier I was required to shake hands with,’ he joked as he took the stage, following his handshake with Premier Daniel Andrews. He thanked his publishers for ‘taking a chance on what was a pretty risky book’.

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Premier Daniel Andrews with Alan Atkinson, winner of the Victorian Prize for Literature.

Alan Atkinson won the Prize for Non-Fiction for The Europeans in Australia Volume Three: Nation, the third and final instalment in his landmark history of Australia, told from the point of view of settlers from Europe. The judges called it ‘as significant in its way as Manning Clark’s History of Australia’. He also won the overall Victorian Prize for Literature.

‘It’s very nice this being a Premier’s Prize,’ said Atkinson, accepting the Non-Fiction Prize. ‘The book has a lot to say about distinctive cultures in different colonies and states and the way in which that variety was drawn together to establish a nation with federation. The colonies were all the same in some ways – all Australian, of course – in order to be integrated, but also very different. This country was never, in that sense, a ‘team’. The main purpose of a team is to beat other teams. This country was, and still is, a commonwealth. And that very word commonwealth is so rich and multi-layered and subtle, as opposed to a team.’

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Aunty Joy Murphy starts the ceremony by delivering a Welcome to Country.

‘Shit. Now I can eat,’ were Angus Cerini’s first words on learning he’d won the Prize for Drama for his one-man play, Resplendence, which explores masculinity in a contemporary society dominated by men, and how that’s reflected in the base human instincts of sex, drugs and weaponry. He referred to the other two playwrights on the shortlist (coincidentally, a husband and wife), Daniel Keene and Alison Croggon, as ‘heroes of mine’ – he said that they had even been, not too long ago, his neighbours. ‘Some of the earliest plays I saw as a young theatre-maker at uni were some really profound Daniel Keene plays in warehouses in Fitzroy. Those two are theatre royalty in this city, and this country, so it’s a great thrill.’

Jill Jones won the Prize for Poetry for The Beautiful Anxiety, a reflexive and playful collection that explores the interconnectedness of life amid the environmental and cultural turmoil of the 21st century. She quoted poet John Ashbery as saying, at a Melbourne Writers Festival in the 1990s, that ‘there are only three things in poetry: love, death and the weather’, concluding that her own book is about those three things. ‘Particularly the weather, of course. We know that things are pretty dire, and despite what you might hear from certain people in Canberra, there is a problem. The weather and climate are pretty important. And we have lots of scientific research about it, but it’s also, I think, time to think poetically.’

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Claire Zorn, winner of the Prize for Young Adult Writing, with Premier Daniel Andrews.

Claire Zorn won the Prize for Young Adult Writing for The Protected, a beautifully written, deeply felt novel about grief, adolescence and family. She said she was especially pleased to be accepting the prize for the novel, as it was in a slush pile two years ago – and ‘was nearly thrown out’.

You can read more about all the winner and shortlisted authors of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards on our website.

All photographs by Matt Deller.

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Patrick Allington’s debut novel, Figurehead (Black Inc.) was longlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin Literary Award. His short fiction has appeared in Meanjin, Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, Southerly and elsewhere. His novels-in-progress are Potatoes in all their glory and Skylights. Patrick was the inaugural fiction editor of literary magazine Etchings and has been commissioning editor at the University of Adelaide Press. As a freelance editor, he has edited everything from fiction to scholarly works to medical handbooks. He is a lecturer in creative writing at Flinders University in Adelaide.

We spoke to Patrick about the privilege of getting to read unpublished writing, why ‘write what you know’ is the worst advice, and his childhood dream of imitating Enid Blyton.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was a kid, I had a poem published in the Uniting Church’s newspaper (or they might still have been Methodists then). I’ve got it somewhere, but, I’m relieved to say, I couldn’t find it just now amongst the jumble of papers I like to call my ‘portfolio’. The gist of it was something like, ‘I’d like to be a pleesman direcking the trafic … but I’d rather be myself’ (I’m paraphrasing). As it turns out, I haven’t gone on to a career as a famous Christian poet – or any sort of poet.

My first published adult short story – ‘adult’ meaning that I was an over 18, not that it had a 50 shades of purple theme – was a short story called ‘Good Bloke’s Diatribe’. It appeared in a 1995 anthology called Every Colour but Blue, published by a small Fremantle publisher called Cliff Street Publishing (long gone, I think). All the contributors to the anthology responded to a painting by WA artist Jane Martin (from memory, the publisher put a tiny ad in the Weekend Australian and sent out a postcard of the painting to anyone who asked for it). My story starts, ‘I swim because I hate them.’

What’s the best part of your job?

So much: (1) The mix of roles: writing, editing, reviewing, commissioning, manuscript assessment, judging, teaching, festival chairing, etc. I’ve been working at Flinders Uni for nearly a year, so I’m doing somewhat less juggling at the moment, but it’s still a terrifically varied working life. (2) All the reading, not least the unpublished writing I get to read. Published writing is mostly (not always) the cream, but it’s a privilege to have the chance to read unpublished writing. Australia is packed full of writers. That’s a good thing. (3) When I write something that I’m happy with.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Multiple deadlines. Crap money for some gigs, usually the best ones. Leaving the house without a pen.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

Black Inc. choosing to publish my novel, Figurehead. I remain in their debt.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing and editing?

Best advice: try again. Worst advice: write what you know. Beyond that, without wanting to highlight a particular person or piece of knowledge, I have learnt, and continue to learn, a huge amount from my writing heroes, from my peers and, probably most of all, from editors I’ve been lucky enough to work with. But I can’t break it down into chunks.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I haven’t got a clue. (That isn’t something that somebody said about me that surprised me, that’s my answer to the question.)

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d probably be trying to sell secondhand books, not the easiest thing to do these days. Other than that, I’d have to resort to my childhood dreams: captain of the Australian cricket team, Enid Blyton imitator, Neil Young wannabe, blah blah blah.

figureheadThere’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Well, I’m biased: did a Creative Writing PhD and one of the things I do now is teach creative writing. But, honestly, the debate bores me. Doing some sort of creative writing course suits and benefits some people but not others. It’s one way – just one way – of getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘C’. Writers who emerge from the academy can be brilliant, they can produce work that warrants a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars, they can be technically excellent but banal, they can be so-so or they can be terrible … just like all writers, regardless of how they trained or self-trained. If readers judge books on their individual merits, then I doubt that any particular trend is apparent.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Persist.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both, but probably more so online (because I read a lot on the screen). If I’m buying a hard copy, I’ll buy it from a shop, usually Imprints in Hindley Street, Adelaide. Plus libraries: long may libraries live, in whatever shape and form, because they offer the chance to read the unusual, the unexpected, the ‘this looks interesting but I can’t fork out $30 for it’.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Gawd: one person? Maybe Frank Moorhouse’s glorious and wonderfully realised character, Edith Campbell Berry. I’ll talk to her earnestly about world peace while slowly getting slightly drunk and worrying that I am slurring my words. I’d let her choose the restaurant, and order for me.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

That’s an impossible question. Probably Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books. My earliest stories were Blyton imitations. Moving forward a few years, it’s a toss up between Peter Carey’s Illywhacker and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I read both of them in my early adulthood, and I can still remember being stunned that Carey and Atwood were capable of pulling off such tremendously ambitious stories. They are more monuments than books and I feel as if I own them, a little, at least as much as Carey and Atwood own them. But, truly, ask me another day and I’ll give you a whole different answer.


Patrick Allington is the author of Figurehead (Black Inc.). He occasionally blogs at Slapdash.

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In the latest in our occasional series of book-to-film updates, we bring you Johnny Depp’s latest outing (reportedly, the books are great but you might want to miss the film), the new adaptations of John Green, Patricia Highsmith and Thomas Hardy, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s film of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.

Johnny Depp is quirky again: Mortdecai

The latest vehicle for Johnny Depp’s signature brand of zaniness is Mortdecai, based on a trio of books featuring a character of the same name, by novelist and art dealer Kyril Bonfiglioli. The book was originally snapped up after the film’s screenwriter stumbled on Don’t Point That Thing at Me in a second-hand bookshop and fell in love with it; for a time, it was intended for Sacha Baron Cohen. The book’s admirers include Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Julian Barnes. The film, so far, seems to faring not nearly so well: it bombed at the US box office and critics have not been kind. Even the screenwriter, who hopes to make a second film, seems dubious about his leading man’s performance. ‘The moment Johnny takes on a character, it changes,’ he said.

The LA Times says: ‘If the Mortdecai of the books can be fairly described as halfway between James Bond and Bertie Wooster, the Mortdecai of the movie is more like the unfortunate love child of Austin Powers and Inspector Clouseau — benign but befuddled, and bullied, bested or brow-beaten by everyone around him.’

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Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson has reunited with Joaquin Phoenix (the Master) and an all-star cast (Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro) for the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s comic noir Inherent vice. The trailer is available now (below).

New John Green adaptation: Paper Towns

The Fault in our Stars, John Green’s YA tearjerker (read and loved by all ages, including many Wheeler Centre staff) was one of the most popular films of 2014. Paper Towns, a high-school mystery that involves a girl dressed as a ninja, an elaborate revenge scheme, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, debuted at number five on the New York Times bestseller list – and in June, it will be released as a film.

Here’s John Green himself on the film, introducing the actors and the director.

New Patricia Highsmith adaptation: Carol

Patricia Highsmith was the creator of literary (and cinematic) icon Tom Ripley, in The Talented Mr Ripley and its sequels. There have been other, lesser, adaptations of her novels on the screen since the Ripley films, but Carol, an adaptation of The Price of Salt by Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Safe) and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, looks especially promising. The 1952 novel ‘follows a love affair between a young woman trapped in a department store job that she hates and the suburban housewife who sets her free’.

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Far from the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd is the latest work of classic fiction to be adapted for the big screen. Carey Mulligan will star as Bathsheba, the strong-minded country heiress, with Michael Sheen, Matthias Schoenaerts and Tom Sturridge. The screenplay is by novelist David Nicholls, author of One Day and Us, as well as the screenplay for the 2012 film of Great Expectations. You can watch the trailer below.

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27 January 2015

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America remakes The Slap

Thank you to Junkee for sharing the trailer for NBC’s American remake of Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, which replaces cricket with baseball, Jonathan Lapaglia (as Hector) with Peter Saarsgard, Essie Davis (as Anouk) with Uma Thurman … and Melissa George (as Rosie) with Melissa George, again. The series will premiere on NBC next Thursday February 12.

Asked how the show might have been different if it were to appear on cable instead of network television, Saarsgard quipped, ‘In cable someone would have shot someone else’s child’. Only in America.

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Five-year-old billed for missing birthday party

When a five-year-old boy missed his friend’s birthday party at an indoor play centre, an invoice was sent home in his schoolbag for the entry fee (about $26). It’s escalated into an international incident (or at least, an international media story), with both sides talking to news outlets, small claims court lawsuits being threatened, and legal advice sought. Oh, and the boy who missed the party? His friend won’t play with him anymore.

University of Melbourne gets new chair of Australian literature

The University of Melbourne is to get a new professorship of Australian literature, to be called the Boisbouvier Founding Chair – thanks to a $5 million donation from Melbourne couple John Wylie and Myriam Boisbouvier. The chair will be a partnership between the university and the State Library, and will be time limited, ‘so lots of different people can hold the chair’.

‘Everything is a metaphor’: Andie Fox on re-reading

The Meanjin blog’s What I’m Reading series is a frequently fascinating regular peek into what various writerly (and readerly) types have been delving into lately, and why. This week’s instalment is well worth your time: it’s a deeply affecting, beautifully written reflection by Andie Fox (the Guardian, Daily Life) on re-reading for sustenance at times when life gets too overwhelming to take in anything new: from Hairy MacLary to Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.

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36 questions to make you fall in (and out of) love

This month, the New York Times published a series of 36 questions (broken into three parts) that can – apparently – lead to love, if explored in pairs. The idea is that the interviewees make themselves vulnerable in each other’s company, leading to deeper intimacy.

The New Yorker has published a tongue-in-cheek companion list: ‘a follow-up study to see whether the intimacy between two committed partners can be broken down by forcing them to ask each other 36 questions no one in a relationship should actually ask’.

5) What’s your favorite song? No, it’s not. I’ve never once heard you listen to that song.

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23 January 2015

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Brodie Lancaster is a Melbourne-based editor and writer. She is a staff writer at Rookie and the founding editor of Filmme Fatales. Her writing has been featured in magazines, books and websites including New York Magazine, The Pitchfork Review, Jezebel and Smith Journal. During the week, Brodie is an editor at Melbourne writing studio The Good Copy, where she works on projects including Rooftop Cinema and the annual Independent Photography Festival.

We talk to her about writing stories about Hanson (when she was six), Imposter Syndrome, working for Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie, and getting her writing advice from The Good Copy’s Penny Modra.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I wrote a short story when I was six for a school writing competition. The theme of our class’s stories was ‘the stars’, and while everyone else set their stories in the solar system, mine was about my class taking a trip to Hollywood to be in a movie. (On the last page I met Hanson.) I printed my story on that paper that had perforations between each page and ran through the printer on spools, I drew the pictures and my family coloured the pages for me the day before it was due. It won me a voucher at the book fair. Crushed it.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my day job – as an editor at The Good Copy – is seeing my projects go from being ideas to actual things. When you work on something really closely for ages, it can be hard to see the wood from the trees, or the nice stuff from the annoying emails. It’s also really great to work alongside funny, nice, talented, silly people every day.

What’s the worst part of your job?

ADMIN. Were those capital letters all-caps-y enough to express how little fun spreadsheets and budgets and briefs and invoices are?

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

It’s a tie between being hired by Penny Modra to work at The Good Copy and when Tavi Gevinson asked me to join the Rookie staff (both of which happened on the same, excellent day). Both of those things – and, in some way, everything I’ve written/edited/done in the past two years – can be traced back to the work I do making Filmme Fatales, though, so that would easily be the most significant thing I’ve ever made happen for myself.

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What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

Penny gives me great advice constantly, and usually when she doesn’t know she’s doing it. I think the most useful piece of advice she’s given is to never write a word that I wouldn’t say aloud. If I’m too embarrassed to say ‘archetypal’ in conversation, or am not confident enough in its meaning to use ‘solipsism’ in a sentence, I shouldn’t be writing them.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

For a really long time, I was surprised anytime anyone said they liked my work, or that they thought I was a good writer. It’s honestly a wonder I get anything done considering how relentless my case of Imposter Syndrome can be.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

In another life I might’ve been a photographer or a filmmaker. I always wanted to do those things, but was never dedicated enough to commit to them for more than a few minutes at a time.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I think it’s definitely possible to give people the tools to be better writers, and that no matter how much natural talent somebody has, they can always be taught more. I also think that anyone – whether they think they can or not – is able to write. Often my favourite things to read are by people who are convinced they can’t write, because there’s a lack of pretension in their writing that you don’t get when a writer expects you to think or feel something because of their work. So I’m going to sit on the fence with this one, and say that maybe writing shouldn’t be taught, because it’s so great when people don’t realise they’re doing it really well, and learning to do it ‘properly’ might cancel out all that natural greatness.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

The more you talk about writing, the less writing you’re actually doing. Shut up, and do the work. (Says the girl who’s just written 600 words about writing.) Also, Ira Glass’s advice http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/309485-nobody-tells-this-to-people-who-are-beginners-i-wish for getting over those initial creative hurdles when your aims and reality are so totally out of sync should be engraved on your brain forever.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both!

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Jess Mariano from Gilmore Girls. We’d discuss tips for maintaining voluminous hair, the pros and cons of self-publishing and the plans for our impending wedding.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Sara Marcus’s chronicle of the riot grrrl movement, Girls to the Front, is a perfect blend of narrative, archive and interview. It reminded me that the best music writing isn’t actually about the music itself, but the people it affected.


