Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 2, part 2

Malinda Lo, photo: Kevin S Moul

Malinda Lo, photo: Kevin S Moul

One of my most anticipated sessions at Desert Nights, Rising Stars was with YA writer Malinda Lo on Writing Diversity: How To & Why Not. Malinda began by explaining that she’d proposed the topic as a way of addressing questions she is constantly being asked about who has permission to write what, how to write diversity well, and how to avoid criticism. She started by noting that ‘diversity’ is an imperfect word, ‘shorthand’ for people of colour, indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and disabled people, ‘in other words, everyone who is not the white, straight, cisgender, abled norm’. She then answered the question of who has the right to write diverse characters very directly, saying, ‘Every writer has the right to write whatever they want, but every reader has the right to read what they want.’ (For Malinda, this means choosing not to read white men writing on Chinese women). She added that writers not only have rights but also responsibilities, and that to write diversity well means doing the work — there are no shortcuts.

In terms of the ‘why/why not’, Malinda’s first point was to ask ‘Why do you want to write it?’ If your intention comes from guilt, however well-meaning, this will colour your story and is unlikely to result in good writing. Better to appease your white guilt by buying books written by people of colour. Loving another culture – or more commonly, a single aspect of another culture – is also seldom grounds enough to write about it, often resulting in the fetishisation of that culture. ‘Allow your love to take you a little deeper,’ Malinda advised. Her second question to ask was ‘What privileges do you have?’ Unless you are made aware of your privilege, she said, your writing is likely to lead to oversights and biases. She directed us to resources on her website (click on ‘blog’) that address privilege. Her third question was, ‘What power differentials are involved?’ Here she highlighted the self-doubt that results from growing up, not seeing yourself reflected in anything (books, movies, etc). She noted that white writers risk oversimplifying matters because we have not had this experience.

Photo: Kevin S Moul

Photo: Kevin S Moul

In terms of ‘How to’, Malinda’s take home message was: ‘Do you research with humility and respect — there are no shortcuts.’ Step 1 is ‘Approach with Humility’. Do not mistake your hobbies for expertise. Respect the culture that you’re writing about. Step 2 is ‘Avoid cultural misappropriation’. Cultural misappropriation, Malinda said, ‘occurs when a more powerful culture cheerypicks aspects of a subordinate culture and uses those cultural artefacts in a way that is completely divorced from its original context or intention.’ It ‘is not the same as cultural exchange or cultural appreciation’. It is fine and natural to be inspired by another culture, but you need to be aware of context to avoid stripping away meaning. Research is an important part of this, and it means ‘moving beyond Wikipaedia’ to Step 3, ‘Do your research. There are no shortcuts.’ Effective and thorough research involves reflection, reading a lot and asking a lot of questions. Paying ‘sensitivity readers’, better called ‘cultural experts’, is also recommended, though Malinda noted that as a writer, you don’t have to take all their advice. She added that there is no way of doing research that avoids making mistakes altogether; and that criticism is ‘not the end of the world’ but rather an opportunity to learn. Two novels recommended as effective examples of authors writing across cultural boundaries are: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy, Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olin Butler, and The Boat by Nam Le (that last one was my suggestion).

Prior to Malinda’s session, in an effort to step outside my usual comfort zone, I attended a panel called Where do we go from here? – After the Apocalypse with Matt Bell, Benjamin Percy and Paolo Bacigalupi. This fascinating panel took in differences between dystopian (‘the world got broke’) and post-Apocalyptic (‘the world is falling apart and we slowly have to put it back together’) literature, how post-apocalyptic literature reflects the anxiety of the age, and the ethics of writing violence. Matt Bell and Benjamin Percy try to avoid writing violence that is enjoyable, less it spills into what Benjamin called ‘gore-nography’. Paolo felt that imposing moral judgments on what should and shouldn’t be writing closes off avenues of creative exploration. Any violence, he suggested, should align with the values of the overall story. There was also discussion about how to avoid didacticism in post-apocalyptic fiction – or how to be political without being polemical. One suggestion was to avoid giving good people good values and bad people bad values. Another was to think beyond simplistic concepts – such as the ‘strong man’ structure (good vs evil) at the heart of novels like The Hunger Games – in favour of more complex models. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood were among the authors recommended for their non-didactic fiction.

