The books of life: By the Book by Ramona Koval

By the Book Ramona KovalThis feature interview was first published in The Big Issue no. 421.


Text Publishing
9781922079060
November 2012 (buy hardcover, ebook)

Ramona Koval’s enthusiastic explorations of literature would be familiar not only to those who enjoyed her long-running ABC Radio National program, The Book Show, but also to audiences at writers’ festivals around the world. As an interviewer, she is informed, curious and bold, coaxing a multitude of insights from her subjects. In By the Book, Koval swings the spotlight on herself and asks how a life of books has informed her as a person.

Central to Koval’s development, growing up in St Kilda and North Balwyn in Melbourne, was her mother, a Polish Jew with an amazing story of her own. Koval opens By the Book with an image of her mother, stretched out on the divan, lost in a book. Koval’s mother read in multiple languages and had a fondness for banned books. She would regularly take her young daughter to a mobile library, which ‘introduced her to a different world’. This was important, Koval writes, because as a child she ‘didn’t exactly have wide horizons to survey’. Books provided those.

Ramona Koval

Ramona Koval

Koval describes the books we keep close as presenting an ‘archaeology of interests’, and says those she selected for discussion in her own book were ‘the ones that were crucial milestones for me in some kind of way’. From the works of French novelist Colette to books on polar exploration, European and absurd literature, language books, feminist books, and the poetry of science, Koval’s reading interests have been broad. In her reflections on reading, she wonders about whether there is a ‘right time’ to encounter a certain work while arguing that books can, undeniably, shape you. Koval felt this acutely while gripped by Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watchtower just this year, and believes if she’d read the novel at a young age, it might have changed the course of her life. ‘I saw several episodes in my own life mirrored in its pages,’ she writes.

On the other hand, Koval admits that worth classics she’s interested in reading—such as the Sagas of Iceland—have sometimes failed to draw her in. ‘You’ve got limited time,’ she says. ‘I always think that if you give a book a while and then you don’t fall into it, you just have to put it away and come to it another time, or not come to it at all.’

Along with genuine insights on reading itself, Koval’s book is personal. We learn about the author’s young life, her passion for science, and her adventures (and disappointments) in love. We also get to travel with her, through her own experiences and through associated literature. One such adventure is going dog-sledding in the Algonquin State Park, three hours north of Toronto. Koval also shares some of her encounters with authors, such as Grace Paley and Oliver Sacks.

She acknowledges the privileges her career as a broadcaster has afforded her. ‘It has been fantastic; my own Open University,’ she says. ‘You can learn a lot of things by reading books, but for some books I think you do need to have a tutor—some fantastic person who can say to you “look at this” or “this means that”’.

Koval herself has opened up worlds for others in her years as a broadcaster. She admits that her reading choices have mainly been governed by whatever happened to interest her personally, ‘whether it was a book about sand or some short stories from Romania’.

It’s a formula that seems to have worked. ‘It turned out that other people loved [these works] too,’ Koval says. ‘Many people sidled up to me and said, you know, “your program was my education. I never would have read those books if I hadn’t heard about them”’. Koval always enjoyed this aspect of her work. ‘It’s not like you’re powerful; it’s more like you’ve got something to share that’s valuable. People are enriched by it.’

Koval is now working on, and planning, multiple projects that will make the most of her enthusiasm and talents. And she continues to be a great reader, keeping up on reviews in various publications. ‘Reviews are so hard, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘Because you have to trust the reviewer, and even then you’ve got to know a little bit of backstory about why they feel that way about that book, or whether they’ve got an axe to grind in some way.’

There are still many books on Koval’s shelves and in her ereader that she’d love to get to. ‘Sometimes you feel like: I’m actually gorging on books and I’m going to be sick if I don’t stop it,’ she laughs. ‘You know, you can have too much ice cream.’ But reading, for Koval, is a unique pleasure; something she describes in By the Book as ‘private and reverential’. It’s an activity that can transport us ‘from our prosaic lives to anywhere we care to imagine’. She writes: ‘While our world looks small on the outside, it’s huge on the inside, in the magical spaces between the page and our absorption.’

