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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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19 December 2014

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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. Look out for director Michael Williams' best books in a later instalment.

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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Paul Mitchell is the author of a short fiction collection, Dodging the Bull (Wakefield Press) and three collections of poetry, Minorphysics, Awake Despite the Hour and Standard Variation. His poems, stories and articles have appeared in various publications, including the Age, Good Weekend, the Australian, Sleepers Almanacs, Best Australian Poems and Best Australian Stories (Black Inc.), Meanjin, Griffith Review and Crikey.

We spoke to him about why ‘just keep writing’ is bad advice, why you should never believe what your friends and relatives say about your work, and his son’s lucky escape from being named ‘Valjean’.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a poem called ‘The Five Teens’. I was in Year 12 English class and there were five of us talking about the meaning of life. As we spoke, a piece of fluff floated past and we kept it aloft with our breath. I wrote a poem about the experience and it was published in the school’s yearbook. People still quote it to me. I ignore them.

What’s the best part of your job?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a job so I have to make do with freelance writing and sessional tutoring! The best part of my non-job is that I can answer questions like these without feeling like I’m stealing time from the boss. It also means that, if I want to and the bank balance seems okay, I can do some bank balance-diminishing creative writing in the middle of the day when I’m awake.

What’s the worst part of your job?

See first sentence above. The worst part of my non-job is the bank balance. Mainly caused by putting time into bank balance-diminishing creative writing.

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

Career? Hmmm, more like careening over the writing landscape. But the most significant moments in my careening have been publication of my first poetry book and first (and only, so far) short fiction book. Both of these events deluded me for a while into thinking I was a ‘writer’, rather than just someone who wrote.

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

‘Just keep writing.’ As if that alone can make you good at it. I mean, I could just keep baking cakes, but if I did it for 20 years without looking at recipes or learning from other cake bakers, I’d end up making 20 years worth of what my daughter and I created one day: Anzac biscuit flan.

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

This year, two people have told me that my writing has changed the lives of people they know. Not their minds for a few seconds, their lives! I’m still gasping with disbelief – and I should have put this answer in the ‘most significant moment of your writing career’ above. Whoops.

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

A lot more teaching. My freelance writing – scripts, copywriting, etc. – brings in enough money to ensure that not too many uni or school students have to put up with me each year. If I wasn’t doing anything to do with writing, I’d probably be working as a journalist (that’s a joke – what I’m saying is I’m not trained for anything else. My hopes of becoming a professional sportsperson have faded, though if I just keep playing snooker …)

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

I can’t see why there’s a debate. Of course it can be taught. Just like music, painting, sculpture, dance, etc. Yes, some people have innate ability, but anyone who just keeps writing … and reading and learning from other writers and drafting and editing and keeping their sentences snappy can improve.

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

Don’t do it. If you absolutely must, then make sure you have a job. Never believe what your relatives or friends say about your work. And remember: only one person in about six billion is born with the name J.K. Rowling.

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

I go by price and convenience. I have bought my last five books from Book Depository (two), the Kobo store (for, yes, my Kobo e-reader), the Melbourne Uni bookstore and Readings Carlton.

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

I read Les Miserables just before my son Hugo was born. He is forever thankful I didn’t name him Valjean. But I’d like to have dinner with Valjean and just ask him how he managed to be such a good bloke despite having Javert on his tail his whole life. If he wasn’t available for dinner, I’d like to chow down with the cop character from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men and see what we could learn about good and evil together.

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

I have to answer the ‘life’ and ‘work’ questions separately. The book that has most affected my work is Flannery O’Connor’s non-fiction title Mystery and Manners. It has helped me believe that writing could be a valuable use of our limited time. And the one that has had the most significant impact on my life is John’s Gospel. The mystical Gospel, it proposes more strongly than the others that the divine is in all of us, and the world would be better if we gave it more room to move.


Paul Mitchell’s latest book is the poetry collection Standard Variation.

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Harkins-Cross_Rebecca-300x300The 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.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross spent her time at our hot desk working on a cultural history of Australian cinema, charted via discrete essays on key films from our industry’s inception until today. Her essays look at the unifying motif of terror in Australian cinema and how this fits into our larger national mythology. In this extract, she considers Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Shallow waves of cloud crash across a slate sky, cleaving the sun. Yet its path remains true, casting a lighthouse beam across the shadowy hill below. Rocks shaped like gravestones litter the slope – haphazard eruptions with no regard for a cemetery’s grid. Gangly trees cower before them. Two tiny human interlopers gaze up from a flat in the foreground, one kneeling down as if in prayer, the other’s arms raised in exaltation.

This 1855 drawing is one of the first known images of what would become known as Hanging Rock, a geological formation approximately 70 kilometres north-west of Melbourne located between the townships of Woodend and Macedon. The artist William Blandowski was an interloper too – a German zoologist and mining engineer who would found the Geology Society of Victoria. The drawing is one of 29 scenes Blandowski drew in preparation for his book Australia Terra Cognita, a study of Australia that would never be completed or reach publication; the land of the south would remain unknown for some time. Blandowski imbues the scene with biblical wonder, its ascending composition drawing the eye up to the heavens much like the iconography of the sermon on the mount. Yet it’s before nature, rather than its creator, that these figures repent. Strange and unsettling, this drawing gestures toward a mystery, one that veils the landscape still.

