Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Category: News

On encouragement…keep writing

Readers are hungry for ‘a good story well told’  as publishers often say.

But what is a good story? And how do we know if it’s been well told?

In the late 1990s I started sending out short stories by the mail. A thick returned envelope was a bad sign. The story was rejected. A thin letter – hooray. Occasionally the words Keep writing were scrawled across the rejection slip. I now know this was a ‘good rejection’. Back then, I was puzzled.

Keep writing? Did it mean the story wasn’t any good? It certainly hadn’t made the cut. Or did it need a little more work. Or another theme. A different plot line. Less characters. A punchier opening/ending. Perhaps I’d sent it to the wrong place. Or was it a good idea poorly delivered? Or vice versa.

These days I think keep writing means just that. Keep writing. But behind those two words lie others. Keep learning, reading, editing, rewriting, trying to improve. Keep working away at your sentences (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.)

Keep making each piece is as good as it can be, as Priscilla Long says in her focused and practical workbook The Writers’ Portable Mentor. Because, as she points out, we only have an ‘allotted time’ at the keyboard. Life’s too short to put out lazy work. You could say The Portable Mentor doubles as The Portable Encourager.

The long and hilly writing path can be bereft of encouragement. If/when it does appear, I soak it up. Whether it’s a kind comment from a reader, or a piece picked up for publication, or someone in the writing world opening a door, or a positive review – encouragement can be a life saver when (like many writers) we spend a lot of time splashing about in a sea of doubt.

A few weeks ago my novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted on for the 2016 MUBA prize – for books that ‘haven’t received enough attention’. It didn’t win the MUBA, but it was as if my novel gave the literary equivalent of a high kick before shuffling off the stage.

I’ve learnt to savour ‘good rejections’, to learn from them, to apply them as a balm against the inevitable stinging ones.

Above all, encouragement in all its forms, refuels this writer to… keep writing.

Here’s a recent Q&A and review of The Floating Garden by Lisa Hill on her excellent blog ANZlitlovers.

Emma Ashmere’s debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.

The Floating Garden shortlisted for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016

Very happy my novel The Floating Garden is on the shortlist for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016 – alongside books by Patrick Lenton, Christopher Currie, Marcus Westbury.

It’s such a great award.

For more see Chad Parkhill’s excellent post on the Emma Ashmere The Floating Garden Coverhistory, motives, and criteria for the award from the Kill Your Darlings blog. (He was one of the judges last year.)

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the years whether writing short stories, novels, or non-fiction – it’s to just keep on reading and writing!

Writing Outside Youth: Two Uneasy Pieces by Janet Frame and Ali Smith

janet frame PortraitBlogMay2016 121 (2)

A few months ago I was asked to choose a favourite piece of writing that captured ‘the essence of youth’. This got me thinking about being a writer of a Certain Age who occasionally writes younger characters, and the process of drawing on – or strategically remembering and forgetting – the ‘other country’ of my youth. The young characters who grip me in fiction are usually outsiders, so I turned to two of my favourite writers to see how they do it.

Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’ dazzles because it’s about being young and old – literally – at the same time. In Janet Frame’s short story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’, the protagonist is probably younger than ‘youth’, but there’s a link between the two stories – the moment these characters discover they don’t fit in and are forced to make a decision about what that means.

Here are my thoughts on these two uneasy pieces.

‘Writ’ by Ali Smith

There’s a razor sharp exchange about the vantage point of age in Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’. A middle-aged woman finds her fourteen-old self scuffing about her book-lined house, lolling in front of the blaring television, perfecting the art of looking needy, bored, and beautiful. There’s so much to say – and not say – to this girl as she smirks, shrugs, advances, and retreats.

For a moment they find a patch of common ground when they talk about the Romantic poet John Keats whose writing she’s/they’ve studied at school. But the chasm soon opens up again. ‘He did die unbelievably young, you know,’ says the woman. The girl fires back, ‘No he didn’t … He was twenty-five or something.’

