Mirandi Riwoe on finding the story

Mirandi Riwoe is the author of Stone Sky Gold Mountain, which won the 2020 Queensland Literary Award – Fiction Book Award and the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Stella Prize and longlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award. In 2022 she has released The Burnished Sun, a collection of novellas and short stories. Mirandi's work has also appeared in Best Australian StoriesMeanjinReview of Australian FictionGriffith Review and Best Summer Stories.

Mirandi has appeared on The Garret before, and you can listen to her reflect on Stone Sky Gold Mountain here.

Mirandi Riwoe on finding the story


ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Mirandi.

MIRANDI: Thank you so much for having me back, Astrid.

ASTRID: Now, the last time we spoke, we actually met in person and we were in a very fancy studio in Brisbane. We are now talking on Zoom, which accounts for any background bird or cat noises that you may hear. But when we saw each other, it was very early January in 2020, the bush fires were still burning and it was before the pandemic really started to get going. That was a different world.

MIRANDI: Absolutely.

ASTRID: You've just published The Burnished Sun, a collection of short stories, which are literary historical fiction. Before we dive into your new work, which is launched today on the day that we are recording, let's turn back to the last two years and how everything that has been happening in the world has affected your creativity, and perhaps your writing.

MIRANDI: Yeah, it has been interesting because at first, obviously... Well, I think I was kind of lucky in that my launch for Stone Sky, it felt very much like now, because we're having a surge again. But that time it was... I think a week out, we were down to, ‘Mirandi, we can only do 30 people’. And then a few days before it was like, ‘Mirandi, we can only do 12 people’. Then a couple of days it was like, ‘We're just going to have to Zoom’. Avid Books is so brilliant. We practised Zoom three times first because it was so new to us all. So, we practised it and practised it and then I actually... I think I had the first Zoom launch, which was nice because by then I think we'd gone into lockdown and people were just... Well, first of all, I got heaps of people there who wouldn't have come into the actual one, from Melbourne and Sydney, but also it was still a novelty. So, everybody was having a bit of fun poking fun at each other in the background. I think I was lucky given that there's a bit of fatigue now with that sort of thing. So that was lucky.

Creatively, I found it very difficult because I became so obsessed with knowing everything about COVID and what was happening and on top of that, I was supposed to have a research trip for the novel I'm working on at the moment overseas. Of course, that was pulled and then it was... See, at first we were all stupidly optimistic. At first, it was put off until the beginning of the next year and then a few months later. Then, of course, by then we were realised it was not going to happen, but I kept on, I guess, putting off working – apart from a bit of research – on that novel.

Then I think it was only probably a few months ago that I realised when you're writing something, you need to be kind of obsessed with it. So, you're always thinking of it, you're taking notes, you're thinking about what your characters might say or do and things to do with setting. But actually, I was much more preoccupied with COVID, with what was happening in COVID and my son last year before he could get a vaccine or anything got COVID and it just really kind of drove my mind for good 18 months before I could finally click back into thinking about my novel.

ASTRID: We're going to come back to the novel that you are currently writing, but before, I have questions on everything else that you have put out. Now, during the pandemic, as you said, you were one of the first or if not the first in Australia to have a book launch on Zoom. That was Stone Sky Gold Mountain. Yeah, throughout the last two years, it has gone on to continually be listed and win awards. I'm going to go out on a limb and say some of them are lucrative awards. I've got a few questions about that because, look, without putting too fine a point on it, it's been really hard two years and a lot of novels that had been published have disappeared. Not yours, but many have disappeared. They just didn't get the book launches. They didn't get the trade in the bookstores, and it has been heartbreaking for both writers and readers.

So your work deeply deserves it. It is a beautiful novel and anyone who hasn't yet read your first novel should go and do so. But what is it like in terms of your pull as an author to continue to get listings. What does that mean for you personally, but also how publishers deal with you, how book sellers deal with you? Because ultimately I want writers to make a lot of money.

MIRANDI: Yeah, that's interesting because I was reading somebody's ... it must have been in another podcast. Somebody said it's like we get baby wages and if I hadn't won those awards, I wouldn't have... For that year, I had a normal income. And it wasn't even a fabulous income, but for that year I had a proper income, which is great. But then, of course, you realise you are one of many, many which is heartbreaking in itself, the thing about awards. But I think obviously numbers do help also with your publisher and shocks on whether they're going to take your next novel. So it is so important, and it was a really tough year, especially for emerging writers. I know a group of us started up a... Well, I didn't start up, but a group of writers started up a book club that we do once a month and it's only for emerging writers. We do first books and everything. Of course, the first book we did was Laura Jean McKay's, but she didn't need that much help because she's done very well.

