Monday musings on Australian literature: The Guardian Australia’s Unmissables (2)

Two years ago, I wrote a post on The Guardian Australia’s Unmissables series, which was initiated in 2019 and aimed to highlight 12 new releases they deem “significant”. The series was supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the sea

I wondered at the end of my previous post whether the project would continue after the initial twelve. It seems that it did, at least until August 2020. By that time, they’d added 15 more works, but there were some changes. The initial project was about “highlighting significant new release Australian books”, but, pleasingly to me, later selections include older books like Randolph Stow’s The merry-go-round in the sea, published in 1965. This is because, from the 15th selection on, they changed tack to offer books “you’ve finally got time for”. That is, Unmissables went from “new releases” to books recommended by writers “for your lockdown”. 

With this, they also changed how the books were presented. In the original series, there were two articles per book, one on the book and one offering some additional resource – an extract from the book, or an interview with or essay by the author. From the 15th selection, there’s just one article, written by the recommender.

I’m chuffed that I’ve read several of this more broadly focused selection. And now, before I list the books, I’ll share Christos Tsiolkas’ comments on making a selection:

Should I choose a novel that I think under-appreciated and undervalued? Should I use positive discrimination in my choice? Should I choose the contemporary and au courant? Or should I be deliberately anti-fashion?

My being disconcerted speaks to the obsession with the “curated self” that we all now have in the digital age: every choice must be scrutinised for its moral and political purport. But in the end, I decided to trust my instincts. I had returned home from overseas in mid-March of this year and, knowing I was to enter a fortnight’s quarantine and then a subsequent period of quietude, I picked a handful of books off the shelves that I just had to read again. The only Australian book I chose in that initial cluster was Randolph Stow’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea.

Now, the books …

(Listed alphabetically by author)

Book cover
  • Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence (nonfiction) (1/4/2020) (my review) plus essay by Bridie Jabour applying Baird’s book to living through coronavirus. Little did she know in April 2020, how far we had to go!
  • Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang (novel) (3/8/2020) (read before blogging) recommended by Caro Llewellyn. Clearly a Carey fan, she says she read it knowing she “was in the presence of a writer walking along a knife’s edge of daring and audacity, my stomach churning at Australia’s cruel past”.
  • Kenneth Cook’s Wake in fright (novel)(24/7/2020) recommended by Briohny Doyle who says the story is easy to explain but its “nightmarish tension not so much”. However, she gives it a red hot go!
  • Chris Flynn’s Mammoth (novel) (24/4/2020) (my review) plus essay by Paul Daley who explains how this book about which he was doubtful got him hooked good and proper.
  • Kate Grenville’s The secret river (novel) (20/7/2020) (read before blogging) recommended by Stephanie Wood who says that “we hold our breath as we read, hoping for the happy, harmonious ending we know cannot come”.
  • Clive James’ Sentenced to life (poetry collection) (28/5/2020) recommended by Vicki Laveau Harvie who calls this slim volume “the poetic equivalent of the tiny, concentrated energy rations marathon runners take to keep going, when the end is not yet in sight”.
  • George Johnston’s A cartload of clay (novel) (6/7/2020) recommended by Paul Daley whose comments are included in my recent Unfinished books post.
  • Elizabeth Jolley’s My father’s moon (novel) (10/7/2020) (my review) recommended by Carrie Tiffany, who opens her piece with “it is proof of a fine novel when its characters enter your spirit as you are reading and take up residence there”.
  • Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (novel) (17/7/2020) (my review) recommended by Alice Pung, who supports this book with a passionate argument that ‘for those of us whose family survived genocide, slavery and stolen children (as mine did), this book is a triumph, brimming with love and wit”.
  • Frederic Manning’s The middle part of fortune (19/6/2020) (Lisa’s review) recommended by Jeff Sparrow who asks “Why hasn’t Anzackery’s ever-rising tide washed Frederic Manning and The Middle Parts of Fortune further up the Australian literary shore?”
  • Alice Pung’s Her father’s daughter (memoir) (27/7/2020) (my review) recommended by Melanie Cheng who discusses her choice, saying “escapism seemed facile”. She needed “a book that could speak to the existential emergency humanity was facing, but also offer a blueprint for how to get through it”.
  • Nevil Shute’s On the beach (novel) (21/5/2020) recommended by Chris Flynn who calls it “a dynamite isolation read”. A teen favourite of mine, it has dated I think, but is still a good apocalypse read.
  • Randolph Stow’s The merry-go-round in the sea (novel) (11/6/2020) (my review) recommended by Christos Tsiolkas. He appreciates that COVID-19 has provided “the opportunity for stillness”, and suggests Stow’s novel is perfect because “it unfolds at a composed, quiet pace”.
  • Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (novel) (4/6/2020) (my post) recommended by Tara June Winch, who provides excellent insight into how to approach this wild novel. She says “it will change you, as long as you have the guts to read all the way through”.
  • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (collective biography)(13/7/2020) recommended by Tegan Bennett Daylight who summarises this Stella-winner as “a chorus of voices about one of the country’s most prominent Indigenous activists is a glorious kaleidoscope of testimony”
Alexis Wright, Tracker

I wish The Guardian provided more about this project. How did the funding get extended and why did it stop? Regardless, there’s good reading here, both the books and the articles about them.