This is trademark Ali Smith, snapping the elastic of time and place, thrusting a two-way mirror between the other and the self. Just when you think she’s writing about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all youth – you begin to suspect it’s more about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all middle age.

‘Writ’ appears Ali Smith’s 2009 collection The First Person and Other Stories.

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‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ by Janet Frame

When it comes to crystallising the tensions between individuality and conformity, belonging and alienation, loyalty and betrayal, I can’t go past Janet Frame. In her story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ a girl learns her place in the world during a visit to her ‘Cultured’ cousins.

The cousins have ‘good trellis work’, a garden full of flowers, and fine lacy clothes. For the girl, it’s an ‘alien world’ where nobody fights, or yells, or sings dirty little rhymes. Her mother seems ‘far away’ and ‘high up’ as she perches at the aunt’s ‘white and ready’ kitchen table. The girl watches how her mother begins to say ‘really isn’t that just so fancy’ about everything she sees.

The girl feels ‘sad and strange’ as she stares at the cooked turnip waiting on their plates. She wants to go home, where she can run wild in the fields and yank turnips out of the ground, and eat them raw under the friendly gaze of ‘an approving cow’. But then she realises. She is the poor cousin. She must do as her mother does – hide her ignorance, oddity, and shame. So she eats her cooked turnip, shows interest in her cousins’ fine lacy clothes, and begins to say ‘just so fancy’ to everything she sees.

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ appears in Janet Frame’s 1983 collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart.

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For more recent short story collections exploring the tricky terrain between various worlds and (not necessarily) fitting in, I heartily recommend Paddy O’Reilly’s Peripheral Vision, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil.

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Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac. Her debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.

 

New short story in the Review of Australian Fiction

I am very pleased to have a new short story published in the latest edition of the Australian Review of Fiction. It’s a great opportunity for newer writers – as the editors pair an established writer with an emerging writer. The much-published local RAF_VOL16_ISS_5Lisa Walker has her story ‘Romantic’ in this edition, along with my story ‘Seaworthiness’ which is based on the last sailing ship to carry wheat from South Australia to England in 1948. You can see the stories here: http://reviewofaustralianfiction.com/issues/volume-16-issue-5/
Happy holiday reading!

On gardens in literature: Six novels

blog ungardeners picGardens lie at the centre of many compelling novels as places of sanctuary, nourishment, control and ruthlessness. In others, only a tendril might snake its way in – with striking effect. Here are six of my favourite Australian novels about people and plants.

