Category Archives: writing

Adrian Phoon in The Age

See Obama can take hope from a favourite author.

During his presidential campaign almost a year ago, Barack Obama cited his two favourite authors. One was Shakespeare. The other was E.L. Doctorow.

The President may be pleased to know that a musical adaptation of Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, is being revived on Broadway this week. It derives from a production first shown in May at the Kennedy Centre, just a few blocks away from the White House.

In the era of Obama, the musical and the novel of Ragtime are timelier than ever…

Good one, Adrian!

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Posted by on November 6, 2009 in writing


Another from the recently found archive

Most of us write because we like ourselves better when we write. We write because it gives our lives meaning, because we get to tell our stories.

That is from the web pages of Jessica Page Morrell, author of Writing Out the Storm (Portland, Starbound Press, 1998). I have quite an extensive library of books on writing, ranging from the usual reference texts to manuals to literary theory and linguistics. Morrell’s is in the self-help or writing-as-therapy genre, which some might regard patronisingly–but I do not. There are truths about writing in such texts, truths more useful in fact than in much of the academic theory–certainly more useful than most of the postmodern stuff I have had occasion to read lately. But it is not really a case of either/or; different focus, that’s all.

Writing makes your life better because you get to speak your truth and turn a discriminating eye at this weird planet and tell other people just how you see things. Most people who write regularly, who make writing a crucial component in their existence, like themselves better than when they’re not writing. It’s pretty simple. I know it works because it worked for me. If you write regularly–no matter what the subject or format–you’ll shift your muddled worries to clarity, your vague hopes to reality, and your denial to crystal truth….

Some of us write for the sheer joy of putting words on paper, but for others there are leftover hurts or a deep, dwelling loneliness begging to be healed. Most writers know that pain is eased by the company of words. So we write. [Writing Out the Storm pp. 2-4]

Certainly this diary began (offline) in 1999 because of a "dwelling loneliness begging to be healed." I am less lonely now, thanks to certain events over the past two years, but the writing bug is still here, and I recommend writing to anyone. I don’t write every day, but pretty damned close! Just fifteen minutes or so is as good a form of meditation as I know–and now and again it even results in something better than a rant!

Writing Out the Storm has some good practical advice on writing, all the more valuable as it counterbalances the tendency to dehumanisation that academic writing inevitably produces. Academic writing is often very bad writing; is it not ironic that we actually have to teach some of the very worst vices of academic prose to students whose natural inclination is to write well? We have to prepare them to stifle their authentic writing voices so that they can produce the turgid over-nominalised polysyllabic stuff that academics regard as appropriate.
Gary B. Larson’s portal to an annotated directory of writing Web sites, editorial style manual, concise writing guide, personalized advice and writing forum is also well worth visiting.

On other matters, a very well-researched book I have been reading lately is Neil Miller’s Sex-Crime Panic (Los Angeles, Alyson Books, 2002) — from the excellent Surry Hills Library. It is very fair in its depiction of 1950s therapeutic and criminological views of homosexuality, American of course but not dissimilar to what prevailed in Australia and coloured my own views in my late teens and twenties. It is quite a cautionary tale. The review I have linked to tells you more.

— 15 September 2002


When Snow Drifts Melt – 20 years on

1989 was quite a year for me, one way and another. In another work of fiction that isn’t really fiction I wrote “When Snow Drifts Melt” in two goes over a six year period. The act of writing in this case was also therapy, and as tomorrow is twenty years – hard to credit! – since the critical event in Part II I thought I would bring it to the fore again.

September 14 1989

– I miss that man so much.

– I know that Luke.

– I don’t know what to do about his birthday. I phoned but there was no answer. He doesn’t want to see me. It makes me so angry.

– Listen, Luke, he told me to tell you he still likes you. Take it from me, when he’s like this you just have to wait.

Luke cries publicly, there in the Unicorn Bar at 10 pm. Not something he would normally do. Later at the Oxford, trying to be wise I say something like breaking up is a bit like a death and you grieve and…

It’s possibly the best thing I have ever written.

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Posted by on September 13, 2009 in Fiction, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, personal, writing


A five-finger exercise

While my coachee slaved away on a Trial HSC English Advanced paper this morning I undertook to answer the creative writing question from our previous session: “Select one of the following quotations. Use this quotation as a catalyst for your own piece of writing on belonging.” I think I rather overdid the thematic side, but I was hoping to demonstrate how this rather artificial task may be done. It isn’t fiction, but that’s in the parameters given.

c) “My fondest childhood memories”

When you think about it there is a lot of truth in the old Catholic saying “Give me a child to the age of seven and I will show you the man.” By that age our sense of identity, which is so much shaped by our sense of belonging to family, home, town and country, are basically set – if not in stone, at least firmly enough that escape if needed is quite difficult.

