Paris literary studio 1: Introduction

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Working in the Keesing Studio, February 2010

One of the most wonderful experiences of my writing life was when I was awarded a six-month residency at the Keesing Studio in Paris from February-August 2010. The Keesing Studio is a flat whose residencies are administered by the Australia Council, but which is part of the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, a massive complex housing lots of studios where artists from all disciplines from across the world can live and work for residencies of specific time limits. (Incidentally, the Keesing Studio and other artist residency locations, including in the Cité, feature in some interesting research done by the Australia Council recently, which you can read here.)

As the Australia Council’s website indicates, the Keesing Studio was generously leased in 1985 for 75 years by the late author Nancy Keesing ‘to provide Australian writers with the opportunity to live and write in a new and stimulating environment.’ It’s certainly that!  The flat itself is small (40 sq m altogether, comprising of one main room–living, sleeping and working space–with separate but very small kitchen, bathroom and store-room) but it’s clean, warm and functional, and set in an unbeatable location, in the buzzy, bustling Marais neighbourhood on the Right Bank, full of interesting little shops and restaurants. It’s only a few steps away from the Seine, and very close to Notre Dame and many other places.

Living area in 2010(our decorations!)

Living area in 2010(our decorations!)

I went with my husband David (you pay a minimal monthly fee to the Cité for partners to stay) and we both had the best time there, getting to know Paris really well, walking kilometres across it, looking at everything, shopping in local shops and markets, eating wonderful food, both at home and in little local restaurants, going to the theatre, visiting friends and family and feeling like we were really part of life there, not just passing tourists.

our favourite local restaurant, the Louis-Philippe

our favourite local restaurant, the Louis-Philippe

The residency was also intensely inspirational: at least three books came out of that six-month stay, though my actual time there was taken up not so much with writing manuscripts as soaking up atmosphere, doing heaps of research, visiting lots of museums, galleries, and sites of interest in Paris, but also outside of it including not only other parts of France, but also Russia, Malta and Italy! And what was more, during the time I was there, the first–yes, the first of my books to be published in French–Three Wishes, written under the pen-name of Isabelle Merlin, and retitled in France as ‘Paul, Charlie et Rose’– was actually released in March 2010 and I got to see it in Paris bookshops and at the wonderful Salon Du Livre(a huge event which is a combination of book trade expo, literary festival and rights fair), as well as having to meet the lovely publishers at Albin Michel.

My book in a Paris bookshop

It was an absolutely wonderful time whose influence continues to inspire me. And I’m not the only writer to feel that.  So I thought I’d start this new year with a new series, Paris literary studio, interviewing Australian writers who have been residents in the Keesing Studio, and finding out what their experiences have been. Later in the week I’ll be interviewing the current resident, Ursula Dubosarsky, and later still authors who were there at various times over the years, but today, I’d like to post a short extract from a piece I wrote after coming back from the residency, which was published in Australian Author, back in December 2010. You can get the full article here. (Free to ASA members, tiny price to non-members!)

amazing ceiling in my favourite Paris museum--Musee de la Chasse et Nature

amazing ceiling in my favourite Paris museum–Musee de la Chasse et Nature

Despite my French background I did not set foot in Paris till adulthood, because of my father’s Southern dislike of it. Whenever we were back in France, Dad would delight in saying, as our flight circled over Paris on its way to Toulouse, ‘That’s exactly where it belongs—under us.’

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Seafood display, markets 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Parisien, tete de chien’ (Parisians are dogs) has always been the vengeful, wounded cry of provincials. For of course Paris adds insult to injury by ignoring the feelings of the innumerable ‘ploucs’  who have converged on it, whether eagerly or resentfully, from all corners of France over the centuries. Plouc is a bogan, a hick, an unsophisticated person–and shorthand for a provincial, as far as Parisians are concerned—an attitude with a very long lineage, for plouc derives from an ancient Gaulish word meaning someone outside the territory of the Parisii, the tribe which ended up giving the city its name.