ASTRID: She has also gone on to win lots of awards and been listed for lots of awards.

MIRANDI: No, she's just a beautiful human, I wish all the best for her. But after that, yes, we'd stuck to emerging or first novels, just to try and be supportive because we all realised how terrible that ... especially that first year would be, and so worried about bookshops. But luckily people did read during that two years. So, it was certainly a very strange time.

ASTRID: Look, and it continues to be so, but let's turn to The Burnished Sun. Now, this is a collection of short stories and novellas. There is previously published work in there and also new work that you wrote during the pandemic. The work opens and concludes with the two novellas, Annah the Javanese and The Fish Girl. Now, The Fish Girl was first published in 2017 and back then it won the Seizure Viva la Novella Prize, and Annah the Javanese was published in Griffith Review. Both of these novellas centre on women who have been left out of history. They have been left out of male history, white history, colonial versions of history. Can you reflect on your two protagonists, Annah and Mina, and as a writer, where did you find their voices?

MIRANDI: First of all, what was interesting just the other day, I used to say ... when I read the Somerset Maugham short story and made me really annoyed on behalf of the Malay girl, because I'm part Indonesian Chinese, I used to say things like, ‘Oh, wanted to give her voice’, or, ‘I want to give Annah a voice’. It's not so much voice because I think also I've come to realise that that's kind of a conceit anyway, because they were their own people. With The Fish Girl, obviously she was fictional, but I think actually Somerset Maugham probably found her really in the newspapers. I think actually he did know about her because he wrote a lot about what he came across himself. I guess what I've tried to do rather than sort of saying give them voice, what I'm trying to do is show, especially, say with Annah the Javanese, I'm trying to show that everything we know about her is from a middle class and up sort of white background. So men who have ...

So every comment we have about her being ... like she cleaned them out or she was exotic or all these things, naked, blah, blah, blah, all came from these particular men. I've tried to recontextualize it from a feminist point of view, from an Asian point of view. How somebody in that position would have reacted or how she was in that position and sort of having a look at those words again, like cleaned them out, just look at her story again, from another perspective, not from the perspective that we all just accept. Because a lot of times we read history or we read books and we just accept what's there.

And how I came to them, like with The Fish Girl, it was quite easy in that I was really annoyed. So I just went away and wrote it. It was originally a short story, just wrote it from her point of view, how... I like to think with her in the original short story, she has that ending anyway. She has that ending anyway and that ending is happening to many women around the world, now and then. So really Nina could be any woman in those circumstances. I sort of worked with that anyway. She's my possible protagonist in that position.

With Annah the Javanese, now I did circle her a lot because there is stuff about her, there's photos, there's a painting, of course, there's other comments. If you read about Gauguin, there are other comments by other artists about her. I read about it and I circled it and I circled it and I didn't know my way in. Then I thought, ‘Well, Gauguin himself said...’ He said many pompous things. One thing he did say, though, was ‘everything should be sacrificed to colour’. Then I started to think, ‘Well, maybe that's my in’. When she arrives, everything's very dark and black and he's red, so that sort of gave me my into the actual story.

ASTRID: Thank you, and it's interesting how... I don't think I asked you a very clear question. I asked about voice and I didn't phrase it well, but I was literally kind of fishing for how you found the strength of the character and you wrote these novellas from this point of view, you found the point of view and that's what the story is told from. You very eloquently answered the other way we use voice, particularly in the literary circles in Australia about whose story gets to be told and that kind of way. Forgive me for asking a pretty ill-defined question and your answer was a much better response. Thank you.

Now, The Burnished Sun includes other short stories, some of which are historical fiction and some of which are set now. The story that I just wasn't expecting was the story set in an age care home during COVID. How did that story come about?

MIRANDI: It came about by obviously at the beginning of COVID, we saw those beautiful, very sad pictures of old people in nursing homes having to hold their hand up to the glass or being even wrapped in plastic just so they could hug families, really heartbreaking stuff. But then I think what happened is there were two things; Melbourne, you had your terrible long lockdown, that first one, where a lot of people in age care were dying and a good friend of mine up here, her mother, who's in her 90s, was one of the people who caught it in aged care and it was horrible and stressful. It just started to make me think about all this time that they have to spend alone. I guess I was trying to think about what would you do locked into a room, maybe not very good hearing or sight and what are you thinking about? I guess that's what I was sort of trying to tap into, what you'd be thinking about.

