How two former UTS Writers in Residence released their new books within months of each other.
Authors Bri Lee (Eggshell Skull, Beauty) and Anwen Crawford (Live Through This) were both holders of the New Writer Fellowship, in 2020 and 2018 respectively. Funded by the Copyright Agency and hosted at UTS, the residency is an opportunity for a working writer to be housed at the university. An important element of the Creative Writing program, the resident is encouraged to contribute to student’s work and work with staff, alongside focusing on their own writing. The current Writer in Residence is acclaimed author, playwright and essayist Christopher Raja.
Lee and Crawford don’t only have a shared history at UTS, they’ve both recently published works they began or significantly wrote during their residencies. We spoke to them to get a sense of the program, their new books, and what they’ve been up to since.
Lee’s new book, her third, is titled Who Gets to be Smart: Privilege, Power and Knowledge, a critical examination of the Education system inspired by an experience of visiting a friend undertaking a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. This is not far from her earlier book Eggshell Skull, which used a similar approach to examine the Australian legal system and its failings (Lee says: “I am qualified to practice law, but do not”).
Her ability to blend her own deeply personal story with a complex critique of systemic failure resulted in an engaging and exhilarating book which rightly won a host of literary awards. – Kara Nicholson of Readings.com
Since its June release, Lee has toured her new book around the country. Her ability to blend intellect and emotional nuance – and legal knowledge – has made Lee an important voice in discussions around Australia’s legal system, consent, and domestic violence laws. Already a seasoned contributor on shows like ABC’s The Drum, and in print for Crikey, The Guardian and more to discuss these topics, Lee has used her research for Who Gets to be Smart to shape conversation on the education system and its impacts on the class divide.
Like all things in 2020, Lee’s experiences in her residency were somewhat shaped by the pandemic.
I was really looking forward to finding a water cooler, so to speak. I think I only got to use the office space once or twice before safety recommendations to stay at home were in place. But I still took part in tons of tutorials and lectures via Zoom, and got to know many of the staff, which was great.
Though Lee’s interactions with students were predominantly virtual, she mostly engaged with students after lectures, “I did long question-and-answer sessions with the students, and they were really great. Lots of questions about the practicalities of the publishing industry, how to start pitching to newspaper and magazine editors, and lots of students wanting pragmatic advice about staying motivated and meeting deadlines. It reminded me of the time in my life, in around 2015, when I was asking the exact same questions.”
As the name suggests, the Writer in Residence is not a staff role but a living, working writer. Meaning they are encouraged to write. Lee says that what she intended to produce when she started the residency and what came out were two separate things; “I actually received this UTS residency opportunity to work on my first novel (which is still a work in progress) but when COVID-19 hit it presented me with two things: problems in how to move forward with the novel, and an opportunity to turn an essay I thought I’d finished into a full-length book.”
This essay became Who Gets to be Smart, an investigation into the intersections of power, exclusivity, and systemic oppression as it plays out across the world. The relevancy of social issues in 2020, like Black Lives Matter and the impacts of the pandemic, particularly on universities, prompted Lee to return to this work, a shift that wouldn’t have been possible without the role;
So I took the opportunity afforded to me by the UTS residency to spend the year expanding the essay into a proper book, and I put the fiction on ice. Now, Who Gets to be Smart has done much better and is a much more significant work, because it’s a proper book not an essay, so it all worked out for the best and I’m really grateful. I’m not sure I would have been able to pivot and change plans like that without the financial support of the UTS residency.
Though Anwen Crawford’s residency took place in the halcyon days before COVID-19, her writing was shaped by the role. Crawford, who has written for publications like The New Yorker, Meanjin and The Monthly (where she is the music critic), found herself passing advice onto students about these types of writings; “more or less magazine-style narrative features, and I would give them advice on things like structure, pacing, tone, research”.
Crawford notes that because her residency was early in the process of working on her new book No Document, she mostly focused on research.
My book has a lot to do with contemporary Australian history, particularly border policy since 2001, and also protests like S11, which took place in the year 2000. In the book I relate many of these events from my own memory, but I also chose to appropriate a lot of text from “official” records – like newspaper reports – in order to set up tonal and formal contrasts between public and personal archives, collective and individual memory. So when I think back to my time at UTS, I picture myself trawling newspaper archives through the library!
No Document, described as “an elegy for friendship and artistic partnership cut short by death” analyses grief through a variety of mediums. It’s experimental and rich, drawing on the author’s wealth of knowledge around art and culture, but also deeply intimate and personal, exploring the boundaries of the form to abandon the artifice of the writer and reader relationship. Doug Wallen of The Big Issue feels the book’s blending of poetry, prose and visual art in a collage feels reminiscent of the “freedom of zines”. Crawford speaks on this, saying; “One of the powerful things about the writing I’ve always liked and been affected by in zines has been its intimacy…the writer is engaging with you without too much regard for convention.”
Though her access to research was hugely valuable in crafting her book, Crawford says the real benefit of the residency was the time and space to draft. While she had only completed about 5,000 words of No Document by the end of her residency (“more or less”), the experience was invaluable in providing her the right environment to draft.
I’d drafted a heap of other material during that time that would become part of the ‘mulch’ of the book: a resource I could draw upon throughout the process, which took nearly four years. There were plenty of times when I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and it’s only retrospectively that you can see you were getting somewhere, just by doing the work…pretty much the only thing I had while I worked on No Document was a post-it note that just said “Accretion”. I needed to trust that all my bits and pieces would add up.
This is something Anwen misses about the role now.
Writing a book takes a particular kind of concentration and it requires significant periods of unbroken time – not hours but weeks and months… Unbroken time eludes me at present, which is why it’s vital that initiatives like the UTS / Copyright Agency writers’ residency remain available, especially to early career writers: having the time to work on a book because your work is being funded is so important.