In my case my grandfather rather than my father was the key influence. My father, you see, was rarely home, being overseas with the RAAF, so my family were living with my grandparents, and the one who had time for me most was my grandfather.

My grandfather was a retired teacher. I don’t know how he did it, can’t remember, but before I went to school I could already read and tell the time. This led to early alienation in Kindergarten. Invited in week one to “write” on the blackboard I wrote “Sydney Morning Herald” and the date. I gather the teacher was not amused and rang my mother to complain – strange as that may seem.

He was a mine of information, my grandfather, and I was a hyper-inquisitive child. Once he was gardening and I asked him: “What are snails for?” He stood up and took me round the garden, showing me snails, describing their life-cycle, their means of locomotion and their feeding habits and why, if we wanted our lettuces, he had to get rid of them. “Yes,” I replied with precocious analytical skills, “but what are they FOR?” Since the metaphysics of the snail was not something that had occurred to him he became uncharacteristically short with me and called out to my mother, “Get this bloody kid out of here!”

I never have found out what snails are for, but I guess they fit into the web of life. Even snails belong, don’t they?

Another thing about my grandfather was that he talked to just about everybody. He was genuinely interested in their lives and what they did. I would accompany him on his walks and get impatient as he stopped at this fence or that gate to chat to someone for what seemed like hours to me. I was not displeased though when he would climb over the railway fence to chat to the driver of the milk train when it was waiting at the siding for the express train to go through. There were steam engines in those days and I was enthralled standing on the tracks with my grandfather as the fireman and driver leaned down from the cab to share finer points of their trade.

On the other hand, so I am told, when my father at last returned from overseas my first words to him were “Get that man out of here!” (Perhaps I learned the expression from my grandfather.) To me my father was the picture on the dressing table, not this large imposter who had suddenly disrupted my life, just when I had my mother pretty much in control. What this may have done to our relationship, indeed to my father’s recovery of his belonging, I can now only guess – but it did rather colour our later lives.

You can see what a network one close relative can set up for you in those formative years. With my grandfather I explored so many aspects of my environment and he was, you could say, my map-maker. Through him were developing all those templates of background, culture and place which shape so much where “I” fits in – belongs, indeed.

There are many other stories I could tell of my grandfather. Did I mention he only had one eye? No? But that is another story.

I was 21 when my grandfather died. He had mentored me in so many ways, easing the pain of high school maths, answering my incessant questions about other countries as we browsed the atlas together, showing by example tolerance of people from other cultures, leading me (without pressure) to emulate him in my choice of career. If he were removed from my life story I wonder if I would today have the network of belongings that I now possess, modified as they may have been by other experiences and circumstances. Nonetheless, if I look for the rock on which it all has been built I need look no further than those childhood experiences with Roy C. – my grandfather.


One fiction, one non-fiction

Two good reads for the last July 09 book review.

star30star30star30star30  1. Gary Bryson, Turtle, Sydney, Allen & Unwin 2008

I am not overfond of some of what passes as magic realism, but in this case the magic is really magic and the realism gritty and true. This is a wonderful first novel from Bryson, who works as a radio journalist on Radio National’s Encounter. From the title link above:

Mandy Sayer interviews Gary Bryson

Mandy Sayer was Gary Bryson’s creative writing lecturer when he was writingTurtle. She calls the book ‘one of the finest debut novels I have read in years’ and says Bryson’s storytelling is ‘quite simply, enchanting’. She spoke to Gary for Readings on the eve of Turtle’s release.

What are the chances of finding a turtle in Scotland?

You might find one in the zoo, but otherwise the turtle steers well clear of Scotland. A country where you have to wear two pairs of socks most of the year is no place for our flippery friends.

So how did a turtle that speaks with a Glasgow accent come about?

