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)

Chapman, Halligan and EarlsNational 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 is 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.

Kim Mahood, Gia MetherellHer 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, the Millennials, (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 concerns 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!

25 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival, Day 3: Three conversations and a disappointing miss

  1. Another brilliant appraisal from your blog Ms WG:- of the 2016 Canberra writers festival and some of the stars. Your point at the end reads as though August in the Year 2527 (i.e. 511 years from now) is the date you are asking us to put into our diaries right now! I have entered it into mine – your seeming confidence that this festival will survive to that date (as I have deliberately mis-read it) is surely prophetic!

    • Ah, Karen, I wish we had more closer to me! But with this one look set to go for at least three more years, I’m a happy lassie. You don’t have things like this in your area? Australia is burgeoning with literary festivals these days.

  2. Have you read any Marion Halligan? (Thanks for the tip, btw)

    And as for the Generation Less info, well I have opinions. I put myself through university working one full time and a part time job. Came out with zero school debt. I know many recent graduates coming out with astronomical amounts of debt. They did not work while they went to school, and while the fees were higher, they also lived on the loans.
    I’ll use just for an example, someone I know who has over 100K in loans for a 2 yr programme that cost under 5K a year.

    I know many people in their 50s and 60s with children still living at home. Many can’t decided what they want to do. Many can’t seem to part with their parents’ affluence. Others make decisions knowing that they can fall back on their parents.

    I think it’s very tough for young married who are pursing two careers and towing children and childcare behind them. Expectations are so different these days. I recently noted new houses being built in the area. The smallest is 2400 sq feet! Look at the size of middle class homes built in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Plenty of people raised families in 1000-1200 sq foot homes. Those days are over as far as builders and society are concerned.

    So I think it’s much more complex than just to say it’s harder and young people are ‘worth less.’ And the ‘well being’ bit. Well that’s just a bit too fruity to even measure. Can’t tell you the number of middle aged adults I know that live home with their parents for oh so many reasons. I couldn’t wait to get away.

    But I think that society will look very different in a few decades. Middle class erosion and all that. Already I see three generations living in one house.

    • Oh yes I have read several of her novels, guy, and have reviewed one here, The valley of grace. I love her writing. I loved her novel after her husband died, The fog garden, and I greatly enjoyed Lovers knots, and The golden dress. But I’ve read others too, and have a couple on my TBR.

      As for the other. Yes, I think it is more complex. I think Omar referred to that a little in his reference to changing aspirations … But we didn’t tease that out a lot. However, I think the data does also show that much of Rayner says is also fact. Job security is a big one I think.

      Both my kids were keen to leave home! I’m not sure whether that means I was a bad or a good parent!! Neither is buying a house yet but in their late twenties and early thirties are getting close.

      The student loans issue interests me because one thing I’ve observed regarding the USA is that not many students there seem to work while studying whereas here in Australia it would be hard to find those who don’t. Both our kids lived at home when studying but they still both also worked. It’s seen not only as an economic necessity – more for some than others – but as part of growing up, learning independence, developing workplace skills etc.

      Comparisons across generations are hard I think … but we do need to stay open, listen, and try not to judge from our own position which is so easy to do. We probably shouldn’t completely roll over either. We may have been lucky in many ways, but we also worked hard …

      • That’s an interesting contrast about loans. “Going away” to school in another state, (sometimes another country) has also become very common here whereas a few decades ago, going to another state, esp. for an undergraduate degree was unheard of unless one had grants, full scholarship or $$$.

  3. Another great day! Thanks for all the wonderful summaries. I found generation less especially interesting as I see huge differences between my boomer parents and Gen X me in terms of economics and values. My parents feel entitled to get social security and when I commented once that their entitlement will probably cost me a share of the pie when I retire they could not grasp what I was talking about, insisting always that they earned it. And recently my husband and I had to buy a new car, that we only have one car unsettles my parents greatly, but that I mentioned in the process of considering a car we had investigated local car sharing programs my mother freaked out and almost yelled at me about how absolutely necessary it is to own a car. It was such a weird moment and surprising moment.

    As for college students, I do see them taking on lots of debt and it is big issue in the US, but I know several parents of children just starting college and almost all of them have told me they don’t want their kids to work while in school even if they the parents are unable to pay for everything. I don’t know if this is common, but it certainly is an odd dynamic.

    • Fascinating Stefanie. I don’t think I have quite the same disconnect with our kids, though each generation does have slightly different values, doesn’t it. Many in my early retiree generation feel fortunate not entitled, and many of us feel that the government has been too generous in taxation concessions re retirement funds, particularly for those at the upper end of the spectrum. Politicians are making noises about it but are scared of the backlash. Politicians need to be brave and visionary about these things!

      As for college students, that does seem to be what I observed. I don’t know any parents here who told their children not to work. It’s not just about money, but about skills, independence and, really I think, self respect. But, different cultures, different traditions, eh?Still, what you are describing reminds me of those early days of women working, when men felt that if their wives worked it reflected badly on their prowess (and role) as breadwinner. Is this how some of these parents feel re their role as parents?

      • Yes, I think you might have it regarding parents. It seems to be a kind of status thing, a keeping up appearances and proof that they are middle class and well-off. That is how it comes across at any rate.

        As for government benefits, we’ve been talking about how they need to change in this country since the 90s but the Boomers are such a large and powerful voting block, no politician has been brave enough to actually do anything. The can keeps getting kicked down the road so it will likely be my generation or the one behind me, possibly both, who ends up having to deal with the consequences.

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