‘I went on a post-mortem enquiry. How did we end up here? We were five and now we’re two.’
Michelle Tom began her writing career as a print journalist in her native New Zealand. Michelle was selected for the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY 2019 program and for a Varuna Memoir Masterclass in 2017. Michelle lives in Melbourne with her husband and two youngest children.
Her vulnerable and cathartic memoir, Ten Thousand Aftershocks, explores two key traumas – the multifaceted abuse she experienced during childhood, and her survival of the 2021 Christchurch earthquake.
Together, we discuss how she began writing the memoir, the process of re-examining trauma, and her choice to tell the story in fragmented vignettes.
The fragmented narrative style wasn’t her initial choice. When she attend a one-week masterclass with one of Australia’s best-known memoir authors, she realised a lot of her early draft wasn’t working.
‘I’d gone to Varuna thinking that week was going to clarify everything and I went to Patti Miller who was running the course and basically said, Tell me how to structure this and she said, Darling, you’re going to have to figure that out for yourself.’
This episode also features a record-breaking What Are You Reading segment, in which James recalls the time someone recommended he read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series because the main character is 6’9, the same height as James, and we determine that main character height may be the worst motivation for reading a book we’ve encountered.
Plus, is it going to be just James from now on?! Join us for an emotionally turbulent episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home!
Books and authors discussed in this episode: – Memoir Writing For Dummies by Ryan Van Cleave – Trespasses: A Memoir by Lacy M Johnson – The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch – Lee Child’s Jack Reader series – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – The Return by Rachel Harrison – It by Stephen King – Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke – Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (of course!)
Plus Michelle’s fellow 2021 debut authors: – Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke – The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens – Echoes by Shu-Ling Chua – What Does it Feel Like Being Born? by Jodie Miller – The Sentinel by Jacqueline Hodder – Eye of a Rook by Josephine Taylor (who we interviewed in episode 20) – Smokehouse by Melissa Manning – Sha’Kert by Ishmael Soledad – Modern Marriage by Filip Vukašin – The River Mouth by Karen Whittle-Herbert
The Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, presented by Writing NSW and Text Publishing, is awarded to an unpublished Indigenous writer who has made substantial progress on a fiction or non-fiction writing project. The writer is paired with a senior Indigenous writer for a structured year-long mentorship.
The 2021 Boundless runner-up is Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie, for her memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. She’ll be working under the mentorship of Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko.
I’m especially excited for Samia because my husband and I had the honour of funding the 2021 runner-up mentorship. In this Q&A, she talks about her early experiences with writing, how she began to work on her memoir, writers that have inspired her, and her best writing tip.
When did you start writing, and what kind of writing did you first aspire to? As a child and all through my teens writing was my to go safe place and I wrote prolifically. Stories, poetry, prose, mostly long streams of consciousness and long 10-page letters to my grandmother and pen pal friends.
The touch of a fresh sharpened pencil and feel of the pen on paper completely absorbed me. I was deeply traumatised as a young person, so reading, writing and painting were my world, my safe place, and helped me survive.
I had two significant English teachers. One was Mr Jardine, he wore a cravat. It was the 70s, he took us to A Clockwork Orange, exposed us to Russian writers, Blake, and the classics as well as contemporary Australian and American writers. In my mid-teens and I was introduced to feminists and Marx, which was unusual, through another English teacher, Elizabeth Cousins.
Elizabeth knew my life was hard and in many ways I couldn’t function in the mainstream-learning environment, so she just let me write whatever I liked and didn’t require I come to class. I’d meet with her regularly instead and she’d read my writing, point me to things to read and make comments and constantly encourage me.
I also did a radio show at my school, so I was very influenced by radio, drama, youth theatre and music. A real mix, symphony, opera, jazz. Mozart and Pink Floyd and Country. We didn’t have a TV till I was 11. So these things shaped my world.
I was an adopted baby, taken from my birth mum, and my parents were significantly older than all my friends’ parents. I had a very lonely and abusive childhood. I just didn’t fit in for all kinds of reasons, Race being just one, so, I had to have a rich inner life to survive.
I spent hours learning and reciting poetry, long form and verse. I loved acting, and I would write my own scripts and then spend hours playing all the characters.
