This month the KYD team are discussing Eula Biss’s latest genre defying work ‘Having and Being Had’, a series of linked essays in which Biss explores her lived experience of capitalism, along with SBS’s new supernatural drama ‘Hungry Ghosts‘, in which vengeful spirits haunt the Vietnamese-Australian community in Melbourne during the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’. This episode was produced by Hayley May Bracken.
Further Reading and Culture Picks:
ContraPoints, ‘Opulence’ (YouTube)
Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!
Hayley May Bracken: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. I’m Hayley May Bracken, joined by Kill Your Darlings’ own Alan and Alice…
Alice Cottrell: Hello!
Alan Vaarwerk: Hey!
HMB: We’re all recording from the safety of our own homes. Today will be discussing Eula Biss’ latest genre-defying work, Having and Being Had, and also the four-part SBS miniseries Hungry Ghosts. Eula Biss is a New York Times bestseller, her most recent book is On Immunity: An Inoculation, which was named one of the Top 10 best books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review, and she’s also written Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which won the National Book Circle Award for criticism, and her work has appeared in Harpers, the New York Times, Believer, and elsewhere. Having and Being Had, Biss herself has said, was a record of the moves that she made within a fixed set of rules. It’s also a record of her discomfort with those rules and with the game itself, the game being capitalism.
AC: So I think the book came out of a diary that she kept when she bought her first house, about the experience of buying into the American dream and the feelings of discomfort that she had in moving to a particular position in the social hierarchy.
HMB: And she had some rules for herself, when she constructed this work as well, to be explicit and write down figures of how much her house cost, how much her income was, rather than deal in vagaries.
AV: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that she sort of set up these rules for herself, but also that she told us as the reader what the rules were that she was establishing for the writing of the book. Short essays, a couple of pages at most, they all start in the first person, they all are based around a conversation that she had with a friend or a family member. Sometimes she says she bent the rules a little bit in order to talk about a book that she’s reading, rather than a conversation. The fact that talking about money and actually putting dollar figures to her discussions of class and capitalism and things like that, the fact that that can be a taboo.
HMB: Mmm. I also loved how she was transparent about the way that, in her private life, she was deliberately ambiguous about the cost of her house. When she spoke to her sister, and she was saying that her life is divided into time before owning a washing machine and after, and that she could say that purchase of a home was a $400,000 container for her washing machine, and then she wrote ‘it’s actually closer to $500,000, but I wasn’t comfortable saying that.’ The little disavowals.
AC: That bit struck me too, Hayley, I thought yeah, it was sort of a really interesting interrogation of the lies that we tell ourselves to make ourselves comfortable as well, and I read an interview with Eula where she was saying basically that people use other people being more rich than them as a comparison to make themselves feel better, but the reality is in a country like America there’s always going to be someone who’s more rich than you, and there’s a section in the book where she says to her husband, ‘we’re rich,’ and I think he expresses that he doesn’t feel rich, and she texts him saying ‘I’m compiling evidence that we’re rich.’ So I think it’s interesting that she doesn’t just interrogate her own wealth, or her relationship to money, but she also interrogates lies or obscuring details we use to talk about or acknowledge money or our own financial situations.
AV: I mean the whole book is kind of as much an artistic experiment in terms of the rules that she sets for herself, It’s also kind of a thought—we’re sort of working out with her, she and by extension we as the reader sort of fit within these systems, and what compromises that we sort of have to make every day in order to live a quote unquote ‘comfortable’ life, whether that means buying shares in order to pay for your retirement, and the fact that a lot of investments are conducted at such a remove, I think there’s a section where she discusses either being able to invest in a company that treats its workers well, or looks after the planet, and sometimes it’s not possible to be able to invest in either one, and so it’s a decision that has to be made in order for her to do the work that she wants to do. I guess we can get into in a little bit about what work even means, but yeah, the idea of what is a luxury to have, what is an investment, what is an investment in your own craft, which is something that she sort of interrogates a lot, and what that means from a sort of ethical standpoint under capitalism, I suppose.
