Before I went to hear Sydney author Emily Maguire speak at Leichhardt Library last night, I dropped into Berkelouw's on Norton St. There I saw lots of copies of the new winner of the Miles Franklin Award, Sofie Laguna's The Eye of the Sheep. And who should be endorsing it right on the front cover but Emily Maguire! It was a sign. I definitely have to read this one.
The last Miles Franklin Award winner I read was Michelle De Kretser's Questions of Travel, which is simply one of the most superb Australian books ever written. I always have a soft spot for the Miles Franklin award because A) I rather like old Miles and her dabbling in Christian Science and B) Sumner Locke Elliott won it in 1963.
|Walter Mason and Emily Maguire|
Emily was there to talk about her most recent novel, Fishing for Tigers, a book set in Hanoi. I was fascinated to hear about her experiences as a writer in Hanoi, trying to make sense of a new culture and also of the other Westerners living there and how they lived alongside the Vietnamese. This is very much what the novel itself is about, and so I was fascinated to hear about the thoughts and experiences that lead to it.
Emily said she first had the motivation to write a Hanoi novel while sitting at Van Mieu, Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. This old Confucian university is indeed a beautiful place and, if you can catch it on a quiet day (increasingly difficult) it is a great place to reflect on matters literary. She searched for silence in Hanoi, a city she described beautifully as "overwhelmingly cacophonous." It was in this cacophony, however, that she began to write her fourth novel.
She had been in Hanoi on an Asialink fellowship, and she was working there editing English translations at the state publishing house. And while she was inspired, her central character didn't come to her till she was walking around Hanoi’s fabulously grey neo-gothic Cathedral. This district, too, is an incredibly romantic and inspiring one, and I am not surprised the muse descended there.
Emily speaks of her fascination, as well, with the expat community in Hanoi, a community she admits to spying on in the bars and restaurants that catered to them. And while at work she was learning about Vietnam's long history of female warriors and heroes, a history that spoke to her feminist convictions. She also spoke about her return to Australia when she realised that there were considerable differences in perception of and feeling towards modern Vietnam among overseas Vietnamese communities.
Emily Maguire is an ambassador for the Room to Read charity, which works in Vietnam providing books and educational facilities to disadvantaged children, with a particular focus on girls' education. She spoke about how writers can use their creative platforms as a tool to do greater things. Sometimes there is no place in our work for didacticism, but we can use our art to help us teach people about issues and ideas so that, in Emily's words, "the creative project and the project of being a decent human being can be entwined."
Most excitingly, Emily told us that she has a new book coming out in March 2016 called An Isolated Incident. I can't wait!