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Below are the panel questions that Jeff VanderMeer sent me before WFC, and with them are my answers. They're long because, frankly, I'm a wordy bastard. So this is a long post that I've made longer by breaking up all the words with images. I don't hold in LJ cutting, so it hasn't been done. At any rate, I hope these are a bit interesting for you as I had fun with them, and if you were on the panel (or around the panel) that they were used, I hope they contributed something.

This is also your chance to call me a crack addict.

America had/has Manifest Destiny and the idea of the American Dream. What are the Australian equivalents, in terms of a shared ideal or cultural/social imperative?

As yet, and to the best of my knowledge, Australia doesn't have a movement term such as 'American Dream' for the writing that falls here. There was once the Australian Dream, but, in the last ten to fifteen years with the expansion of technology and the embrace of the government for a policy that supported a multicultural outlook, that idea has fallen away. We're in movement with cultural ideas.

If I were going to pick the one that was emerging, I would call it the idea of the Multicultural State, or, my new favourite term, the Mongrel City. This is, basically, the concept of a country (but found mostly prominently in cities like Sydney) that is culturally and racially fragmented, splintered, and the battle within by people who think this is a bad idea and those who think it's worth supporting. For the first kind, they believe that anyone new should assimilate, lose the culture they were born with, become Australian--whatever that means. On the other side there are people who think the diversity, the mash that dilutes white Australian culture, is a good thing. That's the social/cultural ideal that Australia is dealing with, I think.

What is cultural cringe?

The cultural cringe is the cringe you get when you're associated with Australian products and lifestyle and, well, anything Australian. It's connected mostly to the old white Australia--Akubra hats, saying the words 'g'day' and 'mate' and wanting to go out into the country and blast the fuck out of kangaroos while holding a stubbie... or, y'know, that's just my cultural cringe.

Everyone is a bit different in what sets it off for them, I guess, but it emerges partly out of embarrassment over being associated with something Australian, and wanting to be connected with with a culture outside it. (You'll be noticing at this stage the glorious contradictions of cultural life in Australia.) It comes from a long tradition of not wanting to be associated with what an Australian is, which began for white Australians as convicts.

The clichés of Australians on TV and in movies are images like the croc hunter, Crocodile Dundee, and in general a sense of adventure and athleticism, but that's about it. Are there similar clichés perpetrated within Australian fiction, both mainstream and genre?

I think you need to expand your cliches :)

The Crocodile Dundee, croc hunter, insane bastard who leaps in with wild animals isn't that much of an image outside Steven Irwin now, and we're all kind of ignoring him. Athleticism is there, sure, but sport is a big part of the country--so in this case, I think that portrayal of the sport loving Australian who would rather go out and play cricket than do something sensible like sleep has a certain truth to it.

But the cliches go deeper than that. There's the mystical Aboriginal, rather like the American version of the Mystic Black Man that Morgan Freeman plays in films. The difference is that the Aboriginal Mystic wears less clothes and has more tribal markings. There is the beach loving white Australian. The nerdy, studious Asian kid who always works and never plays. The submissive Middle Eastern woman. It's a long list of cliches and I could go on and on, but they are, truly, a rare find in the speculative fiction side. Most Australian spec fic is so culturally stripped back that you would struggle to find a dominant cliche outside those that are found in the genre in particular.

But, take the genre and place it against Australian Art in general, and they emerge. Perhaps the immediate example of one of the cliches is the Mystical Aboriginal, which can be found in Terry Dowling's Tom Rynosseros series with the Ab'O culture and its mix of technological mysticism. I have to admit there is also a bit of cultural cringe when I think of Dowling's work here, aided by his use of the word Ab'O. The term (I suspect) is based off the racist term, Abo, which has traditionally meant nothing nice and I really want to be distanced from the work, culturally, because of that.

Shame, really, as Dowling is quite a fine writer.

Why is there an Australian writer section in most Australian bookstores?

Because it's Australian Made and is thus Special.

No, seriously, Australia has a thing about supporting Australian Made products. We put little green and gold labels on cheap cans of soft drink and other products, such as clothing, as if this somehow will encourage people to buy the Australian Made Product over the foreign brand. It's a murky path of logic to navigate, but I honestly do think it comes from the best intention of helping local industries. Promoting local companies and local artists to make sure that they and not foreign markets get the money. Sadly, it's a little bit racist and small minded when you actually also study it.

