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Nonfiction

The City and the Writer: In Sydney with Fiona Kelly McGregor

Fiona Kelly McGregor talks with Nathalie Handal about queer life and radical relocation in Sydney.
Portrait of writer Fiona Kelly McGregor with a black cat
Photo copyright © Jamie James

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Sydney as you feel/see it?

Sydney is lush, sultry, protean, astonishingly beautiful, and deceptive; nature is everywhere. Sydney seduces you, then kicks you with horrendously high prices. The night streets are now desolate due to years of licensing law restrictions. Over the past three decades, we have become the most overregulated society: this has literally driven people away, including me. It is a disorienting city—some say it’s a collection of different towns—and within this vast sprawl are many different ecosystems: climatic, financial, ethnic.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Probably the first big police raids I witnessed in the early nineties, of nightclubs on Oxford Street—then a queer precinct—and of Redfern, a hub of urban Aboriginal culture since the early twentieth century. For more than twenty years, the police have been using sniffer dogs to detect illicit drugs on the street, at train stations, beaches, anywhere really. Police strip-search people in public. I’d had a protected middle-class upbringing but learned as a young queer that we are still a penal colony. A necessary broken heart, I’m afraid.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

How soft the air and water are, despite the fierce sun. Your skin changes. And how beautiful it is in the cold months, despite the fact that we’re famed for our “sunny lifestyle.” No matter where you are in the city, the time of year or weather, the sky at dusk will stop you in your tracks.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Poets Kate Lilley and Evelyn Araluen. Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore is a great history of how the penal colonies began. Christina Stead, Ruth Park, and Kylie Tennant all wrote gritty, social realist novels set in our early twentieth-century slums. Patrick White’s The Vivisector. Vanessa Berry: flâneuse. Peter Doyle–historian and interpreter of crime scene photography. Contemporary and recent fiction writers: Frank Moorhouse, Michelle de Kretser, Yumna Kassab. Sydney Review of Books is a wonderful literary compendium: read it online for free.  

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

I grew up on the harbor and remain very connected to it, but accessing it now is difficult as I don’t have a car and live ten kilometers away. The upside of that is that I never take it for granted. It is the most magical place in the world for me, and I still swim like a fish.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

No. Sydney doesn’t appreciate its writers. We hang on by our fingernails. We are unwelcome guests in our own homes. Cultural cringe is a national disease. Like any city, Sydney is very different from how it was a century ago, but our actual center is shifting. Parramatta in the west, the head of the eponymous river that empties into Sydney Harbor, is the real center. This radical relocation is altering how the city is written. Maybe it’s precisely in the atomized, the fugitive, and the denied that our iconography can be found.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

All over the city, teeming high streets are like special little worlds unto themselves. There is amazing food everywhere, especially in the west: not just South Asian, West Asian, Mediterranean, and so on, but endless regional variations, cooked in the family way with fresh local ingredients, as well as Australian innovations. In the west also are wonderful municipal art galleries. Chinatown, near Central Railway, has grown to include Thai Town and Koreatown.

 

Where does passion live here?

Oh, I think on a hot February night in the humid heart of a queer dance floor! A melting pot of genders, ages, races, classes, dancing in a delirious sweat before the big storms come belting down the coast from the tropical north.

 

What is the title of one of your works about Sydney and what inspired it exactly?

Buried not dead, my most recent book, is a collection of essays about the city, sexuality, politics, and art. There is a lot of performance art in the book, mostly from Sydney. The essays are part memoir, part critique, and they coalesce into a portrait of the city that goes back through time, as well as across cultural genres. There is an elegiac quality to them: is it true that all writing is about loss? I’ll also have to mention Iris, my forthcoming novel inspired by the life of a petty criminal active in Sydney’s sly-grog era. Iris will be your guide to the underbelly of Sydney in the 1930s, that wrenchingly formative era.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Sydney does an outside exist?”

Yes, for sure. Despite my great love for this city, I find it difficult, even hostile. I’ve lived in other parts of Australia and had four long sojourns in different cities in Europe. I’ve just returned from seven months in Rome and feel very ambivalent. I’ve always been a writer of place: Sydney will always be at the center of my writing, but my days living here are numbered. 

 

Fiona Kelly McGregor’s latest book is the novel Iris (Picador, 2022), set in 1930s inner Sydney and based on the life of petty criminal Iris Webber. Her essay collection Buried not dead (Giramondo, 2021) features in-depth artist profiles and critiques, memoir, and urban histories, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards. Her novel Indelible Ink won Age Book of the Year and was published in French translation by Actes Sud. Other books include the photo essay A Novel Idea, the travel memoir Strange Museums, the short story collection Suck My Toes/Dirt, which won the Steele Rudd Award, and the underground classic chemical palace. McGregor is also known for a substantial repertoire of performance art, which has been seen internationally.  

