500 people: Week Thirteen

Almost all the encounters I’m recording in this series are pretty much hit-and-run. That doesn’t mean they’re insignificant, of course – some of them are the first salvoes in what might go on to become something substantial. But who can tell? See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

  1. Sunday 9 May, as we came home from somewhere, a young man with a lot of tattoos and a part-shave haircut was opening the door of our small block of flats. We introduced ourselves, and he volunteered that he’s moving in with a downstairs neighbour, or perhaps just visiting.
  2. Wednesday evening, we had our annual fire services inspection. This meant a man with a ladder came into our flat and set off the smoke alarms. After the minimal transactional exchanges, I said, ‘It must be hard on your ears doing that a hundred times a day.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I think I’m deaf.’
  3. Thursday at GymKidz, in order to deal with a bit of social awkwardness among the young gymnasts, I asked a man for his daughter’s name. He wasn’t her usual escort, and she had been having a great time showing off her balancing skills to him. He had tried a couple of times to encourage her to pay attention to the instructor, but given up with cheerful resignation. We swapped the names of our young charges, but not our own names. It was his birthday, and he said that spending it at the gym was a lot better than being at work.
  4. Thursday lunchtime at Sydney Park slippery-dips, a young woman in a hijab was playing on the slides with her two young children while a man I took to be her husband sat under a tree and filmed some of their activities. As we were moving away, I said to him, ‘You’ve got the easy job.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I try not to fall asleep.’ (I should say there was no hint from anyone that he wasn’t just as active as she on other occasions.)
  5. Thursday a couple of minutes later, I spoke to the woman in the hijab who was then watching her daughter walk across a rickety bridge. When I admired the little girl’s fearlessness, the mother smiled broadly and amplified my comment. We chatted a little about our young people’s relative ages and sizes.
  6. Thursday, still in Sydney Park, Ruby and I were riding our scooters around one of the ponds when a big dog came bounding over to us. He was friendly enough, but given that he was more than twice Ruby’s size it’s not surprising she backed off in alarm. In the nick of time, the dog turned his attention to a middle-aged man in lycra who came jogging by at a pace. The man saved himself from falling, and turned indignantly to a woman sitting on a bench nearby nursing a dog lead: ‘You have to put him on the lead, that’s the second time he’s nearly tripped me up.’ She made a compliant gesture with the lead and he jogged off. A couple of seconds later the dog, still not on the lead, got underfoot with another jogger, who went on his way discombobulated but without saying anything. At that point I said, in what I hoped was a friendly tone, ‘You really should put him on the lead.’ ‘It’s an off-leash area,’ she said. ‘That’s why we come here.’ And she and the dog, still off-leash, went off, leaving me and Ruby to our negotiations with our scooters. We passed the cranky man a little later, but by then the offending dog and its owner had left his circuit.
  7. Thursday about a quarter of an hour later again, we were playing in a sandpit near a small boy and his mother. (Only the young ones were actually in the sandpit.) The mother spoke to her son in some English but mostly in another language. I broke the ice by asking what language she was speaking – Polish. Every time Ruby or our friend’s little boy went near the little Polish boy, he would clutch his big yellow tractor and say, ‘Mine!’ His mother was embarrassed, and said he had only become possessive like that since gong to childcare. We chatted about the possibility that he would keep both languages into adulthood. As we left, I refrained from saying Dasvidaniya in case a) it was Russian, and b) it meant something other than goodbye. It turns out it does mean goodbye but it is Russian. The Polish, I now know, is Do widzenia.
  8. Thursday evening, when I took our recycling out, there was a new man going through the bins for cans and bottles. We chatted briefly. I rescued my single Heaps Normal can from our small bin and handed it to him.
  9. Friday afternoon, I had the sauna mostly to myself. When a young man wearing a small cross on a gold chain came in I asked, conventionally, ‘How are you?’ and it turned into a conversation: he was having ‘a bit of a wild time’. We chatted for a bit about his not-very-wild dilemma (choosing between almost identical job offers) before he turned on his ear buds and I went back to my book. I couldn’t swear that this was the first conversation he and I have had. Certainly it felt as if some groundwork had been done on previous occasions. But I’m counting it as part of the challenge anyway.

Running total is now 123.

Proust Progress Report 21

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2273–2334

If I’d kept to my original plan of five pages a day, or even my second plan of three a day, I would have finished À la recherche du temps perdu by now. But I’ve slowed down and had a couple of gaps, so I’m only just entering the strait.

Not that the pace is picking up, but this last month’s reading has had a definite end-is-nigh feel. As I mentioned last month, a sequence of tiny experiences – standing on some uneven paving, hearing a spoon click against a plate, feeling a starched cloth against his lips – send the narrator into complex rumination about the nature of memory and art.

I won’t even try to summarise his reflections on art, but he has a lot to say about the importance of drawing on one’s own experience, and on paying attention to one’s own idiosyncratic (not his word) responses to the material experiences. The specifics of this, remembered, half-remembered, retained only in the unconscious, are what make a work of fiction live. ‘A book’, he says, ‘is a great cemetery where we can no longer read the eroded names on most of the tombs.’

Un livre est un grand cimetière où sur la plupart des tombes on ne peut plus lire les noms effacés

Having earlier given up on his pretensions to be a writer, he now decides to write a book based on his fresh understanding of a certain kind of memory as a way to transcend time. It’s fabulously self-referential, and it does make me want to start all over again to see how the book lives up to his stated intention.

All that thinking happens in the library of a house where he has turned up for a social event. The musical piece in the next room finishes and he goes into the salon, which is full of people he hasn’t seen for years while out of town at health establishments. And they’re all in fancy dress: the men have stuck white moustaches and beards on their faces and most people are wearing white wigs; one young man has put on ingenious fake wrinkles; a glamorous woman has made herself look overweight … which leads into reflections on old age. Just as he as decided to write a work about transcending time, he is confronted with evidence of time’s inexorable effects on human beings.

Individual humans age, some more devastatingly than others. Some people disappear from society altogether – they may have been the subject of scandal, or they may have been Germans. Some who were barely on the fringes of le monde now have great prestige. Others have swapped dubious reputations for status as men of high moral standing. The same title is now inhabited by a different person altogether. The young have no idea of the origins and history of the people who now shine on the social scene. And who but the old now remember that the still-beautiful Duchesse de Guermantes – Oriane – could once make or break a social occasion by deigning to appear for half an hour, or staying home.

Proust’s contrast between the virtues of solitude and the emptiness of social life is here the clearest it has ever been.

Through all this, there’s what amounts to a roll call of the novel’s characters alive and dead: the devious Morel now gives character references in court; Mme Verdurin is now the Princesse de Guermantes; Bloch is a prestigious man of letters; no one quite remembers how Gilberte became a Guermantes; Oriane is as commanding a presence as ever, but in a flash-forward of three years we see her in sad decline.

The lose ends are being tied up. I have 70pages to go and am missing Proust already.

