How St Kilda shaped her story with author Katia Ariel

Playwright meets author on common ground – St Kilda

An interview in St Kilda with Katia Ariel, Stella-prize shortlisted author of the memoir The Swift Dark Tide

St Kilda is not just a suburb, it’s a character. Like Manhattan, a city that lives in our imagination as a film-set, St Kilda is a place we’ve encountered through stories, screen, songs. From the 90s TV series The Secret Life of Us, where the 20-something friends kick a soccer ball around Catani Gardens to that “one sweet promenade” that Paul Kelly sings he’ll exchange the whole of Sydney harbour for, St Kilda can’t help being iconic. There is the grey churn of the bay, the sharp fronds of the soaring palms against the empty blue, the faint screams that accompany the rattle of the scenic railway and the pigeon-shit flecked pavement of Acland St with its clanging trams and tourists. St Kilda is seedy and sun dazzled, and always set to the backdrop of the sea.

This backdrop and the suburb of St Kilda is a pivotal character in Katia Ariel’s memoir, The Swift Dark Tide – the story of a happily married heterosexual woman who falls in love with another woman. I interviewed Ariel in St Kilda on an autumn day that felt like spring. We talked about how St Kilda is intertwined with the love story of the woman who unmoored her. “She and I loved St Kilda separately before we loved each other. And then we kind of loved it together and it got a new iteration,” she explains.

St Kilda – which was a few suburbs away from where Ariel now lives – became a place where she could be with the woman she loved without being observed. Their romance unfolds at Cicciolina and the Galleon and in an unnamed hidden courtyard in a seafood restaurant that locals can decode the location of. “St. Kilda was kind of weirdly this public space, but it was also a shelter.”

And always, as for St Kilda locals, there is the sea. During the year that Ariel wrote her memoir, no matter the season, she plunged into the ever colder slate-green waters along the foreshore outside the St Kilda Sea Baths. This was not a just a Wim Hof-style act of bravado. She was immersing herself, she says, “to ask the sea for advice… it helps me make my way through whatever is going on in my life, the jungle of it and the confusion”. Through that immersion Ariel, who has long worked as an editor but is a first-time author, began to write a series of sea diaries that became the early chapters of The Swift Dark Tide.

But why did she feel so compelled to write this book, I wonder? To document something so personal? “I’m a bit of a monster when I’m in love,” she laughs. “That was how I could channel it and keep my feet even vaguely on the ground. I used the force of what I was feeling to create something because otherwise it would have sent me into an asylum… So it was actually an exercise in self-preservation.”

After the interview, Ariel and I stroll from Linden New Art, past the faded Hollywood glamour of the deco apartments on Acland St to the Galleon for lunch, where the sun falls in slats through the window. It feels as though we are inside the story I’m writing about a woman who writes about St Kilda. Later, as I walk home at dusk along Acland, the fairy lights around the palms light up, and the rainbow lorikeets squawk madly. And the people come and go, making their way home or out for a drink, thinking that they are the protagonists of their life when all around them is the main character: St Kilda.  

Storyteller: Alexandra Collier is an award winning Melbourne writer who has written for theatre, screen and print. Her memoir Inconceivable: Heartbreak, Bad Dates and Finding Solo Motherhood about her journey to becoming a solo mum by choice was published by Hachette in 2023. She is currently a writer on the new ABC/BBC detective series Return to Paradise.