 
Copyright © 2022 by Fiona Kelly McGregor. All rights reserved.

English

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Sydney as you feel/see it?

Sydney is lush, sultry, protean, astonishingly beautiful, and deceptive; nature is everywhere. Sydney seduces you, then kicks you with horrendously high prices. The night streets are now desolate due to years of licensing law restrictions. Over the past three decades, we have become the most overregulated society: this has literally driven people away, including me. It is a disorienting city—some say it’s a collection of different towns—and within this vast sprawl are many different ecosystems: climatic, financial, ethnic.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Probably the first big police raids I witnessed in the early nineties, of nightclubs on Oxford Street—then a queer precinct—and of Redfern, a hub of urban Aboriginal culture since the early twentieth century. For more than twenty years, the police have been using sniffer dogs to detect illicit drugs on the street, at train stations, beaches, anywhere really. Police strip-search people in public. I’d had a protected middle-class upbringing but learned as a young queer that we are still a penal colony. A necessary broken heart, I’m afraid.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

How soft the air and water are, despite the fierce sun. Your skin changes. And how beautiful it is in the cold months, despite the fact that we’re famed for our “sunny lifestyle.” No matter where you are in the city, the time of year or weather, the sky at dusk will stop you in your tracks.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Poets Kate Lilley and Evelyn Araluen. Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore is a great history of how the penal colonies began. Christina Stead, Ruth Park, and Kylie Tennant all wrote gritty, social realist novels set in our early twentieth-century slums. Patrick White’s The Vivisector. Vanessa Berry: flâneuse. Peter Doyle–historian and interpreter of crime scene photography. Contemporary and recent fiction writers: Frank Moorhouse, Michelle de Kretser, Yumna Kassab. Sydney Review of Books is a wonderful literary compendium: read it online for free.  

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

I grew up on the harbor and remain very connected to it, but accessing it now is difficult as I don’t have a car and live ten kilometers away. The upside of that is that I never take it for granted. It is the most magical place in the world for me, and I still swim like a fish.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

No. Sydney doesn’t appreciate its writers. We hang on by our fingernails. We are unwelcome guests in our own homes. Cultural cringe is a national disease. Like any city, Sydney is very different from how it was a century ago, but our actual center is shifting. Parramatta in the west, the head of the eponymous river that empties into Sydney Harbor, is the real center. This radical relocation is altering how the city is written. Maybe it’s precisely in the atomized, the fugitive, and the denied that our iconography can be found.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

All over the city, teeming high streets are like special little worlds unto themselves. There is amazing food everywhere, especially in the west: not just South Asian, West Asian, Mediterranean, and so on, but endless regional variations, cooked in the family way with fresh local ingredients, as well as Australian innovations. In the west also are wonderful municipal art galleries. Chinatown, near Central Railway, has grown to include Thai Town and Koreatown.

 

Where does passion live here?

Oh, I think on a hot February night in the humid heart of a queer dance floor! A melting pot of genders, ages, races, classes, dancing in a delirious sweat before the big storms come belting down the coast from the tropical north.

 

What is the title of one of your works about Sydney and what inspired it exactly?

Buried not dead, my most recent book, is a collection of essays about the city, sexuality, politics, and art. There is a lot of performance art in the book, mostly from Sydney. The essays are part memoir, part critique, and they coalesce into a portrait of the city that goes back through time, as well as across cultural genres. There is an elegiac quality to them: is it true that all writing is about loss? I’ll also have to mention Iris, my forthcoming novel inspired by the life of a petty criminal active in Sydney’s sly-grog era. Iris will be your guide to the underbelly of Sydney in the 1930s, that wrenchingly formative era.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Sydney does an outside exist?”

Yes, for sure. Despite my great love for this city, I find it difficult, even hostile. I’ve lived in other parts of Australia and had four long sojourns in different cities in Europe. I’ve just returned from seven months in Rome and feel very ambivalent. I’ve always been a writer of place: Sydney will always be at the center of my writing, but my days living here are numbered. 

 

Fiona Kelly McGregor’s latest book is the novel Iris (Picador, 2022), set in 1930s inner Sydney and based on the life of petty criminal Iris Webber. Her essay collection Buried not dead (Giramondo, 2021) features in-depth artist profiles and critiques, memoir, and urban histories, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards. Her novel Indelible Ink won Age Book of the Year and was published in French translation by Actes Sud. Other books include the photo essay A Novel Idea, the travel memoir Strange Museums, the short story collection Suck My Toes/Dirt, which won the Steele Rudd Award, and the underground classic chemical palace. McGregor is also known for a substantial repertoire of performance art, which has been seen internationally.  

 
Copyright © 2022 by Fiona Kelly McGregor. All rights reserved.

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