My research interests

I’m going to write a little bit about what I’m doing at uni, purely to document what’s happening. I am obsessed with documenting personal history, so this is part of that. So if you find academic stuff a bit boring, click away now!

One of the pages of the first edition Alice I had the chance to study
 
As I have mentioned, I’m doing an MA Italian Studies and a collaborative program in Book History and Print Culture. This means I’m doing six courses this term! I remember finding three or four a heavy workload, and that was during my undergraduate studies when I had no children or responsibilities. I didn’t even have a job!

Anyway, just as a bit of background, I mentioned previously what my journey to this masters program has been thus far. I went on to do a Graduate Diploma in creative/professional writing and got part way through another one in editing and publishing but it wasn’t really stimulating me so I didn’t re-enrol. I kind of wish I’d stuck that one out as maybe I’d have gotten some more editorial work. Anyway.

An illustration by Maggie Taylor from a 2008 edition of Alice
 
So upon planning to give Canada a go, and realising the easiest way to do that was for me to study, and given I’d wanted to do a masters for years, ten years actually, I set about deciding exactly what to study. Initially I planned for creative writing but I very quickly realised I didn’t have what it takes. Not only were my English marks shockingly poor during my BA, I didn’t do particularly well in my postgraduate writing studies either. I think the best word to describe my achievement level is “mediocre”. Marks in the 50s and 60s amounting to a Credit average. In addition to this, there was no way I could get the required two academic references from professors who probably didn’t know me during my study, let alone over a decade later… I found one program I could apply to using a portfolio, so I did that. I also applied to a comparative literature program, an English program, and an Italian program. I’d done well in Italian and my professors were only too happy to give me references, despite not having heard from me in about 13 years. I was a bit sneaky and asked them for references for the non-Italian programs too. I actually thought I might have a shot at the literary/writing programs and somehow they’d overlook my dodgy grades. Yeah right!

Alice talking to the Cheshire Cat, original printing of first 1865 edition
 
I ended up getting into only one of the four programs I applied for, the first one I’d applied for, the one I least expected because it was the most prestigious university of the lot. UofT apparently has the largest Italian department outside of Italy! Not to mention world-class teaching staff and amazing facilities. I must admit, though, as soon as I realised I was in, I developed a lump in my throat which I swallow at various intervals but which has remained since. I didn’t feel true drive and passion for Italian. But I was excited, and knowing how well I do with languages I knew this was the right choice as it would be easier for me than something literary. Little did I know that in fact it was a literary program I’d gotten into! Just Italian literature! Uh oh… my undergrad was pretty much straight language… and no, reading “Spotty va al circo” and a bit of Italo Calvino doesn’t count!

Anyway, I was excited. I had some time to think about my research interests and I had a vague idea that they resided in two areas: a kind of editorial/textual area, which involved loving words and books and language structure; and the other is about migration and cultural identity, how we come to know where we belong and find peace with our culture. So two totally different areas. My main goal through this program is to nail down exactly what my research interests are and specialise in one area. Not as easy as it sounds for an all-rounder lazy person like me.

When I finally worked out how to enrol in courses and that I’d be doing six of them (what?!?!), I found there wasn’t a big pool to choose from. I had to choose one particular introductory course for book history, then what was described as a “pedagogical” compulsory course for Italian. The other four courses were up to me, although there was only five to choose from. I opted out of studying Pirandello, given I’d never heard of him before and the prospect of having to read an entire book in Italian freaked me out. So I ended up enrolling in one about film and perceptions of China and Italy from both camps, one about something I’d never heard of before but that I got extremely excited about (philology), one with an extraordinarily long title that had something to do with new ways that Italian language and culture is being mixed into Canada and vice versa, and the last one was about a migratory diaspora from a particular part of Italy that I’d never heard of. Very exciting but very scary given how little I knew about what I’d be doing. I felt both thrilled and terrified.

Another stunning Maggie Taylor illustration from Alice
 
So this is supposed to explain my research interests. Well, I’m halfway through the first part of the program now, and I can safely say that my interests still lie in those two areas but I think I’m leaning more towards the migrant diaspora stuff. And not necessarily Italian. I’m finding the textual stuff interesting but there is also a lot of boring stuff that seems like much ado about nothing sometimes, whereas the cultural identity stuff feels like me, I want to know more, and my personal connection to and experience with these issues means it is somewhat cathartic for me to study this stuff. There is purpose there. I absolutely adore the philology, it’s amazing, but it feels, I don’t know, kind of abstract. Like it’s great but it doesn’t relate to me enough. Gee, that sounds so self-indulgent! Oh well.

