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Skyglow Launch Speech by Donna Mazza

Published 2nd November, 2020 in News

Welcome to the ECU South West campus library and the celebration of our Arts alumnus, Leslie Thiele’s new collection of short stories, Skyglow.

Leslie studied here for six years or so and graduated from our Bachelor of Arts course in 2018. I am very privileged to have this long involvement with her work and with her, of course!

As you can see from this volume in our hands, Leslie is a very accomplished woman but she wouldn’t tell you that.  She would humble herself and tell you how she has a long way to go and everyone else did the work. This isn’t true (but don’t tell her that I told you this). In fact Leslie has written these stories herself and that’s why her name is on the cover of the book.

As a student, Leslie was shortlisted for the South West Prize of the Margaret River short story competition and published in their annual collection in 2014 with ‘Catching Trains to Frankston’ which was published in The Trouble with Flying and Other Stories.

Then she was shortlisted for the South West Prize of the Margaret River short story competition and published in their annual collection in 2015 with ‘The Gingerbread Man’ which was published in Lost Boy and Other Stories.

Then she was shortlisted for the South West Prize of the Margaret River short story competition and published in their annual collection in 2016 with ‘The Boat’ which was published in Shibboleth and Other Stories.

And she eventually won the South West Prize in 2017 with ‘Harbour Lights’, which was published in Joiner Bay and Other Stories.

Since she graduated in 2018, Leslie’s storyThe Slaughterman’ was included in the collection In This Desert, There Were Seeds’ in 2019.

Leslie has a great narrative range and the work in Skyglow includes all five of her previously published stories, which demonstrate her mastery of realism, historical and speculative fiction.

Some are stories generated from her life experiences – her time living on a station in the North-West, her perceptive ear and her wry observation of people. Leslie has a great capacity for unknotting complex emotional states and exposing the fractures in relationships and society.

These are not lightweight stories and they aren’t afraid to take on the patriarchy, which gets the waggly finger from Leslie in ‘Magpie Season’, one of my favourite stories in Skyglow. This one digging deep into the silent tensions between a retired couple just seethes with barely held aggression.

Reckoning with the patriarchy is also the subject of her award-winning story ‘Harbour Lights’, in which a victim of sexual assault finally speaks out against her assailant. This very moving story withstood scrutiny from my Creative Writing class last year, and was such a well-crafted and finely tuned work of short fiction that I ventured to tell my class it was perfect because it’s setting, characters and symbols are so deftly woven together.

I interviewed Leslie at the writers festival in Margaret River when she won the Margaret River Short Story Competition’s South West Writers prize for ‘Harbour Lights’  and I thought it was a high point to be sitting on the stage interviewing one of my students about her work. I smiled most of the day, while Leslie was busy spying Kerry O’Brien in the green room, which I think was her high point. Today, launching Leslie’s collection, is another high point.

Many of these stories are set in regional areas of Western Australia. You can feel it in the wind, the grasses and the subtle details of the farmhouses and backyards. Leslie’s Kimberley is just as vivid as her South West and testament to the richness of her life and connection to place.

Some are stories generated by flights of imagination reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, with the terrible futuristic tale of ‘The Slaughterman’; its brutal ending gives a visceral shock to the reader. A draft of this story was part of an assessment for a unit I was teaching and the uncomfortable horror of its ending was really memorable as one of the best speculative pieces produced here… and there are lots of speculative works produced here. It’s no surprise this work has been published twice!

Several body parts are severed in these stories and Leslie isn’t shy of confronting these experiences or those of old age, addiction and colonial history.

It might seem that a solo collection of stories would all be quite similar, but what marks this collection is the amazing diversity of voices that emerge from the pages. Each story is a precious and individually wrapped delight.

What holds these stories together as a collection is the deep compassion the reader can hear behind the words; the tenderness with which Leslie approaches her characters and the weighing up of emotion: of blame and guilt, of grief and letting go. Her observation and sensitivity is deeply touching.

You might cry when you read them… I have cried hearing Leslie read her work in class as a student, so what she can do now, with a couple of years of polishing and professionalising her work, might be quite shattering. You will also laugh at her wry observations of human nature.

It’s so essential to a community to tell its own stories and I’m very grateful to Margaret River Press for their support of South West writers over the past decade or so. Thank you for enabling Leslie’s work to reach its audience.

Thank you, Leslie, for sharing the journey with me and with our arts community here at ECU South West. I hope Skyglow lights up many readers’ lives.

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