12 August 2016

Meet the Scribe Nonfiction Prize Shortlist: Deserae Horswood

In the lead up to announcing the winner of The 2016 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, we’re introducing you to every talented young writer on our shortlist.  Read on for more information on their work, writing journeys, and all their tips, tricks and advice for budding young non-fic creators.

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Deserae Horswood – My Parents’ Ashes are in the Boot of My Car

Age: 30

How did you begin writing? I have always written, but sadly academic writing has gotten far more of my attention than narrative. I only started writing creative pieces ‘seriously’ and to completion when I began a Masters two years ago. Writing courses are not the way everyone needs to or wants to or should go. But at this point – after learning and working in universities for nearly a decade – it’s possible I am so institutionalised that the only way I can do anything is through a 12-week course. It’s a major character flaw and I’m working on it.

In real life (or, at least, the part of life where I am paid) I am a researcher focused, broadly speaking, on social (in)action, structural (in)equality and, more recently, on a project working with newly-arrived refugee kids and their parents. I love it. But I’m still learning how to cram my own writing in around the edges. The balance never quite feels right.

What’s your favourite work of nonfiction? I can’t to commit to favourite. But last year I was immersed in fictocriticism for my thesis, and Maggie Nelson was Queen. The Argonauts entwines memoir, theory, art and cultural criticism. She dismantles theory, uses it to excavate the autobiographical and the autobiographical to illuminate the theory. Her writing feels fearless and generous and I think I used the word liberating to describe it more than once. Plus it’s a queer and feminist feast! The whole gang is in there: Myles, Sedgwick, Butler, Koestenbaum, Sontag too somewhere I’m sure. When I would say ‘liberating’ I predominantly meant structurally, because I was so bored of trying to write straight essays or plump realist fiction. But I think ‘liberating’ applies to that work on many levels, for many people. I carried that book with me everywhere. You should too, at least for a while.

Why do you write nonfiction? I like it the most. A lot of the time I am working with theories that reduce human experience into categorical models of behaviour – things applied at population-level. I find creative nonfiction (and, you know, Art more generally) a necessary counterpoint to that quantification. In creative non-fiction you can focus on detail, idiosyncrasy, absurdity – draw a circle around it. You can’t do that in research. You can in fiction, but I’m not brave enough/ smart enough/ tenacious enough for that.

Tell us a bit about your submission to the Scribe Prize…My submission is a series of interwoven narrative and theoretical vignettes around mourning, the performance of commemoration and the ethical mess of writing about lost loved ones. It’s also about getting drunk in Mexico with my girlfriend.

The piece centres on my parents’ ashes, but the movement of the thing follows a trip I took to Mexico for the Day of the Dead festival. Seeking is too strong a word, but I went there hoping for some insight into different expressions of mourning and a culture that celebrates ongoing relationships with its lost. We arrived, though, amidst massive social upheaval. There were nation-wide protests over the disappearance and subsequent deaths of 43 indigenous students at the hands of the police. My own grief/ naivety was thrown into sharp relief. The work questions the utility of framing personal questions at the level of the cultural; has lots of fiesta, protest, and crowd scenes; and draws no conclusions whatsoever. Because mourning is inevitably painful and horrible no matter how you frame it.

Why did you choose to write it? In grief, I was obsessed with this notion of cultural failing: ‘We don’t do death well in the West’. There is this very compelling (to me) bunch of contemporary critics who argue that mourning has been radically devalued by capitalism, postmodernism; that we have given away the slow, emotional labours of mourning and memorialisation for a culture of speed and detachment, and that this has consequences for us personally and, more importantly, politically. I was interested in this idea that we are doing it wrong.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? And the worst? The advice I put on mental loop tends to be very militant: some hybrid of ‘Do the Work’/ ‘Do Good Work’/ ‘No one asked you to start writing and no one will care if you stop’. If good advice means uplifting advice then I don’t think this is it; but I do find it oddly relieving. The best advice is surely around love of the work or generosity or deep thinking or self-respect, depending on what you need that day.

The worst? A phrase doesn’t spring to mind, more a sense gleaned from feeling out of place in too many fiction classes. The classes are filled with brilliant people, making interesting work. But there can be an overwhelming sense that only a certain kind of writing is celebrated, needed. I spent 80% of my degree trying to emulate ____ (insert any fusty old white guy from ‘the canon’ here). It takes a while to dismantle that compulsion, to generate a reference library around your own voice/tastes. I’m still doing it.

What piece of work, published or unpublished, are you most proud of? I am most proud of this work and the larger manuscript it is a part of. But I am a total noob.  I haven’t published any creative work, only academic articles which aren’t very sexy (or relevant) in the context of creative non-fiction. This Scribe entry is the first time I’ve submitted anything, so it’s very exciting to be included on this incredible shortlist.