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Six degrees of separation, FROM Where am I now TO …

September 1, 2018

Woo hoo, Spring has sprung (just) in the southern hemisphere, and I for one am glad to see the back of winter, albeit the real warmth is a way off yet. And this month, the first day of Spring is also Six Degrees of Separation day. You regular readers here will know what that means, but for any newbies, Six Degrees of Separation is a meme that is currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Clicking on the link on her blog-name will take you to her explanation of how it works.

Mara Wilson, Where am I nowUnlike last month, I haven’t read the starting book. In fact, mea culpa, I hadn’t even heard of it. It’s Where am I now? by someone called Mara Wilson. Kate chose it because she would be seeing the author at the (now past) 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival. Where to start with a book I hadn’t even heard of? Aha, while searching for the cover, I discovered that she’s the actor who starred in Matilda! Silly me. She was great.

Griffith Review 60So, I could, of course, go for another memoir by an actor, but I’m not. Instead I’m going for a book that I read (well, started to read, anyhow) in preparation for my festival, the Canberra Writers Festival, which overlapped with Melbourne’s. The book is the 60th issue of the Griffith Review, and is titled First things first. You  have seen the Griffith Review mentioned here before. It’s a wonderful contemporary literary magazine that contains essays, fiction, memoirs, poems and reports on a specified subject. I have, in fact, already introduced this one, which was inspired by the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Bianca Nogrady, The best Australian science writing 2015Now, you might think that from here I’d go to something by or about indigenous Australians, but I feel like being contrary, so instead I’m going on form, and will choose a book of essays, science essays, in fact – The best Australian science writing 2015 (my review) edited by science journalist Bianca Nogrady. I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it at the time. I still share snippets of information I read in that volume.

Jordan Fall GirlFor my next link, I’m sticking with science, but am turning to fiction – to Toni Jordan’s entertaining chick-lit novel Fall girl (my review). Her heroine is not your usual chick-lit heroine, but a con artist who presents herself as an evolutionary biologist and sets up a scientific expedition to attract money from a millionnaire-run foundation. It’s a bit of a hoot, as Toni Jordan can be.

Anita Heiss Paris DreamingAnd now, since we’ve moved from essays to chick-lit – a rather wild jump, n’est-ce pas? – let’s stay with chick-lit and go to Paris with Anita Heiss’s Paris dreaming (my review). This book has, in fact, multiple connections with this post – I read it after hearing Anita Heiss at a festival and she’s an indigenous Australian author.

Albert Camus, The plagueSince we’ve gone to France, and since daughter Gums has just arrived in Paris, I figure we should linger there a while, so I’m going to choose one of my favourite French novels, Albert Camus’ La peste (aka The plague) (my review). This book is one of the few books I’ve read more than once – and I could very well read it again, because I love its lessons about life.

Jane Austen, Sense and sensibilityFor my final link, I’m hopping over the channel to England, and to a book by one of my favourite authors, Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility (my review of vol. 1). I could link on the fact that, like Camus’ La peste, I’ve read it more than once, but I’m going a little more esoteric, and am linking it on the fact that, also like La peste, it contains, for me, a memorable quote – almost a personal mantra in fact. There aren’t many quotes that I remember from books, but this is one of them:

Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract by her conduct her most favorite maxims.

When I first read this, I was brought up short, because I realised I was often like Marianne – pontificating on things I had not experienced, and then discovering how wrong I was. It was one of those lightbulb moments – though I probably still do it sometimes!

So there you have it. Another Six Degrees meme done and dusted. We’ve read serious essays and fun chick-lit, we’ve been to the US, Australia, France and England, and we’ve read a diverse set of authors.

And now, over to you: Have you read Where am I now? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

WG Sebald, Austerlitz (#BookReview)

August 31, 2018

WG Sebald, AusterlitzFor the first time in my reading group’s 30-year history, we read a book recommended by a fictional character. It happened like this: after reading and discussing Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman (my review) in January, we thought it would be interesting if we all nominated which book mentioned by the “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya Saleh, that we’d most like to read. The book that got the most votes was Austerlitz. I was thrilled, because I bought my copy back in 2010 to read with one of my online reading groups, but never did, and because I had already read and been bowled over by his The emigrants.

But now where to start? A bit left field I think – which is probably not inappropriate given Sebald’s approach to literature. The “left field” happens to be one of my (few) never-forgotten book quotes. It’s from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and is Sethe talking about “the day’s serious work of beating back the past.” Sethe is, as most of you probably know, an American ex-slave who is living with the trauma of her past life. Austerlitz, in Sebald’s book, is a man who, as a four-year-old, had been sent from Prague to England on a Kindertransporte in 1939, never to see his parents again. Indeed, he suppresses all memory of his past life – realising later

how little practice I had in using my memory, and conversely how hard I must always have tried to recollect as little as possible, avoiding everything which related to my unknown past.

This realisation comes some 50 years later, in the early 1990s, when, one day, having become “increasingly morbid and intractable” after the death of his only true friend, he is in the Ladies Waiting Room of the Liverpool Street Station – and a memory comes back of his arrival in England. At this point, his “self-censorship”, his “constant suppression of … memories” brings about a nervous breakdown. Upon his recovery, he begins researching his past life, resulting in trips to Prague to look for his mother, and to Paris to do the same for his father. Much of this is couched in discussions of architecture – because Austerlitz is an architectural historian – forcing us to consider the role architecture plays in human history and psychology. It’s compelling, but more than that, mesmerising …

However, this book has been written about with great insight and sensitivity by reviewers at, for example, the New York Times and The Guardian, so I’m going to do something a little different, and respond to that fictional woman, Aaliya, who recommended the book to my group!

