Daniel Young interviewed Michelle Cahill for Issue Sixteen of the journal. Michelle’s short story collection Letter to Pessoa was recently published by Giramondo and includes ‘A Miko Coda’, an earlier version of which appeared in Issue Seven of Tincture.
DY: Thanks for being a part of our interview series and congratulations on the recent publication of your short story collection, Letter to Pessoa. Could you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you came to writing? Is it something you’ve always wanted to pursue, or something you came upon at a later point in your life?
MC: Thank you Daniel!
I remember when I was in primary school escaping into other worlds, aware of a ‘narrating’ voice that was not quite myself, though it was an intimate aspect of my experience. Growing up through cultural transitions, class and race anxieties, over the years, through books, across countries and interruptions, I guess that voice became writing. I wrote stories and poems in my adolescence but started writing seriously much later in life. At one point, I had wanted to become a musician; now I realise that writing is also an instrument.
DY: You’re a published poet. Have you always written short stories as well, or has this been an evolution from one creative form to another? Indeed, your prose is highly poetic, in terms of both rhythm and imagery. Does this come naturally as you write or is it layered into the prose through editing and re-drafting?
MC: I have been a prose writer for many years, experimenting in forms. Poetry and fiction are distinct processes. When I sit down to write I know whether I am about to write a poem or if it is going to be fiction, but I suppose my language is poetic; that is my natural style. The editing is not really layering but more about correcting the flow (as well as attending to plot and character and focalisation; the many technical aspects of fiction). The composition, the rhythm and auditory texture can allow variations, semantic liberties for the writer as well as malleability for the text. Of course, there is a place for stark, uncluttered sentences and there are passages like that in the book, for instance in its opening paragraph.
The sound of language matters to me; if my sentences don’t sound right, I don’t see how I can expect a reader to enjoy the experience. I believe prose should be beautiful to read because a reader is forgoing more of their time; a reader is also in postponement so at the very least, fiction needs to substitute this loss. And by beautiful I don’t mean mellifluous; knowing where the silences belong is crucial. This voice then, which is not me, carries the narrative, and it does so across the spaces where structure recedes and the language inscribes itself.
DY: On this same topic, you’ve in referred to the writing in this collection as “a hybrid genre of poetry and prose” (and I would agree). There is also a subtle nod to your writing style from the narrator in ‘Letter to Jean Genet’, when he apologises that his writing perhaps “suffers from […] a hybrid style”, and while writing this question I was reminded of the book’s epigraph, from Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet: “I feel as if I’m always on the verge of waking up”.
I felt that the hybrid, in-between style of your prose took me to an in-between reading state, a dream-like space in which my own subconscious concerns helped to shape the meaning I derived, rather than experiencing it as a direct transfer from writer to reader. All literature works this way to some extent, but the effect seemed quite pronounced in this book. Was there a conscious effort on your part to write in this way, or did it come naturally?
MC: I agree there is a mildly hallucinatory, hybrid style but this wasn’t premeditated; it was part of my process. I had been writing dream sequences but they lacked sufficient narrative. I sensed that I needed to completely trust the drift of the language, and allow character and plot to develop from an embodied voice and from the straggly shoots of narrative possibilities. Several years and drafts later I stopped doubting myself and realised that I was risking narrative beginnings and endings, because being anchored and stable has not been my experience as an economic migrant. Conventional narrative does not represent, politically or aesthetically, my experience as someone who has lived in several countries in exile from my home. How can stories be shared if all you have is a voice?
I think the prose explores a negative space and it works with less anchorage than conventional plot structure. Another reason for the experimentation is simply to be inventive. Realism has limitations; it’s predictable. I like to challenge my skills with language, not merely to stretch the ideas. Language is not one-dimensional; it has textures and layers. Writing can be like painting and composition in this way.
DY: Pessoa is the father of the heteronym—characters created by a writer to function as narrators that allow the writer to write in different styles. The poet Carmela Ciuraru writes that “For some authors, the task of writing is a descent into the self. Pessoa venture in the opposite direction, using his heteronyms as a means of escape”.
Thinking of the heteronyms in your book, I take a different view, seeing them as a means of exploring different aspects of yourself through different voices, and perhaps even questioning what self really means. In ‘Letter to Derrida’ your narrator is “a whole made up of parts […] like fragments of coral […] each piece carries its hint of another life”. Rather than a means of escape from yourself, is it possible these heteronyms allow you to more fully explore your multitude of selves and allow you to escape from the set of narratives that are often ‘expected’ from CALD writers? Are they potential selves that you could have inhabited if your life had taken different courses, or are they slightly more concrete selves of the imagination?
MC: I think you have described this very well, particularly when you refer to ‘the set of narratives expected of the CALD writer’. The colonial encounter invariably produces two kinds of responses, approval or disapproval, depending on whether we present as assimilated or whether we are refractory. This lies at the heart of colonial ambivalence towards the Other: the ‘no, yes, no’ response to the alien is restricted and binary. The migrant is expected to forget entire lives and histories left in another country; the colonised subject, the migrant subject, the refugee has been fragmented by geographies but also by historical time.
