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.

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.

Sydney Writers Festival 2018, Live streaming (Session 3)

My final live-streamed session of the Festival was even more interesting than I expected. My friend and I chose it partly because it fit our respective busy time-tables, but partly also because, as people interested in language and literature, we are interested in translation.

Emily Wilson: Translating the Odyssey, Sunday May 6, 4.30pm

Sydney Writers Festival Emily Wilson bannerThis event was an interview format, with the interviewer being journalist Jennifer Byrne who, for over ten years, hosted the First Tuesday Book Club (aka The Book Club).

Byrne is a cheery, engaging interviewer. However, on this occasion it felt, at times, that her interview agenda was at cross-purposes with what was important to Wilson. This made for a fascinating discussion, with ideas about translation, feminism, and The odyssey itself, jostling between them.

Now, clearly I’m behind in my literary gossip, because apparently Emily Wilson’s translation of The odyssey has made quite a splash, particularly because, of the over 60 translations into English done to date, it’s the first by a woman. It was this point – particularly because of the Festival’s “power” theme – that Byrne wanted to concentrate on, but Wilson, Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, had other ideas.

Byrne briefly introduced Wilson, noting that the book has had excellent reviews for being a “cultural landmark” and for being lean, clean and fast. To prove this point, she asked Wilson to read the opening lines.

Why another translation?

Given the plethora of English translations of The odyssey, Byrne asked why she did it?

Firstly, Wilson replied, the publisher Norton had asked her. However, her real, and more academic, reasons were:

  • the original has music and rhythm to it. This does not come across in most translations, which are tend to be free verse, so she chose a regular metre for hers.
  • most translations are too long and slow, so she made hers tighter, pacier (and thus, also, more teachable, which is already appealing to academics)
  • most translations simplify the story to only Odysseus’ perspective but there are more in the original, which she worked to bring out.

At this point, Byrne tried to focus Wilson on the gender issue and what she brought to the text in terms of female perspective, but Wilson didn’t really want to be pinned down. She was surprised, she said, by the focus on her being the first woman translator, and said she was more interested in the poetics and narrative perspectives than in a feminist agenda.

She also said that a women’s voice doesn’t necessarily mean a feminist perspective. She argued, logically, that given she’s the only woman English-language translator to date, it’s impossible to assess what a “female” perspective is. Conversely, it is possible to ascertain a male perspective because there have been so many male translators and similarities in their approach can be identified. For example, male translators have, in general, translated a certain non-gendered Greek word into a gendered English word, “man”, while she used non-gendered words, like “human” or “person”.

However, she admitted her gender may have influenced her bringing out other perspectives, such as those of slaves (and other under-class people) versus the more common focus on gods and goddesses. Moreover, she said, most translations downplay abuse of power in the work because Odysseus is a “good guy.” Wilson said she wanted to offer a less heroic image of him, which led to some discussion of double standards. Odysseus had affairs, but Penelope would bring down the house of Odysseus, if she did. His power, in fact, rests on her fidelity.

Wilson then explained that the Greek word “hero” simply means “warrior”, and that in the original, the words frequently used for Odysseus stem from “poly” (“many”) suggesting many layers to his character. Wilson wants readers to question whether there’s something wrong with Odysseus. He sacks a holy city for example. We were given an example of two translations:

He could not save his men from disaster (Robert Hiller, I think)

He failed to keep his men safe (Wilson)

Wilson’s translation more actively suggests failure on Odysseus’ part.

Why this story?

Wilson described her early introduction to it via a play when she was 8, and her later realisation that she’d loved the story because it’s about being lost, about confusion re where home is, and about the meaning of belonging, all of which were issues for her then.

She also said that she loved Greek and Latin languages.

Towards the end of the hour – but I’m time-shifting it to here – Byrne asked about the story’s relevance to now. Wilson believes it’s highly relevant: it’s about strangers, about dealing with people not like you, about whether foreigners are dangerous. She used the word “migrant” at least once in her work.

The challenges of translation and more on the feminist perspective …

Byrne noted that Wilson’s translation had come in at exactly the same number of lines as the original, and Wilson agreed that she’d tightened it up, had made it pacy. The challenge was to identify the essential thing being said.

