Over four days in the northern summer of 2017, the sixth NonfictioNOW Conference took place in Reykjavik, Iceland. NonfictioNOW is a biennial international gathering of writers—usually about 400—for conversations on nonfiction writing, past, present and future, and its crossovers with other media and genres. So: the essay (lyric, personal, hybrid, experimental, speculative, video, visual), nonfiction poetry, memoir, biography, literary journalism, travel writing, graphic nonfiction, flash nonfiction and so on. (Full disclosure: I am currently co-president of the not-for-profit Board of NonfictioNOW.)
For many people from the US, who make up the largest group of NonfictioNOW delegates, Iceland seemed like a long way away. As for Australians, we are used to traveling. The group of writers assembled here are just some of the large contingent that made the long journey north. Afterwards, we invited these eight to take part in an event in RMIT non/fictionLab’s Present Tense series in Melbourne. The idea was to perform a chorus of reports. The format of the evening was somewhat inspired by the Queer Aesthetics panel Quinn Eades, Peta Murray, Francesca Rendle-Short and Barrie Jean Borich devised and performed in Reykjavik. It also follows a performative ‘collage’ model that Francesca and I have developed through a number of international WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) events in Australia and Asia.
In the case of this Chorus of Reports, it went like this: each of the eight writers was asked to prepare two short pieces to read. The order would be randomly devised; each writer drawing the next speaker’s name out of a hat. No preliminaries, no faff.
For the first piece: describe a pivotal moment for you at the Reykjavik conference - something from a panel you gave or attended, a keynote or some other conference event. Choose something that rocked your socks, prompted an epiphany or touched you deeply in whatever way. Try to take us to that moment and have us understand why it mattered.
The second piece: (shorter) a creative statement or manifesto or rant or litany or incantation or something else on what nonfiction can do now.
This is roughly what happened on the night:
Part 1 Pivotal moments, epiphanies and consequences
Sam Van Z, on the light creeping in around the edges:
When I arrive in Iceland for NonfictioNOW, I’ve been working on two projects for a long while. One a book-length collection of lyric essays about food, memory and the body. The other is a TinyLetter that I make with my partner, a photographer, where we make words and pictures, and put them together to see what happens.
The manuscript feels closed. Afraid of being misunderstood, I’ve written over any gaps, trying to pin down my meaning. Any life that was once in it has been strangled out - and I don’t know how to let go. I don’t know how to hold it lightly.
The TinyLetter, on the other hand, feels open - full of play and possibility. The times when it fails are balanced by those when it sings. I can’t explain what makes it work. I can’t recreate the lightness.
When I arrive in Iceland, I feel disconnected from the how of my practice, and this is scary.
During the conference, memoirist Sarah Hepola says: ‘Epiphanies are overrated. Things don't happen in single moments.’
In their panel, Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Kendal suggest ‘discarding the wall of prose’, calling for writing that lets light in - embracing uncertainty and imperfection; and I know this, I know. But telling me to let go won’t make me let go. It’s like my doctor telling me I just need to calm down. Or that insomnia is worse when I keep thinking about how I can’t sleep. How do I write while also giving up a ‘sense of completeness’? How to let go of fear and the impulse to fill in?
Later, documentary poet Erikah Meitner explains the relationship between her poems and the photo essays they accompany. The relationship, she says, is one of three things: an illustration, a metaphor, or a juxtaposition. I recognise these as the things that create space in my TinyLetter. They are also my best tools in deconstructing ‘the wall of prose’.
Another conference speaker says, ‘Lyric essay can inhabit silences and the ways we can intuit things’. So often I write from a gut feeling - this is both essential and infuriating. Its openness defines it, and I love that, but it’s also difficult to work into it with intentionality because of that. Erikah Meitner’s three things explanation applies to lyric essays, too. Braiding an essay around a central theme, what’s pulled in is illustration, metaphor and juxtaposition. Light creeps in around the edges of these things.
This growing sense is not a key that unlocks anything, but it does help me see that the things that work in both projects aren’t dissimilar - I am increasingly able to diagnose what feels right. Not by locking it down, but by acquiring the language I need to identify and speak about it more clearly.
Loosening my grip. Letting light in.
