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We, the Animals: fundraising reading

January 15, 2020

I’ll be reading on January 22nd as part of a fundraiser for Wildlife Rescue South Coast  along with a great lineup of writers who do work on animals: Michelle Cahill, Julie Koh, Mireille Juchau, Anwen Crawford, Eda Gunaydin and Julie Vulcan. There will be a zine stall by Take Care and artwork for sale by Joy Lai, all to benefit the rescue and recovery efforts on Yuin country/South Coast NSW. It’s at Frontyard in Marrickville: please do come along to hear us read and to support the efforts to care for wildlife in the aftermath of the devastating fires.

This Year, 19

December 27, 2019

In the days between Christmas and New Year, time feels slow, feels heavy. It’s not a time for starting anything new but I usually spend a few days combing through the details of the year just past. This time it is complicated by how this summer has so far been: a disquieting season, with catastrophic fires along the east coast of the country, burning through millions of hectares of forest.

In the city, on the worst days the air has been white with smoke and ash comes down like slow confetti. To watch people continuing their daily activities amid this is surreal and I, like many people, wonder if this will be thought of as a turning point: the upsurge of environmental crisis to the point where it saturates daily life. It makes me think about time on a larger scale than day to day or year to year, those calendar measures used to divide up experience, and to wonder at the future that I will never see.

On the days when the sky is clear enough for the air to be breathable, I go out walking in the evening. I walk without much of a plan or a destination. I just set out and decide as I go, and sometimes find myself on familiar paths, and other times not. As I walk I notice the suburban details that suggest a mood beyond the ordinary.

A tree that is a halo.

Houses that make me wonder who lives in them.

Places vacant or abandoned, in between one thing and another.

Cat of the walk.

The moon visible although it is not yet night.

Unexpected messages: Guy Debord/Garfield.

Being a writer all acts of attention and thought are work, all experiences are grist: everything I see as I go walking, the anxious thoughts that crowd my head in the dead of night, the notes I scribble in pencil that later I have no way of decoding.

There are plenty of such notes, and as with most of them I can’t remember what these teacups mean or why I wrote it, ripped it off, kept it.

One of the essays I worked on this year was for the Sydney Review of Books’ Writers at Work series – The Writer’s Clutter – in praise of mess and clutter, this being the conditions of my writing life. Accompanying it was a portrait photograph by Joy Lai, of me in my room.

Though of course it is rarely this tidy. I am sitting in this very spot now and surrounding me are drifts of things: empty teacups, a bowl with cherry pits in it, an entry ticket to the Ghibli Museum, scrunched up tissues, Christmas cards, a stencil of the state of NSW, a cardboard label with an image of a hand making a shadow puppet of a fox, a tooth made out of FIMO, and on and on and on.

Also on objects this year, I wrote for The National 2019, an exhibition of Australian contemporary art, the essay, Future Past Present, about material legacy, obsolescence, and the attraction of objects from the recent past as things for thinking with.

Much of my writing still appears on Mirror Sydney, a project which is 7 years old now, but still finds its readers in people who notice or wish to notice the city’s undercurrents and minor landmarks. Of particular note regarding places of personal significance to me is that the Ching Yip Coffee Lounge is closing, after 33 years: it was my favourite city cafe, and one to which I would take my writing to read over it, drink lemon tea, and absorb the peach-pink and mirrored decor. I will miss it.

The year has held much more besides, but I think I will leave just this as a slice of it, a little of the thoughts and observations and writing that has made up my 2019. See you in the Twenties, for more.

Two Months on the Calendar

May 8, 2019

Most of the year so far I’ve been quietly writing and teaching, but in the coming months I’m emerging for a few public events, spanning the assorted topics of literary Cocker Spaniels, memoir, astronomy, coffee mugs, and reading. They all seem to fit together quite well in that list but each event is rather different as you’ll see:

Frontispiece image from Flush by Virginia Woolf: courtesy of Rare Books, University of Sydney.

Rare Bites Series: Not an Ordinary Dog: ‘Flush’ by Virginia Woolf 

I’ll be speaking about Flush by Virginia Woolf, the biography of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel Flush, as part of the University of Sydney’s Rare Books “Rare Bites” lunchtime talks on Wednesday 22nd May. I’ll be talking about Flush, the genre of canine memoir, and the copy of the book in the library’s Rare Books collection.

