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 Walter Mason, a travel writer and scholar
Walter’s two travel memoirs are Destination Saigon and Destination Cambodia, both published by Allen and Unwin, and they’re both idiosyncratic and big-hearted romps through beautiful and complex countries. Walter lives in Cabramatta – a place that he says fuels his writing with its energy and strong sense of community and creativity.
‘I love Vietnam first, and I love Cabramatta second! But the two are linked very strongly… My partner is a Cabra boy, and so I first started coming out here in the late ’80s, when it was a really different place. And I just loved it, right from the start. It kind of reminded me of home, that close-knit community, and my partner says whenever he goes to my family events or something, they’re just like Vietnamese! Everyone’s cooking and giving each other food, and they all know each others’ business! So there is that thing of everyone having far much more in common than they realise. And Cabramatta’s just like… it’s a cliché, but we lead tours sometimes to Cabramatta, so we are responsible for that tourist influx. We used to do a tour for the Mosman Evening College, so it’d be the quintessential Mosman ladies would come out, and a) they would just have a ball all the time, the just couldn’t believe how much fun it was, and b) they’d always say, I’m going to come here again and again, because I thought it was dangerous, I thought I wouldn’t be able to navigate the place, but it’s just fabulous, it’s just fun. And that’s really what it is. There’s so much energy, if I need a boost of energy I can just walk through Cabra. I always joke, I think there should be a ‘Real Housewives of Cabramatta’ and I should be one of them! My partner’s always saying, this is all you do, isn’t it? You just faun around Cabra all day!
But it is fun being a part of those people’s lives, because they have so much energy, there’s such an entrepreneurial spirit there, people are always thinking of something to do and how to change it. And yet nothing ever seems to change…’
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 the travel writer and scholar Walter Mason.
Walter’s quirky and witty travel memoirs are Destination Saigon and Destination Cambodia, both published by Allen and Unwin; and he facilitates workshops and author talks in libraries and writers’ centres all across Sydney. Walter lives and writes in Cabramatta, and I joined him in his home to talk about writing about different places, spirituality and writing, and why someone needs to make ‘The Real Housewives of Cabramatta’ right away. Here’s Walter reading from Destination Saigon and Destination Cambodia.
Walter Mason reads from Destination Cambodia and Destination Saigon
Fiona Wright: I really love that piece. I was thinking as you were reading it that there’s kind of two things going on there that happen a lot in the book, where you’ve got that combination of both having these close friendships but also very clearly being an outsider and feeling as such and being treated as such; but also that combination of the sacred and the profane, with the temple just down the road from the gay bars and the brothels. I think there’s a really interesting balance that goes on!
Walter Mason: Yes, well, there’s my life! I’m never quite sure where the balance lies [laughs]
FW: But I was wondering if part of that idea about being inside a place and outside of a place is the appeal of travel writing in a way?
MW: I think absolutely, yeah. I think that travel writers themselves are almost always strange people, outsiders in some way. I grew up being inside-outside – I grew up in a tiny place, and yet being… different from everyone else. I’ve always been conscious of never belonging, so for me travel is just an extension of my childhood and my life. But yeah, I think that’s what it is – I think that when we travel, it’s always on some level an unsatisfying experience. Because we want to understand that place, but we just stick out like crazy, and our experience of that is never what we hope it would be. It’s never authentic, as you want it to be. But I think we go to a place for two weeks, completely at sea, not knowing what’s going on, but when we read books they help us settle in to a place. And I find my relationship with other places, that I don’t write about, is like that – I might visit, and then I’ll come home and read a book and understand more, and then I’ll go back understanding more, and then I’ll come home and read another book. It’s that sort of sifting process of understanding. And I can never quite believe how ignorant I was the first time!
FW: That’s so interesting, I was speaking to another writer a few weeks ago, talking about upcoming travels, and she was saying that before she goes anywhere, she always reads a whole bunch of novels, either set in or from that country, and it made my little heart glad, because I do that too. I don’t read any of the travel guides or anything like that, but I read the country’s literature, and I feel like it’s such an interesting way to get into a place. But you do it on the way back?
MW: Oh no, I do it before I go too! But for some reason I’m just never quite prepared. And then when I come back and read something I think, oh my goodness, how could I not have gone there, how could I possible have missed that, so… I kind of enjoy that thrill. It’s why I keep going back to places, rather than going to new places. I’m trying to force myself…
FW: You have a really long relationship with Vietnam, don’t you?
