The following conversation, between curator and writer Audrey Pfister and writer Vincent Silk, whose debut novel Sisters of No Mercy fuses climate fiction and hysterical realism, took place a few weeks back. It was transcribed from audio, and edited for brevity and clarity. All attempts were made to keep the text true to the original conversation.
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Audrey Pfister: It seems unfitting to me to define Sisters of No Mercy as a dystopian speculation. That would be to misunderstand how entrenched climate mis-management, housing inaccessibility, gentrification, and the logics of exclusion are in this country founded on and shaped by settler colonialism. The fictional setting in Sisters of No Mercy is not unlike Australia. What we see in the face of climate catastrophe is business as usual – property developers continue to acquire, wealth continues to be accumulated by the few, and patriarchal ideologies remain rampant.
While you never give a name to the setting in your novel, did you write Sisters of No Mercy with Australia’s current inaction towards climate change in mind?
Vincent Silk: I think Sisters of No Mercy was written fundamentally about an Australian landscape. It’s particularly about a changing climate, a really conservative government, and a conservative ethos generally in Australia, and especially around land. I wanted it to be unnamed, partly because of the way that settler colonialism seeks to obliterate meaning and place, it makes everything homogenous, and it re-writes its own narratives. Running beneath the writing of the book the whole time were these ideas of land in colonial Australia, and how so much is about locking land down, making money from it, developing it, and exploiting it.
But more so, I can’t write something that’s not fundamentally about Australia, because that is my context. I lived across both Sydney and Melbourne while writing this novel, so my connection to both these cities shaped the writing. But I also became interested in researching more geological systems like: rivers, riverways, damage to the land from industry. So it became clear that I wanted this in the novel.
AP: Rivers are such a foundational and fundamental ecosystem across Australia too, and they so often visibly reveal when they’re suffering and crisis, such as what’s happening in and around the Murray Darling River.
Much of Sisters of No Mercy is defined by this relentless precarious landscape in the face of ecological and housing crises. Yet, there is a strong thread running through your novel of a deep value and intimacy found in friendship, community, communal learning and collective action. Why is this a strong theme in your work?
VS: I think because it’s a really strong theme in my life. I’ve been like collectively organising maybe since I was eighteen – that makes me sound like really accomplished. [Laughs.] I’ve been part of collectives, running spaces, political, queer and community events. For the last five years in Melbourne I’ve been part of a DIY organisation that does community education around family, and partner violence, and that kind of thing. So, I know these people. I know these characters that I write. I know these women. Everyone who I made up [in my novel] is familiar to me, and that’s comforting to me.
What stops me from feeling very depressed about the world is collective action, and forming connections based on like a mutual interest in perhaps something political, or just something like not horrible. Forming relationships of solidarity are really important to my work because they’re important to my life.
Before I released this novel I thought that writing was a really solitary practice, but afterwards I realised how much it is about and for others, how much it involved others, and how intimate it was.
AP: I think that relates to the common understanding of writing as being the domain of the so-called ‘male genius’. But it seems writing, especially in your experience, extends far beyond that – it’s friendships, sharing spaces, writing people you know, writing with, and alongside people you know, and writing with generosity.
VS: I think the figure of the ‘male genius’ is like so flawed, like; I wouldn’t have been able to write this book without my partner or my housemates.
I really figured that out after the novel’s release, especially through having conversations with people, I came to understand how much others were involved in the whole process. Even the process of making up the characters and thinking about what they would do. A friend of mine told me that she had to put the book down near the end, not wanting anything bad to happen, then she said to herself ‘I know he [Silk] wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t do that to these characters.’ I loved that. It made me really recognise I do care about the people in the novel, and I couldn’t really make anything really bad happen to them.
AP: It’s like there is a sense of care in the action of writing and that it’s also representative of extending care to others in the broader world. I think this idea really comes through in varying ways in your novel, it wasn’t always obvious but it gives shape to what friendship and caring can feel like.
VS: For you reading this book where there parts that made you be like ‘Oh that’s intimacy, or that’s friendship’?
AP: It’s really hard to pinpoint it. It’s kind of, like, an imprint throughout it. I don’t think I have a very tangible answer, but I felt a sense of care in the writing. It pays attention to, or gives certain space and depth to each character and moment. It’s also how the characters help each other out, which persists even in spite of the relentless environment, in spite of finding secure housing. Even the moments when Pinky accidently sabotages the other characters, the others are still willing to help out and to be there. The novel has an overall environment and atmosphere founded by violent infrastructures that aims to alienate, but despite this, the theme and feeling of collectivity endures.
VS: There has to be some kind of connection, and not even really a softness, it’s perhaps vulnerability, intimacy, and that care. I think it intervenes with patriarchy and it intervenes with systems of oppression, to be like vulnerable, and to be real with each other. I think as a writer I just can’t always be like ‘this is fucked, and this is fucked’.