The Book Group and Lamorna Ash’s Dark, Salt, Clear

Lamorna Ash, Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town (Bloomsbury 2020)

Before the Meeting: Lamorna Ash, a posh young Londoner fresh from university, decided to visit the part of Britain her mother came from, and from which she got her first name. She lived for two stints in the fishing village of Newlyn, just a couple of miles north of Lamorna in Cornwall, all her senses on the alert to see and understand everything about it, its people, and the life of fishermen (no fisherwomen during her time there) and their families. She went out on trawlers and smaller fishing boats. She drank with young and old. She formed solid friendships. She learned to gut fish and oscillated between horror and unholy glee as she graduated to stabbing rays in the heart – all part of a fisherman’s job. She talked and listened to everyone who would give her the time of day. And she wrote a lot of it down.

Meanwhile, she read or remembered writing by Elizabeth Bishop (whose poem ‘At the fishhouses‘ describes the sea as ‘Dark, salt, clear’), Barry Lopez, Walter Benjamin, Marianne Moore, Herman Melville, Antonia Barber (author of the picture book The Mousehole Cat, whose name doesn’t appear in the well-deserved praise of the book), W G Sebald, and other literary giants – and found ways they shed light on what she was discovering.

Then she made all that into this book. I enjoyed it. The author’s extreme youth gives rise to some embarrassing moments – as when she explains that ‘yarn’ is an old term meaning ‘story’, or when she reflects on how differently one sees the world when one is older, for values of older that are less than 25. The literary references sometimes feel forced. But by about page 100 these qualities had come to feel like part of the charm of the book. She’s capable of mocking herself, as when she writes of the walks she takes to stave off loneliness:

I often leave notes for myself on my phone when I go on these solitary walks, little inanities I wish I had someone else with me to whom I could say them out loud. This morning I wrote myself a particularly bold one. ‘For someone who gets lost a lot, coastal walks are a godsend. Only if the sound of the sea disappears from your left ear, can you have possibly gone wrong.’

Well yes, I guess it’s an inanity, but no more so than many of her observations, and this little moment of self-deprecation earned my forgiveness for a lot.

On the other hand, no forgiveness is required for her description of her week on board the trawler Filadelfia, which forms the book’s narrative backbone. Here’s her wonderful account of gutting a stingray:

I flip the ray over on to its back. Its stomach is a cadaverous grey and its almond-shaped mouth gapes open and shut like the puckering of a teenage kiss. The lips are so human I am momentarily dumbstruck. Open and shut, open and shut, its mouth sounds out a wordless plea.

I shake myself from my trance and hear Stevie prompting me to make an upside-down V incision along the translucent flap of skin that conceals its vital organs. Underneath is a mess of multi-coloured, pulsating guts – bright pinks, yellows and oranges. Over the roar of the engine, the men guide me to seize hold of a fistful of guts and pull them away from the ray’s body. But as I do so, the ray’s muscular wings start to close in upon my hand. In film footage of rays swimming, they use their wings, properly named pectoral fins, to propel themselves forward, gracefully rippling through the water like thin material animated by wind.

The ray’s last desperate bid to defend itself shocks me out of the automatic, mechanical state I usually induce in myself while gutting. In panic, I try to withdraw my arm, but its wings are still clutching me tightly. Beyond the boat, the waves have picked up and the boat slams down into the water. ‘You have to stab it!’ the men cry, goading me on as if we were outside the Swordy [hotel in Newlyn] preparing for a brawl. I let out a cry and stab the ray in the heart.

(page 256)

Her initial horror changes to murderous glee. The crew take to giving her all the rays to gut, and nickname her Raymundo.

After the meeting: For no particular reason we met in an Indian restaurant, the food was excellent, and the tragedy currently unfolding on the subcontinent had no obvious impact on the mood of our hosts, but there were nine of us at a long table. Conversation was animated and the book was discussed vigorously, but it was hard to manage a single shared for more than a very brief time. Next meeting’s host, who is responsible for summarising each meeting, put it well on WhatsApp: ‘

So yes, it was a excellent banquet last night where I got a week’s worth of meat, we agreed the book was somewhere between 2.5 & 4.5 stars, was either deeply revealing or a series of pleasant vignettes, … was in a place we should all visit and was generally an enjoyable read.

The 2.5 party hadn’t finished the book and didn’t intend to. He hadn’t read the fascinating historical account of how the town was saved from actual destruction in the 1930s at the hands of bureaucratic health and safety regulations, how a petition was taken to London on a small fishing vessel whose crew were astonished to see the banks of the Thames crowded with well wishers. He felt that the (to me fascinating) tidbits of Cornish language were mere padding.

The 4.5 party, just loved the book. He was completely charmed by the author’s voice. He described her quotes from other writers as smacking of undergraduate naivety and enthusiasm, but saw it as part of her youthful charm. (Given that our group is made up, all but one, of old farts gentlemen of a certain age, the youth of the writer was an issue for all of us one way or another.) He spoke eloquently of the way the narration would move from descriptions of social life in the pub to a deep dive into some aspect of the life of the town.

Whereas I, and others, found the description of life on fishing trips, of the way time at sea opens up spaces for communication and reflection, one man who has worked on boats said he found that fairly ordinary and wished there was a lot more about the women left ashore. Though the difficulties of the life were touched on, we were left feeling that a much darker story could have been told.

One chap had been to Cornwall a couple of years ago, and could show us photos of the town, including the very boat on which a pigeon dies in once of the book’s many atmospheric anecdotes. Actually he showed us these pics on WhatsApp before the meeting; he brought them to the dinner on a tablet, but couldn’t see a way to pass it around.

A couple of chaps drew comparisons between this book and James Rebanks’s A Shepherd’s Life. Each of them is an account of a community, a place, a working life that has endured for centuries and is under threat in the modern capitalist world. One is a passionate insider’s story, the other that of an interested visitor. It’s not that Lamorna Ash was trying to do do a James Rebanks: she’s completely upfront about her outsider, ‘posh’ status, her lack of skin in the game, but the book is still a serious piece of non-fiction, combining advocacy, memoir, linguistic sidelights, character studies, and adventure on the high seas.

Eileen Chong’s Thousand Crimson Blooms

Eileen Chong, A Thousand Crimson Blooms (UQP 2021)

Someone* said recently that the work of a poet isn’t just to write poetry. Poets also teach, mentor, encourage other poets, edit, proselytise for poetry … and the list went on. At the launch of A Thousand Crimson Blooms last month it was clear that by this criterion Eileen Chong is a real poet. I chatted with an emerging poet who has won prizes and attributes it to her inspiration and mentorship. Three other poets, all women of colour, read at the launch, and each testified to Eileen’s kindness, collegiality and solidarity.

The poems in A Thousand Crimson Blooms bear strong testimony to the poet as embedded in a community of poets and other artists. Many of the poems carry epigraphs, and we are given meticulous notes referring us to their sources – most of which are other poems, but at last one is a quote from a conversation with another poet. Sometimes the notes give us web addresses where we can see images of works that inspired a poem.

The sense of connectedness goes further. A central feature of this book, as in Eileen Chong’s previous collections, is the sense of living heritage, in birthplace (her own Singapore and her husband’s Scotland), in family (especially mother and grandmother), in food (maybe not as much as in earlier books, but this is still poetry that makes you hungry), in language (a number of poems make play with the components of Chinese ideograms), and always in poetic tradition.