See the little green and yellow mark on the side, near the fingers. Australian Made. The AC stands for Australia's Choice.

How invasive in the US influence on Australian writers—and on SF/F writers in particular?

It's pretty prominent, yeah, but it's not just the US. I'd probably go as far to say as calling it the Western influence and, perhaps, in that way, it's not so strange. Australia identifies itself as a country from the West.

That results, in spec fic, in a kind of cultural free speculative fiction in the mainstream. This is just my opinion, of course (like
everything here) so take it as you please or don't. But there appears to me to exist a culture free spec fic that holds, in its centre, the Christian influenced morals, and which works from there to create bland culture. But I wouldn't call this influence invasive as simply what Australia has always had--we've traditionally been part of the British publishing arm, a colony in the old way of things, and American TV, music and film is well loved here. Can something be invasive when you grow up with it?

Are there particular US/UK writers that resonate with Australians, or Australian SF/F writers?

Well, not with me, no. Terry Pratchett is very popular here, but isn't he popular everywhere? I suspect the resonating happens on a personal level, one on one. I resonated very strongly with Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, but I'm pretty sure the whole country didn't. So I think you would have to go see what people thought individually and, in this case, looked at the individual, not the country.

On the other hand, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is more popular than the Bible, so maybe that says something.

(Optional Interaction: Tell me what work has resonated with you.)

Which US/UK writers tend not to leap that cultural divide?

I suspect I'm the wrong person to answer that question, being that I am a White late twenties male brought up on American and British culture who likes books. I don't much see a divide, in other words. A book deeply ingrained in American culture, like Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, won't leap that cultural divide in the way, say, a generic big fantasy will, but that doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable and won't sell. It's just that the book is about America and will sit as an American book in the same way that a book about Pakistan is a Pakistani book. It is, however, more difficult for the second book to breach Australia in the same way as the first.

(Though, he added later, maybe not in non-fiction.)

To what extent do you feel Australian writers feel pressure to make their fiction conform to some hazy idea of what American markets want?

I think there's a fairly large pressure to get into the American market, especially if you want to build a long career. There is a
belief in the Australian scene that you can't have a career if you stay here, and to a certain extent, that is true. Take a look at the people on this panel and ask yourself how they cemented their careers and position, and then think of those Australian authors that immediately spring to your mind, and ask how they did that. To get into America is, I guess, to get into the World, and that can be a pressure on an author who wants to be making a living off their work.

After all, with the exception of Shadowed Realms, there are no professional markets in Australia. And Shadowed Realms is a flash fiction dark fantasy horror market so it's rather limited in what it'll take. This'll play on your mind if you're one of those authors who wants to be part of the SF group things, or if you want to be take seriously alongside people like Jeff
Ford and Kelly Link, just to pick two at random.

The conforming, I tend to think is something that is fading away, in that I don't think you would ever hear stories from professional markets about being rejected because your story had the Harbour Bridge in it. (I've always suspect those stories were easy ways to ignore the fact that you wrote a bad story, myself.) But since I think Australia, and the rest of the West, are busy creating culturally free speculative fiction, the idea that they are somehow conforming to it is, perhaps, not right any more. Instead we're seeing a whole generation who grew up with Tolkien and the such, and are following in the tradition of those imagined cultures.

Why isn't there more Australian SF/F with an "Australian feel" or Australian settings?

There's not the market for it, I guess.

This might, I suppose, sound like a contradiction to my previous answer. In that, however, I didn't think authors were changing
consciously to not write about Australia. However, that doesn't deny the fact that there isn't a proven audience for a steady diet of 'Australian' spec fic. By this I mean fiction that simply isn't written by Australians, of course.

My other theory (and this is just a theory I toss round to see if it sticks, and I'm not sure if I believe it all myself) is that, for
most, it takes a certain patriotism to write about your country, or to have a feel of your country running through it. The problem with this is that patriotism is, as far as I'm concerned, a bad word. Now, I do write about Australia, and Australian things, but I don't believe being Australian is better or worse than being American or British or French or whatever. But I am fascinated by the culture and world around me, and I want to engage in a conversation with it. That doesn't for a moment mean I'm patriotic. In truth, I don't vote, I can't stand my Government, and I've little respect for the army as it goes overseas
to engage in a war I have absolutely no respect for. But I do have a certain love for my Mongrel City, for it holds my friends and family, and it's what I interact with every day. And at times, that's very influential on me.