Trauma, kindness & starting with a bang: Jessie Cole on Darkness on the Edge of Town

Jessie Cole

Fourth Estate, 2012
9780732293192

(buy paperbackebook)

A woman crashes her car outside Vincent’s house. Vincent attempts to help the woman, and the baby in her arms, which may not have survived the crash. Rachel is her name and her arrival will have repercussions for Vincent and his daughter Gemma, and will draw attention (and judgment) in town. Darkness on the Edge of Town is Jessie Cole’s gripping and emotionally intelligent debut novel. Jessie and I have been getting to know each other for a little while now, sending missives from my urban jungle to her forest and back again, about animals, books, children, place, and more. I finally sent through a few questions to Jessie in order to introduce her, and Darkness, to you:

Darkness on the Edge of Town has ‘thrilling’ aspects, it moves along, it’s compelling, but I’d say it’s a character-driven novel. Could you tell us a bit about setting up the situation, and then letting it unfold? About pacing the story? How much of the whole story did you have when you began writing?

Good question! Firstly, the MS I’d written before Darkness was a very personal ‘family saga’ kind-of-story, set across several generations, and I decided after I finished writing it that I really enjoyed reading books that were more just a snippet of time. Stories that simply picked up in a certain part of someone’s life and stayed with them for a bit. I liked the immediacy of those stories, and the way they almost felt like they were told in real-time. And I suppose, I liked the smallness of them. And that was about as far as I’d gotten in terms of thinking consciously about what I wanted to write next. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was ‘a writer.’ Only that sometimes I wrote.

darkness on the edge of townThen, the whole of Darkness came to me in a one big blast late at night. Beginning to end. Hit me like a whack across the back of the head. I have no real explanation for why or how that happened, but it was a very powerful moment and I knew from the outset that it was something special, something whole. It’s difficult to explain how a fully-formed story could come all-at-once, how it could even fit inside a mind in one instant, but it did. I didn’t think at all about setting up the situation, I just sat down and let Vincent talk. I imagined myself as a stranger in a pub who struck up a conversation with him. Him telling me his story— among all the noise and cacophony—and the story being just so hard and so strong he had to get it off his chest. The intimacy of it thrilled me. I wrote the first 20,000 words in a week.

In my mind Vincent and Gemma and Rachel were all compelling characters in traumatic but oddly intimate circumstances, and I was enthralled by them. Part way through the book I realised that I was writing something with some elements of a thriller. This was not purposeful, it was just how it came out. I’m not much of a deliberate writer. I don’t like to plan or over-think things. I do know that when I write I am looking to be thrilled—to feel a kind of wave or nervous tremor of emotion or sensation—and I do use this as a guide to know I’m on the right track. I didn’t think about pacing, the story had its own momentum. I trusted it. At some stage I saw Sonya Hartnett speak at the Byron Bay Writers’ Fest, and she said something along the lines of: ‘I like to start with a bang and end with a bang and have lots of bangs in between’. And I realised that this was what I was doing with Darkness.

Although Sonya Hartnett does plot out her novels, with different coloured sticky notes for different characters or something like that, I’ve been told! That’s what works for her. It fascinates me how each writer approaches a book or a story so differently (and it can be different for each book, too).

Yes, everyone works very differently. Sonya Hartnett has written so many novels, she must have it absolutely down-pat! I guess I just meant that last comment about the bangs in terms of pacing. When I heard Sonya say that, I realised that’s what I was aiming for in the pacing of Darkness, even though I hadn’t really known it. And yes, I think each book is different. I like what Jonathon Franzen says about how you have to become the person who can write the book you want to write, and how with each book you probably have to become a new person.

The connection that forms between the two young women in Darkness, Rach and Gemma, adds a layer to the story. They each come alive a little bit, and maybe grow and make some sense of what is happening to them (separately and together) through their conversations. Could you comment on this aspect of the novel?

I’m very interested in the power inherent in the kindness of strangers. I think in some ways Gemma’s generosity towards Rachel is a bit of a surprise. Teens are notoriously self-centred and maybe—in the circumstances—it would be natural for Gemma to be quite hostile and territorial. But she isn’t. I think that’s because she’s got this wonderful mix of knowingness and openness; she’s also hungry for adult wisdom and it’s in short supply. People who’ve been deprived can start to bloom with the smallest smatterings of attention, and I think Rachel and Gemma give this to each other in as much as they are able. To be truly heard is a powerful thing, and a lot of the time we don’t give each other that gift. I suppose I wanted to show how a kind of openness to connection can build something worthwhile and healing between people, even in the least likely of situations. I’m also interested in the idea of family. In Darkness none of the three main characters are related by blood, but the bonds that they form are, in many ways, familial. In our culture ideas about family can be so narrow. So nuclear. I guess I wanted to question that a little. What makes a family? How do they form?