Brodie Lancaster is founding editor of Filmmes Fatales. Issue Five was voted by the Wheeler Centre’s Tamara Zimet as one of her Best Books of 2014.

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In the lead-up to his upcoming season of Transgender Seeking… at this year’s Midsumma Festival, Writers Victoria asked queer and trans writer, performer and educator Sunny Drake for his tips on how to write yourself into your performance.

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Writers Victoria: What was the inspiration behind the play?

Sunny Drake: Well, I wrote the first short version of the play seven years ago when I was a little heartbroken at being in love with my best friend (again!). The content proved relevant to lots of people, so I decided to grow it into a full-length play in 2013.

It’s still got threads inspired by my own story in there, but has moved more heavily into fiction. I think relationships form the basis of pretty much every aspect of our lives, yet we often see them as personal or somehow not a political issue.

I wanted to craft a piece that touches people on a deeply personal level, yet challenges us all to consider how we can love each other better.

WV: You’ve said that much of your performance work is inspired by your own life. How does it feel to expose your feelings and experiences in such a public way?

SD: Frequently terrifying! Usually though, it’s only terrifying for the first few performances and then it actually helps me to move through whatever I was so terrified about.

A very magical thing happens when I put myself out there – people meet me with the same sense of vulnerability and openness. I get literally hundreds of emails and Facebook messages, and have very intimate conversations with people after my shows.

I’ve exposed personal things through my work and so complete ‘strangers’ trust me with their own very personal stories. In this way, I feel like I’m holding my community at the same time as they are holding me. I’m very clear in my creative process that while I need to do a lot of personal work to get to a point of putting my own stories out there, what actually ends up on the page or the stage is not my therapy process. I make decisions based on what I want to say politically as well as crafting beautiful, compelling theatre.

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WV: What are your tips for protecting yourself when writing autobiographically?

SD: Firstly, consider the balance between pushing yourself to be part of creating the world you want to see and keeping yourself safe. This involves considering all angles of what the personal impacts of sharing your story may be and weighing them against the impact you can have with your audience. When I first started writing a play based on my drinking problem, I was going to pretend it was entirely fictional because I felt so ashamed. I eventually realised that the work would have much more impact if I wrote myself directly into the play, since a lot of other people felt such deep shame too. It was precisely this willingness to own the story that made the work powerful for many.

Other times, I have decided to fictionalise more heavily to protect my own (and other people’s) privacy. Although if you’re going to write and perform the work yourself, many will assume that the fictional threads are about you, even when they aren’t, so at the end of the day you have to be happy to live with what you put out into the world.

Another thing to consider is how autobiographical work will impact others in our lives. Rarely are we just writing about ourselves: our experiences often involve family, friends, partners, lovers, workmates etc. Early on in my performance career, I made the mistake of writing about some experiences with family without having a discussion with them first. It’s not that I would necessarily have changed what I was writing, but not having the courage to tell them did break some trust. If we want to have ongoing relationships with people we are writing about, then how we do and don’t involve them is definitely a factor to consider.

WV: You have toured the world with your show, which takes an exposing, funny and tender look at queer and trans relationships. Do you think audiences are finally starting to see their own experiences on our stages and screens, or do we still have a long way to go?

SD: It’s great that we’re starting to see more LGBTIQ stories on stage! What I’m finding though is that there’s a very narrow range of stories on stage. The majority of LGBTIQ stories are about coming out and trans stories are mostly about surgery and physical changes. While these are really important topics, focusing solely on these prevents us from exploring the fullness of who we are.

WV: So, I’ve written my story. How do I take it to the next step?

SD: Put it in front of an audience! If it’s a book or short story, have people read it. If it’s a performance, do a work-in-progress showing. There’s only so far I can get on my own without trying out the work in front of an audience.

Create an audience that’s appropriate for the stage of work. For example, don’t invite the director of an international theatre festival if the play is in its first draft. It could even mean inviting your friends over to your living room, cooking them a nice meal, then trying your work out with them.


Sunny Drake is a queer and trans writer, performer and educator. You can catch his one-person theatre show Transgender Seeking… at the Footscray Community Arts Centre from 27-31 January.

Sunny will also be running a workshop on Autobiographical Performance Writing at Writers Victoria during Midsumma.

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In the lead-up to his Midsumma writing workshop on Writing Love Poems to Boys, Writers Victoria interviews Castlemaine poet Terry Jaensch about the power of the love poem.

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Writers Vic: Is love poetry really better than Grindr?

Terry Jaensch: It depends what you’re after. But if you want something a bit more considered, in a form that perhaps demands that we sit with and sort our thoughts before broadcasting them, then love poetry it is. That said, it might be an interesting test to see what and where a love poem will get you on Grindr.

WV: Is there a canon of boys writing love poems to boys?

TJ: I’d argue there is, you only have to think on the list of poets, some expected some unexpected: Walt Whitman, Thom Gunn, Federico Garcia Lorca, Paul Verlaine, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg. There’s even some conjecture as to whom Shakespeare wrote his sonnets.

WV: Who does it well?

TJ: I’m particularly fond of Thom Gunn, Whitman and there are a handful of very revealing pieces by Paul Verlaine that evidence his conflicted sexuality, which are intense reading. Of course, the list could go on …

WV: Do you have a favourite love poem that was written from one man to another?

TJ: Whitman’s ‘When I Heard At The Close Of Day’ and Robert Adamson’s ‘Action Would Kill It/A Gamble’: both for their candour and simplicity.

When the beach ended,

we would have split up. And as he spoke

clearly and without emotion

about the need for action, about killing people,

I wanted him.

Robert Adamson

WV: Can it be more exposing to show ourselves in words than in pictures?

TJ: With poetry I think we are showing ourselves in pictures/images, it’s just that words are the vehicle. With regard to exposure, I think it’s less about the words/image or picture, and more about the revelation: what does each reveal (intended or unintended) and how comfortable are we with the revelation?

WV: What makes a love poem a love poem? Does it have to include the words?

TJ: Someone else: the subject being someone other than ourselves. Love poems are often better for not including the word love.


Terry Jaensch is an Australian poet, director and monologist. His latest volume of poetry, ‘Shark’, was published in 2013.

Terry will be running a writing workshop on Writing Love Poems to Boys at Writers Victoria during Midsumma.

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Mike Shuttleworth visited Paris last year to attend the Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse, one of the best children’s book festivals in the world. He reports back to share the experience – and some of the books he encountered there.

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From vengeful rabbits to playing with guns, the picture books given to French children have a reputation for being uncompromisingly scary – further proof that the French do not coddle les enfants, even at story time.

While it’s true that the French embrace topics and styles that more timid Anglophone picture book publishers would reject, right now, France is producing some of the finest books for children in the world. The best – and there are many too choose from – are visually sophisticated, quirky, funny and daring. And at the Salon du livre et de presse jeunesse in Montreuil, which I was fortunate to visit in November 2014, you can see it all.

When it comes to promoting of books and reading there is nothing in Australia like the SLPJ. This bustling six-day program of book market, exhibitions, author appearances, panels, debates, projections and more attracted 160,000 visitors, most of them children and teenagers. Celebrating its thirtieth year, the Salon brings plenty of attention to children’s books at exactly the right time of year and does so with a mighty bang.

Every publisher worthy of their colophon exhibits here: the big like Flammarion, Gallimard and Casterman (yes, publishers of Tintin); the edgy independents like Editions Thiery Magnier and Editions Fourmis Rouges; and icons like * l'ecole des loisirs* (celebrating 50 years in 2015) and Albin Michel Jeunesse. There are specialist art book publishers (yes, for children) and specialist human rights publishers (yes, also for children); and the national library promotes its programs for professionals. This is the epicenter of French book publishing for children and teenagers.

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Authors appearing included Quentin Blake (also featured in a large and beautiful exhibition), Meg Rosoff, Cathy Cassidy and local heroes including Pénélope Bagieu and Timothee de Fombelle, author of the brilliant Toby Alone. Hundreds of authors appear, and even more illustrators, since having your book ‘signed’ with original artwork, une dedicace is de rigeur.

But there is something just as important as the commercial and cultural side to the Salon, and which gives the event its soul: that is the connection to community. The strong relationship between the Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse, the local government, the national government and the publishing industry that helps to make the event so successful.

Montreuil is in the east of Paris and just beyond the peripherique, that sometimes real, sometimes imaginary line that marks the start of the banlieue, the suburbs. So imagine a book festival in Braybrook or Dandenong or Blacktown. The Seine-St Denis local government, which supports the SLJP, is among the most left-wing districts in Paris. It’s home to many thousands of Malian migrants (it’s sometimes called Little Bamako), with more than 100 languages spoken.

‘Montreuil is always a fight’, one foreign rights agent confided to me. What she meant is, that it is always a fight to get respect, to get the resources, to get the media coverage for this major celebration. In director Sylvie Vassolo, the Salon has a leader prepared to stand up for children’s books. Politics is in her blood and her training: prior to leading SLPJ, Sylvie Vassolo headed the national union of Communist students. The Salon is currently leading the charge to have children’s literature formally recognised as ‘the tenth art’.

Children and teenagers arrive in school groups, or with childcare centres, after-school recreation and youth clubs, and with parents. Thousands of parents pay admission of six euros (about $9) and receive a four euro book voucher. Children and teenagers are admitted free. They can be seen exploring, reading, discussing, buying and delighting in the hundreds of stalls, events, exhibitions, book signings. Outside it might be chilly, but the scenes on the three floors of a scruffy convention centre are hectic.

Mike Shuttleworth was the program manager for the Melbourne Writers Festival 2011−2015. His trip to the Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse was kindly supported by the Consulate-General of France, Sydney.

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We thought we’d say goodbye to 2014 by making it easy for you to make some last-minute Christmas gift – and summer reading choices. Here are five of the handiest retrospectives on the best books of 2014, all of them Australian (and some of them by us).

Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists 2015

Last week, we announced the shortlists for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, across five categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, young adult and drama. Why not choose some award-recognised reads for your summer break? These are some of the best Australian books around.

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The Age: Australian writers choose their best books of 2014

Every year, the Age and Sydney Morning Herald invite Australian writers to choose their best books of 2014. This year, some of the featured writers sharing their picks include Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Effect), Clare Wright (The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka), Maxine Beneba Clarke (Foreign Soil) and Don Watson (The Bush).

Readings Best Books of 2014

Melbourne bookseller Readings compiles a comprehensive best books list each year, chosen by staff as a collective – and helpfully broken down into categories, including a strong contingent of Australian books. Categories include fiction, non-fiction, crime, young adult books, picture books, food and garden books, and art and design books. You can browse them all on their website.

Guardian Australia Best Books 2014

Selected staff and freelance writers for Guardian Australia – including David Marr, Jeff Sparrow and Brigid Delaney – have chosen their best books of 2014. This list has an all-Australian focus.

Wheeler Centre staff best books of 2014

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Last but not least, we have our own annual best books tradition – where we ask Wheeler Centre staff to choose their favourite books of the year. It’s an in-house favourite, as we all get to see what each other are reading and loving. You can read our staff best books here on our website.


Please feel free to leave your own best books of 2014 in the comments.

We’d love to hear what you think! (And whether you agree or disagree with any of the choices here.)

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Harry Saddler is the author of We Both Know: Ten Stories About Relationships (2005) and Small Moments (2007), a short novel about the aftermath of the Canberra bushfires of 2003, both published by Ginderra Press. Since 2008 he’s been writing and distributing weekly SMS stories and putting them on Twitter (@MondayStory). He writes about the ecological, physical, and philosophical interactions between humans and animals at his blog, Noticing Animals and was the joint winner of the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival/Blurb ‘Blog-to-Book’ Challenge, resulting in the new book Not Birdwatching: Reflections on Noticing Animals.

We spoke to Harry about needing a day job that’s not challenging in order to write, why if you’ve been told not to do something in your writing, that’s exactly what you should do, and his dream date with Lizzie Bennett.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

When I was at Telopea Park High School in Canberra I had a story published in a magazine of high school writing from across the ACT. It was the first edition of the magazine and I think the next edition was probably the last. The story was about people turning into trees and trees turning into people – I wrote a lot of weird, sort of surreal stories when I was in high school – and when the magazine arrived the story had been published under the name Harry Seidler. As my high school English teacher quipped: ‘Harry was hoping to make a name for himself.’

Incidentally, that teacher was the one who first encouraged me to write. She loved my stories and would get me to read them out to the class. Years later when I had a book of short stories published by Ginninderra Press, I was able to repay the debt by dedicating the book to her. I also managed to track her down through the ACT school system and invite her to the launch. I suspect most writers have one special teacher who’s been instrumental in getting them to write, and it was pretty wonderful to be able to show her – her name was (is) Ellen Robertson – how much her encouragement had meant to me.

What’s the best part of your job?

My answer to this is going to be a bit unusual because I have a full-time day job. I grew up in Canberra which is a small city and an even smaller market, so the idea of being a professional writer just never occurred to me when I was growing up. I don’t think I’d ever even met a full-time freelance writer until I moved to Melbourne in 2004, though a lot of my mum’s friends were writers – some of them quite prominent. So the best part of my (day) job is that it isn’t too taxing. I work as a data analyst and it’s interesting but it doesn’t leave me so drained at the end of the day that I can’t come home and write. It took my parents a while to appreciate that what I wanted from a job was something that wasn’t challenging, but they understand now. I think.

Before my current day-job I worked from home for eight years as a contractor for the public service. I made up my own hours – as long as I got the requisite 7.6 hours a day done I could start and finish whenever I wanted – so if I felt like taking an hour off in the middle of the afternoon to go and write I could. It was a dream. Because I was being paid government money I regarded it as an unofficial arts grant.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Again, I’ll answer this in relation to my (current) day-job: the worst part, when it comes to writing, is having a sudden idea, or rush of ideas, at – say – three o’clock in the afternoon. I’m stuck at my desk. I can’t drop everything and go and write. When you get that sudden surge of excitement and your mind’s firing and ideas are coming at you from everywhere at a million miles an hour it’s lightning in a bottle. It’s so frustrating to have to let it pass and know that it won’t come back again unless you’re very, very lucky.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

It’s still pretty early days for me so I’m at the stage where everything feels significant. Every piece of good news I get is super-exciting and every request to write something is a ‘Who, me?’ moment. At the same time I’m not quite sure what ‘significant’ means – was having my first book of short stories published way back in 2005 significant? Well sure, I guess so, I mean it sounds like it should be significant, doesn’t it? But that and the short novel that Ginninderra Press published in 2007 both sank without a trace and nobody’s ever heard of them, so just how significant were those moments?

Upon reflection I think maybe the most significant moment – or period – of my writing career so far has been making friends in Melbourne’s literary community. That started with going to the Emerging Writers Festival and meeting people and hanging out with them late at night at bars. I’ve found the Melbourne literary scene to be incredibly friendly and welcoming. It’s so easy to get involved and everyone’s really keen to hear what you’re up to. It’s tiny, too, which probably helps newcomers to get acquainted – tiny in the sense that everyone knows everyone else or knows somebody who does. Country town kind of tiny. The lit scene is basically a country town nested in the middle of Melbourne’s wider culture.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I’ve never studied writing or attended any writing courses or even talked very much about the writing process with any of my writer friends so I can’t say I’ve ever really directly received any writing advice – but of course I’ve heard plenty of advice floating around.

You can break writing advice down into two categories: there’s ‘How to sit down and make yourself put words on a page’, and there’s ‘How to make those words good.’ To be honest I think all advice that falls into the second of those categories is terrible.

By that I mean that if we as a reading culture want writing to be as dynamic and as exciting and as interesting as possible then ideally we want it to be as diverse as possible, and for that to happen we need all of our writers to figure out for themselves what works for them and how it works. There are a hell of a lot of very good writers in the world but there are depressingly few who are sui generis.

