Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and time

White Teeth coverSince reading Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) earlier this year, I’ve been thinking about the way books are shaped by their time and place, and how their reception is likewise shaped by these. If you haven’t read it, hop to it – White Teeth sparks with brilliance and wit, as well as a wealth of astute observations so beautifully put that you read them over and over and wonder, How could this have come from an author so young?

But as I approached the denouement, I experienced an increasing sense of disbelief; on reaching it, I couldn’t help but think that it could only have been written, and received as credible, before the September 11 attacks. Pre-9/11, the characterisation of Millat and his decision would have been entirely plausible; post-9/11 I’m not sure that they are.

I don’t think much would have changed, had the book been written post-9/11 — the character’s vanity and resultant self-preservation might have been emphasised, for example — but I’m positive that something would have, and that this something would have made all the difference for the more cynical post-9/11 audience. The association of fundamentalism with suicide bombing (whether or not it has become more prevalent in actual fact is beside the point; the widely held perception is what counts) means that White Teeth‘s denouement stretches plausibility and seems, out of keeping with the wide-ranging wisdom of the rest of the book, a little naïve.

None of which means that the book isn’t an incredible work of literature; it is. It’s just that world events have thrown its (and our pre-9/11) assumptions into relief.

‘Trying to echo the style of art with fiction’

I think I’ve just fallen a little bit in love with Kristel Thornell the person/speaker (I was already in love with Kristel Thornell the writer).

I read Night Street a few years ago, and bought a copy sometime last year. I couldn’t find it, recently, and couldn’t bear not having it at hand, so I ordered another copy through my local bookshop.

I’ve just found and watched this Neilly Series lecture, which you should make the time to watch right away (the occasional rush of crackle stops once she is introduced, and is absent for most of the rest of the talk):

Can’t wait for her next novel, which sounds like it might not be too far off.

The Rabble’s Frankenstein and Bryony Kimmings’ Superstar Role Model

Two plays that I’ve seen in the past week have wowed me in different ways. I’m unfamiliar with the concepts and language of theatre, and maybe this is why, when something in a play has a strong effect on me,  I am fascinated by the method used to achieve that effect, and then find myself thinking about how a similar means of creating effect might look in writing.

Frankenstein-744The plays were The Rabble’s Frankenstein and Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, vastly different productions linked only by their feminist preoccupations.

Here and here are reviews that do a good job of briefly summing up the performances, so check those out for context, if you wish, before reading any further (poor form, I know, but see my previous post).

Frankenstein’s contrast of gender roles was the first thing that struck me: His hunting the monster, à la Moby Dick, versus Her birthing it. In both cases, the humans, in contemplating the monster and reacting as they do (hunt and kill / birth and reject), become monstrous. In becoming so, they incite the monster to act out behaviour even more worthy of the epithet ‘monstrous’, and so the cycle continues. It’s a concept I’ve been thinking about, in terms of how I might represent it in the novel MS, so seeing its depiction on stage, and experiencing the emotions that it conjured, was incredibly absorbing for me.

The innovative set likewise filled me with awe. It wasn’t only visually arresting for the audience, but also physically and technically challenging for the actors and crew, and this challenge imbued it with greater significance, as well as a more profound sense of the abject. I won’t describe it in case you see the play — it really is something.

As for Superstar Role Model, the fact that its main subject was a nine-year-olCredible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel Bryony Kimmings (Armour) _smld girl was what I most loved. Aunt Bryony and niece Taylor create a role model for ‘tweens’ — why, then, is this role model performing for adult audiences, you might ask; shouldn’t she limit herself to touring primary schools? The decision not to limit this to a tween audience is a determined step away from paternalistic adultism and sexism, because here is a play for adults with, at its front and centre, a nine-year-old girl: the issues that affect her affect society, and we adults should sit up and pay attention.

I make note of this not to devalue those who do work exclusively with kids, which is certainly crucial. But the presenting of this story within an aesthetic context, and with cultural capital, to people who don’t necessarily have familial relationships with children — that, I think, acts as an affirmation of children’s personhood and their importance to society, not because of their potential or who they might become as adults, but because of who they are and what they contribute now, as children.

