The Goddess of Kathmandu has finally arrived! My long awaited novel is now available for pre-order through your favourite on-line bookstore. It will be released on 14 January 2021, but if you would like to pre-order a copy please follow the link.
Turning 50, facing redundancy from a job she loves, unexpectedly single – 2018 was a big year for Lara Gordon. But a brief conversation with a stranger made her think about the possibility of living her life in a different way. A few months later, with her possessions in storage and a ticket to Nepal, she embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.
Lara plunges into Nepal’s bustling capital Kathmandu, experiencing the highs and lows of life in a culture far removed from her comfortable existence in Melbourne. Along the way she learns to speak Nepali, learns about meditation in a Buddhist monastery, treks to Mount Everest base camp, and falls in love. But it is a chance meeting with a Nepali woman with a fascinating past that has the biggest impact on Lara, leading her to rethink what it means to find your way in the world as you grow older.
Lara’s journey from the corporate world in Melbourne to an apartment in shadow of Kathmandu’s Boudhanath Stupa is a fascinating exploration into what can happen when you decide to dramatically alter the course of your life. If you enjoyed Eat Pray Love or The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul you will devour this book!
Books about the craft of writing typically fall into two camps; those which focus on the detail and technical aspects of writing, such as punctuation, point-of-view, or narrative; and those which take a more meta-view, such as inspiration, creating a distinctive voice, or story structure.
25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way appears at first to fall into the first camp. Its very title tells you that author and English professor Geraldine Woods is concerned with what she considers the building block of any writing (fiction, non-fiction, prose or poetry), the sentence. But I soon discovered that this book also encourages readers to think about the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’. What are you trying to achieve with your writing, and how might carefully crafted sentences help you achieve it?
In each of the 25 chapters she highlights a sentence exemplifying the point she wishes to make, for example repetition, cross-over, exaggeration, onomatopoeia, etc. Each chapter ends with a series of exercises for the writer to practice the new-found skill.
As a writer, I found this book the perfect combination of inspiration and instruction. It encouraged me to experiment with word order, with word choice, with punctuation even. While I recognised many of the examples given in the book as beautiful, or compelling, or memorable sentences, Geraldine Woods explores what makes them this way, and how you can apply similar techniques to your own writing.
For anyone who wants to improve their writing, or enhance their reading pleasure, I highly recommend this book.
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Searching for Charlotte – The Fascinating Story of Australia’s First Children’s Author
by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell
Kate Forsyth is one of my favourite authors, although I had only previously read her historical fiction novels. This account of Kate and her sister Belinda’s great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson is the best sort of non-fiction. Part family history, part biography, part mystery, part travel memoir, part colonial history of early Sydney. I devoured this book in one sitting and it didn’t disappoint.
As Kate so beautifully writes in the final chapter:
Charlotte Waring Atkinson was just an ordinary woman. She loved a man and gave birth to children, then tried her best to raise them and care for them, even though she was ground down by grief and harmed in both body and spirit by cruelty and violence. She fought for her children, she found her voice, and she stood up and spoke out at a time when many women were kept mute.
If you are interested in the learning about the life of an ordinary yet remarkable woman in early Sydney, written with all the skill and prose of a work of fiction, I highly recommend Searching for Charlotte.
It is July. Los Angeles is bright, hot, frantic. Long days driving along scalding freeways to photo shoots, flashing cameras, beautiful people draped in beautiful clothes.
Long bright nights too. Star-studded parties, shot glasses glowing fluorescent, frantic music, the hot, swirling bodies of strangers on the dance floor.
Light behind my eyelids as I fumble for the snooze button, the brilliant white smile of the server in the drive-thru coffee booth. ‘Have a nice day.’
There is no blackness in my life any more. I left that in Australia as easily as shedding a skin. No, Los Angeles is all lightness.
‘Come at three o’clock,’ says the agent. ‘Harper’s Bazaar want you to style the shoot.’ I still thrill at the words ‘fashion stylist’. Me, a girl from Western Sydney.
The studio has built in strobes in the ceiling to light the white cyc wall. Racks of jewel-coloured clothes line one wall and studio assistants with clipboards glide past as if on casters. A stubbled man with heavy-rimmed glasses sets up his camera equipment and tests light levels. The atmosphere crackles with energy, like the air before a thunderstorm.
