Novellas exist in a literary culture where they are equally decried for being a blatant marketing tool or, paradoxically, completely unmarketable. The Viva La Novella competition is remarkable in that it challenges its entrants and the surrounding writing community to think about what it does as a form. It also fosters the growth of those with whom writers will inevitably form strong relationships: editors and publishers.
My own challenge in this competition was to find a book that had great potential, that the readers of the world would be better off for having read; a book, though, that also addressed a frustrating gap from my experience with Australian writing. I found an often narrow, and white Anglo/Celtic, frame of experience through which even ‘non-white’ works were inevitably filtered through or positioned against. I wasn’t looking with a basic list of boxes to check off, but I wanted to find the most original and beautiful book out of that teeming pile of submissions.
Hoa Pham’s narrator Kim, a sixteen-year-old girl living in contemporary Hanoi, is riddled with insecurities and doubt. (I won’t lie: her self-identification as the younger, less pretty sister was one that I sharply related to.) However, Kim’s near-death experience and subsequent transformation leave her vulnerable to powers far greater than those of adolescent awkwardness. Her familial relationships are complex in a messy, unresolvable way that mirrors real life, and I was drawn to this friction. I was attracted to all the frictions in this book. It presents a unique snapshot of post-war North Vietnam – including a paranormal unit that exists within the government – and there is a spiritual quest at the heart of Kim’s journey that bumps against everything it comes into contact with. Though the language Pham uses is calm, beneath the surface is a roiling liquid mass of unanswerable questions, faiths shaken and motives hidden. Through all of this, the growth of the main character quietly chugs along, barely noticeable until we are able to stop and look back.
While I felt an immediate connection to Hoa’s work, I realised very quickly that I was going to have to earn her trust. She is an extremely generous writer. She does not take the discipline of writing lightly, and she had a very clear idea of her characters and their motivations. She was also savvy, I think, to that fraught element of being edited, the idea of someone whom you don’t really know entering the story and making suggestions about the work you have spent months, maybe years, of your life perfecting. Once we passed the structural edit and were able to have a dialogue about the work, I felt that Hoa had a better sense of the way I’d be working with her. I’ve always edited as best I can on behalf of the author’s intentions. All editors do this but I know there are other, more invasive types of editing, whereas I prefer to guide the author.
One of the more curious aspects of the editing process was coming to understand what Hoa felt the book was, versus what I felt it was. I’m confident I ‘got it’. We worked together so well throughout the whole process, and Hoa was receptive to my suggestions, but more importantly she returned to her work with energy and clarity. Then, in other ways, I felt I had perhaps read something into the story that Hoa might not have seen before. This had the potential to disrupt our working relationship completely but if anything, I think it deepened it.
As an author, I think it takes a lot of time and practice to learn when to trust someone’s reading of your work and when to know that they have completely missed the point. As an editor it’s part of my job to trust the author’s vision, to an point, but it’s also equally important to question and test the limits of that vision. To hold it up to the light and see what happens. I remember moments when people have told me that my poems are x or y, or reminiscent of something or someone, and though it comes as a shock at first, it usually results in me completely renewing my understanding of what my work has been trying to do, and what it has actually been doing. We do not write for the vague and subjective other, but we cannot ignore its presence, either.
But back to Hoa Pham’s wonderful novella. Kim is the ‘good heart’ at the centre of this story, and editing The Other Shore was a rewarding and invigorating experience. When an author is able to step out of the heady, sometimes isolated process of actually writing the book, and work in a collaborative yet self-assured way, it shows their maturity and skill.
Winner of the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize
When the dead begin speaking to sixteen-year-old Kim Nguyen, her peaceful childhood is over. Suddenly everyone wants to exploit her new talent – her family, the Vietnamese government and even the spirits themselves.