Skip to content

Canberra Writers Festival, Day 2: A morning tea, a launch and some conversations

August 28, 2016

Let’s get the guilt admission over first. I ditched the session I’d paid for this afternoon to attend three free events. I reckon I got my money’s worth. I did this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I didn’t realise that the afternoon event – on adapting a book (Rosalie Hamm’s The dressmaker) to film – occupied the whole afternoon. I’ve seen read the book, seen the film, and had seen Rosalie Hamm at my morning (paid) event, so decided that would suffice in the face of other temptations. Secondly, that event was on the other side of the lake and, having found a parking spot with a little challenge in the NLA precinct, I didn’t feel like losing it. Finally, there were two events at the NLA that I really wanted to see, and I couldn’t do them all. Such is life!

Now, a couple of warnings. Today’s post will be longer than yesterday’s, as I attended more sessions. Ignore, skim, or read it all. Your choice. I won’t know. And, while I did my best to take good notes, I may have skewed the odd thing. It’s hard to listen, reflect and take notes in these thoughtful, vibrant sessions.

Morning Tea (at Hotel Realm) with Marion Halligan and Rosalie Hamm, introduced by Karen Viggers

This was a lovely way to start the day. We got to sit down at tables, with food and drink (self-served from a buffet), and be entertained by three writers. They, however, I was sorry to see, had to stand!

Using the tried-and-true format, session chair Karen Viggers, herself an author, posed a number of questions to Halligan and Hamm. There were those expected questions – like how did you come to be a writer, where do you get your ideas from, how do you go about writing – as well as some more specifically geared to Halligan and Hamm. The answers were lively, sometimes humorous, and all worth hearing, but I’ll just share a selected few.

Both talked about how they see stories all around them, how everything they see has potential. And that, dear readers, is why they’re the writers and I’m the reader! Anyhow, Hamm said that her novels start with an idea, with “whatever is up my nose”, and that she’s currently into questioning verities. The novel she is writing now questions accepted views about irrigation. If it doesn’t work, she said, she’ll return to family squabbles!

Concerning the process of writing, Halligan, unlike Hamm who starts with a synopsis of her story, said she doesn’t know where her stories will go when she starts. She quoted author Rodney Hall who said that the way to take your reader on a journey is to go on one yourself. And anyhow, she said, plots, as her readers know, are not the essential thing – which is perfectly fine with me.

The conversation also turned to death, grief and loss which both have written about. Halligan talked about losing her husband in 1998, and how she saw everything through grief. People tell you time heals, she said, but grief is always there, tucked away in a little corner. (She’s right, it is.) She told how her novel The fog garden was her response to her husband’s death, but its sex scenes were too much for her publisher, Penguin. They weren’t for Allen & Unwin, so she’s been with them ever since! Her latest novel, Goodbye sweetheart, is all about death – about reactions to death, and secrets.

Both writers said more about grief, death and sex, but what was said in the room stays in the room. Instead, we’ll move on to Viggers follow-on question from Halligan’s comment re secrets. Why are secrets so good in novels, she asked. I loved Hamm’s simple, to-the-point answer. It’s because, she said, they relate to power. (Yes, of course.) She has seen the way secrets work in life this way – in staff rooms, for example, and sports clubs, and country towns (in which she grew up)!

There was more conversation, but I’ll share just one other insight and that’s Halligan’s comment that she has to like her characters. If you don’t like them, she said, why should your readers? I’d love to have followed this up in terms of that common complaint from readers that they don’t like a book because they don’t like the characters. Did their authors like them I wonder? I suspect that what an author means by “like” and what some readers mean may be two different things? Anyhow, question time ran out – and so has my time on this event (engaging as it was). Let’s move on …

Waking the Dead: Paul Daley, Sulari Gentill, Ros Russell

Russell, Daley and GentillThis session was a very different kettle of fish. Chaired by NLA curator Robyn Holmes, its aim was to explore how authors use archival/historical materials in their writings. She, like Vigggers above, had come armed with a good set of questions – and the answers were considered, sometimes provocative, and more than I could perfectly capture.

For those who don’t know them, Paul Daley and Ros Russell are Canberra-based, Daley being a journalist and writer of fiction and non-fiction, and Russell an historian who has also written a novel. Sulari Gentill is a writer of historical crime fiction.

Holmes started by asking what “waking the dead”, that is, exploring archival materials, meant to them. Daley said it meant looking for voices that will drive the narrative, such as for his current project, a novel about the impact of 1930s-1940s anthropologists on black-white relations in Australia. Russell agreed, saying that for her latest history, High seas and high teas, she looked through diaries for voices to animate the story. She said that she often finds evidence that overturns some of her perceptions while confirming others.

Gentill, on the other hand, said she looks for holes in history, for the gaps where she can “make stuff up”. (The audience laughed.) Historical fiction, she said, is about writing “plausible tales” about what might have happened which gives insight into what did happen. (I like this.) It’s about playing in the shadows.

Holmes then asked about how collections determine the direction of their writing? Daley said, among other things, that every time goes into an archive he comes back with five more book ideas! Russell talked of how archives can take you in directions you hadn’t expected when you started. A mundane diary, for example, can suddenly include a surprising story that you decide to feature.

