As Christmas 2019 approaches, my thoughts turn to the many different ways in which Christmas is experienced in Australia and around the world. Whether you see it as a religious celebration or an important cultural festivity (or both), each of us has our own take on the ‘season’. For many, it’s a precious time, an opportunity to get together with family, or friends, or neighbours, to share good food, perhaps exchange gifts, and relax as we move towards the end of another year. For others, it is a super-stressful time to be managed, coordinated and even endured, all the while hoping that the gifts bought are suitable, the food stretches far enough, and Uncle Bert doesn’t get too loudly tipsy. Yet others spend Christmas Day alone, whether by choice or necessity.
Which of the above group do you fall into? Or maybe your plans are hybrid – some time with loved ones and some much needed time alone? Or something completely different?
As we travel through the years, our Christmases change as we do. The thrill of Christmas in childhood, of trying to work out which of the mysteriously shaped packages under the tree are for you, morphs into sneaking presents into the house and hiding them in a spot where our own, or others’ children, won’t discover them. Family members come and go, new people are welcomed and others farewelled. And the elders in a family, who once held all the Christmas reins and (expertly or otherwise) guided Christmas activities year after year, become unable to do that because of ill health or other reasons.
So my Christmas post this year is a short story in honour of one of those elders, to whom I owe a thank you for many special Christmas memories of my own. It’s fiction, but I’m sure you’ll get the idea.
‘Please, can someone help me?’ I call for a nurse. It’s the tenth time tonight. I’ve slipped down the bed and I can’t sit up and I can’t reach the buzzer for help. Something’s wrong with my legs. I don’t know what happened to them or when.
My cheeks are wet. I stare out my window at the thin moon just beginning its rise into the night sky. It’s beautiful but my heart is pattering strangely. Am I frightened? It’s worse at night. I don’t think I used to be like this. It’s the spider webs in my head that make me fuzzy and slow and scared, all at once. Especially when the sun disappears each evening.
There’s a rustle and a nurse appears, wearing a tight, zipped up smile and a pink shirt.
‘What’s the matter, Ida?’ Her heels click as she walks to the bed.
‘I can’t…I can’t…’
Why is she here? Did I call her? I gaze up into her smooth young face, trying to remember. She puts an arm around my shoulder and slides me up onto the pillow.
‘Is that better? You were halfway down the bed!’
‘Katy? Are you Katy?’ I’m squinting to see her face in the half light.
‘I’m Sally, the night nurse,’ she chirrups. ‘I was here last night too, don’t you remember?’ She tidies my bedside table as she speaks, picking up a hairbrush, nail scissors and tissue box and lining them up in a row. I stare at these things. Where did they come from? I give her a watery smile and close my eyes. It doesn’t matter. Objects appear, disappear and reappear in my room every day. It’s very hard to keep track of things as well as thoughts.
I remember Katy, though, with her smooth red hair and soft hands. Katy visits, so the nurses tell me, though I don’t remember the last time I saw her. I strain and push inside my head but my treacherous memory fails me again. I like it when Katy comes. I taste strawberries when I think of her. I have a photo, somewhere, of Katy and me. We are at a table outside, eating strawberries. It must be summer, because I remember flowers in the garden beds nearby. There were eleven different flowers in the garden. I don’t know why I remember that and I don’t remember what type of flowers, but they were pretty. In the photo, Katy is laughing; her hair tumbled about her shoulders and her hand touching mine as we lean together across the table. I don’t know where that photo’s gone. I’d like to see it again. I’d like to see Katy again.
My lashes feel damp as I close my eyes and lay my head back on the pillow. The moon beckons, a peaceful quiet place where I’m not afraid. Murmurs drift towards me from the doorway as I sink into the pillowy softness.
Sally, the nurse, is speaking to someone.
‘I’m sorry, Katy, looks like she’s asleep…’
fourW is one of Australia’s longest running annual anthologies of new poetry and prose from Australian and international writers. It’s produced by Booranga Writers’ Centre at Charles Sturt university, Wagga Wagga NSW. I was thrilled to have a short story included in this year’s collection, the thirtieth edition.
You can find out more about Booranga Writers’ Centre here:
The Sydney launch of the anthology was on Saturday 7 December at Gleebooks in Glebe.
