A fortnight in verse 1

We’re in Bali for a couple of weeks. Rather than write home about it in prose, I’m taking the opportunity to practice rhyming. Here’s a first instalment.

A fortnight away
We booked our trip online (oh please, no blame –
I know the globe is warming, but our gnarly
joints have given gip since winter came
so we bought pain relief: two weeks in Bali).
We hit a snag. When I’d typed in my name
it wasn’t what my passport said. Bizarrely,
it cost two hundred dollars to set right.
But phew! We got it changed, and made the flight.

A pair who honeymooned there thirty years
ago, said, ‘Stay away from tourists. That’s
what spoils it now.’ A woman close to tears
saves wildlife: monkeys, an iguana, cats
and dogs. The water’s free, they charge for beers
and food (it’s Virgin). Nearby inflight  chats
are few – devices rule. In Denpasar
an hour in imigrasi, two by car

to Puri Suksma, Ubud. Every Wayan,
every Made, Nyoman, Ketut is
on the road, and this greenhorn Austrayan
has knuckles turning white as endless scooters
brush past on every side. I’m only sayin’
it looks and sounds like chaos, but a toot is
just to say, ‘I’m here.’ No rage, no lanes
keep order, just calm interactive brains.

To be continued

Shevaun Cooley’s Homing

Shevaun Cooley, Homing (Giramondo 2017)

homing.jpg‘Shevaun Cooley,’ says the back cover blurb of Homing, ‘was born and raised in the south-west of Western Australia, but has been drawn ceaselessly to the landscapes of North Wales.’ The two main sections of the book have titles made up of geographic coordinates: 34º24’13.6″S 115º11’43.9″E and 52º45’34.4″N 4º47’11.6″W, with three unlocalised ghazals in between. A quick web search confirms that the two locations are at the south west corner of Western Australia and in North Wales respectively. The poems themselves have a strong sense of place. In particular, there are a number of lovingly observed mountains and mountain-climbing experiences.

My favourite line (from ‘word only becomes at last the word’ in the first section):

The mountain is a cresting wave distracted from its motion.

A number of the poems sent me looking at maps and other reference books. Of these, the one that I found most rewarding was ‘I was no tree walking’, both because it sent me off to discover David Nash’s extraordinary piece of art, Wooden Boulder (do click on the link) and because when I came back to the poem it was much richer than when read in ignorance.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. The ghazals served as an excellent appetiser for the multifaceted discussion of that Persian form in the current Southerly (about which I intend to post soon). Birds and animals flit charmingly through the poems, especially the ones in Welsh settings. Perhaps because, all going well, I’m to become a grandfather at the year’s end, the single that I warmed to most is this:

like an old tree lightened of the snow’s weight

Think of the tree,
who, quiet, might

wait for the starlings
or the last of the red

squirrels, for something
to remind it of how to bear.

Who might not
mind, as much as we

believe, the borers
and scrapings,

the lover’s knife, or
a woodpecker,

the weight of snow
on its leaf-empty branches.

As children we’d
take lightly

the stairs to a
grandfather

we thought asleep
and wake him with

a brass bell, while he hid
fully clothed beneath

the quilt, and carried
laughing the weight

of our small bodies
piled over his.

A note up the back informs us that all the poems take their titles from lines by the Welsh poet R S Thomas. This mild piece of intertextuality was a distraction for this reader, but your mileage may vary – the poems generally hold their own in spite of it.

aww2017.jpg

Homing is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s Shevaun Cooley’s first book, and I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Vincent and Neale’s Unstable Relations

Eve Vincent and Timothy Neale (editors), Unstable Relations: Indigenous People and Environmentalism in Contemporary Australia (UWAP Scholarly 2016)

unstable.jpg

‘Be led!’

Murrawah Johnson, a Wirdi woman, was speaking last November to a mainly non-Indigenous audience in Sydney about the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council’s campaign against the proposed Adani coal mine. ‘You have to learn how to be led by Indigenous people,’ she said, not hiding her frustration at the colonialist attitudes of some (many? most?) conservationists.

In some ways this rich, accessible and multi-layered collection of essays is a response to such expressions of frustration, including widely broadcast ones such as Noel Pearson’s criticism of conservationists during the Wild Rivers Act controversy in Queensland between 2005 and 2014, or Marcia Langton’s 2012 Boyer Lectures, in which she accused the white conservation movement of having for 40 years made deals with state governments ‘to deny Aboriginal people their rights as landowners and citizens of Australia’. The writers, being academics, don’t stoop to reminding us that Langton’s research for those lectures was funded largely by mining companies: they meet evidence with evidence, argument with argument. I find it hard to convey the intense pleasure of reading this kind of sustained, thoughtful, evidence-based writing in the Twitter–Trump Abbott-slogan era.