For my final session of the day, I had the great privilege of being a late ring-in for a panel called Writing borderlands: Geographic and personal boundaries with Acoma Pueblo Nation poet and author Simon Ortiz and author Benjamin Alire Sáenz. I mostly listened to my fellow panellists as they talked about their experiences of marginalisation – ‘growing up as Americans even if we don’t feel American’, as Simon put it – and the importance of resistance. Benjamin, who grew up in the ‘liminal space’ of the US-Mexico border, argued that ‘borders are false’. In a blistering critique, he said that ‘borders are to keep poor people out. Rich people can go anywhere – there are no borders for them.’ He added that Americans ‘are not taught to break down borders, we’re taught to build walls.’ My own small contribution was to challenge the idea that Australia was a land without borders, with reference to the AIATSIS map of Indigenous languages that shows the boundaries that existed prior to white invasion, and to talk a little about being a white writer aware of this legacy. (I added that I would not have been on such a panel had there been an Indigeous Australian in the room). I had a couple of participants tell me later that the AIATSIS map was a real eye-opener for them.

After a faculty dinner (‘faculty’ being the collective noun for conference guests/teaching staff) at ASU, a few of us kicked on at Casey Moore’s Oyster Bar, stopping for last drinks at the Gringo Star in Tempe, where we talked about the value (or not) of social media to writers. Upshot: it don’t sell books, it takes up a lot of time, it connects you to your readers (maybe) and also to trolls. Merry-go-round and swings, really. An intense, inspiring day.


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Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 2, part 1

imageI’m probably crazy blogging at this late hour, but I don’t to miss the opportunity to capture at least fragments of a full and inspiring Day 2 at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference here in Phoenix, Arizona.

My day started with a session called The Truth About Showing and Telling with Elizabeth Evans. Elizabeth attempted to debunk the notion that showing is always more important than telling, arguing that a good writer can create a narrator/narrative voice that establishes a relationship with the reader and allows for a mix of the two. She offered Irish writer William Trevor’s story ‘Events at Drimaghleen’ as a case in point. A number of participants questioned whether the omniscient narrative voice in Trevor’s story would wash with contemporary American publishers, one noting that for YA writers in particular, a first person (preferably present) point of view is pretty much obligatory. Regardless of publishing trends, Evans’s advice was to ‘read the best stuff you can find’ and, in doing so, learn to read your own work as if it was written by someone else.

Next session was The Absurd: Tackling Odd Material with poet Matthew Olzmann. Poetry is something I’ve recently started to appreciate after a long hiatus, and Matthew’s session only increased my enthusiasm for this form. He made a comment that ‘What we’re willing to believe doesn’t necessarily correspond to what is logical, rational or reasonable’ (he was talking about readers, but in the current political environment in the USA, this observation takes on added significance), and went on to talk about ‘suspension of disbelief’, a term originally coined by Samuel Coleridge. He then got us to workshop several poems that attempted to explain the inexplicable: Ave Maria by Frank O’Hara; Noah and Joan by Denise Duhamel (my personal favourite); The Poem You Asked For by Larry Levis; and Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition by Wistawa Szymborska. Matthew suggested that what carries the ridiculous or ludicrous premises in these poems — what allows us to suspend disbelief — is either the force of the speaker’s personality (as in the O’Hara and Duhamel poems, though in different timbres), the figurative possibilities (as in the Levis and Szymborska poems), or a combination of the two — see [American Journal] by Robert Hayden. He encouraged us to recognise the value of spontaneity and surprise in the process of making art: ‘It may be unbelievable, yes, but it’s still worthy of belief.’

