by Luke Carman
I want to tell you about Tamar.
The publication of The Diet Starts on Monday by Armenian-Australian writer Tamar Chnorhokian was the realisation of a long and collectively held dream for everyone in involved. For Tamar, it meant becoming a novelist, for us at SWEATSHOP, it was an opportunity to contribute a genuinely unique single-author work of fiction to the frustratingly narrow world of Australian literature (sceptics can order a copy here and see for themselves). Tamar’s novel is a deceptively simply young adult tale: an obese girl with a secret crush on the hottest boy at school sets out to win Lover-boy’s heart by losing weight. If this sounds facile, overly familiar – no matter. Conventionally generic as the above description might be, there is more to The Diet Starts on Monday than the premise might suggest. Then again, as one of its publishers, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
All vested interests aside (for now), what distinguishes The Diet Starts on Monday – not merely from its Young Adult competition – but also from the so-called ‘serious’ literary fiction to which Australian audiences are accustomed, and what makes it in my view a genuinely radical publication, is the subtle case the novel makes for a renewed emphasis on subjectivity in contemporary fiction.
In recent times, there have been critical calls from significant figures in Australian literary culture to de-emphasise the part played by subjectivity, and a growing suspicion of the subjective mode. Martin Harrison (whose essays on the art of fiction are some of the most important and impressive guides for apprentice writers ever put to print) gave a powerful and persuasive critique of perspective-centric fiction in an interview for the journal Text. In the interview, which was a post-script to an issue dedicated to the relations between and intersecting writing and ecology, Harrison argues for the need to overcome the cumbersome constraints of subjectivity in order to revitalise the purpose of a lumbering medium. Underpinning the argument is that suggestion that subjectivity is too limited, has been worn threadbare, and proven itself too narrow to facilitate the kinds of intersectional and intercultural connections required of progressive fiction for the 21st century – especially if, for instance, one intends to address such colossal concerns as the environmental crisis.
Underpinning this line of reasoning is the proposition that if stories written from the needle-thin framework of a lone subject trapped within their singularity were capable of reaching and persuading the kind of mass readership required to bring about revolutionary changes in a globalised world, then they would already have done so. As Harrison puts it at one point in the dialogue: ‘To be frank, I’m tired of all the “my-point-of-view” emphasis given to so many young, inexperienced writers in writing programs. Finding out who you are and what you think is a risky business because, once you have done so, you can all too often discover you have nothing further to say.’ (p.1) This may be the case – and few Australian literary titles published in the last few years could be pointed to as offering a persuasive response to accusations of limitation – but there seems to be something suspicious at play in this logic. I cannot help but suspect that rather than having worn out the tread of the subjective, it is more likely that have simply been listening to (and publishing) the wrong people. Over and over and over again.
At this point, I fear that some may feel I’ve misunderstood Harrison’s above thesis. First let me say, it’s a complex debate – one far beyond the limits of this blog – and I am aware that Harrison is not calling, necessarily, for the abolition of subject-driven story. Nevertheless, I suspect that the search for connectivity through paradigmatic shifts in creative writing praxis is one that only creative writers could find necessary. After all, the ranks of our writers are generally drawn from the most atomised, passive and disordered amongst us. They are inherently our least connected, separated ideologically from the culture around them and ruthlessly jealous of the small sanctuary that their craft provides for them. This goes triple for poets. For some time now, there has been a growing consciousness, even amongst the navel-eyed solipsists of our literary communities, that a slim supremacy of one-percenters (of the economic, political and linguistic variety) have too long subjected the majority to their monotonous, self-serving obsessions. It is my suspicion that the trend towards de-centring and transcending subjectivity in fiction and poetry is an attempt by those who have held the stage beyond their fair share to dismantle it as they are evicted; rather than let others have their turn treading the boards, they’d rather go and play at something else altogether. The non-subjective is, in other words, a reactionary impulse rather than the radical and revolutionary selflessness that it presents itself to be.
In The Diet Starts on Monday, Tamar takes a young girl from the ‘margins’ of western Sydney – a human being, in other words – and on the simple genre frame of a teen romance, deals directly with the degree to which our lives are delineated by the fantasies and stories imposed upon us. As subjects, the story sets out to illustrate, we can be enslaved by the perspectives and desires of those who would tell us how to dream, and who to love. Zara Hagopian, Tamar’s size-22 protagonist, falls ruthlessly in love with Pablo Fernandez. Pablo is a characterless dickhead, unworthy in every sense, but upon him is projected an endless parade of clichés about the potency and seductiveness of the ‘Latin Lover’. Zara, a girl mad with an insatiable appetite for all the sweetness and sugar of life (I mean this quite literally – she can’t stop eating candy) that her happy but romance-less domestic world lacks, sees what the world-at-large wants her to see when she gazes upon Pablo’s body, magnified by the ferocity of her susceptibility for desire itself.
Contrast to the sweet pabulum of Pablo, is the ‘Leb’ boy, Max; a young man of determined and unwavering character. Zara, even through the haze of her desires, cannot help but recognise there is something ‘substantial’ about Max. Ironically, it is his very substantial individuality that enables Zara to see inscribed upon him all the stereotypes and prejudices that she is blinded by (and slave to), in the case of Pablo. What the culture tells Zara to see when she looks at Max – The Leb – is so unconsciously defaced that his individuality and character are subsumed. He becomes a signifier of the cultural enemy to Zara, despite the deeply genuine and empathic relationship that the two have on an individual and tenderly human level. The drama of the novel rests on Zara’s unconscious struggle to overcome the seductiveness of cultural and global narratives, which Tamar sets out as eternally and insidiously assailing and rewriting us down to our most intimate dimensions.
