Jacqueline Kent’s Seymour Biography Lecture

Last Thursday night we went to our fifth Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia. We missed the last one in 2019 because we were travelling. Little did we know then that it would be three years before another one could be held. The Seymour Biography Lecture, which is one of the highlights on the Library’s calendar, is an annual lecture devoted to life-writing. It was endowed by Dr John and Dr Heather Seymour AO in 2005, and provides eminent ‘life writers’ with an opportunity to explore the business and craft of biography, autobiography or memoir.

Jacqueline Kent, Sept 2022, National Library of Australia

This year’s speaker, Jacqueline Kent, was introduced by the NLA’s Director-General, Marie-Louise Ayres. She has an impressive life-writing track record, including:

  • A certain style: Beatrice Davis, a literary life (2001): won National Biography Award and the Nita B. Kibble Award
  • An exacting heart: The story of Hephzibah Menuhin (2008): won the Nita B. Kibble Award 
  • The making of Julia Gillard (2009): written before Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister 
  • Take your best shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard (2013): covers her Prime Ministership, and her story isn’t finished yet, said Kent.
  • Beyond Words: A year with Kenneth Cook (2019): a memoir; shortlisted for National Biography Award (Lisa’s review)
  • Vida: A woman for our time (2020)

Kent, though, first came to my attention long before these, with one relevant to my work, Out of the bakelite box: The heyday in Australian radio (1983). She trained as a journalist and broadcaster, but has also been a book editor and reviewer, and has written fiction for young adults. She was, I have to say, one of the liveliest Seymour lecturers I’ve heard, and is also the first woman I’ve heard (though 2019’s lecture was also by a woman, Judith Brett).

Kent set the tone she was to take by saying that “biography” is such an important word that maybe she should start with the great biographers of the past, like Tacitus, or Boswell, or Lytton Strachey, but she wasn’t going to. Instead, she was going to “lower the tone” and go to Donald Rumsfeld, which of course brought a chuckle from the audience. You can probably guess what’s coming and you’re right; she was going, she said, to structure her discussion by using Rumfeld’s now famous statement that

there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

She said that this oft-maligned statement does contain some truths. (Yes, agree.) It also reminds her of a quote by Artemus Ward, that was loved by Abraham Lincoln: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble. It’s the things we know that ain’t so.” For a biographer all these knowns and unknowns can be quite a challenge.

She would these ideas, she said, through what she knows best, her own work.

Known knowns

What you know, said Kent, usually provides the impetus for starting a biography. It’s some interesting fact, or some central mystery (what made them do it, what did they think they were doing) that makes you want to investigate them. You write about them because “they are worth memorialising”. You also want to like your subject because you spend a few years with them.

Her first full biography was of Angus and Robertson’s legendary editor, Beatrice Davis, for whom she had worked. Davis was the “grand dame” – in every sense of the word. She did not like the new writers coming up towards the end of her career, like Helen Garner and Kate Grenville! Kent said that many books about publishing focus on the challenges and problems, but she want to write about what fun it also is. She wanted to give her profession its due. Also, she said, these days a book can be produced without ever seeing paper – writing, editing, publishing, can all be digital – so she also wanted to create a record of an industry that was changing.

As for Hepzibah Menuhin, she and her brother Yehudi were “rock stars” of their time. Kent’s interest here was in people with precocious talent, and what happens to them. Having been nurtured and feted as a musician, Hepzibah suddenly married, at the age of 17, a Victorian grazier and pharmaceutical company heir, and pulled back on her career. Then, she suddenly left her husband and 9- and 11-year-old sons to return to Europe. What someone to do that? She hurt a lot of people, said Kent, but had no idea of this.

Julia Gillard was suggested to her as a subject. Her interest here were what drove Gillard and what were the steps she took along her way. The mystery was what led her, as an up-till-then loyal Deputy Prime Minister, to undermine Kevin Rudd. Kent felt that Gillard had enormous dignity post-parliamentary-career, particularly in not getting involved in Australian politics, unlike others. She was a challenging subject, however, because she was guarded.

Vida Goldstein was a much easier subject because she was dead and she had no family, so there were no descendants to worry about. She had previously been written about in a worshipful way.

Known unknowns

These, said Kent, are the things you know you have to find out, the things that illuminate a subject. Often friends will share things you already know, because they think they have been privileged to know them. But some information can be hard to unearth. With Hepzibah Menuhin, a critical question was her divorce, the events surrounding her divorce. In this case, out of the blue, she had a stroke of luck when, visiting Hepzibah’s niece, she was suddenly given a bunch of correspondence written between Hepzibah and her father around the time of the divorce. This enabled her to finish the book.

Unknown knowns

This was not in Rumsfeld’s list, Kent said, but it refers to the things you don’t realise you know. Regarding her memoir about her life with the author Kenneth Cook, who was her husband for a year and is best-known for the novel Wake in fright. As she wrote the book, she realised that despite its bleakness, it had a jocular tone. It also, in fact, tells the same story as They’re a weird mob, except that this letter was specifically played for laughs. She also realised that Cook’s novel, The wine of God’s anger, is also the same story. It’s not an unusual story – the arrival of a stranger in a place unfamiliar to them – but that Cook told this story more than once was telling.

(Interestingly, she suggested that The wine of God’s anger is “the only complete Australian anti-Vietnam novel”. However, I can think of Josephine Rowe’s A loving faithful animal (my review). Any others?)

Unknown unknowns

These are the worst, said Kent. They can be the things you find out just when you are going into print, or, worse, when it’s too late.

She quoted American essayist Louis Menand who said there were two truths about historical research:

The first is that your knowledge of the past–apart from, occasionally, a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor–comes entirely from written documents.

[…]

The second realization that strikes you is, in a way, the opposite of the first: the more material you dredge up, the more elusive the subject becomes … One instinct you need in doing historical research is knowing when to keep dredging stuff up; another is knowing when to stop.

But, you can’t make stuff up she said, and she referenced the controversial case of Dutch: A memoir of Ronald Reagan, by Edmund Morris, which was intended to be a biography but ended up being more fiction than biography. It was “presented as a proper researched biography” but, she said, you have a contract with reader, which means you can speculate but you must flag it.

She also talked about how small incidents you discover in your research can turn out to be real “depth charges”. One example was discovering that Beatrice Davis, working at a time when women couldn’t work after marriage, had got married during lunch in a Registry Office, and went straight back to work as Miss Davis. Hepzibah’s wedding photo revealed a very strange outfit which Kent suddenly realised was Hepzibah emulating Little Bo-Peep. (She was marrying a grazier. This outfit gave insight into her expectations.)

Then there was working out Vida’s washing. Vida was always praised for her looks, not what she said. Who did her washing, to enable her to look so fresh when she was on speaking tours? Questions like this drive you mad, Kent said. Julia had always described how poor she’d grown up, but then her parents bought her a car to drive to Melbourne when she left Adelaide as a young woman. This gave insight into her family’s love and their closeness. Details like this bring your subject alive on the page.

To conclude, Kent, with a bit of a wink, went erudite, sharing a quote from the London Review of Books. She said “this is a bit pay-attention-class”! Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention, so missed the name of the writer she was quoting, and can’t find the full quote. It started something like, the “past is more unknown than known”. A cautionary point for biographers and historians.

Q&A

There was a short Q&A, which included the following:

On biographer’s role: there’s what biographers know and the public doesn’t. Often the public has a caricatured view. The biographer’s job is to show a multifaceted person (but Edmund Morris couldn’t find one in Reagan!)

On getting family/descendants’ support: people find it flattering to have their relative the subject of a book, but problems arise when questions get close to the bone (as they did for Gabrielle Carey with the family of Randolph Stow, but she managed to get around the issue.) She struck problems with extended family in her biography of Hepzibah, and Kenneth Cook’s children were not happy with her memoir. Families are a minefield.

On whether knowing the techniques of psychology helps: no, she doesn’t find it so; it tends to be too generalised, and can lead to too many rabbit holes, which biography is full of anyhow!

That seems a good point on which close this report. It was an enjoyable and entertaining lecture, which took a fresh, practical approach to the subject.

