Yumna Kassab on writing experimental stories

Yumna Kassab's debut collection of short stories, The House of Youssef, was listed for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, the Queensland Literary Award, the NSW Premier's Literary Award and The Stella Prize. Australiana, published in 2022, is her first novel.

Yumna Kassab


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Yumna, and congratulations on Australiana, your recent novel.

YUMNA: Thank you so much, Astrid. And thank you for having me on The Garret.

ASTRID: I've been looking forward to this because I don't know if anyone who listens to The Garret knows, but I recently moved to regional Victoria, and Australiana was the first book that I read in my new location, moving from inner city Melbourne to regional Victoria. And your work is set in a New South Wales regional town. And you know, my current life experience really coloured my, informed my reading of your novel. And I just found myself constantly looking out my window thinking, ‘I wonder what people think of me, this new kid on the block’. It was a really personal and lovely experience, and I just wanted to put that out there on the record.

But before we go deep into Australiana, I wanted to talk about how you got into writing and your motivation to write. I've clearly been looking you up, and you actually studied medical science and neuroscience, and you have this whole career outside literary world. Tell me, what draws you to the writing world?

YUMNA: Well, I think I've always been writing. What I see as my sort of continuous writing period, which is probably almost 20 years now, and by continuous, I mean I write every single day, multiple times a day. So, I say it's 20 years, but even when I go back to being much younger, I remember writing throughout my school years. I think I wrote my first poem when I was five years old. I think it's been there for a long time.

So, and I consciously did decide to study science at uni because I really didn't want anyone to tell me what to do with my writing. I think it's a bit different if your career is something away from your passion, that was my reasoning anyhow. I think it's worked out okay. But yeah, the writing, and also the reading, those two go hand in hand, have been there for a very, very long time.

ASTRID: I would say it has worked out okay for you. Your first published work was the House of Youssef, which was a collection of short stories. That was your debut published work, and you got straight onto the longlist for The Stella Prize, so definitely working out well for you.

Now, after your debut collection you've moved on to novel writing. You just mentioned that you've been writing all the time, that you write every day. A novel is a significantly different experience and work than a collection of short stories. What came first for you, and how long have you been writing Australiana?

YUMNA: You know, in terms of that, we'll say that 20-year period, there's obviously a lot of room for experimentation and for trying different things. And I suppose the thing that interests me actually is just the story form, whether it's very, very short, whether it's a four-line story as there is one in Australiana, or if it's something a little bit longer.

I know that it says that it's a novel on the front but I prefer to call it an ecosystem, because I see it as the way we talk about ecosystems in science, is that you have this setting and then you look at the living and non-living things and how they interact. And so, the living things are, obviously there are the humans, but there are also the animals, the animals are quite important as well. And then the non-living things, we are talking about water, we're talking about temperature, we're talking about, events such as bush fires, droughts, floods, and so on. I don't see as too much, it's not really different to my way of thinking. When I look at everything else I've written, and the way I sort of see my writing, I see it as one sort of continuous project, and then I just sort of cut things out of it based on themes. So I know that the House of Youssef, for example, it was sort of these migrants in Western Sydney and then Australiana, it's very much the regional setting. But I sort of started them 2018, May 2018, almost as soon as I arrived in Tamworth, and I think it was done and dusted by October 2019.

ASTRID: That is incredibly quick to write. Now, it's so much in there to unpack. Before we unpack that, can you give, because it is a new work, the kind of overview, the introduction to Australiana?

YUMNA: Yeah. Australiana is an ecosystem based in a regional area. It is in country New South Wales. I'd say that the main theme is probably water and how it actually affects a community. In times of drought, the tentacles of, the effect of water, are quite deep in a community. But it's structured a bit around The Thousand and One Nights, where one story ends, the next one sort of begins, or there's a symbol or something carried across. I think the way I think is that I tend... my brain goes off in tangents, and I think Australiana also reflects that. But yeah, it's essentially the story of a regional community in New South Wales.

ASTRID: It is a beautiful immersive work. I really enjoy how you describe it as an ecosystem. I was going with something a little bit more obvious, like my question was going to be, how did you thread the stories together? So, for those listening, I guess we would call them chapters, but they're really point of view. And we move through brief points of view from multiple, many different characters that we may not come back again or maybe referenced 50 pages into the future kind of thing. And it tells the story of everything happening in a town and it's mostly consecutive, but we do learn about the past as well. There is the viewpoint of animals, like it's huge. And as I was reading and trying to understand what you were taking me through as a reader, I thought, ‘How did you do this?’ Technically, when you sit down to write, how did you make it feel so cohesive, even though it is actually quite fragmented?

YUMNA: I am not entirely sure. I am probably the worst person in the world to ask. I actually had this sense when, occasionally with House of Youssef, if I knew I was going to be reading from that book, I'd occasionally flip through it and I didn't want to always be reading the same thing. And what I noticed with that was it's one thing to sort of write a one-off story, but once you start to look at all stories together, they have a particular momentum and a particular weight.