I think my heteronyms are selves of the imagination and equally selves of the real. To write, you become another and you lose yourself. Consider the ancient art of mask-wearing and its cross-overs with oral story-telling in so many other cultures. Consider gender, race, class and colour which are all destabilising provocations. The mask is not merely a disguise; it becomes an identity, rebirthed and free from hierarchy, metaphysically supple. And I guess I am interested in the Other of the mainstream, of gender, of logocentrism, of the Global North, of capitalism. This is how I have interpreted the Pessoan heteronym.
DY: Many of these stories explore the erotic, investing your characters with desire and the agency to act upon it. There is also a queering at play here. In many stories, the narrator’s gender remains unclear or the reveal is postponed—and indeed, the narrator in the title story asks “So what if there are postponements?” almost as a challenge.
I also felt a dark undercurrent of violence in some of these stories, particularly ‘Duende’ and ‘Dirty Ink’. In ‘Duende’, a queer story, we go from the violence of a bullfight to the protagonist coughing up blood and then writing poems that bleed onto the page.
Could you tell us a bit about the erotics, queering, and violence in your work and the interplay between these elements?
MC: That’s an intriguing question, Daniel. In mainstream writing and publishing, desire and agency tends to be contained to white heteronormativity but also historically; the stereotypes restrict how we come to know Others. There are always double standards and we are expected to be silent about this. I refuse that conformity, not for the sake of rebelling but because ultimately to do so would impede my creativity. I wanted my women protagonists such as the narrator, Melanie Isaacs, in ‘Letter to John Coetzee’ or the dysfunctional, self-abusing narrator in ‘Dirty Ink’ to express and enact erotic impulses, to self-love. The expectation for writers of colour and migrants is to be content with narratives of assimilation or social satire.
I am not perversely fascinated or repelled by violence, but it is often concealed by our social conditioning or normalised into relationships as forbearance, and I wanted my characters to be layered, and also to lay this bare as emotional texture rather than mere sensation. In particular, for women, domestic violence can take the form of coercion and be normalised; but aggression and vulnerability are aspects of living I have wanted to explore. In ‘Duende’ there is cruelty and tenderness, violence is almost ritualised by the bullfight, dramatising the violence we perpetrate on non-human animals and to ourselves. More theoretically, desire, writing, queering, embodied violence are inter-related because of the breaking-in of boundaries. Textual elements in prose can be aggressive in the way alterations, distortions and excesses seek not so much to restore lost meaning but to create and invent in new ways. There can be a sadistic relationship between text and reader. By breaking rules, textuality can violate meaning and transgress structure. As the narrator in ‘Letter to Derrida’ says at one point: “My therapists doubts if I am narcissistic”. At the same time this love letter has a tenderness about it.
DY: In ‘To Show a Little Hustle’ the female protagonist Nabina has the erotic agency to pursue an affair with her boss, but the story takes a shift that bumps the privileged life of an ex-pat up against the treatment of Filipino workers in Hong Kong. It feels to me that this story is ultimately about power, and that Nabina perhaps loses her agency as the power dynamic reverses and her confidence melts away. Is my reading a cynical one? I found the juxtaposition between an erotic affair and the migrant worker experience both interesting and effective. Can you tell us a bit about this?
MC: I’m glad you raise ‘To Show a Little Hustle’. Nabina is confident of her sexuality; as a woman she has been positioned by patriarchy, by history and mythology (the Vedic lore) as alluring and beautiful. She has a rebellious side and likes to break the rules. Her erotic power makes her as fertile as Juliette, the Filipino maid who is contracted to be a surrogate mother. But Juliette is not paid, because she miscarries and has no legal recourse to seek compensation. Unlike Nabina, who has benefited from living in the West and from education, Juliette is not only socially, but economically disadvantaged, and since her visa status is provisional, she is legally fraught. Nabina uses desire as a moral experimentation, a testing ground. As far as Nathan is concerned, Nabina’s desire enhances and then weakens her self-identity but Juliette’s subjectivity is so extremely reduced that sex is limited to trade. This comparison between the two women highlights the role of sex in capitalism: how migrant sub-proletariat labourers like Juliette are exploited for the benefit of the West. But at the level of the colonial encounter between East and West, both these women’s subjectivity is formed by tropes and stereotypes of colonial seduction, its ‘decadent’ morals which historically are seen as threatening to Western values.
I am interested in how these women navigate their positions and roles: for Juliette, the options are limited to self-exploitation. Her life is a minor cog in the global capitalist narrative. For Nabina, her encounter with Nathan is a lesson in gender inequalities, since at the career level she is disadvantaged because of their relationship; and it is not just about sex, it’s about her emotions, which are being manipulated. The best option for her is to leave him and move on, which in its own way is liberation. So for both of these women sex constitutes them: actively in Nabina’s case and passively in Juliette’s; the erotic becomes a powerful mode that can control their female bodies.
DY: ‘Duende’ won the 2014 Hillary Mantel International Short Story Award, and ‘Borges and I’ won second place in the 2015 Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Prize. Other stories were also short- or long-listed in prizes. What did these awards mean to you as a writer? Did they help this collection find a publisher?
