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Rebecca Jessen

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January 2015

2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge

aww-badge-2015

This year I’ve decided to jump onboard and sign up to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. In short, Elizabeth Lhuede started the initiative in 2012 in response to the lack of women’s writing being reviewed (by men and women). You can read more about the background of the challenge here. And, if you’re interested in signing up, it’s free and super easy and you can do that here.

I have signed up to read at least eight books by Australian women writers and to review at least four. I’ve chosen a modest target for my first challenge which I’m hoping to exceed – but we’ll see what books land on my desk this year!

One book I’ve been meaning to read is Evie Wyld’s Miles Franklin award-winning All The Birds Singing. I’m hoping to strike a balance between fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and with the Stella Prize longlist to be announced soon I’m sure I’ll find some inspiration there.

Sometime in the near future I hope to have a list compiled of my eight challenge books and I’ll be posting the reviews here on my blog. Happy reading!

THIRTEEN (Ming Hua Memories)

Today I’m very excited to be posting a guest-blog by the immensely talented Nike Sulway. Nike is the author of several novels, including Rupetta, which—in 2014—was the first work by an Australian writer to win the James Tiptree, Jr Award. The award, founded in 1991 by Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, is an annual award for a work of “science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”. She blogs at Perilous Adventures.

I’ve been a fan of Nike’s work long before I had the pleasure of getting to know her. Her writing is evocative and poetic, beautiful on a sentence-to-sentence level, thoughtful and immersive. I’d highly recommend checking out her award winning novel Rupettawhich is heartbreakingly beautiful, and then working your way backwards through the rest of her work. You can find Nike’s publications here.

Minghua-SYD-BW

This morning, someone played Rod Stewart’s cover of ‘I am sailing’ and I found myself, like the kind of idiot you can only be in the safety of your home, enthusiastically singing along. I could smell the ocean, and feel the sunburn of that summer when my family cruised the Pacific Ocean aboard the Ming Hua.

As we sailed out of Sydney Harbour, Rod sang his heartfelt farewell. The paper ribbons we were holding snapped and fluttered in our hands. At every port we visited, Rod’s voice would croon over the loudspeakers: arriving and departing. For years afterwards, particularly in summer, my parents would put Rod on the turntable to bring back that time.

I was young enough that I had never been kissed by anyone other than my relatives. My mother still bought all my underwear, and I found the advice about sex and sexuality in Dolly magazine shocking enough not to be able to discuss it with anyone. I had breasts. Well, I had small, tender nubbins that made the amount of coverage provided by my crocheted bikini-top of enormous conern. I was at that awkward age: no longer a child (I though), but certainly not a teenager or–heaven forbid–an adult.

The SS Ming Hua bore only a passing resemblance to the Love Boat I had imagined I would be boarding. I was disappointed not to meet the inspiringly glamorous Julie McCoy (cruise director), or captain’s daughter, Vicki Stubing (with whom I was sure I would have been fast friends).

Instead, the crew were all of Chinese or South-East Asian heritage. Their English was thickly accented: disarmingly exotic. There were mah-jong classes to attend, and dumplings for breakfast. Much of the signage on the ship was in Chinese characters, with awkward English translations underneath.

I don’t remember much about the ports we visited (Vila, Suva, Vanuatu …); for me, the focus of the holiday was our shipboard adventures. My two younger sisters (and our smuggled-aboard niece) shared a cabin: our parents’ cabin was somewhere nearby, but we saw them only intermittently.

My mother suffered terribly with sea-sickness. I remember her mostly being pale and fragile. She drank coffee and lay on a sun-lounge on the Promenade Deck with a wet flannel over her face. Or lay in her darkened cabin, as she did sometimes when the migraines overcame her at home.

We children were left to our own devices. We flocked together with the other children on-board, roaming freely around the ship. There was a cinema on-board, with films screened regardless of who attended. I first saw Alien aboard the Ming Hua, with Chinese sub-titles. In the afternoons, we gathered in the ‘disco’ to dance to the latest tunes mixed with contemporary Chinese music, and to play games on the cocktail table Video Game console. The boys dominated play, but us girls had a good go. By the end of our cruise I was the Frogger champion.

