Issue 75.1 of Southerly is titled Elemental and is concerned with our experience of the elements in an era of climate change. The four elements of classical thought (earth, fire, water, air) align with what we now call four states of matter and hence to what is termed the ‘material turn’ in contemporary debates in the humanities. This material turn seeks new ways of understanding the physical world and is motivated by the urgency of shared vulnerability on the planet. In Australia this experience of extreme weather, including floods and fires, embroils the entire ecosystem including literary ecologies. This issue considers a range of Australian writers who address the modern experience of the elements in their volatility and magnificence, raising questions, recording and responding to matter as the matter at hand.
by Sulari Gentill
Part 4: Self
Within the universe of a novel, its author is a kind of god, an elemental force directing the fates of characters, conjuring crises and granting reprieves. She creates life… people who jump from the text to walk into the imaginations of readers. Protagonists who exist independently of her, continuing to make friends from the printed page long after their author has expired.
In my previous posts for the Southerly I have discussed elements of the story which may be discovered in and through the creative process of writing. In this instalment I’m turning the spotlight back onto the writer, to consider the impact the act of writing has on her, what she discovers about herself through the lives she has created and followed.
I’m afraid there will be very little academic rigour in this particular article – my evidence is anecdotal and personal. And it is necessarily biased by perspective – my own. But then it is the subjective nature of the relationship between an author and her protagonist that breathes life into character, so perhaps that’s as it should be.
I wrote A Few Right Thinking Men, the first book of the Rowland Sinclair series, in 2009. Since then there have been five further books, over the course of which my protagonist has changed. That’s not surprising of course. He’s been through rather a lot… one would expect it to have some impact.
Unlike Rowland, I have not been shot, strangled, bitten by snakes, choked, tortured or imprisoned in the last five years (or ever). My traumas have been limited to deadlines, the editing process, the occasional public flogging of a bad review and the realisation that becoming a writer was not the most financially sensible decision I ever made. And yet, Rowland and I have changed in quite similar ways.
When the series opened, Rowland Sinclair was a young man consumed by his art. He was not ignorant or heartless, but he was indifferent to politics. He just wanted to be left alone to paint. In many ways his writer felt the same way. Although I did have a vague theoretical affiliation to left-of-centre politics, I operated under the belief that in this country the actual differences between the Left and Right were negligible. I had been brought up with the idea that politics, like religion, was not to be mentioned in polite company. And essentially, I just wanted to be left alone to write.
But I had chosen to write about a young artist living in the 1930s, an era of social upheaval and political hysteria and polarisation. The decade was the vat in which fermented all the passions, prejudices and philosophies that gave rise to the Second World War. In each book Rowland is faced with the early manifestations of what would later play out as the Holocaust. In trying to understand his world, I read the newspapers of the time and scrutinised the events and personalities of the early thirties. There were things that were startlingly familiar, a recognisable pattern of events and manipulations, a similar demonisation of sections of the community and the use of fear in order to justify contraventions of the rule of law and human rights. As Rowland Sinclair has become progressively more uneasy, progressively more outraged, so too have I.
Political beliefs aside, I am intrigued by the cause and effect of this. It may seem, on the face of it, that my increasing engagement with the politics of my time is manifesting in my protagonist, that his developing social conscience is a projection of my own. But I’m not sure that this is truly what has occurred.
Rowland Sinclair was probably always going to become more politically active… his personality, his background, the murder of his uncle by the Fascist Legion, his radical left-wing friends, all make it almost impossible for him to continue to just paint. I’m fairly sure that he would have changed in this way even if I had continued to be completely indifferent to the politics of today. It has occurred to me though, that perhaps the influence moves in the other direction.
I had always envisaged Rowland as a man of integrity. He is, as I have written him, essentially a decent man. I wonder then if his increasing activism has provided me with a kind of example. Does the fact that he stands up to be counted rather than hiding behind his art inspire me to speak on issues about which I might previously have remained diplomatically silent?
I mentioned in my first post that fiction allows the reader to empathise with or revile imagined characters, compare themselves and understand history through the passions, shortcomings and heroics of the human condition. This is also true for the writer. Possibly, it’s simply that following Rowland has given me an insight into the circumstances which preceded World War II, and so, recognising similar circumstances now, I can no longer dismiss them as passing aberrations.