As a young teenager I also spent a lot of time at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and this is where I first started to understand that there were alternative stories and histories to the ones I was being exposed to. I’d grown up with Albert Namatjira on the living room wall, strict Methodists who had both been in the Army during WWII, and a father who grew up in an orphanage. I also spent long periods of time with relatives and then in institutions, so there were lots of disconnections and contradictions. Writing continues to fulfill the same role. It’s my safe place and my way to challenge the complexity of my inner and outer world. To give voice to these complexities and challenge the status quo of society. I love the craft, the voice, the landscape and terrain of stories. I love reading other people’s stories, ones that take you on a journey that transports you. That’s what I’d love to achieve. Telling a story that takes the reader on a journey.
I’ve written a lot of poetry over more recent years, up till then I put all my creativity into community projects, films, digital stories, events, concerts and lecturing and travelling.
Tell us about your memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. Last year after I had an accident and was having a lot of severe pain, I started writing again just for myself, to distract myself. It started to become what felt like a story, one that had been sitting inside me for decades. I decided okay, just write.
Once I made that decision words just flowed out faster than I could type. I have called this work The Woman Who Came from the Sea because the ocean, salt water, and fresh water have always been important in my life. I have experienced deep bliss surfing down the face of a clear blue wave and near death in the center of a cyclone in the middle of the ocean on a small yacht.
I’d say its memoir, but also could fall into being creative non-fiction. I don’t want to give away too much yet; I can say it’s a wild story, a story of adventure and survival against the odds. I know I have lived a life that’s very full and left of center. I actually hate boxes and strive to challenge being labeled or locked into other people’s definitions of who I am. I’d like that to be the same with my writing, I am not trying to write in a specific formula or write for a living. I am just writing.
Various people throughout my life have heard pieces of my life and always commented that they would love to read the full story. So, maybe they will get that chance. I hope so, that would be wonderful.
What books or authors have inspired your writing? I have read broadly, the books that really stand out are always ones with rich landscapes and diverse voices. First Nations writing from this country has always had a special place ever since meeting and then reading the work of some of our early trailblazers, people like respected Elders Oodgeroo Noonuccal or Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert who founded the writing group I’m currently part of called Us Mob writers in Canberra.
Since being involved with Us Mob writers and First Nations Australia Writers Network, I have made a point to read nearly exclusively Aboriginal and Indigenous writers. We have so many talented storytellers; I have a never-ending pile.
I also love Hispanic and Latino and First Nations writers from the Americas where I lived for 12 years, mostly in the southwest. So, of course I am very impacted by the landscape of those places and the voices from those lands. I like to read and listen to stories that are recommended me by other writers. Films, theatre and podcasts inform me as well.
Through the Boundless Mentorship, you’ll be working with author Melissa Lucashenko, winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. What are you hoping to take from this? Being runner up in the Boundless Mentorship and being matched with Melissa Lucashenko, whose book Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award, is an extraordinary opportunity. The process of shaping my writing into structure and working out how to keep the story moving, is why it’s important for me to have a mentor. Just to get feedback and encouragement and not be so isolated means a lot.
I’m just grateful to learn whatever I can from her and hope it helps me bring my story to life.
What writing tip have you found most useful so far? Right now, it’s just about getting the writing on the page. That’s the best tip I have had. Just write, don’t stop, don’t edit, just get it down first. The rest will follow. The others are to read and read a lot. I’d add listen. Listen, be interested and brave.
It’s scary sometimes, to be visible, but I have such a great community of writers who inspire me. Aunty Kerry kept telling me before she died that she’d watching me and will be on my back if I don’t write. So, I have to honor her, as she really believed in me.
I want to thank Boundless, Writing NSW, Text Publishers, Booktopia, the judges, and of course my generous sponsors. I hope I can give you something that rewards your choice in supporting me with this opportunity.
Time is precious, so, now, it’s back to my story. I hope you might get to read it one day.
Congrats also to this year’s Boundless winner, Torres Strait Islander Lenora Thaker.For more about the Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, visit Writing NSW.
After growing up suffering emotional, verbal, physical, sexual and psychological abuse within what was ostensibly a loving family, author Ruhi Lee decided to speak out.
But before she could do that, she had to learn how to articulate and process her own feelings. Beyond basic terms like happy and sad, she didn’t have a language of emotion. In episode 30 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Ruhi tells us about her childhood, the process of writing her book, and a lot more.
Ruhi articles, poetry and book reviews have been featured in the Guardian, ABC Life, SBS Voices, South Asian Today and the Big Issue among others. In 2019, she was a recipient of the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund and her manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Random House Write it Fellowship. Good Indian Daughter is her first memoir.
