Newcastle Writers Festival 2014

‘The days go by so fast,’ my eight-year-old said tonight as we observed a Blood Moon over Melbourne. ‘The nights, too,’ she added sagely. I know she’s got a point when I glance at my blog and wonder if it’s really ten days since my last post. Ah, so many words to write, so little time.

Since my last post, I attended the Newcastle Writers Festival from 4-6 April. Run entirely by volunteers, including Director Rosemarie Milson, the festival was exciting, inspiring well organised and hospitable, with excellent chairing and great venues.

NWF 2014

Me and Garry Disher with two-thirds of Newcastle’s crime writing community (L-R), Wendy James and Jaye Ford.

At the opening night event, Rosemarie described Newcastle as a city whose ‘narrative is evolving’. This was echoed by Wendy Harmer, who gave the keynote address and said that ‘the town’s desire to share passion builds social capital.’ (Wendy went on to mount a hilarious defence of ‘chick lit’ and ‘hen lit’, asking, ‘Why isn’t dick lit a genre?’)

Saturday morning I attended the panel, ‘Dangerous Ideas: Challenging the status quo’ with Russell Blackford, Clementine Ford. Antony Loewenstein, Philip Nitschke and Clare Wright, chaired by Jill Emberson. My tweets don’t do justice to the far ranging and fascinating discussion, but this is what I managed to get down:

Antony Loewenstein: On most issues, there are not two equal sides, though the media often portrays it as such.
Clare Wright: Women as instigators of change in history is a dangerous idea, because it challenges orthodoxy.
Philip Nitschke: It’s not a dangerous idea for people who are terminally ill to get help to die, but it is a dangerous idea to suggest every adult, regardless of their health, has the right to end their life in a manner of their choosing. Life may be a gift, but if you can’t give it away, it’s a burden.
Clementine Ford: ‘Nah, I don’t reckon’, or citing freedom of opinion, is not good enough as a response to hard evidence.

My first panel as a guest was, ‘It’s Complicated: Dissecting the hero in crime novels’, with Garry Disher and Adrian McKinty. The session was laid-back and enjoyable, thanks to Megan Buxton’s terrific chairing, and the fact that Garry, Adrian and I have all read and enjoyed each other’s work.

My second panel, ‘You Are Here: Writing about place’ was with local author Zeny Giles and travel writer Brendan Shanahan, chaired by novelist Courtney Collins, who kicked off with a quote from Eudora Welty in response to a question about whether place was her source of inspiration. Said Welty,

Not only that, it’s my source of knowledge. It tells me the important things. It steers me and keeps me going straight, because place is a definer and a confiner of what I’m doing. It helps me to identify, to recognize and explain. It does so much for you of itself. It saves me. 

I remember responding to the question of whether place ‘saved’ me by saying, in fact, it had ruined me. My fascination with Southeast Asia, a love affair that began with my first visit to Bangkok in 1985, has left me with a permanently divided heart. When I’m in Asia, I miss Melbourne. When in Melbourne, I miss Asia.

We talked of techniques for bringing places to life, including the delicate balancing act of using words from languages other than English. We discussed why some places take hold of the imagination more than others. Some of us even fessed up about writing about places we’ve never been to.

I kicked off Sunday’s festival program by attending the session, ‘Nowhere to Hide: The challenge of the short story’ with Maria Takolander, Ryan O’Neill and Abbas El-Zein, chaired by Hunter Writers Centre director Karen Crofts. The session was both helpful and inspiring: advice regarding the ‘stroke of difference’ needed to make a short story stand out was particularly salient and made me re-think the structure of the story I’m currently working on.

Plenty of time was allowed for audience questions, enabling me to ask about the importance of plot in short stories. Abbas El-Zein suggested ‘plot doesn’t come first’ in the short story, saying, ‘There is an intensity in short stories — of character, timeframe, place — which is very hard to achieve in novels’. However, Ryan O’Neill suggested ‘a short story without a plot is a sketch.’ He added: ‘Something has to happen, preferably something bad. Happy stories are not so interesting.’ (Read Ryan’s post about the session on The Short of It).

The other memorable moment for me in this session was O’Neill quoting Nabokov as saying, ‘My characters are galley slaves.’ Maria Takolander, who advocates putting characters in difficult situations to shock and unsettle the reader and who described herself as ‘not afraid of sensationalism and titillation’, added, ‘My characters are galley slaves — and I whip them.’

Following this I had the great pleasure of interviewing Garry Disher, my stablemate at Text Publishing (though I noted that he was the thoroughbred and me the Shetland pony!). As the author of nearly 50 works across a range of genres, Garry is a thoughtful and learned interview subject, as well as an inspiration. His latest novel, Bitter Wash Road, is simply stunning. It didn’t surprise me to see The Newcastle Herald describe this session as a festival drawcard.