Finally …

This is a simple post, but interesting I hope. I am currently in Melbourne where our second grandchild, a little girl this time, has just been born. She is Neve Jessie, named for my lovely Mum. I’m just so thrilled, and not entirely focused on blogging.

What would you have recommended, if asked?

Living under COVID-19 (5): Holds on happiness

It’s nearly a year since I wrote a COVID-19 post. I nearly wrote one a few months ago when things were going COVID-normal smoothly, by which I mean our lives were minimally restricted, with daily life being as free as we could hope given the world-wide situation. We (I mean we Ken Behrens) were visiting friends and family around Australia. We were dining out, going to the movies and theatre, playing sport, visiting museums and galleries, and so on. Gradually, even generous distancing rules had been removed. Certainly, we were not wearing masks. (We were, though, still sanitising and checking-in.) I wondered what I could say, given life in most other parts of the world was still comparatively more restricted. Life was generally pleasant.

But then, Delta made its way here and we were not prepared because we – for, mostly, political reasons – were too far behind in the “race” to vaccinate, and it left us exposed. Now, our two largest states, and my little Capital Territory, are locked down. It is the right thing, I believe, to prioritise health and life, equitably, while we get our vaccination levels up – but it’s not easy. It is in this environment that I remembered the inimitable Jane Austen’s suggestion that

It is well to have as many holds on happiness as possible. (Henry Tilney to Catherine Moreland, Northanger Abbey)

I thought to share some of my holds on happiness …

Only connect (EM Forster)

For most of us, the best “hold” is connecting with family and friends. Those who, like me, live with supportive others are lucky to at least have built-in company, but even we need some variety. It’s been said ad infinitum, but how lucky are we, compared to those who suffered through the Spanish Flu or the plague pandemics, in being able to remain in quality contact with others through WhatsApp, Telegram, FaceTime, Zoom, and so on.

For me, WhatsApp chats replacing a regular lunch with friends, FaceTime sessions with our son, his partner and our grandson, Zoom catch-ups and meetings, and emails, blogging, and common old phone calls with our daughter and others, are keeping me sane and connected. They can also provide some joy. Have you ever tried playing hide-and-seek via FaceTime with a three-year-old? It can be done!

Other connections come from regular visits to our local PO to get the mail. We love our local post office workers. And to cafes for takeaway coffee and food. We love our favourite cafe owners too!

‘Twill do me good to walk (Shakespeare)

If connecting with people is important, equally so is exercise. It distracts the mind, keep us fit and tires the body (which is a useful thing in a constrained life!) Fortunately, we are allowed to exercise outside, and for most of us that’s walking. In some jurisdictions some sports are also allowed, but Mr Gums and I don’t do organised sports.

So, for us, exercise comprises walking in the nature park across the road, gardening, joining our zoomed Tai Chi classes – and, for me, doing yoga via my Yoga With Adrienne app. (You can also find her on YouTube if you are interested. She is delightful, and a good if imperfect substitute for my own wonderful teacher/neighbour.)

The thing about these activities is that, besides being good for our minds and bodies, they provide structure to our days. Structure, we learnt pretty quickly, is important to getting through endless days that look the same. Each morning, we say, “what are we doing today?” and make a plan of action (or inaction, as it sometimes is.)

Indulge your imagination (Jane Austen)

Exercise might distract the mind, but the mind and spirit also need feeding, and again, technology is helping us out. Of course, there are books, and they are my mainstay, as they are for many others. But, most of us need more – whether this be movie outings with others, live music gigs and concerts, theatre, festivals of all persuasions – and it is these that have been so affected by COVID-19. However, it is also in these that technology has been best able to help (albeit not ideal).

It is also plague season again in London and the playhouses are shut. (Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet)

I don’t need to tell you about streamed movies. It seems that every time I turn around there’s a new service. I have no idea where to start with all that so, although we are a technologically-focused pair, we haven’t chosen one yet. There’s enough available on free-to-air so far to entertain and inform us, because if there’s one thing we’ve been doing, it’s been keeping informed.

I have written in previous Living with COVID-19 posts about online writers’ events. I haven’t attended many recently, but I did join the ACT Writers Centre F*ck Covid afternoon (and have written about that.) The participants included established and emerging writers, and they were so generously open and articulate about their work and practice.

We have also attended webinars (including one with Jenny Hocking about the Palace Letters, which is well worth listening to) and online and streamed concerts from Musica Viva and the ABC. This short video link featuring recorder player Genevieve Lacey and harpist Marshall Maguire will give you a taste of one concert we “attended”.

