Merlinda Bobis is a writer, performer, and academic who grew up in the Philippines. She has written several novels as well as short story and poetry collections, with her most recent book Fish-Hair Woman winning the Most Underrated Book Award for 2013. Writer’s Edit recently spoke with Merlinda about her writing, the publishing industry, and the importance of love and conviction.
Writing is an organic experience, but it is also a business. How do you negotiate those two distinct worlds of writing?
First, when you’re writing you’re not just writing for yourself, that’s the reason we’re in this business. You’re always writing for an audience. I believe that the story is never completed without a teller and a listener, so it’s a conversation. Every book is a conversation, every poem is a conversation between the writer and the reader. When you’re writing you can say it’s organic and it’s you in your little room, but of course it’s bigger.
You want the book to be known, so the public knows it exists. The journey for me from the real world of the writing and the world that I’m writing about, to the industry is always difficult. I know it has to be done, and I get embarrassed with self-promotion, but that’s the reality.
You want your stories to be heard, for the stories not to disappear (because you cared enough to write those stories, you cared enough to do something with those stories on the page). But if you just sit on your bum and think, ‘No, it’s a great book, let it do its own thing’ and you say no to all these other things that the industry requires you to do, then you’re probably not helping the original stories.
What was the hardest part about the process of Fish-Hair Woman?
Well, it was really the writing because it took me 17 years. The writing was the most difficult because it was an embodied process, because it was about real war, that space in my home region. And the researching. It’s not just writing in the safe confines of your room. Going out there, I returned to my grandmother’s village which inspired Iraya, and talked to people who’ve actually been affected by the Total War. I was still there during that war and we could not go to my grandmother’s village, but then you realise, and you’re humbled by it: nothing that you can write would ever encapsulate the suffering and the loss.
The promoting is hard, though the writing is even harder, because you feel it’s trivial but you feel it has to be done. There is also the ethics of the process that you’re negotiating. And also, it’s just too hard to live with violence in your head for so many years. I was having nightmares!
We have to remember as writers, that if you care enough for your story, you immerse yourself in it. And if you’re writing about something very difficult your body is immersed; both the sensibility and the body are immersed.
What were the reactions from critics and readers in response to Fish-Hair Woman?
Good and bad. One review was not just praising the language and the style but actually saw what I was trying to do: the argument for justice. Another review said it was confusing. It’s meta-fiction, it’s magical realism, it’s really pushing the envelope in a lot of ways, and it’s not just about the Philippines but Australia. Half of it, in fact, is about Australia and from an Australian point of view, an Australian protagonist.
My purpose for writing it as such was to see the resonance of grief and loss between the Philippines and Australia. I think of this book as a kind of proposition of empathy, a creative empathy because there are two writers, a Filipina and an Australian, and it’s about writing.
There are reviews that will praise the book, reviews that will damn the book – for anything you write, there will be those that will not get it and there are those that will really get it. And that’s the reality of any story that you put out there.
Was there much pressure from the publishing house for Fish-Hair Woman to do well?
What I like about Spinifex is their passion for the integrity of your story, of your text. In the editing process, in the production process they will help you make the book come into being as you envisioned it, to help you realise your vision. They do not say ‘Why don’t you do this, because it would be easier’. So you do not have the pressure. The independent publisher will go for the book, even if they know this will be harder to sell, because they believe in it.
Some agents will say ‘Why not write something like your first novel because it was popular’. But it’s no longer brave and cutting-edge – ‘I’ve read this before’. So I wonder if it’s a pressure from the publisher, even from editors, and even from the writer himself or herself, saying ‘This is what works for the industry’. Because sometimes you have a big cheque dangling before you. It’s a very difficult thing, because the writer has to live, has to eat!
What kind of advice would you give to emerging writers about writing and the nature of the publishing industry?
Be true to your story. Be true to your craft. When I am sitting at my desk and writing I do not think of the market at all. Once the book is written, when you’re revising, think about it. Where will you field it? Who do you approach? Where is the home for this?
And even if it’s uncomfortable, have the willingness to put yourself out there, to talk about the book to the public. And don’t be afraid. It’s nerve-wracking, doing that circuit. But if you believed in the book, in the story, from the outset then you should be brave enough to do it.
That’s why, for me, it’s about love and conviction at the beginning of writing. I have to love my characters into being. I have to love my story into being and only then can there be conviction that ‘I have to tell this’.
So if I have that at the beginning when I’m not even thinking of the industry, when I go out there to talk about the book I still carry that love and conviction. And I am brave.
And I keep going back to this with the MUBA win, to ‘In My Craft, or Sullen Art’ by Dylan Thomas. This idea that writing is a sullen art; not for ambition, not for bread, but I write for the lovers. You ask yourself: who do I write for? Why do I write? Every book I write is a love story. To write is to love. Life is short. If that’s the only thing you can do then that’s good enough, I think!
Everyone can leave: lovers, family, fame, fortune. But writing, if I stay with it, if I’m true to it, it will never leave me. It’s about fidelity. If you take care of the word, it will take care of you.
Writer’s Edit would like to thank Merlinda for sharing her experiences with us, and inspiring us to keep on writing!
You can order Merlinda’s latest book Fish-Hair Woman through Spinifex Press.