Six Degrees from the City is a podcast about writing in Western Sydney, hosted by the writer and critic Fiona Wright. Each episode features a writer based in or hailing from the western suburbs of Sydney, one of the most diverse – as well as most maligned – areas in Australia, and the site of some of our most interesting and challenging literature and conversations. This episode features the writer and researcher, Eda Gunaydin.
Eda writes fiction and non-fiction, and her work has appeared in Meanjin, The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks and Tincture Journal. She was a recipient of the 2016 WestWords Emerging Writers Fellowship, and a Neilma Sidney Travel Grant. Her writing is bold and often brutal, as well as incredibly funny – and much of it is set in Blacktown, where Eda grew up and her family still lives.
I was thinking… that either we all belong here in the CBD or none of us do. Unless you are a part of the 2.8 per cent of the population that is Indigenous, none of us belong here. Or all of us do. And that I would say applies to all of our metropoles. But that is the constant curse, and maybe not a very original thing to be exploring, but that is the curse of being part of a diasporic community. You can’t go home, because that home is not your home, right? I wasn’t born in Turkey, so what claim do I have to be connected to it?
And that’s part of that piece in Meanjin, that friend I had was born and raised in Turkey, and he didn’t quite view me as Turkish, he said I was half-Turkish. And it’s like, what’s that half? I mean, ethnically, I am. But we just weren’t ever able to find proper common ground. And my desire to sort of cite my parents’ experience didn’t really mean anything to him, because that felt really valuable to me, and it’s part of my identity, but he was just like, well, you know, I have actually my own first-hand experiences. But then of course we can’t belong here either, because I mean, Australia is, in its current state, a very racist, Anglo-centric society. But I think the third layer on top of all of that, that I’ve been grappling with more recently, is my family’s status as settlers here, the sense that we were able to immigrate here is the direct result of a policy of the Australian government to want migrant labourers who could populate this land and settle it more effectively. So in many ways I think, well none of us really have a claim to Australia, actually…
I always feel as if the Turkish I speak is not one that is sort of tapped in to the Turkish in Turkey! Mostly it’s the Turkish of the Günaydin family, and I think it carries not just the language itself but our values, our ways of relating with each other, I think that’s what makes me worry about coarseness, because so much of the Turkish I know, I hate to say, is swearing, insults, or the most horrific things you can imagine having said to you. And I think I internalised not just the words, but also how they have made me feel and relate to the world, etc etc. And again, it’s just the issue with diaspora, you sort of get frozen in amber, none of us are sort of updating the way we speak… So yeah, I am really interested in the language that my family speaks, and one day, in my head, I’d like to write a book around all of the idioms I’ve been taught, because Turkish idioms are so much more complex, as well as profane, than English words. So I’m always stockpiling them, every time my mother says something.
Acknowledgements and links
Six Degrees from the City is supported by the Crown Packer Foundation, the Sydney Review of Books and the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. Music is by Phil Faddoul. Special thanks to Ben Denham for production assistance.
Fiona Wright: Hello, and welcome to Six Degrees from the City, a podcast about writing and Western Sydney. I’m your host, Fiona Wright, and I’m delighted to be talking in this episode to Eda Günaydin.
Eda writes fiction and non-fiction is a children’s author, and her work has appeared in Meanjin, The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks and Tincture Journal, amongst others. She was a recipient of the 2017 Neilma Sydney Travel Fund and the 2016 WestWords Emerging Writers Fellowship, and currently undertaking a PhD at Sydney University.
Eda grew up in Blacktown, where her family still lives – and much of her work is set in this suburb: it is a place that her characters move through and return to, or carry in their minds. She joined me to talk about writing bilingually and writing about trauma, as well as how bread is the best way to differentiate between kebab shops. Here’s Eda reading from ‘Only So Much’ and ‘Do Nothing But Laugh’
[Eda Günaydin reads extracts from ‘Only So Much’ and ‘Do Nothing But Laugh’}
FW: One of the things I wanted to ask you about, I was really struck by the way Sydney as a whole is mapped out in your work. I think in that first piece that you read, it’s set largely in the CBD and in Darling Harbour, but there’s always this sense, while your character is in there, thinking about how tomorrow I’ll be back on the train out West, but also coming back to the ‘Off-Centre’, as you call the Inner West, which I love. So it sort of feels like there’s this continual movement between different parts of Sydney that I find really interesting.
Eda Günaydin: I think that’s just the way it’s always been, because by necessity I am always moving back and forth, but I guess… I just feel that that is probably the way that things go for a lot of kids of immigrants. Not to generalise, but I think that in our cultural imagination, we think that growing up it’s like, when you hit 18 you have some sort of permanent departure from your home, and you move to the next place… but it’s not really true. There is still a bedroom kept aside for every one of my parents’ kids at our house, despite the fact that my eldest sister is 45. She still has one of the bedrooms!