Previous lecture postsRobert Drewe (2015), David Marr (2016), Raimond Gaita (2017) and Richard Fidler (2018).

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
1 September 2022

Canberra Writers Festival 2022: (My) Session 3, Germaine Greer in conversation with Rick Morton

My third choice of sessions was also somewhat sentimental, because, with Germaine Greer now in her 80s, I wasn’t sure how many more opportunities I’d get to see her in the flesh. But, I was disappointed because, the night before the event, the following email was sent out:

Sadly, Ms Greer has had a fall though now released from hospital. She says she is fine but doctor’s orders are that she is not to travel. Ms Greer said “I am so sorry to let everyone down, I so wanted to be there with you and I would have, except my doctor and family would not allow. Since when have I been told what to do and agreed? Please accept my sincere apologies and I hope this Zoom thing will make it up to you.”

That sounds so Germaine (if I can be so bold as to presume to know her and to use her first name)! The good thing for her is that she is ok, and for us that she was well enough to still do the session. And, in a way, it was great because via Zoom Greer appeared to us in full larger-than-life glory – as you can see from the pic. Poor Rick Morton was quite dwarfed.

Anyhow, as I’ve done with the previous post, I’ll start with how the program described the session:

Almost 90% of the direct care workforce in residential aged care are women, as are 70% of people who live in residential aged care. Germaine Greer speaks frankly about why aged care remains one of the most pressing feminist issues today.

That’s what the program said! What we got was more amorphous than that, something that kept both Rick Morton and us on our toes. Anyone who has read or seen Germaine Greer will understand what I mean. It’s hard to describe exactly what we got, but I think I’d describe it as a charming almost-ditziness crossed with an acute intelligence overlaid with a deep sense of humanity.

So, here goes. Rick Morton was clearly chosen for the interviewer role because of his work in covering our recent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, and Greer as interviewee because of her recent one-year experience in Aged Care in Murwillumbah. (I must say that I was a little stunned – and then sort of thrilled – when I read about this experience a few weeks ago. It makes her so real!)

Morton introduced Greer, who needed not introduction really, and then launched into the aged care issue. Here, the fun started because Greer rarely directly answered the question. She talked about how she has ended up living with her brother (in the suburbs), that she’s been diagnosed with PMR, and she shared that she’s “more trouble than she used to be”! Really?

She then talked about selling her rainforest property, on which she’d planted “zillions of trees” in a landscape regeneration project. (It’s the subject of her book, White beech.) Eventually, we got to her taking herself to that Aged Care place in Murwillumbah. Morton then referred to the story I had read about Greer blitzing word-bingo there, always putting her hand up first! (Funny that!) Greer said that she kept telling herself to shut up, but she also felt that she owed it to Dimity, who’d put such work into creating the puzzles, to kick it along. (Fair enough.)

At this point, there was discussion about her Huntsman (spider) phobia and loss of cooking skills, before we returned to Aged Care.

Morton suggested that a fundamental problem regarding Aged Care is our attitude to ageing and our attitude to the elderly, at which Greer quipped that ‘Yes, everyone calls you ‘love’ or ‘darling’ but  I’m ”Professor Greer”‘.

Morton then said that in her book, The change, she had suggested that there are positive things about being “a scary old woman”. Greer, who is not afraid to change her mind, responded that now being 83, she’s reconsidering that positiveness!

However, she’s not about reassessing what she’s said in the past, she said. Instead, she’s focussing on trees and insects! She may not like spiders, but she does like snakes, which are “so sagacious and beautiful”. Morton suggested that this new passion for learning about trees and insects suggests she’s an autodidact. Is this a new phase in her life, he asked. She thought so, she said, until she found some old childhood papers which revealed an early interest in nature. 

After this little interlude, Morton returned to Aged Care, this time asking for her impression of staffing. This gave Greer a platform for her feminist position on women’s role as carers: caring has always been woman’s job, and these jobs are gendered. She referred to the Renaissance Courts, describing them as structured like a family. There, too, serving jobs were gendered. Even where the worker is male, the treatment is feminised. Those who serve are spoken to/treated disparagingly, and are paid a “derisive amount of money”. We import “a bunch of people from elsewhere”, like Indonesia and Nepal, she said, and pay them at the bottom of the rung, with no chance of progression.

Morton said that we don’t regard the caring job as important, and we don’t regard the people being looked after as important.

Greer said that she thinks about these issues all the time, though at this point her response seemed a bit tangential, as she referenced Sir Thomas More’s belief that the best way of living was in a college – you have bed, food, and laundry. All this house-business is too labour-intensive!

Morton then asked whether we need an ageing revolution. After an entertaining description of ladies who, released from the daily grind, discover golf in their 6Os, she went on to say that when you are older, “the world becomes your oyster – only if you are well”, and, added Morton, “have money”.

And again, we returned to Aged Care. Are you getting a flavour of this, possibly-frustrating-to-Morton but nonetheless fascinating, conversation? There were so many asides and digressions – like a big baggy 19th century novel, where you realise at the end that those digressions meant something. You just have to go with it! So, here, she talked about the domestic staff in Aged Care. They tend to be older women and they are doing the heaviest work. (Then they become ill). The government is wasting the goodwill of these people.

Morton responded by asking how do we care for the people, many of them women in their 50s and 60s, who do the caring. Again, Greer’s response seemed tangential. It’s about how we live, she said, “there’s too much house”. Houses use up time and money. Think Thomas More, think more about communal dwelling – and she then shared some communal living experiments she knew of.

She also said, re “nursing homes”, that she doesn’t like the term “home”. There should be specialised housing for specific needs. And shared another example, this time a Welsh plan for single mums which involved women helping each other. They never last, she said, because a war or something happens and they are the first to go! That is, these social initiatives are always the lowest priority, even when they work. Can we think of ways where we don’t leave women struggling?

Morton noted that all this stems from our western individualist culture, but there are other more collectivist cultures. Greer agreed and returned to the Welsh example, where the men saw what was happening, and “felt left out” so they initiated a security group and patrolled the grounds. This, thought Greer, was rebuilding family in a different shape.

Then we turned to more a more traditional feminist stance – the need to get men away from the position where they can exert strength over weaker members of family because if they can they will.

Morton returned again to Aged Care asking her whether she’d go back to a residential aged care facility. Greer said she dreaded losing her mobility, and is enjoying the suburbs and getting to know her family, but knows it won’t last forever.

Morton asked her whether she thinks about death. She’s not afraid of death she said, she’s more afraid of living too long, and of not paying back! He asked her to assess how her life has unfolded. She said that she “spends a fair amount of time in a rage”. We are so mean to each other. But she doesn’t think in terms of mistakes. She’s a fatalist.

Q&A

The Q&A was a bit wild like the interview, but I’ll try to dot point:

  • On the younger generation re-discovering The female eunuch: She’s grateful, she said. She was lucky to be born at that time when all this was coming to the fore. She hopes we get better at looking after women’s health.

Then she threw in another idea, identity, which she says is a non-existent problem. Morton asked what it mattered to her if someone has an identity. She responded that there have been five biographies about her, and she’s never met any of those subjects in her life!

  • On the sex vs gender debate being so toxic. Again, Greer answered her version of the question: she doesn’t get why domestic violence is sexualised, have we forgotten elder abuse, why are people’s lives as difficult as they are, and we haven’t got far with women!

She then returned to identity. Identity is not the issue that is causing the problem, she said. At this point I wrote in my notes that Greer was the portrait of a woman aways thinking, connecting, and questioning – and that she also had a lot of ideas she wanted to share.

Meanwhile, our questioner clarified her question, which concerned our inability to debate sex vs gender without toxicity, and people shutting down the debate? Greer responded that sex runs the planet, and that gender is fun, because you can make it up! Oh dear … she knew exactly what she was doing here, because she then said that “part of my job is to get hate mail”.

  • On outliving one’s time, and being valued: she returned to the communal/village idea where old people have a place. People she said need places to get to know each other.

  • On getting the balance right (re “having it all”): “buy 57 hectares of forest” she said.

  • On where satisfaction comes from. She doesn’t know the answer, but suggested it’s when you find your work.

