In the Philharmonia Studio, reminiscent of the airy music classrooms of my past schools, sat three unique writers chatting amongst themselves with a laid-back grace that immediately let the room breathe a sigh of calm. We were here to listen to Grounded: Place in Writing, and this was a comfortable place to hear about it.
Mitchell S. Jackson is from The States, and his semi-autobiographical novel The Residue Years is about a young black man growing up in ‘the whitest city in America’. Latika Bourke is well known as a journalist for the ABC and Fairfax, with her memoir From India With Love being her first full-length work. Anson Cameron’s latest book, The Last Pulse, is set in the Australian bush, using water (or lack thereof) as metaphor.
Three very different writers, discussing what place and story means to them, makes it difficult to put into words all together. So here is a re-cap of each author and their best advice.
Mitchell S. Jackson
“I wrote about the world that I know, and it ended up being myopic,” Jackson said. The Residue Years follows a young man, Champ, and his mother Grace, in the 1990s while they try to avoid the shadow of crack cocaine. Jackson grew up in Portland, a city known for being fundamentally white, though Jackson wasn’t fully aware of this until moving to New York.
Someone said, ‘You know that’s the whitest city in America!’
He went on to say that while he wasn’t ignorant of the dichotomies of race, it wasn’t something that affected him in his everyday life.
An important piece of fiction for Jackson is John Edgar Wideman’s short story ‘Weight’, in which the first lines say, ‘My mother is a weightlifter. You know what I mean.’ Jackson said reading those lines changed his mind about writing and voice. “I thought, ‘You can write like that? He’s a lauded writer!’ I had that voice, that voice was already there in me,” he said.
I had language but I didn’t have the courage to use it.
Until Jackson was in a class with writer Gordon Lish, who had a rule of only reading one sentence at a time. Lish let Jackson read a whole three sentences before announcing, “Jackson, you got an ear”.
On Being a Writer
Jackson’s literary talent and speech is pulled off with authenticity, which makes it astounding that he ‘never thought of himself as a writer’. It was during his time in prison, when his friends told him he needed to stop playing so much basketball, that Jackson turned to writing his life story. “I needed something to do that wasn’t a waste of time. I didn’t decide I wanted to be a writer until I was one year into a creative writing degree,” he said, “and I didn’t have a purpose until I started writing.”
Bourke was born in India and adopted to a loving Australian family quite young. “I grew up in an authentic childhood, being told to watch out for snakes and spiders,” she said, “I never had any interest in India.” Despite Bourke feeling like every other school kid, she would be pestered by some about ‘where she came from’: “I’m from Bathurst!” she exclaimed.
I never struggled with my identity but I’d always get this question. Every time they asked they were trying to make me different, make me Other. But now, it’s an absolute privilege to tell you where I’m from.
Bourke was born in Bihar, East India, and travelled there (now going once a year) to discover more about her heritage. “Having been there I felt larger as a person,” Bourke said, “wiser about my identity”.
Bourke told a story about visiting Bihar, and the old orphanage run by nuns (now an establishment to teach the blind to read, or house those in need). Out in a field were young girls all moving, kicking, punching, in a flurry of colours. The nuns, Bourke explained, had been teaching them self defense for when the girls were to be married, in case they were abused.
I thought, in Australia we talk about feminism and we fight about what feminism means. But this, this was living, kicking feminism!
On Being a Writer
Being a journalist, Bourke might have found the writing of her memoir From India With Love more difficult. “It took four years,” she said, “it was like there were all these strands in the air and it took me a long time to work out what strands went where. I still think my writing is very journalistic.”
Bourke admits that putting her experiences about India on the page were tricky, saying that she could have described everything in detail, but instead, wanted to ‘explain with meaning’.
Cameron admitted to taking our bushland for granted in the past, saying “as a younger writer I felt jealous of Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare. But the great thing about getting old is that the place you grew up in becomes more exotic. Looking back, it was quite a fractured community.”
He spoke about Australian landscape with pride, with wonder down to the smallest details, like insects buzzing around the base of Uluru. And it’s these intimate details, he says, that are so important to writing.
Writing is at its most powerful when it’s intimate. It’s the intimacies that make the world in a book, and you can only know them when you know the place you write about.
While listening to Cameron, one couldn’t help but notice the utterly Australian language and tone of his own voice. It made me want to pick up his book and start reading about the rivers. So it’s interesting to note that author voice and character voice are handled so differently:
To actually put words into a character’s mouth was the most confronting thing. It takes a while to get to know your characters, until you can slip into them quickly.
Advice on Writing
Cameron has a column for The Age newspaper, where he can write about anything he likes (‘Where’d you get a gig like that!’ Bourke said). But he maintained that the columns which engage readers best are the ones with personal investment: “I can write a letter to Tony Abbott from a priest in a Catholic school, but the ones with emotion, like about my father dying, those get a better response.”
He also had advice for reaching the climax of your story, saying that it’s always better ‘to turn down the volume’, and to write those strong scenes by quietening them to create a more powerful effect.
Stay tuned for more Sydney Writers’ Festival coverage from Writer’s Edit.