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


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


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!


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


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.

Review of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms



Anita Heiss’s latest novel opens with a man running from a prison: the Japanese internment camp of Cowra in 1944. Hiroshi finds safety with an Aboriginal family, who hide and care for him. Gradually, a romance develops between Hiroshi and Mary Williams, the young Aboriginal woman who takes him food.

Heiss writes what she calls ‘choc-lit’ – or chick lit with an Aboriginal focus – but you would foolish to dismiss this as fluff. Her work, whether fiction or non-fiction, is always firmly focused on educating audiences about Aboriginal culture and the ongoing effects of colonialism and racism. She’s a smart woman: popular fiction is one of the most widely read genres, and by inserting her themes into her popular novels she aims to inform a wide range of readers.

This is a difficult road to take, as readers of this genre pick up books expecting to be entertained. If there’s a whiff of anything otherwise, they don’t care for it. I don’t think that will be a problem for readers of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, for in this work Heiss blends popular fiction and politics beautifully. 

There are two main techniques she uses to achieve this. The first is Hiroshi’s point of view. By using a character who knows nothing of Aboriginal culture, who is initially ‘suspicious as to why these dark people are helping him and where they actually come from’ but who grows to love them deeply, Heiss articulates how race is a construct and that hunger, kindness, fear, homesickness and desire are qualities that belong to us all.

The second technique is the use of metaphor, specifically that of imprisonment. The prison from which Hiroshi escapes represents not only the physical camp for internees, but also the camps on which Aboriginal people were forced to live – the mission stations and reserves – when their land was taken from them. As Banjo, Mary’s father, says, ‘We are treated like prisoners too, at Erambie. We shouldn’t be on rations. We should all be paid the same for the same work and have enough money to buy food for our families – not just flour, tea and sugar rations and whatever we can hunt or manage to grow. It’s not fair for anyone. The prisoners of war are just like us’.

Heiss also addresses contemporary concerns, such as negative representations of Aboriginal people in the media. Merv, a singer and football player, makes a name for himself in Sydney and is written up in the paper. Mary, who reads the article about him out to the family, comments ‘At least this is a positive article about Aboriginal people. You’re always saying what they write about us is bad, Mum.’ And in Mary’s family itself there is much to be proud of. The Williams take in a stranger and scrimp to find food for him, as many Aboriginal people did for Europeans they were shipwrecked on Australia’s coasts. They take an interest in Hiroshi and his culture, as Noongars did in whalers and the first colonists when they arrived in south west Western Australia (Kim Scott writes about this beautifully in That Deadman Dance). At the same time they aren’t saints, for no one is. Through Kevin, who is jealous and has a temper, Heiss shows that every family has its arguments, and that different viewpoints need to be aired before one can arrive at a resolution. 

At the heart of the novel is an important emotion: empathy. Romance is definitely important too, not least because it drives the plot, but without empathy, romance can’t happen. Empathy often takes some work – intellectual as well as emotional. As Banjo exhorts his brother Kevin, ‘What if our brother escaped from a POW camp like this bloke? Wouldn’t you want someone to look after him and treat him like a human being?’ And this is what the novel does, as all good literature should do: it takes us out of our everyday lives and into a new world, where we become invested in and learn to care for its people. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who argues for the importance of including emotion in philosophy, writes in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (1995), novels invite us to ‘concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own’ (xvi). And this in turn is a precondition for respect for human dignity (xvi).

So if you’re reading this book by the beach (and I hope you are!), you’ll not only enjoy the plot and characters (perhaps woven with the smell of salt and sunscreen and the sounds of kids yelling), but you’ll also quietly exercise your heart as well.


This is my seventh review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.