We have passed up so many other opportunities. If there’s one thing about this lockdown, it’s that the arts world has done its best to stay alive and to reach out to us in whatever way they can. I can’t wait to give back by attending their shows and applauding their efforts – in person! I just hope they can all survive until then.

Meanwhile, wherever you are, how are you surviving? How is life looking in your place?

F*ck Covid: An Online Literary Affair (2)

This is the second of my two posts on the F*CK COVID online-only event. My first post introduced it and covered the fiction session. This post will report on the non-fiction session. I’ll start by noting that while the first session involved established authors, this one, I think it’s fair to say, involved emerging writers, who were also both from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Past-present: adventures in non-fiction with Shu-Ling Chua and Sneha Lees

While Gold’s and Brandi’s books were both novels, the two books covered here represent different forms, Shu-ling Chua’s Echoes being a collection of essays, and Sneha Lees’ Good Indian daughter (published under the name Ruhi Lee) being a memoir.

On their inspirations

Shu-Ling was inspired by the surprising discovery that a pop song in Crazy Rich Asians, “I want your love”, had been loved by her grandmother. This led her to researching the soundtrack, and exploring “lineages and inheritances” from various perspectives, including cultural, literary, fashion. This core theme held true, she said, through the three essays, which focus on domestic life, fashion, music, and water. Nigel suggested the word “intricate” described her book, but Shu-Ling prefers “intertextual” because she layers different cultural sources. She talked about the pressure she felt to be original (but I’ll leave that to the Q&A where it came up again!)

Sneha‘s book started with her wanting to understand why she was disappointed to discover, when pregnant, that she was having a girl. She came to realise that it was not about the baby but about how she felt as a woman in the world, and that this went back to psychological and physical abuse she’d experienced growing up. Her challenges in writing her story were: how to maintain a relationship with her family on whose watch this abuse had happened; and how to retain her culture. She talked about the high suicide rate for Indian woman, and her wanting to break the silence.

On wounds, scars and critiquing culture

Nigel said there was a heart of forgiveness in her memoir. Sneha laughed and said that Hard Copy program’s Nadine Davidoff had advised to write from the scar not the wound, but she’d often written from the wound. She admitted, however, that she had developed empathy for her parents, as their own stories had been tough, and this had given her a kernel of forgiveness. (This reminded me of Alice Pung coming to understand her parents.) Sneha’s book is about self and inter-generational understanding.

Shu-Ling talked of writing about wounds and scars – regarding sexual trauma – in her earlier writing, and the need to write about these things in ethically, responsibly. You need to consider, she said, the ethical, social, cultural, historical backgrounds. 

Sneha, sort of expanding this, spoke of needing to be mindful when writing about Indian culture in Australia. She was writing, she said, for white editors, publishers, readers, and didn’t want to make it easy for white people to see her critiques of her culture as evidence of their culture’s superiority. She loves her culture, but she also wanted to critique it. She’s interested in what it means to be Indian, what it means to be Australian.

Nigel wanted to explore this more, particularly how to critique dominant Australian culture?

Shu-Ling spoke about being part of a bigger group of writers trying to broaden Australians’ understanding of migrant culture, away from the expected traditional voyage and first generation stories. They need to be able to write about things important to them. Activism can take different forms and newer writers are carving out their own space.

Nigel asked whether the current bland simplification in Federal politics regarding migrants – like the “stop the boats” mantra – makes it hard to write about. Sneha commented on how distressing the short-term understanding behind these policies is. How can a white person proudly say “send back the boats” when they themselves came by boat and ruined the country. This thinking devalues what migrants and refugees bring: it ”feels like shit but you just write through it”.

On writing openly, honestly, respectfully about family …

… when they are still alive!  

Sneha talked to her parents about publishing her story, being anxious about airing “dirty laundry” and not wanting to attack the family. As a result, she agreed to publish under a pseudonym, Ruhi Lee (she’s now out!), but she also quoted Ann LaMott’s

If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

For Shu-Ling it was different. Her book is mainly about her mother’s side and her mother was part of the process. There were, however, uncomfortable conversations, such as about premarital sex. She agreed with Sneha that it’s not easy to write about family, but said that Echoes is a bit removed. She used music, for example, to create a bridge with her mother (and grandmother).

On the role of place in their writing

Shu-Ling said that, while she wrote the book in Melbourne, it is very much about Canberra because She’s exploring nostalgia. Also, she sees Canberra as “her” city, because neither her mother nor grandmother lived there.

Sneha didn’t feel that where she was writing, Melbourne, had impacted her book, but admitted that, before she wrote it, she had seen India through rose-coloured glasses.

The readings

As in the first session, both authors read. Sneha chose a section about having to talk to her parents about her sex education homework. Her father was horrified by the “the debauched syllabus”. Being taught this was “so veritably un-Indian”. Shu-Ling read from the last essay in her book, “To fish for the moon”, in which she talked, among other things, about what “opting out of motherhood” means. Is this a beginning or ending or both?

