Frag­ments of other worlds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Michelle Cahill’s col­lec­tion of short sto­ries Let­ter to Pes­soa has been many years in the works, and its in­tri­ca­cies and its sub­tle in­ci­sive­ness are ex­cep­tional. Savour­ing each care­fully con­structed sen­tence of each re­worked piece is a re­minder that a writer’s tal­ent lies not in an abil­ity to string sen­tences to­gether, but al­most wholly in the choices of what to write about, and how. Cahill is an In­dian-Aus­tralian writer: a Goan-An­glo-In­dian poet and es­say­ist who was born in Kenya, lived in Bri­tain and has long resided in Syd­ney.

“I spent my for­ma­tive years in three coun­tries, not one of which was the coun­try of my ori­gin,” she has said. “I guess my writ­ing re­flects a sense of frag­men­ta­tion caused by the move­ment be­tween coun­tries and cul­tures.”

This mul­ti­fac­eted iden­tity is ex­plored through­out th­ese sto­ries. They are ter­rif­i­cally var­ied in place, voice and time. Cahill is be­ing reg­u­larly com­pared with Nam Le, and the com­par­i­son is apt: like Le, she al­lows us small glimpses into the lives of peo­ple from ev­ery­where and any­where.

Th­ese small in­ti­ma­cies, th­ese vi­gnettes with­out be­gin­nings or end­ings or much in the way of plots at all, al­low us in­side rooms, in­side lives, in­side the minds of her char­ac­ters.

The de­ci­sion to ti­tle the col­lec­tion after the story Let­ter to Pes­soa is telling: each fic­tion here rep­re­sents a het­eronym of Cahill, a global cit­i­zen and an artist in­ter­ested in ex­is­tence. She isn’t afraid to both pay ho­mage to and sneer at canon­i­cal writ­ers — and un­der­stands you can do both at once, and per­haps al­ways should. Take Chas­ing Nabokov, in which the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter is an older and sleazy univer­sity aca­demic be­ing un­blink­ingly gazed upon by the fe­male nar­ra­tor: We ended up in bed. I was sur­prised by how good it was, de­spite the asthma at­tack he suf­fered. By some fluke he had a Ven­tolin puffer in his shirt pocket. Two puffs were suf­fi­cient to re­lieve his wheeze. He pinned me to the bed. Sweat fell from his brow. It landed in the hol­low be­tween my breasts. He grunted as we came, sti­fling a moan, short bursts of air es­cap­ing from his mouth. My ground pulsed as we hastily got dressed. ‘‘Thanks a lot, mate,’’ I said, hop­ing to un­nerve him.

Let­ter to Pes­soa is in­stantly part of Cahill’s larger oeu­vre, a body of work where her artis­tic and ac­tivist ac­tiv­i­ties are one and the same. The founder of Mas­cara Lit­er­ary Re­view and co-ed­i­tor of Con­tem­po­rary Asian Aus­tralian Po­ets, Cahill sits among those di­verse and deep-think­ing prac­ti­tion­ers who are the fu­ture of Aus­tralian writ­ing, writ­ers who give us in the main­stream the op­por­tu­nity to em­pathise with peo­ple seem­ingly very dif­fer­ent to our­selves — but re­ally not all that dif­fer­ent at all.

Ev­ery few years, an­other sci­en­tific study cor­rob­o­rates the claim that long-form read­ing im­proves the em­pa­thy and so­cial skills of read­ers. Me­dia re­ports of such stud­ies can range from sub­tly den­i­gra­tory (to those who can’t or don’t read the sanc­tioned lit­er­a­tures) to fev­er­ishly tri­umphant (that a life­style de­ci­sion may not just be en­joy­able but also ‘‘good’’ for you).

Lit­er­ary fic­tion is held up high­est in th­ese stud­ies, be­cause ap­par­ently all char­ac­ters in such works have vaguely de­picted iden­ti­ties, full of com­plex­ity and with­out easy de­tails. We’re forced to fill in the gaps to un­der­stand their in­ten­tions and mo­ti­va­tions, and in so do­ing we be­come more pa­tient and un­der­stand­ing.

Such find­ings are prob­a­bly as true for some read­ers as they are false for oth­ers. A book can im­prove a per­son’s out­look and en­gage­ment, sure, but only if the book is the right one at the right time for a par­tic­u­lar per­son. Read­ing is an in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence, and no sin­gle book can be said to be more worth­while than any other.

Such re­search makes you won­der what so­cial skills you may ab­sorb by read­ing Laura El­iz­a­beth Wool­lett’s The Love of a Bad Man, for she has di­rected her at­ten­tion to iden­ti­fy­ing with the con­sorts of killers. This col­lec­tion of short


sto­ries em­pathises with women who were in re­la­tion­ships with men who com­mit­ted crimes. The crimes are usu­ally vi­o­lent and the women ac­ces­sories, some­times ac­tively.

Each chap­ter is told through the eyes of th­ese women, with Wool­lett re­pro­duc­ing their voices, view­points and ver­nac­u­lar. Oc­cu­py­ing the cen­tre are Adolf Hitler’s com­pan­ion (and wife for 40 hours) Eva Braun, Jim Jones’s first wife, Marce­line Bald­win, and the sis­ter wives of Charles Man­son.

Hail­ing from Perth and now liv­ing in Mel­bourne, Wool­lett is in her mid-20s, but she is by no means just start­ing out as a writer. A stel­lar ex­am­ple of the new gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralian writ­ers who par­tic­i­pate in lo­cal and global writ­ing com­mu­ni­ties si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Wool­lett’s sto­ries were pub­lished in Aus­tralian jour­nals Voice­works and Kill Your Dar­lings while her first book, The Wood of Sui­cides, was pub­lished ex­clu­sively in the US.

With her third book, a novel ti­tled Beau­ti­ful Rev­o­lu­tion­ary and set in Jon­estown circa 1968, slated for pub­li­ca­tion in 2018, Wool­lett is an ex­am­ple of the value and ne­ces­sity of pub­lish­ing

Michelle Cahill

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