Monday musings on Australian literature: Poetry Month 2021

I have posted on World Poetry Day, which occurs in March, several times in recent years. And I have written about Australian poetry various times, including about the Red Room Company (or, Red Room Poetry). Their vision is very simple: “to make poetry in meaningful ways”. They have initiated and supported various projects over the years, and have now come up with a new one, Poetry Month. It seems the perfect topic for another Monday Musings on poetry in Australia.

Many of you are probably aware that the US has various months dedicated to literary/humanities/justice issues, like Black History Month in February. One of these is their National Poetry Month which has been going now since 1996. I’ve often thought it would be good for Australia to emulate some of these. We do have NAIDOC Week, of course, but that could be a month, eh? Anyhow, now Red Room has initiated a Poetry Month which is exciting:

Our goal is to increase access, awareness, value and visibility of poetry in all its forms and for all audiences. The inaugural Poetry Month will be held during August 2021 with the aim of an ongoing annual celebration.

What are they doing?

A lot, in fact. They say that they have

an electrifying lineup of poetic collaborations, daily poems and writing prompts, online workshops, poetic residencies and live to live-streamed showcases, designed to engage everyone – from veteran poetry lovers to the (for now!) uninitiated.

There is a calendar. They have 8 poetry ambassadors, who are an eclectic and appropriately diverse bunch: Yasmin Abdel-Magied, Tenzin Choegyal, Peter FitzSimons, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, Stephen Oliver, Grace Tame, Megan Wilding.

My love of reading and writing poetry is guided by a lifelong attraction to the seemingly simple and unadorned.

~ Tony Birch

Specific events are …

  • 30in30 daily poetry commissions: every day there are/will be “new original text/video poems, poet reflections and writing prompts from some of the country’s leading poets, authors, spoken word artists and playwrights”. They can be accessed on the site, and on social media (with the hashtag #30in30). Today, for example, there’s a 2-minute video from First Nations author, Tony Birch, on what poetry means to him. He talks of poems that can have new meanings each time you read them. 30in30 will include commissions from their larger Fair Trade project which involved First Nations poets from around the world.
  • Line Break: a weekly online show, on Tuesdays through August, 7pm AEST, on Facebook and YouTube, providing previews from feature poets, publishers, spoken word artists, and musicians, and more.
  • Poets in Residence: a program, supported by City of Sydney (how great is that). The poets were to be located at Green Square Library “for a period of writing, reading and performing poetry on site, engaging the general public in various ways and showcasing COS library collections”. Unfortunately, Sydney’s current lockdown has forced the postponement of this.
  • Showcases: a “raft” of live and online events across the country, including the inaugural Poetry Month Gala supported by The Wheeler Centre. Click on the Showcases link to see events from, indeed, around the country, including in South Australia and Western Australia.
  • Workshops: weekly online workshops, on Wednesday nights 7-9pm, via Zoom, catering “for all poets at all levels … anywhere in Australia”, with the topics being “stripping poetry back, breath and beatboxing, the intersection of poetry and comedy, and a special older emerging voices workshop”. They suggest a donation of $10. The workshop leaders are Sarah Temporal, Hope One, Vidya Rajan and Tony Birch.

What an exciting-sounding and diverse program.

Here is a taster … Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, with her strong 30in30 contribution, “Hard pressed”.

A little value add from me …

If you are looking for contemporary Australian poetry, you could start with two independent publishers:

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my mother
  • Giramondo, which published Jonathan Shaw’s chapbook that I reviewed recently). They have also published Ali Cobby Eckermann, Jennifer Maiden, Gerald Murnane, Gig Ryan, Fiona Wright, and so many more known and unknown to me.
  • Pitt Street Poetry, which published Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov poems (my review) and Melinda Smith’s Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call, which won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry. They have also published Eileen Chong, John Foulcher, Peter Goldsworthy, Geoff Page, and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, to name some of the better known (to me) from their stable.

There is also the Australian Poetry Library, about which I’ve written before. It now contains, the website says, “tens of thousands of poems from hundreds of Australian poets”. You can read poems free online, but if you want to download and print poems, there is “a small fee, part of which is returned to the poets via CAL, the Copyright Agency Limited”. This resource is particularly geared to teaching poetry, but is available to anyone.

Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov Poems

If you are looking for Australian bloggers who write about poetry, try Jonathan Shaw at Me fail? I fly. This link will take you to his poetry tagged posts, of which there is now a substantial number. Also, blogger Brona (This Reading Life) is planning to support the month, so if you don’t already subscribe to her blog, do check her out if you are interested in poetry and/or in what Red Room is trying to do for Australian poetry.

Finally, you can also find poetry reviews in the Australian Women Writers database.

And now my question: do you have a favourite poem to share with us? (And do you, like Tony Birch, go back to it again and again, and find something different each time?)

Irma Gold in conversation with Sarah St Vincent Welch

Like many bookshops, Muse Canberra offers a wonderful program of book events. Unfortunately, I get to very few, but I did get to this weekend’s conversation between local poet (among other things) Sarah St Vincent Welch and Irma Gold about Gold’s debut novel The breaking (my review).

Irma Gold, reading from her novel The breaking, with Sarah St Vincent Welch, Muse, 23/5/2021

The participants

Irma Gold has appeared a few times on this blog, including for her collection of short stories, Two steps forward (my review), her children’s picture book, Megumi and the bear (my review), the Canberra centenary anthology she edited, The invisible thread (my review), and now, of course, The breaking. Irma is also a professional editor, and co-produces the podcast Secrets from the Green Room.

Sarah St Vincent Welch has also appeared in this blog, though more subtly. Besides having a piece included in The invisible thread, Sarah, a lovely past work colleague of mine, was the person behind my taking part in a public reading of Behrooz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains in March 2019. Sarah is a published poet and organises various arts events in Canberra, including a weekly poetry event, That Poetry Thing That Is On At Smiths Every Monday.

The conversation

Irma and Sarah know each other well – not just because they are both actively involved in Canberra’s literary scene but because they had been in the same short fiction writing group. This, I’m sure, helped make the conversation seem so effortless, but only partly, because Sarah’s natural warmth and Irma’s relaxed, thoughtful engagement with the questions made the conversation a delight. It covered a lot of ground, so I am going to use headings for the main questions Sarah asked. It started with a brief reading from the book.

Character or issue-led?

