A New Yorker in Melbourne: On Creative Nonfiction, a Conference, a Hired Bicycle

December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments

A guest post from Elizabeth Kadetsky:

vintage_bicycle_121.

Day One—in which I rent a bicycle for the week.

The bike shop guy, like bike shop guys everywhere, is tattooed, scruffy. In an offhand in gesture, he flicks a tress of hair from his face. Then he says: “Now don’t forget a light if you’re riding at night.” He speaks in a Melbourne accent, which proves to be not Crocodile Dundee so much as evening news in London spoken with an upturned smile. I think, what an orderly city. He winks, changing shape in my imagination from bike shop guy to upstanding citizen, a man wielding rules.

But I’m a New Yorker. I don’t follow rules. “Nice tattoos,” I comment as I skulk out with my municipal-government sanctioned helmet strapped to my handlebars.

“Don’t forget the helmet!” he adds cheerily.

I learn several facts about the city of Melbourne during my first hours from the vantage of two wheels:

• the government subsidizes bicycle helmets

• subsidized helmets can be bought for five dollars at 7-Eleven

• nobody doesn’t wear a helmet (on a bike)

• bikes, between the white lines in bike lanes, act like cars, whereas in America we act like pedestrians on wheels, aka like adolescents tripping on acid at a rock concert

• this is not New York

• no one plays squirrel with pedestrians

• cyclists wait patiently at traffic lights—between the white lines of the bike lanes, before the white lines of the crosswalks. No one hops to the sidewalk to cut a corner.

2.

Perhaps it’s my being a New Yorker that caused me to notice, first, about Melbourne, its rules.

Caveat: I understand that there’s nothing more irritating than a New Yorker writing in a condescending manner about other, presumably lesser, cities. Please permit me my malingering. By essay’s end, the author is sure to meet her comeuppance.

Confession: In New York, I often ride the wrong way down a separated bike path on First Avenue from my apartment—on East Twelfth Street—to Houston Street—twelve blocks south. Here, the path becomes two-way. I do this in order to avoid going an extra block out of my way to ride down Second and then return all the way back to First, but in fact I’m never alone in this scofflaw activity. There is always a whole pack of us, pushing against traffic.

And yet: every time—every time—someone shouts at me. Of course, they’re right—it’s annoying, but this is New York. I’ve gotten yelled at so often I can tell from a block’s distance who will do it. It’s always a white guy. Always. “Go back to Brooklyn!” I mutter under my breath. “This is Manhattan.” If it happens in Brooklyn, I mutter, “Go back to Minnesota!” I’ve been riding like this since I was a messenger at age fifteen—when the dispatcher instructed me to lie about my age to get the job. “Sweetie, it’s how we do things,” he said. There were many open secrets in our city: underage drinking, smoking pot on the street, hopping the subway turnstiles after the 7pm cutoff for the free schools pass.

I grew up in a New York City of chaos. Isn’t it that innate chaos, at least in part, that makes New York the most artistic city in the world? Just sayin’.

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And yet. Melbourne was so pleasant. The slang was so welcoming and cheerful. New York slang, its accent is noxious. Then there’s rhyming Cockney, which is a sort of mean joke on anyone who’s not gritty enough to be Cockney—totally impenetrable. Melbourne slang seemed to be about evoking childhood, eating brekky and playing footie and wearing bluey jackets. A local told me that in general the language followed the rule of shortening—Mels for Melbourne, totes for totally, uni for University. I wondered if in this young nation—founded as a Commonwealth only little over a century ago, in 1901—it was the language of children that was celebrated.

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Day Three—in which a New Yorker ponders issues of entitlement

For her opening address at the NonfictioNow Melbourne conference, Cheryl Strayed read her magnificent “Write Like a MotherFucker” Dear Sugar column, which is about entitlement:

Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

After, I coasted down the pleasant slope along the western edge of the Melbourne Museum grounds down from Gertrude Street (Did people call it Gertie”? I asked myself). Sunshine angled across the path at its customary 10 degree-angle, casting that alluring, Southern Hemisphere gleam on the tarmac. Humbled by possible repercussions from rule-breaking—fear of fines, arrest, the uncertain rights of a foreigner on alien soil—I’d begun following them.

