Six Degrees from the City is a podcast about writing in Western Sydney, hosted by the writer and critic Fiona Wright. In 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 prize-winning novellist (and newly-turned playwright) Felicity Castagna.
Felicity is the author of the novel Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia (Transit Lounge, 2011) and the Young Adult novel The Incredible Here and Now (Giramondo, 2013), which won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, and has been recently adapted for stage by the National Theatre of Parramatta. Felicity’s new novel No More Boats (Giramondo) was published earlier this year. Felicity lives and works in Parramatta, a place that figures prominently in her work, and that shapes so many of the stories that she is interested in telling.
‘I think the point of fiction is not to judge, but to present complex lives. Like, it would be very easy, given that Antonio does some fairly horrible things, to set him up and to judge him, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to show that he had his own traumas. And that doesn’t excuse the fact that he treats some of the migrants in his community poorly, but it makes him a complex figure, and that’s what makes him human. And I think, so much of the work about migrants that I have read in Australian literature is all about this kind of migrant journey. You know, so migrants come to Australia, and they’re all kind of weird, like Wogs Out of Work, or Looking for Alibrandi is something like that. And then gradually people accept them and find out they’re not so weird.
And it’s not that there’s not a place for that kind of a story, but I guess growing up in a family, I would call my family transnational, as opposed to migrant, because we ourselves also migrated, just like my father’s family… I guess it’s reinforced in me that the migrant’s position is a lot more complex than a lot of the things I see in Australian literature, and I wanted to write characters that were that complex…’
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, our second episode, to the novellist and newly-turned playwright, Felicity Castagna.
Felicity is the author of three novels, including Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia, from 2011, and The Incredible Here and Now, which won the Prime Minister’s Award for Young Adult Writing. Her new novel, No More Boats, was published in June this year, and follows a family living in Parramatta as they react to the Tampa crisis of 2001, and the high pitch of invasion anxiety and xenophobia that it engendered.
Felicity lives in Parramatta, the rapidly-changing capital city of Western Sydney, and I joined her in her home to the north of its CBD to talk about Australia’s relationship with the boat, the geographic and demographic changes to Parramatta, and the challenges of adapting works for a different medium. Here’s Felicity reading from No More Boats –
[Felicity Castagna reads three excerpts from No More Boats – its opening section, an early section introducing Parramatta and the character of Francis, and a section set in Newtown and introducing the character of Clare.]
Fiona Wright: I really love the way that you open with the great myth of Harold Holt, that there’s so much that circles back in the book about the myths we tell about history, and the myths we tell about nation, that also play out in such small ways in those characters’ lives too.
Felicity Castagna: I wanted to write a book in which the history of Australia was tied to the history of a particular family. It’s often described as a book about refugees, which I don’t really understand, because I don’t really think it is a book about refugees. It is essentially a book about our relationship with the boat itself, and that has so many manifestations throughout Australian history, one of which is now quite obviously that of the refugee boat. It is on the news always, and it’s so entrenched in all of our political elections. And in our very image of not just refugees, but of migrants in general, even though most refugees to Australia don’t even come by boat. I wanted to take what I essentially see as our national icon, the boat, back in time, and to trace our history of the fear of the boat, and our fear of invasion, right back to colonial Australia and …
FW: The actual invasion!
FC: Yes! The actual invasion. And I think a place like Parramatta is a perfect place to do that. We’re sitting right near the mouth of the Parramatta River, on which some of the first colonial settlers came to Australia and where Pemulwuy quite famously fought those settlers back in his own boats.
FW: It’s the endpoint of the ferries too from the harbour – they can’t go any further.
FC: Exactly. It is the place where the boats can go no further. And that’s written about a lot in early colonial diaries of this place. I was always really interested in that image of the place where the boat can go no further. It seems to me it’s such a metaphor for how the city has developed, both from colonial times to the present. We have such a history of people coming here post-world war two by boat, not necessarily down the Parramatta River, but a lot of those people settled here to work in the factories around Silverwater and Granville. And then later we’ve had a very large refugee population here, which is now, I think been replaced by a more upwardly mobile migrant population, and migrants who first settle in other areas of the west and then move to Parramatta.
FW: That’s interesting…
FC: As well as that, back in the 1930s, there were a lot of British people who came out to Australia by boat, and who established farms in this area. It was also a place even to which British people sent their young sons on holidays, people who had established homes in other parts of Sydney, because it was kind of like the Wild West, and they wanted to have that experience. They sent their kids to Boys Camps around this area, where they would learn things like horseback riding and mustering, and how to be a real clichéd Australian! [laughs] So it has a very long and very interesting history with migration. Even I would say what’s kind of interesting about the migratory patterns here now is that a lot of people are migrating from the city!
FW: Yes, I was thinking of that!
