One Day in English
(Francesca Rendle-Short)

Posted on November 17, 2011 by in Novel Excerpts


One day in English things did go haywire.

The teachers must have known exactly who Glory was the day she arrived. News would have travelled fast around the staffroom like the puff of cigarettes. Miss Keynote might have even announced something: I’m going to have to say something. Just watch. After all, her English syllabus was under threat. Give her to me and I’ll tell her what’s what. In any case, one afternoon after lunch, she swept into the English classroom all puff, hot and red in the face: ‘Stand up, girl.’

Glory and Lisa sat in the back row, as they always did. Their uniforms were a mess. They had been fighting each other through lunch, play fighting in the quadrangle in the sun. They had tried to be the first to rub orange quarters through the other’s hair, to see how far they could go before getting caught.

‘Stand up, girl. Do you hear me?’

There was something different about the way Miss Keynote spoke this afternoon, how her body swivelled into the room. You could almost feel the heat she was giving off. This mattered more than anything: it was about Miss Keynote herself, her sense of self and identity. Her voice shook too, as she nailed the words in place.

The air prickled with heat and Glory’s skin pricked with the sweat of her body. Everyone guessed, without it being said, which girl Miss Keynote was referring to. This was the confrontation Glory had been waiting for. But for some reason and unpremeditated at that, she let the words hang in suspension. Glory insisted, in her own silent way, that Miss Keynote reveal herself more, with more.

She did.

‘There are some parents in this school,’ Miss Keynote elaborated, ‘who think they know best how to educate young people, who are adept at the theory and practice of modern teaching, who dare to want to take our place.’ She said the word dare as she would strike a high C if singing an aria. All throat. A lifted soft palette. Quintessential control.

‘Your mother, Glory. I’m talking about your mother. She says the sort of education we are giving our pupils is defilement, do you hear?’ Miss Keynote pointed a stick of yellow chalk in Glory’s direction. She was casting out evil spirits with this move. ‘Now stand up girl when I say,’ her voice wobbled on this command, betraying something else: did Glory detect nervousness?

‘Your interfering mother thinks she knows best.’ Snap. The chalk broke in two, fell and bounced on the wooden floor between her legs like something rude. ‘She dares to interfere in Our Literature. She says it is sex-saturated. You’ve only got to read the letters to the papers—‘Mother Disgusted with School Books’, ‘Immoral Books Third-Rate Gutter Trash’, ‘Be Wary of Homosexuals’.’ Miss Keynote must have learned the lines by heart. ‘Your mother says you are not allowed to read the book Improving on the Blank Page. Dr Joy Solider says you are not allowed to meet the wicked Holden Caulfield under any circumstance. She says that these books—books on our very own reading list, do you hear?—are pornographic.’ Miss Keynote was flying now all around the room, full throttle.

When the girls heard the words sex, homosexual and pornographic, they started to snigger. Miss Keynote made a mocking face like a clown.

‘And she’s saying these things in public, on radio, for everyone to hear!’

With a flourish, she tugged at her hair and to the surprise of everyone, yanked off the black curly wig she was wearing to reveal grey wisp pulled back neatly in a maroon velvet bow.

‘What do you have to say for yourself girl? Stand up when I tell you!’

None of the girls knew Miss Keynote wore a wig. Until then they’d always seen her with it on, had always thought this teacher had luscious black hair, the sort you put into hot rollers each night. Not this smooth, straight greyness. Everyone gasped. They’d never seen her like this, in the flesh so to speak, in such a theatrical act. There was something almost obscene about it, Miss Keynote disrobing in public and mouthing those rude words at the same time. They shouldn’t be watching this sort of thing but they loved it. Their very own peepshow. It was exhilarating.

That was when Miss Keynote started to laugh. But it was a very different laughter to the sort Glory was used to. It was an us-and-her laughter kept for special occasions and the girls wanted to join in.

Poor Glory wet her pants. She was all sweat behind the knees too where the elastic garters squeezed her folds of skin. She tried standing tall—thinking, hoping and wishing this would pass quickly.

Glory couldn’t look anywhere except stare straight ahead. She was paralysed, stunned. Holden Caulfield? She didn’t really know who he was yet; she thought the reference was to some kind of car. Pornographic? That didn’t sound good.

