Mirandi Riwoe is the author of 2020's Stone Sky Gold Mountain, as well as the novella The Fish Girl, which won Seizure’s Viva la Novella V and was shortlisted for The Stella Prize and the Queensland Literary Award’s UQ Fiction Prize.
Mirandi also publishes under the name M.J. Tjia, and she is the woman behind the Heloise Chancey historical crime series She Be Damned, A Necessary Murder and The Death of Me.
Her work features in Best Australian Stories, Meanjin, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Best Summer Stories.
ASTRID: Mirandi Riwoe is the author of the novella The Fish Girl which was shortlisted for 2018 Stella Prize and the Queensland Literary Awards Fiction Prize. Her latest work is 2020’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain. Mirandi also publishes under a penname M.J. Tjia, and she’s the woman behind the Heloise Chancey historical crime series: She Be Damned, A Necessary Murder and The Death of Me. Welcome to The Garret Mirandi.
MIRANDI: Thank you Astrid.
Astrid: We are recording in Triple M Brisbane, which is a lot fancier than we normally do. Thank you very much for coming here. My first question is why have you crossed genres? I’m absolutely fascinated by a writer who can move from historical mystery to literary fiction.
MIRANDI: That was kind of accidental. I did set out originally as a writer—I really wanted to be a crime writer and hang out with Val McDermid and drink whisky with her. That was my–I wanted to be like Emma Viskic. So that’s how I started out. Originally, I did a masters and part of it was researching a novel—a crime fiction set in Indonesia. And that was the first novel I ever wrote, and it did alright in, say, comps. Then I moved onto a PHD, and I was still determined to write a crime fiction. I think for me crime fiction has a plot that I could work with. I didn’t know what I would write that didn’t have this kind of formulaic plot to follow. I could still look at things like feminist or cultural issues but within the restraints of a crime fiction.
Really, I think, around the same time as I was doing my PHD I met other writers like Laura Elvery who were doing short fiction and of course short fiction in Australia in the journals and for the comps, you know, that’s literary fiction. So, I sort of started out there. And then of course while I was researching the Heloise novels, I came across the Somerset Maugham story which turned into The Fish Girl, and that I think was where I really started writing literary fiction, or historical literary fiction, sort of accidentally. I fell into it because I felt passionate about writing The Fish Girl and then I got a feel for it. I guess I kind of liked the themes I could explore maybe a bit more fully with literary fiction.
ASTRID: You’ve certainly done very well at it. Another question before we get into the content—you write and publish under different names. So, the Heloise series is under M.J. Tjia and that is published in Australia and abroad, but your literary fiction The Fish Girl and Stone Sky Gold Mountain is under your own name. Why the change?
MIRANDI: It wasn’t a change. It’s a long story, but Heloise was picked up first by the British publishers and we were discussing how I’d like my name to look on the cover. And all my work, like my PHD and everything, is Mirandi Riwoe—that’s my christened name. But my father is Chinese from Indonesia, so his actual Chinese name is Tjia. And that’s why it’s spelt T.J.I.A. because it’s spelt the Dutch way. So somewhere along the line in Indonesia he had to change his name to an Indonesian name which is Riwoe, and that’s what we all are, Riwoe. But the actual Chinese name is Tjia. So I had these two names to work with. Actually, my brother and sister have changed their names to Tjia, that’s their names and I’m Riwoe. So I had these names to work with and the publishers liked the look of M.J. Tjia with the T.J.I.A and we went with that. I thought that suited the books. And then meanwhile in Australia I was still entering literary competitions for journals, and The Fish Girl eventually, and they were all in my real name which is Mirandi Riwoe. And that sort of happened organically. And there was talk of the Australian publisher changing the name on the Heloise novels to Riwoe, but I wasn’t interested in that so much because I know as a reader when you love a crime writer and then you read a book of theirs, say, and it’s not crime fiction, or vice versa, it’s irritating for the reader I think. So I felt it was just a good difference to make, career wise.
ASTRID: I find that fascinating. Has it prompted any difficulties in terms of marketing? I mean, a lot of writers and emerging writers listen to this podcast and I’m thinking about branding, responses from publishers, just selling books or getting a name up at festivals. Have you encountered any roadblocks?