The ever-humorous Gentill told us that her husband is a 1930s historian, which is the era she writes in. “I married my collection”, she announced! She doesn’t research in advance, but as she goes. She talked about the newspaper articles (found in Trove – yes!) that she includes in her novels’ chapter headings. Using them is her response to publishers telling her that she’d taken things too far. Those things were always things that had actually happened she said. But, you lose readers, she said, if they think you’ve gone too far – hence the newspaper “proof”.

Daley also referred to this issue of believability when he said that research can provide details like names and practices of the time, the sort of detail that gives authenticity. And later in the session, Russell also mentioned the importance of research to underpinning plausibility. It was critical for her historical fiction book, Maria returns, that she find a Barbados plantation owner who was also an abolitionist. She did!

Regarding the sorts of resources that can best bring stories to life, Russell mentioned unexpected places like government papers and reports. You have to cast your net widely, she said, to find the stories that illuminate. Daley said he loves photographic collections, and used his current research into 1930s/40s anthropologists as an example. He found a trophy-like photograph of American anthropologist Frank Setzler posed with human remains. This helped him write his composite character, because he felt he could see from the photo what the anthropologist was thinking.

Gentill said that she attracted primary resources, that historians send her materials that fit the period she writes in. She hasn’t experienced, she said, the oft-talked about historian-historical fiction writer divide. She also said that since, fundamentally, she writes about people, she relies on her own memory archive, her experiences and knowledge of people.

Gentill said that she makes up her protagonists, but often uses real people for her secondary characters. She always makes sure that she doesn’t say anything more heinous about the person than the historical record shows, but the rest she makes up. And here she said something beautifully clarifying: her aim is not to present an absolute or rounded version of an historical person but an angle or perspective of that person that is true. In other words, she presents that person, let’s say, Earle Page, from the perspective of her character, who may not like that person. It is not a complete picture of Page, but an aspect of Page as experienced by her character.

There was much more – writing about place, using oral histories, and the like – but I’ll close with two final topics. One concerns blurring the line between fiction and history. Gentill said that she is a fiction writer and that her whole purpose is to blur the line. The fiction writer’s job, she argued, is to give a bit of history by stealth – which is another issue I’d liked to have explored further. Daley said that his non-fiction writing is “true” and based on archival research, but in his fiction he can be more creative, such as messing with dates to make a story work. I’ve heard other writers say this. Seems fair enough to me, because I know I’m reading fiction, but will all readers who are getting their “history by stealth” make the distinction between historical “facts” that are played with (messed around) and the “truths” that are the writer’s real story?

And finally, there was a discussion about ethical responsibilities. Russell said that historians must not distort what they find, must be true to their sources, but that she always looks out for things that might say something different to the prevailing narrative. Somewhat similarly, Daley said that if something confronts his preconceptions he must address it. For example, in his current anthropological research, he was assuming he’d find a cruel man, but he found a kind one. This will affect his narrative.

Gentill said she looks for other perspectives to the prevailing ones, that she likes to find people who have been forgotten, but who are interesting. (I guess these are minorities, the “little” people, the women, and so on?) She sees this as doing a service to Australians.

All in all, it was a thoroughly engrossing session and I’m glad I decided to attend it.

Richard Begbie’s Cotter: A novel (launched by Tim Begbie and Jack Waterford)

I had not planned to attend this session, but given my decision to not go over the lake, I had an hour to fill between the two sessions I’d flagged, and so decided to attend this session launching an historical novel set in the Canberra area. I was glad I did, because I learnt something more about this region I call home.

Richard BegbieCotter: A novel tells of the local early nineteenth century settler family – after whom our lovely Cotter River is named – and their relationship with indigenous people of the region. Garrett Cotter, an Irishman from Cork, arrived in Australia in 1828, and became friendly with the local indigenous chief Honyong. He formed a good relationship with Honyong, but was also, of course, part of “the inexorable forces” which led eventually to the dispossession of Honyong and his people. Retired editor of The Canberra Times, Jack Waterford, who helped launch the book, described it as “a well-written book of our country, our neighbourhood and a good yarn”.

Richard Begbie told us that he had researched the book intensively with the ancestors of both the indigenous people and the Cotters, and said there had recently been an event – not a launch – at which both groups had got together to renew a friendship that had been initiated 200 years ago.

He gave a brief reading from his novel of the moment when Cotter, working on the farm owned by the (also still local) Kenny family, first met Hongyong. It sounds like an engaging read written by someone who knows this area well.

In conversation: Melinda Bobis “Love, climate and the politics of care” (with Lucy Neave)

I should explain here that the Festival’s theme – fitting to our national capital setting – is Power, Politics, Passion. Consequently, there are several sessions involving political writers and journalists. Merlinda Bobis, however, is not one of them, but she is highly political, and politics underpinned much of this session, which was conducted thoughtfully by author Lucy Neave.

BobisFor those of you who don’t know her, Bobis, whose novel Fish-hair woman I’ve reviewed, is a Philippine-born trilingual poet, novelist, performer, scholar and retired academic. Leave explained that the session would  focus on two of her novels – Fish-hair woman (woo-hoo) and her latest one, Locust girl: a love song – and would explore how we tell stories and the politics of caring. Politics, you see! Like Waking the dead, this session was full-on, so will be hard to condense, but condense it I will – which means omitting a lot.

Bobis gave a couple of readings and included “performance elements” – singing and chanting – in the process. Lucky us. Neave asked why she performed, and her answer was a practical one. She arrived in Australia as a published poet, but could not get published here. She started performing her poems, and found that people listened. Then she started dancing. Her strategy, she said, suddenly became an art form!