Suddenly, Glory astonished herself. Instead of being submissive and compliant, waiting for the next command, Glory banged down the lid of her desk. It thudded into the commotion of laughter and exclamation, wood smashed against wood. MotherJoy would have been proud—wouldn’t she?—if it were true the things Miss Keynote was saying. It was like an explosion.

Everyone in the class held their breath. What would Miss Keynote say next? She stood, mid gesture, unsure how to proceed. She tipped her head as if thinking up a plan, smoothed down the line of hair on one side of her face, the maroon velvet ribbon the only extravagance. She had flawless skin, faintly red heart-shaped lips.

If this were a duel, it should be Miss Keynote’s turn to respond. But before the teacher said anything Glory pulled words from deep inside her throat and out across her tongue through nearly clenched teeth.

‘Children don’t go to school to learn to think,’ she blurted out. ‘They go to school to learn to spell, do maths.’

Glory amazed herself with this utterance. She turned pink. What made her dare challenge this particular teacher, like this? Was it with the same spirit that drove her to stand up for Jesus? There was no going back. It was that quiet, you could hear the ladies in the tuckshop faraway cleaning up. Then Miss Keynote spluttered in response: ‘Where on earth did you get that idea?’

All Glory kept thinking for the rest of the day was that perhaps, for this one crazy, heart-choking moment, she had rescued her mother. She knew how to resuscitate a body, didn’t she? She was a Bronze Medallion, owned a cute metal badge with her name engraved on the back. It was an act of allegiance, surely, not madness. A composition—an intervention—of love.

(Extract from Bite Your Tongue, courtesy of Spinifex Press.)

WRITING IN THE GAP BETWEEN: an interview with Francesca Rendle-Short

Posted on November 15, 2011 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Francesca Rendle-Short has been many things in her life: radio producer, editor, art gallery worker, and mother of two now-adult children.  She has a Doctor of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong.  ‘My mother would have been appalled!’  Recently Rendle-Short relocated from Canberra to Melbourne where she is Program Director of Creative Writing at RMIT University.  As well as Bite Your Tongue, she is the author of the novel Imago (1996) and the novella Big Sister (1989), and has written for the stage.

Despite her blazingly fierce commitment to writing and language and ideas, Rendle-Short is the kind of woman who describes her students as “so cute!”, and I remember one particularly intense conversation a couple of years ago during which she jotted down notes with a pen attached to what can only be described as a foot-long aerial with a fluffy pink pom-pom on the end, the sort of flourish a film-maker might give to a ditzy, Paris Hilton-like character, someone who is all style but no substance.  Except Francesca Rendle-Short is all style and all substance, with a good dollop of complexity thrown in.

Bite Your Tongue mixes fiction and non-fiction as it explores growing up in Queensland in the 1970s with a mother who, driven by an intractable religious faith, developed a ‘death list’ of books to burn, a list that includes The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Lord of the Flies, amongst many others.  By all accounts, Angel Rendle-Short was most effective, fronting major public meetings and getting politicians to listen to her and – what’s more – take her seriously.

Through her extensive campaigning to have these books struck off school curricula because, so she believed, they were rotten or pornographic or both, Angel Rendle-Short brought shame and embarrassment and confusion to her children, who simply wanted the space to be, well, children.  One of the most harrowing sections of Bite Your Tongue (which the author describes as a story about ‘unbiting’) is when MotherJoy, Rendle-Short’s name for the mother character in the fictional strand of the book, uses a dead pig’s head to explain the female reproductive system.*

Let’s take a heady dose of courage and go exploring.  Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.


Congratulations on Bite Your Tongue (Spinifex Press, 2011). It’s a brave and original book, a tough book, being an exploration of the weight of a highly religious but terrifyingly conservative mother on her children. It’s been out for a couple of months now. Even though you’ve used the prism of creative memoir, how has it been for you as a person to make this story public, which is exactly what ‘being published’ is all about?


Do you know, I’ve always wanted to ‘make this story public’ as you put it. There is something delicious about making work, about writing – you want to share it, like a really good meal. From when I first started writing I knew that I wanted to write for an audience, for readers, and with this book it was no different. Why else do it; it is as simple as that. Why write? The wonderful Joan Didion, who I was listening to this morning as it happens in an astonishing new short film of her reading chapter 2 from her new memoir Blue Nights, says it this way, famously: ‘Writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.’ She also says: ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking … What I want and what I fear.’

