Monday, August 28, 2017

Xenotopias and the Australian Gothic

A xenotopia, according to landscape writer Robert Macfarlane, is an uncanny or unsettling landscape, an out of place place. From the Greek: xeno - strange or different, and topos - place.

Ah finally, I thought when I read this. Now I have a word for those odd unsettling places, those quickening borderlands that I'm drawn to, whose ancestral scars seem sown into the country. I would argue that places described as xenotopias say more about the visitor; that it is the visitor and not the place, who feels uneasy.

That said, Country can hold events in its body, the same way human ancestors can pass down physical and emotional manifestations of trauma. I believe in this. Blaze Kwaymullina wrote a beautiful essay on ancestral scarring here: Country Roads, Take Me Home; Prisons, Movement and Memory.


The academic writing I've read on the Australian Gothic tends to focus on the English colonial experience in Australia first, of trying to navigate Country that felt threatening and was populated with fabulous beasts.The swans were black instead of white and trees shed their bark, not their leaves. Massive granite bosses stood sentinel, reminiscent of European pagan sites. If this country and its beasts didn't kill them, it would oppress, impede, baffle and terrify the protagonists. The ghosts would rise up to strike them down.  

I think that writers still use those ideas for historical fiction, contemporary and even futuristic dystopian drama, using landscape as a major motivating force. (The Sound has been described as Australian Gothic.) Tasmanian writers, artists and film makers do the Gothic brilliantly. In fact I think the Tasmanian Gothic is in a class all of its own. A major motivator is the landscape, swathing a silent, wounded history of the island.


Last night I dreamed of the sea eagle. It looked down at me from the spar of a power pole on the overpass into the city. In the morning when I awoke at the inlet it was from the marri tree at the water’s edge that the eagle regarded me. It looked sanguine, interested as I called in its own eerie language. Later I saw the bird cruising the shoreline, hunting, wings tilted up like a dancer’s fingers, as it does every day. I called again but the eagle ignored me. (from my story Living at Clarkie's Camp, out in November)

At the inlet there are myriad Gothic tropes: monster dogs circling my house, cathedrals of trees dripping bark and a memory of rain, a sense of isolation and often discomfort. There is an intense, cold stilling at certain times of the day. Even the birds stop calling. It feels as though nature, though it cares nothing for me ('here lies one whose name was writ in water'), is not only obliterating its own history but holding onto it, layering bones, humus and earth stars over the death, decay and rebirth. Out in the middle of the inlet lie the fossilised stumps of enormous trees, dead for millennia. Fungi feed on the living. The tree I call my Gateway Guardian is burled to a grotesque disfigurement from centuries of insect attack.

Here are the ghosts from the past. Here lived Clarke, hoping to hide from the people who wished him dead. Here are the young women who went into the night forest to hunt wild pigs after a funeral. Here are the wise, funereal crows and shrieking black cockatoos, the black swans that gossip as they fly. Here lives the hermitess, the woman in the tower. Here is the line of stoic weatherboard shacks facing to the sea, holding their own histories.

It feels like a Borderlands, a space in between. Sometimes I jokingly call the place where I live Winterfell and the name is met with a ready, dour nod. The inlet, the islands within and the country  are fiercely loved by the shack-dwellers who know the place intimately. And yet they say that some 'strange things have gone on around here.' 
The country is eerie and beautiful and easy to become obsessed with.
I feel that this place, this xenotopia, is not finished with me yet.

Thursday, August 24, 2017


I've been feeling a bit weepy today and I know why. I've been writing books, and that's always a decent part of my malaise. When I say writing books though, I mean today I've been actually making books and writing in them.

It's a very different process to sitting at the lap top for days, months, years on end. Hand-writing a book is more personal than a blog or twitter post. It's more personal than a year of track changes exchanges between editor and me. I know all this. Try writing twenty of the buggers out by hand. This was my intention; to make and write something ridiculously over-personal, a human printing press, over and over again.

Still I was ambushed today, quite unexpectedly, by the act of hand-writing a tale for the public to read. These little concertina and booky book critters are for the Southern Art Trail, and they are my (strange) contribution to a visual arts exhibition. The stories are about death, decay and rebirth, and focus on the amazingness of fungi and the inter web of mycelium.

'It's the first year anniversary that is the hardest,' an older friend said to me just after Bob died. 'That's the tough one.' She said that after that, your memories gentle and become warmer, not so much pain, not so raw.

Today, the weather is the same as it was last year on this day. It was sunny last year. Ridiculously beautiful. Calm. The winter sun slanted through the car window as I read his text message when I came into range at the end of the Broke track. Everyone thought Spring was happening ... and then she died in the early hours.