I want to ask about the small town Australian setting. It’s really as rich as a setting can be, with its history and tensions, and its rituals (thinking about Gem drinking Jim Beam and Coke from a bottle, fumbling in her friend’s bedroom). How is the setting integral to the story?

This small-town-question always leaves me a little stumped. I know that sounds ridiculous because Darkness is so completely a small town story, but it’s really hard for me to have a lot of perspective on that. I’ve lived in the same small town almost all of my life. It’s funny, when people come to visit who haven’t been to my place before, they always say something along the lines of: ‘Wow, you really live in the middle of nowhere!’ And I always reply: ‘What do you mean? This is the centre of the universe!’ Which is, of course, a joke. But in a sense it’s also true, in that it is the centre of my universe. It’s the only way of living that I really understand with any depth.

In terms of how the setting of Darkness is integral to the story, I suppose for the characters of Vincent and Gemma it is that ambivalent mixture of security and claustrophobia. That sense that they are ‘known’ by the people around them, which is in some ways affirming, but that they are also judged or pigeonholed by who they once were, or how their lives have played out thus far. In a small town the past is not a foreign country. It’s a tangible presence that everyone remembers. And on top of that is the way that the private can be translated in small communities. I mean, once you drive up your driveway in the country no-one knows what goes on inside your house. You have no close neighbours to listen to the rhythms of the household, so I think people make up stories about each other based on whatever facts are at hand, but often these stories lack subtlety, or even truth. Maybe the difference in the city is that people don’t assume they know anything much about the people around them, whereas in a small town more assumptions are made. In Darkness, Vincent struggled to communicate what was happening between him and Rachel. He knew that he’d never be able to explain, but that all sorts of judgments would be made. The friction between what is really happening in the private sphere and what the town at large assumes—and how these assumptions play out—creates a lot of tension in the story.

Just as an aside, I think our culture favours the ‘escape’ narrative. The story where we escape our past and start our lives anew. Makeover. Transformation. Alteration. Just look at how many films turn on that fantasy. Especially now, when moving is so accessible. In some ways it is seen as a type of failure not to leave your past behind. And it is almost a given that anyone with any prospects should leave a small town and make something better of their lives. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. And I’m interested in stories about people who decide to stay. I’m not sure how apparent it is in Darkness, but I feel there is a different kind of bravery required to live with your past, and it isn’t something that is celebrated all that much.

Check out Jessie Cole’s website.

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012: how did I go?

awwc2012After completing the recent survey on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website I decided it was time I looked at my reading and reviewing of books by Australian women writers in 2012.

On the Overland website Jane Gleeson-White has declared 2012 the year of Australian women writers, and has provided a fantastic summary of the year in relation to the challenge, the Stella Prize, and the success of female Australian writers in prestigious literary awards. Founder of the AWWC, Elizabeth Lhuede, has also written an extensive report on the challenge for the Huffington Post.

Collective blog/reviewing challenges aren’t something I usually partake in. There are many demands on my reading already (for Uni, for specific festivals and events, for commissioned reviews) but I thought this challenge was important. Personally, in previous years where I’d recorded my reading, I had noticed a bias (about 60-70%) towards books by male authors. I’m not alone in that, it’s something that has been well recorded and discussed recently (and is one of the reasons Lhuede began this challenge). I wanted to consciously break that habit, and share reviews of some of the books I came across. I also probably don’t have to explain the significance for me, as a writer of fiction and nonfiction and someone who intends to have a future in this industry, to publicly address a bias such as this.

So here are the books I have read (so far) by Australian women writers in 2012. See the hyperlinks for any reviews or interviews, and feel free to ask me about any of the others in the comments section below.