Whatever the exact process at play, it does seem to me that I am changing in the same direction as the man I’ve created. It feels like he is leading that change, but of course that can’t be true. Rowland Sinclair was conceived inside my head: a combination of conscious decisions and subconscious motivations. Perhaps, through him, I’m exploring where I stand, testing my own reactions and limits. Perhaps the relationship between author and protagonist, like that between character and plot, is mutually influential and circular.
by Sulari Gentill
Part 3: Plot
The supremacy of characterisation over plot or plot over characters is an old and worn argument. At one end of the spectrum there are those who consider plot merely a tool by which character is developed, at the other those who hold that characters are simply generic cogs in the machinery of a plot. Some writers develop detailed plans broken down by chapter and scene; others start at the first word of a novel and just write till it’s finished. Most writers and readers exist somewhere between.
I tend not to know what the plot is or the story is or even the theme. Those things come later, for me. – Michael Ondaatje
Stripped of its plot, the ‘Iliad’ is a scattering of names and biographies of ordinary soldiers: men who trip over their shields, lose their courage or miss their wives. In addition to these, there is a cast of anonymous people: the farmers, walkers, mothers, neighbours who inhabit its similes. – Alice Oswald
Once a novel gets going and I know it is viable, I don’t then worry about plot or themes. These things will come in almost automatically because the characters are now pulling the story. – Chinua Achebe
To me, and my writing, plot and character are symbiotic, the warp and weft which form the fabric of story. They weave in and out of each of other in a manner that makes them almost indiscernible as separate elements. The removal of one would render the other simply a bunch of threads.
In my last post I spoke of allowing character to develop through plot, of discovering a character gradually through the impact of events. In this post I intend to discuss developing a plot in a similarly organic way. However, while plot and character are often dealt with separately, the line between them is not rigid. Certainly, my own writing process does not involve addressing or even considering plot or character in isolation.
Life doesn’t have plot: life just has a flow of events. – Kate Grenville[i]
In life the individual is shaped by events, by what has happened to form and twist his/her character. Childhood trauma, bereavement, privilege, deprivation, power, isolation, luck… all factors which both move a plot and leave their mark on character. But the individual is rarely powerless or passive. As much as events influence the individual, so too does the individual influence events. At every fork the individual chooses a path and in so doing puts into play the events which will in turn influence him.
It is this reciprocal relationship between plot and character that means I can allow my protagonists to lead me through the story; that I can simply start writing and let them take me where they will. At every stage they make decisions, to act or not, to defy or obey, to love or hate, and in doing so they determine where the plot will go. A brave person, for example, will make different choices than a timid one, and those acts of bravery will lead them into different situations. He/she will react differently to danger and this lack of caution may lead to circumstances that a timorous character would avoid.
Once you have invented a character with three dimensions and a voice, you begin to realize that some of the things you’d like him to do to further your plot are things that such a person wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do. – Thomas Perry
That is not to say I have no design whatsoever. I do begin with a general idea of the themes and issues I’d like to explore, and because I write historical fiction, I often have particular historical events I wish to include in the narrative. But I leave the detail of how that occurs to evolve naturally, I trust the chemistry of character and plot to work itself out into a story.
In some ways I work with scaffolding rather than proscriptive plots. In my case that scaffolding is history and mythology, but they are not the only forms of scaffolding that exist. I use the term scaffolding to mean the base truths upon which the story is built. In the Hero Trilogy, for example, I used the works of Homer and other classical texts as the truths around which the story of the Herdsmen of Ida was based. They framed my plot and gave me parameters with which to work. In Chasing Odysseus I followed part of the plot of Homer’s Odyssey quite closely, and in Trying War I brought together elements of many stories, including that of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus and the trial of Ares at the Areopagus. The Blood of Wolves wove into Virgil’s Aeneid. Thus for the first and last books of the trilogy the scaffolding was extensive. The major events had been set thousands of years before by Homer and Virgil. The plot development for those novels was about how I would entangle and disentangle my protagonists from these events while maintaining the integrity of their characters. For Trying War the scaffolding was looser and less linear. The physical path was not so rigid and where my protagonists travelled in the course of that book was determined by what their characters would naturally have done in the circumstances rather than a course set by classical texts. In all three books the personal plotlines of the Herdsmen of Ida were determined as much by their idiosyncratic responses to the mythological stories in which I’d placed them, as by the events of those stories.