The Ungardeners by Ethel Turner
Ethel Turner (aka Jean Curlewis) is best known for her classic novel Seven Little Australians. Her less well-known work, The Ungardeners, was published in 1925. Part fable and part witty political satire, the original colour plates suggest it might stretch to a children’s book.
Australian poet and gardener Annie travels the globe with her English stockbroker husband, Peter Purcell. After he suffers a nervous breakdown, they settle in Australia for a gentler life. Eventually Annie lures Peter out of the sick bed and into her world: the quiet joy of the garden.
But times are tough and Annie is forced to sell off some of her land. When she returns from a brief trip away, she discovers “the bit of creek fringed by wattles” has become a housing estate clustering around the busy chimney of a jam factory. Soon her flowers begin to disappear. The neighbouring “slum” children are the culprits, and claim they need flowers for a relative’s funeral. Is it manipulation or ingenuity when Annie discovers the children are selling off her flowers at the local cemetery?
The Ungardeners is about many things, including Australia’s place in a fragmented and rapidly changing world, the universal tension between materialism and art, and the idea of development versus nature.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Gardens are usually seen as the triumph of order over chaos. In The Secret River, gardening brings chaos and dispossession.
When ex-convict William Thornhill takes up a piece of land on the Hawkesbury, he establishes a house and a garden. Armed with a bag of seeds, precious tools, and labouring help, he is determined to slough off his old life of austerity and petty crime. The aim is to move up in a society where the hierarchies of Britain don’t necessarily apply.
But Thornhill’s seemingly simple act of gardening can never be innocent or neutral in a colonial land. As soon as he plants his plot, something – or somebody – digs it up. His garden becomes a “message”, the equivalent of “hoisting a flag up a pole”, a claim that this “insignificant splinter” of the country is now his.
In The Secret River, Kate Grenville reminds us that Australian history is contested ground. One person’s feast is another person’s famine, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White
The Hanging Garden was published posthumously, accompanied by a level of controversy. This ‘unfinished’ novel centres on fourteen-year-old Eirene Sklavos who arrives in Sydney from Greece with her mother, the flighty Australian-born Geraldine. Eirene’s father, a Greek “patriot”, has been tortured and killed in prison. Once Eirene has been delivered, her mother returns to war-weary Europe.
Eirene ends up creeping about a boarding house on the harbour, inhabited by the migraine-prone but not unkind Mrs Bulpit, and another teenage exile, Gilbert Horsfall. Gil has been evacuated from the London Blitz and suspects his father was pleased to offload him.
Gil sees Eirene as a fascinating “snake”. He’s impressed by her casual snippets of Greek myth, her worldliness, and firsthand experience of communism and volcanos. For Eirene, Gil is a “sinewy white monkey”, who swings between being her friend and a traitor.
In the no man’s land of Mrs Bulpit’s overgrown garden above the cliffs, Gil and Eirene discover the fragile possibility of companionship. But loyalties continue to shift as quickly as the fickle harbour light. Their place in the garden is a shared but precarious, fleeting sanctuary, poised between childhood and adulthood, the world and home.

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Heat and Light is divided into three parts: Heat, Water and Light. In the Water section, the line between people and plants blurs. Set in the 2020s, the Australian government is evacuating islands in Moreton Bay so Indigenous people can apply to live on a kind of “super” island. However, some of the islands’ mysterious original inhabitants, known as “the plantpeople”, are proving difficult to move.
The protagonist, Kaden, is a young Indigenous botanist. She comes into contact with the plantpeople when she scores a job distributing a scientific formula to them on behalf of the government. Larapinta is the first “specimen” she meets. Green-skinned and of fluid gender, Larapinta “has a face like me and you”. As their relationship develops, Kaden becomes more politicised and suspects her seemingly benevolent role at the company has another agenda.
Heat and Light has been described both as a novel and an anthology, and as a sci-fi/fantasy work. Like the character Larapinta, the book resists neat classification as it pushes back and forth through the porous borders between human and non-human; truth and myth; past, present and future; the other and self.

A Curious Intimacy by Jessica White
A Curious Intimacy is inspired by the nineteenth-century botanist and plant-hunter Georgina Molloy. The protagonist is Ingrid Markham, who rides her horse around Western Australia in pursuit of plants. Back in her hometown of Adelaide, Ingrid has been trained in the rigours of botany by her ageing but liberal-minded father. Unable to make fieldtrips himself, Ingrid sets off with a bruised heart, a passion for discovery, and the latest in collecting kits. With Victorian-era fervour, she is both woman and explorer, finding, cataloguing, and painting her discoveries.
During her expedition, Ingrid meets Ellyn Ives, whose husband has been away for months. The differences between the women are stark. Ingrid flourishes outdoors, and easily fixes a broken water pump. Ellyn rarely steps further than the water-deprived rose beds encircling the dilapidating homestead. Ingrid is enlivened by studying plants she hasn’t seen before. Ellyn is reluctant to leave the unhappy domestic atmosphere where an empty cradle haunts one room. To her the bush looks “all the same”, and is a place where she will become lost. As the two women form a tentative bond, the homestead garden serves as a rickety bridge between their worlds.