Epiphanies are overrated. Things don’t happen in single moments.
When I touch down in Melbourne again, and when I learn to sleep in darkness again, then I can breathe. I am reconnected to my practice, ready to return to the desk.
Sam C, on the keynote speech of Aisha Sabatini Sloane:
Late one afternoon at the conference, or perhaps it was early one evening or who knows what time because it certainly was simply daylight, I walked into a cavernous dark theatre inside a towering glass-covered building squatting teeteringly on the shoreline, and I took a seat in the second front row of many rows and saw someone lying on the ground as a presumed friend of this person stroked her forehead. I listened covertly, my eyes locked on to something made of paper and words in my hand, as this friend cooed to her and told her everything would be okay, and I learned that this person lying on the ground being cooed to was Aisha Sabatini Sloan, the person who I and a couple of hundred others were here to see give a public talk, and I learned that Sloan was very ill and I learned that Sloan had been up all night vomiting, and I learned that she still had been vomiting all that day and felt like vomiting right now, even while lying on the ground with someone stroking her forehead and telling her everything would be okay. And I saw Sloan pick herself up and I felt my body care about her even though I didn’t know her and didn’t know her work and she was only still a name and a vague reputation to me, and I saw this ill person spend the next hour or maybe two on stage, sitting down instead of standing up, deliver one of the most powerful talks, and by powerful I mean the absolutely opposite of what we’ve largely been taught to associate with the word ‘powerful’ – for this was powerful in the most quiet, humble, thoughtful, inclusive way, and though Sloan was technically a small and kind of hunched figure on a giant stage in a cavernous room inside a towering building on a blustery shoreline, and though Sloan was invited because she represented things and though she did her best to let us know that she didn’t at all represent these things she also knew that she did represent these things, though she was just another writer talking to a bunch of other writers, what I saw was someone literally pick themselves up off the floor to speak clearly a bunch of sentences to a room full of people that needed to hear these sentences, whether they agree with me or not.
Tresa, with a story inspired by personal accounts of racism against Latinos in the US, heard during the panel session Toward a More Inclusive Canon: Diversifying the Creative Nonfiction Syllabus:
There weren’t always houses on Florentia Street. Oxnard, California used to farmland stretching out to the ocean until houses sprang up where the strawberry fields used to be. Two years ago they built this gated community to keep the La Colonia gangs out. Laying in bed, I listen to La Colonia across the park, huffing like a child before a tantrum. The winds quiet. Then three explosive pops and that concussive ring. ‘Fireworks or gunshots?’ I wonder. The El Niño rains haven’t arrived yet but the air is heating up.
The volume on the TV downstairs fades. Dad’s been watching his favorite Rojo contestant, Maria Jimena Pereyra’s Spanish version of I will survive, Yo Viviré. On American Idol yesterday, Simon Cowell said ‘this isn’t Chilean karaoke’ and I wondered if he meant Rojo. I can hear Maria Jimena’s voice drain with each click of the remote. Now we are both listening to the winds at our door.
They say that when this year’s El Niño storm hits Southern California the mountains will fall onto the highway and I won't be able to go to university anymore. That’s okay with me. I don’t like it there out past La Conchita, in Santa Barbara. They tell me I’m not supposed to be there. Not with those words, with things like, ‘my friend didn’t get in because they let people like you in,’ and ‘they go easier on people like you, that’s why you’re doing so well.’
If they ask why I don't go, I’ll tell them it's El Niño. Last time it came it buried La Conchita. The town was built on sand against a mountain. It was three blocks long and three blocks wide with ocean views. But to get to the beach you had to cross eight lanes of the Pacific Coast Highway. They say that one night El Niño was so bad the hills couldn't take it. They buried a block of houses while a father went to get ice cream for his children. They had to pull him off the hill. Every time he dug into the earth, it fell again over the valley he had made. He was Sisyphus condemned to an eternity of watching the hill crumble in his hands.
Fireworks are illegal but you still buy them as easily as you could a churro or a Boyz II Men CD at the Swap Meets on Sunday afternoon. After all, firecrackers are just flash paper, a fuse and gunpowder. I listen for screaming. I don't hear anything. Just the El Niño winds kicking around the streets.