Writing this book gives me voice. It helps me work out what I am thinking about my mother, about being her daughter, her child, about the things that went on in my family, in my house, at my school, in the city I grew up in. It’s a story about trying to get close to her. Daring myself. She was so very scary. Loomed over me. I was very afraid of her. Like Joan, I wanted to write about wanting and about fear. I wanted to write about softness too, and laughter. I wanted to give the small frightened but joyous girl in me space to sing her own song. And I wanted to give her a stage to sing on with me as her first audience, and then allow others to listen in. Write it with others in mind. Translate. Connect. Reach out. To touch. Speak to. Perhaps, and I’m thinking this as I write here to you (knowing it too has audience), if I could do all of this in front of others, publicly, about this very particular story of her hatred and fear of books and writing, of all the books that we all love to bits and pieces – all those 100 books she wanted to burn – then it is a way of silencing any reproach. It protects. It saves.

It’s hard too. I know I’ve put it off. It’s taken me to now. Because in writing about my mother – doing the very thing she hated the most – I am writing about myself.


That’s such a strong statement Didion makes, but of course she’s right. Speaking of strong statements, recently I read in an interview with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Interviews: Volume 1 (2006). The interviewer asks ‘A fundamental question: As a creative writer what do you think is the function of your art? Why a representation of fact, rather than fact itself?’ Hemingway replies, ‘Why be puzzled by that? From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all the things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?’ I immediately thought of Bite Your Tongue and its form of creative memoir. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on Hemingway’s observation. And also on the fact that – irony of ironies – through having this book published you may well have given your mother immortality.


Immortality. My. Such a gigantuan concept (is gigantuan a word?). That’s what she yearned for: immortality in the arms of her saviour. So indeed. Is my mother now turning in her grave, back on earth? Don’t you love that expression – turning in her grave? Angel often used it as an expression of ultimate condemnation. As I mouth the words, even today, I immediately conjure up someone who has been dead a long time, lying deep in the earth, all bones and rattle, and probably cloth too, turning slowly over. I think she would do more than turn turtle, don’t you think, in this case, if we’re talking about immortality, being published, in Hemingway’s words ‘truer than anything true and alive’. She’d be doing an Eskimo roll to right herself for sure – isn’t language fabulous – all splash and hubbub and contortion and unsettlement.

No, I don’t believe in any afterlife. Just had to add that. And I don’t mind thinking about the dead or talking about the dead either. I don’t find it disrespectful in the way it is sometimes talked about; rather, it expands the mind and heart. I’m quite interested in the science of bodies – what happens after we die, how we decompose, what we become, how nothing can disappear; how even the smallest particles of dust can’t be swept away, they just move somewhere else, into another state – become soil in which to grow things. It’s the law of conservation of mass: nothing in a closed system can be created or destroyed. Not sure where this might lead us metaphorically, mind. Or in terms of invention. Although, doesn’t Ecclesiastes say, there is nothing new under the sun.

Which brings us to invention: ‘You make something through your invention… and you make it alive’, quoting Hemingway again. What higher praise for fabrication than that? To make something come alive, live, breathe. Especially when you write about those things that would ordinarily lock you in a space of silence and shame – just move it into another state. Let the light in.

I’ve just finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s new book, her autobiography entitled Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I love this book for lots of unsurprising reasons – her mother burned Jeanette’s books for one, her candidness for two about the life of writing and writing her life starting with her first book Oranges, and the fact that her mother, like mine, ordered her daughter’s book in a false name (as Angel did with my first book, Imago), to name three. In Why Be Happy? Winterson talks about the power of stories and the belief she has in fiction because ‘that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced.’ The beauty with writing, and the beauty about writing in the particular way I’ve chosen to write Bite Your Tongue as a ‘semi-fiction’ as one reviewer describes it, is that we can make a choice as to what to include and what to leave out and how to frame the ‘unbiting’. Stories, whatever they are, will always be partial, by definition, a version of what could be told, an invention. Figuring out those choices is the responsibility of writing and also its pleasure.