In Chasing Odysseus I established a kinship with wolves for the Herdsmen of Ida. The detail was included purely on whim. When I was first writing the manuscript, my son, who was about six years old at the time, wanted me to ‘write a book about werewolves’. The tribal affiliation with wolves that I gave my protagonists was merely a nod to that request. If he’d asked me to write about vampires perhaps I would have given the Herdsmen a kinship to bats! This character detail however became increasingly important as the series evolved, influencing critical plot directions and bringing the trilogy to a conclusion with the mythology surrounding Roma and Romulus, the founders of Rome. If six-year-old Edmund had not made that request, if I had not included it as a quirk in the character of my protagonists, each book as well as the eventual greater story arc would probably have been very different. In this way the plot evolved in response to a facet of characterisation.
One of the great benefits of this uncharted approach is to the pacing of a novel. The writer who has not planned, experiences events with the protagonist (who also has no idea what will happen next) and discovers the story with the reader.
Although I do not consciously plan or plot, the serendipity with which threads come together leads me to suspect that there is probably a subliminal structure and organised logic to my work. What I see as my protagonists leading me through their world and story is possibly just my subconscious guiding a story it has sifted out of all that exists in my memory and my imagination, without bothering the poor beleaguered and limited conscious part of my brain. As a consequence, my seemingly spontaneous discovery of plot, my idea that I am making it up as I go, may more accurately be a gradual conscious realisation of something devised in the quiet and hidden recesses of my mind.
It may well be argued that we ‘pantsers’, we writers who just go with the story and allow our protagonists to do as they choose, might not be as unruly and unstructured in our writing as we claim. There are consequences of events on character, and influences of character on events which guide the narrative. There are threads of causality and rules of logic, however internal, at play. It may be that (aside from trying to explain our processes for Southerly) we just elect not to look too hard at what exactly is at work to produce our plots and our characters, leaving the mechanics of our processes undefined and unscrutinised. Perhaps we simply trust that part of ourselves which tells us ‘this is the way it was’.
[i] The Writing Book (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2010).
by Sulari Gentill
Part 2: Characters
When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.
- Ernest Hemmingway
In the space of time it takes to read a book, the reader comes to know a character, to discover his or her strengths and flaws, fears and dreams, to make a friend or find a foe. For every hour that the gentle reader spends this way, the author must spend many days discovering the person they have created. The process by which each author does this varies from those who first map the terrain, plan the route and mark all forks in the road, to those who set out with seemingly no preparation but a curiosity as to what they might find.
I am of the latter.
For me, writing is a kind of glorious madness, a descent into the world in my head where I am the figment, the ghost, the imaginary observer. It is a seductive world which I leave only reluctantly to engage with the real world to which I was born.
The relationships between writers and their protagonists are intriguing, not for the least part, because they can be so varied in intensity and quality. There are writers who insist their protagonists are merely literary constructs, and others who set a place at the table for the hero/heroine of their latest novel.
I have known my imaginary gentleman sleuth, Rowland Sinclair, for six books now, two years of his life, four years of mine. In that time he has stood in the periphery of my vision, regarding me with a kind of amused resignation, watching me as I watch him. We have an understanding, he and I.
With each book I have come to know Rowland Sinclair more intimately, made discoveries about his past and his nature. I have created circumstances and watched his reaction and out of this I have cobbled a story. He is now, all but real to not just me, but also my family. My husband and I will often talk about Rowland as if he were an old friend with a tendency of finding trouble. You know the kind. We will argue about the rights and wrongs of Rowland’s actions, as if those actions were fact. Every now and then, I hear our conversations as a third party might, and find myself both alarmed and vaguely embarrassed by the extent to which this figment of my imagination has insinuated himself into our lives. But I reassure myself that I am a writer, and as such, a certain level of delusion is not only acceptable, but possibly necessary.
