This is the fourth year I’ve attended Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local live-streamed events at the National Library of Australia. I nearly missed it this year because, somehow, I didn’t see the usual advertising. However, I caught it just in time, and was able to attend an event that particularly interested me. For the rest, my time was already committed so … next year?
Damon Galgut, Larissa Behrendt and Paige Clark in conversation with Sisonke Msimang: Saturday 21 May, 4pm
I was thrilled that this was the session I could attend, as Damon Galgut’s The promise is my reading group’s May book, and I hope to read Larissa Behrendt’s After story for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week in July. I am also interested in Paige Clarke’s She is haunted, which was longlisted for this year’s Stella Prize, and in Sisonke Msimang, who, besides also being an author, is a wonderful advocate for diverse storytelling. The session was billed as: “to explore the responsibilities and opportunities of the creative writer and artist, and ask: who gets to tell a story?”
Before the session started, a brief message from Festival Director, Michael Williams, was streamed to us, in which he talked about the Festival’s theme, Change my mind, having been chosen to reflect our current uncertain times. This was followed by a very neat animated graphic on the theme.
The audience at our venue was very small – under 10 people – which is significantly less then I’ve ever experienced before. I didn’t feel it had been as well-advertised as in previous years, but the NLA staff member on duty thought, probably rightly, that there was too much else going on – like an election!
The limits of imagination
(I will use first names to describe the speakers, because that seems appropriate for describing a “chat”).
Sisonke commenced by acknowledging country, noting that this was a country rich with stories. She then of course introduced the writers, and explained that the topic they’d been “given” was Who gets to tell a story. However, she said, this conversation has been going for a long time, and will keep going, and the authors on the panel had written great books that we also want to hear about, so, she said, “we will be subversive” and try to cover both! I think the audience appreciated that, though in the end, the focus clearly was “who gets to tell the story”. The question was explored well, but it was clear that, while he gave it his best shot, Damon, as the only “white” and only male on the panel, was the most challenged by Sisonke’s probing.
How do you help students understand or handle this “who-tells-the-story” question?
Sisonke, noting that all panel members also teach writing, thought to approach the “who-tells-the-story” question via their teaching. Good one! She also took the opportunity to note the current attack on humanities as a discipline.
Larissa spoke at some length, teasing out the issue, starting with how layered it is. For example there is a diversity of First Nations across county, and she can’t tell stories from nations that aren’t hers. In fact can’t tell all the stories of her own nation, because they aren’t all hers. This runs counter to the Western academic tradition which is founded on the principle of sharing stories, of being entitled to know everything in the academy.
So, her approach is to ask students, Why is this your story to tell? She made the point that as a lawyer she needs to consider when it’s your role to tell a story, and you should create space for others to tell it. She does, however, believe it is possible to write from a range of perspectives; she’s done it herself, having written from male and non-Indigenous perspectives. The question then is How well do you know the story you want to tell?
Paige observed that to write “other” characters you need to research, and she, personally, is not prepared to do that. But, to students, she would ask Why do you want to, or think you need to, write the story? Could the story be written in the writer’s own identity-space; could they approach the topic from their own space?
Damon felt that South Africa, where he’s from, has gone from being behind the times to being ahead in these issues, though I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that. He quoted Nadine Gordimer who had often been challenged on her right to speak for black South Africans. Her reply was, What did James Joyce know about being a woman, and yet he wrote that wonderful Molly Bloom soliloquy? Fiction, he said, is about imagination. “Judge me by the results”. He feels that if we limit what we are allowed to write we might as well give up fiction. (I have some sympathy with this, as many of you know, but I also feel there’s a power issue at play and that past gaps in stories need to be redressed.)
Sisonke followed his comment with, but …
Can there be harm done by the attempt to tell a story that’s not yours?
But, by what culture do you assess the achievement? By the prize culture? This has seen the canon of writing about Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal writers being judged by non-Aboriginal people who have the same perspectives as the writers. Is this valid?
Larissa stated that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important, which also, she said, brings in the relationship of politics to writing. She – and I appreciated this coming from a First Nations writer, because I agree with her – thinks that Kate Grenville’s The secret river made “an extraordinary contribution”. Grenville, she said, didn’t feel need to fill in the gaps with assumptions about Indigenous people in the story. She also admires Liam Davison’s The white women (Lisa’s review). Both authors confront the impact of colonisation without putting themselves in the place of an Aboriginal person.