Contributors were invited to read from their work, so as the MC suggested, it was a smorgasbord of poetry and prose.
You can buy a copy of the anthology from Booranga Writers’ Centre at the link above. The proceeds support the continued work of the centre to nurture and publish new writing. A good cause for sure.
Reflections on the Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference 2019, 25/26 October, Parramatta NSW
1: It is enormously endearing for an audience to be referred to as ‘Dear hearts’, which Kate Forsyth (HNSA patron) did as she began her introductory address. She went on to deliver a call to action: to let everyone know of the active and vibrant community of lovers of historical fiction in our part of the world. https://hnsa.org.au/kate-forsyth/
2: Keynote speaker Paula Morris, from NZ, spoke of her Maori culture in which history is seen as a spiral, and reminded us that all characters are a combination of their past and present – and that ‘historical figures’ existed in their own contemporary world and didn’t know they were to become historical. Interesting to contemplate that for our own times and selves.
Literature can make visible the unbroken lines with the past and the unbroken lines to the future.Paula Morris
3: Jackie French, Conference Guest of Honour, never sets out to write a book- she writes scenes which then become a book.
4: Kelly Gardiner, in the session ‘The Versatile Writer’, divulged that she is working on a book about her Great Grandmother who was active in Australia’s Suffrage and Women’s Peace movements.
Definitely a book I’d like to read. https://hnsa.org.au/kelly-gardiner/
5: Jane Caro shares my interest in the life of Elizabeth I, so much so that she wrote a trilogy about her. In Jane’s view, female heroic figures often had to pay horribly for their independence. Not so Elizabeth, says Jane:
Elizabeth I became her own Prince and rescued herself.
6: Paula Morris again, on ‘Respectful research’:
Living in the internet era it’s easy to think we should have access to everything and all information. Not everyone has the right to everything. The notions of ‘no secrets’ and ‘nothing is sacred’ are problematic.Paula Morris
7: If you have emotional connection to a place it comes out naturally in the words you write. (Lucy Treloar on the resonance of place in fiction.) https://hnsa.org.au/lucy-treloar/
8: A strong pitch to a literary agent or publisher will contain the following: Emotion, a strong sense of the protagonist and their challenge, and the stakes will be clear. (First Pages Pitch Contest)
9: When considering using personal or family stories as the basis for fiction (yes, that’s me) look at one aspect or kernel of a story and expand your fiction around that, don’t try to tell the whole story (excellent advice from Nicole Alexander which spoke straight to me as I’m currently wrestling with these sorts of issues) https://hnsa.org.au/nicole-alexander/
10. Madison Shakespeare, a Gadigal woman living in Adelaide, spoke on the panel on Dispossession and Betrayal: Recovering the erased history of First Nations. She reminded us that we were on Dharug land – pertinent land for its history of dispossession and violence.
It’s difficult going back, looking back…Ancestors we thank you, for your tenacity, dignity and diplomacy.Madison Shakespeare https://hnsa.org.au/madison-shakespeare/
On the question of writers worrying that, if when writing about indigenous people or indigenous histories, they might ‘get it wrong’, Madison posed the question: How much more damage if you don’t do it at all?
11. The reason I love dual narrative or timeline books is this, as put by Carla Caruso:
There’s a point in your life when you realise realise that your parents, grandparents etc have experienced loss and heartache. That fashions and technologies change but we humans go on and we all want the same things: security, love, passion.Carla Caruso https://hnsa.org.au/carla-caruso/
12: Expert use of point of view allows the writer to take the reader by the hand and lead them through the story. It’s the first splash of colour on the page. Greg Johnson at the ‘I am a Camera: Exploring point of view’ panel session.
13. Juliet Marieller and Elizabeth Jane Corbett write strong female protagonists set during times in which women did not always have great agency or independence, by focusing on how they confront their challenges, find inner strength, have the courage to face truths and move forward.
14. Watching demonstrations of historical fencing over lunch is surprisingly engrossing.
15: Meg Keneally, when talking about the partnership between novelist and historian, described herself as historian Gay Hendriksen‘s
This in reply to Gay being asked by an audience member if she sometimes comes across a story from the historical record or archives and thinks I wish I could find a novelist to write that.