This connectedness and rootedness provide a sustaining background in poetry that mostly deals with personal pain: bereavement, sexual abuse, illness and surgery, involuntary childlessness, the challenges of migration.

This is a terrific book. I learned a lot, I cried, I laughed, I was confronted. Only a couple of times I was mystified. More than a couple I was surprised by the twist of a last line. I was sent down interesting rabbit holes, and found myself reflecting deeply on my own life. Eileen Chong reads her own work beautifully: you can hear her, among other places, when/if the Sydney Writers’ Festival release a podcast of the session that included her – The Unacknowledged Legislators.

There are so many poems I’d like to spend time with here. There are powerful poems about loss that it would feel almost indecent to write about in this necessarily abbreviated way. There’s ‘Making Sense’, whose beginning sheds light on the poems in general:

I tell my students:
poetry is a way to make sense 
of what you fear. 

I sing to them of 
blackbirds. I read my poems 
aloud

There’s ‘Spring Festival’, which includes similarly suggestive lines:

My husband reminds me I write poems 
in threes: three lines, three pathways.
One for the old life, one for the new 

and one for the hours 
I do not notice as they pass.

There’s the ‘The Hymen Diaries’, each of whose four parts responds to a work of art (see mention of rabbit holes above). There’s ‘Child’, whose subtitle, After Andy Kissane’s ‘Joy and a Fibro Shack’, offers generous possibilities for a ‘compare and contrast’ kind of discussion – and many poems like that.

I’ve picked the title poem, ‘A Thousand Crimson Blooms’, mainly because before spending this time with it I didn’t understand how it hung together, starting with what feels like kindergarten innocence and ending with lacerating pain. You can see an earlier version of the poem with a slightly different title on the Peril magazine website (here). Here’s the poem as it appears in the book:

To start with the epigraph: I haven’t read the poem it comes from, ‘Don’t Trample This Flower’ by Bing Xin, but I have learned that Bing Xin was a prolific Chinese woman writer of the 20th century, many of whose works were written for young readers (Wikipedia entry here). These lines are a straightforward call to pay attention to something that is beautiful, easily overlooked and vulnerable.

There’s a smooth transition to the opening lines of the poem. Like the epigraph, they address children/little ones: having looked, now, let’s draw. We’re in a domestic or classroom setting; the voice is that of an adult – a teacher or parent? – addressing small children, possibly in a rural environment. The third line’s invocation of the daily cycle of time has a traditional Chinese feel. It reminds me of the ancient poem, ‘The Peasant’s Song’, that begins, ‘Sun up, work / sundown, rest.’ (That’s Ezra Pound’s translation, in his Canto XLIV.) It’s a benign opening, and my fridge door is covered with just the kind of artworks that the little ones might create. (I should mention to anyone who’s just visiting the blog that I have a three-year-old granddaughter who loves to put pencil/crayon/brush to paper.)

The next three lines could be summarised as detailing the process of drawing the dog and rooster, and the children’s focused, unblinking attention to the task. But the language alerts us that something may be slightly off. ‘Let’s shape their bodies with our hands’ may be just an odd way of describing the movement of hands holding pencils, but it feels a little more dominating. Maybe we’ve moved on from drawing to shaping in clay. The second line takes us a step further with the hint of violence in ‘gouge’. The adult speaker has taken us quite a way from paying close attention to something vulnerable to something on the edge of cruelty, even if it is only cruelty to the paper. In the third line, as I read it, the ‘little ones’ speak. The ‘lidless eyes’ suggests a kind of forced, sustained attention that is far from the relaxed, open regard of the epigraph. That there are a hundred eyes suggests that the context has moved from the intimate to the institutional. I have to admit that on first reading I resisted this darkening mood, but once seen I can’t unsee it, and it refers to a common phenomenon. The late artist Kim Gamble, for example, used to lament the way education put a damper on creativity: that children who draw and paint beautifully in Year 1 of school are generally creating cliché images with no spark of originality by the time they are in Year 3.

I’m generally sceptical of poets who talk about the crucial importance of punctuation and spacing, but I think it’s interesting that where the Peril version has a simple paragraph space before the next stanza, this version has an asterisk. The poet wants to be clear that there’s a substantial break. The stanzas change here too, from three-liners to four-liners, but it’s the asterisk that signals a gear-change to the reader.

Sure enough, there’s now a radical change in tone. The benign teacher/parent has been superseded by a harsh authoritarian voice. If the earlier stanzas were in a small, friendly kindergarten classroom, this is now a disciplined, bullying high-school class, perhaps a laboratory, where there is no room for emotion or vulnerability. Science experiments using test tubes and bunsen burners become metaphors, or maybe metonyms, for the harm done to people in such an impersonal environment. (I don’t think there’s an implication that science is necessarily that way, but the reference to glass and fire do conjure up a chemistry lab in my mind.)

The final stanza follows another leap – in time, in setting, in scale. The speakers are the bullied ones, and the 50 people of the second stanza have grown to be a thousand. Blue-and-white vases are traditional Chinese creations, vulnerable like the flower of the epigraph, emblematic of a long history of artisanal skill and creativity (of the kind that produces gasps on Antiques Roadshow). We have been prepared for their appearance by the echo of traditional Chinese poetry in the first stanza. They are broken, with violence that parallels the breaking of the benign teacher-child relationship of the earlier stanzas. ‘They’ is undefined. If I stick with the classroom reading, they are a particular kind of educator, and in making us do the kind of ‘creativity’ that the curriculum requires, they not only take us away from our innate creative impulses, they make us tread all over them.

The second last line takes us back to the flower of the epigraph, only now the flower is not ‘by your feet’, but part of oneself. It is our blood, our suffering, that now produces the flower, that becomes the subject of art. Creativity and pain are now closely linked.

The final line takes a step back. I can best say how I read it by attempting a paraphrase: In our present wounded condition, any attempt to make art must find a deep connection to tradition or some other form of community, if it is to have any vitality. Of course, it doesn’t refer only to the making of art: I think of the importance that First Nations elders place on connection to culture as a means to youth suicide prevention.

Now that I’ve understood how the poem coheres, it hasn’t quite finished with me (and perhaps never will have). The reading that I’ve sketched so far is loosely tethered to my own life experience. But that reading can expand. The poem could be read as a meditation on part of Bing Xin’s life story: I only know the Wikipedia version, and haven’t read any of her poetry, but she was denounced during the Cultural Revolution, a time when blue-and-white vases were quite literally being smashed.

The poem can be read as a response to a work of art: it was initially written on commission as a response to The Masks of Me, a mixed media installation by Vipoo Srivilasa consisting of ‘a group of small masks that celebrate cultural differences and diversity’. You can see the artwork and the artist’s statement on the Peril magazine site, at this link. Actually, I can’t see this reading at all.

Since it has given its title to this book, the poem can be read as referring to the collection of poems. Many of these poems are indeed filled with pain, unflinchingly named, but what makes them readable – more than just readable, deeply satisfying – is their rootedness. This poem itself is an example of that. The classical references, the restrained language, the way the images are allowed to do their own work on the reader, the formal neatness: all these are a kind of rootedness that let the poem flower.