I enjoyed the discussion of Fish-hair woman because while I felt I’d grasped its main meaning, I knew there were things I’d not fully comprehended. She talked about hair as a metaphor for memory, with memory here being mainly of trauma, grief and loss. She reminded us how grief and trauma can can turn hair white or even cause hair loss, but she inverts this in her novel and has Estrella’s hair keep on growing as the losses build.

Fish-hair woman is also a novel also about writing a novel and, because it contains both Philippine and Australian stories, it is about collaborative story-telling and grieving, and about not privileging one group, one grief, over another. Do we grieve for losses equally, she asked, referring to philosopher Judith Butler’s work on the politics of grievability, on differential grieving. Whose losses, whose stories do we validate? Is an Arab body mourned equally to a Western one? And here, you see, we were at politics again, the politics of mourning.

Bobis talked about our current political climate and the politics of fear. She argued that we need to encompass a new story, the politics of care. She referred to new indigenous MP Linda Burney’s statement that she’ll bring grace and kindness to parliament. Not a soft kindness, said Bobis, but kindness with spine!

She discussed how we define politics in terms of governance, or talk about it in terms of the personal being the political, but to her politics is feeling, thinking, doing. The central question of Fish-hair woman is, she said, how much can the heart accommodate. Can it accommodate even those we don’t love?

Locust girl continues and extends these concerns to how we care and love across borders. It’s about countering the politics of fear with the politics of love, extending the question of how much can the heart accommodate to how do you care for other. While Fish-hair woman has its hair metaphorhere it is the locust, which stands for extreme other, for fighting against demonising other.

Neave then led the discussion on to the environment. Bobis said that in Fish-hair woman, which is set during the 1987 Philippine government’s war against communist insurgents, she was worried about river. She said war is an environmental issue, it damages the planet. Locust girl is set in the desert, which represents climate change, the loss of water, a place where nothing grows, the drying of the human heart, and that there will be environmental refugees. (I hope I’ve got all this Locust girl stuff right, as I haven’t read it.)

She and Neave talked about projects they are working on, separately or together – in Spain, Philippines, Singapore – because writing is not enough. Bobis called it developing a creative arts practice in which storytelling becomes action.

Some interesting ideas came out of the Q&A at the end. I particularly liked her response to a question about her use of magical realism which is, she said, her favourite device. It’s part of her culture to believe that there is another world, but magical realism can also be seen as a post-colonial strategy, as a way of challenging the real, of challenging our established worldview.

Another question concerned how the imagination might relate to the politics of caring. Bobis said we need to imagine scenarios: “imagine this, and if this happens, what do you do”. We must give multiple imaginings to parliament she said, and if something has already happened, we must ask what can we imagine to address it.

She concluded by reading a love poem from her new poetry collection. Looking up from her paper, and looking directly but warmly at us, she read the last line: “there is hope for us”. What more can I say?

Canberra Writers Festival, Day 1: Two book launches

August 26, 2016

Well folks, finally we have another writers festival here in Canberra. From 1983 to 2001, we had something called the Word Festival (though its name varied a little over the time). Since then, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve only had the one-off Canberra Readers’ Festival (on which I posted) in 2012, so it was a thrill to hear many months ago that a Writers Festival was once again in the offing – and now it is here. I do hope there are plans for it to continue. If today’s buzz is evidence of success then I hope the organisers are feeling positive about future events.

However, here’s the thing. This year has been a topsy-turvy one for me, so I didn’t book a season ticket, and missed out on a couple of events that I would like to have attended, but that’s no biggie. I’ve booked some appealing events and look forward to those. Today, though, due to other commitments, I decided to just attend a couple of free afternoon events (so I missed, for example, Anne Summers). Oh well, I can’t do everything, and I know that whatever I choose to do I will enjoy. I’m easy that way!

Carmel Bird’s Family Skeleton (launched by Marion Halligan)

Carmel Bird and Marion Halligan

Bird, Halligan and butterfly, 2016

I’ve written about Carmel Bird and Marion Halligan before, when Bird launched Halligan’s Goodbye sweetheart. I realised then, and it was clear again today, that they are good friends. So when they launch each other’s books which they’ve done for each other a couple of times now, there’s no formality or stiffness, and they almost make it up as they go, making for a delightfully relaxed but nonetheless meaningful launch.

I won’t summarise the whole launch but just share a couple of points that struck me. First though, something about the book. It’s a black comedy – which, if you’ve read Bird, wouldn’t surprise you – and is largely narrated by a skeleton. It is about the O’Day family, and particularly about Margaret, the family’s widowed, wealthy matriarch. The epigraph, by Bird’s fictional character Carrillo Mean who provides all her epigraphs, goes like this: “The Storyteller knows what the Storyteller knows, and the Storyteller tells what the Storyteller tells”. But, said Halligan, does the Storyteller tell all that he knows? I think this is a book for me, so I’ve bought it.

And so the launch proceeded, with a couple of expressive readings by Bird, and engaging repartee between Bird and Halligan about Bird’s love of words and the naming of characters; her inspiration for the novel (which was seeing an Edwardian hearse on a country road in Victoria); and death, sex and butterflies, and whether the novel’s butterflies are a trope or a motif! I’m not a creative writing specialist, said Bird airily, passing off this issue! Fair enough. Leave that to the reviewers!