MW: Yes, I first went there in 1994. My partner’s Vietnamese and we’ve been together for 28 years, so it’s been a big part of my life. I go back there every year. Way more than him, he never goes back. His last trip back was six years ago. I mean, it gets to the stage where if there are people who want something sent to Vietnam they come over here and drop it off, knowing I’ll be there sooner or later! But that’s a very long and complex relationship. I guess my involvement with Vietnam now has been longer than my involvement with my hometown, and my life in North Queensland, where I came from. And that’s something that I always have to balance out. Because my partner, Thang Ngo, he says that when we fly back to Townsville, for example, he finds that way more foreign than us flying into Bangkok!
FW: Huh, Townsville. It is an interesting place!
MW: It is! And the culture is so different from Sydney. It really is quite a foreign place, you know. I think that Sydney people do blend in much more comfortably somewhere like Ho Chi Minh City or Hong Kong than they would in Townsville!
FW: How old were you when you came to Sydney from Townsville?
MW: I was seventeen.
FW: You were a baby!
MW: Yes, we had to be at school until 1:30 to get our Certificate, our Leaving Certificate, and I think the train left at 2:30, and I was on it! [laughs]
FW: That’s wonderful!
MW: I couldn’t wait to get away. You know, I was bitter about it for many years, but now, I guess this always happens, there’s nostalgia and almost an affection for the place. And when I go back now, I find it quite fascinating. And I love how people treat you when you go back. Like, I was in line at a café, I hadn’t been to that café for 20 years, and the woman behind the counter, there was quite a line, just looked up and said to me, won’t be a minute, Walter! [laughs] Like I’d been there yesterday! I was just like, wow, nothing changes!
FW: Wow! And did you come straight to Western Sydney or did you live elsewhere?
MW: Well, into the Inner West. I had a friend, my only friend, my only contact was in Erskineville. So I went to Erskineville! And I sort of lived around the inner city, but I met my partner Thang quite young, and he was from Cabramatta, from here. And we sort of hung out in the city for a couple of years, but eventually, he was on the local council here in Fairfield, and we moved back here. And it’s sort of become much more important to my lifestyle to live here, than to live in the inner city…
FW: Why’s that, do you think?
WM: I just… it has a similar energy for a start. There’s always something going on. When I go into Cabramatta for lunch every day it’s like, bam! It’s on! People running everywhere, it just feeds my lifestyle. It’s close to temple, all of the things that I want and need are here. I’m an inveterate train traveller, so I’m always on the train going somewhere else, so it doesn’t hold me back in any way!
FW: That’s interesting. I was talking to Lachlan Brown, very early on, and a lot of his poems are set on trains. And we were talking about growing up in the West, the train being this kind of…motif both of going to other places, but also of the place where you sit and read [laughs].
WM: It’s a sort of repository of wisdom in that way. The train’s interesting. My nephew, in Vietnam, he’s done really, really well in business. He finally came over here on a holiday a couple of years ago, and I just took him everywhere on the train. He’d never really been on a train before, and he loved it. And now he asks me to send him pictures of the train when he’s away! He just think it’s this… for him it’s Sydney, getting on a train and going somewhere!
FW: Yeah wow, that’s really great! I feel like the people who kind of grow up or live out here, the train is such an integral part of how you understand the city, and how you move about in it.
WM: Absolutely. I remember once, a couple of years ago, I was on the train and there was some sort of thing that happened, and meant that all the trains stopped. I was at Merrylands, and I’d never been out of the train at Merrylands before. So I got out, and I walked around, and it’s such a fantastic place! And now we go there all the time, and I think, wow – I’m just travelling through all of these places.
FW: It’s a weird place, Merrylands. I always feel like it’s very ironically named.
WM: There’s great food there, though. And there’s a Big W, which is crucial. It’s got everything. [laughs]
FW: I wanted to ask you about… your books are very personal, which obviously is something I’m really interested in. And if you see a sort of overlap between memoir and travel writing, or if you see them as distinct things more generally that you’re bringing together?
WM: Not really, no. I think they’re totally linked with one another. I think there is an older style of travel writing, which was an account of the journey, which I think people aren’t all that interested in any more. Because I think we’re all familiar with the mechanics of travel, I think that was for another day.
FW: Sort of a day where people most likely weren’t going to het to experience that place themselves?
WM: Exactly right.
FW: Because it was six weeks by boat…
WM: Yes. But I couldn’t have written that sort of book anyhow. I just wanted to write about all of the things… I always say I write the things that I tell people when I get drunk at a dinner party! So that’s what it is – I had to get these stories off my chest. And then worry about them later, of course.
FW: I like that because I have a friend now who will tell me stories at pubs or dinner parties, and then say to me, you’re not going to write that one down. Don’t turn that into one of your stories!