Hey, you know up there in Ventura on the hill there used to be a cemetery? You could see it clear to the ocean. Now only a few plaques sit where the gravestones were and people bring their dogs to stretch their legs and play catch on the grass. The reason is because 100 years ago El Niño came through. The graves came up. Coffins floated down Main Street into ocean, like a real life Dia De Los Muertos procession.
I won’t go back to university tomorrow. I wrap my blankets around me like the stories of this town and it’s quiet. But then fire trucks bleet out their song, the ambulance, the police cars. Always in that order. I wonder how quiet it must be out past La Conchita, before people like me brought the storms.
Fiona, from a panel about collaboration:
In a panel about collaboration, which I love, but rarely do, in a room that feels like an old theatre, the final speaker is a woman from Belgium who looks like Björk, dark-haired and big-eyed; she runs, she says, a small press named for honey, and also a writer’s residency – people suddenly scribble when she says this – because she’s interested in the co-labour of collaboration, in labouring alone, but with companionship.
My housemates and I sometimes have evenings where we sit on our three couches and put in earphones, one of us watching Netflix, one listening to podcasts, one reading on her Kindle. We call these earphone evenings, together alone, alone but with companionship.
Two days before the panel I’d arrived in Reykjavik, rolled up into the basement flat of a beautiful white house, opposite a church built of grey concrete, arching up into the overcast sky; the people I was staying with, good friends and writers all, were curled up in the armchairs when I got there – reading, tapping away at laptops, marking up a manuscript. I’d been felling raw, and rubbed back by all of the small encounters I’d had in transit; by the eerie bus trip from the airport to the city, past flat fields of black basalt stretching unbroken to the coastline, ancient-looking, and moon-like. I’d been alone, and largely silent, for thirty-two hours by this stage. My friends had filled the house already with food, crackers and cheese, two bottles of wine to share; that night we ate together, read together; slept early and deeply in shared bedrooms.
The next day, I dressed myself in seven layers and walked across the city, past the angular town hall and up the hill, the houses quiet still, and sleepy. I wrote for a while in a café and my friends met me there a little later, and we walked for several hours through the town, crossing underneath the freeway to a forested park on its outskirts, talking the whole time of books and films and writing and ideas, what we were working on, what we wanted to be working on.
One friend said, I went away for a weekend with my schoolfriends, and when I went outside to read for a while, all four of them came out, in turns, to check on me and ask me what was wrong.
One friend said, when I go away with my family and need to get out, I say I’m going for a walk, and my mother always says, oh! I’ll come with you!
When we got back to the house that afternoon we read and worked and wrote and I felt serene and properly present in a way that I so rarely do. Co-labour, I think, is co-mindedness, is comfortable; and I realise that we’re more powerful and protected when we do this.
Robyn, in and around the keynote of Karl Ove Knausgård:
Here is Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård keynoting. The Danish Ambassador introduced him as ‘Proust for the internet age’. There is a touch of Kierkegaard grandeur in his highly-worked essay on domestic verities. Waiting for a letter from the Swedish Academy?
The keynotes were held in the grand auditorium of the Harpa Building, a beautiful Reykjavik landmark down by the harbour. The wind was cold and the water steel blue in early June. Summer is a relative concept in Iceland. Perhaps this opened us up to nominalism and some shape-shifting when considering the truth-telling of contemporary nonfiction.
One panel session at the conference was called ‘Based on a True Story’; an Icelandic research project in law and literature. It considered Knausgård’s six-volume series of autobiographical novels. He did not change names to protect the guilty. His family sued unsuccessfully to stop publication. His now ex-wife had a nervous breakdown, making her own contribution to the life story on her radio show. Critics remain perplexed by the mix of fact and fiction.
What strikes me is the blend of literature and marketing. Like calling it ‘My Struggle’, a reference to Hitler’s autobiography. Like telling ‘the truth’ about everyone in your life in the style of a tell-all magazine profile. A girlfriend said: “It was as if he said: Now I'm going to punch you in the face. I know it's going to hurt, and I will drive you to the hospital afterwards. But I'm going to do it anyway.”
