2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge – I’ve signed up

The new year has started and with it begins the new year of the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve signed up again; this will be my fourth year participating and I’m as excited as ever to be reading great writing by great Australian women authors.

I’m still studying and working, and have the feeling that much as I’d love to read a stack of books, realistically I’m probably going to be quite time-poor. So, this year I’ve nominated to complete the level Stella – to read 4 books and review at least 3 books.

This year I’ve created a list of books that I want to read as a part of the AWW Challenge.

  1. The good people by Hannah Kent
  2. Hope farm by Peggy Frew
  3. The natural way of things by Charlotte Wood
  4. The watchtower by Elizabeth Harrower

I’ve already started reading The good people, and I’m loving every page!

If you want to know more about the Challenge, or want to sign up, then go to their sign up page.

Wishing everyone participating in the Challenge a happy year of reading! 🙂

 

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Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2016 – Wrap up

This is the third year that I have participated in the AWWC and while I didn’t meet my nominated challenge, I loved every book that I read.

I committed myself to the Miles Challenge – to read 6 books and write reviews for at least 4 books.

I read 4 books written by Australian women authors, and wrote 2 reviews. I am sad not to have met my nominated challenge and it wasn’t for a lack of love of reading or a lack of good books. I simply lacked the time to write reviews. I read a vast number of books this year as a part of doing research for my honours project, but most of the texts weren’t by Australian women writers. While I love my honours topic and the texts I have read have been very enlightening, I have sorely missed reading literary fiction this year! I hope to have some reading time over the Christmas break.

The books I read this year are:

  1. The River House by Janita Cunnington
  2. The Anti-Cool Girl by Rosie Waterland
  3. More to the Story: conversations with refugees by Rosemary Sayer – This is a fabulous book that delves into what it means to be a refugee – the real life circumstances of trauma, torture, pain and suffering that are the impetus for people leaving their homeland, family, friends and culture, to risk everything out of the simple desire to live. To live, to have a chance at a normal life. The stories are told through the refugees’ own voices and make for powerful reading. For more information, see Margaret River Press
  4. Wildlight by Robyn Mundy – is a touching story of loss and love, as seen through the eyes of teenager Stephanie West, who is grudgingly facing several months on Tasmania’s Maatsuyker Island (where her mother spent her own youth), and missing out on her final year of high school, parties and fun times with friends. But as Stephanie comes to terms with her confinement on the island, she learns to love the lighthouse, the weather reports that she monitors, and the rugged wildness of the Tasmanian landscape that surrounds her. She also meets a young fisherman who will change her life. For more information see Pan Macmillan Australia.

I plan to take up the AWWC again in 2017 and look forward to having time to explore new women writer and their literary tales.

 

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Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 5)

Back in Ben’niu, Siso, one of my students, invites me to a family lunch. We’re at Aunt’s house because, she confides, Mother is a bad cook. Aunt assembles a banquet that includes two soups, various in-season vegetable dishes, gong bao ji ding (because Siso remembered it was my favourite dish), marinated jellyfish and a meat similar to corned beef. Siso points to the meat then shows me her electronic dictionary: donkey.

Over lunch Siso translates her family’s questions and comments at her discretion. Why are you so skinny when most foreigners are fat? Do you think Chinese babies are cute? Do you like living in China? Aunt vehemently explains that China has many poor people who do not understand how to behave around foreigners and she apologises if someone from China has behaved badly toward me during my time here.

Siso speaks candidly about her family as they sit around the table, right in front of us.

‘My father is fat and lazy, and he never helps around the house. My mother must cook and do all the housework even though she works too. Chinese men don’t do housework. That’s just the way it is. Do you think Cousin is good looking? I think it’s cool that Cousin has three girlfriends. I had a boyfriend in Shanghai last year but now we’re broken up. I love learning English. I want to study English in Canada but my father doesn’t want me to leave. He thinks I won’t study hard in another country. But, if I get good grades, he says he will think about it.’

***

In Shanghai, China’s largest city with a population bordering on 19 million, I embrace the rush of people, the plethora of restaurants, the multitude of towering malls. What once suffocated me now resonates within.

***

In English Corner today it is revealed that MP3s, iPods, mobile phones, laptops and love are banned at high school. If the electronics are discovered, they’re confiscated. If the relationship is discovered, the two students are suspended and sent home.

