WJP Newnham
Contributing Editor for Experimental Discourse

Interview: Freya Howarth

regarding a new Australian anthology of experimental non-fiction
called Dizzy Limits

Freya Howarth is a writer and an an Associate Editor at Brow Books. She works at the digital magazines Aeon and Psyche and her writing has been published in Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Readings Monthly. She studied philosophy and human ecology and is interested in literature and translation.

Freya Howarth, Associate Editor at Brow Books

About Brow Books:
Brow Books is the books imprint from not-for-profit independent literary organisation TLB. For more than a decade TLB has been focused on finding and championing work from the artistic and/or demographic margins by writers and artists from Australia and the rest of the world.

About Dizzy Limits:
Featuring pieces that explore the body and its relationship to the world, climate change, the connection of First Nations people to land, trans motherhood, leeches, computers pretending to be humans, and so much more, Dizzy Limits collects the very best examples of experimental nonfiction from Australia’s most intellectually ambitious and creatively curious writers.

Contributors include some of Australia’s most exciting writers, both established and up-and-coming: Ellen van Neerven, Rebecca Giggs, Evelyn Araluen, Quinn Eades, Eloise Grills, Oliver Reeson, Elena Gomez, Noëlle Janaczewska, Jean Bachoura, Jessie Berry-Porter, W.J.P. Newnham, Bella Klaver, Amanda Stewart, Oscar Schwartz, Lucy Van, Tess Pearson, Vivienne Cutbush, Holly Childs, Sophia O’Rourke, Nikkola Mikocki-Bleeker, Harry Saddler, Autumn Royal, Stephanie Guest and Kate Riggs.

Using unorthodox style, voice, point-of-view and form, these writers upend the rote to find new ways of conveying meaning. They defamiliarize the familiar and expose the pulsating, dizzying limits of writing.

Everything here expands the scale, reconfigures writing, entertains and inhabits my mind long after I’m done reading. And then I come back.”—Eileen Myles

This book is an uprising, puncturing the prefab moves of literary nonfiction. It’s a blueprint for a miraculous reanimation of the form’s capacity for revelation and self-renewal. — Maria Tumarkin



Newnham for O:JA&L: How would you define experimental non-fiction writing?

Howarth: For me, experimental nonfiction, like nonfiction more broadly, is writing that is grounded in facts and focuses on real events, people, phenomena, or situations. It differs from more conventional nonfiction writing in the forms, methods, tools, approaches at its disposal, as well as, often, the choice of subject matter. Experimental nonfiction can, among other things, draw on the tools more conventionally reserved for fiction or poetry, or call into service and co-opt devices and elements that aren’t available to other types of nonfiction writing; or it might take the tools of nonfiction writing (say rigorous journalistic reporting) and use this to examine a personal, intimate topic that usually wouldn’t receive this kind of treatment.

But experimental nonfiction isn’t exactly a unified genre with a clear-cut set of conventions, forms, approaches, since it is, in fact, motivated by a rejection of convention and the quest for new ways of writing. So it’s more of an umbrella term to try to capture a huge variety of types of writing, pushing out in all directions from more neatly defined genres.

Newnham for O:JA&L: What is the importance of experimental non-fiction writing as a genre?

Howarth: Experimental nonfiction writing allows people to express themselves and tell their stories in a way that feels truer to them. I think this is often especially the case for writers who come from groups or identities that have tended to be marginalised in whatever society they find themselves in. For many, writing in a more traditional way would be like bending to fit into a narrow, pre-existing mould – who developed that model in the first place? What stories was it designed to tell? And what stories does it tend to exclude? Experimental writing, then, is a way for them to tell a story on their own terms.

So, it is important for the writers, who get to choose the way they want to express themselves, which is also of great value to readers, who get to experience a greater variety of stories and storytelling approaches. Additionally, for readers, reading experimental writing can be a stimulating and enriching experience on several levels. If you are reading, say, a lot of police procedurals, or newspaper articles, or any number of other tightly defined genres of writing, you start to get a pretty good sense of what to look out for, what to expect, familiar tropes and structures. When you read experimental writing, your expectations are not going to get you far. You kind of must learn how to read the piece as you go – the writer teaches you to how read it. It is a highly active reading process, that asks for close attention and an open mind.

Newnham for O:JA&L: “Dizzy Limits: Recent Experimentations in Australian Nonfiction” is a great title; how did you arrive at this and what were you trying to convey?

Howarth: Thanks! It was definitely a process to get to the finished title, and I’ve been very pleased with the positive response it’s received.