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Other Worlds Zine Fair

Other Worlds Zine Fair is back at Marrickville Town Hall again this year, on Sunday May 26th, 12pm – 4pm. I’ll have a stall there with zines old and new (this is where the coffee mugs come in – the subject of a new split zine by me and Katie Haegele.)

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Thinking with Objects: A memoir workshop with Vanessa Berry

I’ll be presenting a one-day memoir writing workshop at the Sydney Observatory on Saturday 1st June, about using objects and working with museum collections to write memoir. The workshop is in conjunction with the publication of the book Time and Memory, for which I was commissioned to write an essay on the museum’s collection of objects relating to timekeeping and memory.

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Centre for Deep Reading dinner at Paperbark

I’m hosting the CDR fundraising dinner at Paperbark Restaurant on Sunday 23rd June. I’ll be pairing selected readings with the ingredients of a three-course meal designed by chef Joey Astorga, so a multi-sensory reading experience!

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Walking at Bundanon

January 19, 2019

For the first two weeks of January I was an artist in residence at Bundanon, a property on the Shoalhaven River on the NSW south coast, which was the former home of artist Arthur Boyd and his family. It has a long and distinguished artist in residence program and I spent a very happy and productive two weeks writing and thinking and walking during my stay there. This is a story from one of my mornings there.

It was just before dawn and in the eastern sky the morning star was bright above a band of pale golden light on the horizon. I watched the sky through the window for a few minutes, then put on my green coat and pulled on my shoes, and set out. The dew on the grass shone silver in the gathering light as I began my way along the path towards the river.

Kangaroos watch me from the surrounding paddocks, sometimes turning and bounding away, other times standing alert until I pass by. Ahead of me, past the cluster of three striped caravans that are part of the artwork Travelling Colony by Brook Andrew, is the homestead, guarded by the tall, skewed forms of two old bunya pine trees.

The house faces east, towards the dawn and the river. It was built on high ground, far enough away to be protected from the floods which have, since the house was built, more than once drowned the paddocks and lapped at the doorstep. The house and the property it is situated on had been bought by Arthur Boyd in the 1970s, and then, in the 1990s, given as a gift to the Australian people. His intention was to share the landscape that had given him such solace and inspiration, in the hope it would give others some of the same feelings of connection.

Every day I had been going walking, fitting my thoughts to the tempo of my steps and the mood of the place and the moment, as I walked through the forest or by the river. This morning I feel as if I am held in the palm of a gentle hand.

In front of the homestead I unlatch the first gate, which leads to a wide path between two paddocks. Threading the chain back through to secure it behind me, I see that the sky in the west in light now, a pink against a pale blue. Halfway down the path I stop, as kangaroos bounce off across the fields to either side. I balance my phone on top of a fencepost to take a photo, wanting to record this tender morning and the feeling of being in it. I set up the timer, move back a few steps and stand with my green ceramic mug of tea in my left hand, my right by my side, and my body held by the dawn light and the fields.

This is Wodi Wodi country, this stretch of forest and river flats with the Shoalhaven River winding through, moving towards the ocean. The Wodi Wodi clan is one of the Dharawal language group, and in this language, the word for dawn is Bayabula. I try it out, saying it as I walk, its four syllables like the movement of the light as it becomes day.

Once I am through the second gate at the end of the paddocks I am on the path that runs alongside the river. I can see, in glimpses through the trees, its slow brown expanse. A side path cuts down the hill towards the beach, and soon I am standing on the wet sand of a low tide, watching mist curl up off the water. Every so often a fish jumps up from it, flips and plunges back under the surface.

On the other side of the river is a steep, forested hill, and from here comes the sounds of birds, trilling, cawing, piping, a spectrum of sound from sweet to raucous. I sit by the side of the river and listen to them, waiting for the sun, risen now, but still hidden behind the hill. First to catch the sun is the tops of the trees on the Bundanon headland, at the place called Haunted Point. The canopy glows. Then, slowly, a bright seam edges up over the horizon, and light spreads across the entire scene, the wide river, the steeply forested hills, the rocky outcrop of Pulpit Rock, like a furrowed forehead, that I recognised from Arthur Boyd’s paintings.