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower
The Watch Tower opens with Laura and Clare Vaizey being abandoned by their mother and cast out of their boarding school. Sydney is in the grip of war. The sisters are adrift until Felix Shaw, a small-time businessman with a purring car and grand ideas offers to take them under his wing.
Laura is persuaded to work at Felix’s box factory. As soon as she settles into the tedium, he abruptly changes his line of trade. Felix keeps both girls off balance, playing them against each other as he zigzags from one shady venture and extreme mental state to another. Any seemingly kind action is attached by a web of strings.
As Felix moves up in the world, he wants the flashy house and garden to match. Once the sisters are installed, Felix marries Laura and Claire begins to refer to her sister as “Hostage Number One”. Felix takes to working outdoors, lunging at the garden like a bayonet-wielding soldier charging across a battlefield.
The garden is only a fleck in the tight weave of this narrative, but it is a potent symbol of Felix’s obsession with appearances. As he tries to assert control over nature, and others, he attempts to maintain his dominance in his relentlessly vigilant corner of the world.

This article was first published in ‘northerly’ the NRWC’s magazine.

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac. Her debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.

Author interview on Wordmothers

Hello there,

This interview has just been posted on the wonderful Wordmothers site:

HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?

I wrote the beginnings of stories as a child. When I was in my twenties working as a cook and travelling overseas, occasionally a typewriter would come my way. I’d eagerly perch it on a fold-down wall-bed but didn’t know where to start. When I returned home to do a BA in the 1990s, I attempted my first ‘proper’ short story. In the late 1990s I enrolled in the newly established Creative Writing MA at the University of Adelaide. I remember sitting in the first class in the stifling February heat, knowing that was where I was meant to be.

Read the full interview here

 
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Some of Emma’s short story publications

More reviews of The Floating Garden: Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Echo, The Advertiser etc

Hello there, Am very pleased to see a review by Cameron Woodhead made it into the Short Fiction section of today’s Sydney Morning Herald and also The Age.
THE FLOATING GARDEN – EMMA ASHMERE – SPINIFEX PRESS AUD $26.95
Transporting us to Sydney in the 1920s, The Floating Garden takes place in streets set to be demolished to make way for the famous Harbour Bridge – a neighbourhood populated by working-class folk, bohemians and shadier characters. Among those in line for eviction is Ellis Gilbey, a landlady who moonlights as a gardening columnist (under the pseudonym Scribbly Gum). Confronted with losing everything she has, Ellis relives her flight to Sydney as a teenager, where she was taken in by a theosophist called Minerva Stranks. Just as all of Ellis’ lodgers have taken their leave, an artist arrives, seeking sanctuary from her abusive husband. Emma Ashmere’s debut is a beautifully detailed historical novel, full of tenacious and likeable women asserting themselves through guile. Finely crafted, The Floating Garden is at once an elegy for the forgotten and a subversive counter-history to the tumult of rapid progress. Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/short-fiction-reviews-peter-stamm-emma-ashmere-sarah-armstrong–russell-guy-20150511-ggx3n4.html#ixzz3aFQ0S2PZ

A Review in the Northern Rivers Echo:
The Floating Garden By Emma Ashmere
Reviewed by: Lisa Walker
The Floating Garden
is the debut novel by Northern Rivers local, Emma Ashmere. It is set in Sydney in the 1920s, where the arches of the Harbour Bridge are still making their way through the air towards each other. Down below in Milson’s Point, a colony of misfits are losing their homes as construction proceeds. The Floating Garden interweaves the stories of two women. Ellis is an eccentric who runs a boarding house for women and girls while Rennie is an artistic Englishwoman in an unhappy marriage. When Rennie plucks up the courage to leave her abusive husband, she finds a temporary home in Ellis’s guesthouse, which is about to be demolished. Both women look to each other to provide security – Ellis needs money, while Rennie needs a bolt-hole to hide out from her husband. As her Milson’s Point home disintegrates, Ellis relives her escape to Sydney at the age of sixteen. Her unlikely saviour was the charismatic, scheming theosophist, Minerva Stranks. She also hints at a troubled liaison in the past with Minerva’s protégé, the fragile Kitty. I loved so many things about this book, but the characters were especially delightful. Ellis has many secrets, not least of which is her anonymous authorship of a controversial gardening column under the name of Scribbly Gum. The flamboyant Rennie hails from a life of privilege and has a hard time adjusting to her new circumstances in the poorer part of town. Her effort to blend in and cope with her situation provides a subtle touch of humour. I also enjoyed learning more about theosophy – a spiritual belief system which was very popular in the 1920s. An early review has compared this book to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and there certainly are some similarities. Both books explore the wider events in society through the lens of the people affected and both focus on a working class group of colourful individuals. Like Tim Winton, Emma Ashmere has a fine hand with exuberant Australian types. The author has a PhD focusing on the use of marginalised histories in fiction and her novel does a superb job of bringing this fragment of our past to attention. The Floating Garden is a beautifully written, gently humorous and highly detailed slice of history. It also has an absorbing storyline which kept me turning the page. photoNREchoreview