* Sorry, I don’t remember who said it. I think it was on Al Filreis’s PoemTalk podcast.


A Thousand Crimson Blooms is the ninth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

500 people: Week Twelve

I started the week at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which you’d think would be a great place for talking to new people. But, though I caught up with a number of people I hadn’t seen for a long while, and was pretty awkward with a couple of writers whom I admire, even love, I didn’t do a lot of talking to strangers as such. See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

  1. Sunday 2 May, at an afternoon session, I fell into conversation with the woman sitting beside me. (I’m not counting the man in a wheelchair a couple of seats further away who unleashed on the subject of accessibility.) We’d seen Mehreen Faruqi in different sessions, and it was fun sharing our slightly different perspectives on her.
  2. Monday early morning at the pharmacy check-out, I got into one of those slightly awkward dances about where the queue actually went. I said to the woman at the till, ‘In Spain, instead of having queues you just ask when you arrive, “Who’s last?”‘ She said, ‘Yes, it’s the same in Cuba. You arrive and say, “Qui es ultima?” Then everyone can sit, or move around , or chat with people who arrived much earlier.’ The man I’d had the little dance with chimed in: ‘That’s what we do in my barbershop around the corner. When a customer arrives, they ask, “Who’s last?”‘
  3. Monday evening at the Griffin Theatre for Dogged (which I recommend), I was sitting next to a woman who seemed to be alone. Ever original, I asked, ‘Do you come to this theatre regularly?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m from Albury.’ and we had a very pleasant chat, reminiscing about theatre (we both used to come to that one when it was the Nimrod), grandchildren (she has more than me, and she comes to Sydney to visit them as well as go to the theatre), etc. Despite being masked, we may well recognise each other on future nights at the Griffin.
  4. & 5. Tuesday in the checkout at the supermarket, a small child (about a year old) was calling, ‘Baby,’ to the world in general. I asked where the baby was, and he pointed to the stroller with the woman ahead of him. Then he said, ‘Dog,’ and pointed over my shoulder to where there was indeed a cardboard cutout dog. I observed that there was a cat next to it, and he said, ‘Cat.’ Other words were exchanged, and his father joined the conversation less monosyllabically.
    6 & 7. Thursday morning at GymKidz, little girl came up to me and wordlessly showed me a sticker on her hand. when I admired it she peeled it off and offered it to me. I graciously accepted it, and asked if she’d like me to stick it back on her hand. She held the hand out to me, and I stuck it back on. Then I realised her father was the burly bald man with a pirate beard a couple of seats away who was wrestling an older child into his socks and shoes. I said something about the juggling act he was performing. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you learn how to stay cool under pressure and be in two places at once.’
    8 & 9. Thursday evening at the launch of Radicals, I mostly chatted with people I know. One conversation was joined by a Famous Person who, if we’ve met previously, certainly doesn’t remember me. ‘Hi E–,’ I said. ‘Who are you?’ she replied, and soon I was being eased out of the conversation she had just joined. Not rudely, but definitely. Later I had a chat with a man I’d not met before. It was an evening for reminiscence and ancient gossip, and that’s what we did. The bit I remember is that Geoffrey Roberson had told him he was radicalised by realising that the copies of a Shakespeare play given out at his school had had the rude bits cut out. I told him my story about the pious Brother who taught me Macbeth dictating the rude bits so we could write them back into our bowdlerised books: ‘Showed like a rebel’s whore, that’s W-H-O-R-E.’
    10 & 11. Saturday, at the Dobell Drawing Prize exhibition at the National Art School, I was entranced by a video component of Maryanne Coutts’s Dress Code, when two women who seemed to know a bit about art started chatting about the work. ‘It’s got a bit of everything in it,’ one of them said. I boldly offered, “I love the video.’ We watched companionably for a while. The other one said, ‘I like that outfit.’ (The video shows the artist emerging from a closet, walking about with large, Frankensteinish movements, then crawling back into the closet, her outfit changing every second or so.)

Running total is now 114.

SWF 2021 Sunday

Sunday was another beautiful late autumn day in Sydney, and another day of challenge and delight at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Evidently one of our ideologically driven weeklies ran a piece online saying the Festival was extremely ‘woke’, which is apparently a bad thing. I don’t know about woke but, as someone who nods off whenever I’m in a dark room, I was kept awake almost without fail. (The one fail was inevitable, in the after-lunch slot when I would have slept through an announcement that I’d been granted the gifts of immortality and eternal youth.)


10.30: Land of Plenty

This panel addressed environmental issues about Australia from a range of perspectives. Philip Clark of ABC Radio’s Nightlife did a beautiful job as moderator, giving each of the panellists in turn a prompt or two to talk about their work, and managing some elegant segues. The panellists did their bit to make it all cohere by referring to one another’s work. (How much better these panels work when the writers on them have read each other!)

Rebecca Giggs, whose Fathoms sounds like a fascinating book about whales, said that whales are a Trojan horse for a conversation about other animals’ relationships to humans. She described a moment when she was close enough to a whale that she could see its eye focusing on her – and only to learn a little later that whales are extremely short-sighted and there as no way that that whale could have actually seen her. What is actually there isn’t what we want to think is there,

Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu and co-author of Loving Country (about which more later) spoke about the difference between Indigenous and Western capitalist ways of relating to the land. Echoing Rebecca Giggs’s story of the whale’s eye, he said, ‘We look at animals and want to be friends with them, but as soon as a capitalist wants to be your friend …’ He begged us to take seriously the possibility of a reciprocal relationship with animals. Something terrible happened to humans, he said, when the combination of Christianity and capitalism happened. I think he has a book coming on the subject.

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man from far north Queensland, author of Fire Country. Someone from my family had the privilege of doing some video work with Victor some years ago, and his stories from that time have given me a deep respect for Victor and his work in ‘using traditional knowledge for environmental wellbeing’, as the Festival site puts it. In this panel, he took off from Bruce Pascoe’s call for reciprocity with other animals, and spoke of relating to fire as a friend and not as something to fear. It’s about reading country, listening to landscape. His project of recording traditional knowledge that is in danger of being lost is not to archive it but to get it back into people, ‘to young fellas and then to the broader community’.

Richard Beasley, senior counsel assisting for the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and author of  Dead in the Water about that catastrophe, said that the situation in the Murray-darling Basin had got so bad that ‘even John Howard’ did something about it. Howard’s legislation included clauses to the effect that whatever was done needed to be science-based. But then the lobbyists went to town, and in response to their pressure, politicians insisted that reports from the CSIRO were altered to suit the big capitalists’ agenda. His lawyerly rage was palpable.

There was a good question (a rarity at this Festival), about grounds for hope:

  • Rebecca Giggs: Thee’s hope. But you don’t get to be hopeful until you make yourself useful in some way – whatever your situation and abilities allow.
  • Bruce Pascoe: I have to think we can do it differently. We have to give our grandchildren a chance, not treat them with contempt. We need love of country, not nationalism.
  • Victor Steffensen: Language is important. [Sadly what I wrote from the rest of what he said was illegible. I think it was an elegant version of ‘Action is also important.’]
  • Richard Beasley: I’m a lawyer. I don’t know how to challenge any of this by law.