I think I want to tell stories, those of people I know, myself, but also others. I want to create connections with culture and investigate the concept of home and belonging. It’s something I’ve been looking for in my life and I daresay there are many others in the same situation with less capacity for or interest in finding the answers. So that’s where I’m at. The density of information that I’m absorbing, the sheer volume of it, is surely going to mean I’ll be clear on exactly what I want to do after this, whether it’s a PhD or something else.

Advertisements

The writing of a book: part 1

I’ve always planned to write a book at some point in my life. I remember at about age eight or nine planning novels. I’d beg my parents for a nice new exercise book, a big fat one, 360 pages, and I’d flick that thick, fresh wad of blank pages through my fingers a few times, just to enjoy the clean, chunkiness of it, the possibility. I’d imagine seeing every page covered in writing. Pages get thicker somehow when they’re written on.

I had plans. I had ideas. I knew my characters’ names. I’d agonise over a nice title and toy with various pseudonyms or ways of writing my author name. I’d plan out the chapters, often numbered so there would be an equal number of pages in the book for each chapter. So 12 chapters in a 360 page book would mean 30 pages per chapter. I’d then have to recalculate, realising that I needed a few pages for the title page and table of contents. Once calculated, I’d write out the title page and table of contents, then go through numbering the pages and writing the names of the chapters on the relevant pages. Finally I was ready to begin.

And suddenly my ideas seemed stupid. I might sometimes write a first page. Usually a few sentences. Sometimes just a first word. But as soon as my story began to be transferred onto the page, it didn’t seem to work any more.

That still happens. Not quite to that extent, but my inner critic is my worst enemy. Being told once about age 14 by a well-meaning but tactless teacher that my writing was clichéd didn’t help quash this insidious voice of shame forcing itself into my thoughts. I knew my writing was full of clichés. I knew it was too wordy. Unoriginal. Clunky. Rough. Awkward. But at my very core I have always known I could write and I would go unfulfilled without expressing myself through words.

So how can I be this giant contradiction? On the one hand, I can’t come up with solid output. On the other, writing is my soul. I have no answer to this question. But I do know that I have an awesome idea for a book which has been hovering about for the past two or three years at least. And it won’t go away without being written. The question is, how will I manage to motivate myself enough and kill off the inner critic so it actually gets written? I know that, done well, this book has mass audience appeal and many original aspects, which is a kick arse combination. I just need to write…

NaNo: the idea

So November is here and despite only having written 535 words, I’ve actually begun NaNoWriMo for the fourth year running. And for the first time with a very full on baby taking up all my time!

But I’m pretty pleased with myself because, unlike the other years, I’ve got myself a very clear novel idea! I actually know what I’m writing for once!

Wanna know what it is? I feel a bit odd divulging my plan on such a public forum, but who am I kidding, no one reads my blog anyway so I may as well indulge in some crapping on about my idea.

This one has been in the pipeline for a couple of years now. It’s nothing that spectacular when I describe it but I think it could be freaking awesome. The story is about London and the rite of passage for most antipodeans that is going there to work and live and get perspective. Or whatever reason seems feasible. There’s more to it, but that’s the gist.  I think I’ve actually written about some stuff on this blog, stuff that actually happened, but my NaNo novel is a fictionalised account.  I’ve got ideas for about half a dozen key characters and some storylines, but I’m not sure how they all fit together yet.  Because it’s NaNo, I’m just going to write whatever and see what emerges – no time for editing!

I can’t believe this is for real

Okay, so I’m all for ‘out there’ writing, experimentation, real dense crazy stuff.  I can’t say I’m the biggest erotica fan, although I did once enjoy some Anais Nin and I thought Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City was great stuff.  But I just read an article in the Guardian about Nicholson Baker‘s new book House of Holes.  Oh. My. God.  Or to be more specific: What. The. Fuck.  Seriously.  Is this for real?  The article is lengthy and well-written, and Baker can obviously write (and obviously earns money from it if he can afford to work from home and live wherever he likes on the east coast of America, alright for some).  But my God, this book sounds utterly ridiculous!  I guess maybe I just don’t get books about sex and fantasies.  I always thought Jilly Cooper was total crap, and I can’t believe so many people love the Clan of the Cave Bear series – what good were they but to skip to the sex scenes and read as a fascinated teen?

