INTERVIEW | CATH FERLA

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Note: the interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

By Eisha Gupta

 

Two years after it was finished, Cath Ferla’s debut novel Ghost Girls has finally seen the light of day. The novel follows a plucky and intelligent protagonist, Sophie Sandilands, into the dark underbelly of the international student community in Sydney.

I sat down with Cath in her cosy home to talk about her inspiration behind the book, China’s cultural diversity, joyless marriages, and why she decided to set the book in Sydney than in her hometown, Melbourne.

 

How did you embark on writing Ghost Girls?
There were a few different factors. The first thing was that I was working at the time in the screen department of a television drama series. Every day I would be working on crime books. I wanted to do something with crime because that was the experience I was having.

Secondly, in between the series that I was working on, I was working at an English language school in Sydney teaching international students. And I had come across this situation whereby there was a student who had been impersonating a student in my class. She was standing in for another student so the person we had seen in our class was not this person on the roll. The reason she was standing in was so that the other student could obtain their visa credit points while working or doing whatever. I didn’t ever find out what happened or what that other student was doing or where she was. But because I had a story brain, it started ticking over wondering what she might be doing.

The third thing was that at the same time in Sydney there were a number of articles coming out in Fairfax about the exploitation of sex workers, many of whom were international, newly arrived people – not necessarily on student visas – who got into quite nasty situations like working in illegal brothels. I was interested in what was going on there and I would find these articles would pop up every couple of months or so but then they would disappear. It made me think that this must just be simmering under the surface the whole time.

 

Why did you decide to set the book in Sydney and not in Melbourne?
I’m a Melbourne person, but I lived in Sydney for six years and I spent a lot of time in the Chinatown area and I loved it. I found it very dynamic, much more so than even the Melbourne Chinatown. There were so many international students there. Sydney’s Chinatown is seven blocks long and there is a lot of life, food, diversity, and colour and things happening. I don’t feel that’s really represented in the literature that is based around Sydney very much. When we think of Sydney we think of the harbour, the glamour, the Bondi beaches, the nightclubs and all that sort of stuff. But I find that areas like Chinatown are an attractive part of the city. I really wanted to capture that.

 

Was there a lot of crossover between your experiences and that of the protagonist’s?
I lived in China a long time ago, back in 2000–2001. But it left a profound impact on me. I was really blown away by the diversity in Chinese society and the country, topography, food, the language, the people and how friendly and welcoming they were. I made some wonderful friends there and so even to this day I am still very connected with that place and love it very much.

The scenes set in Beijing are very much based on my memories and diary entries from that time, but that is a 15-year-old Beijing and the book is set in about 2012. None of the actual experiences intersect with Sophie’s; it was all imagined.

 

CathFerla 7 - Donna Killeen - June16  X

 

Why did you decide to include a Uyghur character, especially since there is a lot of tension between ethnic communities and the Chinese authorities?
I have known a few Uyghur people in my life, and I am very aware that Chinese society is very diverse. Here in the West we often think of China as this one block, all Han Chinese. We don’t really understand that China is as diverse as Europe. There are more than forty minorities and nationalities, and there are all these different languages and cuisines. The Uyghurs make up a really huge part. A lot of their culture has been eradicated by the dominant Han Chinese, but they have got their own culture and are Chinese.

I did know somebody who was Uyghur and knew about his battle to get a passport. He’s a Chinese man and he wanted to go to Canada like so many other Chinese people I knew, but he was struggling because he was considered not equal. Because he wasn’t Han. I just really wanted to include a character that represented that person whom I knew, because I think it is really important for us to understand that there is diversity in China, which is seen as powerful, unique and a one block country, but there is a lot bubbling beneath the surface.

 

Did you feel like an outsider when writing the book, despite a close affinity with the country and its culture?
I thought about that a lot but probably more so in terms of when the book was being published. I was more worried about what people would ask, like, ‘Can you write about this when you are not Chinese?’

But I was writing about an Australian experience. My main character is Australian-Chinese, but she has always identified more with her Australian side. I was looking at that experience of being outside of your own society more than writing specifically from a Chinese perspective only. You don’t have to be inside a culture, or the sex, or gender of the story you brought. I think that would be very limiting. That’s why we have imagination. As long as it is informed and empathetic, I think you can write about anything.

 

How difficult was it for you to show some of the violence in the story but not be too graphic so as to put off the reader?
I definitely made a conscious choice to suggest more than I described because I personally don’t like crime novels, and there are so many of them, where the distress of the victim, who is usually female, is written in great detail usually for the reader’s pleasure or horror. I get totally turned off. It just makes me not want to read any more.

I did want to tackle the subject matter because I think it is important and it happens. I wanted to talk about [the] sexual exploitation of women. In order to do that in this context, I needed to be able to convey to the reader what was happening, but I definitely didn’t want to describe it.  It was a very challenging subject matter and I felt quite confronted with the idea of having to deal with it, but I feel like I dealt with it delicately.

 

CathFerla 1 - Donna Killeen - June16  X

 

Michael Disney’s wife is a minor character but you portrayed her as a step apart from the people running the scholarship racket. Was that another way for you to show the way men drive violence against women?
I was definitely trying to make that point in relation to her and her character. There are so many Western men in China and other Asian countries who take on these wives. There’s no love involved in those relationships. It is all very much sexual and often there is no language exchange. I did know someone who was married to a woman. She didn’t speak English, he didn’t speak Chinese. Their daughter used to translate for them. But I think the relationship was purely there for sexual purposes because they were in China where many, but not all, women are traditional and wouldn’t have sex with a man unless they were married. A lot of them would get married and there would be this hope that their Canadian, American or Australian husband would take them away from China and give them a better life elsewhere; but that won’t happen. As a woman in that position you’d be pissed off, yeah?

 

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of things. Something that is quite independent from Ghost Girls, another book that I am part-way through. I have an idea for a follow-up to Ghost Girls. We shall see if that comes to life.

 

GHOST GIRLS is available in bookstores and libraries across Australia. You can follow Cath Ferla on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

 

Eisha Gupta is a journalist who is curious about almost everything in life, with the exception of golf. She spends most of her time reading books, watching dog videos and scrolling through her Twitter feed.

 

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