At the same time, my poor old dad, he's a GP and he looks after nursing homes and it was just really sad. He tried to set up a FaceTime thing for one of his patients to see her daughter, but when it was all set up and everything, the poor thing was confused and thought she was being punished by being locked in this room. It was just all horrible, sad stuff. Yeah. I wanted to sort of show how maybe Hazel would be... just what she'd be about in isolation so much. But the funny thing is when we were talking about this, when we were putting this book together at the beginning of last year, we were wondering whether it was still relevant because that first year had gone by, lockdowns were over, is it still relevant?

Luckily my editor, beautiful Kathy, said there's so much at the moment about things wrong with care homes at the moment anyway, it was always going to be relevant, just nursing homes and the predicament they're in at the moment. But also then, of course, we all went into more lockdowns and it continues. So unfortunately, it continues to be relevant, so that's why we left it in there.

ASTRID: I'm very glad you did. It's a very good short story and I think it had additional impact for me because I simply wasn't expecting it. Just the kind of shift from historical perspective to, oh my goodness, this could have been down the road any time in the last two years.

I have a kind of a broader question that no doubt you and your editors probably spoke about when you're putting the collection together. The role of artists and writers is to comment on the world at whatever point in time the comments maybe in relation to, but it's also witnessing and recording. Lots of writers have started to write about aspects of the last couple of years. What are your thoughts on how writers can engage with the world? Whether even it's in historical fiction or contemporary fiction. How do you process or deal with…

MIRANDI: That's interesting because there is that conversation on whether arts for art's sake, or literature's for literature's sake, but I was thinking about that at the other day and I thought, ‘Well, art often talks to themes or problems in the world’. I mean, that is, I think one of its things that it can do. I guess for me I always thought fiction especially is such a good vehicle for maybe sneaking some ideas in and actually Anita Heiss the other night when she had her launch, she was talking about it. She was talking about it might look like commercial fiction. It might look like a romance, but actually she's seeking some bigger issues in there.

I think what happens is it makes the bigger issues more palatable and also it's just like a vehicle you can sneak in these ideas. I think fiction's very important for that and I guess with my short fiction, a lot of it was written in response to something that was happening in my life at the time. I'm not really a short fiction writer. I won't just sit down necessarily and just write a short story. Usually I'll have notes. I've been working on notes for ages for one short story, just working, working. Then it'll start to come together and maybe something will come up and I have to the right for it and then I'll put it all together.

But certainly it'll be inspired by... most of those stories are inspired by something that's ticked me off or that's happening in my life or that I've observed and have wondered about. Also, I think it's also another way that you can wonder about things and sort of put it out to other people and see what their comment might on it. I'm learning as I'm trying to ... like that Kim story, there's a lot for me to think about in that story as well.

ASTRID: I love the way several times now you've said that you write when you're pissed off or you are ticked off it. I love it. Can you explain for me the process of putting a collection together? So obviously it'll involve the discussion of what goes in and what stays out, but what else do you think about when creating something that the audience can either dip into at any point, or they can start from the beginning and just go towards the end?

MIRANDI: Yeah, it's interesting. I guess part of that would be doing the book ending the novellas because I know novellas, when you are sitting down to read short fiction, once something goes a bit longer, it starts to get... it's hard work. You know what I mean? When you're expecting just short fiction. It's good that you get this warning that there's a couple of novellas in there. It's beautifully done, like in the Melissa Mannings collection. I guess what you would look for when we were putting the collection together would be... I guess you're still looking for what's relevant out of whatever I'd worked on. There are a couple of new ones, but obviously they were sort of relevant because I'd written them lately. The one that I don't know if people noticed, but in so many ways it was literally written for Kill Your Darlings in January, 2020. So it was still when all the Chinese restaurants were just closing, but we just had no idea what we were in for. I did actually wonder if that one needed to be tweaked a bit just ... but anyway, we left it out as it was.

ASTRID: Can you explain the title of The Burnished Sun?