There was a lot more, but what I mainly wanted to share was Bird’s statement that she is always “looking for virtue” in her novels. That made us all sit up. Novels, she said, always explore evil, because evil is more interesting than goodness, but the end point of it all is always “where is the good, where is the hope?” An audience question had her clarify this a little further by saying this hope could for things like goodness, reason, happiness, beauty. I immediately thought of those grim, depressing books that many readers feel have none of this, like, for example, Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review)and the fact that in most of those books I do usually find a hint of hope. I can’t help thinking that most writers are like Bird, that is, that they want to end with some little bit of positivity, even when they also want us to remember the serious issue they are exploring.

Carmel Bird
Family skeleton
Crawley: UWA Publishing 2016

Nicholas Hasluck’s The Bradshaw case (launched by himself)

Nicholas Hasluck

Nicholas Hasluck, 2016

A completely different kettle of fish was the launch of Nicholas Hasluck’s The Bradshaw case, partly because he launched it himself and partly because it’s a very different sort of book – a fact-based courtroom drama about contemporary political issues regarding native title.

I haven’t read Hasluck before, though he’s won The Age Book of the Year and been shortlisted twice for the Miles Franklin Award. The packed room for his launch was evidence of his renown I’d say.

Again, I’m not going to going to summarise the whole session. He started by telling us he was launching a “device” called a book, in which thoughts and images could be conjured up in your mind from the pages you read. We all liked that, of course.

His book, he said, mixes fact and fiction. It explores, via a court case, some controversial issues about the origin of rock art in the Kimberley and how this plays out in terms of native title. He provided quite a lot of background about the rock art at the centre of this controversy – the Bradshaw images and the Wandjina images – a controversy I’ve come across in some of our outback Australia holidays. Hasluck was inspired to write his novel by the ambiguity surrounding this. But this is not what I want to share here.

What I was particularly interested in was some of his general comments regarding novels and history. Novels, he said, can both cast a light on what happened in the past and on what is said about the past now. They can explore (expose?) contested versions of the past.

Commenting on his use of fiction to tell this story, he said “give a man a mask and he will tell the truth”. I like that – as regular readers here who’ve read me on truth and fiction would expect. He also said that he chose fiction because he’s not an expert in the area and that many specialists have, and are, going the non-fiction path.

Discussing the question of how readers should approach the fact-fiction nexus of historical fiction, he said that the author-reader contract is that readers will assume everything they are told is true. (Note that he didn’t say “factual”). He hopes that people, once intrigued by something they’ve read in fiction, might then question what they’ve read and do their own research. This brought us back to the central controversy about the images, and what this means for indigenous people – and it resulted in his making a statement that, like Bird’s regarding looking for virtue, made me sit up. He said that the odd thing about Australian literature is that novels are not seen as part of current debates, unlike the USA, where works by Gore Vidal and Thomas Wolfe (Bonfire of the vanities), for example, do enter such debates. Australians, he said, see fiction as something quite separate. I’d love to know what others think about this claim – but for me, again, it made me think of Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things and the contribution she clearly wanted to make to the misogyny debate.

The issue we didn’t really discuss, though it was touched on, concerns indigenous Austrlians’ reaction to this story being told this way by a non-indigenous writer. All Hasluck said on this point was that his book is about “cultural integrity”. It will be interesting to see.

Nicholas Hasluck
The Bradshaw case
North Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016

STOP PRESS: AS Patric’s debut novel Black rock white city has just been announced the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Congratulations to him! Another book for the TBR!

Delicious descriptions: Robyn Cadwallader’s voices

August 24, 2016

Robyn Cadwallader, The anchoressIn my recent review of Robyn Cadwallader’s The anchoress, I included very few quotes or excerpts to show her writing. Somehow my post ended up in other directions. But, she had some wonderful ways of describing the world she created, and I’d like to share one aspect to demonstrate this.

Locked away in her cell, Sarah had to rely on her senses, particularly hearing, to experience and understand her world. I greatly enjoyed Cadwallader’s descriptions of people’s voices.

Sarah’s first confessor-advisor, was old Father Peter:

His voice, though old and weary, was blue-green behind the black curtain, like the quiet water where the river deepens beyond the mill. Sometimes I didn’t hear the meaning of his words but let them float away, the murmur of flowing water calming me.

Gorgeous, isn’t it? (And this is how I often read “difficult” books – I let the words flow over me, rather than worry at them, and they often make sense, eventually.)

And here is young Father Ranaulf, fairly early in Sarah’s enclosure when she is starting to get into self-destructive behaviours, believing she’s following the advice of a past (now dead) anchoress:

Agnes? Guiding you? What do you mean? His voice had the edge of a plough blade, blunt but cutting.

Father Ranaulf for much of the novel comes across to Sarah as inflexible – because he is – but he starts to shift as people help him understand, empathise with, Sarah and her life. So, here he is later in the novel bringing her some, well, rather subversive papers:

Father Ranaulf’s voice sounds like stone that will not crumble. I have resented it, wanted to shout and scream at it, shake his dry words until they lose their order and their certainty. But that day, the day he brought the pages, his voice had tiny grains in it, specks of sand that shifted as he spoke, as if uncertain where to settle.

Of course, it’s not just the sound of the voices that are important to Sarah, but the words themselves. Well into the novel, Sarah hears the village men talking in the church about the Lord’s plans for using the common land that is critical to their livelihood:

Words were coloured grey and brown and black, with quick touches of red. Gradually, I recognised the men’s voices from what their wives had told me about them.

