2017: My Year of Writing

Even workaholics need to have fallow years if they are to continue functioning well. 2017 was such a year for me, as I needed to pull back after nearly killing myself in 2016 (when I hadn’t even properly recovered from 2015). I finally finished my memoir while I was on hols in Croatia, and while I might still have to do one more draft, it’s been a huge load off my shoulders. I was still unwell for most of the year, but the colds & flu weren’t as intense. And now, after a few weeks off over Xmas, I’m full of beans again. Long may it last! Below is a list of my literary doings over the past year.

 Cockies on the Gold Coast

Cockies on the Gold Coast

Publications

I had more academic work than creative pieces published this year, which makes sense as all my time is taken up by being an academic. If I do write fiction, it’s on the weekends, or bashed out the night before my writing group’s deadline.

At the beginning of the year, my essay on the craft of Georgiana Molloy’s writing was published in Claiming Space: Australian Women’s Writing. I started writing this essay in Rome at the end of 2014! This was followed in October by an essay on eco-memoir in Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir, in which I compared Kim Scott and Hazel Brown’s Kayang and Me with Tim Winton’s Island Home.

Just before Christmas, the Journal for the Association of Australian Studies published my essay on John Molloy’s (Georgiana’s husband) involvement in a massacre against Wardandi Noongars, and the subsequent papering over of this in later accounts. Writing this paper was hard work: it took hours to piece together a timeline of what had happened, as well as the debate over the events that resurfaced in later histories, and to attend to the language that was used in covering up what had happened. I was glad when it was finished.

In each of these volumes or issues, my work sat alongside that of other wonderful scholars, and I am really grateful to the editors for publishing my work.

In August I was Southerly journal’s monthly blogger, publishing four posts (one each week) about writing, deafness and environment. You can read them all via the links on this page. In October my eight-word story was featured on a billboard courtesy of the Queensland Writers Centre. That was pretty exciting!

I was pretty dismayed, once I got to the end of the year, to realise I hadn’t published any creative work (aside from said billboard), but then I remembered I’d finished my memoir. Fingers crossed that it gets somewhere this year.

 UQ Ferry

UQ Ferry

Awards/Funding

I was longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Prize again, this time for ‘Depths Exceeded’, which is a small part of my mermaid book. I’m still trying to find a home for it; I’ll get there eventually.

I continued with my study on vernacular criticism, for which I received funding at the end of last year, and will have this written up by March. It turned out to be a much bigger project than I anticipated and is eating up a bit of time. While it’s something that engages me intellectually, it isn’t a topic I’m downright passionate about, which is problematic. I remember one of my supervisors telling me that when you choose a PhD topic, it has to be something you’re obsessed with if your interest is going to carry you over three years. The same holds, it seems, for any kind of project. Still, it’s a good short-term study, and I’m finding I’m applying some of the research methods I learnt as a research assistant at Autism Queensland, which is a boon.

 Gum blossoms!

Gum blossoms!

Teaching

In the second half of the year, I was course convener for Women Writers, the subject I tutored in last year. This was a very steep learning curve – a little hairy at times – but it was ultimately very rewarding. The books I set were: Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Joyce Carol Oate’s Foxfire, Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Gillian Mear’s Foal’s Bread, Octavia Butler’s Fledgling and Helen Oyeymi’s White is for Witching. The students responded well to all these books except for The Golden Notebook (and some were a bit mystified by The Lesbian Body). Although The Golden Notebook was revolutionary when it came out, it held little meaning for them now. I wonder how or why that matters; Jane Eyre is poles apart from the experience of women in the 21st century but readers are still enraptured by it. Perhaps it was the form of the novel, which made it hard to digest, whereas Jane Eyre is a fairly conventional romance. Aside from this it was really heartening when students told me they enjoyed the books because they were works they wouldn’t usually encounter.

I tutored a class alongside the lectures, and as with last year I loved my students – they were confident, intelligent and outspoken. But by the end of the year I was in my usual haze of fatigue because of the toll of straining to listen and to lecture (every lecture is a performance). I think most people are knackered by the end of the year anyway, and the holidays straightened me out.

As well as the lectures for Women Writers, I also delivered one on Position Doubtful for the third-year Australian studies course. This year I’ll be lecturing on James Bradley’s Clade and Tim Winton’s Island Home for this same course, but I won’t be doing any other teaching as I need to devote myself to finishing my ecobiography.