WM: Absolutely. I’ve got a dear friend in Cambodia, Suong Mak, he is a very well-known novellist in Cambodia, he wrote Cambodia’s first gay novel, he’s a great writer and a great friend. And I would tell him all of these outrageous stories, and he always says, one day you’re going to have to write the real stories, you have to not censor yourself. That might have to be after I’ve died!
FW: I do like the way though… one of the things I really love about the books is that they have that sort of sense of personality and anecdote too, I think that lends you a kind of intimate tone, like you were talking to someone.
WM: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I do intentionally set out to recreate my own voice when I set out to write, it’s something that I absolutely try to do. And I’ve noticed that when things get dull, it’s because I’m not trying to do that. I think I have a distinct style of talking, and since I’m telling the story I want to get that through my writing as well, because it can be satisfying. But it can also be overbearing as well, so I have to watch that! [laughs] But yeah, I think it’s something I’ve never had to struggle with, in fact, quite the opposite. When I’ve had to do copywriting, when I’ve had to write in a corporate situation, I would often get things sent back to me saying, way too much personality! [laughs] Cut it back! I used to have to write catalogues, catalogues for books, and like, you’re writing 50-word descriptions of a book you’ve never read, and you’re writing dozens in a day. And my boss always said he could tell when I was getting tired, because each book became fabulous! So he used to stop me at a certain time in the day!
FW: The authors probably loved that though, right? Surely?
FW: It’s interesting, I know a lot of people who do copywriting on the side, and I’ve always wondered that, how you’d manage the two voices?
WM: Yeah, I mean, I think the best copywriting does have voice in it, it does have a slight naughtiness that sneaks through. But I don’t know, I’ve never written for computer manuals or anything, so I don’t know how I’d go.
FW: Naughtiness is a good word though. You were talking before about how the books are quite naughty [laughs]…
WM: Yeah, there’s an element of naughtiness there! I think quite unintentionally, though. I think I found my level. I realised who my readers are, and they want to be titillated, but not too much! So I only go so far. But that’s part of me, I have these two bizarre sides of my personality. I have this reverent, devotional side, I’m forever praying and doing things like that, and also this real naughty side which got me into lots of trouble as a child, and continues to get me into trouble, but I think is what… if you believe in astrology, I’m a Scorpio.
FW: Me too!
WM: There you go! They always say Scorpios make the best monks and nuns, because they like to do things with passion!
FW: I thought you were going to say, to extremes.
WM: Yeah, to extremes!
FW: The ascetic part of me, the part of me that allows me to not eat for days on end [laughs]…
WM: Have you been called to monastic life?
FW: Oh no. No, I don’t like the outfits!
WM: They’re so forgiving, though! I always tell my partner that if he ever dies, I don’t think I’d bother again. I think I’d just enter into a monastic community. I’ve done that part, so maybe…
FW: You spent time on the monastic trail, didn’t you?
WM: Yeah, I’ve spent lots of times in monasteries, enough to make me realise I couldn’t spend forever there. Not at that stage in my life, anyhow. I remember I was in a monastery in Thailand for three months, and for the first month and a half I was really, really good, you know, number one student, meditator. The holiness shone out of me. And then… after a months and a half, this university soccer team arrived, in some sort of exercise. And then of course the lust arose. I found myself washing their T-shirts [laughs] I realised I hadn’t quite become enlightened then!
FW: Divested oneself of earthly concerns!
WM: That’s right! I think it’s good to have those things, though, in your life. I mean, there are people who are holy, there are people who don’t notice those things. And I really love those people and would love to be one of them – I just can’t!
FW: I’m really interested in that path though – I think it’s so important to your writing, but it also makes me think, I remember one of the first talks that I ever saw you give was while you were doing your PhD at Western Sydney University, and it was about the history of self-help books – I know that’s what you were looking at – and the way they adopted Eastern tradition as kind of a guide to Western self-improvement, I guess. And it was the funniest academic paper I’ve ever been a part of! But I found it fascinating too, because it’s not something I’ve had much contact with.
WM: Oh yes, I think it’s interesting, and that’s why I think it’s good to have competing interests. Because you can sometimes make something interesting out of them. Pop this with this, and… wow, that’s interesting. My partner and I watch a lot of reality television, and we’ve discovered a new one, which combines… it’s a show called ‘Ex on the Beach’, where people have to meet and spend a week in a holiday resort with their ex…
FW: Oh my god…
WM: With ‘The Biggest Loser’. So now it’s chubby people on the beach with an ex, and it’s like, this is the best of both! I can say that because I’m quite chubby, listeners, but we thought, what a superb meeting of cultures here, this can keep going forever, because you throw in two different ideas!
