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.