 Flowers at Kew Gardens

Flowers at Kew Gardens

Conferences and Supervision

In February I presented on Liptrot’s The Outrun at a conference on excess and desire at The University of Queensland. In London in June, I presented on a digital example of ecobiography, Queensland artist Pat Hoffie’s ground trothing. In retrospect this was not a great example of ecobiography but I was trying to align it with the conference’s focus on digital life writing narratives. Still, I enjoyed being back in London, thought the conference was absolutely fantastic, and met some great Aussie writers and academics, including Ellena Savage and Nicole Matthews, who presented a very memorable paper on hearing air reviews.

From England I flew to Croatia and presented at the European Society for Environmental History conference in Zagreb (preceded by a field trip to Kornati National Park near Zadar). This was the first history conference I had ever been to. I presented a similar paper to that which I’d delivered in Perth the year before, on ecotones, but my paper, I found after some rather harrowing comments from the audience, was not up to scratch (no one likes getting criticism, but having to receive it in a public forum is way worse). Once I recovered from that experience and was able to examine the comments with equanimity, I realised they were constructive. I’m intending to present at the environmental history conference in Canberra this year and to do a better job.

As soon as I arrived back in Brisbane I turned around and went down to the Gold Coast to present on Molloy and ecobiography at a conference on Literary Environments. This was not a very smart move as I was shattered from jetlag, but I couldn’t bear to miss it because Ursuala Heise gave a keynote and a workshop, both of which were amazing.

I capped off the year with a paper on Georgiana Molloy’s participation in botanical connoisseurship – the rage for exotics collected by Europeans and grown in their gardens – for a conference on the Nature and Spaces of Enlightenment. I really enjoyed this conference as well but I was completely wrung out from the year, so I couldn’t make it to all the sessions.

Throughout the year I also took on the supervision of four creative writing students, three doing MPhils and one a PhD. I found this unexpectedly rewarding, as I could chat to them about their ideas and help them with their critical essays. I also supervised a wonderful third-year student who wrote a brilliant essay on young adult novels and their representation of deafness. Aside from my research, supervision is one of the satisfying parts of my job.

 Kornati National Park, Croatia

Kornati National Park, Croatia

Research

I used my funding to fly to the UK and comb through the archives relating to Mangles and his contemporaries. This was a great trip but it was jam-packed and involved zig-zagging up the country from south to north. I like travelling and the distances didn’t faze me, but I could have done with a more leisurely pace. My next big task over this month and next is to collate and transcribe everything so that I’m ready to write in March, as well as writing up the rest of my trip (it's happening, but v.e.r.y s.l.o.w.l.y).

 V cool plants in the UNESCO Stari Grad Plains, Croatia

V cool plants in the UNESCO Stari Grad Plains, Croatia

The Australian Women Writers Challenge

I put the ball for AWW on the shelf last year as I had too much going on, but managed to co-ordinate guest posts from lesbian/queer authors (Kelly Gardiner; Eden S. French; Jess Davidson; and my own thoughts on the themes that have appeared in guest posts by lesbian/queer women writers), and authors with disability (Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, editors of Defying Doomsday; and Anna Spargo-Ryan). This year I’m picking up the baton from Marisa Wikramanayake and am going back to bi-monthly roundups, as well as the usual guest posts. This year, the theme for NAIDOC is ‘Because of her, we can!’ so I really want to feature more posts from Indigenous women writers.

 BrisVegas rainforest

BrisVegas rainforest

The Year Ahead

I have tried not to take on too much this year as I need to focus on finishing my ecobiography, but already there are quite a few pots on the stove. Aside from the two lectures which I need to write and present, and my vernacular criticism study to complete and write up, I’m co-ordinating, with Clare-Archer Lean from the University of the Sunshine Coast, two panels on the interface between science and literature at the annual literature conference in Canberra in July, as well as subsequent publication of these papers in the Australian Humanities Review. I'm also giving a workshop on Writing Animals and Their Worlds for the Queensland Writers Centre on Saturday 28th April.

On top of this I need to prepare a fellowship application for gainful employment next year, as my contract ends in January 2019. I think I had pretty much better say ‘no’ to anything else that comes into my inbox this year.

Health-wise I am determined to start running again, with the aim of doing a half-marathon in August, and of getting out of the city into bush more often. Exercise and the environment will help ameliorate my stress. I’m also casting about for some kind of hobby, instead of working all through the weekend. I think dancing, drawing and going to the movies are back on the cards. Well, time to dive into 2018!

 Everything is going to be ok if there are peonies in the world.

Everything is going to be ok if there are peonies in the world.