***

Chris, a teacher-friend from Foshan, comes to visit. We haven’t seen him in almost two years. He spent the past year in Australia but found the people, and the lifestyle, too materialistic and so has returned to China for the sense of community and the freedom that the way of life here offers.

***

I’m sitting at my desk writing an email when the study door starts to gently swing on its hinges. I stand and stumble slightly. Images of the ceiling collapsing around me tumble through my mind. Ash calls from school; he feels it too.

It’s not until the next day that we learn of the Sichuan earthquake some 1500 kilometres away. At the epicentre in the mountainous region of Wenchuan, and in nearby cities and towns, the devastation is incomprehensible. More than ten thousand are dead, countless buildings have been destroyed and several schools’ classrooms have collapsed, killing thousands of children. There are reports that one thousand students at one school, and nine hundred at another, were killed because of faulty construction work. The death toll eventually rises to 70 000 and approximately 4.8 million people are left homeless.

We have teaching friends based in the Sichuan capital, Chengdu. It’s been a week and still no word. Finally, on May 22, ten days after the earthquake, I receive an email from Rowena:

The aftershocks continue and the death toll increases, even as I sit here typing. I’ll know they’ve subsided completely when we stop noticing new cracks in our apartment. The old cracks from the initial earthquake seem to get longer and wider every time we come home. The city is still bustling with aid vehicles, soldiers and ambulances, and disease prevention teams are spraying everything they can find with hopefully non-toxic disinfectant. Life goes on, as many residents choose to remain in tents around the city, including many of the hospitals that moved their patients into tents, and everything appears to be as normal as can be.

 ***

Our classes are cancelled, without warning, a month before the semester’s end. Such is the nature of things in China. With their mid-semester results below district-average, the students must do extra study in preparation for their next-level exams.

Relaying this news to my students, all 450 of them, is an emotional moment, one that I repeat seventeen times for seventeen classes. By the last class I’m no longer capable of bravery or stoicism. Tears roll freely down my cheeks and my voice trembles as I announce that our classes are terminated.

‘You’ve been wonderful students… I’ll miss you all very much.’

The bell rings. Class is over.

A cluster of girls surrounds me. Some offer slips of paper with email addresses, several cling to me in a group hug, and others cry, unable to say a word.

‘Thank you,’ I say in a choked whisper.

Released from our contract, Ash and I decide to return to Australia to study, to get a degree; we want to improve our teaching options for the future. Ash hasn’t seen his family in six years and so, while we would both prefer Melbourne, we move to Bunbury.

***

Everyone looks so pale. And big. And fat. In Coles I stare at the wall of bread for so long that a shop assistant asks if I am okay. It takes me two hours to do the grocery shopping—reunited with products that I haven’t seen in three years I simply can’t decide what and which brand to buy.

Ash and I forget that others can understand us. We make inappropriate comments in public. People glare at us. The ‘foreigners’ here are abrasive, unfriendly, wasteful. I now understand why the Chinese think all foreigners are rich—the people here have so much and want ever more: two cars instead of one; houses with swimming pools, games rooms, home theatres and big screen televisions; and children demand mobile phones, iPhones, iPods, iPads, computers, designer label clothes and money for just ‘hanging’.

One night we go to a local Chinese restaurant. The waiter speaks Chinese and the majority of customers are also Chinese. The room sings with the chatter of Mandarin and the click of chopsticks. I smile at Ash; it’s the first time in a month that I’ve felt comfortable in Australia.

 

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Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 2)

Foshan is a city of contrasts. Crumbling brick hutongs hide behind pollution-stained high-rise buildings; teashops on every street offer free tastings—there’s jasmine, pu’er, gunpowder, oolong, white tea, tight little dried rosebuds for infusions and more; fresh produce markets bursting with vibrant colour and pungent aromas are crammed into tight spaces throughout the CBD; motorcycle butchers speed down the streets with pigs—sliced in half from snout to curly tail—slung over the back racks; and on street corners mobile fruit vendors display their produce on the backs of adult-sized tricycles. They sell sweet sweet peaches, lychees, rambutans, watermelons and dragon fruit in the summer and barbecue pork buns, steamed corn and roasted chestnuts and yams in the winter.

