A letter to my students

Friday, 8 July 2016

‘It set him free,’ said Lee. ‘It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.’
‘That’s lonely.’
‘All great and precious things are lonely.’
‘What is the word again?’
Timshel—thou mayest.’

― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

* * *

Last night I was thinking about your graduation, and I fell asleep thinking of smoothing the world out for you. Quite literally. I had a dream in which I was ironing out white sheets – sheet after sheet, endlessly. And then I realised the sheets were the world. It is a lovely metaphor, clean and simple. But we know life is rarely either.

To use another metaphor, I wish sometimes the world was like a slot machine in which you could insert things like passion, spirit, compassion, enthusiasm, and receive your reward, neatly packaged up. But it isn’t. And to be honest with you, you probably don’t want it to be. The best things have come to me through anger, frustration, exhaustion, and sacrifice. Including this job and getting to meet and teach you.

This is a short letter; no doubt you will hear many words of advice in the coming weeks as you supposedly ‘enter’ the ‘real’ world. My view is that you are already a part of it. I hope the degree you have earned will help you navigate this world in which you live, and love, and get angry. But most of all, I hope it has given you a deeper sense of your worth. You are more than a job, a salary, or a social status marker. You are a human being. It has been a privilege knowing you, because you are such excellent human beings – flawed and fantastic like the rest of us.

Thou mayest, and thou can, and thou should – or, to use another one of my favourite lines ever, ‘To burn always with that hard gem-like flame and to maintain this ecstasy is success in life’ (Walter Pater). Don’t lose your flame, whatever you go on to do.

90s babies

Tuesday, 5 April 2016


I got highlights in my hair the other day. They are quite subtle and barely noticeable. Only I can really see them glinting beneath the layers of darker hair. They aren’t really a fashion statement, or an aesthetic choice to flatter myself. I got bored with myself (note, this is different from saying I am bored – I could do with being bored right now, too much freaking work). So I repeat, I am bored with myself. And so, I’ve been looking at photos of me, some from high school.

There are a few photos from the 90s, where I decided, for some stupid reason, to get blonde streaks. I remember the straw like texture of those bleached blonde highlights, and my shrunken t-shirts. I had two, one baby blue, one white, that I wore constantly to the point where my English teacher said to me he was very well acquainted with my belly button (note, English teachers can’t get away with saying that kind of stuff these days, but he was the best teacher, without whom I wouldn’t have done English at uni). And my hand-me-down sweatshirts and jeans from my brother and a skinny guy friend the same age as me who would give me his jeans when he knew I couldn’t afford new ones. He also gave me a black sweatshirt that I wore to death until, like all good things, it disintegrated into a mass of holes, and smelt like the pot from the lawn where we ate our lunch. RIP black, pot-smelling sweatshirt. To be fair, most of our clothes smelt like pot, you couldn’t really avoid the smell attaching itself to you in my school.

I remember how I would sit in his room and sew the bottom of the jeans, listening to Pink Floyd and Nirvana. And how we would put patches on our jeans from leftover fabric scraps stolen from our mothers. I remember the god awful clothes we all wore that made us look homeless. I remember raiding second-hand stores, because they were all the rage, and really, because they were all we could afford. I remember wearing them while watching Rage on TV (Aussies, you know what I mean – ahh, the nostalgia!). Fashion was utterly terrible, and also, utterly easy in the 90s for me. I often wonder whether it’s harder to be a teenager now – it seems like so much work. Whereas what we had was bad haircuts, bad bleached hair with dark eyebrows. I had purple lipstick that smelt like rubber. Shrunken t-shirts, and lots of flannel. Hand-me-down jeans. The same pair of Doc Martens.

Long live grunge. I may lighten my hair more noticeably. I may also go on a Nirvana binge. Go on 90s babies, join me.





(Image credits: Image 1; Image 2; Images 3-5.)


Saturday, 27 February 2016


I bought this painting by the artist Tali today. It was an impulse purchase. I’m not given to buying things impulsively, as living for so many years with little money means I tend to spend ages thinking about every little purchase I make, even when I’m now on a full-time salary. But I bought it impulsively for two reasons. The first one is because things are quite terrible right now, from all ends, and it made me feel better, momentarily. But secondly, and more importantly, because the girl in the painting is the exact image of how I pictured a fictional character I loved when I was a teenager.