Not so long ago, the general assumption among white Australians was that there was, in the words of Neale and Vincent’s introductory chapter, ‘an essential affinity between Indigenous interests in and relations to land and water, on the one hand, and environmental objectives on the other’. That has changed. The underlying assumption in this book, however, is not that there is an essential antagonism but that relations between environmentalists and Indigenous people in Australia have ‘long been “unstable”‘, and take on ever more diverse forms. The book seeks ‘to learn more about the current status of environmental–Indigenous relations through the use of specific, empirically grounded case studies’.

Contributors include activists, historians, geographers, anthropologists and one or two people who aren’t easily classified. Though there are plenty of notes and bibliographies, the book is very readable, the kind of academic writing that addresses a readership outside the academy. Though as far as I can tell all but one of the writers are non-Indigenous, or ‘settler-Australian’, many Aboriginal voices are quoted, and most of the writers are explicit in their commitment to the ‘green–black alliance’.

The book embraces complexity. It kicks off with a look behind the headlines of Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act controversy of 2005–2014 by Timothy Neale, and then a fascinating exploration by Jon Altman of the complexities of Kuninjku people’s responses to the huge and environmentally damaging growth in buffalo populations in their part of Arnhem Land.

Richard J Martin and David Trigger travel to the Pungalina on the Gulf of Carpentaria, and describe the kinds of intercultural negotiations that are needed there between Garawa people, cattle station owners, the tourism industry, government agencies and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (an organisation that has established a wildlife ‘sanctuary’ there).

Jessica Weir tells the story of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations’ (MLDRIN) success in bringing an Indigenous perspective to struggles around water in the Murray–Darling system.

Robert Leviticus discusses ‘wilderness’, a problematic term that is too often understood as erasing Indigenous people. He goes on to discuss the views of David Lindner, ‘a practical conservationist who has never been a member of any organisation, but who has worked on the wetlands of the South Alligator River in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory since 1972, and lived near or next to them since 1979, shortly after they were included in the newly declared first stage of Kakadu’, a kind of Crocodile Dundee but with less bullshit, and a better articulated respect for Yolngu relationship to the land.

Eve Vincent turns her ethnographic eye on the ‘greenies’ who follow the lead of a Kokatha woman whom she calls Aunty Joan, and manages to be both very funny (often enough at her own expense, as one of the group she is describing) and enlightening about crosscultural issues.

Stephen Muecke discusses Indigenous-Green knowledge collaborations at the James Price Point Dispute 2008–2012. The earlier settler  colonialism, he argues, has been superseded by extraction colonialism, which is even more disengaged  from the region. He quotes Nyikina leader Anne Poelina as saying that ‘we are all being colonised: it is not a black or white question any longer’.

Michaela Spencer looks at two cases of Indigenous people and environmentalists trying to work collaboratively within a neoliberal framework.

In the next three essays, activists speak.

Monica Morgan, Yorta Yorta activist, talks about the campaign to have national parks declared in the Barmah and Millewa river red gum forests  on the Victoria–New South Wales border, in which she was a key leader. She articulates a key challenge in alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on conservation issues:

One of the things we learnt was that it doesn’t matter how much – and I don’t want to be confronting to you – but however much non-Indigenous people say they are committed, in the long run they are committed to their society. I think it’s ingrained within the education: it’s ingrained with their thought patterns that they concede and they’ll work within a status quo. And I think our rights are seen in that way as well. […]

Always our people were forever saying, ‘ Well we don’t recognise your system but we acknowledge it’s there.’ we tried to push the boundaries and lay down, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think, based on our traditional knowledge.’

Whether in the end you are going to agree with it or not, it’s entirely up to you. And of course they never did.

Dave Sweeney, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaigner, and Anthony Esposito, who has worked on many environmental organisations and traditional owner organisations, both describe decades of struggle to rise to that challenge in their activism. Sweeney finds ‘profound and convincing sense’ in something  Bruce Pascoe wrote in his book Convincing Ground:

The blacks didn’t die, and the whites aren’t going away.

Tony Birch, novelist, has the final word in the book, arguing that ‘new conversations, framed through humility, are required to shake Western discourses from a sense of arrogance and apathy’. I’ll give the final word in this blog post to Dave Sweeney:

We’re the beneficiaries of crime. SO that brings with it the responsibility to actively address that. It also brings with it the requirement to suck up stuff even when it’s unfair, because there’s a bigger picture. At the same time, I don’t reckon it does an individual or a nation or a movement any good to just say ‘sorry’ all the time. Those environmental activists, those who are locking on at Jabiluka, those who are doing stuff to try and actively make a difference, did not poison waterholes. hey are the inheritors, they are the beneficiaries, but they didn’t do that stuff. And they are actively, in their life, trying to undo that stuff.