Books discussed in this episode: – Yes Please by Amy Poehler; – This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay; – Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas; – Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon; – We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby; – Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Yumiko Kadota was a junior doctor and working hard towards her goal of becoming a plastic surgeon in NSW. But the demands of her workplace became increasingly extreme, and she found herself dealing with bullying, sexism and racism, as well as unreasonable hours. If anyone should know how important sleep is for the body, it should be health care professionals (and the people who manage their rosters). Right?
Instead of sleeping, Yumiko was working longer and longer hours, and was constantly on call. Her health started to deteriorate.
By the time she left her job, she was so unwell that she ended up back in hospital – as a patient.
She recounts her journey from ambitious student to junior doctor to patient suffering burnout and depression in her new memoir, Emotional Female.
One of my favourite things to do in Australia is ask people for their spider stories.
Everyone who’s lived here has at least one good one. I wrote about a few of them, including one of my own, in How to Be Australian.
After nearly 10 years in Australia, I started to think maybe there wouldn’t be many new spider stories left to discover. I’d heard about spider encounters in moving cars, in beds, in swimming pools. I’d heard about people who had limbs turn ‘the colour of dead flesh’ after being bitten by a white tail. I’d even heard about monstrous spider-wasps flying through open windows with flailing huntsmans in their mouths.
I thought I’d heard everything.
I was wrong.
Out for dinner with two Canadian expats who moved to Sydney in 2019, the topic of spider stories came up. This couple’s story is a frontrunner for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2020, and possibly Spider Anecdote of All Time.
Here’s the scene: they spot a biggish spider in their apartment. The husband happens to have a long umbrella in his hand. He reaches out and, with perfect aim, manages to smush the spider with the umbrella tip.
THOUSANDS OF SPIDER BABIES EXPLODE FROM THE SQUASHED SPIDER, RUNNING IN ALL DIRECTIONS IN THE APARTMENT.
The next day at work, the wife relates this horrifying experience to one of her coworkers, a local.
“Oh yeah,” the coworker says, “that’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia. Better to use bug spray or catch it will a bowl.”
That’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia?? I’ve lived here 10 years and have talked about spiders with a lot of Australians. You could say cataloguing spider anecdotes has been part of my life’s work. And I’ve never heard this advice, or heard about exploding spider babies.
“Wait,” I said to the couple, “don’t spider lay eggs? Why would a spider have thousands of spider babies with it?”
It wasn’t that I doubted their story. The horror on their faces as they recalled it was genuine. I was simply confused about the biology.
I don’t want to alarm you, but there are 2888 species of wolf spider, and they’re found throughout the world. According to my very minimal research (I can only look at websites with photos of spiders for so long), all species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs with them.
When the ‘spiderlings’ hatch, they live on the mother for a number of weeks. (Imagine that, ladies! Clambering around for weeks with several hundred babies clinging to you!)
So it seems my Canadian friend’s coworker is correct: you should never squash a spider in Australia, unless you know definitively that it’s not a female wolf spider. And even then, you’re still risking gross spider innards oozing all over. (Readers of How to Be Australian know my prefered spider-prepardeness plan is a vacuum.)
Got spider anecdotes for me? You know I want them!
How Deadly is a series of short videos featuring ABC’s resident ‘nature nerd’, Ann Jones, available on iView. Ann answers all the pressing questions: how realistic are the crocodile scenes in movies like Lake Placid and Crocodile Dundee? Are snakes cannibals? How do kangaroos feel about parachutes? How many people have been murdered by emus? And how did they train Skippy to perform all those stunts?
How Deadly is worth watching to hear Ann refer to snakes as ‘bush tinsel’, and for the revelation that swooping ‘maggies’ have particular proclivities: some hate bike riders, some go after posties because of their hi-vis gear, and – because they can recognise faces – some target specific individuals. So if you’re getting swooped, remember – it might be personal.*
Ann says that emus have never murdered anyone, but emu expert Stephen Schmidt disagrees. According to him, ‘people have been killed by them.’
Schmidt doesn’t mention how many days he had to wait atop his truck before the homicidal birds finally scuttled off to find someone else to terrorise.
Nor does he offer any evidence of emu murders. But he must know what he’s talking about, since he works with the birds daily. His farm name, Try It Emu, seems like a direct taunt (this might explain the truck scenario). So maybe magpies aren’t the only Australian birds with a personal beef.