I remember reading a book when I was a teenager, visiting my relatives in Israel, who had black hair and was falling in love with a Russian immigrant. I remember one passage in which she was eating soup and he pulled her black hair from her soup. The perfect material for a teenage crush. But I was equally in love with her as I was with him (as you can only be when you are a teenager). The expression in the girl’s eyes is something I love too. It’s not often you come across a visual manifestation that aligns with a readerly one created by your mind. But when it happens, it feels like magic. This is reason enough to buy a painting, I think.

I hope that when I receive her in the mail, she will make me feel better – like anything is possible, and like big problems have solutions, and like magic is not lost in my life.


Thursday, 31 December 2015


Each time I visit this blog it is with a sense of guilt and sadness. I wonder if I should just remove it and let it die a dignified end, or leave it here to linger slowly. Until I decide, it is stuck in limbo.

Well, 2015 is nearly over. I am proud of many things I did this year, including contributing two poems to this poetry book collection, being a finalist for ELLE magazine’s 2015 Talent Writing Competition, signing a book contract, adoring my niece (even though I had nothing to do with her creation, I feel my adoration is an achievement in itself), giving talks at the BFI and The National Theatre, sponsoring more donkeys and a puppy, getting to know colleagues better, occasionally going out on a date despite myself, signing up for ballet classes (a recent venture), making my English home a bit more cosy and me, perfecting the art of chicken soup, visiting The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, receiving messages, emails, cards and spoken thank yous from students, not dying from marking every spare moment of my existence, and hopefully, being a decent person (with the occasional lapses).

This list does not, of course, take into account the many days in the past year I wanted to give up, was so tired I couldn’t even bother to eat, felt stress caving in around me, experienced loneliness like never before, and questioned every one of my life choices. I would like to suggest 2016 will be easier, but I live under no such delusion. Resilience, I’m learning, is as much a skill as writing.

Take care friends, I hope you see this year out safely. And I leave you with a final request for 2015. I’m fundraising for Yad Vashem, to help raise money that goes towards recording Holocaust survivors’ testimonies. It costs $1,500 to record just one testimony, and these are of vital historical importance. Yad Vashem primarily relies on public donations and support rather than government funding, and so I urge everyone to please donate and spread the word. There will be a permanent link on my blog sidebar for this soon.

Be kind, 2016.


Sunday, 23 August 2015






Last night I celebrated Havdalah with a bunch of great people by going on a small boat cruise on the River Soar. Havdalah is a Jewish religious ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and begins the new week. We often conclude it by saying ‘shavua tov’ – ‘have a good week’. The distinction between Shabbat, the day of rest, and the working week, is becoming increasingly important to me. I’m also realising how much common sense there is to the spiritual practices that I’ve taken for granted.

I think in academia in particular, there is a tendency to conflate your identity, who you think you are and your sense of self, with your job. But I am not a job. I am not very good though at making this distinction all the time, just like I’m not very good at maintaining the distinction between the day of rest and the working week. I am a workaholic, and this is not news to anyone who knows me. If you’ve been fighting for a particular job for so many years, once you do get it, there is a tendency to ‘pay back’ your gratitude via overworking. But ultimately, as I’ve found, this is counter-productive to doing this job well. A job only works as a job when you learn to maintain perspective about it.

This made me think of a couple of things last night. Firstly, a comment I saw on a friend’s Facebook post (I hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning it here): this comment described how Rabbi Abraham Heschel argues that religion begins from wonder, and that this wonder is integral to ethics in our lives. I do remember discussing this a few years ago with someone. Interestingly, it made me think of Susan Sontag’s famous line that, ‘Cinema began in wonder’.

Last night, as I was watching the calmness of the water and sunset with a glass of Kiddush wine in my hand and a man playing the guitar next to me, I thought of both of these wonders. I wondered if my natural inclination towards researching cinema within my academic discipline and job is related to my wonder at basic things about the world: how is the water this calm and still, how is someone able to play the guitar this well, how is the rain this beautiful from the confines of a boat, and why do I find so much wonder in a religion that I simultaneously interrogate with that same curiosity that drives my research?

Okay then, maybe my job and my life are connected, integrally. Maybe it’s naive to think I can separate the day of rest from the working week so neatly and philosophically. But maybe that day of rest exists to remind me of that wonder, and so I need to protect it, even in small ways.