There is something else in this equation – the reader, and what the reader brings to the work. As Jeanette Winterson puts it: ‘When we write we offer the silence as much as the story.’ She adds later: ‘The facts are, after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate side of you will not be met there. That is why reading ourselves as a fiction as well as fact is so liberating.’

Intervention by invention.


Which is why my mother would have been appalled.

You are right – it is a very nice irony.


Onto more a prosaic matter. Writers – particularly novelists – often say that with each book they have to relearn the task of writing, almost as if they’re starting their writing career from scratch. Have you found that with Bite Your Tongue? If so, could you tell us how the writing process of this book has been different to the writing of your previous work? Perhaps this isn’t such a prosaic matter after all!


At the recent opening to the Melbourne Writers Festival (in 2011) at the Town Hall, Jonathan Franzen talked about the idea of re-inventing the writer’s self with every book. About it being an imperative. That you have to become a different and new person in order to write a different and new book. Or, to put this the other way, with each book there is an emptying out; you wonder what’s next.

I suppose it’s different for each writer and it must depend on what book you are writing, but for me, I can’t really compare my two, there were so many differences. Like two different species or planets – universes. It’s funny, too, I can’t remember what the first experience was like, as the second has now eclipsed it. Process is process is process – it moves you on, changes you as you go. (And I’m a slow writer.) My interests are always with what is happening now, what I am writing at the present moment, where my thoughts are heading. It’s a bit the same with books: my favourite book is the one I last read, or thereabouts.

In fact, I’d be hard pressed, really, telling you what the process with this current book was except to say I just had to keep writing one word after the other. There’s nothing glamorous to it. There wasn’t one thing I did; there were all sorts of methods. Writing without looking back. Writing what I most feared, what I was really afraid of writing. Rewriting to pare things back. Reimagining (and so rewriting) whole slabs of text. Rearranging sentences and paragraphs and sections as a way of rewriting and recasting. Transposing text – I LOVE transpositions – it’s the way to uncover and be surprised by the poetic. Rewriting my rewriting from memory. And so on. Again and again and again and again. It is a task, you’re right. There is no shortcut to doing this thing called writing.

Ah……………………………………. and then a good lie down.


I love that idea of writing being a process of putting one word after the other. I’m also interested in that good lie down. Some writers suggest that they finish one book and get straight into the next. For example, if Trollope finished a novel halfway through a writing session (he wrote between 5.30 and 8.30 every morning), he’d simply start another. Other writers say that novels are heavy things to carry around, so they need a fair bit of time between books to recover. What’s your take on this? And yes there’s a hint of a sub-text: do you have an inkling about where you might want to go next as a writer?


As a writer I think you are always ‘carrying something around’. You can’t escape it really. Then there is the idea of practice, of making it happen; that idea of routine is important, isn’t it? Practice so that it’s normal and not strange. Giving the carrying around space and weight and vista in your life to give it the chance to make it into something. Do you know I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because there is all this talk about us being time-poor in our modern society. Some writers talk about ‘unplugging’ their gadgets in order to create more thinking and creating space. I heard the other day about an app or something that can ‘glue’ your machine up for a time (is this just story?) so that you really can get into it, whatever the ‘it’ is. Breathe. We are drowning in screen and screen culture – I know I am – it’s almost impossible not to be in some way. White noise. It chokes us. Email is the worst offender. The challenge creatively is to create space enough to imagine and dream and think-through – to lose yourself to your work. Get hooked. Get lost.

Saying that, I’m not like Trollope writing for three hours in the wee smalls before everyone else is up. I envy him that. You can do that, can’t you?

I’m more of an interstices girl myself. I write in the gaps between things. (Love this word: interstices meaning ‘between closely spaced things’ or ‘space between’ and that’s where I like to put myself.) (There’s also that word ‘interstitial’ meaning that empty space or gap between other spaces that are full of structure or matter.) Writing (for me) is about learning to empty myself into the emptiness.

So what’s happening now?

Little projects and a big lurking one, too.