And one last one. It comes when Sarah is starting to realise what the Lord, Thomas, has been up to:

Thomas had returned to Friaston, but his words clung to the stones.

Given the importance of stones in the mediaeval world, the consistency of this imagery works really well to evoke Sarah’s world and her experience of it. It also contributes to our understanding of her character. Similarly, Cadwallader uses birds throughout the novel to convey some of her themes – freedom from body, freedom of the spirit, aspiration and risk. But that’s another story, which I’ll leave for you to discover.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell’s Australia

August 22, 2016

Arnold Haskell, Waltzing MatildaWho is Arnold Haskell you are probably asking, if you are anything like me. The answer will probably surprise you: he was a British dance critic, who wrote many books on ballet, and was, in fact, involved in the development of the Royal Ballet School. But, he also visited Australia a couple of times, first in 1936, as a publicist-reporter with the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet. He returned to Australia in 1938 to research his book Waltzing Matilda: a background to Australia, which was published in England in 1940 (though not published in Australia until 1944). And guess where I found this book? Yep, in my aunt’s house.

So, he visited Australia a couple of times before the Second World War, but his book was published during the war. I find that quite fascinating – who would be interested in what is really a travel book in such  abnormal times? (I looked at the records for this book in Trove. There are several editions: most are categorised as “description and travel”, but some as “civilisation” and “history”. I think the former is better, but it just goes to show that categorisation is never easy!)

Anyhow, here is how he starts his Introduction:

I happened on Australia four years ago, at four days’ notice and by complete accident. Had I been given a week’s notice I probably would not have come at all. I was completely, even aggressively uninterested in that continent. … When I let my friends know where I was going, they said “Why?” which did not encourage me, and left me speechless for once.

His lack of interest wouldn’t surprise Australians who are aware that for the British, particularly at that time, we Australians were simply colonials, and had nothing of interest to offer, and particularly nothing for those who saw themselves as sophisticated. Haskell saw Australia, for example, as offering “hospitality, hearty but uncouth”. He says in this first paragraph that he was “bribed” to accept the trip, partly by the work (the ballet company) and partly by the opportunity to visit Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Honolulu, en route. Harrumph!

However, he “became … enchanted”, and so returned later for 6 months to see more. As there were no books that described Australia in the way he as a traveller wanted, he decided to write it himself:

Australia, in comfort at all costs, in luxury if possible; Australia, stressing the modern plumbing in the most modern hotel in Sydney rather than the lack of plumbing in the dead centre [had he visited his own counties I wonder?]; recounting the lives, thoughts and works of many eminent painters rather than the pathetic state of the rapidly dwindling aboriginal; in fact to write of Australia as one writes of Europe or America: positively and without the eternally negative point of view.

It would be easy for us to take exception to this, but it’s more interesting to read it as a reflection of (a certain segment of) the times, and as something that can provide insight into the world as it was then. And anyhow, he goes on to say that he want to trace

the evolution of a society from brutality and chaos to as perfect an expression of ordered democracy as can be found, to show the amazingly rapid transition from an unhappy group of felons, often not so bad, and their gaolers, often not so good, of overbearing petty Himmlers and dictator governors to a civilised community of amazingly tolerant people living in a country freer from crimes of violence than any other, in a continent that has never known the hatred, violence, hypocrisy and destructiveness of Europe.

Ah, it would be lovely to pat our own backs at this, except that we know that there has been violence here. It just wasn’t spoken of back then.

He goes on, completely oblivious to Australia’s long history of occupation by indigenous people, talking about how Australia’s history is still mainly a “family tradition rather than history”, one in which “I remembers” have not yet made it into “the ordered framework of text-books and university courses”. Again, although his view is myopic, I love this way of describing the “short” history as he saw it.

However, his book is not, he says, a history but a personal story which he hopes will “provide the background” that he found lacking.

I will come back to this book, I think, because as well as travelling around the states, he also did some of his own primary research checking letters, manuscripts etc to obtain his own perspective. It should make for fascinating reading … but for now, I’m tired folks, so signing off with a shorter than usual one!

Robyn Cadwallader, The anchoress (Review)

August 20, 2016

Robyn Cadwallader, The anchoressLet me start by saying that I’m not a big reader of historical fiction, and particularly not of non-Australian historical fiction, so to read a novel set in mediaeval times is quite a departure for me. However, I did want to read Robyn Cadwallader’s The anchoress for a number of reasons. Not only is Cadwallader an Australian writer living in the outskirts of my city, but we did meet a couple of years ago for a lovely lunch when she was in the throes of negotiating the publication of this book in three countries! And, besides this, the topic was so intriguing. I’m not a mediaevalist and had never heard of anchoresses and anchorholds before. It’s taken me sometime to get to it, but I finally have.

Now, one of the reasons I don’t jump to historical fiction is that I’ve tended to see it in terms of bodice-rippers and romances, and these don’t really interest me. But, The anchoress is not such a story. I don’t read back cover blurbs before I read books but towards the end of this book, as I was trying to guess where it might be going, I did look at the back, not because I wanted to know the end – because I didn’t – but because I was intrigued about how this book that was teasing me was marketed. The last sentence of the blurb is that the book is “both quietly heartbreaking and thrillingly unpredictable”. This reassured me that it wasn’t likely to go where a “genre” novel would probably go. Does that make sense?