Hanging Rock would be made myth many years later, when a trio of schoolgirls and their teacher disappeared here. That this did not happen in real life but in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel The Picnic at Hanging Rock is almost beside the point. Much like Blandowski’s drawing, Lindsay describes the Rock’s ‘splendid spectacle’ through a parlance of life and death: ‘the play of golden light and deep violet shade revealed the intricate construction of long vertical slabs; some smooth as giant tombstones, others grooved and fluted by prehistoric architecture of wind and water, ice and fire.’ She captures something so resonant about this place that it blurred fact and fiction in the national imagination. And Hanging Rock would become more mythic still, both in and due to Peter Weir’s 1975 cinematic adaptation, a film that altered the fate of the Australian film industry, casting a shadow that stretches on today, nearly 40 years later.


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‘The mountain comes to Mohammed, and Hanging Rock comes to Mr Hussey,’ says the peculiar Miss McCraw (played by Vivean Gray) in the film, as the coach brimming with schoolgirls approaches, looking down her bespectacled nose at their simple driver (Martin Vaughan). Once again the monolith invokes religious dread, an insurmountable obstacle before which humans must bow.

‘More than 500 feet high she is. Volcanic, of course, thousands of years old.’

‘A million years old Mr Hussey, or thereabouts.’

‘Yes well, that’d be right. A thousand million. Devil of a long time anyway, in a manner of speaking.’

While Miss McCraw relays the geological specificities, the girls stare up in awe at the looming form shading their path. Ancient and ever-lasting, Hanging Rock is a place where it seems as though history has stood still – a land that time forgot.

‘Waiting a million years, just for us,’ says the knowing Irma (Karen Robson), only hours before she’d be swallowed up, as if already aware of her destiny.

In fact both Miss McCraw and Mr. Hussey underestimated the formation. Hanging Rock is thought to be six to seven million years old, a period of time so vast it tugs at the mind’s contours. It’s an outcrop of the primordial world. Rising 105 metres above the ground, Hanging Rock is an anomaly even in this volcanic region (the nearby Mount Macedon was once an active volcano). This geological phenomenon is called a mamelon, taken from the French meaning ‘nipple’, though the forms it produces here are decidedly phallic. Crags develop after several successive eruptions of stiff lava from vents in the bedrock, each additional layer piling atop one another. As the lava cools it splits into columns, weathering into rough pinnacles over time; maybe even into gravestones, if you wait long enough.

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Nick Earls reflects on discovering classic Australian novel The Delinquents – Brisbane’s Last Exit to Brooklyn – in 1989, as the film starring Kylie Minogue was made at a local hotel, and he hung around the edges of the set.

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In 1989, nearly thirty years after the publication of Criena Rohan’s first novel, The Delinquents, Brisbane was on the cusp of change. Tony Fitzgerald had laid bare police corruption; an election was looming and the National Party was, for the first time in a generation, doomed to lose office. Meanwhile, at the Park Royal Hotel, my girlfriend played in the piano bar and Kylie Minogue was stuck, like a shorter-haired Rapunzel, many floors above, grappling with the onslaught of fame and, by day, attempting to film the screen adaptation of The Delinquents.

Kylie, with her famous eighties perm loosened a little for the fifties setting, played the feisty Lola, who gets knocked down repeatedly but keeps dragging herself back up, and who often doesn’t know where her next quid is coming from. I later read that Kylie made $13 million that year. In her own way, though, she was being buffeted by her circumstances: staying in the hotel under an assumed name, having jeans brought in when she needed a pair because it was no longer feasible for her to shop, trying to manage a private life while being pulled in all directions publicly. There must have been times when, despite her good fortune, she wondered if and when her life might start to make sense again.

Kylie was twenty at the start of production – the same age as Lola at the end of The Delinquents – and she turned twenty-one during the shoot. I hung around the fringes of the birthday party that the cast and crew threw for her in the hotel, before she flew to her official twenty-first in Melbourne.

At some point during my time on the periphery of the production, desperate to connect with any kind of writing community and to soak up what I could about the film business, I asked one of the producers why they’d chosen to film in Brisbane. He told me, wearily, that I wasn’t the first person in town to wonder. And he told me that The Delinquents was a Brisbane novel.

Why did it take a multi-million-dollar film and the presence of Kylie Minogue to teach me that?

Brisbane was not then in the habit of celebrating its literature. It was a place writers left, and wrote disparagingly about from exile. If that’s not entirely true, it’s often how it felt. Thea Astley, David Malouf, Thomas Shapcott, Rodney Hall – the list goes on. David Malouf’s Johnno had arrived in the mid-seventies, and was immediately taught in the classroom next to mine by a daring young English teacher who went on to lead the Democrats in the Senate. But where was The Delinquents?

Criena Rohan had died in 1963, a year after the book’s publication. She was not, in my years growing up in Brisbane, known as one of the city’s writers in exile. She wasn’t even from there. But her eye for the place, and her feel for its breezes and smells and seaminess, are true. The Delinquents is a landmark piece of Brisbane fiction that should stand beside Johnno as an account of life in the city in the mid-twentieth century.