Paris street art(by Nemo) Belleville, Paris

Paris street art(by Nemo) Belleville, Paris

Luxembourg Gardens, spring 2010

Luxembourg Gardens, spring 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I’m Australian, too. I might carry the ingrained Southern prickliness in my genes, but I’ve been brought up in a culture which still regards the City of Light as a romantic dream, witness the many ‘I was in Paris and fell in love’ memoirs which have populated bestseller lists. So the opportunity to cast off my double plouc-ness as Australian and Southern French and immerse myself in Paris living and writing there for six months was irresistible, even though part of me was scared, wondering if I wouldn’t just end up hating the place. Months into my time here, I was still discovering just how disconcertingly wrong I’d been.

Thing is, nobody, not even a vengeful plouc, told me that the big city of big cities is actually not that at all, but rather a collection of villages….

Night walk, 2010

Night walk, 2010

Lovely review of The Tyrant’s Nephew

Lovely to read a great new review of a book I wrote quite some time ago: The Tyrant’s Nephew. Here’s an extract of the review, by fabulous musician and fairy folklore expert, Louisa John-Krol.

A guild of Carpet-Enchantresses, a Jinn Cat born of smokeless flame, Suloowa (murderous mermaids), werewolf clans, Shadow Walkers… what more do we need? This is the fantasy I love, set in exotic magic-realist landscapes where cars and gasmasks are interspersed with flying rugs and rituals to separate souls from bodies. Yay! There is even a gold crystal ball with an opal sphere within, like an eyeball, set on a stand, glittering and glowing, emitting a sinister hum: invidious spyware. Yes, my kind of book.

You can read the full review here.

Authors’ pick 24: Matthew Thompson

Ted Hughes Bestiary coverToday’s authors’ pick–and the final one in this series–has been chosen by Matthew Thompson.

A Ted Hughes Bestiary, poems selected by Alice Oswald.

The revelation of Ted Hughes and his exquisitely poised and powerful animal poetry was a long time coming. For decades a clear, open-hearted view appreciation of the crow poems and other work was not possible for me, due to the grip of Sylvia Plath’s fierce and tragic legend.

I did glance at Hughes’ poems now and then but my sight was displaced and distorted by the mythos of sadistic, maddening selfishness – even more so when I learned of how the woman that displaced Plath in Hughes’ affections, AssiaWevill, murdered their daughter and killed herself (and how quadruply weird to consider that Hughes and Plath’s son, Nicholas, eventually hanged himself in Alaska).

Age has taught me to let complexity be, even complexity of torment, instead of pruning it back to ready-understandability or by gripping isolated strands of it in order to haul oneself up to a fake height of mind.

So, a few months ago, decades after first reading Hughes, and while in Melbourne researching the life of a long-term recidivist prisoner for a book I’m writing, I slid from a bookstore shelf the slim hardback of A Ted Hughes Bestiary, Alice Oswald’s selection of Hughes’ animal poems.

Amidst the stark and ruthless crowscapes sat “The Jaguar”, a glimpse of a zoo-held beast seething with itself. I couldn’t help but think of my writing subject, a man who in his younger years could not be tamed, could not be contained, whose will was harder than the bars and walls around him.

…there’s no cage to him

His stride is wildernesses of freedom:

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.

Over the cage floor the horizons come.

But the prisoner’s jaguar days are gone.Sentenced again, this time to so long in isolation that even the judge said it would damage his mind, the man now sits spiritually detached from, but physically within spitting distance of, the predatory world of crime and jail. So attuned, he can sense when someone who, unlike battered old him, still hungers for prey: someone whosegrimacing face has not yet been smoothed. A blood-thirsty hunter in a moment that brings to mind the opening of Hughes’ “And Owl”:

Floats, a masked soul listening for death.

Death listening for a soul.

Yet it would be too limiting to keep relating these poems to men, to humans. Their centre is not anthropomorphic and in reading them, in handling them, DH Lawrence’s poem, “Fish”, comes to mind: specifically, its message that other beings inhabit their own universes, have not gods or not the same gods, are sometimes older and more purpose-made than we can comprehend. Lawrence’s narrator marvels at his witnessing of fish:

Loveless, and so lively!
Born before God was love,
Or life knew loving.
Beautifully beforehand with it all.

Joyce Carol Oates uses that line about a time “before God was love” to describe the severe and profound world of boxing, a world for its enthusiasts that remains beautifully before today’s widespread cringing avoidance of harm. The animals are not emotional about their pain or plight. They are clarity of instinct.

