Welcome to How to Become a Writer, a series on the many and varied steps (and missteps) people take on the way to having their first book published.
My guest today is Rashida Murphy, whose novel has the most exquisite and haunting opening passage:
The hills towered, range upon range, behind the house with too many windows and women. These hills, with their memory of forest, of deodar, oak and pine, of rivers and waterfalls. The forests were long gone, along with deer and elephants and the men who hunted and were hunted. Now, derelict trees shivered in the wind and tried to stay upright. When it rained, they bent and swayed, bent and snapped and disappeared in bundles carried on the heads of village women. And the hills grew bald and bleak…
Rashida Murphy has published short fiction and poetry in literary journals and anthologies in Australia, India, the UK and the US. In 2016 she won the Magdalena Prize for feminist research for her PhD thesis which includes the novel The Historian’s Daughter. The Historian’s Daughter was also shortlisted in the Dundee International Book Prize in 2015. An editor at Westerly and Books Editor at Cafe Dissensus; Rashida lives in Perth with her husband and visiting wildlife.
When did I start thinking of myself as a writer? Since July this year, when I held a copy of my published novel, The Historian’s Daughter in my hands for the first time. It’s as if I needed the validation of a novel before I gave myself permission to say, ‘I am a writer.’ I’ve been writing for a long time (I published my first essay when I was 13) and have had stories, essays and poems published in journals and anthologies that I’m proud of. But, I never called myself a writer. Even now, I feel slightly apologetic.
An Eclectic Childhood Reading Selection
I was an indiscriminate and carnivorous reader as a child; my obsession with books helped by an eclectic selection gathered by my father and grandfather. I remember reading John Ruskin’s essay, Sesame and Lilies, when I was about 10. I remember the sound of the words without remembering anything at all about what the essays were about.
I learned about injustice through reading, as I did most things.
Between the ages of 8-18 I read everything I could lay my hands on, (except Kipling, who, even as a 12 year old, I understood was inherently racist). Bear in mind that I grew up in India and my education was fairly colonial. We were just beginning to read books written in English by Indians and in my household there was hardly anything by Indian people except speeches by politicians and freedom fighters.
Falling in love with Australian fiction
I fell in love with Australian writing when I came to Perth in the mid 80s. The first Australian I read was Tim Winton. Cloudstreet moved me profoundly and I started devouring Australian writing. In any given year now, my reading list is about 80% Australian, specifically West Australian. I like the unexpected nature and subversiveness of contemporary Australian fiction, that sense that writers are in conversation with readers, that the story is already in existence and the reader is invited along for the journey.
A love of words, rhythms, characters and stories
I think it’s just as well (as a child) I didn’t know the difference between what is ‘literature’ and what isn’t, because my strange reading habits probably have a lot to do with the way I write. I don’t consciously start out with the idea of telling a thrilling story, written in beautiful prose. Instead I remember the sound of words, rhythms, characters, stories and the people who told me stories.
Cautionary Tales from Grandmothers & Aunties
One of my grandmothers was a great storyteller. She told me stories from the great epics and holy books as if they were something she had personally experienced. So, in my mind, and the way my granny told the stories, Samson who held up the pillars of the temple was a relative of ours, as was the guy who embraced flesh-eating worms because that was the will of God. It was only in College when I studied the Bible as literature that I understood the origin of those stories. Mixed with the Old Testament were the stories of the Mahabharata and the Quran – our old people (and I include random aunties and passers-by in this mix) were very fond of telling cautionary tales and drew on their personal or religious myths to warn us of the terrible consequences of lying, wagging school or refusing to eat everything on our plate.
And now as I negotiate the brave new world, post publication, I don’t know whether to smile till my face cracks or to hide because some day, someone might ask me a question I won’t be able to answer. Writing is such a terribly private thing, until it is made public – and while my writing might appear autobiographical, I do actually write fiction. Of course I draw on my own experiences, especially of growing up ‘somewhere else’ but this novel is a work of fiction, interspersed with unreliable memories and that sense of injustice I learned as a kid.
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