FC: I have so many books about Parramatta in my head! And I think that the next ones I will write, I’m really interested in dealing with the aspirational classes in this area. I’m currently writing a book that’s set in a building that hasn’t been built yet, but is just a few blocks south from here. They’re building the largest residential building in NSW, which will be called The Aspire. It’s like, if you’re going to plunk a giant metaphor in the middle of my suburb, as if I’m not going to set a book there! [laughs] Hopefully that book will come out at the same time as the tower opens!
FW: That would be amazing! I was wondering if it had been built yet, because as I was driving here I could see some huge towers…
FC: Those are different huge towers!
FW: They don’t aspire as highly!
FC: The one that you probably saw is The Altitude!
FW: That’s beautiful.
FC: It is, and it’s a beautiful building, actually. In my research for my forthcoming novels I’ve been pretending to buy real estate [laughs], so I’ve gone up in that building!
FW: I hadn’t really thought about the poetry of property development…
FC: It’s like so many things, it’s not just about Parramatta. It’s about Parramatta as a kind of metaphor for the nation.
FW: That ‘aspirational’ always gets thrown around as something that we should all aspire to be, funnily enough.
FC: Well I kind of hate the way that people talk about the aspiring classes of the West, especially in terms of those McMansion communities that are out there, because there’s something, I don’t know, it’s associated with bad taste…
FW: And consumerism too, right?
FC: And consumerism. But I don’t want to look at it that way, because I fell like that’s extremely patronising. And dishonours the fact that a lot of people work really hard to live in those houses that may be grotesque to somebody who lives an a old terrace in the city. But a lot of families don’t want to live in an old terrace in the city.
FW: It’s one of the things that I actually found most touching about No More Boats, that kind of honour that is given to the family at the heart of it, and their friends too. Like you say, they’re from this class that’s widely disparaged, living in suburbia, which Australia has such a strange and ambivalent relationship with. And Antonio, his job is building McMansions, but he’s highly skilled at it, and it gives his life a lot of meaning.
FC: It does. I think particularly migrant communities invest a lot of meaning in their homes. I was thinking a lot about my own family, who built their own houses. When I was writing this book… my dad is rebuilding at the moment, his family home that they moved to when they first came to Australia. The whole extended family moved to this place called Ferodale, which is in the middle of nowhere, it’s still actually not connected to the grid…
FW: Is that Fairydale, as in fairies and sprites?
FC: No, Ferodale – it’s near Medowie and Raymond Terrace, not far from Newcastle. And they had a house there, but it literally got stolen. Because it’s out in the middle of nowhere, and no one lived there! My family, because they worked in the BHP, they moved into town, and nobody’s wanted to live on this property for ages. And it’s kind of unsaleable, because nobody wants to live somewhere where there’s no water, electricity, phone reception, garbage removal, etc.
FW: Someone does, but they’ve killed several people in the past!
FC: Yes, actually that’s his neighbours! There’s literally seven families in Ferodale, and my family is one of them. But yes, someone stole…basically, parts of the house got stolen brick by brick, because it was all handmade bricks and stuff that my family had built. And tombstones, which appears in the book, they took a lot of old tombstones and built this house, which kind of made it valuable from an antique-y point of view. So people kind of stole the house brick by brick. And now he’s rebuilt it as a giant American barn.
FW: Oh wow! I love the idea that if it was numerous people stealing individual bricks it could mean that bits of that house could be everywhere!
FC: Yes, and sandstone’s really expensive at the moment, and what we consider ‘craft bricks’! And they had old pot-bellied stoves, and old things that are valuable to collectors.
FW: When did your family come to Australia?
FC: My dad’s family came here in the mid-50s. They basically got on… they were from a lot of places. My grandma was Greek, but she grew up in Egypt and when they kicked the Greeks out of Egypt she moved to Ethiopia, as you do, where she met my grandfather, who was Italian. There were a lot of Italians in Ethiopia at the time, and they got married there. And then there were multiple civil wars, lots of very complex conflicts, and then the British tried to reclaim Ethiopia after it was taken back from the Italians, and so my family were put in internment camps there. And they escaped, and went to Egypt, and then basically, when I say my family, I actually mean my whole extended family – my grandmother, there were several families – they all moved. And my grandfather thought that English would be the next big language…
FW: That was prescient!
FC: Yeah! My dad’s family, everybody speaks six different languages, they thought English would be a good thing to learn next. So they got on the next boat to the first English-speaking country and it was Australia. So that’s how they came here.
FW: That’s amazing. It’s such a… obviously it’s a really complex tale!
FC: It’s very hard to summarise the placial and political histories of my family! It’s kind of… it would be a book in itself. And something that I don’t even understand the intricacies of it.
