Stepping out of Vietnam’s National Library into the hubbub that is Hanoi’s Old Quarter, three RMIT alumni seemed dazed by the rush of voices, motorbikes and general frantic selling.
Then, posing for photos with one of Hanoi’s best-known landmarks soaring behind them, Melody Newell, Laura Stortenbeker and Joe Rubbo did what you’d expect of Australia’s next generation of young writers: absorbed the location like sponges.
The emerging writers travelled to Vietnam with seven experienced writers from Asia and Australia as part of the 2015 Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange Program (WrICE), supported by RMIT and the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.
First up was a five-day residency at the Long Life Riverside Hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage town, followed by public panel discussions in Hanoi, where many RMIT Vietnam professional communications students were among the audience.
“In Hoi An each day we wrote and at 3pm we gathered for three hours to workshop with the experienced writers,” Newell said.
“The process of working with writers like Cate Kennedy and Suchen Christine Lim is pretty incredible and getting feedback from them was so valuable.
“They have an eye for the direction of a story, where it needs to go, what has legs and what doesn’t.”
Hoi An is a trading port town whose central core dating back to the 15th century is the Old Quarter; its tiled, timber-framed shop-houses are redolent of Japanese and Chinese influences over the centuries.
“We cycled to the beach past rice paddies with buffalo,” Newell said. “And the food! It’s by far the best in Asia.”
The three writers – graduates of the Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing and the Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing) – are currently working on short story collections but found it impossible to focus entirely on Australian work-in-progress in such an exotic environment.
Rubbo echoed one of the WrICE aims: facilitating writers stepping outside their often-isolated writing studios to share ideas with other writers from different cultures and generations.
“For me a major part of the impact of the exchange has been simply being away from Melbourne,” he said.
“I’ve been learning not just from Australian writers but writers from all over Asia.
“It’s been an encouraging, nurturing environment and everyone’s become good friends in the process.”
The alumni also learnt from Myanmar poet Nyein Way, Hong Kong fiction writer Xu Xi and Vietnamese poet Bao Chan Nguyen – as well as Malaysian-Australian rapper Omar Musa, who took the opportunity to freelance rap about Hanoi right outside the city’s library.
WrICE is coordinated by the non/fictionLab in the School of Media and Communication, with support from the Copyright Agency and partners including The Melbourne Writers Festival.