Every month, Writer's Edit selects one work to feature as our Short Story of the Month. This year we're going behind the scenes of the writing to discuss inspirations and influences with the authors themselves.
Anne Vince, a writer and teacher living in rural Australia, spoke to us about her prose piece, 'On Reading "Nigger's Leap by Judith Wright"' which features as our February Short Story of the Month.
How long have you been writing, and what are your accomplishments so far?
I’ve been reading and writing since I can remember. Writing has always been a source of solace and, importantly, solitude for me as I grew up in a bustling family of ten and did not experience a ‘room of my own’ until I left home. As a child I was convinced I was the wrong baby from the hospital.
I loved reading but the only book in our house for many years of my childhood was The Children’s Book of Saints which, frankly, with its breathless stories of impossible miracles, bleeding hearts, deathbed conversions, heartless villains and virgins prepared to die with their err…. virtue… intact, was a terrific introduction to gothic melodrama and the hypnotic, compelling world of character.
I have a background in law as well as graphic design and journalism but now earn a living as a teacher. I’ve lived overseas for many years and travelled extensively. Every time I set off to some corner of the world I am in awe of this amazing planet we inhabit.
Like Mark Twain I believe that:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness… Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.
Equally it has been my experience that people who read often and widely learn how important diversity and change is to the development of the mind.
With four children I now live with my husband in a house in the country full to the ceiling with books in almost every room, which is bliss. Ours is a very vocal home! I’m proud of the fact that all of my children care deeply about and are activists for social justice.
Some of my poetry has been published in the UK, USA and Australia as well as travel articles, fiction and opinion pieces for magazines and journals, and quite a few academic papers. I’m a voracious reader and often have three or four books ‘on the go’ at the same time.
Where did the idea for ‘On Reading “Nigger’s Leap” by Judith Wright’ first come from? The scenes and dialogue feel so authentic, are any of them based on true experiences?
The idea came from the casual, unthinking racism that too many Australians continue to engage in. As a nation the greatest shame we wear is the past and present treatment of our indigenous people and the continuing silence surrounding so much of this history.
Do we really understand the impact of colonialism, globalisation, capitalism or environmental changes on Australia’s indigenous people?
Why did people react so viciously to Adam Goodes' warrior-like celebration? These are some of the potent, simmering questions that still need uncovering in our society.
Through the 1980s and early 1990s I worked with the Aboriginal Legal Service during the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody where one of my tasks was to interview and take detailed statements from the family members of people who had died while in 'custody' – a word, ironically, which not only means imprisonment but safe-keeping.
It was harrowing, soul-breaking work and the life stories I heard and recorded were seeped in sadness and, most shockingly, the expectation and inevitability of violence from ‘authority’. Another case I worked on which went all the way to the International Court of Justice was the repatriation of indigenous remains from British museums.
We now understand that what may have been of ‘scientific’ interest in one century was culturally insensitive and just wrong. Some of my best friends are proudly indigenous and the school I currently teach at has 30% indigenous enrolment – so there are a myriad influences embedded in this story!
How important is history in writing fiction, and why is it important for modern writers to explore the past?
Wow, great question. Authors have always appropriated history - sometimes as a backdrop to their stories, sometimes centre stage.
Can you imagine Tolstoy’s War and Peace without the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society? Similarly Zola’s masterpiece, Germinal, would not exist if the coal miners' strike in France in the 1860s had not taken place.
As writers we can use the events of history to remind our readers of the mistakes of the past as well as posing the tantalising question of ‘what if?’ Historians are the first to admit that history owes a debt to fiction.
‘History’ as we know it is often the favouring of one narrative over the suppression or even omission of another. One only has to examine whose voices history has traditionally ‘represented’ to begin to appreciate how little we really know of any history.
Writers of fiction are always seeking motivation, the shaping of character, the ordering of events – all things that historians do by trade.
I hope this short story pays homage to Judith Wright who bravely wrote about indigenous dispossession and massacres in the era of assimilation.
Judith Wright always demonstrated a clear understanding of the need for whites to confront the unrecorded history of conflict between whites and blacks in Australia.
She was a lifelong campaigner for land rights and an author who believed that if we did not address the events of the past we would forever live in a ‘haunted country’.
Who are your literary influences? What are your favourite, must-read books?
Definitely way too many influences to list here! Specifically, when I’m looking for a great example of precision or caustic wit I can’t go past Margaret Atwood. Her novel Alias Grace remains spellbinding.
David Mitchell, David Malouf, Tim Winton, Gail Jones and Rohinton Mistry are all nothing short of dazzling. I remember as a young teenager being stunned by Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings.
How dull life would be without Nabokov, Ondaatje, Tariq Ali, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Michael Cunningham, Isabel Allende and the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Emerging authors such as the Alaskan Eowyn Ivey and Australia’s own Ceridwen Dovey know how to play with a reader’s heart in ways that rip you open.
Michelle de Kretser, Anna Funder and Geraldine Brooks all remind me of the redemptive power of the written word while expanding the margins of imagination.
And then there are the brave historians – Henry Reynolds, Saul Friedlander, Jocelynne Scutt to name a few – who have worked tirelessly to remind us of the silenced narratives of history.
To me, reading is one of life’s pleasures. I am so concerned that too many young people just don’t read, don’t know how to read, have never been read to and consequently do not know how to craft their own writing or even their own speech. It’s one of the main reasons I’m now in the classroom rather than the court room.
What advice would you give to other writers? What’s the best lesson you’ve learned?
I’m not really in the position to ‘give advice’ to other writers so thought I might respond to this question by detailing the ‘advice’ I give to myself.
- Stop being lazy and finish the piece you started.
- You have a voice for a reason – use it!
- Be fair – even in your criticism.
- Edit, edit, edit and then edit some more.
- Feed the intelligence of your readers. I know from experience how ‘ripped off’ you can feel when a character or plot you have invested time in reading suddenly disappoints as the piece you are reading no longer hangs together or rings true.
- Be brave. Without quite a bit of daring Christopher Columbus would have been stuck on a beach in Portugal staring wistfully at the horizon, so jump in and see what comes out of the mix.
- Listen. Seriously, just observing human nature is rich pickings.
As for lessons, as scary as the exposure might be, share your work and be open to other’s ideas on how you could improve.
Be prepared to hear how your work is understood (or not!) by others. Then, deep breath, but back to the drawing board.