“His style, drawn-out and elongated sentences that wrap around the page and their reader …”

And I will start with the seemingly mundane, the style, because it is this that confronts us most strongly with we start the book. If you’ve never read Sebald before it could be a shock. There are almost no paragraphs – well you could say there are 5 including the beginning of the book – which means there are no real chapters. The story just continues on and on, often through very long sentences containing multiple clauses and lists. We do have a narrator, the person to whom Austerlitz is telling his story and who relates it on to us.

Strangely though, I found the writing page-turning. There is something mesmerising about the almost flat, rather melancholic, tone suffusing the narration, that you want to keep reading. At least I did – and so did most of my reading group once they’d “got into it”. The style, in other words, wraps around you.

There are motifs and images which recur through the novel, making the whole cohere, creating the tone and developing the themes. There are shadows, there’s darkness more than light, and colours are muted, mostly grey. There are star-shapes, railway stations and other monumental buildings. There are references to ghosts. Places are more often empty or deserted, than heavily populated. And there’s the mysterious operation of time and memory. All these support the narrative’s mesmerising quality.

The book also includes black-and-white photographs, encouraging us to see it as non-fiction but no, this is fiction. Austerlitz is a made-up character – but, says The New Yorker, Sebald sometimes called his work “documentary fiction”. In other words, this is a very different sort of read.

“All I am is lonely. Before I go to bed, I must put away Sebald …

… both The Emigrants and Austerlitz. I can’t read him now, not in this state. He’s much too honest. I will read something else.” 

Our “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya, who lives in Beirut, has experienced war herself, been affected by its ravages. I won’t say more here, because I think what I have said about the story and it’s tone already makes clear why she feels this. Sebald is not a writer to be read at times of distress or melancholy, but his insights into what we call “the human condition” are … well, let me put it this way: this is not a book you explain, really, but one you feel. What you feel is something that affects the way you think about human history, about where we’ve been and where, unfortunately, it looks like we’re going.

“I am proud that I finished the Austerlitz project. I consider it one of the best Holocaust novels.”

Aaliya goes on to say that “I find that when a subject has been heavily tilled, particularly something as horrifying as the Holocaust, anything new should force me to look with fresh eyes, to experience previously unexperienced feelings, to explore the hitherto unexplored.” And this is why Austerlitz is powerful. Austerlitz was a young boy in a little Welsh town while the war was on so he did not experience the Holocaust directly. But, his experience of being displaced comes back to haunt him later. So this is not about a person who directly experienced the Holocaust, nor is it, though, about the second generation. It is about someone who lived at the time, but had not experienced it first-hand because his parents, who did, had removed him. He is in a sort of limbo generation – and “limbo” is probably a good description for how he feels through much of the novel.

He writes, describing his experience of another mental/physical collapse:

It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the source of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed and was now breaking through the walls of its confinement.

This statement struck me powerfully, because not only does it reflect another experience of the Holocaust – another way of looking at its impact – but it articulates the experience of our stolen generations, and, beyond that, of any children removed, for good or bad reasons, from their homes. “Reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation”. What more is there to say?

There is so much to talk about this book, so much I haven’t touched upon, but I’m going to finish with a brief reference to his discussion of time, the past and memory which underpins the novel. Here is Austerlitz late in the novel:

It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not also be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

I love this organic way of looking at time, this suggestion of how we might experience, approach or understand the events, particularly traumas, that happen to us.

Our unnecessary woman, Aaliyah, calls Austerlitz a great Holocaust novel, but I’d go one step further and simply say it is a great novel. Full stop.

WG Sebald
Translated by Anthea Bell
London: Penguin, 2002
ISBN: 9780140297997

Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 2, Pt 2: Words (Last ones) and Music

August 27, 2018

My last Canberra Writers Festival event was, in a way, a little left field, because it primarily comprised a musical performance – but one with a strong literary element …

Turning Last Words into Music

I chose this one, for a couple of reasons, but mainly because it involved music and was at a time that would work for Mr Gums to join me. It featured a composition by Australian composer, writer and radio presenter, Andrew Ford (who appeared here long ago in my post on the Voss Journey). The session was MC’d by Jane O’Dwyer, Deputy Chair of the Canberra Writers Festival Board.

So, what was it about? Well, it was a performance of Ford’s 30-minute song cycle titled, yes, Last words. It comprises “the final poems, letters and diary entries of some of history’s most iconic figures” set to music. However, before we heard the music, Ford talked about its genesis and some of the challenges he faced in creating it.

He started by describing music as the most abstract of the arts, and song as the most ubiquitous type of music. But, he said, listeners will only pay attention to the words if the music attracts them first. He then explained that his wife suggested the project – that he set people’s last words to music, for soprano Jane Sheldon, and that he include Captain Scott’s last words.

Then the challenges started. For example, he said, “last words” tend to be very short which is hard for song, but then a friend suggested “last poems”, which he took up. Another challenge was the order, and structure. Given the topic, the mood/tone of course tended to the slow and mournful. Something fast, some relief, was needed to prevent its becoming tedious, but what? He lit upon the idea of including a fiction character, and chose Fish Lamb’s death from Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Then there was Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. What sort of music would work with that? In the end, he decided it didn’t need music (though in fact some minimal cello and piano did sound occasionally during that song.)

Goethe's bed, Goethe House, Weimar

The bed Goethe died in, Goethe House, Weimar

Finally, there was the challenge of his opening “last words” from Goethe: “Mehr licht, mehr licht” (More light, more light.) He was reading them as portentous, but then his wife suggested that perhaps they could be read simply – as Goethe simply wanting more light!

Responding to a question from moderator O’Dwyer, he talked a little about music and emotion. Debussy apparently said that music is “pure emotion” but Ford said that he didn’t consciously try to “embed” emotion in the music, because that would be manipulative. In composing this piece he tried to find the notes that would approximate how he would say the words. Simple, eh?

