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Sydney Writers Festival 2021, Live and Local (Session 2)

May 2, 2021

My second Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local event for 2021 was an hour after the first one. This left me time to fill in. It was disappointing that the National Library’s Bookplate Cafe was closed by then, which I think has happened in previous years. It would have been nice to sit down with a cuppa, or a cool drink. However, there was the bookshop, so I did business there instead!

Richard Flanagan and Laura Tingle: Conversation, Saturday 1 May, 4pm

If I hoped that this second session would not be as demanding on my ability to simultaneously take notes and absorb the discussion as the first, I was to be disappointed. This session featured multi-award-winning writer Richard Flanagan and the also award-winning journalist Laura Tingle, and I think I took even more notes. In fact, once again, Karen Viggers, who was also taking notes, nudged me a few times to say “get that down”! What a hoot!

Flanagan is always entertaining, which doesn’t mask the thinking and humanity in what he says. Tingle proved, not surprisingly, to be up to the task of interviewing – conversing with – this man. The topics ranged far, but stemmed mostly from Flanagan’s latest two books, his non-fiction exposé, Toxic: The rotting underbelly of the Tasmania salmon industry, and his latest novel, The living sea of waking dreams. Flanagan also referenced Tingle’s writing, particularly her latest Quarterly Essay (#80), The high road: What Australia can learn from New Zealand. Flanagan has appeared several times on my blog.

Tingle started the traditional way by introducing Flanagan through his oeuvre. She noted its breadth of subject matter, then turned to Toxic. Read it, she said, if you want to be depressed, and horrified, and, oh yes, informed. It spoiled her breakfast, she said, wryly.

Flanagan, ever the humorist, suggested he is creating a new genre, Tasmanian non-fiction horror! Then, in one of his several compliments to Tingle, he said that in the last year Australian journalism has become stronger, better, and that this has been largely due to our women journalists, particularly Laura Tingle.

Flanagan then read, as requested, from Toxic – a particularly unappealing description of the physical matter involved in the industry – before answering Tingle’s obvious question regarding how Tasmania has responded to it.

Apparently, Toxic is “the fastest-selling book ever” in Tasmania, going to three print runs in its first week. Flanagan and his publisher had kept the project secret until the day it was placed in bookshops, without pre-publicity, with just his name and title. It has had immense support in Tasmania, but the government and salmon industry have been silent.

His plan had been to write a short article, but he just kept discovering patterns of intimidation and violence. Ultimately, he said, companies run rogue when there are no rules, and there is no proper governance in the salmon industry. There’s a lot we don’t know about the food industry, he added. He wrote the book for the public. He wants it to help people make decisions in supermarket aisles. (And, perhaps, Tingle for her breakfast!!). Responding to Tingle’s question about its impact on the state election that day, Flanagan said that exit polls were showing a stronger result for the Greens.

Tingle asked about Tasmania’s history of “f*****g up its water supplies”, about the confluence of business and bureaucracy in this. Flanagan talked of Tasmania’s particular history – the near genocide and the convictism which encompassed slavery. Many pathologies persist when you see mass trauma, he said. Most Tasmanians are the issue of the first quarter of its history. He commented on the abuse of power, and the use of silence and fear to retain power. He also quoted Chekhov:

Write about this man who, drop by dropsqueezes the slave’s blood out of himself until he wakes one day to find the blood of a real human being–not a slave’s–coursing through his veins.

Flanagan added “word by word” after “drop by drop”! (As Jim noted in his comment on my previous post, the subtitles frequently got tricky words and names wrong. I didn’t note them down, but I do remember Chekhov becoming “check cover”)

Tingle then turned to his books in general, suggesting that there are about people shaped by greater tides, people who have no control over their destinies. She was eloquent, and drew out a typical, somewhat self-deprecating Flanagan response that this “sounds plausible”.

Every writer, he said, belongs to both their birthplace and the universe of letters. Like many writers, he seeks the universal in the particular, and his particular is “this strange island”. All his books come out of the wonder of his original world in the western Tasmanian rainforests. He suggested that the history of novels is not made in the great centres. Joyce wrote in that tucked-way place of Dublin, Marquez in his fictional place, Macondo, and so on.

Tingle returned to her question, reframing it somewhat, to reference power. His characters she said are not authors of their own fate. Power doesn’t have to be at the centre of literature, he replied. Yet, in his latest book, The living sea of waking dreams, the characters are trying to control the mother. Her life is about people trying to control others.

