Watching author and poet SJ Norman, clad in the slickest leather and coolest boots I’ve ever seen, striding onto stage to talk about their anthology Permafrost, was the most ‘seen’ I had felt in years. The Sydney Writers’ Festival this year was all about unapologetic creativity, subverting expectations and deviating from the normal – in this case, toward the paranormal.
Permafrost is an anthology of short ‘ghost’ stories, some of which have been in progress for decades. In a panel hosted by esteemed novelist Hannah Kent, Norman described their work as a vessel to explore a sense of estrangement from the familiar, especially in relation to place and body.
“I feel like a ghost in a lot of spaces,” Kent said, when asked about their fascination with haunted spaces and a lack of belonging.
In their pursuit of art, they moved around a lot, finding themselves disconnecting and reconnecting with a myriad of different locations across their life. This led to their fascination with the ‘unsettling’; they theorised that the state of disconnection from ones location or existence, as prompted by emotional dissonance and alienation, form an environment ripe for spectral encounters. To them, ghostly appearances in literature follow a strict series of formalised conventions, and that learning to engage, employ and subvert these techniques was key to creating the unsettling, liminal atmosphere at the heart of Permafrost.
“[It’s] like attending a seance where the ghosts never leave,” Kent explained. Key to constructing this atmosphere is drawing from the familiar to create the uncanny; for example, discovering an open cupboard door that you yourself had closed. This assertion of the otherworldly underneath the mundane challenges the concrete reality of space, estranging the reader, and tapping into deep-set anxieties of insecurity and non-belonging.
The theme of estrangement and subversion was a common thread throughout Roanna Gonsalves’ panel with authors Christos Tsiolkas and Michelle de Kretser, in which they detailed the processes behind their unique works of unconventional fiction, titled 7 ½ and Scary Monsters respectively.
The chemistry between the panelists was immediate; throughout the entire talk, Tsiolkas and de Kretser rode the exact same wavelength. They discussed the expectations of their work due to their status as established writers, and their desire to quite literally reshape their fiction into weird and wonderful forms that challenge the very nature of storytelling itself.
[I’m] doing what the novel has always demanded of writers – making it new.
Inspired by Federico Fellini’s 1963 surrealist film 8 ½, Tsiolkas outlined his fascination with film and the cinematic aspects to his work, stating that his unconventional structure and metatextual elements demanded a greater focus and engagement with the reader, to be inevitably paid off by a unique and scenic glimpse into the art of storytelling, his characters, and by extension, himself.
What comes first? The future or the past?
“[I’m] doing what the novel has always demanded of writers – making it new,” he said of his work. He explained how he wants the reader to ‘play’ with his work, and to create a world where realities are shaped by wonder and delight in a sort of ‘destabilisation of finitude’.
Meanwhile, Michelle de Kretser harnesses this unconventional structure in a far more literal and tangible sense; Scary Monsters is a story in two parts, with two front covers, and a change in page orientation halfway through.
“What comes first? The future or the past?” she questioned. Although the two stories, one set in the past and one in the distant future, are seemingly unrelated, the unity of the two enables de Kretser to delve deeply into the migrant experience, and its shattering impact upon the lives of the people experiencing it.
Although these artists’ works are confined to words on paper, they are able to transcend the boundaries of genre and form and create a truly unique reading experience; more demanding, perhaps, but ultimately worth the ride.
Main image of SJ Norman supplied by Sydney Writer’s Festival, via Karlee Holland.