Anyhow, then the concert started, and I found it engrossing and moving. It’s not easy music, but neither is it hard – and it was performed beautifully, even though the performers had their first and last rehearsal only two hours before they took to the stage. The lyrics were provided to the audience, and are available on line at Andrew Ford’s website.

Some of the things I liked included the structure (or order). I liked, for example, that it starts with some of those brief last words …

Mehr licht, mehr licht … (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Now comes the mystery. (Henry Ward Beecher)

Auftakt! Auftakt! (Alban Berg)

… and ends with some more brief last words:

Mehr licht, mehr licht …

Goodnight, my darlings. I’ll see you tomorrow. (Noël Coward)

Last Words trio and sopranoI think these beginning and endings gave the cycle a bit of a narrative arc, albeit the actual plot is death, death and death – if you know what I mean.

I also liked that Goethe’s words are used as a refrain, appearing intermittently to provide a transition between some of the songs – but sung with different dynamics or emphasis in different places.

I was particularly moved by Captain Scott’s last words, and thought that Ford, and singer Sheldon, handled its prose form very well. (As they did Fish Lamb’s faster piece, And Woolf’s suicide note.)

Appropriately, Emily Bronte’s last words were set to heavier more dramatic music, and ended in a screeching “Me”, which surely alluded to Cathy (from Wuthering Heights.)

And, I loved that texts included a favourite (last or otherwise) poem of mine, Dorothy Porter’s “View from 417”, with its final lines:

Something in me
despite everything
can’t believe my luck

The music here was more lightly lyrical. In other words, the mood and tone of the music did shift during the piece, despite the repeating death motif.

Performers: Jane Sheldon (Soprano), Helen Ayres (violin, replacing the advertised Tor Frømyhr), David Pereira (cello) and Edward Neeman (piano).

Q & A

There was some time for Q&A at the end, during which people asked:

  • does some writing “fit” music more easily than others (yes)
  • can music create new emotions (are there new emotions to be found?)
  • why does the voice occasionally get lost in the music, where mostly the music was subtle (it got “lost” in Fish Lamb’s scene because he’s drowning, so here the voice becomes another instrument.)

This was, for me, a delightful last session of the Festival – despite its theme!

Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 2, Pt 1: Art, Books and Politics

August 27, 2018

For my last day of the Canberra Writers Festival I chose two quite different sessions, as you will see! This post is on the first one …

(Note: these two posts will be in lieu of this week’s Monday Musings.)

The Art of Books

Chong, Bowers, Katsoukas

Chong, Bowers, Katauskas

I chose this session primarily because one of the participants was the multi-award-winning book designer, WH Chong (from Text Publishing) and, woo hoo, he was there, even though, once again, one of the advertised panelists, cartoonist-illustrator Jules Faber, was not. The other panelist was political cartoonist Fiona Katauskas, and the session was moderated by The Guardian Australia photographer and Talking Pictures presenter, Mike Bowers. It was, I must say, a hoot of a session – and it was held in the old Senate Chamber in Old Parliament House. I was keen to attend an event in one of the parliamentary chambers there and so that was an added plus.

Bowers was an lively moderator, sharing the questions, back and forth, between the two panelists, which was a bit of a challenge given they work in somewhat different fields. Still, Chong had started in journalism – working in The Age’s newsroom – and maintains an interest in political cartoonists, and Katauskas has illustrated books, so the disjunction wasn’t too great. For this post, I’m going to organise my discussion by person, though the actual session see-sawed between the two.

WH Chong

Jonathan Galassi, MuseBowers, who had also known Chong in earlier days, focused most of his questions, and examples, on Chong’s covers that feature typewriters and typewriter-style fonts. This gave Chong a chance to share his love of typewriters, and the fact that for most of those covers he used typewriters for the font, not digital fonts. One of the covers discussed was for Jonathan Galassi’s Muse, a novel about a poet. The letters of the word Muse are created with the letters for the word Poet (ie the M is made using “p”s, the U “o”s, etc). A concrete poem, in a way. A clever, striking design.

Janet Frame, In the memorial roomBowers asked Chong whether he thought the online world is causing the death of good design, but Chong felt not, arguing that the ratio of good to bad design, remains the same. There’s some great design online he said. Bowers also asked him whether the rules of design changed for online books versus print. Chong wanted to know what those “rules” were! But then said that they were basically the same, regardless of form: you make author’s name and the title as big as possible, and use as much colour as possible!

Another question concerned fonts, and whether Chong had favourite and disliked fonts. Chong admitted to having changing favourite fonts, but quoted someone (whose name I didn’t catch) as saying that there is “no such thing as a bad type, just type badly used”. Chong added, with a straight fact, that typeface (or font) is a serious matter and he ”won’t be typecast.” Haha.

D'Ambrosio, The dead fish museumSome process issues were discussed, such as who approves covers. Chong said, basically everyone, including the author’s hairdresser, dog, etc etc! Haha, again. But, he did say that Text works collegially, which was lovely to hear. Bowers then asked how important is the cover. Chong seemed to think that it’s not that important, but that marketing and publishers believe “it is important in our noisy world” so  “who is he to complain?”

Bowers, you can see, did well at asking all those questions we’d like to ask. Another one was whether he looks back – perhaps in horror – at old work. Again Chong quoted someone else, this time I did get the name, Bob Dylan, who said “Never look back, you might catch up.”

Finally, before we leave Chong, Bowers asked him whether he reads the book first. He prevaricated a bit here saying “y-e-e-s” which meant, I gathered, “mostly but not always.” He’s a slow reader he says, and he only sees the draft.

This was a terrible session because almost every book cover shown introduced me to a book I want to read.