For others, I don't think it is. I think for many Australian writers to write about Australia requires a strong patriotic, almost love with the physical presence of the land, and country. Being patriotic is, in Australia, more easily connected with being an idiot who fears the 'yellow wave' and who wants to kick anyone not white our of the country. So maybe the reason is a mix of cultural cringe for the patriot.

Are any Australian SF/F writers dealing with aboriginal culture?

Not white writers, no. I don't know if there are any Aboriginal writers producing work in the speculative fiction area.

There is a general belief that, unless you are Aboriginal, that you do not have the right to write about Aboriginal culture. White people took too much away already, so most won't write about it for the social and cultural guilt that comes from that. There is also the fact that Aboriginal culture is not easily accessible to just anyone off the street. It takes time to learn it, to be immersed in it.

I have written about Aboriginals, but I have not written about Aboriginal culture. I have written about Aboriginal characters responding to the invasion of the British, but that is not Aboriginal culture. That's Australian history. It's a nasty horrible thing, and I can and will write about that, in the hope that somehow, somewhere, apologies are made from the Government towards the Aboriginal community. But Aboriginal Culture does not need a white man writing about it and claiming to be an authority figure right now.

Do Australian writers still feel isolated from the rest of the world, even with the ease of communication we have with the Internet?

That you will have to ask others about, but personally, I don't. But then I'm a fairly reclusive sort of guy, and if it wasn't for the internet, I wouldn't even have a presence in the local scene. So to me, it doesn't feel like isolation, and I haven't heard complaints about it. What I do hear, however, is an Us vs Them kind of conversation, in which Australians talk about not being part of the World scene (usually defined as America), that they can't sell their work there, that it is, somehow, a game that is set against them.

It's kind of stupid, really, but that's just my opinion.

That's it. This final picture is of my Mongrel City, Sydney, taken a month or so ago in a plane.


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Nov. 8th, 2005 11:09 pm (UTC)
All we ever knew about the local scene but was afraid to say it. Well done, Ben.

Nov. 8th, 2005 11:28 pm (UTC)
afraid to say? i didn't think there was anything harsh in there.
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Nov. 9th, 2005 01:29 am (UTC)
Ah, thinking. Why I don't write about Australia? But I do.

What is Australian anyway? The bush? The beach? I live in the suburbs, and I have done all my life. To write about the physical landscape to me feels somewhat pretentious, because I barely interact with it. What does it -mean- to me? It's there. It doesn't have much impact on my life.

Suburbs, in the western world, are pretty much the same.

But the Australian mindset, Mongrel City as you say, that I know about, live in, and bloody well do write about. It bothers me that the vast majority of my characters are social outcasts of some description, as it's so embedded in my own psyche I have a hard time getting past it. It's what I've lived all my life, and now that I pay some attention to the world around me, it seems I'm less and less an accepted member of society. People don't mean to be racist. They don't even know they're doing it, and the invisible wall is the hardest to get past. -That- is very Australia, whether or not the older white people like it.

Then there are less weighty issues that sneak in. Apparently, the Australian sense of humor is to take the piss out of everything, including themselves. Check. Always have a go. Check. A fair go at that. Check.

Convicts? Bah. There's more internal angst caused by the rest of the world expecting something new and special from us, when we're just doing what they're doing: being ourselves.
Nov. 9th, 2005 01:50 am (UTC)
It's what I've lived all my life, and now that I pay some attention to the world around me, it seems I'm less and less an accepted member of society. People don't mean to be racist. They don't even know they're doing it, and the invisible wall is the hardest to get past.

welcome to howard's australia.

it's so easy to blame the howard government for the growth of this mentality. i'm sure there must be contributing factors elsewhere, but just watching how that government has conducted itself in relation to every race based issue has been nothing but a horror show. we're too far gone for the white australia policy, but that wall... i'm not surprised it's felt.

most of my characters are outcasts, too, but i tend to think it's just cause outcasts are more interesting. always have been.