A Review in the Adelaide Advertiser 5-7 June 2015
Reviewed by SUE GOULD **** (4 stars)
This captivating debut by Adelaide-born writer Emma Ashmere…teems with charlatans, eccentrics and those doing it tough in a time of hardship and prejudice. Yet Ashmere weaves a sense of hope and redemption as her characters seek to rediscover their true selves.

Jessica White’s review of The Floating Garden
With its pellucid prose and descriptions of gardens and early 20th century spiritualists, I loved this novel… It focuses not on the arches of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but what happens at its feet. The setting suggests that we should not always focus on dominant, obvious narratives, because what happens in their shadow is equally interesting…This sumptuous book was a joy to read.
Read the full review here.

Review by Lisa Hill ANZlitlovers – The realisation in prose of 1920s Sydney is as unforgettable as the characters.  I loved the vivid descriptions of the market and the ferries; the sights and scents of lush plant life; the mud, slush and sordid decay of the houses; the sun-drenched views of the sea and the sky;  the shadowy dangers that lurk in the cramped dark streets and the temptation of oblivion in the deep waters of the harbour. Without idealising poverty, Ashmere depicts this Sydney as a place for the marginalised and eccentric… ANZlitlovers

A review in the Byron Shire Echo by Sarah Armstong
Emma Ashmere’s writing is subtle and lyrical, beautifully crafted and wise. The best books seem so complete, have such integrity, that we can’t imagine them existing in any other form, and we forget that they may have taken many drafts to get to this point.
Read the full review here.

A review on Whispering Gums by Sue
…What I particularly enjoyed about the novel is that Ashmere does for the underprivileged of 1920s Sydney what Ruth Park did for the 1950s in Harp in the south. They are very different books in terms of their narratives and themes, but both exude warmth and sympathy for their motley crew of marginalised characters, and both are valuable for their social history.
Read the full review here.

A review on Booklog for Charlotte

It’s impressive that these disparate narratives come together so naturally to enrich each other. What a wonderful book:

Read the full review here.

The Floating Garden on Radio National

Hello there, It’s been a big week with my debut novel The Floating Garden being published by Spinifex Press. What a wonderful feeling to sign books for people and watch them being walked away under their arms. The book launch itself was almost sunk by wild weather and surrounding floods, but there was a last minute plot twist in store – complete with happy ending. Thanks to some local ingenuity, an impromptu ‘silver lining’ mini launch sprang up, with a burst of sun.

Earlier in the week there’d been a dash to the Lismore ABC studios to record an interview with Sydney-based Kate Evans for Radio National’s program Books Plus. Kate asked some wonderful questions. It was fantastic to be asked on to the show.

You can listen to a podcast here:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksplus/ashmere/6449436

Batemans Bay Writers Festival 5-7 June

Hello there,

The Batemans Bay Writers Festival program has just been released – see the full program here. A great line up of writers, poets, playwrights, musos, and researchers will be spending the long weekend in that beautiful part of the world – including: Julie Janson, Susan Wyndham, Linda Jaivin, James Bradley, Gabrielle Lord, Graeme Simsion, and Anne Buist. I’ll be joining Jeff Apter and Julia Prendergast to present a workshop on the joys and challenges of ‘creative research’; and will also be giving an author talk about the art, books, people, and politics that inspired my new novel The Floating Garden.