Fiona Katauskas

Fiona Katauskas, The amazing true story of how babies are madeNow, Katauskas. Bowers started by asked her about her book The amazing true story of how babies are made. She wrote it, she said, because when needing to answer her 5-year-old son’s questions she discovered the only book around was the now old Where do I come from? The book has been very successful, shortlisted for both the CBC and ABIA awards, and is now being animated. It was a different project she said from her more usual work of political cartooning. For one thing, it was not cynical! Bowers then asked her to share the shock! horror! furore that developed in the UK and USA after someone posted some images from the book on Facebook. Katauskas has written about the story in July’s The Monthly article. The ridiculous thing is that the book hadn’t even been published in those countries. It was a good lesson in clickbait, she said, but the result is that a US book deal now looks likely!

John Birmingham, PopelandBowers then asked Katauskas about her cover for John Birmingham’s Popeland. She loves doing book illustrations, even though it’s one of the worst-paid jobs, but unfortunately, she said, this sort of work is drying up these days. Anyhow, her illustrations – cover and inside – were inspired by books like Captain Goodvibes, boys’ own adventure books and The Beano. She described researching the fun of 1930/40s Beano books in the State Library. These commissions tend not to come with briefs. She receives the manuscript, and a statement that, say, there’s a budget for 10 illustrations. She talked about the process of ensuring there’s a “visual cadence” underpinning the illustrations through a book.

The conversation then turned to political cartooning which forms the bulk of her work. You really had to be there and I’m afraid I’m going to say that, to some degree, what happened in the room – such as stories about (very) contemporary (if you know what I mean) Australian political figures – will stay in the room.

I will however share some of the discussion about modern political satire. Katauskas admitted that the “best of times for satire is worst of time for everyone else.” Ouch! Chong asked whether we were beyond parody and satire, to which Katauskas replied (not perhaps answering Chong’s question) that “it’s hard to take the piss when they’re giving it away.” (You can guess who some of “they” were!) Bowers shared that satirist comedian Bryan Dawe is so concerned about politicians moving into the satirists’ domain that he’s considering bringing a class action against them. You can see what fun we had.

Fiona Katauskas, Obama and Rudd

Fiona Katauskas cartoon

Katauskas commented on the importance of publisher Scribe’s annual Best Australian political cartoons publications because they recognise that political cartoons are historical documents. She also talked about her job of researching cartoons for the annual exhibition of political cartoons, Behind the lines, and how she sees some recurring themes over the last fifteen years, the two major ones being asylum seekers and climate change.

Chong then asked whether we are beyond (or past) hope – but that question just hung.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’ll just share the one about what media or technology Chong and Katauskas use. Both, interestingly, prefer to work in an analog way. Katauskas said she’s “old school”, and loves working with her pen dipped in ink. Chong said he was “very analog.”

Moderator, and photographer, Mike Bowers talked about the joy of working with good journalists, and named some of those he loves working with –  Paul Daley (with whom he has produced the book Armageddon), Katherine Murphy, Gabrielle Chan, and Lenore Taylor. With the breakup of the media and more people working alone, these important relationships are being lost.

He ended with the plea to us to “pay for your journalism.” I do, I wanted to say.

Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 4: Indigenous Australians (2)

August 26, 2018

FNAWN screenMy first day of the Canberra Writers Festival ended with a bang – two hours with several of Australia’s top indigenous writers, organised by FNAWN (First Nations Australia Writers Network). It was a not-to-be-missed event, and was divided into two parts:

  • “Because of her I can”: poetry readings with Ellen van Neerven, Yvette Holt, Jeanine Leane and Charmaine Papertalk Green
  • Sovereign People – Sovereign Stories: a panel discussion with Kim Scott, Melissa Lucashenko, Alexis Wright, and moderated by Cathy Craigie

I liked this structure: the poets provided a emotive introduction to panel’s intellectually-focused discussion (not that the poems weren’t underpinned by intellect, mind you.)

“Because of her I can”

I’m just going to list the poets and their poems, as well as I can, as I did for the Canberra poets session earlier in the day. You may like to research them, though I’ve provided some links …

Jeanine Leane

Leane, whose unforgettable novel Purple threads I’ve reviewed here, started off – after acknowledging “the land never ceded” – with four poems:

  • Lady Mungo speaks“: first person poem about the egregious removal in a suitcase of Lady Mungo’s bones: “They spread me out like a jigsaw –/each piece an important part of their/puzzle of landscape and history.” Their puzzle!
  • “Evening of the day”
  • “River memory”: clever poem inspired by Gundagai’s Prince Alfred Bridge representing the idea of Australia’s “longest bridge, shortest history”, and subverting that to an indigenous perspective of “short bridge and long history”
  • “Canberra 100 years on”

Yvette Holt

Holt, a David Unaipon Award winning poet and academic, also read four poems:

  • “Progenitor”, an unpublished poem for her mother
  • “Through my eyes” (from Anonymous premonition), suits this year’s NAIDOC theme
  • ‘My mother’s tongue”, an unpublished poem about her mother who has dementia, exploring the issue of passing language between generations. I loved the line, “mother begins to scribble in her tongue in a language I do not understand”
  • “Motherhood”, a poem dedicated to her daughter Cheyenne Holt, when she was 7

Ellen Van Neerven

Van Neerven is a younger writer who has appeared several times in my blog. She dedicated her poems to black women in her life whom “she loves”:

  • “Orange crush”, for her mother: a found poem using lines from an inflight mag. (That got a laugh.)
  • “Bold and beautiful”, for her nanna: a humorous poem playing on her nanna’s love of the soap opera
  • “Home”, for her girlfriend Tia: a gorgeous love poem
  • “Queens”, for “the black women here tonight”

Charmaine Papertalk Green

New-writer-for-me Green hails from Western Australia. She read published and unpublished poems to honour women in her family:

  • “To the women of the land understand”: encouraging women to “remember your ancestors, remember your elders”
  • “My mother belonged to me”: included lines in language.
  • “Mothers letters”: I love writing letters, so loved this poem about her mother’s letters and the idea of “papertalking” but also that it’s “not just letters on paper”
  • “Grandmothers”: about mining ruining country
  • “Honey lips to bottlebrush”: about intergenerational cultural teaching.