Flanagan then made a point that made me sit up. He said there’s a potent and poisonous myth that everything is about power. He talked about how identity politics is a zero-sum game. The truth is, he said, that most things are not political. He quoted that grim poet, Larkin, who said that ”what survives of us is love”. Flanagan’s characters are about love, he said. This is the nub of what life is about. Seeing life through power is a “false compass”. This bears more thinking, though there is truth in what he says about love.

Tingle turned to time, to the linear time in European thinking versus Indigenous circular time. Does fiction free us of linear time, she asked? Flanagan talked of identifying two ideas underpinning European art: everyone is alone, and time is linear. BUT, he’d come to realise that no one is alone, that you only exist in others, and that time is circular. Stories go back and forth, in and out. Yolngu people, he said, have a tense that combines past-present-future. This is more what he grew up with.

There was more talk about Tasmania, but the next point I want to share is his idea – one Indigenous people understand – that “Bush is freedom, City is oppression”. We need our political leadership to open up to Indigenous heritage and ways of thinking.

Tingle then threw in a statement made by past conservative New Zealand PM, Jim Bolger, who, when asked “why the Waitangi Tribunal”, responded “because the country’s honour was at stake”! Imagine this from a contemporary Australian politician?

Flanagan’s response was that not thinking Bolger’s way led to “the slow corrosion of us as a just and democratic society”. He said that the “battle to be a good people and a good society matters”, but we are losing this as we continue to allow such things as Aboriginal deaths in custody. He said that the battle for the soul of nation is the battle for a nation worth living in. (Karen whispered to me, “so eloquent”!)

Then he referred to one of my all-time favourite books, Camus’ The plague (my review). The plague is always there. It’s deeply disturbing, he said, how out of their comfort zone many of our politicians are.

We then moved to Australian literature. Flanagan noted that there’s been a great surge in Indigenous and women’s writing, though he’s “annoyed” that women from the past are not getting the credit they should. Women – such as publishers Beatrice Davis and Hilary McPhee – have shaped a different literature here compared with American and Europe. He barely tipped the surface, though, of the depth of women’s contribution to Australian literature from its beginning.

Moving right along, Tingle asked Flanagan whether he was moving more into non-fiction. Not a bit of it, was, essentially, the reply. But, he did say that non-fiction gets you out of the door which is good for novelists. In the end, it’s story that’s important and fiction has a “profound spiritual aesthetic and intellectual tradition”.

The conversation then moved the challenges confronting writing stories (fiction and non-fiction), today: libel laws, not to mention the “wall of noise” and “multiple strands”, which Tingle said make it hard to pull stories together.

For Flanagan, there’s one simple story – rapidly growing inequality. He spoke of how the richest and most powerful have connections with politics, and act in ways that cloak the state’s withdrawal from where it should be, like education, health, environment. They manufacture identity wars in ways that shroud real needs.

He said his latest book looks at how words can create a wall between people rather than a bridge, and then talked about politicians lying in the morning, then again in the afternoon. This is the tactic of totalitarians. It creates a situation in which truth has no value, leaving you with opinion. When that’s all you have, “society moves into darkness”.

After all this, and a little more on politics and writing, the session ended with Flanagan reading a lovely piece from Toxic about an octopus. Flanagan said that despite it all, he’s not despairing: there’s hope in beauty and wonder.

It was hard to cut much out of this!

16 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2021 22:42

    I like Laura Tingle, listen to her off and on with Phillip Adams and read her now she is with the ABC. And of course I agree about strong women journalists currently shaping what we are getting from the Canberra press gallery. Michelle Grattan (the previous generation) was always too focused on leadership speculation.

    I’m not such a fan of Flanagan, though he obviously talks a good game.

    • May 2, 2021 23:01

      My brother is not a big fan either, but Flanagan is always interesting to listen to, at least I find him so. And yes, I agree that there are some good women journalists around at the moment, trying to do some real analysis.

  2. Jim Kable permalink
    May 3, 2021 00:03

    Do you write shorthand, WG? Yes politicians saying one thing in the morning, its opposite in the afternoon and denying both the next morning – so Trumpian and for me so LNP! I think it was Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North which convinced me mostly what a great writer he is – but every time I hear him/see him interviewed he impresses me – as does Tim Winton in similar circumstances. Anyway, WG – your sterling efforts reminds me again of all the gems from this session yesterday.

    • May 3, 2021 08:33

      Thanks Jim. No I don’t. I guess l’m just a practised fast note-taker. Whether I’m a good note-taker is another question because, like Sarah Krasnostein, I focus a lot on the detail and I fear missing the big picture. I usually hope I will fnd the big picture later. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

      I agree re hearing Winton talk. He doesn’t have the wit of Flanagan, but he has deep thoughtfulness and great compassion, doesn’t he?