Jay Martin is the author of Vodka and Apple Juice, a memoir of living in Warsaw, Poland as a diplomat’s wife – or more accurately, an undiplomatic wife. Jay also lived in Alberta, Canada, for two years, and has recently moved back to Perth.
I recently had the chance to chat with Jay about Canada, Australia, writing other cultures, pumpkin spice season, being married, and the all-important question: How can you tell if you’re really Australian?
Jay: Both of us wrote books about moving to other countries. I really wanted to introduce people to Poland through writing my book. I felt like it was a really unknown country that had a lot to offer and that there was no one doing it justice. So I wanted to write a book that would make people want to go there. I also think I wrote it as a kind of therapy, processing what had been a very intense period for me with coming to terms with not working, and trying to make sense of myself in the expat world.
Ashley: Your book definitely made me want to go to Poland! Not in winter though. Jay: And that’s coming from a Canadian! Now, of course, you’re an Australian of Canadian origin, and your book is about the process of adding the Australian to that. What was the strangest or most unexpected thing for you about moving to Australia?
Ashley: I still haven’t found a snake hiding in my dishwasher – venomous or otherwise. Australia’s got a reputation to hold up, and frankly, it’s failing. What about for you as an Australian moving to Canada?
Jay: One of the strangest things for me was that it was so similar. It was possibly partly because I moved from Western Australia to Alberta, both of which are described as the Texas of the respective countries. I got there and found crazy right-wing politicians, a boom-bust economy based on digging stuff out of the ground and a city that from some angles looks like an endless series of strip malls and thought, ‘I’ve moved to the other side of the world and this is just like being home’. I tried to introduce the term “cashed-up bogan,” but it didn’t stick. When I explained it everyone knew exactly what I meant, though.
Ashley: How was the process of writing another culture for you? Were there things you felt like you had to modify or leave out?
Jay: Is it too early in this conversation to comment that that’s probably a very Canadian question – because Canadians wouldn’t want to be seen to be impolite? Canadians are polite, though. I used to love the signs in our apartment building that told people they had to not open the door to people. It was like they needed to be instructed how be rude. Is this too stereotypical?
Ashley: That’s funny, because we have the same signs in our Sydney apartment building! Aussies are also very polite, in my experience – although maybe they’re just being very polite around me because they’re concerned their natural brusqueness will offend my delicate Canadian sensibilities? I once had a friend break off in the middle of telling a story about an encounter she had at work, turn to her husband and exclaim, ‘I can’t say the C-word in front of Ashley and Steve!’
And now I’ll politely remind you that you didn’t answer my question.
Jay: Yes, there were so many sensitivities in what I was writing about. The war, Poland’s Jewish population, concentration camps, they all get a mention because they were a part of what I was experiencing, what I was learning. There was also the ridiculousness – to me – of communism. But it’s easy for me to say it’s ridiculous and make a joke about it, when I never had to live under that system. And I did tone the humour down in parts, in deference to that. What about for you? Ashley: I felt the same. I felt I couldn’t write about Australia without bringing up topics like Indigenous rights, the treatment of asylum seekers, racism (an Indian reader recently said to me, ‘I can’t believe you used the R-word’). But it was tricky to do this, especially in a book that’s full of jokes about seven-legged spiders, inappropriate tattoos, and Iced VoVos.
Jay: I particularly liked that you covered all the ‘usual’ Australian stereotypes, like sharks and spiders, but you also talk about some of the more complex things, like Australia’s cultural cringe. My husband and I ended up having a long conversation about that, and discovered we both had very clear understandings of the term – that were completely different. It prompted me to think about how reading about your own country can help you see it differently.
Ashley: I wish someone had written a book called “How to Be Canadian” that revealed all the magical things that I’d grown accustomed to overlooking as a Canadian. If I could have read that as a teen, I probably would have appreciated everything around me more. Is there anything else in the book that really struck you, as an Aussie?
Jay: Well I’d never thought about the other meaning for the world “bush”. I can almost hear you giggle every time you write it. Although now I’ve seen it, I’ll never unsee it.
Ashley: You’re welcome.
Jay: Hmm. It was sort of the same for me with “beaver”, though, you know. I couldn’t talk about them with a straight face. Maybe Canadian Australians should be called bush beavers? What do you think?
Ashley: I once suggested at a local trivia night that our team name be the beaveroos and was promptly shouted down. Bush beavers is even better!
