NSW Premier’s Literary Awards & SWF Indigenous Voices

As always, the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May was an amazing week.

The NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced on the Monday night and I was thrilled to meet the Patricia Wrightson (children’s book) winner for the surrealist mystery Iris and the Tiger, Leanne Hall (who I interviewed for the blog here), photographed below with shortlisted Tamsin Janu and shortlisted Ethel Turner YA author Lili Wilkinson.

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The winner of the Kenneth Slessor Poetry award was Peter Boyle for the inimical Ghostspeaking, an intriguing mystery of finely woven stories and poems. The richly constructed characters are brought to life with interlaced poems. It evokes Borges’ Labyrinths with the brush strokes and ideas of artist William Robinson and the clear bold outlines and strokes of Matisse.

Congratulations to James Roy (who I interviewed for the blog here ) and Noël Zihabamwe, whose One Thousand Hills won the Ethel Turner award and all the other shortlisted and winning authors, including overall winner, Leah Purcell for The Drover’s Wife play script.

At the SWF, I was privileged to be in conversation with Dr Anita Heiss and Witi Ihimaera for the ‘Indigenous Voices’ sessions at the Wharf in Walsh Bay and at Parramatta Riverside Theatres. It was great to have the opportunity to discuss Anita’s new The Race for Reconciliation, a novel for children that celebrates Aboriginal hero Cathy Freeman and shares truths that many Australian children don’t know about stolen children, National Sorry Day and other aspects of Aboriginal recent history.

Anita has also shown Aboriginal women in contemporary Australian literature in new and important ways such as in Barbed Wire & Cherry Blossoms. This compares the WW2 Prisoner of War camp near Cowra in central NSW when Japanese soldiers broke out, with the local Wiradjuri people who also virtually lived under prison conditions – and had less food than the Japanese prisoners.

Also in this session was revered Maori writer Witi Ihimaera. He was the first Maori author to have both a novel and short stories published. In his memoir, Maori Boy, Witi uses a unique and powerful spiral thread structure. He also uses myths in his work.

Witi is well known for his book and movie from the book, Whale Rider and also now, Mahana. At times he wished he was brought up more in Maori traditions and he wasn’t great at the haka. But he was destined to do another kind of haka.

Anita and Witi made a fine team enlightening us about indigenous voices.

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Surrealism and Wes-Quez with Leanne Hall & Iris and the Tiger

Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books, Leanne.

Once you read Leanne’s fascinating responses, you’ll rush to read her books.

Ursula-and-SunflowerWhere are you based and how involved in the children’s and YA literary community are you?

I’m based in Melbourne, which is luckily a very bookish and literary city. My involvement in the kids and YA community is as an author, reader and bookseller. I work in an independent bookshop, where I can often be found in the children’s and YA section, chatting with customers and staff members about what we’ve been reading. There’s also a great camaraderie among writers of books for young people – we go to each other’s launches and talks, we see each other at festivals, we have coffees to talk shop, and we read and comment on each other’s work.

You seem to lead an exotic life. What interesting thing is happening to you at the moment?

Sometimes it feels exotic, and other times it feels plain weird! At the moment I’m living with my partner in a 1970s Glendale caravan in my friend’s inner city backyard. It’s an experiment in small, simple and cheap living. No doubt a caravan is going to show up in one of my stories soon…

This is Shyness, your first YA novel, is one of my absolute favourites. How did you create its incredible atmosphere?This is Shyness 2

Thank you, it’s still a surprise to me how much people liked This Is Shyness. I get obsessed with my own ideas, but it’s amazing to me that others also find them interesting. This Is Shyness was the first novel I managed to finish, and it’s full of the fire and passion and experiences of my youth. I suppose its atmosphere comes from ten years of cycling around at nighttime with my friends having adventures!

What is your favourite type of art and why?

Unsurprisingly, my favourite type of art is anything surreal and absurd and dreamlike in nature, whether that’s painting or photography or sculpture. Some of it is older work, and some of it is very contemporary. While writing Iris, I kept a Pinterest board full of my favourite images to use as inspiration. (https://www.pinterest.com/lilymandarin/iris-and-the-tiger/) If I have writer’s block, or I’m feeling uninspired, I’ll often visit galleries to recharge my battery.

How have you used art in Iris and the Tiger (Text Publishing)?

Art is in every scene of Iris and the Tiger: either inspiring or driving the fantastical events that happen, or literally there on the walls to be described. I browsed art books to decide what real paintings could be turned into strange things that might exist on a mysterious country estate, and then I also had to turn myself into a hypothetical Surrealist painter and make up paintings that don’t exist in real life.

Iris and the TigerHow did you select which elements to make surreal? Why the sunflowers and music notes rather than, say, furniture, books or a garden fountain?

