Works of ART: on creativity, infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technology

Reproduced from The Wheeler Centre, with permission.

IVF has a tense relationship with religion, a murky relationship with commerce and a confusing relationship with feminism. Thousands of Australian women undergo IVF each year so why, asks Angela Savage, is IVF a subject that is rarely broached in art?

PIC_HH_Control yourself

Control yourself (even if you feel dead inside, hurt and barren) by Heidi Holmes. From the exhibition Control yourself at Kings Artist-Run. — Photo: documentor.com.au

In a gallery overlooking Melbourne’s King Street, artist Heidi Holmes has decorated the upper half of the walls with 20,000 pressed hydrangeas. She’s painted the lower half in a shade called Silver Smoke. From a distance, the blossoms rise like a cloud of butterflies, but up close you can see that each flower has been nailed in place, the nails sticking out like pins. In one corner sits a glass vase containing another 20,000 pressed hydrangeas, a potpourri scented with baby powder. The whole room smells of it. For all the work’s apparent prettiness, there’s a disturbing sense of decay. ‘It’s like a torture chamber I’ve made myself,’ Holmes says.

The artwork, entitled Control yourself (even if you feel dead inside, hurt and barren), explores Holmes’s ongoing experience of what she calls ‘baby-making, failing fertility and the resulting process of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).’ It took a year for her to press all the flowers, and 150 hours to install the work with the help of her husband. Time-consuming, labour-intensive, collaborative and ephemeral, the work poignantly reflects Holmes’s IVF experience.

‘There’s all this effort of work and labour that has no end, because there’s still no baby. Just this grief and loneliness.’

Cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle by Heidi Holmes from the exhibition I am woman hear my roar while I push out this Science Baby. — Photo: Christo Crocker

Cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle by Heidi Holmes from the exhibition I am woman hear my roar while I push out this Science Baby. — Photo: Christo Crocker

Control yourself is Holmes’s second work to explore her IVF experience. In her 2015 piece, I am woman, hear me roar as I push out this Science Baby, she transformed a decommissioned transvaginal ultrasound machine – ‘old, like me,’ says the 39-year-old – into a water feature, installing it in a pond liner and surrounding it with water-plants. Holmes laced the water with the same ovary stimulating hormone she was injecting into herself at the time. The plants withered.

Read the rest of the article here.

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Melbourne Writers Festival 2016

mwf---gleam-imageThe Melbourne Writers Festival 2016 Program is live and I am thrilled to be chairing several sessions at this year’s festival.

In the main festival program, I have the great (and terrifying) honour of interviewing my friend Christos Tsiolkas and Tony Ayres about Barracuda, highly acclaimed both as a novel and a TV series.

Later that afternoon, I’m delighted to be chairing a talented panel of authors — three debut novelists, Rajith Savanadasa, Cath Ferla and Briohny Doyle, plus novelist and poet Lawrence Lacambra Ypil — on Asia-Pacific narratives, a topic close to my heart. Details of these sessions are below.

I’m also be chairing two sessions as part of the schools program. Stay tuned…

Barracuda: From page to screen
Sat Sept 3, 1.00PM, Deakin Edge, Federation Square

From the makers of The Slap comes Barracuda, an affecting new TV series based on Christos Tsiolkas’s novel. Tsiolkas and producer Tony Ayres talk through the process of taking the story from page to screen, as well as discussing its themes of failure, class and adolescence. With Angela Savage. Tickets here.

Asia-Pacific Narratives
Sat 3 Sept, 5.30PM, ACMI, The Cube
What does it mean to live in the Asia-Pacific in a literary context? Join Briohny Doyle, Cath Ferla, Rajith Savanadasa and Lawrence Lacambra Ypil as they discuss how connections between Asia and Australia have influenced their narratives and writing voices. With Angela Savage. Tickets here.

The full festival program can be downloaded here.

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EWF: What right do I have?

Roj Amedi, Michelle Law & Wendy Chen, EWF

Roj Amedi, Michelle Law & Wendy Chen, EWF

Being a writer means leaving the fields we know, and transcending direct personal experience to tell a story. But what if the realms beyond these fields are already populated? What are the boundaries when writing about experiences that are not your own? This week I attended another Emerging Writers Festival panel to hear Roj Amedi, Michelle Law and Wendy Chen discuss the reponsibilities of writers who represent others, and ways to do so more mindfully. As someone who writes characters from diverse range of cultural backgrounds, I was eager to learn from this session and I was not disappointed. While not doing justice to the wide-ranging discussion, I wanted to capture in this post some of the points I found most helpful.