You can hear her on ABC’s The Hub.

Jeanne Leane then returned to the podium, with the other poets, to pay tribute to Kerry Reed-Gilbert for her work with FNAWN, the Us Mob Writing Group, and in organising the Workshop coinciding with this Festival. She then read Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem “Song of hope.”

Sovereign People – Sovereign Stories

How lucky we were to have the above highly-respected poets, followed by, as moderator Cathy Craigie said, “three of Australia’s most dynamic writers”, Melissa Lucashenko, Kim Scott, and Alexis Wright (on the screen). The auditorium, which seats 300, must have been around three-quarters full, comprising indigenous and non-indigenous people from a range of ages. I hope they were pleased with the turnout. It certainly felt good to be part of it, which brings me to an important issue that came up in the Q&A and was also on my lips. It concerns what “white allies” can do. We can, of course, attend and support events like this, we can listen and learn from these events, and we can read the authors. It’s a challenge, though, I find to do this with the right tone – to not sound condescending, for example, when we try to “help” or empathise; to not assume we know or understand things we really don’t; to know how to communicate what we do know. It’s a fraught (though I recognise privileged) space to be in … but the important thing is to keep trying, isn’t it?

Anyhow, Cathy Craigie introduced the session, explaining that its focus was FNAWN’s theme for the week, intellectual sovereignty. She reminded us of the long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writing in Australia – dating back to Bennelong’s letter to the Governor, and Maria Lock in the 1820s – and talked about the négritude movement in 1930s France, which promoted pride in racial identity.

The discussion then to-and-fro’d, with Craigie injecting questions regularly. I loved, again, the calm respect with which ideas were shared. There seemed to be a strong bond of “knowing” between the writers.

Melissa Lucashenko started by sharing some motivational quotes: “we are the authors of our lives” and James Baldwin’s statement that “freedom is not given, you take it.” She said Baldwin’s statement expressed an existential position – don’t wait, take power, and use it wisely.

Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright spoke about Tracker (the subject of her Stella-prize-winning book Tracker) and his focus on sovereignty. He was a visionary, she said, who wanted a stable Aboriginal economy, to ensure a secure culture, a secure future. She, like Lucashenko, emphasised the “sovereignty of the mind.”

She then talked about writing Tracker, which she calls a “collective biography”. She couldn’t do a conventional biography, she said, because he was a community man, because “his archive, his filing cabinet was in the minds of other people”.

There was much discussion about Tracker, who was clearly powerful, and significant in the indigenous community, albeit not everyone always agreed with him. Wright said he was a complicated person, with a sharp mind, which he was happy to express. He said, for example, that Native Title was “not big black stallion but a donkey”.

“Stories, songs, language are sovereign” (Scott)

Scott then talked a little about his latest novel Taboo. He said he tries hard not to think about politics and Aboriginal discourse when he writes his fiction, but he is interested in reclaiming older Noongar narratives and bringing in deeper resonance of place. “Stories, songs, language are sovereign” he said, and communities need to keep them strong so they’ll survive. There has been a long attempt to destroy stories and songs but we are moving from “denigration to celebration”.

Lucashenko raised the issue, currently being nutted out, regarding cultural restrictions on writing about other people’s country. I pricked up my ears of course at this, because it’s related to the cultural appropriation issue concerning white people writing black stories. Lucashenko said when she writes her own country she’s writing with rich knowledge. Writing about anywhere else would be superficial.

Wright was more circumspect about this restriction/limitation. Carpentaria, which is based in her country, was the book she wanted to write, but she is still learning about what she wants to write. Her 26 January story could, she said, be set anywhere.

Scott said he wrote Taboo in the “language of the default country”. He feels accountable to the past, to the fragile massacre area he comes from. He wants to build it up, strengthen its heritage. (He spoke about this in last year’s Ray Mathew lecture.) Perhaps we should all deepen our regions he said.

It was interesting here, because Scott clearly feels the need to strengthen Noongar culture, particularly his own area of it, while Lucashenko believes the culture in her country in northern NSW is strong. She lives in a progressive region, and they have “good white allies”. (See “white allies” discussion in the Q&A.)

Wright said that her country, her people, are strong, making it hard to encourage people into militant fighting for rights.

“Pay attention, tell the truth, write towards power” (Lucashenko)

At this point, Lucashenko teased out more about her notion of sovereignty – which she also expressed in the GR 60 session I attended: it doesn’t have to be politics but “can grow inside our heads.” She then said the job of the writer in these times is to pay attention, tell the truth, write towards power.

Scott suggested that sovereignty of mind involved (included) being accountable to ancestors and descendants. He talked about Australian Renaissance being “not digging up shards of pottery but texts buried in the landscape.”

The writers discussed language, words, and meanings – the importance of unpacking language – around this point.  Lucashenko said that the Bundjalung word for river is also the word for story, making the river, in her novel Too much lip a powerful metaphor for stories. Wright said that river means many things in her country too.

Craigie asked whether there was a change in how people are seeing intellectual and cultural sovereignty. Lucashenko seemed positive about young people’s sense of sovereignty within themselves and in their relationship to country, but said the young need to be nurtured with vigilance. She believes the thing is to avoid being reactive, because reaction puts you in a powerless position. She also said it was important not to become distracted by people who “don’t understand us.” Focus, instead, she said, on learning your own civilisation.


In a way, the whole session was about survival, but around here it came into sharper focus. Wright agreed that young people understand sovereignty and can teach older people about being gutsy. She emphasised the importance of nourishing story, of making story and of keeping it straight. Indigenous people are going to need strong storytellers. We’ve been an oral culture, she said, and need to learn from how the ancestors survived.