It reminded me of when my flatmate in London and I began exchanging books to read and she lent me Chuck Palahniuk‘s Invisible Monsters.  I couldn’t finish it.  What a load of shit!  I hated the writing, most of all.  The style seemed lazy, almost sticking it to the grammar man, like, screw you English, I’m going to write however I like, damn it!  Which is cool, but the arrogance of it just pissed me right off.  It wasn’t pleasurable writing to read.  Unlike The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, which was full of loathsome characters that just make me screw my nose up, and those I didn’t hate just seemed unconvincing (what kind of a teenage girl refers to her vagina as a cunt, for Christ’s sake, yeesh).  But despite all that, the writing in that book is bloody fantastic, real quality.  The storyline is painful, and really doesn’t resonate with me personally, but it still cuts me to the bone, it impacts with a force, and anything it lacks is made up for in the quality of the writing.  So yeah, I wouldn’t read anything else Tsiolkas writes because I find his style, or rather his subject matter, a bit crude, but I bow down to him for his writing.  Palahniuk, on the other hand… I’d rather read bloody TV Week for the rest of my life than read another book by him.

I wonder, what is it that attracts people to this kind of writing?  Why do they love it?  My flatmate who leant me Invisible Monsters absolutely loved it, and she read a number of his other books too.  I couldn’t for the life of me work out what she found so appealing.  And believe me, we did discuss it at length, why she loved it and why I hated it.  I can’t remember the details (it was three years ago) but I think we just agreed to disagree.  If someone gave me a copy of Baker’s new sex book, I’d definitely give it a go (pardon the pun) and I’d do so with an open mind, really.  I just can’t promise I won’t rant on forever about how shite I thought it was… sexual utopia?  Give me a break!

The reading journey of a desperate writer

This post has been sitting in drafts for ages, four months actually, so now I have a few moments I decided to finish it; but when I went to do so, I realised I’d only written a title and nothing else!  That’s so typical of my writing.  As a kid I used to beg my parents for a nice new exercise book (the thickest one in the newsagent, a while 320 blank pages to fill, oh how fantastic that fresh thickness is!)  I’d go home, having been thinking long and hard about the title of my new book, and finally I’d open that book to the first page, find a good pen, and write my title.  Usually something along the lines of, ‘The Adventures of Isabelle Bentley’ or some such childish thing, fantasy character included.  I’d calculate that, as there were 320 pages, and I wanted to make 16 chapters in my book, each chapter would be 20 pages long.  So I’d draw up a nice contents page, showing those chapters, and then I’d go through the entire exercise book, writing ‘Chapter 1’ and ongoing, every 20 pages.  Finally my book was ready.  Problem is, I didn’t really have a story to write!

Anyway, I digress.  This post is meant to be about what I read.  At the moment I don’t get to read a lot, because a three-month-old baby doesn’t give you much opportunity to read, or at least this one doesn’t.  At the moment I’m reading Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall, which is brilliant, but I knew it would be.  Prior to that I was reading a self-published work by Elizabeth Egan called The Sun on Distant Hills, only because I’d agreed to review it for the NSW Writers’ Centre and they’d kindly sent me the copy to review.  Aside from the other books for review, before I had my son I read a lot of interesting things.  The most recent of these was Portia de Rossi‘s Unbearable Lightness.

When I had my baby shower thing, the friend who organised it asked that everyone bring a children’s book for the baby, which I thought was a brilliant idea, so I’ve got lots of different ones to choose from.  It was interesting to note who gave which book too.  The one that stands out most (aside from the Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book – can’t wait to make those cakes!) is Roald Dahl‘s The BFG.  What a classic!  My mum hated Dahl, I think because she thought his stuff was a bit inappropriate for children, with its witches and man-eating giants.  There’s always something a little grizzly about his books, it’s true, but I absolutely adored them as a kid, and I borrowed them from the library and read them whether she liked it or not!  I distinctly remember the first line of The BFG: ‘Sophie couldn’t sleep.’  As I was rocking my son to sleep in the Ergobaby the other day, I thought of that book, so I grabbed the fresh copy off the shelf and began reading.  What sheer brilliance!  There are no wasted words in Dahl’s writing, it’s so fantastic.  Even as an adult, and having read it a hundred times as a child, I found it very hard to put down.