When Donald (the story’s narrator) has to imagine his escape from his mother’s curse, it’s a turtle that he latches on to, as an exotic creature that’s seemingly about as far from Glasgow as you can get. But Donald’s imagination is shaped by his culture and his upbringing, so the turtle he conjures up as his saviour is a distinctly Glasgow one. The Turtle in the book is a sketch of a particular kind of Glasgow character, all front and no-nonsense, whose relations with everyone are enacted through a kind of genial, foul-mouthed banter which sometimes spills over into vindictiveness, but also expresses a kind of love. It’s not so far-fetched, really. On the face of it a turtle is about the most un-Glaswegian creature you could imagine, but on the other hand, it hides itself behind this big, tough shell. That’s its survival tactic and it’s one that’s worked well for both turtles and Glaswegians…

star30star30star30star30 2. Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003

Sounds dry, doesn’t it? But is really is a most interesting book. As the reviewer in the title link says:

This is a real gem of a book – especially if you’re a translator. Eco does a great job of exploring the complexities of the translation process and the problems faced by literary translators in particular. Translation is not just "typing in a foreign language"; translators are forced to continually analyze, interpret, evaluate and – as Eco puts it – negotiate with a text in order to craft a translation that conveys not just the "meaning" but the intent of the original. As both a translator and a "translatee", Eco has a unique insight into translation, and he provides numerous intriguing anecdotes relating to how the trickier passages in his own books and the books of others have been dealt with successfully – and sometimes less successfully – by translators. Being a translator myself, I couldn’t help but nod and smile in agreement all through this book…

The Guardian reviewer exaggerates the book’s difficulty, though there are indeed some knotty passages. On the other hand very many of the anecdotes and examples are highly amusing as well as instructive, such as the passing of the opening of Genesis through several languages in a computer translator by which the Spirit turns into alcohol…


New anthology of Australian literature

macpen_auslit_shadow In today’s Australian Nicholas Jose has an article about the new Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. A companion, the excellent Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, has already been published.

… But what is Australian literature anyway? If it seems a dumb question, the answer is not as obvious as it may appear. Does a piece of writing have to be about Australia to qualify, or is it enough if it is written by an Australian, or someone who was in Australia some of the time? Can fantasy or science fiction be Australian if it is written by an Australian but set in another world?

My answer would be yes, potentially, but it helps to be able to point to something Australian, however elusive. Nikki Gemmell’s novel The Bride Stripped Bare is an interesting case. First published by Anonymous in 2003, it was no surprise when the author was revealed as Australian.

There’s a giveaway when the heroine escapes the London cold for Morocco and the sun heats her up in a way she seems to know from some other life … down under.

And how do we define literature? Does genre writing such as romance and crime fiction count, and what about history writing or the speeches of (some) politicians? Again my answer would be yes, potentially, depending on what’s happening in the language, the ideas, the literary imagination of those writers, and what effect their words have on us as readers.

The terms Australian and literature are a potent but unstable combination, invoked in lofty charters and fierce debate…

There’s a touching scene in Alien Son, Judah Waten’s 1952 memoir in which the boy’s mother, a migrant to Melbourne from Odessa, wanting a "musical education" for her kids, takes them to listen to records at a friend’s house. The music "sounded far away and thin, like the voice of a ventriloquist mimicking far-off musical instruments". They go to a music shop where the mother asks the salesman to play records to the embarrassed children — Caruso, Chaliapin, "whole symphonies and concertos" — until the manager asks if she ever intends to buy one.

The son must translate his mother’s reply about her children’s "right to music and culture and in fact the rights of all men": "Just because we are poor must we cease our striving?"

The striving of many people such as Waten’s mother, and Waten himself, as a writer, has given Australia an extraordinary culture, including a great body of literature, transformed from distant mimicry into something of our own, something to share, to argue with, to extend and pass on.

I cherish in all the arts a space for Australian voices – even if it is just to remind ourselves that we are not, after all, Americans. ;)  This is not jingoism. Arts that can show us who and where we are with conviction and authenticity (old-fashioned words I know) are to be cherished, and the paradox is that it is often those works from other countries and cultures which are most “local” that move us most. So rather than being the literary equivalent of McDonalds, works like The Great Gatsby or even To Kill a Mockingbird speak to us of – and beyond – a locale they so wonderfully evoke.

I guess I will be able to learn more of the Macquarie anthology; I’ll be dining at M’s on Sunday and Nicholas Jose will be the guest of honour.


David Leavitt, “The Indian Clerk” (Bloomsbury 2007)

star30 star30star30star30star30 No problem with thinking of a rating. This novel is superb.

In the world of mathematics, Srinvasa Ramanujan had a beautiful mind.

The 23-year-old was an uneducated bank clerk in the Indian city of Madras when, in 1913, he wrote a nine-page letter to Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy filled with prime-number theorems. Soon after, Hardy recruited Ramanujan to work at Cambridge.

In his new novel, The Indian Clerk, author David Leavitt re-creates the lives of these historical figures, delving deep into their intellectual and personal worlds. Though Ramanujan died just six years after arriving in Cambridge, he had a lasting impact on his colleagues and on the world of mathematics.

