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5 Questions with Michelle Cahill

Published 10th July, 2019 in Writing

A lot of writers talk about failure—about checking the longlist of literary awards and competitions only to be disheartened. They also talk about learning from this, and persevering despite this. As the judge of the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition, can you tell us about how subjectivity factors into this and what this may mean for those who don’t make it.

There’s no doubt that subjective filters do apply, and I think it’s a human constraint; it’s often not intentional. There were several impressive stories in the competition. One that really impressed me with a skilful control of masculine perspective and its eloquently tough realism was ‘A Concreter’s Heart’ by Mark Smith. But I don’t mean to single this story out as the only one. Mirandi Riwoe’s story ‘Cinta Ku’ is richly layered and exquisite reading. The narrator’s voice in Andrew Sutherland’s ‘The Children’ holds our attention powerfully; there is subtle characterisation and something timeless about the unflinching way that pain and disquiet is explored. There were other stories that needed to be told, like K.A. Rees’ ‘Butterscotch’ and other’s like Justine Hyde’s ‘Emotional Support’ and Claire Corbett’s that are delightful, witty and speculative. As a writer, I admire when other writers have the courage to defy conventions in narrative. It is not easy to do when we are living in times in which the literary arts have become increasingly produced and marketed for consumption. Some writers do resist this and have the confidence to trust their own insight.  

A little consolation for those who don’t make the longlist or shortlist is to say that we’ve all been there. As writers we have to get used to rejections of all kinds. My advice is to persist. Go back to the work and take a critical look at it. Spend a lot of time with that piece, rather than assuming it is ‘finished.’ I would say: be grateful for the rejections because they’ll make you a better writer. Sometimes the story or the poem never does work but immersed with it you may find the right form in something unexpected and entirely different. That’s because you’re exercising your writing muscles well. I think that’s one way to reflect on competitions.

After judging the competition and selecting the shortlist, you worked with each of the now-published authors of ‘We’ll Stand In That Place and Other Stories’ as an editor. What are some of the challenges and joys of this process, and what relationship does it have to your own writing practice?

I’m reminded of an Italo Calvino interview in The Paris Review. He described his process from handwriting to typescript resulting often in an entirely different text. He also says, ‘My pages are always covered with cancelling lines and revisions.’  I like the idea of a cancelling line and the flâneurie of editing. All writers are editors. I guess it is always a challenge to be bold enough to suggest changes to a piece of writing, because I am wary of projecting my authorial assumptions on to another writer. I do believe that writers need to find ways to improve the weaker parts of their writing themselves, but it certainly helps to have an experienced reader offer feedback. Story endings can be tricky to pull off well. There’s a tendency to try to reconcile or summarise all the narrative elements. A fresh pair of eyes can pick up quickly on those neat closures, also the short threads to suggest subtle ways to make the ending more consistent with the story. That was a particular joy, to see some of the story endings being strengthened.

In my own practise I am careful about editing, whether it’s prose or poetry. I have often felt that writing allows us to get things ‘right’ on the page that we fail in our lives. As a writer I might be better at crafting words than some of the other pleasures and responsibilities I face. So there’s fun and joy to be had.

In your introduction to the anthology, you describe Kate Noske’s winning entry of numbered sections as ‘possible prose poems’ and write about the blurring of literary boundaries—of fiction forms. What does this mean for the short story form and the readers’ who consume them?

It’s interesting that you use the word ‘consume’ because it seems there is less appreciation for the caesuras and silences in poetic language; perhaps this kind of writing is considered to be elitist. But it’s limiting to define things narrowly because of their associations.  

In ‘Thylacine’ there is a measured, repetitive cadence that emphasises emotion and subconscious thought. The numbered sections feel as if though they are discrete entities that are not overly defined. They open doors into psycho-narrative space, allowing us to feel gender difference enacted through syntax.