FW: I was going to say, you’re lucky! Because my bedroom is now my nieces’ room, and my sister’s bedroom is the sewing room…
EG: Oh, well I’m glad there’s been some moving on with your parents! [laughs]
FW: And my brother’s bedroom is the study! [laughs]
EG: Good! I think that shows growing on the part of your family… I don’t know! I guess my parents never wanted us to leave, and so there’s still an assumption that we will always come back, and the reason will be that we can. But for the longest time I used to carry around a duffel bag that was always filled with overnight stuff, because I was like, who knows where I’ll be tonight, I might have to rush back and forth…
FW: Yeah, wow. That’s so interesting to me. I used to go back every weekend as well, but…
EG: Before they converted your bedroom!
FW: Well, I wouldn’t stay the night, just go back for a big meal, and…
EG: Ah, so that you leave before. [laughs]
FW: But I think part of that is that the trains and the buses form such a large part of the stories too, that sense of being on the way somewhere. I kind of wonder if that’s thinking time, or writing time, or even just reading time, that something about that kind of enforced stillness that’s so common for people who travel from the suburbs into the city and vice-versa.
EG: Definitely. I’m just thinking now that you mention that, so many of the writers that I know have never learnt to drive, but they sort of cite it as a positive. There’s a lot of public transport use! The writing collective that I’m a part of, Finishing School, we did a workshop with Vanessa Berry recently, and she was saying that she didn’t learn to drive until she was in her late 30s, or something, but then that was such a boon in her work. Because so much of her work is her reflections while moving around on foot, as a pedestrian, it completely alters your sense of place. I think that public transport has been good for my writing, but it’s taken a lot of overcoming my general hyper-vigilance in public spaces. I’ve never quite felt like I can relax on the train. It’s a lot of ruminating, rather than enjoying the journey.
FW: I wanted to talk about that hyper-vigilance too, because I think it’s really evident in that work set in the CBD in particular, there’s so much bombardment of detail in some parts, but also this awareness of bodies and edges, and that sort of discomfort, that I found really interesting.
EG: I guess because that piece is, it’s written at a time in my life when I was trying to contend with, I’m sure I still am, trying to contend with the sense of constantly being surrounded by threat, particularly obviously from men. I mean, the piece is a lot about the legacy of sexual abuse and sexual assault within my family, that I’ve not been a victim of, but have been sort of… a witness to, second-hand. And how that fundamentally structures your interactions with other people. It’s sort of… a sense of being submerged constantly in that, and trying to find your way out.
FW: I think there’s two wonderful moments of that in that piece. The first one is where there’s a backpacker in a bar, and he’s ordered already, but he’s hanging around because he wants to ask the bartender for her number. And the Eda character is like, come on mate, she’s at work, she literally cannot leave and she cannot tell you to piss off, leave her alone. And then that’s followed up so quickly by her standing outside a McDonalds and a man coming over and just generally being gross. And the male friend who’s in the McDonalds comes out and is like, why didn’t you kick up us a fuss? And you’re like, what would it have looked like if I went from zero to 100 and punched that guy in the face? [laughs] I think… I was really interested in those two moments not just because of that sense of threat, but because there’s this amazing, one of the things I found amazing in that piece was that the politics in those everyday spaces comes through so clearly, and yet so lightly, often with just little asides, or small encounters. So you never feel bludgeoned with ideology, but you walk away feeling furious. It’s amazing that you can do that.
EG: Thank you. I guess I was conscious of not speechifying too much. I feel like the pieces that I’ve always found most impactful when talking about these subjects couldn’t be more parenthetical or veiled or disguised, with very subtle references. It’s like the debate that we have on television about depictions of sexual assault, the idea that if you put a camera right on someone’s face while it’s happening, it’s quite horrific, and also politically, it’s quite bad. But if you make the choice to… have it happen, for example, in darkness, I’m thinking of… what was that most recent film with Bryan Brown called… Sweet Country? There’s a rape scene, and it happens completely in darkness and that is so much more impactful and… less hitting you in the face with it. But then just as that piece was about to be published I also read An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire. And I thought, oh shit, she’s done my thing! Because that is also about the fact that some horrific, seriously misogynistic event happens in her life and it completely structures how she views all the men around her forever after that, and I was like, oh no!
FW: That’s so interesting. I mean, I love that book too, and I read it as a kind of attack on the true crime thing. Like, true crime’s having it’s podcast-based resurgence, and kind of going, hang on guys, there’s something icky going on here, especially because it’s always beautiful young women.
EG: I mean, I’m very ashamed to admit I partake in the true crime podcasts…
FW: Oh god, me too, I love them [laughs]
EG: But I think we have this fascination, most women I think have that fascination, that kind of horrified, can’t look away, kind of fascination with this topic as well. It’s very interesting to me.
FW: I think one of the reasons the politics work so well too is that it’s always done with such a sense of humour, it largely happens in quips and puns. Your work is incredibly funny [laughs].
EG: Thank you? You’re maybe the third person in my life to ever identify me as funny, but I’ll take the compliment!
FW: I mean, I have to say that I find the pun the highest form of humour, it’s my absolute favourite!
EG: Yes! Ok, good, that explains that.
FW: I know it’s not a popular opinion.