That summary is from NPR, which also includes an extract from Chapter 1.

The man sitting next to the podium appeared to be very old, at least in the eyes of the members of his audience, most of whom were very young. In fact he was not yet sixty. The curse of men who look younger than they are, Hardy often thought, is that at some moment in their lives they cross a line and start to look older than they are. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he had regularly been mistaken for a schoolboy up for a visit. As a don, he had regularly been mistaken for an undergraduate. Now age had caught up with him and then outrun him, and he seemed the very embodiment of the elderly mathematician whom progress has left behind. "Mathematics is a young man’s game" — he himself would write these words in a few years time-and he had had a better run of it than most. Ramanujan had died at thirty-three. These days admirers smitten with Ramanujan’s legend speculated as to what he might have achieved had he lived longer, but it was Hardy’s private opinion that he wouldn’t have achieved much. He had died with his best work behind him.

This was at Harvard, in New Lecture Hall, on the last day of August, 1936. Hardy was one of a mass of scholars reeled in from around the world to receive honorary degrees on the occasion of the university’s tercentenary. Unlike most of the visitors, however, he was not here — nor, he sensed, had he been invited-to speak about his own work or his own life. That would have disappointed his listeners. They wanted to hear about Ramanujan.

While the smell of the room was in some ways familiar to Hardy — a smell of chalk and wood and stale cigarette smoke — its sounds struck him as peculiarly American. How much more noise these young men made than their British counterparts! As they rummaged in their briefcases, their chairs squeaked. They murmured and laughed with one another. They did not wear gowns but rather jackets and ties-some of them bow ties. Then the professor who had been given the task of introducing him-a youth himself, whom Hardy had never heard of and to whom he had been introduced just minutes before-stood at the dais and cleared his throat, at which signal the audience quieted. Hardy made certain to show no reaction as he listened to his own history, the awards and honorary degrees that authorized his renown. It was a litany he had become used to, and which sparked in him neither pride nor vanity, only weariness: to hear listed all he had achieved meant nothing to him, because these achievements belonged to the past, and therefore, in some sense, no longer belonged to him. All that had ever belonged to him was what he was doing. And now he was doing very little…

leav190 I am a mathematical retard, but I could still enjoy this wonderful imaginative recreation of a fascinating place and time. The tone is astonishingly good, rarely faltering – quite a tribute to an American author venturing into the Cambridge world of Bertrand Russell and many another known figure from that time. I found the book to be about G H Hardy as much as about Ramanujan, and also about the gay world c.1900 – c. 1936 – very well captured. This is gay fiction come of age in that it does not depend on gayness but rather explores wider human issues.

For more see The New York Times and  The Elegant Variation at THE INDIAN CLERK WEEK CONTINUES: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID LEAVITT:

TEV: How did you first become aware of the story of the relationship between G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan, and what made it seem like there was a novel in that story?

DL:  A few years ago Jim Atlas, publisher of Atlas Books, asked me to write a non-fiction book of Alan Turing and the invention of the computer for his series "Great Discoveries." In the course of researching Turing’s life, I bumped up against the Riemann hypothesis, which is widely considered to be the most important unsolved problem in mathematics. Like many mathematicians, Turing was fascinated by the Riemann hypothesis, and, at one point, even designed a machine intended to test the zeros on the critical line. To understand what I mean when I say "test the zeros on the critical line," you need to know a little about the Riemann hypothesis, which, at the time, I didn’t. Luckily four books explaining the hypothesis to lay readers happened to have been published the year that I was working on Turing. The first of these that I read was Marcus du Sautoy’s superb The Music of the Primes, which included a chapter on Ramanujan and an account of his collaboration with G. H. Hardy, part of which touched on the Riemann hypothesis.

I admit that what first fascinated me about the story of Ramanujan’s relationship with Hardy was the language that Hardy himself, years later, used to describe it. He called his "association" with Ramanujan "the one romantic incident in my life." Knowing already that Hardy was perceived—at least by his other principal collaborator, J. E. Littlewood—as a "non-practicing homosexual," I decided to investigate the history of this odd "association" between a devout but poor Hindu Brahmin from rural Tamil Nadu and a fixture of Trinity College in the years just before and during the First World War. In sharp contrast to Turing, who was socially awkward and a bit of a loner, Hardy—and this was unusual for a mathematician—traveled in sophisticated circles. He was one of the only scientists to be inducted into the Apostles, the elite and secret Cambridge society the other members of which, at the time, included Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He also had close ties to Bloomsbury and literary London.

Rich fare indeed.