The festival was a sell out last year – hope to see you there!

On short stories: Make every word count

On short stories: Putting the right only words in the right only order

Short story writers are often told to ‘make every word count’. But what does this mean? And how can we identify and winkle out those sluggish words, clichéd ideas, and flaky images that once seemed so vital, original and essential in our own first drafts?

Mark Twain allegedly lamented to a friend he’d wanted to ‘write a shorter letter but didn’t have the time’. If the single defining element of the short story is its brevity, then precision is everything. And like any finely-tuned motor skill, precision takes practice and patience. Of course longer forms also depend on exactitude, but there are simply less places for dead ends or missteps to hide in a more concentrated hit of words. According to Mel Campbell ‘anyone can noodle on for 10,000 words, but it takes creativity and discipline to express oneself within word limits.’

Word count can be both friend and foe. A 500 word cap challenges the writer to keep on track, but that track still must offer an arresting glimpse of life, relationships, the world etc. On the downside, enforced limits can cramp your style. When a piece balloons over its allotted space, there are probably only two options. Keep it for another occasion when word limit isn’t an issue. Or cut.

Ali Smith talks about needing to find your own ‘balance between instinct and edit’. For some stories less will be more. For others, less really is less. Multiple ideas, extravagant details of setting and mood, the number of characters, or quirks of voice might be the very elements you’d hoped would hook and haunt the reader. Lose those hard-wrought surprises and idiosyncrasies, and the story risks diluting into ordinariness. If a story keeps buckling against the word limit, there’s no going wider. So go deeper.

Kurt Vonnegut said every sentence must either ‘advance the plot’ or reveal something compelling about the character. If I think a story is worth redrafting, one of the most useful questions is: ‘do I need this?’ First lines, last lines, dialogue, heavy-handed or colourless titles, characters’ names, favourite phrases – nothing is safe from the scalpel. Openings must act as irresistible invitations to read on, however Jennifer Mills warns against ‘strong beginnings’ petering out. As for endings, ‘a short story doesn’t have to have a neat ending, but it should turn – it should show readers the moment something changes.’

Priscilla Long suggests making a list of ten things you want to include before you start such as objects, feelings, colours, places, people, events, particular phrases. Even if you haven’t done this, go back and see what’s survived the redrafting knife. Is this still the story you wanted to write?

After fine-combing through several times, the words that kick-started the piece might suddenly seem clunky. Some will be worth refashioning. Others won’t. Check every word is working as hard as the 499 other pistons hopefully chugging away in the engine room keeping the story ticking over. Even the seemingly insignificant ones such as ‘the’ and ‘and’ must pull their weight.

Reading aloud can help detect stumbles, flat spots, unintended repetitions, clumsy rhythms, clanging notes. Try to imagine you’re sitting on the other side of the editor’s desk, listening in. What would make this story leap straight over the ‘no’ pile and into the ‘yes’?

Some pieces will never amount to more than exercises. But the act of writing is never wasted. Set them aside for awhile, then revisit and try to see what you’d change in them now. Some pithy lines might even be salvageable for recycling elsewhere.

At this year’s Byron Writers Festival, Jeanette Winterson talked about the benefits of having a wood-burning stove in her study. Apparently she feeds it regularly with paper and ink. She also said that good writing of any length means putting ‘the right words in the right order’. Later, this was refined slightly. Good writing is about finding ‘the only words’ and putting them ‘in the only order’. No multiple choice. No ‘and/or’. There’s only one right word, or 500 right words. And it’s every writer’s job to pounce on them and place them where they can chug away, unfettered, at full capacity.

This article first appeared in the Northern Rivers Writers Centre’s newsletter northerly, November 2014.

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac. Her debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.