Book cover

Nothing like getting straight into the nitty-gritty, and that’s what Sarah did with her opening question. Character-led, said Irma, not the elephant cruelty issue. Indeed, she said, she didn’t know at the start that the book was going to be about elephants. It started with the two characters, Deven and Hannah, who arrived fully formed on the page. But, here’s the thing – it also started as a short story, which, with interest from her writers’ group, became two linked short stories. At this point, John Clanchy (whose writing I love) suggested that she was writing a novel. Irma said she’s glad it was the characters who drove the book, because if it had been the elephants, it would have been more polemical. (That was one of my potential questions gone!)

Can a novel effect change?

Another great to-the-point question. Irma, who admitted she loves fiction best anyhow, said she believes fiction can investigate complex issues in a way that non-fiction can’t. Readers can be put in the shoes of characters to “see” the issues. Through characters, fiction can explore complex issues, like the elephant situation, without offering answers.

Irma hopes that what her book (and fiction like it) can do is lead people to make different decisions, which, in this case, means not buying into the elephant tourism – not riding elephants, not attending elephant shows, etc. She feels that her novel is timely, because the current hiatus in travel gives us the opportunity to consider our travel decisions, and how we engage with another culture. This includes the practice of westerners volunteering (as she herself did). Are we helping or interfering? She mentioned the Instagram selfie culture, in which tourists take selfies with elephants, not seeing what’s going on behind them to keep that elephant in check.

Irma talked a little about the cruelty practised on elephants, but I won’t repeat that here. It is in the book, and is not pleasant reading, but is necessary knowledge, particularly for tourists to Asia. She also talked about how her love of elephants started in childhood.

Surpises as a debut novelist?

The best surprise has been the positive feedback, she said, as she’d steeled herself for criticism. She was particularly thrilled with an email from a long term Thai resident who thanked her for getting Thailand right, for avoiding cliches.

This led to a discussion about the work involved in writing the novel, because while she’d been to Thailand and worked in elephant rescue, she hasn’t lived there. She worked hard to get Thai life and culture right. She talked about working in the elephant sanctuaries where the two main groups of volunteers were young people in their 20s who have no strong sense of where their lives are going, and those in their 50s and 6Os.

On writing short stories versus novels

As a lover of both forms, I appreciated Irma’s practical responses. First, she said, you can hold all of a short story in head at one time. This is harder with a novel, so you need concentrated time, which she organised for herself. Then, she said, pacing is different in a novel, and, of course, a novel involves longer-term character development.

Place of her novel in the literary landscape

Another question up my alley! Irma said more novels are engaging with this sort of thing. She commented that one reader had asked her if her book was like We are all completely beside ourselves. She was surprised because it’s a very different book, but it was in fact an inspiration for her novel.

More books, she added, are engaging with animal rights. There’s a growing awareness she said, but she hopes, too, that the book is an enjoyable read.


Sarah ended by saying that as well as being about elephants, the novel is about madcap behaviour and the joy of love and life. Irma agreed, saying that everyone wants to talk about elephants, but she wanted to write about joy. She loved writing Deven she said.

Q & A

There was quite an engaged Q&A, but I will keep it brief:

  • On the aspect of the book most difficult to confront in herself: Irma likes to write from what she knows to doesn’t know, believing there is no black and white, but the most difficult thing was watching the “breaking”/phajaan videos.
  • On writing about “delicate” things: Irma understood the questioner’s not wanting to give plot points away, so let’s just say that she talked about how fiction, by definition, will involve writing about things that are not your lived experience, and that you have to consult.
  • On whether there is more Hannah or Deven in her: Irma is drawn to confident, intense people like Deven, so she has probably come out of that. However, she feels these characters came from nowhere, or, from the girls she saw at the sanctuary
  • On what we can do given the complexity of the problem: Irma said that the elephant industry only exists because of tourists, so the main answer is awareness! She hopes that not only will readers of her book become aware, but will talk to others. Tourists, though, need to make choices consciously and carefully because places will pretend to be what they are not. The Save Elephant Foundation is a good place to start.
  • On the editing process: There was quite a bit of talk about this. Irma, as an editor herself enjoyed the process – for the help it gave her book, and what it taught her about her own work as an editor. (I loved her comment about authors having “go to” words – bloggers do too – and the need to get those out!) Irma concluded by acknowledging John Clanchy for the immense help he gave her.

Irma Gold in conversation with Sarah St Vincent Welch
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Sunday 23 May 2021, 3-4pm

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

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!

Sydney Writers Festival 2021, Live and Local (Session 1)

This is the third year I’ve attended Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local live-streamed events at the National Library of Australia.

More often than not, I attend these events alone, but I was lucky to find that one of our wonderful local authors, Karen Viggers, was also attending alone, so I had company in my note-taking and we did manage a little debrief after each session too. We had both booked two sessions – the same two. Karen has appeared a few times on my blog.

Sarah Krasnostein and Maria Tumarkin: Conversation, Saturday 1 May, 2pm

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic

This session was to be Sarah Krasnostein with Helen Garner. However, on Friday, an email announced that Garner was unable to attend and would be replaced by Maria Tumarkin. I was a little disappointed, of course, but I was very happy with Maria Tumarkin as replacement. I’ve read and reviewed her impressive book, Axiomatic, which won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award and was shortlisted for several other awards.

Writers festival conversations are interesting beasts. They are, formally, interviews, with one person’s role being to talk to the other about their latest work, in this case, Sarah Krasnostein and her book, The believer. But, what often happens, and what happened here, is that although it was clear that the focus was Krasnostein’s book, the session did feel more like a conversation with Tumarkin actively engaged in sharing ideas. Some of her questions were almost as long as Krasnostein’s answers. Indeed, at one point she admitted that she was taking a long time to ask her question and that “Helen would never do this”! She got a friendly laugh.

Here is how the Festival program described the session:

Sarah spent time in Australia and the US talking to six extraordinary people who held fast to a belief even though it rubbed against the grain of conventional wisdom. Her research culminated in The Believer: Encounters with Love, Death & Faith, a deeply humane and deftly drawn enquiry into the power of belief.

The program continued:

Sarah is joined by Maria Tumarkin to explore what we believe in and why – from ghosts and UFOs to God and the devil, dying with autonomy and beyond.

This is not, in fact, how it came out but, I’m not sorry, because what we got was something far more interesting. No, let me rephrase that. I don’t know how interesting the suggested topics might have been but I loved what they did talk about – because they spoke to matters that interest me.