12 o’clock: Sarah Dingle & Kaya Wilson

We hadn’t booked this session in advance, but faced with a gap of a couple of hours, we spent one of our Covid Discover vouchers to buy rush tickets. Kaya Wilson, whose book As Beautiful As Any Other has the subtitle A memoir of my body, is a tsunami scientist and a trans man. Sarah Dingle, author of Brave New Humans: The Dirty Reality of Donor Conception is a donor-conceived person. Their conversation was aided and abetted by Maeve Marsden, host of Queerstories who was also donor conceived, though not anonymously through the fertility industry as Sarah was.

Sarah’s revelations about the fertility industry were nothing short of shocking. Not only is it monumentally unregulated, but records that might have allowed people to know what had happened to a particular donor’s sperm, even anonymously, have at least sometimes been deliberately destroyed. Couples using donated sperm have been systematically encouraged to lie to their children about their origins, leaving them unaware of any genetic predispositions to disease, let alone possible incest.

What Kaya told us about the systemic treatment of trans people was just as shocking. He said that he tended to keep his scientific life and his trans life separate. ‘In some ways they hate each other.’ But he has a chapter in his book that tries to reconcile them. The scientific literature, like legislation about, for instance, changing one’s ‘sex marker’ on a birth certificate, is shot through with assumptions that bear not relation to the reality of trans experience.

Both people spoke of the joy of finding themselves to be members of communities they weren’t aware of when young. When asked what they read for relief, both named writers I’ve loved: Sarah chose Terry Pratchett; Kaya chose Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.


2.30: Bruce Pascoe & Vicky Shukuroglou

Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia was an initiative of Hardie Grant Publishers, who approached Bruce Pascoe suggesting a follow-up to Marcia Langton’s guide to Indigenous Australia, Welcome to Country. Pascoe joined forces with Vicky Shukuroglou, a non-Indigenous woman born in Cyprus, who took the photographs and also contributed to the writing. The Festival website says that the book ‘offers a new way to explore and fall in love with Australia by seeing it through an Indigenous lens’. Daniel Browning, host of ABC Radio National’s Awaye, chaired this conversation.

Again, we were called on to love this country. The thing I loved about the session was the way the two authors could disagree. Bruce Pascoe, speaking of the horrendous bushfires last year, said that the disrespect for Country shown by authorities afterwards was in some ways worse than the fires themselves. We meekly accept the terrible destruction of heritage in the Juukan Gorge. We have to rebel as a people, he said, meaning all of us, not just First Nations people. Vicky Shukuroglou argued against the idea of rebellion, and spoke of the importance of conversations and of love: ‘If we’re going to talk about marginalisation, we first need to look at our humanity.’ From where I was sitting it didn’t look as if the two things were incompatible, but I was struck by the way as a non-Indigenous woman she was secure enough in their friendship and working partnership to challenge an Indigenous man. I would have liked to know more about what she had done to achieve that confidence.

The book, Pascoe said, is about how to restrain human go and let Country have a voice, He got Vicky to tell a story about a sick echidna that, without her realising it, had come to know and trust her, as a result – she thinks – of her being still around it over time.

We don’t need a black armband.
We just need to know the facts.
This is the country that invented society, bread and the Richmond Football Club.


4.30 pm The Unacknowledged Legislators

This was a great way to end my festival. (The Emerging Artist’s festival ended with the previous session: she thinks poetry and she don’t like each other.) Seven poets read to us, hosted elegantly by ‘writer, poet, essayist and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta’, Declan Fry. Here they are, in order of appearance.

Eileen Chong, whose poetry my regular readers will know I adore. She read five poems from A Thousand Crimson Blooms, which I’ll be blogging about soon. I was glad to hear her read the three part poem, ‘The Hymen Diaries’ after I had spent some time with it and checked out the artworks it refers to.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, poet laureate of the Saturday Paper, read three poems. I won’t report what they were because i wasn’t sure I heard their names correctly. One of them began, ‘When I say I don’t want to become my mother,’ and went on brilliantly to challenge the internalised sexism of that sentiment.

Ellen van Neerven read three poems from Throat (my blog post here), including ‘Treaty of shared power’ and ‘Such a sad sight’. The first-named is a play on the relationship between the writer of a poem and its reader that worked beautifully in this context.

Erik Jensen, reading to an audience for the first time, read six short poems from his first book of poetry, I said the sea was folded, a book that, he told us, is about falling in love and learning to be in love. He then read a poem by Kate Jennings, who has just died (this was how I heard the news) – and wept as he read it. He wasn’t teh only one to shed a tear.

Felicity Plunkett followed that hard act, reading four short poems from her 2020 collection, A Kinder Sea. The first, ‘Trash Vortex’, whose name tells you a lot, may be the kind of poem that Evelyn Araluen had in mind when she said artists have a responsibility to address the world’s urgent issues.

Omar Sakr read three poems, ‘Birthday’, Self-portrait as poetry defending itself’ and ‘Every Day’. This is the first time I’ve heard or read any of his poetry. I hope it won’ be the last.

Alison Whittaker, Gomeroi woman and a crowd favourite, read a piece that depended on knowledge of and (I think) contempt for ASMR, not that there’s anything wrong with such poems. She reminded us of the tragic reality of Black Deaths in custody and read a poem consisting of anodyne found phrases from court proceedings.


And my 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival was over. There were at least four moments when someone on stage paid tribute to a parent in the audience or, in one case, on stage with them (and I’d left my run too late to see Norman and Jonathan Swan, and I probably missed other trans-generational moments). I didn’t see any of the international guests who attended on screen. It was a thrill to hear such a diversity of First Nations voices. I came home with a swag of books and a list for borrowing from the library. Hats off to Michael Williams and his team for making this happen in the flesh, and making sense of the slogan Within Reach: a living demonstration that the famous cultural cringe, while it may not be dead, has not much reason to live.

SWF 2021 Saturday

I had three events on my second day at the festival.


10 o’clock: Your Favourites’ Favourites: Tony Birch & Evelyn Araluen. ‘Your Favourites’ Favourites’ is series of events where an established writer interviews the author of their favourite Australian debut from the last year. This was the only one of the series that we attended. It’s a terrific idea, and This pairing must have delighted whoever thought of it.

Tony Birch is not only an established writer, he’s also a seasoned interviewer of other writers, and a passionate and articulate reader. Evelyn Araluen is not only a debutante poet, she’s also among many other things co-editor of Overland literary magazine. Tony Birch has not only read her poetry, he has been edited by her. They know each other well, and were radiantly at ease with each other in this session, their deep mutual respect not excluding some friendly teasing After introducing Evelyn as a formidable presence in Australian literary circles and beyond, Tony asked her, ‘Have I pumped up your tyres enough?’ She said it was a bit embarrassing to be described like that when her parents were in the audience. He said her father had had a quiet word to him before the session.