Notes from the Field (iii)

The last few months of this year were unbelievably hectic, being filled with conferences and travel. Despite the exhaustion occasioned by running around the country, I met plenty of great people and listened to some wonderful papers.

At the beginning of November I flew to Sydney to listen to and present at the Australian Women’s Writing Symposium, which I wrote about here. I returned to Brisbane to do my marking, then came back to Sydney to speak at Quantum Words, a science writing festival organised by the NSW Writers Centre – a post about this is in the pipeline.

I’d booked a week of annual leave to try to finish my Praed book at my brother’s place in the Blue Mountains, but as it was the first time I’d stopped properly for a while, I got sick. I also ended up having to finish my marking and write conference papers, so that was a bit of a disaster.

 Passed this fellow when out for fresh air & caffeine.

Passed this fellow when out for fresh air & caffeine.

Then it was back to Sydney for the ASLEC-ANZ environmental humanities conference, where I presented on two ecobiographies, Dick Roughsey’s Moon and Rainbow and Margaret Somerville’s Body/Landscape Journals. There were wonderful keynotes at this conference, including Alice Te Punga Somerville, Elspeth Probyn and the wonderful artist John Woolsley, pictured here with his taped-together notes. Alice stressed the importance of included Indigenous scholars in one's work. 'Who's in your ecology?' she asked. 'And does it include Indigenous academics?' It's a point worth remembering & acting upon.

20161123_140611.jpg

Alas I could only spend a day at this conference, as the next day I headed down to Wollongong for the Colonial Formations conference, which was just fantastic. I wish it hadn’t been on at the same time and that I could have stayed there for longer. In a keynote, Jane Lydon discussed how anti-slavery contexts were applied to Australia, for example the second fleet to Australia was contracted by slave owners, and the 1830s saw the height of anti-slavery discussions but it was also when colonial violence was endemic in the south west. She referred to the limits of empathy, in that we might feel but not act and a representation of suffering might obscure a slave's subjectivity. Coldness and compassion are two sides of a coin, which I thought was an interesting idea. There was also the secrecy of massacres - the frontier violence of Myall Creek was obscured for decades. Even Rosa Praed, writing about the Hornet Bank massacre decades afterwards, distorted her narrative.

Then there was an absolutely brilliant panel on collectors. Deidre Coleman of The University of Melbourne spoke about Henry Smeathman (1742-1786) an entomologist about whom she is writing a biography. In 1781 he wrote an essay 'Some account of the termites, which are found in hot Countries', and Deidre looked at how he used the termitary and the way in which termites colonised as a metaphor for human colonisation. She also described how insects helped him to communicate with a range of classes, including wealthy collectors and the people of Sierra Leone, where he collected. He sent natives to collect for him but their curiosity and bartering was overwhelming and drove him nuts. Ann Coote of UNE then spoke about Indigenous guides and collectors in a very clear and well laid-out presentation on why Indigenous people agreed to collect for Europeans. Reasons included obtaining useful goods and information, personal prestige, communal stability and the protection of Country by controlling the movements of collectors. Jude Philp, senior curator at The University of Sydney, then talked about collectors in Papua New Guinea in the 19th Century, and how some of these made their way into Aberdeen University so that people in Scotland could know something of Papua New Guinea. And Simon Ville, a professor of economics and business history at Wollongong, ended the session with a discussion of how the commerce of collecting - how prices were negotiated, for example, or the reputation signalling of naming.

 View from train window.

View from train window.

It also happened to be the last day at the university for my good friend and former poetry teacher, Alan Wearne. At lunch we had a coffee and Alan printed out his latest poem for me. Then I caught the train back to Sydney, a trip which is simultaneously too long and invested with my ambivalent memories of Wollongong, but also very pretty.

 

To Florence and Prato

It’s a measure of how busy and tired I’ve been this past year that I’m only just now writing up the trips that I took last year, to Prato, England and Rome. Fortunately, Christmas has given me a breathing space and I’m catching up on my belated posts.

Last year, after doing more research on Rosa and Maud Praed, I realised I needed to go back to England to look for Maud’s medical records. The European Association for the Study of Australia was holding a conference in Prato, Italy, in September. I had wanted to go to the association’s conference in France two years before but I was too broke. This time I had a bit of cash in reserve and decided to stop off on the way to England.

I caught a straightforward flight to Rome and checked into a hotel. When I woke the next morning I walked down to the Colosseum and attendant ruins. If someone had told me I’d be there again two months later, I would have laughed.