FW: This is a tangent, but I’ve always wanted to make a reality TV show that’s a combination of ‘MasterChef’ and ‘Survivor’ – and of course this comes from my own interests and experience – where everybody who’s competing has a food allergy or intolerance that the others don’t know about, and they cook each other meals, and whoever doesn’t die is the one who wins!
WM: You should be pitching this!
FW: I’d be knocked out in the first round, easy, but…
WM: I worked for years in a New Age bookshop, and we had this list of the most arcane sub-categories of books, you wouldn’t believe. It was an incredible list, with hundreds of sub-categories, so if someone came in and said, I want a book on this – it wouldn’t be in the title so we couldn’t search for it. And before I left I printed out the list of sub-categories because I said, for the rest of my life I’m going to cut them up and put them in a bag, and whenever I want to write a book I’m going to pull out two of them by chance and combine them. I still think I should do that!
FW: Or just make a really long found poem!
WM: That’s true, that’d be brilliant.
FW: But that must have been fascinating…
WM: It was brilliant. It was so much fun. And sadly that store’s closed. When it closed, it was called Adyar Bookshop, and it was the oldest independent bookshop in the country when it closed. It was really sad. The people who worked there not only were freaks in the best sense, everyone was insane, but also everyone was brilliant. And I often think, how much collective knowledge was lost when we were cut up and sent out into the world? Because you could come in and ask us the most obscure question, and there would be someone there who could answer every time. I think bookshops are always like this, though, aren’t they? They’re often filled with people who know so much, and who probably should be earning a lot more money somewhere else! [laughs]
FW: That’s so interesting. But I did want to ask you about that link between self-help books and that Eastern spirituality stuff, I mean… what did you discover in your three years of research?
WM: Well, they fit in so well! There’s a reason why they were adopted, and also the other way as well – I gave a workshop on spiritual journal writing last year, at a Hindu nunnery, and it was lots of fun, we had a great time. And lay people came as well, and one of the guys, a devout lifelong Hindu was telling me at lunch about all these wonderfully Edwardian self-help books that they’d all read as children in India, and how they’d absolutely transformed his life! Things we’d laugh at now, but the books I also quite respect. They’re the real classics of the genre that no one reads any more. And he said they’d been recommended by swamis, by monks – read Frederick Bailes, or read William Walker Atkinson or all these other people. He said they had real currency then, because they were all about controlling the mind, and redirecting thoughts, and all those classic things. So there is a place there, and people might say it shouldn’t happen, but things are always going to happen and you can’t stop the melding of traditions. I love going into the self-help section when I’m in other countries as well – it’s so fascinating to see what people in Vietnam are reading, to see what people in Cambodia are reading, when it comes to that! It’s great – there’s a big market, for example, for Louise Hay books in Vietnam! They’re all translated, and all of the affirmations are on a CD in Vietnamese that you can listen to! It’s really interesting to see that happen.
FW: I was thinking too, I know you did a workshop recently too on mindfulness and writing, and I thought that was a fascinating combination…
WM: Yes, I teach a course quite regularly on that subject, yeah absolutely. I think people are really interested in that, a meditative approach to writing. Writing generally is quite meditative anyhow I think, it’s something that involves real intention, we have to slow down, just to be able to type or to write using a pen. It’s very slow process. I mean, people have managaed to do it in unmindful ways – I think of Tennessee Williams with his bottle of pills on the desk, or Carson McCullers, the wonderful Carson McCullers, she would have her special writing tea, it was a pot of tea which was 40% tea, and the rest was rum. And that’s what she’d have writing in the morning. Which explains some of her wonderful short stories…
FW: In the morning? Oh god!
WM: Yes, first thing in the morning! So that’s a less mindful way of doing it, heavens, Carson McCullers is one of my favourite writers, so it worked!
FW: I as wondering too if it’s sort of plays into that idea of attending to detail, and to strange and telling things, if that’s kind of a mindful practice
WM: Yes, yes. It is, yes. And noticing smallness. Noticing incidents where other people don’t – I think that’s what writers excel at. A writer can walk into a room, and pick out several strange things, which other people might just have glanced over, or thought not important. And I’m sure you’ve had this same experience, but I was doing that as a child, a small child. I’d notice something odd and I’d get into the car later and I’d mention it to my parents…
FW: And your parents would be like, huh?
WM: What was that!? Yes! So I think that there’s that element, and I encourage that with people. I think that’s the real way to move ahead. The way into something. The way into a story is always through that tiny little detail, isn’t it? That small thing.
FW: From a poetry background, you know, you’re speaking my language here!