Goldie Goldbloom in full flight

Goldie Goldbloom in full flight

Next up was Torquing Images: Creating Tension Through Distortion with expatriate Australian author Goldie Goldbloom (her real name!). Goldie’s session was wildly engaging. She admitted to nailing home her message: that by far the majority of most memorable characters in fiction are not likeable, and ‘If your characters are nice, they’re no fucking good. We have to give them a twist to make them memorable.’ Using our own take on memorable characters from favourite books, Goldie suggested that what grabs our attention is characters who are flawed in a tragic way, who are idiosyncratic, and in whom we recognise ourselves. She cited Humbert Humbert from Lolita, and Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, among other examples, noting that the majority of examples are men, and that readers have less tolerance for women who behave badly. Goldie explained that humans are hard-wired to crave novelty — it’s the impulse that makes small children stare at what is odd to them — and that the older we get, the harder it is to experience novelty. At the same time, we better remember what is novel. All of this boils down to the need to create characters who are distorted, dissonant, twisted — while not neglecting their humanity. Asked how to avoid creating over the top characters who defy disbelief, Goldie said you need to maintain the emotional or moral consequences of their actions. Her advice boiled down to: ‘Take something that you know and then twist it to make it more memorable.’

Tune in tomorrow, local time, for notes on the afternoon sessions.


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Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 1

Simon Ortiz, photo courtesy of Kevin S Moul

Simon Ortiz, photo courtesy of Kevin S Moul

The Desert Nights, Rising Stars (DNRS) conference opened today at Arizona State University (ASU), with afternoon workshops, followed by a reception and a keynote address by Acoma Pueblo Nation poet Simon Ortiz.

I started my conference experience at a session with TM McNally, author and director of the ASU’s Creative Writing Program, on ‘Lyrical Fiction’. TM quickly rejected popular notions of ‘lyrical fiction’ as referring to the use of poetic language, redefining it as fiction that ‘says more than it says…[that] conveys the most essence in the least amount of space.’ Just as I was thinking, Surely he’s going to quote Hemingway, he quoted Hemingway — specifically, his desire to ‘make people feel something more than they understood’.

Lyricism, TM suggested, is about efficiency. To illustrate, he handed out some lyrics from a Colin Hay song:

I drink good coffee every morning
It comes from a place that’s far away
And when I’m done I feel like talking
Without you here there is less to say

Old Main, DNRS venue

Old Main, DNRS venue

He suggested that all we know about the speaker in the song comes from what is not said in this passage — that what is most powerful is what is implied or conveyed.

TM went on further to suggest that anything that happens in a story happens for three resasons:

1. Because it is true (true = feels real)
2. Because it is necessary to propel the plot
3. Because it is emblematic, i.e. works on a metaphorical level

Following TM’s session, I ran a workshop called ‘Never just description: Using setting to enhance your story’; and as it happens, I made similar points, quoting Andrew Cowan (from The Art of Writing Fiction) on the use of detail in story. Cowan suggests detail must:

1. Be concrete and appeal to the senses (aka “feel real”)
2. Advance or enhance the story telling (propel the plot, shed light on character)
3. Signify or resonate at the thematic level (be emblematic)

img_9524In fact, the resonances between the two sessions were so strong that a number of participants asked if TM and I had planned it that way. We hadn’t, of course: I don’t even known his real name!

My workshop was attended by 35 people, and the feedback suggested it was well-received and useful. I was really impressed with the level of participation and the quality of the writing in the exercises that people read out. For the most part, they even understood my accent. (I didn’t actually know I had an accent until I arrived in the USA!).

After the sessions, we all attended a reception featuring smoth jazz and fabulous food — hominy grits with jalapeños, tacos, tamales — and where I enjoyed meeting and chatting with some local emerging writers.

Kenny Dyer-Redner & Simon Ortiz: fighting words

Kenny Dyer-Redner & Simon Ortiz: fighting words

Simon Ortiz then gave the keynote address, which was really a call to arms. His resounding message was, ‘Speak truth to power.’ He cited the Cheyenne River Sioux protest at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL) as an example of speaking truth to power, and spoke of knowledge — particularly ancient knowledge invested in Indigenous peoples — as ‘sorely needed in the world’.