I think if you’ve ever been told that you shouldn’t do something in your writing then that’s exactly what you should do. To hell with rules and regulations and taste and appropriate use of the language. To hell with never using the passive voice and getting rid of all your adjectives and never writing dream sequences. To hell with it! Do it. Do it all.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Honestly, any time somebody says that they’ve read something I wrote it’s a surprise. If they say that they read it and they liked it – when that happens it gets a bit awkward because I’m not very good at taking compliments.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

God, if only I was making a living from writing! I’d actually be a terrible freelance writer. I’m awful at pushing my writing. I’m dreadful at pitching: when I write I make it up as I go and see where the story or the essay takes me, so when I pitch it’s basically ‘I have this collection of woolly ideas and they’re not really logically connected and they don’t really make sense when I try to explain them as a single idea but I know without a shadow of a doubt that I can make it work so please just trust me?’

A long time ago I dreamed of being a zoologist. I grew up watching David Attenborough documentaries and I studied biology at university. But it turns out I have a writer’s brain instead of a scientist’s brain.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Like I said in my answer to the question about writing advice, I’ve never knowingly been within fifty fathoms of a creative writing course so I’m not really in a position to talk about what they do or whether they’re effective. For my part, writing was learned rather than taught – by which I mean I learned by reading. Everyone says this but it bears repeating as often as humanly possible: if you want to be a writer you have to be a reader. Books are the best teachers you will ever have.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

I’ve got a couple of pieces of advice. Firstly, don’t be too precious about writing. Don’t think that it needs to be done in perfect silence with a cup of tea at your side that’s exactly the right temperature and only at 9:30 at night.

Of course every writer’s advice and habits are as individual as their writing but for me any time can be writing time. If you’re waiting for the tram and it’s not due for ten minutes – that’s writing time. Hell, if you’re on the tram, that’s writing time. If you work a day-job, your lunch-break is writing time.

Snatch what you can, when you can, and write what you can. Be an opportunist. Accept that sometimes you’re going to have to be selfish and disappoint your friends when they want you to come out for the night.

Oh, but having said that: get out of the house. For god’s sake learn to love writing in cafes and bars and pubs and parks and anywhere where you’re going to bump into other people. Be curious about the world. Write about yourself if you must (god knows I do) but try to figure out how your story fits into something bigger than you. Have big eyes for the world and everything in it.

Secondly, trust your editors. I don’t know how it happened but over the course of the second half of the twentieth century it seems like we built up the cult of the author to ridiculous heights and started burning editors in effigy. We got this bizarre notion that editors get in the way of writers and that’s why now we have publishers getting awful ideas like publishing the unedited scroll of On the Road. Who the hell wants to read that? Trust your editors and learn to enjoy redrafting.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I very, very, very rarely buy books online, and even less so now that we’ve all come to realise exactly how awful Amazon is. I’m excessively devoted to buying books off the shelf. Even asking a bookshop to order a book for me feels like cheating. On many occasions I’ve spent years – actual years – circling and circling and circling back to the same bookshop or group of bookshops, waiting and hoping that the book I want to buy will have been reprinted in a new edition, or that somebody at the bookshop will have decided out of the blue to order and stock it. This has proven to be a surprisingly successful strategy and I’ve possibly startled more than one bookshop customer or staff member by gasping in disbelief and excitement when I’ve spotted a longed-for book I’d almost abandoned any hope of ever possessing.

Pretty much the only exception to this pattern of behaviour is for my birthday, when I order a job lot of books from the British website Caught By the River.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Elizabeth Bennet. Everybody always talks about what a great object of female desire Mr Darcy is but nobody really ever mentions Lizzie Bennet. And fair enough because it’s not like there’s any pressing need in contemporary society to hear yet more about male desire, but I really can’t emphasise this enough: Elizabeth Bennet is a total dream woman. She’s whip-smart and she doesn’t care who knows it; she’s got an opinion and she’s going to let you hear it; she’s quick-witted and well-read and independent and to be honest she doesn’t need you and she doesn’t have time for your crap and she’d tell you that in the classiest way possible – what a babe.

So I guess in my head this imaginary dinner with an imaginary person is actually a date. And I’d make a complete mess of it but that’s okay because we all know Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are supposed to be together.

After my disastrous dinner-date with Elizabeth Bennet I’d drown my sorrows with another Elizabeth, Liz Corbett from the English writer Elizabeth (!) Taylor’s wonderful novel The Soul of Kindness. Liz would get me drunk and probably tell me to stop being an idiot and then she’d let me crash on her sofa and in the morning she’d kick me so that she could work on one of her paintings. I’d like to be friends with Liz.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

This is the easiest question of the lot. I don’t even have to think about it. It was William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. Like, I suspect, a lot of 90s kids, I came to Blake via Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man. I bought the soundtrack before I’d even seen the film (it was my introduction to Neil Young, too) and it was filled with recordings of Johnny Depp reciting William Blake poems.

‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ hit me like no other piece of writing ever has, before or since – in fact it wasn’t even the whole thing, it was just one line: ‘The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.’

Before I read that sentence I didn’t know – I literally didn’t know – that you were allowed to just write stuff like that, and proclaim stuff, and not really offer any evidence to back it up. I didn’t know you were allowed to make stuff up. When you’re a teenager and William Blake tells you you’re allowed to just make stuff up – that’s pretty powerful.

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Melbourne writer Maxine Beneba Clarke – author of Foreign Soil, one of our staff favourite books of 2014 – started a lively Twitter conversation about the experience of being a woman writer when she launched the hashtag #writingwhilefemale.

Here, she explains why she started it, why the conversation is important – and how it grew into a valuable catalogue of experiences. (And launched a companion thread, #menreadingwomen.)

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The #writingwhilefemale twitter thread was started to allow female-identifying Australian writers to collectively voice their concerns and frustrations: emerging writers or experienced professionals; full-time writers or working around other responsibilities; living inner-city or in regional areas.

The Stella Prize and the range of programs, discussions and initiatives that have been rolled out under the banner of this prize continue to significantly raise the profile of Australian women writers. Books such as Rachel Power’s The Divided Heart illuminate obstacles creative women can face. Initiatives such as The Australian Women’s Writing Challenge raise the profile of published writing by Australian women.

I was interested in highlighting the day-to-day struggles and inequities that come with being a woman writer, and the devastating manner in which sometimes seemingly small incidents or comments can accumulate into an avalanche.

I started tweeting on the #writingwhilefemale hashtag late on Friday, posting a picture of myself performing at Melbourne Writers Festival. (‘That time I did a 20 minute @swingingonline commission @MelbWritersFest at 8 ½ months pregnant? #writingwhilefemale’) and a few other bits and pieces. I let a couple hundred other Australian women writers know via an online network that I was going to start tweeting about my experiences, and tagging each relevant tweet #writingwhilefemale (in the tradition of hashtags such as #drivingwhileblack). I asked if they’d consider joining me to share their experiences.

Turns out we Australian women writers have some harrowing tales to tell.

The floodgates opened.

Tweets were favourited and forwarded on, and favourited again and forwarded on again.

The Vine had caught on, and ran a piece about #writingwhilefemale the next day.

A #menreadingwomen thread was started by Martin Shaw at Readings, to support #writingwhilefemale by encouraging more men to read, discuss and promote the work of published woman writers.

Publishers, writers, readers and booksellers have engaged with the threads, and there’s been interest in running some events and publications around #writingwhilefemale.

The hashtag was my baby for about an hour, then the village stepped in to help raise the child.

#writingwhilefemale

#menreadingwomen

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Tony Birch reflects on why urgency (in our rhetoric, at least) is a counterproductive response to climate change. Instead, he argues, we need patience: ‘the only means by which change of substance will eventuate’.

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It may appear contradictory to suggest the last rhetorical flush we need when it comes to climate change is urgency. For sure, the state of the planet is desperate. Despite Foreign Minister Julie Bishop claiming that Australia’s – no, the world’s – Great Barrier Reef, is in fine shape, reputable scientists have warned us, time and time again, that the reef is in a dire situation, one that may well result in its death. I could go one here about other aspects of urgency, around clean air, contamination of waterways, drought, increasingly ferocious weather events, etc. etc. Oddly perhaps, I do not think talk of urgency and panic get us anywhere. The language may provoke some to action, and I applaud this. Action is vital. But many run in fear, bury their heads in the proverbial sand and do nothing. This mood of panic has been strategically exploited by the Abbott government in Australia, and other administrations around the globe.

Urgency is the language that allows politicians to look busy-busy. We need more of an outcome from global climate change summits like the one just held in Lima than another piece of paper being thrust at us − while paradoxically, real change to deal with climate change moves at glacial speed. (Although, I suppose, glaciers are moving a little more quickly these days?)

However desperate our situation has become, we need to act with patience not panic. It is the only means by which change of substance will eventuate. Consequently, I have been thinking more about the ways in which Indigenous engagement with land and a philosophy of environment and ecology may provide both an intellectual and scientific way forward for us. (I did mention this on occasion on my recent ‘European tour’, with little response. I think that most people in Europe, like white Australia, relegate Aboriginal knowledge to the status of romantic folklore, at best).

I was speaking to a friend recently, talking about the practice of ‘soft eyes’, used by some Indigenous communities in Australia (and I would think worldwide) in seeing the land. I am not qualified to go into the intricacies of the practice. It would be both foolish and disrespectful to attempt to articulate the cultural and intellectual value of ‘soft eyes’ here. But I do feel qualified to respond to what I regard as the wide cultural lesson to be learned. ‘Soft eyes’ is a way of looking at land, and sky, and water in a way that refuses to focus on a single object or site. By seeing nothing with detailed specificity, one is able to engage more fully with the whole. Another aspect of ‘soft eyes’ is that it takes patience and time, to both learn the technique and respond adequately to what one is actually seeing.

After Lima there will be Paris, and who knows after that. I haven’t checked my schedule. But, in the words of an Aboriginal elder and poet of the nineteenth century, ‘we all become bones … all of us’. There is a holistic reality in these simple words. And a lesson for each of us. We …


This is an edited version of a blog post at Weather Stations by Tony Birch, Australia’s writer in residence.

Weather Stations is a global project that places literature and storytelling at the heart of the conversations around climate change. The Wheeler Centre is one of five partners in the project.

Tony Birch posts regularly at the Weather Stations blog.

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Every year at this time, the Wheeler Centre staff share our favourite books of 2014.

Emily Sexton, head of programming

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Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Halfway through reading Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, an early copy of this Melbourne-San Franciscan-New Yorker author’s debut landed on my desk. It’s funny because as much as Lena’s book is fun, Ulman’s is simply wonderful and it immediately zoomed to the top of my list for 2014. Full of unsettling and glorious portrayals of female desire, these women are conflicted, fierce, funny and strikingly familiar. Ulman has an immense talent for writing authentic voices for characters from a vast range of contexts; I am really looking forward to seeing more from her in the future. (Out through Penguin in March).

Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath

A bit of a catch-up read, as this marvellous novel was released in 2009 (and won the People’s Choice Award for the NSW Premier’s Prize at the time). A multi-generational story set in Tasmania, Kennedy’s ability to create thick, faulted characters really drew me in, and the finale is breathtaking.

Anna Krien’s Night Games

I come from an AFL-obsessed family, it’s in my blood. But I’m a feminist too (and the two things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive). So Anna Krien’s terrific book, so curious and exploratory, sat perfectly for me. Her testing and teasing out of so many assumptions changed the way I felt about football.

And then my team lost the Grand Final by not even trying, so all things considered: maybe it’s time to get more into Women’s Hockey.

Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen

My previous role as Next Wave’s artistic director occupied one corner of what determines ‘success’ and ‘potential’ for new artists and their careers; therefore this compelling account of Adam’s short, loud, complex life rang very true, and very sad, for me. I found it both terrifying and terrific; like Anna Krien’s work I really did appreciate the ambiguity and areas of grey that Erik accounted for within his biography.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird

It’s impossible for me to get close to a) how brilliant, piercing and unique this book and writer is or b) Porochista Khakpour’s pitch-perfect review in the New York Times, which even namechecks Jerry Saltz (and if you haven’t followed this legendary art critic on Instagram already you are missing out – trust me). I can only say that on emergence, I felt Oyeyemi had rearranged my brain parts and taught me a different way to read. A post-racial, queer retelling of Snow White, I think I’ll be returning to this book again many times in the future and I feel hungry to explore more of Oyeyemi’s previous novels.

Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things

Now this is a bit of a leap, because I’m only 100 pages in – but by gosh this is an exciting read. The endorsements from Philip Pullman and David Mitchell, two of my most favourite authors, should have been all I needed to get stuck in right away. Melding science fiction, a love story and an exploration of faith that transcends borders, its storytelling is both masterful and entirely approachable and funny at the same time. I heard over the weekend that Faber has determined this to be his last book, so I’m going to savour every last drop of it over summer. It also gets my personal prize for prettiest book cover… so shiny!

Helen Withycombe, programming coordinator

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

A fast-paced and well-crafted book, I found it shocking and heartbreaking, while being darkly funny at times. I couldn’t believe that it was from the same author of The Jane Austen Book Club!

Yes Please, Amy Poehler

Besides being ‘uncontrollable laughter on public transport’ funny, it increased my respect for this clever woman with a social conscience who changes the world though comedy. And to make this reading experience even better, indulge in the audiobook version. You won’t be disappointed.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A fearless and at times funny exploration of race and identity in America and Nigeria, with a love story at its heart.

Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan

A book that really got under my skin: in turns it broke my heart, turned my stomach and made me proud of my heritage.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett

I belatedly came across this collection of essays this year, but I loved Patchett’s explorations of writing and love in its many forms.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

A wonderful saga that follows the lives of artistic teenagers who meet at a creative arts summer camp – for fans of Franzen and Sittenfield.

To Name Those Lost, Rohan Wilson

A ripping historical thriller set in Tasmania that was such an all-encompassing reading experience I even dreamed about it!

Jaclyn Booton, general manager

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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

An incisive and unstinting collection of essays. Roxane Gay embraces her own imperfections as a consumer of popular culture while holding fast to the expressly feminist critiques she makes of much of it. (PS. She’s team Peeta and that makes me Team Gay, all the way.)

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

All the ways in which families are inspirational, damaging, and inextricably part of who we are. Plus the best ‘big reveal’ of the year.

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

I guzzled this down, binging on the perspectives, characters, and voices we don’t get enough of in Australian literature. Delores and Ella eating spaghetti from a tin. Asanka’s terrifying boat trip. And Avery, upside down on the monkey bars, ‘stuck as buggery’. Painful and poetic.

My Story by Julia Gillard

One third of the book is spent on how it happened and two thirds on why. It’s a politician’s tale, giving little of the personal away. But as a primer on how to Get Shit Done (set goals, establish relationships, respond creatively to obstacles, stay focused), it’s a solid instruction manual.

People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman

Released waaaay back in 1991 but a beloved favourite and stand-out re-read in 2014. An ensemble of characters living – and dying – in the early days of Act Up! activism in New York City. The central love triangle of Peter, Kate, and Molly is brutal but beautiful and People in Trouble also rates a mention as my most loaned book this year (so thanks for indulging me, Team Wheeler!).

Lucy De Kretser, project coordinator

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My top pick of 2014 is, hands down, Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke. At the Wheeler Centre, we have been lucky enough to have seen this incredible, poetic collection of short stories go from an unpublished manuscript to a rapturously received published book, so deserving of the wide praise it has received. I have also loved reading Maxine’s profiles in the Saturday Paper this year, seeing her perform poetry, contribute to panel discussions, and support emerging writers. What a literary star.

I thoroughly enjoyed Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, for its fascinating study of the machinations of the court room and Garner’s startlingly incisive observations of character.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was published in 2013, but I read it this year and it was an absolute favourite. I simply did not want it to end, and it left me wanting to gobble up everything that she has ever written. Flawless.

And finally (I do enjoy including a film), Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater, was such a stunning portrayal of childhood and adolescence, a coming of age story without the clichés, and a fascinating project that translated into a captivating cinema experience.

