Stephanie Bishop was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Best Young Australian Novelists in 2006 with her first novel The Singing. Her new novel The Other Side of the World was shortlisted for the Vogel Literary Award, and was rated 4.5/5 in a recent review by Good Reading Magazine‘s Heather Lunney, who said of the novel ‘With its beautiful prose and vivid imagery, the quietness of this novel belies the intense emotional turmoil at its heart. I highly recommended it.’
Read on for our Q&A with Stephanie, who’s currently working as a creative writing lecturer at the University of NSW, and for a chance to win a copy of her new book.
The Other Side of the World is preceded by a quote from Salman Rushdie: ‘But of course the dream-England is no more than a dream.’ Could you explain the relevance of this quote to your novel?
Yes, it comes from Salman Rushdie’s wonderful essay ‘Imaginary Homelands’. He is talking about the origin of his novel Midnight’s Children and thinking about what it means live as postcolonial subject in England. In that particular passage, from which the quote comes, he is remembering what it was to be fed British culture as a boy growing up in Bombay. As a child, he argues, there was this overriding idea that England was somehow his homeland, even if it was an imaginary one, a dream England. It was a country that he wanted to go to. Once there, however, he became aware that he fitted in partly because he seemed more English than Indian. The dream-England that he had grown up with as a child was just that, a dream. The reality was perhaps more harsh and less forgiving of the racial difference he had managed to overlook as a child.
My grandfather is Anglo-Indian. He was born in India, and was sent to England as a boy, then decided to move to Australia as an adult. Despite these various migrations he has always insisted on his British roots. I use his migrations as a backdrop for the novel and give them to the character of Henry. The quote is a way in to thinking about Henry’s experience of profound cultural displacement and the expectations of a colonial (and perhaps post colonial) subject. As a child of a British migrant, I grew up with this idea that England was also somehow home, or at least a second home. In the novel, I was interested in exploring this disjuncture between the fantasy of a homeland, and the lived reality of this.
How does being a creative writing lecturer affect your own writing? Is writing something that can be taught?
Working as an academic, albeit a creative one, does inform my own writing. Writing critical material – lectures, essays etc – helps me think through the issues and concerns playing out in any of my own creative work in progress. It also works in the reverse sense, in that my teaching is very much determined by my creative preoccupations. So working as a lecturer helps me clarify my creative intent. It can also be quite draining though and does take up a great deal of my time. I do think there are elements of writing that can be taught – craft can be honed, the processes of one’s own creativity can be better understood, critical thinking can be developed and applied to one’s own writing, knowledge of other writers can be encouraged and thought through in relation to a student’s own practice. There is though, that other fundamental issue of talent that perhaps can’t be taught and seems to be to be immediate and innate – you know it as soon as it walks in the door.
Who are Charlotte and Henry?
Charlotte and Henry are a young married couple. We meet them when they are living in England in the early 1960s. They have a new baby, and Charlotte is really struggling with the changes that motherhood has brought to her life. She is well educated and prior to the birth of her child had been a successful painter. Henry is Anglo-Indian, born in India and sent to England prior to Indian independence. He is a poet and an academic. He worries about the recent change that has overcome Charlotte and desperately wants her to be happy, or to at least be the kind of person she was before the birth of their first child. He is seduced by a brochure advertising the assisted passage scheme, where British citizens could travel to Australia for the cost of £10. He becomes convinced that if they could move to Australia everything would be all right again. It would be the chance to start afresh.
What happens to them?
Charlotte agrees to move to Australia, but only because Henry insists. Of course, migrating to the other side of the world doesn’t solve all their problems. If anything it exacerbates the conflict between them, and the marriage begins to fracture. The novel charts their first year or so in Australia, following Charlotte up to the point where she makes a decision that will change the course of their lives forever.
Australia holds an exotic, edge-of-the-world appeal for those who have never visited. Why do you think this is? How do Henry and Charlotte become ensnared in the idea of escaping to Australia?
Henry is drawn to Australia because he needs a sunny country. He has never really adjusted to life in England after his childhood in India. He blames the unhappiness of their marriage on the English weather. Charlotte is far more sceptical. She feels strongly attached to the English landscape and has no desire to set up home somewhere else. She agrees to go mainly because she feels she has no other option.
The Assisted Passage scheme was one of the largest organised migrations of the 20th century and the archives are full of wives bemoaning the fact that their husbands made them move to Australia, and that the country turned out to be nothing like what they were expecting. The advertising campaign for this migration scheme was enormous and very seductive. I tried to introduce elements of this into the book – the appeal of sunshine, of outdoor life of plentiful fresh food. The idea behind this campaign was that Australia was just like England, only sunny. Henry uses this idea to convince Charlotte to move. But things don’t work out quite as he hopes.
The Other Side of the World is set in Cambridge, Perth and India. Have you visited all of these places? If so, what were your experiences in each place?
Yes, I lived in Cambridge for five years while I was studying for my Ph.D. and the landscape of the book is very much informed by that period of my life. I received in Asialink fellowship while I was writing the novel and travelled to India for the purposes of researching the book. Much of what I saw appears directly in the novel – I spent three months between Shimla and Delhi. My husband is from Perth, so I have spent a lot of time there. Although I know the Perth landscape well, I’ve always felt something of an outsider there. It was partly for this reason that I chose to set the novel in Perth. I wanted to communicate that sense of living on the margins of a place. My grandparents migrated to Sydney, and this landscape is too familiar to me to use it to convey that feeling of dislocation that dominates Charlotte’s life in the book.
In an essay you wrote titled ‘Silent reading: The read voice’, you draw attention to something none of us usually consider consciously – the voice that whispers in our head while we read. Did you get to the bottom of this phenomenon?
That essay was part of the end of my Ph.D. I was particularly interested in how this internal voice that we hear when we read, and the internal voice that marks the sound of our conscience does or does not differ from the internal voice that I’m listening out for when I write. I haven’t done any further critical work on this idea, but I think about it every time I sit down to write. I’m always on the lookout for that voice.
The Other Side of the World seems tied up in the ache of nostalgia. Do you often find yourself being nostalgic or sentimental? What for?
Yes I suspect I am a bit of a nostalgic. I do tend to pine for things that have ended or passed whilst knowing that I found them not entirely satisfying at the time. When I came back to Australia from England, for example, all of a sudden I found I missed England intensely, even though was a very deliberate decision to return home. I’m really interested in the experience of ambivalence: how we both want something and don’t want something at the same time. I suspect ambivalence has a lot to do with this nostalgic sentiment.
Can you tell us about the suite of essays you’re currently working on?
This project is really in its infancy, but at the moment the collection is divided into two sections of maybe four essays each. In the first part the essays examine the process of making, and in the second part the essays look at our experience of made things. So I’m looking, for example, at the process of composing or making fiction, the making of gardens, the importation of film techniques into novels, the idea of invention, and then our encounter with favourite visual artists and writers – Barbara Hepworth and Gerhard Richter, Virginia Woolf and Deborah Levy – then, just for the fun of it, the pleasure of dresses.
Which up-and-coming Australian authors do you think we should be keeping an eye on?
Alice Nelson, Favel Parret and Maxine Beneba-Clarke.