Nigel asked Shu-Ling about the tenderness he perceived in her writing. She said she writes as if she is speaking to a friend. She also said that her favourite writers write tenderly.

For Sneha, the question was obvious – her humour. Sneha said that humour writing is her first love, and that books and memoirs by comedians were major influences. She grew up with a diet of humour in her family. Readers need humour, she said.


  • On the pressure to be original. Expanding this, Shu-Ling explained that she loved, for example, Alice Pung’s work, but had felt she must be different from her and others, like Benjamin Law and Maxine Beneba Clarke. She wanted to move away from the capitalistic focus on the individual, so used the conversation idea. She sees herself as renovating rather than building a new building. What a great metaphor!
  • On feeling equipped to write about BIG issues. Sneha spoke about addressing the political in a personal way. The advice from Hard Copy was to “just tell your story”, and to “give the reader more credit”, letting them come to it. This lets her stick to what she knows. Shu-Ling spoke similarly on focusing on the personal, and also about not wanting to speak over others.
  • On relationship with editors. Sneha said she had a great editor, and really enjoyed what was a collaborative process. She felt she could push back, but she also respected their suggestions and probings. Shu-Ling didn’t feel comfortable with her first editor, but the second one was collaborative.
  • On whether their families have read their stories. Sneha was sad that she felt she couldn’t celebrate publication with her family, besides her sister, while Shu-Ling said her mother had read her final draft for inaccuracies.
  • On turning memories into memoirs, managing the gaps and creating a narrative. Shu-Ling starts with a moodboard, and writes her first draft using stream of consciousness, winding her way through her question to a conclusion. She then develops her narrative during polishing. Because her subject matter is recent, she has few memory gaps. Anyhow, she says, memoir is not about the past, but about your relationship with the past. Sneha, on the other hand, says regarding narrative that she is a big structure person, so puts that down first. Her memoir was structured along her pregnancy timeline; for her new novel she has mapped out her chapters. However regarding memory, she said her story was complicated by gaslighting so she had to cross-check with sister, husband, and friends. Nigel commented that he loved her memoir’s chapter titles, like “Thanks for the panic attack. Here’s a heart attack in return”.
  • On surprising post-publication emotions. Shu-Ling was initially “down” that her book hadn’t charged the world, but appreciated the positive responses. Sneha didn’t expect ”to feel like shit”, but this was partly due to her the lockdown causing her launch to be cancelled, and to the COVID crisis being so bad in India. She was surprised by how much women “felt” her book.

Tips for writing through the pandemic

Sneha said to go back to what you love, like rereading old favourites. She was reassured about the value of her work by Ethan Hawke’s TED talk’s statement that

art’s not a luxury—it’s actually sustenance. We need it.

Shu-Ling agreed with rereading old favourites, being for her, essays. She also talked about the importance of community, and that the pandemic means she can attend interstate and overseas writing events which revitalise her creative energy. (Hear, hear!)

Overall themes

Interestingly, two ideas recurred in both sessions: one related to trusting readers, and the other to the value of the editing process.

A big thanks to the ACT Writers Centre, Nigel Featherstone and the four panelists for organising and taking part in an event that felt so honest and reaffirming. Art is indeed sustenance.

F*ck Covid: An Online Literary Affair (1)

An initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and its Creative Producer Nigel Featherstone, F*CK COVID, was an online-only event. It comprised two panel discussions, featuring “four of Australia’s most exciting literary voices”, one focused on fiction, and the other non-fiction. I will report on these in separate posts.

Both sessions included the authors reading from their books for a few minutes, which, as always, was a treasure.

Hard truths; Risky fiction, with Irma Gold and Mark Brandi

After introducing the authors and their latest books, Irma Gold (The breaking, my review) and Mark Brandi (The others), Featherstone launched into his gently probing questions, which resulted in some great insights, for readers and writers. We started with Gold and Brandi describing their books, but you can find that info elsewhere if you haven’t read the books! You can also read more about Irma on her novel in my report of a conversation in May.

On their inspirations

Interestingly, both authors’ novels started as short stories.

Book cover

Gold’s started as a story that is now, essentially, her first chapter. It was not initially about elephants and animal cruelty. She feels that if she’d started with that idea the novel would have been more issues-driven that the character-driven story it is. The two characters appeared to her fully-formed she said. She also said that her stories are usually dark, but she wanted to write something more joyful.

Brandi’s novel started as a short story (published in Meanjin in 2016). Unlike Gold’s non-autobiographical novel, Brandi’s story was based on a childhood experience that gave him his first insight into the complexity and contradictions of the adult world. However, he said that as he has talked about the novel post-publication, he has realised that the story was more inspired by his father’s life with his father’s father. It’s about nature versus nurture, and how events affect us later in life.

On challenges they faced writing difficult sections

For Irma, this was writing the animal cruelty scenes. One scene in particular was “very hard” to write. She wanted to not make the book so harrowing that people would not want to read it. Her aim was to give enough for people to understand the situation. Even so, one agent and some publishers found her story “too risky” and did not want to take it on. Gold said what she loves about writing is “seeing the world through other perspectives”, which is just what we readers like too, eh?