Scott agreed that indigenous people need to look after themselves, to “learn the game” (at which point Craigie quoted an African writer on learning to assimilate without assimilating.)

Lucashenko argued that indigenous culture is a knowledge-seeking culture, which is how they have survived. Indigenous people have done what they needed, learnt what they needed – such as learning English – to survive. (This reminded me of my recent Arnhem Land trip, during which we learnt about interactions between indigenous Australians and the Macassans for a few centuries. Indigenous people learnt skills, such as making dugout canoes, and incorporated Macassan words into their languages.)

Lucashenko concluded that indigenous people need to cultivate confidence.

Q & A

One questioner asked an excellent question regarding being good white allies: How best do we consume indigenous stories while preserving their integrity:

  • This is the nub, said Scott. There’s no easy answer, but: be conscious, and have a desire to listen. There is a real issue for Scott in getting the balance right to ensure indigenous people aren’t disempowered by non-indigenous people becoming more knowledgeable about culture than indigenous owners.
  • Lucashenko said there’s a simple test: Who benefits? If the answer is not the indigenous person, then go away and think again.

There were more questions, but I’ll leave it here – with the reminder to myself to always ask:

Who benefits?

Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 3: Indigenous Australians (1)

August 26, 2018

I planned to write a combined post for my last two events of Day 1, given both focussed on Indigenous Australians, but there was so much that I wanted to document (for myself, at least) that I decided to devote a post to each. There was, though, some overlap in terms of issues discussed, albeit from different perspectives. One of these was the fraught issue of “sovereignty.”

GR60: First things first

Sandra Phillips, Paul Daley, Shireen Morris, and Melissa Lucashenko

Sandra Phillips, Paul Daley, Shireen Morris, and Melissa Lucashenko

This event drew from Griffith Review’s 60th issue, titled First things first, which I referenced in my recent introductory post on this year’s festival. The event was advertised to be a panel: Dr. Sana Nakata, Shireen Morris, Paul Daley and Melissa Lucashenko moderated by Dr Sandra Phillips, but, as happened with most panels I attended, one person – here, Dr. Sana Nakata – didn’t appear. It was, however, an excellent session, albeit one which reminded us of the challenges still ahead for Australia. Given the session’s topic, the panel clarified who was (Phillips and Lucashenko) and was not (Daley and Morris) indigenous.

The Voice

Moderator Dr Sandra Phillips was also the co-editor of First things first. She introduced the participants, and briefly described the edition’s genesis in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the implications of then PM Turnbull’s rejection of the Voice. She then asked the participants to explain why were taking part in the panel. From there the conversation flowed somewhat organically, with Phillips injecting the odd question as needed …

Melissa Lucashenko said that when it comes to the issue of sovereignty, she’s somewhere in the middle, because she can’t claim to speak on behalf of anyone, beyond her family, until there is an elected model.

Constitutional lawyer and advisor to the Cape York Institute, Shireen Morris, described the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which resulted from an extensive consultative process, as historic. There were only 7 dissenters out of 250 delegates, albeit some dissent is good she said. The delegates coalesced around the idea of a Voice, so Turnbull’s outright rejection has been devastating.

Lucashenko was not as positive as Morris, feeling that the process had been rushed. She wasn’t convinced that the delegates had a mandate to represent all indigenous people. Here, political journalist Paul Daley, responding to her question, confirmed that our original Constitution was developed over 10 years. Phillips, however, felt that the consultation had been thorough and, further, had built on significant work preceding it (and on “the back of continuous failure to resolve things”.)

So, there was a difference of opinion about the Uluru Statement but the discussion remained completely respectful and focused on facts, on exploring ideas, and on sharing information. Lucashenko reiterated several times that she is very interested in the Voice but is concerned about what it would look like, how it would be made representative. Meanwhile, she said, she exerts her own sovereignty everyday.

Morris’ focus is constitutional reform. She strongly believes that getting something significant into the constitution is important because it’s harder to change, harder to get rid of (than something legislated, like ATSIC!) But, of course, this means that change is hard to get into the constitution too! So, the Voice needs to be in the constitution. Morris argued that the idea of a Voice can be enshrined in the constitution (via a referendum of course) with the details worked out and legislated afterwards. This is not an unusual process – but, of course, it requires trust, doesn’t it? Morris said the government should be working on the details now!

Later in the session, Morris said she’d argue that First Nations sovereignty was never ceded, and that the constitution is “squashing down” their sovereignty. Substantial constitutional reform is need to allow First Nations sovereignty to shine through, to express itself in a permanent way.

Daley commented that the Uluru Statement asks Australians to walk together “for a better future” for all, but that the immediate response of the then Deputy Prime Minister was that “that’s not gonna happen” and, of course, Turnbull dismissed the request for a Voice to considered a few months later in a press release. There was general agreement that the “whitefella political position is dire.” There was fury that ATSIC was killed off because of concerns about corruption, but the same thing doesn’t see whitefella institutions pulled down.


The other important issue coming out of the Uluru statement is the need for truth-telling. The panel discussed Daley’s contribution to GR60, his truthtelling essay “Enduring traditions of Aboriginal protest” about the two indigenous men, Jimmy Clements and John Noble, who “turned up for the royal opening of the new Commonwealth Parliament building in Canberra” on 9 May 1927. Their story has never been properly told, and indeed in most reports and stories, the two men have been conflated into one. Daley sees their attendance as their assertion of Aboriginal sovereignty and as part of ongoing indigenous protest and resistance. Daley said that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, and that the story of the frontier is there in Trove (yes!), if you want it.

Phillips added that contemporary Australian history is so short, there is no excuse for our not knowing the full story of our country. She argued that literature (meaning, I think, forms like fiction and poetry) plays a role in the truth-telling process.