This friendly banter provided a leaven for a very weighty conversation. Tony quoted Evelyn as saying in another context, ‘We are reclaiming this place through poetry,’ and asked ‘How so?’

I recommend listening to the whole conversation when it comes out as a podcast. What I’ve managed here is a rough and partial account.

Australian national identity, she explained, is a literary construct. As scholar George Seddon said, ‘The English language is a filter over the Australian landscape.’ Evelyn said, ‘whiteness does not understand itself in this landscape.’ Non Indigenous writers tend to go for the Gothic (Marcus Clarke comes to mind) or the cute (the work of May Gibbs features large in Evelyn’s poetry), both of which erase black presences. Both conservative and progressive white writers generally fail to get further past the erasure than shallow acknowledgement. Tony Birch quoted Anita Heiss: ‘You can’t just speak language. You have to think language.’ That is, Aboriginal people also have work to do to reclaim the place from colonising language.

Tony asked Evelyn what she had meant when she said on the festival’s opening night: ‘I’d like to write happier poems but there isn’t time.’ This prompted her to talk about the climate emergency and the responsibility of poets to address it. So most of her poems are angry and urgent (I think that’s what she said, and from what I’ve heard at readings I’d agree, but add ‘funny’). There is a place for poems, and art in general, that allows us to pause, to rest so we can go on facing our responsibilities, but for Aboriginal poets there is a need to be constantly asserting our existence, survival and resilience.

At Tony’s request, Evelyn read to us. ‘See You Tonight’ evokes an uneventful, peaceful moment of family life. It was written during Melbourne lockdown after eight months of not being able to see any of her own family. No one was surprised when, after the final words, ‘It’s all good. / I will. I will. I will,’ she raised her arms in triumph and said, ‘Got through it without crying!’ (I wiped a tear from my eye even though we hadn’t yet been told the circumstances of the poem’s composition.)

‘This is not a cancel culture book,’ she said.

There were two questions, one from another poet that moved the conversation into academic territory, with words like ‘liminality’ and ‘positionality’, and one from Evelyn’s father – we knew this because as he approached the microphone she shed at least 10 years and almost squealed, ‘Oh, Da-ad!’ He used his platform to draw our attention to all the powerful Black women who are central to First Nations life and activism – and didn’t embarrass his daughter at all.


12:30 pm: Whose Country Is It Anyway?

Nayuka Gorrie is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta freelance and comedy television writer. This is one of the events she rganised as Guest Curator at the Festival. She was in conversation with Melissa Lucashenko, author of Too Much Lip (my blog post here) among other books, and Nardi Simpson, author or Song of the Crocodile. (At one stage Tara June Winch was advertised as appearing zooming in from France for this session, but that wasn’t to be.) They were there to talk about the craft of writing Country.

As you’d expect, the conversation ranged widely. At the end of it I was keen to get hold of Nardi’s book, because a lot of what she said was tantalisingly hard to grasp. For example, ‘We inherit a never-ending process of belonging. whose country? It depends on where you’re standing. You can create a relationship to a place that’s important to you, but it cold be completely different for someone living 200 metres down the road.’

Melissa quoted Paul Kelly’ ‘Writers pay attention.’ She said there are two kinds of writers – the big, loud, macho writers (who can be women), and the quiet ones who pay attention. Her implication was that quiet attentiveness is the pathway to writing Country well. She talked about ‘extraction’ as key to the ‘western project’, and contrasted it to ‘reciprocity’.

Melissa again: It’s a writer’s responsibility to write the truth of violence without doing violence to the reader. There’s a place for writing that lashes out about injustice and cruelty, but we must write about life as much as death, otherwise we’re invading ourselves.


We did our Covid Check-out from Carriageworks to have lunch at a nearby pub (hamburgers with those horrible brioche buns), then back for our afternoon session.


2:30 pm Faruqi on Faruqi

This was a mother and son act: Senator Mehreen Faruqi and journalist Osman Faruqi. As with Tony Birch and Evelyn Araluen, there was a lot of good-natured teasing. “When I was in labour, I fervently hoped that I would have a girl.’ ‘We are a family of engineers. I so wanted him to be an engineer, and look what he’s become – a journalist!’

Sally Rugg as moderator didn’t have to do very much. She signalled at one point that it was Ok to broaden the conversation out by asking them about their theories of change. I don’t know that either of them directly addressed the question, but they took the hint and what followed was a very interesting conversation about the role of parliament and politicians in bringing about change – both of them agreed that real change came from the community and the political class played catch-up.

Both Faruqis have books coming out later this year. Mehreen’s is a memoir and manifesto, to be called Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud. Os is writing a book about racism in Australia. He would love to go back to writing music reviews, but has things he needs to get out there about racism. White friends say to him, ‘Why do you make everything about racism. When are you going to move on?’ He says, ‘You’re the ones who made everything about racism. I’ll move on when you do.’ (He probably said it better than that.)


Then we were off to the bookshop, to a number of catch-up conversations with friends we tend to see only at events like this, and to walk home on a beautiful Sydney autumn afternoon

SWF 2021: Friday

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has come back from the virtual world, and though it hasn’t returned to the splendours of its old harbourside venue, the Carriageworks is an expansive site whose acoustic problems of past years are no longer an issue, and for me it has the advantage of being just a 40 minute walk from home. My festival this year got off to a slow start, with just two sessions on Friday.


Friday 30 April 4.00: Writing the Unspeakable

The Unspeakable of the title didn’t refer to the Great Australian Silence about the massive wrongs of colonisation or other vast silences, but to personal unspeakables like depression, grief, trauma and addiction. Each of the panellists has written a memoir about that kind of unspeakable – and in some ways the session played out the implication of the session’s title: you’ve written about something that’s unspeakable, but maybe that doesn’t make it any more speakable?

I haven’t read any of the panellists’ books: Lech Blaine’s Car Crash, which tells the story of a car accident where three of his friends were killed but he and two others survived; Ashe Davenport’s Sad Mum Lady, about the difficulties of being a new mother that had its origins in a blog, ‘Sad Pregnant Lady’; and Fiona O’Loughlin’s Truths from an Unreliable Witness, which deals with her long struggle with alcoholism and addiction, often in the public eye as a successful stand-up comedian. Michaela Kalowski was the moderator.

Rather than start out with each panellist reading a short passage from their book – even, say, the opening paragraph – which would have grounded the conversation, MK opened with a question to each of them in turn, ‘Why are these subjects taboo?’ The panellists weren’t terribly cooperative, but the way each of them avoided answering the question, and pretty much every question after that, led to some entertaining and sometimes illuminating conversation. Here are some snippets that I have managed to decipher from notes I jotted in the dark.

Lech (I’m going to use first names) said that these subjects aren’t actually unspeakable. He spent his childhood in a pub and by the tenth or eleventh beer anything could be talked about, though not necessarily in a civil or constructive manner. Ashe told a horrific tale of her mother being groped when a child, in full view of a room full of people who pretended it hadn’t happened.

