Jacqueline Kent’s Seymour Biography Lecture

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

Jacqueline Kent, Sept 2022, National Library of Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Known knowns

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

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

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

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

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

Known unknowns

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

Unknown knowns

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

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

Unknown unknowns

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
1 September 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

The limits of imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sisonke followed his comment with, but …

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

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

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

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

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

What is better about this moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A

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

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

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

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

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

My second Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local event for 2021 was an hour after the first one. This left me time to fill in. It was disappointing that the National Library’s Bookplate Cafe was closed by then, which I think has happened in previous years. It would have been nice to sit down with a cuppa, or a cool drink. However, there was the bookshop, so I did business there instead!

Richard Flanagan and Laura Tingle: Conversation, Saturday 1 May, 4pm

If I hoped that this second session would not be as demanding on my ability to simultaneously take notes and absorb the discussion as the first, I was to be disappointed. This session featured multi-award-winning writer Richard Flanagan and the also award-winning journalist Laura Tingle, and I think I took even more notes. In fact, once again, Karen Viggers, who was also taking notes, nudged me a few times to say “get that down”! What a hoot!

Flanagan is always entertaining, which doesn’t mask the thinking and humanity in what he says. Tingle proved, not surprisingly, to be up to the task of interviewing – conversing with – this man. The topics ranged far, but stemmed mostly from Flanagan’s latest two books, his non-fiction exposé, Toxic: The rotting underbelly of the Tasmania salmon industry, and his latest novel, The living sea of waking dreams. Flanagan also referenced Tingle’s writing, particularly her latest Quarterly Essay (#80), The high road: What Australia can learn from New Zealand. Flanagan has appeared several times on my blog.

Tingle started the traditional way by introducing Flanagan through his oeuvre. She noted its breadth of subject matter, then turned to Toxic. Read it, she said, if you want to be depressed, and horrified, and, oh yes, informed. It spoiled her breakfast, she said, wryly.

Flanagan, ever the humorist, suggested he is creating a new genre, Tasmanian non-fiction horror! Then, in one of his several compliments to Tingle, he said that in the last year Australian journalism has become stronger, better, and that this has been largely due to our women journalists, particularly Laura Tingle.

Flanagan then read, as requested, from Toxic – a particularly unappealing description of the physical matter involved in the industry – before answering Tingle’s obvious question regarding how Tasmania has responded to it.

Apparently, Toxic is “the fastest-selling book ever” in Tasmania, going to three print runs in its first week. Flanagan and his publisher had kept the project secret until the day it was placed in bookshops, without pre-publicity, with just his name and title. It has had immense support in Tasmania, but the government and salmon industry have been silent.

His plan had been to write a short article, but he just kept discovering patterns of intimidation and violence. Ultimately, he said, companies run rogue when there are no rules, and there is no proper governance in the salmon industry. There’s a lot we don’t know about the food industry, he added. He wrote the book for the public. He wants it to help people make decisions in supermarket aisles. (And, perhaps, Tingle for her breakfast!!). Responding to Tingle’s question about its impact on the state election that day, Flanagan said that exit polls were showing a stronger result for the Greens.

Tingle asked about Tasmania’s history of “f*****g up its water supplies”, about the confluence of business and bureaucracy in this. Flanagan talked of Tasmania’s particular history – the near genocide and the convictism which encompassed slavery. Many pathologies persist when you see mass trauma, he said. Most Tasmanians are the issue of the first quarter of its history. He commented on the abuse of power, and the use of silence and fear to retain power. He also quoted Chekhov:

Write about this man who, drop by dropsqueezes the slave’s blood out of himself until he wakes one day to find the blood of a real human being–not a slave’s–coursing through his veins.

Flanagan added “word by word” after “drop by drop”! (As Jim noted in his comment on my previous post, the subtitles frequently got tricky words and names wrong. I didn’t note them down, but I do remember Chekhov becoming “check cover”)

Tingle then turned to his books in general, suggesting that there are about people shaped by greater tides, people who have no control over their destinies. She was eloquent, and drew out a typical, somewhat self-deprecating Flanagan response that this “sounds plausible”.

Every writer, he said, belongs to both their birthplace and the universe of letters. Like many writers, he seeks the universal in the particular, and his particular is “this strange island”. All his books come out of the wonder of his original world in the western Tasmanian rainforests. He suggested that the history of novels is not made in the great centres. Joyce wrote in that tucked-way place of Dublin, Marquez in his fictional place, Macondo, and so on.

Tingle returned to her question, reframing it somewhat, to reference power. His characters she said are not authors of their own fate. Power doesn’t have to be at the centre of literature, he replied. Yet, in his latest book, The living sea of waking dreams, the characters are trying to control the mother. Her life is about people trying to control others.

Flanagan then made a point that made me sit up. He said there’s a potent and poisonous myth that everything is about power. He talked about how identity politics is a zero-sum game. The truth is, he said, that most things are not political. He quoted that grim poet, Larkin, who said that ”what survives of us is love”. Flanagan’s characters are about love, he said. This is the nub of what life is about. Seeing life through power is a “false compass”. This bears more thinking, though there is truth in what he says about love.

