Laura Jean McKay is the author of Holiday in Cambodia, a short story collection that explores the electric zone where local and foreign lives meet, and that was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the Queensland Literary Award 2014.
She’s also been published in The Best Australian Stories, The Big Issue, Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and The Lifted Brow. She’s a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and the recipient of a Martin Bequest Traveling Scholarship.
I was on a panel with Laura last year for the Emerging Writers’ Festival roadshow to Canberra, and was disappointed that we didn’t have much time to chat after the event, especially because she spoke about some pretty intriguing topics, like travelling via cargo ships and the process of writing Holiday in Cambodia.
So I thought it would be an excellent idea to profile her here, to keep the conversation going and share her insights with you!
Tell me a bit about yourself – the ‘bio’ you would never submit for a literary journal or writers’ festival.
Recently, at a prominent literary prize event, I successfully hid in another author’s hair to avoid talking to someone not nice. Hiding and being seen is a bit of a delicate balance that I think many writers are after. Especially fiction writers. We spend time hiding in these characters and then, when we publish them, we need to be out and about with them too.
I spent much of my childhood on a horse farm in rural Gippsland, where I spent a lot of time shoveling horse shit or sitting on the table-top back of a brown mare, talking to her and myself. I was always very shy until I could pretend to be someone else and then I would knock people out of the way to get to the spotlight. I don’t think much has changed in that respect.
Holiday in Cambodia is a gorgeous book, that vividly paints a picture of both Cambodia, and what it means to travel or reside in a country as a foreigner. What fueled your interest in writing these stories?
Thank you! Well, in 2007 I was working for an aid organisation in Cambodia and was struck by the role of older women in the country. I started interviewing them and writing their stories. To be a woman over the age of 30 meant that they had survived genocide. Now there was HIV, corruption and limited health services, and women were often looking after grandchildren while their children worked or were too sick or had died. It was really the grandmothers of Cambodia who inspired the book. But of course, as I started writing I also met younger women, foreign women, girls, boys and men whose stories influenced mine. These stories aren’t the ones I tell, but they are the intention behind every word.
How did you balance your position as a foreigner when writing about Cambodia? Did it make it easier/harder?
It’s impossible to write about Cambodia, or any place, from the outside. I was very concerned about what I was trying to do, and asked other Cambodian writers what they thought. They said, ‘Do whatever you want. It’s great that you want to write about our country’, which was generous but still, I thought, deeply problematic. Being bookish I went and did an MA where I examined work by Cambodian and non-Cambodian writers who were writing short stories about the place. I did a lot of interviews with Cambodian writers. I found that writers are often drawn to otherness, whether that be an other place or people or otherness from within.
I also found what I already knew: that I could never write about Cambodia with the unique perspective of someone from the country, and would never want to. And so I approached the book from the perspective of the visitor, the tourist. The title Holiday in Cambodia comes from the Dead Kennedy’s song with its scathing lyrics that invite someone who thinks they know it all to Cambodia, where they’ll really find out about life and death. Even when I am writing from the perspective of Cambodian women in the book, I am writing as a foreigner to the country. It’s still problematic.
When I took the published book to Cambodia, I asked one of my favourite authors, Chakriya Pho, to launch it there. Her speech opened up a whole world of meaning that I would never have known had I not written the stories and asked for her feedback. Just as she has revealed her Cambodia to me through her work, she also shone a light on my Cambodia through her interpretation. As problematic as the stories I write may be, they are a conversation that I don’t think I could have otherwise, no matter how long I spent in the country.
I’ve heard you speak about your travels on cargo ships – can you tell us a bit about why you’ve travelled in this way, and what your experiences have been like?
The travels by cargo ship started out very simply: I wanted to challenge myself to do something environmental. I was really inspired by my partner’s (Tom Doig) environmental writing and performance. At the time I was already vegetarian, so that was out, and I am a big traveller, so giving up airplanes for a year seemed like a thing to do. I found out some things about planes: like it’s better to travel during the day and take direct flights without stop overs – both use less fuel. I also started looking at other ways to get off the island.
Being on a cargo ship was like being in a watery dream: an all-male dream where there are no vegetables, yes, but still a dream. There is something about being on a working ship and looking out and seeing nothing – nothing, but water, no land in any direction and none in sight for days, cut off from the internet, the phone – that just appeals to my everything.
Also, this is how all our stuff gets around and that is fascinating to me. Importing and exporting, it’s all happening on the ships. You wouldn’t believe the things they carry. On one ship there were race horses. I would go down (avoiding their completely bonkers trainer) and touch their soft noses and hiss plots of escape that would never ever happen. On another ship there was medical grade uranium. ‘Um … don’t go jogging near J deck,’ the captain would tell us. ‘It’s fine but … you know … uranium …’
I’ll write about ships some day. But I’m terribly slow. My mind travels at ground speed. I need to think about it for ages …
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a novel. I very secretly call it Beastie because it really is a bit of a breathing, snorting, itchy, living beast. It is both coming along nicely and extremely difficult to write. It’s about animals so thinking of it as alive works for me.
I’m doing this as part of a PhD and it’s just so damned enjoyable. Everyone has a story, a history, a feeling about animals. People send me info about books, conferences, events every other day. And there are some brilliant people writing about animals, especially in Australia – Anna Krien, Aden Rolf, Peter Goldsworthy, Eva Hornung to name just a few – so the reading is wonderful.
Favourite book you’ve read this year so far?
I have so many favorites so I’ll just go with what I love this month: Miranda July’s The First Bad Man is so weird and brave and clever. And now I’m on to the genius of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. I have hardly made a dent in this years’ Stella shortlist, so I’d better get on to that before the next pile of wonder comes out!
Anything you’d like to add?
I worked with Nou Hach Literary Association in Cambodia through an Asialink grant. They produce such stunning, multilingual work. If you’re interested in the country, this is where Cambodia is.