Fiona ventured to ask her mother if there was anything in the book that upset her. ‘Of course not,’ her mother said. ‘I haven’t even read it.’ This prompted Lech to tell us that he showed his brother a passage in manuscript where the brother is quoted as saying something profoundly offensive about Labor voters. His brother said, ‘That’s brilliant! You got that exactly right.’

Ashe described the process of making the transition from blog to book. In the blog she would work hard at creating amusing anecdotes out of her struggles. The book could still be funny, but she realised that she had to become less abstract: not so much, ‘It’s hard being a new mother,’ and more, ‘This is how I struggled as a new mother.’ At MK’s prompting she told the story of how she went to an anger management group for women, thinking it would make an amusing story for the blog – and she told it to us in a way that got laughs, until she got to the point where one of the group of older women asked her a question, she burst into sobs, and the other woman simply placed a supportive hand on her back until she was finished.

Fiona spoke beautifully about the shame of being an addict – and the importance of kindness. Tom Gleeson (the cheerfully cruel host of Hard Quiz) got a special mention as a kind person, but she said that the whole community of comedians is tremendously supportive.

Each of the panellists spoke about intensely personal difficulties. That they’ve written books about those difficulties didn’t make it any less easy to talk about them. Lech was often left staring blankly into his personal voice, and I felt that Ashe wasn’t quite ready to serve up her personal pain in person to a big audience. Fiona is a professional at airing her linen to live audiences, and did most of the work of keeping the conversation aerated by comic touches. At one stage Ashe turned to Fiona and said something like, ‘You know what it’s like to feel that you’re a bad mother.’ Fiona did a nice comic routine, turning away in mock denial. As Ashe continued with her point, it became clear that she was talking about something that was still raw. Fiona reached out and touched her on the forearm. A little later, doing her own bit of mock denial, Ashe waved her arms joyfully in the air and said, ‘And now I’m completely all right!’

Asked about how it felt writing this personal material for an audience, there were two very different, but equally memorable answers. Someone recalled the reassuring words of a wise editor: ‘Always bear in mind that no one is going to read every word you write.’ Fiona said that she wrote her book ‘for my children, to explain myself to them’.


Our only other event for the day was the Within Reach Gala at 8 o’clock. We managed to squeeze in a celebration dinner for a friend’s 70th birthday on our way to the Town Hall. Once there, we were taken back in time by the Town Hall’s insistence that masks were mandatory – though there was a lot more non-compliance than there was back in the day.

After a short introduction from Festival Director Michael Williams – in which he said among other things that Geoffrey Blainey’s concept of the Tyranny of Distance was regressive and idiotic but part of our culture – we were treated to a dozen writers speaking on the Festival’s theme, Within Reach, reflecting on the past year. Their interpretations of the brief ranged widely. Each speaker was identified simply by their name on a big screen, so that we were spared time-consuming introductions and appreciations by an MC, which made a huge difference to the pleasure of the evening.

Tony Birch told a beautiful story of how the gift of a stone at a wake made a huge difference to him when he was depressed and despairing from the death of a close relative and the lack of progress in action on climate change. He held up the stone.

Ceridwen Dovey said she has been working on space objects, and talked about the ‘golden records’ that have been sent out into space. There was a debate about whether those records should include material about the dark sides of humanity. In the end, the woman writer on the team managed to have the sound of a kiss included – and the actual kiss that was recorded was both an expression of tenderness and the beginning of a betrayal.

Sisonke Msimang spoke of the great movement of white women in response to allegations of sexual assault in Parliament. She was onside with the protests but couldn’t join them, knowing that she couldn’t ask her group netball mothers to join her on a BLM march. She spoke eloquently and generously about this impasse.

Ellen van Neerven started with the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and the question that resounded in her mind:’When will this country see as much justice?’ She said that like all First Nations people in Australia, deaths in custody was a family matter. She pledged to continue to tell the stories that need to be told.

Geraldine Brooks spoke from Martha’s Vineyard in the USA by video. I confess that the beauty of the country where she’s living largely overwhelmed my ability to take in what she was saying. I think that was her subject: missing home.

Trent Dalton, I think, meant to remind us of the importance of human contact and the pain of physical distance in pandemic times. He misjudged the moment by presenting himself as an indiscriminate hugger of strangers, telling a story in which he hugged woman after woman who were standing a in a queue for the toilet at a previous SWF. Sorry, Trent, but issues of consent are high on the agenda right now and the humour didn’t really work – but the crowd was forgiving.

Maria Tumarkin riffed on the question, ‘How close is too close?’ What she had to say was formidably complex and wide-ranging, and she spoke tantalisingly fast. I managed to jot down one sentence: ‘One person’s specific safety makes as much sense as one person’s piece of sky.’

Michael O’Loughlin, who came out as ‘not a writer’, told the story of his illustrious career as a footballer, from telling his mother when he was 11 that he would her a house to his final words, ‘I hope you’re enjoying the house, Mum.’ I’m appallingly ignorant about sport, so his story was a revelation to me in many ways, but especially about the significance professional sport can have for First nations players, and their families and their communities.

Adam Goodes, a footballer even I have heard of, did a brilliant, modest thing. He read to us the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and confined his own commentary to a single sentence: ‘That was 2017. It’s now 2021. We’re still waiting.’

Alison Lester told us a story of a medical crisis. As she was in hospital being wheeled into emergency she saw on a wall a clumsy copy of one of her illustrations. The orderly was unimpressed when she croaked, ‘That’s my picture.’ she described the experience of an induced coma as an awareness of darkness, cold and discomfort and nothing else, and the struggle to respond when at last she heard her daughter calling to her.

Fiona McGregor read what felt like a prose poem, ‘Eight scenes from a dancing life’: the profound joy of dancing as part of a community, witnessed and experienced

Christos Tsiolkas‘s opening words were, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ It’s Orthodox Easter, and this present moment is one where the gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars brings home for him the tension between his own life as a middle-class Australian writer and the life of his Greek migrant working-class parents, especially his much-loved mother.

Michel Williams then called all but Geraldine Brooks back onto the stage for a big round of applause and we all went home.


500 people: Week Eleven

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Friday this week, I heard my name called. It was a friend who said, ‘It’s no good talking to us, you already know us.’ Thus encouraged, here’s my next report on the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge.