Tingle turned to time, to the linear time in European thinking versus Indigenous circular time. Does fiction free us of linear time, she asked? Flanagan talked of identifying two ideas underpinning European art: everyone is alone, and time is linear. BUT, he’d come to realise that no one is alone, that you only exist in others, and that time is circular. Stories go back and forth, in and out. Yolngu people, he said, have a tense that combines past-present-future. This is more what he grew up with.

There was more talk about Tasmania, but the next point I want to share is his idea – one Indigenous people understand – that “Bush is freedom, City is oppression”. We need our political leadership to open up to Indigenous heritage and ways of thinking.

Tingle then threw in a statement made by past conservative New Zealand PM, Jim Bolger, who, when asked “why the Waitangi Tribunal”, responded “because the country’s honour was at stake”! Imagine this from a contemporary Australian politician?

Flanagan’s response was that not thinking Bolger’s way led to “the slow corrosion of us as a just and democratic society”. He said that the “battle to be a good people and a good society matters”, but we are losing this as we continue to allow such things as Aboriginal deaths in custody. He said that the battle for the soul of nation is the battle for a nation worth living in. (Karen whispered to me, “so eloquent”!)

Then he referred to one of my all-time favourite books, Camus’ The plague (my review). The plague is always there. It’s deeply disturbing, he said, how out of their comfort zone many of our politicians are.

We then moved to Australian literature. Flanagan noted that there’s been a great surge in Indigenous and women’s writing, though he’s “annoyed” that women from the past are not getting the credit they should. Women – such as publishers Beatrice Davis and Hilary McPhee – have shaped a different literature here compared with American and Europe. He barely tipped the surface, though, of the depth of women’s contribution to Australian literature from its beginning.

Moving right along, Tingle asked Flanagan whether he was moving more into non-fiction. Not a bit of it, was, essentially, the reply. But, he did say that non-fiction gets you out of the door which is good for novelists. In the end, it’s story that’s important and fiction has a “profound spiritual aesthetic and intellectual tradition”.

The conversation then moved the challenges confronting writing stories (fiction and non-fiction), today: libel laws, not to mention the “wall of noise” and “multiple strands”, which Tingle said make it hard to pull stories together.

For Flanagan, there’s one simple story – rapidly growing inequality. He spoke of how the richest and most powerful have connections with politics, and act in ways that cloak the state’s withdrawal from where it should be, like education, health, environment. They manufacture identity wars in ways that shroud real needs.

He said his latest book looks at how words can create a wall between people rather than a bridge, and then talked about politicians lying in the morning, then again in the afternoon. This is the tactic of totalitarians. It creates a situation in which truth has no value, leaving you with opinion. When that’s all you have, “society moves into darkness”.

After all this, and a little more on politics and writing, the session ended with Flanagan reading a lovely piece from Toxic about an octopus. Flanagan said that despite it all, he’s not despairing: there’s hope in beauty and wonder.

It was hard to cut much out of this!

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

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

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

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

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic

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

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

Here is how the Festival program described the session:

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

The program continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Lisa on national library book culls

As I noted in last week’s Monday Musings, Bill (The Australian Legend) has organised a few Monday Musings guests posts for me. Of course, given we comment closely on each other’s posts, he turned to Lisa (ANZLitLovers) for the second one. Bill did suggest an idea to Lisa, in case she needed it, but she found another topic to inspire her. It is a highly relevant one to me as a retired national institution librarian/archivist, so I was more than happy with her suggestion.
Thanks so much again to Bill and Lisa for helping me out and for offering some wonderful new content for Monday Musings.  Read on … and do let us know what you think …

Lisa’s post

Last year, when in New Zealand for the Auckland Writers’ Festival, I visited the Auckland Art Gallery, and was disappointed to find its ’Historic European’ Gallery closed.  From the postcards on sale in the shop we could see that they had some very interesting pieces, so we were a bit disappointed. But at the time we just thought this meant they had stopped collecting European art.  However, from a recent visit to their website, it’s clear that European art has been sidelined.  If you want to see New Zealand and Pacific art, this gallery is the place to go.  But if on the other hand you are a Kiwi student of art history, or merely curious about New Zealand’s international collection as we were…

I thought of this when I came across a more radical policy underway in the New Zealand National Library. In October last year the library announced that they are going to ‘rehome’ 600,000 books to make room for New Zealand and Pacific material, in line with their 2015 Collections Policy.

Yes, that’s right, 600,000 books!

Behind the scenes, libraries have all kinds of policies that affect their acquisitions and deaccessions procedures.  These rarely attract much interest from the public, except for the issue of censorship, or ‘self-censorship’ of certain types of books. (As, for example, when a school library unofficially responds to complaints from religious minorities by not lending books featuring magic such as the Harry Potter series).

Acquisitions and deaccession policies reflect a variety of complex issues which change over time.  No collection is static, and space for underutilised materials is always a problem.