A similarly radical spirit can be found in the linguistic texture of the novel: in a country obsessed with the terse, ironic comment – terrified of exuberant expression and the indignity of the undisciplined form – Tamar’s novel is an orgasmic smorgasbord of language. Zara’s obesity and her obsession with the irresistible joys of confectionary are aspects not only of her psychology, but are constitutive representations of her socio-political identity. In other words, if she had the restraint provided by privilege, she would perhaps be able to avoid the pitfalls of her day-to-day gluttony and lust, and as a result she would not exist as we know her in the novel, and neither would the universe that this book portrays. This ‘universe’, the inner world of Zara Hagopian, is (unsurprisingly) as imaginatively unrestrained as her gluttonous desires. As she succumbs to her hunger for Pablo, the world around her transforms into a cornucopia of temptations – the very materiality of her external world transforms into any ecstasy of ingestible metaphor. Her father’s flesh becomes ‘shish kebab’; her Nene’s arms appear to be twisted baguettes; the pull of a lover’s lips draw her in like ‘caramel sundae’ (p.197-8).
The significance of this unrestrained style is that the radical nature of The Diet Starts on Monday is not a consequence of the author’s need to win for herself the identity of revolutionary or subversive ‘artist’. I know Tamar well enough to say for certain that she appears to be completely bereft of that shrewd instinct for self-celebration that defines the artistic mode in our time. What is radical about Tamar is, like Zara after a fashion, the fact that she could not help but be otherwise. In the confines of our cultural situation, the mere presence of a novel by someone who thinks and feels like Tamar does (despite the fact that she is more representative than most Australian authors of ‘the people’ at large) is necessarily subversive. This may not be enough to convince the demographic of novel readers in our inchoate country, who are a hard-wired and tightly wound bunch at the best of times. Such Is Life: unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done to convince anyone about the value of Tamar’s novel; in a case like this, persuasion is not an option – Tamar’s entrée into the world of fiction, like all miracles, is not an undeniable proof that can be shouted from the mountain-tops. On the contrary, Tamar and her work are that rare and extraordinary happening that can only be understood by the right set of eyes. Those who can see, will. As evidence of this, I present a recent review of Tamar’s performance at the 2014 Emerging Writers’ Event, Amazing Babes, which you can read for yourself, here .
The above review is, of course, just one person’s point-of-view, but, as I’ve been trying to say, one person’s perspective (the right person with the right eyes) can make all the difference. What makes even this single review all the more encouraging for me to read is that I know just how out of her depth Tamar felt in the hours leading up the event, how much of a fraud she felt like on that occasion, and at every public performance leading up to it.
For the first stop on the promotional tour for the novel, Tamar and I travelled to the Newcastle Young Writers’ Festival. We sat together on a panel with three Melbourne-based writers, who discussed their experiences with mental illness while I tried to appear invisible at the edge of the table. For a variety of reasons, Tamar is not the sort of person who delights in the public performance of ‘the writer’ that festivals and other literary events are set up to curate. This is a worse handicap than one might at first assume: as it stands, it is seen as an essential part of the writer’s job to step up to the mic and expound, articulately and comfortably, wherever and whenever audiences can be found. Such occasions are framed as enriching ‘cultural events’ – the SWF for instance, marketed its latest festival run with the tag line ‘it’s thinking season’. What thinking has to do with the typical author talk or writer’s panel is a mystery to me, though twitterers seem wholly committed to sending almost anything a writer has to offer into the eternal orbit of the digital ether, accompanied with epithets such as ‘food for thought!’ or ‘#insights’.
In my own, paranoid, view, such panels – though advertised as opportunities for writers to connect and share their wisdom with their readers – are more akin to a form of trial in which the writer is put on stage to answer to the collective judgement of over-enthused readers. Those who do not conform to the conventions of this abrasive trial-by-sensibility are publically shamed and ostracised from the festival circuit and thus exiled – even if ostensibly by their own embarrassment – from an important dimension of the writerly life. Author talks, in my reading, are powerful ceremonies which shape and reshape the writer according to the will of the market. Whatever anxieties writers might express about being exposed in this way, the majority – particularly the youngsters – seem to delight in any opportunity to open up for public vivisection. Tamar Chnorhokian is not like most writers, and was only willing to go through with the panel appearance on the proviso that I sat up on stage beside her, ready and willing to intervene if the performance became too painful.
In the end, despite her pessimistic expectations, I didn’t need to do anything – Tamar handled the situation with characteristic grace, smarts and humour; she brought a kind of humanity to the event that is typically at odds with your average literary festival. After the panel, I took the microphone for a moment to ask everyone to go and buy Tamar’s novel. I promised everyone that if they went out of that room, walked to the festival bookstore and purchased a copy of The Diet Starts on Monday, they would see for themselves what a genuinely radical alternative in Australian literary subjectivity might be like. It was perhaps not what they audience wanted to hear, and for that matter, not what they wanted to read. No matter. There are people who do. Millions of them.
Photo credits to Sweatshop