EG: I’m just holding out for the renaissance of the pun, for that moment when it comes back. I’ll be like, I was doing it the whole time! Here’s a list I prepared earlier!
FW: But it’s great! I just listed a couple of them, there was one where you called beer ‘the missionary position of beverages’; ‘once your life goal is to be an olive it’s time to abandon the whole thought process’, I just love those lines! Because there’s a kind of drollness to them as well. They’re super dry.
EG: Yeah. Honestly, I feel so lame when people read things back out to me! But I’m glad you appreciated them. It’s just that general sense of embarrassment that colours my whole existence. But you know, therein lies my sense of humour. And lots of other peoples’ sense of humour. You need a very finely refined sense of self-loathing, in my opinion. Which means you’re very self-conscious, which means that before anyone else can insult you, you’re like, I’m sorry, I already prepared everything you could ever say about me. My own head is constantly formulating.
FW: Do you think there’s a connection between self-consciousness and writing? I’ve heard that as a theory…
EG: Yes, I think it must be. It’s like that quote about, was it Joan Didion? About being a fly on the wall at an orgy, or something like that. Like in your work, where you talk about being in these scenarios, I think you’re talking about being in group therapy or something, and your head is just saying, this will be material some day! [laughs] There is this constant sense of alienation from reality, not being quite in it. Which unfortunately lends itself too well to dissociation, you do have to regulate that boundary as well so that you can actually inhabit your own body and life and existence.
FW: It’s funny too, because I was thinking that in your writing that alongside that movement between different places in the city there isn’t a real sense of belonging in any of them. There’s high estrangement in the CBD in that piece, and not in the least because everyone’s off chops, but even in the Inner West, the Off-Centre (I love that line so much) there’s that idea that you’re so aware of the space and what you’ve traded in for the jacaranda and the dog park and the girl with the flute. And wondering if you’re a gentrifier, and the tweet about, every since I moved here I eye people of colour mistrustfully until I look in their face and realise they’re my cousin, but then that tweet immediately gets deleted! [laughs] This sort of sense of not quite at home here, I’m not quite at home there, and the city I mean is a complete write-off for everyone [laughs].
EG: Totally, I was thinking about that just today, actually. That either we all belong here in the CBD or none of us do, right? Unless you are a part of the 2.8 per cent of the population that is Indigenous, none of us belong here. Or all of us do. And that I would say applies to all of our metropoles. But that is the constant curse, and maybe not a very original thing to be exploring, but that is the curse of being part of a diasporic community. You can’t go home, because that home is not your home, right? I wasn’t born in Turkey, so what claim do I have to be connected to it? And that’s part of that piece in Meanjin, that friend I had was born and raised in Turkey, and he didn’t quite view me as Turkish, he said I was half-Turkish. And it’s like, what’s that half, I mean, ethnically, I am. But we just weren’t ever able to find proper common ground. And my desire to sort of cite my parents’ experience didn’t really mean anything to him, because that felt really valuable to me, and it’s part of my identity, but he was just like, well, you know, I have actually my own first-hand experiences. But then of course we can’t belong here either, because I mean, Australia is, in its current state, a very racist, Anglo-centric society. But I think the third layer on top of all of that, that I’ve been grappling with more recently, is my family’s status as settlers here, the sense that we were able to immigrate here is the direct result of a policy of the Australian government to want migrant labourers who could populate this land and settle it more effectively. So in many ways I think, well none of us really have a claim to Australia, actually.
FW: That’s fascinating. I think too, I thought another layer as well with that particular Turkish friend, also coming from a Westernised elite to, you had that line about them coming to Australia to get laid and come out and take drugs, something like that, even that’s a kind of… strange way to inhabit a place. And it comes out in language too, you’re interested in the limits of language and a concern that the Turkish that you speak is rough and outdated and there are some words that you get confused, and also words that you can’t quite translate for your mother. I think there’s something really interesting happening with language and belonging too.
EG: Totally. I always feel as if the Turkish I speak is not one that is sort of tapped in to the Turkish in Turkey! Mostly it’s the Turkish of the Günaydin family, and I think it carries not just the language itself but our values, our ways of relating with each other, I think that’s what makes me worry about coarseness, because so much of the Turkish I know, I hate to say, is swearing, insults, or the most horrific things you can imagine having said to you. And I think I internalised not just the words, but also how they have made me feel and relate to the world, etc etc. And again, it’s just the issue with diaspora, you sort of get frozen in amber, none of us are sort of updating the way we speak. And in fact, in my family, we make fun of the way that Turks in Turkey speak now, because there are so many borrowings coming in from English, so they speak in a very fancy, hoity-toity way! Which we make fun of. And their accents as well, they’re like, very… I don’t know how to put it. Just again, there’s a snootiness to them that we make fun of because a lot of the Turks here are working-class, they would have come from, not from city centres, but sort of more rural and regional areas. So yeah, I am really interested in the language that my family speaks, and one day, in my head, I’d like to write a book around all of the idioms I’ve been taught, because Turkish idioms are so much more complex, as well as profane, than English words. So I’m always stockpiling them, every time my mother says something. And they’re all very regional, they’re all from the town she grew up in, Tire, which is near İzmir. I’m constantly taking notes!
