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
Day 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.
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.
Wilson 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.