In the afternoon I wandered into Termini to catch a train to Florence. As I stood watching people using the ticket machines, trying to work out what to do, I was approached by a neatly-dressed, slightly cross-eyed young woman with blonde hair, who asked if I wanted help. ‘I need to go to Florence,’ I told her. She took me to a ticket machine and showed me how to use it. I wasn’t quite sure that what she was doing was orthodox, but she turned away when I slid my card in and put in the pin. When the machine spat out the tickets and she showed me the platform number on the screen, she said, ‘Ten euros, please.’ I felt like an idiot, I later emailed my boyfriend, who reassured me that it was par for the course to be fleeced at least once when travelling.

The last time I was at Florence train station was in 1999, when I was backpacking with friends around Europe. We’d just missed the train to Pizzo in Calabria, and it was too late to find a hotel, so we spent the night on the station’s cold floor. When we finally boarded our train the next morning, we went south through a gorgeous Tuscan sunrise of pink, layered with mist and shot through with gold. I tried to keep my eyes open to watch it, but I’d only had a few hours sleep. This time I was alert, and the view was of gorgeous, green rolling hills. I was ecstatic to be overseas again and realised how much I’d missed travelling.

In Florence, the station was crowded. I’d forgotten how many people there were in Europe. I queued in the taxi rank, and a middle-aged, balding man before asked me, ‘You are a local?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m from Australia.’

When the cab pulled up, he gestured for me to get in, and I shook my head and made for the cab coming after me. What was it with these arrogant, European men, I thought crossly, did they try it on with anyone?

My irritation subsided when I reached Ape Rosa, an 18th century villa that was located away from the centre. It was absolutely gorgeous, with high-ceilinged, airy rooms, ornate furniture and a lovely green garden.

As I signed in and was given my key, one of the owners dropped by.

‘I’m from Australia,’ I introduced myself.

‘You are the famous person?’

‘Noooo! I’m not famous. No.’

‘You have the website?’

‘Yes, I’m a writer, but I'm not famous!’

Still, she made me feel like a star. Later, she told me that Napoleon’s brother had stayed at villa, and what with the excellent coffee that was served with breakfast, I was pretty much in heaven.

There was a bus that I caught into town, which was very straightforward. My friend from England had intended to join me, but she was unwell and had to cancel. It was easy to get around the city, although in my jetlag I’d booked the wrong time slot to the Academia, where Michaelangelo’sDavid was housed. They let me in anyway, and as I stood in the queue, I watched a couple of Asian girls giggling at a nearby stall over the aprons and boxer shorts that featured David’s manhood. It was hard not to smile. I also chatted to some ladies waiting ahead of me, who were speech therapists from America.

David was quite good, but art doesn’t do a whole lot for me, despite growing up with an artist for a father. The next day I visited the Uffizi, which was also good, although these days, looking at Boticelli’s Venus doesn’t seem to be much different to looking at it on the internet. I was more impressed with frescoes stretching across the high ceilings. After that I took myself off along the river to the gardens surrounding Piazzale Michaelangelo, which had exceptional views of the city.

No overseas trip is complete without a spot of shopping if one has an addiction to frocks and the like, and the next day I caught a bus through the green hills to The Mall, a shopping outlet of designer labels which Mum had read about in the travel section of the Sydney Morning Herald. I was a bit disappointed – it was a sanitised, soulless and boxy place, but that didn’t stop me from buying some cashmere from Prada. When in Italy, after all, one must do as the Italians do.

In between my peregrinations in and around Florence, I sat before the window of my room at Ape Rosa, finishing an essay on Rosa Praed that I wasn’t able to get done before I left. I didn’t mind too much; there are worse places in which to write. That essay was published a few months ago in the Journal for the Association of Australian Studies. I also sat in the lovely, tousled gardens and read Annabel Smith’s new book, The Ark.

Then it was time for the conference, which was organised by Monash University, as it has a centre in Prato. I caught a train to the town, which was only half an hour away and checked into a hotel beside the river, just outside the city walls. The theme of the conference was ‘Encountering Australia: Transcultural Conversations’ and I spoke about the interactions between Georgiana Molloy and Noongars in south west Western Australia, as Molloy went about collecting plants. My paper has just been published in the Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology (you may have to create a login to read it).

The conference dinner was at the Conservatorio San Niccolò Private Catholic School, which used to be an orphanage. I sat next to a lovely Australian woman who was doing her postdoc at Cambridge on Judith Wright and a few other poets. The next evening we did a spot of shopping and drank cocktails in the piazza, which was bliss! I think this photo sums up pretty well what I thought of Florence and Prato: