Place and Character: Monash Prize judge Mridula Chakraborty on what she loves to see in new literature

Monash Arts recently chatted to Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing judge (and Monash academic) Mridula Chakraborty about what she loves to see in literature, her current reads and what she’s working on at the moment.

The Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing is run in collaboration with the Emerging Writers' Festival. The 2016 prize is open until April 18th and open to undergraduate and honours students in Australia and New Zealand. 

What makes a good piece of creative writing?

It’s writing that makes me sit up and take a look at contemporary Australia in a fresh way. I think when outsiders, or even Australians, think about Australian literature, they have an idea about a sort of static or even empty space. But actually there’s so much exciting new writing happening, and it reflects all of Australia in its diversity, whether it’s writing from small student groups who come together, or about migrants coming to Australia, or Indigenous writing. It really interests me to see what emerges in the literary space which many people would think was static.

Writers with Literary Commons project organiser Mridula Chakraborty in Melbourne

What do you look for in a story, what grabs your eye?

I have to say great characters always make a difference to me. The character that has a story to tell. The character could be the most boring person imaginable, but the writer can make the human being come alive. I like writing that makes me think about what makes human beings tick, what makes them do this or that, that really interests me. I also like reading about it in ways that are unpredictable. The writing doesn’t have to be flamboyant or spectacular, it’s just the everyday quotidian life of flawed human nature that really grabs me.

What are you reading at the moment?

I always have books on the go, I’ve got three or four things on the go at the moment. Something I’m reading at the moment I picked up at the department table, where people put things out for others to pick up.* This is a 1966 issue of London Magazine, a journal, that’s kind of an insight into what happens in literary spaces, how a physical place itself can become a literary corpus. When I think about that environment of 1960s London and then I think about what’s happening in Melbourne at the moment, it’s really wonderful to see how place creates stories. What I said earlier about having great characters, I think great characters are also formed by the place they are in.

I recently read Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light – she’s an Indigenous writer based in Brisbane and the debut novel was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2015. It’s a wonderful story about what Australia might look like 50 years into the future. It’s really interesting speculative fiction. It’s a vision into the future of what’s possible.

I’m also reading Indian Nocturne by the Italian writer, Antonio Tabucchi, and published by Canongate. It’s a travel narrative but also a narrative about insomnia. It’s interesting to see how a writer uses such restraint in description in the face of such an excess of spectacularity that India offers – it appears as though the narrator is trying to tell you about the places he is travelling to but you get to know everything about the interiority of the character, about the person telling you the story, through the story-telling. That always interests me – how much you get to know the protagonist from what they’re saying.

Literary Commons participants in Melbourne

Do you see any trends in writing currently that you really like?

We live in a globalised world and there’s so much mobility. If you think of a place like Australia, because it’s one of the oldest places in the world, and one of the youngest. That juxtaposition, to me is very interesting, that meeting point of old Australia and new Australia.

I think writing about how people move in between spaces, how mobility affects them, whether it is from country to city, from rural to urban, transnational and transcultural: all that movement transformed into the literary space, through the prism of experience and the leap of imagination is really wonderful and provokes thought.

For example when I read Nunga poet Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight, a verse novel about the massacres that happened in NSW on Indigenous People by colonisers, it evoked place in all its horror and trauma. You can be in Melbourne, and be surrounded by its splendid architecture, and then you think about country in NSW, and the picture that evokes.

It really interests me how place gets narrated through people’s lives, through their narratives and through people’s description.

There’s another book I finished recently by Michael Mohammed Ahmad called The Tribe, about a Lebanese family in Annandale. There’s one wonderful scene in it where the narrator is at a cousin’s wedding with all his relatives, and you could almost feel the pounding excitement of the wedding, and this is where the narrator manages to evoke place with sound. Even though this was a very personal story about family history, it brings another Australia alive in a unusual way.

What are you working on at the moment?

One project I’m working on at the moment is Literary Commons! – it brings Indigenous writers of India and Australia together through their story-telling. It also brings together writing in different languages. In 2014, I took 10 Indigenous Australian writers to India to participate in literary festivals and translation workshops. This year, (during the first week of April), 10 Dalit and tribal writers came from India to Melbourne to again have an exchange of their ideas and literature.

Apart from this I’ve been working on something called Literary Habitats, it’s a project that’s part of the Monash-Warwick Alliance and it looks at how literature is created in different settings. It compares two locations, one is Melbourne and one is in the Warwick area, around Coventry – it looks at these two sites as cities of literature, and what makes a place into a city of literature. How do people imagine themselves as literary? Is it because of a large reading audience, or a lot of writing happening? That would suggest that publishing and literary festivals come together to make that happen. Literary Habitats goes into understanding what makes an environment for literature possible.

*Editor’s note: tables like this can be found outside departments at universities sometimes, and are often a goldmine of long lost publications, magazines and other interesting writing.

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