Then, she ended with:

Mistrust me if I present myself as having them [the answers, she meant].

As another attendee said, as we were leaving, “just when you think she’s a bit demented, she goes boom!” That’s Germaine!

Canberra Writers Festival, 2022
Germaine Greer in conversation with Rick Morton
Saturday 13 August 2022, 2-3pm

Canberra Writers Festival 2022: (My) Session 2, Her last words: The inspiring life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

My second choice of sessions was, partly, sentimental, because Ruth Bader Ginsburg is such an inspiration for feminists like me and I also wanted to see ABC journalist Fran Kelly strut her stuff in person. I wasn’t disappointed. The session was subtitled, Amanda Tyler In Conversation With Fran Kelly, and was framed as follows:

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing last year — just as her book, co-authored with her former law clerk Amanda Tyler — was heading into production, was met with a public outpouring of grief. Tyler shares RBG’s optimistic vision of a just society and a ‘more perfect union’.

This is slightly incorrect, and stems from the fact that the session had been scheduled for last year’s cancelled festival. Ginsburg, “the notorious RBG”, or just RBG as I will call from here on, didn’t die last year, 2021, but in 2020. As a result, Ginsburg and Tyler’s co-written book, Justice, justice: Thou shalt pursue: A life’s work fighting for a more perfect union, instead of being relatively new off the press has now been out for well over a year. That, I think, changed somewhat the session’s focus from the book (though it was still the cornerstone of the discussion) to something wider – to RBG’s legacy and America today, as much as the book itself.

This session, unlike my first, was in the largest space in Kambri, and it was packed. RBG has a huge following. I have written briefly about her before, in a Literary Week post where I mentioned seeing the documentary RBG. I wrote that RBG “is a fascinating woman with an inspiring capacity for clarifying the complex”.

This was another engaging session, in a different way.

Amanda Tyler and Fran Kelly, Manning Clark Hall, August 2022

Kelly leapt right in with a big question: given RBG’s “wonder-woman status”, did Tyler feel pressure working on this book with her! Well yes, admitted Tyler, even though she’s in her late 40s now! But working with RBG was “so special” and the work was so important.

Regarding RBG’s health, Tyler said, answering another question, that yes, they were aware that “her death was coming” but RBG had tried so hard “to stay alive through the election and to the inauguration” so that, hopefully, a Democrat would win and be responsible for her replacement. (Those of you who follow American politics will appreciate all this.)

Kelly asked what Tyler saw as RBG’s most important role or characteristic. She responded that RBG recognised that she was talented and she used her talent not to make money but to make the world a better place. This was a point she would make to young graduates whenever she spoke at graduations. This theme of improving the world, improving America, improving the lot of others, recurred throughout the session.

RBG had graduated at the top of her class but couldn’t get a job in a law firm – because she was a woman. This resulted in her ending up in the court system, which, Tyler said, turned out to be a good thing. (As it was for Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court. RBG was the second.)

Next up was discussion about RBG’s early court work. Her first gender law case was Moritz v. Commissioner in 1970, concerning a man who’d been refused a tax deduction for hiring a nurse to care for his elderly mother, a deduction he would have received had he been a woman. The important thing about this – besides that the law also discriminated against men – is that when the case was won the Government appealed, which got it to the Supreme Court.

RBG fought many sex discrimination cases during the 1970s – her favourite being the Stephen Wiesenfeld case. All this, said Tyler, would have made her significant even if she’d never been appointed to the Supreme Court.

The discussion identified many of RBG’s skills and strategies. She had a capacity for consensus; she chose multi-directional cases; and her superpower was taking cases as a litigator to the Supreme Court.

Kelly asked whether RBG was disappointed about being “the great dissenter”. Tyler, as she was wont to do, answered in a round-about way. (Is this lawyer style?) RBG, she said, wanted to be a judge, she wanted to be in public service. And, she did write some great majority decisions. But yes, she was disappointed to be in the minority at the end of her Supreme Court career. She wanted to leave a “road map”.

Kelly then asked what she thought of her celebrity status, “the notorious RBG”. No one would have predicted it, Tyler said, but it was the result of her dissent in a Voting Rights case – Shelby County vs Holder. Tyler quoted RBG from this case:

Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

RBG loved, said Tyler, that she was inspiring a younger generation. She also saw the significance of an older woman becoming a superstar!

Then Kelly got to the sensitive question: should RBG have stepped down earlier to prevent what ended up happening – her replacement being chosen by Trump and the Republicans. Tyler replied that during Obama years, she was given clean bill of health, she was in her stride, and Republicans had hold of Senate so she felt they may not have supported the “right” replacement.

Tyler then turned to something that she mentioned many times during the rest of the session, the vote. She said that exit polls in the 2016 election (the Trump one, of course!) found that the no. 1 reason Republicans gave for voting was the Supreme Court, but this was barely mentioned by Democrat voters.

Tyler hadn’t answered Kelly’s question! So she pushed a little more! Tyler said she believes that RBG (like most people) anticipated Hillary Clinton would win.

Kelly turned to the Supreme court’s overturning of Roe V. Wade. Tyler said – meaninglessly, really – that if Hillary Clinton had won everything would be different! She said that she thinks RBG would be “apoplectic” at what was happening, because RBG believed that true gender quality depended on women having control of their reproduction.

There was more discussion about this, and then Kelly turned to the fear that other rights could fall, as hinted by Justice Clarence Thomas. Tyler does fear that rights like contraception and same-sex conduct, for example, are at risk. It is, she said, a difficult time for this county that sees itself as “a country of opportunity”.

Kelly asked whether this can be stopped, to which Tyler returned to her mantra: the vote. People must vote “as if we care about these issues”. The issue is the Senate and the filibuster rules, and she’s not seeing enough impetus for changing Federal law. The problem is that the US is becoming less unified – life is becoming increasingly different from state to state. So, for example, the abortion law changes are causing young women to seriously think which state they choose to go to college in. All this risks entrenching the spilt in American society.

The current Supreme Court is young, so will have its current make-up for decades. Biden has considered a commission to look at expanding the number of justices. Congress could do it but there are obvious ramifications to this. Another idea is that of staggered terms, but this requires changing the Constitution.

Kelly asked about RBG’s “striving for a more perfect union”. This, said Tyler, comes from the Constitution. It invites ongoing struggle and effort to improve American life. RBG saw there was so much to be done. The Constitution, said Tyler, is based on people being able to live their lives “based on individual capacities”, but the equality implicit in this is not enshrined.

Kelly asked Tyler for her favourite RBG quote – there are many out there – but Tyler responded with a personal experience. When, as a nervous new mother she was planning to return to work, she asked RBG for advice. The email response was one line: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Love it.

Finally, Tyler commented that RBG lived a balanced life, and loved opera.

Q&A

The Q&A covered a few issues which I’ll just dot point:

  • Compulsory voting: Tyler is interested in this idea, but said even just making election day a public holiday would help. Kelly, said, what about a Saturday (as we do)!
  • Conflict of interest issue in Supreme Court (eg re Clarence Thomas’ wife): the Supreme Court is not bound by same rules of ethics as the rest of court system. Thomas has not recused himself so far in conflict of interest situations.
  • RBG’s advice for new generation of law students: Tyler gave two: Don’t just think about the courts, also think about electoral and legislative arenas; and Play the long game.
  • ERA (Equal Rights Amendment): RBG wanted this in the Constitution.
  • Favourite moments with RBG: both related to opera!

Tyler said that in her last conversation with RBG – August 2020 – RBG expressed concern about how the pandemic would affect the world’s children. Even at the end of her life, Tyler said, RBG was thinking about others and the future.

Canberra Writers Festival, 2022
Her last words: The inspiring life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg: Amanda Tyler In Conversation With Fran Kelly.
Saturday 13 August 2022, 12-1pm

Canberra Writers Festival 2022: (My) Session 1, Writing the precipice

A preamble

After a long pandemic-caused hiatus during which it didn’t, like many others, “pivot” to an online format, the Canberra Writers Festival is back. Unfortunately, it clashed with a time we could visit our Melbourne family, so the best I could do was reduce that trip by a day so I could at least attend some Saturday sessions. Sunday, the festival’s last day, was long ago booked – an afternoon theatre booking to see the Sheku Kaneh-Mason Musicians. Life is just too busy.