In the ‘after-life’ of social media, readers speaking back to controversial truth-telling means the work of this kind of nonfiction text can be ongoing and even ‘curated’, becoming an instigator of events. It’s animated through the uncanny vivacity of the text of the law, too, where words written have force and consequences and are played out in defamation cases and injunctions in the theatre of the courts.
All this showed me that what counts as truth, in a ‘post-truth’ world, is far more artful, more vindictive and closer to life than art. Truth becomes a malleable property of the nonfiction text. This truth is no longer authorized. This truth is on the move and nonfiction is its vehicle.
Janice, away with the Irish at a panel called ‘Letters to Iceland’:
I felt bubble trapped–not like Trapped the Icelandic TV show–more like in an American sitcom, say Seinfeld, where all I was hearing was how great everything was in this bubble of everything that’s good about nonfiction–the American greats, or the great Americans. I was up to the pussy’s bow, which is why I raced off to a panel conducted by three Irish people. At last, news from without!
Before beginning their session, ‘Letters to Iceland’, Colin [Graham] placed postcards on tables, gave me three. The back half of a horse, a man with two horses only one entirely in the frame, three men preparing to dive into a pool at what appears to be a competition of some sort. These were reproductions of photographs W.H. Auden took when travelling with his friend Louis McNiece in Iceland in 1936. During their time away they sent letters–some prose, some verse–to lovers and friends in the United Kingdom. Originally published in 1937, Letters From Iceland is a collage of tourist notes, verses and letters. It is part travelogue, part meditation on what might soon happen in Europe, and has run to more than 20 editions.
Taking Letters From Iceland as a starting point, Selina [Guinness] began, reading a letter she had handwritten a month ago to her long-time friend, Rosita [Boland]. Rosita then read a letter to Colin, Selina’s husband. Colin read a letter to his wife, and so on it went, until in all six letters were read aloud. The letters contemplated friendship, collaboration, travel, writing, photography.
Rosita, as it turns out, has visited more than 100 countries over the last 30 years, many of the trips working as a journalist with The Irish Times but she has never taken photographs. For Colin, photography is the subject of his latest book ‘Northern Ireland: Thirty Years of Photography’.
Rosita said, ‘Our lives are as ephemeral as words written on water.’
Selina said, ‘Can I write a sentence that will exceed the photograph?’
Selina, Colin and Rosita–poets, memoirists, novelists. The warmth of their creative work, their love of painting with words. What is it about the Irish voice? I’ve known women to fall in love with a man just because he speaks in an Irish accent. Perhaps I have even done that myself.
Quinn, among knots that can’t be undone:
On the fourth day in Reykjavik
my palms start to itch.
I walk to the Harpa, a square
glassed building next to the water,
and pull my jacket’s hood over my head.
Earache threatens to come
because I have flown for 35 hours
to walk across the top of the world
to sit in a conference
to listen to six sunlit nights
— In an overpriced restaurant an American saysTo walk across a country under siege from tourists
— Oh you’re from Melbourne
— From Down Under
— And I say yes but why under, doesn’t it depend where you’re standing?
who stagger and drink and shop unrelentingly
— There is a penis museum here where you can buy key rings and cupsAt the top of the world in endless light
— There is a coffee shop that grinds its beans in the middle of us all
— They play Leonard Cohen LPs
— Everywhere has a coat rack
teenagers do night things but we can see them
cats walk haunches up on the hunt
a taxi driver tells me crime is low
The conference goes like this:
(Bataille, formlessness, the universe like spider, or spit.
What is worth writing about?
The lie of ‘realness’, gaps, silences, slippages.
Wayne Koestenbaum in defence of nuance,
the lover who wants to escape the prison of discourse.
Glaze, the aroma that the message leaves behind.
Refusing to articulate the frame.
Rope games. Knots that can’t be undone.
Made with fishing line or fine cotton.
Once tied, the knot stays.
He says in his smoothing New York voice that we leave
the tether of the frame in search of the principles of the frame.
In a broken flash I am both frame and tether,
the tight and tiny cotton knot, fishing line strung
always with give, between two poles,
learning how to sleep under a midnight sun.)
A reading, a book launch, two panels
are done, and my ears know now that they are allowed
The wounded eye.
Snow in the distance.