A landmark, but not an edifice. One of the book’s strengths is its connection with the details of the troubled lives within it, and its pursuit of the stories of characters whom the civic leaders of the time would have wished to keep invisible. Lola and Brownie are two outsiders who find each other in their teens and who remain determined to be together, despite their families, society and the law continuing to find ways to pull them apart. In some respects The Delinquents feels less like a shelfmate to Johnno and more like Brisbane’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, with its Spring Hill scenes of sailors and sex workers and run-ins with the cops. Hubert Selby Jr’s novel was published two years after The Delinquents, and like Rohan’s pulls no punches in depicting the rough lives of those on the margins of urban life.

The Delinquents refutes the nostalgia for a benign place where men wore hats to drive and everybody thanked the bus driver. It exposes the gap between the law and domestic conduct, and shows neighbours’ backs turning on violence within families. It reveals the horrors of pregnancy termination conducted outside the law yet alongside the proper lives in Queen Street, as the black Humber arrives to take the young woman to the pitiless room where the procedure is performed.

Lola and Brownie show us the everyday dishonesty, double standards and cruelty that lurked behind the brighter images of Brisbane in the fifties. It wasn’t all milk bars, big skirts and dances at Cloudland. Hugh Lunn’s 1989 memoir of the era, Over the Top with Jim, drew readers in their hundreds of thousands; The Delinquents shows a different Brisbane only streets away from the Lunns’ Annerley Junction bakery.

It also hints at the Queensland to come – the Queensland of the seventies and eighties, with the civil strife and the rottenness that Fitzgerald and others would drag into the light. ‘If you ask me, all Brisbane’s full of coppers and all of them bastards,‘ [Lola] said, expressing in one concise sentence the full theory of central government of the sunshine state.

The police are brutal enforcers in The Delinquents, and Lola and Brownie have grown up with targets on their backs. When they are caught in a pub, Brownie’s fined for underage drinking and bound not to contact Lola for twelve months, while she’s treated as a vagrant – a criminal offence – and put in Jacaranda Flats Girls’ Corrective School.

Later, stuck in the stifling care of Auntie Westbury, at tea with one of her successfully reformed young women, Lola bristles against the tedium of suburban convention:

Lola drank her tea and looked through the kitchen window. The success and Auntie went on to discuss the success’s kitchen garden, which, it appeared, was doing ‘real well’, but was much plagued by the snails, so the success was going to get a couple of those, what do they call them? Muscovy ducks to eat them up. And the success was knitting harelip a lovely fair-isle jumper, and Auntie became quite animated at the mention of fair-isle. On and on it went. All the old and beautiful arts of cooking and sewing and making a home swamped in a sea of banality that was too cloying to be quite real, even taking into account the two protagonists. It was unbelievable. It sounded like a programme to teach New Australian women English.

Twenty years on, the Saints would be roaming the same inner-suburban streets as Lola and Brownie had, crafting hard, fast music that found its place at the vanguard of punk, daubing ‘(I’m) Stranded’ on the dirty wall over the broken fireplace of an abandoned terrace house and performing community-hall shows until police arrived to shut them down. The Saints’ music would have come as a shock – and not a pleasant one – to Lola and Brownie, but propelling it is a disaffectedness and disenchantment that they would have recognised all too well.

How Brooklyn has changed since Hubert Selby Jr’s novel. How Brisbane has changed since The Delinquents – but there’s still a thread linking the troubled misfit characters of these books to the present. Though some details of their lives are different, these characters are still here. Even when the system tries to be more benign, there are people in our suburbs still falling foul of it, still having to look over their shoulders.

Reviewers in the UK and Australia praised The Delinquents upon its publication in 1962. Yet its author was already dying. Criena Rohan was on an oxygen machine when she finished her second novel, Down by the Dockside, and didn’t live to see the book published. She pushed on and wrote the now-lost manuscript ‘House with the Golden Door’, determined to keep developing as a writer though her time was limited. Her early death cut short a significant literary career.

The Delinquents dropped from sight for most of us, but it keeps resurfacing. A new edition was published in 1986, just as film development was underway, and the following year David Bowie observed that the novel would make a good movie. That film might have pushed Lola and Brownie back into public consciousness in a lasting way, but it wasn’t to be.

It was no failure domestically, grossing $3 million – a figure most current Australian productions can only dream of – but other films came along and we talked about them more, and for longer. Ben Mendelsohn, who would have made a brilliant Brownie, was apparently let go in the hope that an American lead would open up the American market. The role went to Charlie Schlatter, but the film was never released in the US. It’s Lola and Brownie’s story writ large – high hopes, big dreams, battlers against the tide.

Lola and Brownie and their world are too real and too compelling for us to relinquish. Every place and time needs stories of its outsiders, its rule breakers, people the establishment contrives to civilise or crush. It’s the business of novelists to give these people a voice and, in The Delinquents, Criena Rohan’s writing does that now as well as it ever did.


This is the text of Nick Earls' introduction to the Text Classics version of Criena Rohan’s The Delinquents.

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S.A. Jones ignored her creative writing teacher’s advice to never write about mental illness in a novel … but has spent a lot of time wrestling with the question of whether mental illness and the novel can do each other justice. And how do you write about a form of mental illness that defies the beginning, middle and end that the novel demands?

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Image by Benjamin Watson, Flickr.