MIRANDI: No, I don’t think so. Usually it will be mentioned, say to festivals. Like obviously, you’ve delved into my past and you– (Laughs).
ASTRID: I’ve been googling you.
MIRANDI: You’ve found this information anyway. The other thing is they’re so different, like my Heloise novels are just so different from the literary fiction that I’m just quite happy for them to be quite apart. And if a festival, or a publisher, or whoever wants me to just be Riwoe then I will. And then sometimes, Sisters in Crime have been very supportive of me, and I’ll do just crime stuff for them. I think it’s all there in my bio anyway and I guess they choose which character they want to turn up that day (Laughs). And I’ll dress accordingly.
ASTRID: You made me think of other famous authors who have at various points chosen to write under different names. Obviously, there’s lots of women for historical reasons, who chose to change their names and have pen names. But also, contemporary: Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman, J.K. Rowling going as Robert Gailbraith when she switched genres. So it’s not an uncommon thing.
MIRANDI: No, even Agatha Christie I remember—she had her romance in another name.
ASTRID: Are you aware of any other writers in Australia who have ended up like this for various reasons?
MIRANDI: I’m not, no. Are you Astrid?
ASTRID: No, I’m not, (laughs) that’s why I’m asking you the question.
MIRANDI: I’m not at all, no.
ASTRID: So tell me about the process of actually switching genres. I mean, you gave us a little outline before. But sometimes from talking to writers I’ve become aware that emerging writers, and sometimes even established writers, feel pressure from maybe expectations of the broader industry that they have to do a certain amount in a certain genre before they are allowed to have earned their stripes and change. I recently asked Bri Lee about this, because she goes between so many different styles of writing—academic writing, legal writing, short form writing for example for The Saturday Paper, long form—and she was very clear that she doesn’t believe that, but she also is aware of expectations. And I’m interested in your approach.
Mirandi: I don’t think I have come across that. I guess maybe, say the publishers or journals who have taken on the literary fiction—they’d probably be less inclined to accept my genre fiction I guess at the end of the day. But I guess finding a home for them—I think it’s like people always tell emerging writers to know what the publisher or journal are looking for. I’m not sure if that answers your question. Are you more talking about how I switch between them? Or how I find responses–
ASTRID: No, I was just interested in responses from the industry.
MIRANDI: So I’d been pretty careful, like I wouldn’t say go to Meanjin with a short crime fiction, or UQP I don’t know unless it was a very fancy crime fiction. I’m not sure.
ASTRID: Which now does exist in Australia so (laughs).
MIRANDI: It does, that’s what I’m saying—unless it was a very classy crime fiction, I don’t know that I’d rock up with a crime fiction for them. And yet there are other, obviously, other publishers who might look at both. So, I think you’ve just got to be in where you’re distributing your different works.
ASTRID: I’d like to talk about Stone Sky Gold Mountain. It’s a beautiful work, first off.
MIRANDI: Thank you.
ASTRID: But as a writer with several books behind you, what was the actual process of literally moving into literary fiction, which is different than writing mystery and crime. And you alluded to that before—that that’s a genre that gives you a certain plot structure to follow which literary fiction doesn’t. On the personal level, how did you find that?
MIRANDI: I would say years ago, even when I was doing my PHD, if somebody said to me, ‘in the next few years you’ll be writing literary fiction,’ I would have said ‘that’s nonsense, it’s rubbish’. I guess I wouldn’t have thought I’d be able to.
ASTRID: And when you say ‘able to’ is that–
MIRANDI: I don’t know. I just wouldn’t have thought I’d be good enough, I guess. Not that I’m saying, you know, of course there are beautiful crime writers, I’m not saying anything about crime fiction. I’m saying about me, I just didn’t think I’d be able to write literary fiction. But I guess the more you read it, and especially going back to the short stories and journals, the more you sort of understand what is expected of literary fiction, the more you might be able to emulate it. So short fiction was first. And then, The Fish Girl to me was quite experimental. I knew what I wanted to do with it. I am still quite plot driven, so it still had a plot to follow because I had the original story to work with. And now I find with this novel and any novel that comes after this, I will still plot, it just won’t be with the murder and who the–
ASTRID: The whodunit.