Naming an anthology is challenging, because you want to make sure the title sits well with all the different pieces, styles, themes and voices in the book. The process began with a big brainstorm, mostly riffing off associations with the word ‘experimental’. At the same time, we were working on directions for the cover design, and a lot of the inspiration images were sort of abstracted artistic representations of space-time, black holes and microorganisms (to me, the finished cover very much reminds me of the contour lines used to represent space-time in scientific illustrations). So the idea of black holes and event horizons was very much swirling around in my mind – the image of a black hole as something always out of reach, unknowable, over the horizon, but that people would be striving towards nonetheless, seemed like an apt metaphor for the work of experimental writers, charging into uncharted territory. I remember making a list of words – ‘horizon’, ‘edge’, ‘asymptote’, ‘limit’ – and cross-referencing them in various dictionaries, until I stumbled across the expression ‘dizzy limit’. It is a colloquial expression meaning something that’s at the very edge of acceptability. One of the characteristics of experimental nonfiction is that it might often struggle to find a home in mainstream publishing because it does not neatly fit into one category or another, so I think the expression nicely captures and celebrates the unifying features of the otherwise highly diverse pieces in this book: they resist easy categorisation, they push against convention, they operate beyond the tidy margins of mainstream genres – they’ll make your head spin (in a good way)!

Although the word ‘experimental’, for me, initially has very scientific connotations, this is not an anthology of science writing, so I’m glad that the final title hints at both the rigour, hardness and exteriority of scientific methodologies – in the word ‘limits’ – and the malleability and interiority of a more personal, subjective approach to thinking and writing – in the word ‘dizzy’.

Newnham for O:JA&L: What was the selection criteria for the works in Dizzy Limits?

Howarth: From the start, we knew we were putting together an anthology of experimental nonfiction and we knew that it would include some of the past winners and runners up from The Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Nonfiction. Beyond that, we had a lot of work to do to figure out our other parameters for selection! There’s so much great work out there, and any printed, physical collection will always, inevitably, leave out so many more great pieces than it can feature. Knowing that this could only ever be a snapshot, we decided there was value in having the anthology highlight local writers.

Once we had decided on this focus, we turned our attention to how the book could reflect the idea that experimental writers work within a community of practice, reading each other’s work and finding inspiration for their own. From this reflection, we decided to open our selection process by inviting experimental nonfiction writers, including the winners and runners-up from the prize, to suggest work by other writers in the field. This made the selection process and criteria wider and more varied, and the book is much richer for it. I like to think the pieces in the book could be read as a discussion. The links between the pieces are not explicitly set out, but readers could look for lines of influence and inspiration within the book.

Newnham for O:JA&L: What is the market/appetite for experimental writing in Australia and internationally?

Howarth: I think the market for experimental nonfiction is small, but growing, and very passionate. Much of this writing is nurtured by magazines and journals, both in print and online, which can foster a real sense of community among readers. More broadly, there seems to be a great appetite for writing that helps people see beyond their own perspective on the world, and experimental nonfiction is great for that. The challenge lies, perhaps, in helping more readers to discover what this genre has to offer.

Newnham for O:JA&L: What do you see as the future for experimental non-fiction writing?

Howarth: By its very nature, I think it would be hard for anyone to predict exactly what experimental nonfiction writing might look like in the future. If I could predict it, I think it might not be very experimental! That being said, some of the themes and approaches that come through in the anthology are likely to continue to be rich seams for writing and of ongoing relevance: the relationship between humans and the environment, in a future of climate crisis; the way that technology permeates and mediates our lives – and the new, unimaginable forms that this technology might open up for writers to explore and blend.

Also, as has been the case before, what is experimental now will increasingly integrate into and influence more mainstream writing, to the point where it might not seem all that experimental in the future. I think we can expect to continue to see innovations in experimental writing expanding the scope for all writing.

Newnham for O:JA&L: What limitations do you see for authors and or publishers working in the experimental non-fiction field?

Howarth: Speaking from personal experience, I would say that there’s a lack of knowledge about the genre among general readers. In fact, most of my own knowledge of the genre developed through working on this book, and really solidified through trying to define the genre to people who asked me about the project while I was working on it. Even for people who have heard the term ‘experimental nonfiction’, I think there might be a perception that this writing might somehow be too difficult to get into or not for them. However, as I mentioned earlier, this really is writing that teaches you how to read it and will make you think in new ways. I think there are a lot of readers out there who would love experimental nonfiction, if they only knew about it and where to find it.


About the interviewer:
W.J.P. Newnham hitchhiked around Australia working as barman, bum and waiter, slaughter hand, deckhand and master, spending 25 years working in the Northern Prawn Fishery. He has travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, the Americas, and Japan and speaks marketplace Indonesian with some fluency. He is the winner of the 2016 The Lifted Brow’s Experimental Non-fiction Prize. His numerous short stories have been published in Nocturnal SubmissionsOverlandThe Lifted BrowMeanjinWesterly and Horror Sleaze Trash [to name but a few]. Newnham is a Contributing Editor for Experimental Discourse at O:JA&L.

Image: Portrait photograph courtesy of Freya Howarth.