How do you avoid stereotypes and speak truthfully about a place?
The stereotyped identity of a place is usually not what writers are attracted to, or readers are most interested in, when they turn to the literature of place. It’s often the stories and details that subvert the stereotypes that bring about a more accurate portrayal. In seeking these out there are some fundamental aspects to place writing that have guided me. Firstly, places are dynamic and always changing, and so the relationship of place and time is always important to consider. Secondly, there’s no one definitive understanding of any place, and no representation of it is ever going to capture it in all of its complexity. And thirdly – in response to this complexity – it’s through the particular that writers can most strongly engage readers in a sense of place.
What’s your process when you write about a place – do you typically visit it and observe it, and what kinds of things do you take note of?
In writing about the local urban environment I almost always make visits to the places themselves. For the stories I write for Mirror Sydney I will usually spend at least a few hours in a place, walking around and taking notes. I will usually have a particular location that I will go in search of, but I also just walk around the area and see what I find. The kinds of details I notice in particular are those that are anachronistic and unusual, suburban landmarks and local details. I’m interested in elevating the everyday and mundane aspects of places as being as much worthy of attention as places regarded as spectacular.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve just finished up the revisions to the essays and the illustrations for my next book, Gentle and Fierce, which is due for publication with Giramondo in July. As with Mirror Sydney it’s a combination of personal essays and my drawings. It’s themed around animals and the qualities of gentleness and ferocity, examining how the presences of animals in my life have shaped my identity and my understandings of places and non-human life. I’ve been working on it for the last three years and I am very much looking forward to sharing it with readers soon.
Vanessa Berry is a writer who works with history, memory and archives. She is the author of the award-winning Mirror Sydney: an atlas of reflections (Giramondo, 2017), and the Mirror Sydney blog and podcast. She is the author of the memoirs Ninety9 (Giramondo, 2013) and Strawberry Hills Forever (Local Consumption 2007). Her new book of essays, Gentle and Fierce, will be published in 2021. She works as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Sydney.
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