Canberra Writers Festival, Day 3: Three conversations and a disappointing miss
Oh no! Because, as I explained in my first post, I booked late, I missed some events that I would love to have attended, but I was thrilled that one of my “musts” was still available, Charlotte Wood (author of The natural way of things). However, I woke up in the morning, looked at the Festival website, and saw that the session had been cancelled “due to illness”. Another headline act I’d wanted to attend, Stan Grant, had been cancelled shortly before the Festival “due to unforeseen circumstances”. Disappointing for us, and of course for the hardworking organisers, but that’s festivals isn’t it! Fortunately, I had three other sessions booked for the day and, you know, the lesser-known lights are generally just as interesting as the “stars”. It’s just that they’re, well, lesser known. And, there is a silver lining: this will now be a shorter post – for me to write and you to read – than yesterday’s magnum opus.
Nick Earls and Marion Halligan: “Modern masculinity” (hosted by Dr Christopher Chapman)
National Portrait Gallery curator, Dr Chapman, who is responsible for the Tough and Tender Exhibition, introduced authors Marion Halligan and Nick Earls, noting that both their recent books deal with boyhood and manhood. He quoted RW Connell on the hierarchy of modern masculinity and its basis in social and cultural expectations. “Alternative” males, Connell writes, are disenfranchised in the majority culture, even though the “majority” idea of masculinity doesn’t necessarily guide most men’s lives.
Halligan said she doesn’t think consciously of issues like this when writing but relies on her experience, which is of tender, kind, non-aggressive – though admittedly not always virtuous – men. The protagonist of Goodbye sweetheart who dies in the first pages – does that mean he’s the protagonist, Marion wondered aloud! – is not a good man.
Commenting on the fact that back in the 17th-18th centuries a common aspiration for men and boys was to be Robinson Crusoe – to be able to survive on their own in the wild – Earls noted that this scenario had no human contact. He writes his men at a time of challenge in their lives, at moments of reckoning, but these are often quiet moments, and involve connections with others, sometimes children. These men, like Halligan’s, have decent hearts, but make mistakes.
Halligan commented that she likes that Earls’ books are not miserable. They are not about dysfunctional families but can include moments of dysfunction. Earls confirmed this assessment, saying he wanted to write “real” families who connect with each other but for whom things sometimes go awry.
And so the discussion continued, moving fluidly, more like a conversation than a formal interview, though Chapman did inject some questions.
Halligan talked about changes in childhood between her generation and that of her grandchild, wondering about the impacts of these changes, while Earls spoke of some of the boys in his recent novella series, The wisdom tree. He talked of using an 11-12-year-old boy as a protagonist because this is the age of starting to push boundaries, of wanting to be successfully independent but also being a little fearful. He wanted the narrator of this story, NoHo, to be naive about what he was seeing. In another of the novellas, he puts a twenty-something rapper, his minder, and a 40-something rock journalist together, setting their different worldviews against each other.
Chapman asked Earls and Halligan what writers about men they liked. Earls, rather surprisingly, named Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Cormac McCarthy. He quickly qualified his nominations by saying he doesn’t “like” the men created by these writers but is fascinated by how they construct types of masculinity that he doesn’t relate to as a man, but that he believes and is interested in as a reader. Halligan, conversely, said she likes people who write characters like hers, writers liked William Trevor and John Banville who create muddled and not necessarily virtuous men. She does like Carver, though, for his sentences!
(I loved Halligan’s aside that she now reads on her iPad because if she buys more books she would have to move out of house! I hear you Marilyn!).
There was much more in a conversation that wove naturally between real life experiences and the writing of fiction, not surprising in authors who base their fiction in contemporary life. The audience Q&A continued this flavour. Some questions furthered the “literary” discussion, looking at whether the archetypal hero can encompass wider conceptions of masculine and feminine qualities and, more generally, at the challenge of constructing characters. Other questions moved into the personal. Earls discussed parenting. What do you keep and what reject from previous generations’ practices? And, of course, this topic couldn’t be discussed without some reference to the impact of feminism on the growing confidence in girls and increasing confusion about roles and expectations for boys.
A final point nicely made was that authors can create fluidity in gender roles, which must surely contribute to the wider conversation.
Kim Mahood (with Gia Metherell)
Interviewer, and ex-Canberra Times literary editor, Gia Metherell commenced by telling us that the focus of her session with author and artist Kim Mahood would be her recently published memoir, Position doubtful. She started by quoting Susan Wyndham’s recent description of Mahood:
On the morning I meet the artist and writer Kim Mahood, she has driven her ute nonstop for 1000 kilometres on her way home to Canberra from the Tanami Desert in Western Australia, a journey she has made back and forth across the continent for more than 20 years with the compulsion of a migrating bird.
A small, lean figure with a dry sense of humour, unfazed by flat tyres and solitude, Mahood seems honed for no-frills survival. Cleaning out her vehicle after the long drive with her dog, Pirate, she found a wire used for digging out witchetty grubs, a tomahawk and remnants of cooked kangaroo tail. Yet her conversation and her creative work have the subtle eloquence of an urban intellectual.