  1. Monday 26 April, in the sauna, when I came back from my shower, a chap was lying down on one of the benches, reading his phone. Though I said not to worry, I had plenty of room, he sat up at a notionally Covid-safe distance. I had my book in hand (Rabbit poetry journal, the Science issue). He said, ‘Time goes slowly in the sauna when you don’t read.’ I agreed. I didn’t bring a book last time I was here and spent the whole time willing the minute hand on the clock to speed up. ‘But is it safe for your phone?’ I asked. ‘Everyone says that, but I have to have something to read.’ We went back to our devices, then I realised that the glue in some books melts in the sauna heat, and showed him where a number of pages had come loose in my journal in only 10 minutes: ‘Phones might be OK, but not books.’
  2. Wednesday, in the sauna again, reading Rabbit again (I’m going a lot because it does wonders for a stiff neck). A chap came in and before he sat down poured water from a plastic bottle onto the coals. If people ask, I never object to this barbarism, but as far as I’m concerned the sauna is for dry heat and there’s a steam room two metres away for anyone who wants steam. I didn’t say anything, but got up immediately and left. The third person in the sauna laughed: I must have made my displeasure crystal clear. As I showered in the dressing room, I regretted not saying something, preferably something civil, but as I was putting my shoes on the situation was redeemed. I tuned in on two men who were chatting loudly. ‘So rude,’ one of them said, ‘reading a magazine in the sauna. Some people have no respect.’ He was the man who laughed, taking to the man with the bottle. As he walked past on his way back into the sauna, I asked, ‘Are you having a go at me?’ ‘Was that you?’ he asked – people look different with clothes on. ‘Not having a go, but you shouldn’t read in the sauna. There are too many memories.’ At least I think that’s what he said. Maybe it was ‘too many members’. For some reason this little exchange had me smiling all the way home.
  3. Wednesday evening, I had a call to say that a friend with Parkinson’s had had a fall and none of her friends who are on call could get to her place. A young man had helped her from the nature strip to her apartment and waited there until I arrived. He and I had a brief chat before he, his partner and their little white dog went on their way. Really, the chat was pretty transactional, but I’m including this encounter because it’s not right that acts of kindness to strangers should always go unrecorded. (My friend is fine, except for a badly scraped knee.)
  4. Thursday midday, we went to Observatory Hill to have lunch with the Granddaughter, and visited the extraordinary Tree of Life exhibition at the S H Ervin gallery while we were at it. As I was leaving, the volunteer at the cash register asked if I’d enjoyed the exhibition. I said yes, very much. That doesn’t really count as a conversation though, more of flesh-and-blood evaluation survey. A woman leaning heavily on a walking stick spoke to me from the doorway: ‘It’s spiritual!’ Not a term I would have used but she was describing something real. We exchanged a few more words and then I was back to grandfathering.
  5. Thursday, 5 to 1 at the Sydney Observatory – I know the time because we were waiting for the Time Ball to drop – another woman leaning on a walking stick, with whom we’d crossed paths in the museum, joined us. ‘That’s a powerful smell,’ she said. My sense of smell is feeble at best and I couldn’t smell a thing, but I said, ‘It could be the lavender.’
  6. Friday early afternoon, picking up some new lights for our kitchen, I said to the man behind the counter, ‘Now we’ll be able to see.’ ‘Always a good thing,’ he said. So I told him the story I’d just heard from Lily Brett on ABC Conversations – she had cataract surgery and suddenly could se how filthy her apartment was.
  7. Friday at our 4 o’clock session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I had a chat with a woman sitting beside me. My opening line was, ‘Do you know who we’re here to see?’ ‘No,’ she said, and we both laughed, then looked up our programs and remembered why we’d booked these tickets so long ago.
  8. Friday an hour or so later, as we were leaving the Carriageworks, I spoke to a security man with an impressive waxed moustache. ‘This must be a cushy job,’ I said. ‘Yep,’ he said. ‘It’s a writers’ festival. I don’t know what they’re paying me for.’ ‘Just wait,’ I said. ‘All these silver haired people will get rowdy when the sun goes down.’ At least I wish I’d said that.
  9. Lateish Saturday morning as we were arriving at Carriageworks for our second session of the day, a small family group with English accents were walking just behind us – a man, a woman and a child in a stroller. They the woman was saying they had great seats in Row CC. Given that we had seats in Row BB, which I had assumed meant way up the back, I turned around and asked her if she knew for sure that BB meant up the front. ‘Definitely,’ she said. They went on ahead of us, him reminding her several times in few seconds to keep left on the footpath.
  10. Saturday, just before 12.30, waiting in Row BB (second from the front – the Englishwoman was right) for the session to start, a man sitting in the front row a couple of metres from me turned around and we caught each other’s eye. we didn’t speak, but there was a definite friendly exchange. He did talk to the women sitting right behind him, and I fairly brazenly listened in. He was the partner of one of the speakers, down from the country, and pretty glad to be there. He and I exchanged friendly glances a couple of times during the conversation: I think he may have been glad to have at least that much contact with another man.
  11. Saturday, after that session, in the Festival bookshop, I had picked up a copy of Nardi Simpson’s book, Song of the Crocodile. A woman said to me, ‘I’ve got a hundred pages to go in that.’ And we chatted for a while about the session we had both just attended. You hear a talk differently depending on whether you’ve read the book or not. Both our book groups have read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip.
  12. Saturday, before the next session, I stepped out of the queue when it started moving because the Emerging Artist hadn’t come back from the toilet. The volunteer who was policing the queue asked if I had a problem. I explained, and all was good. Later, I asked her how long her shift was, and thanked her for volunteering and doing the work so cheerfully.

Running total is now 103. Posts on the Festival are coming soon.

Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside

Edwidge Danticat, Everything Inside (riverrun 2019)

Edwidge Danticat (Haitian Creole pronunciation: ɛdwidʒ dãtika) is a Haitian-born writer whose first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was published in 1994. Since then she has published other novels, short stories, children’s and Young Adult books, memoirs essays – a substantial body of work. Everything Inside, a collection of eight short stories, is the first of her books I’ve read, but I didn’t feel I was coming in late. Each of the stories is a fresh beginning, inviting the reader to enter into the lives, and in some cases deaths, of a newly-created group of characters.

Almost all the characters are Haitian immigrants to the US, or come from other Caribbean nations. The stories mostly focus on relationships among women, often but not always with men in the mix – a dying father, one corner of a love triangle, an ex who has suffered a terrible loss, a sexual exploiter, the prime minister of a small Caribbean island nation. (The least successful story, ‘Without Inspection’, is the only one with a man at its centre.)The women’s relationships cross generational and class barriers, so that what emerges from the stories taken as a whole is a complex picture of Haitian diasporic life. In ‘Hot-Air Balloons’, for instance, a young woman’s college non-Haitian room-mate goes on a working trip to Haiti where she sees at first hand the terrible suffering of poor women at a rape recovery centre in a poor neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince. The room-mate decides at first to quit college in order to volunteer for the non-government organisation that arranged her trip. The young woman who stays behind does so because she wants her first experience of her parents’ home to be of its physical beauty, not of its suffering people. The story is told with deep sympathy for both points of view, but in the end we are left with an aching sense of the gulf between the hard-won privilege of the protagonist and those women at the rape centre.

The 2010 earthquake looms as a backdrop to some of the stories. Poverty and corruption in Haiti and Miami, and the US’s immigration regime have devastating effects on people’s lives, but the stories complex human beings remain front and centre. As I read this book, I had at the back of my mind a quote from W E B Dubois in the ‘backmatter’ of the Afican-American comic series, Bitter Root (my blog post here):

All Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.

(Criteria of Negro Art, 1926)

If this book is propaganda, it lacks the stridency or sense of hidden agendas usually associated with that term. But my admittedly pretty uninformed guess is that W E B Dubois would approve of it as it asserts as reality that ‘black folk’ do love and enjoy as well as laugh, weep, make music, form unbreakable childhood bonds, and face difficult moral dilemmas.