With a nod to Helen Garner, Tumarkin started by quoting Garner who has apparently said that her first lines “come as music from some other place”. She wondered if that’s how Krasnostein’s books start.

“Not anything like that!” said Krasnostein, and she talked about her research and writing processes which topics interest me. She basically, as Tumarkin reframed it, “squirrels material without having a particular idea” about where it’s going. With The believer, Krasnostein “stumbled across the Mennonites” and went from there. She holds her material close, she said, “until it tells you what it is”. (A bit like Michelangelo finding the sculpture that’s already in the block of marble?)

Tumarkin asked what inspires Krasnostein. She replied that it’s the wonder of what she finds in a day, and telling story of that. In other words, she’s driven by curiosity, and finding the story under the surface.

Tumarkin then asked how Krasnostein fixes or anchors her stories. How she finds their core, I guess she meant. Krasnostein said it’s not about what she likes but what is “interesting”, about finding different versions of the world. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted to know about belief when she started.

However, she knew she didn’t want to write magazine pieces or a book of essays. She wanted to “articulate the commonality”, to know the stories we tell about our “interior vulnerabilities”. She talked about her book comprising a “house of unlike things”. Tumarkin liked this – because it mirrors her own way of thinking – and asked her to explain further. Krasnostein paraphrased German sociologist-philosopher-critic, Theodor Adorno, saying “that harmony in art is not achieved by forcing components into resolution but making space for dissonance”. [I hope I got that down right, Karen!]

Then she said something that interested me. She wanted to come up with a structure that would demonstrate (mirror? reflect?) what she wanted to express philosophically. I love writing in which the structure informs or reflects or enhances the meaning.

This clearly also interests Tumarkin, who feels that much Australian non-fiction is formulaic in argument and structure. This is paradoxical, perverse, she said, because books are where “very different things can live together”, where you can practise dissonance and find unlike things.

This led to voice. Krasnostein said she prefers first person but you have to balance being in there too little against too much. She argues that third person is the most narcissistic because it means acting like God. All non-fiction is subjective, involves selection; a first person voice recognises this. Regarding how and where you put yourself in, she said that sometimes it’s for ethical reasons (to provide context, say), sometimes practical (such as reporting conversations), and sometime technical (such as to move the narrative along). However, while Krasnostein prefers first person, she is “never comfortable” about putting herself in!

Krasnostein mentioned Tumarkin’s writing about memoir vs confession (such as here), saying she doesn’t like memoir so much. She thinks it’s hard to see out of one’s own life.

Tumarkin asked about her approach to developing relationships during her research, suggesting that you can’t really see or know another person’s world, but you can connect on, say, an axis of fear or wonder. (I’m reminded of EM Forster’s Howard’s End theme, “Only connect”)

Krasnostein talked about doing the research to find the “right” people. Then it’s case-by-case, and depends on each person’s physical and emotional availability. For her, duration is a dimension of the story, as people change over time. Consequently, some relationships take 2-3 years to develop. In factual writing, it’s not about friendship. She said that Janet Malcom (whom I know Garner also admires) writes about this. Her ultimate contract is with the reader.

Tumarkin teased this out, suggesting there are other ethical responsilbilities besides to the reader, including to the subject matter. She commented that people are unreliable narrators of their own lives, and asked how Krasnostein balances responsibility to the person (the subject) and the reader (who needs the truth). You know the person in front of you is an unreliable narrator but you cannot undercut them.

Krasnostein said it’s partly about context. If you unpack the context – if you show the situation the person is in, and you honour their truth – you can respect everyone’s humanity and meet your ethical obligations. (This made sense to me. I would probably use the word “respect” too: you respect their story, their truth, which writers can do, at least partly, with tone.) She referred to Dorothea Lange, and the Frances Bacon quote on her darkroom door:

The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention. 

Krasnostein said she is interested in “bearing witness”, in seeing different views of same world rather than in making judgements.

The conversation continued, with Tumarkin asking Krasnostein about whether her legal training helps her work. Krasnostein identified the positives as being the story (context, character, evidence) and the training in writing directly, boldly. It taught her to “be frank on the page”. Somehow, this led to a discussion about resolutions – about how “resolution” is for fiction and the law, but not for non-fiction. Resolution is unsatisfying, they agreed.

Interestingly, Krasnostein described herself as a “pointillist”, as someone who only sees detail, which, she said, was “good for a writer, terrifying for a person”! However, I’d say that to write what she does, she is also able to see the forest.

There was a little more, but I’ll close by sharing Tumarkin’s essay on “wildness” that Krasnostein referenced, because it shows their mutual interest in “not following formula”. Tumarkin writes that

the essay moves by sway and swagger, not always but often enough. What it never does is march toward a preordained horizon. You can never give an essay its marching orders.

I love the way these women think, so it was a real pleasure to see them both in action.

Monday musings on Australian literature: FAW Activities (1)

FAW, or, the Fellowship of Australian Writers, was established in Sydney in 1928. Its exact origins are uncertain but the Oxford Companion of Australian Literature believes that the poet Dame Mary Gilmore was encouraged by another poet Roderic Quinn, to hold a meeting of writers. Poet, critic and professor of literature John Le Gay Brereton became the president. I have written before about the triumvirate – Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison – who were actively involved in the Fellowship in its early days. Indeed, in 1937, Davison was elected President, and Eldershaw, one of the vice-presidents.

My aim today is not to discuss the origins, but I will just share this from an early 1929 newspaper report about the Association’s early days:

it is evident, that before very long the organisation, in a numerical sense, will be remarkably representative, and in a position to increase in a practical way the popularity of Australian literature. At the present time local unattached writers, with very few exceptions, have an extremely hard row to hoe, but it is hoped that the efforts of the Fellowship, will materially alter this position and open up new avenues of hope and actual success.

Now to today’s topic which is to have a look at what events and talks FAW ran for its members over its first decade, from 1928 to 1937. I found the information in Trove, of course, mostly from announcements of coming meetings rather than reports of meetings held, so the detail is minimal.

Most of the “events” in these early years were part of their regular meetings, rather than being offered as separate events (like today’s festivals, workshops, and so on). And most were speakers, but there were also discussions, readings and performances. Below is a small selection of those I found, with the year-links being to the appropriate newspaper article.