For Mark, the whole thing was challenging! He also likes “seeing world though other eyes”. The discussion focused mainly on writing difficult material through a child’s eyes. Brandi spoke about trusting readers. He believes that the reader’s imagination can do a better job than the author, so he creates the prompt to allow readers “to go to the dark place if they are brave enough to”. People, he said, can tolerate cruelty to humans more than to animals. (Why is that?) He also said he’s happy to read “dark stuff”, that it doesn’t give him a negative world view (which I relate to).

Nigel complimented Australia’s publishing landscape, believing we have publishers prepared to take risks.

On style

Nigel asked Mark about his “pared back” style, in which there’s barely a sentence that is exposition or description. Mark responded that this is what he likes to read. He likes to be trusted, respected as a reader. He wants his readers to bring themselves to the work, and to “paint the picture themselves”. Reading, he said, is a “dance between reader and writer”.

This led to a discussion about dialogue. Brandi tries to use dialogue sparingly. It must have meaning. Nigel quoted Francine Prose (Reading like a writer) who wrote that “good dialogue is when character’s thoughts are louder on the page”. Irma concurred, saying that every line of dialogue has to have a reason for being there.

On themes and perspectives

Nigel suggested that Irma’s overall theme was Hannah’s yearning to do the right thing and to find love. Irma replied that she wasn’t consciously thinking of these, but she has later realised that Hannah came from her observation of 20-something tourists she’d seen in Thailand. Their freedom looked “so delicious and wonderful” but she’d realised that, at her age, she had the benefit of knowing who she was, and where she was going. Uncertain Hannah came from this recognition! It’s interesting to explore a character like Hannah, particularly when you throw in someone like Deven who tests and challenges. Nigel commented that in good novels, the DNA is in the opening, and that The Breaking opens with a sense of tension, darkness, and humour.

For Mark, Nigel returned to the issue of writing from the perspective of an 11-year-old (Jacob). Mark confessed that the inner child is “close to the surface for him”! Then, turning serious, he identified the two main issues: a child’s limited understanding of the world, particularly when that world is closely mediated through his father; a child’s language and narrow “vocabulary palette”. He used Jacob’s imagination to convey things a boy’s language couldn’t.

Here a William Faulkner quote was paraphrased, as it seemed to apply to both Irma and Mark. The original is:

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

On bringing together character, plot and story

Nigel asked about their writing process, regarding how and when they bring all the elements together.

Irma said that for her character and place go together. She also talked about how her work as an editor has given her an insight, particularly, into pacing. She said that her first draft is very much character-based, with plot and pacing honed during editing.

Mark’s response somewhat echoed Irma’s in that he’s very dependent on his editor and publisher for help with plotting. Again, his style of reading aligned with mine, when he said that he doesn’t pay much attention to plot in his own reading, and that he “will stay with good characters through whatever harebrained plot the author throws up“. I loved this, because I don’t care about plot holes. I care about characters and ideas.

Anyhow, he said that he leaves a couple of months after his draft, and will often see plot deficiencies when he returns to it, but there are always more when the book gets to publisher.


  • On their writing sessions: Both writers said you need a routine, and described their own. Mark drafts 2-3 hours every day because “voice and character are crucial” and he needs to stay with them. Irma said her process/routine varies for each project depending on what’s happening in her life (as she works full-time and has three children). With The breaking, she could only allocate two three-hour sessions a week, but her subconscious worked away in between, making those sessions productive.
  • On writing violence, and how to dial it back when the subject matter is violent. Irma suggested that people tolerate more violence against humans so it may not be a big problem, while Mark says that you give the reader enough details, then trust them to imagine. The question is, he said: What are the violent scenes in service of? Are they to convey what it’s like day to day, to support characterisation, or? Answering these will help avoid gratuitous violence.
  • On titles, which comes first, the story or the title: For both it was clearly the story, but Mark said that The others came to him very early while The rip started as something else. Irma said The breaking came to her after the book had gone to the publisher.

Tips for writing through the pandemic

Mark said routine and ritual and hard work – and giving it your whole being and heart.

Irma admitted that, until now, we Canberrans hadn’t been greatly affected, but she agreed that routine is important. Now she is in lockdown, and has more time, she plans to grab that! Find your time and your routine, was her advice.

Live events are the best, but online ones like this can be just as good in terms of both content and warmth. Watch for session two’s report …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading and publishing, pandemic-wise

In his 1946 essay, “The prevention of literature”, George Orwell named “the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books” as one of the threats to literature. I commented in my post that I didn’t know how that stood now in England, but that I thought Australians were currently buying books. The week’s Monday Musings seemed a good opportunity to check this out.