So, with just one day, what to attend out of a plethora of choices, given they are held over several venues on either side of “the lake.”(Those who know Canberra know that “the lake” is a major mental divide in Canberra, as much as a physical one. We laugh about it, because it is ridiculous, but it’s there!) The point, though, is that I didn’t want to book sessions that would involve a lot of travel.

As I have written before, the Canberra Writers Festival’s tagline is “Power Passion Politics”, but I mostly seek the more literary focused ones. I found one on Saturday morning at ANU’s new-ish Kambri Centre, so decided that would be my venue. There were still choices to be made, and you can see what I decided in this and the following posts …. though in another twist of fate, a late important appointment saw me missing my last booked session of the day, Chloe Hooper with Richard Fidler. Darn it! The choices were hard, as there were many interesting people to see and hear, but that’s Festival life.

Writing the precipice: Panel discussion with Kathryn Heyman, Chris Hammer and Diana Reid

The moderator was Nicole Abadee, a writer and podcaster about books, a literary judge, and a literary event moderator. She ran the panel more as a interview-each-author style rather than a free-flow discussion between the panelists. Both styles have their advantages, and in this case we did hear some excellent ideas from each of the writers.

The panel was titled “Writing the precipice”, which the program described as:

Our best-selling authors reveal how they tackle their characters’ pivotal moments when they stand on the precipice of life-changing disclosures and discoveries, and how they navigate the decisions beyond.

After introducing the authors and their latest works – Kathryn Heyman’s memoir Fury, Diana Reid’s campus novel Love and virtue, and Chris Hammer’s crime novel Treasure and dirt – Abadee asked them to briefly set the scene of their books, and then got into the nitty gritty!

Heyman was a little uncertain about Abadee’s suggestion that she’d actually stood on the precipice from her childhood. Heyman didn’t really see it that way, though she had, she said, grown up in poverty in a single-parent family.

She was keen to focus on the idea of “precipice” which she defined as “an edge that you can fall or leap from”. It’s a moment where everything is lost, but, paradoxically there’s everything to gain. She felt that, despite growing up in the underclass, her cleverness opened doors. Class is an issue that she and others mentioned and to which we returned later in the panel.

Abadee was keen to follow the childhood precipice point, saying that she was referring to the fact that both Heyman’s father and step-father had been violent. While agreeing with this, Heyman returned to her precipice idea. She said Fury is about making decisions that from the outside look dangerous. It is set in the context of her having faced major and minor bombardments as a female. 

Fury is not about Heyman’s assault, but about what she did after the court case. However, Abadee briefly explained that Heyman had been assaulted by a taxi driver, had reported it to the police, but the taxi driver had been acquitted. Heyman said that her experience of the social justice system had been brutal, and that she’d realised that the places where she should be safe, she was not. She returned to the precipice idea. Basically, she said, it’s about what is there to lose. There is nothing to do but leap. This she did, into something that looked dangerous – taking a job on a boat as a cook, with four strange men.

Why put herself at harm, is the question she gets frequently, but she said that she was physically, psychologically, mentally on a threshold, and decided to look at it differently, at how would it be if she were “one of the boys”?

Abadee quoted back to her her reference to a Larkin poem from which she’d taken the idea that when you are removed from the familiar, you perceive things differently, and thus perceive yourself differently. In other words, when removed from what you know you can transform yourself. Like in a story, you can rewrite yourself. She wanted, she said, to build “physical and psychological muscle”.

While at sea she was frequently in danger, but not from the men – from the bad weather and the crew’s incompetence! She came back changed.

She ended on an interesting point. She’d come to realise, she said, the value of naming the mess, naming the trauma. Stay with me here … she said books had taught her to name seabirds by learning to see their differences. And so, she learnt “to put language to the precise trauma”. If you can name it, she said, you become bigger than it.

Reid was asked to start by talking about the friendship between the two women protagonists in her book. Michaela is from a single parent family in Canberra, and finds herself in a Sydney university residential college where most of the residents are well-to-do, with private school backgrounds. One of these is Eve, who is self-confident, articulate, and a model for Michaela.

There are, she said, some fundamental philosophical questions behind the novel, one being the idea expressed by Gore Vidal which is that is it not enough to succeed, that to succeed, others must fail. Michaela comes to see this. So the book is about a rivalry more than a friendship.

Reid said much contemporary literature is about women being supportive but there are toxic relationships too. She clarified, though, that this book has a very particular context – a competitive academic environment, in the male-dominated subject of philosophy. Unfortunately, Michaela equates success with male attention, and thinks getting an older man to love her would endorse her as a person.

Abadee asked her about the prologue which, Reid explained, is written in third person. It’s a sex scene in which the woman is so drunk she remembers nothing. That woman, it turns out, is Michaela, who is the first person narrator of the rest of the novel. This incident becomes a critical point between the two women. Here is a precipice. Eve tells her she should report it.

This situation said Reid, goes to the power of storytelling as process of invention: I don’t remember it so it’s not in my story. When Michaela is encouraged to report, she’s being asked to put it in her narrative. The tension exists in her being deprived of her autonomy, her ability to control her narrative. What is the impact for her versus for feminism of telling the story. Who has the right to tell the story?

Regarding Eve, the question is whether she’s a good person or just looks like one. Is it ok to betray a friend for social good? Reid saw Eve in terms os performative activism. She ultimately leaves the place better, but there is tension between being morally correct and feeling superior, about not using “morals as sticks to beat other people down”. Although Eve does good work, she does it for herself.

Another philosophical question Reid explores then concerns the definition of goodness. Does it reside in your impact on the world or your reasons for doing so. Is it less “good” if you do it for yourself?

Later, Reid commented that her book came partly out of self-criticism (with Eve being an exaggerated her) and out of observation.

When we got to Hammer, Abadee noted that each of his novels starts with a hook. His latest, Treasure & dirt, opens with a miner being found dead, crucified. All his protagonists, she suggested, are on a precipice.

Hammer said that his openings are typical of crime books: you need to capture people as quickly as you can. The discussion then focused on the detectives, Ivan and Nell, who are both flawed, both on a precipice.

They are not hands-off detectives. He said there are plenty of crime books where the detective mechanistically solve crime, with much violence and sex involved. And there are those cosy crime novels where you know nothing about detective. However, he is interested in how characters change. Both his detectives find their careers at risk, are unsure about their status in police force. Will they throw the other under bus to save themselves?

Hammer described the different issues confronting each of the detectives – creating the precipice each is on – and said that solving the crime is important to both their careers. Each is on a career precipice, but also important is how they see themselves. They have choices. Hammer said that as a reader he likes to immerse himself in the characters, to think what he’d do. He likes to write such characters.

Heyman then said that all the books deal with class and shame, and asked the writers to talk about class. Heyman simply said, class plays a huge role, and that in addition to “class” and “shame”, the three books are all about “characters in extremis”.

Reid made two points about class. One is that moral judgements depend on context. Eve finds it easy to judge but finds it hard to acknowledge her power over Michaela because of her class. The other is that universities are places of privileged people who go on into privileged roles. What they see as culturally normal thus becomes the norm affecting everyone. Great point. Heyman added that people from the underclass and billionaires have a freedom because they are outside the middle class which establishes the norms.

Hammer said that his novel is set in a hardscrabble place, but that there are two powerful, rich men in it. Will they get away with massive illegality? Will Ivan and Nell, who are there for a homicide, do anything about it?

Abadee, picking up the shame thread, referred to Heyman’s title, Fury, and her idea that the best antidote to shame is anger. Heyman said that shame breeds in silence, in buying into others’ stories of who you are. It doesn’t do well when out in the open. By contrast, fury has energy, so the idea is to convert shame to anger (and energy).

Reid said shame involves lack of control; it arises when others judge you by facets of yourself you can’t control.

Hammer said that Nell is found in a compromising situation. She feels she’s been duped, but as a young woman in male-dominate police force, she has to decide whether she will fold or stand up.

An insightful session, which found some fascinating coherence between three very different books.