Anchorites' cell, Skipton

Anchorite’s cell, Holy Trinity Church, Skipton, UK (Courtesy: Immanuel Giel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

So, the plot. It tells the story of Sarah, a young 17-year-old girl who, after some traumatic experiences including the death of a loved sister in childbirth, asks to be enclosed as an anchoress. This means she agrees to spend the rest of her life in a small stone cell, essentially “dead to the world”, tended to by a maid through a window in the wall and visited by a priest who will provide guidance and take her confession. Her support is paid for by a patron, the local Lord. She is given a Rule book as her guide, and is expected to provide advice to village women. Sarah’s story is told first person but, interspersed with hers – in shorter third person chapters – is the story of young, inexperienced Father Ranaulf, her priest-advisor-confessor. And so the stage is set for – well, we don’t quite know what.

As the story progresses, all sorts of narrative possibilities present themselves. Will she stay (like Sister Agnes) or leave (like Sister Isabella)? How will her relationship with Father Ranaulf develop? And why did Sarah really decide on this rather extreme course for her life (because, of course, there is a reason)? These all have the potential for melodrama or cliche, but Cadwallader keeps it grounded. There is drama – a fire – but even it is downplayed in the service of Cadwallader’s bigger themes rather than generating page-turning excitement.

However, it’s not plot that draws me in my reading, but character, themes and language. And here the main characters are well-drawn. The story takes place over the period of a year or so. At the beginning Sarah is an idealistic young anchoress, keen to do it right. She takes seriously her decision with the uncompromising enthusiasm typical of a young person, and so is determined to be disciplined. She allows herself no pleasure, not even some tasty food donated by the villagers, despite advice that this level of self-denial is not expected, and moves into self-flagellation. Over the course of the novel she comes to a more realistic understanding of what being “holy” might mean, and of what she needs to survive her chosen role. Father Ranaulf is also young and inexperienced, which results, initially, in stiff, black-and-white responses to Sarah. Over time, he too comes to a more humane understanding of her and of his role as her advisor. I’m almost tempted to call it a mediaeval coming-of-age story as these two young people come to a maturer world view. Anyhow, it’s nicely and realistically done.

There are other characters of course – Sarah’s maids, villagers who visit Sarah, various priests, and Sarah’s patron and local Lord, the somewhat cliched Sir Thomas. These are less rounded but they enrich the picture Cadwallader paints of mediaeval life, and contribute to the story-line.

“Body without a body”

“True anchoresses”, Sarah reads in her Rule, “are like birds, for they leave the earth – that is, the love of all that is worldly – and … fly upwards towards heaven”. Birds are a recurring motif in the novel, starting with a symbolic bird, the jongleur whom Sarah calls Swallow. “An acrobat”, she says in the opening paragraph of the novel, “is not a bird, but it is the closest a person can come to being free in the air. The nearest to an angel’s gift of flying”. For Sarah, being enclosed was her way of emulating Swallow, of leaping into the air, of being a “body without a body”. She yearns to be free of her body, to leave the senses behind, but the more she tries to escape them, the more they make themselves known. Her challenge is to reconcile this dichotomy, this need to deny the senses while still very much having them, this being, theoretically, dead to the world, while very much alive.

Tied up with Sarah’s challenge is the wider story of mediaeval life and values. Cadwallader conveys life at the times, mostly through the people who visit Sarah. Life, we discover, if we didn’t already know it, is hard for women. We meet women who are abused and assaulted, and we realise that their rights are few in a society which sees women as “lustful and tempting”. Father Ranaulf tell Sarah that:

It is man who is mind and soul, woman who is body.

Wise Father Peter allows women some advance on this when he tells Father Ranaulf that holy women can develop manly souls and “almost become a man”! But it is Sarah who really confronts Renaulf, and forces him to a more empathetic understanding of her (and, by extension, of other women).

Life is also hard for the poor, as Cadwallader tells through the villagers’ lack of power in the face of the Lord’s control over the land they work. And life is a challenge too for church-men, who have to manage villagers and lords while earning money to survive. Father Ranaulf wants to make beautiful books but must “produce an income”, not to mention advise an intelligent young woman who won’t accept his platitudes and thoughtless “rules”!

So, The anchoress is an engaging story. It’s about a time long distant, thus satisfying our historical curiosity, and it’s about power in gender and class, that still resonates today. But, above all, it is about human beings, about how we read or misread each other, about how (or if) we rise to the hard challenges, and about whether or not we accept a duty of care to those who come into our lives. An enjoyable read.

awwchallenge2016Robyn Cadwallader
The anchoress
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2015
ISBN: 9780732299217

Monday musings on Australian literature: Science writing

August 15, 2016

If you’ve read my last post on the Griffyn Ensemble, you’ll know it is National Science Week here in Australia (13-21 August). Last year I wrote two Monday Musings for the week, one on novels featuring scientists, and the other on non-fiction science books. This year I thought I write a little about science writing in general. Remember, though, this is not my area of expertise, so it will be a serendipitous post of bits and pieces.

Stephen Sarre, the scientist who inspired the Griffyn Ensemble’s concert, said about it

What I like about what Michael [Sollis] is doing is that he’s mixing science with art. He’s converting a scientific finding into a performance. It’s so important that scientists try to spread knowledge and merging science and art is wonderful.

Scientists in other words are keen to get their work known – and it is important. Not only does public interest, belief and support help them obtain funding, but we are of course the beneficiaries of their work. It’s useful for us to know, understand and be able to engage intelligently in what they are doing. Climate change, cancer cures, new light but strong building materials, and so on, all impact our lives.