FW: And I love the way you put the phrases and the conversations in Turkish in your work, I think that’s a really important political thing to do.
EG: Totally. I mean, I try to. I did recently have an editorial experience where someone was lovely enough to try to edit the Turkish as well as they could. But fundamental misunderstandings of what was happening were coming up. And I was like, oh, I appreciate the effort, but… but that’s also part of the point, the reason I put that stuff in there without translation is like, oh, you feel alienated? Now you know how we feel. Obviously, I’m lucky enough to speak English fluently, but my family doesn’t. Well, enjoy that alienation, that’s how people who don’t speak English feel every moment of their life. I think the other really interesting thing is the debate we’ve been having about writing in another language, writing bilingually, is the phenomenon of using italics. And I had never thought of that, not using italics as a politicised act before, but I think I’m for it. There is something very exoticising about it, like, ooh, here’s a special word, we’ve got to put a bit of a slant on that one!
FW: Or even that it is aslant!
EG: Yeah, exactly. I like that, not using italics is going to be my next thing! [laughs]
FW: I was thinking about this particularly because I spoke to Oliver Phommanvanh in the last episode, and he was talking about jobs. And he said, he worked as a stand-up comedian for a while, and he’s like, there’s no word for stand-up comedian in Thai, so my parents told everyone I was becoming a clown, the closest there was. And there was this line in the piece you had published in the Brow, ‘Monopoly’, about learning linguistic flexibility thanks to the number of times you’ve tried to explain to migrant parents what the word queer means. And again, it’s an entirely different level of impact or severity there or whatever, but I found that fascinating, as another one of these chasms or displacements, how do you convey something so integral to your experience when there’s no word for it?
EG: And that is, once again, one of the many tragedies of diaspora! Your parents clearly wanted to move here for you, because god knows they haven’t enjoyed the experience. I mean my parents couldn’t despise Australia more! My mother always tells the story of the greatest moment of disillusion in her life, after being sold the story of how amazing Australia would be, was driving into Doonside! And that has nothing to do with what Doonside is or looks like …
FW: Yeah, but!
EG: … But I had this thing in my imagination, and that has not been met. Because I think non-Westerners are always sold the story that the West is going to be this idyllic, utopic place, but it’s actually just as fucked as not-the-West! So they wanted us to move here, and they wanted us to get everything out of it, and then unfortunately we take on the values of the West, and then we can’t communicate with each other, and then they decry the fact that we’re so Westernised. So there’s really no winning, unfortunately.
FW: And then there’s this strange moment too in those conversations with your mother, I mean in that second piece, you spoke about them being centred on food, and that’s very much the case in ‘Monopoly’ as well. But they’re partly about food and partly about illness, these continual illnesses that the mother is coming up with as a way to express, take care of me, I guess? That the body kind of becomes a fill-in for these things that can’t be said.
EG: Yeah, I had not thought about it that way before, but yes, I think that’s… again, my family think that the body is a site of significant trauma, so I understand that so many of the ways that we have inflicted trauma on each other has also been via bodily issues. Whether that be trying to regulate our gender, our sexuality, our eating habits, the way we look, and also that sort of undercurrent of illness that my mother… she clearly suffers from many mental illnesses, one of which happens to be health anxiety or hypochondria. And I am able to take a somewhat objective perspective on that, and sort of say look, I can tell that not all of these illnesses can possibly be true. But then I feel that I’ve inherited it, in many ways. Some days I’ll be utterly convinced I’ll have some sort of disease, I’m sure this is not uncommon given the existence of WebMD! Completely convinced I have it, it’s time to shuffle off this mortal coil, see ya, have a good time, and then the next day, I’ll be, oh wait, never mind, I’m clearly not dying. [laughs]
FW: I laugh, but, you know, I met a girl in hospital once who had terrible health anxiety, she’d get a stomach ache, and demand to see all of the doctors because she clearly had stomach cancer, it’s a horrifying thing!
FW: I think too, I’m sort of thinking about the idea of movement, it’s kind of there with the family too, you draw a direct comparison to your mother leaving Turkey to escape her family, to you leaving Blacktown to escape your family! [laughs] That kind of mirroring, in a way, even though the experiences are so different, there’s something common to them.
EG: Yeah, totally, I think if we don’t take steps to intercede in our own behaviour and develop some self-reflexivity we are maybe condemned to become our parents. I know that such a trite thing, but you either are condemned to become your parents in some way or another, or you’re condemned to try and become the exact opposite. Which is still nonetheless being extremely reactionary. I like to think that having some level of self-awareness can maybe push me in the right direction, towards, you know, being an independent, self-actualised person, and not just being a huge reactionary all of the time.