MC: It seems a pity that the writing industry is so focused on prizes. I have no doubt being short-listed and winning a major prize assisted me, since publishing is a risky enterprise. Other endorsements such as fellowships from the Australia Council and Copyright Agency, and individual endorsements of support may have helped my reputation, but ultimately it is up to the reader.
DY: The recurrence of certain themes and the intertextuality with the work of other writers lend a great coherence to this collection. Was this planned as a collection from the start, or is it simply that these are the types of stories you found yourself writing over a period of time?
MC: Thank you, Daniel. I did conceive of this as a collection of counter-narratives, although some of the stories had already taken a form. The first story I wrote was ‘Letter to Derrida’. I enjoyed the writing immensely, and spent time revising that story, making sure the language was right, and the references to Derrida’s life and work were fleshed out. In the meantime I wrote ‘Letter to Pessoa’. Other stories were thematically enriched by reading, take for instance Lorca’s essay, ‘Theory and Play of the Duende’ or Borges’s ‘Pierre Ménard, Author of the Quixote’, which inspired me with regards to how a minor narrative can be grafted to the mainstream. Borges was a writer of mixed ancestry: part Jewish, part Argentinian; he had lived in Europe and Buenos Aires, he felt linguistically and culturally estranged from the European canon.
As far as intertextuality goes, I’ve talked about the minority narratives being grafted to mainstream stories. I think of a graft as being restorative, like a new patch of skin after trauma. Or a graft might mean resourcefulness and survival like a tree trunk growing in the cracks of rocks. This is how these stories work. Often the psychological trauma of the colonial encounter is thrown into shadow by political and economic analysis. Trauma is something which interests me in the history of imperialism and migrations. It goes right back to Franz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, and it remains deeply present in the accumulation of low level racisms and cultural hierarchies.
I think part of the reason for the coherence of the book is the fact that it reflects my writing processes more broadly speaking, the integration of poetic language with fictional elements, narrative structure, at times with an essayistic register, with epistles, diary fragments and philosophical angles; also the integration of my reading practise with writing and with rewriting.
DY: In interviews, I often ask about literary influences, but in this collection it feels like you are wearing your influences on your sleeve. Many of the stories function as epistles to great writers—though much more besides—and the use of intertextual allusions adds an immense richness to the project as a whole. Are there particular influences in your writing that you would like to talk about?
MC: The in-between spaces of diasporic reality are a kind of negative space that one becomes comfortable with; this interests me, because it is a space of possibilities, and hybridity, as I hope the collection attests for. I think this middle voice, where narrative structure and historical time collapses invites the blending of genres. Another thing to mention is that the voice is sometimes a bisexual narrator or gender-fluid, which I think speaks to how writing is not a gendered process. Also, my Buddhist perspective has shaped my awareness of reality and the mind as staging constructs.
I do believe the self is a performance, a relation, a series of incomplete and impermanent events: consciousness, feeling, thought, memory, imagination.
DY: Do you have an all-time favourite short story? And a favourite recently published?
MC: Not an all-time favourite, but I love the story ‘Ghosts’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Recently, I read K J Orr’s prize-winning ‘Disappearances’ which I think is stunning.
DY: You’re also the editor of Mascara Literary Review. How has your editing role influenced your own writing? Mascara has particular interests in the work of contemporary migrant, Asian Australian and Indigenous writers. Do you feel that the Australian literary scene is making progress in publishing and recognising the work of such writers?
MC: I’ve been privileged to read contributions and work with a range of formidable writers and researchers; of course this has shaped my thinking and so my work in Asian-Australian writing and activism, in subalternity and minority literatures. I have not enjoyed the politics, trauma or isolation of activism; I simply wanted to write poetry and fiction. But I have come to appreciate that fiction is much more than simply the imagination; it is about what can be reconfigured even if it cannot be fully restored. Writing can do this; and that is how my writing practise has changed.
I think with platforms like Mascara, Peril, Tincture, The Suburban Review, South Asian Crossings, Vagabond, Five Islands Press and Margaret River Press there have been some exciting productions and initiatives. There are so many young promising culturally-diverse writers.
There are increasingly more writers, activists and theorists from a range of cultural intersections working collaboratively through transnational networks and so I am optimistic about change, but at the same time there are still many challenges for writers of diverse backgrounds.
DY: Michelle, thanks so much for your time.
MC: Thank you so much for these questions Daniel.
Michelle Cahill is a prize-winning poet and essayist. Her stories and essays have appeared in Westerly, Australian Book Review, Meanjin, The Weekend Australian and Southerly. She won the Hilary Mantel International Short Story Prize and was placed second in the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize as well as being shortlisted in several other fiction and poetry prizes. She has received grants from The Australia Council and the Copyright Agency Limited. She was a fellow at Hawthornden Castle and Visting Scholar at UNC Charlotte. She is the founding editor of Mascara Literary Review and a Doctoral Candidate in Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong. Her most recent books are Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo) and The Herring Lass (Arc, UK).