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Online Launch for Gentle and Fierce

August 13, 2021

My new book, Gentle and Fierce, came out last month, and we’ll soon be officially celebrating its publication with an online launch on Wednesday 18th August. It’s free and open to all, and I’ll be chatting to Keri Glastonbury about some of the ideas behind the book, and doing some short readings from it: to register, click on the image above and it will take you to the booking page, or this link.

In other Gentle and Fierce news, you can read some of the behind the scenes stories from the book at gentlefierce.com and an excerpt, the essay Perec’s Cat, at the Sydney Review of Books. Thanks to everyone who has sent me messages over the last few months – I know the book’s been a good companion to some of you in lockdown, which makes me happy! For all the frustrations of having a new book come out in lockdown, it’s good to think of it out there, finding its readers.

Gentle and Fierce among the new release window display at Berkelouw Books

Gentle and Fierce

April 12, 2021

At the beginning of 2019 I began work on a new book. I started it knowing I wanted to write a set of stories that were based around my relationships to animals, and how animals had figured in my life. As a writer I’m most interested in how memory exists within and outside of us, how other people and beings and objects and places act as memory triggers. I wondered what might arise if I turned this way of thinking towards the animals of my life.

Gentle and Fierce is the result: a collection of 20 illustrated essays that examine the presence of animals in my life and memory. It will be in bookstores this July, and you can read more about it for now at the publisher’s website.

As the publication date comes closer I will share a little more about the stories in the book and the process of writing them, but for now, here is a glimpse of some of the desks at which I worked on Gentle and Fierce.

Starting work at Bundanon
Drawing at home at night
Revisions
More revisions at Tess’s desk (the drink is cola not wine!)

In 2020

January 3, 2021

My new year’s eve ritual is to read through my journals from the year: in 2020 these were the yellow ‘Herakles’ and a foolscap journal labelled ‘Meeting’. I’d kept these books by my side, written in them most nights, and by so doing wrote the story of my year.

Usually I write daily observations in my journals, the details of things I’ve noticed out in the world as I go about my activities, and thus I expected to have written less in 2020 than in previous years. I’d mostly been at home, after all, and the days conformed to a similar pattern. But against my expectations there was plenty to notice, in myself, the immediate environment, and the world as its news filtered through to me. As I read I re-lived the year, shaped as it was by fires, protests and the pandemic.

A sky with a cloud of bushfire smoke and a sun tinged red by the smoke.
The sky on 4 January 2020, the hottest day of the year (48.9 in Penrith), with the cloud of smoke from the south coast fires sweeping across.

As I read through I began to take note of metaphors. In my writing for others, I’m careful and sparing with metaphors – I sometimes say to my students that every metaphor they put in their writing they have to imagine is something really physically present for the reader, there beside them – so too many and it gets confusing or crowded – but in my journals, which no one but me reads, I use them frequently to describe particular states of mind. There were a lot of metaphors of broken things – I felt like a deflated balloon, my attention felt like a frayed cord, my head felt like a broken plate – as if I was progressively embodying a pile of hard rubbish. Then things turned towards the surreal, after weeks at home “my room starts to feel like a portal. All its objects the controls of a spaceship.” This was my favourite metaphor of the year, and indeed I did pay extended scrutiny to the objects surrounding me – in April I wrote some of the stories of these objects on Instagram (private account but please feel welcome to request to follow). Some are pictured here: a VHS recording of a Cure special on Rage from 1993, the Trodat Typo stamp set, Nescafe jars, peacock pocket warmers, the ‘Vanessa’ diary from 1985 that tells the story of an EH Holden…

Metaphors and difficulties aside, I kept working and writing. At the start of the year, Anwen Crawford and I organised the ‘We, the Animals’ benefit reading at Frontyard, with readings by Michelle Cahill, Julie Koh, Mireille Juchau, and Julie Vulcan, as well and Anwen and me, to assist Wildlife Rescue South Coast in their rescue and care of animals after the fires in that region.

A group of people sitting listening to a person reading, outside underneath trees.
Reading at Frontyard for We, the Animals, in January 2020

Early in the year I worked on the 20th issue of my autobiographical zine I am a Camera, the first issue of which I put out in 2000, making the zine 20 years old. I launched it at Other Worlds Zine fair in May (the fair occurred online and you can still visit it here – you don’t need to register, just click on the tabs on the left to go to the various aisles, I’m in Aisle C and you can watch a video of me reading from the zine here).

A zine with an image of hand-drawn gloves, umbrella and bag on the front, and the words "don't forget" as well as the title: I am a Camera 20.

The Mirror Sydney podcast came out in May, after I’d been working on it with producer Lia Tsamoglou in the earlier part of the year, and I continued the Mirror Sydney blog, writing about places such as Grand Flaneur beach in Chipping Norton, the ‘Videomania’ building in Rosebery, and the Banana Joe’s supermarket in Marricvkille, which closed down in 2020.

The banana remains, but the supermarket is a Woolworths now (one of 3 Woolworths in Marrickville – why?)

Throughout the year I was a Visiting Writer at the State Library of NSW, a position established by the Sydney Review of Books and the library, for a writer to research the library’s archives. For a while it didn’t seem as if I’d be able to do much visiting, but as restrictions eased mid-year, I made research trips to the library to examine materials relating to department stores. You can read the essay I wrote based on this research – In the Catalogue – on the Sydney Review of Books.

Researching at the State Library of NSW in July 2020.

In August, I was an artist in residency at Gunyah, on Worimi country/North Arm Cove, where I spent a week writing and walking and working on the manuscript of my new book. You can read my blog post describing my time at Gunyah here.