I like doing the little ones. It’s a bit like doing scales – as a musical form, beautiful in and of itself. Such pleasure. Even this little bit of writing here talking to you falls into this category. Another is that I am about to embark on writing collaboratively with a wonderful photographer who works from a mobile phone – a collection of poetic postcards from/to Rome – writing here in a square format, writing black and white, writing light and shade. It will be a terrific summer project. I’ve got a project about ‘Pineapple Girls’ and the Pineapple Cannery in Northgate, Brisbane, on the hop. And, of course, there is the writing that I do as an academic – papers and performances and essays and so forth. I love the puzzle of all these small works, how they challenge me intellectually and creatively.

The big one lurking – carrying me around – is writing my father. (This seems so obvious a next step doesn’t it, after writing my mother in Bite Your Tongue?) I’m not sure how this will turn out. I’ve already written little pieces about him, as you know (you published ‘My father’s body in nine drawings’ in Verity La, for example). Of course my father is lurking in Bite Your Tongue, both as ‘my father’ and as the fictional Onward. I don’t want to say too much more (because any new direction is always so tenuous and nascent) but what I can say is that I am curious about who he is or was (he died last year). He’s a bit of an enigma, to be honest. I’m interested in him as a writer (he published 18 books), as well as his medical work (he was a paediatrician in Brisbane). I’m also intrigued by his commitment to, and belief in Creationism. His fundamentalism. His particular sort of Christianity. (And the current debates around fundamentalism and Creationism versus evolution.) How often my father thought my mother went too far, but how she too thought he was extreme at times as well. How he hated confrontation but exercised such authority throughout his life, demanded it.

Or maybe I’ll change direction altogether and write crime or something…


*This introduction is borrowed outrageously from another piece on Francesca.  Luckily the interviewer wrote it, so he can borrow outrageously without a speck of grit on his conscience.

My Father’s Body in Nine Drawings
(Francesca Rendle-Short)

Posted on September 23, 2010 by in Being Sure



My father is not yet dead. People who knew him say there is a likeness in this drawing. I can still see him breathing, can you? I still feel warmth when I bend to kiss his head in salutation; I feel a pulse through his skull against my lips. I imagine his gaze on me. Hello I hear him say, do I know you?

He doesn’t have long now to live. It is only a matter of hours. He dies the next day.


Maurice Blanchot once wrote: Look again at this splendid being from which beauty streams: he is, I see this, perfectly like himself. And someone says to me, kindly: Francesca, he’ll be tangle free you know, when he’s gone he’ll be at peace.

Death skewers the heart of those left behind, no matter what the age of those who are dying. One minute I have a father and he’s with me in the flesh. The next minute he’ll be gone, really gone, disappeared. All breathing stopped.


These images of my father’s body span two notebooks. You can see the ordinariness of the lines and checks on the paper I’ve drawn across. When I was called to his beside in Toowoomba, I didn’t think I would be drawing his figure as he lay dying: I thought he would be already dead. I didn’t think there would be enough room for me to spread out around his bed, not room enough to measure stillness like this. There are too many of us for that. We fill up his room, bodies everywhere. Nurses stay away.


Did you know, with six children in a family there are six children trying to say goodbye to six fathers? In mathematical terms, there are 720 different sorts of relationships the six of us can have – a multiplication of 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6. Add my father into the equation and multiply that figure by seven, to take it to 5040 combinations and permutations.


I draw fast, turning a page every few minutes. I don’t have long.

I draw him with a pencil found at the bottom of my bag.

Was it John Ruskin who said: but only draw what you see?

I watch my father find breath with my marks. The nurses tell me, when checking respiration, it is important to also note whether a person has any difficulty breathing.


Breath is involuntary. If you think about it too much your lungs hurt.

Did you know that on average we take 15 to 20 breaths per minute? That’s 900 to 1200 breaths per hour and 21600 to 28800 breaths per day. If we think of a year, we take 7884000 to 10512000 breaths in those 365 days – millions in other words. For my father who is 90 he has taken 709560000 to 946080000 breaths until now, to these, his very last.


My father is dying and I wonder what he is thinking, is he thinking at all. Does he still wish he will go to heaven to be with Angel, my mother? Is that his dream? Or has his Alzheimer’s clouded his view of any possible a f t e r l i f e?

I read once: in death, the rictus is an oddly painful unexpected ugly fact. The mouth is all wrong.