FW: That’s so great… This is a bit of a side-step, but I wanted to talk a little bit about race, and racism, more. I mentioned that tweet earlier on, but one of the things that really struck me, well, there’s two things. There’s one kind of recurring pattern of name that comes us. So in ‘Only So Much’ it’s in interactions with men where you introduce yourself, and say, no no, Ava’s fine, Eva’s fine, and in ‘Monopoly’ there’s the date with the girl whose name is Ida, as a kind of joke on all of that…
EG: Her name also was Ida, which was just…
FW: And you were like, this must be! Because we have this name thing happening! But in that piece there’s the housemates who try and guess where you’re from. And there’s a moment where you say something like, I’m flattered that he thinks I’m white, and glad to appear of higher value. And in another piece, I’m sick of being relieved when someone thinks I’m white. I found that so interesting, this kind of sense of… people trying to place you, and how alienating, I guess, that is as a phenomenon.
EG: Yes, any attempt to categorise any human is inherently dehumanising.
EG: Yeah, but I guess… I get it’s a fairly trite concern, given the fact that this is a privileged position to be in. The fact that I am quite fair-skinned is… it really helps me. I don’t feel nearly as much anxiety on the buses or the train, these sites of grand racism in Australia. As do a lot of people. Particularly even within my family, my nickname is Sarışın, which means Blondie. And that’s meant to be, again, my best physical attribute [laughs]. So it is a good thing, but at the same time, of course it is alienating, and I think that, particularly for a lot of people like Turks, and maybe also Italians and Greeks in Australia 20 years ago, there are these liminal spaces of race. I like to not think of race as a binary, you’re either white or you’re not white, because it’s a continuum. Where on the one hand you have Western Europeans who are white, and then on the other you have your black people who are denigrated the worst, and then you have people like me, who might be fair-skinned, who might be, in my case, Turkish. And I think that being Turkish is a really interesting identity, actually, because I feel like 20 years ago we really were on the journey towards whiteness, we’d almost ascended into the European Union, we were sort of viewed as democratic and a bit exotic, but not so exotic that it was dangerous, like this great bridge between the East and the West. And then 9/11 happened, the descent into authoritarianism, and I feel like we took a big step back, and now it’s all, dirty Muslims, blah blah blah blah blah. I guess I’m interested in not allowing any identity to be categorised or reified, like lots of people do think I’m white, many don’t, it’s important to me to identify as a person of colour. Because I do feel marginalised by white supremacy in Australia, but I don’t want to say that permanently, maybe some day that will be different for me.
FW: I think what I found fascinating is this kind of continual awareness and of course it’s continual awareness, because, hello, the world. But the way you give that space in the writing I think that’s a really exciting thing, and I feel like I don’t read that very often, the continual pushback.
EG: Thank you. I guess that must probably inhere in the inner monologue, it’s of people always wanting to talk back to people, but instead you smile because you can’t confront every micro-aggression you face with a fuck you, right? You just have to go along with it sometimes, like, no I’m not South African, I’m Australian! Well, is that even true… [laughs]
FW: It’s funny, you know I feel like that’s a thing that women are taught to do so regularly and so easily, to just be like, oh, thank you, rather than…
EG: Exactly! I’ve got places to be!
FW: I’m trying, I’m working on being less polite.
EG: It’s really hard!
FW: It’s so hard! And of course, it gets more complicated the more intersections you have.
EG: Especially when you depend on other people. One of my very good friends is blind, and she says that she can’t really afford to say no, fuck you, fuck off, because she relies on other people and their kindness a lot on a day-to-day basis, and I can’t even imagine how hard that must be when you do want to rail back against people. In a way I think it is a privilege to be independent enough to say, oh, fuck off!
FW: Can we talk a little bit about Blacktown?
EG: Please! My fav topic!
FW: So Blacktown’s where your family are, and where you’re from?
EG: Yes, I was born in Blacktown Hospital. Not just Blacktown Hospital but the bathroom of Blacktown Hospital! Right on the floor, by a cubicle! I’m very proud of that fact, it explains why I’ve a toilet-humour!
FW: It’s been there right from the very beginning!
EG: Yes, you can’t undo these things! So my family emigrated here in around ’85, and they lived in Doonside first, which is quite close to Blacktown, and then my father acquired a little fibro in Blacktown for, like, fifty grand or something amazing and crazy a few years later. And that’s where I grew up.
FW: Do you like it as a place? I know that’s such a loaded question [laughs]. Or what do you like about it as a place?
EG: Well, I think that… do I like it is an interesting question. I’ll start there maybe. I think I can’t not but like it, because I think I come to love or like things by longevity. I have tried new places before, and they’ve never really grown on me, I’m like, oh look, we didn’t have enough time together! But with Blacktown, all of my formative memories are there, for better or for worse. And so it’s very loaded emotionally. And maybe I mistake that for love. [laughs] What do I like about it? It is a site of loving humour to me. I hope that I can convey that in my writing, that making fun of Blacktown is making fun of myself in so many ways. In that excerpt I read, the fact that Blacktown’s main street is essentially, kebab shop, medical health centre, kebab shop, medical health centre… amazing. You just want to kiss your fingertips when you see it, because it’s just so humorous for some reason!
