Meera Atkinson is a Sydney-based writer. She published Traumata in 2018 and The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma in 2017. She received the Varuna Dr Dark Flagship Fellowship in 2017, an award given for non-fiction of outstanding quality in social, historical or political writing.
Meera teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Sydney and University of New South Wales.
Astrid Edwards: Meera Atkinson is best known for her creative non-fiction and poetry. She's received two Veruna Writers Fellowships, and was shortlisted for the Alfred Deacon Prize for an Essay Advancing Public Debate. She has a PhD in creative writing, teaches writing at university, and also publishes academically. In this interview, Meera discusses her genre-defying writing, as well as the imperative to publish that many writers often feel.
Meera, welcome to The Garret.
Meera Atkinson: Hi, thanks for having me.
Astrid: You are an accomplished writer of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Traumata is the first work of yours I came across, and it is extraordinary. After I had read about a chapter, I knew that I wanted to interview you, so thank you for that experience.
My first question, writers love language and words, and I confess I did not know that traumata meant the plural of trauma before you explained it to me at the beginning. How important is a good title?
Meera: Super, super important. And just to reassure you, I had been researching trauma throughout my PhD for years – and post-PhD in working out my academic monograph – for years before I actually discovered the word traumata. It's not used so much, that word, in trauma theory. It's used a lot more in psychology literature around trauma, and I kept encountering it, and I realised that that was the perfect title, but it was quite a ways into writing before that happened. I was a very good way through the first draft.
Astrid: Did you have a working title before you found…
Meera: Well look, you know because there's sort of seeds of this book in the pieces, some of the memoir that I published for Griffith Review over the years, the first piece I published that was very specifically trauma-related was an essay called ‘The Exiled Child’, which was memoir-based hybrid, but less wildly hybrid than this book became. I was calling it that as a working title. I went for the Griffith Review contributor's circle prize, hoping for a Veruna residency, to start work on the book, and I got one of those. That is indeed when I started work on the book, and the first two days of that residency, I must have driven the other writers mad because I was obsessed with getting the perfect title before I'd even put down the first word. I paced around for two days going, ‘You know, this needs the perfect title, what's the perfect title?’ They all had to talk me down, just like, ‘It's okay, the title will come, just start writing’, and then the words came. It was many months after I started writing that the title came.
Astrid: So, Traumata feels very of-the-moment, I mean it's impossible to pick up let alone read and engage with without thinking of #metoo and #timesup, and just the general state of the world. My question was – you seem to have published it at a perfect time – but how long did it take you to write? Obviously, this didn't turn up a month ago.
Meera: No, but it wasn't, I mean I started thinking about it, taking notes, sort of preparing to write earlier in 2016, but I didn't start actually writing until that Veruna residency in the beginning of June 2016. By the end of that year, I had a finished first draft.
Astrid: That's very fast.
Meera: It's very fast, but it does incorporate some previously published work, but obviously that's been really reworked, it's certainly not just a collection of previously published essays.
Astrid: No, this is not a collection.
Meera: That was, you know in some ways, it's tempting to think, ‘Oh, that would make it easier’, but it's a challenge of its own to integrate previously published and existing work into a sort of whole complex fabric like this book. But, certainly what it did mean was that there were certain chunks of word count that were already there.
Astrid: Now Meera, your body of work crosses genres. As I was reading Traumata, you described as a ‘wild hybrid’, and it is, but I kind of engage with it in two separate ways. It's like non-fiction social commentary, but it's also an internet and personal memoir. The blurb describes Traumata as creative nonfiction. How do you define creative non-fiction?
Meera: Well, I mean that's a tough one, it's such a broad umbrella, isn't it? I mean, I guess to me that's non-fiction that is engaging with literary strategies. When I'm teaching writing and students fairly ask, ‘What's literature?’, because we assume that we all know what it is because we have a sense of it, but really when you actually sit down and go, ‘Well, how do you define it?’… I looked it up on Wiki and I can't remember it word by word, but I actually quite liked the Wiki definition of literature, which speaks about artistic qualities and intellectual qualities. So, I think that's broadly how I would view creative non-fiction, that it's non-fiction that isn't just doing the work of non-fiction writing, but is doing it with particular attention to artistry, to perhaps innovative use of language, or at least some sort of ‘writerly’ engagement with language, and maybe even a bit intellectually oriented.