Test Tubes

Test Tubes (Courtesy OCAL via

So, who is out there communicating science to us? Science journalists, for a start, but here in Australia we have a non-profit group called Australian Science Communicators (ASC). It was established in 1994 and its members include “scientists, teachers, journalists, writers, entertainers, students and other communicators who engage Australians (and people overseas) with science, technology and innovation”. A wide church in other words.

In this group, somewhere, are, yes, bloggers, and ASC’s website lists Australian science blogs. There are over 50 of them covering various interests such as “general science”, “climate science”, and “ecology”. I haven’t heard of ONE of them so I dipped in:

  • Espresso Science, written by Jenny Martin, a Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Melbourne and a broadcaster at Melbourne’s 102.7 FM Triple R community radio. She hopes her “shots of science” will be as addictive as coffee. Her most recent post (10th August) is about memory, not about our usual concern with maintaining memory but about the way we make up memory or remember “what never happened”!
  • Paperbark Writer (love this name), described as Australian nature meeting science and art, and written by Paula Peters. She has a PhD in ecology and has worked in environmental agencies. On her about page she gives a passionate explanation for why she does what she does. The latest post (13th August) on her blog is about a program she did for Gympie National Gallery. Gympie is where I turned 5 – the first birthday I really remember.
  • Science Book a Day, “put together by George Aranda” who runs a science book club in Melbourne. Describing himself as a “science communicator” he says his aim is “to engage people in science via books”. Science, he argues, “isn’t about being told by scientists that ‘this is science’ but for people to build an understanding and engagement with science in their own way”. There are “10 great” posts, such as “10 great books about agriculture” and “10 great books on women in science”. And, of course, there are posts about individual books, the latest being (14 August) for the science fiction book, Peter Watts’ Blindsight.

Three’s enough to give you a flavour. You can click on the link above if you’d like to explore what looks like a pretty vibrant community. Some of the blogs are by “professional” scientists and some by enthusiasts, some aren’t recently active, but many are.

William Lawrence Bragg

(William) Lawrence Bragg, 1915, Public domain, courtesy Nobel foundation, via Wikimedia Commons

I also discovered in my research that there is a National Science Prize, named the Bragg UNSW Press Prize in honour of Australia’s first Nobel Laureates, physicists William Henry Bragg and his son, William Lawrence Bragg. The prize is for short pieces, up to 7000 words, of “non-fiction written for a non-specialist audience by a single author” and published in the previous year. Entries can include extracts from longer published works, including books but not from academic theses or conference papers. The winners are included in the university’s annual Best science writing anthology. The 2015 edition is my next reading group book so you’ll be hearing more on this one.

Previous winners of the prize include science journalist Christine Keneally, who won the 2015 Stella Prize with her book The invisible history of the human race; award-winning free-lance journalist Jo Chandler; and astronomer Fred Watson, about whom I have written before due to his involvement in Griffyn Ensemble concerts.

This isn’t the only science writing prize. There is also the Eureka Prize for Science Journalism which is sponsored by the Australian government and is “awarded to an Australian journalist or journalist team whose work is assessed as having most effectively communicated scientific or technological issues to the public”. It is part of a larger swag of science awards in different areas of science, and the list of winners and finalists names individuals or groups rather than specific journalistic works. For example, in 2014, the winner of the Australian Government Eureka Prize for Science Journalism was Sonya Pemberton of Genepool Productions, a television/documentarty production company. Their program Jabbed: Love, fear and vaccines apparently broke SBS records in 2013.

If you are interested in Australian science writing, Wikipedia has a category for Australian science writers. It’s not very extensive – Jo Chandler, for example, isn’t there, though she’s clearly a respected journalist – but is worth checking out.

In her introduction to Best Australian science writing 2015, Bianca Nogrady (whose The end I’ve reviewed here) wrote:

What a fabulous job it is to write about science. We get to gatecrash laboratories, hospitals, field sites, boardrooms, workshops, expeditions and zoos; peering over shoulders, pointing at complex bits of science and asking, ‘so, what does that do?’

She is active in the field of science writing and last year convened a panel which explored what she called “the knotty question of the intersection between science communication and science journalism”. Are they inclusive, or breeds apart? You can listen to the whole discussion at the link I’ve provided. As in other fields, social media is shaking up the field of science writing it seems. Nogrady’s view is that science communication (in its wider meaning) will continue but that the now-all-too-familiar challenge will be to sift the gold from the dross. I loved discovering another whole area of writing where passion is so evident.

I’ll conclude by returning to the University of New South Wales, home of the Bragg Prize and the annual science writing anthology. They say:

Good writing about science can be moving, funny, exhilarating or poetic, but it will always be honest and rigorous about the research that underlies it.

Have you read much science writing? If so, what have you read, and what has made it worthwhile (or not) for you?

The Griffyns do it!

August 14, 2016

By “do it” I mean, yes, “it”, that is “sex”, but I don’t mean they literally did it. They can be cheeky at times, but not that cheeky. No, the sex we’re talking about here is strictly reptilian. Let me explain …

The Griffyn Ensemble’s second concert for 2016 was designed to align with National Science Week (as they’ve done before, as in their 2014 Do you believe concert? ). Titled Sex and Dragons, this one came about, said artistic director Michael Sollis to The Canberra Times

 … when Stephen Sarre approached me and told me about the sex of dragons … At first I didn’t think it would really work as a program but then I thought that evolution is very like telling a story and that a sequence of base genes is like the notes in a musical scale.