Today I hand wrote some books about the day I was driving through the forest listening to Bach's Kyrie and had somehow reached Selina's hospital bedside in my mind. It turns out that she saw me and I saw her and we were five hundred kilometres from each other.

It's just coincidence that I am writing these books today. Yesterday, I cruised the bookshelves in Tom Collins House and found the book she wrote 'Ring the Shed'. I held it up to the light and stared at her name.

Tonight, good friends are having a knees-up for her in Albany. I wish I could be there. But know, I am hand-writing about that day in the forest, dear lady. I think you would understand what I am trying to say x

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

"Where are we going Nanna Sarah?"

"Where are we going Nanna Sarah?"
"We are hunting kangaroos, granddaughter."
I wrapped my skin around her. She took the wooden spoon from the kitchen sink and followed me outside.

We walked for a long time. We were both quite tired by the time we got to the sea.

"Look at that island!" I said to Gracie, at the top of the secondary dune. "We could swim to that island!"
"We need a boat," she said. My grandie is practical in these respects . Both of us looked at the ships on Gage Roads.

"Maybe that one?"
"Too far to swim, Nanna Sarah."

We both jumped into a boat in the playground at Cottesloe. Parents in puffer vests, compression tights and expensive joggers scattered with their labradoodles, as we jumped in.
"Matilda," I said, "How are we gonna get to the islands?"

"We have to take over! We need a boat!"
 "We need a boat!" I shouted and she waved her wooden spoon.
I jumped around, rocking the playground boat.
"The jellyfish are taking over. We need a boat!"

We were kicked out of there by some three year olds and so we walked over the next dune. By then my grand daughter was exhausted. Her gumboots were full of sand and I worried about her blisters. The kangaroo skin was now over my shoulder.

"Gracie, at the next cafe, I'll buy you a juice," I promised her, thinking that the next cafe was probably pretty close.
"Yes, Nanna Sarah," she said, stoic, trudging on.
And she did, that kid. She trudged. She walked for miles with me. An hour later I bought her a bottle of black currant juice from the corner store.She'd walked the whole way home with me, refusing to be carried..

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Writing Workshops

I wanted to tell y'all that I'm running some workshops in Perth. At the moment I'm writer-in-residence with Western Australia's Fellowship of Australian Writers, thanks to FAWWA and the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. It's an awesome opportunity for me to knuckle down and just write my Love Advice from Broke Inlet project, without getting tripped up and distracted by the machinations of everyday life.
Yep, you guessed it. No excuses. Terrifying. Ha ha.

On Saturday September 2nd I'll be running a workshop on writing historical fiction, based on skills learned from writing The Sound. I like to focus on landscape and character here. Then the next Saturday 9th I'll be doing narrative non fiction and memoir. I'm really interested in how narrative non fiction works, and I've been reading a lot of Americana: Hunter S Thompson, Martha Gellhorn, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese etc. Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk does it for me too. But the nonfiction work that first set off all the bells and whistles was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

As you can see by the flyer, the workshops are really well priced. You can jump online at to book, or else ring 93844771. It would be lovely to see you there.

Some more news ... The Meadow Man rang me yesterday to say that the sandbar at Broke went on Saturday night. I had my money on the 28th but she broke early. The inlet probably looks a bit different now. Wish I'd been there.
From this:

           to this

Monday, August 21, 2017


By Silvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams
Earless and eyeless

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies.

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Corrugated Lines

 Once we'd sorted out that the car wasn't badly damaged, Pat and I went into the Mangrove Hotel. Peter in the red shirt presented his one man cabaret show about trochus poachers and various other Kimberly dramas. He sang, he parsed, he versed. It was a great show, and completely unexpected. (For me anyway. Someone else commented that he was forever surprising and always fantastic.)

Later we ate chips and looked out over the sea to Buccaneer Island, close to where the Dutch sea planes lie on their silty, tidal sea beds. Bats flew in huge mobs home to roost. I talked to a Barrumundi farmer who wanted to take some time off and camp at the peninsula but "three more swings and it'll be the wet season."

The Corrugated Lines readers and writers festival finished up on the lawns of the Mangrove Hotel. Here are some of us:

I stayed with my cousin while in Broome and the next morning we went to Redell beach together. That sun on my back, and the silky, warm sea. (And Lucy, the happy camp dog photo bomber.)

Critter tracks: It's quite a busy place.

And classic Broome: frangipani, a wide blue sea and a four wheel drive.

Finally, how freaking cool is my cuz:

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The day and the day after I flew into Broome

On Saturday afternoon I flew into Broome.