FW: Yeah, but I think it’s the same sort of thing, that interest in intricacy really comes through in the histories of Antonio and his family. The different kinds of migrants that they are, and the very different opinions on migration that they then have. I felt like that was a really important thing to do in the book. I tell this story a lot, but my mother worked as a TAFE teacher for a long time, teaching Adult Basic Education in Bankstown. So she had a lot of, most of her students were migrants who had poor English and she was teaching them, and I remember her telling us about the very different political opinions that they held about issues that up until that point I’d kind of assumed would be a blanket thing, like, of course they’re all going to support migration, because they’re migrants! And I think you tease that apart really beautifully in the book, and it’s humanising.
FC: Yeah, I mean…I think the point of fiction is not to judge, but to present complex lives. Like, it would be very easy, given that Antonio does some fairly horrible things, to set him up and to judge him, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to show that he had his own traumas. And that doesn’t excuse the fact that he treats some of the migrants in his community poorly, but it makes him a complex figure, and that’s what makes him human. And you know, I think, so much of the work about migrants that I have read in Australian literature is all about this kind of migrant journey. You know, so migrants come to Australia, and they’re all kind of weird, like Wogs Out of Work, or Looking for Alibrandi is something like that. And then gradually people accept them and find out they’re not so weird. And it’s not that there’s not a place for that kind of a story, but I guess growing up in a family, I would call my family transnational, as opposed to migrant, because we ourselves also migrated, just like my father’s family…
FW: You continued to move, didn’t you?
FC: Yes, we continued to move around a lot. But that…I guess it’s reinforced in me that the migrant’s position is a lot more complex than a lot of the things I see in Australian literature, and I wanted to write characters that were that complex.
FW: And that have different ways of belonging and different ways of moving through the city too, and I think the extract that you read with Clare is a really lovely demonstration of that.
FC: I think, they have different traumas, and there’s always things that surprise you. I mean, it was really interesting, before I wrote this book, I didn’t actually realise that some of my family members were in Villawood, and in other quite famous and similar migrant hostels around Australia. Because my immediate family wasn’t, my grandparents and my father weren’t. But I was discussing the book with my great-uncle, and it turns out basically all my other, my grandmother had a lot of brothers that came here, and they were all in those detention centres. And I was talking to my Uncle Luigi about this, and my Uncle Luigi is almost a stereotype of a kindly old Italian man, with the woollen socks and the suspenders, his hobby is going to church, he goes to four different churches because one can’t satisfy his needs! He does Meals on Wheels seven days a week, never raises his voice or speaks unkindly of anybody. And we were talking about these migrant hostels that a lot of post-world-war-two migrants moved to, and that I did a lot of reading and research about for my book, but never thought to actually ask my family about. And it was like, suddenly his face turned quite hard, and he said, it was horrible. Horrible. Those people were horrible to us, they were horrible places. And we didn’t have enough food and there wasn’t enough shelter, and people were horrible to us all the time. And I’d never actually seen him speak badly about anybody, and he really wanted me to know that the people were really horrible. And it just reminded me that there are these kinds of traumas that pop out in interesting places and in interesting ways.
FW: I was going to ask you about Villawood, actually, because it is a strong presence in the book. It’s where Rose and Antonio met…
FC: Yes, the book centres around a family, and the father, Antonio, was housed in Villawood when he first came here, and his wife was a cook there. And that’s how they met, and got married. They both kind of exoticised each other, which…
FW: It’s lovely, in a way. But also it comes back up, when Antonio is thinking about Tampa and the boats that are coming, that Villawood has changed. But also not changed in the intervening time.
FC: I liked, one of the great things about telling a book that’s from four different perspectives – so it’s from, Rose, his wife, Antonio, and their two adult children – is that you can take the same place and show how it’s seen in so many different ways. So for Rose it was an escape from the city, she really exoticised the migrant population there, she thought her husband was incredibly handsome with his olive skin, and for her, it was like going to Europe! After living in working-class Surry Hills. And for him, it was a space, the first lens through which he began to see Australia. And now of course we associate Villawood with refugee detention, which also comes up in the book, and there’s a whole debate between the characters on the book about whether or not it was a horrible place, both then and now. And to different characters it’s seen both as a place of liberation and as a place of humiliation and huge suffering. And of course, Rose can’t get her head around the images she sees on TV of the refugees that live there sewing their lips together, and throwing themselves on the razor wire outside. Because it means something different to her, and that again is really interesting to me, to show a place, and to show how it can be seen, how places contain so many layers and layers and layers and layers of stories. When you scratch the surface you get a few of them, and how does that reverberate throughout time?
FW: This is what you mean when you talk about place-driven narrative, isn’t it?
FC: Yes. I’ve always, again, I always say this, in writing we teach students that writing fiction is either character- or plot-based. But I always think that writing can be place-based, and can be driven by place. And for me, that’s how I write: from place. And it’s the place itself that drives who the characters become, and how the narrative shapes itself.
FW: I think that’s so interesting and so pertinent, and it makes me wonder why more people don’t talk about that.
