In this episode we speak to two writers we love about memoir, family, the Own Voices movement and the many facets of Australian identity. Zoya Patel, founder and editor of Feminartsy, tells us about her book No Country Woman: A Memoir of Not Belonging(Hachette), while Ambelin Kwaymullina speaks about co-editing Meet Me At The Intersection (Fremantle Press) and co-writing her latest YA title, Catching Teller Crow (Allen & Unwin).
Read two extracts from Meet Me at the Intersection: Olivia Muscat on learning to live with blindness and Omar Sakr on grief and talking to a brother you’ve never met.
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Meaghan Dew (KYD): Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. This week we’re bringing you two authors whose recent work has engaged with the idea of Australian identity. Zoya Patel, founder and editor of Feminartsy, spoke to us about her first book, the memoir No Country Woman. But first we have Ambelin Kwaymullina. Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, Illustrator and law academic known for, among other titles, her YA series The Tribe. I’m a huge fan, and if you’re into dystopian YA I’d recommend you get on it. This year she turned up with her brother Ezekiel Kwaymullina on a new YA thriller, Catching Teller Crow. She also worked with fellow author Rebecca Lim on a brilliant collection for Fremantle Press.
Meet Me At The Intersection is an anthology of short fiction, memoir and poetry by authors who are First Nations, people of colour, LGBTIQA+ or living with disability. The focus of the anthology is on Australian life as seen through each author’s unique and seldom heard perspective. I asked Ambelin to tell us about the anthology’s origin story.
Ambelin Kwaymullina: My friend and colleague Rebecca Lim and I were just really frustrated at the exclusion of marginalised voices from literature, and we wanted to do something about it. We don’t have any money, and we’ve got very little time, but we thought well, we can do something. So we started a volunteer initiative called Voices From The Intersection, and our aim is to do just 1–2 things a year that provide some opportunities for marginalised voices to be heard. And we are particularly keen to promote what we call Own Voices stories – so these are stories written by people from a marginalised group about their own lived experience. So we kicked off by doing a pitch day to publishers here in Melbourne, and then our second project is this anthology.
KYD: Did any of the pieces surprise you, either because they were new aspects of writers you knew well, or newer voices that you hadn’t come in contact with before?
AK: Yeah, so most of the authors in the anthology are emerging, and many of them were not known to Bec and me before we started doing the project. And I think what really surprised us is, we knew the voices were out there, and we knew the stories were out there, but the depth and the complexity, and the connections across stories – the way in which when you put them all together, you got this image or these images of Australia, the diversity of Australia, the many stories of Australia was so incredible, and I think it certainly made me feel at the end, when I was holding the book in the hand, it was like I could put my hand on the cover and I could hear Australia talking in all its beauty and problems and complexity, and I just thought, this is what stories should be, and we just need so many more.
KYD: That idea of connection that inspired, I believe, the front cover design?
AK: Yeah, so I painted the front cover for the anthology, and I wanted to get across that idea of those connections across different groups which was so clear in the stories themselves. And also the oppressions that prevent us from speaking. But I guess I wanted to talk about those aspects of oppression in two ways, which is how I eventually did it in the artwork. Because on the one hand there are all these points of exclusion, that stop us from speaking, but on the other hand those points of exclusion can also be meeting places, where different groups come together, to join together in solidarity, and also places where people of privilege can come to hear us speak, and to talk about our experience of exclusion and how to change it.
KYD: That idea of connection is something you’ve also really strongly explored in The Tribe series – what is it that keeps bringing you back to that key concept?
AK: Well because I’m Indigenous, connections simply underlie Indigenous culture. And those connections are expressed through kinship systems, and kinship systems extend beyond human beings to the whole world. So in Indigenous worldviews, the world is more or less animate – everything is alive, and we’re connected to everything else, and that is how we live in the world, how we understand the world, and how we we try to live sustainably – to maintain and sustain all those connections. So as an Indigenous person it’s a very natural thing for that to be something I’m talking about and for something that founds so much of my work.