  3. maggiecp permalink
    May 3, 2021 06:27

    What a wonderful account of a truly terrific but really complex session of the SWF. I was there, at the NLA, and was going flat out just to follow the conversation – would never have managed to report it! Thank you so very much.
    I found Laura Tingle very impressive – not just talking about politics this time, and Flanagan’s stated appreciation of women journalists was a great shot across the bows at those male journalists who’ve recently had a go at those women journos reporting on sexual harassment issues.

    • May 3, 2021 08:48

      Thanks Maggie – and yes, that comment ie women journalists was splendiferous. It made me think a bit more about the women journalists I’m enjoying hearing from. And yes, they are doing a good job on the abuse/ harassment issue.

      I didn’t really give Tingle her due, as much as I did Tumarkn, because the post was getting too long. It was a more traditional interview than the Krasnostein-Tumarkn conversation (I should have said that) but Tingle was excellent.

  4. Meg permalink
    May 3, 2021 06:43

    Hi Sue, the session would have been fascinating and some good discussions. I think women journalists are now being read and appreciated. I like that Flanagan mentions how politicians change their minds from morning to afternoon. Labor has revisited its climate change platform, and its vote in Tasmania has gone down. Maybe voters are responding to these reactive changes.,

    • May 3, 2021 08:51

      Let’s hope they are Meg. Overall, with exceptions of course, so many politicians are swaying with the wind. If only they realised they should do less pronouncing and more thinking about and sharing the obvious uncertainties they and we are confronting – not to mention be more honest about mistakes and changes of mind. It’s just so much about winning, it’s depressing, Isn’t it?

  5. Karen Viggers permalink
    May 3, 2021 09:10

    Well done, Sue. That was such an amazing session, full of depth and wisdom, and you’ve managed to capture its essence in your summary. I still hope the SWF puts up a recording of this interview, as I would like to listen to it again and have more time to consider some of the points Flanagan was making. Lovely to sit with you through all of it too. Keep up your great reviews and summaries.

    • May 3, 2021 09:40

      Thanks Karen. I think they will. We’ll have to let each other know if we hear they have been.

      And, thanks for commenting.

  6. May 3, 2021 09:33

    Wonderful picture:”non-fiction gets you out the door”. 😀

    • May 3, 2021 09:41

      Thanks M-R. When he said “good for novelists” I should have explained that he meant it gets them out in the world, which is good for getting stories.

      • May 3, 2021 09:50

        No you shouldn’t: I understood perfectly. I was just looking at it from a silly angle ..

        • May 3, 2021 11:17

          But yes, I should have. I knew you were having fun with the idea and didn’t need it. But it reminded me that some things deserve proper explanation BUT then, it was getting very long.

  7. May 3, 2021 12:48

    This would have been a great session…it’s exactly what I like, a skilled and highly intelligent interviewer who’s obviously read the books leaving her ego at home and keeping the focus on the thoughts and ideas of the person she’s interviewing. Interesting as Tingle is, it’s not about her, it’s about him, and that IMO is as it should be. Another who is first-class at this is Sally Warhaft who usually does some kind of current affairs session at the Woodend Writers Festival, and sometimes via the Wheeler Centre.
    And I think he’s spot on about identity politics. Jeff Sparrow says the same, it’s being used to divide and distract so that business as usual continues unimpeded.

    • May 3, 2021 14:13

      Thanks Lisa. Yes, I think his point about identity politics was spot on. It’s not that the issue isn’t important, but how it is being misused by those who want to distract or divert the conversation. Unfortunately, the misuse results in too many people throwing the baby out with the bath-water. What we need is more – dare I say it – nuanced conversation. It’s the same with “political correctness”, I think. They become catch-phrases that enable people to avoid thinking about the important underlying issues.

      Re Tingle and the interview, yes, I agree, if the event is framed as an “interview”. However, framing it as a “conversation” opens it up to a variety of ways of conducting it. It can be a more traditional interview or, it can be a more “equal” conversation or, it can be something in between (which is what the Krasnostein-Tumarkin one was). I have to admit that when I booked the Krasnostein-Garner one (as it first was) I didn’t read the description as I was interested in both writers. Consequently, I didn’t know who was to be “interviewing” who, given both had books out recently. With Flanagan-Tingle, it was clearer of course. I enjoyed both sessions. They had different energies, but, in the end, they both elicited some really interesting ideas, and I think that, in the end, is what the audience wants? (As long as there’s also clear respect and understanding between the participants, that is!)

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