16: The second conference day (27th October) was the anniversary of the first ever female industrial action since colonisation: otherwise known as the 1827 ‘Parramatta Female Factory Riot‘.
17: Kate Forsyth has had enormous respect for the power of words since she delivered a magic curse to a bully in primary school and it worked.
Magic is for the powerless, when you want something so much you exert your full intention upon the universe until it comes true.
Kate told this story in the conference’s final session, Love Potions and Witchcraft.
18: As I suspected, the historical fiction writing community is friendly, energetic, encouraging and inclusive. And the HNSA puts on a jam-packed and satisfying conference. Thanks to all involved:
I had a ball.
Happy first birthday to my blog. Here’s what I’ve learnt in the past twelve months:
Blogging is fun! I had no idea when I started out a year ago whether I’d enjoy the process enough to sustain it over several months, let alone a year. I have enjoyed it way more than I’d expected, so I look forward with confidence to celebrating my second blogging birthday in 2020.
Blogging can be hard sometimes. This looks like I’m contradicting my first point, but actually no – an activity can be challenging and fun at the same time. In fact, I think the sense of achievement and enjoyment is increased if it’s also a little bit hard.
Blogging is a terrific way to establish a regular writing practice. Even at times when I have been ‘stuck’ on my other projects, sitting down at the keyboard to develop a blog post keeps me connected to the writing process. Committing to a weekly post means I’m always on the lookout for a topic, idea or experience that might just resonate with a reader.
Blogging is a great excuse to read a lot of books. My blog is not exclusively a book blog, but I do post many reviews – of books, but also an occasional movie, exhibition, play or concert. Anything that stirs the creative juices, teaches me something new, or reconnects me with things I enjoy.
So, Happy Birthday to my blog and if you have stumbled upon it in the past year, thanks for reading.
A whole day to listen to women’s stories. Told by women about women. That’s what the Heroines Festival promised, and it delivered. A day to nurture the creative in all who attended, to be part of the community of women and men who gathered to listen to speakers tell tales of grandmothers, daughters, dancers, teachers, brewers, religious hermits, refugees, immigrants, explorers and lace weavers. And many, many more.
Tea Cooper, pictured here signing her books, spoke about giving voice to women whose history has not been recorded. And Karen Brooks assured us that women have always been there: as crafts women, running businesses, performing skilled trades work- even if they were not named or acknowledged.
Little rebellions are the lovely truths we search for…women were always, always there…
Karen Brooks in the ‘Herstories’ session
Both Shankari Chandran and Monica Tan write to explore what it means to be Australian, to be part of a minority but not indigenous…what it means to live on colonised land and make a home there. They discussed their experiences and insights in the ‘Home – Lost and Found’ session.
Shankari, of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, wrote her novels Song of the Sun God and Barriers ‘to write my way home’ and to say thank you to those that came before her for their courage and resilience. Monica (of Chinese heritage) travelled around Australia on ‘a great big road trip’ in a quest to better understand this country and to represent marginalised stories that the gatekeepers try to keep out. The result was her book Stranger Country.
Both women explored the crucial role language plays in our identity and connectedness. Language is used to express power, relationship, history and it’s no coincidence, said Shankari, that the erasure of language is a key tool and feature of colonisation.
Chloe Higgins’ debut book, The Girls, was published just two weeks prior to the festival. It’s a ‘memoir of family, grief and sexuality’ and Chloe discussed how it felt to tell her story with all its intimacies, not knowing how it would be received. I was happy to hear her say that she’s been overwhelmed by the messages of support and understanding she’s received so far.
Melissa Fagan has also published a memoir, What will be worn, in which she explores the gaps and secrets within her own family story, woven in with an account of an iconic Brisbane department store owned by members of her family for many years.
It was interesting to hear both Chloe and Melissa speak of the ‘emotional inheritances’ bequeathed within families, often over generations.
Jesse Blackadder’s session centred around the motivations prompting her to write her two historical fiction works, The Raven’s Heart (set in sixteenth century Scotland) and Chasing the Light (about the first women to go to Antarctica in the 1930’s.) Jesse said that apart from the pull of travelling to the icy continent to research that story, the thing that made her want to write about these women was learning that women had been barred from going there. Jesse said:
How can a whole continent be closed to half the human race?