It is not uncommon for a writer to gain new insight into their own work through reviewers or readers, who point out nuances and themes which we ourselves haven’t noticed. Of course, we’re usually quite happy to claim them after the fact. Because I write without plotting, I am regularly surprised at the serendipity with which the details of my narratives fall into place. Idiosyncrasies introduced on whim to add colour to a character in chapter one, by chapter thirty prove pivotal to the motivation or essence of that character, as if I had laid the thread on purpose.
Both the above, I think, owe more to the storyteller’s subconscious than they do to chance or luck.
There are many things we do as writers for reasons about which we not consciously aware, but which have a purpose and a design nonetheless. Somewhere in our subconscious is stored everything we know and have read, every revelation of research, every image, every sound and every feeling. It’s not surprising then that this is cradle of our creativity, where stories are born. The writer’s trick is tapping into that and then trusting it.
This is all the more true for the creation and development of protagonists. A fit-to-purpose character, designed to serve the plot or the zeitgeist of the time, or moulded to appeal to some demographic or other, often comes across as two dimensional or somehow fails to seize a reader’s heart and loyalty. Sometimes, in order to give a protagonist authenticity it’s necessary to allow him some privacy.
I’m currently writing my seventh novel around Rowland Sinclair. With each successive book of the series, readers have discovered a little more about him, as have I. In order for that to be possible I have to be content to not know everything about him, to discover him bit by bit as circumstances arise, the way one would come to know a person in life. It means that on occasion I allow in subplots that seem to have nothing to do with the current narrative and trust that they will in time reveal something about the man at the centre of my books. I also resist the writer’s compulsion to explain everything, to be consistent at all costs. Human beings sometimes behave in ways that are inexplicable, unexpected and irrational. The writer’s craft involves introducing this element of humanity sparingly, at the right point and in a manner that does not break the illusion of the narrative, but enhances it.
My personal process involves populating my books with people who interest me. Much of the excitement which surrounds a character comes from the element of surprise, from not knowing exactly how he will react, what he will do. This is true for the writer as well as the reader. The sense of pace and tension in my writing is not something I consciously create, but comes from the fact that I am invested in and engaged with the characters at play. I care about them and want to know how things will come out for them; if and how they will escape the particular situation in which I’ve put them. It’s not that I couldn’t create that same sense if I knew exactly what they would do, but it certainly wouldn’t be something that would happen as spontaneously and naturally as it seems to now.
That is not to say that Rowland Sinclair is without form—a vague literary construct in a three piece suit. He has emerged from my knowledge of the era into which he was born, my observations of human beings encountered long before I ever thought of writing, my aspirations for the kind of men I want my sons to grow to be, my personal haphazard, anecdotal and unscientific knowledge of humanity. We share a love of painting and sketching, and though Rowland’s skill with a brush far surpasses mine, I understand how he sees the world—as compositions and portraits. I know what’s fundamental to Rowland, what he values, what he fears. But I don’t always know why he values those things. The discovery of why often serves a double purpose in moving forward a plot and revealing character in a manner that is both intriguing and natural.
So, strangely, my method for developing characters runs counter to the popular wisdom which encourages writers to know their imaginary people thoroughly, which advocates detailed backstories and character profiles. I prefer to discover my protagonist through the story itself, to allow him the freedom of unexpected conduct, the ability to change and mature. The result, I hope, is a character that is closer to the reality of the human condition and who can therefore engage readers in a manner that a literary construct, however well designed, cannot.
by Sulari Gentill,
Part 1: The illumination of fact
Humanity is a storytelling species. Storytelling is the way in which we order, understand, remember and explore both the world and ourselves. We communicate with the exchange of stories, some functionary and mundane, others obscure reflections of reality, and still others, epics, which speak to the nature of being. Tales told in reminiscence, in aspiration, with pride or malice. Stories nonetheless.
Both the most frivolous and thoughtful expression of the human condition, stories are the diet on which we nurture the thinking of our children, and the way in which we will be eulogised on passing. They are an expression not only of what we know and think, but of what we want to know, what we wish to discover.
The novel, in this context, may be considered as an implement of examination: a microscope under which we scrutinise, learn and experiment, the ship in which we sail to discover unknown lands. Through the novel we seek.
A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it.
