Canberra Writers Festival, Day 1: Two book launches

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!

22 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival, Day 1: Two book launches

  1. First book – Narrated by a skeleton?! Really? I’m always intrigued by ghost narrators, but a skeleton narrator is new to me. (And, strangely, a delightful thought!)

    Second – It’s interesting that the question of a non-native writing about the native title issue wasn’t more prominently addressed. But also interesting that he took care to point out that he doesn’t consider himself an expert (hence the choice to present it as fiction). Tricky stuff!

    • Thanks buried. Yes, I’m intrigued by the skeleton. She read the beginning of the prologue and I liked the sound of it. Some people don’t like dead narrators but I tend not to have rules about styles I will or won’t read.

      And yes, I think the other issue may have been explored if weld had more time.

  2. So glad Canberra has its own festival again. So many fine writers and readers in our capital – it was a shame when the old Word Festival lapsed. Couldn’t make it this year, but hoping, like you, there’ll be a next.

    • Thanks Sara. It looked successful yesterday, so fingers crossed. As you say there are a lot of writers here, and a lot of engaged readers too, so we should be able to support something like this. And it’s being held in great venues, though it does limit ability to get to events that abut each other but are on opposite sides of the lake. I’m going to miss one today for that reason. But multiple spaced venues and parallel sessions are aways issues aren’t they.

      • The nicest festivals I’ve been to have been the smallest ones – all in one venue. One in Port Macquarie – Watermark, sadly no longer – and the Blue Mountains arm of the Sydney Writers Festival. The latter, at Walsh Bay, is just too big – I tried it this year after a long hiatus and it was so horrendously crowded I couldn’t even find the friend I had gone to meet there.

  3. I love the way you make the distinction: ‘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”).’

  4. I like Carmel Bird’s writing, and I had not heard about her new novel till I read it here – thanks. I have now reserved Family Skeleton at my library. I find it amazing that Canberra isn’t big on Writers Festivals.

    • Oh good Meg. You are sure to read it before I do. Yes it is , I agree. The NLA has filled in a bit of the gap with lectures and occasional seminars but it’s not the same, is it.

  5. I’m not sure I agree that fiction is not part of the debate in Australia. As you say, Wood on misogyny (and indefinite detention), or Astley on Aboriginal dispossession are passionate contributors. They are being read and discussed over and over while Op.Eds last for a day and are gone. The problem, or one of them as is often pointed out, is that male editors and reviewers don’t take/have never taken women’s writing seriously. A case in point would be all the attention Tsiolkas got for The Slap.

    • Thanks Bill for engaging with that issue. I guess the question is how much those books, like Wood’s, cross over into political dialogue and how much they stay in the literary world. The slap certainly did crossover into public policy discussion re punishing children, even though that was not the main theme of the novel .

    • Sounds like a lively event and that debate about historical fiction’s place in framing and contesting the history is a very interesting one. I suppose a historian might say that a historical work has the apparatus of preface, footnotes and bibliography where the reader can see where the author is coming from and how he has reached his conclusions. The novelist can indeed go a bit deeper perhaps (particularly in regard to mentalities) and that sort of truth is never completely innocent.

  6. Sounds like you attend two very interesting and very different launches, or rather the books are very different. I’m not quite sure what Hasluck means about novels and current debates. Does he mean novels speaking to current events? Or does he mean people using novels as part of current debates? If he means the former then we have novels and nonfiction in abundance but if he means the latter I beg to differ with him. But it seems like saying Australia doesn’t have books that grapple with current events is off too, especially after some of the reviews you have posted about indigenous issues.

    • I think he’s saying the latter Stefanie, ie that the novels become part of the debate not that they just raise contemporary issues. I’m glad you responded because I wondered how valid the distinction was.

      • Hunh. Unless I haven’t been paying attention, there definitely is not national debates that pull in literature. We do have a few Supreme Court Justices who like to quote literature in their opinions but the general public doesn’t spend time reading court rulings and opinions.

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