We ate and drank like princes and princesses. There was a bar where we could fill up on strangely-sweet nuts, and lemonade. And instant coffee machines that spat our hot chocolates made with powdered milk.

One night, there were horse races in the bar. Small, woven horses with brightly-coloured manes were set up at the starting line and my parents, along with others, rolled dice to ensure their mounts charged forward to the finish line.

At one port, a bevy of beautiful women came aboard. Petite, white-toothed, big-haired, they put on a show while we floated at the pier. Singing and dancing. Only after they had disembarked did I learn (from who?) that they were transvestites.

There are very few photographs of our trip. My mother, perhaps unsettled by sea-sickness, reached the end of her roll of film. As we sailed from port to port, she kept holding up her camera, telling us to smile, clicking and then winding on the film. But there was no film. There were no more photographs. Instead, we have Rod Stewart, crooning us back in time.

*The SS Ming Hua last set sail from Sydney Harbour in May, 1983. She has since become a land-locked hotel, shopping centre and ‘entertainment venue’ at Shekou Sea World, in China’s Quangdong province.

TWELVE (Howl)

Today’s post is up on the lovely and talented Nike Sulway’s blog Perilous Adventures. Tomorrow I’ll be posting a guest-blog by Nike and telling you a little more about how awesome and talented she is. Nike has generously agreed to having me write a guest-post on her blog, you can read it right here and check out some of the other awesome content while you’re at it!

ELEVEN (Heartlines)

To say that Eleanor would become my mentor, my confidante, my everything, would be telling you the premise of a story without ever giving away the ending.

I first saw Eleanor on a busy main road, through the sunlit glass of a crowded bar at dusk, she was with another lover then. Or was it before that, through the stacks of a beloved bookshop? Perhaps it was even before that, at these very tennis courts that still remain, even after all this time, after all that has happened.

Of course, the playing days of these courts have long since departed. The net has been eaten away at over the years, by insects, the weather, just time itself. The lines are no longer the crisp, blinding white they once were, the grass surface worn down to patches and tufts. I can almost see her here still, moving across court with the determination and grace that had so quickly captivated my young, yearning heart.

Had I already willed her into existence before I’d ever known her? Had I sent out some quiet, modest signal to the world, that this was what I needed, and until I found it I would not feel as if life were something that would move ever forward, however steady or shaky.

It was late on a Sunday afternoon during the middle of one of the warmest summers on record. Or maybe it just felt that way, the heat consuming, lucid as the light it spilled onto the courts. I saw her first, from afar; as we see the things we most want, with distance and desire. She hit a divine backhand down the line, winning her the match. Eleanor had this ability on and off the court, to catch one completely off guard. So off guard she would catch me that the balance of the life I was living and the life I wanted to live tipped so suddenly, so severely that it took all I had not to fall with it.

TEN (Ghosts)

When I met Eleanor I was on the verge of becoming who I would become for the rest of our life together. She caught me on the cusp and held me there. It seems we spend so much of our lives looking back, on who we could have been, what we could have done. But for the longest time, Eleanor had changed this in me. I didn’t need to look back anymore, for there was simply nothing to look back upon. What I needed most was so achingly close that I could do nothing but spend each day, willing it closer still.

We were both without a stable home when we met, both passing between old lives and grasping at new ones. We dreamed up a little white cottage near the sea with high ceilings and white window frames. A bed of our own and crisp white sheets to slip beneath. I dreamed of never losing her, though I knew this with all probability, to be a false dream. I would lose Eleanor more than once in my lifetime. It was during these times, I would fall hardest, try hardest to learn and unlearn myself.

Since Eleanor’s passing I’ve returned to many of the places we had once haunted. Not looking for closure, but hoping to find some signal that she was still there with me. I’ve never believed in the afterlife but losing someone you love does strange things to you. Suddenly, you could willingly believe anything at all, as long as it didn’t mean standing at the end of the beach with your heart in your hands.

In those first weeks I spent each afternoon at what was, our favourite beach. I sat high up on the shoreline and waited for the coming of night. Watched with measurable intensity, the bringing of the tide and the turning of the light. I counted each wave that was brought in, only to be returned and knew one day, I’d have to stop counting.

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