I think the thing that interests me from a writing perspective is very much the experimentation. And I do think that Australiana is probably a very experimental work. And if you are looking to tell the story of a community, the structure or the form actually needs to give you the freedom to do that. I think it's quite difficult to do with a novel with chapters, to sort of cover those perspectives. But it's not very plotted out, it's not the way I think. I just sort of write the things that I want.

A lot of the stories did very much begin with particular lines that I heard. For example, the Pilliga story, which is a ghost story in a way, did actually start with a line that I've put in there. And one of my colleagues said to me, ‘You don't go into the Pilliga at night’. And there were lots of lines like this in the time that I was writing this book, where there'd be this line and it was such a striking image, and the stories would really emerge from there. A lot of them were also written during road trips. So, the landscape and the things that I was actually noticing. It would instantly spark something and it is quite a... I think it's a very beautiful landscape. It's nice to be outside of the cities. So yeah, I think I was just paying careful attention. That was how the book was written.

ASTRID: There is a point relatively early when you were talking about the drought, and we're in the point of view of a male character and he's crying and there's the imagery it's just really brief, just a few sentences… tears and drought and manhood and country Australia. And I read it over and over. And I wanted to ask, in all of those 20 years that you've been practising writing, have you done poetry? Because your words felt like poems.

YUMNA: Yeah. I think that the start was obviously, well not obviously, but the start was with poetry and there are a few poems in Australiana.

ASTRID: Towards the end.

YUMNA: Yeah. And it's, I really love poetry and I think that if you look at literature as a whole, poetry tends to be the most experimental area of literature. I think you can tell the health of the literary system based on the poetry that's being produced. I love it greatly. And I do care a lot about my words and the sort of images that I'm using.

ASTRID: I want to come back to that comment that you just made, the health of an ecosystem about the poetry it produces. Let's keep talking about your process and your writing Australiana, but before we go, we're going to come back to that, because I would love to dive into that more, Yumna.

When you sit down to write, you've talked about how you kind of approach putting together your words. But how do you find the time? Because you have a career. Where do you do, and how do you do, this writing?

YUMNA: You know, the system did probably change when I was writing Australiana. So for a very, very long period of time I'd probably write in the evenings, but when I was writing The House of Youssef I started to experiment a little bit. I am very devoted cafe attendee, and so that is usually where a lot of my writing is done. And I think for me to actually write one continuous novel, we are going to have to find a bottomless cup of coffee. But a lot of these stories were actually written over a cup of coffee, which is usually about 15 to 20 minutes. It is my ritual. I go out every single day, before I do anything else, before I talk to anyone else, and that's usually where the writing happened. So tying it to coffee makes sure... it does make sure for me that it always happens. But I don't let a day go by without the writing, but usually it's over coffee in the morning before anything else.

ASTRID: That is so impressive. I need the coffee just to do anything else.

So how would you describe your own style? Because you know, you've been reviewed and other people describe how you write and what they think your works mean, but when you think about The House of Youssef and Australiana, how do you describe yourself and your work?

YUMNA: I really love fables and theory tales. Because I think that those sorts of stories are, because they are a skeleton form of a story, highly symbolic. I do think that there's an element of writing fables to what I do. And I think they are also very experimental. I know that in various ways that ‘minimalist’ has been attached to it. I am not sure about that particular term, but I say it's experimental and precise.

ASTRID: And who are your influences? I am going to take a wild guess and say that you are a very big reader.

YUMNA: Yes. I am a crazy, insane bibliomaniac style reader. I read very, very widely. I think on a sort of sentence level I really love Don DeLillo, I think he's got some pretty amazing sentences. Joan Didion is probably my favourite writer in English. I've been reading a lot of Roberto Bolaño but I think his style is quite different to mine. I recently discovered also Manuel Puig who wrote Kiss of the Spider Woman in the 1970s, he's a writer from Argentina. And as soon as I finished that book, I just thought he's really expanded the possibilities of the novel.

I also do read vampire stories. I'm currently reading a few by Anne Rice. They're quite enjoyable stories, and also they're quite symbolic. Yeah. I tend to go back to a lot of my favourite writers and I'll find that if I revisit books that they become very symbolic, and then they sort of become part of your symbol system.

ASTRID: I'm so glad that you read vampire stories because I do too, and I have been heavily influenced by Anne Rice.

YUMNA: I was very sad her and Joan Didion passed away about a week apart from each other. I think that's quite a great loss actually, both of them.

ASTRID: It is a loss. December 2021 was not good for literary world.

Moving on from vampires, which I could talk to you about that for hours, but let's not do that to the listeners on The Garret today. Would you ever write nonfiction?