Regarding translation being the same as the original, which seemed to be what Byrne expected, Wilson said that “if you want the real Homer you need to learn Greek.” Fair point. And how I wish I could avoid the mediation of a translator and read foreign texts myself, but it’s not a feasible things I realise. Anyhow, Wilson said, logically, that it’s not worth doing a translation if it’s the same as the others.

The conversation then turned again to female perspectives, particularly regarding the power theme. Wilson discussed how male translators describe the women, characterising, for example, Helen of Troy as “bitch” and “shameless whore”, Calypso as a “nymphomaniac”, how they avoid using the word “slave” for people who clearly were enslaved. She gave examples of Greek words and her translation of them.

Continuing this theme, she discussed the women who were killed by Odysseus at the end. They were clearly raped by the suitors, but male translators have tended to describe them as “sluts” and “whores”. Wilson commented that the hanging of these women has been seen as “justice”. Given that The odyssey is seen as the starting point of western civilisation, this viewpoint makes this act the foundational moment of misogyny. Male translators do not present these women, she said, as having no choice.

Nonetheless, Wilson said, she couldn’t root out the misogyny in the text, but she could be clear about it.

By this point, Byrne seemed to be cottoning on. She had thought translation should be a close analogy, but “you’re bringing in a viewpoint”, she said. Wilson responded that male translators bring a viewpoint with their “sluts” translation – and then reiterated that …

Translators need to be aware that they are going to have to interpret, have a viewpoint, but they need to be conscious and try to have a better interpretation than previous ones. Theoretically, translation is impossible. It’s a case of how can I describe this word that has no direct meaning? Translators need to be aware she said of three questions: Who am I writing for; what century am I in; and who am I? 

There was some discussion about the institutional barriers to women translators, and then it was the closing Q&A, which was wide-ranging and, nicely, drew from live-streaming sites as well as the venue itself. I’m going to share just two questions. The first asked her about what Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (my review) offered. Wilson responded that Atwood does not make Penelope a hero, but a more complex character.

The other was a Year 11 teacher asking, on behalf of her students, whether the killing of suitors at the end is justified. Wilson said this is actually three questions.  Does Odysseus think it is justified: Yes. Does she, Wilson, think it is justified: No. But the harder question is, does the narrative think it is justified: she “thinks not”!

And so ended my 2018 SWF experience. I so appreciated being able to experience a tiny bit of it.

Sydney Writers Festival 2018, Live-streaming (Session 2)

Annabel Crabb, 2014 By Mosman Library [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I only managed one session a day at the SWF’s live-streaming program at the National Library of Australia, and on day 2, I picked a doozy! It was such fun, I forgot to take a pic!

Annabel Crabb’s BooKwiz, Saturday 5 May, 4.30pm

Panel: Leigh Sales, Richard Fidler, Julia Zemiro, Tim MinchinAnnabel Crabb (MC)

Of the three sessions I attended, this was the best attended (at my venue), and probably the least “worthy” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. It was engaging, witty, and even informative every now and then – how could it not be with this panel! The topic was all things bookish, all those things readers like to ask each other, such as:

Which section do you gravitate to in a bookshop?

What would you answer? Our panel said:

  • Zemiro: Self-help, none of that Scandi-noir for her, she said. (She may or may not have been serious about this!)
  • Minchin: Self-help and Diet, because he likes to see what scam-artists are selling this time.
  • Crabb: The Sale Bin because she has a special talent for finding gold in sales bins!
  • Sales: New Release Fiction. She thinks about death, and the decreasing time left, so has decided to let go of all those past books she hasn’t read, and try to keep up with the new stuff! (Love it. I once calculated how many books I was likely to read in the rest of my life – and it was very depressing, even though I gave myself a reasonably long life!)

Does there come a point where you decide there are some authors/books you’ll just never read? Are you guilty about them?

(Yes, I would have said if she’d asked me! In fact, coincidentally, a few hours before the session, I “decluttered” some unread books to donate to Lifeline. They included William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom.)