There were several moments of high emotion (the tearing around in armour to a wrenching soundtrack, fighting the relentless, invisible enemy — information — to protect Taylor’s innocence; the bittersweet propelling Taylor into the world at the end), but it was a moment of simultaneous, conflicting emotion that I found really compelling. It was one of those, Now how can I try to do that in writing? moments.

It was this: Taylor, in the foreground, dances a choreography to a favourite song (Katy Perry, I think). She is beaming. How cute! What delight! Then, behind her Bryony strips off to lycra shorts and a black bra; she does not perform Taylor’s innocent choreography but, presumably, Katy Perry’s. There are at least three conflicting emotions, here, and the fact that they happen simultaneously is what really made me pay attention. There is the Awww when looking at Taylor, the humour of Bryony’s parody (or what you think must surely be a parody — could a pop star really perform such moves when her music is marketed at a tween audience?), and the sickness in your gut that a tween could be exposed to such sexualisation from her role model. Powerful stuff.

Time-poor blues

You know that feeling of having so many things to think on, of sensing the edges of thoughts brushing against you or experiencing, suddenly, an awareness that worthy-of-exploration ideas were present just a moment ago? You know that feeling mixed with, simultaneously, a not knowing or remembering the exact character or substance of those thoughts?

And those thought breaths are so faint and the space for them, in the busyness of life right now, so limited that they move on and are gone and you are left with the feeling only, the feeling of wanting to sit with something even if you don’t know what that something might have been. But you know, even as you formulate this desire in your mind, that such an act, right now, is impossible. That’s the feeling I’m in, at the moment, and I can’t see that this will change for the next few weeks, which makes me a little mournful.

I’ve just come across this piece about the lions of the Tonga imaginary, and will have to wait to read it properly. It made me think of the Moche’s moon monsters, something else I’ve just heard about but have to wait to research and think about. And then there is this book, and I have to stop looking because the feeling of no time will just make me yearn for it even more. I want to get stuck into an essay, too, and a translation of a novel, and my novel MS, which is at a stage where I need to spend extended periods with it, not just a snatched few hours.

And then I think: I am working. I think: there is a purpose to this; that purpose is financial and, ultimately, freeing, because it will give me time and space soon, soon. I think this, and have to think it repeatedly, and it’s not really calming but the practical part of me — shaped so carefully by my family and environment when I was an oh-so-head-in-the-clouds child — that part of me takes the reins and says, it’s OK, practical is good and valued, and therefore all this is OK, just breathe out and continue and be patient.

Getting my geek on at the Planetarium

Andromeda spiral galaxy

Andromeda spiral galaxy
Source: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/J. Fritz, U. Gent; X-ray: ESA/XMM Newton/EPIC/W. Pietsch, MPE

Last Thursday I went to the Planetarium’s ‘Discover the Night Sky: Travel the Universe’ show, which was presented by Dr Tanya Hill. It was a crisp night, and I was out of breath by the time I found a place to tie up my bike and ran around looking for the entrance.

The session, though brief, was moment of awe followed by moment of awe as we lay back in the chairs, watching the dome above and around. Take this, for example: theories are constantly being tested, and Einstein’s theory that time is affected by gravity has, with the advent of GPS, come through. We saw how far from the Earth the GPS satellites swing around, and were told that their clocks have to be adjusted in order that they don’t tick faster and push out the GPS’s accuracy by 10 kilometres per day. Likewise, our body clocks would change if we were located at the same distance from Earth as the satellites.

And although I’d heard it before, the following, thinking on it and looking at the night-sky images as we were, amazed: the latest advances in technology mean that the Hubble telescope can see to a distance of several billion light years. In other words, we can’t see, at that distance, what the universe looks like now, only what it once looked like; we are seeing into the deep past. The next generation of telescopes may well be able to see the origins of the universe, when astronomers suspect the stars were much bigger than they are now — they suppose that every time a star ended in a supernova, its material was scattered and from it new (smaller) stars were born.