It is February 2011 and I am stuck. Comprehensively, wickedly stuck. The manuscript that I have pummelled, vivisected and re-wired refuses to assume an orderly shape so, in desperation, I enrol in the Advanced Year of the Novel course under the tutelage of the redoubtable Andrea Goldsmith. It is our first session and Andrea, in her magnificently peremptory way, dispenses some advice: ‘Be cautious of using the first person for an entire novel. And don’t write about mental illness. Ever’.

I look down at my opening paragraph:

‘My name is Isabelle, and I have decided to die’.

First person. Mental illness. Two strikes and I am out.

Fast forward three years and that troublesome manuscript – Isabelle of the Moon and Stars – is finally out there. A real book. I took Andrea’s advice regarding point of view but stuck with the mental illness theme. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with how, or if, mental illness and the novel can do each other justice. ‘Mental illness’ is a broad church, covering everything from bi-polar to schizophrenia to delusion to anxiety to obsessive compulsion. It is almost easier to say what it is not (normal, apparently) than what it is.

The tension between ‘normal’ and ‘aberrant’ has obvious thematic attractions for writers, driven as they are to look with a critical eye at what passes for unremarkable or ‘natural’. Who can forget the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, pawing over the walls; her ‘madness’ a perfectly rational response to the restrictions and repressions of ‘being female’ in Victorian England? Or Bertha Mason, an archetype of suppressed female sexuality, bursting out of Thornfield Hall in a halo of flames and fury in Jane Eyre?

Books set against an institutional backdrop can problematise the normal/abnormal construct particularly well. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted both suggest that the arbiters of health – doctors, nurses, administrators – can, in their despotism and omnipotence, be as deluded and certainly crueller than the patients they are charged with curing. It’s a trope I played with (and I use ‘played’ quite deliberately) in Isabelle. Isabelle’s ‘madness’ comes complete with convenient labels. But what of Jack, her boss, who throws himself with gusto at whatever management fad is in favour that week? Who glances at his management texts for comfort and exhorts his team to get behind the strategy du jour – P3 (People! Performance! Planning!).

Isn’t it ‘mad’ that such nonsense is not only taken seriously, but as evidence of competence? And what of Evan, Isabelle’s best friend who had a religious experience as a grieving child that now drives his sexuality and decision-making as an adult? Is that ‘mad’?

But if the novel as a form can effectively explore dualities like mad and sane, unhinged and rational; there was one limitation I kept butting my head against during the writing process. Isabelle’s particular malady is hyperthymic depression and anxiety disorder. If you are (blessedly, mercifully) ignorant about what this means, let me give you a primer. You function well for fairly long periods of time then there comes a crash. Inexplicable. Total. Remorseless. My heroine, Isabelle, calls it The Black Place.

There are many dread things about The Black Place: the physical pain of the attacks, the constant fear of the next haunting, the vicious tussle to keep her purchase on her body.

But the worst thing, absolutely the worst thing is how memory-less it is. Once in possession there is no agency, no goodness, no hope and no memory of what it is to be anything other than The Black Place. No matter how many times Isabelle suffers the experience, in the moment of it, it is impossible to recollect that it has happened before and that it passes. That there are good days on the other side.

isabelle Isabelle’s malady is characterised by repetition. By wearying, haunting sameness. But fiction needs to move. It needs light and shade, conflict and change to push it along. This was my central creative problem: how to honour the truth of the experience but shoe-horn it into the conventions of the novel?

I began to wonder if the particular strain of mental illness I was working with would always be best served by poetry: windows into physical and emotional states sufficiently brief and self-contained to stave off reader boredom. I kept returning to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems and to Wilfred Owen’s snapshots of shattered minds and bodies and wondering if I was working in the wrong genre. Or in the right genre but with the wrong illness.

It is surely no accident that among the successful novels about mental illness are the ones where the maladies generate their own drama. (Let me pause here. I am in no way suggesting that any particular mental illness is more or less ‘dramatic’ than any other. I speak of drama here as it relates to the novel as a form). The memoirs Running with Scissors, Madness: a Memoir and Touched with Fire take psychosis and mania as their subject. And there are novels that explore breakdown: the collapse under pressure of an unsteady personality edifice and its rebirth. It’s a conceit used in novels by Wally Lamb, Sylvia Plath, Maggie O’Farrell and others; the fault-line in the ‘old’ personality often caused by a trauma. I also used this device in my first novel, Red Dress Walking. It aligns neatly with the genre demands of the novel: inciting force, conflict, climax and denouement or – if you prefer – beginning, middle and end.

But what to do with the malady that just won’t change? That has neither the mystery of an onset story nor the ‘glamour’ of a breakdown? That just is. How to write about the everyday heroism of people who face down their own black place and get out of bed and make it into work and keep friendships going and refuse suicide as an option day after day after day after day. Can the novel do that?

Crafting an ending for Isabelle was particularly problematic. Endings demand that the loose ends are tied up and some closure is achieved. I often find endings the least satisfying part of a novel precisely because the form demands a resolution rarely achieved in life and certainly not with an illness that, while it may be treatable, is not ‘soluble’ (I confess to a particular antipathy for the suggestion in some books and films about mental illness that the afflicted are ‘cured’ by love).

I solved my dilemma by more or less hitching the plot to the cycle of the illness. In doing so, I hope to suggest that the cycle of the illness itself provides infinite beginnings, middles and ends.