Astrid: I think you succeed. Whilst this is non-fiction, and I do imagine quite heavily research-based, it comes across written incredibly well, there's no kind of barrier between the reader and the research component. You do have a PhD, and I wanted to explore, in all of your works, how do you take your vast amount of research and scholarly writing and change your language to effectively communicate to your audience?
Meera: That's a challenge, because I do write in straight up academic terms sometimes. So, I was very aware that I didn't want this to be an academic book, I've already done an academic book, you know not on this, but in kind of a related realm focusing on trans-generational trauma transmissions. But I think for me, the foundation of memoir was crucial, because if I had just pulled all that research together, it would've been very hard to do that in a way that was interesting as literature, and indeed was literature. For me, that bed of memoir is the foundation for the research, and it's always what informs the different avenues of research.
Astrid: So, what is your writing process?
Meera: I don't have a strict formal process. I can't remember who it was, and it annoys me that I can't remember the reference, but somebody has talked about there being two kinds of writers, architects and archaeologists.
Meera: Architects are the kind that they've got all the index cards and they map it all out on the big... You know, and all that before they start writing often, and they'll do those big processes of pulling it all apart and restructuring it during redrafting.
I'm an archaeologist, I just get in there and I just dig. I start writing and I dig in there, and I see where that leads me, and I discover things along the way, and then pick them up and look at them and go, ‘Oh, that's interesting’, and then I'll go off and read a bit of literature about what, you know... That's how I work, I'm an archaeologist. I don't have a particularly kind of formal... Especially with this hybrid, with this kind of hybrid work, it's very intuitive, it's very much about feeling into it, moving into it, and just getting into a kind of rhythm between, in a sense, a conversation between the personal experience and then what that might stimulate in terms of looking at more broadly among cultural events, existing commentary, you know various interdisciplinary literatures, et cetera.
Astrid: Yes, it is very interdisciplinary. [Laughter] Focusing on the personal, the memoir, it is an exploration of your history, your personal life. How difficult was that, and did you feel ever a desire to self-censor?
Meera: It's a tricky one, because I mean people tend to ask with a book like this ‘Was it cathartic?’, you know this idea that ‘has it helped you in some kind of personal way?’ No, I didn't need it to be cathartic. I've been dealing with this stuff for many years in many different contexts and ways, including in my previous writing. So, I didn't come to the book with a great need to tell my personal story, and certainly not to tell it in order to have some sort of…
Astrid: Cathartic release.
Meera: Cathartic release, or epiphany of recovery, you know it wasn't on that order for me. It was very much… I came to it as a writing project more than anything else. I wanted to do something in literature that was about addressing the big picture of trauma and patriarchy, and I wanted to do it in a very literary way. That was more my preoccupation than the telling of my story.
Did I ever want to censor myself? Yes. And I remember a particular moment, there's a little detail there about my uncle, who I was very close to, and I had never written about it before and I hadn't really spoken to family members about it. I think it was one family member I had spoken to about it. I really didn't want to write it, and I had a massive struggle with myself. Of all the things, I mean the stuff around me, yes, of course there's a lot in there that's like, ‘Okay, that’s stigmatised, that's a bit scary, that's a bit going to be like walking around naked, hug my students, don't read this’. So, there were those moments of course, but I can live with that, I've written memoir before. I can live with that, and in some respects, I've become quite fearless about speaking my truth, as I think you have to be to write a book like this. Any memoir worth its salt requires a certain amount of fearlessness. Which isn't to say you don't still feel the fear, it's just about writing through it.
But that moment, I really wanted to censor that. I just wrote it into the book, I wrote the desire to censor it into the pages, because that's important. I realised that's important, here I am struggling to say this thing that isn't even that bad, but I'm struggling to say it because of that cultural kind of code of silence around this stuff, and the fear of hurting certain family members, et cetera. And I realised this is significant, this is how we stay isolated in trauma, this is how we take on the shame of the patriarchy by wearing it as if it's individual, as if it's mine, as if it's his, as if it's my family's alone, rather than as a cultural structural reality that sets us all up.
Astrid: After I read Traumata, I actually also picked up the new work by Bri Lee, Eggshell Skull.
Meera: I've not read it yet.
