Melbourne Writers Festival 2020: Let me be brief

MWF logoI won’t get to many Melbourne Writers Festival events, because those of most interest to me clash with other commitments and responsibilities. This is a shame given this year’s extensive digital program would enable me to attend my first ever MWF. Never mind, there will be other years. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to find a session on short stories at a time I could attend, so attend I did.

Let me be brief (Sunday 9 August 5-6pm)

The session was moderated by Wheeler Centre Programming Manager Veronica Sullivan who knew the books well. She managed the 45 minutes or so tightly but with intelligence and warmth. The panel comprised three writers of recently published short story collections: Yumna Kassab (The house of Youssef), Jo Lennan (In the time of foxes), and Elizabeth Tan (Smart ovens for lonely people). I’m sorry to say that despite liking short stories, I haven’t read any of their books.

Sullivan started by asking each writer about her collection, targeting her questions to what she saw as significant aspects of those collections.

Introducing the writers

Yumna Kassab

Book coverSullivan introduced The house of Youssef as comprising “spare and sharp” stories about a Lebanese community in Sydney, exploring “the way generations differences play out … the gaps … that make mutual understanding so challenging.” Kassab agreed her stories are about community and family. It’s unavoidable that there will be tensions between generations in any community, she said, but these are exacerbated in migrant communities because of the added layer of different cultural expectations. She’s become increasingly interested in this issue.

Sullivan wanted to know what drew her to these sorts of moments in the very short story form that she mostly uses. Kassab said it wasn’t her initial plan. She thought she’d need to be more dramatic, but found this form appropriate for exploring relationships. She’s always liked short stories. She said – provocatively perhaps – “the novel is a fleshier version of the short story”. She feels the form is well suited to delivering the message she wants to deliver – delivering a strong message is clearly important to her.

Jo Lennan

Book coverIntroducing Lennan’s collection, Sullivan described it as having an international outlook. It has a wide geographic spread, featuring characters taken out of their comfort zones. Lennan observed that mobility has become familiar over the last decades. It seems easy, but is in fact complicated, as she shows in her title story, “In the time of foxes”. It’s about a young filmmaker in London with a young toddler. Her mother is developing dementia back home, and, there’s a fox in the backyard to deal with. She has to face “giving up” her childhood home. Lennan’s point is that living abroad offers immense opportunities but can be accompanied by immense cost. The time has come for this character to pay that cost. (This cost, as many of my generation knows, is also paid by those left at home – particularly with COVID-19, for example, keeping grandparents away from their overseas grandchildren!)

Sullivan asked her to explain the fox motif which recurs through the collection – sometimes real, sometimes simply referenced. Lennan responded that foxes have spread throughout the world and have adapted to various environments, creating so many parallels with human mobility. They are also, she said, survivors and shapeshifters. However, she’s suspicious of themes in short story collections. Hmm, having just read Emily Paull’s Well-behaved women (my review), which does have a unifying idea, I don’t think overall themes are necessarily bad! Anyhow, she said that in her collection, the fox motif was “never a straight-jacket”.

Lennan also said that, despite this overall animal motif, the book is very much about human relationships, because they are the stuff of short fiction, of fiction in general. In her collection, relationships sometimes go disastrously, but in many stories there is a turn-up at the end. In one, for example, the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants but is changed, becoming a larger and better person at the end.

Elizabeth Tan

Book coverSullivan introduced Tan by noting that her stories, which include animal protagonists, unsettle readers expectations and assumptions. She asked how this approach allows her to explore perceptions. Tan spoke from personal experience when she observed that people can look at characters – like her cats and mermaids – and assume they don’t have interiority or inner life, that they are just a sidekick to another’s life. She likes exploring how these characters are unexpectedly resilient, and suggested they could mirror how she moves through life. As a young Asian woman, she often feels underestimated. But, she is not always sure if how she thinks the world is seeing her is how it actually is, but how do you know? She quoted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete”.

Sullivan asked Tan about the surreal and humorous or satirical aspects of her stories, wondering what responses she was looking for. Tan said that she didn’t set out to be funny, but hoped people find her stories funny. Friendship, she said, can be defined by laughter, by empathy in sharing silly things and humour about them.