The New Zealand library’s Rachel Esson (Director of Content Services) explains their decision like this:

The overseas published collection is not one single collection but is made up of an assortment of books acquired from a range of sources, some were purchased and some donated to us having been weeded from other libraries. These books were collected to support the library system, to provide access to information that other libraries might not hold. However, around 80% of them have not been issued for 20-30 years which means most of these books are not being used and that means that the library system is telling us that it doesn’t need these books anymore.

To be clear, they are keeping some overseas published books and will continue to purchase more for their collections in focussed areas, which include: library and information science; music; reference works; children’s literature; family history, and print disabilities.

But the removal of 600,000 books is needed to make room for New Zealand and Pacific Materials:

The National Library acquires between 80,000 – 90,000 electronic and print publications a year that consist of New Zealand, Pacific and overseas material.

That makes sense to me, because New Zealand is a wealthy nation and is in a position to be a centre of excellence for the literature of Pacific Island nations which may not have the resources to do it themselves.

But as I know from my own experience as a teacher-librarian, undertaking a cull of underutilised books can be a fraught exercise, because there is always someone who, for sentimental or research reasons, needs that battered copy of a text that seems past its use-by date.  At the same time there will always be people who want to cut a swathe through the entire collection to rid it of books that offend them for one reason or another.  In the feminist Seventies, for instance, there was alarm about the preponderance of male central characters in library collections of children’s literature, and that’s still a problem today.  So is the paucity of characters reflecting Australia’s multiculturalism, its Indigenous past and present, and its LGBTIQ and disabled communities…

The philosophy of inclusion is comparatively new and it keeps changing.  Difficult decisions have to be made around those innocuous words ‘as well as’, ‘instead of’ and ‘proportion’ because these decisions have implication for space, storage, display and especially funding.

For most libraries, the decision to acquire or get rid of a book to make space for others is a decision for the local community and the users.  However, in the case of a national or state library, the rules are different.  They have a statutory obligation, i.e. enshrined in law as ‘deposit legislation’, to acquire and retain the books they have for the benefit of the nation.  According to New Zealand writer and reviewer David Larson, in a lively critique for The Spinoff the relevant Minister has to sign off on the disposal of these 600,000 books.  Amongst other concerns he is alarmed about the process for retention and selection.  There’s more to it than whether the books have been issued within a certain time frame…

The consultation process, Larson says, appears not to have adequate expertise to identify which books are needed for research purposes, and offering them to other New Zealand libraries which have no obligation to keep them is a concern.  Then there are books that are published overseas, but written by New Zealanders:

New Zealanders are, famously, a nation of part-time expats: any number of Kiwis have contributed to this field or that by publishing books while living overseas. So if the goal is to keep “anything that is New Zealand and Pacific related”, that will require identifying a huge corpus of often obscure books published offshore.

Likewise, there are many overseas-published books by non-New Zealanders which touch on New Zealand or Pacific interests, often in ways obvious only to specialists.

Larsen stresses that many of these books are destined not for rehoming, but for destruction, but his article met with a droll riposte from librarian Rebecca Hastie, in a piece also for The Spinoff, ‘Weed in the Dead of Night, a Librarian shares the secrets of book culling’.

To see why it might matter that New Zealand could lose its only copy of a text that’s being offered for ‘rehoming’, I took a look just in the ‘A’ section of the Fiction List (downloaded from here).  For a start, the library is also offloading everything that Jessica Anderson and Thea Astley wrote, so Australian Literature isn’t a priority area for retention.  Too bad if a Kiwi wants to do a PhD in the comparative literature of our two countries.  There were titles I’d love to read by Kingsley Amis, Joan Aiken, Louisa May Alcott, Isaac Asimov, and Margaret Atwood.  Even Jane Austen has to go.  Top of the Bs was a stack of titles by Isaac Babel, which, along with three by Leonid Andreyev, mean that someone in a previous era understood the important of dissident Soviet literature (which is surely still a subject for scholarly attention.)

Lest you think that this is only an issue for this particular library in New Zealand, this week Inside Story is carrying an article called ‘Asia Illiteracy’ about a new collection development policy at the National Library of Australia, which is about to sideline its collections of Southeast and Northeast Asian material:

For almost seven decades, the National Library of Australia has been building one of the world’s most extensive collections of Southeast and Northeast Asian material. The legacy of accumulated investment and collecting by specialist curators, its store of Asian newspapers and periodicals, books, government documents and other rare materials is among the great treasure troves of Asian studies, and the most extensive Asia collection in the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers visit from around the world, and the collection is a foundation stone of decades of effort to build sustained and deep knowledge of Asia at Australian universities.

Now, much of this is to be abandoned. In a new “collection development policy” — the document which lays out what and how the library will collect — the library has dramatically downgraded its emphasis on overseas collecting. It has removed key Asian countries from its list of priorities; it has closed its Asian Collections Room; it has cancelled subscriptions to hundreds of Asian periodicals.