  • Fidler has tried many times to read Conrad’s Heart of darkness, but just can’t get into his style. This and other worthy books, such as Herodotus, glare at him he said from his bookshelves.
  • Minchin says he aims to read 50:50 Fiction-Nonfiction, but he’s learnt that he just needs to read the first third of nonfiction to get the thesis because the “rest is just firming up the argument”. (I’m thinking of following this theory in future!) His guilty book is Hawking’s A brief history of time. He’d like a briefer history of time! Also, he’s managed 70 years of 100 years of solitude two or three times!
  • Zemiro thinks she should read the Bible. She can’t read Lolita or Elena Ferrante’s novels. She, in fact, had brought these books with her, and set up her own street library on the stage.
  • Crabb said she didn’t love Lincoln in the Bardo (which led to a brief discussion about reading prize-winners.)

Do you have favourite books that are guilty pleasures, that you feel secretly ashamed about?

From the guilt of what they haven’t read, we moved to guilt about what they do read!

  • Sales: spy thrillers, because she wants to be a spy and/or write a spy thriller!
  • Minchin: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, which are formulaic though every now and then you think “wow, this is proper”. He commented that he reads more non-fiction as gets older “because you panic you don’t know enough.” (Hmmm … I commented to my friend that, then again, the older you get maybe the less you need to know!)
  • Fidler: reads way more nonfiction, but the most memorable books he’s read are the novels. Oh, and he’s never read a good active politician’s memoir. (Crabb rejoined that the Alan Clark diaries are excellent).
  • Zemiro: any book about wanting to live in France because they are fake. (The only good one is Sarah Turnbull’s because it’s honest). Fidler rejoined here that he avoids these books too, but out of envy because he’s always wanted to live there.
  • Fidler: superhero comics.

How do you treat and shelve books?

At this point, Crabb said she has some ethical questions too. Good, I thought – and then had to laugh at myself because the question was “is it ever 0k to fold down the corner of a page”. Fidler, a self-confessed book-fetishist, said no, while Michin said yes, because used-looking books are the best. He proceeded to start Fidler’s therapy there and then by forcing him to fold a page corner in one of Zemiro’s street library books!

Sales admitted to not being sentimental about books, either.

As for shelving, Fidler carefully classifies his – the Penguin classics he said look particularly nice – while Crabb shelved hers in the order that she read and acquired them (until a friend kindly tidied up her books for her. She said that where she is when she reads a book affects her reading/appreciation of a book.)

What (if anything) do you reread?

You all know my answer to this question, but what did the panel say:

  • Zemiro: The handmaid’s tale. Atwood is a genius, particularly because of the final chapter which explores how we report on history.
  • Fidler: Wuthering Heights, because it is such a “perfectly strange masterpiece” about twisted humanity; and Anna Karenina, because he reads it differently every time he comes to it again.  (The mark of a great book I think is one that engenders different readings depending on our stage in/experience of life.) Minchin said that Anna Karenina is on his guilty unread list. Fidler commented that Tolstoy had planned to write about an immoral woman, but ended up writing something sympathetic.
  • Minchin finds it hard to reread books because of all those he hasn’t read. He has, though, read Vonnegut’s Cat’s cradle and Lee’s To kill a mockingbird more than once. However, he returned to his anxiety about increasing his knowledge and that his most recent favourite book is Sapiens.
  • Sales reminded me of Daughter Gums when she said she was a bigger re-reader when she was a child. Favourites were Anne of Geen Gables (which caused her to make a pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island) and Enid Blyton. This engendered a big discussion about Enid Blyton. Minchin talked about reading The Famous Five to his children, and about all the “teachable moments” in it.

Are there any adaptations you love?

  • Sales: a television adaptation of, yes, Anne of Green Gables, the one with Megan Follows, and Minchin’s adaptation of Dahl’s Matilda
  • Zemiro: the play adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet
  • Fidler: the BBC TV series of Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy, starring Alec Guinness

I know this hasn’t captured the fun, quick-witted, good-natured repartee of the session, but hopefully you’ve got some sense of it? It was all a bit of light-hearted fun from serious booklovers. And we can do with a bit of that every now and then.

I’d love you to answer some of these questions in the comments – if you’d like to!

