Nic Low, author of Arms Race, was kind enough to give me a copy of his launch speech from the Portable Curiosities launch at Readings Carlton.
Good evening and welcome. Thanks for coming. Thanks to Readings and Alan and Kill Your Darlings for having us.
My name’s Nic Low. Like Julie I’m a writer of satirical short stories. My first book is called Arms Race, and when I read Portable Curiosities for the first time I felt like I’d discovered a whole new part of my brain.
Julie’s work felt really familiar to me, and deliciously strange at the same time. I knew I’d found a book that I’d want to praise and share as widely as I could.
Because inside this adorable cover is writing that’s imaginative, honest, caustically funny, and at times furious. A bit like Julie herself, because this is how she described herself recently: “I come across as a big marshmallow in real life but on the page I’m happy to put a knife through everything.”
The desire to put a knife through everything is valuable and rare, figuratively speaking. Because here’s what’s normal. There was a study published in the Guardian last year looking at creative writing across the US and Europe, and you know what they found?
Close to 90 percent of all new stories being written in the West today are about anxious white people walking along beaches.
That’s a true fact. Look it up. The researchers call the phenomenon SLAMR literature: Slice of Life Anglo-Micro-Realism.
We’ve all written these stories. They’re about people who do a lot of sitting, waiting and thinking. Sometimes people break up with each other. Sometimes they don’t. There is a lot of weather, and small poignant reminders of childhood, captured in profound but ambiguous similes, like that time you climbed into an empty well, carrying a bucket.
But Portable Curiosities is different. Portable Curiosities is imaginative.
Right from the first story, ‘Sight’, you’re drawn into a dark and dreamlike world in which a tattooed man weighs so much the verandah bows beneath his weight, and black magic runs in families, and kids are born with a third eye.
But that third eye makes them combative, lets them see things that shouldn’t be seen. The third eyes are removed by surgery. When the storyteller’s sister comes home from hospital:
She had passed into the world of the normal, where I couldn’t reach her.
If life is meant to be about passing into the world of the normal, then Portable Curiosities is about how to escape. Because Julie knows about escape.
She worked as a corporate lawyer where there wasn’t just a glass ceiling; in the story ‘Civility Place’ the law firm has glass walls, doors, desks, shelves—everything, in an office tower that’s 1200 stories high.
It’s visible across the whole city. The lift talks to you each morning. It says: “Your target for today is 26.4 billable hours.” You literally take your work home with you, setting up your office in your living room. The only escape is madness, like Windy—whose name is actually Wendy, because she’s a kiwi.
There’s no escape, except for Julie, of course. We know she got out, because she has this book to prove it. Here’s a first toast to Julie – for escaping the world of normal.
Portable Curiosities is funny. Seriously funny. A journo takes us to Sydney in the grip of an ice-cream pandemic which encourages hipsters to kill themselves in the name of the latest food craze. The genius behind the scheme is known only as ‘G.’
G’s house is a glass hemisphere … ‘It’s a converted warehouse,’ he says as we walk up the driveway. ‘I told my architect to design me a place that literally looks like the Sydney housing bubble.’
Portable Curiosities is relevant. It’s about climbing the ladder, hipster culture, the rise of Asia, the paunch-to-penis-ratio at Sydney’s nudist beaches. Julie makes us think about the forces at work in our lives, even, and especially, while we’re preoccupied with kittens and ice cream.
Portable Curiosities is full of absurd logic, where an efficient father calls his children One and Two and teaches them share trading at age seven. ‘Buy, buy, buy!’ shouted One on the phone to her stockbroker, banging her fist on a plastic blue play table.
Her stories are mad on the surface but their logic is true: people will do anything so their kids get ahead. Julie writes about the thing we have to laugh about, because when we’re done laughing, we’re going to cry.
Because Portable Curiosities is heated. Among the dreamlike strangeness and the urban everyday come insight after insight fuelled by anger.
‘The Three Dimensional Yellow Man’ riffs on the backlash in Australia against people of colour who speak up for themselves.
An Asian woman tells men she dates that one day she’ll be a highly-regarded public intellectual. That’s nice, said the men, pushing her head down. Do that amazing thing you do with your tongue.
Later in the street after a racist assault the woman cracks. She turns to the crowd.
Ni hao, she screamed. Konnichiwa. Look at how I’ve swamped your country … I’ve been selling all your secrets to the yellow people. Your secrets of unreliable public transport and circus-like government. I will kowtow at your restaurant table, lead your men into sin and poison your babies with my cheap synthetic milk and my peasant ways.
Listen hard to what I’m saying, she said, because this is the amazing thing I do with my tongue.
And so, I urge you all to listen hard to what Julie Koh is saying, and of course what she’s writing. Portable Curiosities is a sharp and gloriously funny read.
It’s brave, precise, and strange in all the right ways. Please take home a copy for yourself and one for a friend.
Let’s raise our glasses to the launch of Portable Curiosities. Cheers!