Poetic tropes can be as powerful as the rhetorics of cultural, political and historical revision, energies which have seeped into fiction and how it gets marketed. Novels and stories often seem to spring from trends and popular social themes, anxieties or current concerns. It’s not a bad thing; relatability. But the pressure of popularity has consequences for language. Literary writing is a craft and the prose poem can layer narrative with subtext, with ruptures and apertures, with emotional range and psychological complexity.

These are valuable because I think the best fiction is experiential: we enter a particular journey with a writer, and the text takes us to a place that goes beyond the writer’s intentions because it results from our own experience of reading the work. What we bring to our reading matters but also there are intrinsic aspects of the text such as pace, energy, emotion. The fictions I enjoy most inhabit me, and that is an exciting thing because it’s unpredictable.

‘We’ll Stand In That Place’ is a story of addiction and queerness, which are subjects that weren’t always given space in the publishing industry. There have been a number of conversations in the literary community about the voices that are published, who gets to write who, and what efforts the publishing industry is taking to contend with systems of power that privilege some at the expense of others. What are your thoughts on this subject?

 ‘We’ll Stand in That Place’ appealed because Kit Scriven has written a strikingly impressive, original and exquisite story, something rare.

It occurs to me, that maybe there are different views on what we are seeing happen at a time when there are both proponents and detractors of the Western canon. We need new spaces which centre othered stories, those which have been oppressed, marginalised and censored. Race and gender are figuring powerfully, and this is long overdue. It is the zeitgeist for millennials. There are also those who would like to restructure, revise and rehabilitate the networks and the canon.

I mean, would you choose to demolish the past because of its associations of power and privilege, even though there is a wealth of literature and art from which diverse writing takes new forms? Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a good example of a phenomenally successful queer Asian American writer who engages with the Western canon via Homeric mythology. And are we going to diminish the achievement of Derek Walcott?

An uncompromising approach to creating new spaces for diverse voices would take immeasurable time, energy, material resources and special knowledge to do well. Such an approach would rely on complex, often problematic networks which are equally forms of collaboration and complicity. However, for many of us, the past has been silenced, erased, and insidiously written over. I think of this as epistemic violence. And it is a violence; it damages and shatters people’s lives because being able to narrate our stories is necessary. Our writing is not about ego or ambition, it’s about history being democratic. Storytelling is not merely a leisurely indulgence. We need to be actors as well as participants in cultural history. Criticism plays a substantial role, so does industry. That’s why, as an editor, I do want to support writing and writers whose work has not benefited from longstanding structural privilege.

It’s a minefield. We need sacred spaces; spaces of silence in our art and ultimately, we want to stay focussed on, and devoted to our present work, the texts we are reading and writing.

Between the blurring of boundaries and the push for diversity in the publishing industry—this is a really exciting time for Australian literature. What are some of the things you’re excited about, or to see and what are you working on at the moment?

I’ve observed that there’s a genuinely fresh take on genre boundaries as we are more connected to technology’s multiple interfaces and information collages. Travel has become more accessible, so space and place are readily navigable. There’s also the political undercurrents of borders and detentions based on rising fascism and biopolitics around the world, and literature expresses outrage in different ways. One way is direct non-fictional protest and engaged activism; another is the conceptual pressure to dissolve the limits and authorities inherent in genre. There is a nascent sense of hope, defiance and confidence with new affiliations and different thinkers in the field of Australian literature. We don’t all share the same views or appreciations, but I think there’s a generational dynamic that is co-operating to refresh the way that we think collectively. Eco-poetics and eco-criticism, global south writing, fantasy and historical fiction are exciting genres.

I’ve enjoyed my small contribution; what I look forward to is more time for my own writing. I’m making the most of a developing writer’s grant, thanks to the Australia Council, to focus on my novel.

Thanks Jay.

Michelle D’Souza Cahill is of Goan Anglo Indian heritage. Her book Letter to Pessoa, won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing. She is the author of three collections of poetry, including Vishvarupa and The Herring Lass. She has received several prizes and grants in poetry and fiction from the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency Limited. She was Poetry Fellow at Kingston Writing School, London and a Visiting Scholar at UNC Charlotte. She is completing a DCA at the University of Wollongong.

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