It reminds me, I was thinking the other day, should I be writing for children or young adults?  That’s the kind of stuff I enjoy.  Even in highschool I found a lot of adult literature difficult to get into and I would happily re-read Alice in Wonderland over and over than try anything for my age group.  Despite the amount of cliché and the ordinary quality of the writing, I really enjoyed the Twilight series, although I know that the author is just lucky to have decided to write on the topic at the right time.  It’s all about timing and marketing, after all.  One book that really got to me was Ruth Park’s Playing Beattie Bow, I think because it involved one of my favourite things: time travel.

I think I’ll talk more about things I read when I’m in the right head space.  For now, I’m going to ponder on writing for children and young adults…

Book review: Sun on Distant Hills by Elizabeth Egan

Written for NSW Writers’ Centre Newsbite

Surely there are many who don’t have children or grandchildren, yet have a story to pass on. Sun on Distant Hills is one of these stories. In fact it’s not so much a story as a series of anecdotes covering a life in full and parts of other lives.

Beginning during the Depression, Elizabeth Egan’s self-published novel takes us through the life of Irene, a country girl with grand aspirations.  There’s a sense of epic finality throughout the book, and we know from the outset that the story will be long but the outcome will be ultimately positive.  The naivety of the narrative and its simple, anecdotal, plodding flow is sweet in its purity, and the setting and context is one that many Australians, especially those who grew up in the country, will find endearing.

Sadly, the writing is, at best, grammatically correct and full of clichés.  I would put it in the category of Pride and Prejudice, however unlike the classic it fails to provide much in the way of originality or intrigue. There is little left to the imagination and I found reading this book like watching a soap opera – compelling, only in so much as I wanted reassurance that what I predicted will happen in the end, and I’d rather not have to read all the waffle in between.

While this book has clearly been impeccably proof read, the style of writing and the way the story unfolds is quite childish.  That’s not to say it isn’t believable (and we all know that good fiction must be believable), but the reader isn’t given any work to do.  In fact I found it a little patronising, in the same way I find it patronising when my mum tells me I should put on a jumper as I’ll catch a chill.  Some parts made me cringe as I read, and I found a lot of it very contrived.  It reminded me of East Enders or The Bold and the Beautiful – sex, death, lies, illegitimate children, fantasies, suicide, abuse – could we fit in any more obstacles or tragedies for the characters to overcome?  The story itself is interesting, or rather, contains interesting events and could be full of interesting characters, but because everything is so predictable and clichéd, we never get to see any of that interesting stuff.  The main character, while seemingly hard-done-by, is somewhat difficult to sympathise with and I found her and her constant neurotic musings quite annoying by the end of the book.  I didn’t want to hear about every little thought that went on in her head, I wanted to be shown the unfolding of events, not told about them so explicitly.  Similarly, the odd and somewhat sloppy jumps into the heads of other characters throughout was disconcerting, and although the story is told in the third person, Irene is the protagonist, so it didn’t feel at all natural to suddenly find ourselves hearing the thoughts of other characters.

I commend Elizabeth, for putting the story down and making the effort to have it published; I understand the importance of that for an author.  I wanted to like this book, but I can’t; it’s the kind of writing I got rapped over the knuckles for in highschool – far too many clichés, not enough originality, not properly worked, not interesting writing, and the parts of the story that could prove interesting were glossed over.

Book review: Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon by Brenton E McKenna

Written for the NSW Writers’ Centre Newsbite publication

Having not read a graphic novel before, I wasn’t able to make a comparison with similar works, however this first instalment in the Ubby’s Underdogs trilogy is certainly compelling, exciting and very innovative.  This first ever Indigenous graphic novel tells the story of Ubby, a young and tough Aboriginal girl, and her friends, collectively known as the Underdogs.  Set in 1940s Broome, the novel weaves in real elements of culture and identity, creating a rich and detailed fantasy full of different characters and intertwining plot lines that will appeal to children and young adults.  The graphics are something akin to the manga style, but with a fresh twist.

What struck me about this book is the attention to detail shown, the exciting and fantastic story fashioned by a clearly passionate author who loves his work.  No element is left to chance, and, meticulously constructed, the story is epic and the context highly original.  The imagery and dialogue seem somewhat complicated for the uninitiated, but not in any way that it could be considered sloppy or lacking in flow; if anything, the novel compels the reader to step up to the challenge of learning how to read a graphic novel, and once used to it, the reader experience is another dimension beyond that of a regular novel.  It can be considered something of a link between the novel and film, refreshing, fun and fast-paced.  If I were a kid again, I would be waiting with bated breath for the next instalment!