The Bookworm Beijing.A few weeks ago we caught up with Australian author Jennifer Mills while she was in China as a writer in residence at
She is the author of the novels Gone (UQP, 2011) and The Diamond Anchor (UQP, 2009) and a chapbook of poems, Treading Earth (Press Press, 2009). She was the winner of the 2008 Marian Eldridge Award for Young Emerging Women Writers, the Pacific Region of the 2008-9 Commonwealth Short Story Competition, and the 2008 Northern Territory Literary Awards: Best Short Story. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Hecate, Overland, Heat, the Griffith Review, Best Australian Stories, and New Australian Stories, and she is a regular contributor to New Matilda and Overland.
We asked her to share her thoughts on China and writing.
On what brought her to China…
I was writer in residence at the Bookworm in Beijing for two months, with brief visits to Chengdu, Suzhou and Shanghai. My residency was organised through Asialink and funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australia-China Council.
What she found while she was here…
Chengdu impressed me. I was very much looking forward to the food and the pandas, both of which were fabulous, but I was also pleasantly surprised to find an interesting community of writers, thinkers and artists. Chengdu has such a long cultural history, and there are hints of a radicalism and diversity which is missing from mainstream perceptions of China. This seems to be having an effect on the quality of work produced there in English too, if the first issue of ma la is anything to go by. I was also very impressed by the little umbrella clamps on everyone’s bicycles, which I haven’t been able to find anywhere else.
I spent most of my time in Beijing and found the city such an interesting place to be that all I could wish for is to return there. The insane level of development is impressive, the arts are blossoming, there are inspiring points of resistance, but for all its energy the city itself is surprisingly tranquil. I worked on several short stories while I was there and a short collection of poems which I want to make into an online project early next year, when I get the time to sit down and arrange them. The short stories will add to a collection I am planning. Hopefully some of them will also turn up in anthologies here and there over the next twelve months.
The residency was very deeply exploratory for me. Rather than researching anything specific, I was there to learn and found that I spent much of my time simply paying attention: reading, watching, listening, having conversations. Learning a bit of Mandarin. This meant I was able to allow ideas to form quite organically, and I’m really grateful that the residency allowed for such an opening-up. I was quite exhausted after writing my second novel Gone, and needed some time to be stimulated with fresh ideas and experiences. China was perfect. Inspiration is never a problem for me – there are stories everywhere, and I am always travelling too much, so never bored. I wish I had more time at home to do the work.
On her newest book and why it was easy to write a male character…
Part of that exhaustion I mentioned was due to the fact that Gone was a much darker book than my first (I am not at all nervous about its reception; as far as I know I have very few fans to disappoint!). The protagonist of Gone, Frank, is a very deeply messed up character. Writing from the perspective of someone with a “mental illness” – however literary or metaphorical that diagnosis turns out to be – was challenging. We have pretty different ideas about reality, him and me. I had to work hard to figure out how he would see the world and the kind of language I could use to describe it. He spent a lot of time in prison and I was also worried about speaking authoritatively about that experience. Because I have worked closely with ex-prisoners in the past, I am aware of how very different their world is from mine. I was exploring ideas around history, trauma, memory and justice, ideas which have really absorbed me in the last five years living in Alice Springs in Central Australia, where every day you are confronted with the realities of ongoing colonisation. My story was an attempt to look at the faulty approaches we make to acknowledge and understand the past. With all of that in my head, writing from a male perspective hardly crossed my mind.
New ideas for a new year…
The short fiction I have been working on since my visit to China is leaning in a more magical or SF direction, which is something I have always toyed with but am now more conscious of doing. A few years ago in Central America I was told that magical realism isn’t seen as a genre there, but as an accurate representation of everyday life. I think there might be a parallel with China and SF. I can see there are real opportunities to use the medium of fiction to talk about the political situation in an indirect way – so I am very interested to see what the new generation of Chinese writers comes up with.
Three of my China stories – ‘Demolition’ ‘Architecture’ and ‘Aperture’ – are going to be in a collection I hope to release in the next twelve months. And a small collection of poems will be launched online in some form later in the year.
Keep an eye on jenjen.com.au or my twitter feed (@millsjenjen) for updates. Oh, and Gone will be released on 28 February 2011.