Rashida Murphy is a published author and the KSP Emerging Writer-in-Residence for May/June 2017. She obtained her Masters in English Literature and PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University. Rashida lives in Perth and has won various awards for her work in short fiction, poetry and prose. Her debut novel, The Historian’s Daughter, was published in 2016 by UWA Publishing and shortlisted for the 2015 Dundee International Book Prize. Ahead of her upcoming events at the Centre during her residency, Rashida spoke to KSP about her debut novel, the importance of writing about social justice, and her current projects.
1. What inspired you to become an author?
As a way of making sense of landscape, I guess. I’ve always been a bookish child, and saw the world and its potential through words. Then I moved homes, cities and countries, and the one constant was the solace of books. When my daughter was still a toddler, I started writing stories because she asked a lot of questions! An early experience with racism in her school playground in the northern suburbs of Perth where we lived at the time, prompted me to write an ‘opinion’ column and a women’s magazine published the piece. This was almost revolutionary in 1990! Women’s magazines didn’t feature writing about racism or stories by brown women. So, I started thinking about all the stories I could write, and how I would write them. I had some success in Indian, American and English journals but Australian journals didn’t seem to want me. That hurt. The (Oz) women’s magazines published me when I wrote neat little stories with white names and recognisable landscapes, and after a while, I didn’t want to do that anymore. Then in 2011, I was offered a scholarship at ECU and I decided to write a novel. In 2016, that novel was published by UWA Publishing and I gave myself permission to say I was a writer.
2. Do you have a favourite character in your novel, The Historian’s Daughter? Can you tell us why?
I really, really love Gabriel. And his dog, Jarrah. I’ve never owned a dog, and don’t really like them – I’m more of a batty cat lady, I think. I love Gabriel because he was the hardest to write. I named him after Hardy’s Gabriel from Far From The Madding Crowd. I wanted him to be a kind of iconic Aussie in his demeanour, yet lack real understanding of the complexity of the woman he had decided to love. As my friend Edwina puts it, he’s a ‘sun-kissed god’ but he’s also intolerant of ‘queue-jumping refugees’ and sees no contradiction in his intolerance on one hand and his attitude of a ‘fair go’ for everyone. After writing the awful Historian, I needed a sun-kissed god. I also like the mad aunty. We had a few mad aunties when we were growing up, but none, as far as I know, were locked up. I also had some gorgeous, sane aunties and one day I might write about them too.
3. Did you experience any hiccups on your journey to publishing your first novel? Did you learn from this?
It takes a very long time to write a novel properly, and exhaustion and hatred of the finished product are entirely acceptable feelings.
It takes a long time to believe it’s worth publishing, sending it to publishers, waiting for a response, waiting for rejection, waiting for acceptance, being edited, checking, re-reading, waiting, waiting. Apart from that my experience with UWAP has been amazing. It helps to know your publisher is also a writer (and a terrifyingly good one) so the feedback is valuable and valid and any advice comes from a place of colossal reading experience. I thought I was a pretty patient person, but I learned more about patience while being published.
4. Why do you think it is important to write about social justice?
I didn’t consciously start out by thinking I want to write about social justice. I trained as an ESL teacher and spent many years teaching English to refugees and immigrants. Later, as an Education Lecturer I once worked with a group of Aboriginal Education Assistants. I participated in their lives and went to their homes. Boundaries were blurred. Who was teaching whom? There are people leading compromised, fractured lives in every suburb in Perth that most middle-class, white people know nothing about. Or, if they do, they think it’s not their problem. In the 1980s and 90s I was regularly told to go back where I came from. Women in supermarkets accused me of stealing their jobs. Students in my classroom told me I had no right to be teaching them because they didn’t think I ‘spoke English’ at home. Another student, a male this time, told me he’d find out where I lived and set fire to my house because I asked him to leave my classroom for behaving inappropriately. A man in a bookshop tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I’d read Gunga Din. I’m sorry if this sounds like a catalogue of racism, but the fact is, I confront my brown-ness every time I step out of my safe spaces. I can never let my guard down. (I do let my guard down when my white husband is with me because he can stare grimly at people who talk to me as if I’m stupid or invisible.) But it’s an exhausting way to live. I find comfort in writing. Sometimes I shout.
5. Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of writing? Do they influence your writing in any way?
I’m a fairly solitary person so my pursuits are also solitary. I walk, garden, sew and knit. I can’t sew or knit anything significant; its more thinking time for me I guess. I love travelling and always find it astonishing how stories spring fully formed when I’m away – anywhere. I have 3 adult kids whose company I enjoy a lot, plus two tiny granddaughters I’m hoping to entice to literary things as soon as they can read. A small group of women friends influence the way I live, think and read and I feel blessed to have them in my life. And while this may sound cheesy, my husband is my best friend, and the time I spend with him is both entertaining and educational. He is my safe space.
6. How has KSP Writers’ Centre supported you in your journey as an author?
Being at KSP right now is exactly what I needed. It’s a confirmation of the fact that I can write; therefore I’m a writer. My time at the Centre has been productive (I write everyday) and friendly. The solitude is comfortable, and the collegial goodness of the board members, especially Shannon, Tabetha, Mardi and Lisa, has been a joy. The writing groups at KSP are also awesome and I’ve met 3 different groups already and look forward to meeting the rest over the coming weeks. I could get used to this. There are no words to describe the privilege of sitting in Katherine’s replica cottage and writing while looking out over the cathedral of eucalypts outside my window and watching the city appear, mirage-like, at dawn and dusk.
7. Can you tell us about your current project/s?
The major project I’m working on is my second novel-in-progress. It’s a bit hard to describe at the moment because I’m still writing and it’s still messy. There are two concurrent time lines, which need to be wrestled with. It’s a blend of historical and literary fiction. One section is set in the tribal and feudal badlands of India through a 90-year period from pre-independence to modern day. The other section is set in Canterbury, U.K. My goal is to significantly progress this novel, so I can start making sense of it. I’m also working on short stories, poems and book reviews. So far, I’m quite happy with 2 short stories and a poem that arrived while I was here.
8. Do you have any advice for Australian authors hoping to be published?
As my wonderful publisher, Terri-ann White, said in a recent article, publishing a book rarely changes your life, and if you expect it to, it will break your heart. I have always written. I will continue to write. I do this because I need to, because if I didn’t I would not know what to think, how to live. If publication is your only goal, you need to stop writing now. Publication is a bonus. I know, as writers we need readers, but if we are honest, we’ll admit we already have readers. We have our family, our friends, and our writing colleagues. That said, writing everyday, writing better everyday, sending stories out to journals, magazines and competitions is a way of affirming you’re not crazy. There are enough crazy people out there, whose tribe you can join! Dealing with rejection is a skill you need to learn. Because it happens a lot. I tend not to enter competitions which require a fee. I don’t send to journals that require me to be a member. I subscribe to enough journals and try to keep memberships to various writing centres alive, but the reality is, it all costs money, and you need to be very clear about how much you can invest in entering competitions, subscribing to journals and keeping your writing memberships going in any given year. Because, truly, your money ought to be spent in buying books too. When you buy books you support the industry you’re trying to enter, you learn something and they look so good on your shelves. (So, if you need to buy this awesome book, The Historian's Daughter, by your current writer-in-residence please come looking for me and I’ll try to oblige!)
Rashida is involved in many upcoming KSP events, including the three-course Bollywood-themed Literary Dinner on Tuesday, June 6th (featuring a sari demonstration from Rashida), and The Others: How to Write What You Don’t Know workshop on Saturday, June 10th. For costs and more details on all these events, please visit the KSP Writer-in-Residence page found here.
Find more about Rashida on her website.