Simon also suggested that ‘literature is essential to inclusivity’ — an assertion I’ve heard echoed by people of colour and Indigenous writers in Australia. He challenged the DNRS conference to become more truly inclusive of Indigenous/Native American writers. A powerful and eloquent address that I hope will set the tone for the conference as a whole.

I’ll do my best to keep blogging the conference sessions, but if I fall behind, check Twitter under #dnrs2017 for more.


The Poisoned Pen

img_9500 My online friend Kathy in New York told me about The Poisoned Pen when she learned I’d be visiting Phoenix. The famous bookstore in the suburb of Scottsdale was founded by Barbara Peters in 1989, who later went on to establish the Poisoned Pen Press, which publishes several Australian crime writers, including my Sisters in Crime, Kerry Greenwood and Sulari Gentill. (In fact, I tried to convince Sulari to come with me to Phoenix and play Louise to my Thelma, but in the end, I had to settle for delivering a gift to Barbara on her behalf.) It seemed all roads were leading to The Poisoned Pen and, with my dance-card soon to be filled by the Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference, tonight was the night to visit.

fullsizerenderThe Poisoned Pen is a treasure trove of crime fiction in all its forms, with sections dedicated to Southwest crime, historical crime and signed first editions, as well as a vast collection of contemporary crime fiction. It is also renowned for its author events. Photos of famous authors hang from the rafters, and I took vicarious thrills in standing in the same room that had hosted the likes of Sara Paretsky, PD James, Michael Dibdin, Philip Kerr, Ian Rankin and Patricia Cornwall — to name only a very few. Barbara says there are only two days in the calendar that don’t work for author events: Valentine’s Day; and April 15, known in the USA as Tax Day — the day tax returns are due.


With The Poisoned Pen founder Barbara Peters

Tonight’s author event was with Mark Greaney, author of the military thriller Gray Man series, Tom Clancy’s collaborator on his final three books, and author of several new Jack Ryan novels. Not my style at all. But Mark was an engaging interviewee, and thanks to Barbara’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre, the ensuing discussion was very interesting, ranging from story arcs and settings, to the differences between UK and American spy thrillers, and the subgenre known as ‘K and R’ (Kidnap and Ransom). Mark did make me smile when he said that he’s always looking forward to writing the next book because, ‘The next novel I write is going to be so much fun, unlike the one I’m currently writing, which is a hard slog.’

Mark Greaney & Barbara Peters

Mark Greaney & Barbara Peters

On the subject of K and R, both Barbara and Mark spoke highly of a new novel by KJ Howe called The Freedom Broker. The author is due to appear tomorrow evening (with Charles Cumming) at The Poisoned Pen, and Barbara made the point that the best time to meet an author is when they’ve just published their first novel. She went on to describe not-then-famous authors The Poisoned Pen had hosted in the past, who drew only tiny crowds — no one other than staff were on hand at the first Lee Childs gig — but who, because they were supported at the onset of their careers, have remained loyal to the bookshop.

Today's gratuitous cactus shot: Organ Pipe, near The Poisoned Pen

Organ Pipe, near The Poisoned Pen

As it was, this Wednesday evening gig drew 30 people, some driving significant distances to be there. (I caught the bus from Tempe and chatted with the loveliest driver!). And it seemed everyone was buying at least one book. I bought three, including Phoenix Noir, which was edited by Patrick Millikin, who has worked at The Poisoned Pen for 22 years. I couldn’t resist a signed copy!

I finished off my night with dinner at Restaurant Mexico in Tempe, which boasts ‘Homemade Mexico City and Jalisco Style’. Not only was the food delicious, but I got a hot (no pun intended) tip from owner Juan Carlos on how to grow jalapeños for Mexican cooking: apparently, to get a hot rather than sweet taste, you have to ‘punish the chillies’ by depriving them of water. This turns them from jalapeños into chipotles.

Is it just me, or does ‘Punishing the Chillies’ sounds like it could be the title of a short story in a Phoenix Noir anthology?


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I’m bound to cross the line*

Haydeb Butte, Phoenix.

Haydeb Butte, Phoenix.