Choosing the short story form

Sullivan wanted – naturally, given the “theme” of the session – to discuss the short story form: what drew the writers to the form, how they attack its particularities, and how they consider aspects like structure and characterisation.

Many of Kassab’s stories are very short. Why, wondered Sullivan? Kassab said she didn’t really make a choice, that for her the voice of the character is the important thing. It’s this, and the idea, that dictates the structure, and word choices. She didn’t set out to write the collection. She likes shortness, believing that she can deliver a greater message that can get lost in larger work. She also said that it is easier to experiment – with technique, structure, voices – in shorter work. Such experimentation is harder to sustain in a novel.

Lennan’s stories are longer and more disparate. They have a depth of characterisation, with a sense, said Sullivan, that they start before the story and continue after it. Lennan agreed with Kassab that short stories provide scope for experimentation. She said she “inevitably” writes longer short stories, which facilitates the deep characterisation that people want in a novel. It’s having her cake and eating it too, she said! She’d been working on a novel but realised that her best writing was in her WhatsApp chats with friends! Short stories are more immediate, and felt the right way to bring immediacy and freshness to her writing.

Tan is different because her first book was a novel. However, she agreed with Lennan that brevity offers freshness, and with Kassab about the flexibility possible with short stories. You can be more playful, she said. Sometimes she gets reader feedback wishing a story was longer, but she likes that you can explore a particular moment without having to build an entire world. She said that reality is fragmented, without a lovely shape. Short stories can capture fleeting moments. Tan suggested that the desire for longer stories is a desire for conclusiveness that life can’t offer. Sullivan concurred, suggesting that short stories leave a space for readers wanting more, for anticipation. I agree. Short stories frequently leave you wondering whether you’ve “got it”, but I think this is often the author inviting us to explore.

Sullivan asked the three what advice they’d give writers regarding writing short stories. Lennan said do both, novels and short stories in tandem, arguing that few visual artists work on one piece at a time. Kassab agreed, saying writers are creative people. Ideas change, and interests change, so try different things and be prepared to throw preferences out the window. Tan also agreed, saying you don’t have to choose. Rubik (on my TBR) was going to be short stories, but the same characters kept popping up.

Sullivan suggested that the idea of conforming to set forms comes from the publishing industry. There was some discussion about this, with a general feeling that the narrow definitions are breaking down. Kassab didn’t set out to write a short story collection. It just happened. She suggested that you create the work first and let the marketers try to categorise it! There was also discussion about contemporary attention spans versus that of older generations, and that short stories might better suit the more fragmented way we consume media these days. I know this is often bandied about, but I’m not completely convinced. I’d have to see the research!

I liked Lennan’s response to this attention span argument. She proposed that in some ways they ask more of a reader. Readers have to keep reinvesting in characters, from story to story. The writer has a responsibility to make it a worthy transition for for the reader. The collection needs to work as a whole. She recognises that reading fiction right now – besides beach reads – is a big ask of people. You need to think about what you want for your reader – catharsis, to move them, to present a provocative twist, for example?

Naming favourites

The session ended with that favourite festival question about the writers’ current favourites.

Kassab: This is her year of South American writers. She’s loving Jorges (great thinker about literature and ideas) and Bolaño (great experimenter).

Lennan: Chekhov (his “clear-sighted and sympathetic portrayal of humanity”, which is timeless); Tatyana Tolstaya’s On the golden porch; and the Australians Tegan Bennett Daylight (Six bedrooms, my review) and Christos Tsiolkas (Merciless gods).

Tan: Tom Cho’s Look who’s morphing (TBR) and Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. Both show you can write about anything you want, you can make stuff happen. Also Emily Paull’s Well-behaved women, and Wayne Marshall’s Shirl (which makes her laugh).

A great session, which offered, to me anyhow, some short story gold.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is also posting on the Festival, as is Theresa (Theresa Smith Writes).

28 thoughts on “Melbourne Writers Festival 2020: Let me be brief

  1. Thanks for those reviews. So, so interesting to me as I write short stories myself and prefer that form to any other. I agreed with points made by all three writers although I have not ready any of them – yet . . .

