Canberra Writers Festival, Day 2: A morning tea, a launch and some conversations
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 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
This 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 he 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.
Cotter: 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 descendants 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.
For 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 metaphor, here 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?