A lot of people have asked me about the strange and evocative title of Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean and where it came from. When I mention the Wobblies, most people look mystified. Even if you know who they are, it’s not necessarily easy to see how a collection of YA speculative fiction focussing on young women can connect to a group of rugged labourers form the early 20th Century.
So – some background. The Wobblies was the nickname of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical international labour union that was formed in America in 1905. There are dozens of songs associated with the unionists but one of the most famous is Joe Hill’s The Preacher and the Slave . Written in 1911, Joe Hill’s song became so iconic that a line from the chorus entered popular culture.
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
In the early 20th Century, the unions saw the churches as being inextricably linked to the bosses. Workers had to know their place and not expect too much for themselves or their families.
You can watch plenty of versions of the song on Youtube but my favourite version is from the album pictured above.
I came across the song while researching the early 20th century for my novel The Year It All Ended which is set in 1919. Not long after reading about the Wobblies, Anita, Payal and I were bouncing around possible titles for the anthology including Tomorrow is another Country and Quantum Leap. But I was humming Joe Hill’s song as I worked and thinking about how we were all talking about wanting a world that was out of reach.
Reading about the labour movement of the early 20th Century led me to think of where women fitted in the fight for fair working conditions and of Chairman Mao’s famous quote that ‘women hold up half the sky’. So much fantastic progress has been made for working people in Australia but women still earn, on average, 15% less than men for the same work and sadly, the gap has widened in the last decade. If women are holding up half the sky, they are being paid much less for their labours.
Somehow, Joe Hill’s cheekiness took hold and I talked with Payal and Anita about taking down that bit of ‘pie in the sky’ and eating it right now. So Eat the Sky was born as the first half of the working title. Drink the Ocean came a short time later as an extension of the title needing more balance. Later, I realised that I’ve always associated the ocean with mermaids and sea goddesses and that drinking the ocean was a natural expression of the mystery of our connection to the sea and the tides . We also joked that all that kept the Indian and Australian creators apart was a stretch of ocean. Although we only thought of it as a working title to begin with, it provided such direct inspiration to so many of the stories that by the time all the contributors work was submitted, we knew we couldn’t change it.
“Women can change better’n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head.”
“Man, he lives in jerks-baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk-gets a farm and looses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on-changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
When I was a teenager and first read Steinbeck’s American classic I loved it but there were many things in the novel that bewildered and, occasionally, annoyed me. At fifteen, I didn’t feel like my life was a river. It felt more like a pond. And unlike ‘Ma’ and the women of the novel, my life was very much in my head. I didn’t want to stop living in my head just because I was a girl. I wanted to have ‘a life of the mind’ no less than to be in my body. I wanted pie-in-the-sky and the flow of the river. Now, my life is in my arms and yet it is no less in my head.
This leads me to my excuse for not posting a more specifically focussed blog about Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean today. It’s been a busy week of family gatherings, of spending time with offspring who have returned home from overseas for brief visits, of admiring babies as they splash in the paddle pool in our back garden and cooking in the heat of a Melbourne summer. I have been drinking the ocean where those rivers of a woman’s life converge. Tomorrow I’ll scoop a little bit more sky into my lap top for the next post.
For those who aren’t familiar with how publishing works, commissioned authors are often sent a ‘brief’ – a set of instructions or outline of what the publisher is hoping to receive from the artist or writer. Usually, the brief for authors contributing to anthologies includes word length, themes and a schedule. But for Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean we asked our contributors for a whole lot more.
We had a lot of faith in our contributors. They were selected on the strength of their existing body of work and the respect we had for their integrity, as both thinkers and writers.
They all delivered more than we expected. Some of the collaborations were way more innovative and complex than we could have anticipated. I like to think that this was in part because of the themes of the anthology. Trust, co-operation and licence to innovate make for a potent starting point to any story.
Working Title: Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean (yes, weird, extravagant, see note below*)
Word length: for prose contributions – 2,500 words – for illustrated stories/graphics – 10 pages
Deadline: 1 December, 2013
Anthology editors: Commissioning editors – Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar, Anita Roy (Young Zubaan). Allen & Unwin editors – Susannah Chambers and Sarah Brenan.
As this is a collaborative project and the idea behind it was to open up conversations between two distinctively different countries, it was always intended that some authors and illustrators would work together. But when we began discussing the whole project, we realised that it would be wonderful if ‘writers & writers’ as well as ‘artists & writers’ could connect in some small way. We’re hoping that everyone will be happy to at least say ‘hi’ to their Indian/Australian counterpart, maybe exchange an email or two, or skype if you feel comfortable talking about your idea. We have matched all contributors in the hope you might enjoy meeting an Indian/Australian author. It would be lovely if this resulted in a tiny bit of cross-pollination.
The pairing may simply involve conversation, rather than conventional collaboration or sharing of work, perhaps bouncing around a theme or idea or mentioning your starting point. It would be interesting if the two very different pieces wound up containing an element of cross-referencing but it’s not a necessary outcome. There’s no obligation to spend time on this but in the spirit of the project it would be lovely if you could just wave at each other.
In regard to the stories, we’re very open to whatever you come up with but please remember the feminist theme: The central idea is of re-imagining the world from a feminist perspective. We suspect (hope!) some people will interpret “feminist” as thinking their stories around the futures of girls/women, others will see it as a world free of patriarchy and yet others will paint new or alternative social orders based on some other kind of kyriarchy — I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it’ll give us a variety.
Since this is a YA collection, the stories should in some way “speak” to teens. We’re hoping the readership will be roughly 13-17 years of age.
We are open to author-illustrator pairings working out their process together but offer the following suggestions on how to proceed, if you’re feeling unclear:
Once a theme or idea is established it would be great if the writer could send ‘word images’ to illustrators. plus a synopsis to the illustrator. Illustrators can then storyboard the illustrations. Illustrators have free reign to decide how to arrange the illustrations – and also feel free to opt for straight illustration, though we’d really love it if the stories were in graphic narrative format.
We encourage writers to make contact with the visual artists as soon as possible and discuss their themes and ideas with the illustrators. We hope illustrators will offer feedback on the story and also contribute to its development. If you decide a different process suits you better, absolutely fine.
*The Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World Union) had a 1930s labour song about how the bosses and priests tell you that you won’t get to eat pie until you’re in the sky (dead) – which is where the phrase ‘pie in the sky’ came from – something impossible, something you can’t have in this lifetime. But I liked the idea of swallowing the world, taking big hungry mouthfuls of this life, of eating the half of the sky we’re holding up. It’s about the desire to have and do impossible things, especially things that girls aren’t meant to do. And also of the idea of being connected to the planet. If you eat the sky and drink the ocean you are part of it and everything’s connected. It also seemed to echoe something about strange future worlds and alternative realities. Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean is currently only a working title and may change when we receive the work.
END OF BRIEF
The happy-ever-after end to this not so brief-brief is that no one behaved as we expected – they all rose above our expectation and the working title became the inspiration for new visions, new worlds and an extraordinary new book.