S.A. Jones is the author of the novels Isabelle of the Moon and Stars and Red Dress Walking.

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Jo Case, author of Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s, reflects on Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘coming out’ as as being on the autism spectrum this week – and the conflicting responses from the autism community, which range from outrage to gratitude.

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Jerry Seinfeld declared this weekend, in an interview with NBC, that he believes he’s on the autism spectrum. ‘Basic social engagement is really a struggle,’ he said. ‘But I don’t see it as dysfunctional. I just think of it as an alternate mindset.’

My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now high-functioning autism) eight years ago; he’s now fifteen. After his diagnosis, I realised other members of my family, including me, are on the autism spectrum. My son knows he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and is personally reconciled to it, but he’s wary about letting his peers know, for fear of being judged by a label they don’t understand – one that’s often portrayed in a negative way. He is passionate about comedy and aspires to be a writer and performer.

My son and I have a kind of game we play, where we identify and claim cultural figures as ‘Aspies’. (Kubrick, Jesse Eisenberg, Community creator Dan Harmon.) Almost none of them – except Harmon – have publicly identified as being on the autism spectrum. It’s empowering to have these role models, people who demonstrate that while autistic traits pose challenges, they can also be gifts. That autism shouldn’t restrict what we aspire to in life, though it might inform how we might go about getting it.

Awareness of high-functioning autism has grown since my son was diagnosed eight years ago, but there’s still a fairly narrow understanding of what it means and what it might look like. While people once thought ‘Rainman’ when they heard ‘autism’, the first response is now Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, followed by Silicon Valley IT workers, math geniuses, and perhaps engineers or academics. Surely, the wider the variety of role models that exist, the wider the choices seem for those who identify as autistic. And the more high-profile role models who are willing to identify with a marginalised community, the better.

Not everyone in the autistic community agrees. Kim Stagliano, mother of three autistic daughters and editor of The Age of Autism, was just one of the many who were outraged and insulted by Seinfeld’s statement. They feel that Seinfeld’s self-diagnosis is invalid and that it was irresponsible of him to publicly align himself with the autism spectrum without a medical diagnosis. The issue, it seems, is they believe Seinfeld does not have ‘serious behaviours and issues and challenges’: he’s one of the world’s most successful entertainers, he has a wife and three children, he’s well respected. To his critics within the autism community, his successful life devalues their everyday struggles – and puts funding for autism research and treatment at risk.

It’s much harder to attract funding for ‘difference’ than for ‘disability’. And since the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome was discontinued, replaced last year with ‘high-functioning autism’, it’s become harder than ever to differentiate the staggering variety of experiences on the spectrum when talking about autism. Parents of those at the ‘lower-functioning’ end, who might be non-verbal, unable to connect with the wider world, and require intensive care, can feel marginalised when they don’t see their experiences reflected in the high-achieving success stories who have turned their ‘special interests’ into career triumphs through hours of obsession and focus.

‘This is autism,’ tweeted Stagliano at Seinfeld, accompanied by a photograph of her family. ‘Gorgeous young ladies who need 24/7 lifetime care.’ She told the Washington Post that she’s tired of those in the spotlight making autistic symptoms sound fashionable. ‘It’s a medical diagnosis, not a personality or a gift.’

Other members of the autism community have welcomed Seinfeld’s actions. ‘Think about what this does for a closeted autistic person who goes into the workplace knowing that their co-workers have just seen somebody they know, respect, and have a positive opinion of, like Jerry Seinfeld, identify in this way – it’s a valuable and important step in building a greater tolerance for autism,’ says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Advocacy Network (and autistic person).

John Elder Robison, bestselling author of a series of autobiographical books on Asperger’s Syndrome, including Look me in the Eye, agrees. He also defends Seinfeld’s much-criticised ‘self-diagnosis’, pointing out that most adults on the spectrum start out by recognising something in themselves that might explain how they experience the world, and asking ‘might I be autistic?’

Some of the reactions against Seinfeld’s diagnosis mirror the myths about what the autistic spectrum looks like. But he has friends! He looks people in the eye! He’s a performer! He has a sense of humour!

Autism is not about what a person looks like on the outside; it’s about how they process the world inside their heads. Sometimes that’s obvious to onlookers, sometimes it’s not. There are many things people on the spectrum can learn, but don’t do instinctively. Like looking people in the eye, taking turns in conversation and other social skills that neurotypicals (non-autistics) take for granted.

Given that many autistic people must learn to perform as ordinary-seeming humans in order to ‘pass’ in everyday life, it’s not surprising that some of them transfer this to a career. The autism professionals I know have privately confirmed that actors on the spectrum are not uncommon. It’s the same with writers (and directors). Experiencing the world you inhabit as an outsider and having to constantly decode everyday social interactions to make sense of them is a solid grounding for transforming observation into art.

The idea that autistic people don’t have a sense of humour is a myth; like many autism myths (including that of no empathy), it’s now accepted that the difference is that the triggers for humour and the sense of what’s appropriate in different contexts may be different in someone with autism. But autistic people often have a very keen sense of humour; international expert Tony Atwood says that ‘many have a unique or alternative perspective on life that can be the basis of comments that are perceptive and clearly humorous’.

