Fragments of other worlds
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
READING IS AN INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCE, AND NO SINGLE BOOK CAN BE SAID TO BE MORE WORTHWHILE THAN ANY OTHER
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