I take out my brief and read the names of the actors we are shooting for the magazine cover. Scott Wolf, Matthew Fox, Neve Campbell. ‘Hey Joey,’ I catch one of the clipboard-holding men by his elbow. ‘What TV show are these actors from?’
‘Party of Five, the one with the kids who become orphans after their parents are killed in a car crash. You know it?’
A cloud moves across the sun. I know this show.
It was July. Wind and rain from the thunderstorm lashed against the fibro walls of our house while the eucalyptus tree creaked and moaned in the back garden. I knelt on the back of the sofa and pressed my face to the windowpane. Condensation ran down the glass in tear-like rivulets and gathered in freezing puddles on the sill. My baby brother grabbed at my legs and whined. Biscuit crumbs had stuck to the snot trailing from his nostrils.
A car swung into our driveway, headlights slicing twin blades through the darkness. At last! I dropped the curtain, heaved the deadweight of my brother’s compact body onto my narrow, adolescent hip and called up the stairs to my older sister. ‘Melody, Mum and Dad are home.’ She stuck her head over the balustrade, long blond hair casting a shadow across her face.
The doorbell rang. Why were Mum and Dad ringing the bell? And why were they driving my Aunt’s car, rather than our family Holden? Melody looked down at me, her perfect features unconcerned. ‘Aren’t you going to let them in?’
My brother wriggled free and toddled to the door but I remained frozen at the foot of the stairs. Time slowed to the beat of a metronome and everything took on a heightened quality, as if I needed to remember the events unfolding in those minutes.
The doorbell rang again but rather than answer it I turned and walked into the kitchen, my movements mechanical. A block of mince was defrosting on the bench where Mum had left it hours earlier. ‘Just popping out to pick Dad up from work, love. Be back in 20 minutes.’ Bloody liquid had leached from the plastic covering and formed a puddle on the formica benchtop. I stood staring at it for what seemed a very long time.
Urgent knocking at the door. My brother’s whines. My Aunt’s voice as my sister lets her in. ‘Oh darling…’
I jabbed a finger into the grey mince, piercing the clingfilm with my nail. The outer layer was warm and pliable, but as I probed deeper my fingertip touched its cold solid heart. How did Mum transform this lump of meat into spaghetti bolognaise? I was fourteen, she should have shown me by now. Panic rose in my chest. I was only fourteen! There was so much more I needed to know before I became a grown-up. Why hadn’t Mum taught me yet?
I felt warm hands on my shoulders and my Aunt’s voice in my ear. ‘Erin, darling. Come into the lounge.’ I wiped a bloody finger on my jeans, then let my Aunt guide me to the sofa and lower me beside my sobbing sister.
Because every story needs a dog
Inspired by a young American woman I studied with in Nepal, Megan, I have decided to introduce a new character to the second draft of my novel. Her name is Kuku and she is a tan and white stray puppy.
The puppy followed Lara past the snake temple and onto the main road. Sometimes it fell behind to sniff at something interesting in the gutter, then trotted to catch up with her again.
‘Go on, get home,’ she told it two or three times, but the puppy just wagged its tail and scampered alongside her. She gave up and tried to ignore it.
She passed the shop selling mobile phones from dusty cabinets then the butchers shop, really just a tin shed open on one side to the street. Freshly killed chickens with their heads still attached were suspended on hooks from the low ceiling. A woman was haggling over a slab of buffalo meat while the butchers mate, a skinny teenager, flicked away flies with a bloodstained rag. A pair of goats were tethered to a post outside, obliviously chewing on some meagre weeds. Only meters away their friend’s skinless flanks lay bleeding onto a wooden chopping block. A motley group of stray dogs lurked around the entrance, hoping to be thrown a scrap. The metallic smell of blood mingled with diesel fumes. Lara put her hand over her mouth and nose and crossed the road.
She heard a low growl and looked back over her shoulder. A large un-neutered male had its ears down and was crouched low on the footpath, baring it’s teeth at something in the mobile shop’s doorway. Just as well she had crossed the road, the dog looked vicious and who knew what diseases it carried.
A flash of tan and white caught her eye. The puppy, huddled in the shop doorway trying to make itself as small as possible as the large dog closed in. Why didn’t it run back the other way?
The shop keeper came out and raised his fist, trying to shoo the puppy away. It cowered further into a corner. He yelled again then aimed a sharp kick at her rear.