HMB: The way that she was, as is the 2020 way, checking her own privilege, it wasn’t exhausting or pedantic, it felt very in its right place in this work, it felt as though it didn’t rest at stating some privileges and moving on, it was that really thorough interrogation of, as you were saying, what even is work, and what is the morality of that. How she managed to live in New York as a younger writer on $10,000 a year and made as much money as she needed to survive and then live as a writer. I was quite amazed to learn how modest her income and her livelihood really was, considering her literary-critical success. I don’t know if that’s comforting or discouraging to learn how little money she had while she was writing these wonderful things.
AV: It really does systemically dismantle this myth of, ‘you have to starve for your art’. I think the reality of so many working writers and people involved in and around writing is that it is work and it’s, and it’s labour, and as Eula Biss articulates in the book, it’s in some ways, you know, a lot easier labour than than other kinds of labour, but it is labour nonetheless, and so the way that she’s, I guess, lays out the admin involved in building a writing life, the economics of building a writing life, the trade-offs in terms of, you have to, have to pay for time, basically, you’re sort of always thinking in terms of buying yourself time in order to write, in order to do the work…
HMB: Particuarly as a parent. That seems quite clear, that delineation for people to have to pay someone to have any time for their writing and whether or not they’ll make that back.
AV: Yeah, and the example that she uses, that she comes back to quite a lot is Virginia Woolf, who wrote A Room of One’s Own, lays out that idea very much in economic terms, I think it’s, what, 500 pounds…
HMB: 500 guineas!
AV: 500 guineas, yeah, is what it takes for a woman to be able to have the time and space to write, but then goes into detail about how Virginia Woolf also, you know, inherited a large amount of money and had a live-in servant who she treated not super well, really going into the idea of being complicit in all these economic systems, being able to square that with doing the work that you want to and are compelled to do, and not having it, not thinking in absolutes of being one or the other I guess.
HMB: Did you have a favourite revelation or elucidation from the book? Mine was Monopoly, how Monopoly as a game was originally created… AV:.. As an anticapitalist, or as a critique of capitalism? Yeah!
HMB: Yes! (LAUGHS)
AC: Oh it was actually amazing that there used to be two different ways to play Monopoly, one where you dominated, which is the game that we know now, and another where you would play and everyone would end up equal, and that has just completely disappeared into history. Yeah, wild.
HMB: For some reason that struck me as somehow poetic.
AV: Yeah, there’s a lot of really beautiful poetic ironies all throughout the book, the one that’s stuck with me the most is the one about Virginia Woolf and how on the one hand she was very much committed to this idea of women having time and space to write, but on the other hand the trade-offs that that came with, and the fact that she didn’t always practice what she preached, and yet that coming across as not being discussed in order to quote unquote ‘cancel’ Virginia Woolf or to discount her thinking, but to I guess complicate the thinking around that.
AC: Yeah, I think the thing I loved about the book is that though it explores morality, there is kind of no moralising, and I think that that’s what makes Eula Biss interesting and clear writer, and as you say Hayley, there’s the kind of acknowledgement and interrogation of her own privilege, but it doesn’t feel like self-flagellation or making excuses, it feel like it’s interrogated with a kind of intellectual rigour that can be missing sometimes I think, in those acknowledgements.
HMB: Because she gets into the real minutiae of it, as when she was talking about how a friend of hers doesn’t want to pay a woman to clean the house because that’s too intimate, but she’d pay someone to wax her bikini line, wax her legs, that’s not too intimate. Everything’s up for analysis, everything’s up for dissemination.
AC: Yeah, it just feels like she’s sort of, takes a magnifying glass to things that are interesting to her and then distills down what they mean, or what they might mean. Or tell us into these incredibly kind of crisp, complete yet simple sentences, I mean it’s just a joy to read along with. It’s the kind of writing that makes you feel like you’re thinking along with the writer, I think.
HMB: Yes, it reminds me of Maggie Nelson like that. You feel much smarter.
AC: Yep, Maggie Nelson, Ellena Savage, it’s that kind of vibe like having a drink with your much smarter friend, but you sort of come away feeling intellectually energised by it.
AV: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of really strong parallels with, I would say, Ellena Savage’s Blueberries in terms of that idea of having, yeah, like you say Alice, having a conversation with your very smart friend. Yeah, I found this super readable—for essays on capitalism and economics and class and things like that, it’s probably one of the most readable experiences on that sort of topic I’ve had in a good while. The pieces are so short and so diary like in a very compulsive kind of way. You can just, ‘just one more, just one more,’ sort of thing.