I made landfall in America, as many before me have done, at Los Angeles International Airport aka LAX, where I was photographed, fingerprinted and treated to a full body scan sans shoes. While I get the need for security, I found it disturbing that everyone wishing to enter the US is expected to surrender such bio-data without question. I want to know what the implications are, how long my data will be stored… There was one moment of levity, however, when a male border security officer asked, ‘Are you travelling with any Tim Tams today, m’am?’

From LAX, I flew to Phoenix, Arizona, to be collected by the hotel’s complimentary shuttle bus…only it’s not quite complimentary as you’re expected to tip the driver (I checked). The whole tipping culture does my head in. I’m appalled that American workers have to rely on discretionary funds like tips to make a living wage. At the same time, the monetisation of (almost) every interaction leaves me wondering if people are genuinely friendly and helpful, or just faking it for the sake of a good tip.

fullsizerenderI promised myself I wouldn’t make generalisations, but I was struck today by how literal some Americans can be. Many people I met today explained what they were going to do before they did it, talked it through while it was happening, then reported back on what happened — even when the content was the same at all three stages. It might be politeness; or maybe it’s about risk management and an aversion to surprises, something they have in common with Thai people in that regard. I’m thinking of signs at the airport, ‘warning’ commuters that an electronic walkway will come to an end in 30 feet; or that plane exhaust, which is carcinogenic, can sometimes enter the gangway of the plane. Do I/we really need to know these things? Then again, I’m the sort of person who likes surprises.

img_9477And I got a surprise today, while waiting to check into my hotel room, when I witnessed an argument between one of the male hotel staff and a woman returning a hire car, which basically boiled down to a dispute about manners. The man (wrongly) accused the woman of profanity, adding, ‘We don’t tolerate profanity in this hotel’ (‘Fuck,’ I thought privately, ‘I’m in trouble!’); the woman took great offence, insisting she didn’t use profanity ever. And all the while I’m thinking the equivalent exchange in Australia would consist of little other than a string of profanities!

Anyway, despite having slept badly (if at all) on the plane, I took the advice of receptionist Patrick, and delayed checking in for an hour so I could get a room with a view of Hayden Butte (pronounced ‘beaut’). I killed the hour walking around Tempe, getting money changed (I live in fear of running out of small notes for tips), and accidentally choosing a img_9458vegan place to eat lunch at the Desert Roots Kitchen. There I met Des, a Navajo, and the cafe managers/staff Travers and Christian. They fed me a steady stream of tips for my time in Phoenix, while serving up a magnificent hummus plate, including a sample of peanut butter and jelly hummus they insisted I try and that, I have to admit, turned out to be delicious, as unlikely as it seems.

Travers recommended a walk up Hayden Butte, my enthusiasm for which was cemented when I looked out of my hotel room and saw the cacti on the slopes. The climb was a good work out and worth the climb to the summit, both for the cacti, and for the the stunning views of red mountains that encircles Phoenix, AZ. Gasp out loud greatness.

Now to sleep and renew my energy for more exploring tomorrow.

* I’ve taken a leaf out of Margot Kinberg’s book and used a line from one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, ‘Shelter from the Storm’, for this blog post title. The complete line, ‘Well, I’m living in a foreign country / but I’m bound to cross the line.’
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Olga Elizabeth Whelan

Olga & Mervyn, 1938

Today marks 100 years since my grandmother Olga Elizabeth Whelan (née Patten) was born. Although she died in 2006, a few months shy of her 90th birthday, my memories of her remain fond and vivid. I knew her as Nana, a loving grandmother, a handsome and engaging woman with an eclectic range of interests and a great sense of fun. To celebrate the anniversary of her birth, I though I would share a few personal memories.

Olga was born in Narrandera, NSW, on 4 February 1917. By the time she married at the age of 19, her family had moved to Barellan, Griffith and back to Barellan. I remember her telling me she travelled to school by horse and cart, and at some point I discovered she was dux of her primary school. Olga’s father was a butcher, which may account for her lifelong appreciation of a good steak. In her later years, her favourite place to satisfy her red meat craving was Sydney’s Grotta Capri restaurant (ironically, the restaurant was also the favourite of organised crime boss Robert “Aussie Bob” Trimbole; and Olga, the wife of a policeman!). She lunched there regularly, chose it as the venue to celebrate her 85th birthday, and flirted with the waiters who knew her by name. Though I’ve never stopped missing her since she died, I was glad she didn’t live to see the Grotta Capri close in 2010.