And over it all, unblinking in their exactitude, are not just Hughes’ famous crows but his hawk, who in “Hawk Roosting”, flies up to:

…revolve it all slowly –

I kill where I please because it is all mine.

Of course, there is so much more, including tales of animals lower on the food chain, but you’ll have to read them yourself. I have too much work to do.

 

Based in the small NSW town of Dungog, Matthew Thompson is the author of Running with the Blood God and My Colombian Death and a journalist whose recent work has focused on the violent intrigues of the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. For more information, see www.matthewthompsonwriting.com

Matthew Thompson

Authors’ pick 23: Sharon Rundle

asylum palaverToday’s authors’ pick has been chosen by Sharon Rundle.

Asylum,  Channa Wickremesekera, Published by Palaver.

For the purpose of my research, I’ve been reading a lot of novels by South Asian-Australian authors with ties to Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. I’ve read marvellous narratives from established and emerging writers. To choose one novel from this amazing array of fiction, is an enormous challenge. After long and difficult deliberation, I plumped for one that provided a new perspective, was surprisingly enjoyable, beautifully structured and written in a page-turning style.

Sometimes the best way to encourage discussion and provoke deeper thinking is through humour. Ideas that may seem simple on the surface havewider ripples and deeper currents than appear at first. So it is with Asylum by Channa Wickremesekera.

A young prison escapee decides to break into a home and take hostages,after the news that he is on the run with a gun is broadcast through media and police reports. The house he chooses is the home of Afghanis of Muslim faith. The mother wears a niqab, while her sometimes sullen, sometimes giggling young daughter, Aisha,wears a hijab. The mother understands English but prefers to speak in her Dari language.Through her family, she is the main negotiator with their captor. Khalid, the male teenage narrator with typical ‘attitude’, “I’ve seen bigger guns than that in Afghanistan with kids half his size” (p 23), is the perfect choice as the cynical observer. He is also a main player in the drama that unfolds as police surround the house. Negotiators are brought in to help, with mixed and sometimes hilarious results.

What could be a disaster turns into a tragi-comedy as the actions of the police and young man on the run with a gun become farcical when faced with this unexpected turn of events.

The Afghani family face another even deeper dilemma. Should they offer asylum to this person seeking refuge, as they believe they should? Should they lie to the police for the greater good? Which would give lesser offence to God? What to do in such an impossible situation? He is only a scared, tired, hungry, delinquent boy, after all. Khalid has heard it all before, “How you should look after people who take refuge with you, even if they are your worst enemies. Even if they had killed your own mother and father. I always thought that sort of thing happened only a long time ago and if it happened now it was only in the movies. Never thought we will have to practise it.”(p 40).

While the family debate the best plan, mum keeps cooking and feeding them all, including their captor Rusty.

This novel has impact and lingers in the mind long after it’s read. To my mind, ‘Asylum” should be on the HSC reading list. Suitable for both adults and young adults, the deceptively simple style and endearing narrator in “Asylum” allow for serious ideas to be discussed without polarising the audience. Many may be surprised by such a fresh perspective and by what they learn through humour.

 

Channa Wickremesekera is a Sri Lankan-Australian who has published three other novels, “Tracks” (published Sri Lanka, 2015), “Walls (Wasala, Sri Lanka, 2001)” and a novella “In the Same Boat” (Bay Owl Press, 2010).

A fun novel written in a jaunty teen voice—a novel that tries to tip our assumptions on their heads and succeeds.” —Anna Funder, author of Stasiland and All That I Am

“This is a timely novel, written with daring and imagination. It deals with themes that we urgently need to engage with and reflect upon, challenges that cry out for a long-overdue national conversation.” —Arnold Zable, author of Cafe ScheherazadeThe Fig Tree, and Violin Lessons

Asylum Wickremesekera, Channa. Published by Palaver.

ISBN 10: 0994343108 ISBN 13: 9780994343109

 

 

Sharon Rundle has researched novels by South-Asian Australian authors published in Australia for a Doctorate of Creative Arts thesis. She is co-editor of Indo-Australian anthologies of stories published by Picador Pan Macmillan (2009 & 2010 India, Australia & UK), Rupa Publishing in India (2014) and Brass Monkey Books in Australia (2012 & 2014).

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