Creative endeavours that involve highlighting the absurdities, contradictions or hidden patterns of everyday interaction – like observational comedy – are especially suited to some people on the autism spectrum. Tony Attwood says that someone with Asperger’s Syndrome ‘is trying to understand our social customs in much the same way as an anthropologist who has discovered a new tribe will want to study its people and customs.’

Autistic advocate Temple Grandin says that autistic people are like dogs; we tend to sniff each other out. I first wondered if Seinfeld might be on the spectrum (then dismissed it as my habitual over-analysing) when I read a 2012 New York Times profile that described his approach to creating comedy. It was obsessive, highly detail-oriented and routine-driven. He described needing physical and mental space to step into his comedic persona (or, ‘costume’) before he steps on stage, likening it to Clark Kent transforming into Superman. When he scored his first appearance on Johnny Carson in 1981, he practised his five-minute set 200 times beforehand.

Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. ‘It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,’ he says. ‘I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.’

It’s hard to come out as being on the spectrum. I know: I’ve done it. I did it because I wrote a memoir about my son’s diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome and coming to accept it as a difference rather than a disability; learning to let it inform our lives but not define them. I quickly realised that I couldn’t ‘out’ him without publicly owning my own identity on the autistic spectrum. And it’s lonely out here.

While critics perpetuate the myth of the ‘trendy diagnosis’ that people clamour for to make themselves feel special, I observe the opposite. I don’t know anyone who has identified as autistic without their child being diagnosed, though I’ve had many people confess to me they might be, only to just as quickly dismiss the idea.

Labels can be restricting. It’s challenging and vulnerable to own a label that admits the public self you present is consciously crafted, that social situations make you anxious, that you lack an instinct for understanding your peers. It opens you up to being judged and criticised as less than genuine, as defective in important ways – though it can also be a path to self-understanding … and ultimately, self-acceptance.

I can’t see what Jerry Seinfeld, possibly the world’s most famous comedian, has to gain in terms of profile, career or monetary reward by identifying as on the autism spectrum. And as a smart man who is obsessive about research and getting things right, I imagine he’s done his homework and come to his conclusions based on that.

On Tuesday, the same day I talked over breakfast about Seinfeld’s declaration, my son told his friend – casually, in the course of conversation – that he’s Asperger’s. It’s the first time in three years of high school that he’s said as much to his peers.

The negative reaction to Seinfeld’s self-outing makes it less likely that other high-profile figures on the autistic spectrum will do the same thing. But the fact that he spoke up at all makes it that little bit easier for the rest of us to own our difference. And for that, I’m grateful.


Jo Case is the author of Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s (Hardie Grant).

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As traditional jobs like those in the manufacturing sector decline, new kinds of jobs are on the rise. We hear from Charles Brass, chair of the Futures Foundation, about the future of jobs – and work – in Australia, in the age of the ‘electronic revolution’. He says that responsibility for creating work and staying employed has shifted from the employer to the individual – and this affects the way we think about jobs and careers.

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Image by Lending Memo.

The phrase futurist has been around for 40 or 50 years, but not in Australia. Essentially, it’s arisen as people have started asking themselves questions about what has happened as the future has arrived and they’ve been surprised or angered or in some way disturbed about it. In this country for the last ten years, you’ve been able to go to Swinburne University and get a masters degree in what’s called strategic foresight, which is an attempt to try and systematise that approach to attempt to understanding the future.

The electronic revolution

Australian futurist business consultant Phil Riven talks about there being three great revolutions. All of these revolutions have changed the way jobs and work arise, because what we’ve done as human beings is to outsourced things we once did for ourselves. In the agrarian revolution, 10,000 years ago, we outsourced the growing of things. In the industrial revolution, we outsourced the making of things. And in the current electronic revolution, we’re outsourcing the doing of things. Riven’s idea is that there is still a whole raft of human activity that we do for ourselves and this is capable of being outsourced. While that’s capable of being outsourced, it’s possible for the economy to continue to expand and grow. He sees that as a good outcome.

I wonder where that stops. It’s not only that human beings are capable of outsourcing all this stuff; we’re capable of outsourcing it to non-human-beings. We now have the capacity to get technology to do a whole lot of this stuff that we once did for ourselves. That’s fine, in theory, but it does raise the question: what are people going to do? And then how are people going to gather together the money necessary to participate in the economy? That I think is the big challenge.

‘It’s now your responsibility to find the work you need’

When I entered the job market, boys decided in about Year 9 whether they’d work with their hands or their brains – and then they got themselves into either a trade or a profession. It was up to their trade or profession, or their employer, to provide them with a job. When I first started work in the 1960s, if you worked for Myer, it was Myer’s responsibility to keep you busy between nine and five, Monday to Friday. Now if there’s no work at Myer, they send you home – they don’t pay you. So the responsibility has shifted, from being the employer’s responsibility to provide you with a job. It’s now your responsibility to find the work that you need. That’s the real shift that we have to get through people’s heads.

Whatever you’re doing: whether it’s in education, whether you’re at school or in a university, you are acquiring a set of skills, but the real question is, how are you approaching the world? Because it’s now your responsibility, for better or worse: it’s up to you, not up to your employer or your profession.