HMB: As you were saying Alan, the real triumph of this work is that it’s quite intimate and shows how threaded into our whole lives all of these concepts are, and she can talk about Nobel prize winners in economics, and how two people can win in the same year with completely contradictory theories about the market, and how we’ve created this beast qe don’t even understand or can barely control. And I think it made me realise that something like economics, which, if you’ve never had any appetite for the subject, seems way more vague and subjective that I formerly imagined.
AC: I think my favourite part was definitely the Work section, I found the kind of questions about what is work and what is labour, and how have our conceptions of what work means changed over time, and the delineations between paid work and unpaid work. They were just yeah, those kind of really interesting questions about labour and work and what they mean in the context of creative work and physical labour, drew me in. I mean I loved all of it, I felt like it had a real kind of, yeah, cumulative feeling with those short essays, and often the end of one essay would then spark the start of the next one. So you kind of had this feeling of being drawn on and led somewhere, which I really loved.
AV: And the fact that these concepts that we know so inherently, like, things like we know what work is, we know what play is, but to actually sit down and think what is the difference between work and play, and the difference between work and labour, they’re actually concepts that are so nebulous and so kind of buffeted by other forces, and so wound up in money and religion and things like that, like the ‘Protestant work ethic’. The book itself is a sort of interrogation of its own creation, which I think is really interesting because it’s not apologising for its own creation, it’s, if there’s one thing Eula Biss definitely believes it is that the work is valuable, and her writing work is valuable.
HMB: Hearing some intelligent person articulate that very notion, in a culture where arts degrees are about to double in price, and the idea of producing works of art is definitely seen as less than morally good in a culture that definitely doesn’t celebrate art for art’s sake.
AV: Yeah, definitely. I think that working writers know that writing is work, but I think it’s something that, it’s too easy to be discounted as leisure or as play, and this is a valuable way of showing that it’s not. There’s a really great essay in The Cut which talks about the sort of self-awareness, writers interrogating self-awareness and sort of apologising for their own creation, and it’s talking about Having and Being Had. There’s a line from that essay that really stuck out of me, the essay’s by Molly Fischer and it’s at the very end of the piece, and it’s: ‘Why read an essay or novel whose own author seems unconvinced it exists? Biss may be exhaustively self-aware, but she writes like her writing is work worth doing.’ And I think that is a powerful thing in and of itself.
HMB: That is very powerful. And I think I’ve long known that writing is work, but to have it reaffirmed that it’s work worth doing was definitely not lost on me.
AV: If you want to read more about the book and about Eula Biss, we actually on Kill Your Darlings are going to be having a interview between Khalid Warsame and Eula Biss on our website, so keep an eye out for that now.
HMB: Now, let’s talk about four-part SBS miniseries Hungry Ghosts. The Hungry Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the 7th month in the lunar calendar. It’s the time Buddhists and Taoists believe the gates to hell open and spirits wander the earth. And this is the central story of the SBS new supernatural drama Hungry Ghosts, directed by Shawn Seet. And it’s the haunting of an evil spirit named Quang, played by Vico Thai, released along with other hungry ghosts during the festival, and how their presence forces four families in contemporary Melbourne to confront their buried past.
AC: So what did you guys think? Were you spooked?
AV: Yes. (ALL LAUGH) My spooky tolerance is extremely low, so I thought the series was very well made, very compelling, very visually appealing. It’s nice to see Footscray, community out there, it’s nice to, gosh it’s nice to see parts of Melbourne more than 5 km away. (AC & HMB LAUGH) Yeah, I think it was a really visually good-looking series, I think.
HMB: That was the most redeeming feature for me, the cinematography, the use of refraction and shadow and light, cerulean blue and that sort of true red, and the gold accents, that was really lovely.
AV: So you say that as in, I take that to mean you didn’t find the series very compelling, Hayley?
HMB: My partner’s a composer for film, and he was watching it with me, and he was very disappointed in the score, which I think maybe his criticism in my ear didn’t help, but because score has such an important part in creating tension and scare, I think that’s part of why it was diffused for me, watching it with a hater.