[…]

The new collection development policy makes it clear that the library is turning inward, sharpening the focus on Australian materials. Thankfully, the Asia-Pacific will remain the priority in overseas collecting, but the scope of the reduction leaves only part of the previous Asia strategy intact. Countries that have been a major focus for decades — notably Japan and Korea, and also all the countries of mainland Southeast Asia — have been dropped altogether from the list of priority countries for collecting. 

The catalyst for the New Zealand decision seems to have been the need to deal with a collection in a flood-prone storage facility which is too expensive to replace, while the NLA’s decision, according to Inside Story is forced on them by relentless funding cuts.

It’s always a matter of money…

Monday musings on Australian literature: New Territory 2019

New Territory LogoFor the third year I am a mentor for the ACT Writers’ Centre arts writing program, which was called in its first year, ACT Lit-bloggers of the Future program, but rebadged last year as New Territory or, Adventures in Arts Writing. It was broadened then to include theatre, when the Street Theatre joined the National Library of Australia and the Canberra Writers Festival as program partners.

I’ve greatly enjoyed my role, as I’ve met some wonderful people – Angharad and Emma in 2017, and Amy in 2018. This year, we increased the number of participants to three, but one has since withdrawn due to being offered work in Kyrgyzstan! Canberra, Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan, Canberra … What would you choose?

So, to recap the program before I introduce this year’s participants. Its overall aim, as the Writers Centre says, is to develop:

a deeper conversation about the arts: why we make art, how do we engage in art, and to what end? We aim to develop the arts writers, thinkers and provocateurs of the future.

This is done by providing for the selected emerging ACT-region writers to attend events at the National Library of Australia, the Street Theatre and the Canberra Writers Festival, and post their responses (which “document/explore/critique the experience”) on a blog. And this year, we have a dedicated New Territory Blog for the writers. It is still managed by the Writers Centre, but is separate from their own blogWe expect each blogger to write around 6 posts over the 6 or so months that the program runs. The Writers Centre plans to populate this blog with all the posts that have been written for the program since its inception.

The three writers were chosen in May, and the program is now well under way, so I’d like to introduce the two continuing writers to you:

  • Shelley Burr is working on a novel, and took part in the ACT Writers Centre’s well-regarded Hard Copy program last year (the same program, though a different year of course, that helped Michelle Scott Tucker with her biography of Elizabeth Macarthur, which I’ve reviewed.) She is particularly interested in what she calls “drought noir”, which term sounds perfect for some of the crime coming out of Australia at present. Shelley has had her writing place well in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages program. She hasn’t posted to the blog yet as she wants to focus on the Canberra Writers Festival, which takes place at the end of August.
  • Rosalind Moran already has quite a CV, having written for anthologies, websites, and journals including Meanjin, Overland, Feminartsy, Demos, and Writer’s Edit. She has also featured in several festivals – the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the National Young Writers’ Festival, the National Multicultural Festival, and Noted Festival. Oh, and she’s the co-founder of a new literary venture, Cicerone Journal. Rosalind has already written three posts on the blog: on the National Library’s Inked cartoon exhibition; on a puppet show titled BRUCE at the Street Theatre; and on a play at the Street Theatre, A Doll’s House, Part 2. Rosalind has her own website, here.

As in previous years, I plan to ask Shelley and Rosalind whether they’d like to write a guest post here during the program. Regardless, I will also report back later in the year, but meanwhile please do check out their posts on the blog (linked above).

Until then, thanks again to the ACT Writers Centre, the National Library of Australia, the Street Theatre and the Canberra Writers Festival for sponsoring this program – and a special thanks to author Nigel Featherstone for initiating and overseeing this program. I love being involved. I reckon I gain as much, if not more, from meeting and talking with other local arts writing enthusiasts, as they do from my involvement.

Previous posts on the program:

Lecture and Book Launch: Australia’s first naturalists

I don’t usually write up book launches, mostly because the speeches are brief, and I hope to eventually read and review the book itself. However, as the title of this post tells, the launch for Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell’s book, Australia’s first naturalists, was also billed as a lecture, hence this exception.

Australia’s first naturalists was published by NLA Publishing, and is subtitled Indigenous peoples’ contribution to early zoology. The event was MC’d by NLA curator Nat Williams, with the first speaker being Rebecca Bateman, who is the NLA’s first indigenous curator. She talked about the NLA’s collections relating to indigenous people, and how, in some cases, they contain information, including language, that can help people regain lost culture. Then it was over to the authors…

The authors

Penny Olsen, Honorary Professor in the the Australian National University’s Division of Ecology, Evolution and Genetics, has worked as a field biologist and ecological consultant, but now mostly writes books about Australian natural history. She started by saying that it feels like there’s been a sea change in awareness and appreciation of indigenous people’s part in Australia’s story (and I think she’s right.)