Damon commented that he’s not a woman, but he needs to imaginatively take that step. He used the words “being allowed” to write, say, a woman character.
Larissa responded by saying that the question is: What is the ethical framework you create for yourself when you are creating a character? It’s not so much what you are allowed to do, but that you should act ethically. What are the parameters you create for yourself. However, Damon felt that in South Africa, the question is “are you allowed”?
What is better about this moment?
At this point Sisonke, who asked such pointed, interesting questions, said rather than focusing on where we are “not permitted to go”, why not look at it from a positive point of view?
Larissa said current times come off the back of a lack of diversity in the canon, and that we are seeing a time of incredible burgeoning in First Nations writing across all genres. The are more opportunities for stories to be exposed deeply, for deeper understanding of diversities. We are enriched by greater intellectual exchange.
Paige, who self-describes as Chinese/American/Australian, shared that there were no identity markers in her first stories, written ten years ago, because she felt that if she wrote as a Chinese woman, she would not be listened to. Now, it feels comfortable writing from her identity.
Damon was startled by Paige’s statement, and felt that he wanted to stay silent on this as a white male. And then, somewhat reversing his previous statement, as he himself admitted, he said that he wanted to defend the right of writers to go anywhere but as a white South African, he knows there are places he can’t go. He hasn’t, he said, ventured out of white perspectives because he doesn’t know them.
Sisonke, wanting to push him a little further, responded that there was a feeling that in the current culture “white guys are going to lose by the canon being challenged”, but she feels it doesn’t have to be a loss, so, what’s positive, she asked?
Damon said that he doesn’t feel personally deprived. But, he felt that a significant positive is that new voices have been introduced. However, he would not venture into voices not his own.
Sisonke then asked the authors to read excerpts from their books that she had selected. Clearly she’d thought hard about and prepared well for the session.
Larissa introduced her reading by explaining a little of the plot which takes us on a literary tour of England with a First Nations mother and daughter. She said the book explored the English canon she grew up with and that she still loves. But, she said, she also grew up with the richness of Indigenous storytelling, and that her novel marries these two traditions.
Sisonke asked Larissa about setting her book in “the heart of empire”. Larissa, a lawyer as well as writer, replied that the seed for the book lay in her observation of non-Indigenous legal people being dismissive of lndigenous people. She wanted to put her characters in a place, Britain, where they would be confronted, a place which has never really reflected on what it did. But, she said, storytelling is also about healing. Further, being overseas makes you think about yourself differently. She wanted her characters to experience that.
Paige read an early story from her book which is about race at its heart, and the gulf between mother and daughter caused by intergenerational trauma. Sisonke added that she’d chosen this excerpt because it beautifully captures the intimacy between mother and daughter, the trust that’s inherent and the trust that’s broken.
Paige said that her stories are autobiographical, but fantastical too. They are almost auto-fiction she said, in that she didn’t have to look far for them.
Damon’s excerpt featured a 13 year-old-daughter, Amor, who overhears a promise made by her father makes to his dying wife to give a home to a loyal black worker. Damon beautifully captures the innocence of this young girl – “history has not yet trod on her” – who wants the promise honoured.
Sisonke commented that none of the characters are easy to like. She said that non-South African readers see the characters as exaggerated, cartoonish, but that people who know South Africa “know” these characters. She asked Damon what he was trying to do with “that unlikability”. He replied that Amor is the moral centre because she doggedly wants the promise honoured. He believes that Apartheid was possible because of a failure of imagination, by which I understand him to mean the failure to imagine yourself in the shoes of others.
There was the usual question about influences, but the answers were not always the usual! Damon said that his answer partly encompasses a response to Sisonke’s earlier question of the positives to be gained from contemporary literary culture. He said there’s been gain in there now being a platform for other voices, and that every book you read shows you another version of the world. (He added, as an aside, that you can tell which public figures read, which don’t. This got a wry laugh from our small audience and the other panel members.)
Larissa essentially echoed Damon by saying that through reading you experience so many views of world, across cultures and perspectives. She then added that First Nations elders are like libraries, and that they value people as they get older – the “library of elders”. (This reminded me of a discussion I’d had earlier in the week when lunching with friends. We talked about ageing and the idea of being “elders”, though whether we are respected as such in white culture is the question.)
Paige answered more traditionally by naming Amy Hempel who, she says, does rawness and vulnerability, economy and minimalism, so well.
And here the session abruptly ended when the well-prepared Sisonke was told they’d run out of time. What a shame!