One of the panel’s messages was that there’s no ‘right answer’ when it comes to writing across cultural boundaries. While, as Roj pointed out, this is not licence for toxic language or ill thought out ideas, it is important for writers to take risks and, if called out, to reflect and learn from it. ‘Bite the bullet, be brave, it’s okay to be wrong,’ as Michelle put it.

The panelists talked about using fear as a force for ‘good’ in writing. ‘Fear can be powerful,’ Wendy said, ‘because it reminds you to listen to others.’ She quoted Chinese-American writer Gene Luen Yang:

This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities. After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage readers to do the same.

(I loved this quote so much I chased Wendy after the session to make sure I got it right!). Wendy added that there’s a difference between fear of being criticised and fear of hurting others. She said, ‘the latter can be useful because you’re recognising the power of fiction, and if you recognise that, then you are also aware of how meaningful it is when people do see themselves represented.’ On the other hand, fear of criticism ‘is counterproductive because you’ll always be criticised.’

All three panelists emphasised the importance of meticulous research in developing a nuanced understanding of cultures that are not the writer’s own. They also suggested finding respectful sparring partners — on Twitter or IRL (in real life) — people who don’t share your ideas and force you to justify your own beliefs. As in actual sparring, Roj said, the aim is to build trust: ‘you’re not supposed to get bruised!’ Building networks among the people you aim to represent is also important, though you need to acknowledge their ’emotional labour’ as cultural informants.

Another take-home message — something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately — is the importance of humbling yourself, recognising that the dominant view is a ‘clouded lens’ that can obscure the lived reality of experiences outside our own. For those of us fortunate to appear on panels from time to time, this means sometimes passing the microphone  to someone better qualified to speak on the topic at hand.

Wendy reminded us that ‘there’s a huge range of experiences within one community and/or identity’. Roj noted that ‘tokenism can be a problem if you’re writing from a politically removed position. If you can imagine a person of that [character’s] background cringing when they read, it’s probably tokenism.’ Michelle said, ‘I don’t like tokenism, but I think it’s better than nothing because it starts a conversation.’ All the same, she urged us to ‘write well-rounded characters, not foils.’

Thanks to Roj, Michelle and Wendy for a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion. I hope you won’t mind it if you find yourselves being quoted in my PhD…

 

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EWF: Characters Behaving Badly

What’s the value of having characters who behave badly? What techniques can you use in creating badly behaved characters? And can you go too far writing badly behaved characters in YA (Young Adult) fiction?

EWF_1These were some of the questions considered at last week’s Emerging Writers Festival Lunchtime Lit: Characters Behaving Badly, featuring YA authors Gabrielle (Gab) Williams (The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex), Nicole Hayes (One True Thing) and Amie Kaufman (Illuminae).

Apart from the general consensus that badly behaved characters are the most fun to write, Amie suggested, ‘It’s not a good story if nothing bad happens.’ She said stories need to be ‘seasoned’ with bad behaviour, poor decision making and bad judgment calls. Similarly, Nicole suggested that ‘all interesting characters start with deliberate or unconscious deception’. Drama comes from the reader seeing what the character cannot.

One of the most interesting part of the panel discussion for me concerned the how bad behaviour functions specifically in YA literature. Amie said ‘stories are a place we can go to rehearse our fears’, to experience intense grief or danger, for example, as ‘practice for real life’. This is particularly relevant for younger, less experienced readers. Amie referred to reading a good book as ‘downloading life experience’. Nicole added that literature can help readers ‘test a few propositions’, while Gab said for young people, books help ‘develop their gut instincts.’

From a technical point of view, how do writers avoid creating characters who are, to use the cyberslang, TSTL (too stupid to live)? Gab said she loves her characters, which makes readers care for them. She likes to throw in an ‘opposite something’ – an unexpected act of kindness, for example – to show they are ‘not all bad’. Nicole, citing her screenwriting experience, added that badly behaved characters need ‘moments of humanity that we can connect with’, often revealed through their relationships. For Amie, the escalation of bad behaviour can be used to expose the failure of those who should be looking after the kids in her stories.