AC: I enjoyed it! I mean I found it scary and ominous and spooky, I guess, in the ways that you want from a horror or supernatural drama or whatever you want to classify it as, but for me the series just had a lot more depth than a traditional ghost story, because it features a cast of characters who are being haunted by their pasts the ghosts of those who have been killed in war, or those who’ve drowned fleeing by boat, so it was a lot more meaningful, I thought, than your traditional spooky monster who’s just there to freak you out. It was about people grappling with guilt and remorse. I thought Ferdinand Hoang was amazing as Anh, and the actress who plays his wife, Gabrielle Chan, was brilliant as well. That was kind of my favourite subplot.
HMB: Definitely agree that the more nuanced realistic intergenerational trauma parts were so much more compelling to me than the scares.
AV: Yeah, I think my favourite of the storylines as well was the Nguyen family who run the grocer, and how the ghost is used in a literal and figurative sense, in terms of coming between them in their marriage. It’s interesting because it’s almost like there’s two different types of ghost story happening at once in this piece, on the one hand you have the supernatural thriller with May and her family tracking down Quang and trying to put a stop to him, collecting these three souls in order to keep the gates of hell open. The others are trying to figure out why these ghosts have appeared to them rather than necessarily trying to stop them, I suppose. And so there’s sort of two ghost stories happening at the same time. And so sometimes I feel like the overlap, I was trying to find the connection between those two types of stories, and how the ghosts related to one another, and how the families sort of related to one another, I almost feel like sometimes that got a little bit muddled, but for the most part I actually kind of respected how the show respected the intelligence of the viewer.
HMB: Which is not easy to do with only four episodes, I mean it takes me a couple of episodes to warm up to the world building of any new series.
AC: I love a shorter series, I kind of think it’s kind of, you know, know wat you’re gonna do and do it. My big critique of all Netflix things is that everything is about 40 per cent longer than it needs to be.
HMB: True. And the mark of more artistic credibility to leave people wanting rather than to milk it until there’s nothing left, but I did think of you, Alan, and your criticism of Stateless in terms of how the Anglo-Australian cast members were headlined to promote this series, the Stockton family cast appear first in the end credit, and if their presence was necessarily, necessary?
AV: I kind of thought that yeah, the Bryan Brown character Neil Stockton, the war photographer, I thought he was not a necessarily super fleshed-out character. With the Nguyen family with Anh and Lien they kind of dealt with flashbacks really quite well, and then to have the Neil Stockton character really only use monologues to talk about his experience in Vietnam, I think left me a little bit cold.
HMB: I know what you mean, I felt like I could see the script. You know, when you’re seeing someone act and you think ‘oh, here’s some acting,’ you’re not immersed in it.
AC: I do think it’s worthwhile though, in a show that is about the Vietnamese community in Australia, interrogating Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I agree he wasn’t the most compelling character, but there was a reason for that storyline to be there, I thought.
HMB: True, and criticisms aside, Hungry Ghosts was an achievement on many levels, a contribution to Australian storytelling in a way that I don’t think any of us can fully register if you aren’t a Vietnamese Australian or an Asian Australian, what that representation would mean.
AC: Yeah, and wonderful I thought to see Footscray on screen, and parts of Melbourne that yeah, you’ve never seen on TV before, I haven’t at least.
AV: What you were saying about sort of Netflix shows sometimes being too long and this one being shorter and I definitely agree with the principle in terms of, if you drag things out too much then you can get a bit sort of baggy, but again without giving anything away, I felt like that the ending of this series felt a little bit rushed and I would have liked to spend a little bit more time getting to know some of the characters in their relationships to one another, rather than just in terms of how it facilitated the plot.
HMB: I felt that most profoundly in the romance development. I feel like they would have had some erst and let that build a bit more…
AV: Oh yeah, yeah.
HMB:.. Had they had more time.
AV: Yeah. I think for me I mostly found that in the the second generation Nguyen family, Gareth Yuen playing Paul, the son of Anh and Lien.
HMB: When he spoke about his father dealing with post-traumatic stress from being in the Vietnam war, we got a little teaser of a much more complex and interesting aspect of that character, and how he had to be the one who held the family together and bought his mother over here, and the depth that was hinted at in a few conversations he had with his wife intimated that there was a lot more to him.