However, she said, while their roles as guides and trackers, as workers in the cattle industry, in mining, on stations, and in whaling, is well-known, less known is the significant role they played in the advancement of science – particularly in zoological science. She said that researching the contributions made by indigenous people was challenging, because sometimes their help would simply be referenced in a throwaway line. Other times, though, there would be more detailed accounts. Her reading of these relationships between indigenous people and scientists, was that indigenous people were willing, but also that the relationships ranged from exploitative to warm friendships.

Olsen then talked about some of the collecting partnerships she found – chronologically, starting with James Cook in 1770 – illustrating them with powerpoint slides. These partnerships involved activities such as indigenous people locating specimens, and sharing their knowledge about animal behaviour.  Sometimes the indigenous people were named, sometimes not. Sometimes scientists worked with individuals, sometimes with families or whole groups. It was fascinating, and whetted my appetite for the book!

She finished with a quote from geologist Cecil Thomas Madigan’s 1946 book, Crossing the dead heart, which included:

… but I knew the value of natives on trips such as these, real bush natives who know the habits of all bush creatures and catch them. They are of the greatest help to the biologist and botanist in collecting …

(She also made a disclaimer about the terminology – like “natives” – that is used in historical sources.)

Then it was co-author Lynette Russell’s turn.

Lynette Russell, Professor at Monash University’s Indigenous Studies Centre, among other roles, calls herself an anthropological historian who focuses on developing an anthropological approach to the story of the past. She welcomed us briefly in the language of her great-grandmother – and then commenced, not surprisingly, by saying that “stories are important to understanding the past”. She won’t get any disagreement from us on that, will she?

Anyhow, she then shared various stories, also using images to support her points. She explained, for example, how long-lived traditions in indigenous culture contain information about climate change, such as the rise of sea levels, and how rock art provides evidence of indigenous peoples’ understanding of anatomy. She talked about how millennia of fire-stick farming has resulted in many Australian plants being fire resistant. And she commented on the arrival of feral animals, and their impact on indigenous peoples’ ability to sustain their environment.

The book is organised chronologically into 5 chapters, with the first chapter titled “Pre-European: Australia’s first naturalists”, and the last, “Epilogue: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land and Sea Managers”. This last chapter, she said, discusses Indigenous Protected Areas, and indigenous ranger programs, which enable those who so desire to remain living on country and thus to maintain their traditional ecological knowledge and ensure its continuity. Traditional ecological knowledge is, she said, an “attribute of societies having continuous connection to their country”. Aboriginal peoples’ faunal knowledge is still extant; creating these new collaborations, replicates in some senses, those of the 19th century. Now, like then, indigenous people are generous with their time and knowledge.

She referred to Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu (my review), saying it has managed to make promulgate more widely information about indigenous land management practices that archaeologists have known for a long time.

Finally, she noted that this book is an act of reconciliation.

Q & A

There was an interesting Q&A, with topics being:

  • why indigenous people wear clothing in some pictures and not others: they were interested in clothing, and were often “paid” in clothing.
  • why this information about expeditions has escaped us for so long: Australian history has focussed on squatters, and tragedies (like the Burke & Wills Expedition), but their research has uncovered a different story about real relationships and friendships.
  • whether the names of any indigenous people were used in scientific names for creatures they helped scientists “discover” (good question!): they couldn’t find any!
  • what was the quality of the expeditions in terms of their end-product: most were good for their time but tend to lack information we’d like today, such as animal behaviour, distribution, ecology. Their focus was – surely understandably? – more on identifying, categorising and naming.
  • what motivations did indigenous people have to help, besides being given items like sweets and clothes: friendship, it seems, and a genuine interest in these strange white men.

It’s encouraging to see yet another book furthering scholarship and understanding of indigenous peoples’ lives and culture, and of their very real role in forming modern Australia. A most enjoyable launch.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has already reviewed this book!

Lecture and Book Launch: Australia’s first naturalists
National Library of Australia
11 June 2019

Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 3)

And now my final event from the Sydney Writers Festival live-streamed (#SWFLiveAndLocal).program at th National Library of Australia.

“I do not want to see this in print”, Sunday 5 May, 4.30pm

Panel: Annabel Crabb (convenor), with Samantha Maiden, Sharri Markson, Niki Savva

Niki Savva, The road to ruinAustralian journalist Annabel Crabb, as cheeky as ever, introduced the session as being one of the last events in this Festival of lying! (You may remember that the festival theme is “Lie to me”) However, she then went on to say that the focus of the session would be modern political reporting. Her panelists were all established Australian journalists (click on their names to see their Wikipedia entries.)

Crabb got the conversation going by asking whether political lying is different now to what it was in the past? That set them off. It was a lively, respectful discussion involving four women who are clearly passionate about political journalism.

One of the issues about “modern” lying concerned politicians saying things at one time that they revoke later. An example was Julia Gillard’s saying there’d be no carbon tax, and then introducing one. The journalists felt the best policy is always honesty: Gillard should simply have said that yes, she had made that statement, but that circumstances had changed and now there would be a tax. A common circumstance where this sort of lying happens are leadership challenges. The problem is that the politician may be planning to challenge, but is not ready at the time the journalist asks, so they feel forced to lie.