–Edward P. Morgan
I suspect the explorative aspect of the novel holds regardless of genre, but I will speak with particular reference to the genres in which I can claim at least a little authorial experience. To date, my body of published work has been historical or crime fiction, or both. In this first post I intend to consider the novel as an illuminator of the record, a lens through which fact may, most effectively, be represented and viewed. The second and third posts will look respectively at character and plot as discoverable. And finally, I will consider the impact of the novel on the author’s discovery and definition of self.
So, here goes.
I began writing the first book of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries in 2008. A Few Right Thinking Men introduced gentleman artist, Rowland Sinclair, and was set around the actual events of 1932 in NSW. Until I embarked on the series, I had neither knowledge of nor interest in the era. My decision to set a story in the 1930s was in many respects purely practical. I had come only recently to writing and consumed by the discovery of the worlds within my own head, I was want to disappear there for long periods. The practice, whilst perfectly pleasant for me, was hard on my husband, who was faced with a partner who was increasingly not present. The problem for writers is often not writing itself, but stopping, participating in the real world when the imagined beckons. My solution to this dilemma was not to come out of my head but to attempt to bring my partner into it. Michael is an historian with a particular interest in the extreme right wing social and political movements of NSW in the interwar period. And so I set a story in his era, ensuring the person with whom I spent the most time in the real world was invested in my imagined one. This choice of setting also guaranteed that I had an invaluable source of information and a guide to the era close at hand, as well as that most prized writer’s asset—a captive editor.
In the first instance, Michael directed me to the plural scholarly works of Andrew Moore[i], Keith Amos[ii], Drew Cottle[iii] and Michael Cathcart[iv] as well as Eric Campbell’s own, somewhat biased account of the rise of the New Guard[v]. In addition to security files, diaries and memoirs, I read notes on interviews my husband conducted in the early 90s with people who’d been at the rallies, who’d endured the Great Depression, and joined one or another of the many proto-Fascist movements that called NSW home. I came to know the 30s, not just the facts and events, but something perhaps more important for the novelist. I came to understand the passions at play, the sense of disenfranchisement and desperation, the changing loyalties, the political awakening of a young Federation. And I had questions. I found holes, small gaps in the historical record.
It’s possibly here that the paths of historian and historical novelist diverge. For the historian, spaces in the record are a failure which must be remedied with objective facts and evidentially supported theories. For the novelist, these breaks in what is known absolutely are a holy grail. They are openings more than gaps, in and out of which the novelist weaves her story. With no recorded fact to contradict her, the storyteller is free then to “make stuff up”.
If the writer has applied her craft successfully the factual and fictional aspects of the novel should be seamless and indistinguishable to all but experts in the field. There is an argument that this, in and of itself, is counterproductive to the understanding of history (or science, law, procedure etc.), that readers are duped by fiction writers into believing a plausible fallacy at the expense of fact.
However, it is my experience that readers are quite alarmingly informed and sceptical. Increasingly they have the ability to easily check the veracity of what they read. Storytellers are in some respects, conjurors. We deal in illusion. The moment we are contradicted by objective fact or implausibility, the spell is broken and we lose the trust of the reader. The art of the novelist is convincing the reader that it might have happened as you wrote it. Improbable scenarios, obvious inconsistencies or departures from recorded history will not help your cause.
In terms of the understanding of history, the novelist can bring knowledge to an audience reluctant to plough through textbooks or academic papers devoted to the period. Stories can translate historical insight into a gentler more accessible form. In some ways they educate by stealth. Those who read my novels, for example, don’t do so in order to learn about the political and social upheaval which occurred in the 1930s, but, in the process of following Rowland Sinclair’s investigations and misadventures, they will most likely absorb that knowledge anyway. Indeed, I’m convinced that those things we pick up collaterally when our focus is directed elsewhere—towards the solving of a murder or an escape from danger or the like—are more easily retained and understood. In this way the novel offers an access that eludes more academic histories.