My father died when he was ninety. In mathematics, the number nine is at the end of the primary series beginning with one and finishing with 10. It denotes a complete circle, 360 degrees or, to put it another way, 3 + 6 + 0 = 9.

In French, the word neuf means both nine and new.

Nine is a lucky number.


I draw my father with my lucky ring on, from Hanoi. I call it lucky because it is in nine pieces – a silver ring with the palest of white Halong Bay pearls shaped in a grid of 3 x 3. I sometimes think of it as my noughtsandcrosses ring.

Thinking of my father I think of kissing him goodbye for the final time – with these nine pearls, these nine kisses, and with my story in nine drawings.


This requiem for my father in nine drawings complements a photo-essay I wrote for Overland entitled ‘My father’s body: creation, evolution and Alzheimer’s disease’.

an interview with Francesca Rendle-Short

Posted on September 20, 2010 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Some people are too good to be true, and Francesca Rendle-Short is one of those people, but she is true, as in real, and here she is, in conversation with Verity La. By quoting great slabs from her professional bio, I can tell you that Francesca is the Program Director of Creative Writing at RMIT, and that she grew up in Queensland and studied at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, and at the University of Wollongong where she was awarded a DCA in creative writing, a doctorate that explored ‘ideas of shame and silence, and how a writer’s body operates and survives as the language of process’.

Francesca’s published work includes fiction, poetry for the page and for walls, exhibition text, and writing for theatre.  Her research interests ‘explore the potential of practice-led creative research’ and she is ‘very interested in the way an arts practice and the process of making imaginative work can inform the direction research and writing can take, and in the use of fiction or story in scholarly writing.  The current debate about fiction’s role in illuminating our history is of great interest to her, and her work.’

Yes, Francesca Rendle-Short is too good to be true.  What on earth makes her tick?  Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.


Francesca, you write a lot about place.  Your novel Imago (Spinifex Press, 1996) explored Canberra in the 1960s and your photo-essays have delved into growing up in Queensland.  What is it about place that fascinates you?


In simple terms, place places you.  It’s a relationship. I’m not interested in place for place’s sake, rather, the way the body inhabits place and the way place inhabits the body.  How it is embedded in memory.  How it transcends time.  How it informs who we are.  Gives us a sense of belonging or dwelling.  In more complex terms it evokes something of the abstract, metaphysics, takes us back to first principles, to thinking about being: being in the world, what it means for human-beings. It is ontological. In speaking, thinking, writing and breathing place, it gives us a sense of our own being. In conjuring place, all sorts of ideas start to float around – ideas of existing and identity and something happening.

It is fascinating, isn’t it?

Of course when we think of place we conjure quite specific things.  Place takes us to a place, a definite moment.  This is why when writing, place becomes so important because it pinpoints experience. You share with the reader all the finely tuned composition of the moment – the physical, psychological, emotional threads – and render that experience as if they were there.  A relationship, you see?  Relationships everywhere.

Interestingly, I’ve just been reading this morning the very latest edition of Overland, its 200th birthday edition – ‘temper democratic, bias Australian’ as its founder Stephen Murray-Smith said in 1954 – and there is an article by Marion Rankine about place and originality in Australian writing and about how truly imaginative writing ‘fosters transformative evocations of place’.  So I’ve been thinking about just this thing that you ask – how do I treat ‘place’ in my writing? Is it engaging enough to ‘transform’? Can it be ‘an instrument of change’?

Rankine talks about Chloe Hooper’s book The Tall Man, Hooper writing: ‘I had wanted to know more about my country and now I knew more than I wanted to.’

Isn’t that what writing is about – wanting to know more, daring to find out, being brave enough to inhabit a place even when you know it might be uncomfortable, even though you might find out that you are the stranger?  One of my favourite ‘writer-quotes’ comes from Jonathan Safran Foer.  He said write about those things that you are most afraid of.  I think he said this in 2005, from memory, when doing an author tour of his book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Why?  Because, he says, sometimes they turn out to be the same things everyone else is afraid of too.  Again, the threading together of a relationship.

