23 October 2015
Spotlight On Scribe: Sam Van Zweden
This week, we’re bringing you daily Q&A’s from our Scribe Nonfiction Prize Long-listed writers. Read on for more information on their work, writing journeys, and all their tips, tricks and advice for budding young non-fic creators.
Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. Her work has appeared in Voiceworks, The Big Issue, The Victorian Writer and others. In 2015, she’s a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and Melbourne City of Literature Travel Fund recipient. She tweets @samvanzweden and blogs at samvanzweden.com
How old are you?
What state or territory do you live in?
How did you begin writing?
If we go right, right back, I wrote something about a national park for Friends of the Koalas as a six year-old. And later, a very heartfelt letter to my mum explaining that my primary school crush was bullying me. I didn’t recognise the time that I started writing the most as ‘the beginning’. As a teenager I kept journals, often writing in them multiple times a day, and at that time writing became a lifeline for me. The habit has stuck, and splintered, so that I still journal compulsively, and my writing has also become this thing I craft and share with the world. Journals as gateway drug, I guess.
Writing has been my primary tool for making sense of the world since.
Why do you write nonfiction?
I always thought I was a fiction writer, and I tried really hard to make it stick, but I felt that everything I did in fiction was way too contrived. Nonfiction, by contrast, feels much more natural. Nonfiction feels like an extension of myself – an opportunity to tease out stuff I’m thinking about anyway. A dialogue with the world. And the challenge is more about reframing what exists and filtering it through your own world-view and voice, rather than spinning it all from scratch. That’s not to say that it’s not hard work, because it’s the hardest work I’m ever going to do, and it can be truly difficult. But the stakes of nonfiction feel much higher and more immediate to me, which is both exciting and rewarding.
Tell us a bit about your longlisted Scribe submission.
‘Eating with my Mouth Open’ is a lyric essay project that looks at the climate that we’re living in, where food is viewed in a binary fashion: foodie culture vs health culture. Within my own family, one of my parents has been a chef for most of their life, and the other has been overweight and yo-yo dieting for as long as I can remember. There’s a tension between these very different experiences, which plays out in my own attitudes towards food.
This means that I have an experience which maps in a really interesting way to the cultural dialogue we’re having about food. While it’s easy to think about food attitudes as falling cleanly into one of those two binary positions, I feel like there’s more cross-over between the two than we might think, so that it becomes less binary and more blurry.
Why did you choose to write on this topic as a young writer?
The work is, in part, a response to the dominant food memoir storyline where food is presented as saviour – there are so many books which present a journey which culminates in the calm and comfort that food brings to the protagonist’s life. I feel like there’s a big portion of the population whose relationships to food are much messier and more complex than that. I’m hoping to represent the problematic flip-side as much as the comfort. Yes, food’s great for coming together and connecting, and enacting our heritage, and so many other warm and nurturing things. But what about hunger and fullness? What about craving, and bingeing, and refusal? I’m trying to engage with the ways we use food beyond fuel for our bodies, and honour the complexity of that.
How long have you been working on your submission, or where in development was your piece prior to entering the Scribe prize?
My Scribe entry started out as the creative component of my Honours thesis, which I handed in almost exactly a year ago. Since then, the focus of the work has changed; shifted, expanded. It was a completed product when I handed it in for Honours, but in the year since then I’ve been repurposing the ideas and story to become a stand-alone piece of nonfiction, which could do its own thing outside of the more formal, academic context in which it was born. It’s a vastly different beast, with quite a different intention and aim, now.
How important is Australia to you and your writing?
Australia is both incidental and entirely important to my writing.
I feel connected to and part of the writing community in Australia, and in some way that has to affect my writing. I feel supported, I have people to look up to and ask for help, and because of all that I feel like I can take risks in my work. Because of the support, I feel like writing is something I can pursue.
I don’t know that I think explicitly about Australia when I’m writing, but on reflection it does come through in my work. For example, in ‘Eating with my Mouth Open’, I’ve had to engage with the particularly Australian way of hanging onto food’s importance as an opportunity to enact migrant heritage and an easy-access entry point to multiculturalism. So while it’s not something I set out to explore, it’s always there. I’m not writing in a vacuum.
What the best and worst piece of advice that you’ve received about writing?
The best advice consistently comes from my long-time mentor and friend Laurie Steed, who always encourages me to turn and face my truth while writing. While that might sound overly cathartic or woo-woo, it often means writing the things that actually matter to me. Writing the things that are in my vision, rather than writing what I think I should be writing. It also means being present, showing up and doing the work, and honouring whatever that means or requires on any given day – being kind to myself. Fronting up to your emotional truth makes for stronger writing, no matter what form it’s in.
I also always go with one of the favourites of my Honours coordinator, who often told us to ‘Just do the things’ – again, it’s about getting to the desk and staying there and eventually getting some work out. Breaking it down into digestible chunks. Deciding on what ‘the things’ are and then ‘just doing them’ isn’t as daunting as ‘finish the essay,’ or ‘write the book’.
I don’t know if I’ve received any truly terrible advice. There’s been plenty of stuff I’ve chosen not to take on board, but even the pieces of advice that struck me as terrible obviously worked for the person trying to impart their wisdom.
What is your favourite or most influential work of nonfiction that you’ve read? How has it affected your writing?
David Shields’ Reality Hunger really shifted something in my brain. The book is a collage about the nature of nonfiction – it questions what makes a work ‘true’, and explores all those postmodern concerns around ownership, authenticity, and originality. By ‘collage’ I mean that Shields takes pieces of other people’s writing, and some of his own stuff, and mashes it all up. What’s presented is this kind of collective thought; by putting disparate ideas next to each other, the sum of those ideas starts to mean something entirely new. Shields doesn’t attribute the quotes – at least, Shields tried not to attribute the quotes. You can read the book, as intended, without attribution. The publisher (presumably for copyright reasons) insisted on the inclusion of an appendix with all the attributions. Shields suggests you grab a pair of scissors and remove the appendix from the book.
I love this book so much because it was one of the first really experimental pieces of nonfiction that I’d read, and I could feel the horizon’s creaking expansion in the distance. Through this book I came to understand that nonfiction didn’t have to be an argument, or a work that presents conclusive answers. Often the more satisfying works are those that open up and prompt more questions, rather than closing down towards a conclusion.
Reality Hunger also demonstrated something elemental in practice – the idea that you can say something meaningful by harvesting enough of the right ideas and seeing what proximity does for them. While collage and lyric essay aren’t really the same thing, they have a bit in common in that way – they’re both driven by association, essentially.
Having said that, I do check back in with Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Write Like a Motherfucker’ Dear Sugar column regularly. I find it energising.
Can you share a piece of your published nonfiction work that you’re particularly proud of?
I wrote a piece for The Big Issue (issue 385) called ‘My Brother the Chef’. I spent some time in my brother’s kitchen during service for a few nights – the agreement was that I’d observe and annotate, without interaction. When I was done, I’d leave. I was hoping to capture the heat and energy of the kitchen. What actually happened was that my brother kept feeding me while he worked. We didn’t talk, but he couldn’t help but feed me. It turned into this story about our need to connect over food. I’m proud of this piece because marks a turning point in my writing – it’s the first piece of creative nonfiction that I had published. It also involved something that most of my work now takes as necessary, which is the ability to realise that the story might not be what you want it to be, and embracing that possibility can be the smartest and most honest thing you can do for a piece.