When I first encountered Boyd’s paintings, as a teenager learning about Australian painting in high school, they affected me strongly. They were both spontaneous and deliberate: a knot or a slash of paint could so readily be a tree or a rock or a figure. The landscapes had such a strong mood to them that it seemed that more than observe them, Boyd had felt them in order to paint them.

Arthur Boyd’s studio

Some of his paintings positioned mythic figures in the landscape of the Shoalhaven – Susannah, Narcissus – channelling the landscape’s drama and energy. He also painted river scenes of bathers and waterskiiers, the cockatoos above the trees, the pink light and the golden light and the bright sun which turns the sky a smooth blue, so the trees and rocks are reflected clearly in the river’s surface. It is like that now, the water a mirror.

The sun has risen, the day will be hot and bright, and I will go back to the house and spend it writing. But for now I sit by the river, listening to the birds, waiting for the next fish to jump. It soon comes, flipping up like a sudden idea or a burst or feeling, flashing silver in the daylight, for a moment, before disappearing back under the surface of the water.

 

Thank you to the Bundanon Trust for selecting me for the 2019 Artists in Residence program. 

The D’harawal dictionary can be found at Frances Bodkin’s D’harawal Dreaming Stories.

This Year

December 1, 2018

It is the first of December today, and outside the day looks lush, the trees bright green, branches swaying in time with the breeze that is coming in through the window and across my arms. I’m in the gloom of the house, no matter how much I might feel the urge to be otherwise, combing through the details of the year that’s almost passed. To do this I am scrolling through the 5000 photographs that I have taken this year. Surely with that many photographs there is little more that needs to be recorded, yet they are only ever a partial summary. I turn, too, to the journals I’ve kept this year, and flip back to the start.

2018 Journals

At the turn of the year I had been on a railway bridge in Erskineville handing out sparklers to the people around me as we struggled to see the new year’s eve fireworks over the top of the city buildings. In some ways I have indeed continued to do this for the rest of the year, as I’ve given regular talks about Mirror Sydney and the book has made its way into the world. At a time when Sydney churns with change, and becomes more ever-more difficult to live in as it does, it felt good to encourage paying close attention to its smaller, quieter, stranger places.

At Better Read Than Dead, Newtown (photo by Better Read Than Dead)

One of the joys of writing a book like Mirror Sydney is making public the feelings and ideas that the city brings about within me, and finding that others share, or have their own versions of, these connections. I’ve felt thankful to have my book so well-received and to have met so many other people who share a belief that the city’s stories, big and small, are worth recording, in the myriad and varied ways that we are able to do so. Some of my favourite reviews and commentary on Mirror Sydney from this year can be found in the Sydney Review of Books, Westerly, Plumwood Mountain and in the profile on me and my work in Neighbourhood.

Speaking about binishells and Mirror Sydney at Berkelouw Books Mona Vale in March.

 

With Mark Mordue and Ross Gibson at the State Library of NSW in March for “The City Rewritten”

 

With Fiona Wright, Ashleigh Young, and Nick Tapper of Giramondo Publishing, at Gleebooks in May, for “The Art of the Essay”

Much of my writing this year has been affiliated with Mirror Sydney in some way, whether it be on the Mirror Sydney blog or companion articles such as “Underground Albums” for the SL magazine, for which I was also the cover star, in a lovely photograph taken by Joy Lai at the CTA bar in Martin Place.

I also worked with the Powerhouse Museum on the book Time and Memory, which was published in October: my essay “Time Machines” forms part of the book, alongside an essay by Samuel Wagan Watson and essays by museum curators such as Matthew Connell. As part of the project I also interviewed Joyce Thomson, who worked in the Sydney telephone switchboard at the GPO in the 1950s, reading the time live over the telephone.

With the Curator of Sydney Observatory Andrew Jacob atop Sydney Observatory’s Time Ball tower. Photo: Matthew Connell, MAAS

This year the artist Tom Carment painted a portrait of me, “The Observant Vanessa Berry” that was exhibited in the Archibald Prize Salon des Refusés. Here’s the painting taking shape:

 

I’ve also been involved with the Centre for Deep Reading this year, hosting the fundraising dinner at Alfie’s Kitchen ahead of the Winter Reading Retreat.

