(An excerpt from Kim Westwood’s Guest of Honour speech at Conflux, October 2011)
One of my all-time favourite books is a novel by André Norton called Catseye, in which Troy was the main character. The dog-eared copy I read when a kid, and still have in my bookshelf, mentions in the publisher’s foreword that the novel will appeal to boys. The publisher’s assumption was, of course, that we readers are drawn to stories containing primary protagonists whose gender matches ours, that identification eclipsing other reasons for reading the story. This seems a good starting point for today, as Catseye appealed mightily to me, and, I suspect, a whole generation of girls who were bored shitless by Anne of Green Gables and The Famous Five, and who were practised at putting themselves in the shoes of more adventurous characters, regardless of gender—or genre.
A good story is both escape from the world and vicarious engagement with it. Sometimes it’s comfort food; other times it’s the trepidation and visceral thrill of the roller coaster without the fear of throwing up—which makes it the perfect place to explore all kinds of anxieties. Fictional characters in difficult situations allow readers to litmus test their own mettle, and ask: What if this were me? It’s comfort and discomfiture, excitement and safe haven, combined. I read Catseye and other books like it (for instance, Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet) because they explored agency—and the struggle for it—on a grander, scarier scale than those stories set on the domestic front, so much more at stake than the petty traumas of schoolyard slights and missed teatimes. For me, parlour tales held no interest; I wanted to walk in Troy Horan’s shoes.
Which brings me, many years later, to The Courier’s New Bicycle.
In August 2008 my first novel, The Daughters of Moab, had been published, and I was starting on my next, when someone burst forth in my imagination who wouldn’t be denied. So I put aside what I thought was going to be my second novel and began to write a completely different one.
The story is set in the alleyways of inner Melbourne just around the socio-political corner from now. Melbourne is a city in recession, with rolling power outages, fuel rationing and curfews. A flu pandemic has been and gone, and the vaccine dispensed Australia-wide has caused en masse infertility. A population in crisis—emotionally, financially—creates the conditions for radical political change; in this case, the coming to power of the Nation First party, bankrolled by an evangelical group (think Hillsong without the song) called Saviour Nation.
Here I want to mention that Melbourne—the physical Melbourne—was a major inspiration for me. As far as Australian cities go, no other would have done. The story was born in those atmospheric inner-city alleyways, and every time I go back, I feel the possibility of the story all over again. That specificity of site means most of the places in the novel are findable, albeit a tad altered. Inspiration came from the people there too; for instance, the bike couriers who tempt fate every day with the traffic and pedestrians. These elements ground an imagined near future in the real and immediate. As for the premise of ordinary life utterly changed by a major event—in this case a pandemic—it’s a scenario that’s just one small step away from now.
Anyway, imagine that the previous government’s measures put in place to try to solve the fertility crisis—research facilities and hormone replacement therapy, surrogacy organisations and expanded immigration parameters—are all now banned, and petitioning God for reprieve through prayer is the only allowable substitute.
Generally, things that are banned don’t stop existing; they go underground. Prohibition invites all kinds of bootleg possibilities to flourish—including the cruel kind. In this milieu, it’s not only the once-legal hormone companies now producing and selling their wares on the black market to a desperate population, but also the barbarously run hormone farms, in league with the abattoirs and harvesting their produce from live and dead animals.
Imagine also that in this environment of fear and conservatism—this battening down of the hatches and closing of borders, reducing the community’s connection to the rest of the world—there are new measures put in place on the domestic front ‘for our own good’; measures that restrict personal freedom and impinge on civil liberties. Loss of fertility challenges a certain raison d’être—the perpetuation of the species—and in such challenging circumstances, a communally shared fear can slide easily into blame. Government sanctioned, this can make for scapegoating. In The Courier’s New Bicycle, those intent on shoring up the ‘proofs’ of their sexed and gendered selves by over-asserting their maleness or femaleness, their masculinity or femininity, viciously target those who, by appearance or behaviour or both, don’t fit the required non-intersecting binaries.
Enter Salisbury Forth: bike courier, gender transgressive and accidental sleuth.
Salisbury is the novel’s storyteller. That The Courier’s New Bicycle is told solely from the primary protagonist’s point of view means there are no pesky pronouns apart from ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘my’ to bother me, the author—which suits Salisbury, my primary protagonist, just fine. Salisbury’s identity sits right in the grey area between those entrenched binaries of sex and gender, the androgynous land where there are no adequate pronouns but a multitude of names, both retrograde and reclaimed. She calls himself a gender transgressive—a twist on the insulting label of ‘transgressor’ that the powerful conservative elements in the novel have coined for anyone seen to be outside the gender box. Sometimes he calls herself a genderbender (but only in like company). As far as biology goes, that’s a private matter, and that’s how it’s going to stay. In Salisbury’s words: “My biology is nobody’s business but my own.” Some readers aren’t going to like this. They’ll see it as wilful ambiguity on my, the author’s, part, and they’re going to want to know what Salisbury really is: girl or boy? They’re going to want to know what’s under the clothing. I, the author, am going to disappoint them. There is no big reveal, no tying of gender identity—or anything else for that matter—to some biological ‘proof’. Salisbury’s androgyny is not a disease, disorder or psychosis, and nor is it a way station on the road to somewhere else. As Del LaGrace Volcano, the gender abolitionist says: “I’m not going from A to B or B to A. I’m just going.”
Personally, I’ve long had an ambivalence to binaries of any kind. Which brings me to Venn diagrams—and genre labelling.
Unlike fractions (those sharp-edged and unyielding divisions that caused me no end of pain), the circles that I learnt about in primary school geometry class, their intersections alluringly shaded, hinted at a world with grey areas, ambiguities. These days I wonder if my fascination for Venn diagrams was because I knew from quite young that I was attracted to girls as well as boys, desire floating in an as yet unnamed place, and those grey areas speaking to me of the possibilities that might live inside me and at the interstices of things. This might explain, in part, the gravitational pull cross-genre writing—intergenre writing, as I prefer to call it—has always had on me, and one reason why I’m drawn to outsider characters who live at the borders of things and in-between places in other peoples’ books, and tend to create them in my own.
Writing, I never think of genre; I just relay the story that’s demanding to be told. The danger for fiction that crosses genre lines is that it runs the risk of not being judged on its own terms but according to the label it comes with, preconceptions firmly attached. I coined the term ‘poetic apocalyptic’ for The Daughters of Moab in an effort to flag to readers something of the style and substance of its interior: a poetic sensibility and literary bent. The Courier’s New Bicycle I call a genre amalgam, because it engages with the conventions of a number of genres rather than confining itself to any one. I also call it a fast ride, being twenty adrenaline-fuelled days in the unconventional life of Salisbury Forth.
I’m happy to say that the reviewer in Australian Bookseller+Publisher described the novel as ‘a disturbingly credible and darkly noir post-cyberpunk tale’. This quote-worthy phrase opens up the field of interest: the ‘noir’ a nod to crime fiction, the ‘cyberpunk’ to SF, and the ‘credible’ to current societal aptness. Hopefully, any or all of these elements will spur a variety of readers into wanting to know more about a bike courier and accidental sleuth who has a mystery to solve in the alleyways of a dystopian near-future Melbourne.