WM: And I kind of… I hate and am also bad at that big picture thing. It doesn’t interest me really, and I find it dull to read. So when I had to write, for example, in Destination Cambodia about Angkor Wat, the ancient temple which has been written about seven million times in a hundred different features each month [laughs] how do I write about that and not be clichéd? So I always had to look for a way in. And it’s terrifying when you do have to write about something that’s so clichéd, but you have to sometimes!
FW: I imagine too when you have to give context for parts of the books, how do you step out and do that sort of historical stuff, especially with the Cambodia book – so many of these places are so specific because of great and mostly awful things that have happened there…
WM: Yeah, I found that in all of it, and I didn’t set out to do it this way, but a lot of my readers have come back to me and said, I know more about the history and the culture of the place through reading your crazy stories than I did through reading, you now, a proper book about the subject, because it just stuck in my mind. And then when I was there, it seemed so real and I remembered what you said. And I think that’s what I have unintentionally done. Maybe this is how we should be writing history books for school! Maybe somebody should hire me to do that! Because these things stick with you.
FW: But I wonder too if part of that is because so many of the interactions that you have are behind the scenes – for the section that you read about the Kwan Yin temple, you’re not talking about being in the temple as someone who’s kind of… sitting in the spaces that you’re allowed to go and looking at the things that you’re allowed to. You’re talking about wearing a gas mask and eating the goddess’s offerings with the monks. There’s a sort of… an unofficialness to it, or a backstagedness.
WM: That’s interesting, backstage. Because my background is in acting. When I first left school I went to theatre school…
FW: Oh, bless!
WM: I went to do a degree in theatre, I soon pulled out because I realised I was never going to be a star! But I have always loved the idea of a back and front of something. And everything has it, and I take it as a personal challenge, when I walk into a place I always think, how can I get behind the scenes. And I do do it quite ruthlessly. And that particular, in the Kwan Yin temple, which I’ve been going to since I was 24 years old (and I’m substantially older now) but I remember cracking that place. I remember it fascinated me, and I just went back day after day after day, and sat in the same chair, sort of hidden in the corner. And after about the fourth or fifth day, people are so curious as to what the hell you are doing that they all take an interest in you. So I always tell people that, just keep going back to places, and after a while, people are really interested in you and that opens up everything. And one of the boys in that book, he was a boy when I met him, he was sixteen, and now he’s married with kids, he’s middle-aged, and I just got a message from him the other day, I’ve been part of his life all of that time. I think, that’s such a blessing, to be able to have that experience. When I was fifteen years old, sitting in high school in Ingham, North Queensland, I didn’t think that I would know anyone that interesting or do anything that interesting. My life, seemingly was going to be, like, a small town hairdresser. And maybe an occasional, I don’t know, trip to Daydream Island. [laughs]. But look what happened!
FW: It fascinates me that kind of thing, how you can never really have a sense of… the shape of these things, it’s what we make afterwards and figure out how those sorts of things happened. I wonder if it’s a writerly impulse, but I’m always trying to kind of figure out what’s happening, the whole time knowing that you just can’t know, right?
WM: And it is kind of harder now too, with security situations and all of those things, it is a little bit harder to get behind the scenes. I went to see my friend in a show the other night at the Opera House and I was very excited because for the first time ever I went behind the scenes, I was so thrilled, I really felt like I’d made it, you know? [laughs]
FW: It’s quite ugly behind the scenes at the Opera House!
WM: It is, it’s very industrial.
FW: I got taken back there for an event I did there once, we sort of went the back way into the green room, and I remember thinking, the phrase they use, the bowels of the building, I really felt like I was in the bowels! All that piping, and long, dark corridors…
WM: Exposed concrete and all that…
FW: Not to get too disgusting about things! [laughs] The other thing that I was really interested in those pieces that you read is that sense of friendship too, that comes up, it seems like the relationships are one of the many important things in the book. Maybe that ties in to what you were saying…
WM: Yeah, I think I’m quite an emotionally needy person, I think, so it’s just a response to that. I find it very difficult to be alone. I can be alone at home, but after a while it doesn’t do me any good, and I just find that I need to make contact with people and so I do do that, I have friends who are much better at it than me, but I still think I have a reasonable genius in making contact with someone. If you’re absolutely desperate just keep going back to the same café day after day, and after a while the waiters and waitresses will be your best friends! I like to meet new people and to understand what they’re doing. And I wrote about it in Destination Cambodia, I wrote about coming at something as an expert, as opposed to actually stopping and listening to what people are actually saying about something. Because you might very well be right – I’d been going to Cambodia for years, I’d read every book abut Angkor Wat, I knew all about the Angkor period, I teach it. And then my friends in Cambodia would say something that was just wrong, historically inaccurate, and I would just correct them, I must have been insufferable. And then I thought, hang on, this is really interesting what they’re saying to me. What they’re telling me is what is important, the story that’s important to them, about Angkor. And when I stopped correcting, and started to listen to their stories, it was way more fun and interesting! So that’s something I’ve tried to carry into my life since then. And that’s a lesson learnt at age 41! So we’re always learning something new.