When I write I like to imagine myself into place until I feel the air on my skin, until I begin to breathe in the atmosphere. I want to feel goose-bumps, I want smell and taste being there – on the beach, for example, on the Sunshine Coast with my bare toes digging into the hot sand when my father is dying in a nursing home, knowing he is finding it hard to breathe because his lungs refuse to keep working the way they should, or the experience of hanging washing on a Hills Hoist in the yard for the first time as a new migrant, the feeling of being out in the open, beneath a sky that is so monstrously large and so deeply blue it will swallow you up.  I want to know what it feels like again to get that jolt, feel fear.  To be transformed myself and then find language to best describe that sensation, those feelings, to bring the experience to life.


I love the idea that writing about place – writing in general – might have the power to be an ‘instrument of change’.  Perhaps it could be argued that there isn’t much writing these days that actively sets out to change, though no doubt Overland is a good example of writing that does set out to say, in essence, ‘Things should be better than they are’, and Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man clearly aimed to not only document but go beyond the status quo.  Moving on from place (though perhaps we’re not at all!), you often talk about ‘the body’ – of things being of the body, of bodies in context, of bodies in time, of bodies being transformed.   This might be considered unusual when writing and reading is often considered to be a cerebral activity.  What is it about ‘the body’ that intrigues you the most?


The body, the body, the body.  My first response is why not, what is there not to intrigue.  It’s the thing that we are writing with after all – all flesh and bump, all bone and blood.  The body is so present in life – it is what makes us alive.  It’s what we have to care for, to use (or abuse) until we die.  If it weren’t for the body we simply wouldn’t be here.

Another response is about not wanting to be a split self (as much as that is possible, mind), I want to integrate, be whole – write and read with everything I have, my whole body.  Although as I write this I know there are inherent contradictions to this because the act of writing itself splits the self – this is something I’ve borrowed from Margaret Atwood – ‘the doubleness of the writer qua writer’ – or the writer as writer.

Which brings me to story.

The main reason I am interested in the body is because of story.  Stories inhabit the body They dwell in us, they make us who we are.  And not just real bodies, but imagined bodies.  Because when we read, we allow these stories to transfer from one to the other – carry across into a new body.  It’s transgressive.

A related response has to be something to do with my feminism and the notion of reclaiming the body, putting our bodies, my (female) body at the centre like ‘everybody’, giving it equal space/place – recognising who we are and giving the body value. The opposite to doing this is to create a hierarchy of ‘importance’ (i.e. put the mind over body), and rate the mind as first-class and the body that is female as second class. It connects back to space.  For this reason I love the writing of French theorist Hélène Cixous who writes about these things.  She says that at the heart of écriture féminine is ‘the desire to set up a non-acquisitional space’, that is, the desire to create a space of writing or story-exchange where we explore the self and the non-self, or ‘the other’, with respect and harmony and graciousness – mutual love.

Of course, an even deeper response for me is to do with how I was brought up – and so not about feminism at all which came later as a surprise – but with those first twenty or more years of my life of being inculcated with religious notions of the body.  This bit is a bit hush, hush really; it’s something I didn’t want to admit to for so long, I found it shameful (which has its own piquant ironies given what we’re talking about here). The way I was brought up was simple: first (and in present tense too, to indicate the always-always of it), there is no body, the body doesn’t exist; and second, if it did ‘present’ itself and if it did exist, then the body is evil, of the devil.  The way I thought of myself was as a head only, cut off completely from my body neck down – I was in denial and very afraid.  But this is completely ridiculous because the thing is, the body asserts itself, it is amazing, it demands to be listened to, insists on being taken notice of.  The body refuses to lie down.  It won’t be relegated to hell – no, no, no.  What’s intriguing of course – ironic, wonderful, contagious and wholly transgressive, as anyone brought up in a very religious home would know – is that the very language used to talk about all ‘godly things’ is ALL to do with the body – flesh, tongues, bones, blood, skin; being unclean, being washed and unwashed.  It’s all so physical and all so delicious.


How wonderful to talk about the body in such open terms – and to talk about the transgressiveness of the body.  We could go to some extraordinary places with this, but I might take it a slightly different way (because my traditional, middle-class, North Shore, private-school Anglican upbringing is telling me to shy away from discussing such matters, particularly in a public forum).  Do you believe that the responsibility of good writing is to be transgressive, that writing should go beyond the limits or boundaries, especially of social acceptability?  Or, putting it a slightly different way, that good writing is inherently transgressive?  It strikes me that if writing is to go into the ‘new’, then it would be impossible for it to not be transgressive.