Two things

Saturday, 15 August 2015

What’s this, I hear you say, another blog post only a few days after the last one? Actually, you’re probably not saying that because nobody reads this blog any more (or blogs in general, apparently, and sadly).

Anyway, if you are reading, my last two readers, I have to bring to your attention these two things, about which I have little add, because they are eloquent on their own.

Oliver Sacks: Sabbath

The last paragraph in particular makes my heart ache:

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

On my new lifestyle

“I’m not that kind of woman, I want to say to the people who look at me as if I am a woman with a dog in a bag. I want to gesture, to explain, but they’ll probably look at the bag, which has a dog’s head sticking out of it. The face of the dog-head will be making an expression like Andy Rooney would make if he was riding the subway in a bag. And the fact of that dog-head will surely trump anything I have to say about what kind of a woman I am, or what kind of dog I have in a bag, even though it is not a dog that was born for a bag. So I won’t say it. I’ll just pet the dog in my bag and think: I guess I’m not so afraid of commitment.

(Jean writes posts that hide so much warmth and intelligence behind humour. Or should I say, not hide, but display them through humour?)

Jean also has a newsletter you should totally sign up for.

The Aussie literary scene

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

When I lived in Perth, there would be the odd phone call from Eastern states companies calling at what were obscene times of the day in Perth. You’d never believe the degree of surprise, cluelessness, or simply thoughtlessness in response to the annoyance they received on the line from someone who happens to live in Perth and does not share the same hour of the day as them. ‘Why are you angry?’ Err, because Australia does not revolve around Eastern states clocks and perhaps you should have checked the time difference before waking me up (especially if you’re a professional business – act like it)? It’s a simple gesture to check what time it is in the city you are calling, my life revolves around this act now that I live in England; my life has always revolved around this act living in Perth, whether I was trying to contact someone in another state/city, or another country.

I also remember listening, numerous times, to my parents’ own frustration on the line with Eastern states companies. Many companies within Australia don’t ship standard art supplies (and numerous other products) to Perth, did you know that? Since my parents own an art business, I do. I’ve listened many times to their conversations with companies, with lines such as ‘you are aware Perth is part of Australia, aren’t you’, being sarcastically trotted out. Who could blame them. This is not even mentioning event organisers who refuse to acknowledge you exist as an artist because you don’t live in the Eastern states, as my mother has found out too many times.

We’re not talking about simply the logistics of geography. Sure, Australia is a huge country and Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world. Businesses, rightly or wrongly, make business decisions that often cut us off from the rest of Australia (and the rest of the world) to save money (I’m pointing the finger at you, Qantas). Capitalism is as capitalism does. But I’m also talking about a wider issue here – a cultural, artistic and national definition of what it means to be Australian and who is included in that discussion.

Let’s look at the jokes about Perth. Hands up if you’ve grown up in Perth and went to the Eastern states, only to hear the smug, self-congratulatory jokes about your ‘backwater’ of a city and its bogan inhabitants? Look, we Perthites also make these jokes, but we make them lovingly. Even when my friends and I legitimately and seriously critique the problems in Perth, we do so from a position of knowing the city and its people and wanting it to be better because we love it and have grown up there. It is a little bit different when it comes out of the mouths of others.

We all know the problems in Perth: the lack of jobs, the lack of opportunities, the ridiculously high cost of living, the insular attitudes. These are problems faced Australia-wide, yet we are rarely included in the wider national discussion about them, as if this insignificant ‘backwater’ has nothing to add. Economically though, it was fine to ride on the back of our mining boom. You’d understand then why so many in Perth felt this stank of hypocrisy. I find this hypocrisy about as productive or intelligent as the old ‘Sydney vs. Melbourne’ as ‘best city in Australia’ debate. Let me remind you, there are more than two cities in Australia – it is, as I said, a huge country with diverse people.

All of this is a way of introducing a more specific topic within this wider one. I’ve been having long and thoughtful email conversations with writer friends in Perth about the concept of the ‘Aussie literary scene’. More specifically, about how much harder Perth writers have to work just to get their foot in the door with the holy grail of the Eastern states literary scene, where most of the writing gigs and publishing opportunities tend to be. Whether this is acknowledged outright or simply implied, let’s face it, our literary scene is dominated by writers primarily from the Eastern states. Or at least, it is so in the public imagination and ideological conception of the Aussie literary scene, if not in actual statistics. For example, Melbourne is highly regarded as a literary, cultural and artistic centre; Perth is regarded as a cultural backwater. Perhaps these stereotypes have a reason and a truth to them. But they are also recreated and perpetuated by individual and collective practices of writer and editorial communities within the Eastern states.