***

In the autumn I am allocated new conversational English classes—Children’s Beginners aged 6-8. I must maintain their attention for two hours and so abandon the traditional-teacher mode in exchange for a dramatic persona and English-focused games. The goal is for the students to speak eighty per cent of the time and limit teacher talk time to twenty per cent. I have a teaching bag full of flashcards, coloured magnets, two balls, music CDs, balloons, hand puppets, a ‘sticky ball’ that when thrown sticks to the white board, and numerous whiteboard markers. In class I mime, act, play the clown, sing and dance my way through the teaching materials—it’s playschool on steroids. The kids love it. They race up to greet me and I walk the last few metres to class with children clinging to my legs, arms and hands. An excited rabble, they rush me into the room.

***

At the supermarket an old woman rummages through the contents of my basket, inspecting my baguette, noodles, soymilk and other purchases. I stare open-mouthed at her, too shocked to say anything.

***

Ash and I are learning Putonghua (Mandarin), the official language of China, even though we live in Guangdong, the old Canton, where many people speak only Cantonese. I can count to one hundred, buy bus and train tickets, order dumplings and noodles in a restaurant and introduce myself.

***

The pollution cuts the horizon in half, pushes down and envelopes the city. At the end of the street Bia Hua TV Tower is reduced to a shadow of its former self. The sun and blue skies are a distant memory.

***

One day Sinny, my teaching assistant, invites me out for lunch. We go to a noodle house that I’ve nicknamed the Three Kuai Place, because that’s how much most dishes cost. Sinny orders chicken and it arrives chopped into bite-sized chunks. Bones included. I still can’t eat chicken on the bone using just chopsticks. Sinny deftly pops a piece into her mouth, swishes her cheeks as though rinsing with mouthwash, then extracts a clean piece of bone and places it on the table. Behind her a man in a suit is doing the same, only he spits his bones directly onto the table.

‘How do you do it?’ I ask.

‘Just use your tongue to help suck the meat off the bone,’ she replies.

I try but can’t get my tongue to wiggle the meat loose and, on reflex, chew, mashing meat and bone together. My face flames red as I spit the mess into a tissue.

Ai ya, I wish there was chicken without bones,’ I complain.

‘Westerners have lazy mouths, that’s all,’ Sinny shoots back with a grin.

***

December arrives and with it hints of Christmas emerge as stores put up festive decorations, tinsel streamers and Christmas trees. Christmas carols, sung in Chinese, are piped through supermarket speakers.

Helen calls a staff meeting. Lingdong will host a school Christmas party, she announces. There will even be a turkey. Adult students will be encouraged to buy tickets to the party, the selling point being to experience a true Western Christmas. We, the teachers, must provide some form of entertainment for the paying guests.

‘You’ve gotta be kidding, Helen! I’m a teacher not a performing monkey,’ bellows Kinga.

The room is a rumble of discontent.

Helen asks us to define entertainment at a Western Christmas party. ‘Basically, it comes down to three things: food, alcohol—lots of alcohol—and music,’ explains Kinga.

‘That’s it?’ she asks.

‘Yes!’ the ten of us chorus.

‘Helen, our Christmas parties are very simple. We eat, we drink, we dance, we drink some more, talk to people, drink and dance even more, and then keep drinking,’ offers Ash.

‘Chinese people would not enjoy such a party,’ frowns Helen. ‘They need guided entertainment. They need to have an activity to be involved in, to be told what to do next.’

And that’s how we find ourselves poolside, with a stage, Christmas tree and fake snow machine in the middle of winter. The glistening pool stirs up memories of golden beaches and sunshine; I haven’t seen either for five months.

‘Next,’ announces Forest, Helen’s second in command, ‘is the candy relay race. Rules of the game are: the first runner dips a spoon into the bucket of candy, takes just one piece, races back to the team and passes the spoon to the next person. The team with the most candy is the winner.’

I move in closer to watch. I’ve played this game with my younger students and while they love it, they are unable to show restraint; cheating abounds.

Forest blows her whistle, ‘Go!’

In under a minute the adults resort to stealing candy, tripping up competitors, pocketing candy and, yes, trying to steal the candy bucket for their team. Forest screeches into the microphone in an attempt to get everyone to play in an orderly fashion. It’s too late for that. The stilted, stiff Chinese guests are laughing and having fun.