Sydney Writers Festival 2018, Live-streaming (Session 1)

May is such a busy month for birthdays and anniversaries in the Gums world that I hardly ever get to the Sydney Writers Festival, even though it is not much more than 3 hours drive away. I was consequently thrilled to discover that this year the National Library of Australia, Canberra, would be one of its live-streaming sites (#AWFLiveAndLocal) – and I was determined to support it (as well as attend because I wanted to). Overall, some 15 sessions were streamed over three days to around 35 sites.

This year’s theme is “The year of power”, one which is close to the revived Canberra Writers Festival theme of the last two years, “Politics, Power, Passion”.

Conflicting Narratives, Friday 4 May, 3pm

Panel: Ben Taub, Alexis Okewo, Alec Luhn, Ben Doherty (MC)

Sydney Writers Festival 2018This session was billed as being about “the role of storytellers in a time of ongoing conflict, terrorism and refugee crises.” The panelists, for those of you who don’t know them, were New Yorker writer, Alexis Okewo, who has written about extremism in Africa in her book A moonless, starless sky; the Moscow-based reporter for The Telegraph, Alec Luhn; and another New Yorker writer, Ben Laub, who writes about Syria and the jihadi movement in Europe. The moderator, Ben Doherty, writes for The Guardian.

The discussion started with Ben asking each panelist about his or her recent work. Okewo spoke about the moral complexities faced by people in extreme societies, arguing that the decisions they have to make aren’t simple. Individuals often aren’t all-victim or all-perpetrator and can be forced to commit violence. She talked about the aftermath, about how you live after terrible things (which made me think of Aminatta Forna’s The hired man, my review).

Taub talked about Syria, and how the Rome Statute is clear about what you can and can’t do in conflict. The problem is, however, that Syria isn’t a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that while there is “no ambiguity in international law”, Russia “protects Syria” at the UN Security Council. He noted that although there are currently geopolitical obstacles to pursuing accountability, this doesn’t mean you can’t collect evidence for later.

Luhn clearly confronts similar problems, asking how do you resolve problems when countries don’t agree on fundamentals. It’s more than simply “trying to beat the Russians at their disinformation game.”

Discussion then moved on to processes, such how journalists do their research in such tricky regions. They all agreed that journalists’ main job is to find reliable/trustworthy sources, and that there is a lot of newsworthy material out there “if you know the right people.” Okewo spoke of the difficulty of getting into the remote regions, for example, where Boko Haram is operating. Obtaining good information is particularly difficult in places where “the government is broken” and “resistant to being transparent.” The narrative regarding Boko Haram, for example, tends to be that it didn’t happen, but is a political plot.

Laub talked about the need to use trusted sources, some of which can come via NGOs. However, he did comment that the narrative you get can be “true but not the whole story”.

Related to this, and scattered throughout the conversation, were discussions about what readers can trust. Luhn, in particular, emphasised the importance of teaching media literacy. (My friend and I felt that this is something that’s surely always been taught. Of course, the environment in which we apply assessment techniques keeps changing, but the principles remain the same.) Responding to a question during the Q&A about what readers can trust, Luhn (I think) said that the best thing is to read widely because each media form/outlet has pluses and minuses. It comes back to media literacy, and understanding different outlets.

Another questioner from the Q&A wondered whether it would be possible to have a rating system for journalists, like we have for, say, Uber drivers. MC Doherty was not convinced about this. He wondered who would make the assessment, and worried that ratings could affect freedom of speech. Luhn pondered an organisation like UK’s OFSTED. He also said, though, that we need to trust the professional standards of the traditional newsroom and non-profit journalism centres.

Luhn, I think, quoted Churchill’s “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

From here, the discussion moved on to journalists’ safety, an issue of critical importance if we are going to get reporting from the ground. Alexis, the only woman on the panel, had quite a different spin on this: women journalists, she said, can be threatened by their own sources. They must trust that the people they are reporting with won’t hurt them. She also talked about dealing with vigilantes, about writing on people who are doing admirable but also disturbing things! You can’t fully trust them.

Luhn commented that it’s important not to work alone but journalists are increasingly are doing just this. He mentioned the Rory Peck Trust and the “hostile environment” training they offer freelance journalists. (The things you learn!)