A steel Viking ship
struck at the edge of the water,
settled on a cement disk.
Tourists in red and blue puffy jackets
climb and pose and take photos grinning for their future selves
and facebook and instagram
(how many likes?).
I walk past the steel ship skeleton
and squint one eye
so I can see it without people,
without puffy jackets
and thumbs up.
A three second glimpse
of slick surface,
the Viking call,
this frozen rising ocean, mountains
a finger-width away, an orange
lighthouse behind me, an ear
Peta Murray, on unpanelling, in her asparagus crown:
[PM stage direction to self: PUT ONE EYEMASK ON ONE SIDE OF YOUR HEAD]
It’s not just about the light and it’s not just about the landscape. It’s not just about the iron clad houses, their bold colours, so sailors can see home from the sea. It’s not just about the HARPA concert hall, the gills and bones and scales of it. Can a building be a fish?
It’s not just about the high cost of living, the wilting vegetables far beyond our price range, in the two kinds of supermarkets, Kronun and Bonus, only one of which is any good according to my friend the poet, who is a writer-in-residence somewhere out of town. In a lava field. I’ll say that again. In a lava field.
And it’s not just about the furniture in our airbnb, the colourgraded shelves of books for décor, the map of Greenland on the wall, the individual coverlets on a double bed, or the flimsy, useless blinds that do not mask the ever-present day light, so that I cannot sleep. 1am. 2am. 3.
[PUT ON A SECOND EYEMASK]
It’s not just about the overpriced fish dinner in the quaint restaurant full of old men with chiseled faces who wear bulkyknit jumpers over best shirts and ties.
Or that walk up that mountain. Helgafells. Or the crunch of our boots on the ground underfoot or the haze of our breaths or the sparseness of the vegetation, yet its boldness, its fluorescence. Especially the defiant moss. Or the climb that is meant to be easy, but is not. Or the cold, though it’s said to be summer.
My epiphany happens at the exhibition over the road. Where a photographic collaboration I have adored from afar called Eyes as Big as Plates, featuring, as some have said with derision, old people with vegetation on their heads - rhubarb, lichen, branches, turf – has an opening night in Nordic House, on the eve of our conference. So that I may meet the artists, Karoline Hjorth and Ritta Ikonen, and their octogenarian subjects in real life and see the photos just once as they are meant to be seen, and drink free wine and hug and be hugged by this dynamic duo, one from Finland, one from Norway, as we squeal at the synchronicity and the wonder of it all.
This is the best moment of the conference and it is an unconferenced moment. And there’s the rub of it. That UN.
[PUT ON A THIRD EYEMASK]
Three day-nights later, our unpanelling. Our nonfiction as queer panel that is not be corralled into any kind of familiar shape, and the paper I must give that will not let me write it, and the unraveling this induces in little old jetlagged, sleep-deprived me, so that when the moment comes I am beside myself, I am unmade.
[PUT ON YOUR ASPARAGUS CROWN. TRY TO GO BACK THERE]
Yet the words come, and my paper is, somehow, bespoke. And I stand there. In my asparagus crown. And I am in Iceland.
Part 2 what nonfiction can do now: rants, litanies, incantations, manifestos…
The non in non-fiction is what we do not choose
we don’t foray, we begin
it is something I respect severely,
a text container
a running on the animating current of doubt.
I was not always as you see me now
in a body that doesn’t fit the tradition
I had to make myself less recognisable
in order to not be misrecognised
it begins with a hole.
There are non-fictional dimensions of the internet.
It is working from immersion backwards
it is a wonder towards facts
a clustering of facts
an accumulation of facts
it is making facts kinetic.
I think of
something flat, now risen
something to distill the fear
the more you use
it the more it
I’m uncomfortable every day and
I want people to be uncomfortable
I asked, what is your favourite
kind of laughter, she said
you’d love the light here
the light here
The Icelandic alphabet has thirty-two letters, an extra six on top of those we know, so that it’s both familiar and strange to the eye. While I was there I tried sounding out some words. Especially a very long one meaning “salted licorice chocolate.”
Salted licorice chocolate is the kind of creative nonfiction of confectionary.
For nonfiction is a confection.