Tamara Zimet, publicist (‘The No More Little White Gloves List’)

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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This one ignited the same kind of wide-eyed evangelical zeal that Anna Krien’s Night Games sparked last year. She’s unconventional, wry and fiercely intelligent. These are diverse and soaring essays on feminism, Hanna Rosin, Scrabble, race, Tyler Perry, Sweet Valley High, Shonda Rhimes and Gay’s own experiences. I wanted to read this aloud to strangers on the tram, but I’m trying to be less obnoxious at 8.30am.

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

It felt like we collectively lost our minds over Serial this year, and this was a great guide for wading through the many ethical dilemmas of Serial and the obsessive response to it. Plus there’s the great opener: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamieson

This collection of essays is an exploration of empathy, pain and suffering. There are pieces on poverty tourism, Morgellons disease, ultra-marathons, prison and the West Memphis Three. The WMT essay really complemented The Journalist and the Murderer and unpacks further the ideas of redemption and reclamation, both of the victim and the accused.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I wish she skipped the whole part at the beginning about how she doesn’t know how to write a book, because she does and she’s really good at it. Yes Please is open, hilarious and clever and delivers important truths such as: ‘Calling people ‘sweetheart’ makes most people enraged.’

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The story is interspersed with blog posts by the main character, Ifemelu on her page; Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Americanah is a funny, smart, sweet, hard-hitting and at times deeply uncomfortable book about race and belonging, stretching across three continents. The NYT said that Adichie possessed ‘the ability to lambaste society without sneering or patronizing or polemicizing’ and because it’s the NYT, because that sums up my feelings exactly, and because there is no way I could have ever said it better myself, I’ll leave at that.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

I found this book mesmerising and unsettling from the very beginning – it truly scared me and I felt on edge the whole way through. I think Evie Wyld is an absolute master. Her event – in conversation with Ben Law – was also my favourite Wheeler Centre event of the year.

Filmme Fatales (Issue 3) – Edited by Brodie Lancaster

Filmme Fatales is one of the best publications going around and sits in the place where feminism and film intersect. Brodie is a great editor and is brilliant at commissioning the best local and international writing talent and pairing them with equally great illustrators. Issue 5 was the Power Issue and featured Tavi Gevinson’s college application essay (Brodie writes for Rookie), an interview with filmmaker Gillian Robespierre and another with the head of SXSW film, Janet Pierson. My favourite piece in this one was by Anton De Ionno and featured a particularly amazing illustration of The Hairy Bird. I am just always so impressed with what Brodie creates. No More Little White Gloves.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

This is the first in the series and was such an accurate and vivid description of friendship and the confusion of growing up that I ordered the second one before I had finished it. I am intrigued and frustrated about the mystery surrounding Ferrante, mostly I am blown away by her talent but also because I’m extremely nosey and because she – whoever and wherever she is – is on top of my Guest Wish List for the Wheeler Centre.

Men We Reaped – Jesmyn Ward

This is an early pick because I’m only 1/3 of the way through, but I’m calling it early. It’s a memoir about the violent and unexpected deaths of five young men in a very short period, all of whom were close to Ward, including her brother. ‘That’s a brutal list,’ she writes, ‘in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.’ It’s a story of the morbid reality of growing up poor and black in Mississippi. As Ward writes, at ‘the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing’. I thought of this book as 25,000 people marched in the streets of New York this past weekend, holding signs that say ‘Black Lives Matter’, chanting ‘I can’t breathe’ and unfurling a banner reading, ‘When we breathe, we breathe together’. As Ward sits with the widow of a friend who is murdered, she think ‘I’m only 26 … I’m tired of this shit.’ She’s an excellent writer and I think this book is important, especially now.

Shannon Hick, marketing manager

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Shamefully I hardly read any newly published books this year. If this was a best of 2014 TV shows I’d be killing it right now. That being said I did read actual books this year, and those that stand out for me were:

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

The August 2013 issue of Vanity Fair had an article about the courtroom battle between the fiercely private author Harper Lee and her agent Samuel Pinkus. Having never read the book at school I put it on my ‘to read’ list for 2014. This year, Marja Mills’ The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee was released amid some controversy regarding claims of Lee’s cooperation, and, I was reminded again I needed to read the darn thing.

I’m so glad to have read this book. It’s so beautiful, I can’t rave about it enough. Scout is such a divine character, I feel like we would have been best friends growing up.

Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness) – Francoise Sagan

This was assigned reading in 2014 as part of my book club. When I say assigned, I mean it in the nicest way of course. Unless I treat it like school work of some kind, I’m hopeless at reading things on time!

Touted as the French F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sagan’s novel tells the tale of Cecile, a 17-year-old school girl holidaying with her widowed cad of a father and his lady friends. It is a story about how love can be twisted, manipulative and all-consuming. It made me want to take a long vacation to the beach – minus the dramatic ending of course.

Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the stories behind themWendy MacNaughton, Isaac Fitzgerald

So simple and so clever. Every tattoo tells a story … or so they say. And why not get people to share those stories with you? That’s the gist of this book, beautifully illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Cheryl Strayed, Roxanne Gay, rockers from Korn, professors, cafe owners and librarians share the significance of their symbols through story. My favourite is Siobhan Barry’s, she just really fucking loves pizza! Keep an eye out for Knives & Ink, coming soon.

Jon Tjhia, online manager

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This year, I indulged a foolish impulse and allowed myself to read a very long, somewhat scolding critical appraisal of a book I was halfway through reading. The book was How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti. In spite of how obsessed I’d been in the past few years with ideas of what criticism should do and be, it was odd and bracing to suddenly feel new, ambivalent layers of mental processing arising between each sentence and my enjoyment of it. After a halting second reading, I feel both deeply affectionate and naggingly judgmental about the book. Eek!

On the other hand: nothing but affection for NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, which painted itself beautifully on the inside walls of my head. Holly Childs‘ experimental novella, No Limit, was a vivid, anxious foray into the media-soaked, dis/connected headspace of its protagonist – a dystopia on E, and a promising start for local imprint Hologram Books. And I took a lot of pleasure in puzzling over Haruki Murakami’s latest, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Not 'puzzling’ in a Wind-Up Bird Chronicle magical realist way, so much as pondering why it was so sticky, in spite of its relatively prosaic ideas and sometimes clumsy or robotic prose.

You’ll find no such complaints, by the way, about the (radio) writing of Natalie Kestecher, whose work I really binged on this year. It still surprises and annoys me that writers like Natalie are anything less than household names in word-friendly circles, even in this so-called golden age of radio. We’re no longer talking books, of course – not even audiobooks – but I easily ‘read’ far more great writing through my ears than I did otherwise.

Ania Anderst, receptionist

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I wasn’t drawn to many new books this year, instead got stuck into some oldies but goodies.

Hands-down favourite of the year has been Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble, an incredibly realistic fiction tale set in New York during the AIDS crisis and told from the perspective of three characters; Molly, a young dyke, her married lover Kate, and Kate’s husband Peter. Thanks Jaclyn, TWC’s general manager, for lending me this gem!

People in Trouble got me searching for everything Schulman, which lead me to her non-fiction book Israel Palestine and the Queer International, the story of Schulman, a Jewish New Yorker, diving head first into the politics of Israel Palestine after she is invited to speak at Tel Aviv University’s LGBT Conference. Initially she accepts the invitation, then declines, and instead goes on a tour of Israel/Palestine guided by queer BDS activists, discovering Palestine’s queer community and creating a way to strengthen queer solidarity while uncovering Israel’s homonationalism.

Elilot Perlman’s Three Dollars − simply couldn’t put this one down.

Oren Gerassi, technical coordinator

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There are too many books to read and too many things to do.

2014 was a year of short attention span, due to life events being too significant to ignore. This year I somehow also managed to complete a physics course. Leaving aside the reading of badly edited educational publications, the combination of unexpected life events and science studies inspired my year of literature to skip between sweet prose, history and science writing. It was fun.

My highlights are:

Mike Goldsmith – Discord: The Story of Noise

Robert Hughes – The Fatal Shore

Leonard Mlodinow – Euclid’s Window

Yoel Hoffmann – Moods

Tel Aviv Noir – A collection of short stories edited by Etgar Keret and Asaf Evron

Jo Case, senior writer/editor

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I have a ridiculously long list of best books of the year – and when I realised this, I decided to go with my favourite books by Australian writers (because so many of my favourite picks were, anyway, by local authors). My top ten is below.

Shy by Sian Prior

In Shy, Sian Prior twins the narratives of her social anxiety and the devastating, sudden loss of her ten-year relationship to a famous partner, her safe anchor in a world where she often feels uncertain. Why are the two linked? Because shyness, she concludes, is a fear of rejection – and this was rejection on a grand scale. Beautifully written, honest and insightful.

Mothers Grimm by Danielle Wood

I fell deeply in love with this savagely witty, deliciously satirical collection of stories that takes fairytales as springboards to explore contemporary motherhood: the expectations, competition, consumer accessories and primal feelings. With these stories, Wood questions what we value as a society, and in each other.

The Poet’s Wife by Mandy Sayer

Mandy Sayer cements her reputation as one of Australia’s finest memoirists, following Dreamtime Alice and Velocity with this brilliant dissection of a flawed relationship and a burgeoning creative life. Intimacy is messy — that’s why a book like this, charting its contradictions and strange logic from the perspective of one broken marriage, is valuable. I loved it.

The Feel-Good Hit of the Year by Liam Pieper

Sad, tender, funny and bursting with strange charisma, this memoir was my biggest surprise of 2014 – and marks the arrival of a major new Australian writer, as Liam Pieper tells the tale of growing up in a bohemian weed-loving family and becoming a drug-dealing wannabe gangster, trying to look cool but ultimately searching for acceptance.

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke takes the reader on a virtuoso tour around the world with Foreign Soil, her debut collection of short stories. With settings as diverse as Footscray, London, Jamaica and the seas between Sri Lanka and Australia, she inhabits – with seeming ease – characters who range from a Sudanese single mother refugee in Melbourne entranced with a new bike, to a naïve girl in Jamaica whose promising start in life is jeopardised by pregnancy and an angry black activist in London. Fierce, empathetic and impressive.

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

I adored Sonya Hartnett’s previous novels for adults about suburban children consigned to the social fringes who yearn to fit in – Of a Boy and Butterfly. Golden Boys revisits this subject matter with elegant, disquieting ease, following the adolescent heads of two very different families, each discovering unwanted truths about their fathers as they cross the border form childhood.

Laurinda by Alice Pung

Think Mean Girls in Melbourne’s inner west, as a girl from a migrant working-class family gets a scholarship to an exclusive girls' school – and is forced to weigh the privilege gained against the personal compromise she must make to fit in. Love the way Pung juxtaposes the concerns and priorities of her classmates and their families with hers: i.e. sourcing the best sourdough versus occupying her baby brother while her mother sews clothes in the garage.

The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama by Julie Szego

This was a late discovery, after it landed on my desk as one of the shortlist for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards – but I tore through it in a night. Julie Szego uses the case of a Somali man wrongly imprisoned for rape (but not entirely innocent of misbehaviour, as it turns out) to explore the way cultural assumptions intrude on the legal process and – as Anna Krien does in Night Games – the grey areas between ethics and the law. Riveting.

The Family Men by Catherine Harris

A compelling look at the intersection between the media and sporting celebrity in Australia, centring on a sex scandal threatening to surface for the next-generation golden boy in a famous football family. Harris follows the separate trajactories of the guilt-ravaged, flawed but vulnerable boy and the underage girl in the lead-up to (and aftermath of) the event, dropping clues to what happened, but making us hunger for the full story … and ultimately complicit.

How to Get There by Maggie Mackellar

Maggie Mackellar’s first memoir, When it Rains, is a superbly moving (and impressively crafted) book about grief, loss and recovery, following her husband’s suicide and her mother’s death of cancer, within 18 months of each other. This sequel of sorts is a roadmap out of grief, as ten years later, she builds a relationship with a man who writes to her from rural Tasmania, and dares to make herself vulnerable again.

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15 December 2014

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Richard Flanagan’s PM’s Literary Awards acceptance speech

Richard Flanagan followed his Man Booker Prize win for Narrow Road to the Deep North with a joint win of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Fiction last night (sharing the prize with Steven Carroll). In an extraordinarily generous move, he chose to donate his $40,000 prize to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. ‘Money is like shit, my father used to say. Pile it up and it stinks. Spread it around and you can grow things. My book only exists because in that hellish place long ago the strong helped the weak.’ You can read his acceptance speech – and his rationale for donating his winnings – at the Guardian.

Bob Graham, who won the Prime Minister’s Prize for a Children’s Picture Book, donated $10,000 of his $80,000 win (for Silver Buttons) to the Asylum Seeker’s Resource Centre.

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Writers and their day jobs

It may seem that writers are wealthy types, with all this generosity, but this is (as Richard Flanagan points out in his acceptance speech) far from the truth. On The Millions, novelist Emily St John Mandel reflects on her long experience of juggling a day job with her writing career – and talks to fellow writers about how they do it, and what the best balance is.

Obama learns to code

US President Barack Obama believes everyone should learn to code in this new digital world. And he’s done just that, becoming the first president to write a computer program. It’s a ridiculously simple one (it draws a square on the screen), but his point is that you start simple.

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On being Doris Lessing’s good deed

Writer Jenny Diski was taken in by Doris Lessing at the age of 15, and lived with her for the next three years. The two writers have always had a pact not to write about each other (one Lessing essentially broke with various fictional versions of Diski), but now, after Lessing’s death and facing her own death, of cancer, Jenny Diski is writing her version of the story. And it’s darker, more complex, than the one Lessing told.

Fake Paris

A bizarre-seeming World War II military strategy designed to protect Paris from German air raids has been discovered. A fake Paris, located 15 miles outside the real city, was designed and partially built, in order to trick the Germans.

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highlight Morgan Carpenter, president of Organisation Intersex International Australia, outlines the human rights issues facing intersex people, in Australia and around the world. He also explains their mental health impact … and what we can do to help challenge the status quo.

The situation for people with intersex variations is bleak. We may be subjects of infanticide in Uganda, or sex assignment based on parental attitudes towards dowries in Malaysia. Elite intersex women athletes may be subjected to humiliation, clitorectomy and sterilisation. We have the beginnings of inclusion in some international statements, and some human rights advances in Australia but even here, intersex girls are excluded from policy frameworks preventing female genital mutilation. We’re being cleansed from the gene pool in Australia, and many other countries.

‘Caught between two contrasting visions of who and how we should be’

Intersex people face a range of health and human rights issues, and deep-seated stigma, caught between two contrasting visions of who and how we should be. On the one hand, this includes medical interventions in infancy and childhood that are explicitly intended to make intersex bodies conform to social norms for a specific sex or gender. On the other hand, people with intersex variations increasingly face misgendering, through social expectations to identify as a third gender or sex, to challenge or transgress gender norms. Neither approach lets us truly make our own choices.

People with intersex variations are born with atypical physical sex characteristics, including genetic, hormonal and anatomical differences. Sex is a continuum. Many forms of intersex exist; it is a spectrum or umbrella term, rather than a single category. A German researcher states that intersex comprises ‘a heterogeneous group … with at least 40 different entities of which most are genetically determined. An exact diagnosis is lacking in 10 to 80% of the cases.’ It can include differences in the number of sex chromosomes; and different tissue responses to sex hormones, or a different hormone balance.

Intersex differences may be apparent at birth. Some common intersex variations are diagnosed prenatally. Some intersex traits become apparent at puberty, or when trying to conceive, or through random chance.

Intersex is a lived experience of the body. Intersex bodies do not meet societal expectations. We suffer stigma and pathologisation as a result. Intersex people have non-heteronormative bodies, bodies that affect perceptions of our realness as men or women. Cultural, familial and medical attitudes govern to which sex we are assigned. Surgical and other medical interventions are made to ensure we conform to the norm, to erase intersex differences.