See the whole of your life as a tapestry you’re creating'

The concept of making your future work is about seeing the whole of your life as a tapestry you’re creating. Once upon a time, that thing called a job was created for you by someone else and you went to it. The theory was, you got enough money to go and make the rest of your life work. Now, you’re responsible for all of it, and that’s where this gets tricky.

So much of the discussion seems to be that there’s some sort of inevitability about what’s happening and we’re stuck with it. The impression is that there is some sort of uncertainty about the future of jobs. And that may be true – there are all sorts of changes taking place. But there’s absolutely no uncertainty about the future of work.

Bringing what we value into the economy

There has always been more to be done than we have people capable of doing it. You only have to look around your environment, look around your neighbourhood, look around anywhere. There is stuff that needs doing that is not being done. Why is it not being done? Because a bunch of people have made a decision (either overtly or covertly) about what fits into the economy.

The stuff that fits into the economy gets done because it has money associated with it, and all the other things that go with it, and the stuff that doesn’t get done is somehow outside the economic system. The greenie in residence is a perfect example of a role that, 10 or 15 years ago, was outside the economy. It didn’t exist there; we’ve brought it into the economy. There are now greenies in residence. It is a matter of choice. The question we need to be asking is: what do we want done, and how do we go about getting it done? Rather than having this view that there’s some sort of machine out there that’s driving us in a particular direction – and that the best we can do is cling on for dear life and hope it provides us with a sustainable future.

Worker-owned enterprises are one other way of operating. There are all sorts of things that can be done and billed locally. But that’s not the way we’re being encouraged to think at the moment. We’re being encouraged to believe that we are single individuals having to face an increasingly hostile world on our own. Those who are struggling to make a living through a bit of part-time work feel like they have to focus on that so they have no time to focus on anything else.

What do we need to do to shift our thinking away from the idea that we’re all rapacious individuals who only survive by doing what is best for us individually?


This is an edited selected transcript from the Wheeler Centre event, Question time: Jobs of the Future.

In our Question time series, audience members ask questions of the experts, guided by ABC TV’s Madeleine Morris. Join us for our next Question time event, Question time: Transport, on Wednesday 19 November.

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Amy Middleton is the editor of Archer Magazine, the Australian journal of sexual diversity. She has written and edited for a host of magazines, including Australian Geographic, Rolling Stone, Meanjin, The Big Issue and The Bulletin. Amy is also a presenter on 3CR community radio.

We spoke to Amy about talking sex in the Archer office, building up the confidence/arrogance to start her own publication, and why human interaction is the best way to get anywhere.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

My writing was first published when I was about eight years old in The Moopaper Weekly, the newspaper I distributed to my soft toys. The articles were mostly reportage on the royal teddies, as well as a marketing campaign to convince my parents I needed a pet ferret.

My first published piece distributed to the wider public appeared in The Bulletin, ACP’s news and current affairs mag that was sadly axed about six months after I started there (nothing to do with me, I’ll have you know). I really branched out here – I wrote about Silverchair for The Bulletin’s website, and the South Sydney Rabbitohs for the print edition.

What’s the best part of your job?

The conversations we have in the Archer office make me feel very proud to be doing what I’m doing. We discuss common names for sexual positions; whether cock-and-ball play has hyphens or not, etc. They’re important editorial considerations when publishing a mag about sexuality, but sometimes I’m glad we aren’t in a traditional office environment …

What’s the worst part of your job?

Having to think about GST all the time. I’m still pretty confused about what that is.

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

Definitely launching Archer. I think I’ve always had a publication in me – lots of journalists do – but it took a long time to build up the confidence (or, as one of my designers calls it, a healthy amount of arrogance) to give it a go. It’s indescribably rewarding to look at the finished product.

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

The worst writing advice I ever received was from the mother of one of my mates when I was about ten, who told me I couldn’t be a writer because I didn’t read widely and constantly. (Instead of reading, I was having life experiences and writing about them. Go figure.)

Some great editing advice I received was from my editor at Australian Geographic, who told me you can never make a piece of writing too easy to understand.

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

That I ‘should have been more conservative’ with the cover of Archer’s second edition. (The cover depicts two 18-year-old boys sitting on a couch, looking into the camera with tender expressions. Warning: they may or may not be gay or bisexual; they may or may not have had sex, or thought about sex … very racy stuff.)

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

I’ve always thought I could write great pop songs. Or is that still working with words?

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

I reckon there are definitely skills that can help you hone your craft. I studied creative writing at university and it was an inspiring and productive time … but I was also drinking a lot and forging friendships during those years. Socialising, travel, being in the world – these are important teachings for a writer, too. As with anything, you can pick up some very insightful tips from the greats. I say take the ones that work for you, and leave the rest.

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

Go talk to people you admire (or email them if you’re scared), and be completely yourself. I’ve always found human interaction is the best way to get anywhere. (Twitter and YouTube celebrities might disagree with that.)

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

Both. I prefer to own tangible copies of my favourite books, because I like to underline the best bits and write the page numbers in the front cover for reference. But I did read 1984 online years ago, while I held down a really boring office job in London.

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

The kids from Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs. What a family. I’d like to give them some food and hear them chat to each other – they had adorable and odd dynamics, and I’d love to see them in action.