Canberra Writers Festival, 2022
Writing the precipice
Saturday 13 August 2022, 10-11 am

Monday musings on Australian literature: Poetry Month 2022 and Verse novels

Having launched their Poetry Month in 2021 which I wrote about at the time, Red Room Company (or, Red Room Poetry) clearly felt it was successful, because they are back again this year with another Poetry Month. Its aim is to “increase access, awareness and visibility of poetry in all its forms and for all audiences”, and it will run throughout the month of August.

From what I can tell, they are following a similar plan to last year with their 30in30 daily poetry commissions, poetry ambassadors, online workshops, prizes and residencies, and more. Do check their page, which includes a link to a calendar, to find ways in which you can take part, or, simply, introduce yourself to some new poets and poems.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d celebrate the month by writing a little tribute to verse novels.

Verse novels

When I decided to write this post, I found a good introduction to verse novels at The Australian Poetry Library. However, when I checked the link I’d saved, it said “currently unavailable”. I will share what it said, but you may not be able to find it online any more. (They do still have a Facebook page.)

A verse novel tells a long and complex story with many characters, much as a prose novel would, through the medium of narrative verse. The verse may be blank verse in the manner of Shakespeare, or free verse, or (less often) formal rhymed verse of any type.

The ancient epics were verse novels, of a sort, and so were the Alexandrian epyllia such as Apollonius’ Argonautica, but the modern verse novel, like the novel itself, is a fashion that found a large audience in the nineteenth-century: Don Juan (Byron), Amours de Voyage (Arthur Hugh Clough), The Ring and the Book (Robert Browning).

Movies, paperback novels and television seem to have killed it off in the early twentieth century, but it found a strong revival after the 1970s: Another life (Derek Walcott), The golden gate (Vikram Seth) and The changing light at Sandover (James Merrill).

Notable Australian verse novelists are Alan Wearne, Dorothy Porter, Les Murray, Steven Herrick and John Tranter.

A selection of Australian verse novels

Susan Hawthorne, Limen, book cover

Wikipedia’s article on the form provides a brief history, going back to epics like Gilgamesh. After appearing to have declined with Modernism, it has, Wikipedia continues, “undergone a remarkable revival” since the 1960s-70s, and is particularly popular in the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. I wonder why these particular regions?

I should add, though, that verse novels do have a longer history in Australia than this later 20th century revival suggests. CJ Dennis’ The songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) and The moods of Ginger Mick (1916)(my post) are earlier, and very popular, examples.

Of course, I did a little search of Trove, but, given the form’s apparent recent revival and the fact that Trove is not so useful yet for recent decades, I didn’t find much. However, I was intrigued to find reference to a satirical work called Solstice, by 20-year-old Matt Rubenstein. It was shortlisted for The Australian-Vogel award (in 1994, I presume). Sen, writing in The Canberra Times, was reasonably positive, saying that “the narrative has its share of sentimental blokes as well as philosophers like the homeless Arthur, and the relationships and issues it explores are treated relevantly as well as entertainingly. It could start a verse-novel cult. Could, I said.”

I’m not sure that there’s been quite a cult, but my little list below confirms some level of ongoing popularity in Australia. But, back to Rubenstein’s Solstice, I also found through Trove that it had been adapted by the author into a play to be performed at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1996, with Kate Ceberano as the featured singer. That says something about the quality of the work. I note that the play is available from Ligature Digital Publishing.

Anyhow, I do enjoy a verse novel, and have reviewed several on my blog, as have some other Aussie litbloggers. Here is a selection of some of the verse novels we have reviewed on our blogs:

  • Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby Moonlight (2012) (my post, and Lisa’s): this is particularly interesting because it is a First Nations historical fiction verse novel. It is a moving, and generous read.
  • Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov poems (2013) (my post): also historical fiction, this work tells the story of the Petrov affair providing a personal perspective on a very political event.
  • Susan Hawthorne, Limen (2013) (my post): Hawthorne’s quiet yet forceful work explores women going camping, the threats and vulnerabilities that confront them, and how they navigate the lines that appear.
  • Geoff Page, The scarring (1999) (my post): Page has written other verse novels, including Freehold, which I have also read, but The scarring is particularly strong and gut-wrenching about war, the mistakes people make, and the power men can wield over women.
  • Dorothy Porter, El Dorado (2007) (Brona): Porter’s last verse novel is described by Brona as “another dark crime story with a psychological twist”.
  • Dorothy Porter, The monkey’s mask (1994) (Brona): Porter’s most famous verse novel is also a psychological crime story, and, says Brona is “gritty, exciting & passionate”. It surely qualifies now as a classic, particularly given it is taught in schools and universities. It was also adapted for a feature film.
  • Alan Wearne, The night markets (1986) (Bill): this book was highly praised when it came out, and won significant awards including the ALS Gold Medal and the National Book Council Award. Bill knew Wearne at school, and has read this book a few times “because it feels so intensely familiar”. The Canberra Times reported on its ALS Gold Medal win, saying the judges ‘were impressed by the ambition and confidence with which Wearne approached his task. The novel’s subject, political and social change in the past two decades, had rarely been approached, they said, and its verse form was “bold and exciting”‘.

Readings Bookshop has provided lists of Australian and non-Australian children’s and YA verse novels, for those of you interested in these audiences.

Do you read verse novels? And if so, care to share your favourites (Aussie or otherwise)?

Book Launch of My heart is a little wild thing by Nigel Featherstone

A respite this week from Monday Musings because I did want to bring you the Canberra launch of Nigel Featherstone’s My heart is a little wild thing, which happened on Saturday. Normally, I would have published the post on the weekend, but I was otherwise engaged, and so have decided to usurp Monday Musings to post it now. The launch, which took the form of an interview with Featherstone by Anna Vidot, was to take place at Harry Hartog Bookseller’s ANU campus location. However, interest was so high that it was moved to a small lecture theatre next door. Such is the support for local author and arts activist Nigel Featherstone.

The participants

Nigel Featherstone is no stranger to this blog, as checking out the link on his name will demonstrate. I have reviewed his 2019 novel (Bodies of men), the three novellas that preceded that, and a song-cycle. I have worked with him as litblogging mentor for the ACT Writers Centre’s New Territory program. And I have reported on myriad events that he has organised and/or been part of, most recently F*CK COVID: An Online Literary Affair organised during you know what.

Anna Vidot is a presenter on ABC Local radio – since 2019 – before which she had been ABC Rural’s national political reporter. I enjoyed her questioning. She had clearly engaged with the work.

The conversation

Anna commenced by saying that this was one of those books she clasped to her chest on finishing … and then launched into the discussion.

On where the book came from

Nigel said that after completing his manuscript, he came across his writer’s journal from July 2007 which had the words “two people, farm, quoll”. This core had been with him since then but it hadn’t come together until he spent a week on the Monaro after the 2019/2020 fires. He had tried various ideas and locations, but this is when the novel clicked. (My post on the Monaro, which includes a mention of Nigel.)

As for the quoll, the Tiger Quoll has been extinct in the region for some time but conservation efforts are bringing it back. It is a quoll which leads his lonely protagonist Patrick to a meaningful relationship.

On how the Monaro bled into him

Nigel had gone to a remote little heritage-listed barn in Bobundra, in the Monaro/Ngarigo Country. While there, he realised, when he was more interested in a Stephen Fry book than in writing his novel, that it wasn’t working. So he walked, and walked, until his character Patrick came to him. He then wrote the main draft by hand in 14 days. It took 12 drafts, way less than the 40+ for his last novel!

On how much of Patrick is in him

It is a work of the imagination, Featherstone reiterated. He described it as being a “ghost writer” writing Patrick’s memoir, the story of a dutiful son who has denied his own self.

On “what if” or “sliding door” elements, particularly when you borrow from yourself

While the book is not about Nigel, things in his life did inspire it. When his mother died a few years ago, he immediately thought, he said, “who was she?” He wanted to write about a mother-son relationship. What would his life have looked like if he had “obeyed his mother”, who didn’t want him to be a writer or to love men, and who never came to one of his events? Patrick, to some degree, is that person. (At the end of the interview, Nigel told us that when he and his brother were clearing out their mother’s house, they found a scrapbook in which she’d kept all the articles he’d written, and all the articles/reviews/advertisements about him. It told him, “If you think I wasn’t paying attention, I was.” What a gift, he said!