FC: Place is so interesting, places are so many different characters in themselves, particularly when you talk about Western Sydney. And, you know, I hate that term ‘Western Sydney’, if there was one thing I could take out of any of my books, it would be in my second book, in The Incredible Here and Now. It begins with a passage about Western Sydney. And I would remove that because I hate talking about ‘Western Sydney’ because Liverpool is an entirely different place to Parramatta, and Macquarie Fields is an entirely different place to Penrith. You know, I’m writing about Parramatta, I’m not really writing about Western Sydney. It’s part of Western Sydney, it’s the capital of Western Sydney, but it’s got its own character.
FW: But I think that sort of speaks to the time in which that book was written too, right? That was very much when, and we were both a part of this, part of that kind of attempt to start writing ‘The West’, in a way, that hadn’t really been done before. And I think that just speaks to the fact that the literature is developing, and that this understanding of the west not being this monolith is beginning to permeate…
FC: Yes, I think we were all writing about ‘The West’, and now people are starting to consider more the very specific places. And specific aspects of those places. I think now, what I’m most interested in is writing Parramatta in the flux of massive change. And that wouldn’t be as relevant to… I’m around wider Western Sydney all the time, but those kind of massive fluxes and changes aren’t happening in, even… I go to Wentworthville a lot, to a playgroup there, and that’s two suburbs away from here, and when I go to Wentworthville, it’s like going back in time, and it’s never changed. I mean, even the shopping centre there is like something from the 1950s, it’s never been updated, the main street is a kind of main street in the old-fashioned sense of a main street, it’s still got a butcher and a greengrocer…
FW: And the butcher’s called ‘No-Mis-Steak’, right?
FC: Yeah, yeah! That kind of thing! Literally, that’s a ten-minute drive from here. So it’s not like, if I were to write from Wentworthville, I would be writing something very different. I spend a lot of time as well out in the north-west, in the McMansion suburbs lately – being a mother, a lot of my friends who were in this area are now trying to get larger places, because they have a lot of children. So suddenly a lot of my friends are moving out to McMansion suburbs, and so I spend a lot of time out there too. That’s like, they have their own characters and their own world. So there’s a very different character to everything in western suburbia. And I feel like I can really only capture the character of this place.
FW: I’m interested in the big changes happening here that you just alluded to. I mean the big project here is called ‘Building Australia’s Next Great City’. I have a student who’s obsessed with that phrase and keeps writing about it which I find fantastic…
FC: That’s fantastic, I wish they were my student! Yeah, that’s Parramatta Council’s tagline, and even on their logo now, it’s two big cranes. And it is! It’s like, I feel disoriented in this place all the time, even though literally I spend my life, I mean, I live here, I work here, my kids go to school here, I pretty much only socialise here. So I spend my whole life just walking up and down Church St, and from one week to the next I’m like, what is this place! It’s insane. I mean it’s filled with… it’s starting to be filled with trendy bars and these incredible highrise buildings. I remember there was this one moment five years ago I went to Coles, there’s this Coles I go to all the time that’s a couple of blocks from here, and I went there about 5:30, and I guess there was a lot of office workers there and local people as well. And I remember looking at the fruit, and looking up, and it was like, all of a sudden there were these hipsters, and I was like, fuck, it’s like Newtown! [laughs] And I was like, what the fuck happened to this place! It was this incredible realisation!
FW: You know, I had a moment like that just this week, when I was visiting my family, to go see my sister and her new baby. And my family had been talking about this new café that had opened, called the Bakehouse, so I was like, oh well, it’s got to be better than the Michel’s Patisserie that I used to work in! And I walked in there, and it had big signs there saying, we serve Little Marionette coffee, which is brewed in Annandale, not 15 minutes from where I live now. And I freaked out! But it was amazing, and I was so excited… I think it’s part of Sydney changing so much too, but it just seems…
FC: It’s really important amongst that to remember that, what is also happening in this community is that those families that struggled before are struggling more, and that they’re still here. I talk about it in terms of this apartment building. When we moved here, like sixteen years ago, all of the apartments in this block, they’re still mostly migrant families, but in each apartment you had maybe a couple, sometimes you had a couple with a younger kid. There is nobody that lives in this building now that has less than about four people in every apartment. We have four people in this apartment. Upstairs they have about eight people in their apartment; downstairs they have about six. Next door you’ve got the grandparents, plus the parents, plus the two kids, plus aunts and uncles that sometimes come and stay there. You’ve also got, I work a lot in the local schools and high schools, and you do have these kind of… older families who’ve lived here and have always lived here and are still living here, but who struggle incredibly in this space. And it’s good to remind ourselves that when, there’s massive arts festivals here, and you go to things like Tropfest and the National Theatre of Parramatta, and you’ll be at Art Month and all these amazing things here. But there’s large sections of this population who don’t access that at all, in any way. So what you have now is this community, where you have people that are more different than have even been. We’ve always talked about this community, one of the things I’ve always liked about Parramatta is, even though it is a migrant community, it’s not a community where one nationality or ethnicity necessarily dominates. It’s always been culturally diverse. But now you have these incredible extremes of wealth and poverty here, which kind of go beyond ethnicity and nationhood. Like, you have them in all the ethnicities that are around here. And also this incredible divide between the older families and the newer families: your newer families coming here who have much more money, and that’s actually not even to disparage them, I think places change. But it does create this community with… incredibly, incredibly different people living here. We’re now a Liberal stronghold…
FW: That’s terrifying!