Reading at the Centre for Deep Readings fundraising dinner.

Among all this I haven’t forgotten my roots, and had a grand time at the Festival of the Photocopier and Other Worlds Zine fairs, and made a couple of zines, Disposable Camera, and Marrickville.

At the Festival of the Photocopier Zine Fair in February, Melbourne Town Hall.

The bright, green day outside calls me, and so I will say farewell for you, dear readers, for 2018. It has been a quiet year on VB World the blog, but a rich one for VB World in real life: in 2019 I will try to bring the two a little closer. Mirror Sydney will continue, as will my Instagram.  Thank you for your support and interest this year and I look forward to sharing new projects with you in the next one.

In Goulds Books, a Newtown institution, which closed in September 2018.

See you in the new year

🌱🌱🌱🌱

From Here to There: Australian Artists and Walking

July 23, 2018

In mid-July I visited Lismore, on Wiyabal land, to speak at an event for the exhibition From Here to There: Australian Artists and Walking, curated by Sharne Wolff and Jane Denison. I was one of the essayists who contributed to the catalogue, writing about the connection between walking, art, life and landscape.

The exhibition presented walking in different ways, directly and indirectly, but always as a deliberate practice used to engage with the world outside the artist’s studio. Noel McKenna‘s New York diaries were collections of observations made while walking, often including encounters with creatures, whether they be Miss Jasmine the museum cat, or the Long Island Big Duck.

A different kind of observation was involved in Rebecca Gallo’s collection of roadside debris, found during walks in Lismore during her residency for the exhibition. Collecting these scraps and shreds as she went, in the studio she set them into a new kind of life, as a mobile where wedges of newspaper, rusty bolts, scraps of plastic, and a flattered dried toad spin in a slow dance.

I too was eager to go out walking in Lismore. I hadn’t been to the town since, 1997, when I was there visiting zine friends of mine: it was so long ago I was still practically a teenager. My only memories of the town were looking at framed photographs of past floods in a city cafe, and sitting on the porch of my friend Lee’s house, a memory that is tinged green from the enclosure of the surrounding trees.

This time, my guides to the town were: a late-1960s postcard of the town taken from a lookout in Lismore Heights; a map Simon drew me of his remembered Lismore of the 1990s, and my host from Southern Cross University who I spoke with at the gallery, Associate Professor John Page. Here are some of the places they led me.

The same scene but much more green, 50 years later from the Claude Riley Memorial Lookout.

Lismore houses, raised up for protection in floods. Rainbow steps, banana trees. John and I walked around the low-lying areas near the river, where everything around felt verdant, and he told me stories of past floods and town characters.

A polite bus shelter.

Past amusements live on at the skating rink.

The beautiful Tropicana Fruit shop on Keen Street, with the sign for its previous incarnation as the Wonder Bar.

Gentlemen’s Fashions and George Gooley’s.

 

An important feature of Simon’s 1990s map: the cedar log outside City Hall.

no cordial

A strong warning for some not-so-strong drink.

The walker.

(Thank you to John, Sharne, Jane, SCU and the Lismore Regional Gallery for having me visit.)

Other Worlds and a Marrickville Map

May 26, 2018

For Other Worlds this year, I decided to keep things local, and make a map of Marrickville, where the fair is to be held, in the Town Hall. I’ve never lived in Marrickville myself, but it is a place I know well, have spent much time in and moving through. It’s a capacious suburb, full of details that connect to its many threads of stories, as Gadigal Land, as a place with a strong migrant community, especially for people from Greek and Vietnamese backgrounds, and as a place with a rich creative community.

Like the maps included in Mirror Sydney, the Marrickville map collects some of the suburbs landmarks, connecting them with their stories and each other. It hopefully opens out into many other stories, as it triggers the memories of people who have had an association with Marrickville, or a place like it, in their life. The accompanying guidebook suggests some alternative readings of these places, and how they might figure in the dream-life of the suburb.

Visit me at Other Worlds, Sunday 27th May, 12pm – 5pm, or buy a copy of the Marrickville zine and map on Etsy.

Poster by Haein Kim