It mixes and compounds and this is what gives nonfiction its capacity to make strange and to keep strange. And I believe that this strange-making and strange-keeping has restorative powers.
Restore comes to us with Latin roots, inviting us to re-stand, to stand again, to arise, we might say, repaired, rebuilt, renewed.
Nonfiction, through play and ploy, through the queering of things, has the capacity to surprise and re-awaken, transforming our everydayness and restoring hope. It can repair our capacity to see, and to listen. It can rebuild our curiosity, and renew our willingness to question and to resist.
Nonfiction has done some fancy restoration work on me. It has allowed me to move away from the solidity of writing about, towards another kind of writing, a writing from, in a form that fuses performance writing and the essay. My hope is that through this liveness, in its ungainliness and unfinishedness, I may encounter new ways of knowing. And unknowing. Of becoming – even in an unbecoming headpiece.
And to paraphrase the late Bryce Courtenay, one should never underestimate the power of un-.
In Iceland there are 10,000 writers for a population of 340,000. The Icelandic government buys 1000 copies automatically of every book published.
Iceland does this for its writers, the state sponsorship of literature, because otherwise they would have no literature. They do this because Icelandic is not English.
Meanwhile Australian writers face the cruel trifecta of publishing monopolies going global and sucking up local imprints, Amazon underselling them, and 'fair use' literally putting us out of business.
Australia, too, is a minor literature, and is a downtrodden colony of US/UK cultural imperialism. Digital disruption and commercial genre publishing squeeze out indie publishers with their economies of scale and mass audiences. Or they buy them up, if they succeed. They to add them to global stables where marketing directors sit on every board.
Commercial genres can't substitute for a writing culture & soon Australia will be without one.
We need a chook raffle. We need something like Britain’s national lottery. We need philanthropy like Twiggy Forrest gives to the Western Force rugby team. We need a national press, like we have a national broadcaster.
We need a not-for-profit national press with a peer-reviewed process and some 'zero-price' marketing strategies, like handing out free books on public transport).
Call it The Chook Raffle Press. Books don’t work so well when made into commodities. Make Australian writing free-to-air! That’s my rave.
I originally wanted to write an incantation about nonfiction. I started researching the ‘Galdrabók’, which is the Icelandic Book of Magic from about 1600. It’s a beautiful looking book filled with spells and symbols. But I couldn’t get a copy. Probably for the best. It says things like, say this spell and a daemon will appear and cough up the person who stole from you. I wouldn’t want to unleash any rogue spirits here tonight.
But isn’t that what good nonfiction does. Haunt us, cast its spell. Show us our daemons.
Fittingly, nonfiction is defined by what it is not. What are we are missing. What exists in absentia.
The panel that I referenced in my earlier story was based on Junot Díaz’s article MFA vs. POC. In the article, Díaz criticized the American creative writing workshop and its curriculum for being too white, reproducing the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around things like race and racism, sexism, heteronormativity. On the panel, several women discussed their experiences in university. We teared up, because we were not used to talking about these things. And yet, they were not that different to what Sandra Cisneros had spoken about years before.
As a matter of fact, just the other day, Latino students trying to register for a mock trial were called mediocre and underqualified in a mass email mistakenly sent to University of Maryland students. Ironically they denied them the experience to be a part of the trial, because they didn’t have enough experience. They only apologised that students had learned of their assessment.
Here in Australia, the world is not so different than the United States. While the names have changed, the old spirits remain the same. Nonfiction is an incantation. It can bring these kinds of social injustices to light, coughing them out before us. We just need to make sure our stories aren’t erased before we can write them.
Let me begin by asking you if a painting is fiction and a photograph nonfiction; a weather forecast fiction and a weather report nonfiction; a recipe a fiction and a meal on the table nonfiction?
Real or imaginary? It is said that one’s imagination leads to fictional creations. But one’s imagination is real. So real in fact that people can suffer for years from imaginary afflictions, both physical and psychological. Therefore, if fiction is spawned from something real–the imagination–then isn’t the resulting product nonfiction?