FC: [laughs] Yes, it is, but most of the people who are voting Liberal are new migrant populations here, because again of that aspirational aspect, and they feel that the Liberal party will get them further than people like the Greens, who also campaign avidly around here, but who, I think, often make the assumption that people with less money will like their ideals more, which is absolutely not true. So, there’s very interesting divisions here, that are growing and becoming more extreme all the time. All the stuff that we now have access to is not stuff that everybody is accessing.
FW: And this is the stuff that, the questions that are feeding into that new novel, right?
FC: Yes, exactly. I’d like to deal with those questions of, how do we all now live side by side? I think we’ve kind of…we’ve talked about that issue of how do many different migrant populations sit side by side, but how do many migrant populations sit side by side also with many different classes and different worldviews? I think Parramatta is probably more socio-economically and politically diverse than most other areas of Sydney. Because if you look at the gentrification that’s happening in other areas, it’s been much more long-term than here, the gentrification really here, I would even argue it’s really only five or six years old. Some people might argue it’s a decade old, but if you look at rentals and property prices in this area, they were actually affordable five or six years going back, they’re not now.
FW: And it’s a different sort of gentrification too. I live in the Inner West now, and the sort of gentrification that happens there is a whitewashing in a way. They talk about Ashfield in particular, for example, as being the only suburb in Sydney that’s becoming less culturally diverse with every passing year. And it’s seems that it’s different here.
FC: I actually wouldn’t argue at all that there’s a whitewashing of Parramatta. And actually if you look at the last census, our migrant population and the amount of languages spoken have actually grown exponentially. But a lot of the, you used to get a lot of new migrants here, now you get a lot of migrants who go to more outlying parts of the West, and establish themselves and then they move into Parramatta, and the migrants who tend to be moving here –whether you’re talking about Indians or Africans or Asians – they tend now to be people who are more educated, who are working in more stable jobs, who are more aspirational.
FW: It’s a fascinating part of the city.
FC: It is. It’s a fascinating part of Australia, I think. It’s the third largest city in Australia. Which I still think of as a suburb, because it used to be [laughs]. It’s not really!
FW: It’s so interesting to me that part of this Next Great City campaign is this shrugging off…
FC: Of its suburbanness, I know! And yet it’s strange, because it still does have that suburban mentality, like, you can go around those big, big buildings and those fancy new restaurants and think you’re in a city, and then you come… right now we’re in North Parramatta, we’re only, I can walk to the CBD in fifteen minutes tops, but it’s really suburban here, there’s a lot of families, there’s still some remaining homes in the streets behind us…
FW: There’s a huge park across the road, which I noticed was called Richie Benaud Park, which just delighted me! I did want to ask you about the idea of a historical novel, using Kevin Rudd as a segue there! One of the things that I was interested in is, again, the book is set in 2001, and that is historical, in a sense. Even though it’s still recent history. I wondered if that was something that you…
FC: It was funny because I wanted to pick a major incident in our history that had to do with boats, and so that seemed appropriate to me. And yet as I was writing it, there’s always another major incident having to do with boats, and I’d go into this panic, like [whispers] ‘I need to reset it, in a more contemporary time!’ [laughs] But I think in the end what I decided was that there’s always going to be a new incident with boats, and to me, the Tampa transcends history. It is a historical moment, but at the same time, it’s the beginning of our Turn Back The Boats policy. We now forget that elections before 2001 didn’t contain any kind of discussion really about refugees or boats, whereas now boats and migration itself are in all of our discussions.
FW: Part of it’s that lovely line that you have in the first section that you read, about the moment between Tampa and September 11.
FC: Exactly. And I also wanted to deal with the pre-September-11 world. And the fact that we were afraid of migration a lot lot lot before then. And I think if I set the book in a more contemporary time I would have associated the boat with Islam more, because I think it is associated more now with… I think a lot of our fears now are about Muslim migration, that’s less an aspect of the book because of the time that it’s set in. But I do feel like Tampa is something that transcends history, because we have Tampa, we have a new Tampa every week.
FW: And often the media isn’t allowed to report on them any more…
FC: Yes, exactly. I also wanted to be able to talk about that time where we were talking about establishing offshore detention in Manus and Nauru, and it seemed so crazy. Looking at pictures of islands like Nauru, which had had its core scooped out of it from mining and the idea that we were going to send people to a place with no sanitation and water, a place which struggled to care for its own people, I remember thinking that seemed so nuts, and of course it wasn’t going to happen! So to bring us back… I also wanted to bring us back to a time, the characters talk about seeing those images of those islands on TV, and the idea of the Pacific Solution, and it was crazy at one point. It was crazy. And even the idea of associating boat people with Muslim terrorists was crazy at that time. And I wanted to remind us of that as well.