Some of the most surreal elements in the book come from real life paintings. The sunflowers are inspired by Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Dorothea Tanning – a truly spooky painting where a sleepwalking girl’s hair stands on end while a massive sunflower lies indolently at the top of a staircase. The strange creepy-crawly music notes come from Dali’s Partial Hallucination: Six Apparitions of Lenin on a Grand Piano. Mostly, I tried not to force the surreal elements; I would write scenes and wait for something odd to disrupt them.

How carefully did you balance the realist elements of the plot with the surreal touches?

I focused very hard on Iris’s personal experience of traveling to Spain for the first time as a way of grounding the story. I really wanted the reader to feel how exciting and intimidating that might be for her. With that solid ground laid, I could allow surreal things to come in for short periods of time and turn things upside down (sometimes literally).

How important is Iris’s racial background to the story?

It’s both really important, and not important at all. It’s important to me personally, because I never had the chance to read about a Chinese-Australian character when I was younger. So it’s me fulfilling a need I had as a young reader. But it’s NOT important in the sense that her family background isn’t an “issue” to be explored, it isn’t the dominant feature of Iris’s character or her story, it’s simply that heroines should come in every shape and form, and frequently don’t.

What does she learn about friendship?

For me, despite all the surrealism and magic, the real point of the story is friendship. Iris is struggling with the fact that her best friend at home is losing interest in her, and that they’re growing apart (a common thing to happen at this age, I think). But at Bosque de Nubes she forges new friendships across national and age (and species!) boundaries. She becomes firm friends with Jordi, a Spanish boy her age, connects with an older, cooler American girl, Willow, and bonds with her much older great-aunt, Ursula. It’s nice to know that friendships can be found everywhere, with surprising people.

A comment after the review of Iris and the Tiger on the Boomerang Blog wonders if you are creating a new genre. Are you and what could the genre be called?

I do feel as if my writing is very difficult to categorise. I’ve most often heard it referred to as magic realism. After writing the two Shyness books, I named my writing style “reality made strange”, but I recently read a review of Iris that described it as `the lovechild of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Wes Anderson’. So, yes, let’s make up a new genre called `Wes-quez”!

Have you played the surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse and, if so, how successful was it?

I did play Exquisite Corpse in the writing of this book, and it was successful only because of other people! I’m similar to Iris in that I’m not very confident with drawing, so I do cringe at the parts I’ve drawn. My advice for successful Exquisite Corpse-playing is to find some people who can draw to play with!

What else are you enjoying reading? 

I have just read Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar and My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier – two very different and very excellent books. I read everything that Kirsty and Justine write. I feel like this year is going to see a lot of good new Aussie YA hit the shelves, so I’m looking forward to supporting my colleagues’ great work.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions. I’ve been alone with Iris and the Tiger for so long that it’s wonderful to hear how readers have been engaging with it.

Thanks very much, Leanne. I hope to meet you again soon.

Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall

This is ShynessOne of my all-time favourite YA novels is Australian writer Leanne Hall’s This is Shyness. It’s an utterly original story about Wildgirl and Wolfboy who cross the liminal border of Grey Street into Shyness, a gritty suburb of perpetual darkness. It blends surrealism with realism in a most memorable way. Even the title is inspired.

It was exciting to meet Leanne in Melbourne last year and hear her speak about Iris and the Tiger (Text Publishing). She described it as a novel for middle graders about art and surrealism. These are two of my favourite topics so I am thrilled that Iris is now published after waiting impatiently to read it!

Twelve-year-old Iris Chen’s parents send her to Spain to spy on her great-aunt Ursula, an elusive character who doesn’t seem to age. Iris’s task is to make sure that Ursula’s estate stays in the family.Iris and the Tiger

The trees surrounding the estate are unlike Australian trees. Iris describes them when she arrives: ‘They were woods you read about in fairytales… Iris could imagine woodcutters and bears and enchantments in their depths; you could get lost in them easily. They’re trees with secrets.’

Surreal elements emerge quickly. Iris sees music notes as ants and is borne-away with boots that she can’t remove. Sunflowers seem to be playing tennis and are featured in one of Uncle James’ paintings. His art, which sells for enormous sums, is most unusual, showcasing an insect in clothes and an old-fashioned car in another. It seems as though characters in some other paintings may have just left the scene: pink legs swim out of an underwater panorama and there is no tiger in the painting ‘Iris and the Tiger’. Iris becomes determined to find the missing tiger.

Great-aunt Ursula contributes to the surrealism and mystery with her instructions for the game of ‘Exquisite Corpse’ in which you draw a head at the top of a piece of paper, fold it over (leaving a small part of the sketch visible), and pass it on to someone else to draw the arms and body, and then the legs and feet. This is a game that was played by surrealist artists such as Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miro and also features in the excellent book, Surrealism for Kids (published by the Qld Art Gallery). The game contributes to the plot in Iris and the Tiger. Surrealism for kids

Iris makes new friends in Spain, Marcel and Willow, and develops her understanding about what makes a true friend, as well as learning more about herself and her family in this unique, beguiling tale.