Q&A: Emma Ashmere

Emma Ashmere’s short-story collection Dreams They Forgot is published by Wakefield Press. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short stories have been widely published and shortlisted for the 2018 Newcastle Award, 2019 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize, 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Award; and longlisted for the 2020 Heroines Prize, and 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition.

What does feminism mean to you?

It’s like putting on a pair of x-ray glasses and seeing the reservoirs and tributaries of power all lit up. It’s about studying that map, all its structural barricades, and changing the course and flow of that power. It helps you ask questions of yourself and others about who benefits from keeping things the way they are, by silencing, belittlement, white-anting, erasing, and marginalising swathes of society. I want feminism to move past money, appearances and comparisons, and to support women and girls from all backgrounds, origins, cultures, sexualities, and abilities. We need to face up to and listen to our shared colonial histories from those who live with the effects of those histories. Denial = cowardice.

And for those who have privileges, it’s time to believe and ask how to change things for those of us locked out of ordinary daily realities – because of a flight of stairs, or a broken lift, or a prohibitive subscription/entry fee, or a café that doesn’t like your language or your lover or your hat, or the taxi that refuses to stop, or being doubted, profiled, stone-walled or abused when trying to access welfare, housing, education, work, health, justice, groceries, or help. It means learning, and acknowledging we can’t know everything, and choosing our battles armed with informed strategies while working to secure basic human rights for all: access to clean drinking water, nourishing affordable food, secure shelter, freedom of cultural expression, health, education, paid work, safety, hope, respect.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

There were no books written by women on my school curriculum in the 70s/80s. In Year 12, we devised our own literature projects. I’d read two F. Scott Fitzgerald short-story collections (and the obligatory The Great Gatsby) and asked if I could write about Fitzgerald’s women characters. My male teacher blinked, frowned, and eventually agreed. Who knows why I decided on that topic? Perhaps it was wanting to be Jane Fonda in the 1977 movie Julia, thumping away on her typewriter, cigarette hanging from her mouth, risking everything to fight for justice and freedom alongside Vanessa Redgrave. Perhaps it was seeing official letters addressed to my mother as Mrs [my father’s first name] [my father’s second name]. Perhaps it was being told girls couldn’t play football, that women were bad luck on ships, or I had good child-bearing hips – or furtively reading a friend’s copy of The Women’s Room with the quote on the cover ‘This Novel Changes Lives’. It was definitely finding the underground local and UK music scene on Adelaide community radio, hearing Irish-Scottish-Somali singer Poly Styrene, frontwoman of X-ray Spex, belting out her 1978 song ‘Identity’.

What does the short story format enable you to do that longer works wouldn’t?

I love novels like Anna Burns Milkman, Alexis Wright’s Plains of Promise, Ali Smith’s Hotel World, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, and Jenny Offill’s Weather and marvel at how they experiment with form, structure, language, expansion, skill and restraint – and blur prescriptions of what novels are meant to be.

So too short stories, which offer a kind of freedom, a dare to elbow boundaries, to see how far you can get constructing a glimpse of world, a moment, a character, a feeling, within a confined space – a bit like building a model ship inside a bottle. A lot of it is tweezer-work. On a practical level, short stories don’t take years (although some do.) This became more important after I developed a disability and was unable to think or write for a long time. I found my way back to parts of my old self through poetry, and doing monthly short book reviews for a local paper. Then to short stories. Now they’re a welcome side-trip from the long night drive of the novel. And if one of my stories is picked up by a journal or a competition, it’s a shot of fuel.

The stories in Dreams They Forgot are all so provocative, yet quite varied. Can you tell us about how dreamed you up the characters and the stories?

I don’t set out to be provocative. I just write about what catches my attention, often several seemingly unconnected things which quietly tendril their way into the same piece, hopefully enough to spin a few ideas into images and plot. I’m drawn to misfits and outsiders who experience the world at a different tilt. These 23 stories have been written over several years. I like to roam about in time and place, and see where it leads. If the stories don’t work, they’re not wasted. I put them aside, peer at them occasionally, and chip off anything still glittering.

Sometimes a story or character will arrive fully formed, but this has only happened a few times. This sounds mysterious, and is, but I’ve usually been reading around a subject, or a big event compels me to try to make sense of it through writing. Others come from observation. I live in the northern rivers of NSW. It’s usually green and lush, but in 2019 everything began to sag and sallow. In ‘A Thousand Eyes’, I invented characters treading the line between prepping and paranoia, subsisting somewhere up in the browning hills, loomed over by the father’s obsession with the Doomsday Clock. It’s a feeling and a voice I want to try to conjure in characters and stories.

Time almost seems like a prominent character in each story, why is history so important for your writing?

I see history as the politics of yesterday. Politics shapes our lives. I’m interested in which events and people are revered, mythologised, and celebrated – while others are belittled and concreted over, especially in colonised societies like Australia. My story ‘Standing Up Lying Down’ is set in contemporary Melbourne. The characters visit ‘Cook’s Cottage’ – where Captain Cook never actually lived. The cottage was bought by a wealthy Australian, shipped stone-by-stone from England, reconstructed, and set in a park next to an inner-city hospital. I wanted to write a fictional account of someone navigating the health, welfare, and workplace systems based on my own experiences of disability, how it felt to to be told I was less, and also about wider issues of exclusion, disbelief, hierarchy, and superficiality. I wanted to share what I’d learnt too late, about how people with disabilities should be supported. So, while it’s not a story set in another era – the past is in its weave.

Do you have any feminist recommendations for books, podcasts or authors that we should be paying attention to at the moment?

There are so many – but I’ll hone in on specific short stories. ‘The Effluent Engine’ by NK Jemisin is from her new collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month. It has it all: love, science, tension, small-town claustrophobia, spies, nuns, Black women smashing stereotypes. ‘A Girl Is Sitting On A Unicorn in the Middle of a Shopping Centre’ by Elizabeth Tan is in her new collection Smart Ovens For Lonely People. There’s tenderness, harshness, depth, shallowness, absurdity and tragedy as a girl realises what the world thinks she should be. ‘Meneseteung’ by Alice Munro is from her 1990 collection Friend Of My Youth, and subverts attempts to know another person’s life through gleaning traces, such as poems, songs, and grave markings. ‘Matalasi’ is by Jenny Bennet-Tuionetoa, a human rights advocate and LGBTQIA activist from Samoa. This story was Pacific regional winner in the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Award, and is a beautiful heartbreaking exploration of gender, sexuality, resistance and survival.

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