MIRANDI: Yeah, the suspects and the red herrings, no longer. But I still do plot. And then in literary fiction, I as a reader steer towards books that have a strong storyline. I guess I’ve managed to move into writing literary fiction, but I need a plot to work with. I’m not one of those writers who just has a character and starts, or I start at this point and let’s see where it goes. It would go nowhere with me—it would go on for a long time and nowhere.
ASTRID: What was the impetus for Stone Sky Gold Mountain?
MIRANDI: When I was researching the Heloise novels, which is about Eurasian people and Chinese people in Victorian London—part of my PHD is the research on that, on the dwellers of Victorian London from Asia, which was very interesting. And then I wanted to write something set in Australia, that’s when I had started to think maybe I could try literary fiction or historical fiction. And I’d started to wonder, well I’ve looked into London, these early Asian dwellers of London, what about here in Australia? And of course, then that leads to the gold rush. And originally, I’d just wanted it to be a very simple story between maybe a Chinese gold-digger man and an Australian woman. Because as a Eurasian I’m just astounded when I meet people who appear white Australian, and then they’ll go, ‘Oh, my great-grandfather was Chinese,’ or, ‘My great-grandfather put up that shrine at…’ I’ve just always found that really mind-blowing when I meet these people who are not young. And then I remember a girlfriend of mine, her great-grandfather was Chinese, but they weren’t allowed to stay together. I think it was a Victorian country town and they weren’t allowed to stay together. Obviously, she still had the baby and then they moved on in life. What interests me of course is that initial story, that initial meeting or romance—how did that happen? I think those are the sort of things I will look at in a novel after this one, to follow on, about how they lived Eurasian in white Australia while that White Australia policy was around. It all started probably while I was still researching and writing the first Heloise.
ASTRID: I like that explanation. As I was reading your latest work it made me reflect on how Australian literature is changing—deservedly so and about time. But it’s no longer bush poems and colonial visions about confronting the bush or something, it’s much more nuanced. And I read Stone Sky Gold Mountain as a cross-cultural history challenging the notion that settler Australia has always been white, which it hasn’t been. That’s a narrative we so often, well I was taught in primary school back in the ‘80s. This novel is set in 1887, about 130 years ago, the Victorian goldfields at the end of the gold rush—no longer in the heyday of everybody striking gold.
MIRANDI: Yes, it’s after the Victorian gold rush, yes.
ASTRID: I’d like to talk to you about how you approach your research. I know you did a residency in Shanghai, and you did research in Cooktown in Queensland, which was like a supply stop on the way to the goldfields. So this is, whilst a literary novel and a beautiful fictional world you let us into, it’s also very much based on fact.
MIRANDI: Right, yes. The one thing that I find astounding is at the time in the Cooktown area, in the Palmer river, there were four to five times more Chinese than the white people. And if you do read fiction from there, even Thea Astley’s It’s Raining in Mango which is brilliant, her very first chapter is set in Maytown which is the town that my book’s set in. But it is still from a white point of view and I think she mentions one Chinese shopkeeper? But if you go to Maytown now—at the time it had twelve hotels, it had a lemonade factory and this in the 1870s, it had a lemonade factory! And now if you go there there’s nothing there, they’ve still got the stumps from the Post Office, and you can see where the main road was but it’s just dirt. And down the side somewhere along the line, someone’s put plaques of where each of the shops were. So there was the butcher, or so and so’s pharmacist. But most of the shops are owned by Chinese, there’s Chinese names on these plaques, which is just fascinating. And on the Palmer river itself there was up to say 18-20 thousand Chinese and maybe only five-thousand whites. And the same was in Cooktown, I think I read somewhere that even all the butchers were Chinese, there was one white family that was a butcher there and the rest were Chinese. It was actually overrun with Chinese people (laughs). And like I said before, it has always made me wonder how different Australia would look if at the turn of that century they hadn’t brought in the White Australia policy. And when I talk about those people before, those Eurasians who I meet around my age, it makes you wonder. And with Victoria too, there must have been many Chinese who were sent home. So where was I going with this?
ASTRID: I asked you about the research both in Shanghai and Australia.