Another special moment was seeing our beautiful galaxy, which, unlike others, is shaped in a spiral. Again, the scale was breathtaking: our solar system is located on an outer arm, which is lucky for us because towards the middle of the galaxy it’s very crowded. If we were to put a box over us, and if its size were such that it didn’t admit any other neighbouring stars, that same box, in the middle of the galaxy, would take in something like 30,000 stars.

I did, however, have a quibble: the talk began with an exploration of the constellations. We were told that a section of the sky was initially ‘blank’ because the astronomers hadn’t travelled to the southern realms yet. Then we were shown the technology-inspired constellations that came to fill our patch of sky, as charted by a Dutch person. Ahem.

It seemed very odd and disrespectful that no mention was made of astronomers from other cultures  — Indigenous Australian astronomers, for example — who certainly had filled the southern sky with constellations. Even if this is not Hill’s speciality, it seemed a strange thing to omit to mention, given the Planetarium’s location in Australia.

But, to end on a positive note: we were all given little cardboard planispheres, with a rotatable disk to line up with the horizon so that we can plot some of the constellations — very cool.

There are more sessions coming up — I’m going to the one on dark energy; can’t wait!

Straight to the pool room (or cork board)

Over the years I have collected, for the cork board that hangs above my desk, images that are meaningful to me. Sometimes the meaning is that they relate, in some way, to something I’ve written. I’ve just added the below postcard:


The weekend before last I went to Canberra for the ‘Gold and the Incas: Lost Worlds of Peru‘ exhibition, where I bought the postcard after seeing the vessel it depicts. While the Inkas did work with gold, as the exhibition title suggests, most of their art was melted down into ingots by sixteenth-century Spaniards. One of the Spanish chroniclers, Pedro Cieza de León, described Qurikancha, their ‘Golden Enclosure’. This temple of the sun had walls and floors covered in sheets of gold and the temple’s garden was made entirely of gold, including llamas and the shepherds who guarded them; corn, with stalks, leaves and ears all fashioned from gold; and even clods of earth.

But what gold artefacts exist today are mostly those that have been dug up from the coastal desert, and these were crafted by cultures that preceded the Inkas, among them the Moche/Mochica, Chimu and Lambayeque/Sican. The exhibit’s layout, conscious of this in spite of the exhibition’s title, was astute: even though it advanced chronologically, it didn’t end with the Inka artifacts; instead, after them it included some spectacular pieces from the cultures represented in previous (earlier) spaces.

The vessel depicted above was made by the Nasca (100 BCE to 800 CE). It depicts the same figure that I wrote about in my essay for Meanjin, the Mythological Killer Whale, though in that case in its representation as a sixty-five-metre Nasca Line only visible from the air:


That mound that you can see at the base of the vessel and the line — the thing that the fin is clutching — is a trophy head. It’s not known, yet, what these were (spoils of war? for tending to ancestors?) but they were important: they were carefully preserved, and often depicted in art.

So, there you have it, another addition to the cork board, one that I was compelled to buy because of the time I’d spent thinking and writing about, in a small part of a small essay, what the postcard depicts.

Eleanor Catton at the Wheeler Centre

IMG_9169Here’s a hot tip: if you really want to go to a booked-out Wheeler Centre event, just rock up on the off chance that someone who has booked a seat doesn’t show up. That’s what I did on Thursday night and, lucky for me, taking my chances worked out.

After reading The Luminaries last year, I suspected Catton would be an engaging speaker — not that the writing necessarily guarantees the speaking and vice versa (and nor should it). It turns out she is a dream: engaging, articulate and funny, with so much to say that is fascinating.


Catton spoke to Louise Swinn of the seed for The Luminaries: its setting came to her first when, in her honours year, she had to read newspapers from the same historical era for three months. She mentioned the importance, for her, of the word ‘should’ when thinking about the Victorian era; the word’s hypothetical possibilities make for delicate and suggestive conversations, something we perhaps don’t do so well today. Leaving this idea in the back of the mind to ‘grow mould’ was helpful. Another idea that intrigued her was the word fortune, with its different meanings of a pile of money and cosmic fate, and she wondered if she could play with this, as well as with the era’s emerging belief in self-invention.