The key issue for most intersex people is not the existence of two binary sexes, but what is done to us to make us conform to those two narrow classifications.

What underlies medical interventions is our superficial characteristics, and concepts of what it means to be a real man, or a real woman.

Disorders of sex development: ‘hugely controversial’

In 2006, a group of doctors adopted the term Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) to describe intersex variations. DSD is hugely controversial, and the term intersex is itself now more widespread than in 2006, including in national legislation and regulation, medical guidance, and usages by international institutions.

The term DSD, and framework inherent to disordering intersex bodies, ensure that sterilisations and normalising genital surgeries continue today, everywhere Western medicine is practiced, to make infants and children ‘appear’ stereotypically male or female.

A 2006 clinician document that coined DSD defined ‘psychosocial’ therapeutic rationales as including ‘minimizing family concern and distress’, and ‘mitigating the risks of stigmatization and gender-identity confusion’.

A medical paper published this year still describes an intersex birth as a ‘challenging clinical emergency’. Last year an Australian Senate committee said: ‘normalisation surgery is more than physical reconstruction. The surgery is intended to deconstruct an intersex physiology and, in turn, construct an identity that conforms with stereotypical male and female gender categories’

These surgeries happen even while a major clinician group in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific acknowledges ‘particular concern’ regarding post-surgical sexual function and sensation.

Surgery and conforming to ‘normality’

The report described preconceptions of ‘normality’ underlying intervention as raising ‘disturbing questions’. It looked a Dutch research: a large 2011 study of physicians' views on the desirable size of women’s labia minora, which found that male doctors were more likely to recommend reduction surgery than female doctors.

There’s similar data on perceptions of a ‘normal’ sized clitoris from the UK, and the correct placement of a pee-hole in boys’ genitals from Germany: literature on genital surgeries on intersex infants and children simply takes the concepts of normality and abnormality for granted.

It is a social imperative in our societies to make people appear ‘normal’, or to encourage them to look ‘normal’.

It isn’t just an issue for children: the impact is lifelong. Adults, too, are subject to coercion. In competitive sports, the IOC for example mandates that national authorities: ‘actively investigate any perceived deviation in sex characteristics’. Other sports codes follow suit. This means that ‘butch women’ in particular are at risk of being singled out for humiliation and unnecessary medical treatment.

A British Medical Journal article in April documented how four women athletes with a diagnosis of 5 alpha reductase deficiency, each from developing nations, were subjected to clitorectomies and removal of their gonads − with no guarantee of continued access to medical treatment for the rest of their lives.

Most intersex people are heterosexual, most are not trans; we’re a different community,

Intersex and the LGBT community

What’s the relevance for LGBT people?

Historically, surgeries are heteronormative − preparing people for heterosexual intercourse.

Research on intersex foetuses and infants is longstanding, and has been used to find a cure for homosexuality. A 1990 article entitled, ‘Will Prenatal Hormone Treatment Prevent Homosexuality?’ appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology; it used research on an intersex difference, CAH, to explore the potential for ‘prenatal hormone screening or treatment’ to prevent homosexuality. The ‘scientific groundwork’ was ‘insufficient’ at that time, but prenatal screening and treatment of intersex traits continues.

A 2010 medical paper shows how low interest in dolls, babies and men – and interest in what they consider to be men’s occupations and games is constructed as ‘abnormal,’ and ‘potentially preventable with prenatal’ hormone treatment.

In some intersex variations, such as 47,XXY, we know that up to 88% of foetuses identified are terminated, framed as major genetic defects − despite no impact on life expectancy, and low rates of diagnosis skewing diagnosis data.

In the UK, many of the most common and best known intersex variations, are all ‘severe genetic conditions’ able to be screened out, prenatally via IVF.

Those ‘severe’ conditions include those of all four elite women athletes subjected to clitorectomies and sterilisation for social, non-medical, reasons. Let’s be clear, the only rationales for inclusion of 5aRD or AIS in a list of approved diagnoses to de-select from the gene pool are perceived deviations from sex and gender norms.

A year ago the American Journal of Bioethics published 11 papers on the ethics of genetic testing in embryo and cells before IVF. Many findings were similar, that issues of IS, GI and SO are entangled, or related. A quote from one of them: ‘Parental choice against intersex may thus conceal biases against same-sex attractedness and gender nonconformity.’

These issues help explain why medical intervention is embedded in our society.

Intersex and disability

There are other reasons, too. Other intersectionalities.

Disability? Intersex traits and variations may be considered to be impairments. There are many commonalities with dwarfism and albinism in particular.

International Classification of Diseases has ~50 intersex-related diagnoses, often with multiple layers of pathologisation: inborn errors of sex development, disorders of sex development, abnormal, malformations, disease, disorders, pathology.

As late as 1921, medical journals contained articles declaring that ‘a physical examination of [female homosexuals] will in practically every instance disclose an abnormally prominent clitoris’ and that this is ‘particularly so in coloured women’.

Sexism and heterosexism are apparent in regular crops of news articles. Just in the last week, we’ve seen most newspapers post troubling, salacious, misgendering (and ultimately uninteresting) stories about a Penthouse model with an agent who claims to be the girlfriend of an absent Michael Phelps.

Press articles are uncommon, but syndicate widely when they do, and with a similar approach without even celebrity interest. Earlier this year, in an article on a man with CAH, the Huffington Post said, ‘Mr Chen is reported to have told doctors that he and his wife have had intercourse − we can’t help but wonder how that worked’.

The sex and gender of people with intersex variations appears always suspect.

The real scandals are the stigmatising, offensive reporting, and impact on the lives of people with intersex variations.

In many times and places, sex assignments encapsulate cultural biases toward men and women. In Malaysia, research showed that assignments of infants with the same intersex variation differed depending on their parent’s culture and attitudes towards dowries.

The same has been reported in the Middle East and other areas.

Female genital mutilation and psychosocial issues

Female Genital Mutilation is criminalised, with no exemptions for ‘cultural, religious or other social customs’ − but there’s an exemption for surgeries on a person whose sex is ambiguous.

The Health Department here in Victoria has published guidelines for medical intervention on intersex kids. It’s probably unique in doing so, and that’s great. But psychosocial rationales for surgery include cultural issues: ‘reduced opportunities for marriage’, and ‘risk of social isolation’.

Surgeries are carried out on infant girls identical to surgeries considered mutilating in non-intersex girls.

Intersex women need to be part of conversations about women’s health.

Intersex and society

According to researcher Dan Ghattas, ‘Nearly all over the world, intersex bodies are considered to be barely, or not at all, capable of being integrated into the social order.’

In asking why, our Senate committee report said: ‘The medical understanding of intersex is so strongly focussed on binary sex and gender … Enormous effort has gone into assigning and ‘normalising’ sex: none has gone into asking whether this is necessary or beneficial.’

So far, the few who ask questions are mostly those of us who are directly affected.

The kinds of questions we ask are about our rights to choose for ourselves, about how we manage stigma. About how bodies and identities do not need to match each other to be valid.

Intersex policy internationally

In the last two years we’ve seen the beginnings of a shift, with statements by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, an inter-agency statement on forced sterilisation by the WHO and six other UN agencies, a Council of Europe Resolution on children’s right to physical integrity and court action in the US. Last month, the Maltese government has tabled legislation to create a new right to physical integrity and bodily autonomy.

Intersex policy in Australia

In Australia, we’ve seen inclusion of ‘intersex status’ as a physical attribute in anti-discrimination law. The law authentically recognises ‘intersex status’ as biological, distinct from sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. We’ve also seen the removal of sex and gender terms from descriptions of healthcare procedures funded by Medicare. Those procedures are open to all people with relevant anatomy or need.

Passports with an X sex marker have been around for over a decade. They’re often conflated with intersex status, but anyone can have a non-binary identity, and few intersex people do in practice. They’re important for some intersex and some trans folk, alike. So long as they are voluntary, opt in.

The Senate inquiry on involuntary or coerced sterilisation (published in October 2013) was the first report on intersex health and wellbeing by a national parliament. ‘Normalising appearance goes hand in hand with the stigmatisation of difference,’ it said; it found aspects of current medical practices ‘disturbing’.

On ‘psychosocial’ reasons to conduct normalising surgery, the inquiry warned ‘there is great danger of this being a circular argument that avoids the central issues’. It recommended deferring interventions that are not medically necessary until the persons affected can consent, and called for national human rights-based standards, effective oversight, linkages between community organisations and hospitals, and long term follow-up.

It also called for funding for peer support and counselling, including support for families of infants and children.

This is yet to be implemented.

Earlier this month, the upper house of the New South Wales Parliament passed a consensus motion calling on that State government to work with the Commonwealth to implement the Senate report. In the State election here, the only party that is talking action on health and human issues is the Greens.

Intersex stigma and mental health

What does it mean for your mental health when:

You realise that your body had to be surgically modified to be socially acceptable?

Up to 88% of pregnancies with your intersex variation are terminated?

You’re subjected to reparative therapy, often in infancy?

Your parents are told to tell no one.

The limited data on long-term outcomes identifies ‘particular concern’ regarding sexual function and sensation.

Clinicians change the language used, in a way that remedicalises, and disconnects, youth?

Secrecy and shame are still the norm for far too many people. The impact of trauma on our lives, relationships and visibility cannot be overstated.

For adults, experiences of trauma, secrecy and stigmatisation mean that engagement levels are low. We worry about the anecdotal evidence but lack of data on suicidality.

Social justice for intersex people

While waiting for action, what do human rights and social justice for intersex people look like?

It means respect for the bodily autonomy and physical integrity of people with intersex variations.

It means a focus on family support and counselling − peer support − a far better solution to stigma than surgery.

It means recognition: an apology, counselling, and support to overcome legacies of trauma, and reparation. And funding for intersex-led organising and community building.

Challenging misconceptions

We need allies who will challenge misconceptions.

Social justice means an end to misgendering, the portrayal of intersex as if it describes a non-binary gender identity. It means an understanding of intersex as a form of bodily diversity.

If you talk about LGBTI, you must include actual issues that affect intersex people.

Intersex is a human rights issue, not a medical issue.

Challenge stigmatisation and pathologisation of intersex traits. Support advocacy work that does this.

Challenge the medicalisation and de-selection of intersex traits.

Challenge your new state government to implement the Senate report and act on intersex health and human rights.


This is the edited text of a talk given at the Wheeler Centre as part of Middlesex Queer Week: Intersex Bodies and the Society that Shapes Them.

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Lee Kofman is the Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books in Hebrew. Her short fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry in English has appeared around the world in Best Australian Stories, Best Australian Essays, Griffith Review, Heat, Westerly, Creative Nonfiction (US), Brand (UK) and Malahat Review (Canada) among many others. Lee has been mentoring writers and teaching writing classes for over ten years. Her latest book is the memoir The Dangerous Bride (MUP).

We talked to Lee about writing in cafes, being told not to write in English because it’s her second language, and organising parties in night clubs to avoid writing.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I began publishing work at 16 – mostly journalism and the occasional short stories for young adults. I lived then in Israel and worked as a young reporter for one national and one local magazine until I turned 18 and had to begin the compulsory army service. My first book, a novel, was also published around that time, when I was 20 years old. It wasn’t a good book though.

What’s the best part of your job?

I get to go to cafes, which is where I love writing. Plus, in my work I process many of my own experiences, and thus save a lot of money I would have otherwise spent in therapy … More seriously, writing serves for me the same functions that religion serves for many. It helps me to understand better the world around me and through writing I try to better myself.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The agonising self-doubt I experience almost every time I write.

my-memoir-cover What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

This is a tough question. Writing is tightly bound with my sense of self and my self-worth, so there have been many many such moments in my life. Completing my last book, which is also my first book in English and first published in Australia – the memoir The Dangerous Bride – was one of those. That moment when after five years of struggling to write it, I pressed the ‘save’ button and that was it. The end…

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Worst advice is always most interesting (but only in hindsight). I received it from many people, mostly migrants like myself, in my first years in Australia: ‘Forget writing in English, you have to be a native speaker for that.’

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself [or your work]?

When my second book, a collection of short stories, came out, reviewers described it as a book about ‘sex and violence’. This came as a surprise to me as I naively thought I was writing a book about people searching for happiness. I was only 25 years old then. And of course what I wrote was predominantly about sex and violence.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’ve already been there. For most of my life I tried to do everything but writing. Writing has always been such hard work for me that I avoided it as much as possible. I worked as a bartender, in a singles agency, had my own business organising parties in night clubs, was a social worker, then social work educator in universities, even completed a PhD in social sciences to avoid writing. In those years I’ve been continuously writing, but only in snatches. Only in the last four years I’ve been working as a writer and writing teacher full-time.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

This is a complex question which I once tried to answer in an essay I wrote for Griffith Review. In a nutshell though, I am certain you cannot teach talent, but many gifted writers do seem to benefit from studying writing. I think the best thing you can teach writers is how to survive the turbulent process of writing and work out what writing strategies work best for them, how to discover what they are really writing about and how to not make easy compromises about their art (so – how to dare). So, really, effective writing teaching in my view is more like therapy or life coaching, as much as I am ambivalent about both terms.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

I’ll share here my own writing mantra: Write only about what feels urgent; what makes you blush and feel ashamed is going to be your best material. It is more important how you describe what happened than the precise details of what happened – reflection and analysis are usually more interesting than even the most colourful action.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. Bookshops are still my favorite places (even more than cafes…), but there are many books I want to read I cannot get in Australia.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

A dinner with a fictional character I adore is usually not the best idea – Satan from Master and Margarita or Humbert Humbert from Lolita may not prove to be the best companions. I also read a lot of creative non-fiction where main characters are usually the authors. My dream dinner will be with Robert Dessaix. I’ll love to talk to him about Russia, the probability of paradise on earth and generally about how to live. Anything Dessaix has to say always interests me, so I hope you can forward this interview link to him.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The book that affected me most profoundly, on many levels, is Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I read this novel several times, the first being when I was still a child, and I believe its philosophical and humanist bent helped shape my personality and my tragicomic worldview. The book taught me about the redeeming power of laughter in the face of the despicable, how irony rather than righteousness is our best friend. This novel was also partially responsible for my quasi-metaphysical approach to writing, where I often use my work to try finding some hidden order in the chaos of life.


Lee Kofman’s The Dangerous Bride (Melbourne University Publishing) is available now.

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Leah Kaminsky was recently the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, researching a book on death anxiety. She reports back (with pictures) on her unique writing residency.

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A gorilla’s hand reaches out to welcome me. A mummified frog on an embroidered skeleton motif tablecloth lies splayed beside a red, diaphanous foetal bat which floats in a jar of formaldehyde. Beside it, a fluffy yellow duckling, mounted inside a glass bell, stares out at me with its cute little black eyes – all four of them − from either side of its two heads.

I am surrounded wall-to-wall by the dead here at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. You’d think as a doctor I’d be used to that. As the inaugural writer-in-residence, I am researching a book on the topic of death anxiety – my own included.

On my first morning in NYC, I step off the F Train at Gowanis and promptly get lost. Asking people for directions to a Morbid Anatomy Museum attracts unusual stares. I head down 8th Street, past the house with the sign on the gate saying Beware, Guard Chihuahua on Duty and make a right on 3rd Avenue till I hit the cafe Pies To Die For. Looking up, I see an imposing grey building on the corner sporting a stark, white sign − Morbid Anatomy Museum − across the road from New Millenium Motors, where dead cars are up on hoists, being resurrected.

