Hobart Writers Festival 2019, Part 2: Guest post

And now for the second and final part of my brother Ian Terry’s 2019 Hobart Writers Festival experience. The eagle-eyed among you will notice that this report is much shorter than yesterday’s. This is because Ian went to four sessions on Saturday, and two on Sunday.

Part 2: Sunday 15 September

Book coverDay two dawned with a fascinating conversation between award winning novelist Amanda Lohrey and academic and writer, Jenna Mead. Mead has published an edited version of Caroline Leakey’s 1859 novel, The Broad Arrow: Being Passages from the History of Maida Gwynnham, a Lifer. Lohrey and Mead argue that the novel is one of the most significant works in Australian literature as one of the first novels to describe the convict experience and very rare in having a woman as its main protagonist.

Originally published in two volumes after Leakey’s four year stay in Hobart, it was edited and reissued in 1886 and remained in print until 2000. Mead has restored the original version and argues that while the 1886 edit was brilliant and made it a very saleable work, the original was a deeply political work which showed what it is to live in a convict society where cook’s, servants, nannies, gardeners and a large proportion of people encountered were convicts. It reveals what the daily life of a citizen in a convict society looks like and the role this had in forming a national life with multiple generations inheriting the legacy created. Leakey’s main character is a strong protagonist, a woman of spirit and integrity who is nonetheless worn away by years of refusing to surrender to the system.

While many of the passages excised in 1886 were religious in nature, Mead assures modern readers that these are important, an excoriating critique of Christianity as it was practised in contravention of the true spirit of the religion. The novel is about women and their essential role in forming culture and social life. Lohrey noted that unlike much historical fiction which she is on record as disliking this Leakey’s work written at the time has the feel of authenticity. Leakey kept her eyes and ears open during her visit to her sister in Van Diemen’s Land, eavesdropping on conversations and observing just how the society operated – the result being this newly re-published volume.

Rohan Wilson and Heather Rose

Wilson and Rose (Photo: Ian Terry)

My finale was an engaging conversation between award-winning novelists Heather Rose and Rohan Wilson discussing the latter’s recent book, Daughter of Bad Times. Wilson began by arguing that his novel, a love story (not, he emphasised, a romance) set in 2075 in which climate refugees live and work in a corporatized migration detention centre near Tasmania’s Port Arthur, is not dystopian. Dystopias, he told the audience, inhabit a world which is barely imaginable in its horror and disfunction. His 2075 can already be seen in the current trajectory of increasing global temperatures and sea level rise, and in corporate and government policy where citizenship is commodified, laws are crafted to service the demands of corporations, surveillance is unremitting and protest is outlawed.

Book coverWilson talked about the influence of Cormac McCarthy on his writing and the challenges of writing outside your culture and experience – his main protagonists are a Maldivian refugee and a Japanese-American woman. Both he and Rose underlined that while they can never fully comprehend the experience of being from another culture or ethnic group, artists have to be able to imagine themselves into other worlds and bodies, albeit following sufficient research and with sensitivity. Otherwise, Wilson suggested, he could only write about middle-class, middle-aged white guys and what does he and society learn from that. While he accepted that he could never wholly understand the world view of a young Islamic man from the Maldives, Wilson said that he thought it important that he bear witness to the catastrophe that climate change is for that low lying island nation with a 2500 year civilisation that faces annihilation within the next century. An interesting and vexed current conversation, of course, which will continue to exercise us all.

The conversation concluded with a discussion of the importance of Australia Council writing grants, which both authors have been recipients of. Wilson observed that Australian authors rely on such grants to write the books which provide an important window into our culture. For literature, indeed art, to thrive the grant system needs to be maintained without reduction.


I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed these posts. I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing references in both posts to that issue of writing outside of one’s own experience. I liked Rohan Wilson’s point that it’s important to bear witness to critical issues – in this case the impact of climate change on the Maldives – and, in yesterday’s post, Ian Broinowski’s mention of how he handled the indigenous Australian voice issue. Other points that interested me included poet Pete Hay’s provocative assertion that poetry can’t be put to political causes – really?! – and Rohan Wilson’s definition of dystopias, which is tighter than mine.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, thanks so much Ian for sharing your Festival with me (and us). I really appreciate the effort and have enjoyed experiencing the festival vicariously.

18 thoughts on “Hobart Writers Festival 2019, Part 2: Guest post

  1. I’ve just this morning finished reading Heather Rose’s new book Bruny but can’t publish my review till October because it’s embargoed till publication date – but I can tell you that I bet Wilson and Rose had a very interesting behind-the-scenes conversation about her book!!

  2. 1. Thankyou Ian for The Broad Arrow – I’m surprised it didn’t come up during Australian Women Writers Gen 1 Week, or during my review of Ralph Rashleigh, but it’s been added to the Gen 1 page and you have a writing credit.

    2. Couldn’t disagree more with Rohan Wilson – white middle class life, from a man’s POV is ALL he can write about with authority. I’m sure his dystopian story of a Maldivan is entertaining and/or interesting but all it can tell me for sure is what a white miiddle class Australian man thinks about Maldivans and climate change. Wilson should read Murnane – now there’s a white middle class man, and Australia’s greatest living writer, reflecting on what it means to be a white middle class man.

    • 1. Yes, I wondered if you knew that one Bill. Huasneu to me.

      2. Well, you know my answer to that, just like I knew what your response to this post would be! Nice, in a way, that we know each other’s likes and theories so well.

    • So all writing can only ever be autobiography, Wadholloway? Is that truly what you believe? And no writer has ever written incisively about someone other than themselves? That seems like a pretty radical statement to me. We know that good writers are able to gain imaginative insights into other people’s lives. They do it all the time. Non-fiction writers do it. Historians do it. Journalists do it. Why not fiction writers?

      • Perhaps I believe ‘autobiography’ is the only writing we can learn from, learn about character from. Lionel Shriver’s characters are just clever lies. I’m sorry to respond so shortly but I am working through to Sat afternoon.
        Bill Holloway

        • I’ve been pondering this for a long time Bill, given the long time we’ve been discussing this. I think my quandary relates to your concept of “learn”. I’m still pondering but I think it’s to do with the fact that your definition of learning from literature is much narrower than mine.

        • Yes, I’ve thought about this a lot too. What is the nature of the information we learn from fiction? Is it factual in the same way that scientific reports are factual or historical accounts are factual? That’s clearly not true, but we do learn something from fiction. More and more, I think the learning we take from fiction is like a kind of self-reflection or self-evaluation. We see our lives reflected in the lives of the characters we read and it causes us to look again at ourselves with fresh eyes. We may learn something about Aborignal Australians when we read the Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith but mostly we learn that, when put in Jimmy’s situation, we may also act the way he did. Thats valuable, and useful, in its own way.

        • Thanks Rohan, I agree that that is the main learning we get, the opportunity to understand ourselves. I think some focus too much on fact and accuracy, to the detriment of truth (such as, as you imply, the universality of our behaviour.) I guess we could say the drivers might be different – individual, cultural, gender based etc – but behaviours belong to us all. I think there’s a place, particularly with people whose stories have been oppressed, for avoiding appropriation but I can’t agree with narrow definitions of who can write what.

  3. Thanks Sue and thanks Ian for these two posts. Six very interesting sessions – given that it’s sadly just not possible to read every revelatory book that’s published, or even to hear authors talk about them, it’s good to have such lucid reports …

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