Talks and papers

The talks and papers varied, with the most common topics being the lives of writers or other figures in the arts, the practice of writing, and the state of the Australian literary scene. I’ve listed my selection alphabetically by speaker.

  • Fred Broomfield, a journalist, on “Henry Lawson and his critics” (1930): according to the ADB “Tradition has it that Broomfield accepted Henry Lawson’s first Bulletin contribution”.
  • Jack Adrian Clapin, a solicitor, on literature and copyright laws (1929)
  • Winifred Hamilton on “Critics and Gloom” (1929)
  • Professor Le Gay Brereton on “Some Australian books” (1931)
  • Dr. G. Mackaness, President of FAW, on the progress made in the quality and quantity of Australian art and literature (I wonder what he said?) (1932)
  • Dorothy Mannix and John Longden, of Cinesound Studio, and Eric Bedford, of United Artists, on “Writing for the Talkies” (1935)
  • Sydney Elliott Napier, writer and poet, on “Books, Libraries, and Places I Have Visited.” (1930)
  • Rev. Father Eris O’Brien, “an authority on early Australian literature”, on “The Work of Dr. Ullathorne” (1930)
  • Very Rev. Dr. M. J. O’Reilly on “John O’Brien” (author of Round the Boree Log“): A report on this meeting said that “Dr. O’Reilly said that O’Brien’s poetry was not great. It provided recreation, however, and also preserved the image of the old type of Irish settler”. Is this a case of being damned with faint praise? (1931)
  • Peardon Pearce Packham on the life of past Bulletin editor, JF Archibald (1929)
  • Roderic Quinn on his associations and friendships with various Australian writers and editors (1929)
  • Steele Rudd on “How I wrote On our selection” (1929)
  • Sir Keith Smith, who, with his brother Ross, was the first to fly from England to Australia, on “The Pen and the ‘Plane” (sounds intriguing, eh?) (1931)
  • Percy Reginald Stephenson, writer, publisher and political activist, on “The Future of Literature in Australia” (1932)
  • E. M. Tildesley, honorary secretary of the British Drama League, on “The British Drama League and the Australian Dramatist” (1937)

There was an interesting report of a 1933 meeting. It’s not clear whether the meeting comprised a discussion or three papers, but it notes that:

  • Cecil Mann, journalist and short story writer, said, regarding what editors wanted that “there were no standards; it was all a matter of appropriateness. Each paper had an inner spiritual character, and every freelance writer must make an acquaintance with this if he hoped to have his articles accented”.
  • Percy Reginald Stephenson said that ‘there was no recipe for a “best seller.”‘ He said that only one book in a hundred was a good seller, and only five or six out of 15,000 published became best sellers. “To be successful, he said, books must be deliberately constructed, filled with inspiration, and polished and repolished before they were published. The public was not interested in anything not original, and the publisher was not running a correspondence course in authorship. The author must sub-edit his work, knock out about one-third of his words, “ring the bell” every five chapters, and round off a great character.” (Your heard it here!)
  • Eric Baume, journalist, novelist and radio personality, suggested there things were currently good for the freelance writers, that was “a greater call for Australian stories”, and that “Australian short stories were just as vital as those from elsewhere”.

Performances, readings, etc

Other sorts of meetings included discussions and debates. At an early 1929 meeting “an enthusiastic discussion took place on ways and means of winning the Australian public over to a practical interest in Australian literature”, and in 1936 the Fellowship debated the Sydney University Union on “That literature should be romantic rather than realistic.”‘ I would love to have been there!

There were also play readings (such as in 1930, the reading of Harry Tighe’s four-act play, Open Spaces), short story readings, poetry recitations, and even, sometimes, musical performances.

In 1931, FAW was behind a benefit concert for “distressed Australian authors”. Supporting Australian authors, particularly those who were struggling at the end of their lives, was an important FAW objective (at least from my past FAW research).

And now a question for you: Do you think literature should be “should be romantic rather than realistic”?

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays: Ramona Koval

Four weeks ago I posted on another session from the Yarra Valley Writers Festival’s New Release Sundays, the one with Robert Dessaix talking about his book about growing older, The time of our lives. In that post, I mentioned that Dessaix had presented a couple of radio programs on ABC RN, including Books and writing. Well, coincidentally, this weekend’s program features Ramona Koval who presented, for five years, a successor to that program, The Book Show (which I also loved.) Her new release is the intriguingly titled A letter to Layla: Travels to our deep past and near future.

Layla is her granddaughter, and the book, as the session’s promo says, explores the following questions: How might the origins of our species inform the way we think about our planet? At a point of unparalleled crisis, can human ingenuity save us from ourselves? Sounds like a huge task to cover in 300 pages. Unfortunately, I had a little technical problem resulting in my getting two soundtracks, one with a 10 second delay, so I missed much of the first 15 minutes!

The conversation

Convenor – and journalist – Fiona Gruber started by asking the obvious question, who is Layla, which of course I’ve answered above. As far as I could gather via the garbled soundtrack I was listening to (until I got it sorted), this grand-daughter, together with her own realisation of, for example, climate change, got science-trained Koval thinking about what’s going to happen in the world. She noted her interactions with Layla – which I believe thread through the book – saying that “interaction” was elemental to the things she wanted to think and talk about.

Unfortunately, at this point, I was trying to work out what was going on with my system, so I missed much of the early conversation, which dealt with primates. By the time I had it sorted, we were nearly done with them – but I did get a few things!

Such as, that Koval likes to start at the beginning, but in this case she couldn’t start with unicellular organisms, hence the primates, hominids and hominins!

She talked about going to Georgia to see the homo erectus skulls at Dmanisi. She went there rather than Africa, the accepted “the cradle of civilisation”, because Africa is less safe, she said, and no-one would pay a ransom for her! Hmm … Anyhow, she told a very entertaining story about her Georgian tour, which I won’t repeat here, except to share that at the end of a long day, she was surprised that the scientist, whose name I didn’t capture, wanted to talk about the soul rather than the famous skulls!

She commented at this point that everyone she met gave her something different about being human than she’d expected. Anyhow, Gruber asked about the soul and what evidence there is for its existence. In art, she asked? Or ritual?