And I wondered, In New York, why was it always white men who sneered at me when I broke the rules?

Then I understood, in a flash: my rule-breaking on the bicycle annoyed people because it was an entitled behavior. I wasn’t afraid of retaliation from the cops—me: articulate, white, neither an immigrant nor paperless nor poor. What did I have to fear? Entitled rule-breaking annoys people who are following the rules themselves, who must ask, I’m following the rules, why doesn’t she?

I stopped for a light. Stopped—grounded to zero velocity, though there was not a single impediment racing along the cross-street. Not a pedestrian, not a car. I stayed between the lines. And a revelation came to me: my rule breaking rankled white men in particular because of their entitlement. They are working hard to overcome their own sense of privilege in order to not break rules, as I was here in Mels. It’s difficult, when you’re used to walking through the world in a different manner. What a slap in the face, to see someone flaunt a restriction brazenly. Enraging. To follow rules is to eat your entitlement.

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In which I ponder, as a writer of nonfiction, how to balance a desire to break rules against the problems of entitlement?

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At NonfictioNow, we celebrate the breaking of rules. Nonfiction is a genre that defies categories, embracing its the relative lack of them versus the older modes: fiction with its Freytag’s Pyramid, Poetry with its sestina.

The Australian writers in particular at NonfictioNow seemed adept at locating organic forms for content. Theresa Meads read a lyric essay in which visual content interplayed against repeated fragments of poetic prose. Panel titles referenced “The Margins,” “Picturing the Essay,” “Audio-Visual Experiments,” “Landscapes: Broken, Extreme, Constructed,” “Memory, Image, Trauma,” Nonfiction Poetry,” “Graphic Narratives”, “Fiction in Nonfiction”, “Lies Damn Lies.”

How was it that this celebration of manifold and perhaps not-yet-even-invented iterations of form should take place in a city of rules? The Australians seemed the conference’s more adept rule-breakers. Perhaps I was missing something.

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Nonfiction is formless, boundless, a place to invent, explore.

“I no longer believe in great man thinks. I no longer believe in great man sits in a room alone and writes masterpiece.” —David Shields, in a talk on James Agee

“A significant component of the postmodern world is the collapse of perception between what is real and what we perceive to be real.” —Brandon Schrand, in a talk on lyric style

“We know not which to be charmed by, the author or the man” —Patrick Madden in a talk on “the faceblanket,” citing  William Hazlitt citing Montaigne

“We don’t have enough crazy books anymore.” —Robin Hemley

“Theme of conference: Nonfiction is a medium that can and should—must, perhaps?—convey our postmodern reality. It must rewrite the contract with the reader. This is why (why?) nonfiction is the genre best poised to grapple with questions of truth, non-truth, irreality.” —me, in my notebook

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It was night. I waited for the light at Gertie Street. The Australian author Helen Garner had just given a talk, in which she cheered our American Janet Malcolm for having been vindicated, back in 1994, in the famous libel suit brought against her by Jeffrey Masson. I remembered a headline about the trial from the time, reading, more or less, “Do Speakers Really Say What Is Between Quotation Marks?” Would that they could, I remembered the text, with its throwing-up-of-hands, its shrug. A sea change. “Just How Sacrosanct Are the Words Inside Quotation Marks?”—I remembered another headline. I heard, as, during the conference, David Shields had quoted Robin Hemley quoting Pico Iyer, “The indelible sound of a brain trying to make sense of something.” Perhaps that brain was my own.

The traffic light asserted its boorish red. I pushed the wheel toward the white line, but only the nose of the beast crossed to the liminal other side. I leaned forward. The base of the wheel touched the line, then crossed it. Streetlamps gleamed in the hemispheric mist. There was not a soul. My helmet chafed. I stood on the pedal, pushed. And I flew, headlong, into the unknown.

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review and elsewhere. A 25-year practitioner of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga, she lived in India as a Fulbright scholar and wrote a memoir about her studies with the yogi BKS Iyengar, First There Is a Mountain, published in 2004 by Little, Brown, and forthcoming in rEprint from Dzanc Books.

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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