Jay: That person has no sense of humour. It’s interesting to talk with someone else about choosing what to include and exclude when you’re writing about a country and culture. I know some of the things I wrote struck a chord with Polish people – like shop assistants never having any change. Some of them cry from laughing at that. I also write about the difference between narodowość and obywatelctwo in Polish, which can both be translated into English as citizenship, but really describe different concepts – one being the nationality you have on your passport, and the other a deeper notion of belonging to a place, a land, which is you carry in your heart. I’m not sure that those of us from settler cultures can really understand this. What do you think? Ashley: I spent a lot of years researching and writing about Armenia, because my great grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide of World War One. And that research taught me a lot about the deep notion of belonging to a place, which I think in turn helps give me some insight into Aboriginal connection to land. And I agree, for me, especially because my family moved all over when I was a kid, I feel more like a pot plant, able to be picked up and relocated. And yet I am very Canadian (hence the politeness) and in Vodka and Apple Juice, you explore your Australianness.
Visit Jay Martin’s website for the continuation of this conversation, including her definitive quiz testing my Australianness!
Follow her on Twitter at @jaymartinwrites and check out her fabulous memoir,Vodka and Apple Juice.
When WA author Monique Mulligan prepares for an author interview, she really prepares.
And by that I mean she convinces her husband to go to the shops for condensed milk so she can make homemade caramel slice. Look at these beauties. Monique interviewed me for the Koorliny Arts Centre’s program Live: Stories on Stage this week, and she was definitely in the spirit of How to Be Australian.
Her baking prowess made me realise I’ve never made caramel slice. It also made me realise there’s a good reason for that: I would eat the whole pan in a day. As much as I’m a strong advocate for Australia embracing its place in world history as the homeland of the caramel slice, I’m also aware that too much caramel will one day give me diabetes.
Instead I bought a single gigantic caramel slice from a local cafe. What it lacks in flavour it makes up for in size.
Monique shared her own experience of moving from Sydney to Perth. She also asked some excellent questions, including how I would convince Canadians to visit Australia once we can all travel again. The answer to that is four simple words: “Australia – now spider-free!”
(Technically Australia isn’t spider-free, but that discovery can be part of the fun once visitors arrive and walk into a human-sized golden-orb spider web.)
She also asked if she were going to move to Winnipeg for a year, what three things would she need to know. One of my key tips is about driving in snow.
Swirling snow decreases visibility and the streets get icy slick unless the gravel trucks have been around to spray grit at the intersections. The key rule in these circumstances is to never slam your brakes. Slamming your brakes causes your tires to lock. When that happens, your vehicle becomes a two-ton metal cannonball on an unknown trajectory and you’re just along for the ride. When driving on ice, you’re meant to triple your braking distance and pump your brakes gently, like you’re giving CPR to a baby with your foot. One of our audience members also asked how my husband feels about being a central character in the book, and if he had veto power, which is an excellent question. Steve told me that he didn’t want to read the book because, to quote, “I was there, I don’t need to read it”. But I made him read it anyway, because that’s what marriage is about.
I read this book the first time for a clearer sense of world history and today’s geopolitics. But it’s one of the rare books I re-read, and that’s because of Ansary’s wonderful writing, his skill at weaving small details into the broad scope of historical events. At one point, he describes a cannon built for the Ottoman army that could fire a 1200-pound granite stone a mile. The cannon was so inaccurate, it missed the entire city it was aimed at, but this, Ansary notes, was beside the point. (Ansary himself reads the audio version, which really picks up on the humour in his anecdotes.)
I brought this on writing retreat in rural NSW this year, which was a mistake. I kept telling myself “just one more chapter,” until I eventually had to finish the book so I could get back to work.
Rarely do I manage to read prize-winning books in the year that they win their prizes; I’m always a little behind the curve. But I’m so glad I read The Erratics a few months after Laveau-Harvie won the Stella Prize, and attended a talk she gave. A fellow Canadian, she is as direct and wry in person as in her writing.
Anyone who talks to me for five minutes knows I’m a huge fan of Walter Mason. His books are wonderful, and he gives excellent talks on a variety of topics. Walter is one of those rare speakers who can take any topic and make it whimsical and entertaining.
After hearing many people recommend it, what made me seek this book out was Emily Maguire’s reference to it during the fabulous speech she made at my book launch. The connection she made resonated even more after reading Westover’s story.