MIRANDI: Oh yes, so mostly it was book research, it was Trove—looking back at what a lot of the white settlers were saying at the time, or the white diggers were saying at the time about what was happening. Sifting through what they’re saying, what they’re showing you, is quite racist, but quite taken for granted for normal. So that was all very interesting.
Then you’ve got literature written now about that time, like from Timothy Bottoms—Conspiracy of Silence I think it’s called. And then even Clare Wright’s book was very interesting for me to, to write from a white Australian female’s point of view. And actually, Sophie the sex worker in town who Meriem works for, she’s based on an actual person I read about in Clare Wright’s book. Eric Rowles wrote two books called Sojourners and Citizens and they’re these huge tomes. And we always had them at home growing up, someone had given them to my Dad. And they’re these huge things, as big as what old encyclopedias used to be, full of stories and histories and articles of the Chinese sojourners. The first huge one is just about the gold rush years and mostly that’s Victorian and moving up to Queensland the Northern Territory. So a lot of information came from him and that sort of academic literature that he had dived into or inspired.
And then I read a lot of fiction written in the gold rush period: there was Rose Tremain who wrote The Colour; Thea Astley wrote two brilliant novels, that one I mentioned before and The Kindness Cup; Brian Castro, his Birds of Passage. So, a lot of fiction written about that area—Ruth Park wrote one set in New Zealand.
And then, like you said, I went to Shanghai. Now, I was at the writing period by the time I went to Shanghai, so I was writing the brother’s point of view, so I was getting a bit of a feel for it while it was there. But mostly I picked up things that were more internal. I think I was there for two months and loving it. And I think that gave me a sense for how Ying would embrace life in Australia, in this new place.
ASTRID: And Ying of course is–
MIRANDI: Sorry, yes, the sister.
ASTRID: The sister who spends most of the novel pretending to be a boy.
MIRANDI: Pretending to be a boy so she could stay with her brother over here, because mostly it was men who came here to work on the goldfields of course. Being there gave me a feeling for how you want to go home, but you also love there, but realising too that you might like being there just because it’s novel and you know you are going home. So those internal things happened. I did get that terrible Chinese ditty that I think Clem says—the poem. A New Zealand writer over there, she said to me, ‘have you heard this racist one that we used to say when we were kids?’ (laughs) so I wrote that down and put it in my book.
But the biggest thing was I met a fellow named James Sing. I was introduced to him by somebody, but we got to chatting. And I thought he might be related to Billy Singh, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Billy Sing, there’s a book written about him too and he was a sniper in WWI, I think, but he was Eurasian. Anyway, I thought he might be related to him, but actually his great-grandfather was Tam Gee Kee who was one of those shop owners in Maytown. So, he was one of the first people in Maytown, this shopkeeper, and all his descendants are still, like they had this big reunion just lately and all went to Maytown and I was really jealous that I couldn’t go with them because it just looked awesome. And he heaps of stories that he writes down, of what actually happened in Maytown, so I didn’t steal his stories because he will write them, but he gave me a great sense of what it was like as a live town.
ASTRID: As I’ve said before it’s a beautiful work of fiction, but like all of the best authors that I read Mirandi, you actually taught me about an element of Australian history that I only knew in passing or I didn’t know at all, so thank you. And I guess the things that I reflect on, and other readers will have a bunch of different reactions, was just the casual and the everyday violence of life at that time—between genders, between races, towards Indigenous Australia always, but not just by white settlers. The intricacies of race and class in the goldfields and in the towns, and how it was very possible to go further down the social hierarchy and very hard to come back up. Poverty—fleeing poverty, going back to poverty, falling into poverty. And gender—obviously pretending to be a boy, but also the narratives of Meriem and Sophie and what they face without males or because of males. And I guess my first question is, were you aware of doing that or did that just come out in the story?
MIRANDI: I’ll talk about the race one first. Originally, I did want it to be that meeting up of cultures I guess—a girl and a boy. And I like to write about women, so then it turned into two young women meeting each other. I think from very early on I wanted to look at racism and how far we maybe haven’t gone. I would say in my lifetime, even now my teenage son—I write about it a bit in my short fiction, actually. My son would probably even come across—I mean he’s only a quarter Asian now, but he and his good mates who are African-Australian or Maori—the racism they come across now, I think is even worse than when I was young, or maybe it’s just where I’ve grown up. So, I did want to look at how far some things have improved, but how some things just haven’t changed, and in fact one of the racist scenes in the book I modelled from something I YouTubed now.