Astrid: It's extraordinary. I think she also has come at that from a different angle, and done very well. What did you learn about your own writing from creating this hybrid?
Meera: I think what I learned about it was that I can trust myself, I think I learned about it that I've earned a right to be confident in my writing process and to trust where those leads take me. I think it takes, I mean for me certainly, you know I've been writing quite a long time, it takes time to get there, to get to that place of boldness and being uncompromising about that. Because of course, especially in this climate, the risk is always, you know, ‘If I'm too uncompromising, if this is too wildly hybrid, if this is too difficult, if this is seen to be too uncommercial, will it ever get out there, or will this be stymied at the gatekeepers?’ That's a reality, that's a real concern.
Astrid: Who do you first show your drafts to?
Meera: I don't have a particular way of going about that. In this instance, I actually ended up, my first reader was one of the writers who was at Veruna with me that first week.
Meera: Yeah. It's a hard one, because people are so busy. I know so many writers, so many literary academics who I'd love their read, but they're furiously busy, as I am. It's hard to ask people to give that time. This particular person was retired from having to earn income kind of job, and was in a position to do that, and is herself a great writer, Sylvia Johnson, who was up for it. She was a wonderful first reader, so it's a really important step. My husband didn't read it until it was published, we decided that we'd wait until he could actually read it in book form.
Astrid: What was that like for you?
Meera: It was fine. I mean, I didn't think, I knew that there would be no major surprises for him. But it's interesting, I did offer it to some family members in proof form, because I'm aware that writing my story is never just mine, it's a shared story. And whilst I can't offer it around to everybody who's in there one way or another, there were a few people at close range who I felt deserved that option, and some took it up, some didn't.
Astrid: Was it an option, or would you have changed your story if there had been violent objection?
Meera: Probably not, I'm a bit ruthless as a writer, in that I'm not... I mean look, it's that tricky stuff, I think it's Anne Lamott, isn't it, who said, ‘You own everything that happened to you. If people wanted you to write nicely about them, they should have behaved better’, something like that, maybe not exact words. I'm not that hard line, but I do put the work first above my own comfort zone and above others, and I think there are considerations and there is a difference between discomfort and harm or libel. It's not a writer's job to run around fluffing up the pillows of everybody they've had anything to do with and make them feel comfortable at all times, but there are ethical considerations for sure, and I take them seriously. I just navigate my way through that as imperfectly and as intuitively and as respectfully as I know how.
Astrid: I think respect is important there. How did you pitch the book?
Meera: Well, it's interesting, because I hadn't yet gotten to the point of pitching it when... Okay, I did the first residency at Veruna in June 2016, and when I came back I thought, ‘I need to get back up there’, because Veruna is such a precious place to write, and my usual work life is so multitasking, I'm teaching, I'm writing academically, you know there's so much, and it can be hard to find that clear space, which I think is especially important for a first draft. I then applied for a Veruna fellowship and got the Dr Eric Dark Flagship Fellowship, so I went back up there in October for two weeks, and then another week a few months later.
In that second residency, there was a lovely young writer there who, you know we all read at the end, it's kind of customary at Veruna, after the week everybody reads a little bit about what they've been working from. Anyway, she went off and spoke to her good friend Lex Hurst at Penguin Random House, and who expressed interest. I had just finished the first draft I think, and so I sent it off to her and got an email the next day saying she was really interested and wanted to put it through acquisitions. She tried, she fought for it, sales team wouldn't bite, so that didn't go any further, but it really meant a lot to even have that interest early on.
Astrid: There is validation there.
Meera: Yes, then there was a kind of process of what to do, what to do. I got an agent, Jane Novak, and then ended up with UQP, which I think is a wonderful home for it to have landed at.
Astrid: You mentioned that you write academically, can you tell me about the publish or perish of academic life?
Meera: Yeah. Well, it's pretty relentless. And I was going to say especially for someone in my position. I'm a sessional academic, I teach sessionally, so there's a lot of us. There's a lot of people like me who have a lot of credentials, very experienced teachers, very experienced writers, very experienced academics, who are kind of on the casual treadmill, because those continuing faculty positions are very few and far in between and super competitive when they come up.
Astrid: You mentioned that you didn't write Traumata as any form of catharsis for yourself, but I am interested in a broader question particularly for the listeners of The Garret who are writing very intimate memoir. Do you think writing can be therapy?