“we just measure”

Koval said she’s not religious, nor an ideologue, being more interested in where evidence takes her. She talked about being taken 700 metres deep into France’s Niaux cave. This would have been dangerous, she said, in the days without modern torches etc, so why? Her scientist didn’t want to answer. “We just measure”, he said, because they can’t know why. However, when asked, modern hunter-gatherers suggest that when people do things like this it’s because they wanted to go into “another world”.

This led to quite a discussion about scientists. Gruber suggested that this French scientist’s comment suggested a lack of imagination in scientists. She noted that there is consensus that cave paintings are spiritual, but that Koval found little consensus among her scientists. Koval responded that she didn’t see scientists as unimaginative – meaning, I think, that they have different imaginations. She also doesn’t think a lack of consensus is a problem. These disagreements, she suggested, are just “steps on the way to understanding”. One of my strong takeaways from this session was that Koval is curious and open-minded.

Koval talked about disagreements between scientists, citing one anthropologist Bernard Wood has had with other researchers, particularly in terms of process. The details are not my point here, though. After some discussion about this, Koval shared that Wood had told her that if he had his time over he wouldn’t do science at all because it’s all changing too quickly, and it’s hard to keep up. (This made me laugh because Mr Gums sometimes said the same about his career in electronic communications!) The interesting thing is what he said he would study – how humans make decisions. Koval liked this, saying this is the critical thing.

Gruber then raised race which led to the next most interesting point for me: University of New England’s Iain Davidson’s point that the original colonisation of what is now Australia is the first evidence of modern human thought. Such ability was probably evident before, but this act – the planning, etc, it involved – is the “first” evidence of such thought.

How interesting! I guess those of you who read in this area knew this, but I didn’t. Koval noted that these ideas are fraught with conversations about race and eugenics – but it is important to confront all ideas and continue being curious.

At this point, with around 10 minutes to go, Gruber turned to the second – and future-focused – part of the book. I won’t spend much time here, but Koval talked about cryogenicists and their perspective that nature is not our friend, that ageing is a disease to be cured. Some of these people are disdainful of our humanness, she said. However, many people are working on life-extension.

There was also some talk about computers, robots, AI, and whether they can ever replace us – and about computers and consciousness, and the idea of “singularity“. I’ll leave this here, except to report that Koval said that we are still in charge of things. No-one has, yet, made a computer capable of doing the complexity of what humans can do. Cooperation, for example, is fundamental to human endeavour and achievement, which is something computers can’t do (now anyhow, I suppose, is the caveat.)

Concluding discussion

Towards the end, Gruber asked more about the book itself. Did Koval aways plan it to be in the two parts. Koval replied that she was interested in all the ways people are thinking. She did her research, and the book, including the Layla parts, essentially self-assembled.

On whether the book changed her, an initially stumped Koval said that it made her admire humans’ need to understand, and desire to connect. It also made her think her next book should be about just ONE thing!

Gruber concluded by describing the book as one full of rabbit holes, good questions, and encounters with interesting people. I get the sense, from the review excerpts on Text Publishing’s website, that we only touched the edges of this wide-ranging book. I can’t imagine how you could achieve more in an hour’s conversation. I certainly found it an engaging conversation.

I thank the Yarra Valley Writers Festival for offering this session free of charge. This was the Festival’s first year, I believe. I’m impressed with what they have achieved and offered. I wish them well – for their sakes and mine – in 2021 and beyond.

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays
29 November 2020, 4:00 – 5:00 PM

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays: Robert Dessaix

YVWF Dessaix Logo

Back in May, I attended several sessions of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival (YVWF), a COVID-19 bonus, as most of you know. The Festival also runs two regular events, a weekly New Release Sundays and a monthly Bookclub. I haven’t managed to attend any, until today, which involved Festival Ambassador Michael Veitch speaking with Australian novelist, essayist and journalist, Robert Dessaix. I read Dessaix’s memoir, A mother’s disgrace, before blogging, and I used to love his ABC RN radio shows, Lingua Franca, and Books and writing (which he did for a decade.) Today’s session was about his new book about growing older, The time of our lives: Growing older well.

The session’s promo described the book as “a wise and timely exploration of not just the challenges but also the many possibilities of old age”. Given I have had nonagenarians, and now a centenarian, continuously in my life since 2004, and given my own aging, this topic interested me.

The conversation

Robert Dessaix, The time of our lives: Growing older well Book cover

Michael Veitch started, of course, by introducing Dessaix, telling us that The time of our lives is Dessaix’s 10th book. He described the book as “joyous”, but hard to define – not a novel, not short stories, not a guide. More, he said, a kaleidoscope of impressions, spiritual and intellectual.

Dessaix liked that image, saying that kaleidoscope describes how he lives: he takes shards from what happens around him, shapes them, and hopes “a beautiful pattern will emerge”.

Several themes ran through the conversation, kaleidoscope being one, plus there being “bulwarks” against the ravages of age, the importances of having an inner life, the value of curiosity, and the idea of dance. The book begins with a dance (“Voulez-vous couchez avec moi”!) and ends with a Javanese dance, which nicely encapsulates his transition from loving Europe to being interested in Asia (particularly India and Indonesia.)

Later in the conversation, Veitch mentioned the death of Dessaix’s partner’s mother, Rita. It seems that she was the (or a) major impetus for the book. She was living in a retirement village – “village” being the wrong word Dessaix felt for such homogenous places – until she had the fall that resulted in her moving into aged care. I’ll return to this later …

Veitch read an excerpt from the book describing the inner life. This definition included that it’s like “a cherished piece of music [that is] shaped by our our individual memories”. (This is a tiny part of the full description, so please don’t quote me!) Dessaix said his aim is not to shut out the outer world, but simply to keep certain things in. The inner self is a conversation, and is something that “holds us together against nothingness”. Hmm, that sounds more like the time of Sartre and TS Eliot than now!

“of course, I’m curious”

Anyhow, Veitch moved onto the idea of curiosity, suggesting that it drives the book. Dessaix agreed, saying “of course I’m curious”. We are only here for a short time!

Dessaix went on to say that a major interest as he’s grown older is other people. How do people cope with what the world has served up to them? He loves to visit India, but not for the sights, which are purely background. He likes getting close to people, to understand their lives. Women, he said, are easier to become close to.

During this conversation he said something that spoke to me, which is that coping is “such a difficult thing to do”. We think, he said, that it will be easy. that we follow the path – get a job, marry, having family, etc – and that it will all just fall into place. I remember thinking that in my angsty teen years. But, he said, it’s not like this, “we have to cope every day with something”. He described the world as “an abattoir”, which is a strong image for what is apparently not a dark book.