 

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Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 1)

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The job offer in my inbox reads:

Teach English in China! No experience necessary. Must be a native speaker. TESOL/TEFL certificate required. No university degree needed. One-year contract. Teach 24hrs/week maximum. Salary: 6500RMB/month plus end of contract bonus of US$800. Round-trip airfare reimbursed. FREE accommodation, Chinese classes and gym membership. Start ASAP. Contracts are attached.

Ash, my boyfriend, and I accept this job over ten other, similar offers.

 ***

Beads of perspiration line my top lip. I brace my knees to stop them shaking but can’t suppress small tremors rippling through my fingers. My throat refuses to let sound pass. The air conditioner thrums and water trickles from the drainage hose into a red bucket. A dark green stain on the carpet betrays an earlier spillage. The smell of stale sweat infuses the room. Twenty blank-faced students stare at me. They’re all about thirteen and most wear blue and white nylon tracksuits. Parents crowd at the hallway windows, my judge and jury.

Today is my third day in China, my first day of teaching at Lingdong English School, and my first day of teaching. Ever. My gaze flows over faces then freezes. Helen. My boss, pen in hand, sits among the students. She mentioned assessing my teaching style. But my first class? My heart races, the air conditioner whirs. I smear clammy palms across my skirt, take a deep breath and split my lips into a stiff smile. ‘Good morning boys and girls. My name is Sonja.’

Time falls away. The minutes pass with excruciating slowness as I plough through my lesson plan. The students are mostly mute, unless asked to repeat a word in unison; then they become champion choral drillers.

‘If Tom is tall and Bill is taller, then what is John?’ I ask.

No answer.

‘Tom is tall. Bill is taller. John is the… ?

Silence.

‘Can anyone tell me?’

Twenty pairs of brown eyes avoid my blue ones. The air conditioner chugs. Water trickles. Parents glare at their child, and me, through the windows. Later in the semester I cover those windows with drawings done by my students, to give us some privacy, but for now we’re all on display.

‘Anyone?’ I ask again.

Still no volunteers.

It’s death by silence.

***

I’m not sure why I’m here. China was never on my list of ‘must see’ countries. I recoil from the chaos and confusion, the congestion of traffic and people; all of it presses up close. Too close.

 ***

 Plastic tables and chairs from several restaurants crowd the footpath. Ash and I stare up at a picture menu plastered on an external wall. The diners stare at us. So do the staff. Our decision on where to eat is made by a table becoming vacant. We sit, become less conspicuous. People continue to stare. Laowai, they whisper. We are white foreign devils. A waitress rushes up with a pot of green tea and menus in Chinese.

Cheeks flushed, she asks us something.

Ting bu dong,’ I say. I don’t understand.

She speaks again, points to the menu.

Ash flicks through our phrase book. ‘Wo yao ji,’ he reads.

The girl speaks in a rush, her cheeks blush brighter.

‘Yes,’ we nod, not understanding a word.

She whips the menus off the table and disappears into the restaurant.

‘Do you reckon we’ll get chicken?’ asks Ash.

A chicken complete with feet, head and rosy red comb lies on the plate before us. How does one eat a whole chicken with chopsticks? The blameful eye of the chicken watches me as I poke at it. I plunge my chopsticks into the bird’s breast. Stringy chunks of meat come away from the bone. The leg meat is more resistant. The tendons at the knuckle refuse to give way to my jabbing and I resort to using my fingers. A nearby group of diners stops eating and stares.

***

Early morning shoppers slowly cycle past me as I walk to the gym located next to Lingdong School. One woman’s front basket is brimming with leafy greens and a still-flopping fish in a plastic bag while another has a live chicken, legs tied, hanging upside down from the bicycle’s handlebars. Toddlers wearing split pants, their little buttocks on display, teeter down the street grasping their mothers’ hands. (The Chinese don’t use nappies, so when nature calls the child is held up over a shopping mall bin, a garden bed or sometimes just left to squat on the footpath.) At the gym middle-aged women walk backwards on the treadmill and men in suits work out and smoke.