MIRANDI: Oh, The Burnished Sun. I mean, I don't know if other authors have talked about this, but a lot of the time coming up with a title that everyone agrees with, from the marketing team, to your publisher, to your editor, yourself, to your mates, because you ask you mates and they're all like, ‘Nah, that's terrible’. The Burnished Sun comes from a Shakespeare quote. I wrote this story, one of the stories ‘Ruby Wong’ is based on an actress from the 1920s. Her name was Rose Kwong and I actually read up on her for my PhD because she... so I had a character who was in London pretending to be white and doing everything she could to hide her Chineseness, whereas Rose Kwong actually went to England and she was known as a famous Chinese reciter or orientalist. She really, I think, kind of was theatrical with it, but she also was a serious actress and wanted to play all the Shakespeare parts.

I think she actually was in a play with Laurence Olivier. So she did well for herself, especially Chinese from Australia in London. Anyway. So just as part of it, I wrote this story about a girl, a Eurasian girl, sort of based on this Rose Kwong and she's given the part. She's practised all the female parts for Merchant of Venice, and then she's given of course the brown skinned part. But it's really beautiful, what he's saying is ... and actually the main character in the play really likes him. She actually really likes him out of all of them and he says something like, ‘Don't mislike me for my dark skin’, or something. Something like, ‘Dark, livery, burnished by the sun’, I think he says. Yeah, so we came up with The Burnished Sun with that beautiful painting by Chong on the front. So it just all seemed to tie together.

ASTRID: The cover does stand out well. Now, at the beginning of this interview you mentioned the novel you are working on. What can you say about that at this point?

MIRANDI: Oh, okay. I'm writing a novel, it's set in Java in World War II. It's just before the Japanese invade. They're already into Indonesia making their way to Java, and then they take over Singapore and then they are nearly in Java. It's about a Dutch man who's a pilot, and I heard a story just through a friend, his father was a baby and they were given half an hour notice. So the pilots, they weren't KLM pilots, they were the smaller subsidiary, I think it was called. They were sort of asked to ... they had to sort of be taken into the Air Force to fight the Japanese, but they said, ‘No, no, we need to get our families or our loved ones out of Java first’. Eventually they were allowed.

They had half an hour notice to just get out to Australia. They all went to Western Australia to Broome. It's a story about, I guess, the two months leading up to that, and I've got this pilot and he is engaged to one woman, but he's in love with another one. So he has to decide what to do.

ASTRID: In a wartime setting. Do you know when come out? Does anybody dare to put in release dates for books at this point?

MIRANDI: Oh, I don't know, but I would say ... I haven't finished writing it yet, so I would say probably '24.

ASTRID: I am looking forward to that. Mirandi.

Now, before I let you go, I kind of have a potentially unanswerable question about historical fiction. So in preparation for this interview with you, I was obviously thinking about the historical fiction that you write and that made me reflect on all of the historical fiction that I have chosen as a devoted reader to read over the course of my life. I realised there was a very long period, I'm going to say a decade, in my teenage years into my 20s, where I was obsessed with historical fiction and I was obsessed with famous women from history. I realised that the only women that I could at that time within my reach find was Elizabeth the First and Cleopatra and just over and over and it was just ... I mean, lovely, but also quite constrained and quite obvious. Fast forward 20 years, I am no longer in my teenage years, historical fiction and what is published and what is easily accessible to any reader who walks into Dymocks or whatever has changed and is no longer just Cleopatra and Elizabeth the First, thank goodness. But even with that change, when you reflect on historical fiction, what are the geographies or what are the time periods that are still done badly?

MIRANDI: Ooh. Oh, Astrid, that is a tricky question. I'm not sure, because I'd say what I read, like Robyn Cadwallader or our Australian fiction writers, they just do such a beautiful job. I couldn't think of a time that is done poorly except maybe some Australia history, but of course that's being rectified well as well. If you're pulling it off in any form, then you're doing right. That's a hard one. I can't think of an era, I think, that has been done poorly, because I think actually wouldn't it be more down to the writer then? Because surely even ... like Maggie Shiptead, surely she could do the Roman era really well and I will read it.

ASTRID: That is such a lovely and generous answer, Mirandi. Congratulations on The Burnished Sun.

MIRANDI: Thank you.

ASTRID: Also, congratulations on your forthcoming novel that we will get hopefully in 2024 and good luck with the face-to-face launch tonight.

MIRANDI: Thank you, Astrid. Thank you very much.