Moreover fiction is particularly well poised to mitigate the sensibilities, understandings and prejudices of the contemporary reader in a way that a faithful adherence to historical fact cannot. Ironically, fiction is sometimes able to convey a more accurate impression. The best way I can explain this is through the example of dialogue. The Australian accent in the early thirties was not what we currently know it to be. Most middle and upper middle class Australians spoke with what we would now consider an English accent and the establishment spoke with a carefully cultivated inflection that we would today ascribe only to elderly members of the royal family. In writing the dialogue of Rowland Sinclair, I was then faced with a dilemma. If I were faithful to the manner in which a man of his background would most likely have spoken, he would have seemed to the modern reader, archaic or even camp. And yet the man I was writing was for his time exceedingly progressive and masculine. As a fiction writer I was able to make the decision that it was more important to create an accurate impression of Rowland Sinclair as a man than to reproduce exactly the diction of an educated and wealthy gentleman of the 1930s. I was able to modify the register of his dialogue so the modern reader would conjure the impression of a refined but modern man and thus a contextual accuracy and voice would be maintained.
Interestingly, in terms of plausibility, actual events can be more of a challenge than fiction. Often the more far-fetched aspects of my own novels are not the parts I made up. Consider for example the existence in Sydney of a violent vigilante organisation called the Fascist Legion, made up of respectable members of suburbia, who dressed in black Ku Klux Klanesque hoods and gowns and identified themselves with playing cards. The strength of fiction is its ability to allow the reader to view extreme events and organisations through the eyes of a character with whom they can identify but who subscribes to the knowledge, the prejudices and the mores of the era. Of course some things, like the Fascist Legion, were bizarre even in 1932.
Finally fiction has the ability to integrate different aspects of the record into a single coherent story arc in a manner that contextualises facts which may otherwise be studied in isolation. Through this we can pick metathemes and patterns, and understand how each aspect (class, wealth, politics, status, location, family, education, media depiction, morality, luck, integrity etc.) influenced the other. Plot and character are the tools of fiction and they are particularly powerful when drawing together and unravelling the threads of actual events, figures and motivations.
Of course, the well-researched novel is not an alternative to the factual record. The former relies on the latter for its existence. Fiction can, however, offer a singular insight through the reader’s investment in the life of a protagonist, bringing to the discovery an emotional engagement that may be difficult to achieve with simply the factual record. Through the protagonist, the novel allows us to speculate on what we might have done, where we might have failed or triumphed. Readers can empathise with or revile imagined characters, compare themselves and understand history through the passions, shortcomings and heroism of the human condition. We can discover fact through the palatable and familiar vehicle of story.
[i] Moore, A., “The Old Guard and ‘Countrymindedness’ during the Great Depression”, Journal of Australian Studies, No. 27, November 1990
Moore, A., “Who Bashed Jock Garden? A Body Blow to the New Guard”, Bowyang, Vol 4, No. 1
Moore, A., The Secret Army and the Premier: Conservative Paramilitary Organisations in New South Wales 1930-1932, New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1989
[ii] Amos, K.W., The New Guard Movement 1931-1935, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1976
[iii] Cottle, D., “The Rich in the Depression”, Bowyang, Vol.1, No.1
Cottle, D., “The Sydney Rich in the Great Depression”, Bowyang, Vol. 2, No. 1
[iv] Cathcart, M., Defending the National Tuckshop: Australia’s secret army intrigue of 1931, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Melbourne, 1986.
[v] Campbell, E., The Rallying Point: My Story of the New Guard, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1985
Our thanks to Hazel Smith for her wonderful posts.
Our guest writer for January is Sulari Gentill.
Not so long ago, Sulari Gentill was a corporate lawyer serving as a director on public boards, with only a vague disquiet that there was something else she was meant to do. That feeling did not go away until she began to write. And so Sulari became the author of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries: thus far, six historical crime novels chronicling the life and adventures of her 1930s Australian gentleman artist, and the Hero Trilogy, based on the myths and epics of the ancient world. She also collaborated with National Gallery of Victoria to write a short story which was produced in audio to feature in the Fashion Detective Exhibition 2014, and published by the NGV.
Sulari lives with her husband, Michael, and their boys, Edmund and Atticus, on a small farm in Batlow where she grows French Black Truffles and refers to her writing as “work” so that no one will suggest she get a real job.
