Working with Words: Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan is an early career academic and arts writer who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender, sexuality, screen and cultural studies at Melbourne University, and at the Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health and Society, at LaTrobe University. He’s written reviews and commentary for Australian Book Review, trouble, the Big Issue, The Lifted Brow and Kill Your Darlings, and is currently a Killings columnist online.

Dion spoke to us about why he loves sending and getting emails, why it’s important to ‘keep your patience’ when writing, and how he would transform Isabel Archer’s life if he was her Sassy Gay Best Friend.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

This is a timely question. I was recently cleaning out my mother’s garage and I came across the first piece I had published. It was in ‘The Stand’ in 1998, a supplement published by the Age that claimed to be ‘Australia’s largest free youth publication!’ (with an exclamation mark). It was a descriptive piece about a throng of Parisian commuters in the Châtelet metro station in Paris. As if that isn’t pretentious enough, I was clearly going for a bleak, ennui-of-urban-life vibe: it contains the phrases ‘claustrophobic and dangerously intimate compartments’ and ‘bewildering pattern of human behaviour’. It also has the inscrutable title ‘Life is a Remix’. I’m not sure what that means and I’m pretty sure my 17-year-old self didn’t either, but it sounds very 90s.

It was almost ten years before I had anything else published, and then it was an interview with director Peter Evans about The History Boys which was on at the Melbourne Theatre Company. That was for Melbourne Community Voice, the queer streetpress, which I did some arts freelancing for.

What’s the best part of your job?

I quite like emailing people and getting emails. I know that’s odd, because of course, like most people, I also hate my inbox and feel completely overwhelmed by it a lot of the time. But I particularly love receiving a thoughtful email from a student or an academic colleague, or an editor. I love it when people send me edits of my own writing or drafts of their own. It makes me feel important and connected.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I’ve done a lot of deathly boring work for more established academics over the past couple of years under the guise of ‘research assistance’. Research assistance can be very exciting, like collecting ethnographic interview data on young men’s use of digital cruising and dating applications, like Grindr and Scruff, which I am doing at the moment. Or, it can be mildly interesting, like helping to organize a conference on Regency literary culture or copy editing a special journal edition on lifestyle media in Asia. Those are both things I’ve done and, in those gigs, at least you’re learning about something new. But then there is most research assistant work that I have done, which includes things like photocopying, building Leaning Management Websites and changing MLA referencing style to Chicago – it’s incredibly tedious and boring.

Oh, and casualisation. That’s a pretty horrible thing. The casualisation of academic teaching is pretty much the worst.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

Most of the really memorable highlights have happened behind the scenes. I reviewed a scholarly book about femme lesbians in Cold War cinema a few years ago that was written by an academic whose work has been very influential and inspiring to me. He read the review and wrote to the editors of the journal thanking me for the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of my review. I was completely wrapped. Academic reviewing seems to be pretty thankless work. It takes ages to read a scholarly work closely and do justice to it in a small space, and there’s very little recognition or motivation for that kind of work in the academic world. So I was stoked that one of my heroes had taken the time to acknowledge it and that he appreciated my efforts.

I’m proud to have been the first editor of the Emerging Writers’ Festival reader. The subsequent editions, edited by Aden Rolfe and Karen Pickering, were much stronger collections I think, but I’m glad the Festival is still publishing the collection, and proud to have worked on developing that concept with David Ryding, who was the director of that Festival at the time.

And I’m also still very proud of The Death Mook, which I edited for Vignette Press in 2008. It’s a fairly low-fi, DIY publication, but it had essays, short stories and poetry by the likes of Anna Krien, Krissy Kneen, Amy Espeseth and a bunch of other local talents whose writing careers have really taken off since then.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

My PhD supervisor once told me in an email to ‘keep my patience’ in the context of telling me I had to re-write the introduction to my thesis for the umpteenth time. It’s simple but it really struck a chord because I tend to be quite impatient with and anxious about the drafting process and always want to get to the finish line as quickly as possible.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

I’m not famous enough to have read anything much about myself or my work, though I did read a scathing review of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Reader that I edited. I couldn’t quite believe someone would actually feel so unsympathetic to the project that they would give it a bad review. I was shocked. But that, of course, was completely naïve, and I think the publication really benefitted from that kind of rigorous review.

If you weren’t working as a writer and editor, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I fantasize about being a dancer, but it’s too late for that. I’m in my 30s now and not very coordinated. But I go to an 80s dance class wearing short shorts and a headband, and I secretly-not-so-secretly live out that dream every Sunday.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I’m not a creative writer, so I feel somewhat unqualified to comment on this debate, but I absolutely think it can. I have an academic writing workshop with some other early career researchers and grad students that I met in a reading group at Melbourne Uni, where I did my PhD. Workshopping one another’s work, hearing and dishing out advice has been one of the most productive and instructional exercises for me in developing as a scholarly writer. I imagine it’s similar with creative writing: instructors who can cultivate a rigorous, honest and supportive workshopping environment, who come up with genuinely worthwhile writing exercises, and can act as supportive mentors can, I think, certainly teach people to write.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

Befriend other writers. All of the strongest and most committed writers that I’ve watched emerge over the years are people with supportive friendships with other emerging writers.

Come to the National Young Writers’ Festival. I’m on the steering committee, so obviously I really believe in it. Hanging out with other writers and getting inspired is a great way to fuel and sustain the long and terrifying process of developing your craft and career. The Emerging Writers’ Festival is wonderful too. Start a workshop, join a bookclub, go to poetry slams, whatever – be around other writers and talk to them about what they do, and then go home and give it a try.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I buy lots of academic books online, usually in massive binges from Duke University Press who are the crème de la crème of queer and sexualities studies. I buy lots of novels in op shops, and, because I work at Melbourne University, I have regular book buying binges at Readings Carlton. I’ve tried to start using an e-reader and I’ve had some success with scholarly books and articles that I read for work. But I’ve never managed to finish a novel on my iPad, so I still buy the physical object and I get pleasure from giving my money to booksellers.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I’m terrible at these kinds of hypothetical questions because I’m a very literal person and I don’t have much imagination. So here’s a very literal answer. One of my favourite writers is Henry James, and one of my favourite characters is Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer. She’s such a deeply tragic heroine; and, spoiler alert, she ends up stuck in a deeply emotionally abusive marriage to Gilbert Osmond. I would go out for dinner with her.

There is a funny YouTube series called ‘Sassy Gay Best Friend’ where a wise-cracking horrible gay stereotype visits famous literary and movie characters and rescues them with the sort of advice only a horrible gay stereotype can deliver. I would tell Isabel that Osmond is an arch aesthete, a sterile dilettante and a cruel husband, that Madame Merle has hoodwinked her into marrying him for her money, and that she should get over her pathological overvaluation, divorce him and have her way with Caspar Goodwood.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

There’s a book that a lot of people in sexuality research and queer studies will know of called Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died a couple of a years ago from cancer. It has a chapter on Henry James that I came across when I was an undergrad English major, which cemented my love for Henry James and ignited my fascination with queer theory. That book blew my tiny mind and it still does every time I revisit it. Some readers think Sedgwick’s writing is difficult and, like some other texts in queer theory it’s been labeled impenetrable, but I immediately found her writing to be so rich and nuanced and yet actually extremely precise.

The novel I can’t re-read enough times, despite spending six months of my life writing about it, is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. I’ve read it again and again. It’s brilliant.

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