But, Savva asked, isn’t it better to just tell the truth, rather than undermine the political process by lying. Crabb noted that we all now know the language of leadership challenges and so no-one believes their denials.

More egregious lies, according to Crabb, are those where a journalist is given information “in confidence” or “off the record” that the politician denies when asked publicly. For example, Peter Costello had told a journalist he would challenge for leadership one day, but when asked publicly he said he would never challenge. The challenge for journalists in all this is protecting their sources, because trust goes both ways. Samantha stated that “you have to hold your nerve” which I felt was code, in part, for “bide your time”! It’s all a game in the end – and not a game I would ever want to play. However, we need journalists to suss out the truth for us.

Of course, journalists aren’t squeaky clean. There are co-dependent and lazy journalists, they said, but there is also the problem of not enough time, the sped-up news cycle, and that there are fewer journalists.

Crabb moved on to the public’s disaffection with politicians and political journalists, as exemplified by the recent social media attack on journalist Patricia Karvelas over a text from politician Barnaby Joyce. A panelist added the propensity of viewers of the ABC’s The Insiders being quick to criticise. Why does the public not recognise that journalists have contact/relationships with politicians in order to obtain information, Crabb wondered? Maiden put a positive spin on these attacks saying that “in the age of social media you have the joy and pain of knowing what people think about you”! You just need to ignore people being mean to you on Twitter. (Easier said than done sometimes, I suspect.)

Markson discussed her story on Barnabay Joyce and his affair. She explained how long her investigation took –  it started long before the pregancy. Journalists must be sure the story can stand up, or they lose their job. Verifying all the information wasn’t easy, she said. She also explained that she needed to clear working on the story with her editor, for both approval and support. After the story came out, and was clearly the “truth”, Joyce apparently considered a defamation case! Later in the conversation, she reiterated the battle involved in getting any story into the paper. So many hoops! (And then, when you finally get there, “you get smashed in Twitter”.)

This sort of detail about the process was illuminating for outsiders, but Savva asked the important question: was the story politically relevant? I presumed she didn’t think it was, and nor, they said, did journalist Peter Hartcher, but Markson argued that it was because it demonstrated hypocrisy, given Joyce’s position on family values, his arguments against the cervical cancer vaccine for fear it encourages promiscuity among women, etc.

The panellists shared many other recent examples of how journalists obtain stories, of their relationships with their sources, and of how they manage confidentiality (which can include obfuscating the “real” source by using generic terms like “senior MP” etc). Their passion for their work was palpable, but so was their sensitivity to the humans involved, to the implications of different behaviours, and their awareness that it’s not sometimes only about “the truth” but how something looks. (Tony Abbott and Peter Credlin’s relationship being a recent example.) Relationships can be misconstrued. There was a lot of detail of interest to Aussies who know these cases, but the bottom line was the balancing act involved. It was a Niki Savva contact who gave the title for the session: “but I don’t know if I want to see this in print”!

We ended with a Q&A, which mostly revealed more of the same. One however asked where were the reports on policies, particularly policy comparisons. Crabb said “on the ABC website”! Maiden said that she liked writing about policy, and did indeed write such articles, but that, realistically, this writing doesn’t get as many clicks!

Another asked about the Fourth Estate’s role in holding the government to account. Why do journalists, then, call Manus Island an “offshore processing centre” when detainee, and award-winning author, Behrouz Boochani, says that he’s never been processed, that it’s a prison. The journalists replied that we could be Orwellian about language, but they do need to use the names used by the government. They gave examples though where journalists – such as Laurie Oakes – have pushed the government, forcing it to account.

Finally, a questioner asked about the role of the public service. Savva explained that public servants provide the facts, and suggest the questions that might be asked, but that the political staff dress up the information “in a more palatable fashion.” Hmm…

The session was, then, packed full of case studies familiar to the audience. The women were articulate, passionate and bold! Indeed, the clear message that came out of the session was that journalists must be bold, tough, and, as Maiden said early on, must be able to hold their nerve. It’s not a pretty job, but, done properly, it’s an important one. The more we readers understand the challenges and the pressures, the more we might support journalists – and be willing to pay for their journalism.

Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 2)

I returned to the National Library of Australia today for two more live-streamed events from the Sydney Writers Festival (#SWFLiveAndLocal). As I did last year, I’ll write each event up in separate posts, so here is the first of my Sunday events.

Andrew Sean Greer: Less (Conversation), Sunday 5 May, 3.00pm

Conversation: Andrew Sean Greer with David Marr (Convenor)

Andrew Sean Greer, Less, book coverWhat an absolute joy this session was. Australians will know David Marr as a politically engaged author and commentator, not to mention Patrick White’s biographer, and most readers will know Andrew Sean Greer as the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning novel Less (which also won, last week, the International Book of the Year category in the ABIA Awards.) These two men, one in his early seventies and the other nearing fifty, entertained us with a conversation that was light-hearted and yet managed to convey substance too. What made it particularly enjoyable was that Marr and Greer seemed well attuned to each other resulting in quite a bit of repartee, and no awkward spots.