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (young adult, review)
A Common Loss by Kirsten Tranter (literary thriller, review)
Careless by Deborah Robertson (literary/general)
Sweet Old World by Deborah Robertson (literary/character story, feature interview)
The Sea Bed by Marele Day (literary, review)
Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood (popular, mention)
When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett (speculative, review)
The Fine Colour of Rust by PA O’Reilly (general/humour, review)
The Beloved by Annah Faulkner (literary, review [might need subscription])
The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster (literary)
The Meaning of Grace by Deborah Forster (literary)
Knucked by Fiona Wright (poetry)
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (historical, review)
Taking Shelter by Jessica Anderson (literary, classic author, review)
Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire (literary/general, mention)
The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson (classic, review)
Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire (literary/general, feature interview)
My Hundred Lovers by Susan Johnson (literary/general)
After the Darkness by Honey Brown (crime)
Nine Days by Toni Jordan (historical/general, review & ‘five facts‘)
Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe (short fiction)
The Blood Countess by Tara Moss (popular/supernatural, mention)
All the Way Home by Kristin Henry (verse novel, review)
Hannah and Emil by Belinda Castles (historical, interview)
The Burial by Courtney Collins (historical, interview)
Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth (literary)
Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith (literary/general, interview)
By the Book by Ramona Koval (memoir/nonfiction, do check out my feature interview with Ramona in the current Big Issue)
Darkness on the Edge of Town by Jessie Cole (literary/general/thriller, interview)
The Spider Goddess by Tara Moss (popular/supernatural, mention)
Black Spring by Alison Croggon (young adult, possible review forthcoming depending on Xmas madness)

I also read my friend Amy Barker’s excellent manuscript Paradise Earth, and I read many poems, short stories and essays by Aus women writers throughout the year in journals and anthologies.

fortunes of richard mahonySo far this year I’ve only read an abysmal 67 books in full (I have started a lot more…). 31 of them were by Australian women and more than half of them were by women in general, so I have done well at creating a positive bias this year. My absolute favourite book that I read this year was The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson. I wonder if I would have read Mahony if I hadn’t done the challenge? When The Lifted Brow asked me to review one of the Text Classics I deliberately went for a female author, and ended up with Mahony. It was worth doing the challenge for that alone: one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had.

Will I be doing the challenge in 2013? Not exactly.The challenge has done the trick of making me more aware of my reading choices and has helped me discover some amazing literature. But I don’t need to do it as a challenge in 2013, I’ll just be more considered each time I face the pile. I’m also taking a month’s break from social media in January (!) in order to finish my thesis, and just to give myself some head space. So I’d prefer not to take on any specific challenges. I’ll have plenty of good reading to get on with for the Perth Writers Festival…

Please feel free to link to your own round-ups of the AWWC in the comments below!

The alpha brother: Annabel Smith on Whisky Charlie Foxtrot

Fremantle Press, November 2012
9781922089144
(buy paperback, ebook)

Whisky and Charlie are identical twins, but they couldn’t be more different. Whisky is in a coma after a serious accident, and Charlie has to face up to the kind of brother—and person—he’s become. Whisky Charlie Foxtrot moves between the brothers’ earlier lives and their difficult present. It’s a great read; warm, multi-layered, moving, and satisfying. I asked the author, Annabel Smith, a few questions about the novel…

I’d like to ask first about the brothers. Very slowly throughout the narrative you reveal that, while Whisky is certainly no angel, Charlie may have also been pretty hard on him. Could you tell us a bit about developing the relationship between the brothers?

In my first draft of WCF I believed I was writing a book about a decent guy and his wanky, unscrupled ‘evil’ twin. I got to around Chapter seven (Golf) and Whisky was getting pasted. Then, my friend and mentor, Richard Rossiter, guided me to introduce a crisis into the story, to add drama in the relationship, and thus, Whisky’s coma was born. After that it became challenging to hold onto my idea of Whisky because it feels wrong to tell nasty stories about someone who is in a coma! As my perspective on Whisky shifted, so too did my perspective on Charlie. Charlie’s realisation—that Whisky might not be all bad and that he himself might have played a part in the demise of their relationship—was really my own realisation about the truth of their relationship.

It’s great that you’ve maintained that process of realisation for the reader. So when you decided to make a coma the crisis, how did you go about it? It seems like you’ve done research not just into the coma state but into the ways that people deal it.

You’re right, I had to understand coma both in a medical sense and also in terms of its impact on family and friends. For a long time, I wasn’t sure whether Whisky would recover from the coma or not. So I needed to know for how long someone could plausibly remain in a coma; what kind of therapy they would receive and other health threats they might face while in a coma state. In case Whisky woke up, I researched recovery, rehabilitation and the physical and mental implications of long-term coma states. In the event that he would not recover, I explored right-to-life issues and the euthanasia process. The last thing I wanted was for readers to pick holes in the science. So I gathered statistics, diagrams of the brain, explanations of testing procedures and diagnostic tools etc. I don’t really have a science brain so it was pretty heavy-duty reading for me!