Jesse Blackadder, in ‘The Explorers’ session
She applied for and won an Antarctic Arts Fellowship and embarked on a six week round trip voyage (exactly as those women had done eighty years earlier)
Other fascinating sessions included Lauren Chater (The Lace Weaver) and Robyn Cadwallader (The Anchoress) as they discussed women barely mentioned in the historical record: Estonian women caught between the competing horrors of Nazi and Soviet oppression, and the medieval religious hermits known as ‘anchoresses.’ In answering the question ‘What makes a strong woman?’ they agreed that:
Sometimes they are the women quietly working away, making change in the background, trying to survive, remaining true to their own beliefs and experiences.
Lauren Chater, in ‘Hearing our Grandmothers’ Voices’
It was a day filled with riches of thought, conversation and intriguing ideas. I hope I can get there again next year. If you’d like to find out more, or purchase a copy of the terrific anthology Heroines: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry (ed Sarah Nicholson and Caitlan White), launched on the day, go to the website:
#Heroinesfestival #heroinesfest19 #AusLit #AustralianWomenWritersChallenge
My Furious Fiction https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/ entry for August. The requirements for the month’s competition were all adjectival! Our story had to include these words and phrases: shrill, piercing, cold and greasy, ink stained, sweet and pungent, scratched and weather worn, shiny, silver. Using this many adjectives in a 500 word story is harder than you’d think!
My story is a little ode to the Sydney building industry in 2019.
ZIPPER by Denise Newton
The noise was shrill, piercing. Anna sighed and pushed aside her uneaten toast.
“God, I’m so sick of that sound.”
Blake nodded in sympathy. The work in the apartment upstairs was unrelenting. Drills, nail guns, electric saws. Lucky for noise regulations, or they’d be at it day and night.
“Not long now, I hope.”
Anna just shrugged and Blake knew she was right. The people upstairs were very strange. He looked down at his plate. The fried eggs, that had smelt so delicious earlier, had turned cold and greasy. His stomach turned.
When they’d seen the ad, they’d been so excited. Their dream of purchasing their own home could finally come true. The asking price was within their reach. Hell, it was far below what they’d budgeted for. They’d grinned at each other and he’d called the agent straight away.
They should have known better. Hadn’t Mum always told him that when something seemed too good to be true, it usually was? But their excitement got the better of them and they signed the contract two days later. The vendor, a short man in an overstuffed suit, had signed with ink- stained fingers, as though this was the last of a long series of contracts he’d signed that day. Perhaps it was. Each one as dodgy as the last.
So. Here they were, enduring the constant assault of noise from the building works above, the croaking pipes, the ominous rumblings from somewhere in the building, that always began in the deep quiet of early dawn.
“Like the building is haunted,” Anna said, only half joking. She’d made a pot of herbal tea and she passed him a cup, a sweet and pungent brew that he found strangely relaxing. Anything to take his mind off the mistake they’d made in buying into this building.
He began to ready himself for work, collected his coat, and tied the laces on his scratched and weather-worn boots. He’d just kissed Anna goodbye and was making for the front door, when the floor moved. It actually moved, right under his feet. The jolting was accompanied by a louder version of the rumbling that woke him at night. A grinding, unearthly sound. He froze.
Anna stared at him. “What the hell…?”
“Get under the table! In case it’s an earthquake…”
“Earthquake, here? That’s…”
“I’m going downstairs to see,” he interrupted.
“I’m coming with you.”
He knew better than to argue. She followed him down twenty flights in the gloomy stairwell. They exited onto the street with shaky legs.
Hand in hand, they gazed, incredulous, at the huge crack that had appeared in their building. It looked like a giant zipper. An ugly, misplaced zipper.
Their shiny, silver dream of owning a home disappeared into the morning light.
This weekend I had the pleasure of being one of a big team of volunteers at the very first independent Writers Festival in the Blue Mountains. Presented by Varuna the National Writers House, and held at three venues in Katoomba, it was a success both in terms of tickets (most sessions were sold out) and great enjoyment.