On his understanding of being a good child

Nigel quoted novelist George Saunders who said that “our characters are better versions of ourselves”. Patrick was loyal and faithful to his mother. This is a three-way love story: man and his mother; a man with another man; and a man with a place. Nigel said that he also wanted the novel to be a loving portrait of a mother.

Continuing the discussion on family, Nigel noted that Patrick also watches his siblings’ relationships with their parents, which in turn affects his relationship with his siblings.

On how he found Lewis, the love interest

Nigel responded by mentioning an essay, “The opposite of glamour“, by  Delia Falconer, which discusses climate change, the extinction crisis and the loss of nature – and the deep impact this is having on our beings. He came up with the idea of Patrick seeing a man, Lewis, planting trees. But, he said, you can’t write, “Oh you’re planting trees, let’s shag”, though a poet could! He talked about the Tiger Quoll, again, encouragement from novelist John Clanchy, and finding the link with his character Patrick. He talked about the “revegetation” motif, with its layer reflectin the revegetation in Patrick’s heart.

He also laughed about The Saturday Paper review which described some of sex scenes as “a bit smutty”, but the reviewer had gone on to say that they were “perfectly appropriate for a man finding his sexuality”.

On finding Patrick’s voice

Voice, said Nigel, is a mystery. In fact, everything about writing is a mystery. He wanted the voice to be concise, simple, and had tried third person but it wasn’t working. He talked of being inspired by Tsiolkas’ fearlessness (and mentioned his essay in Reading like an Australian writer, on which I posted recently.) He also quoted Irvine Welsh’s advice that “it’s your page you can do whatever the f*** you want to”. And, he mentioned a residency he, Robyn Cadwallader and Julie Keys had had with Charlotte Wood. Discussing his opening sentence –

The day after I tried to kill my mother, I tossed some clothes, a pair of hiking boots, a baseball cap and a few toiletries into my backpack, and left at dawn.

– with Wood, she asked him, “has it got heat in it?” because “heat” should be an indicator.

On tackling being fearless

He said there was an element of being “shit-scared”, and that there was a balance between “caring and letting go”. He quoted Tim Minchin’s statement that any piece of art is about “How much time you had” combined with “how much energy you gave to it”.

He shared here that he’d given an early version to his agent, who called it “rubbish”. “Her business model,” he said, “is to follow people around with an axe.” Clearly though, she knows what she’s doing – and, she knows what Nigel can take!

On the role of music in the work (and Nigel’s life)

Music is one of the three loves of his life he said – which, anyone who knows Nigel’s work or reads his blog, would know. So, he realised Lewis would be a composer, and that it would create opportunities for him. Then he told us that he had just heard from London-based composer, Ben P Moore, who had written a suite of music inspired by the novel. Nigel was chuffed. Moore, he said, had never been to the Monaro, but had captured it beautifully.

On the book’s exploration of happiness

Anna suggested that the book grapples with “what do we decide is enough in our lives” and/or “what is enough for happiness”. Nigel agreed that his novel was partly driven by considering “happiness”. He had once heard Patrick White say that “happiness is a red herring. It’s not the point”, but Nigel disagreed. He said he’s always been interested in happiness, though it’s a fleeting thing.

This led to a little more on Lewis’ role. Nigel described Lewis as part-animal and the tiger quoll as part-human. Lewis gives Patrick permission to be himself.

Q & A

There was an engaged Q&A. Here are some highlights:

Do you find the words or do the words find you?: Both, said Nigel. He does love a dictionary, and a thesaurus. Writers are not just vessels, but do a lot of work to produce what they do.

It is the the absence or presence of joy/contentment that stimulates good writing?: (I might have lost the connecting thread here!) Nigel feels that readers are satisfied when characters get what they need more than what they want, but what do they yearn for? Nigel shared that he yearns to be an artist. A someone in the audience called out, he is. Patrick needs to get a life, said Nigel, he needs to live deeply, wildly (which reminded me a little of Nigel’s novella, The beach volcano.)

Did the two violent events in the book happen as a surprise or were they planned?: Nigel answered that the writing was very much a stream of consciousness process. He mentioned poet Melinda Smith’s idea of duende, of having two muses, an angel and a devil/goblin one. The “goblin muse” encourages you to say things people say you shouldn’t say, of going to “the dangerous place”. So, with his opening line, he realised the response was to “let’s follow that”. I saw a theme here – Smith’s dangerous place, Tsiolkas’ fearlessness, and Wood’s heat.

Do you depend on honest criticism to produce a work like this?: Nigel had already shared his agent’s response to an earlier draft, but he shared here David Malouf’s advice that there are no wrong steps, that if you go down one path, you needed to go there, and then it’s “now we are going here”. Tim Minchin, he said, talks of “spine tingles” (for Nigel it’s the “tummy buzz”) that tell you you are on to something.

How do outside stresses affect the ability to create art?: Paul Verlaine spoke about love, said Nigel, but for him it’s also about the hope to live in an environment that isn’t dying. The novel is about people, the environment and animals wanting to live again.

It was an intense and fully engaged launch – and I hope I got the gist. I can’t wait to read the novel now.

Book Launch of My heart is a little wild thing by Nigel Featherstone
Cultural Centre Kambri (organised by Harry Hartog Bookseller ANU)
Saturday 28 May 2022, 12noon-1pm

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Red Witch

Last week, I attended the online launch of Nathan Hobby’s biography, The red witch: A biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It was beautifully emceed by Lisa Hill, of ANZLitLovers, and involved three speakers, Karen Throssell, award-winning poet and the only grandchild of Prichard; Nathan Hollier, the publisher; and, of course, the author himself, Nathan Hobby.

A brief intro

Katharine Susannah Prichard
KSP, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) has to be among Australia’s most interesting and significant writers. I first read her in my teens when, keen on civil rights and concerned about racial discrimination, I read her novel Coonardoo. I loved it, though I’m sure my response was naive and typical of those earnest times. However, I never forgot Prichard.

She wrote thirteen novels, a memoir, plays, reportage, poetry and short stories. She won the Australian section of Hodder & Stoughton’s All-Empire novel competition with The Pioneers (1915) (my review), and in 1929, Coonardoo shared the Bulletin’s Novel prize with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built. She was also a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, which brought her notoriety that dogged her through life.

So much is known about her, and yet so little, because, although we have her son’s Ric’s 1975 biography, Wild weeds and wind flowers, there has not been a comprehensive biography – until now.

The launch

Before I share the highlights of the launch, I’ll reiterate a comment I made on my post on contemporary responses to Coonardoo, because it speaks to the challenges faced by KSP researchers. I wrote:

I was horrified by the frequency with which Prichard’s name was spelt incorrectly. This must have driven Hobby mad in his research. She is frequently written as KathErine, not KathArine, and occasionally Catherine, and even Kathleen. Really? Then, there’s her last name, which was often reported as PriTchard not Prichard. It must have driven HER mad too, at the time. Sometimes, too, her married name, Mrs Hugo Throssell, is used.

It is truly astonishing how often her name was – and still is – got wrong.

So now, the launch …

After the usual introductory comments and acknowledgement of country, Lisa introduced the three speakers, and then were were off, starting with Karen Throssell who had the honours of formally launching the book.

Karen referred to the title, suggesting the word “witch” connotes independent women who defy convention, which accurately captures her grandmother. (An aside, I remember when Nathan asked us bloggers to vote on the titles he was considering for his planned biography, long before he had a publisher. None of them was The red witch, but what an inspired title it is.)

Anyhow, Karen went on to read her poem “My fairy godmother” about her doting gran, the “wild Bohemian”, KSP. She mentioned the challenge over the years of protecting her family’s reputation, referencing her recently published book about her father, The crime of not knowing your crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO.

Karen then turned to Nathan’s biography. She initially feared he was focused on some of the personal secrets in Prichard’s life, but was pleased that his biography does, in fact, focus on KSP’s intellectual and political ideas more than her “private peccadillos”. What she likes most about the biography is Nathan’s detailing the “journey of the individual books” including KSP’s travel to the places in which her books were set. She also likes his coverage of the various books’ reception, particularly of Coonardoo, which she described as an “act of literary empathy”.