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

The works of J. D. Salinger outside of Catcher in the Rye … the stories of the Glass family, and Franny and Zooey, in particular. He wrote pretty unrealistic stories about a bunch of precocious kids and the various hardships they encountered in mid-twentieth-century America. He abandoned traditional form (this was my introduction to the novella, and the fact that you don’t have to write books the way everyone else does) and indulged in a series of stories about characters he loved, because he loved them.

This concept spoke to me pretty deeply. It gave me a sense of freedom in my own work, and it emphasised that you should publish what you LIKE, because someone else is probably going to like it, too – a theory I put into practice with Archer Magazine.


The Queer Writing Unconference is co-presented by Archer Magazine and the Emerging Writers’ Festival. In three separate sessions, they’ll explore the past, present and future of queer writing and representation. Join us at the Wheeler Centre 1pm-4.30pm, Friday 28 November. Tickets $15.

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highlightAs traditional jobs like those in the manufacturing sector decline, new kinds of jobs are on the rise. We hear from Matt Wicking, greenie in residence at Arts House (and an experienced sustainability consultant) about what his job entails, what his pathway was, what jobs of the future might look like … and how industry and universities can help young people be ready for jobs that haven’t been created yet.

I quite like being able to tell people I’m a greenie in residence. It’s one of the hats that I wear. But each of the hats that I wear didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago. In my role, I’m the consultant trying to bring the future into the room or the organisation; that’s what I see a sustainability role as. It’s helping an organisation to look long-term. In economies like ours, where we have short-term reporting to shareholders and short-term profit goals and short-term strategic plans, that’s an increasingly important role.

I found my way into it after I was looking for something that would attach my passions to my job. That’s something people are increasingly looking for. And something that had broader meaning to it, that wasn’t just a paycheque. That’s really important to me.

My job is firstly about ideas, but I work with people who are in all sorts of industries. I’m working with people who run fertiliser companies, people who are artists creating things out there in the world, engineers – you name it.

People in my sector often joke about our role being basically to put ourselves out of a job. Ideally, you wouldn’t need a greenie in residence, because everyone’s doing this stuff. You wouldn’t need a sustainability consultant or a futurist, because this is part of what we do, or how we do what we do.

I thought I was just a young guy who didn’t know what I wanted to do, but it turned out my job hadn’t been created yet. I did a psychology degree and a commerce degree, and I’ve since done a masters in environmental studies. I was at university for six years before I got to the point of realising that there was this emerging, burgeoning space called environmental studies. It’s actually a really broad field and it incorporated the other stuff that I’d studied.

How do you prepare for jobs that haven’t been created yet? That question goes for orgnaisations, as well as universities. How do they function in a way that prepares for the future when we don’t know what that’s going to be? I think we’re always operating in uncertainty; it’s just about whether we acknowledge it or not. If you’re acknowledging it, that’s a first step. There are tools that we could be equipping people with at university that would stand them in good stead for any sort of future.

Good futures thinking is not about predicting the future, but thinking about what possible futures exist and how you might prepare for that. Skills like systems thinking, critical thinking, reflective thinking.

Systems thinking is about understanding the thing you’re doing in any moment and how that relates to the broader context. Most of us function in our day-to-day lives as if the human population is not destroying the biosphere at a rapid and increasing rate. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not sustainable on any measure and it’s problematic. Systems thinking would mean that you’d reflect on that and bring it into your practice. And it’s a continuing, ongoing process. Thinking across or between disciplines, not in silos, is another way of approaching an uncertain future. Working with others, collaborating, not doing it yourself.

My experience of uni was that we didn’t get a good understanding across disciplines, for example. I did a whole commerce degree and no one mentioned the word ‘ethics’ even once. You could do it: it was just an elective; it was optional. Same with doing a psychology degree, studying behavioural science but not being taught about what this thing called science actually is. That’s stepping back and looking at the thing you’re doing and what you’re going to do in the world and what impact it might have. I didn’t see that happening out there in the university when I did it, 10 or 15 years ago.


This is an edited selected transcript from the Wheeler Centre event, Question time: Jobs of the Future.

In our Question time series, audience members ask questions of the experts, guided by ABC TV’s Madeleine Morris. Join us for our next Question time event, Question time: Transport, on Wednesday 19 November.

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Cinema screens are full of sequels these days – and while some, like the upcoming Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part One) are much-anticipated, others are … well, not so welcome. Remember American Psycho II: All American Girl? Lost Boys: The Tribe? Well, neither do we.

But an LA exhibition, Sequel, has imagined the artwork for 40 films we’d actually want to watch a sequel to.

The art is stunning … but perhaps the best part is that the end result stays in our imaginations. (After all, it’s possible that lots of people looked forward to the Saturday Night Fever sequel until Sylvester Stallone wrote and directed Staying Alive.)

Here’s a sample of the best literary-themed works. You can visit Flavorwire for more.

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Artist, Ruben Ireland: Labyrinth 2.

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Artist, Cory Schmitz, Blade Runner 2054.

72dpi_andy_fairhurst-willy_wonka__the_great_glass_elevator

Artist, Andy Fairhurt: Willy Wonka and the Great Glass Elevator.

72dpi_kaz-oomori-fight_club_2

Artist, Kaz Oomori: Fight Club 2

72dpi_andrew_bannecker-sleepy_hollow_2

Artist, Andrew Bannecker: Sleepy Hollow 2.

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10 November 2014

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