Water Dragon

Water Dragon (not the Bearded Dragon, but closely related!)

And so was born a concert which explored the sex determination of the Australian (Central) Bearded Dragon. Now, if a musical concert inspired by and, in fact, teaching about sex determination in reptiles sounds like an impossibility to you, you don’t know the Griffyns. This was one of their multimedia concerts: it combined a musical program (of course) with video footage of reptiles and interviews with scientists from the University of Canberra (UC) about their “cutting edge research into the genomes of reptiles”. This includes exploring how high temperatures cause sex reversal in the embryos of the bearded dragon. What does all this mean – for the dragon, for us, for the world in fact?

So, what do you know about the ZW sex-determination system? No, not XY, but ZW. I knew nothing, but now I understand, at least, how much more complicated reproduction and sex determination is than I had realised. Throughout the program, interspersed with music, several UC scientists explained their passion for dragons and for the research they are undertaking, research which expands our understanding of how sex is determined. As they described their research, they also provided insight into the scientific research process – how you often find what you expect to find, but also about how “the more you look the more you see”. The exciting thing about this research is not just that the sex chromosome can be overwritten by temperature but that this happens in the wild. Scientists have been able to create sex-reversal in amphibians in the laboratory but in the dragons this happens naturally in the wild, which means that what they are doing has real relevance in nature. I can understand why that is exciting!

But, it wasn’t all science. There was music, and Michael Sollis, in addition to doing the interviews and filming the videos, devised a musical program that offered an often humorous or whimsical – but also serious – commentary on the science.

The program started with most of the ensemble performing Philip Glass’ “Knee Play 5”, a “counting song” which conveyed the codification aspect of the scientists’ work, particularly in relation to mapping genomes. This more formal “scientific” song was followed by one reflecting on the human implications of sex-determination and sex-reversal, The Kinks’ hit “Lola”! It was sung by Susan Ellis with a thoughtful expressiveness that balanced humour with something more sensitive and poignant.

As the scientists “took” us into their dragon laboratory, and with footage showing what “characters” these dragons can be, clarinettist Matthew O’Keeffe played Ross Edwards’ “Binyang” accompanied by Wyana O’Keeffe on clapping stick, providing an evocative Australian desert setting for our bearded dragons. I do enjoy Ross Edwards, and Matthew and Wyana did him proud.

The central – and longest – piece of the concert was another Australian composition, “Snark-hunting” by Marth Wesley-Smith, using percussion, flutes, double bass, and keyboard. Again, it combined seriousness with, in referencing an imaginary animal, a touch of humour. Arranged by Sollis, it was wrapped around more scientist interviews and delightful dragon footage.

Which is the rooster/which is the hen? (Leslie/Monaco)

And so the scientific narrative and musical journey continued. We learnt about sex-reversed animals and how their insides don’t match their outsides, how at high temperatures all dragon embryos become female and, most fascinating, that the sex-reversed female dragons are the most bold. Bolder than the shy “natural” females and bolder too than the males! But, sex-reversed females, who are also more fertile, don’t have the female chromosome so cannot produce female offspring. We also heard how the Y-chromosome is losing its genes and that in certain spiny rat species the sex-determining gene has already moved! There was also talk of a “loving” gene, and the fact that the female relatives of gay men, we’re talking humans now, have significantly more children than other women. In other words, this research into sex-genes, and how they work, has a long way to go.

Somewhere here, a whimsical little music box played “when you wish upon a star”. What a cheeky little insert that was.

Back to the music, the snark piece was followed by Sollis’ clever “Bearded dragon” which represents, musically, the secret genome code the scientists are developing. The number sequence is embedded accurately in the work Sollis said and could be decoded if you had the skills!

The next three pieces of the program were an eclectic mix, starting with the amusingly appropriate jug band piece, “Masculine women, feminine men”, led with classy aplomb by Susan Ellis. (Quite a different look to the YouTube version I found below!). This was followed by two quieter, more reflective pieces, by American composer David Lang – “lend/lease”, featuring Kiri Sollis on her favourite piccolo and Wyana O’Keeffe on percussion, and the soulful “you will return” from “death speaks” with Susan Ellis.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Bowie)

What does all this mean, the BBC apparently asked our scientists? Well, for a start, it simply increases our understanding of chromosomes, reproduction and sex-determination. Each piece of evidence changes our knowledge. A scientist’s job, in fact, is to be ready to change their views on the basis of new evidence.

And, of course, when we think temperature, we have to think climate change. What impact might this have on sex-determination in dragons (and potentially in other species)? The jury is out. Dragons have experienced climate change before, and are still here, but this human-induced change is faster. Will they survive this one? Then again, their evolutionary response is comparatively rapid, so … The questions are many as you can see.

The concert ended with the ensemble performing David Bowie’s “Changes” interspersed with a little more counting, nicely bringing together science and emotion to conclude what was a satisfyingly coherent and tightly performed show. “Time may change me,” wrote David Bowie, “but I can’t trace time”! True, but we sure can enjoy beautifully performed, entertaining, provocative concerts like this with the time we have.

Other (very different) YouTube versions of some of the music:

Griffin Ensemble: Founding members Matthew (clarinet) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion) joined Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flute).


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,140 other followers