‘Oi!’ Lara shouted at him. ‘Don’t do that.’
He ignored her and went back into his shop, leaving the puppy whimpering on the footpath. The stray dog bared its yellow teeth and growled and snapped at the puppy. It’s solid back was covered in scars and patches of fur were missing.
Lara watched, heart thumping. The puppy looked so small and vulnerable. Would the butcher’s stray rip its tiny body to pieces? Everyone else was going about their business, seemingly unconcerned by the puppy’s plight. Why weren’t they doing something? Somebody had to act. She ran back up the uneven footpath until she was level with the mobile shop, then crossed the road. Not taking her eyes off the growling stray, she crept up behind the puppy and snatched it up in one quick movement. She tucked it into the folds of her jacket and started to back away.
The dog bared its teeth and lunged towards her ankle. She jumped back but it kept advancing. The puppy trembled against her.
Thwack. The butcher came out of his shop with a broom and hit the stray across its solid back. It sounded like a rug being beaten and a cloud of dust rose from its mottled coat. It gave one last bark in Lara’s direction then loped away.
Lara weaved between motorcycles and taxis to the opposite side of the road. Her heart was pounding and her hands shaking. She felt something warm and wet against her skin and looked down. A wet patch of urine had soaked through her jacket.
‘$400 at the Patagonia shop in Melbourne, and now it smells like dog pee.’ She opened her jacket and the puppy stared up at her. ‘What are we going to do with you then?’
* * *
‘It looks like you have adopted a kukura.’ Amrita pointed to the puppy who was sitting just outside the tea-stall, waiting for Lara to finish her lesson.
Amrita wrote कुकुर on Lara’s notepad. ‘It’s Nepali for dog. See how it looks like two puppies sitting side-by-side?’
‘So it does, but I haven’t adopted her. Just took her to a vet clinic to get wormed and have her eye infection treated. She waits for me outside Tensing’s and we walk to school together. She’s so cute, when I come out of class she is still there and we walk home together. And since I’ve been feeding her she isn’t as skinny. It’s amazing how much better she looks than a week ago.’
‘Sounds like you’ve adopted her,’ Amrita teased. ‘What have you called her?’
‘I’ve just been calling her “Pups”,’ admitted Lara. Naming the puppy would have made her responsible for her well-being, and Lara had no intention of adopting a stray dog off the streets of Kathmandu.
Amrita shook her head in mock dismay. ‘You have to give her a name!’
Sensing she was being talked about the puppy lifted her head and wagged her tail.
Lara thought. ’Hey Kuku, do you think Amrita’s right and that I need to give you a proper name?’
‘Kuku,’ said Amrita. ‘Yes, I think it suits her.’
Kuku wagged her tail then lay her nose on her paws.
The Australian Writers Centre had a little challenge this month. Write a 29 word story based the the premise “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
Here is my entry “Pregnant Pause”
Same party, same colleague, 12 months later, “wow, you’ve lost a lot of weight!”
I have returned from Nepal and are starting to work through the pile of books I bought back, the first being Yak Girl by Dorje Dolma.
Yak Girl is the first-hand account of growing up in an extremely remote part of Nepal. At the tender age of six Dorje is responsible for tending the family’s goat herd. I am in equal parts admiring and horrified as she single-handedly crosses freezing rivers, fights off wolves and endures snowstorms at an age when my own children were not allowed out of the front garden by themselves.
A wonderful book to read with a glass of red wine on a winter’s night in Sydney.
Being back in Kathmandu is re-sparking my creativity. Despite a heavy workload and the extra challenges of living in a developing country, I find I am writing more than I do in Sydney where everyday life is easier but more familiar. So how do I spark my creativity in everyday life?
The answer came to me while exploring the contemporary art exhibits at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and discovering the striking sculpture La Mariee (“The Bride”), by Niki de Saint Phalle. La Mariee reminded of Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham, who in turn reminded me of the haunting image of the Patan Kumari who appears in my novel The Goddess of Kathmandu. Making links and creating new and unexpected connections between objects or ideas, whether new or familiar, can spark creativity.
Extract from The Goddess of Kathmandu
Steeling myself, I push open the door and enter a dark, windowless room, the only light coming from a small silent black and white television perched atop a dresser. The walls are exposed brick and painted rusty-red and a thin layer of dust covers all the surfaces. I look around the room but cannot see anyone. Maybe the Kumari is not here I think with a wave of relief, about to return to Ma and Ba in the living room downstairs. But I hear the rustle of fabric and see that someone is sitting on the opposite side of the room, like a black widow spider crouched in her web.