Initially Pinky was a bit of a walking disaster and really annoying for no reason. Alice, my editor, pointed out that it had to be bigger than that, and that there had to be more sides to the story – it had to be believable. That was an early note that was helpful in making me think about each character’s depth and relationships.
AP: Sisters of No Mercy subtly gives shape to how bodies, and certain bodies, move through different spaces (the private, public, and online) and the matrix of structures (heteronormativity, misogyny, classism, etc) that define those bodily experiences.
What was it like to navigate writing at the intersection of all these things, but through this wide array of characters? Whether it be the misogynistic, sloppy housemate, self-appointed ‘anarchist’ Clancy, or the property mogul Dirk Trench, and the ‘hapless’ Pinky?
VS: It’s interesting that all the characters you mentioned that are men, it makes me feel like you really understood something about this work because I made conscious decisions about the ways that I spoke about the men. All of those characters represent something about gender that is like invisible or thought of as natural.
Dirk Trench, for example, was mostly spoken about or recounted by other people until the novel neared the end. There is a scene with Trench’s beautician, who is a very minor character, but she speaks to him about his prowess as a property developer as being god-like.
It’s really wonderful to hear you say that these things weren’t like signs but were imprinted because that is what I always want in my work. I’d never had a name for, but I was speaking to a friend recently about politics of refusal. It gave voice to a deep feeling of something I’ve felt for a long time which is to refuse to name the thing that say the patriarchal gaze or the cis gaze wants you to name. As a trans writer it is so demanded of me that my work speak about certain things, or that I memorialise my life, that I ‘speak my truth’, and answer some implicit question of the normative and cis gaze.
AP: There is something about your writing style that feels very immediate, very close, for example, you tend to describe everything in such detail. It seems almost labour intensive for you as a writer.
VS: I think it was massively labour intensive to do that, but I almost don’t have a choice really, like I have to do that. I think about how a stranger will be reading my writing, so I need it to be as clear as possible.
I’ve gotten a sense from the people who have read this novel that there is a frustration that things aren’t being named, but I actually enjoy and like that.
AP: What things aren’t you naming?
VS: Like I don’t think I say the word gender, or transgender. I think maybe three of these characters are trans but I think that maybe people don’t know that. There is a lot of unspoken stuff, and that can be really frustrating for people.
AP: I really appreciate and admire that abstraction and refusal in your writing. There is that common pressure for queer and trans people to have to put certain things on the table, to name everything, make everything obvious, or cater towards certain consumptions. But beyond that, in not being ‘explicit’, it shows a certain amount of respect for your readers, like acknowledging that people will figure it out, or that people are clever enough, and that everyone will take different things from what they read.
VS: I have to have integrity or I can’t make this work. I’m glad you said that because I think that’s a really big part of my ethos. I respect readers. I don’t want to condescend people. I hate being condescended to. People can make their own decisions.
AP: The novel introduces the fictional game ‘As Above So Below’, which revealed a sense of self-exploration in quests and character creation, but also very vulnerable gestures of teaching and friendship between Neehah-Nancy and Pinky.
Pinky imagines he’d be a peasant or a target of witch hunters if he actually existed in this game and its setting. You’ve previously written in Seizure that ‘living in a body is similar to mastering a craft’ and about ‘seeing practising craft as loving yourself …practicing non-cis time’. You’ve written about magic and witchcraft as being non-patriarchal knowledge, queer knowledge, and that it has been punished for being so.
VS: I’d been reading a lot on the history of witch-hunting in Europe, and reading fourteenth-century witch-hunting manuals, so I’ve been quite interested for a long time in the persecutions of witches. There was like hundreds of more pages of ‘As Above So Below’ game plan, to which my editor, said ‘No. That’s enough.’ [Laughs].
I think Neehah-Nancy, is not just skilled in playing this game, but what she’s teaching Pinky is a skill of self-soothing, or taking a break from this world to be absorbed into this other world. This skill can be used almost anytime, and it can be used to feel safe. Pinky took that on from that point, and he began to think of himself through the game’s elements, and I think it really speaks to that mentorship and friendship and closeness.
I finished this book in 2017, and I was writing it while studying full time, working four days a week, coordinating another project, and my life was like 0% fun, so I had to have fun in the actual writing process, and it had to reflect some kind of joy or connection. I think why that connection between Neehah-Nancy and Pinky was so important for this work was because connections between trans people are really important to me.
‘As Above So Below’ speaks to the ways that we, as non-heterosexual people, and non-cis people, are always working things out, trying different roles, or mythologising ourselves, and creating our lives. At least I know that I am. I think what I like about playing with narrative is that it allows us to do that and that allows us to be in the world.
Image: Carles Rabada / Unsplash