What do I mean by this? I can only direct you to the lived experience of writers I know in Perth, and a little bit of my own. They fall into the headings of geography, perception and convenience.

Geography: Put simply, a writer growing up in the Eastern states has more opportunities over one in Perth. Being a writer is not easy wherever you happen to live in the world, I think we can all agree on that. But for an Australian writer who wishes to stay in Perth, it’s slim pickings. Not just because Perth itself needs to more aggressively and passionately develop its own literary scene, but also because editors, writers and literary communities in the Eastern states tend to function through cliques that perhaps unwittingly or unthinkingly privilege Melbourne and Sydney writers, and you often feel like the uncool kid in school trying to join the cool gang (and pathetically taking the bread crumbs where they fall). I’m not saying this to be mean or to suggest that I’ve not had supportive and excellent relationships with Eastern states writers and editors. In fact some of my own life experience would negate what I just wrote. But my life experience is just that, only mine.

The geographical politics of this is that Australian literature has, in my opinion, narrowed in focus to the experiences of those who live in certain parts of Australia. I see the same voices in literary magazines and journals. I see the same types of people getting freelancing gigs and columns by media outlets. I see the same people talking to each other online (and if you join in their conversations, there isn’t the same level of intimacy because you are not really part of their community). I worry that geographical distance is making our literary scene insular – and insularity is a problem that I see facing Australians in general. We have to fight it because we are actually so smart and talented. We really are.

Perception: I don’t generally think Australian editors and writers think of you any less or are less willing to give your work a chance, individually speaking, simply because you are not from the Eastern states. In fact, I find the idea quite silly. However, I do think many work under (what I hope is!) an unintentional perception of what literature and writing are based on the instinctual intimacy and knowingness that comes from working with people who share your life experiences and your immediate world.

The terrain of your city, even your suburb or individual home, is its own little universe. The terrain of your Australianness is likewise its own diverse thing. It is human nature to reach for the familiar, for those who reflect your world to you. I do the same too. I also try to challenge myself with the opposite, but this is a conscious act that requires hard work and requires risks. This relates to the next issue of convenience.

Convenience: I’ve been an editor, and still am one. When you have a million deadlines, when you need to get an issue out, when you have other projects of your own you need to attend to, it is so much simpler to fall back on your ‘go to’ writers. I see nothing wrong with this. I’ve become one of those ‘go to’ writers for some of my editors, and let me tell you, I worked damn hard to reach this position – I’ve proven myself. You establish those relationships through hard work, mostly. But I don’t live in a fairy tale of meritocracy where I don’t realise that privilege and convenience come into play too. It requires a conscious, dedicated and responsible effort on the part of editors to not simply give new voices a chance, but to actively seek them out and encourage them, even when they are hiding or hidden. If you are not willing to do that as an editor, you have no business being one. You are doing yourself, your writers, your community and your readers a disservice.

I understand that if you are an editor in Melbourne, for example, it’s just easier to reach for your Melbourne writers, whom you’ve probably known for years, whom are now your friends, whom you went to university with, whom you see at regular literary events and parties, with whom you socialise and share ideas and have coffee and watch your kids grow up. Writers in Perth, or other Australian cities, cannot compete with that, and we know that. We know we have to break the barrier of convenience and perception in order to get our foot in the door. Perhaps some of us give up too easily; but perhaps there needs to be a wider gap in the door. Perhaps convenience is the killer of diversity.

There’s a part of me that feels bad in writing this, mainly because people have been incredibly kind to me (even when I didn’t deserve it), have given me chances, and have allowed me to get my foot in the door. There was also a lot of shit behind the scenes, but I won’t go there because it’s irrelevant now. I don’t seek to create an ‘us vs. them’ debate here. Only to speak honestly about some things that concern me. I feel emotionally and professionally invested in Australia, even if I live in England now. I feel we are so much better than we think we are. So maybe we should be having these difficult conversations more often. After all, we critique that which we love most.