At this point there was discussion of Lucashenko’s latest novel Too much lip, which Phillips said was about Aboriginal family relationships, about history and how “what happened in the past is with us today.” Lucashenko added that her characters are living in an age of depression and anxiety, but “don’t be depressed,” she said, “be angry.” She talked about the challenge of making these “hard” stories funny. For her next project, she’d like to write about colonial Brisbane. Trove – and archives in general – abound, she said, with “stories of resistance.”

Phillips added, cynically, that despite all these stories we end with lead characters in films that are Red Dogs! (Oh dear, my Red Dog post is still in my top ten posts.)

Daley talked about the novel he is writing. It’s inspired by the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, and in it he explores how the expedition was seen by indigenous and non-indigenous people. He realises it’s a cultural fraught thing to do, but he will, he assured Lucashenko, get indigenous assessment of what he’s written.

Phillips noted that there’d been millennia of successful governance in this country, and 230 years of destruction and oppression. Repairing this needs time, but we all need to be part of the dialogue. Meanwhile, she hoped, the panel had provided some illumination of the issues we are all facing. Yes, it did, I’d say.


This is getting long, and there were quite a few questions, so I’m just going to summarise some of the main points that arose:

  • ATSIC represented a minimum model of what indigenous people want/need but she, Lucashenko, has good memories of it. It was killed off because, she said, white people don’t like indigenous people managing resources.
  • The Constitution issue is currently at a complete impasse, because our current (white) politicians appear to have no will to engage with the Uluru Statement.
  • Indigenous groups don’t need to wait for the Federal Government to act and are in fact working at local, regional and state levels to forge agreements.
  • Representation models for the Voice to Parliament could vary across the country depending on the needs and desires of different indigenous groups.

Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 2: Two panels

August 26, 2018

My next two festival sessions were panels – firstly at the National Museum of Australia, and then after a quick jaunt over the lake, chauffeured very kindly by Mr Gums, at the National Library of Australia. This Festival is spread too widely, geographically speaking – but I’ve said that before …

The power, politics and passion of poets: John Foulcher, Melinda Smith & Lesley Lebkowicz, moderated by Geoff Page

Moderator and local poet Geoff Page (whose verse novel The scarring I’ve reviewed) introduced the session. Noting the theme, he said that despite recent events (which I explained in my first post) poets tend not to be driven by transient events. He then briefly reminded us of the depth Canberra’s poetic tradition, with the likes of AD Hope, David Campbell, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, among others.

Canberra Poets

Lebkowicz, Foulcher, Page, and obscured by the curtain, Smith

To get us in the mood for the theme, he shared a few ideas about poetry: Shelley’s comment that poets are the “legislators of the world”; Auden’s statement that “poetry makes nothing happen”; and Brecht’s poem “The solution” in which he suggests it might be easier for “the government/To dissolve the people!”

Finally, he kicked off the session with an appropriate political poem of his own, one I’ve read and enjoyed before, “Call yourself a socialist.”

The session comprised three local poets reading a selection of their poems – some published, some not (yet) – that relate in some way to the alliterative theme of the three Ps! It was a well-moderated session – that is it flowed well and finished on time. I liked that the poets often explained the form of their poems, as well as why they’d chosen them. I will list the poems they read as best I can, from the notes I took while trying to hear the poems. I do enjoy hearing poets read their poems.

Lesley Lebkowicz

Lebkowicz is, Page introduced, a poet, ceramicist, reviewer, and essayist, whose work is informed by her Buddhist practice. Her next book is Mountain lion. I have reviewed her Petrov poems here.

Lebkowicz started by commenting that it was nice reading to “different people”. She then read her poems, some  humorous and most drawing on women’s experiences:

  • “Butter”: a humorous poem satirising British snobbery about “the colonials”, by positing dairy-farming kangaroos.
  • Suite of poems relating to Mary Alice Evatt, artist and the wife of HV Evatt (Australian politician and judge). Lebkowicz had initially wanted to write her Petrov poems from the point of view of women, but Vladimir Petrov’s voice proved too strong, so she developed this suite of poems separately. The poems reference either paintings by Evatt or information Lebkowicz gleaned from her research, and included “Mt Solitary”, “Portraits 1930s Various sizes”, “Notes for a picture jam/flood”, “Woman seated on grass”, and the delightful “Notes for a picture, falling towards earth” (which you can read here, including its inspiration – do click on the link, you won’t be disappointed.)

Melinda Smith

Smith has a long, impressive CV, including winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for Poetry in 2014 with her collection, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call.

She started by saying she didn’t normally write political poems so her first poem would be about passion! Smith is, I’ve discovered before, pretty cheeky (in the best way.) She said that traditionally she’s not been interested in poems about recent issues because, by definition, they don’t last, but she feels that our current times calls for such poems. Her poems were:

  • “Splinter”: a very cheeky poem equating a splinter in the hand with a love gone wrong.
  • “Baby Joy”: a found poem, using Barnaby Joyce’s words to frame an apology to the gay community that they’ll never get otherwise from him.
  • “Sweetheart”: a found poem using misogynistic statements from the Ernie Awards, mostly from the 1990s, but they are strangely still applicable – she said.
  • “Newcastle reckoning”: a personal and political poem about the shock of seeing yourself as you are. It has a powerful refrain – “Having neither sought nor received permission” – referring to being on indigenous land without permission.
  • “No bed”: ending again on passion. A poem I’ve read – and in fact quoted from – before.

John Foulcher

Foulcher has published eleven books of poetry, the last being 101 Poems. He has also been a teacher for 40 years – a microcosm of politics and power!