Laub, I think, talked about relying on locals – drivers etc. What happens after you leave can be problematic, he said, because these people can face retribution for working with foreign media. Journalists need to continue the relationship after they leave. On the other hand, people, such as your fixers, can turn on you.

The session ended with quite an engaged Q&A, some of which I’ve included above. It ranged from questions about journalism itself – including one asking for advice for young writers – to questions about the regions the journalists are working in and the causes of the problems those regions are facing. The panel talked about Russia’s troll factory, and the future of Syria for example, but I’m going to close here!

It was inspiring to hear this bunch of engaged – and brave – young journalists talk about their work and their profession.

PS: I apologise if I’ve wrongly ascribed the speaker. I mostly captured the speaker’s name, but I slipped up a couple of times.

Monday musings on Australian literature: If I were going to the Sydney Writers Festival

I’m afraid I don’t have a real Monday musings today. I’m in the process of packing up to leave Toronto later today, so thought I’d just share with you the program from this year’s Sydney Writers Festival. Once again, I don’t expect that I’ll manage to attend. Its timing is always slap-bang in the middle of family celebration time. You know, birthdays, anniversaries and so on.

I was interested to note, in Festival Director Jemma Birrell’s welcome in the program, that she focuses on international guests, such as Vince Gilligan who wrote the television series Breaking bad and the wonderful African-American writer, Alice Walker. That’s great, and I’d particularly love to see Walker. Perhaps it’s polite to mention the guests first, but you have to read quite a way in to discover any of the headline Australian authors who will be appearing. Cultural cringe? Or, just good marketing? Or, good marketing based on our cultural cringe? Or, am I being over-sensitive?

Anyhow, if I were going to the festival, I’d be particularly keen to see the Aussie authors I’ve reviewed here, including:

  • Michelle de Kretser
  • Richard Flanagan
  • Chris Flynn
  • Anita Heiss
  • Hannah Kent
  • Kirsten Krauth
  • Melissa Lucashenko
  • Alexis Wright

… not to mention others I’ve read before or plan to read. And, yes, of course I’d go see some international writers too. After all, they would have come a long way to be here, and the Festival has lured some great people to our shores.

I hope that John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante and Jonathan of Me Fail, I Fly will blog about the Festival as they have in the past. I’ve always enjoyed their takes.

Apologies for today’s quick post, but a travelling litblogger’s life is not an easy one.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Notes on the Sydney Writers’ Festival from a non-attendee

One day I swear I will get to the Sydney Writers’ Festival – properly, I mean. I have been to one session once, but that barely counts. Late May, though, tends to be one of my busiest times of the year, so the years pass and I don’t get to the Festival. I do, though, try to follow it a bit, and so today I thought I’d pass on a few, very idiosyncratic things, that I’ve picked up around the traps.

Discovering new writers

Festivals are great for discovering new writers. Although I watched Q&A last week and enjoyed the panel discussion with several writers from the Festival, my festival experience really started on Thursday with Michael Cathcart’s live interview with South African writer Lauren Beukes (broadcast on Books and Arts Daily on Radio National). Not being a big reader of psychological thrillers, I hadn’t heard of her before and wasn’t really sure I’d be interested in the interview but I would have been sorry to have missed this. Cathcart asked some pointed questions, including the implications of writing in detail about violent acts against women. Beukes, though, was up to the challenge. She spoke of how the real victims of violent crimes tend to be just names, that we don’t hear their stories, that we are never encouraged to think about the sort of deaths they faced – the terror, the pain, they go through before they die. She wrote her latest novel The shining girls from the girls’ points of view because she wanted us to know them, to empathise with them, though she recognised that titillation is also always there in the genre. She also set this novel in Chicago, not South Africa where rape and violence against women are rife, because she wanted to make it clear that there’s violence and corruption everywhere, not just South Africa.

Beukes believes that fiction has a social function. She writes, she said, because there are things we need to talk about. She doesn’t write to lecture, to specifically change people’s minds, but to encourage discussion.

For more interviews with writers from the Festival, do check out Radio National, particularly Books and Arts Daily’s page.

