My final session at the Melbourne Writers Festival 2010 was Detectives Without Borders, which saw Adrian Hyland and I talking with Joel Becker about working cross culturally and writing crime fiction, drawing on the rich material provided by culture clashes and cultural diversity.
Adrian and I are both published by Text. Our first books were released in 2006 — his Diamond Dove winning the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book over my Behind the Night Bazaar in 2007 — and our second books were both released this year. We have appeared on panels together before, and Adrian was on a panel I facilitated only last month at the Crime and Justice Festival. So we’re pretty relaxed about speaking together.
Adrian started the session by reading a hilarious passage from his new book Gunshot Road, which described the staff and patrons of the Green Swamp Roadhouse and featured such choice lines as:
Christ almighty what a day: I felt like a pig on a spit. If a heat-seeking missile were to arrive on the scene it wouldn’t have known where to start.
He went to the kitchen window and said something to a steamy man in a once-white singlet whose appearance brought to mind my father’s advice regarding roadhouse cuisine: always check for body parts.
I followed with a reading of two scenes from my new novel The Half-Child. The first was a description of The Strip in Pattaya as seen through the eyes of Rajiv Patel, Jayne’s (maybe) partner. This section got the biggest laugh:
He almost tripped over a Thai woman in a bikini top and miniskirt standing on the path holding a sign ‘Henhouse A Go-Go: Many New Chicks To Choose This Week’. Jostling for attention next to her was a man in a three-piece suit and tie; his sign read ‘Live Sex Show Upstairs – Lady and Man – Lady and Lady – Lady and Snake.’
He grabbed Jayne’s arm. ‘Did you see that?’ He tilted his head at the tout.
She paused to look over her shoulder. ‘Yeah, bizarre,’ she said. ‘That suit must be really hot.’
And because I’m loath to given the impression Thailand is all about bars and brothels, I also read a short description of Jayne’s visit to the Tiger Cave Temple in Kanchanaburi provice.
We talked with Joel about the places we write about and what lead us to them. Funnily enough, Adrian and I were both 24 years of age — though not at the same time — when he moved to Central Australia and I moved to Southeast Asia.
I first visited Thailand in 1985 on the way home to Australia after 10 months in Europe. I returned in 1990 and again in 1992, when I ended up living in the region for over six years. What keeps drawing me to Asia — to paraphrase Christos Tsiolkas and Zoe Ali in their article Saturday’s A2 section of The Age — is the challenge of creating communality from diversity, and the creativity and productivity that comes from negotiating difference. This is at the heart of my writing.
Adrian sometimes comes under criticism (though not in any forum I’ve been at with him) for writing from the perspective of an Indigenous woman — the wonderful character Emily Tempest — and Joel asked us how we’d respond to accusations of cultural appropriation. Adrian argued that it is the role of the writer since Homer to imagine themselves into other worlds, to put themselves into the heads of diverse characters. He also spoke of the Aboriginal elders, specifically women, who had encouraged him to tell their stories to the ‘whitefellas’.
For my part, I actively try to subvert stereotypes in my writing, and was interested to read recently an academic paper that cited my first book as a rare example of writing about the sex industry in Thailand that did not glorify it.
We had some good questions from the floor, as well as from Joel, including one about how to incorporate language other than English. Adrian and I agreed it’s about finding the right balance to create atmosphere and illustrate cultural nuance without alienating the reader. I spoke of one small example I used, the Thai equivalent of the English expression ‘a square peg in a round hole’: phit fah, phit tua — ‘wrong lid, wrong jar/box’.
After our session I got to sign a few books at the Atrium at Federation Square — a big deal for a Melbourne Writers Festival novice like me.
Thanks to everyone who came to my sessions, and especially those of you who bought my book. I hope you enjoy it.