She declared the book launched and the floor (or screen) was handed over to Melbourne University Press’s publisher, Nathan Hollier. He spoke briefly, noting that early reviews had praised Nathan’s “capacity to write and tell a story … with felicity … without overt authorial intrusion”. Books, he said, are not ephemeral, and he believes this one will stand test of time as a resource for literature, culture, history, and Australians generally.

Then it was Nathan Hobby’s turn. After introductory acknowledgements, he got onto talking about the process and challenges of writing the biography. Given the reputational issues that have dogged KSP’s family, he said he had been apprehensive because he was aware of the pain that had been caused to the family by scholars and others.

He was grateful that the publisher let him go to 150,000 words. (As we bloggers who followed the project on Nathan’s blog for several years know, this was still a challenge, because he was initially keen on a three-volume biography. But, I suspect it’s a good decision, and maybe Nathan can now write a bunch of articles using all those treasures he had to cut!)

He talked about the value of the Internet for modern research, praising, in particular, Trove. It was especially useful for him as a Western Australian, and even more when the pandemic and travel restrictions hit. It would be utopia, he said, to have all of Australia’s archives digitised. Yes!

Nathan talked a little about the art of writing biography, and referred to some other biographers, but I didn’t catch the names. He talked about the challenge of resolving contradictions in your subject, and quoted one writer – if I’ve got this right – as describing biography as the “art of human betrayal in words”. In terms of writing his own, he said he had to juggle the constant tension between the chronological and the thematic. He also talked about the style of biography which involves the “biographer on a quest”. He suggested this works well when there is not much material, such as Brian Matthews’ Louisa, on Louisa Lawson, but this was not a problem he faced with KSP! He said that his aim was to show “a lived life”.

Oh, and he thanked all his supporters for their encouragement and camaraderie.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’m just sharing some:

  • On deciding what to cut and what to keep in the editing: his criteria were how the material related to the bigger picture, its literary and political significance, and whether it explained who she was and/or her work
  • His favourite KSP work: perhaps Coonardoo, but he also has a soft spot for the Wild oats of Han. KSP saw The roaring nineties as her most important work.
  • On what KSP would make of Russia today: Russia is not really a Communist nation today; he can’t see she’d like Russia or Putin.
  • Most exciting moment: many Eureka moments, often little things like finding a grocery receipt from their honeymoon in Hugo Throssell’s papers.
  • Most challenging moment: different types of challenges, such as technical ones in accessing material, and writing ones like determining a structure.
  • Difference in public reception of KSP and Jean Devanny (from academic Carole Ferrier): Devanny would probably answer in terms of class. Ferrier commented on the rivalry between the two: Devanny felt KSP had been “taken up” by the Community Party. KSP’s image was “respectable” whilst Devanny’s was “disreputable”. Ferrier said the women encompass some of the issues faced by women as revolutionaries.

A big thanks to all for a smoothly-run and engaging launch. Now to read the book …

Further reading

Sydney Writers Festival 2022, Live and Local (Session 1, and only)

This is the fourth year I’ve attended Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local live-streamed events at the National Library of Australia. I nearly missed it this year because, somehow, I didn’t see the usual advertising. However, I caught it just in time, and was able to attend an event that particularly interested me. For the rest, my time was already committed so … next year?

Damon Galgut, Larissa Behrendt and Paige Clark in conversation with Sisonke Msimang: Saturday 21 May, 4pm

I was thrilled that this was the session I could attend, as Damon Galgut’s The promise is my reading group’s May book, and I hope to read Larissa Behrendt’s After story for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week in July. I am also interested in Paige Clarke’s She is haunted, which was longlisted for this year’s Stella Prize, and in Sisonke Msimang, who, besides also being an author, is a wonderful advocate for diverse storytelling. The session was billed as: “to explore the responsibilities and opportunities of the creative writer and artist, and ask: who gets to tell a story?”

Before the session started, a brief message from Festival Director, Michael Williams, was streamed to us, in which he talked about the Festival’s theme, Change my mind, having been chosen to reflect our current uncertain times. This was followed by a very neat animated graphic on the theme.

The audience at our venue was very small – under 10 people – which is significantly less then I’ve ever experienced before. I didn’t feel it had been as well-advertised as in previous years, but the NLA staff member on duty thought, probably rightly, that there was too much else going on – like an election!

The limits of imagination

(I will use first names to describe the speakers, because that seems appropriate for describing a “chat”).

Sisonke commenced by acknowledging country, noting that this was a country rich with stories. She then of course introduced the writers, and explained that the topic they’d been “given” was Who gets to tell a story. However, she said, this conversation has been going for a long time, and will keep going, and the authors on the panel had written great books that we also want to hear about, so, she said, “we will be subversive” and try to cover both! I think the audience appreciated that, though in the end, the focus clearly was “who gets to tell the story”. The question was explored well, but it was clear that, while he gave it his best shot, Damon, as the only “white” and only male on the panel, was the most challenged by Sisonke’s probing.

How do you help students understand or handle this “who-tells-the-story” question?

Sisonke, noting that all panel members also teach writing, thought to approach the “who-tells-the-story” question via their teaching. Good one! She also took the opportunity to note the current attack on humanities as a discipline.

Larissa spoke at some length, teasing out the issue, starting with how layered it is. For example there is a diversity of First Nations across county, and she can’t tell stories from nations that aren’t hers. In fact can’t tell all the stories of her own nation, because they aren’t all hers. This runs counter to the Western academic tradition which is founded on the principle of sharing stories, of being entitled to know everything in the academy.

So, her approach is to ask students, Why is this your story to tell? She made the point that as a lawyer she needs to consider when it’s your role to tell a story, and you should create space for others to tell it. She does, however, believe it is possible to write from a range of perspectives; she’s done it herself, having written from male and non-Indigenous perspectives. The question then is How well do you know the story you want to tell?

Paige observed that to write “other” characters you need to research, and she, personally, is not prepared to do that. But, to students, she would ask Why do you want to, or think you need to, write the story? Could the story be written in the writer’s own identity-space; could they approach the topic from their own space?

Damon felt that South Africa, where he’s from, has gone from being behind the times to being ahead in these issues, though I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that. He quoted Nadine Gordimer who had often been challenged on her right to speak for black South Africans. Her reply was, What did James Joyce know about being a woman, and yet he wrote that wonderful Molly Bloom soliloquy? Fiction, he said, is about imagination. “Judge me by the results”. He feels that if we limit what we are allowed to write we might as well give up fiction. (I have some sympathy with this, as many of you know, but I also feel there’s a power issue at play and that past gaps in stories need to be redressed.)

Sisonke followed his comment with, but …

Can there be harm done by the attempt to tell a story that’s not yours?

But, by what culture do you assess the achievement? By the prize culture? This has seen the canon of writing about Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal writers being judged by non-Aboriginal people who have the same perspectives as the writers. Is this valid?

Larissa stated that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important, which also, she said, brings in the relationship of politics to writing. She – and I appreciated this coming from a First Nations writer, because I agree with her – thinks that Kate Grenville’s The secret river made “an extraordinary contribution”. Grenville, she said, didn’t feel need to fill in the gaps with assumptions about Indigenous people in the story. She also admires Liam Davison’s The white women (Lisa’s review). Both authors confront the impact of colonisation without putting themselves in the place of an Aboriginal person.

Damon commented that he’s not a woman, but he needs to imaginatively take that step. He used the words “being allowed” to write, say, a woman character.

Larissa responded by saying that the question is: What is the ethical framework you create for yourself when you are creating a character? It’s not so much what you are allowed to do, but that you should act ethically. What are the parameters you create for yourself. However, Damon felt that in South Africa, the question is “are you allowed”?

What is better about this moment?

At this point Sisonke, who asked such pointed, interesting questions, said rather than focusing on where we are “not permitted to go”, why not look at it from a positive point of view?