She is dressed completely in red—a red chiffon dress reaches all the way to her feet which are sitting in a tarnished bronze plate, a large red tika and third eye covers her broad forehead, and red fabric flowers adorn her hair, which even in the dim light I can see is thin and patchy where years of being bound in tight top-knot have caused her hairline to recede and clumps to fall out.
In 2016 I spent a month in retreat at Kopan Monastery learning about Buddhism and meditation. I wrote this short piece after watching the sun setting over Kathmandu, and it became the catalyst for my novel The Goddess of Kathmandu.
In the distance, past the rooftops of Kathmandu, the Himalayan foothills were various shades of dusky rose fading into soft grey. The last rays of the setting sun coloured the whispery clouds on the horizon translucent pink, but everything else—the sky, hills, valley, and city—looked soft and plush as velvet.
I wondered if I should try to capture the view on my camera, but instead decided to just enjoy the moment. Earlier in the week we had received a teaching on mindfulness, and I wanted to put theory into practice. I closed my eyes and observed each sense in turn: chanting monks; sandalwood incense; the sweet spicy milkiness of masala chiya on my tongue; and the cool breeze coming up the hillside to where I sat on the terrace.
The tranquillity was broken by the slapping sandals and flapping robes of a flock of young monks running through the compound. They should have been preparing for theology exams like their more serious classmates but seemed more interested in having fun. I opened my eyes and noticed that perched immediately below me, on the rooftop of one of terraced sleeping quarters which dropped steeply down the hillside from the tea house, was a lone novice. With his maroon robes spread around him he looked like a large colourful crow and I smiled at the thought of him flying in and landing there. This diligent young man had found a quiet refuge and was reading his dharma text in the fading light. I wondered if he too was awed by the beautiful scene before them, or if he had seen it so often he didn’t even notice any more. The flock of doves living beneath the eaves of one of the monastery buildings swooped and turned against the dimming sky. I was somehow certain they were doing this purely for pleasure, and noticed that the young monk had forgotten his books and, like the doves and myself, was watching the dusk close in.
I had been looking forward to visiting Pashupatinath since my arrival in Kathmandu. A centuries-old complex of over 500 temples, ashrams, and shrines spread across a stretch of the sacred Bagmati River five kilometres from Kathmandu’s city centre, Pashupatinath is the most significant Hindu site in Nepal and a UNESCO listed heritage area. But this is also a temple with the atmosphere of death; an atmosphere that is present in every ancient stone and ritual .
Looking back across the river to the ghats and the cremation pyre, now well alight and crackling with twisting flames and thick black smoke, it felt as if I had been plunged into an archaic and horrific time when bodies writhed and sizzled and demons were never far from view. It seemed like a monastery tapestry depicting Samsara, the hell-realm of Buddhism, had been unfurled over the landscape of this ancient and holy site beside the banks of the Bagmati River.
Imagine, if you will, that on one part of the tapestry deities called preta or hungry spirits wander a barren landscape littered with tombs, some closed and crumbling, some broken open to expose human corpses in various states of decomposition. The hungry ghosts – grotesque figures with huge heads and minuscule mouths, bloated stomachs and stick-like arms and legs – stoop close to the ground like the dogs who snivel and growl at their heels. And if you look closer at the tapestry you will see that the hungry spirits are feasting on the corpses, one holding a skull in his lap while claw-like fingers prise out a juicy eyeball from its socket, another sucking the sinew off a thigh bone. But even after their ghastly meal the hungry spirits’ appetites are not sated, for they are destined to live in continual hunger. And so they return to their dwellings, holes in the ground filled with urine and faeces, to continue their endless suffering.
In another part of the tapestry you see depicted a hell called the Evil-Seeing Place. This is where those who have harmed children receive their agonies. They are condemned to see their own children fall into this place of suffering to be tortured by demons; iron rods and gimlets thrust into their genitals, intestines burned with molten metal poured into their bodies through their anuses to emerge again through their mouths. These physical and mental sufferings continue unabated for countless thousands of years.
Shrouded bodies, burning pyres, shrieking monkeys – perhaps Pashupatinath was Samsara.