AV: Yeah, definitely. Some of those characters I would have liked to spend more time with, but I mean I guess that’s, as much as I frame that as a criticism, it also means that they were interesting characters that I wanted to know more about, and wanted to get more into their lives, because they were, for the limited time they they are on screen, well drawn characters and they’re well acted for the most part, I think maybe Bryan Brown, yeah, he is a good actor, but I feel like maybe this wasn’t the best performances of his that I’ve seen. Catherine Van-Davies, as May Le, who’s called the protagonist of the of the series, I suppose, I think she was great, I had a really enjoyable time watching the series.
AC: Yeah, it’s interesting what you say about the ending feeling a bit rushed, Alan, because I just feel like that’s something that’s very hard to do with horror or thrillers, and I think it’s, like, a really difficult thing to do because if it’s too long then it sort of loses the charge that it needs, but if it’s too quick, it feels rushed, I don’t know, I feel like with horror or thrillers I always have a slight feeling of dissatisfaction at the end, it’s a bit like, you know, when everything gets wrapped up.
HMB: That is a good point Alice, it isn’t easy to wrap up anything in the horror genre in a perfectly neat or satisfying way. Don’t take our word for it, if you would like to check it out, it is available free to stream via SBS On Demand. Check it out.
AC: If you want to get scared! (LAUGHS)
AC: Or not, if you’re Hayley.
HMB: I I think that might be actually good, because some people might be turned off something that’s scary. If I’m not scared you’ll be fine.
AC: And what else have you guys been watching, or reading or listening to, and top culture picks?
HMB: A good culture pick in tandem with Eula Biss’ Having and Being Had is ContraPoints, her video on opulence, talking about not just wealth but the aesthetics of wealth, and visually very stunning, but also have some really interesting insight. One of her insights that I thought of while reading Having and Being Had was ‘Donald Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich person’, I think that’s Annie Leibovitz’s quote, people who are born into wealth usually exhibit taste that’s more restrained, and how his Nouveau Riche aesthetic is part of what makes him seem accessible and aspirational. I recommend ContraPoints, as always.
AV: And this is a YouTube channel, isn’t it?
HMB: YouTube channel.
AC: I’ve actually, that’s a good segue, I’ve been listening to a podcast called Rabbit Hole, which is about YouTube, or about the YouTube rabbit hole, and follows a young man who basically was radicalised online by right wing YouTube videos. The whole series is just like a kind of deeper dive exploration into what algorithms mean for basically like, destroying a sense of shared civic reality, because people are just drawn into these different rabbit holes. And yeah, also about like ethics in tech, what are the responsibilities that tech companies have, what’s overreach? Yeah, it’s a really compelling story that has a personal angle, but looks at some really big issues about what the internet is doing to us and to democracy really, so I’d recommend that.
HMB: That’s a good segue because that’s how I learnt about Contrapoints in the first place, when listening to that.
AC: Oh, cool!
AV: I’ve started listening to The Cut’s new podcast, hosted by Avery Trufelman, formerly of 99% Invisible, and a really, another really great podcast called Nice Try!, and a particular, an episode that I really enjoyed recently, it’s about the meme that was going around in the early days of coronavirus talking about ‘nature is healing, we are the virus,’ and the problematic, sort of eco-fascist sentiments behind that, about the idea of humans being separate from nature, and how that really, you know, erases a lot of Indigenous relationship with the land, and so, and it’s, yeah, just a really well produced, snappy really informative really engaging podcast. I really recommend it. The other thing that I was going to mention is that I’ve been reading Kylie Maslen’s new book, Show Me Where It Hurts, which is a collection of essays talking about living with an invisible illness. There’s a couple of essays in there that actually began life on Kill Your Darlings back in the day, when Kylie was KYD New Critic back in 2018 and then another piece as well from 2017 called ‘Ask Me How I Am’, which has been sort of expanded out in that collection, and yeah, they’re really engaging, really thought provoking, really enjoyable to read collection. And that book’s just out this month from Text Publishing.
HMB: Also, don’t forget…
AC: New Australian Fiction 2020 from Kill Your Darlings, a wonderful collection of short stories.
AV: Highly recommended.
HMB: But where can I purchase this?
AC: At killyourdarlings.com.au.
AV: Or from your local independent bookstore, or you can ask for it at your local library as well.
HMB: You’ve both given me some great things to read and listen to and think about, thank you.
AV: Thanks Hayley.
AC: No worries, catch you soon.
HMB: Catch you soon, bye!