Writing at Gunyah artist residency, August 2020

In 2020 I contributed short stories to HiLoBrow – one on the 1959 film of The Flyand one the Cure song ‘So What’. I also wrote a story for the zine Cat Party #6, edited by Katie Haegele, for the quarantine-themed issue. I wrote about my sometimes-editor, Soxy.

It wasn’t the year I or anyone expected it to be, but I have plenty to be grateful for. Thank you to you my readers, supporters and friends, for being there with me this year. In 2021 I’m looking forward to the publication of my new book of essays, Gentle and Fierce, mid-year, with Giramondo, and to filling many more journal pages with the details of my days.

Mirror Sydney Podcast

May 11, 2020

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At the start of this year, audio producer and musician Lia Tsamoglou and I started work on an audio-series of stories from Mirror Sydney. Now I’m excited to announce that it is available as a podcast, with the first two episodes released today, May 11th, and each of the remaining four episodes weekly on a Monday thereafter. You can listen to the episodes at mirrorsydneypodcast.com or search for Mirror Sydney on your podcast app.

For those of you less familiar with Mirror Sydney, here’s a description of the project by one of my favourite Australian writers, Shaun Prescott:

Sydney is an increasingly impenetrable city, shapeshifting and unknowable. Beneath the surface of its 21st century globalised homogeneity, traces of the city’s history are allowed to remain, but it takes determination to find them. 

Sydney is subject to many and varied official histories, its story is really the story of British colonisation. But no broad account can hope to capture the particular tension of our present moment, standing as we are with one foot in a receding past, the other in a strange encroaching future. Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney blog captures this melancholy disjunct, focused as it is on the minutiae of the sprawl. Berry’s investigations usually start at a point of idle fascination: a notorious op shop at the edge of the airport, Sydney’s least peaceful footpath, newly redundant train routes. What then usually unfolds is a vivid evocation of urban space, not just its streets, people and infrastructure, but the otherwise inaccessible ambience of its former life. 

Berry’s 2017 book Mirror Sydneya lavish account of Sydney’s “suburban mythologies and unusual details”prompted Sydney musician and radio producer Lia Tsamoglou (Melodie Nelson, Moonmilk) to make contact. After a lengthy email correspondence it emerged that they actually lived on the same inner west street. Tsamoglou’s light-of-touch, atmospheric sensibility is a perfect fit for this project, which is narrated by Berry.

I am a Camera #20 / 20 years of I am a Camera / 2020

March 21, 2020

I am a Camera zine, #1 – #20 (2000 – 2020)

By the year 2000 I’d been making zines for four years. Over that time it had become the activity my life hinged around. It’s not an exaggeration to say that zines saved me, for over the time I’d made them I’d grown from being an isolated and unwell teenager to an adult who, however shakily, was beginning to feel as if she did have a place in the world after all.

The first issue of I am a Camera was a combination of diary entries and short stories, shaped in part by what I was reading at the time, – women writers who I felt an accord with: Virginia Woolf, Janet Frame, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood – and by the energy of finding my voice. Although I’d been making zines for four years I hadn’t regarded what I was doing as writing in the way an author might write a book, or a short story, or even a diary. I had thought of the writing in my zines more like the transmission of my thoughts. But in this new zine, I am a Camera, I thought about the shape of the words as I wrote them, about how they worked alongside each other, and how they might create their own world independent of me, on the page.

Today when I open up I am a Camera #1, from 2000, and read the first line, a line from my diary from June 1999, and it says “Things are too hard to take in”, I can’t help but wish for that naivety. I remember it and still get echoes of it sometimes, that sense of feeling too much, noticing too much. Over years this has settled, the more I have felt in control of my powers as a writer and an observer. But now, in the time of the pandemic, it’s true again. Things are indeed too hard to take in. Even reading over the beginning of I am a Camera #20, written at the start of this year, seems to describe a way of life that is now of the past or rapidly becoming so. In it I  am sitting in a cafe, watching a turtle swimming in a fishtank and drinking a cup of earl grey tea, and considering what it means to have been making a zine for 20 years. Thinking about potential, about promise, about time and life and the writing of it.

This new zine is coming out in a world now operating under threat and fear. A difficult time is ahead. Writing this post wasn’t how I imagined I would launch this zine, sitting quietly in my room, listening to the wind outside and the cars going by, watching the leaves of the oak tree move. On the surface, nothing has changed. These are all familiar details, and I’ve spent many afternoons sitting here, exactly like this, but now I feel the edge, wondering (afraid) how things will change. I am sending out this new zine into an uncertain time, as a chronicle of a time before.

Thank you to all my readers, supporters and correspondents over the last 20 years of me making this zine. There are copies on Etsy if you’d like to buy one, though if you’re a regular reader and are under financial stress due to reduced/lost work in this time, just let me know, and I’ll post you one for free. Take care everyone. Look out for each other. Organise. Make things. Write. Rest.

Zine News for March

March 6, 2020

EDIT: Please note that Other Worlds, and the Wollongong workshop mentioned below have been cancelled for now. I’m still making I am a Camera 20 though and will make an announcement when it’s available. Stay safe and look out for each other. x V.

Yes, it’s true, I’m working on I am a Camera #20 – the 20th anniversary issue, for indeed the first issue came out in 2000 – ahead of debuting it at Other Worlds zine fair in May. The table applications are still open for Other Worlds until March 13th so follow the link to apply if you’re interested in having a table this year.

In other zine news I’ll be heading to Wollongong in March to host a zine workshop. This will likely be the last workshop I run this year, so if you’d like to come and make zines with me and browse some of my collection, here’s your chance! The workshop’s run by the South Coast Writers’ Centre and will be held at the awesome secondhand bookstore, free school, co-working and community events space Society City. It will run from 1pm-4pm and you can find more information and book tickets here.

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.