I used both medical and anecdotal sources and came across some amazing recovery stories and also many heartbreaking accounts without happy endings. There are lots of forums on the internet for the loved ones of comatose patients and they were an excellent source of material. People contribute advice about things they’ve learned along the way, tips on what helps them get through; some just need an outlet to share their stories with others who understand what they’re going through.

As well as information that had dramatic possibilities, I gathered details that would help to make the story feel real, especially to readers who might have some knowledge of coma, all of which were collated into a giant tome which I printed out and carried round with me for months on end. I was so happy to retire that wad of papers, I can tell you.

I’d like to ask about using the phonetic alphabet to build the structure of the book, and to introduce characters and themes. I think it works so well. Did you have that in place from the beginning? Were there ever any issues adhering to it?

The alphabet was in place right from the start. It was a great springboard for giving me ideas about episodes in the twins’ lives. But it also posed some challenges. Any of the chapters with names (Charlie, Juliet, Oscar) were simple—they became character names. But ‘Yankee’ kept me awake at night. For a long time I had no idea how I was going to work that in. Others posed problems in terms of chronology. X-ray, for instance, was an easy idea to work in, given that Whisky was hospitalised, but I really wanted that information to appear earlier in the novel. I had to do some tricky manoeuvring, like using flashbacks, to make some of the chapters work.

You said you received some valuable advice from Richard Rossiter while writing the book. At what point do you show your work to others? Is it something you’d encourage all writers to do?

I was part of a writing trio (with Amanda Curtin and Robyn Mundy) while writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, so I started showing drafts to them almost from the start. I found it really helpful to have feedback at an early stage, when I was still uncertain about the voice, the style and whether the story was appealing or compelling to readers. Once I got on a roll with it, I had more confidence and felt less in need of ongoing feedback. After finishing the first draft, I sought more feedback, and from a wider circle. I think it’s critical to have perceptive readers whose feedback you trust to look at your work. If you can find the right person/people, they can support you when you lose faith in yourself, brainstorm a way through issues in the text, and notice things you can no longer see because you’re too immersed in the work. I have no doubt that the feedback I received made my book stronger and more satisfying to read.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

Review of All the Way Home by Kristin Henry on Cordite

My latest review for Cordite Poetry Review is of Kristin Henry’s compelling, neatly written verse novel All the Way Home. It’s about Jesse, the son of a travelling salesman, who falls in love and takes his small family to go live on a commune in NSW. The book is full of tension, music, and careful imagery. Read the full review, in the Cordite style with plenty of samples from the book, here.

Dignified survival: Courtney Collins on The Burial

Allen & Unwin
September 2012
9781743311875
(buy paperback, ebook)

When Courtney Collins’ debut novel The Burial landed in my pile last month, it went straight to the top. Set in the early C20th, it’s inspired by the story of Australia’s last bushranger, Jessie Hickman. Jessie has done something she can’t turn back from, and spends the majority of the novel on the run. It’s blood, bone, grit and earth, but peacefulness too—the quiet of the dead; of being underground or being far above the world, far up the side of a mountain. The peace of an unexpected friendship, or for the other characters, a respite from your obligations: a beautiful tattooed woman; a drug haze.

Warren Ellis providing a cover quote for this novel may tell you more than even the quote itself. The Burial slots in nicely with contemporary Aus Gothic works like Chris Womersley’s Bereft, Patrick Holland’s The Mary Smokes Boys and films like The Proposition, while being entirely different; entirely Collins’ own. I asked her a few questions about the novel…

I want to ask first about the tone, and aesthetic, of The Burial. I feel it was important for you to get that right. I see it as Aus Gothic, almost glamorously gritty. Could you tell us a bit about this?

Courtney Collins                                c/o A&U & Lionfish Media

I’ve been interested in the Gothic, more particularly, the Southern Gothic, for a while. Initially, it wasn’t deliberate. Then one day I identified that my all-time favourite writers—Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, Cormac McCarthy, were all writing out of that tradition. So I began to look at why that was drawing me in.