Yes, we have to make choices. I think it all depends where the line is, doesn’t it, where those limits sit? When writing, it all depends how far you (a writer) will go into the new, how close to your own personal line you are happy to get. And perhaps what the colour of new looks to you. It will be different for different writers, and different for the same writers at different times. If you look more closely, the word transgressing means to ‘step across’, ‘go’. I like the two approaches these meanings suggest – the idea that you have to step in the first place and step across something too – the line you’ve drawn in the sand, the river of currents you’re a bit afraid of, the resistance you’ve imagined – and the idea of going – go, go, just do it. I’m thinking here of the verb transgress, the action of it, the doing, going, trying, being. Verbs are great, they insist on action – get up off the couch, they cry – they’re a writer’s friend. Transgression gets easier in writing, I have found, as you write, the more your write, a bit in the same way writing out memories will populate more memories. The allowance is measured out through the process itself. After a bit, in the doing, the resistances you might have had in the beginning – such as, I won’t talk about more personal aspects of my life, my religious upbringing or my politics and I definitely won’t mention my mother – fade away and become less important. The ‘not doing’ something doesn’t matter – the stopping bit, the resisting. Anyway, boundary riders play safe, and are boring (so too are those writers who think only in terms of responsibilities: you have to set yourself free of duty). What rises up and takes over – what matters – is what it is you want to say, the fashioning of those thoughts, the impulse to stretch yourself so much that you surprise yourself utterly because you’ve not been in that new step-across space ever before: you ask, did I just say that?  You get excited because whatever it is that you’ve hit on is so new and fresh it’s like a deeply yellow runny egg.  It’s lovely.  But it’s also sometimes dangerous (not sure that the egg metaphor will stretch this far!).  Uncomfortable.  This thing that you’ve hooked onto has a wildness to it so that you have to look at it side on.  Writing in this way does take some boldness but the rewards are very great.


It’s sometimes dangerous, uncomfortable. This thing that you’ve hooked onto has a wildness to it so that you have to look at it side on.’ You’re currently Program Director, Creative Writing, at RMIT.  What is the role of tertiary writing courses in reaching for this danger and discomfort?


When we talk about the creative writing classroom and the idea of risk, I think of beauty, because like beauty, risk is in the eye of the beholder.  Every student of creative writing will have a different level of risk they are challenging themselves with.  For some it will be about pushing themselves to write a story that they’ve always wanted to write but have never had the courage to do so until now.  For another, it will be about sharing their work with others in the classroom – they’ve never done this before, certainly not sharing work that really matters for them.  For yet another student, taking a risk is all about publication, about being brave enough to send their work to someone ‘outside the family’, someone unknown.  Learning how to take a risk even when it is a bit dangerous and a bit uncomfortable, even when there is the very real possibility of failure and rejection (and oh boy, this could be a whole other direction we could keep talking about!), is about being brave.  Daring yourself to do it. Setting your own goals. Striving to meet them whatever they are.  Not giving up.

Creative writing classrooms create a space for this bravery – permission to fail, optimism about the act itself, the doing of it – to share experience and techniques in order to help develop a robust writing practice.  And it does happen.  Writing students do take risks. There is a feeling of danger in the air, anticipation, excitement.  As a teacher of writing, you really do feel you are entering a new space too, like your students, a creative space, and one full of surprise.

Be brave: it’s the same ‘call to arms’ that you have for Verity La, so you know what I am talking about.  What matters is the doing of it, it’s an imperative – ah, there’s that verb thing again.  It’s not about thinking about being brave, nor pretending to be brave either; it’s certainly not a dreaming-one-day-I-will-do-it-when-I-have-time kind of braveness. It’s simply right now, in this moment, harnessing both the being part and the brave part.  When we look up the word brave in the dictionary, we see it has to do with ideas of courage and endurance in the Macquarie, also this: ‘making a fine appearance’.  And in the Australian Oxford, there is also this: ‘splendid, spectacular’.  In all, a curious, buoyant note to finish on, you have to agree.