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Working with Words: Ali Alizadeh

Read Monday, 14 Aug 2017

Ali Alizadeh is a writer and academic based in Melbourne. He writes fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction and his works have been variously described as ‘haunting and hilarious’, ‘intriguing and infuriating’ and ‘harrowing but brilliant’. Ali shared his thoughts on Nineties zines, writing for money and pimping identities.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

I think it was a poem in a chapbook or a zine that I and a few friends put together at the old Café Bohemia, West End, Brisbane, sometime in the mid-1990s. There was a rather eclectic group of poets and musos and street performers and other eccentrics who came together once a week, if I’m not mistaken, to get intoxicated, sing and be artistic. I have really fond memories of those nights.

Anyhow, I think I put a couple of poems in that zine, one of which was called ‘Part 1789’, which made an ironic reference to the French Revolution, but it was actually about suicide and alcoholism. Not a poem I’m particularly proud of, but I do remember the wonderfully warm, communal feeling of being at those readings at Café Bohemia all those years ago.

Photograph of writer Ali Alizadeh
Cover image of the book, 'The Last Days of Jeanne d'Arc' by Ali Alizadeh
<em>The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc</em> is out now.

What’s the best part of your job?

Well, I don’t know if I’d describe writing as my job. I’m employed as an academic, and I guess that would be more accurately described as my job. I’ve always (well, almost always) intentionally avoided having to become a professional writer. I publish work commercially, but not because I have any desire to earn my living as a writer.

I don’t really think people should make art for money. Art has intrinsic use-value, as Marx might say, and its reification into salary, or government funding, or royalties, or whatever other kind of monetised instrumentalisation, is really a kind of degradation of art.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think writers who have gone professional should not demand to be paid fairly, and that doesn’t mean that (some of) the powers that be don’t make bucket loads of money from the work of writers – they do – but for me it seems more practical to earn my living and sell my labour-power as an academic rather than a writer.

As a writer, I really pretty much just write what I like. It’s definitely not easy holding down a full-time day job and writing and publishing regularly as I do, but it’s really the only way I can function under late capitalism.

There’s so much obsession with authorial identity … which forces one to have to pimp one’s identity

What’s the worst part of your job?

See above! Being a writer (or anything else, really) in this age of ideological overdetermination is not easy. One has to objectify oneself regularly to feel loved by the other, which is rather awful. There’s so much obsession with authorial identity at the moment, for example, which forces one to have to pimp one’s identity – and what an unreliable, provisional thing ‘identity’ is – just to feel authorised to be an author.

I think anything that makes the writer have to do anything other than write – and have to make any claims other than those made by the work itself – is opposed to the work of writing.

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

Probably being invited to get up and read – well, alternate between shouting and mumbling – my nasty bitterly ironical poems when I was in my late teens in the before-mentioned Café Bohemia in Brisbane.

I’ve also been very lucky to have had some amazing readers, mentors, publishers and editors over the years. Their input and ideas have been highly significant to my work. And also my grandmother, who used to tell me stories and read to me obsessively when I was a child.

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

I find the assumptions (some, thankfully few) people make regarding my work or my person, based on what they think they know about my identity, rather weird – and when they project these assumptions on what I’ve written, they come up with frankly bizarre, sometimes amusing, interpretations. I’ve been called a Muslim, an Islamophobe, an effete male feminist, a misogynist, an ‘ethno-fascist’ (whatever that means), un-Australian or racist, among other things. I look forward to being called a trans-wannabe Christian extremist, or some such, because of my new book on Joan of Arc.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Probably painting.

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

Who’s advocating such a debate? Are there people who are seriously suggesting that talent is something one is born with? One is not born with language, and it’s something that we learn from our parents, school teachers, etc. So, why wouldn’t the way one uses language, or what one may do with language as a writer, not be something that would be learnt and taught?

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

Just write!

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

A physical bookshop, mostly, as long as the bookshop can order in books from quality presses.

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

The sort of fiction I like reading doesn’t really feature the kinds of character one would want to meet in real life, let alone have dinner with. I’m reading The Red and the Black by Stendhal now, which is an extraordinary novel, but I most definitely wouldn’t want to have dinner with Julien Sorel. He’s such a creep!

On the other hand, I think having coffee (or maybe just a demitasse) with some poets could be interesting – say, Homer, or Dante, or Dickinson, or H.D. And I’d definitely be into having an alcoholic drink (even a meal) with a great philosopher, e.g. Marx, or Althusser, or Freud, or Badiou. (Not Nietzsche, though – he was too mad, even for me.) And if I could eat with a historical figure, I’d very happily have a three-course meal with the inimitable Joan of Arc. And brunch with Robespierre.

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

Just one book?! It would have to be something that I read at a very formative stage in life, so probably something that I read during childhood. I remember having a Zorro picture book that I was very, very fond of, but I can’t remember anything about its author or anything other than that I genuinely loved that book.

Ali’s new book – a novel about Joan of Arc, called The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc – is out now.

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