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The curator of this unusual museum, Joanna Ebenstein, is a petite woman with straight blond hair and black spectacles. She greets me and shows me around their current exhibition, The Art of Mourning, which showcases memorial photography, death masks and decorative hair art shadow boxes and jewellery from the past two centuries, all artifacts on loan from the Burns Archive, run by legendary physician-collector Dr Stanley Burns. Alone in the library, I pore over books with titles like Making an Exit, Stiff, Photography & Death, and Ars Moriendi, peer at stereoscopic diableries and flip through a card game called Human Freaks & Oddities. A broad cross-section of visitors, all curious to learn more, are not shy in asking Laetitia, the library curator, questions. Hundreds of people frequent the museum daily: couples who wander around hand-in-hand on death dates, seniors that come along on special-rate group tours and children who think the papier mache skeletons and anatomical drawings on display are cool.

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Down in the cafe, opposite the red La Marzocco espresso machine, a diorama of stuffed chipmunks on a moving Ferris wheel once on display at the Cress Funeral Home in Madison, Wisconsin, is now on sale for a mere $1500. Alternatively, customers may prefer unusual patterned fine china tableware, imported from The Anatomy Boutique in London – choosing to serve Aunty Grace’s lemon cake on a cardiac tissue design plate, or sip Earl Grey from a testicular histology motif cup and saucer. If this is beyond budget or turns customers off their food, there’s always the mounted wolf’s paw for $135 or the fox heart on sale for $35. Resident taxidermist, Katie Innamorato of Afterlife Anatomy, assures me all her specimens come from road kill. I’ve learnt a new term today: Road Taxidermy.

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The author’s desk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum.

Until recently this place would have creeped me out, but three years ago I decided to journey into the belly of the beast and explore my own fear of death. I hoped that writing on the topic would help me find calmness in the face of mortality’s inexorable specter. During my research, my dual role as physician and writer has afforded me a privileged vantage point to explore the profound choices we make about how we live when we allow ourselves to think about death. I have met morticians, artists, nonagenarians, children with terminal illness, grave diggers and medical colleagues, spending my time discussing life with people who live at the very coal-face of death. Drawing upon my years as a practicing family doctor, being witness to so many inspiring first-hand stories and insights from my patients, I have set out to ponder a question that has haunted human beings from the beginning of time: how can we accept our constant vulnerability, the truth that our days are numbered and our deaths inevitable?

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Death seems to be having a moment again, after a hiatus of over 100 years since its glory days during the reign of Queen Victoria, one of the greatest mourners in history. Her husband Prince Albert’s sudden death in 1861, at the age of 42, saw her spend the remaining 40 years of her life in self-imposed seclusion, wearing only black. Death Becomes Her, the current exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum in NYC, showcases a fascinating sartorial display of the mourning industry the widowed queen’s grief spurred in her day, from fashion items and jet jewellery to fancy funereal umbrellas.

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Back at The Morbid Anatomy Museum, staff and docents seem so comfortable talking about death. It is a stark contrast to what I am used to in a clinical setting and I’m beginning to wonder if the prevalence of death anxiety is possibly at its greatest amongst my medical colleagues, if I’m anything to go by. After all, the medical profession has played a huge role over the past 50 years in anaesthetising discussion about dying, excising and sterilising death from our everyday lives, from womb right through to tomb. Being writer-in-residence at this museum has helped me learn to cuddle up a little more to Death. I’m realising he’s not such a scary guy after all.


Leah Kaminsky is poetry & fiction editor of the Medical Journal of Australia and online editor at Hunger Mountain. Her non-fiction book We’re all Going to Die will be published by Harper Collins Australia in July 2015.

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Angela Savage was shocked when her daughter reacted to a card featuring two men kissing with disgust – despite knowing and accepting the family’s wide circle of gay and lesbian friends. Heterosexual affection is everywhere, but she’d never really witnessed same-sex affection. Angela decided to research how to normalise it in an age-appropriate way … and found it surprisingly difficult.

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A family member recently showed me a birthday card featuring graffiti artist Banksy’s stencil image of two English policemen kissing. As my eight-year-old daughter shares my love of street art, I drew her attention to the card.

‘Ooh, yuck!’ she said.

I was mortified by what I saw as an epic parent fail moment, not least of all because the family member in question happens to be gay. I left the room, took a deep breath, and came back to my daughter.

‘You know, I’m really offended by your reaction to that card. We’ve got lots of friends who are gay and lesbian−’ I reeled off a few names of people she knows ‘− and to suggest it’s yuck for them to kiss the people they love is very hurtful.’

Never one to take criticism lying down, my daughter countered with, ‘But Mummy, I’ve never seen this before. I’m just not used to it. That’s all.’

I’ve been reflecting on her words for weeks now. My daughter knows about sexual diversity. I’ve been careful to use inclusive language about sexual preference since she was little. She knows who is gay and lesbian among our friends, and has friends at school who have same-sex parents. She’s also been to some of the finest drag shows in Southeast Asia. Yet somehow all this knowledge and experience doesn’t prevent the ‘ooh yuck’ reaction to the sight of two men kissing. Because she’s never seen it before.

I feel ashamed it’s taken me so long to fully grasp what my LGBTIQ friends have no doubt known forever about the implications of growing up surrounded by popular culture that is overwhelmingly hetero-normative. And I start to wonder how to bridge the gap.

I credit The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and specifically Tim Curry, for putting paid to any ‘ooh yuck’ factor I might have otherwise had at the sight of two men kissing. As transvestite mad scientist Frank-N-Furter in the 1975 film, Curry was so beautiful, so sexy, I could understand both Brad and Janet (not to mention Rocky) wanting to kiss him. I was intrigued, if not besotted, by the film’s depiction of sexual fluidity and erotic fun. I saw it twice in three days.

But I was 15 and my daughter is eight, too young for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, My Beautiful Laundrette, Brokeback Mountain, Maurice or any of the other films I can think of that feature two men kissing. And I figure it will be a long, long time before we see affection between same-sex attracted characters in a Disney movie: even if, as some commentators suggest, Elsa did come out in 2013’s Frozen, it was only to live a cold and lonely existence.

Books designed to teach young children about gay and lesbian relationships tend to focus on parenting − some well-known examples include Heather Has Two Mommies and The Rainbow Cubby House − and the love same-sex parents have for their children, rather than the love between the parents themselves (and even then, such books cause controversy when included in daycare centres and public libraries). My daughter won’t see two men kissing there.

I find scant examples of books with LGBTIQ themes for pre-teens/readers of middle fiction at all. Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel Drama is a rare exception; and a graphic novel offers potential for the visual impact I’m looking for. But again, no kissing.

For help, I turn to Daniel Witthaus, CEO and founder of the National Institute for Challenging Homophobia Education (NICHE).

‘I’m not overly concerned when someone’s initial reaction [to two men kissing] is discomfort, given the current context of how Australia does (or does not) deal with sexual diversity,’ he says. ‘It’s understandable that someone will respond negatively to something they’ve not seen before.’

All the more so when they’re only eight years old, I think to myself.

‘There’s too much emphasis on always having the right response, and too much pressure on parents to solve a whole lot of challenges we face as a society.’

He’s spot on: I realise my reaction to my daughter’s ooh yuck moment was more about demonstrating the ‘right response’, as well as reassuring my gay family member, than it was about engaging with where my daughter is at.

‘I see open discomfort as an educational opportunity, rather than a problem,’ says Daniel who, in 2010, spent 266 days driving around rural, regional and urban Australia challenging homophobia, a journey documented in his book, Beyond Priscilla. ‘In my experience, by using this discomfort as a conversation starter, in the vast majority of cases, the conversation ends up in a very different place from where it started.’

As it happens, my daughter seizes the initiative after that initial discomfort, finding images of girls kissing girls and boys kissing boys in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer graphic novels she and her dad borrow from the library. She shows me the images as she comes across them. Maybe she does this to make me feel better. Maybe she wants to reassure me that she’s starting to get used to this.

Either way, I’m grateful to her for continuing the conversation.

Additional resources:

NICHE Facebook page

LGBTIQ reading for Young Adults

Celebrating LGBT Pride in Comics


Angela Savage’s latest book is The Dying Beach (Text Publishing).

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08 December 2014

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Ayelet Waldman’s Twitter meltdown over New York Times 100 Notable Books

In the latest example of writers lashing out inappropriately/unwisely on social media about their reviews (or lack of them), Ayelet Waldman exploded all over Twitter in her disappointment about her novel, Love and Treasure, failing to make the New York Times 100 notable books of 2014. A good example of what not to do!

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Could Artificial Intelligence End the Human Race?

This week, Stephen Hawking made news by telling the BBC that ‘the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race’. He warned that artificial intelligence could ‘take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate’, with humans unable to keep up … ultimately being superseded.

Serial: The Case For and Against

Everyone’s talking about Serial, the brainchild of This American Life producer Sarah Koenig – and one of the most popular and critically acclaimed podcasts ever produced. It’s an ongoing inquiry into the 1999 murder of high-school student Hae Min Lee and the question of whether her boyfriend, Adnan Syed, really strangled her … or if he was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s not all love though – there’s also been a backlash, and the Atlantic both outlines the criticisms and refutes them.

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Bad sex in fiction prize won by Ben Okri

One of the literary world’s least coveted prizes was awarded this week: the bad sex in fiction award. Ben Okri won for his novel The Age of Magic, and a passage that culminated in the lines: ‘The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.’

Remembering Mr Squiggle

Do you remember Mr Squiggle, the puppet with the pencil nose who ingeniously turned random scribbles (or, ‘squiggles’) into actual pictures … and was constantly told to hurry up by a blackboard? Over at Junkee, Toby Fehily pays tribute to an Australian children’s programming icon (pre The Wiggles).

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05 December 2014

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Eli Glasman had his first short story published in 2011. From that point on, he’s had two more short-story publications, a $5000 prize and, with The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew being published by Sleepers Publishing, his first novel. He is currently in residence at the Wheeler Centre with a 2014 Hot Desk Fellowship.

We spoke to Eli about his love of Q&As, the fact that people find him funny (even though he sees himself as an intensely serious person), and why beefing up the word count makes for boring reading.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a short story called ‘Head Heavy Latte’, it was about a doctor who was out on the town with a transvestite prostitute and the two get beaten up in a bar. The doctor is then scared to take his companion to the hospital where he works. I have no idea why I wrote it. I’m very glad that I did, though, because it was published in Voiceworks magazine and got to meet all the great young editors working at Voiceworks.

What’s the best part of your job?

Speaking to people about writing − specifically, my writing. I love Q&As in particular. I’m one of those people who only likes talking about what’s going on in their head. So, being able to speak about what I’ve been writing is great.

What’s the worst part of your job?

In all honesty, there isn’t a worst part. I really do love it.

boys_own_manual What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Getting that call from Sleepers Publishing that my novel was going to be published. They answered me in two weeks, which is a blink of the eye in publishing. I’m very glad it was quick. Because I go nuts waiting to hear if my work has been accepted.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Worst: ‘You have to make sure to beef up the word count’. We’re not making door-stoppers. A story is as long as it needs to be. Adding words so that it fits a mould makes for some boring reading. Anyway, rant over.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

That I’m funny. I see myself as an intensely serious person. Maybe that’s why some people are laughing at me.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Hmmm … that’s tricky. Mostly because I’m not actually making my living off being a writer. I work full-time doing pretty entry-level office work, as I have for a number of years. If I was making a living off being a writer, I certainly wouldn’t be doing this instead. I’d be teaching creative writing, which is something I’m working towards now. I’m very excited about being a Vic Writers’ tutor for next year.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

You can teach many of the elements of storytelling, such as structure, plot, conflict, character development etc., as you can teach more of the syntax-level writing such as switching between tenses, habitual past, grammar, tension and so on. But you can’t teach a person how to do any of these things well.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Workshop your writing. Get lots and lots of feedback. What you will need to learn as a writer is how the words you use affect the reader. Only when you understand this, can you manage the tone, elicit emotion and create realistic, relatable characters.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. But mostly in shops. I’m very impatient. So, I like to go in and get what I want straight away.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Dirk Gently from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. We’d talk about the interconnectedness of all things.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Keep The Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell. It’s about a man who declares war on money and then quits his job to write, but finds being poor too depressing and it snuffs out all his inspiration. I did that for a year and only after reading that book did I realise that feeling financially secure was an important ingredient when writing fiction. At least for me.

In terms of my writing, I love Orwell’s economic use of language, which is something I try to apply to my own work.


Eli Glasman’s debut novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to being a Proper Jew (Sleepers Publishing) is out now.

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highlightThe Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll continue to publish a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Meaghan Bell’s Future Summer is a series of poems investigating the apocalyptic outcomes of global warming and climate change. The aim is to develop a series of 13 poems which will then be made into a chap-book. While there are many depressing visions of a dystopian future, this series reflects possible utopian visions, which engenders hope and a desire to act.

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ks The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll continue to publish a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Kieran Stevenson’s The Johnston Tradition is a novel that follows Padraig Johnston, a young man who has fallen into a life of alcoholic isolation since the suicide of his father when he was 19. Here’s an extract from the novel.

We headed outside, took a little metal table that rocked if either of us put any weight on it. Abe took a swig and wrinkled his nose. ‘That’s pretty bad.’ He drank again. ‘Eh, not that bad actually. Not great but drinkable.’

‘This is a good lot. Top of the keg, the infection hasn’t had time to grow. You should’ve tasted the last batch. By the end of the barrel it smelled and tasted like sick cat shit. Dude had to throw out the last third of it because it was starting to hurt business.’

‘Why does he brew his own beer if he isn’t that good at it?’

‘Search me. Classic Mick. Try to get invested in something, then see how bad you can half-arse it.’

I lit a cigarette as Abe drank again. He sat there visibly weighing up the quality of the beer, frowning slightly. He looked up. ‘So how do you want to play this?’

‘Play what?’

‘Argent Mills or whatever his name is.’

‘Argus. Argent? What the fuck is that?’

‘I don’t know man. Argent, Argus, whatever. How do we play it?’

‘I think argent is a type of stone or something. I dunno.’ I took a swig, held it down. ‘We have to find out who the fuck he is first, I guess.’

‘You know anything else about him?’

‘Not a thing.’

‘Hm.’ Abe took out his phone and started tapping away. ‘Can’t be too hard to find, surely. Pretty uncommon name.’

I squinted into the afternoon sun and watched a house sparrow hop around the table next to us, wrestling with fragments of chips far bigger than it was.

‘I’m getting somebody with the last name Mills who worked for one of the fifteen million newspapers called The Argus, and some legal case against Argus Hosiery Mills from like the forties.’

‘Not promising.’

‘I don’t suppose he’s much of a social media guy.’

‘I dunno.’ I took a drag and let cigarette smoke pool in my mouth. I breathed it in. ‘I dunno anything about the fucker.’

Abe put the phone back in his pocket. ‘I need to piss.’

‘Good old Abe,’ I said. ‘Always pissing.’

‘I dunno what it is,’ he said. ‘Maybe I got a small bladder. I had a pretty big coffee while I was waiting for you in that car.’

‘Maybe you have diabetes.’

‘Ugh.’ He waved his hand and walked off.

‘Two more of these!’ I tapped my glass and lit another cigarette. The pack was nearly empty: two left.

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Image: Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr.

I watched the bird skittering around, watched it tear tiny chunks off one sad-looking chip which bounced away with each jerk of the bird’s head. The bird tore at the chip, which went flying and landed on the table where Abe had been sitting. The bird hesitated for a second, cocking its head this way and that, before it gave a flap of its wings and alighted on the table in front of me. ‘Screw you, bird,’ I said. ‘You free as shit little son of a bitch.’

Another minute or two of the bird sitting there throwing the chip around and Abe came back, a pint in each hand, and the tiny creature panic-scrambled away, returning to its old table and glowering at Abe. Abe brushed the chip off the table and the bird set to work again on the footpath.

‘I found something,’ said Abe. He was peering at his phone.

‘What were you, using your phone while you took a piss?’

‘On the walk to and from, and at the bar.’

I drained the old beer, took a sip of the new. ‘Hey,’ I said, and raised my eyebrows.