YUMNA: I have written some things which are double, yeah... that they are nonfiction. I mean, there are a few who call them essays. They're really not essays. Yeah, on SRB. And there was something that was published in Meanjin, which was to do with language. But I tend to really like to play around, so I think that sometimes the non-fiction stuff that I write really reads like fiction. I wrote these, we'll call it a piece, I'm not going to call it an essay, but it was about these cafes that were very important to me in Parramatta, it's called Three Ropes to Mars. And yet it is highly fictionalised. Every detail is true, but it reads like a story. So yeah, if I am going to write any nonfiction, it's probably going to be a bit like that.

ASTRID: And how do you feel about reviews?

YUMNA: I've read a few. Yeah. I've got many sorts of ideas about reviews in general. I think that generally in terms of discovering new books to read, I don't really pay attention to reviews. The way that I tend to discover new books is that if I really love a writer, I tend to look for the interviews and what writers they like. That's how I discover most things.

In terms of my writing, I've read a couple. Some I agree with, some I don't. I try not to pay too much attention to it. And I do think also that both House of Youssef and Australiana, there are a lot of different stories, there are a lot of different perspectives, and there's a lot of scope for interpretation.

ASTRID: That's a very eloquent and professional answer. Thank you. People have such different reactions when I ask about reviews, it's always a thorny one, so thank you.

Now, let's go back to what you mentioned before about poetry and what is published representing a really healthy ecosystem. Firstly, did I understand that correctly? That was your meaning?

YUMNA: Yes, of course, because I think poetry really attends to imagery, rhythm, rhyme occasionally. And yeah, I think it's very different to the other forms in terms of literature. And I do think that it's where most of the experimentation actually happens. If we are thinking in terms of language and literature, that for it to be in a sort of healthy and growing state, there needs to be innovation and experimentation. And generally, what's happening with poetry is an indication of what's happening broadly in literature.

ASTRID: A completely leading question here, do you think we have a healthy publishing ecosystem?

YUMNA: Well, I don't think that... I read this, it was an anthology of classical Arabic writing, so it was maybe 700 to 900, it covered that sort of period. And there was this comment made in the introduction that to people in those days that the two signs of prestige were actually having a very fine horse or a poet in the family, which I think is quite nice. I'm not entirely sure if here in Australia, if there is a poet in the family, that it is a mark of prestige. And there's many, different reasons for that.

Yeah, I wouldn't say that I'm probably the best person in terms of, to comment on what's happening in the contemporary poetry world. It's something that I do read. I've been very obsessed with Federico García Lorca, especially poet in New York, but you know, that's from the 1930s. But it's something that I definitely draw on in terms of the writing. I'm not sure I have a very clear answer to that one.

ASTRID: Look, it was completely random question for you. And one that I increasingly find myself thinking about. I am such a reader, a crazy bibliophile, and I ignored poetry for a long time. And I've never quite figured out why I had this aversion to it, apart from a basic answer, like I didn't like poetry at school or how it was taught to me at school.

And I'll read anything, and I've always avoided poetry. And in the last couple of years in Australia, it's really heartening and obvious to see more poets are being published. That doesn't mean we don't have a long way to go, but poetry's having a mini-Renaissance and I'm quite enjoying it. I'm always interested in other people's opinions on that.

I also wanted to ask you about what makes a good publisher? Now, Australiana is published by Ultimo Press, and they're like the new kid on the block. And from my perspective, as a reader and someone who enjoys new books and experimental books being published in Australia, they look really amazing and interesting. What, from a writer's point of view, makes a good publisher?

YUMNA: Many, many years ago, I read this interview with Malala, the... what was, she won the Nobel Prize for Peace? But there was an interview with her father, and what they asked him was, ‘How do you raise a daughter like Malala?’ And he said, ‘Well, essentially you just leave them alone. You don't clip the wings’. I think of that comment quite a bit.

I think what's really important to me as a writer, is to have my sentences and my style and my structures to be left alone. If, for example, that four-line story ‘Speed Dating’ in Australiana, if someone thinks that it should be fleshed out into a 10 page story or a 20 page story or anything like that, well, it's probably not their story. I think the most important quality for me is I just want my writing to be left as is. Obviously, we want to go over spelling and grammar, and make sure that it's polished, and that the meaning is sort of correct. But I think it's being left alone.

ASTRID: Another eloquent answer there, Yumna.

My final question to you is, I guess, open ended. You've already told us that you wrote Australiana in quite a contained period of time, and that was a few years ago. What have you got in the wings? What's coming up next for you?

YUMNA: When Ultimo took on Australiana, I did share with them this manuscript that was completed, but it was to make a point about how I like to structure stories or how I like to write stories. But they decided to take both. So they took Australiana and they took the other project, which is The Lovers, so hopefully at some point, fingers crossed, it's actually next year. I think that one is a slightly more conventional narrative. I think it is still very fragmented, but I'd probably describe it as a dark fairy tale. So that is what's hopefully happening in the future.

ASTRID: Yumna, thank you for speaking to me today. And through your work, Australiana, thank you for really enhancing my first week living in regional Victoria. It was a beautiful coincidence.

YUMNA: I hope you greatly enjoy your experiences there.