His poems were:

  • “Fits and starts”: a very entertaining poem comprising the first words said by teachers to classes, from Grade 7 to 12. It garnered many knowing laughs from the audience.
  • “Why Ryan is on detention”: written around 2000 and unfortunately still relevant in these “Me Too” days.
  • “A revolutionary calendar”, his poetic biography of the French Revolution’s Robespierre. Architect of “the terror”, he had none of the obvious vices, but succumbed to power, and he too ended up at the guillotine. All dictators know, Foulcher said, that eventually the terror turns on you. The poems follow a calendar, and Foulcher read three: “Ventos” (month of wind), “Floreale” (month of flowers), and “Thermidor” (month of heat).
  • “The woman who danced with Stephen Hawking”: a monologue about a different power, one of mind, passion and body.

Before I end on the Q&A, I’ll share a line from Lebkowicz’s “Notes for a picture, falling towards earth”:

 Art, she knows, makes all things better.

If only our politicians knew, eh?


A questioner asked what advice – that you might not find in books – would the poets give to a poetry workshop. They said:

  • Foulcher said that there are two types of poems – the ones where you know what you want to say at the start (bad), and the ones where you work out what you want to say as you write (good)
  • Smith suggested that attendees be asked to find a feeling they can tap into.
  • Lebkowicz said be true to yourself, know what you feel and believe, be patient and write with integrity.

Another questioner asked about separating one’s own emotions from those of a character. Foulcher said it’s impossible, that you are always writing from within, and Lebkowicz admitted that for all her research into the Petrovs, the poems ended up revealing much of herself. Smith made the political point that you need to be careful about “whose microphone you are taking.” She has written in the voice of a dead 10th century Iranian, she said, and that was okay, because “my ancestors haven’t repressed her.”

The Prime Ministers 2017 Literary Award Recipients

Whiting, Lawrence, Orr and Cochrane

Whiting, Lawrence, Orr and Cochrane

The intended line-up for this session was Ryan O’Neill, Anthony Lawrence, Wendy Orr and Peter Cochrane, with  Sue Whiting as moderator. One of the main reasons I chose this session was to hear Ryan O’Neill, author of Their brilliant careers, but unfortunately his father had died necessitating his going to Scotland. I’m very sorry for him – but fortunately the session was very enjoyable, anyhow.

Whiting, the moderator, commenced by explaining the session’s aims, and then gave a brief history of the awards, which were 10 years old in 2017. They are among the best remunerated ($80K for the winner, at present) and are, uniquely, tax-free. She then asked the panelists to speak briefly about their prize-winning works:

  • Lawrence described his poetry collection, Headwaters, as a miscellany comprising various forms, and not having a particular thematic arrangement, but all represented a visceral reaction to the natural world. It’s eco poetry, though this is a new term for an old form! The poems are about the natural world, a place where animals, birds, trees and humans interact, and all explore the same problem, a physical reaction to the natural world, which his body and mind then work through.
  • Orr said that Dragonfly song, which is partly written in free verse, is the book she’s been writing all her life. It’s about an outcast, and has the standard hero tale trajectory. She realised later that it had come from her own sense of exclusion and despair after she’d broken her neck in a car accident.
  • Cochrane explained that his book, Colonial ambition: Foundations of Australian democracy had been commissioned for NSW’s Sesquicentenary. He talked about the challenge of finding drama, because there was “no mud and blood” as other countries have experienced. (I question that, given what we know about indigenous massacres.) Anyhow, he said he realised there was a great human drama, and there were rich biographical records for a few characters, including WC Wentworth, to tell it. To attract readers, he said, you need to include personal lives. Wentworth had the “driving theme of vengeance”, which of course got a laugh given last week’s political events.

Whiting then asked them to share how they felt when their names were read out as winners:

  • Orr was in a daze, not thinking it would be her. The neighbours gave her a party, she said, which hadn’t happened when she’d won CBC Awards.
  • Lawrence had forgotten the advice to have a speech prepared. He was ribbed by his mates because he’d been their maverick. The money was wonderful, he said, because poets don’t make money – they never expect royalties. But it is a “bit of a chook raffle.”
  • Cochrane, who won in 2007, has vivid memories because he was sitting at a table next to John Howard, and opposite Julie Bishop with her eyes. He was relieved to escape them when his name was called.

Whiting then asked about what the prize money, which is significant, meant to them. It was clear that it was meaningful for them all, but none, really, expressed that absolute depth of need that Luke Davies did when asked that question after winning in 2012, the first year poetry was included.

Whiting followed this by asking whether the prize had other benefits:

  • Orr said you need two forms of energy needed to write – physical (money) and emotional (including confidence). The award gave her confidence, largely because, although she’s lived in Australia all her adult life and although all her books have been written here, journalists are continually told they cannot call her an Australian writer. (What the?) This award took all that hurt away.
  • Cochrane said it brings your book to greater attention – both public and academic. He said the feedback from peers was surprisingly important. One reviewer said that it read like a fast-paced novel, which, in fact, encouraged him to write fiction, as he has now done.
  • Poet Lawrence was more circumspect, saying that “you would like to think a gold sticker would increase book sales, but sadly not.” It was, though, wonderful for his confidence, and awards like this do raise the profile of poetry, he said. Poetry is on the rise, he feels.


One questioner asked about the fact that, of all the prizes, this is the only one that has had political interference controversies. The panel explained that it’s due to the terms of the award: the judging panel makes a recommendation to the PM. Those recommendations have normally been accepted, with three exceptions to date, the most egregious being Frank Bongiorno’s “red-carding.”  (Feudal behaviour, said Cochrane.) In the other two cases, the PM intervened to force a joint winner. The terms of reference need to be changed, the panel agreed.

Whiting followed this up by asking whether judging literary merit was fundamentally flawed, but this was not really explored – at least from the philosophical point of view. Lawrence did talk about the value of blind judging, and Orr said that awards are important because they increase sales, promote literature, and get the public talking. 

Another interesting session. More analysis would have been good – how diverse have these awards been, for example – but time is always an issue.