KYD: Meet Me At The Intersection, I took a lot out of it as an adult, but it is set within the Young Adult sphere – was that something that shaped people’s writing in any way, that awareness about audience?
AK: I think so… Young Adult is always a bit of a tricky thing, because it encapsulates a super wide variety of stories, that label. So from the start we said this is a Young Adult anthology, and the reason for that is we really wanted it for teenagers, we wanted teenagers who weren’t seeing themselves in books at that really critical time when you’re a teenager, and things can be so incredibly difficult – it’s so important to be able to find yourself in stories. So we wanted that for those kids, we wanted there to be a book in a library where they could pick up, even one story and think ‘oh yeah, that’s like me’. Having said that, what we found since the anthology has been out is that so many adults have gotten so much out of it, and we’re getting a lot of feedback from adults who’ve picked up the anthology in one way or another, and they’re saying, like, ‘oh, I really connected with this, and I really found myself in this,’ and I think it speaks to that need for those stories is bigger than teenagers, like it goes across. And we’ve also found that lot of people who aren’t in the anthology, so people of privilege saying, ‘this is so fantastic, you know, I really love hearing from all these people and what their experience is, and it’s really broadened my understanding of the world.’ So we’ve just been so pleased with all the people who are reading it and enjoying it.
KYD: Has there been any interest in school lists?
AK: I don’t know about school lists, I do know that I’m continually hearing from teachers, so I’m getting a lot of teachers, ‘oh, this is great, I’m going to use this in my class, we’re going to do this with my class,’ you know, ‘what would you like me to say about it,’ and things like that. So certainly it’s something that teachers taking notice of.
KYD: As a fan of the Tribe series, I’m really excited about Catching Teller Crow as well, so I love the combination of genre elements and also dry, no-nonsense protagonists, in a lot of ways, that you bring to your YA. What is it that draws you to these when writing for teens?
AK: I define myself as a writer of Indigenous Futurisms, and this is a term coined by an Anishinaabe academic named Grace Dillon and it refers to a form of storytelling were Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and imagine indigenous futures, and I really enjoy the way that speculative fiction allows me to do that. Catching Teller Crow was a very difficult story to tell because it deals with some very serious issues. It was a joint project between myself and my brother Zeke, and we spent a long time talking about how we told this story, and how we found a way to get it on the page. And engaging with this story as part of speculative fiction allowed to do that, and it also allows us to write of a lot of things which are simply not speculative to us. So speaking with people who have passed over is not ‘speculative’ to Indigenous people, that is part of Indigenous culture. Relationships with non-human life forms and the way in which non-human life forms bring you messages and help guide you through the day. And that’s not speculative in Indigenous culture, those are a part of our realities. And so we really enjoyed being able to bring those cultural things into that story.
KYD: What was it like writing with your brother with this particular book?
AK: It’s the first long story we’ve worked on together, so we’ve worked on picture books and short books before. Zeke and I are very alike, so we work together very easily and we are two people who can just sit in silence and understand each other perfectly. We also complement each other’s strengths, so I am much better at world building, Zeke is the one who is the poet, so the verse novel aspects of that, he was in charge of making sure that the rhythm and the poetry of it was right, because he is much better at it than I am. I was in charge of making sure the underlying logic in the world building was right, because I am better at that than him. And it is such a joy – writing can be such a lonely process, and such an isolated process. It’s such a joy to be able to work with someone else, and we’re now working on another novel together.
KYD: How do you handle your world building, how do you, do structure and plan it all in advance? What do you do to make sure that it does remain consistent the whole way through?
AK: To a degree – so I have a plan when I start off, but the problem is of course the second you start writing, a plan can be deviated from pretty quickly. And you’ll find all those ideas you had in your head about how something was going to work, once you actually start doing it, you realise it doesn’t work at all. So it’s really more a matter of going back and back and thinking it through as I’m doing the story. And for me too, making sure that the elements we have in there of Indigenous culture are appropriate things to be talked about in the public domain – because not all of Indigenous culture is for the public domain. So a lot of that work goes into the storytelling too.