FW: Speaking of the craziness, the thing I remember most about it was how angry I was, and maybe it’s just attrition… I’m still angry, don’t get me wrong, but I was livid, I was furious, and itching out of my skin, all the more so because I remember that the election were Howard was re-elected was held on the day before my eighteenth birthday…
FC: It overshadowed a major birthday?
FW: It was the day before and I was like, goddammit, there’s nothing I can do!
FC: Even at the time it seemed crazy that Howard would get in, until he had the great scapegoat, which was the Tampa. So I wanted to take us back. And even when you mention that anger, there were mass protests at the time, and we haven’t seen… we’ve certainly had protests about our refugee policies, but we haven’t had the mass ones that happened around the time of the Tampa. And I wanted to, I really wanted that to be the endpoint of the book as well. And I wanted to really talk about the Pauline Hanson era, I mean I know we’re still in the Pauline Hanson era, but again, now it seems kind of normalised, whereas back then it was shocking. And it’s not even… really that shocking any more than she gets such a large percentage of the vote. I mean, we just voted in our local council elections. Australia First, and a couple of much more right-wing extremist parties were standing out in front of my local primary school. One Nation wasn’t actually on the ballot, but more extremist parties were. Ones whose policies are actually far more extreme than One Nation.
FW: I wanted to ask you about the extremists in the book too, there’s a group that takes Antonio under their wing, and I mean, even they’re human!
FC: Well it’s interesting… I did a lot of research into right-wing extremist parties. I mean, people think of the Western Suburbs as the bastion of multiculturalism and that’s true, but it’s also the home of right-wing extremism and white nationalism. Or most of these parties are based here. But interestingly enough, a lot of those parties are actually headed by migrants, and some of them even by people who are from refugee families. I had to change some names and things in the book, so I’m not even going to mention the names of particular politicians and parties in case… [laughs] I’m a bit squeamish about it! But the right-wing politicians in the book are based on two local right-wing politicians who are heads of very popular parties. One is a Sri Lankan refugee, and one is from a Syrian refugee family, but he claims to be Greek. Those are real people who are actually heading right-wing parties out here, and so I think rather… it’s no good to have this debate where we just say, these guys are fucked, and ignore them and not engage with their humanity as well. And I’m saying that as somebody who has always been on the very left of the political spectrum and who does not support their policies. But I think if you’re really going to talk about racism, and you’re really going to talk about marginalisation, and you’re really going to talk about why right-wing extremism is growing in Australia and in the Western Suburbs, then you do need to engage with people’s humanity, and you do need to engage with the fact that these people are coming from lots of places. That is not to excuse the fact that most of their parties, most of the constituents who are being led by them are actually white people, and it’s not to take the blame away from white people, but to say that there are a lot of… John Safran wrote about this in his latest book, Depends What You Mean by Extremism, which I’ve been enjoying because we’ve researched a lot of the same people… But again, these people are really, really complex. And even, particularly the left writes them off as ignorant, but a lot of the leaders of a lot of the right-wing parties are people with PhDs, who are lawyers and engineers, these are not dumb people. And they’re not people who don’t understand migration or haven’t met migrants. And if we really want to understand what they’re doing and we want to stop what they’re doing, then we actually need to meet them as human beings, and see them as human beings and discuss. And it’s really easy to write people off as evil, and you don’t move forward that way.
FW: But they have an interesting relationship with Antonio in the book too, they kind of…
FC: Use him, yeah.
FW: And he’s so ambivalent about the whole thing too, he’s never quite sure what’s going on or how he feels about it.
FC: I kind of felt that way when I was reading about a lot of people who were involved in right-wing…I followed a lot of their blogs and stuff. I felt that they also weren’t quite sure. They were also looking for answers and for discussions. Antonio is based on another Italian who was taken into a right-wing party and became a kind of poster boy – well, he’s a migrant and he agrees with us – and who I think was used. And I do actually think a lot of post-world-war-two migrants are used in this debate. I wanted to talk about everyone’s complexity and everyone’s humanity. Luke Carman, he read my book and said, you know what really annoys me about your writing? [laughs] He was like, I’m just annoyed with your characters, you know, because you’re so unrelentingly positive towards everyone! And I was like, I’m not! I’m not positive! The whole point is that I’m neither positive or negative, I’m merely trying to present a picture of human beings that you can read and judge for yourself and take what you want from [laughs]. I don’t, it’s easy to set up a character and judge them and see them as evil, it’s easy. That’s what often emerging writers do, and I’d hope that by now I’m a bit more established in my craft.