Convicts? Bah.

i know, i know. but that's where the cultural cringe began. a nation of white people who were displaced british and associated with that. to be associated the other way meant you were a criminal. which would have suited me fine, i think.

There's more internal angst caused by the rest of the world expecting something new and special from us, when we're just doing what they're doing: being ourselves.

really? i don't feel that at all.

you obviously need to write and publish more, tess :)
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Nov. 9th, 2005 03:48 am (UTC)
I love it when you write about Australian culture - you so often hit the nail on the head and I feel that "yes, that's exactly it.".

About spec fic set in Australia - one of the things I found when reading early Greg Egan was recognition of places and people, particularly in Quarantine which starts off in Perth and mentions a lot of familiar landmarks, but perhaps in a way that would only stand out to someone who is not used to seeing her city portrayed in fiction, let alone spec fic.

I never answered a question you posed a long time ago now, about which authors we think capture Australia, our Australia living in the cities not the bush etc. It threw me, because I guess the writer most strongly associated with Perth is Tim Winton, and I don't like the way he writes. Yet for a similar reason, I love Dave Warner's City of Light because he just gets Fremantle in the 80s, before and after the cup and also deals with WA Inc. and etc while writing detective fiction.

But overall, my favourite Australian author, the one who can write Australia and Australians for me, is Frank Moorhouse. I was reminded of this by your comments on the cultural cringe, which he takes on and sends up wonderfully. Of course, it probably helps that he writes about academics and would be bohemians and describes that period in the 60s and 70s when a lot of Australian writers were heading over to europe to get away from Australia and to discover 'real' culture.
Nov. 9th, 2005 04:12 am (UTC)
I love it when you write about Australian culture - you so often hit the nail on the head and I feel that "yes, that's exactly it.".

thank you.

the strange this is, i often don't feel i'm connecting with anyone about this stuff, and i think soon i'll be repeating myself. i continue cause i find it interesting, but i can't help but note that things that engage with australian culture are often left untouched by the locals here. it's much the same with my work--occasionally it occurs to me that i get a response from the world outside australia, but inside, very little. it's not that i don't think they should respond, just that i find the silence curious, really.

About spec fic set in Australia - one of the things I found when reading early Greg Egan was recognition of places and people, particularly in Quarantine which starts off in Perth and mentions a lot of familiar landmarks, but perhaps in a way that would only stand out to someone who is not used to seeing her city portrayed in fiction, let alone spec fic.

yeah, i liked that about early egan. i pretty much couldn't get into the later stuff--i think in part because it didn't have that sense of place to ground it for me. but the few stories i remember and like have that local connect for me. my favourite of them, if i'm remember rightly, is the story 'cocoon'.

i'm not a big winton fan, either. he can write okay, i guess, but i'm just turned off by the sheer middle classness of it. moorhouse i've only ever skirted round, and i should read more, i think.
Nov. 9th, 2005 04:28 am (UTC)
moorhouse i've only ever skirted round, and i should read more, i think.

I've read most of his work. I guess if you started to look now you might might see Dark Palace and Grands Days around, which are good books, but are about the Australian alone in Europe between the world wars - so not so much what I was thinking about. The early story collections, Futility and other animals and The Americans, Baby are very locally and historically placed, about growing up in southern NSW and going to Sydney in the late 50s and learning about poetry and communism, then getting a job in a country town where everyone is a young liberal... that sort of thing.

My favourite works by him, though, are the collections of columns (mostly from the Bulletin and the National Times) and stories in Lateshows, Conferenceville, Room Service and Loose Living.

I tried to find an online version of "The Drover's Wife" but none seem to exist. Perhaps when I get my copy back from my dad I'll do something about that.
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Nov. 10th, 2005 10:01 pm (UTC)
That was a great read, Ben. Informed and thought-provoking. Don't agree with everything, but who cares?

I'd add that it's very hard for non-Aboriginals to write about Aboriginal culture because there's no such single thing -- every tribe/group operates/operated under different rules, so to speak. And to even talk about Aboriginal culture as a homogenous thing is to indicate our total lack of understanding of the way they function/functioned as a society. Certainly I think that you're right when it comes to non-Aboriginals being reluctant to abrogate any aspect of the culture. It does smack of cultural imperialism. I don't agree that 'being a writer' gives anyone carte blanche to use other people's important histories/beliefs, as though being a writer excuses insensitivity.