This led to a discussion of friendship, but there was nothing particularly new here (for me anyhow), so let’s move on. He did, though, comment that the older you get, the things you care about become less. Now he will say what he thinks, and “take negative responses on the chin”. Around here, he commented that in the 1960s, we (and I became a teen in the 1960s so I was with him) believed everything would get better, but that euphoria of has evaporated into nothing. So sad, because we really did think we were on the way to becoming kinder, gentler, fairer.

“a stupid foreginer”

Veitch asked him about his current interest in Asia. Dessaix replied that Europe started to become tedious. He wanted to go somewhere where he would be a blank, “innocent”, so he started with India, and now visits (except this year) Java. Being in a place where he feels “not at home” stimulates him “to have important conversations with himself”.

He admitted that he is granted liberties because he’s “a stupid foreigner”; he feels open to saying things he would not say in Paris or Berlin.

Veitch read another excerpt which, if I got it correctly, described a secret door going from the formal European gardens of Dessaix’s younger days to the more riotous gardens of places like Java. He said he was humbled to discover he had shut out these intricate civilisations and now he’s too old. These are sensual places. Europe preens, and positions itself as sexy, but is not sensual.

“play and discipline”

Dessaix equated the inner life with a dance, the tango, which he said combines “play and discipline”. It is sexy, sensual, beautiful but also demands discipline. His aim is to hone these two – play and discipline.

At this point, the conversation turned to the aforementioned Rita, who died during the writing of the book. She, Dessaix said, did not have an inner life (though how he really knows, I’m not sure). Born in 1922, she, Dessaix suggested, was one of those women “crushed by the men they lived with”. He believes she did not feel she was worthy of having an inner life.

Veitch wondered whether you have to learn how to have an inner life? Dessaix thought yes, but that class is also involved. Rita was told she was a “stupid woman”. She was, he said, bored out of her mind. Dessaix said her aged care home “smelled of boredom”. This could be a judgement from someone not there yet, though I’m sure boredom does exist in aged care. Dessaix doesn’t feel he will be affected because “there is too much going on inside”.

Now, here’s the thing … many aged care places (here in Canberra, anyhow) offer many opportunities for residents to be engaged and mentally active, but it depends on one’s brain staying healthy, and on hearing and sight being good. Father Gums has quite an inner life. I know, because he tells me about the things he thinks about, but time can, nonetheless, hang heavily, because sight and hearing difficulties make it difficult to partake of opportunities offered to feed the mind.

“happiness & contentment”

The discussion turned to the difference between happiness and contentment. Dessaix initially saw little difference but refined his ideas as the book progressed. Fortunately, what he came up with is how I see it, because I’m bothered by the focus on “happiness”. Contentment – a sort of inner comfort – is what we aim for, he said, but it can never be complete, while there is suffering in the world. Happiness, on the other hand, can be complete, but it “drops on you”. There is no mystery to it. As Veitch said, happiness falls on you, while contentment settles on you.

Continuing this theme, Dessaix said that he doesn’t like “tranquility”, preferring “animation”. For this reason he likes the god, Ganesha, who dances! Apparently, grief guru Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said at the end of her life, “I wish I’d danced more”. I love it!

There was more, including a discussion about attitudes to death. Mainly, though, the conversation reiterated in different ways the main theme of continuing to “play” and engage in life actively, and of accepting ageing without fear. Ever the writer, Dessaix equated life with sitting on your own “Persian carpet”: it is beautiful, has repetitions, and is different from the one next to it.

However, he did add an element of reality, which I approved. Life, he said, is about maintenance – your eyes, your ears, your … well, you get the picture.

Dessaix said he found ageing liberating, meaning that things he had hoped for – like the Catholic Church disappearing – won’t happen, and he no longer cares, because he has his inner life. He is more tolerant now, accepting that some things can’t be changed.

As you age, said Dessaix, you can still be happy: there’s a shrinking list of things to be happy about but that happiness can be deeper.

Veitch concluded the session by saying that the book is not a dark book, and is more about life than age. He liked, he said earlier, that the book is called “growing older” not “old”.

Overall, a good session about a book I’d like to read, but it is clear – and he would probably admit it – that Dessaix is a privileged person for whom ageing and an inner life will come easier than for some.

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays
1 November 2020, 4:00 – 5:00 PM

Book (Re)Launch: Sara Dowse’s West Block

Sara Dowse West Block

Way back when, I read Sara Dowse’s debut 1983-published novel West Block. It ticked all the boxes – it was by a woman, by a feminist, was set in Canberra (a rare thing), and was about the Public Service within which I also worked. I enjoyed it immensely and have often wanted to re-read it. I was therefore thrilled to hear that it was being re-published – and with a new introduction by Dowse.

This new edition, by For Pity Sake Publishing who published Dowse’s latest novel, As the lonely fly (my review), was virtually launched at a COVID-19-determined Zoom Event today.

The launch …

The launch comprised a conversation between Dowse and Michele Seminara who is a poet and managing editor at the Canberra-founded creative arts journal Verity La.

Sara Dowse, West Block

Seminara commenced by describing Dowse as a “legend of Australian literature”. She was also one of the Canberra Seven, about whom I have written before. The conversation, though, focused mostly on the book’s subject matter …

West Block, for the non-Canberrans here, is one of the original buildings in our Parliamentary Triangle. Built in 1926 it, and East Block, flanked what is now known as Old Parliament House. These buildings were the home of the public service.

So, Dowse’s novel, West Block, is about the bureaucracy. From 1974-1977, Dowse was the inaugural head of the women’s affairs section established to support PM Gough Whitlam’s first women’s adviser, Elizabeth Reid. Dowse became, she believed, the first femocrat.

Dowse spoke about her intentions for the novel which she started writing a couple of years after the 1975 Dismissal. She wanted to tell the story of what happened and how public servants coped in the aftermath. She wanted it not to be “just” a women’s story but a story about what women saw, about how women perceived government. “I wanted to nail them”, Dowse said, meaning she wanted to write about the male world from a feminist perspective.

The conversation, not surprisingly, also covered the politics then and now, particularly in terms of what was achieved and what has lasted. Dowse, describing the times as “unbelievably exciting”, talked about their focus being issues like child care. She said many reforms were introduced. Some were “tweaked” by the Hawke government, but they’ve been gradually whittled away since the Coalition returned to power.