I capped off a wonderful festival experience by seeing Courtney Collins interview Linda Jaivin about her new novel, The Empress Lover, which Jaivin describes as ‘a love letter to Beijing.’ And I caught the tail end of ‘Secrets and Lies: The art of the crime novel’ with Adrian McKinty and local crime writers Jaye Ford and Barry Maitland.

I left Newcastle happy and inspired, having made new friends and spent time catching up with old ones. It’s hard to believe Newcastle Writers Festival is only in its second year. I predict it will go from strength to strength. Like the city itself.


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Six degrees of separation: Burial Rites

I’m taking part in a new meme for writers and book bloggers based on Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy’s 1929 short story ‘Chains’ in which he coined the phrases ‘six degrees of separation’. Each month, WA writers/bloggers Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman choose a book and invite others to create their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book. Their inaugural choice is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Feel free to join in and post a link to your six degrees chain in the comments section.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites was one of my favourite reads of 2013. I read it during an unseasonably cold November in Melbourne, but I could not bring myself to complain about the weather — not when Agnes Magnúsdóttir was bedding down each night in a cottage in with fish skin for windowpanes and walls of turf, a place where ‘blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face.’

When I said something on social media about Burial Rites making me shiver, Amanda Curtin warned me that her novel, Elemental, was likely to do the same. So I read it during a heatwave in Melbourne in January and it sure did take my mind off the weather — but not just because it was set on the frigid coast of northeast Scotland where fish-gutting girls like Meggie Duthie could lose fingers due to the harsh conditions. Elemental was a book to savour, evoking reflection on big issues like remembering and the repression of memory, on fear, courage, love and forgiveness.

Elemental is a book I’ve become evangelical about, recommending it to everyone I know. I gave it to my mother, who said it had been a long time since a book had affected her so deeply. She even said Meggie Duthie Tulloch is up there with Anne Elliot from Persuasion as one of her favorite fictional heroines.

6 degrees Burial Rites collage Persuasion is one of those books I’ve always been meaning to read; 2014 might just be the year I read it. I try to get to one or two ‘classics’ each year. In 2013, I read an abridged version of The One Thousand and One Nights, which I was interested to see referenced by Michel Foucault in his 1979 (English translation) essay ‘What is an author?’ when he spoke of “writing’s relationship with death” — specifically in Scheherazade’s case, “the eluding of death”.

I’m reading Foucault because I’ve enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing. It’s more than 20 years since I was last at university, but back then I was reading Foucault, too: his History of Sexuality was a seminal (no pun intended) text for those of us enrolled in the Social History of Medicine, a subject that changed my life by leading to an interest in medical anthropology, which found me heading to Laos for six months, only to stay away more than six years…

Those years spent living and working in Southeast Asia continue to inspire my own fiction, and I read anything published in English by authors from Southeast Asia that I can get my hands on. My most recent find was Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing, a collection of seven stunning short stories set in Thailand.

Twenty-first century Thailand might seem a long way from nineteenth century Iceland, where this all began. But Burial Rites and Sightseeing have qualities in common: both describe inequalities and injustices without being didactic, both entertaining and absorbing books that also educate and enlighten.

Check out Annabel’s chain and Emma’s chain.


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Review: Beams Falling

9780670074525Beams Falling by PM Newton is a powerful book that explores trauma and its legacy in the guise of a police procedural.

The central character is Detective Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, the child of an Anglo-Australian veteran and his Vietnamese wife who were killed in front of their children, their murders unsolved. Ned first appeared in Newton’s award winning debut, The Old School, set in 1992, where her part in the investigation into bodies found on a Bankstown building site puts her on a collision course with ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) police corruption inquiries.

Beams Falling is best read as a sequel, rather than a standalone. It opens with Ned dealing with the consequences of having been shot at the end of the previous book, her wound ‘not yet a scar’. She is paranoid, hyper-alert, using whisky in a vain attempt to keep the nightmares at bay. Put on restricted duties, she finds herself transferred from Bankstown to Task Force Acorn, designed to investigate ‘Asian crime’. Ned has been deployed to boost the number of Asians on the team, her superiors oblivious to the fact that she doesn’t speak Vietnamese.

It’s 1993 and Sydney’s western suburb of Cabramatta, aka ‘Vietnamatta’, is the hub of the ‘Asian crime wave’ involving heroin, extortion, brothels and an army of disaffected teens caught between two cultures. Despite Acorn’s wide brief, all roads seem to lead to Cabra.