For me, those writers give voice to characters who might be judged at first glance as ‘oppressed’. Often coming from poverty or violence, they don’t necessarily rise above it, as much as continue to move through it in a way that is dignified and surprising. Take the teenage Mick Kelly in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, obsessive about music, longing for a piano and practicing for hours and hours a day, or Janie unashamedly sexual and aching for her own fulfilment in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Or John Grady Cole in All The Pretty Horses whose goodness comes from within, not from observing the laws or abiding the strictures of the day. You know, they’re all dancing to their own beat.

So The Burial has all of the tropes of the Southern Gothic—its full of hard-luck and derelict settings, racism and violence. There’s probably a whole thesis in how the Southern Gothic and the Australian Gothic differ (and it’s actually more satisfying to test it out in fiction) but I’ll have a go…

The way I think it is different is the relationship that settlers here have had with the landscape, and perhaps an abiding fear of it. Freud has an essay called ‘The Uncanny’ that describes it well, using the German word ‘unheimlich’, as in how the homely is made to be unhomely.

But I didn’t want to wall myself in with this idea. After all, the landscape invokes awe as much as fear. Besides, the characters are the thing. And they should rip right through it with no regard for the tropes of a genre!

Jessie is certainly ‘dancing to her own beat’ through the narrative, while being plagued by threat and danger. I suppose the term ‘survivor’ is too reductive, as you’ve explained the complexity of these kinds of characters above. But what drew you to her, specifically? How did she form?

In some ways, Jessie came to me fully formed. Jessie Hickman, the woman who inspired the story, was very, very good at escapes and true to form, in writing her there were times I found her illusive, and not wanting to be captured or conjured.

But there was a moment when we collided and in a sense I had to lend this character some of my own flesh and blood. And by that I mean I went through many experiences in my life while I was writing the book considering how Jessie would interpret events but more, how she would feel in this landscape or that and what would keep her spirit so tuned to life and surviving, when all around her, there is death.

Truthfully, when I finished writing the book, I felt bewildered by her absence, after being in her company for so long.

I rarely hear a writer admit that, about becoming attached to their character/s. What about the setting? Have you spent much time in that kind of landscape? And how did you recreate the era?

I’ve spent some proper time in the country. I grew up in a small country town in NSW and then after years of living in cities I began to really yearn for more space, for life in the bush. A lot of the novel was written where I live now, in an old postmaster’s cottage on the Goulburn River in Victoria.

Living here it’s not such a stretch to imagine the world of the novel. We still have to chop wood for fires, try to grow our own food and find ways to manage the isolation of it. It’s not until I drive into Melbourne that I actually notice how dusty and covered with dog hair I am.

Sounds lovely. I love the opening, with Houdini, and how it sits in the back of your mind throughout. A trick, a narrow escape and a gruesome surprise… Can I also ask about the unconventional choice of narrator, who comes in just after this?

When I had my first go at telling this story, I tried to tell it from Jessie’s first person p.o.v. I had her prison mugshot staring down at me and I laboured over the telling for about a year. It didn’t work at all. It was a first drawn out attempt and it was a failure. The reason it failed was because I was trying to put poetry and whimsy into this woman’s mouth yet what I was discovering about her character was that she was a woman of few words. Jessie is all about action. And in ways she was hardened. So to me, the baby was part of that buried self, that innocent trusting self that was so far from the Jessie that we meet. Thinking back, it was my first tingling moment, actually understanding what other writers talk about when they say they ‘discovered the voice’ of their novel. After acknowledging the failure and then pressing on came the voice of the kid. It was an insistent voice and my way of capturing it was to write it and then speak it aloud as the measure. It was a call to its mother. It had to be lyrical. It had to be sweet to the ear.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

Home, strange home: Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire

Picador, 9781742610832
September 2012 (buy paperback, ebook)

A version of this article was originally published in The Big Issue no. 415.

Somewhere around the six-week mark of Emily Maguire’s 2008 visit to Hanoi, she realised she was in love: ‘Actual love—the kind where you wake up smiling in anticipation, and you fall asleep deeply, deeply happy every night,’ she says.

Maguire was working in the English translation department of a Vietnamese publishing house as part of a residency through the cross-cultural institution Asialink, and says falling for the city took her entirely by surprise.