Sulari’s first novel was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – Best First Book. She won the 2012 Davitt Award for Crime Fiction, was shortlisted in 2013 Davitt Award, the NSW Genre Fiction Award, 2012 Boroondara Literary Award, and the 2013 Scarlett Stiletto Award. She was offered a Varuna Fellowship in 2010.
In the final stages of a standalone manuscript, Sulari intends to begin the seventh book of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries very shortly and thereafter a new series for young adults.
by Hazel Smith
In the last blog I talked about the importance of voice for poetry: here I want to explore the impact of digital manipulation on voice and its incorporation into various kinds of poetry performance.
Through new technologies voices can be merged, multiplied and denaturalized (that is, made to sound non-human). The voice can be manipulated with regard to every parameter: pitch, timbre and rhythm, and in a way that creates a continuum between sound and speech. In addition computer-synthesized voices can be used. Although playing with the distinction between acoustic sound and speech was characteristic of a great deal of sound poetry, it is much easier to manipulate all the parameters, and reach the extremities of voice, with new technologies.
Digitally manipulated voices can form voicescapes: these consist of many different voices, some of which are digitally manipulated or computer generated. Voicescapes undo what is usually regarded as the one-to-one identity between a particular voice and a particular person. For example, the voices may be overlaid to create a dense tapestry of voices (sometimes versions of the same voice) that complement or quarrel with each other. A voicescape can also revamp the relationship between voice and place. A voice may seem to belong to several places at once, or to arise out of an ambiguous, incongruous, or virtual space.
This digital manipulation of the voice can have all sorts of interesting cultural effects. For example I have been interested in the past in the idea of ‘sonic cross-dressing’, that is, the way in which a female voice can be manipulated to sound male or a male voice female. But digital manipulation can also explore the continuum between male and female, including voice positions that are half-male, half-female: it can project transgendered positions. You can hear examples of this in some of my own work such as The Space of History [i]. This is on the PennSound site, which is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in voice and readings of poetry.
Some of the most striking examples of digital manipulation of the voice come in the work of poet-composers, that is people who straddle the line between poetry and music. Techniques such as sampling, granular synthesis (a type of sampling using tiny fragments of material), filtering, morphing and spatialising provide the means for extensive exploration of the voice and its relationship to identity and to the environment. In British musician-poet-performer Trevor Wishart’s Vox 5, a classic of this genre, chest and throat sounds are superimposed onto, juxtaposed with, and morphed into, environmental sounds.[ii] At times, in what now looks like an early example of ecopoetry, sounds cross the boundaries between species, for example, the human sounds seem like animal sounds, and there is a continuum among human, animal, environmental, and climate sounds. The vocal aspect of the piece projects the effort of coming into being: it struggles to articulate itself, and at one point we hear the traces of words, the beginnings of language. Vox 5 could be interpreted as an evocation of birth and the acquisition of language, or the birth of language itself.
Pamela Z is an African American composer-performer-multimedia artist-writer who engages with electronic processing of the voice and sampled sounds: her oeuvre is a mixture of singing, speaking, and multimedia elements, and every performance includes improvised elements. She moves between an operatic bel canto kind of singing and vocal techniques that extend normal singing. Amongst her technological battery, Z uses MAX/MSP, a computer platform for making, assembling and transforming sounds. She also utilises BodySynth technology that transforms the muscle motions involved in body gestures into digital data that can be used to control samplers and synthesisers.
Z has a very eclectic attitude towards different traditions, including opera, non-western vocal traditions, computer music and poetry/sound poetry. She explores the possibilities of technology (often real-time processing of words and voice) to multiply, layer, process and sometimes denaturalise the voice. As a result she often creates voicescapes that are a dense polyphony of voices and different versions of ‘Pamela’. For example, her Bone Music[iii] consists of a solo singing line (with rhythmic accompaniment). It uses a digital delay system and also looping, so that whatever Z sings will be repeated later (and over and over again) with different iterations in every performance. She processes the voice, adding a considerable amount of reverberation to it, and also employs gesture to control the software. The singing explodes into a babble of electro-acoustically generated voices that grow to considerable intensity, forming a voicescape. The percussion is the sound of an empty five-gallon water bottle in three delay loops of varying lengths.