Seeing this landscape from the plane made me feel quite emotional. That startling contrast of red pindan and turquoise sea is like a memory trigger. Later my cousin drove me to the Mangrove Hotel and I caught sight of that sea again and gasped. She is used to it, yet it blasted me back to the late 1980s when I was used to it too. This is the first time I've been back.

I went to Broome for the Corrugated Lines Readers and Writers Festival, and walked straight into the welcoming arms of Kimberly family, artists and writers.

'How are you with sandflies, Sarah?' asked my cousin's partner, and I remembered when I was here as a kid getting hammered by sandflies at Streeters Jetty, and later so itchy that I was tearing strips off myself with dirty fingernails in the middle of the night. I still have the scars on my legs from the infections that followed.
'Oh, last time was pretty bad,'' I said. He pointed towards the bar. We were outside at Pearl Luggers to hear Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe speak, and there was a communal aerosol of industrial strength insecticide at the bar. Steve Kinnane interviewed Pascoe, who spoke beautifully of the historical silence around Aboriginal agricultural methods, and also the silence as he grew up around his own family's Aboriginality. The night air was warm and silky. Across the road, the jukebox blared from the infamous Roey. The women wore fabulous dresses.

Later we repaired to said infamous pub for Word of Mouth, a spoken word and open mic for anyone of a poetic bent. I spent the night wandering between this event which showcased some excellent writers and slam performers, to the 'beer garden' where a bald shoemaker in an Hawaiian shirt was arguing the line-up of the Highwaymen and the Travelling Wilburys with a dark man with less teeth than me. I'd be listening to Aunty Pat's story about walking into a lap dancing club in search of fish and chips, head outside for a smoke where the shoemaker called me 'Miss Woolly' (so original), then back inside for slam poet Emilie Zoey Baker's rendition of Get a Bloody Job. Sophia's story and music made me seep tears and laugh out loud.
A most excellent night.

Early Sunday morning I wandered down to Streeters Jetty across the road from boab trees and stilted fibro houses, and rubbed fine pindan dirt into my lily-white, down-south feet. My feet are usually clad in Blundstones and thick woolen socks this time of year, or sheep skin boots. Now it was thirty two degrees and I was wearing thongs. I could smell the mangroves and the sea and the sweat of everyone who walked past me. I saw evidence of people who had walked before me ... yesterday.

 It was nearly time for my author session at the Kimberly Bookshop, the whole reason I'd flown here, and I was feeling a bit nervous. A good nervous, but still nervous. I met my interviewer Mohini at dinner the previous night and knew I was safe in her capable hands. But in the hour before getting miked up to talk in front of a crowd, I always need a quiet space alone to circumvent the freaking-myself-the-fuck-out scenario. Breathe Sarah. I rubbed that red dirt into my feet. Introduced myself to Country. 
That's what I did on the mud flats below Streeters Jetty.

 This year is the 30th Anniversary of Broome-based Magabala Books, one of those little publishing houses that seriously punch above their weight. I nearly didn't make it to Corrugated Lines. I was made unexpectedly redundant at the service station and wondered how I could justify the expense of travelling to the Kimberly in these straitened times. Then I read the story of Magabala a few weeks ago in the paper. AND Marie at the Kimberly Bookshop offered to chuck in some money for me. 
I just had to go.

It was a great session. The audience were super engaged. I had wondered how Kimberly folk would identify with Southern Ocean history, but of course there are so many parallels when it comes to explorers, ferals and colonist's 'contact' narrative that the locals got it and the grey nomads did too. Broome is laden (beautifully and heavily) with colonial history.

Anyway, after that I needed another quiet little sit down. Tis an energising and exhausting thing, that reader/writer interaction. After the book signing I sat down on the pavement in the shade next to the Community Resource Centre. A man walked past, stopped and asked me for two rollie papers. 'Where are you from?' he asked me. 'Walpole, down south,' I said, 'Where are you from?' 'Hedland, down south,' he told me.

I went to the library to hear an hilarious play reading by playwright Dan Lee. This play is about grey nomads doing the loop of Australia and it's really freaking funny and about to premiere in Los Angeles. Then I went up the hill with Aunty Pat to see Peter Bibby do his thing at the Mangrove Hotel. I was thinking of walking up there but Pat talked me out of it. 'It's too hot to walk up that hill,' she said. 'I've got a car, let's go.'

We were so busy talking about music, writing and art that we didn't notice the concrete curbs whilst doing a U-turn. This can be a problem, especially as 'I've just borrowed this car' as Pat explained. I got out at the Mangrove to examine the damage. 'You can pop that panel back in,' I said, looking at the plastic nudge bar and hub caps. I felt a little bit sorry for the car. Aunty Pat shrugged, 'Those scars were already there, love,' and we went into the Mangrove Hotel.