KYD: Some of the elements in your writing fall a lot closer to current political reality – it will be hard to read The Tribe and not pick up on modern day and historical meanings for the presence of ‘citizenship accords’, or ‘illegals’ or detention centres. How much of the political world today do you incorporate into your books, and are there things that you would have incorporated into those books if you were writing them today?
AK: So I think there’s a couple of things. One is, I think that when you’re Indigenous you cannot escape being called ‘political’ whether you’re intending to be or not, because the personal becomes political. So me saying that two generations of my family were taken away under the Stolen Generations, for me that is a deeply personal statement, and a statement filled with layers of trauma and grief. But a lot of people will read that as a political statement. So one of the difficult things about being Indigenous is often the space for the personal becomes crowded out, because of the way which other people interpret what you were doing. The thing with The Tribe series is, that is very much read as a comment on current situations but actually those laws were all drawn from historical laws that applied to Indigenous people. And I think that just speaks to cycles of exclusion, and the way in which it is important to be aware of those historical exclusions and see their echoes in the present day, and understand where those ideas came from and how long they have been around, in order to sensibly discuss them and in order to sensibly deconstruct them.
KYD: You’ve written before about your mum’s discomfort with Star Trek as a child, do you feel that those old sci-fi tropes of intrepid explorers boldly going where no man has gone before, and yet somehow encountering people and races when they get there, as starting to shift? And what are some examples for you of books that really use sci-fi or dystopian fiction to examine parts of our present and of our history, rather than reinforcing them?
AK: They’re shifting extremely slowly. So this is a problem throughout science fiction, and it is a problem that has been written to by Indigenous commentators and by black commentators, and it’s not just a problem relating to non white peoples, there’s also issues with the representation of LGBTIQA+ peoples, there’s issues with representations of disability, there’s issues with representations of women – and so this is something that’s been written to about science fiction by lots and lots of people across lots of lots of groups, and pointing out the problems with the thing that science fiction is replicating in its stories. And to me it is just really sad, because this is a genre that supposed to be about the future, and yet it keeps replicating the past. Now having said that, when you start getting writers into this genre, as we are increasingly seeing, from lots of different groups, then you are starting to see these stories of the future, which really are about the future – which are imagining, OK, well what if it didn’t have to be like this? What if we could start to break discrimination in all its forms, and what if we could have something different? So the stories I most enjoy reading are all the stories from those voices, of writers from marginalised groups in science fiction, and there’s so many of them – I’m a bit hesitant to start listing because I’m going to leave people off, you know, but for instance, you know, most recently I just loved reading Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius, and I didn’t know anything about that book before I picked it up, so I didn’t expect to find that it was of course a work of Indigenous Futurisms. But it was so amazing and I was so happy to read that and to see the response to it, the way in which people are loving it, and it got shortlisted for awards and all this, and I just thought that was really great, and I would love to see more Australian Indigenous voices in this field.
KYD: That was Ambelin Kwaymullina, author of Catching Teller Crow, and co-editor of Meet Me At The Intersection. You can and should find them both at a bookstore or library near you. No Country Woman: A Memoir Of Not Belonging may be Zoya Patel’s first book, but you could only call her a ‘new voice’ if you haven’t been listening. In 2015 she was named ACT Young Woman of the Year for her commitment to raising the profile of women’s voices in the media. She’s the founder and editor of Feminartsy, an online feminist arts and literature journal, and is a former editor in chief of Lip magazine. Now she’s released her first book, and it’s as intelligent and impassioned as you’d expect.
Zoya Patel: I would say it is a collection of essays about what it means to grow up as a migrant in Australia, and the complexities that living in that space between two cultures brings.
KYD: As you mentioned, the book is about growing up in Australia, but it was also written in Edinburgh – did the location change help or hinder that writing process, the distance from the location where most of these stories occurred?