Z’s Gaijin which arose out of her residency in Japan in 1999, is a multimedia work that involves both live performance and electronic processing, and combines spoken text, music, and butoh performance.[iv] Gaijin, explores the experience of being foreign in Japan: that foreignness is made more acute by the fact that Z is African American.
The excerpts from Gaijin include multiple layers of sonic, verbal, and visual material with the voice manifesting itself in different ways: in readings from a book about how to fit into Japanese culture; in a polyphonic rendering of the word ‘other’; in a performance of immigration requirements by Z, who puts herself in the visa document as its official voice and yet is clearly an addressee of it; in Z singing in Japanese enka style; and in visual and sonic renditions of the Japanese alphabet. The piece incorporates a great deal of found material that develops poetic resonances. For example, readings from the book about how to fit in range from very formal entries to one that suggest readers ‘talk about bitter experiences’. This could be interpreted to allude to repressed feelings that hover beneath the polite surface of Japanese society.
In my own performance collaborations I am also interested in in technological manipulation of the voice. Bird Migrants is a recent collaboration with musican Roger Dean for voice and electronics, commissioned by the ABC for the program Soundproof, and available for download on their website. [v] It is based on a poem ‘The Great Egret’ written for the Bimblebox 153 birds project. This is a developing project around the 153 bird species that have been recorded on the Bimblebox Nature Refuge in central western Queensland — the home of these birds, and the ecosystems that support them, is in the path of a proposed coal mine. [vi] Bird Migrants uses bird and environmental sounds, transformed voice samples (the words are often cut up or played backwards) and instruments. We have also performed a different version of the piece Bird Migrants 2, in live performance, with live as well as recorded voice. and visual transformations of text and related image.
At the recent Transcultural Ecopoetics: Decolonising Australian Landscape poetry workshop at Sydney University, Stuart Cooke, in a most interesting talk, suggested that a new ecopoetics might be intermedia and also cross-species. Thinking about this made me realize that in Bird Migrants there is a kind of cross-species evocation of voice where bird sounds and human voice sounds cross-migrate. The poem was inspired by the wedding scene in Theo Angelopoulos’s film, The Suspended Step of the Stork, where a couple marry each other from the opposite banks of a river that flows through a divided country. The great egret grows out of the bride’s groom and the groom’s flag, which cross-fertilise in the river. The egret can be seen to represent the tragic history of the country, but also the longing for flight and freedom. [vii]
In another recent piece, Disappearing, a collaboration with Roger Dean and Greg White, four voices weave in and out of each other, often changing position within the sound space, sometimes partially ‘disappearing’ within each other or within sonic transformations of the voice.
For Disappearing, I performed and recorded the text, and Greg provided a series of acoustic transformations of the pre-recorded voices, removing much of the semantic material but retaining a strong impression of the voice, what Greg calls ‘the sonic footprint of the performer’. The text, together with the acoustic transformations of the voice, was rearranged, layered and mixed into a montage by Roger, who also provided extra sound. In performance of the piece, four loudspeakers are placed in the auditorium (two at the front, two at the back), so that the voices are situated at different points in space. The digital voices are also moved around the space from loudspeaker to loudspeaker. This spatial movement projects and supports the thematic aspects of the piece which explores death and disappearing (particularly political murder) round the world, including the disappeared in Chile and Argentina and the deportation of Jews in Romania.
However, I realised in writing this blog entry that Disappearing is also about voice in many of the senses I mentioned in my last blog. It is about the way poetic voice is always multiple rather than single; it contains ideas about the relationship between the voice to communication; it gives a voice to the politically and historically repressed or eliminated; and it also involves digital manipulation of the voice.
I look forward to many more experiments with voice in the future. Happy explorations of voice over the holidays!
[i] Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, The Space of History, PennSound, 2006, https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Smith-Hazel/Smith-Hazel_Dean-Roger_The-Space-of-History_2006.mp3
[v] Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Bird Migrants, Soundproof, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2014. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/soundproof/bird-migrants/5850898
[vi] Bimblebox Art Project, http://bimbleboxartproject.com/bimblebox-birds-printmaking-project/
[vii] Hazel Smith, Greg White Roger Dean, Disappearing, Electronic Overland, 2013 https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/electronic-overland/poem-hazel-smith-roger-dean-and-greg-white/