FW: I was just thinking, I can see you’ve got Elizabeth Allen’s book here on your desk, that she has a poem about a woman that she sees walking down King St in Newtown, wearing a skirt from Made590 on King St, and shoes from this expensive shop on King St, and she’s dressed in the full Newtown costume, and the last line is something like, I can’t remember the exact phrasing, it’s simple to write this poem but much harder to take her seriously.
FC: Yes, that’s it! It’s really hard to take people seriously and have a discussion with them, and I feel like I have discussions with people all the time, not just in real life, but through literature. And that’s what readers should be doing as well, engaging in discussion through reading.
FW: I think that’s one of the pleasures of reading, right? For me at least, one of the reasons I love to read is that you are presented with different ways of living, and different ways of being in the world, and if that makes you reconsider your own, or even just broaden your ideas about your own, what a remarkable thing to be able to do.
FC: Yes, exactly. It is about reading and writing as a discussion, which makes us more humane. So it’s about, I guess, blending characters with humanity, and the reading of those characters as something that makes us more humane, and more in dialogue with the world.
FW: Can we talk for a little bit about Clare and Rose and, I’ve forgotten her name, Rose’s neighbour friend…
FW: Lucy, yes! I wanted to talk about them because I was so excited about them. One of the things that I really love about your writing, or if I were Luke Carman would say really annoys me about your writing because you’re too good at it, has always been how you write such strong, such interesting male characters and have a real eerie ventriloquism with young men in particular which, you know, we’ve spoken about coming from high school teaching, teaching boys for so many years that you learnt how they speak, probably in the most terrifying way possible. And this is a very backhanded compliment [laughs] but I was very excited to see more women in your work! Is that challenging, or is it a challenge that you set for yourself?
FC: Yes! At the moment I’m actually writing a book that has no men…
FW: Oh, fabulous!
FC: …It has all women, and I find that incredibly hard. I think in some ways it’s easier to write something that you are slightly outside of, because you can look back at it, whereas I think, I am a woman, and to articulate what that means is a lot harder. And to be honest, I don’t think that the women in No More Boats are as well drawn as the men in No More Boats, I think I’ve done a better job with the men and that makes me feel bad!
FW: I just really love Clare, there was a lot that I loved about her, I thought her experiences as a teacher were so interesting, and her pattern of movement, you know, her way of thinking about the division or the relationship between the city and the suburb… obviously, as someone who moved in the same direction, from the suburb towards the city, and who walks around like that, it resonated with me. I think there is a kind of strange patterning that happens when you can be in that space and remembering. And I think the very first poem I wrote about the West was kind of about how weird it was to move away from that space, and to see all these things that were completely normal to people who’d lived in that space all the time, but were fascinating to me.
FC: Yeah, I like that idea that Clare goes to the city and sees the city as something that is different, because the city itself in Australian literature, it’s so naturalised. As opposed to the suburb. So I like that she sees the weirdness of the city, and that she fits awkwardly with it. I like that she kind of…sees herself, she’s one of these women I guess that sees herself as on the left of the spectrum and as very intelligent and educated, but ultimately is far less humane, I think, than say, her less educated, more working-class brother. And that’s… another side of humanity I wanted to write about as well. So I might also have these kind of right-wing figures who are humanised, but I in some ways have dehumanised the left-wing figures as well!
FW: I think of it more as denaturalising the people that…
FC: Are meant to be heroes, yeah!
FW: And de-Othering the people who are meant to be Othered.
FC: Yeah, yeah. You’re so much better at knowing what I do than me, yes! That’s exactly what I did [laughs] I’m going to take that and say that at some writers’ festival!
FW: So who are these women in the new work?
FC: In the new work… so, I’m returning to Young Adult work. Actually, I’m individually writing a Young Adult novel and I’m co-writing another Young Adult novel, both of which are all women. So in the individual work, I have two young girls from this area who steal a car from a boy, and go joyriding all the way to the Snowy Mountains and back. But on the way they hit a local homeless woman, who they pick up and she kind of insists on going on their journey with them. A lot of it is about different women from different generations speaking about their different generational aspects of what it means to be a woman. And women talking across class. And something similar is happening in the book that I’m co-writing; I’m co-writing a book with Sheila Pham and another great writer called Faith Chaza, and we’ve all adopted young women who are from our own kind of cultural and class backgrounds, and are writing a novel in three different perspectives, in which we get to talk across our own cultural and class backgrounds. For me as well that kind of links into the changing nature of the space: how do you talk across all of these different people and this community and their understanding of the space?
FW: And be truly cross-cultural in a way!