FW: I was going to ask you about that, because I noticed a lot of the bios I’ve seen for you online, you describe yourself as a ‘lifelong dilettante.’ And it struck me as a really interesting phrase – is that the kind of thing that you mean?
WM: Absolutely, yeah! I’ve led a supremely wasted life, you know! [laughs] I’ve picked up lots of little things and never really mastered anything and… if my academic supervisor is listening, my thesis is finished! I think it is a fault in a way, to be so curious, and to give into that curiousity always, but it does make your world much more interesting, you know. But I do envy those people who can concentrate on one thing, and just become geniuses at that. I’ve never been able to.
FW: It’s funny, I think it struck me as a really interesting phrase, it’s probably my own baggage, I get really prickly about the expertise of being a writer, right? Years ago, I had a friend who’s a scientist and has a PhD in science, telling me about how he was thinking about when he gets his long service leave, taking six months off and writing a book because he’s got a book in him, and I kind of had this instinctive reaction of, you can’t do that! I mean, he could, but saying that just devalued all of this work and expertise that I’ve built up, it’s not like, oh, I might take six months off and do this science thing, you know, the Margaret Atwood response! So I think I had this instinctive kind of… that’s such an interesting phrase. But when you talk about in that sense of eternal curiousity…
WM: That’s right, yeah. And people do do it. And do really well out of it too, sometimes! And I think that’s kind of a Western malaise as well, to really want to be something and to stand up and be that thing forever. I see it in sexuality too, you know, I think the rest of the world has much more of a sliding scale when it comes to sexuality than we do here. It seems to me that in Australia, if you do something once, you’d better stick with it. Whereas I’ve met people who do something a lot, and then don’t think of themselves as that thing. And it happens in our spiritual lives too, we don’t really respect people who kind of sniff around, but in Asia… in Vietnam, people do that a lot. People might go to see a spiritualist medium for one thing, and then they go to a monk for another thing, and then they’ll sneak into the Catholic Church and say a prayer to Mary for something else. All these things are expedient. And I’ve got a very dear friend, who I think I mention briefly in Destination Saigon, but he’s been a friend of mine for 25 years. And it’s funny because I knew him a student monk, when he was a little bit naughty, and now he’s a revered abbot in a small town in Vietnam, and he’s very respectable, it’s lovely to see that journey. But I remember after knowing him for ten years, and we’d done everything together, we’d prayed together and done retreats together and driven around in motorcycles together, and he said to me, Walter, what’s your religion, do you have a religion? And I thought, wow, after ten years, someone whose life is religion, he’s just asking me now, because it wasn’t important to him. What was important to him was how I was living and the relationship that we were having, and that really woke me up, because I think if you set foot in a Baptist church on a Sunday, you’re going to be asked pretty quickly [laughs] where do you stand on this? Have you signed up? And I think that’s… I don’t want to say it’s a failing, because I don’t want to talk anyone’s spiritual journey a failing, but I do think it’s a highly restrictive thing, where people are curious, but they’re too afraid to venture into that curiousity, because they’re scared that someone will leap on them.
FW: That’s such a lovely way of thinking about it. Well, I think curiousity is a really important trait, and a really important writerly trait too, that we’re always sort of poking at things.
WM: Yes, yeah. And writing things that are different… I mean, look at you, you’re the expert in this, writing something that’s completely off career, you know!
FW: That was an accident [laughs] It doesn’t count!
WM: The publishers don’t want you to that, of course. They want you to be a brand and a product, which I perfectly understand. I’m not against that, I understand that’s how the modern world works. I mean, my partner’s an advertising executive, I do understand. One much more famous and well-known author than me said to me, I love how everything you do is on brand! [laughs] I’m not doing it intentionally, it is actually my life! But you want to do a million things, don’t you, and those things might be strange and I think you should follow them up. Even if they don’t quite work out or they never sell.
FW: It’s funny, I don’t think of you as being ‘on-brand’, I think you do so many talks on such wide and varied topics…
WM: That’s true too, yes. In one week I might do a talk on Dickens, lead a workshop on mindfulness and writing, and then teach a three-hour class in Cambodian history. [laughs]
FW: But then also, as a part of that, you seem to do so many talks that are about supporting other writers too and bringing them into things, and I think that’s a really lovely and generous community thing that you do.
WM: Thank you. It’s part of what I feel is really important, and actually I think we’re lucky as writers. I think in Australian writing it is reasonably supportive, I don’t see a lot of bitchiness, I don’t see a lot of jealousy…
FW: Yeah, well, you’re not a poet!