‘I’ve travelled quite a bit and I can find something to appreciate or enjoy about almost everywhere I’ve been, but I’ve never had the experience of loving a place like that’. Hanoi became the setting for Fishing for Tigers, the acclaimed author and journalist’s latest novel.

It’s the story of thirty-something Mischa, who has been living in Hanoi for six years, bearing the scars of an abusive relationship. She is satisfied, living day-to-day, in Vietnam. Then an ex-pat friend introduces her to his 18-year-old Vietnamese-Australian son. Cal is attractive, idealistic and kind. Mischa and Cal explore the city, exchanging ideas. They also begin to explore each other.

‘Mischa is not in Vietnam during a time of war, but she is, like Thomas Fowler [of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American], resistant to the idea that anything going on around her is her business,’ Maguire explains. ‘She thinks of herself as outside of Vietnam’s social and political history and present circumstances. She thinks of herself as a disinterested observer, but Cal forces her to face up to her own complicity.’

Emily Maguire

Cal causes an awakening in Mischa, as do the stories of the Vietnamese women Mischa encounters through her work. ‘Vietnamese history—ancient and recent—is full of stories about incredible female warriors and Mischa admires them even as she recognises that the on-paper veneration of powerful women does not carry over to their lived experience,’ Maguire says. ‘The truly impressive thing about Vietnamese women warriors is that they sacrificed themselves for the good of their people. Mischa has been, necessarily, very self-centred for years… But [her] intensifying relationship with Cal forces her to think about herself again as someone whose actions and words affect others.’

This is compounded when Mischa’s sister back in Sydney becomes very ill. For Mischa, Maguire says, ‘that tension between self-protection/fulfilment and care for others becomes kind of unbearable.’

In Fishing for Tigers, Mischa and Cal’s relationship is treated with maturity, as are the other complex, charged bonds between characters in Maguire’s novels Taming the Beast (2004), The Gospel According to Luke (2006) and Smoke in the Room (2009). It’s plausible that the characters are drawn together, and their age difference is not sensationalised. Concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are explored as being both separate, and fluid. Maguire herself feels ‘powerfully tempted’ to stay in Vietnam whenever she is there, but says she also misses her family back in Sydney. ‘If I’m away, I’m missing them painfully and if I’m home, I’m yearning to be gone. Still, it’s a nice tension—being pulled between love and wonder and back again.’

In the character of Mischa, Maguire is investigating a more extreme and disorienting form of tension between competing ideas of home. Mischa has come to Vietnam to remove herself from a damaging situation. ‘Home has been kind of a horror for her,’ Maguire explains. ‘But even as she comes to love Hanoi, she doesn’t “belong” there in any real sense of the word. She doesn’t speak the language or have more than a shallow understanding of the culture,’ Maguire continues. ‘And yet, in terms of feeling a sense of rightness with where she is… then that’s Hanoi. It doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t be true and yet it is. She feels right being there and that’s that.’

Cal’s background provides contrasting ideas of belonging. He is overwhelmed by many aspects of Vietnam, including what he perceives as commercialisation and Westernisation. In the scene where Mischa and Cal visit the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground network that once served as a base for Viet Cong guerrillas, Cal, disturbed, asks: ‘What kind of country turns this kind of shit into a goddamn tourist park?’ Mischa’s reply is: ‘Every kind.’

But there’s an awareness that grows in Cal, especially once he visits the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (which most of the characters still call ‘Saigon’): ‘He doesn’t want to think of Vietnam’s history as his, but it absolutely is,’ Maguire says. ‘His life is what it is, because his grandparents chose to take their kids and become part of the diaspora.’

As with Maguire’s other works, both fiction and nonfiction, the style is natural and elegant but the essence is deep. There are questions here of not just where but how and with whom (if anyone) a person can belong. And there are even bigger questions regarding one’s place in existence. The characters are memorable and the descriptions of place have the ability to stir longing in the reader.

Maguire has been back to Vietnam for at least a month every year since 2008. She’s seen significant changes in even this short time and, as her relationship with the city deepens and her experiences gain context, she begins to notice more, or see the same things differently. Now, the very familiarity of the place works on her: ‘[When] I arrive now I have this whole physiological reaction as soon as I hear and smell and breathe Hanoi. I feel lighter and happier and ultra-alert,’ she reflects. ‘I head out on long walks without a map and I feel alive and alert and weirdly, impossibly, home.’

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.