From Fury to Fiction: Sharlene Allsopp on The Next Chapter
When Sharlene Allsopp was accepted into the Wheeler Centre’s writing development program The Next Chapter, she welcomed the opportunity with both hands. Looking ahead to the publication of her debut novel, Sharlene tells fellow writer and 2020 Next Chapter participant Oliver Reeson about the lasting impact The Next Chapter has had on her writing and relationships.
Sharlene Allsopp says her debut novel The Great Undoing was borne of a kind of fury. ‘I was sort of furious about why there are these hard borders between fiction and non-fiction,’ she says. ‘Why do some genres get this authority imparted to them that others don’t? Particularly for me as a Bundjalung woman, I thought, “Why is history a genre that gets such credibility?” It was that fury that drove me to try to figure out how to tell a story that would really blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction.’
In The Great Undoing, set sometime in the near future, Allsopp’s protagonist, Scarlet Friday, a Truth-Teller, becomes stranded on the other side of the world in the midst of a global digital collapse. By chance, she finds an old history book with fading text and decides to embed a new history into its pages. This premise was inspired by a chance discovery from her own life.
The Great Undoing came alive for Allsopp after she stumbled upon a book by Sir Ernest Scott, published in 1916. ‘At that time, my great grandfather, a Bundjalung man, was in the trenches in World War I serving a country that had no love for him. I opened this little old history book, called A Short History of Australia, and it basically starts off with, “The history of Australia begins with a blank space on a map and ends with the story of ANZAC.” This [erasure] just made me so mad that I decided my protagonist would take that book whose “truths and facts” had faded and she would write her own heresy/history over the top of it.’
Allsopp was one of 10 writers selected to take part in the 2020 iteration of The Next Chapter, the Wheeler Centre’s writing program dedicated to investing time, opportunities and resources into emerging writers who reflect the diversity of Australian identities. The importance of bringing new voices to light isn’t lost on Allsopp or her project. The Great Undoing is a sort of literary and historical collage, drawing on the writing of Claire G. Coleman, Judith Wright and Behrouz Boochani, among others, in order to invite many voices into, not only an often-unheard version of history, but an unexplored form of history-telling.
‘Ernest Scott is just one voice,’ says Allsopp. ‘A white man’s voice. What Scarlet’s doing is she’s offering an answer to our problem: What if, instead of allowing one voice to tell history, we listened to everyone’s version of history? What if we said that meaningful truth is delivered by a “the more, the merrier” approach, and does one history really take away from the other history? I think a discerning person can read coloniser history and let it speak for itself as to its veracity, but only if we also have all the other truths alongside. The monologue is the problem.’
This invitational approach to storytelling is also at the core of what The Next Chapter sets out to do, challenging the status quo of publishing by investing in new and exciting voices, as individuals and also as a burgeoning community that can continue past the program’s formal year of support. While writers receive resources, such as a stipend and a stay at Varuna, The Writer’s House in Katoomba, New South Wales, a key part of the scheme is the opportunity to foster meaningful connections – with mentors, with industry professionals, but also with peers.
At the end of Allsopp’s year of participating in the Next Chapter, a reading night was hosted in the Wheeler Centre in order to introduce writers to industry professionals and the broader literary community. Allsopp says this night remains one of the highlights of her professional life. ‘To be able to feel safe, but also to listen and to hear the width and breadth of this incredible – I know diversity can be such a bandied around word, but – the beautiful diversity of each writer and everything their life brought to their work.’ Allsopp says she remains close to fellow writers from her cohort, like Hasib Hourani and Tim Loveday, and feels the benefit of being connected to a community she can continue to learn from. ‘That’s one of the huge outcomes for me. Being able to listen. I actually quote Hasib’s work in The Great Undoing because I knew I just had to have his voice in there, he taught me so much.’
Asked whether she has any advice for writers considering applying for The Next Chapter this year, Allsopp says, ‘What you get out of Next Chapter is what you put into it. Be confident. Know what you want to take away from it at the end and then go after it with a genuine desire to make connections along the way. Don’t let the Next Chapter happen to you, go out and happen to the Next Chapter.’
Sharlene Allsopp’s debut novel The Great Undoing is due to be released February 2024 with Ultimo Press.
The Next Chapter is open for applications until Friday 30 June 2023.
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