OK, including quotes like this is going make this post longer than planned. Sorry folks, but this such an apposite description. Although Kim Mahood spends part of her life in my region, I hadn’t really heard of her until I read her eye-opening piece, “Blow-ins on the cold desert wind”, in The invisible thread. She spent much of her childhood on a cattle station in the Tanami Desert. That station is now owned by indigenous people, but in adulthood Mahood returned to the area and now shares her time between there and here.
Much of the conversation focused on her experience of and relationship to land – as an artist and as a white person spending time in indigenous communities. It made for a very thoughtful development of ideas that are currently circulating contemporary Australian thought (and explored in such books as Bill Gamma’s The greatest estate on earth). Mahood thinks that landscapes enter us at a physiological level, particularly those landscapes we experience when young. She talked about different layers of knowing the land – traditional, pastoral, sacred/ritual.
And this of course brought us to that uncomfortable issue in contemporary Australia: how we non-indigenous people, who also call this country home, understand our own relationship to the land we “usurped” or “took up”. Mahood is living this challenge. She described not knowing how to respond when she returned to her old home; she felt stripped of her knowledge and identity (which, of course, is how indigenous people would have felt when the land was originally taken from them). How do white people make connections with land they love without disenfranchising indigenous people? You do it, she said, by putting yourself in their hands. It takes time, and you have to become “less precious about stuff”, like your car! Anyhow, this issue and this solution are the central ideas of her book.
Her book’s title captures this conundrum. “Position doubtful” has a literal meaning which describes places that cannot be definitively placed on maps, but it also works as a metaphor capturing her uncertainty. This reference to maps neatly segued us to mapping, Mahood’s art and indigenous art – and how these relate to understanding of land, of country. Mahood talked of a mapmaking project designed to help geologist Jim Bowler (he of Lake Mungo fame) research evidence about ancient climates in the area. The Tanami, she said, has no permanent water, but the entire landscape is marked by water. Occasional massive rainfalls can reactivate its “deep past” landscape.
Metherell asked whether indigenous art can work as maps. Mahood was measured in her response, but said that yes, orientations of places to each other are right, but that these paintings “embody” experience. They are complex “maps” that encompass stories, they are open, unfinished documents.
And here I’m going to make this post a little longer again by sharing part of the reading Mahood gave from her book. She’s describing doing a painting:
… the edge of the cliffs breaks against the sky like a wave. I score it with hard strokes of the brush, an emphatic horizontal line that differentiates my approach from the local aboriginal concentration on ground and surface. This seems important. Although my own perceptions have undergone all sorts of modifications, I know the horizon is more than a visual dimension. It is as much a symbol in its way as the concentric circles that indicate sites and routes, and it’s a symbol to which I can lay claim. The horizon is one of the perceptual fault lines that runs between white and Aboriginal ways of understanding country …
She discussed the intersection between local knowledge and scientific knowledge. For indigenous people, the people have to be healthy for the country to be healthy, whereas scientists look at “fixing” the environment. There is a very deep gap in ideas of causality. Maps, she believes, can bring the two ways of thinking together.
At some point Mahood said that she writes better than she talks. Hmm, I know exactly how she feels, except she was completely articulate and has no need for uncertainty on this front!
But, I think I’ll stop here. It was a deeply satisfying session. I hope that I’ve given you a flavour – and a sense of what you missed by not being there! Yes, I know, I probably missed some other wonderful session – but that’s the nature of festivals isn’t it? The point is to be satisfied with what you decide to go to – and I was.
I’ll just close with a brief reference to terminology. The Walmajarri people with whom she works call white people kartiya. She commented that we don’t in Australia have a single term to describe non-indigenous people the way they New Zealanders have, for example. She wishes we did, so we don’t have to be referred to as “non” (that is, “non-indigenous”).
Oh, and she described Position doubtful as a love story. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Jennifer Rayner and Omar Musa, Generation less (with Laura White)
My final session of the festival was probably also my most overtly political, as its focus was Jennifer Rayner’s book Generation less in which she explores her theory that her generation (she was born in 1986) will be the first generation in 80 years to be worse off than its parents. When her parents were her age, she said, they had a house, stable jobs, and a superannuation scheme under way. We are facing a time of reducing opportunity for young people, she argued, and if we don’t do something about it, everyone will be worse off.
Departing from my more usual chronological reporting, I’m going to start with a comment I heard as I was leaving the theatre. The person, around my age, said to her companion, “I really just wanted to hear him talk because he’s such an interesting character”. Hmmm … if this was referring to Omar Musa versus Jennifer Rayner, which I presume it was, then was the hidden message here that she didn’t much engage with the rest of what she heard? Certainly, the two – also of a certain age – who were sitting behind me didn’t seem to, as they left partway after quite a bit of muttering between themselves. Of course, it may be that they had an important dinner engagement to get ready for. But enough of that, let me get back to my report …
Because, the point is that Rayner’s thesis can be confronting to us of the baby-boomer generation. It would be easy to get defensive, except, as members of the audience pointed out, many of us have children in her generation and are seeing firsthand of what she speaks. Rayner admitted that she was expecting quite a backlash, but for this reason she has more often got understanding and a desire to do something.