Meera: This is a tough one. Look, it's interesting, at my book launch at Glebe Books a couple of weeks ago, somebody, an audience member, asked me at the end did I journal and was journaling kind of part of this process. My answer to that was, ‘Yes, I've journalled over the years therapeutically, but in my mind there's a really quite a strict sort of divide between that kind of writing and literary writing’. When I am doing that kind of writing, I'm not trying to craft it at all, I'm not interested in language, you know it's just about getting stuff on the page that is good to get on the page for whatever reason, and a process that's about recovering memory, that's about finding out what I'm thinking, feeling, et cetera, making connections on the page but not in a literary way.
So, when I come to writing in a literary way, then it's the writing with a capital W, now I'm interested in language, now I'm interested in what language can do in relation to expressing experience. Now it's not just about getting it on the page for some kind of personal process or benefit, this is about now reaching others, this is about now speaking beyond myself. Yeah, there's a connection and of course one informs the other, but not in any kind of direct way, like there's nothing in this book that came out of my journals... There's certainly stuff in it that's come out of many years of wrangling with my own trauma in various therapeutic contexts.
Astrid: I'm interested when perhaps one of your students or anyone thinking of writing a memoir comes to you and kind of says, ‘Should I do it?’, what do you get them to think of, to consider before putting everything out there?
Meera: It's a hard one, because I think it's very challenging to write memoir in a way that is going to reach others, that's the challenge with writing memoir, isn't it? It's like there's benefit in writing one's own story, but the question is always, ‘How and why is this going to be interesting, why should somebody else spend however many hours of their life reading a book of your story?’.
You've got to make it worthwhile for people, and that's about not just writing for yourself, but writing in a way... I mean, I think for me the thing is about the personal resonating beyond the individual. That's what's crucial to good memoir, because any story that's about... I never wanted to write this as just straight up memoir, partly because of that reason, partly because I felt that look, yeah I've got a story and a slightly unconventional upbringing, et cetera, but so what? So many people have got those stories, so many people have had unusual youths or experiences.
I felt like it had to do something that justified my asking somebody to spend time on it, and for me, that was about the connections beyond my own experience to what I know are such common experiences, especially for women and girls. I just think that that has to be an important part of the memoir writing, awareness, because if it's just about the need to tell the story, then it is more I think of that therapeutic writing, which is not to say it's not valuable, certainly very valuable for the person writing, but whether it's going to be valuable culturally and for a readership is another question.
Astrid: What advice do you give your students?
Meera: Well, if a student came to me and said, ‘How do I craft a career that's financially viable?’, I would say, ‘You're asking the wrong person, I have no idea. I've never managed to do it’.
I, like most writers, can't live off my writing, and certainly not the kind of writing I'm interested in. I made peace with that a long time ago, you know I kind of figured out a long time ago that I had a choice between whether to compromise my vision or my interest in writing and language to be more commercial and therefore more viable and sellable, et cetera, or whether to not. I made that choice for better and worse, so I don't know, I don't think I'm the right person for somebody who wants to make a commercial go of it or a living from writing. Of course we all would love that surprise break, but it's hard in this country particularly with a relatively small population, so that usually involves needing to have some kind of big shift overseas.
Really, I encourage people who are really keen to write to write, but in terms of a vocation, if somebody's tossing up, if somebody's saying, ‘I'm torn between being a literary writer and being an advertising executive, and I think I'd really love them both’, I would say, ‘Do advertising’. In the sense that it's a hard life, it's a hard life for most writers in terms of trying to make ends meet, trying to find other ways to make money, and then how do you fit the time in to write? It's not for the faint-hearted, and it's not a particularly easy way of life.
Astrid: It the eternal question for writers and artists. Meera, what is next for you?
Meera: I don't know. Beyond working and trying to pay the rent and doing some more work on a novel I've been working on and off over the years. Beyond that, I don't know. I've got a few ideas. I have an idea for a poetry project, but that's probably something that I'll chip away at over a long period of time. I don't know, it's kind of going into a space of waiting for a bit of clear space to see what comes through, but certainly there's a novel to get back to in the meantime.
Astrid: That sounds exciting. Meera, thank you very much for appearing on The Garret.
Meera: Thanks very much for having me.