Death clubs and soul speech: the books of Justine Cooke

Justine Cooke at her home in Leura. Photo: Facebook

Young author Justine Cooke has braved 2020 to self publish her second book of the year. Youth Editor Corin Shearston had a chat with her.

“This isn’t what I wanted to write”, author Justine Cooke exclaimed, in a Facebook post announcing her first independent book release Death Club in lieu of publishing children’s stories about messy kangaroos and inspiring mosquitoes. Instead of presenting these beloved, jovial topics, the young Blue Mountains-based artist describes this near-500 page novel as her memento mori, a study of hope, death, and demons, and a reminder of the purpose behind pain.

For those close to Justine, known to her friends as Sunny Steeno, Death Club’s recent DIY release in September also appeared as a way for ‘Sunny’ to navigate and release complex thoughts borne of life’s struggles, in a personal cleanse of soul and spirit. As a young woman living with chronic fatigue syndrome, an incurable condition which she likens to MS, Justine Cooke is a true survivor. 

For her mind to ‘emerge through the topsoil’ of an upbringing dictated by medical attention and frequented by fatigue, pain and strange sleep, Justine devoted three months of 2020 to inner therapy in the form of Death Club’s conceptualisation and completion.

“This is what I needed to write”, she continues, in her aforementioned Facebook post. “I finally feel my rightful age again.” Admitting her prior exhaustion resulting from conventional desktop writing at a computer screen – a short-burst activity which used to take her up to one year to resume after resting, due to her condition – Justine now reveals her preference to write by hand on her phone, using the Notes app.

Justine Cooke displays a copy of Death Club. She created the book cover and design herself. Photo: Facebook.

Still writing by hand two months after Death Club, Justine celebrated a large, thick and colourful book of original poetry which was announced on 30 November; the result of three intensely creative weeks. Amidst the din of one universally anxiety-ridden year, Justine Cooke’s second book is a refreshing compendium of poems that proudly wears the title of Hello? Is Anyone There? It’s Your Soul Speaking. She summarises her new body of work as “an exploration into both my inner and external landscape through the filters of my own lens”.

As with Death Club, these poems are also an emotional release for empowerment’s sake, in the face of disease and darkness. However, Justine’s recent poems are way more positive than her novel, which involved groups of demons flying up from Hell to Sydney to develop new methods of torture. Both books prove her newfound creative discipline – she has come a remarkably long way. In reference to her new book, Justine humbly explains that her new book was “a reminder that things don’t stay the same”.

Indeed, a surprise lay in store for the author. Initially thinking that she had been temporarily drained of inspiration after finishing her novel, Justine unwittingly discovered the emerging words that would eventually merge into the stanzas of the poems of her new book. It seemed as if the necessary experience of writing Death Club had freed a mental block of some kind.

“It sort of flew out”, Justine tells the Sentinel. “I wasn’t expecting, or wanting to write another thing so soon, I wanted a rest … suddenly all this poetry was there … all these things that had been itching to come through.”

Humanly mirroring the cyclical power of nature to renew and regenerate in startling ways through “ebbs and flows”, Justine notes a massive influence from the natural world. One surpassing human impressions from the likes of J.R.R Tolkien, Neil Gaiman and Nikita Gill, three of her favourite fellow writers. 

Justine Cooke displays her latest book. This cover was also done in a DIY style.
Photo: Facebook.

Prospective readers can message ‘Sunny Steeno’ on Facebook to enquire about ordering physical copies of her books. Although operating in the underground writing scene for now, wary of the threat of creative dilution from larger publishers, she is grateful for the opportunity to positively affect new readers.

“To know that [writing] can benefit the both of us makes everything that has happened worthwhile”, she states.

In reference to future writing endeavours, Justine reveals that she is excited about writing “about escaping back into nature and escaping government regimes”.

Likening the fields of her creative practice to the many arms of an octopus, one suspects that Justine will also remain busy with a multitude of expressive activities, such as her painting, weaving, music making, rapping and photo editing.

Her current perspective of writing is to view it as therapy, however, and she hopes with infinite thanks that others may receive the chance to resonate with her words.

To the process of creating

And finding light

When you’re in the

Deepest darkest

Depths of Depression

It seems impossible

But still, the light exists

Still, a bioluminescent

Wonderland lives within

The blackness

– Justine Cooke

An excerpt from ‘The Dark Zone’

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