On the question of whether it’s possible to take bad behaviour too far in YA fiction, Nicole suggested that young readers process information on the level that they’re capable of. She illustrated this with a very funny anecdote about childish love for Oz rock band Skyhooks and their song You Just Like Me ‘Cause I’m Good In Bed, which she thought was about kids who went to bed on time and fell asleep without making a fuss! At the same time, the panelists felt a responsibility not to avoid certain issues so much as to contextualise them, especially in terms of addressing the fall out of bad behaviour.

‘Stories are always more interesting if there are consequences,’ Nicole said, adding that it takes craft to avoid alienating readers by preaching. As Gab noted, writers need to keep the story firmly focused on the characters’ perspectives.

During the audience Q&A, a question came up about why it is that parents are often dead or absent in YA fiction. Amie noted that having the parents physically or emotionally absent requires the kids to step up in terms of agency. It can also be a way of scaling up bad behaviour. ‘Poor decisions come from lack of life experience,’ she said. ‘If parents are supportive [of their children], this is another way kids can download life experience.’ But if the parents are absent, there’s no safety net.

The icing on the cake of a terrific panel was for me hearing the panelists recommend great books by other local YA writers, as well as other great books about characters behaving badly in general. The three tweeted their recommendations after the session, which can be found here.

Kudos to Amie Kaufman for excelling at the tricky balance moderating and participating, and thanks to all three speakers for a thoroughly enjoyable discussion. Looking forward to this week’s Lunchtime Lit: What Right Do I Have?

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Launching Dead Men Don’t Order Flake

Dead Men Don't Order FlakeIf there was a prize for best book title of the year, Dead Men Don’t Order Flake by Sue Williams would surely be the runaway winner.

It’s my great pleasure to be officially launching Dead Men Don’t Order Flake at 7pm on Tues 7 June at Readings in Hawthorn. In fact, I plan for this post to go live just as I deliver my launch speech (below), which will be followed by Q&A with Sue. Among other things, we’ll be discussing which of the rules for writing cosy crime novels she respects in Dead Men Don’t Order Flake, and which she bends — or indeed, breaks.

Dead Men Don’t Order Flake is the sequel to Sue’s debut novel, Murder with the Lot, which introduced readers to Cass Tuplin, owner-operator of the best (and indeed only) takeaway in the not-very-fictional town of Rusty Bore in Victoria’s Mallee region. Cass is in her mid-forties, a widowed mother of two adult sons: Dean, the local police constable; and Brad, a uni student and environmentalist. Cass is also an amateur private investigator albeit, as Dean likes to remind her, an unlicensed one.

Murder with the Lot was shortlisted for the 2013 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book, and if Sue suffered at all from difficult second novel syndrome, it certainly doesn’t show.

Dead Men Don’t Order Flake finds Cass dealing with the return of her old flame, Leo Stone, believed to have died some twenty years earlier, as well as an actual dead person, local journalist Natalie Kellett. Natalie’s father Gary believes the car crash that killed his daughter was no accident, which ultimately puts Cass on a collision course with the chief investigating office in the case, her son, Dean. She’s also fending off the advances of the one-armed Vern – a self-described ‘decent, unattached, asset-rich fella’ – whose general store, alongside Cass’s takeaway, comprises Rusty Bore’s CBD. Meanwhile, Brad’s environmental activism sees him in serious trouble. And speaking of the environment, what was really behind the shelving of plans to build a community solar farm in Rusty Bore? Was Leo’s cousin, Showbag, genuinely convinced that his goats would suffer solar sickness-related headaches if the scheme went ahead?

Dead Men Don’t Order Flake combines a cast of colourful characters – I haven’t even mentioned Madison and her ferrets – and vivid setting, with a pacy plot and laugh out loud humour. As the reviewer at The Saturday Paper says, “one of the novel’s strengths is its affectionate, tongue-in-cheek treatment of its own genre and its distinctly local spin on cosy camp”. Craig Kirchner at Abbey’s Bookseller calls the novel ‘enormously enjoyable… Quintessentially Australian without being overcooked.’ And in my own search for food-related puns, I’d call Dead Men Don’t Order Flake fresh, crisp and the crime fiction equivalent of the perfect comfort food.