FC: Yes, and be truly cross-cultural. How do you write a really cross-cultural novel? You write with other cultures! [laughs]
FW: Are you collaborating more, do you think? I’m interested in collaboration…
FC: I’m doing a lot of collaboration at the moment, which is new to me, and something I’m working my way through and I make lots of mistakes and we try things again, and… I’m collaborating on that novel, and I’m also collaborating at the moment on some installation art projects with the local multimedia artist called Marian Abboud, in which we’re collecting women’s stories and turning them into sound and multimedia installations. One’s forthcoming in Parramatta Lanes, and we’ll also be putting some in other spaces in other festivals around Western Sydney. And of course I just finished adapting my second novel into a play, which is a massive collaboration! So collaborative I didn’t even understand how collaborative a play was until I was asked to write one. Which was an incredible culture shock in a way [laughs] I’m not used to, you know!
FW: Theatre and literature are really different worlds!
FC: Oh yeah!
FW: My first job was in theatre, and I didn’t realise how different it was until I rocked up there and I knew nothing! And I was like, how can I know nothing when…
FC: I knew nothing!
FW: Yeah! [laughs] And the other thing that shocked me there was sort of… there are strong characters in the literature community as well but we’re… gross generalisations here, but I tend to think that the weirdness of writers is that we all want to be alone, by ourselves and are socially awkward, and the strong characters in theatre are just massively extroverted! And just want to be in your face all the time!
FC: Yeah, that was such a shock! It was really quite shocking, you do all of these readings with actors and all of a sudden they start saying things to you like, my character wouldn’t say that! And your like, I am your character! Your character is in my head! And they argue with you. And then the director argues with you, and the set designer and the person who does the sound is like, you can’t do that, that’s for a film and we’re doing a play, and I’m like, what’s the difference! But it’s actually amazing, it was… one of the directors of the National Theatre of Parramatta said, let’s go on a walk, after the first couple of weeks of rehearsal, and she wanted to just have a coffee and have a chat. She was saying, a lot of people, a lot of writers are really destroyed once they get into the rehearsal, and you know, are you ok? And I was like, oh yeah, I’m ok [laughs nervously]. And I can see why a lot of writers are destroyed, it’s an incredibly confronting experience, but one that I’m incredibly grateful for, and one that I think has really made it a much better work. And I kind of feel like, I don’t know, in some ways I feel like actor and set designers and all of these people get really ripped off in plays, because I didn’t realise how much they co-author things. Like, you’re not the author any more. Even, one of the characters, ad-libbed his lines in a completely different way every single night! It was completely different, he was riffing off the lines that I wrote, but he brought it into his own. And it was great! And new lines would appear all the time, I’d show up a rehearsal and be like… hmm, that wasn’t in my script! But even the way that people hold themselves is a re-writing of the text. I didn’t imagine the characters would actually be… even though I wrote the lines, and even when they were saying the exact lines, I didn’t imagine it would be said with that kind of a personality or that kind of a tone, which completely rewrote the lines, essentially…
FW: I wonder if it’s…I mean one of the things I love about theatre is that it’s so bodied. And the work that we do isn’t, in a way. Sometimes it’s experiences like being in a theatre and people having certain gaits, or I have a really strong memory of a performance that I went to once where suddenly on stage everybody got naked for whatever reason, and I was blown away by how powerful that was, because there were bodies there in front of you, and that’s an extra tool that they have to play with that we don’t.
FC: Yeah, and they’re incredible. I mean, as confronting as it was at first to have somebody tell you that they knew your character better than you, they were right! They spend all of this time thinking about them, I mean, they would ask me about the backstories of the characters, and I’d be like, I don’t know, that wasn’t in the book! [laughs] I don’t know where they grew up, or what their early childhood was like! What are you talking about! So they would invent these incredible backstories for the characters and bring them to life in these different ways. I found it amazing, watching the character of Dom die on stage. For me as a writer, I was like, I can do that in a book, in quite subtle ways…
FW: It’s actually one of the things that I love about The Incredible Here and Now, that Dom is kind of an absence in the book in so many ways, he’s there, but there’s a hole around him. And to me that felt like a really honest portrayal of grief, that it’s not something that you touch directly, you sort of…
FC: Walk around it. I mean, in the play, it’s interesting, he appeared as a ghost and basically he didn’t disappear. So in the book he disappears and everyone talks about him, but in the play we worked out that he actually needed to be on stage, and sometimes even talk. Because on stage, unlike a book, silence doesn’t… you can’t show the absence of space, the only way that you can show the absence of something is actually by making it present, and filling up the space. So I had to show his absence from their life by making him permanently present on stage, as a ghost. And that’s how he manifests, that’s how we knew that he was always in their thoughts. Whereas on a page, I can write that they’re having these internal reflections. You can’t have them speak what they’re thinking internally all the time, otherwise it’s just these weird interior monologues that are strung together on stage. He needed to be present. So it was really interesting to me to watch it transform from a book to a stage play. And to realise what was needed, through a lot of mentorship, and I’m very grateful to the National Theatre of Parramatta for giving me that mentorship and giving me that opportunity.
FW: I think presences and absences is a nice place to finish up on! Thanks so much for chatting to me Felicity, and for having me in your house!