FW: And I love that detail of being able to tell the kebab shops apart by what sort of bread they have!
EG: Yes, and that speaks to the somewhat arbitrary ethno-nationalism in the Middle East! We’re extremely distinct, just look at our cuisine!
FW: Look at our bread!
EG: My bread is flat! Good for you! I mean, I do like Blacktown, but at the same time I acknowledge that there’s many disadvantages to having grown up there, and those are really structural things. Like the fact that the are so many health care centres there is a by-product of the fact that, I can’t remember the statistic, but it’s something like, you’re four times more likely to get diabetes or heart disease if you live in Western Sydney, six of NSW’s eight worst hospitals are in Western Sydney. We have many food deserts, those are also a fundamental part of having grown up there, and those things do have real ramifications on my family.
FW: Part of that’s class-based too, right? I mean, especially health…
EG: Yeah, totally. And it does have such profound effects. I think we believe that Australia is a very egalitarian society blah-de-blah, but the fact that you can drive 40 minutes west of the CBD and people are living very, very different lives is pretty shocking, actually. And I’m very fortunate that I have enough class mobility that it doesn’t impact me as much any more. I just see my parents’ experience, and think, my god, you may actually die pretty soon because of the shocking health care you’re receiving. It’s really upsetting.
FW: So it’s that family house that appears in your work all of the time, the house in Blacktown?
EG: Yeah, so that fibro was knocked down eventually and rebuilt. My father mapped it out, he’s a brickie, so he sort of laid out all of the plans, the house was knocked down in 2004, and I remember, I would have been about 11 back then. And we were all so excited, we were all like, oh that’s going to be my bedroom! And then, you know, these things get tied up for ages and the house didn’t get built for another 10 years. So we actually rented the whole time, either one street away from that house or two doors down [laughs].
FW: So you could watch this house?
EG: We could literally peek out and be like, oh good, that’s a construction site! But my dog lived there, she was a security dog. Or just a dog, you know. She was ok at her job. So we never got to live there!
FW: What sort of dog?
EG: She’s a blue cattle dog.
FW: Oh, stop it, they’re great!
EG: She’s wonderful!
FW: Sorry, I’ve… [laughs]
EG: No, you’re letting me talk about my dog, it’s wonderful. One day she climbed the scaffolding on this construction site, escaped the house, got utterly lost, because of course, she was very frightened, but she managed to find her way to the house that we lived at, which was a couple of doors down, and she arrived at our doorstep, freaking out. And we were like, how did you get here, you’re so smart? But also, how did you escape? But then we figured out she climbed the scaffolding.
FW: That’s amazing!
EG: Right? But, you know, we always find our way home! There was a moral to that story! [laughs]
FW: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your PhD. So you’re working on a thesis about the Syrian War, is that right?
EG: For the most part. Yeah. These things obviously really transform in your first year, so I could be talking mad shit, but don’t tell anyone. I think it will also be about… one of the fundamental conflicts in the Middle East right Now is the fact that there’s a very large group of stateless people who are the Kurds, a distinct ethnic group, scattered across Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq. I guess I’m interested in the way that, for the most part I’m interested in solidarity, because that is something that they need a lot right now. And I’m trying to write a PhD about their struggles, particularly among their leftish groups, they have a very strong internationalist movement that I guess I feel connected to somewhat, because of course, I’m ethnically Turkish, but my father is an Alevi – which is a religious sect of Turkey which many Kurds are affiliated with. I just feel some sort of moral imperative, both as a Westerner – and god knows the west is destroying the Middle East – and also as a Turkish person – god knows the Turks are oppressing the Kurds, etc etc. It’s something around trying to identify the ways that they’re represented and misrepresented. Did I answer your question in the slightest?
FW: That’s fascinating. So it’s kind of about identity and diaspora in a way? Am I understanding that correctly?
EG: About identity, yes, but not so much about diaspora. Looking at the local struggle, a lot of them a part of radical political parties, like the YPG. I don’t know if you would have seen, maybe about four years ago there was this big thing about the YPG and the YPK, a female militia, fighting in Northern Syria. There was this big thing about how they were… [laughs] sexy, badass women fighting ISIS! I don’t know if you remember, but that was the line that we saw in the West, like, my god! They’re not oppressed at all, they’re fighting these barbarians! And of course ISIS was a barbaric group, but that was sort of like, actually, the Kurds fucking hate the West, and they despise the way they’re being represented, why don’t we look at the way that they actually represent themselves? I’m interested in translating their political manifestos, because I think that they’re producing amazing contributions to political theory that are just not accessible, because a lot of them are actually written in Turkish. Because the leader of these parties is a Turkish guy. So I have their manifestos, and my goal is to translate them at some point.
FW: So is it a literature or a history or a politics… What subject does it fit under. Because, you know, that really matters.
EG: It’ll be under international relations. I hope to make a small movement in political theory.
FW: I think you’re the first international relations PhD I’ve met [laughs].
EG: Well that’s how you know this will be groundbreaking and people will really care about this [laughs]. It’ll hit mainstream.
FW: That translation is really interesting and important, I think.