Catton spoke of ‘Reading as many books as I could that sparked my imagination, and leaving them open like doorways’. One of the books from or about the era that she read — and one that became an imaginative doorway for her — told of a prison constructed by convicted criminals. This sparked her imagination because of the ‘interplay between the self that is made and the self that is imprisoned by that making.’

Fear, she believes, is good when writing because it makes you step up to the challenge, and she also spoke of ‘wanting to say to the reader, relax, I’ve got this, and you have got it; you have all the time in the world to get it because, lucky for you, they’re not reading it yet.’


Catton was determined to write a book that was both structurally ornate and fun after she read one of Calvino’s books and thought that ‘all was structure to no end; all was cleverness without entertainment.’ Boredom, she said, was a cardinal sin in literature.

Catton spoke of how all mystery novels accelerate, and of how she wanted to create a literalisation of acceleration, which she did by halving the length of each subsequent chapter. She liked the way that this employment of the golden mean also mirrors the fortune at the centre of the novel, which is halved and halved and halved.

As for whether or not The Luminaries can be classed as historical fiction, she cited some ‘howlers’, such as the characters’ references to The Tasman Sea, which after publication she found out was not named as such until later. She also told us that the only historically accurate facet of the book was the star charts, and admitted that ‘It’s kind of a strange way of being factual’.


Music and writing

I’ve always been surprised by people who listen to music while writing. Usually when I’m trying to write, I can only do it in as close to silent surrounds as possible. But lately, when thinking about the novel MS, about where to take it from here or how to convey and maintain a particular tone, I’ve found myself thinking about the following songs:


It seems that the memory of the songs helps me get into the right mindset. I can’t listen to them, exactly — I always get so involved in the experience of them that when I do, I can’t do anything else — but the memory of them helps.

Speaking of music, the Riverboats Music Festival on the weekend was a blast. The highlight, for me, was eighteen-year-old Thelma Plum — what a star. Her performance was intimate and moving, and between songs she was funny and charming. There was something she did with her voice, more appreciable live than in the below recorded tracks, where she lengthened a note and dropped its pitch slightly towards the end. The effect was haunting. Anyway, if she’s performing near you, make sure not to miss her.



A story behind a story

I thought I’d mention something lovely that happened over the course of revising ‘Desert Whales and a Fishing Village’. There are always so many stories behind any one story set to paper, but this one was particularly special.

The essay included, for a long time, a section about the Lomas fishermen (it was cut from the final draft to tighten things up). It included this passage:

While we wait, Gregoria tells us that both she and Yoni are members of the fishermen’s cooperative, which has 80 card-carrying affiliates. She explains that some of the fishermen who work the ocean off Lomas come from La Paz in landlocked Bolivia. I love this, not least because the Bolivian Constitution (Check) includes the motto ‘The sea will be ours’ (Check)—the past century, during which Bolivia’s one-time overland passage to the sea has been Chilean territory, nothing more than a temporary, bothersome anomaly.

Once I found out about the pending publication, I wanted to check I had my facts straight, but couldn’t for the life of me find anything about that Bolivian motto.

But I remembered who had mentioned it perhaps 6 or 7 years ago: one of my favourite Latin-American studies lecturers, Carlos Uxo, in one of those asides in class that for whatever reason stays with you. So after vacillating over whether or not it would be OK to bother a really busy person, I emailed him. He not only responded straight away, but said he had just written to his 89-year-old father to check with him.

A third surprise: I heard back the very next day. Carlos forwarded me his father’s email, in which he wrote that twenty years ago he had seen the motto on a letter from a Bolivian official, and that he had jotted it down in a notebook of curiosities, which he, by coincidence, had with him (!!). The language of the email brings a smile to my face each time I read it. Here’s some of it: Read the full post »

My Meanjin essay

…is now online over there, so I thought I’d share a few more photos over here, all of them by the talented Percy Cáceres.

The Lomas port, view from the wharf looking back to land:



The Sacaco Museum, on private property in the desert:


Another part of the desert, walking distance from Lomas, where Rafael led us to different fossils:


Percy is working on a website at the moment, so I’ll link to it when it goes up.


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