  2. Sitting lazily in my airco bedroom with the cat next to me.
    Wearing a fur coat during a heat wave….is a challenge for Mork….so the cool air is a god-send.
    I stumbled onto your blogpost and enjoyed it immensely!
    I will add these writers to my TBR asap.
    I did read Portable Curiosities by J. Koh in 2017!
    I hope all my reading friends will welcome me back soon
    …to Aussie books, I’ve been a sort of ‘prodigal daughter’….during COVID.
    Time to get life back to a feeling of normalcy…be it the new normal!

    • Haha, re the fur coat Nancy. I saw that it was really hot in Western Europe. Immensely glad you enjoyed my post immensely! We’d love to see you reading more Aussies again, of course!

  3. Right at the end of this review comes your super comment that “you can write about anything you want, you can make stuff happen”.
    If that doesn’t encourage someone, nothing will ! 😀

    • I think some are, Deb, but many are very cheap. You can choose to pay as little as AUD5, which is not much. You can pay more if you can afford it. It will be interesting to see how this payment arrangement goes.

  4. I’ve been looking forward to Tan’s second book, I loved Rubik, which in some ways consisted of interleaved short stories. I’ll have to buy this one despite, you know, short stories ..

    • Haha, Bill … there are short stories and short stories, you know. I have Rubik here and I gathered it is a bit like some other books – The turning, even? – that straddles the short story collection-novel boundary.

  5. The sessions remain online for up to three hours (I think) so you don’t need to sit and watch them live. Not sure if this helps you, but that extra bit of flexibility helped me as I had to work across the weekend but still managed to slot in some sessions.

    And you don’t have to pay for them; the systems set up to pay what you can afford. I spent $60 on 6 sessions; 3 sessions this weekend and 3 next weekend. I could have booked everything for free!

    • Yes, but three hours isn’t enough kimbofo. For example there’s one at 6pm tomorrow, but I have to be at yoga at 7pm and don’t get back until after 9.30. There’s another at 6pm on Thursday, but that’s movies with friends night so we go around 5pm and don’t get back until 9 to later, depending. And so on. It’s just my bad luck that the ones I particularly want clash exactly with times I am committed. Now, if they gave 5 hours …

      I knew you could pay as little as $5, but I wasn’t sure if people could book without paying at all, so thanks for that.

      • Wow. You have a busy social life! I feel a bit dull & lazy by comparison 😶 I expect they might make some of these sessions available at a later date. I know the one I saw about “After Australia” is going to appear as a podcast.

  6. I was going to mention the MWF flexibility and the pricing structure but kimbofo beat me to it, and much more concisely and elegantly too! All the sessions are free, if you want them to be. And once a session has started, you can also press pause or rewind or whatever, and view in the way that suits you (within that three hour window).

    • Thanks Michelle – I knew there was flexibility but wasn’t sure whether that included nothing at all! Unfortunately the three hours, which I had read, is just too little for me.

  7. Pingback: 2020 Melbourne Writers Festival Sunday 9/8/20 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  8. I was amazed how well the technology worked. I’ve watched a lot of different online events now, and this was the best of them, technically speaking. Don’t you love being able to see the writers in their homes!
    (The first thing my French teacher wanted to see when we went to Skype, was all the books in the library she’s heard so much about. I’d tidied up, of course!!)

  9. I call that thorough rather than brief!

    I’ve only ‘attended’ one session so far (the lovely Anne Enright) and at some point during the session I decided not to review MWF this year… I tweeted some of the things that Anne said that I wanted to keep a record of, but otherwise, lacking the motivation to get into details (and the fact that I am so behind on reviews – simply not enough writing time!).

    • Understand completely Kate … I couldn’t attend the Enright unfortunately.

      BTW I realised after I’d published my post that I should have done a mea culpa about my post versus the session title!

  10. Lovely summary: thank you for sharing. I have read and enjoyed ‘The House of Youssef’. I will look out for the others. I enjoy short stories, but I have to be in the right mood to read/appreciate them.

    • Thanks Jennifer. I’d love to read that. It sounds like it’s intriguing in form as well as worth reading for the content. I sort of know what you mean about short stories, except, I think that’s true for most books, though I suppose novels are easiest because we are so used to them and know more or less what to expect.

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