Abe glanced up. ‘Oh yeah, I got us good beer.’

I reached out and clinked his glass. ‘Skal.’

‘Kanpai,’ he muttered, eyes down. ‘Here, look here. A local carpentry … group, or something? Guild maybe? I didn’t know they did that. They have a members list. Halfway down: Argus Mills.’ He turned the phone around so I could see.

I nodded. ‘Great, so he exists.’

‘Hey, that’s something,’ said Abe, and went back to his phone. ‘But that’s not all. That led me to this.’ He offered me the phone, so I took it.

It was an article from some local newspaper’s blog. ‘Do these local papers think putting their shit on the internet is going to make people care about it?’

‘Read it.’

It was dated about half a month ago. The headline read simply: Chairman. Below it were the words Local Woodworker Places Second in Competition. I groaned, but started reading it out loud. ‘The state furniture competition, sponsored by Handy’s Hardware − I hate that name − has seen its share of talented craftsmen. This year’s event saw a local man, Bernie Haverday, added to the board of illustrious names in the field of furniture making. Abe, this is written like shit.’

‘Man, who cares, keep reading. He’s in there.’

I sighed. ‘All right. Local resident and recreational woodworker Mr Haverday came second in the competition with a minimalist chair, boldly cut from two pieces of wood. He was narrowly beaten to the post by an Art Nouveau cabinet made by Argus Mills from Stoneleigh council.’ My pulse started to quicken. ‘Well would you look at that.’

‘Scroll down, there’s a picture.’

I did. There were four men, an official and the three placing contestants, each holding a small plastic trophy. Bernie Haverday, on the left, was jolly-looking, beaming from his round and reddened face. Next to him, in the middle, was Argus Mills. He was middle-aged, mid-forties maybe, strong-jawed, with slightly thinning grey hair and thick-rimmed glasses. There was something anachronistic about the way he was dressed, in slacks and suspenders, a pressed pale shirt. He was showing none of the pleasure Haverday wore on his face. Darkly amused, he looked out at me. I stared back. The sun began to feel too warm.

‘Strike me down.’

‘What?’

‘That’s him.’

‘Well I mean yeah, judging by the search he’s the only man named Argus Mills on the planet.’

‘No, I mean … this is him. For real, I know this face.’

Abe took the phone back and studied the photo again. ‘Yeah? Man, you remember?’

‘Nothing specific, nothing about what happened, but fuck me if that face doesn’t look familiar.’

He looked up, took a swig and furrowed his brow for a second, then looked back down and started tapping the phone.

‘What are you doing?’

He didn’t say anything, just made small humming noises, noises of purpose. He found what he was looking for, made a few more swipes, and held the phone to his ear.

‘Abe. What are you doing? Are you calling Argus? Did you get his number?’

He held up a finger and quickly snuck another draught of beer before whoever it was picked up.

‘Hello? Is this the Greater East Woodworking Group?’ he said, and gave me the thumbs up. I gave him the finger in return. ‘Great,’ he said. ‘I work with the local paper out at Stoneleigh and I saw that you hosted a competition there a couple of weeks ago that a Stoneleigh man won… Yes, that’s right. Well I was just wondering if you had his contact details at all, we’d love to get in touch with him for a piece… Well, I suppose so, but we only just caught wind of it… Certainly, thank you.’ He grinned at me and took another drink, spilling a little on his chin as whoever he was talking to came back on the line. ‘M-hmm. Yep. Yes, hold on, where did I put my pen?’ He gestured frantically at me and I pulled out my phone. While Abe slowly repeated what the Woodworking Group guy said, I typed it in, shaking. When he was done Abe gave me one final thumbs up and I put the phone down with fingertips. I lit a fresh cigarette.

‘Fucking hell,’ I said, when Abe had said his goodbyes and hung up.

‘How easy was that?’

I tapped my phone. ‘This is his address? His phone number?’

‘The ones they had on file. I assume they’re legit.’

I took a drag and a drink and glared at Abe for a moment. I let my heart beat mayhem, unacknowledged. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Pretty good.’

‘I know right?’

‘Pretty good, but that’s the easy part. Tracking someone down is no effort in this day and age. How do we get to him?’

Abe spread his palms and put on his best shit-eating grin. ‘Hey, if genius works, why mess with the approach?’

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highlightThe Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll continue to publish a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Ender Baskan’s Welcome Home is a memoir about growing up in today’s Australia, and his journey to Turkey, as the only child of Turkish migrants, ‘to try to explain myself to myself’. It’s part travel story, part meditation on migrant life. In this extract, he arrives in Istanbul, where the Gezi Park Protest movement has swelled from a small sit-in to a nationwide crisis.

I’d fallen into a strange cave dripping with bric-a-brac stalactites. The faint sound of my steps echoed damply through the air. I sensed I was being watched. There were blow-up sex dolls with startled expressions − mouths wide open and big red lips and arms at right-angles. There were naked mannequins, pinup-girl posters, ventriloquist dolls, a garden gnome, gas masks and military helmets. Everything was obsessively arranged, creating the sense that each item had materialised in position. Feeling more cramped than I probably was, I kept my elbows tucked into my sides as I shuffled through the space, starting to sweat. I didn’t feel like I could touch anything, wake anything up. Even though I’d never liked rings − this probably stemmed from Dad having never allowed me to wear jewellery, men don’t wear jewellery, but also from an irrational fear that they’d get stuck on my fingers − I picked one up and tried it quickly on my little finger before putting it back down. In one corner there were all these beautiful empty tins and boxes flecked with rust − washing powders, soaps, shaving creams, hair creams, face powders. There was brylcream and brilliantine. Turkish adjectives for cleanliness flew into my head. I whispered them under my breath. Piril piril. Tertemiz. Mis gibi.

There was a sign informing me that the store was aimed at ‘the slightly deranged collector seeking identifiable memories.’

Derange (verb) – To throw (something) into confusion; cause to act irregularly.

Deranged (adj) – Insane. ‘A loss of contact with reality.’

I wondered when the mind responsible for this swamp of memory would appear and felt compelled to break the quiet, announce myself − I know you’re here, I have nothing to hide. This was a learnt behaviour, I had been conditioned to assume that my appearance would cause shopkeepers, amongst others, to treat me with suspicion. They’d be glued to their CCTV screens or otherwise would shuffle over from behind the counter and peek at me from the edge of grocery aisles as I stared at the ice-cream freezer or the bread shelf. This self-consciousness was something I struggled to shake. The context: having come from a family that had wrenched itself from a safe but poor place to become, as almost all migrants become, richer and more isolated, but also acutely aware that each human animal has within them something fundamental that acts like a risk meter and commands each choice, each reflex. Even in Melbourne’s northern suburbs where there were people around who were bigger, darker, more hairy, more deranged; I’d always felt like my presence would spike someone’s risk meter toward the darker shades of red − high, very high, severe, extreme. Whenever I’d enter a store such as this, I’d offer up my bag just to liberate myself from the sense of suspicion. In fitting rooms I’d feel relieved when clothing had security tags. In other words, I tried in vain to belong.

I pushed some keys on a typewriter. Shmp-tack. Shmp-tack. Shmp-tack. The friction of each stroke elicited a shard of tactile euphoria at the collision of ink and paper. Shmp-tack, Shmp-tack. Still no sign of anyone; I kept wading through these unfamiliar memories. There was a lobster and we locked eyes, it reared back, life-like but stiff, plastic but alive, its eyes smooth and black like olives from a jar. I winked at it as a sign of non-aggression, but lobsters have no eyelids, so unable to wink back, the tension between us escalated until I retreated slowly, eyes still locked, before hearing a voice from behind me.

—Please be careful with your bag.

I was ready but feigned surprise as my gaze swivelled from the lobster with a delayed jolt and to the man.

—Oh, merhaba, you scared me.

—Merhaba.

—I was… you really came out of nowhere.

Eyes like bowling balls, he seemed to have emerged from a Fritz Lang film, tall, broad shoulders, widow’s peak, offering a quarter-smile that lingered too long for my liking. I looked away and shifted my backpack around to my front but that seemed stupid in his presence. I placed it on the ground somewhat too carefully.

—Do you have any old Hayat magazines? It’s the only thing I was asked to take back… It’s for my Grandma.

Hayat? Of course, I have over here.

Slow and lopsided, as if dragging a ball and chain, he led me past a row of dolls with poker machine eyes and toward these old magazines. There was a pile of Hayat, faded and creased, mostly from the 50s and 60s, Western glamour on the covers. Claudia Cardinale leaning against a tree. Brigitte Bardot head tilted, pulling a clip from her hair, about to shake it out. Jackie Kennedy. Jayne Mansfield, excellent posture. Footballer Can Bartu, forced smile, posing in a turtleneck. The Iranian Royal Wedding. Natalie Wood, I’d never heard of you, but I love you.

Hayat means life. Once a portal to the West, now these faded pages were an exercise in time; back then the Turks imported hopes and dreams. The imminent future was irresistible − in the West. Though most Turks left for Germany where jobs were abundant and home was close, the allure of the new world signed another desire. Having worked for an airline, Grandpa had seen parts of Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands. Something pushed him and Grandma further, to newer frontiers. I can see them driving out of their two-car garage and through the northern suburbs of Melbourne with the windows down, or even better, a shiny convertible, full tank of petrol, my Grandma’s scarf fluttering around her neck, big sunglasses, red lipstick. My Grandpa behind the wheel: moustache, aviators, Sunday best, arm around the passenger seat, chin up. Viva Australia!

Though I’d later regret hauling ballast around Turkey, I settled on a 1962 Hayat yearbook − thick as a Yellow Pages − and was pleased with myself for over-delivering on Grandma’s request. In the sandwich that is a migrant grandkid’s life, duty is bread. Swivelling to find the man and talk Lira, I knocked over a vacuum cleaner, and bending to pick it up, heard a rattle come from above. I turned around to the sight of a complete set of organs tumbling from the torso of a mannequin and onto the floor. I began placing the liver and the stomach and the intestines back into place, when he appeared again.

—Sorry, I…

—It’s ok, don’t worry.

—So how much for this Hayat.

—Fifty Lira.

Fifty seemed excessive, but then again, how much should it cost? In any case, I was in no position to bargain as I picked up guts off the floor, I had a liver in my hand. I decided to take the magazine at that price.

As it turned out he’d been to Australia, and was able to pick me from my accent. When I told him I was from Melbourne, his stillness ceased and his arms, his whole body came to life, as he painted the air with cliff faces, waves rolling in, a winding road.

—I love this road, near the big rock towers in the sea.

—Yeah, the Great Ocean Road.

—Aha, yes, this one. I look at the water, breathe the cold air, waves breaking the rock a little bit at a time for million years. You have a good country. This beautiful nature, everybody have car but no traffic, respect for ideas and difference. You have quiet in Australia. Space. I make my big mistake going to America. Thirteen years in New York then I come back here − my second big mistake. If I have my time again, I go to Australia.

—And you think it’s too late now?

—I don’t have unlimited chances. Sometimes you must stop moving and accept. This is my place.

A lung in one hand, he held out his other hand, into which I placed the liver. The liver fit in nicely over the stomach, and the operation was finally complete with the placement of the lungs, though I wondered if we’d lost the pancreas somewhere under the table.

—How do you feel here in Istanbul?

—Of course this is my home but things are getting very bad, very bad.

—You mean the government and the protests?

—You must understand, there is no future for someone like you here. Everybody is on the street, fighting for the things you already have in your country. Listen to me, don’t fall in love with this place. Istanbul is like, let me say, Sharon Stone. Beautiful woman, very seductive but very dangerous. Trouble.

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01 December 2014

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Paul Mitchell reflects on the sudden, accidental death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes due to a match-related injury, and the wound it inflicts on our idea of sport.

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As many Australians mourn the death of Phillip Hughes, it seems obvious to say that no one should die playing sport. But while we are mourning because he was a fit young man with most of his life ahead of him, we are mourning also for sport itself.

Sport is the major way we push ourselves to our limits without reaching them – and come back to tell the tale. We do not go beyond our limits and perish. We do not go beyond our limits and perish. That kind of violent risk is reserved for war.

War and sport are supposed to be forever separate. We play sport as a way of engaging our primal (many would say masculine) drives for competition, combat and endurance. These are the qualities we need for war, when we must kill or be killed. Sport engages those qualities that we have an ongoing urge to test, but it saves us from the kill or be killed mantra. At least it is supposed to.

The grieving national cricketers, cricketers from around Australia and the world, and the many sportspeople who have sent condolences to Phillip Hughes’s family, mourn with him. But they mourn also that sport has been wounded deeply. When someone dies at war, the troops march on, the fighting continues. Death is the way of war; it is its cousin, its brother. But when someone dies playing sport, a major imbalance has occurred. Even if it is a tragic accident, the uncontrolled violence of war has crossed over into sport where, despite all the battle imagery that sport employs, it does not belong.

It has been heartening to hear consideration given to cancelling the First Test. These are the thoughts not only of grieving people, but of people who understand sport’s position in life. It is a position that is in Australia, unfortunately, too often forgotten. We place too high a value on it, as Chris Judd said when accepting the 2010 Brownlow Medal. It is a fantasyland, he added.

But it is an important fantasyland. We would be lesser as a species without it. We all understand that sport is not war, and we even sense that in a perfect world its regulated aggression would substitute for war. But while we recognise that sport isn’t war, we often fail to recognise that neither is it life. It is just a wonderful part of life.

Pundits have written that cricket will never be the same. It will. And so will every other sport eventually. Because it is only when someone dies playing sport that we have the opportunity to give consideration to whether we are making it into more than it should be, i.e. life itself.

Phil Hughes’s legacy should not just be improved head protection, although that would obviously be helpful. His legacy should be that every cricketer, even every sportsperson, takes to the field thankful that theirs is not, 99.9 per cent of the time, a life or death battle. They must behave accordingly, playing their sport with grace and joy.

Vale Philip Hughes.


Paul Mitchell is a PhD candidate in English at La Trobe University, studying Australian masculinity.

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Nicole Hayes is a freelance writer, editor and teacher based in Melbourne. She teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne and Phoenix Park Neighbourhood House. Nicole’s first novel, The Whole of My World, has been shortlisted in the 2014 Young Australian Best Book Awards and longlisted for the 2014 Golden Inky Award.

We spoke to Nicole about why there’s never been a better time to be a writer in Melbourne, how it took 14-plus years to get her novel, The Whole of My World, published, and why you should ‘write what you love’ rather than ‘write what you know’.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Does my primary school magazine count? Actually, I remember my first ‘real’ published piece was in the Age, as a letter to the editor, written when I was about 14. I used a nom de plume – ‘Tezza’, after Terry Wallace, one of my favourite footballers at the time. I wrote about how boring it was to live in Glen Waverley. It was the early eighties, and every house was L-shaped cream brick veneer with the occasional weatherboard thrown in for aesthetic relief. The Glen Shopping Centre looked like a faded Lego construction, its only cultural offerings were a craft shop and a Chinese takeaway. No bookshop or cinema. But it was surrounded by footy ovals.

What’s the best part of your job?