Larissa said current times come off the back of a lack of diversity in the canon, and that we are seeing a time of incredible burgeoning in First Nations writing across all genres. The are more opportunities for stories to be exposed deeply, for deeper understanding of diversities. We are enriched by greater intellectual exchange.

Paige, who self-describes as Chinese/American/Australian, shared that there were no identity markers in her first stories, written ten years ago, because she felt that if she wrote as a Chinese woman, she would not be listened to. Now, it feels comfortable writing from her identity.

Damon was startled by Paige’s statement, and felt that he wanted to stay silent on this as a white male. And then, somewhat reversing his previous statement, as he himself admitted, he said that he wanted to defend the right of writers to go anywhere but as a white South African, he knows there are places he can’t go. He hasn’t, he said, ventured out of white perspectives because he doesn’t know them.

Sisonke, wanting to push him a little further, responded that there was a feeling that in the current culture “white guys are going to lose by the canon being challenged”, but she feels it doesn’t have to be a loss, so, what’s positive, she asked?

Damon said that he doesn’t feel personally deprived. But, he felt that a significant positive is that new voices have been introduced. However, he would not venture into voices not his own.

The books

Sisonke then asked the authors to read excerpts from their books that she had selected. Clearly she’d thought hard about and prepared well for the session.

Larissa introduced her reading by explaining a little of the plot which takes us on a literary tour of England with a First Nations mother and daughter. She said the book explored the English canon she grew up with and that she still loves. But, she said, she also grew up with the richness of Indigenous storytelling, and that her novel marries these two traditions.

Sisonke asked Larissa about setting her book in “the heart of empire”. Larissa, a lawyer as well as writer, replied that the seed for the book lay in her observation of non-Indigenous legal people being dismissive of lndigenous people. She wanted to put her characters in a place, Britain, where they would be confronted, a place which has never really reflected on what it did. But, she said, storytelling is also about healing. Further, being overseas makes you think about yourself differently. She wanted her characters to experience that.

Paige read an early story from her book which is about race at its heart, and the gulf between mother and daughter caused by intergenerational trauma. Sisonke added that she’d chosen this excerpt because it beautifully captures the intimacy between mother and daughter, the trust that’s inherent and the trust that’s broken.

Paige said that her stories are autobiographical, but fantastical too. They are almost auto-fiction she said, in that she didn’t have to look far for them.

Damon’s excerpt featured a 13 year-old-daughter, Amor, who overhears a promise made by her father makes to his dying wife to give a home to a loyal black worker. Damon beautifully captures the innocence of this young girl – “history has not yet trod on her” – who wants the promise honoured.

Sisonke commented that none of the characters are easy to like. She said that non-South African readers see the characters as exaggerated, cartoonish, but that people who know South Africa “know” these characters. She asked Damon what he was trying to do with “that unlikability”. He replied that Amor is the moral centre because she doggedly wants the promise honoured. He believes that Apartheid was possible because of a failure of imagination, by which I understand him to mean the failure to imagine yourself in the shoes of others.

Q&A

There was the usual question about influences, but the answers were not always the usual! Damon said that his answer partly encompasses a response to Sisonke’s earlier question of the positives to be gained from contemporary literary culture. He said there’s been gain in there now being a platform for other voices, and that every book you read shows you another version of the world. (He added, as an aside, that you can tell which public figures read, which don’t. This got a wry laugh from our small audience and the other panel members.)

Larissa essentially echoed Damon by saying that through reading you experience so many views of world, across cultures and perspectives. She then added that First Nations elders are like libraries, and that they value people as they get older – the “library of elders”. (This reminded me of a discussion I’d had earlier in the week when lunching with friends. We talked about ageing and the idea of being “elders”, though whether we are respected as such in white culture is the question.)

Paige answered more traditionally by naming Amy Hempel who, she says, does rawness and vulnerability, economy and minimalism, so well.

And here the session abruptly ended when the well-prepared Sisonke was told they’d run out of time. What a shame!

Stella Prize 2022 Winner announced

The 2022 Stella Prize winner was announced tonight and it’s not a surprise, as several of us in the blogosphere rather thought that

Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear

would be the winner. Indeed, I was so confident I took it with me to Melbourne this month, fully intending to read it. But, there was not much reading time, and it took most of my time there to finally finish 2020’s winner, Jess Hill’s See what you made me do (my review). I only read a couple of pages of Dropbear before I realised that I’d better read my reading group book for this week’s meeting. (It’s the next review you’ll see!) So, Dropbear is still languishing on the TBR, but you may remember from my shortlist announcement that Brona has reviewed it.

The book is a combination of prose and poetry, and the judges described it as:

a breathtaking collection of poetry and short prose which arrests key icons of mainstream Australian culture and turns them inside out, with malice aforethought. Araluen’s brilliance sizzles when she goes on the attack against the kitsch and the cuddly: against Australia’s fantasy of its own racial and environmental innocence.

The panel chair, Melissa Lucashenko, said that it will take you “on a wild ride” that is “simultaneously comical and dangerous”. All this confirms my desire to read it, because I enjoy writers who play with traditions, conventions and myths to encourage us to look again at who we are and what we do.

The quotes above, plus one by Stella’s Executive Director, Jaclyn Booton, can be found on the Stella website (linked below). There is also a quote from Evelyn Araluen’s acceptance. She commented that she’d been following the Stella for the length of her writing aspirations, and had hoped one day to write a novel that would win it. She never dreamed Dropbear would be that winner. She also said:

I’m deeply interested in the lives, histories, and dreams of women and gender diverse writers in Australian publishing, and it’s an honour to be recognised by a prize designed to champion those stories. There aren’t words to explain how thrilled I am to win.

Just to remind you, the judges were author Melissa Lucashenko, as chair, with her co-judges being writer, poet, essayist Declan Fry; author-across-all-forms Cate Kennedy; memoirist and activist Sisonke Msimang; and essayist and screenwriter Oliver Reeson

There’s more on the anouncement on the Stella website.

Any comments?

Stella Prize 2022 Shortlist announced

The 2022 Stella Prize shortlist was announced, yesterday. But, as I had just posted my review of Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here, I decided to hold my announcement post over for a day. Those of you keenly interested will have seen it, but at least I will have it for my records.

Just to remind you, the judges are author Melissa Lucashenko, in the chair, with her co-judges being writer, poet, essayist Declan Fry; author-across-all-forms Cate Kennedy; memoirist and activist Sisonke Msimang; and essayist and screenwriter Oliver Reeson

And remember, this year poetry was added as a form eligible for the prize – and, it seems to have been a popular decision because, well, look at the …

The shortlist

  • Eunice Andrada, Take care (poetry)
  • Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (poetry) (TBR, Brona’s review)
  • Anwen Crawford, No document (memoir) (Lisa’s review)
  • Jennifer Down, Bodies of light (novel)
  • Lee Lai, Stone fruit (graphic novel)
  • Elfie Shiosaki, Homecoming (memoir) (Lisa’s review)

So, two books of poetry, two memoirs and two novels (one being a graphic novel.) Three of the four I thought might have made it to the longlist – Araluen, Crawford, and Down – have now made it through to the shortlist. The announcement email I received from Stella said the list spanned “fiction, nonfiction, social history, a book-length essay, a graphic novel, and – eligible for the first time in 2022 – poetry”.  It also noted that “half of the shortlisted books written by debut authors.”

I will try to read at least the one I have on my TBR before the winner is announced, but I’d actually like to read all of these.

Melissa Lucashenko says that the shortlist:

is big on emerging voices writing in unconventional ways –  from regions, positions, and literary forms that transcend the mainstream. These authors are writing back, insisting that ‘other’ lives – First Nations lives, poor women’s lives, queer lives, and Filipina lives – matter on the page just as they do in everyday affairs. Although the shortlisted authors vary widely in location, gender, and culture, they all share two things. First, all six shortlistees undertake the essential work of any artist: paying attention to what is happening around them, and interrogating that experience. Second, the authors have produced powerfully beautiful literature, sacrificing no art in their unflinching focus on justice, inclusion, and truth-telling. It has been a great pleasure as well as an honour, to shine a light on these six brilliant talents.”

There’s more on the shortlist on the Stella website.

The winner on 28 April.

Any comments?