So, the session felt very much like a conversation between friends rather than an interview, but we still got some nitty gritty, including:

  • the challenges of writing comedy, and how Less starts off quite flatly, which Marr felt was daring. Greer explained that he wanted to strip everything away form the protagonist Arthur Less at the start so he could then “reward him”. The narrator ridicules Arthur, but with warmth. Marr talked about some of his favourite bits, including that Arthur turns out to be a “miraculous kisser”. Are there any literary antecedents for this, he asked, to which Greer responded immediately, vampire novels! Haha!
  • the theme of the book being about joy and discovering joy, but also ageing. Greer said that he wanted it to be about age, but not be autumnal. He wanted it to be more about the idea that “given you are not getting any younger, you should enjoy it”. When Marr asked Greer about his own ageing, he commented on the things he can’t do any more – like drinking – but followed up by saying that John Irving was right, it’s important to have a “clear head in the morning”! Later in the conversation, Greer returned to the idea of age, saying it’s about the narrowing of pleasures, but that since writing is a pleasure, he was going ok.
  • the rules of comedy, being that you find the scariest thing you can, and it is this that releases the comedy. Readers need to be able to identify with the pain, but comedy only works, said Greer, if you know everything is going to be alright.
  • the writing process, including how he went about writing the foreign languages he uses in the book, and how he chose his names. Marr loved the names in the book, but advised that in future a good source for names is war memorials. However, it seemed that Greer had already discovered the value of cemeteries for this purpose!
  • winning the Pulitzer Prize, meant that he’d “won the time to write”, so he left his job. But he also needed some time to bask, he joked! Marr responded that Patrick White would ask “why aren’t you at your desk?” to which Greer replied that Peter Carey had already told him that! (Marr muttered that Carey has had his times of basking!)
  • Joe Keenan, Blue heaven, book coverbeing a gay writer, and finding gay stories. The first gay writer Greer remembers admiring is Edmund White, albeit some of his writing was too sophisticated for him at the time. He also named Blue heaven by Joe Keenan who went on to write the Frasier TV series. He had even turned Blue heaven into a musical, and had invited Keenan to it, but Keenan didn’t like it! Greer also named Armistead Maupin as an influence on his writing.
  • whether only minorities can write about minorities, to which Greer had an open mind, saying that he remembered a time when there were no gay characters in the books he read. Silence or invisibility is death, he said. He is therefore happy for non-gay people to write gay characters, but they must think about them as humans, not present stereotypes. He wouldn’t want “straight” books not to have gay characters. I like this response – that invisibility is a worse problem, and that the important thing is for writers to think about their characters as “humans” not types – but recognise different minorities, different writers may feel differently.

There was a Q&A, which included:

  • Did he feel a pressure to represent gay people? Greer said that there is always a tension for writers between representing “your people” (whoever they are) and telling the truth, the tension between the “legend” and the “reality”.
  • He’d spoken elsewhere about reading books relating to his writing, so what books had he read while writing Less? Nabokov’s Pnin, Updike’s Bech stories, Muriel Spark, and Proust (who finds that desired balance between sentimentality and cynical detail.)
  • Had he been to all the places he writes about in the book? Yes. He had two rules writing this book: everything had to come from his notebooks where he’d written his experiences, as he didn’t want to write fantasy about another country; and the joke always had to be on Arthur because he’s the outsider in the various countries.

All this sound may sound dry, but the repartee really was something. It was a joy seeing Marr in this different, lighter, but as astute as ever, mode. All in all, thoroughly entertaining, and informative.

Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 1)

Pic of farm at Williamsdale

A day in the country at Williamsdale

As in 2018, selected Sydney Writers Festival events were live-streamed this year to 35 sites, including Canberra’s National Library of Australia (#SWFLiveAndLocal). I had planned to attend most of Saturday’s events, but then our annual day-trip to our friends’ place in the country came up, and that’s unmissable, so I only attended the last event of the day.

This year’s theme is Lie to Me, which means participants “will discuss the white lies and deceptions that are necessary for survival, as well as malicious lies that are spun with darker intent. They’ll explore the ways that writing can be used to deceive others in an increasingly post-truth world, and look at the lies that we tell ourselves, each other, and those we collectively tell as a country.” A perfect theme, don’t you think?

Boys to Men: The masculinity crisis, Saturday 4 May, 4.30pm

Panel: Clementine Ford, Adam Liaw, Janice Petersen (Convenor)

Book cover of Clementine Ford's Boys will be boysClementine Ford is the feminist author of Fight like a girl, and, more recently, Boys will be boys. An obvious choice, then, for the panel.

