The Non Now, Aussie Style

November 26, 2012 § 1 Comment


A guest post from Barrie Jean Borich:

NonfictioNOW 2012, the Melbourne Edition, ended yesterday, and as I reflect back over the last few days, from my hotel room with its bird’s eye view of the northwest side of this mod glass city, I find that can’t separate form from content.

By form I mean the multi-racial, multi-national, graffitied central city of Melbourne, as well as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology campus where where the conference took place this year.  RMIT is a design and technology university, situated (in-part) in the center of Melbourne. The nonfiction program that hosted us, the nonFictionLab, of the Nonfiction Research Group at RMIT, is located, interestingly (to anyone who has been a part of conversations regarding where to put creative writing in the university) in the School of Media and Communication, which aligns writing with design, digital media, film and television, media studies, cultural studies and photography.

The place and space detail of this year’s conference matters because such is part of the purpose of this gathering I’ve long affectionately referred to as NonNow. How might we relocate nonfictional artistic form, on and beyond the page? At this moment where digital communication has changed how many of us think, work and exist, and where the technology of the book itself, not to mention the contemporary city, shifts daily, where we hold these discussions may be a marker of what we’re talking about.

NonfictioNOW has always used such language as “myriad of forms,” a descriptor that is the reason I’ve been to every single one of these gatherings since the inception. But what is form if not a kind of spatial experience? I spent much of the three days of this year’s conference, as always when suspended in conference-time, chatting with friends and colleagues, some of whom I  see only in the country of conferences, listening to now familiar discussions (though perhaps here, at RMIT at least, framed with even greater attention to cross-disciplinarity) about genre boundaries, the unknowability of reality, and the ways to make or unmake our own places and bodies on the page. What differed this time was seeing my life’s work, and that of nearly everyone in those rooms, from the liberating angle of the other side of my known world.

The atmosphere of central Melbourne is made of intense immigration, particularly from Asia, as well as innovative and environmentally informed architectural design. A note back to my Minneapolis architect friend Paul Mellblom confirms what seems true walking around this city. “Melbourne is quite the architectural happening place,” Paul tells me. “Very experimental and thoughtful design [such as] double skins are much in vogue, due to building codes that mandate energy and especially water efficiency.”

At dinner last night at a glass-swathed eatery serving a mix of Asian cuisines, hidden within one of the Melbourne City Centre’s many interior-exterior spaces, my spouse Linnea and I agreed that Melbourne feels pleasingly geometric, like living within a Mondrian painting. Part of this feeling comes from the hours I spent on the RMIT campus, the highly designed building renovations of Storey Hall, visually stunning, with great attention paid to shape and lighting, from the polished asymmetry of the flooring to the ruffles and curves of the ceiling and overhangs, embedded shapes one local told me were meant to represent the Suffragettes who used a previous iteration of this space as their meeting hall.  Every journey to the restroom was a wandering into distinctly green-lit corridors, illuminating passageways as if into labyrinth of essayistic revelation.

Others have, and will, report some of the finer details and critiques of what conferees discussed at this years’ panels, and my own post-conference discussion questions are the same any observant participant might ask.  Why is the city of Melbourne so much more racially diverse than the panel audience, and why do so many more women then men come to NonNow?  Are there more queer writers who might come to this conference, but don’t, and if so, why not? And consider the question a Koori shopkeeper at the Vic Market asked Linnea and me after showing us her cousin’s memoir—will there be Aboriginal writers at your conference? Which leaves me curious to hear the backstory to explain why every conference keynote began with homage to Aboriginal people (which I assume is formal reconciliation statement of some sort) when Aboriginal writers did not appear in the program. I ask these questions fully admitting I come here knowing little about how these issues play in Australia overall, nor what it took to pull off this event at RMIT, but also hoping the diversity panel I was a part of is the start of a discussion that grows and becomes much more complex in the NonNow’s to come.

The questions I come away with for my own work are best described as familiar but newly nuanced.  Do time-sensitive and polemical nonfictions fit fast-acting internet forums better than others, and will we continue to require the printed page?  Are the characters we make of our own lives revelations of (in Cheryl Strayed’s words) the second heart we must rip from our chests, or (in Xu Xi’s words) “face-blankets,” second skins not unlike those of Melbourne architecture, designed to both express and protect? How do we forestall synthesis in order to sensorially experience new places before committing spatial description to the page? Is it fair to insist that the novel is dead and the fact irrelevant when conversing with writers from countries where writing narrative realism has landed them in prison?

The Americans will carry these questions back over twenty-something hours of travel, and rephrase them in our work and in our classrooms. And while I am still sad over the loss of this year’s biannual conference to a generation of  Midwestern American creative writing grad students, not to mention many teachers and writers from all over the USA who did not have access to either time or institutional resources to travel all the way to Australia, I wrap up this year’s meeting deeply grateful to DePaul University in Chicago for supporting the conference portion of my trip this year. Having taken on this long journey, despite reservations about the relocation, I must admit I’m transformed by the experience of internationally reframing of our conversation. Thoughtfully made spaces are themselves the re-creators of form, and when these spaces remove writers from familiar ground, reground us in a new contextual frames, the conversation can’t help but burst its previous container.

The purpose of conferences are to burst our containers, reframe our works, re-landscape our understanding, move us from the parochial and static into what may well be called the Non Now. One of my last conference conversations this year was with the essayist Patrick Madden, a writer I met first in the middle of the night a few NonNows ago, at the printer in the lobby of the conference hotel in Iowa City, both of us printing out our newly revised conference papers the night before our panels. This time we finished our conference saying “Will I see you at AWP in Boston this year? Oh right, we’re on a panel together.” And then we laughed about the oddity of this country we conferees populate, the people we see again and again, in rooms all over the world yet never in the Not-Non-Now of our actual lives. The new work will rise from the intersection of these spaces.

Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic forthcoming in the University of Nebraska Press American Lives Series, and My Lesbian Husband, winner of the Stonewall Book Award. She was the first nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review and recently joined the creative writing faculty at DePaul University. Barrie splits her time between Chicago and Minneapolis.

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