Dilettantish interests*

The secret River cover

Famous Chong cover (Courtesy: Text)

An important part of my Festival experience in recent years is reading John’s reports on his Musings of a Literary Dilettante blog. To date, John has written three posts on the Festival. The first was on a session called The Uncommon Reader, a panel discussion with critics James Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White, chaired by Tegan Bennett Daylight. In the session these critics named the books that they go to again and again. John’s post is interesting for this alone. Don’t all we readers love to know what books other readers love?

John’s second post was on book design. If you are interested in this topic, do read his post. He reports on what several designers had to say, including Text Publishing‘s award-winning designer, WH Chong. If you read Australian published books you are sure to have seen some Chong covers. John’s post resulted in a discussion (in the comments section) regarding design in the e-book world and the commercial function of design.

John’s third post is a moving tribute to Gillian Mears, author of Foal’s bread (my review), who, many of you will know, suffers from MS and needs to manage her energy carefully. It’s therefore a real treat to see her in public forums. John’s post provides a lovely insight into Mears now – the struggles she’s facing, the things that still interest and concern her, her love of nature and the outdoors, her change of mind concerning euthanasia, and, despite it all, her sense of humour.

Flying high … on poetry, stories and creativity*

This year, I also read another blogger’s reports, Jonathan of Me Fail? I Fly. Jonathan went to two days of the festival. In his first post Jonathan describes a few events, starting with the launch of four chapbooks of poetry by the poets, David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Adam Aitken. I loved Jonathan’s comment that “The mutual respect and affection among the five people [including poet Luke Davies who launched the books] on the dais was something wonderful: completely the opposite of the internecine strife for which poets are supposedly famous”. Jonathan then went to another poetry event, Harbour City Poets, at which five poets, Margaret Bradstock, John Carey, David Musgrave, Louise Wakeling and Les Wicks, read. His post concludes on two more events that day: Robert Green on Creativity and Stories Then and Now. This post gave me a good sense of how busy attending festivals can be – particularly since Jonathan had to rush home in the middle to feed his dog!

On his second day at the festival, Jonathan attended two events: Writers who blog with Mark Forsyth, Tara Moss, Lorraine Elliott and Angela Meyer, and Beyond Climate Denial on a Neoliberal Planet with Jeff Sparrow, Robert Manne and others. I was of course most interested in his report of the blogging session. Jonathan says he managed to ask the first question at the end of the session:

I asked about difficulties with comments. Mark had a ready, sensible answer: ‘Don’t start an argument on the Internet.’ Tara took the microphone: ‘My advice is, Start arguments on the Internet.’ They were both right, of course. I liked Tara’s final note: ‘When you do get into an argument, don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see quoted in the newspaper.’

Love it … don’t you?

The Guardian doesn’t like Sydney’s rain

Yesterday’s Guardian (UK) online has an article titled “Ten thoughts to take from the Sydney Writers’ Festival”. The article is more entertaining than usefully edifying, but I did love “Five: on euphemisms” regarding “the sorts of euphemisms reviewers use to disguise their negative thoughts on books”. James Ley said that “‘Interesting’ is a usefully neutral term”, and Susan Wyndham suggested that “ambitious” is helpful, saying that “you don’t necessarily have to say whether the work achieved those ambitions or not”! I have two somewhat contradictory questions to ask you regarding this. Should reviewers disguise their negative thoughts? And, what euphemisms do you use? I must say that I try very hard not to use “interesting”!

But, what really made me laugh was the Guardian‘s parenthetical eleventh thought that “Sydney doesn’t do rain well. Know that you will not be able to buy an umbrella at the festival, anywhere, ever.”  The Guardian people clearly aren’t used to a country where drought is common! It wasn’t until we travelled to Japan that we discovered there are countries which sell umbrellas everywhere.

* I hope I haven’t stolen John and Jonathan‘s thunder. Their posts say much more than I’ve noted here. Do go read them at the links I’ve provided.

POSTSCRIPT: Podcasts are available of some talks. Go to the Sydney Writers’ Festival site and click on SWF Blog tab to find them. Thanks to DKS of Pykk for reminding me.