Celebrating Nana’s 85th birthday at the Grotta Capri, Sydney, 2002

That said, I am sorry she missed the exhumation from under a car park of the remains of Richard III. She would’ve loved that final chapter in a story that had long intrigued her.

The mystery surrounding Richard III was one of her passions. Others included the Tudor period, particularly Henry VIII and his wives (she’d have loved Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy); Native American history; singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson; playing Five Hundred; and water and sanitation, particularly as it impacted on women’s lives. When she gained control of her finances after the death of my grandfather, clean water supply was one of the causes she supported. She was an avid reader and her favourite tipple was Brown Brothers Moscato.

She married said grandfather, Mervyn Joseph Whelan, early one morning in November 1936 in Barellan. They honeymooned in Sydney and then moved to Narrandera, where the first of their ten children, my late aunt Margaret, was born in December 1937. Her brother Greg followed in 1939. My mother Olgamary (named after her mother and my grandfather’s sister) was their third born 1941 in Albury. In more or less two year intervals came Ruth, Monica, Marie, Paul, Dominica, Carmel (who died soon after birth) and Michael.

My grandmother moved frequently during her lifetime, based on where my grandfather was posted. I once sat her down and got her to dictate a list of the places she’d lived after they married. She remembered them all:


Nana with her children, on her 60th wedding anniversary in 1996 (my grandfather’s arm is just visible on the right).

Narranderah, NSW
Albury, NSW
Sydney – Bondi Junction
Barellan, NSW
Sydney – Earlwood
Corowa, NSW
Sydney – Green Valley
Broken Hill, NSW
Goulburn, NSW
Sydney – Moorebank
Sydney – Turramurra
[four-month cruise]
Sydney – Killara
Sydney – Narrabeen
Sydney – Rose Bay
Sydney – Vaucluse
Sydney – Eleanora Heights
Sydney – Kensington
Toowong, QLD
Sydney – Dee Why
Sydney – Randwick

In the 60 years she spent with my grandfather, Nana lived in 22 different houses. Her last domicile, and the place where she died, was Mount St Joseph’s Home, an aged care facility in Randwick.

Nana loved poetry. One of her favourites was When I Am Old, which opens with the line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple”. Purple was Nana’s colour, and purple flowers — lilac, violets, mauve roses, purple irises — still make me think of her.

She was a devout Catholic, with a literal sense of faith: when my grandfather died in 1997, she wrote in her diary of their daughter who’d died at birth more than 40 years earlier: “At last Carmel will get to see her father’s face.”

One of my favourite photos of Olga: in dress ups at a family reunion, Jindabyne c. 1982

I loved my grandmother for her big heart and open mind. While my grandfather had a knack for shutting down conversations, my grandmother encouraged us to talk. She’d often say, ‘I like to know what the young people are thinking’ — a curiosity I try to emulate, now that I’m middle aged myself. And while some family members kept things from her, I always found Nana willing to listen to ideas, even if she didn’t agree with them.

She had many sayings, some of them pretty dodgy: ‘Beauty is only skin deep, but ugliness cuts to the bone’ is one I remember. She wasn’t materialistic, but she liked nice things. For birthdays, she would ask her family only to give gifts she could eat, drink or spray on. She had a great sense of occasion and enjoyed an outing, especially to the Grotta Capri.

When my parents took their first overseas trip together in 1976, Nana came to stay and look after me and my brothers. Her visit involved a lot of red meat: she allowed me and my brothers, Julian and Luke to take turns to choose the nightly meal, which apparently meant beef stroganoff, shepherd’s pie and chops respectively. What I remember most fondly is sitting up late watching old movies with her.