Adam Liaw is a lawyer who came to fame as a winner of Australia’s Masterchef. The festival program describes him this way: “As the author of six cookbooks and host of the award-winning SBS television series Destination Flavour, his approachable and family-friendly recipes are influenced by his global travels, but remain focussed on the casual simplicity of contemporary Australian home cooking. In 2016 the Japanese government appointed Adam as an official Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine.” Not such an obvious choice, eh? However, he has been appearing recently on some ABC-TV current affairs programs and has impressed us with his sensible, thoughtful, comments. He didn’t disappoint in this panel.

Janice Petersen, the convenor, is an SBS journalist and news presenter.

Firstly, although the panelists didn’t say this specifically, the topic was a natural for the Lie-to-me theme, since so much of gender is constructed on lies – on assumptions, beliefs and attitudes about what makes a man or a woman. This session focused on these, and how they impact, particularly, contemporary ideas about masculinity. Convenor Petersen did an excellent job, asking such questions as:

  • Why is masculinity in crisis?
  • Why does the mentioning word “masculinity” seem “to set off a bomb”, engendering negative responses?
  • What does it mean to have a son (as both panelists do) and do the panellists fear the influence of peers?
  • Are men and women different?

Clementine Ford spoke, naturally, from a feminist perspective. She argued that masculinity is in crisis, defining toxic masculinity as men being unable to have platonic relationships with each other, being unable to express their feelings. She argued that boys bond over negative attitudes to women because they can’t relate to each over other things. Men, she said, are hostile to discussions about feminism because they don’t see that it works for all, that its aims are to free all people to be themselves. The problem is that although many men hate much about their lives, they don’t want to “see what patriarchy inflicts on them” (at work, say) because they fear losing the benefits of being “men” (such as being the boss at home!)

However, Ford also said that she doesn’t see “masculinity” as negative. She is invested in “healthy masculinity” and has faith in men, but sees the issue being masculinity and power propping each other up.

Adam Liaw spoke, he said, from a non-scholarly perspective, but I must say that I really liked the way he thought. He talked about how every society defines its own understanding of masculinity, and that in our society today, we don’t have a clear idea of what that is. He sees this lack of clarity as a structural problem, one that creates a high level of insecurity in many men. He talked about various male “role models”, like James Bond and Batman. James Bond doesn’t have close friends which is something men can relate to, while Batman is rife with problems, which men can also relate to. Modern men, on the other hand, can’t relate to Superman as they once did. In other words, men are now defined more by their insecurities than by positive ideas or values.

Liaw returned repeatedly to this insecurity issue, and it made sense. When Petersen asked whether men and women are different, Ford was initially a little flummoxed and referred to Liaw, who without hesitation said yes we are different. We are, for a start, physically different, but, he said, we should not weaponise gender. Our biological differences don’t, for example, translate into meaning that men are better CEOs than women. Liaw’s most important point was, for me, that the issue is not things like men spending more time with children – which men have always liked to do – it’s about overcoming their insecurity, meaning, for example, being comfortable with their partners earning more money than they.

I found the conversation about raising children interesting. Ford expressed a more ideological approach, one I related to because of my own child-rearing days. Indeed, it was hard not to feel a bit of “been there, done that”, since we second-wave feminists had tried exactly what she was talking about. In fact, when I look around at our sons, I think we did a pretty good job! They aren’t the men evincing the toxic masculinity that was being discussed, which begs the question in my mind about whether a few enlightened parents raising their children to be free (free to be … you and me, and all that) will effect the change we need.

Both Ford and Liaw, albeit they expressed it slightly differently, eschewed imposing gender expectations on their children – on what they wear, play with, etc. Liaw spoke of wanting his son to be a “good person”, a “good man”. He is not in favour of forcing “reverse” gender activities on children, but on encouraging all children to be able to do all things. (This was in response to a clip Petersen showed from an SBS Dateline film of an Icelandic school.)

Ford spoke of structural oppression (much as Liaw had earlier referred to structural problems). This results in such things as her being trolled if she speaks of boys doing anything “feminine”, like pushing a doll in a pram. It’s seen as her forcing a boy to be a girl, rather than as letting him explore life. We need to “dismantle gender” but Australians, she feels, can’t get their heads away from narrow definitions of what “men” and “women” are. Worse, they don’t actively condemn men for treating women badly. Much trolling comes from packs of teenage boys. (This reminded me of a recent interview I heard with a female Uber driver who said that one drunk young man was manageable, but in a pack they can become abusive to women, showing off in front of their mates.) Toxic masculinity!

If Liaw’s most important point, for me, was about overcoming male insecurity, Ford’s concerned the malleability of humans. If we have learnt, she said, not to smoke, and not to drink and drive, we can also learn not to be racist or sexist, but these latter mean giving up power – and we resist that.

The session ended with a brief Q&A, from which I’ll just share the last question. It concerned overcoming the sense of entitlement (which I understood as encompassing more than male entitlement.) Liaw said it starts with understanding our own weaknesses and biases, while Ford said it’s about listening to others, and checking our responses to what they say. Which is to say, I suppose, that we need to look past the lies we so easily tell ourselves in order to forge more truthful relationships with each other!

PostscriptJonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly!) has reported on some Friday sessions, which you may like to check out.