ASTRID: That’s distressing.
MIRANDI: And you could say the same about domestic violence or violence against women, or a lot of those things. So that’s why I’ve tried to do—I’ve tried to actually take cases from now and put them back there, so you don’t just look at this historical book and go, ‘oh well, that was then,’ because it wasn’t just then.
I’d have to say regarding the violence, and I did have to think about how some people are confronted by the violence, but I realised that because I haven’t known that level of violence—as violent as my book is, or as brutal as my book might be—I couldn’t possibly portray the actual brutality that was visited upon women in those frontier towns, or the Indigenous people. There’s no way this book is as brutal as it could be. I did definitely, when I was saying before I was reading accounts from the time by diggers and government men—it’s interesting that you said the word ‘casual’—the casual reference to how they treated the Aboriginal people is astounding. And I think it’s all there, it’s all in those historical works, but of course lots of people don’t read them. When they’re put in an academic work a lot of people don’t read them, so I like it when fiction introduces you to this. Because then I think you’re reaching more readers who maybe aren’t going to read it in the academic form. I did want to show also, that even though there was racism against the Chinese, that the Chinese too, just by being there, no matter what levels of violence they might have visited upon anyone. And they had their own little tong wars up there anyway, the Chinese. But I did want to show that they were also complicit in that displacement and the violence that was happening against the Aboriginal people, the Western Yalanji people of that time and place.
ASTRID: One of the things that I didn’t know, and I guess maybe it’s even part of the structural background to where Australia ends up with the White Australia policy decades later, I didn’t know that Chinese immigrants paid more tax than white immigrants and I didn’t know that only white settlers were allowed to carry guns, which strikes me as–
MIRANDI: I know. Yeah, I can’t remember where I read that, but that was in the actual historical research I did. And that’s why I think a lot of them, especially when they fight between themselves, they armed themselves with—like apparently in Lukinville which was a town close by—and this is a bit later, this is probably about 1880 I think—the Hakka and the Hokkien were going to have a war. And the white police were going to keep out of it, they were going to let them do their thing. And I think all the shopkeepers were mostly Cantonese and they sold the Haken and the Hoikkien all the… But what they had to use were shovels and knives and hoes and whatever they could find to maim each other. But then when I was talking with James Sing, he was saying his great-grandfather who was that shopkeeper used to strut around town with Colts or revolvers so that’s why I gave one of my characters one. Because I mean they would’ve been heavily policed but also not, there were so many of them. I’m sure some of them got their hands on some guns, but normal youngsters like Ying and Lai Yue wouldn’t have, no.
And what I did try to show too with the white population there is a lot of them were fresh to Australia—they were as fresh to Australia as the Chinese. And that’s why I have maintained some accents in the book, which I wouldn’t usually bother with. But I wanted to show there were Swedish, there were Germans, there were definitely the Irish and the Scottish. I just wanted to show that even though they were the gatekeepers and the lawmakers of this country, they were pretty fresh to the country themselves.
ASTRID: They were fresh off the boat so to speak. And the reason I use that phrase is I have a quote here. Very early Ying refers to her family as, and I quote, ‘having stepped straight off the boat,’ and of course that’s a narrative we see in contemporary Australia, but you gave it to a character 130 years ago. Was that a deliberate choice?
MIRANDI: Yeah, I was looking through my notes the other day and I did come past some notes where I wanted them maybe to be aware of being like boat people or, you know, just being exiled. Because at some stage too I think that island off Cairns and one even lower, they used as quarantine island. At that stage they were getting straight off the boat into Cooktown, but they got even tougher with them and a lot of it was just excuses to make it as difficult as possible for them to come here. And then, of course, like you were saying before the taxes. Yeah, I definitely wanted to reference that. And I think going by my notes the other day I wanted to reference it a lot more clearly, but that got lost in the writing.
ASTRID: I’ve got an advanced copy of the book and on the back there is a quote from Benjamin Law. He says, ‘This is a staggering recreation of an Australian history too few of us know, and a heart-bruising testament of resilience and love.’ Where do you place this book in contemporary Australian literature?
