Author Archives

Karen Downing

Within the silences of history, fiction can manoeuvre

Sayidda Salmé – the Sultan’s daughter of Obiter's forthcoming novel by Jane Downing – first appeared within the covers of a book in her own lifetime. Memoirs of an Arabian Princess was first published in Germany in 1886, under Salmé’s German name, Emily Ruete. For most of its length, the Memoirs chronicle the early life of this princess – or in the Arabic, sayyida – daughter of Sultan Sa’id of Oman and Zanzibar. Salmé tells her readers that women were not allowed to write and that she taught herself to do so secretly. Though this prohibition was not common across the Islamic world, it did mean she was the only one of her generation who could have written about life in the harems of Zanzibar.

Sayyida Salmé was not only remarkable for teaching herself to write. She became involved in a palace revolution as the scribe to a rebellious brother, and in 1866 she fled Zanzibar. She became Emily Ruete, the Christian wife of a German trader. She changed her name, her religion, her language and her home.

Jane Downing discovered the Memoirs of an Arabian Princess via a circuitous route. While living in Majuro, the capital of the Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands, and researching her first novel, she discovered a photograph from 1901 of the wife of the administrator of the island group, then a German colony. Her name was Antonie Brandeis and she appears briefly in Jane’s novel The Trickster (Pandanus Press, 2003). A short biography about Antonie Brandeis’ husband, Eugen Brandeis, the German administrator of the colony, alerted Jane to her genealogy. The colonial German hausfrau of the photograph was in fact the daughter of the author of the Memoirs of an Arabian Princess. When she looked at the photograph closely, Jane could see nothing of royal or Arabic heritage in her. But the romantic allure – Zanzibar, Sultan, Harem – was too much.

Jane hunted down and read Salmé’s Memoirs, where she found a huge and intriguing gap in the narrative. Out of the almost 300 pages only four are given to Salmé’s meeting and early relationship with Heinrich, her secret flight from Zanzibar to Aden in 1866, and her arrival in Hamburg in 1867. That gap raised so many questions! And The Sultan’s Daughter is Jane’s imagined answers.

The Sultan’s Daughter will be published in September 2020.

Our award winning collaborator!

We’re very pleased that Associate Professor Tanya Dalziell from the University of Western Australia has curated Tom Morison’s Golden Christmas, the latest ‘To Be Continued’ collection, and written an introduction. Tanya’s interests are in twentieth-century, Australian, and postcolonial and transnational literature. Her most recent book, with Paul Genoni, Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964, tells the story of the post-war international artist community on the Greek island of Hydra, that famously included singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen as well as the Australian literary couple, Charmian Clift and George Johnston. It has just won the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-fiction.

Gold in the archives

The Obiter team has been digging into the database for shiny nuggets of nineteenth century fiction for our next title in the ‘To Be Continued’ series. With the bad puns you’ve probably guessed that this will be a collection of gold mining stories. We’ve busy cutting and polishing stories about bad luck and good luck, temptation and greed, crime and redemption, mateship and romance.

These stories evince the way in which gold finds in Australia fired both economic and literary imaginations well into the late nineteenth century. ‘Gold,’ writes Tanya Dalziell in her introduction, ‘readily lent itself to imaginative speculations about life in the colonies and the proper ways in which it should be led.’ And stories about gold, such as these, ‘say less about the substance itself than the life and times in which it circulates.’

Tom Morison’s Golden Christmas will be available in December and you can pre-order online.

Editors help writing be the best version of itself

Author Sarah Madden was complimentary about the editorial process for Blue in the Red House  when interviewed by Jessica Gately for the latest issue of Underground Writer’s zine Roots (issue 25, page 8). She said ‘it made the book flow better, read better, and ultimately be the best version of itself it could be’. We may be a little biased, but we agree that Aidan’s editing was thoughtful, encouraging and supportive – just what every author hopes for.

Sarah’s novella was our first experimental non-fiction title – which is the only genre for which we are currently open to submissions.

Some more TLC for YWCA Canberra

Obiter Publishing and the Singed Sisters were able to donate a further $3500 to YWCA Canberra in January from sales of Tears, Laughter, Champagne. In her thanks, CEO Frances Crimmins reminded us that we are helping to ‘make a difference in the lives of women, children and families in Canberra by ensuring they have the essential supports and resources they need to live’. Richard Perno talked to Karen on Radio 2CC about how the Singed Sisters turned the tragedy of losing their homes in a bushfire into a positive money-raising effort.

There aren’t many copies of the book left now, so if getting hold of a copy has ever crossed your mind don’t put it off much longer. Check out Canberra stockists or buy online.

Two titles launched into the world

Obiter ended the year doing what we love most, sending two new books into the world!

We raised a glass of congratulations to Sarah Madden in Melbourne last Tuesday evening at the launch of her debut novella Blue in the Red House. And we learned, finally, where the name for Sarah’s protagonist, Ms De Beer originated. We had been trying to conjure metaphors of diamonds but, no, the name is simply a fun nod to a certain amber brew of which Sarah is quite fond!