WM: You know, my partner, one of his hobbies is food blogging, and I’ve got to tell you, the food blogging world is cut-throat! And I don’t see that with writers!
FW: That amazes me! I always thought that, I guess…
WM: They’re terrifying you know! And I have friends in the fashion blogging world too who say the same, it’s very… But also, roll your eyes if you want to, but it’s an important part to my spirituality, my lived spirituality, I do think it’s important to more than occasionally put your own needs second, and try to think of how you could be useful to other people. I think it does create a community, I think it does create a better world for everyone, and I think writers need it. I always think, be the reader that you wish that you had. If I read something I always tell people how much I love it, I send the writer an email or even a letter, and I almost always get a response. I just think it’s something that’s really easy to do, I think people are always out there searching for ways to change the world and they underestimate just how much they can change that little world around them in a profound way.
FW: I love the idea of being the reader than you wish you had, because I hear people say all of the time, write the thing that you needed to read. I love the inversion of that.
WM: Absolutely. And I noticed it when my first book came out, that when I did a reading or an event, well-known writers that would come to hear me would buy up two or three copies of my book, even though I know that either my publisher had sent them a free copy or they could have called my publisher and gotten a free copy. That was their way of saying, hi, this is me supporting you. They would have given them away to someone or whatever. So I always try to do that now too, when I go to a launch or something I buy a couple of copies, and wait in line to get them signed. Because I just know how important that is for the person.
FW: It’s such a good idea. On a different tack, I wanted to ask you about Cabramatta specifically – tell me more about Cabramatta!
WM: Cabramatta! I love Vietnam first, and I love Cabramatta second! But the two are linked very strongly.
FW: And North Queensland fifth.
WM: Yes, and Queensland fifth! My partner is a Cabra boy, and so I first started coming out here in the late ’80s, when it was a really different place. And I just loved it, right from the start. It kind of reminded me of home, that close-knit community, and my partner says whenever he goes to my family events or something, they’re just like Vietnamese! Everyone’s cooking and giving each other food, and they all know each others’ business, you know! So there is that thing of everyone having far much more in common than they realise. And Cabramatta’s just like… it’s a cliché, but we lead tours sometimes to Cabramatta, so we are responsible for that tourist influx, but… we used to do a tour for the Mosman Evening College, so it’d be the quintessential Mosma ladies would come out, and a) they would just have a ball all the time, the just couldn’t believe how much fun it was, and b) they’d always say, I’m going to come here again and again, because I thought it was dangerous, I thought I wouldn’t be able to navigate the place, but it’s just fabulous, it’s just fun. And that’s really what it is. There’s so much energy, if I need a boost of energy I can just walk through Cabra. I always joke, I think there should be a ‘Real Housewives of Cabramatta’ and I should be one of them! My partner’s always saying, this is all you do, isn’t it? You just faun around Cabra all day! [laughs]
FW: I’m a lady who lunches, darling!
WM: That’s right, I am! And it does feed my creative life in a really strong way, it really does. I’m searching everywhere… you know the best piece you’ve ever written you keep losing it, do you have that?
FW: I dream it. I dream these genius phrases or structural things or whatever, and I’ve got this little pad beside my bed, and I sometimes scribble something down. And then I look at it in the morning, and it’s either completely illegible, or it says something like, oranges are orange.
WM: Beautiful! I actually had the experience, it was years before I published, and I went to some festival that had local writers reading, and I wrote this especially for it. And it was a piece about, at that stage we were living in a townhouse, right in Cabra, and so my local temple was a different temple. And the monk there was my age, and we were really good friends. But coming with that was too much familiarity, so we’d have fights, and you know. And then I’d remind myself that he was a monk, and then he’d like to sort of lord it over me sometimes, he’d get me to iron his robes or something, just to say, hang on here, we’re not mates. And I wrote this short piece, it was like a prose poem, about my relationship with this… my master, and it was called ‘My Master’. And I read it out, and I had people shrieking with laughter and crying at the end and I thought, this is superb. But for some reason, you know changing computers and various things, I sort of lost it. And I just had a hardcopy of it. And I found it again, after all these years, I found it about a year ago. And I’ve lost it again, and I wanted to read it for you! So it’s haunting me, this piece of genius that I wrote, and it’s gone.
FW: You know you have to scan it when you find it, right?