ASTRID: Yeah! I know that’s a big question and it’s a leading question, and once a story gets out there, it kind of becomes what readers respond to. But you are the one who has created this story and I’m wondering where you might see it going?
MIRANDI: Well I guess like I was saying about all my historical fiction, I would assume it’s historical fiction. But it’s like something I studied for the Heloise novels actually, is Neo-Victorian—not that I’d say that this is Neo-Victorian—but it’s got to be historical and be able to engage and be relevant to contemporary readers. So that’s what I would hope. Is that what you mean?
ASTRID: Kind of! I guess at the beginning of our chat Mirandi, I referenced how I think Australian literature is changing, and it’s not just that bush narrative that was prominent for so long.
MIRANDI: I would say, you know there’s that part there when Ying is faced with some racism and she’s sort of irritated by it, it becomes a constant burr. I’d say that sort of represents how I would feel about racist slurs or taunts that you hear about.
I think writers like Maxine Beneba Clarke and Melissa Lucashenko are very important writers in the Australian literary scene now, and many others of course, but I think that they will write what Australians need to hear about in an unflinching way. And it’s showcasing events, or how you feel, or what’s happening to people that just hasn’t had a broader audience and I think they’re using their platforms really well. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short fiction in Foreign Soil—that was when I was starting out with trying to write short fiction, looking at what journals were looking for and what I could write—and I think her stories really showed me what mattered to me, what I could write and get published. I think those sorts of writers have really opened it up for the rest of us. I would hope, I guess, that it would slot in somewhere there as an area that needs to be looked at in novel form. So, please enjoy but with some–
ASTRID: The novel form is a beautiful way of showing us what was or what could be. I learned a lot, Mirandi. Some of the scenes I’m going to remember most, I think, are how Ying was pretending to be a boy and the lengths she had to go to pretend to be a boy. I mean, I know women have done this many times throughout history, but I didn’t know some of the logistics! She had a sloping piece of wood so she could be standing up!
MIRANDI: I know, I had to do a bit of research.
ASTRID: Yeah! And had to look after her period, I didn’t even know that was possible.
MIRANDI: I know! And then you have to work out how they did—the sand, I thought the sand was a brilliant idea. Really uncomfortable.
MIRANDI: Looking into her, I did research women and mostly they were soldiers, when you look back. We’re not talking just somebody who was—you know, I think there was that movie about the man who was the servant or a butler, I mean that’s brilliant—but a lot of them were actually soldiers, so you do wonder how much maybe the soldiers around them kind of knew, or didn’t. But yes, when I was looking up how she would get away with it I was googling certain things, and the next thing I saw on Facebook was an ad for a thing called the she-wee (laughs). A targeted ad
ASTRID: (laughs). Yeah, our phones know what we’re thinking about.
MIRANDI: I just had to work with what I could find.
ASTRID: Well you did it very well and I am going to have some of those images with me for quite a while Mirandi. What are you working on next if anything?
MIRANDI: A couple of things. When I was researching this, so many other ideas came with the research of course. So I’ve already jotted down Gold Mountain Two.
ASTRID: That’s exciting.
MIRANDI: So I wanted that to be actually written in the form like Thea Astley’s Mango book where it’s moving through time and each chapter’s almost like a short-story that intertwines with the next one but moves through time. So I wanted to move through maybe 150-200 years, an Irish orphan girl who comes in 1860 because my mother’s great-grandmother was a Mayo orphan, meets a Chinese man here. And I wanted to follow their journey as a Eurasian family over the White Australia policy and out of the White Australia policy. I don’t know if it will go as far as to now. Thankfully I have the Tyrone Guthrie residency next year for a month, so I’ll do some of my research there.
And in the meantime, I’m working on a book set in Java just before the Japanese invade. It’s about a KLM pilot and he’s engaged to a woman, he’s in love with another one and when the Japanese invade he’s got to choose who he’s going to take with him to Australia because a lot of Dutch people were evacuated to Broome. So that’s been fun.
ASTRID: Mirandi, I can’t wait to read both of them.
MIRANDI: Thank you.
ASTRID: Good luck and thank you very much for coming to the Garret.
MIRANDI: Thank you Astrid!