Let’s take a couple of examples. What are Helen Garner’s books The Spare Room and Monkey Grip? Or what of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Garner claims she made things up; Capote and Berendt claimed they wrote the truth. But you know what, all of them are lying…
‘Is there a scale with pure fact at one end and pure fiction at the other?’ asks Carmel Bird (1993). David Carlin’s beginning nonfiction writing students see a marked distinction between the forms, believing that fiction has the ‘capacity to lie and make things up’ and nonfiction ‘is bound, as if unmediated, to the facts’ (2012, p. 3). This view relies on an assumption to distinguish the two forms: that facts are immutable.
Let’s dispense with this binary of real vs unreal; fiction vs nonfiction. Let’s free ourselves and our readers. It’s a nonsense to make an arbitrary distinction. We have to name this way of writing something other than what it is not, but often is.
I am trying to get at something
and I want to talk very plainly to you
so that we are both comforted by the honesty.
You see there is a window by my desk
I stare out when I am stuck
though the outdoors has rarely inspired me to write
and I don't know why I keep staring at it.
My childhood hasn't made good material either
mostly being a mulch of white minutes
with a few stand out moments,
popping tar bubbles on the driveway in the summer
a certain amount of pride at school
everytime they called it "our sun"
and playing football when the only play
was "go out long" are what stand out now.
If squeezed for more information
I can remember old clock radios
with flipping metal numbers
and an entree called Surf and Turf.
As a way of getting in touch with my origins
every night I set the alarm clock
for the time I was born so that waking up
becomes a historical reenactment and the first thing I do
is take a reading of the day and try to flow with it like
when you're riding a mechanical bull and you strain to learn
the pattern quickly so you don't inadvertently resist it.
I am trying to get at something so simple
that I have to talk plainly
so the words don't disfigure it
and if it turns out that what I say is untrue
then at least let it be harmless
like a leaky boat in the reeds
that is bothering no one.
The world is vicious and beautiful and, to some extent, unexplainable. But that doesn’t stop us from wanting a story, all the same.What can nonfiction do?
- Thomas Paige McBee, Man Alive
When my children were small they loved the book and the TV show called Guess How Much I Love You. One long morning, drowning in children’s TV, I saw and heard this:
The baby owl sits on a stump and tells the animals gathered around her a story of ice and sun, darkness shrouding, thirst licking like death at their throats, sun that refuses to set. Then a night that takes hold and will not release its grip. In the end, balance is restored. Little Nutbrown Hair asks
“Is that story true Little Owl?”
There is a pause.
“It is true that it is my story Little Nutbrown Hare.”
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don't miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.I am wobbling all over the place. My neck and shoulder have been in a screaming spasm for the last week.
- Audre Lorde 1984
What can nonfiction do?
This is the question I was given, and I have 2 minutes to tell you what I think. 2 minutes is around 300 words, and I have already used thirty-five of them. So I think all I have are questions. Why is it always autobiography for me, even when I am writing poetry? Why are people frightened for me when I tell life stories? When I crack open the cage of my chest and invite people to look in? Because I speak with impropriety. Because I write us fucking bright and hard in the torque of night. Because I am willing to tell you everything. In The Pleasure of the Text Barthes says that ‘Text means Tissue… [and that] lost in this tissue–this texture–the subject unmakes [themselves], like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web.’
In 2015 I published a book of my body (Barthes also says that “for some perverts the sentence is a body”). The body in that book is and is not the body that stands on this stage, because writing changes. The body in that book is cunted-breasted-birthing-breastfeeding-bursting open terrified-trauma laced-reaching for a queer place. The body in that book could feel tissue wanting to assemble differently, could feel a violently approaching shift. The same month the book was launched a different body was also being launched (because writing changes).
What can nonfiction do? For this body that stands here, nonfiction is fishing line or string, an entanglement of writing and tissue, that alters, that loosens and tightens, that pulls so hard it holds. This body was Barthes’s spider dissolving in its string and fishing line web, and once dissolved, this body was made new.
What does nonfiction do? It makes tissue-stories and sends them out to be imbibed, to make change, to open us up, to thread a web under our tightropes, to push us into a howl and a laugh, and to hold us as we walk. Nonfiction connects.
Sam van Z:
I’m rethinking my heroes.
At the three NonfictioNOW conferences that I’ve attended, I met writers whose nonfiction has shaped my writing practice. International authors whose existence was suddenly made real by proximity.