It didn’t take long to confirm. Jason Steger, literary editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, reported on 4 June, in his weekly emailed newsletter, that:

total book sales in Australia, according to Nielsen BookScan, jumped by 9 per cent to 66 million in 2020 … It’s proof that even as we sink more and more time into streaming services and social media, we’re still finding entertainment and enlightenment in books, and increasingly so during times of crisis and change.

This confirms what the Australian and New Zealand book industry’s Books+Publishing reported last (southern) spring (30 September):

For the first eight months of 2020, adult fiction sales were up 12% in value compared to the same period in 2019, and children’s, YA and educational sales were up 7%, according to data from Nielsen BookScan. Only adult trade nonfiction was lagging slightly, with sales down 1%.

This includes some catch-up, because, apparently, sales were down 3% in 2019 after 5 years of “marginal growth”.

Unfortunately, the figures do not include “ebooks and audiobooks, as their sales aren’t tracked in Australia in any reliable way”. We don’t know, therefore, whether, with lockdowns, more people turned to eBooks, making the increase even better than they look.

On the other hand …

While this looks positive, it’s not evenly so. Books+Publishing notes that bookshops in major city centres and some shopping centres struggled – particularly in Melbourne with its long lockdown – while sales in suburban strip shopping centres and regional towns were up on last year. The major winners were the online retailers and discount department stores. I don’t know whether these “online retailers” include the bricks-and-mortar shops which introduced online options.

Book cover

Books+Publishing also looked at the impact on publishing. They reported that major publishers “appear to have weathered the fallout from Covid-19 better than many of the smaller publishers, particularly those with titles doing well in discount department stores, chains and online retailers”. Many smaller publishers reported significant declines in sales. An exception was Melbourne’s Affirm Press which chose not to delay publishing any of its titles. It had excellent results with Pip Williams’ debut novel The dictionary of lost words which went into reprint in its first week.

Steger takes up the impact on writers, particularly debut authors who had “book launches, festival appearances and publicity tours cancelled”. He links to Melanie Kembrey’s article on how “six authors got their books published – in the hardest of times”. The article, actually, focuses more generally on these debut authors than on the impact of COVID-19, but a couple of authors do talk about it. Sam Coley, author of State Highway One, had a sense of humour about it saying:

Since you’re not going to make any money out of it, that’s the real fun part of it, drinking wine on our publisher’s expense account … It was disappointing. It was difficult to launch a book online and then still be inside your own house.

He also had a publicity tour of New Zealand cancelled (thus missing more excellent wine-drinking opportunities, I’d say!)

Vivian Pham, author of the well-regarded The coconut children, was “relieved” that the coronavirus meant cancellation of public events. It was a silver lining, for her, as it gave her time to process what was happening. She didn’t feel “ready”, having had no “public speaking” experience. She said she’d “mainly been doing online events and book clubs which feel really personal.” She liked that the pandemic “slowed things down” because it had been “overwhelming.”

Many of you will have seen/attended online events, like those mentioned by Pham. One lovely one that I attended was Writers in Residence, which focused on emerging writers. Blogger Lisa (ANZLitLovers) offered to host Virtual Launches and had three authors take this up.

What sold?

You may have noticed in the figures above that most areas increased, except for adult nonfiction which showed a small decrease. Steger reported in January on 2020’s bestselling books. He starts by noting a trend already under way, “the continuing absence of one of the staples of many annual bestseller lists, international and American fiction, particularly crime”. How interesting.

A decade ago, the top 10 books sold in Australia included only one Australian book (a cookbook), says Steger. However, in 2020, only two US books were on the list (one being Delia Owens’ Where the crawdads sing). Mark Newman, managing director of the 57-shop Dymocks chain, said there’s been a growing trend towards Australian stories. This started in 2016 with Jane Harper’s The dry. Novels which appeared in 2020’s top 10 included Trent Dalton’s All the shimmering skies and Jane Harper’s The survivors. Newman said that 2020 had been “particularly strong for Australian authors with new books.

Bruce Pasco, Dark emu

Other Australian books which appeared in the top 20 included Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu which was first published in 2014.

Books+Publishing categorised what people were reading, and came up with “escapist fiction, self-help and children’s books (middle grade)”. According to Allen & Unwin, crime by both Australian and international authors, was selling well, particularly from “well-loved local and international authors … as people are looking for something they know they will enjoy”. This was not me. Although for reasons many of you know I read less, my reading preferences didn’t change.

Anyhow, Books+Publishing writes,

In the absence of browsing opportunities, established brands, titles and authors were the clear winners. ‘Debut literary fiction has been more challenging,’ says Sherwin-Stark [Hachette Australia]. ‘In normal times, our debut authors would be out and about meeting booksellers and readers on publication, and this has just not been possible.’

The impact of the lack of “browsing” is something I hadn’t considered. You can browse books online, but, do you? Do you?

Sherwin-Stark also says something that I’m sure many of us observed: 

“the pandemic has encouraged the industry to get more creative in their promotion. ‘Publishers and bookshops have been incredibly innovative to find ways to connect readers with authors—virtual events are excellent and attracting very large viewing audiences and these events will become a part of our promotional mix permanently.’