Despite the dry-sounding nature of all this, it was in fact a lively and engaging session. Poet-rapper Omar Musa (also author of a novel, Here come the dogs) of course helped here. His intensely serious, but humorous, approach to what he does injected lightness, while also underpinning the importance of the concerns being discussed. He introduced himself by performing his hard-hitting poem, “My generation”.
His concerns are a little different to those of Rayner’s but they intersect. He is particularly interested in the disenfranchisement or disengagement of younger people, particularly of young “minority” men who don’t have the purpose of their immigrant parents. They feel disengaged from Canberra’s policy-makers.
Musa’s focus is people not usually written about, he said. Race, class, gender issues cause friction, he said, and create a combustible society. Feminism has a strong place, but for young men there is a “toxic masculinity”, and an inclination to see them as perpetrators. But they’re human beings too, he argued, and he wanted to humanise them in his novel.
So, the session shifted pretty easily between Rayner’s logical, evidence-based commentary, and Musa’s arts-based one. Rayner defined the issues confronting her generation as having three prongs: Work, Wealth and Well-being. In a nutshell, this means that (and she supported it with relevant data):
- WORK: It is harder for young people to achieve stable jobs in the workforce, and wage inequality between ages is increasing
- WEALTH: Her generation is “worth” less than her parents’ at the same age
- WELLBEING: Her generation doesn’t have kids as early, doesn’t partner up as early, stay at home longer, all of which affects their emotional development and thus wellbeing.
Rayner said she grew up in the optimism of the Hawke era, while Musa talked of the disconnect between Keating who had a vision for the future, seeing the best Australia as ahead of us, and Howard who looked back to the halcyon days of the 1950s.
Rayner admitted that those young people who have gone to university are on a path – a slower path than the past, but they have one. Her main concern is the other 60% for whom there are fewer entry-level jobs and who end up doing insecure often “cobbled together” work. It is particularly here that Rayner and Musa saw parallels between their books. Those currently worse off are young men who drop out of school early. They become “badly dispossessed” such as the housepainter in Musa’s novel. Musa was inspired by Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap, he said, except that Tsiolkas is about the middle class while his is the aspirational or working class in a changing cultural landscape.
(At some point here, Musa laughingly praised Rayner as being “so articulate”. She certainly knew her stuff, but Musa, though seeming to be briefly thrown on a couple of occasions, is no slouch – and was certainly not “put out”. They just had to work at times to find idea-connections in terms of their respective approaches!)
It wasn’t all negative though. Discussion also focused on solutions. These are mostly institutional and structural, said Rayner, because the problem has been caused by policies that have been put into place over years. Young people need to be part of the conversation, alongside business councils, seniors’ organisations and unions, for example.
She said that economic insecurity is at the base of the problem, and housing is the defining issue in terms of health and well-being. The 25-35-year-old group is struggling to buy their first homes, she said. Musa said don’t look at him. “I’m a poet, I’m not into economics”. We laughed!
Anyhow, Rayner said that her book is based on hard data, and she (aligned with the ALP, she disclosed), wants good evidence-based public policy. But, what can we do? Rayner had some answers: vote for policies that will address the inequities, such as policies reforming negative-gearing and capital gains tax, policies that increase access to apprenticeships and those improving security for workers. There are also practical things, like not taking advantage of injurious policies. There are, in other words, moral choices we can make now – as well as when we cast our vote every three years. Later, she also referred to the increasing and successful, use of citizen juries – made up of a random group of people – to feed ideas into policy development, as another solution.
Musa’s solution was, as you’d expect, more personal. Listen to young people, he said, understand their stories in complex and nuanced ways, not by reverting to stereotypical views. Such listening demonstrates an openness to reconsidering our assumptions. He referred to Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie who refers to the danger of the single narrative. Poetry in Australia, he said, is now being taken up by other races – it’s no longer the domain of white middle class poets – and he hopes the thoughts and ideas of this generation of poets will start to feed into the public forum. “The arts and storytelling will save us!” he argued with passion,
There was more, including a detailed discussion of Musa’s novel, his exploration of the “messiness of the clash between class and agendas”, and his wish to show tension, not resolve it.
Then, I guess, came a real point of difference between the two. Musa wants a more radical shift. He suggested that talking about house-buying is no longer relevant, that there are those who, considering issues like climate change, want a different life and world. Rayner agreed there has been some shift in what young people value, that they can be less consumerist, but she believes most still want what their parents wanted, and that they should have the option.
The session concluded with another performed poem by Musa. It was one of his more positive ones he said. It started, “Let me tell you about a father and son feud” and ended with
Trying to be a better me
Can’t say better than that.
… and here ended my festival. I plan a little recap post in a few days – if I can marshall my thoughts together. In the meantime, a huge thanks to the organisers, volunteers, supporters and sponsors. It was a wonderful event and I was thrilled to hear that it will be back next year. Put August 25-27 in your diaries now folks!