I'd go so far as to say we're a Mongrel Country, formed out of a fascinating mixture of types. We admire authority, we hate authority, we respect the law, we undermine the law ... we want immigration, we despise immigration ... on and on with the dualities, because of our bedrock history.

And like it or not, as writers, we need a bigger audience if we want to survive, which is why the US is so important. I don't think it has anything to do with being American, as such. If the UK had the same influence in publishing terms, we'd be anxious about them. It's all about how many people we can reach. We here are such a drop in the bucket, we need an ocean to provide us with a living. And that ocean is America, at least for now.
Nov. 10th, 2005 11:18 pm (UTC)
And like it or not, as writers, we need a bigger audience if we want to survive, which is why the US is so important.

i think that's true, to a certain degree. i actually think we can sustain ourselves here, but i needs to be done differently. i look at things like the local music scene and see a healthy thing that can support acts, and i sometimes think, 'we do have the audience,' but at the same time, we're not reaching it.

but anyhow, yes, bigger audience means overseas. but that's not so unique a position.
Nov. 10th, 2005 11:37 pm (UTC)
Not so sure the music analogy holds true ... but if it does and you can make a direct translation to book sales, don't hold back!
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Nov. 11th, 2005 02:33 am (UTC)
You have a narrower definition of 'local scene' than me. Yaritji organised a writers conference this year. Her first novel is coming out soon. She was at Continuum. She has been to other spec fic events (not on panels, but not everyone instantly goes on panels or wants to). She is a member of EditZone and part of the VoyagerOnline mob. That is more activity than a bunch of other writers I know.

She lives in South Australia, so she doesn't get to much in Sydney and she uses aliases online (as do many people but she is very much around. Maybe her circles don't overlap with yours?
Nov. 11th, 2005 02:40 am (UTC)
actually, what i meant was her interaction on the local side as a published writer. going to continuum, organising a writers conference, being a member of a couple of groups, that doesn't mean anything to me. what you publish and where you publish it is how your voice gets heard, as far as i'm concerned. so i was more commenting on those lines--that she has a first novel coming out is cool, and i'll keep a lookout for it, but it hardly suggests an existing profile of an author, does it?

as to my circles, well, my physical presence in scenes and the areas i hang are fairly limited. moreso than most, i suspect. even online they are pretty tiny.
Nov. 11th, 2005 02:05 pm (UTC)
"I take grim satisfaction from the knowledge that older white people are, in fact, older, and thus will die sooner rather than later."

Hey, Tess - how can you??? As an older white person, I resent your blanket coverage...we don't have the exclusive rights over racism, believe me. There are, alas, far too many racist younger people out there too, some of them immigrants bringing their own brands of racial fanaticism along as well.

Conversely, I still remember my aging white mum - over 80 at the time - touring around Fremantle ripping down all the racist posters put up by a man who later went to prison for making bombs (can't remember his name now) in the 1980s. Anecdotal evidence I know, but not so rare I feel. For someone born in 1903, she left behind any shackles of the racist Australia she was born into. Far more worrying is when the young create their own shackles for their minds.

Depressingly, after having lived in four different nations on four continents, I wonder if there is any place on earth where racism is not a large part of the nation psyche...and, yep, I experience it from the other side of the fence all the time.

Glenda Larke
Nov. 13th, 2005 10:04 am (UTC)
I was referring to those whose attitudes are the problem, and didn't mean it generally, but either laziness or frustration meant I didn't put that clause in.

Either way, what I said was racist, and I'm sorry.

I'll just go wash the taste of foot out of my mouth, and bite my tongue.
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Nov. 15th, 2005 12:25 am (UTC)
More ageist than racist...and I knew that you didn't really mean it to sound the way it did, not to worry. My point was more that I don't think Australia, or any particular age group, has exclusivity over racism. It is, alas, an insidious phenomenon that the world really doesn't seem able to rid itelf of. It worries me to see young people espousing something so patently ridiculous - their grandparents at least have the formal teachings of the age they lived in to blame. And to be quite honest, I think I have seen more racism outside Australia than inside, much of it from government and leadership. (Of course, it may also be that in two of the countries I have lived in, I was the one on the receiving end of it!! One does tend to notice it then, lol...)
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