So there it is … a little round-up on the pandemic’s impact on the bookselling and publishing.

I’d love to hear about your experience of pandemic reading?

The Griffyns are back – with Songs from a Stolen Senate

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the performing arts industry, as we all know, and that, of course, included our beloved Griffyn Ensemble. However, they clearly didn’t spend the time twiddling their thumbs, because this weekend they returned to live performance at the new Belco Arts Theatre. What a thrill it was to see and hear these special musicians again – and with an inspired and inspiring program*. Titled Songs from a Stolen Senate, it featured music commissioned from some of Australia’s leading First Nation musicians. Their brief was to use Parliamentary text – hence the performance’s title – to create “song and storytelling from the perspective of their own life stories”. This is the first in an ongoing series that the Griffyns say will explore how Australian identity has been forged since European settlement.

It was a brave program, because it involved the Griffyns working collaboratively with a number of Indigenous Australian musicians and laying themselves bare to the discomfort – to leaving one’s comfort zone – that such collaboration inevitably entails if it’s conducted honestly. However, it also showed what such collaboration undertaken with open hearts and good will can achieve, which is why I started this post with the words “inspired and inspiring”. Of course, it goes without saying that Indigenous Australians have experienced discomfort – and much, much worse – for a long time, so it’s time that the rest of us opened ourselves up to that too, as Jimblah said in his video statement during the show.

Promo published on YouTube in October 2020

So, who did they collaborate with? With indigenous artists from around Australia: Warren Williams (Aranda country musician), Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse (Noongar singer-songwriters), Norah Bagiri (singer-songwriter from Mua Island in the Torres Straits), Christopher Sainsbury (Canberra-based Dharug/Eora composer), Brenda Gifford (Canberra-based Yuin composer), and with Canberra poet, Melinda Smith, who undertook parliamentary research and helped with the lyrics. If I understood correctly, to these original five collaborations were added Gina Williams’ beautiful Wanjoo welcome song, chosen by Griffyn soprano Susan Ellis; a piece composed by the Griffyns in collaboration with local Ngunnawal visual artist, Richie Allen; and the song “Not in my name” inspired by hip-hop artist from Larrakia nation Jimblah’s call for us to “activate”.

And what, exactly, did they collaborate about? Well, these won’t be a surprise as the musicians explored the sorts of topics you would expect, including the Stolen Generations, climate politics, Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, assimilation policies. The original brief was, as I’ve said, to use Parliamentary text, but some of the musicians needed to go wider. For example, Norah Bagiri wanted to write about climate change and rising sea levels in the Torres Strait, but that has not been covered in Parliament, so it was to the UN that she and Melinda Smith went! Similarly, Gina Williams was interested in AO Neville, the notorious Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, so they used words from the Western Australian government.

Anyhow, the end result was a musical program performed by the Ensemble, supported by beautifully curated verbal contributions from the creators, presented on a large screen, interspersed with the live music.

Program (jotted down in the dark so perhaps not quite right)

  • Wanjoo welcome song (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Instrumental work (Warren Williams)
  • The view from the shore (Norah Bagiri)
  • Music from Ngunnawal Country (inspired by local Ngunnawal Kamilaroi visual artist, Richie Allen)
  • Breathe (Brenda Gifford)
  • What are we to do (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Not in my name (Jimblah)
  • Red kangaroo standing (Christopher Sainsbury)

Some of the issues that came out through the program included exploration of our national anthem’s notion of “young and free” (Gifford) and the fact that Noongar language didn’t have words for “stolen” and “freedom” (Williams and Ghouse):

They have no word for stolen
They have no word for freedom
What kind of civilisation is this?

All the pieces were strong, engaging and musically interesting, but I found “What are we to do” and “Not in my name” particularly haunting.

The program ended on something a little more hopeful, Christopher Sainsbury’s “Red kangaroo standing”, which was inspired by Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives, to serve as a government minister, and to be appointed to cabinet. Sainsbury, I believe, wanted to leave us with a positive sense of where Indigenous Australians are now and of non-Indigenous Australia’s increasing openness to Aboriginal culture. However, I couldn’t help hearing a touch of irony in the the last words of the piece – and of the program – “thank you”!

The Griffyns’ current line-up has been together for several years now, and the simpatico – musical, intellectual and yes, I’d say, emotional – that is clearly between them makes these concerts not only of high quality, performance-wise, but a real joy to be part of. It goes without saying that I look forward to their next concert. (Meanwhile, if you live near Castlemaine, Victoria, you can see this program there on 28th March.)

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director, mandolin), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (voice), Kiri Sollis (flutes), and Chris Stone (violin)

* This program was intended to launch the new theatre at Belco Arts last May, but COVID-19 stopped that. It was then presented, virtually, last September in the Where You Are Festival, for which I booked, and then missed!