ZP: I think it definitely helped. It’s funny because before I went over to Scotland, a few people like my agent at Curtis Brown said, ‘I think it’s going to be fantastic for you to be a little bit distant from Australia and your family while writing this book, so you have that clarity.’ And I think that was definitely the case, but ironically being away made me feel, like, really positive about Australia, and very nostalgic, and in a lot of ways probably blunted some of the more contentious feelings I have towards Australia. So I had to dig a little bit deeper when really trying to look into why we have this culture of racism that really very much has permeated a lot of my life – because while I was in Edinburgh and just feeling a little bit kind of confused and befuddled, as you do when you’re a migrant again. Even in an English speaking country, there are just so many random bits of culture that you forget that, you know, enable your life to be really easy when you’re from that culture – and then suddenly I was walking through supermarkets and not knowing where anything was, and struggling to understand people’s accents, and as a result of that I just felt this real yearning for home, especially in the first few months, which is when I wrote the bulk of this book. So I think ultimately it helped, but it helped in some funny kind of ways. I definitely think having the distance from the actual people who I talk about in the book definitely helped as well, just giving me a better sense of perspective over a lot of the childhood memories and things like that that I talk about.
KYD: As you just mentioned there, you had that increased sort of fondness for Australia, and in the book you mention that you feel felt more ‘undeniably Australian’, in a way, while you were overseas – did some of that feeling of belonging, of being undeniably Australian remain after you returned, or did the daily small acts of racism that you write about in your book, did they blunt that feeling?
ZP: I think when I first got back to Australia, I definitely still felt quite euphoric about being home – as much as I totally loved Scotland, in the first few months that I was back I definitely held on to that sense of being undeniably Australian. But definitely at the same time, it is harder to hold onto that in Australia, because as I write in the book, Australians are more likely to question my Australianness than, you know, the Scottish or the British wear while I was overseas. And that’s entirely down to skin colour, and especially once you’ve just written a book about these topics, it becomes really hard to ignore. And I think what’s been interesting, especially over the past couple of months, is I’ve had a few instances of quite specific racism that I wasn’t necessarily expecting, and that has really made me reflect on the way in which we construct Australian identity, and the way in which that power to construct Australian identity very much lies in the hands of the majority. So I don’t think I feel as firm in that identity as I did while I was overseas, but I’m a lot more conscious of trying to hold onto it, which I think is a good thing.
KYD: Was there time in the writing and editing process to incorporate that into the book, or was it very much sort of finished and done and dusted when you moved back?
ZP: It was 100% finished, so I couldn’t – and also I think, it’s really funny, once you’ve kind of put yourself out there as a bit of a crusader for multiculturalism and like, let’s end the racism! and then you experience an act of racism, and my immediate response is still to question whether that was really racist and to question whether I have a right to complain. You know, I really still undergo that process of self denial, and I don’t think that I expected that to still be the case – I kind of thought oh, you know, you’ve got this figured out now, like you’ve written an entire book about it – but that gaslighting feeling that I write about in the book, where migrants are made to question their own experiences, especially in the context of a monoculture, which just erodes any sense of difference, that is still very much present in my life, and I still struggle with that quite a bit. So I I don’t know that I would have put it into the book even if I could, because I’m still, like you know, the incidents of racism that I write about in the book happened years ago – it took that long for me to feel really confident that that was racism and that I could write about it, and not feel like someone could easily pull the rug out from under my feet on that.
KYD: You’ve just spoken then about the growth over time in the way you see certain incidents, and the way you’re able to unpick them and explain them in a way that’s really clear to both you and to other people – is there anything in the book that you feel you might look back on later and feel no longer rings true? Because it’s such a laying down of your thought process, and such a public vulneraability of your growth in a way.
