I never read on trips, though I bring books and buy books.
We had SRS by Earl Sweatshirt playing, which had just come out overnight, sitting on a train from Akihabara to Shinjuku. During the mornings in Japan I was overly concerned with my skin. It was still recovering from the acne I was hit with after my trip to California at the start of the year.
On that first trip I brought home two books: from Amoeba, the first edition of Slaughterhouse Five for my brother, and then a poetry project called Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno by Ed Pavlić I found in City Lights. To Tokyo I brought with me Transit by Rachel Cusk.
The books I bring or bring back are the corner ends of the trips I’ve been taking. These books seem to have conversations with me during my time away, though often they’re left untouched from the point I paused at. They’re dot points to remember where I was mentally during each stay, the covers reflect against new landscapes.
I bought Transit when I was over in Adelaide for a festival for two nights, and I’d forgotten to bring a book for the plane home. So I went to a store which happened to also stock my book for the festival. The assistant assured me that the trilogy could be read out of order. I read most of it on the plane trip. A child and a mother and her own mother shared two seats next to me. When the plane took off, they asked if I wanted to take the vacant three seats across from us. I moved and they thanked me and I thanked them and started reading.
The central character in Cusk’s book is a writer, Faye, and something attached me to her. When I first picked up the book, I hadn’t realised Faye was a writer or that the book was considered autofiction. For the most part I went into it blindly, though I’d known the story orbited around the period Faye was having her house renovated. Ellena had recommended it to me after we did a panel together about ‘writing the domestic’ in Newcastle. I never seek to read the domestic, even though I write about it. I’ve found in retrospect that my reading habits have tended to revolve around wrapping myself in as much escapism as possible. Reading books predominantly set in different times, different cities, taking the reader outside rather than in. I found Transit very internal; as the reader you become the fly on Faye’s shoulder. In a sense I found myself sticking to this book particularly because of the way it detailed a blueprint familiar to my own, or one I was starting to inherit. I became interested in a self-indulgent way, in a way that seemed to reframe my idea of being a writer.
And that’s when I realised I hadn’t really consumed a novel that entirely centred a female writer before. Transit made me consider the rhythm Faye lived her life to:
- In the book Faye had just been divorced, she was moving into her own home and having it renovated for herself.
- She was in a routine of seeing people and in a routine of avoiding people, (ex-lovers, neighbours).
I consider my own briefly:
- I have just hit my early 20s. I will now be able to say, ‘I’m in my early 20s’ to anybody that asks; that weird in-between of being a solid-something.
- I have just finished university.
Cusk’s execution of the story reminds you that there isn’t just one way to be a writer, be a businessperson, be a certain age, be a mother, be a female. I was relieved to see that although Faye was a writer, she never seemed to be ‘writing’ in the book. And although she was a parent she had, for the time-being of the plot, been removed from the responsibility of parenting her children at a close proximity (they were staying with their father). I find it interesting that I seem to have this idea of myself as fastened to one title and one rhythm, rather than having the freedom to move between different ones. I wonder if my perception is a product of how female characters were depicted in the stories I was personally exposed to in my curriculum; or whether it’s a product of how people of colour are depicted in those stories. In Transit all these titles and rhythms are temporarily paused over Faye. Mostly in the book, she is between places. When we are not visibly active in our roles, what ‘we’ do we become? The way Cusk interrogates the empty spaces between ‘doing’ is familiar to the way you feel as a writer, living off the life of a previous story while trying to write a new one.
I finished reading Transit after spending three weeks in Tokyo and Hong Kong. I read slowly. I have other books to read now, for talks and panels and reviews and radio. It is too soon after uni to be reading books for other people, and though I enjoy it, I’m temperamental, I lose focus too easily.
I buy The White Album by Joan Didion and Airships by Barry Hannah at a market, because I want to take charge of my reading and also because they were on a table with a piece of paper announcing they were $2 each! There is a story in Airships about a couple who throw a party but people are just trickling in and out. The husband is the one narrating and is slowly realising that it is not him and his wife collectively repelling their guests, but just him. There’s a feeling of tragedy to it, the way Hannah conveys the desperateness. A winning way to write tragedy is through short fiction, how quickly it gives you the whole sadness of a perfectly ‘normal scene’ then just whips it away again. And the character is just left sitting at the window or something. Like in Carver. Carver’s Elephant has a story in it called ‘Menudo’ and at the end of the story, the man gets up out of his own bed and walks across the road to his mistress’ house in the morning. There is something miserable about tentatively walking into a house in the morning.
The way I read books is like: walking from one room into another completely different room and trying to figure out if they could fit in the same house. All the ways these different rooms argue, all the ways these rooms are similar.
There is an idea that in a short story, everything big happens in a tiny proximity to us. Last week I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ and observed it in all the ways a teacher in high school would’ve wanted us to. Adichie’s story approaches politics, culture and art perfectly. Almost the inverse of Cusk’s character, the protagonist Ujunwa is writing a short story throughout the narrative. Ujunwa is practicing writing to the point where Adichie is incepting us with the experience of a writer writing, it’s metafiction. However, the landscape around Ujunwa resists her as a writer. This creates an exact elixir for the exploration of ‘being’ and ‘not being’ as a female. At the end of the story Ujunwa confronts Edward, the white academic who consistently blankets the meaning of what being African is and disputes the authenticity of the writers’ ‘fictional’ stories, despite them all living the experiences themselves.
There is Adichie’s final line: ‘She was looking forward to calling her mother, and as she walked back to her cabin, she wondered whether this ending, in a story, would be considered plausible.’
At the end of Barry Hannah’s story the protagonist shuts himself into a wardrobe. At the end of Transit, Faye quietly leaves an isolated country house full of sleeping parents. At the end of Carver’s story, the protagonist crosses the road. At the end of Adichie’s, Ujunwa returns to her cabin, not a ‘writer’. At the end of these stories everybody returns to a safe haven whether they want to be there or not, whether it is really safe there or not—it is usually decided by the mainstream or ‘stronger’ society around them.
I wonder, if we were to compile all the endings (or places we paused in a story), all the rooms we’ve stumbled in and out of again, would we get an idea about how we’ve been experiencing our own rhythms, our own movements? Moving between the ways we classify ourselves compared to the ways we are classified by our communities: does that change the way we understand what we read and why we read?
Jamie Marina Lau is a multidisciplinary writer and artist. Her debut novel, Pink Mountain on Locust Island was published in 2018 with Brow Books.
 I’ve been keeping a list on my phone about all the book recommendations that people have casually told me. Instead of putting the name of the author, I write the title and the first name of the person that recommended it to me and where. That way, I don’t bypass it. Seeing the title of a book and its author on my phone has become something I tend to neglect because it looks so accustomed.
 The stall owner I handed a $5 note to looked at what I was taking from the table and then looked at me surprised, ‘Wow you’ve actually made a great choice.’
 Short story titled: ‘Our Secret Home.’
 I have started tutoring recently and found that the professional pressure of reading a book does not in fact repel me from the occupation the way I thought it would, but actually draws me to it. It makes me think about why it’s possibly come to me at this point in my life.