Living under COVID-19 (4)

It’s some months since I wrote a “living under COVID-19” post, as things have been pretty much pottering along here in the Australian Capital Territory, but I’ve decided it’s time to do an update (for posterity if for no other reason.)


There’s been much talk about living under COVID-normal, though what that means is, I suspect, a movable feast depending on where your jurisdiction is at.

Lamsheds Restaurant, Yarralumla
Spaced tables, Lamsheds, Yarralumla

Here in the ACT, where we’ve had fewer than 10 cases since May (and only one since mid-July), COVID-normal means, primarily:

  • sanitising, everywhere
  • cleaning, particularly in cafes and restaurants after each client
  • checking-in, via QR-code apps, QR-code websites using phone cameras, or good old pencil and paper. Privacy? What privacy!
  • social distancing: public venues – shops, restaurants, etc – are currently restricted to one person per four square metres of “usable indoor space” and one person per two square metres of outdoor space rule, but larger gatherings in larger spaces are allowed (thought still with some upper limits).
  • no masks, except by personal choice or for certain health workers

We have no limits on household visits, so my reading group has been meeting in person (woo hoo) for some months. Cinemas have been open since July with strict social distancing, which the cinemas have been handling very well through allocated seating with enforced separation, and spaced scheduling creating quiet foyers.

I can visit my father in Aged Care, as long as I meet certain requirements. Visits have some limitations, but the constraints, though a little irritating, are minor. We certainly can’t complain, and our older people feel safe.

Online eventing – book launches, musical events

As I’ve written in previous posts – and something you all know – the main plus out of this pandemic has been the ability to attend remote events that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to attend. I haven’t got to as many as I’d like because the timing frequently conflicts with other commitments. (How does that happen?) Anyhow, events I’ve “attended” since my last COVID-19 post are (in case you are interested):

Book cover

More consolation than plus – though we’ll take it – are the streamed live performances. We’ve not attended many of these, once again due to timing and commitments, but we have enjoyed some Discover Musica Viva Concerts with accordionist James Crabb and cellist Julian Smiles, and then classical guitarist Karin Schaupp. These were short concerts, but delightful with the performers introducing their pieces. I always enjoy hearing musicians talk about the pieces they play. I was devastated to have missed my beloved Griffyn Ensemble’s event (though we paid for it).

Spring has sprung – big

As if the universe knew we needed it – as if! – we have had a beautiful spring down under with enough blossoms (and flowering weeds) to cheer the saddest heart (I hope).

Need I say more? (From our garden, except the tulips, which are from Moss Vale)

Helen Garner’s lockdown diaries

Book cover

You all know how much I love Helen Garner, and how much I enjoyed the publications of volume 1 of her diaries in 2018 (my review), so I was excited to see her “lockdown diaries” in The Monthly, October xx, 2020. One of the things I enjoyed about reading this piece, besides the writing, was that I could track the trajectory from COVID-19’s earlier days in Australia to around August/September. Garner, for those who don’t know, lives in Melbourne, so her diaries include the only significant second wave lockdown we’ve had here in Australia.

We’re supposed to observe physical distancing. Everyone is to have an area of 4 square metres. “These are not suggestions,” says the chief medical officer. “These are civic duties.” The phrase “civic duty” thrills me.

I love the idea that ‘the phrase “civic duty”‘ thrills her!

Stage 3 lockdown. People over 70 are ordered to stay home for three months. A stab of stir-craziness, then, again, the stoical feeling.

This immediately brought to mind Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence (my review), and her discussion of stoicism, using the extreme example of Jim Stockdale (a POW in “Hanoi Hilton” for over 7 years).

Cadavers encased in white plastic are trolleyed out of New York hospitals and trucked in refrigerated vans to mass graves. Are they old people? Rash people who kept going to clubs? People with delivery jobs or “co-morbidities”? Who are the unlucky ones? Why are they dead, and we’re not? Is there a reason? Will we ever understand what’s happening to us?

Good questions, Ms Garner!

The old professor calls. He talks for a good 20 minutes, he can’t stop, he is flustered, agitated, distressed, veering among the wrecked shards of his mind. His sentences have no content but they are so perfectly jointed and polished that they make me dizzy with admiration. When at last he begins to peter out (…) I produce from behind my back the syringe of praise and give him a huge shot: “Your English is admirable and beautiful. Your syntax is faultless.” He becomes relaxed and sunny, like someone who’s had a hit of Valium: “I am a man. I am vain. You have entered my soul.”

This pure Garner – the interaction (with her old German neighbour, recently moved to aged care), the tone, the language. I love her description of producing from behind her back “the syringe of praise” to “give him a huge shot”.

Numbers of new cases rise and rise. Hotspots here and there. The big flats shut down. Quarantine hotels. A new lockdown, from midnight. People are refusing to be tested. How can people refuse? The world I’ve spent my life in is coming to an end. I keep myself half turned away, my eyes narrowed. On some deep level I’m terrified.

Do you feel as Helen does? And, overall, how are you faring?

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

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).