She talked about the Australian federal public service, and of admiring its commitment to serving the people. She saw this public-good oriented value as being distinctively Australian, including amongst conservatives. (She couldn’t understand the antipathy with which Australians would speak of Canberra, their national capital.) However, she said, much of this value has been lost since PM John Howard turned governing into a business-style, economic rationalist, model. She talked about how private sector inflated salaries are being given as a reason why you can’t get good people into the public service, but her belief is that good people who know that the measure of their worth is not purely monetary will still work in the public service. (They’re not poor, in any event, she said.)

Dowse also told us that the main character, Cassie, is based on her, though Cassie is Australian – and unlike her, has red hair and green eyes! The joy of being a writer is that you can create characters you’d like to be! Cassie, like Dowse was, is also a single Mum juggling work and parenthood.

Seminara asked Dowse about her book’s structure with its five chapters focusing on different individuals. Dowse said she was influenced by two John Dos Passos works, Manhattan transfer and the USA trilogy. She was inspired by his telling a big story through overlapping individual stories, though he also married fiction with nonfiction which she didn’t do.

A point that came up a few times through the conversation related to the publishing and literary environment in Australia at the time she was publishing this book. For example, a fiction-nonfiction blend would not have been accepted then (though it would now.) She was also inspired by Dos Passos’ experimental writing, but that too she had to tone down for Penguin to publish the work. Upon the book’s release, one of the common questions posed about it was “is it a novel or is it stories?” This question is still with us, I believe, though writers are increasingly playing with this form (such as, most recently on my blog, Carol Lefevre’s Murmurations, my review.)

Seminara commented that she loves Dowse’s characters, with their commitment to public interest. They are, she said, “admirable as characters, flawed as people.” She also spoke of how Dowse had managed to make art out of traditionally boring subject matter. More art is now being made of such subjects, but Dowse, she said, was one of the first here to put humanity and drama into it.

Dowse briefly talked about this new edition, which was suggested by publisher Jen McDonald. Dowse said that this was her apprentice novel, and wondered how she would face having it out in the world again. However, she did not want a word changed. It had, she said, to live on its record. I am greatly looking forward to reading it again – and I fully expect it to appeal to me all over again, albeit with older eyes and understanding of how the world works.


Dowse also read from the book, and answered a couple of emailed-in questions:

  • John Dos Passos’ influence. Dos Passos, she said, wanted to deal with the coming of mass society, and he did it by oscillating within a group of characters to build up a picture of society. This encompassed both the personal and the political, which, she reminded us, had been the feminists’ mantra: the personal is the political.
  • Susan Ryan‘s recent death and what has been left unfulfilled by it. Dowse expressed great sadness at Ryan’s death, as they had worked closely together. She said young girls now have the right to big dreams but there are still barriers. She believes the feminist voice has been rekindled through awareness of these barriers, injustices, domestic violence, and the ongoing childcare issue. While many things that were started under Whitlam have been truncated, whittled down, Ryan had achieved much, she said, including getting the ALP to accept Affirmative Action.

This was an excellent launch, and I’m glad it was on at a time that I could make. Do consider reading the book. It has much to offer.

Launch of West Block new edition
Online Zoom event by Barbie Robinson of Living Arts Canberra
25 October 2020

Melbourne Writers Festival 2020: Navigating our future

MWF logoI didn’t think I’d get to this session, but when my regular Thursday evening commitment was cancelled, I knew exactly what to do …

Navigating our future (Thursday 13 August 6-7pm)

This intriguingly titled session was described as follows:

Australian literature provides a means through which we might better understand ourselves, and our relationships with our region and the world. Larissa McLean Davies, Associate Professor in Language and Literacy at Melbourne Graduate School of Education, is joined by Professor Ken Gelder from the Faculty of Arts to explore the crucial role of literature and reading in this time of climate and social crisis, and the vital importance of teaching diverse Australian literature in schools. With an introduction from Alexis Wright, Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature. (Supported by University of Melbourne, Faculty of Arts)

Alexis Wright introduced it, explaining that it was the Boisbouvier Oration, but here’s the thing, it wasn’t an oration, but a conversation. Hmm … just as well I like conversations. Wright, herself, gave the Boisbouvier Oration in 2018, which was reported by The Sydney Morning Herald:

It was Alexis Wright who threw out the challenge. Australia must create great expectations of building a visionary literature for our times, she said. We should put some money into buying rocket fuel rather than just topping up the gas barbie bottle.

Richard Flanagan gave the inaugural “lecture” as The Monthly reported it in 2016. His and Wright’s focused in some way on the value or power or role of writing, and this is how the 2020 oration-cum-conversation was framed too, though it didn’t quite go where I expected it to. Instead, it focused more on the practice of teaching Australian literature in Australian schools today – in what’s being taught, in the challenges of teaching our literature, and in how things might be improved. It felt like the advertised topic – exploring “the crucial role of literature and reading in this time of climate and social crisis, and the vital importance of teaching diverse Australian literature in schools” – was a given rather than a topic to be discussed. And, that’s ok.

So, the session … it did work as a conversation, though Ken Gelder was primarily in the interviewer role, and Larissa McLean Davies in the interviewee one.

Role of Australian literature in Australian schools

Gelder commenced by saying that the things covered would include how literature can assist young people to navigate their futures, strategies for teachers, and the urgent need to prioritise the teaching of Australian literature in these challenging times. He noted that our current challenges include bushfires, COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter movement which, in Australia, has focused on the failure of government to end institutionalised discrimination, including the ongoing Aboriginal deaths in custody issue. It is a time of climate and social crisis.

Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in AustraliaMcLean Davies exemplifed the importance of literature by saying that the recent Black Lives Matter protests brought attention to the need for indigenous stories to be heard. She said that it resulted in books by indiengous authors, like Anita Heiss’ Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review), and books about racism being sold out. Wow, that really says something, doesn’t it, about the value of awareness and consciousness-raising to book sales. People do want to know these stories!

These stories, she argued, help us negotiate the crises we face. The stories become part of our own subjectivity and help us negotiate our own place in the world. This was one of the most powerful things she said in the session.