When a school boy is shot at point blank range in broad daylight, Ned becomes involved in investigating his death. But her reflexes are shot. She dives for cover and pisses herself during an assassination in a Cabra pool hall, and only the intervention of her colleague Joe Ng, seconded to Acorn from the Royal Hong Kong Police, enables her to escape with her dignity intact. But neither Joe nor her Bankstown buddy TC will stand by when Ned so clearly needs help. She is referred to a psychologist who puts her in group therapy to help her deal with the consequences of successive severe traumas and find a new normal.

Beams Falling is an atypical crime novel, absorbing, rather than fast-paced, as much a psychological study and slice of social history as it is a police procedural — all of which was part of its appeal for me.

While Ned’s trauma is at the centre of the novel, the book casts light on multiple other traumas, including those experienced by the Vietnamese who migrated to Australia in the 1970s: from the physical trauma of attacks at sea by pirates and the loss of loved ones to war and violence, to the psychological trauma of displacement and the loss of loved ones to other cultures and loyalties. Newton does this gently in the course of the story with evocative images and without preaching. The mother of the deceased at a funeral is described as ‘deboned by grief’. Refugee women are said to hear in breaking waves ‘the sound of lost husbands, children, honour, happiness, dignity.’

Comparisons with today’s asylum seekers are inevitable, the trauma of the refugee experience a constant in the midst of shifting geopolitics.

The NSW police force is depicted as a dysfunctional family, who ‘share nothing but secrets. Secrets that pressed behind the eyes like tumours.’ Everyone is flawed. Most are compromised, at times breathtakingly so.

Given the author’s 13 years on the Job, I don’t doubt the veracity of this depiction. But I am left wondering why Ned is so determined to remain a cop, when there is little light and virtually no humour to temper the unrelenting cynicism she encounters.

Beams Falling is intense, intelligent and provocative, the kind of novel that plays on my mind, long after the final page is turned.

Beams Falling by PM Newton (2014) is published by Penguin. This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Listen to my review of Beams Falling on Radio National Books and Arts Daily here.

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Culture Bites

This article first appeared in The Big Issue, No. 453, 7-20 March 2014 in ‘My Word’. Photos are the author’s own.
The author in 1976, before braces killed her prospects as a Lao beauty queen

The author in 1976, before braces killed her prospects as a Lao beauty queen

I was a fluoride baby. Before Melbourne’s water supply was fluoridated the 1970s, my pharmacist father was dosing me with little pink pills. Combined with twice-daily brushing, my teeth grew strong and white. And crooked.

My parents subsequently spent a small fortune on braces and I endured two years of pain and discomfort to be transformed from a snaggletoothed teenager into a young woman whose smile revealed perfectly straight, white teeth. Ergo, I was undeniably more attractive.

Or so I thought. My first doubts came when I was living in Laos in the early 1990s. One day I found a stack of postcards featuring portraits of the women crowned Miss Lao New Year in the country’s annual Nangsoukhane beauty pageant. The most recent winner had eyeteeth so prominent  they were impossible to miss. So had her predecessor, and also the previous year’s winner. A local friend explained that prominent eyeteeth in women—deemed by my Australian orthodontist an aberration to be ‘corrected’—was considered a sign of great beauty in Laos.

2008 Beauty pageant finalists in Vang Vieng, Laos

2008 Beauty pageant finalists in Vang Vieng, Laos

Sure enough, I remember asking a Lao man in a bar in the capital, Vientiane, why he kept hassling a young woman in our group who was clearly not interested in him. He sighed, ‘It’s her teeth.’

The woman in question had fangs to rival Count Dracula. To think, had it not been for braces, I, too, might have enjoyed such unwanted attentions in Laos. I consoled myself with the thought that at least my teeth, if unfashionably straight, were still attractively white in that part of the world, where so many people’s teeth went grey as a result of being overdosed with anti-malarial medication as children.

Wrong again. At a regional conference with young people from all over South East Asia, it was my grey-toothed Vietnamese colleague with whom the handsome boys flirted most ardently.

1908 postcard of a women from Tonkin (Hanoi) with blackened teeth

1908 postcard of a women from Tonkin (Hanoi) with blackened teeth

I’ve since learned it was once customary in parts of Southeast Asia for people to blacken their teeth. Anthropologists think teeth-darkening practices, such as lacquering and chewing betel nut probably had oral health benefits. But teeth-blackening was also associated with beauty, sophistication and a desire to distinguish oneself from dogs, demons and evil spirits.