Nana lamented that she only ever met her own cousins at funerals. In addition to her 10 children, she had 19 grandchildren and for many years, the extended family would gather together for regular reunions in different parts of NSW. Nana wanted us cousins to grow up knowing each other. This year, we are reviving the reunion and planning to meet up annually into the future. The cherished relationships I have with my cousins are an important part of Nana’s legacy, and a reunion seems a fitting tribute in this 100th year after her birth.

Nana with her great-granddaughter in March 2006, the last time we were together

The last time I saw my Nana was when I took my then three-month-old daughter to Sydney to meet her. My daughter’s birth came after three miscarriages: Nana had prayed for St Catherine of Siena to intervene, St Catherine being one of 13 children and the patron saint of miscarriages (who says Catholics don’t have a sense of humour!). She was so happy for me and complimented me on my ‘beautiful baby’.

Six months later, I returned to Sydney with my beautiful baby for Nana’s funeral. The solemn funeral mass, hosted by the religious order who managed the nursing home where she died, struck me as a dissonant note on which to end. So I was delighted when my nine-month-old daughter piped up with ‘Blah, blah, blah’ to enliven the bishop’s dull sermon.

Laughter and the chatter of babies were a much more felicitous send-off for such a woman.

Do you have memories of Olga Elizabeth or your own grandmother you’d like to share? Use the comments section below.

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By the time I get to Phoenix…

Next month I will visit the USA to attend the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference at the Arizona State University in Phoenix. As the conference website blurb says, Desert Nights, Rising Stars ‘brings together writers, readers, and lovers of literature for three days of instruction, inspiration, and community. By creating an intimate and accessible space where conference-goers can make real, personal connections with award-winning authors, industry experts, and the larger community of peers, attendees gain practical tools to develop their craft, professional knowledge to further their careers, and determination and purpose to move their writing forward.’

dnrs-title-banner_2This amazing opportunity came about through my PhD supervisor, Dr Chandani Lokugé, and when it did, I felt the urge to grab it with both hands. I mean, just look at the conference logo (left) — how could anyone resist? And it’s called Desert Nights, Rising Stars for heaven’s sake (no pun intended).

As part of the conference program, I will be taking a one hour class I’m calling ‘Never Just Description: How Setting Can Enhance Your Story’. To give potential participants a taster, I wrote a blog post for the conference website:

My novels are set in Thailand, and readers often comment on their strong sense of place. But this wasn’t always the case. In a rejection letter for an early draft of my manuscript, later published as Behind the Night Bazaar, the reader commented, “I didn’t really feel that I had been taken to Thailand… I think there needs to be more of a sense of the sights and smells of Thailand, of being taken to a different land.”

At the time, I was writing straight off the back of six years in Southeast Asia, including 18 months in Thailand. In retrospect, I realise I was too close to the environment I was writing about. I had to take a step back, remember what it was like when I first arrived, try to conjure the little things that made the place unique…

Read the rest of the article here.

I’ll also be appearing on a panel with crime writer Kwei Quartey to discuss ‘Writing Culture for Other Cultures’. I’m currently reading the first in Quartey’s Darko Dawson series, Wife of the Gods, set in Ghana — not only a great read, but it’s taking me to a country I know nothing about.

As a conference participant, I’m looking forward to attending sessions with Malinda Lo (Writing with Diversity: How to & Why Not), Goldie Goldbloom, Dominic Smith, Adrienne Celt, Alissa Nutting, Elizabeth Evans and Benjamin Percy — to name a few. My biggest task will be choosing which of the great sessions on offer to attend.

This will also be my first ever trip to the USA; somehow, I’ve managed to visit Central and South America, but never the United States. As it’s taken me 50 years to get there, I plan to make the most of it and stay on for a week afterwards to do some sight-seeing. I will visit the town of Sedona, in addition to Phoenix. And weather permitting, I hope to get to both Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon — or ‘Thelma and Louise country’, as I like to think of it (though I intend to avoid going over any cliffs for the duration of my stay).


In addition to Kwei Quartey’s novels, I’m also planning to read Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series in preparation for my trip.

What about you? Have you ever been to Arizona? Do you have any tips or recommendations for my trip? Pre-reading for me? Songs for my playlist?

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