Some stand outs for me, in no particular order:
Philosopher, academic and writer Chris Fleming’s candid, and often hilarious, account of his years of drug addiction and recovery. I didn’t expect to enjoy this one, to be honest, but it was wonderful.
ABC radio’s Cassie McCullagh’s chat with Chris Hammer about the inspiration behind his crime novel ‘Scrublands’
Hearing about the special working relationship between a best selling author (the wonderful Melina Marchetta of ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ fame and many, many other books) and her editor at Penguin Random House, Amy Thomas, as they chatted with James Valentine from ABC radio and TV.
Tim Flannery describing an ancient Europe and a pre-history when hippos swam in the Thames
Hearing about the experiences of two women which led to the writing of their extraordinary memoirs about family: Vicki Laveau-Harvie (author of the Stella Prize winning ‘The Erratics’ and Jessie Cole, author of ‘Staying’, interviewed with humour and sensitivity by Benjamin Law.
An insightful and informative panel discussion illustrating how a work of fiction goes from manuscript, to agent, editor, publisher and eventually lands in a book store near you.
And my last session for the weekend, a beautiful discussion between Blue Mountains poet and songwriter/singer/musician Kate Fagan and Tishani Doshi from India. Tishani is a poet/novelist/dancer (can you see a theme here of multi talented people?) who performed several heart stoppingly gorgeous and powerful poems as well as an extract from her latest novel. Such a treat.
As with any festival there were hard choices to make with multiple sessions on at the same time. Ones I missed included a talk by Patti Miller and Leah Kaminsky, a film screening with Clarence Walden and Alexis Wright, a live conversation with Behrouz Boochani (on Manus Island) and Markus Zusak in conversation with Rosanna Gonsalves.
Another lovely feature of the festival was the ‘Social Book Nook’ corner of the comfy lounge at the glorious old Carrington Hotel, where attendees were invited to talk books.
My literary cup truly ran over all weekend.
This was my Furious Fiction entry for July. https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/
The story parameters for the month were:
500 words or less, the story was to be set on a train of some sort, something had to be frozen, and there had to be three sentences of three words in a row.
CRAMMED by Denise Newton
The stench is terrible. I know my faeces and urine are mixed in with the rest. But that’s hardly my fault. Rounded up, taken against my will, crammed into this carriage with dozens—no, hundreds—of my fellows. I’ve stopped counting the sunsets and sunrises, so I can’t tell how long I’ve been here.
I don’t care about the hunger but my thirst is ferocious. The roof of my mouth feels as if it’s lined with gum and my tongue is stiff, almost frozen in place. When I look at the faces of my companions, I can tell they’re suffering in the same way. Hot and thirsty. Deafened by noise. So terribly frightened.
We travel in what seems to be an endless straight line, in the heat of days, with orange sunlight slipping in like razors through the bars, and then through tunnels of night. Sometimes we stop and I hear crunching footsteps and muffled voices outside. I don’t know what they want with me. What their plan is. Or where they are taking us.
In the dark, I close my eyes occasionally and try to imagine I’m somewhere else. I do try. I think about the lush grass at the edges of the house paddock, the cool of it beneath my legs. I think about the river and the blue bowl of the summer sky. But then the dark presses in against my face and I open my eyes wide in terror, open my mouth to cry out, but shut it again because really, what use is it? There’s no one to hear my pain and fear except those squashed in here with me. So I remain silent, listening to the complaints and groans and snuffles of those nearby, and the roar and rumble of the engine up ahead. We hurtle on through time.
Wait…are we…? Yes, I think we are slowing. Gradually the speed drops and the engine shifts down with a whine. It takes a long time but eventually my companions and I lurch forward, then settle back as we come to a halt. We look at each other. What’s next?
There’s a clang of chains and the dull thud of ropes being unfastened and dropped to the ground. A metallic clunk and the sun spears through the back door as it is lowered. Men appear, shadowed against the light. Men with hats and boots and dusty trousers. They move us out, two at a time down a ramp. The air trembles with their shouts and our cries. I blink in the harsh light. The road train stands there, all three trailers with their high bars and many wheels. Our prison, for however long it took us to arrive here.