As the birthplace of much of the experimental work that has stretched the genre, and with a market that’s more commercially viable than our own, the US is seen as the promised land for creative nonfiction. There are strong collectives talking about and sharing one another’s work, supporting their community and seeking collaboration. The benefits are obvious - these are the communities that make things like NonfictioNOW possible.
These conferences have also allowed me to meet people from Melbourne who I hadn’t met at home. Their work is phenomenal, even - especially - alongside all the American writers I already considered my heroes. How had I missed all of this? Is it because I’m no longer a part of academia? Is this where the exciting stuff lives? Why had I (and I think so many young creative nonfiction writers) been looking overseas for examples of exciting writing, when what’s happening at home is alive and compelling and fierce and important?
My writing heroes have been international for too long. What nonfiction can do now, here in Australia, is start conversations that champion our own. It’s time to find local heroes - our peers, our mentors, our leaders and emerging writers. It’s time to amplify the volume of those who are working to redefine the genre locally.
It’s time to speak loudly about what we’ve been reading - the Australian affliction of Tall Poppy syndrome is real, but communities exist to lift one another up. The conversation needs to be loud enough that when our young nonfiction writers think of ‘great experimental and creative nonfiction’ they think of Australian work, and of people they recognise at events, people they can approach for mentorship, and speak with meaningfully.
So I’m committing to talk loudly about the experimental, uncomfortable, underrepresented and challenging Australian nonfiction that I’m reading. Because these conversations start with readers. They get books from smaller presses into more hands and on more course reading lists. These conversations educate our publishers and our prizes.
The conversation starts with readers, so speak loudly.
Thanks to RMIT University’s non/fictionLab for its support, in particular Francesca Rendle-Short and Adrian Miles, as well as Tresa LeClerc, Stef Markidis and Sophie Langley who coordinated the Present Tense event series. A significantly expanded version of one of Sam van Zweden’s contributions was first published as “I’m Rethinking My Heroes: Australian Nonfiction and Reading Loudly”, Meanjin Online, April 5 2018.
David Carlin is a writer and creative artist based in Melbourne. His next book, The After-Normal, co-written with Nicole Walker, is forthcoming from Rose Metal Press in 2019. David is a Professor at RMIT University, where he co-directs WrICE and non/fictionLab.
Sam Cooney runs TLB, a not-for-profit publishing organisation that publishes the quarterly literary mag The Lifted Brow as well as books through Brow Books. Sam is also official 'publisher-in-residence' at RMIT University, a freelance writer and many many other things.
Quinn Eades is a researcher, writer, and award-winning poet whose work lies at the nexus of feminist, queer and trans theories of the body, autobiography, and philosophy. Eades is published nationally and internationally, and is the author of all the beginnings: a queer autobiography of the body, published by Tantanoola.
Robyn Ferrell is the author of several books of philosophy and creative writing and is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her nonfiction book, The Real Desire, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award.
Tresa Le Clerc is a writer and PhD candidate in RMIT’s non/fictionLab. As part of her creative project, she is writing an ethnographically informed novel, entitled All The Time Lost, that explores migrancy and the everyday in Melbourne, Australia. Her short story ‘American Riviera’, was published as part of the book 9 Slices.
Peta Murray is a writer of some award-winning and widely performed plays, as well as essays, short stories and works of essayesque dismemoir, a form she has invented and developed through a recently completed PhD, which examiner Marion Campbell described as ‘an exceptional and groundbreaking practice-driven research thesis, amazingly original.’
Janice Simpson is a crime writer, whose novel, Murder in Mt Martha was published in 2016. Janice is a national convenor of Sisters in Crime, a not-for-profit organisation promoting women crime writers and readers, as well as a PhD candidate and member of the Non/fiction Lab at RMIT University.
Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Cordite, The Wheeler Centre and others. Her work has been shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, the Lifted Brow and non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Writing Prize and the Lord Mayor's Creative Writing Awards.
Fiona Wright's books of poetry and nonfiction, including 2015’s Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays in Hunger have won many awards. Her poems have twice appeared in Best Australian Poems and she is the 2017 Copyright Agency (CAL) New Writer in Residence at University of Technology Sydney