It was a pleasure to work with Writers Victoria to celebrate Sarah and her work and we thank them for their hospitality and generosity.

Pic left: Sarah Madden, a former Write-ability Fellow at Writers Victoria in conversation with writer and
director Fiona Tuomy, who was also Write-ability’s founding Mentor-in-Residence.

We would also like to thank Katherine Bode, our series editor for ‘To Be Continued’, and Imelda Whelehan, who selected the stories for the latest title in the series and wrote the introduction, and Martin Willis who read excerpts from the book at its launch. It has been a pleasure to work with them on Christmas Eve in a Gum Tree and Other Lost Australian Christmas Stories.

Last Monday in Canberra, Marnie Hughes-Warrington did the book proud in her launch speech in which she pointed out that despite the heat and disastrous weather events in Australian Christmas stories they all do end up being about love: love between sweethearts, love between parents and children, love lost, love earned, love that endures time and place.

Pic right: Professor Imelda Whelehan and Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington.


Raise a glass to our debut author

If you are in Melbourne on 11 December, please join us for the launch of debut author Sarah Madden’s magic realist memoir Blue in the Red House. We are very excited to mark this special occasion with Writers Victoria, where Sarah was a Write-ability Fellow. Sarah will be in conversation with writer and director Fiona Tuomy, who was also Write-ability’s founding Mentor-in-Residence. And there will be champagne of course! RSVP at the Writers Victoria website.

If you can’t join us Blue in the Red Houseis out now and available through the Obiter online store.

Just in time for Christmas

‘This collection,’ says Imelda Whelehan, ‘is for everyone who wants their Christmas stories to mirror their Christmas location – with the heat on their backs, perhaps wondering if lowering clouds presage a storm or more extreme weather event. They will be best savoured as the barbecue sizzles or while dipping a toe in the water, enjoying fresh raspberries, cherries or apricots, or during lunch at the cricket.’

‘It might be a tonic, too,’ she points out, ‘for those travellers who find themselves in the northern hemisphere longing for the characteristic smells and sounds of an Australian summer holiday.’

Professor Whelehan is a scholar of women’s writing, feminism, popular culture and literary adaptations and the current Dean of Higher Research at the Australian National University. She and her family moved to Australia from England eight years ago where Christmas was shaped by Dickensian images of Victorian English celebrations recycled on chocolate boxes and biscuit tins and Christmas Day was accompanied by adaptations of A Christmas Carol on television. Like all migrants, she says, ‘we gradually acclimatised and adjusted our family traditions to make the most of a beautiful Australian summer.’

Imelda has written the introduction to our collection of ‘lost’ nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Australian Christmas stories that have not been previously published beyond their original serialisation in newspapers. We are delighted with the gorgeous cover from the talented team at Giraffe, using a perfect image by photographer Jane Worner at Austockphoto.

The book is available for pre-order in our online store.


To Be Continued – you can get involved!

We are working on some more exciting collections of nineteenth-century fiction in our ‘To Be Continued’ series – details soon! – but in the meantime, you can get involved in the project by editing texts and adding your own discoveries to the 21,000 works already uncovered.

Associate Professor Katherine Bode’s amazing Australian Newspaper Fiction Database has analysed the mass-digitised newspaper archive, and national treasure, called Trove to bring to light a vast new collection of fiction that is providing new insights in the development of Australian literary, publishing and reading culture.

You can explore the database, but you can also help correct the text and add instalments and new stories – many tens of thousands of stories remain undiscovered in the newspaper pages.

Correcting text will make searching the database more reliable and will also improve the quality of the newspaper text in Trove. Adding newly discovered instalments and publications will grow our knowledge of what fiction was published and available to read.

How I Pawned My Opals and Other Lost Stories is the first title in Obiter’s ‘To Be Continued’ series. Kath Bode’s introduction to this collection gives us a greater appreciation of the work of Catherine Martin and a taste of the deeper understanding of Australia’s literary history that the Australian Newspaper Fiction Database is opening up to us.

A little more TLC for YWCA Canberra

Sales of Tears, Laughter, Champagne to date has meant nearly $5000 worth of donations to YWCA Canberra. The Singed Sisters were delighted to be able to make a second donation in April to YWCA Canberra that will support the YWCA’s work on addressing the shortage of affordable housing options for women in Canberra. Read the full story in the Canberra Times.

And Obiter spread some TLC further in sending books to the community in Tathra following their devastating bushfires in March. Copies have been distributed to the Recovery Centre in Bega, the Bega Library, the Red Cross for emergency volunteers, Candelo Books for fundraising, and directly to some of the fire-affected families.

Photo: Singed Sisters Karen Downing, Chandani Prammer, Liz Tilley and Julie Pham, donate the proceeds of their book to the YWCA through executive director Frances Crimmins. Photographer: Elesa Kurtz.