One man calls to the others. His words carry across the thick dust to my ears.
‘Load ‘em onto the ship,’ he shouts, ‘this lot are headed to Indonesia. Good lot of beef rendang here.’
He smiles but I don’t see the joke.
I’ve heard a lot about the importance of having an occasional – or even regular – ‘creative date’. An immersion into a realm of creativity that you don’t usually encounter in your day-to-day life or even in your own creative pursuits. An experience to get the creative wheels turning, perhaps in new directions or with renewed enthusiasm. After a recent foray into the world of theatre, I am totally convinced by this argument.
I went with six of my female ‘besties’ to Parramatta Riverside Theatre, to see a new Australian play, Forgotten, written by Cate Whittaker and produced by Captivate, the creative and performing arts program for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Parramatta.
Forgotten is inspired by the stories of convict women who were sent to the Female Factory, from where they could be assigned as convict labourers, or perhaps be married, or – as happened to many – be punished further. The story centres on the 1827 ‘Riot’ when the women went on strike to demand proper rations, because their allotted rations had for some time been siphoned off by the son of the Factory Matron at the time. Half starved, desperate and forgotten by colonial society, they staged a riot, staring down the constables and the militia sent to quell their rebellion, and breaking out of the Factory walls to run through the township of Parramatta in search of food.
While a contemporary press report about the ‘riot’ described the convict women as ‘Amazonian bandetti’, I don’t imagine the women were especially physically strong given their circumstances, however their determination and resilience must have been great to allow them to take this action, which could accurately be described as the first industrial action by women in the country since colonisation.
Mark Hopkins, the Head of Captivate, describes them like this:
…young, predominantly Catholic women who found their voice in collective action in the face of opposition and systemic oppression…Mark Hopkins, in Forgotten program booklet
There were several other ‘riots’ at the Female Factory, usually in response to reduced rations or an increase in punishments such as the hated head shaving. Perhaps later women incarcerated there drew strength from the stories they must have heard about this first action taken by brave and desperate women.
The majority of cast members were students from Catholic high schools in the Parramatta area, with some roles performed by Captivate alumni, with one or two teachers in the mix as well. Their performances were wonderful: portraying the circumstances of young women around the same age as themselves, but in a very different time and place.The production was supported by The Parramatta Female Factory Friends (the playwright is a member of this group as well as a Colonial historian and teacher). The production was simple but evocative of the harsh and uncompromising setting of the Factory.
So, how did this experience work for me as a ‘creative date’? During the play, I laughed a few times, I seethed at the unfair and unjust treatment meted out to these women, and I cried some tears. I was glad to see their stories presented on the stage – and in this way kept alive, not forgotten after all. The story resonated particularly because this era, and the Female Factory itself, feature in my work in progress – historical fiction set in convict-era NSW. Seeing these portrayed through words and action on a stage sparked some new ideas and thoughts about my own work.
And, last but certainly not least, it made me recommit to the promise to my characters to tell their stories – so that they, too, are not forgotten.
If you’d like to know more about the Female Factory and the work of the Friends to preserve this heritage, see their website http://www.parramattafemalefactoryfriends.com.au/
Another branch of my research tree: a talk and tour at the NSW State Archives & Records at Kingswood in Western Sydney.
For my current work in progress I’ve made use of the many records that have been made available online and last year, I paid a visit to the Archives centre.
But during this visit on the weekend, I got to see ‘backstage’ – beyond the reading room, to the highly secure and atmosphere controlled spaces where the precious documents are stored.
The technical details of what is kept, and how, were interesting. But I admit to a particular thrill at being up close and personal with books such as the Parramatta Gaol description books from the 1800’s, and the registers of Conditional Pardons from that period. These books would almost certainly contain the names, descriptions and other details of some of my story’s characters, based as they are on real people.
The volumes – faded, torn covers and all – impart a tangible sense of the people named between their covers: the lives they lived, their mistakes and their second chances.
I’ll be back to find more details about my characters’ lives, so today was a good taster and a reminder that, while the ease of access to historic documents via digital sources is wonderful, there’s nothing quite like the original paper, book or map to create a link between now and then.
If you’d like to check out the NSW State Archives website, go here