New-Zeland born Caron Eastgate James captures this in her 1999 novel The Occidentals, set in 19th-century Siam: “No self-respecting Siamese…would allow his or her teeth to remain white. Some, particularly the wealthier women, used a black pigment to colour any spots that were not perfectly darkened, for—as the old Siamese saying went—’any dog can have white teeth.’”

While the smiles on the current crop of Thai celebrities suggest straight, white teeth are in, and foreign ‘dental tourists’ flock to Thailand to get their teeth whitened at clinics with names like Dental White and Beauty Smile, I can’t help wondering how long the trend will last. And I believe that, for some hilltribe peoples in the region, teeth-blackening has never gone out of fashion.

Yaeba smile

Yaeba smile

Speaking of fashion, I recently read in Hannah Kent’s 2013 debut novel, Burial Rites, set in 19th-century Iceland, that snaggletooth was once considered to be “evidence of the devil” along with harelips and birthmarks. I should have stopped there, out of respect for the orthodontics that spared me from an “outward hint of evil”. But, curious to learn more about snaggletooth, I started Googling (as you do), only to discover that snaggletooth is so popular in Japan, people get their straight teeth capped to look crooked, a procedure known as tsuke yaeba (attached snaggletooth). It seems that snaggletooth make the wearer look cute. The trend even gave rise to the formation in 2012 of the world’s first snaggletooth girl group, TYB48. Their debut CD was called Mind If I Bite?

I’m not making this up.

Turns out Japan is also a country where teeth-blackening was practiced up to the early 20th century.

I haven’t the heart to tell my parents they ruined my chances of ever competing in a Lao beauty pageant or joining a snaggletooth girl group in Japan. Or that I might have once been mistaken for a dog in old Siam. I do take comfort, however, in the thought that somewhere in the world at some point in history, my now straightish, whitish teeth with one recessed central incisor will be considered absolutely perfect.

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Review: Holiday in Cambodia

Holiday-in-Cambodia-260213I started this year with a plan for this blog. Each month, I was going to post, in sequence: an update on my writing, an article inspired by my reading, a review of someone else’s book, and a post about something cross-cultural. My best-laid scheme has ‘gang agley’ (‘gone awry’) to paraphrase Robert Burns, but with good reason. I keep reading books I feel compelled to share, the latest being Laura Jean McKay’s breathtaking short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia.

Holiday in Cambodia was not what I expected. Taking its title from a 1980 song by the Dead Kennedys, I assumed the  collection would focus on the foreign tourist experience – a kind of literary travelogue. But while tourists do feature in a couple of stories, these are a long way from travelogue. ‘Route Four’, in which three foolish backpackers take a train through Khmer Rouge held territory, can be read as a metaphor for the dangers of tourism for local people; while ‘Taxi’ is an ugly, if eerily intimate account of an Australian man’s encounter with a Cambodian ‘taxi girl’, so-called ‘because they’re for hire and you can ride them all night long’, as one of the characters puts it.

Of the remaining fifteen stories, seven are told from the point of view of Cambodians, eight from the perspective of expatriates. Many of these stories are so intimate, at times it felt almost voyeuristic to read them. But the combination of compelling characters and crisp prose proved irresistible.

The stories take place in different historical periods. In ‘Breakfast’, a worker in a Cambodian hotel gets her big break as a singer just as the 1969 American bombing campaign known as Operation Breakfast begins. In ‘Congratulations On Your Happy Day’,  the author manages to imagine the unimaginable in this story of forced marriages under the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s.

‘Holiday, I Love You’, told from the perspective of a garment factory worker, highlights — without a trace of didacticism — the dangers for unionists and labour organisers in present-day Phnom Penh. In ‘Tell Me Where To Run’, an impoverished young boy who sells books on the street is ineligible for subsidised education because of a focus that year on ‘vulnerable orphan girls’ by the international development agency. In ‘A Thousand Cobs of Corn’, a Cambodian mother — whose first child ‘is in ashes at the temple’ — reflects on her job clearing landmines. ‘Massage 8000′ acts as a counterpoint to ‘Taxi’, describing brothel life from the workers’ point of view as a young girl is sold off for the first time. All were among the stories that left the strongest impression on me.

Of the others, ‘Coming Up’ spoke to my experience as an expatriate in Southeast Asia, where you try so hard to be respectful only to have family members and friends stumble in with all their cultural insensitivities – and your local partners love them for it!

I didn’t expect Holiday in Cambodia to blow my mind. But it did.

Holiday in Cambodia by Laura Jean McKay (2013) is published by Black Inc. This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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Review: The Lost Girls

9781921901058With The Lost Girls, Wendy James has produced a cleverly plotted, eloquently written page-turner that shores up her status as Australia’s queen of the domestic thriller.