ZP: 100% there will be things that I would look back on and question – I already do that with some of the topics that I write about. Not the things that are fundamental to, kind of my family’s early experiences of Australia, or even the identity stuff that I unpick, because a lot of that is about a moment in time anyway. A lot of the book focuses on the difficulties of growing up as a migrant, so really focusing on my kind of childhood and adolescent years, and to me that will always ring true. But kind of later in the book, in the second half, I talk more about current issues, when we talk about diversity, and one of those is that, you know, that subject of cultural appropriation, which is just constantly moving, and I don’t think I’ll ever have a firm view on those kinds of topics that I think we’re all still working out as a community anyway. I actually wrote an article a few years ago for i-D called ‘How To Appreciate a Culture without Appropriating It’, and that article got such a huge response and sometimes I look back on that and I’m like, I don’t know that I agree with this anymore. And similarly there are bits in the book, particularly the chapter about being an ally to people of colour, where I think fundamentally I still feel the same way, but it’s one of those topics where, you know, every week more nuance comes into your perspective, because it’s such an iterative topic. It can’t stay still, because our culture is constantly in flux. And I think I just had to accept that when writing the book, that I could only write what felt like the truth at the point at which I was writing it, and that inevitably that will shift. It’s really funny right now though, doing these interviews about the book, and every time I have a conversation with someone new I find myself kind of adding to my thought process, and shifting, and I’m like, how do you stay consistent when you’re talking about something that is ultimately changing all the time? So I’m sure if you compare like an interview I did last week with an interview I do this week, my thought process has probably already changed.
KYD: One of the pleasures of the book is being able to follow your thought process as you grapple with your relationship with family and friends, your partner, cultural heritage, religion, this country – where did the strength to do that come from, do you feel?
ZP: I think being a writer means that there’s a part of you that has always been open to being vulnerable in that way. And I think there are aspects of the writing journey that almost build you up to that. You know, the process of writing the book is such an insular and solitary one, where it was pretty much me grappling with those ideas, the point at which you put something out into the world, I think you almost feel a little bit of a severing there. And now I think of it as something that has to just exist, and allow people to interrogate the book without that necessarily meaning they’re interrogating me? Even though I think most people will see it that way. Then also just being a millennial, I grew up sharing my, all of my very important thoughts and feelings on a LiveJournal or a blog or, you know, I never actually questioned the validity of doing that, which is a sense of entitlement that I think is quite particular to our generation – to the point where, you know, I write in the book about me and my best friend Melissa making our own zines and leaving them out at the comic book store, because why wouldn’t people want to read all of our thoughts and feelings? And I think that audacity is still part of what gets me so interested in writing from a kind of memoir subject point, and so interested in using personal experience to kind of bounce into those bigger political ideas. So that vulnerability almost doesn’t really exist for me, I am able to disconnect a bit from the work in terms of my personal experiences, and what people will then take from those personal experience. I did have a really interesting question the other day though, at my Sydney book launch at Better Read Than Dead, where a fellow Indian second-generation migrant asked me, ‘where do I get the language to talk about these things from such a personal perspective?’ because in our culture we don’t talk about ourselves, emotional kind of interrogations of our experiences are not really a big thing. Even as a family I’ve noticed that since the book came out, my family and I have been talking more about our shared experiences of racism, but we never really did that prior to that. So that’s probably been the hardest thing, is cutting through some of the cultural expectations around being vulnerable, and around sharing personal stories to be able to do that. So it’s always been a sense of dissonance for me, marrying that very Australian or Western idea of being open with our experiences, and feeling very protected and sharing with the public our personal experiences, whereas in Indian culture that’s like airing your dirty laundry. So finding that middle ground has probably been the thing that has felt the most vulnerable. The actual putting it out into the world and having strangers read it doesn’t feel that stressful to me.
KYD: So if everything from LiveJournal and zines have been leading up to you feeling comfortable putting this material out there, in terms of craft, what pieces have you read that have really influenced the way you chose to construct this book, or inspired you and things that you hoped to reach for while writing it?