EG: Look, I hope so. My skills are a bit dubious but I’m getting there.
FW: And what about in your writing world, what are you working on?
EG: At the minute, I’m working on … my quote-unquote memoir. I keep being told off for doing the quote-unquote…
FW: Yeah, you just have to own it!
EG: The little quote marks, just say memoir! I’m not in that place, I’m not ready to just say the word memoir.
FW: Is it the word?
EG: No, I don’t feel cringey about other people who write memoirs at all, it’s more like, who am I to talk about my self…
FW: Ah, ok.
EG: Which is ridiculous, because all I do is talk about myself.
FW: Well, to completely interrupt you… I read something, an interview that you had, where you were talking about coming to that sort of writing out of the dissatisfaction with fiction, and the ethics of voice, and coming to non-fiction to kind of avoid those quandaries, but also to recognise the tragedy and comedy of everyday life, right?
EG: Oh yes, you’ve jogged my memory now! I guess that I no longer necessarily feel that fiction, I don’t think I feel that way about fiction that much any more. But I still identify with the fact that people’s real lives are far more interesting than fictional ones. And in my case, the reason I gravitate towards non-fiction is that… I’m just really interested in making sense of and imputing narrative on and understanding… I guess it serves a therapeutic function to that end. Understanding all of these things that have not necessarily just happened to me but have happened to my family. I’m really interested in a concept, my good friend and poet Ellen O’Brien introduced me to, it’s called ‘enlightened witness’ – being someone who can listen to someone else’s experiences and help them and really see them, and break it down for them and say things like, it’s not your fault, etc. Often I think a therapist would serve a role in line with this, but I think my whole life I’ve tried to be an enlightened witness to my family’s trauma. I’m so lucky not to have experienced most of them myself, so I want to be able humanise these people, who… I just think people like my family don’t get that much ‘airtime’, and they don’t often get to be represented three-dimensionally. I think that’s why I like non-fiction more these days.
FW: No, that makes so much sense to me. I don’t know if you saw me nodding along vigorously! When you talk about that idea of making sense, and narrativising things, that makes such perfect sense to me. That’s sort of how I wound up in the form too – it was like, I’ve got this shit-tonne of stuff that I don’t understand, and that drive to understand it…
EG: Exactly, and that’s what I loved about your book, you were consulting so many other books and other kinds of media…
FW: Just trying to figure shit out [laughs]
EG: Yeah, and looking for various ways to broach the same topic. Like, how can I ever grapple with this?
FW: But I was wondering too about the question of genre. Because, as you say, the pieces are drawn from life, but they are so, they use so many fictive devices. And I was thinking, I’ve just read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and I really loved her earlier novel, How Should a Person Be? because that question, how should a person be, that’s my life! [laughs] But she calls that a ‘novel from life’, and I’ve heard autofiction thrown up before, or autobiographical novel… are any of those words more comfortable to you then memoir? I’m just chucking ideas at you! [laughs]
EG: Thank you! No, I’m fine, I guess I’m fine with the word memoir. I think mainly because I… well, I have so many thoughts I don’t know where to start! I like the word memoir because of the connection, obviously, with memory. I think that ultimately we are playing with memory. Memories are radically subjective, and to that end, I think most work is fictive in that way.
FW: That’s a really good point.
EG: And I also think that most work is fictive in the sense that words don’t actually access reality, right? That’s my obnoxious PhD post-structuralism coming in. But it’s like, in what way does going clack-clack-clack-clack-clack on a keyboard actually capture reality? It doesn’t, and to that I think that everything is fictional. I think I like the idea also naming the fact that this stuff isn’t just diary-writing or journal-writing, because it’s a very gendered pejorative that’s put on, I’m sure you know. Oh, so you published your diaries! Ok, great!
FW: Oh yes!
EG: These are, this is craft, right? So I think that it is goo that we are delving into this and trying to name exactly what it is that we are doing, I just haven’t thought enough about it [laughs].
FW: It’s funny, it’s something I only ever thought about after the fact too. I was like, essays, they’re just essays! And then other words got thrown at me and I thought, oh, I am so unprepared! [laughs] I think that I had a discomfort around the word memoir because it made me think of… the books you buy at Big W, where Justin Bieber’s written his memoir, or here’s a cricket captain’s tour diary, or…
EG: I completely understand that. It is really hard, it’s hard and you also can’t control how your work is read, right?
FW: But I think for me it was a misunderstanding of what that word meant and could be. I would say, this isn’t memoir because it doesn’t have a narrative. And now I know that that’s just dumb [laughs]. But I felt like I had to figure out what I’d done after I’d done it. [laughs]. That’s why I was wondering, if you think that’s kind of the nature of writing too. You have craft and you have ideas and control and all that sort of stuff, but there is stuff that happens that… you don’t.
EG: Yeah! I don’t know how you write, but I suspect it would be similarly, the times when I’m really writing, I’m not really in my mind, I guess psychologists would call that flow, right? You just blank out, and then at the end you’re like, oh great! And that return to your body! I think most of these things don’t happen consciously.