Sue Williams has a PhD in marine biology and has worked as a science writer and chartered accountant. She lives in Melbourne with her husband. Dead Men Don’t Order Flake, is out now (Text Publishing).

See books that changed me to read about Sue’s eclectic literary influences.

 

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Crime Scenes review

The following review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Sat 14 May 2016 under the heading, Crime Scenes review: A collection of gems from criminally good writers.
Crime Scenes

ED., ZANE LOVITT

SPINELESS WONDERS, $27.99

Crime Scenes is a rich and varied volume of short Australian crime fiction. It opens with Amanda O’Callaghan’s The Turn, a sharp little tale narrated by a former “angel of death” killer, now a cabbie intent on tying up loose ends. Peter Corris’ Three-Pan Creek Gift offers a hard-boiled snippet of his most famous creation, Cliff Hardy, acting as bodyguard for a sprinter, the favourite in a country footrace. (Is his charge actually under threat, or has Cliff been unwittingly drawn into a scam?) With The Teardrop Tattoos, Angela Savage follows a female ex-con out for revenge when a local mother reports her pit bull to the council, while Carmel Bird’s The Good Butler invokes the final fantasies of a terminal cancer patient. Judiciously compiled by Zane Lovitt, this collection is full of compressed gems from notable authors.

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Katherine Brabon wins the 2016 Vogel Award

Memory ArtistEarlier this week, Katherine (Kate) Brabon was announced as winner of the 2016 Vogel Literary Award for her unpublished novel, The Memory Artist.

The way the award is organised meant that less than 24 hours later, Kate became a published author: The Memory Artist, released by Allen & Unwin, was available in bookshops the day after the announcement.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

Pasha Ivanov is a child of the Freeze, born in Moscow during Brezhnev’s repressive rule over the Soviet Union. As a small child, Pasha sat at the kitchen table night after night as his parents and their friends gathered to preserve the memory of terrifying Stalinist violence, and to expose the continued harassment of dissidents.

When Gorbachev promises glasnost, openness, Pasha, an eager twenty-four year old, longs to create art and to carry on the work of those who came before him. He writes; falls in love. Yet that hope, too, fragments and by 1999 Pasha lives a solitary life in St Petersburg. Until a phone call in the middle of the night acts as a summons both to Moscow and to memory.

Through recollections and observation, Pasha walks through the landscapes of history, from concrete tower suburbs, to a summerhouse during Russia’s white night summers, to haunting former prison camps in the Arctic north. Pasha’s search to find meaning leads him to assemble a fractured story of Russia’s traumatic past.

Kate’s background is in Russian history — she has a Masters degree from Oxford. Of her decision to write fiction, she says in a recent interview, “It was this really overwhelmingly sad story but I could only say so much in a history essay and so somehow I started writing this novel.” In another interview, she explains, “I wanted a way to represent something that has not happened to me but that affects me in its horror. For my [Masters] dissertation I read oral interviews with people who lived under Stalin’s rule, and I read a lot about the dissidents in the 1960s to early 1990s who fought so hard for truth, information, memory.”

Study buddies: Jen Anderson, Rosey Chang, Kate Brabon and me

Study buddies: Jen Anderson, Rosey Chang, Kate Brabon and me

Kate’s win was especially close to my heart, as we are part of a reading group (we prefer the term ‘study buddies’) at Monash University, where we are all enrolled as PhD students in Creative Writing. Kate started her PhD six months before the rest of us and has been a gracious and generous trailblazer, not to mention an exemplary student. Having some sense of the hard work and care that Kate has put into The Memory Artist, I couldn’t be more thrilled about her win.

It is exciting to see an Australian literary award given to a novel set outside Australia and without a single Australian character. As Kate says, “Australian literature doesn’t have to be set in Australia. There’s a lot in here [the novel] that echoes important considerations for everyone, about the value of art in particular.”

The Vogel Award is Australia’s most prestigious and lucrative literary award for an unpublished manuscript, eligible for writers under 35. The award has launched the literary careers of Kate Grenville, Tim Winton, Gillian Mears and Andrew McGahan, among others.

I trust that Katherine Brabon’s name will one day be listed as among the luminaries whose writing careers were launched by the Vogel Award.

You can listen to Kate talk about The Memory Artist here.

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