***

English has not yet infiltrated Foshan, a city of five million people. Street signs, product packaging, menus, newspapers and books are all in Chinese. I am illiterate—my communication is limited to miming and the use of a phrase book. I need help opening a bank account, buying bus tickets, organising dry cleaning, connecting the internet, getting water delivered, going to the doctor and buying medicine.

***

I peek into the staffroom to see who’s around. There’s Emma, a brown-eyed Brit with an effervescent personality, her boyfriend Simon, a blond, blue-eyed computer geek who is taking Kung fu lessons and Kinga, a large-in-every-way Aussie.

‘My teenage students won’t speak,’ I announce.

‘Welcome to teaching English in China,’ retorts Kinga.

‘But what do I do?’

‘You just have to suffer through it,’ answers Simon.

‘You’re kidding?’

‘We all have the same problem. It’s almost impossible to get the teenagers to speak,’            sympathises Emma.

‘But why?

‘Saving face,’ says Kinga. ‘You can’t fight it. It’s so ingrained it’s like it is part of their  DNA. Trust me, I know. I’ve been here for five years. They won’t talk because they don’t want to look like an idiot in front of the others. It means they make everyone look like idiots. Something about the group “face” being more important than the individual. That’s why if you ask “Do you understand?” most times they’ll say yes, even if they don’t. For the Chinese it’s better to leave the conversation confused than to “lose face” by saying they don’t understand.’

‘So what can I do?’

‘Nothing,’ says Kinga.

‘Endure the silence as best you can,’ adds Simon.

Emma shrugs.

***

We’ve been here for over a month and, apart from the Lingdong teachers, I haven’t seen another foreigner’s face.

***

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Short story series: Uncommon Places – Introduction

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I normally only post book reviews to my blog, but I’m veering into new territory and am
starting a thread featuring short stories that I have written. I studied writing at university and since then my stories have languished on my hard drive, gathering the digital equivalent of dust. So, I thought I’d start the Short Story Series with a creative non-fiction memoir about my time living in China. 

I lived in China for three years, teaching English and travelling between 2005-2008. I have brought my adventures in China to life through a short creative non-fiction memoir which I will post over a series of entries.

For me, living in China was an incredible experience that involved getting to know a new culture, meeting some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, learning from the children, discovering food heaven (and hell), exploring diverse regions of countryside and of course dealing with culture shock and my own western bias.

My aim for this creative narrative is to show what life was like for me, as a foreigner, living in China. As a resident, I was able to access a deeper understanding of the culture, ask questions, become a part of people’s lives yet I still remained on the outside. This was one of the paradoxes of living in China – being allowed in, but only to a certain point. It is impossible to recount the entire three years of events and interactions, and so I have written about the more memorable and striking moments that portray the cultural differences, what life is like living in a Communist country—it’s nowhere near as frightening as people imagine, the nature of the people, the harsh realities of school life in China, and the diversity of the both the food and the countryside.

When I returned to Australia, I discovered that China was a country that was viewed with suspicion, the culture was not widely understood, and at the time it was definitely not a top 10 travel destination. I wrote about my time in China so that others can gain an insight into this wonderful country, away from inflammatory issues that often feature in our western news.

I hope you enjoy reading about my China adventures, told through vignettes to cover the time frame and events.

Cheers,

Sonja

 

 

Shortlisting of Elemental, WA Premier’s Book Awards

I’m so excited to share that Elemental by Amanda Curtin has been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. I read Elemental at the start of the year and even now images from the book and Meggie Tulloch, the courageous gutting girl, stay with me. It’s a beautifully written novel and I highly recommend reading it. Congratulations to Amanda Curtin on such an outstanding book and her being included on the shortlist!

looking up/looking down

elemental_COVERThis week I was thrilled to learn that Elemental has been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards in the Fiction category. My little red-haired gutting girl is proud to be in the company of these stellar titles:

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Random House Australia)
Coal Creek by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)
Eyrie by Tim Winton (Penguin Group Australia)
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (Fremantle Press)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Random House Australia)

You can read the full press release here.

The six shortlisted titles are also eligible for the People’s Choice Award. You can vote for your favouritehere (WA residents only, and voting closes 29 August).

I was also thrilled to see that the shortlist in a new category, WA Emerging Writers, includes writer friends Dawn Barker for Fractured (you can…

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