WM: Yes, I’ll know to do that this time! I actually had the experience, I’m a journal keeper, and I write constantly in my journal, I carry it with me everywhere. And I was in China for a conference. I was catching the very fast train from Shanghai to Nanjing, and so I was writing… I’d been writing in my journal for days in Shanghai, just genius was flowing out, like the best stuff I’ve ever done. And I was writing and it just kept flowing at the train station, Shanghai train station is amazing. And the train came, and I jumped in, and I was reading the memoirs of Tennessee Williams at the time, I was reading that and thought, I’ve got to jot that down, it’s genius, and then I realised I’d left my journal at the train station. And to this day, I still remember things that were in it! The best work I’ve ever done! It’s all sitting there, somewhere else in Shanghai, in a bin! [laughs] So sad, so sad. It’s the El Dorado of literary genius.
FW: Or, my dad’s a fisherman, it’s the one that got away…
WM: The one that got away! Every time! You know, I see that as a teacher of writing, so often students will tell me, I had this really brilliant idea, and I told it to someone, and they did it. And I lost it. And I always think, of well, at least they did it! That’s the thing, these things only come to you for a certain time, and you’ve got to let go of them or let someone else do it. And they’re never original ideas, anyway! There’s that thing in Seinfeld, where he has that book for a coffee table about coffee tables, and then someone does it, and he’s really angry because he thinks they’ve stolen his idea [laughs].
FW: I don’t think anyone’s going to steal ‘The Real Housewives of Cabramatta.’
WM: I might pitch it to someone!
FW: Although if they do I think we’d all be very happy.
WM: It’d be such a great show. I saw recently that one of the biggest postcodes for millionaires in Australia is 2166, this area. There’s a lot of money out here…
FW: Really? That’s so interesting. I’m fascinated by that idea too, I guess if you’ve been here since the late ’80s, that was probably when Cabramatta was at its most maligned…
WM: Yes, absolutely.
FW: And the way that cities change…
WM: Cabramatta is a case study in that. Going from a place that people where to terrified to come to into being really a tourist destination in Sydney, and a much-loved place. A place where people bring their visitors, and it’s interesting that the change… But it’s interesting too how the history is always there. Cabramatta, for example, is not a nighttime place. Because of those bad days where the shopkeepers didn’t dare open, so it’s literally only two or three restaurants that will stay open in Cabramatta at night. It’s still very much a daytime place, and come 5:30, it’s closed. There’s that part. I mean, they could open at nighttime now, they’d just get people all the time, but they have a certain lifestyle that they’re used to, and they’re happy with that.
FW: It’s interesting to me too, I think you mentioned that your partner does the food blogging, and that must give you a different relationship to the place as well
WM: Yeah, knowing… and also he was on the council for so long, for nine years, and a very prominent member of that council. At the time, the only Vietnamese person on council. So knowing everyone and speaking Vietnamese as well, it sort of… I do have a tendency to swan [laughs]. But it is fun being a part of those people’s lives, because they have so much energy, there’s such an entrepreneurial spirit there, people are always thinking of something to do and how to change it. And yet nothing ever seems to change [laughs]. But knowing faces and people and… everyone’s like that in Cabra! I mean, kids that grew up here, they all know particular breadshop ladies, or the people who live on the street, or someone who kind of wanders around and does peculiar things. It’s one good thing about being here, so many young people come to Thang and I as friends and mentors, and they make great house-sitters when we go away! [laughs]. These are kids who are born here, you know, and went to school across the road here or over at Cabra High, and they have this wonderful Cabramatta-specific view of the world. It’s quite amazing, I feel excited for them. There’s a lot of get up and go here.
FW: I think that’s the stuff I’m really interested in, that the Western Sydney writing projects that are, all the different ones that are popping up, that’s something that I didn’t realise until much later, when I left, that you grow up with this kind of specific idea of the city that is actually quite unique. In its way. And not the main narrative of the city.
WM: Absolutely. And people out here, they live with their lives are totally focussed around here, and have sub-cultures and things that are quite separate from someone, you know, in the south or in the north or… It’s quite specific and some of that has to do with ethnicity and language, and a lot of it doesn’t as well. A lot of it has to do with experiences, and with that shared, that blended experience and ethnicity. So one of the subcultures out here is Cambo-Chinese, so kids whose parents are Cambodian-Chinese, or Cambodian and Chinese married together, and they’re quite a specific sub-culture and it’s really interesting to see them hanging out. And if they get married to a Vietnamese person it’s quite noteworthy! It’s interesting. Certain shops are Cambo-Chinese and certain shops are Vietnamese, to see how those blend together when their children grow up. My personal trainer is a Cambo-Chinese boy, he’s getting married to a Filipino-Scottish girl, it’s wonderful, it’s a mixing of those sub-cultures at school.
FW: Thank you Walter, it’s been really lovely.
WM: Pleasure, it’s been lovely having you here.