I wouldn’t normally associate the word ‘domestic’ with anything thrilling. But James has a special talent for depicting everyday suburban lives and adding unexpected but entirely plausible drama. The suspense is driven not only by the characters’ predicaments, but by the fear that something like this could happen to us or someone we love.

 The Lost Girls pivots on the murder of fourteen-year-old ‘looker’ Angela Buchanan at the northern Sydney suburban beach of Curl Curl in 1978. At the time of her death, Angie is staying with her cousins, twelve-year-old Jane Griffin and her older brother, Mick, both of whom worship Angie in their own ways. Angie’s death remains a complete mystery until another young girl is murdered under similar circumstances six month’s later in King’s Cross. The murders remain unsolved, the girls believed to be victims of a serial killer dubbed ‘the Sydney Strangler’.
While The Lost Girls takes Angie’s murder as its premise, its preoccupation is with the long-term consequences for Jane and Mick, and their parents, Barbara, a hairdresser, and Doug, a cop, as well as the family of the second victim, teenage street kid Kelly McIvor.

When the story opens in 2010, Jane is married to her childhood sweetheart, Rob Tait, and their daughter, Jess, is in her first year at TAFE. Jane is in the process of closing down the antiques warehouse she took over from her grandfather. Her father has dementia and is living in a hospice, her mother is ‘coping poorly’, and her brother Mick, suspended from the police force with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, has moved back in with their mother following his divorce.

Jane knows the challenges she faces are ‘just standard mid-life experiences, not actual crises.’ But this doesn’t prevent her from wondering,

Why do I feel as if I’ve been left stranded, breathless and gasping like a fish on the shore, the tide receding inexorably behind me?

Perhaps in search of an answer to this question, she agrees to be interviewed by Erin Fury, who introduces herself as a radio producer doing a documentary on murders and their aftermath.

Jane is not the only family member who agrees to Erin’s interviews. Mick, Barbara and even Rob take the hot seat, each in turn shedding new light on the case as they reflect on the circumstances of Angie’s death. Erin turns out to have something more than a professional interest in the story, an ‘almost unbearable wondering’ that propels her search for the truth.

As more secrets come to light, members of both families of the lost girls are forced to confront the legacy of the past and to distinguish this from the choices they have in the present.

The Lost Girls taps into the most primal of a parent’s fears: that they will outlive their child. Jane reflects on this in the course of the novel:

Having Jess — loving Jess — made me understand just what it meant to lose a child. I felt vulnerable, exposed and, some days, panic-stricken. I knew that children died — and I knew what happened to their parents.

Until she became a mother herself, Jane had never understood the scope of Angie’s loss from her parents’ perspective. ‘But now, I understood that my survival hinged on another’s in a way I’d never imagined.’

Jane’s decision not to have any more children is a ripple effect of a murder more that took place more than a decade later. It a subtle notion, underpinned by a deep understanding of human psychology — and typical of James’ skill for breathing life into her characters.

There’s a lot of crime fiction that requires suspension of disbelief. But reading The Lost Girls, you are more likely to be nodding your head than shaking it.

One minor quibble: I could’ve lived without the epilogue. But I don’t like Hollywood endings either, and I know I’m in a minority there. I’ll be curious to see what other readers think.

The Lost Girls by Wendy James (2013) is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin Books and released 26 Feb 2014. This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Listen to my review of The Lost Girls on Radio National Books and Arts Daily here.

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Alexander McCall Smith comes to Melbourne…

…and I get to interview him

Alexander_McCall_Smith_3_Size4Alexander McCall Smith is appearing at an event in Melbourne next month and I’m thrilled to bits to have been asked by The Wheeler Centre to interview him.

Alexander McCall Smith is one of the world’s most prolific and most popular authors, loved worldwide for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, featuring the no-nonsense Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s leading (and only) female detective, as well as the Sunday Philosophy ClubScotland Street and Corduroy Mansion series. His books have been translated into over 40 languages; the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series alone has sold over 20 million copies, and been made into an HBO TV show.

photoWe are especially fond of his children’s books in our household, featuring a nine-year-old Precious Ramotswe, monkeys, meerkats and in the most recent outing, a missing lion.

We’ll also be talking about his latest novel, a standalone called The Forever Girl.

I’ve been watching interviews with Alexander on YouTube in preparation and he comes across as entertaining, erudite and very witty. You are in for a treat if you can make it to the event on Thursday 13 March, 6.30-7.30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne. Click here for information and tickets.

If you can’t make it to the event, feel free to suggest questions for Alexander McCall Smith as a comment on this post. Best question (as judged by me on purely subjective grounds) wins a hardcopy edition of The Mystery of the Missing Lion.

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