Mirandi Riwoe is shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize. In this special Stella interview, Mirandi shares her favourite contemporary Australian female writers, and the background to – and inspiration for – her novella, The Fish Girl.
Please tell us something about how you came to write The Fish Girl
One of the characters in my crime novel, She Be Damned, set in Victorian London is an Asian woman from Makassar. As part of my research I read W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories about his time in South-East Asia, which are set a bit later, but still within the colonial period. That’s how I came across ‘The Four Dutchmen’. I am of Indonesian heritage and maybe that’s why I was particularly incensed by the tone of the story – that the tragedy lay in the destruction of the Dutchmen’s friendship, not in the dire treatment of the ‘Malay trollop’. Originally, I wrote it up as a short story but, maybe two years later, I visited it again. I felt like I needed to do her story more justice.
What themes did you want to investigate in your book?
Somerset Maugham’s story intimates that the Malay woman is predatory, nothing but trouble. I remember, straight after reading ‘The Four Dutchmen’, saying to my mother, ‘There’d be a reason she was in that situation’, and I wanted to create a story that explained that trajectory. At first, Mina was nameless; I wanted to touch upon the idea that she could be any woman, then or now. Therefore, I investigated themes to do with the exploitation and lack of agency faced by many women in the world, then and now, and the injustice this invokes. Also, the idea that isolation or lack of belonging can drive people into undesirable situations.
Did you find the novella form – with its tight word constraints – liberating or constraining?
Actually, in a sense I found the novella form liberating in that I wasn’t constrained to make Mina’s story novel length: it could just become whatever it was meant to be.
What are your favourite novellas?
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and Springtime by Michelle de Kretser.
Who are your favourite Australian female writers – and why?
There are so many! Here are a few: Emily Maguire, for her work, both fiction and non-fiction, that encourages me to think more deeply about the feminist themes she investigates; Clementine Ford, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alice Pung, Sonya Hartnett, and Steph Bowe – for resonant, meaningful works that not only I enjoy, but that I can give to my daughters to read; I have a soft spot for Ruth Park’s vibrant storytelling; and I marvel at Laura Elvery’s and Jennifer Down’s poised, perceptive prose.
Where do you go to write?
I am so easily distracted in spaces like the library or share offices. The only place I can write is at the table on my back deck (when no-one else is around) or in my own study at home.
Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
I’ve started work on a literary novel set in the Gold Rush period in North Queensland. The story revolves around the experiences of two Chinese siblings searching for gold and a young woman from Queanbeyan. An extract of this will be published in Griffith Review later this year. Further down the line I will work on my third crime novel in the series.
Mirandi Riwoe is a Brisbane-based writer. Her novella The Fish Girl won Seizure’s Viva la Novella prize and her debut novel, She be Damned, was released in 2017. Her work has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Review of Australian Fiction, Rex, Peril and Shibboleth and Other Stories, and she has received fellowships from the Queensland Literary Awards and Griffith Review. Mirandi has a PhD in Creative Writing and Literary Studies.