Status of Australian literature in the schools

The conversation then turned to the current situation regarding the place of Australian literature in schools. McLean Davies explained that the creation of the national curriculum in 2007/8 made the teaching of Australian literature mandatory in the curriculum, requiring teachers to select and teach an Australian text (at least one) at every year level. It’s rare for such compulsion to be in school curriculums internationally, she said, which suggests the fragility of our national literature.

However, we don’t know how these texts are being taught, nor what texts are being taught (except for year 12 which has set texts). We don’t, she said, know how many Australian texts are taken up and how many are written on in the exam. In other words, there is no mechanism for assessing this mandatory teaching of Australian literature. This is the research she is doing. (How fascinating. I hope we get to see the results of her team’s research.)

The selection of texts

There are text setting panels, often setting them for 2 years, though for the obvious practical reasons – teacher familiarity, the development of resources, and the economics of availability – they will usually stay on the list for 3 to 4  years. We don’t know, however, whether these books are treated as marginal or main texts for study. The texts student will write on in exam will get the most attention – of course.

Diversity in Australian literature school texts

Gelder talked about the importance of setting suitable texts at times of crises, and diversity in literary studies. Do works by writers like Alexis Wright, Tony Birch, Tara June Winch, Lionel Fogarty, Charmaine Papertalk Green, and Ellen van Neerven have visibility, he asked?

McLean Davies said they did, because, for example, in Victoria, there are set texts for year 12, but in other years, teachers have choice, within guidelines. However, their choice depends on teachers’ personal reading diets, the professional learning they are undertaking, and the time they have to engage in new reading (given the increasing administrative work pressure teachers are under.) So, there’s opportunity but …

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusShe talked about the issue of “engagement” and that in trying to achieve this for diverse classes, teachers will often resort to more standard “white”, often neo-colonial texts. But young people are interested in indigenous issues, climate, etc, she said. Teachers would do well to turn to, for example, Claire G Coleman (Terra nullius) and Alexis Wright to bring these issues into the classroom. We need to think about what engagement means for Australian school students.

On being nimble in text selection

Gelder noted that quite often texts on school lists look like they’ve been there forever, but syllabi need to be nimble if they are to reflect the now. He’s found that some of his overseas students have read more Australian literature than local students have. We need to “sell our literature” he suggested.

McLean Davies said there is the issue that teachers often rely on their own reading experiences and learning. A multi-pronged approach is needed to support teachers, including looking at undergraduate degrees, and supporting teachers to develop new intertextual understandings of literature. Teachers need to learn how they can use literature to contest their own views. They need to develop new intertextual networks that enable new Australian writing to be accessed in the classroom. She quoted a colleague who said that “you don’t read a text, but a text reads you”. It is fundamental that teachers have the confidence to sell a text. They need packaged resources, and need knowledge about literature that they may not have in their own background.

Cultural cringe?

Gelder made the lovely statement that students need to be swept away by literature but teachers provide the broom, but is there cultural cringe? Australian literature tends to be characterised as white and inward-looking. Are we still resistant to, or defensive about, diversifying our understanding of our literature?

Jasper Jones, by Craig SilveyMcLean Davies concurred to a degree, but gave a nicely nuanced response, evoking a complex understanding of culture cringe:

  • There is resistance from teachers because Australian literature is seen as too white, as buying into the  Right’s rhetoric about nationalism. Teachers fear buying into the colonial monolith, into notions of nation. There’s some mismatch between what teachers want to do re diversity and the Right’s leaders wanting to focus on “nation”. That homage to Australian colonial origins is still there in the discourse, and this makes teachers anxious.
  • Cultural cringe is evident in text selection. A recent survey, 2017/8, her team did of texts being taught brought responses from 700 teachers. Only one Australian text, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, appeared in the top 10 (at 8). The others included Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, To kill a mockingbird, Animal farm, Hamlet, Outsiders (SE Hinton), 1984, and Othello. This gave us a “cause for pause” she suggested!

A place for colonial writing?

Gelder wondered if there was a place for colonial writing, particularly given it can contain its own critiques. He talked quite a bit about colonial writing, which has been his interest for ten years, but I want to move on … However, he did say, and has a point of course, that quite a lot of indigenous writing “works over” our colonial heritage, refiguring and remapping the colonial period. Is there goodwill towards colonial literature, he asked?

McLean Davies said there’s not a lot of colonial literature on syllabi in more senior years, but agreed there is potential for rethinking colonial ideas through colonial texts. She referenced the wonderful To be Continued database of short stories published in Australian newspapers, which provides access to colonial texts. Publicly available resources like this represent a wonderful potential for engaging students in literary enquiry. Teachers could use geospatial modelling to find stories set in places where students live, providing an opportunity to think about stories about those places and about the implication of those stories for their current lives. She commented that pedagogy – how we teach – is as important as what is taught. In this period of lockdown, teachers need access to digital content, but education hasn’t fully mobilised these tools in literature.

On the value of local, versus global?

Gelder talked about the conflict between the local (particularly obvious in these lockdown times) and the push for a more global/cosmopolitan outlook. (He cited Alexis Wright’s interview with expatriate Australian writer Peter Carey, and his novel Amnesia).

McLean Davies agreed, and suggested now is a good time to think about the place we are occupying and our relationship to it.  She talked about the value of speculative fiction, like Coleman’s Terra nullius and what happens if you don’t take notice of place. She also suggested that the problem is that we are continually reaching for the global, but the role of the local is very important. She mentioned Growing up Asian in Australia and Alice Pung’s wanting to read people who were like her, proving again that the local and the personal are important. It’s not one or the other. Teachers need to thing about the breadth of what they are selecting, need to look at global and local, because students need to read all those stories.

Supporting teachers

The session ended on the important issue of supporting teachers. Their challenge is to find time to develop new understandings of Australian literature. She’s involved in a project – partnership with the Stella Prize – which involves asking teachers to select a text from the longlist and then think about the text and their students, about that text re other books, and re other cultural artefacts. It’s a good opportunity to bring past and present texts together. But, the fundamental issue is that teachers need time and professional learning. They need more professional development that recognises them as intellectually interested and able to develop own new knowledge about text. Yes!

So, this is not quite the session I was expecting but, as I’m interested in both education and the teaching of literature, it ended up suiting me perfectly.

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

Melbourne Writers Festival 2020: Let me be brief

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

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

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

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

Introducing the writers

Yumna Kassab

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

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

Jo Lennan

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

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

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

Elizabeth Tan

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

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

Choosing the short story form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naming favourites

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

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

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

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

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

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