FW: Do you mostly write in flow?
EG: Yeah, I think so!
FW: You’re so lucky!
EG: Is that good?
FW: I was just thinking that I know I have those days sometimes, and when they happen, it’s like, oh my god, this is the best thing! But a lot of it is grunt work for me! [laughs]
EG: But it’s probably because you are more committed to your practice? I mean, do you write every day?
FW: I try to. And I… I’m going to defray the compliment by saying…
EG: That self-awareness right now! [laughs]
FW: I’m going to defray the compliment by saying, it’s not because I’m dedicated, it’s because if I have too many days away from it I start to feel… crazy [laugh]. So I think of it as mental health medicine. So how far into the memoir are you at the moment, do you think?
EG: I’m going to say… because I recently restarted it, because all this work… I’m gesturing at my laptop… all this garbage in here, was memoir, but then I thought, I couldn’t possibly collect this, because it’s old, it’s doesn’t feel like… it doesn’t feel accurate or true any more, so I just restarted it. So probably about 10,000 words in, not very many, but I’m enjoying it, and even if it never sees the light of day, it is helping me.
FW: I’m confident it will see the light of day. It’s funny you should say that about it feeling old and out of date. I spoke to Maria Tumarkin a couple of weeks ago, she had an event at Gleebooks. And she was saying that one the reasons her book Axiomatic took so long to write was that each piece took years to research and put together – I think eight or nine years went into that book, which just blows my mind – but she was saying, she’d spend three years on this one essay, and be like, ok, cool, and then move onto the next one and spend two and a half years on it, and then look at the first one again, and then the amount your thinking changes in two and a half years. She was like, oh no, I don’t believe any of those things any more, that’s not how I’d write that any more…
EG: Exactly! Yes! So you have to rewrite it! It’s crazy, I think we can always write ourselves into a corner this way, because that’s the nature of memory. It’s constantly being rewritten, we’re not computers, we can’t access a perfect file. Every time we access the memory we rewrite it. So I think it’s almost wasteful to then rewrite, rewrite…
FW: But at the same time you need to do some sort of work to get a consistency of tone, or… even of character, right? I don’t know how you do that kind of thing, to be honest!
EG: Did you find that you had to sort of standardise a tone or a voice?
FW: I kind of avoided it, by saying, this thing is fragmentary, right? And I actually think it worked in my favour, I think in Small Acts, what narrative is there is of that awareness changing, and the thinking changing, so I feel like that kind of [laughs]… I managed to avoid that thing entirely.
EG: That’s great! Congratulations!
FW: But I feel like if you’re writing kind of a more… cohesive piece, than that’s going to be… I wouldn’t even know how to approach that. Not meaning to freak you out here.
EG: No, no, it is driving me spare. But it’s also not, I’m misrepresenting that. I’m actually enjoying the process, and it’s helping my mental health, to be honest. Whether or not it’s garbage, it is truly helping me. Because I think that I’ve always really struggled with memory, which is something I really tried to get at in ‘Monopoly.’ My autobiographical memory is very patchy. I think that’s a result of trauma, I think when you grow up in an environment where you’re constantly being derided and blah blah blah blah blah, in order to retain some sort of integrity in your sense of self you just reject the self. You’re like, I’m not going to think about that part, I’m not going to think about who I am, I will never define myself. And by avoiding that person who I hate, I don’t have to confront that person who I hate, etc. So now that I am actually laying pen to paper, it is really helping me to dump memories properly, because I think also these memories have a way of effacing themselves. I’ll try to access memories and they just won’t be there. But thankfully, I wrote a lot of diaries, so I can consult those. Anyway, I truly think it’s helping my memory and all of these very selfish things that are for me, not really for anyone else.
FW: I don’t think it’s selfish, I think it’s a project of self. That’s what you’re saying.
EG: True. I recently learnt that anything to do with me doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a narcissist [laughs]. It’s a slow process.
FW: I’ve been thinking a lot about that one, too. Because I feel like that’s another charge that gets levelled against women writers writing from life too, that they’re narcissists. In a way that the Knausgaards of the world don’t necessarily have to deal with. And it’s kind of this idea that if you are working on a project of self, then you must think that self is great, when I think we can both attest to this, the very opposite is true, right? [laughs]
EG: 100%. Totally. It’s more like… and this is what really resonated with me about your book, you talk about this sense of having a vacated sense of self, there simply is no self there to be obsessed with or whatever it is that’s the charge that’s levelled against female writers. I think it’s more about building that sense of self, right?
FW: The way Heti wrote about it, I chased up some of the stuff that she said, was that what I’m doing is looking at the self in order to look at the world, and that’s a completely valid way of understanding the world, because it is actually how we understand the world, so let’s just be open about it. And isn’t that the task of philosophy?
EG: Well that’s a wonderful and more eloquent way than I could have put it, there you go.
FW: I think that’s a really lovely note to end on. Thanks so much for talking to me, this has been super interesting
EG: Thank you for having me. I quite enjoyed being in my favourite place to be, Fisher Library, in sort of a new way