Meeting readers and other writers, particularly at schools and festivals, where everyone seems to want to talk books, writing, and reading. I love hearing what people are reading, particularly young people. The cultural conversation in Melbourne is so vibrant right now, and – gradually – becoming more inclusive. Literary culture has never been richer. It’s a great time to be a writer in this city.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The money. I’m probably not meant to say that, but it’s really challenging to prioritise writing over better-paid work when the mortgage is due, or Christmas is approaching. Other than that, honestly? There’s no bad part. Even when I’m frustrated and hitting a wall creatively, or on deadline and stressed, I always make myself remember those years in unpublished hell. There is no comparison. I’ve also had some really crappy jobs in the past – overseas and in Australia. Brutal jobs. Teaching about writing, talking about writing – and the writing itself when I get to do it – is a delight, even when it’s not. I bet that makes me really annoying to be around.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Getting the call from my agent saying that Random House wanted to publish The Whole of My World. After 14-plus years of hearing nothing but rejection for this novel, as well as several others and a couple of film scripts, finally getting an offer felt other worldly. I will remember it forever.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best is also a play on the worst. It’s a variation of that annoying writing aphorism to write what you know. What’s the fun in that? What are you going to learn? Instead, I subscribe to the ‘write what you love’ piece of wisdom. It takes a really long time to write a book, and even longer to rewrite it. And after it’s published, you’ll be expected to talk about it. A lot. Forever, if you’re lucky. It had want to be something you care about.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Until several reviewers mentioned it, I didn’t realise that The Whole of My World was the first novel about AFL that featured a female character, or a female fan. Not a groupie, but a girl who loved footy. It was also the first novel about AFL written by a woman. I guess on some level I knew it was breaking new ground, but I didn’t realise just how new. I was stunned no one had done it before, given how many women and girls love football across the country.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Define ‘making a living’.

Let’s pretend that I do, actually, make enough money to live. If I couldn’t do this, I’d probably work in radio. I used to do a lot of community radio, and really loved the studio, the interview process, the editing and producing of a radio show. I’d definitely head toward that field. Having said that, I’d still be writing after hours – even without the money. (Just don’t tell my publisher.)

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Disclaimer – I teach creative writing and get paid for it. But I wouldn’t if I didn’t think it could make a difference. Writing absolutely can be taught. Which is not to say there isn’t an aspect of writing that is innate. There is. Some people just get words. They can move them and shape them to do what they want, without training or instruction beyond an understanding of basic grammar. But not many people fit this mould. And I’d argue that even the ‘natural’ writer can improve with guidance and attention to craft. A really good creative writing program – and I accept that not all would qualify – can nurture and expand on natural ability over time. I also think that people who struggle to write can learn how to write well. You can’t teach brilliance, but you can definitely teach storytelling.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write a lot, for sure, but also make sure you read a lot. I’m amazed at how many aspiring writers tell me they don’t read. That defies logic.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I try to buy locally, whether online or in bookshops, as long as the books are available. I love the experience of being in a bookshop. I have a rule that I won’t leave an indie bookshop without buying at least one book. I’m okay walking out of the corporates empty-handed, but not the indies. (This is not something we should mention to my husband.)

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

I would love to have dinner with Johnny Wheelwright, the author-narrator of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I spent most of my teen years besotted with all things Irving, largely due to his acerbic observations and delicious descriptions. Johnny epitomised this. I felt incredibly sophisticated when he told me that the only way to get an American’s attention was ‘to tax them or draft them or kill them’. And I was slayed by his depiction of Owen’s ‘wrecked voice’ in ALL CAPS. He was so rebellious and witty and, I was convinced, handsome. Besides, who can resist a man whose ‘life is a reading list’?

The first thing I’d ask Johnny is if he’s still a Christian. I’m betting now he’d say no.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. After I read that novel I briefly stopped writing. I felt so overwhelmed by its power. Its simplicity. I remember getting to the end the first time, my heart pounding, too drained to even cry, and thinking to myself, what the hell do you think you’re doing pretending you’re a writer? I’d just read the perfect book. Why even bother when I knew I couldn’t write anything as powerful as The Road?

The problem is, I couldn’t just stop writing, even if I wanted to. It’s not a choice for me. I quickly found myself back at my desk, choosing, instead, to aim higher, work harder, and be better. My books, I decided, had to matter. At least to me, but hopefully to my readers too.


Nicole Hayes' first novel, The Whole of my World (Random House) is available now.

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chad_parkhill The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Chad Parkhill was writing a critical essay that analyses Daft Punk’s 2001 album Discovery in terms of technology and temporality. In this extract, he looks at Daft Punk’s use of disco samples, and traces the evolution of disco as a genre – and with it, DJ culture.

Daft Punk’s Discovery revealed that the duo, who had previously only expressed admiration for rock groups such as KISS and the producers behind the hard-edged dance music coming out of Chicago and Detroit, were also in fact disco aficionados. Officially speaking, the album contains only four samples − from George Duke’s ‘I Love You More’, Edwin Birdsong’s ‘Cola Bottle Baby’, The Imperials’ ‘Can You Imagine’, and Barry Manilow’s ‘Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?’− but unofficially it contains many more: recreations of, seeming reproductions of, and homages to disco music. The disco connection is signposted not only in the pun of the album’s title, but also in the name of one of its deep cuts, ‘Veridis Quo’− a piece of meaningless cod-Latin that, when spoken aloud, sounds like ‘very disco’.

The connection is deeper than the merely stylistic and linguistic, however. Discovery’s use of disco samples replicates one of the foundational manoeuvres of disco itself, and in so doing it manipulates time in unusual ways. In order to understand Discovery’s strange temporalities, it will be necessary to take a detour into history of one of the twentieth century’s most reviled and misunderstood music genres.

The word ‘disco’ comes from the French discothèque, or record library − just as a bibliothèque is a library of books and an oenothèque is a library of wine. The discothèque itself emerged from a particular historical confluence of necessity and technology: in Nazi-occupied Paris, a group of counterculture rebels known as ‘les Zazous’ indulged their passion for American jazz music, contrary to the official interdiction against what the Nazi regime saw as degenerate Negro music. As the police had the power to shut down dances after 9pm, and the professional musicians’ association, the Reichs music chamber, went from bar to bar looking for traces of ‘degenerate’ music, the dances put on by les Zazous were necessarily clandestine affairs, pop-up parties held with portable record players in suburban cafés and restaurants.

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Image by Bruno Girin, Flickr.

As Peter Shapiro argues in his book Turn the Beat Around: the Secret History of Disco, these gatherings were perhaps the first instantiation of the concept of the DJ as we now know it. People had been dancing to pre-recorded music earlier − from jukeboxes to piano rolls − but the content of those forms were under the control of record distributors and linked to a broader complex of record production and promotion. To quote Shapiro, ‘The gatherings of [les Zazous] mark the first instance that a disc jockey played music of his own choosing and not necessarily what was in the hit parade, tailored to a specific crowd of dancers in a nondomestic setting.’ The format survived the war, and La Discothèque − a club on rue de la Huchette that had operated during the resistance − moved into the overground. Imitators such as Whisky à Go-Go and Chez Régine soon opened. The format spread to New York in the 60s with the opening of the club Arthur. The modern nightclub as a temple of prerecorded music was born.

So: disco initially referred to music played in a discothèque. But the circularity of this definition causes problems; after all, you can play anything that’s been recorded in a discothèque. How did disco transform from a term of trade to a coherent genre of music with established rules and tropes?

Disco’s next quantum leap came when a young dancer named Terry Noel took over DJing duties at Arthur. Noel’s years of dancing at the Peppermint Lounge had taught him the downside of the 45RPM, 7″ single − while a well-known song would bring dancers to the floor, the abrupt end of the song would soon scatter them. Arthur’s sound system, however, contained two separate record players, and soon Noel was blending together songs to create a nonstop flow of music.

Noel’s innovation was soon outstripped by one of his pupils, Francis Grasso, who had observed Noel’s techniques and replaced him one evening when he turned up late to perform. Grasso pioneered beat-matching − a process where two songs of a very similar tempo would be played so the beats overlapped, allowing for smoother, less noticeable transitions between songs. (The Platonic ideal of beatmatching is to make the transition so perfectly timed and musically appropriate that it isn’t noticeable at all.) By purchasing multiple copies of the same record and utilising beat-matching and slip-cueing − where the record is held in place until it is released by the DJ, allowing for pinpoint precision of timing − Grasso could extend a record’s most pleasurable moments, theoretically indefinitely. But Grasso’s biggest breakthrough might have been conceptual rather than technical: where Noel was concerned only with keeping dancers on the floor, Grasso saw the DJ’s role as that of a musical storyteller − each night would have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with individual songs forming the basic units out of which the DJ could craft a longer narrative full of peaks and troughs, the slow and steady elaboration of musical themes, or dramatic and sudden shifts in tone. In Grasso’s hands, turntables moved beyond tools to reproduce sound and became instruments of musical expression.

At this stage the music in discothèques was still not disco as we know it now. The songs were a blend of established styles − in Grasso’s case, Motown, funk, psychedelic rock, and world music oddities such as Osibisa and Babtunde Olatunji. Grasso’s colleagues such as David Mancuso and Nicky Siano would also take their audiences on a journey using established musical styles to tell a broader narrative. (Mancuso preferred a more ethereal psychedelic blend that rolled in gentle waves − there was a reason his loft parties were called ‘Love Saves the Day’, or LSD − while Siano’s sets were more melodramatic, building from peak to peak of cathartic release.) Siano himself brought one of the final technical innovations to disco DJing by introducing varispeed record players that could slow down or speed up a track. This made beatmatching between disparate genres even easier − the DJ could now bring a slower funk song up in tempo to meet a storming rock number.

All music is mediated through technology − there could be no rock music without Les Paul’s invention of the solid-body electric guitar, for example. But disco saw a fundamental shift in the production of music − the musician was no long the site of innovation, but the DJ was. As record companies began taking notice of the buying power of the audiences that Grasso, Mancuso, and Siano had attracted, musicians began making music that would appeal to dancers at discothèques − featuring the driving beat of African and Latin music, the syrupy strings of Philadelphia soul, and the plangent guitars of psychedelic rock. These tracks were extended by the first remix artists, Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons, which drove the artists to make their original compositions longer and less song-like. Enabled by technology, selected by non-musicians, and disseminated by the networks of late capitalism, disco signalled a radical new relationship between the terms of time, technology, and music.

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emThe Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Elin-Maria Evangelista’s novel Esperanto for the Despairing tells the story of a handful of Australians travelling to Stockholm for the 1934 world congress in Esperanto, a journey that will change their lives. Among other things, it looks at how learning an additional language impacts a diverse group of characters.

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Image by Andrew Magill, Flickr

Benjamin Bells Melbourne, 29 April, 1934

It was long since established that Mr Bells did not care much for altos.

In his considered view, the alto section bore no comparison to the exhilarating force of his well-drilled tenors. And the bass − now there was a male voice in all its richness for you! Whereas the purity of a soaring soprano captured, in his mind, all the loveliness of the weaker sex, a fulfilling complement to the warmth and power bursting forward from the rows of male singers, altos − how could he put it? They simply seemed to yield so little in return. And yet here they were, imposing themselves, not only on stage but on all the committees, taking charge of tea breaks and fundraising, exhibiting views and opinions in a manner Mr Bells found very trying. Of course, they were not allowed on the main committee, which made all the major decisions and balanced the books; heavens above! But he felt the new Ladies Committee − which had been established as a compromise and was the outcome of an altercation between a certain alto and the main committee’s timid treasurer, Mr Bolan − had somehow ruined a sense of order and calm in the meetings he used to take great pleasure in attending. Ever since the committee of ladies had been instigated, he had noticed a niggling feeling, a sense that the board was being observed, that every decision it made was scrutinised by a section of the choir which would, in Mr Bell’s opinion, be better served by paying attention to their singing instead.

Many altos were of course former sopranos: big and stocky now with giant bosoms, their costumes straining at the seams; retired voices of former glory, staring back at him sheepishly behind their spectacles. But the worst thing, Mr Bells thought rather glumly, was how little sound they were able to produce. A dull buzzing tone that rose now and then from the right-hand corner of the stage. The mezzo ranges of the female voice simply did not offer enough sound to justify their large (and increasingly, for Mr Bells, irritating) existence.

Sighing, he turned his attention back to his score, his fingers a nervous knot above his diaphragm. As if to comfort himself, he moved his hands to the sides of his head and attempted to flatten his hair, which was of indeterminable colour; a kind of murky brown much like the water he passed on his solitary walks by the Yarra River. His lank, greying hair was that of a man in desperate need of a barber, the better part of whose youth was behind him; a matter hard to accept for a protégée, like Mr Bells, who still believed his time of glory was yet to come.

‘Ladies, if you please.’ He tapped with his baton on the musical stand. ‘My dear voices from our alto section, may I point to the letter f as in forte above bar fifteen, not mf, and certainly not p as you seem to suggest from the last squeak I just heard. May I be so bold as to suggest that Maestro Handel did not place this letter there by mistake, and henceforth, if you do not mind, I would like to just now and then hear the mature ladies of our alto section make a matching effort to the rest of our distinguished choir!’

He looked pleadingly at the defiant matrons staring back at him, who (it had once been put to him by the formidable Miss Ada Hooper of the Ladies Committee) were of the firm opinion (and here she had laughed a little) that Mr Bells had some kind of ailment, a lack of hearing on his right-hand side. Miss Hooper had even had the nerve to suggest that if Mr Bells would occasionally hold back the tenors, especially reigning in the booming voice of Mr Richards in the front row, he might be better able to hear the quite considerable sound of the thus far drowned-out altos. As if the blame for their diminished voices was to be laid down by his feet! Any attempt to reason with Miss Hooper was however, from previous experience, in vain, and therefore he had, with the greatest delicacy and effort of will, swallowed his pride and gasped, ‘Oh well, I never … I am sure you do your best, my dear lady!’ thinking to himself that with the number of altos in the choir, they should be able to out-trumpet a horde of elephants.

And now this! His carefully considered travelling plans all but destroyed! In what was to be his greatest moment of musical triumph, raising his baton where men upholding Western civilisation in every bar and in the smallest of crotchets had lived and breathed for centuries! Where there was an understanding—a respect—for the highest of art forms compared to the miserable outpost of civilisation where he was presently attempting to leave the world a more musical place, educating the good people of Melbourne in some greater values than presently found at Flemington and other such places. His reward for this, his second sojourn to Europe − the thrilling highlight of his musical career − was now in danger of being ruined, by (and here he almost felt like tearing out what was left of his hair in despair) … by the requests of an alto!

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The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Christa Jonathan’s The Long Way Home is a short-story cycle with illustrations that will be published as a series of themed zines. The work will be primarily based on travel writing and her experience growing up as Chinese-Indonesian and living in Melbourne.

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Elmo Keep on a One-Way, Privatised Mission to Mars

In this exemplary piece of long-form journalism, Elmo Keep reports on a one-way mission to colonise Mars, dreamed up, organised and financed by private, not-for-profit company Mars One. ‘It is, essentially, a marketing campaign with two goals: first, to raise enough interest among the global community in a manned Mars mission so that crowd-funding and advertising revenues will be generated to the tune of billions of dollars; and, second, to use this money  –  largely to be raised through a reality television series documenting the training process and journey to Mars from Earth  –  to pay for the mission itself.’

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Illustration by Josh Cochran, Matter.

Daniel Handler’s Racist Joke at US National Book Awards

America’s National Book Awards winners were announced on Wednesday – and presenter Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket books, made at least one major misstep, when he joked about African American author Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the Young People’s Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, being allergic to watermelon.

Hanna Rosin on her former best friend Stephen Glass

Sixteen years ago, Stephen Glass nearly ruined The New Republic when it was revealed that the many bizarre stories that had made his career were – almost completely – fabricated. He’s since been the subject of a thinly fictionalised novel (which he wrote) and a film, Shattered Glass, starring Hayden Christensen. Hanna Rosin worked with Glass on The New Republic and was one of his best friends; in a fascinating piece for the magazine, she confronts him.

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Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass in the movie Shattered Glass.

Here’s to You, Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols, legendary Hollywood director (and sixties comedy star, with Elaine May), has died, aged 83. The internet is jam-packed with fond tributes today, but if you’re after some quality reflection, it’s worth reading this in-depth 2008 Vanity Fair piece on the making of The Graduate, his second film. (His first was the marvellous Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton).

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Mike Nichols on the set of The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.

‘Baby’ names for books: On the titling process

What is Trimalchio in West Egg? Well, it was nearly the title of The Great Gatsby. The Millions looks at the process of titling books, asking authors to share their stories of how their books were named.

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