Newington College Festival of Literature for 2021
In April I had the pleasure of attending the Newington College Festival of Literature for 2021. It was my first festival appearance since the easing of Covid restrictions in Sydney and a glorious way to celebrate the return of something vaguely resembling normality. Over the course of three days I delivered nine presentations: ‘Plagues and Peoples in North Korea’ for Year 11 and 12 Modern History and Legal Studies students, ‘Empire of Words: Storytelling in a Time of Crisis’ for Year 11 English, and ‘Myth, Fantasy, and Empire of the Waves’ for Year 7 English students. With Year 7 I had the pleasure of speaking to a cohort of students who had all read my novel cover-to-cover, offering a chance to dive deeply into the world of Empire of the Waves.
It was wonderful to catch up with my fellow authors in the green room, to meet the wonderful teachers of Newington, and work alongside so many book-loving students. The student journalists described my presentation about North Korean history and propaganda as “phenomenal” and followed up on the final day with a short one-on-one interview. An edited transcript may be found below.
Thank you once again to Ann Jagger and Sabine Tanase for organising such an extraordinary festival! This was my third consecutive visit to the festival and I hope I’ll be back again next time.
Interview by Newington student journalists Peter Koumoulas and Richard Bai
Photograph by Hamish Ingham
Why did you start writing?
I’ve always been a writer. Writing is just play on the page…
I like to tell the story of when I was in Year 6 and the teacher put together a special creative writing club, which was invitation only. I wasn’t invited and it was absolutely devastating. Under protest the teacher allowed me to join. The first thing we did was to enter a creative writing competition. You can probably guess the twist, which is that I won the competition. The prize was $500 worth of books each for me and the school. So there was a literary legacy on the shelves that proved the teacher made a mistake and should have let me join. My point? If you want to be a writer you have to just keep on writing, even when people doubt you. After winning, I met an amazing Australian writer, Diana Kidd, and it was a special moment for me to hear that a writer actually liked my work.
Do you have any other passions apart from writing?
So many. I’m a very passionate person who feels that life is far too short and the days are far too short. I love music, I’m crazy about cinema, and I’m always really happy to meet other people who like weird or old movies. I’m a Christian, so I’m very passionate about theology. One of my weirdest hobbies is my belief in extraterrestrial life.
So what do you think you would be if you weren’t a writer?
I can’t imagine myself as anything other than a writer. It’s really important for a writer to not think about publication too much. I didn’t start my debut novel thinking it would get published. Writing has to be a passion. Whatever life has thrown at me, I would still be writing. I love books, I love words, and I love writing. Words are central to my life.
Why were you curious about North Korea?
North Korea is a country that everyone thinks they know something about. Yet every time North Korea is in the news you see the same five stock images, the same images of marching in Kim Il Sung Square, or missiles taking off. On the other hand, you have cartoon depictions, James Bond depictions, of North Korea. So I wanted to break the wall of propaganda that was being generated by North Korea itself and also by its enemies. There’s 25 million people who live there, so I wanted to know what it was like to be North Korean.
What was the most unexpected thing that you encountered in North Korea?
Well, I’m ashamed to say this now because now I know so much about North Korea and so many North Koreans, but it was the warmth and loveliness of the people. If North Korean propaganda was as powerful as it claims to be there wouldn’t need to be so many people in political prison camps. They wouldn’t have so much surveillance and wouldn’t need to have a heavily patrolled border. There is a reason why, and that’s because there are actually 25 million individual lives there with their own stories to tell, but all we hear are the stories of the people in power.
So what you are saying is that they are putting on a fake act for tourists so they can promote North Korea?
Yes, the propaganda is a performance for us, the audience, and for the family in power. The people living in North Korea do not need to like their government, but must act as if they do. It’s an abusive relationship where someone has to perform love and affection, even if they secretly hate you, because there is no alternative.
What book are you most proud of and what was your inspiration behind it?
Empire of the Waves. I learned how to be a writer by writing this book. This book has opened so many doors for me. The two great things about being a writer is the process of writing and the people you get to meet.
Your next novel is about North Korea. Does this book help us understand more about the country?
It’s a huge responsibility to write about something that it is true. I have spent a decade thinking about North Korea and hope to do it justice. I have written a PhD on the topic, but there are only so many people you can reach through academia. Hopefully, with a novel, I can reach a wider audience. Meanwhile, more and more North Koreans are speaking for themselves. Young North Koreans in South Korea and elsewhere are coming of age and taking their place in society and telling their own stories. And that is as it should be.
What ideas do you have in the future in your writing career?
I have to do some edits on my North Korea novel, then focus on the business side of things for a while. I really want to write a sequel to Empire of the Waves. In fact, I’m working on it!