ZP: Totally. I think it’s funny, that blogging aspect has always been something that I’ve turned to when writing personal experience, but I’ve been really lucky in the past 3 or 4 years that so many other Australian women have been writing memoir about bigger issues in a way that has given me a real chance to learn from them. So the reason why I chose to do it in essays and have each essay themed was really driven by reading books by people like Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance where, you know, she interrogates body image and eating disorders and also just a relationship with self, through essays that are connected by that theme but are ultimately really different. And also Jessica Friedmann’s Things That Helped, which is a similar structure – I really enjoyed the way that their personal narratives are fundamental to the book, but that’s not the only thing that a reader will take from that book. So I’ve always struggled with the way that people conflate memoir and biography, and I think there is a whole kind of generation of Australian writers who are challenging that, and really going back to the root of memoir being about cultural interrogation in a broader sense, that uses personal experience. So those kinds of texts definitely helped. And then I think there’s also this great community of writers of colour in Australia, who are just doing incredible work. And also not just in Australia – I reference a lot of writers who I love who are from the States or Canada or the UK as well. I read Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much And Not The Mood, which is just this amazing essay collection. And she happens to be Indian–Canadian, but race isn’t a central topic throughout the book, but it’s definitely woven throughout it. But I just loved her style of writing and also the way in which she really hones in on really specific images or just hauntingly beautiful constructed sentences. And that made me realise that even though when you are a writer of colour you often feel like you have to write about issues of colour, you can do that and not do that at the same time, which is what I think her strength is. So I turn to writers like that a bit as kind of a guiding light through the journey. But ultimately I think it was having that sense that there is actually an appetite for that kind of work, and that essay collections are kind of more mainstream now, that I think really helped.
KYD: No Country Woman, it felt so much as a love letter to your family. There might have been ambivalence about the way they might view some of your interests and life choices and vice versa, but there’s no doubt you care for them tremendously. Were you concerned that they might not see the book in that way? That you’re questioning part of your heritage and life in Australia, and your constructing an identity that feels true to you might read as a criticism of them and their choices?
ZP: Yes, that was definitely a concern that I had, but not a concern that was based in any kind of negative reaction that they’d had to date. I think it’s always been really clear my family that each of us four siblings are really different, and my parents are also both, like, forces of nature who are very strident in their own ways. I think the key thing I was worried about wasn’t that they would think I was criticising them or the ways that they raised us, because we’ve had enough conversations about those types of things as a family that I think that you understand where I’m coming from – it was definitely the sharing of our public, our personal lives in public, which is just not something that we do in our culture. And so years ago, before I even thought about this book in particular, I did kind of talk to them about that, and it was quite a confronting idea, particularly for my mother, to have our shared experiences made public in that way. I think it made her feel quite vulnerable in the sense that she didn’t know automatically what I would be saying, and that’s scary just generally. But by the time I got the book contract they were very much on board. I did however not actually share the book with them until it was bound in a proof. Yeah, every time I tell people that story they’re like, whoa, that’s a very brave thing to do. But I was really confident in what I’d written, and I spent a lot of time refining it and reflecting, and I asked a lot of questions from them as I was writing, and I did get in writing that they were OK with it, before I actually finished it. And when I gave it to them I was super nervous, I think the only nerves that I really had about the book were around my parents reading it, and they both loved it in different ways. So that was quite a relief, but I actually feel like giving it to them as a bound book was a smart move, because I always wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t our shared story, it was my perspective of our shared story. And as a result of that, like, a lot of the book is very cautious around that, and I think you can kind of sense that reading it, that I’m trying really hard not to speak on behalf of anyone else. So I think giving it to them in a format that made it clear that it wasn’t really open for debate, because I wasn’t trying to represent their views kind of helped with that process a bit. Although my dad had some really hilarious feedback, like he’d be like, ‘oh, love the book, love the book – but why didn’t you put that one anecdote about our pet dog in?’ And it’d be like, OK Dad, like, big picture, probably can’t put every anecdote about the dog in. Like that was the level of his feedback.
KYD: That was Zoya Patel speaking about her memoir No Country Woman. It’s out now with Hachette. That’s all we have time for; I’m Meaghan Dew and and you’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. Thank you to Zoya, Ambelin, Hachette, Fremantle Press, The Wheeler Centre and the Melbourne Writers Festival for your help with the episode. As always, you can find more reviews, interviews, criticism, short fiction and other brilliant writing on the Kill Your Darlings website. Next year we’ll be celebrating 10 years of Kill Your Darlings. That’s 10 years of bringing you an array of brilliant local writers. We want to still be doing that in another decade, so if that’s something that you want too, you can help us do that by checking out our Pozible campaign. You’ll find the details on our website. See you next time!