Environmental activists shouldn’t make the mistake of getting burnt, saying sorry, or, the opposite, saying ‘get lost, that’s unfair’ and withdrawing. And on the other side, Aboriginal people are generally are amazingly generous of spirit and continue to slap us around a little bit, continue to jerk the chain, remind us of the power imbalance. But don’t have it set in concrete that you cannot ever be other than a colonial thief. Otherwise we’re in a frozen, no-good zone.

 

Topical verse

As I’ve been tidying up my old and inaccessible blog, I’ve been reminded that I used to write little rhymes about the political scene. Here are some new ones.

Clerihews

Tony Abbott
is very good at sabot-
age: not so much leaking
as havoc wreaking.

Bill Shorten,
like a rabbit caught in
a spotlight,
keeps his fangs out of sight.

Lee Rhiannon
is no loose cannon.
She’s a principled splitter
and sadly not a quitter.

Double Dactylic

Hooligan Booligan,
Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, an
investment banker who
thinks he’s a wiz,

gave us some hope for a
ratiocinative
turn to our politics.
But he’s a fizz.

Georgy-boy Porgy-boy,
Catholic cardinal
stands on his dignity
under arrest.

Is this the end of the
celibatocracy
bluffing their flocks that they
always know best?

Quatrain

War, drought, famine, global warming:
have the End Times come to town?
Pouting, tweeting hard, barnstorming,
could the Last Trump be this clown?

The Book Group at Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane (Vintage 2011)

bohane.jpgBefore the Book Group’s meeting: At its last meeting, which I didn’t get to, the Book Group discussed a book about the parlous state of the human species. I imagine this one was chosen as our next title, if not as light relief, then as a source of stylistic delight. It’s a dystopian world, the world of Bohane, a ruthless world of gang warfare on the west coast of Ireland, possibly in some post-catastrophic future – not terribly unlike the world of A Clockwork OrangeThe Threepenny Opera or maybe The Sopranos, for the violence and sexual exploitation, and also for the creative energy in the writing.

Here’s a paragraph picked pretty much at random before I had to return my copy to the library:

Tipping seventy, Ol’ Boy dresses much younger. He wore low-rider strides, high-top boots with the heels clicker’d, a velveteen waistcoat and an old-style yard hat set at a frisky, pimpish angle. Ol’ Boy had connections all over the city – he was the Bohane go-between. He was as comfortable sitting for a powwow in the drawing room of a Beauvista manse as he was making a rendezvous at a Rises flatblock. Divil a bit stirred at the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge. He was on jivey, fist-bumping terms with the suits of the business district – those blithe and lardy boys who worked Endeavour Avenue down in the Bohane New Town – and he could chew the fat equably with the most ignorant of Big Nothin’ spud-aters. The Mannion voicebox was an instrument of wonder. It mimicked precisely the tones and cadence of whoever he was speaking to, while retaining always a warm and reassuring note.

I was enthralled by the language and by the twisting intrigue until the very last movement. Oddly, the last 40 pages fell flat. Maybe Kevin Barry could feel the end approaching and simply didn’t have to stomach to make it happen with the same gusto as everything that had come before.

After the meeting: Well, there was an attempt to drum up some controversy, but in fact we all love loved the linguistic play of this, except for one who just found it hard going, and of course the two out of nine who hadn’t read the book. Some complained that it was just good fun (of a bloodthirsty sort) and didn’t give any hint of how the world had come to such a state, but others (me included) didn’t see why it needed to do that.

We wondered about the geography. Is there any western Ireland city that matches the description of Bohane? One of the better travelled among us said that the Portuguese city of Porto fitted exactly, and others agreed. An interesting possibility, since at least one of the characters (Macu, short for Immaculata) comes from Portugal. In general we liked the regular moments when the narrative stops for a description of what a character is wearing.

After a brief engagement with the book, conversation ranged wide: travellers’ tales, a Rodney Rude joke, one man’s prostate cancer saga (mostly a good luck story), paternal boasting, one empty-nest-after-30+-years announcement, the excellence of The Necks, an impersonation of Bundaberg farmers deciding whether to burn the cane, reports from the Sydney Film Festival (Young MarxAbacus: Small Enough to Jail and Citizen Jane good; Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves to be avoided). And we ate roast chicken and salads – the latecomer missed out on the chickpeas.

Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater

Cathy McLennan, Saltwater (UQP 2016)

saltwater.jpegDon’t be misled by the sales pitch on the front cover of Saltwater: ‘An epic fight for justice in the tropics.’ It’s not exactly false, but in so far as it suggests a grand fictional narrative, it’s certainly misleading. This is Cathy McLennan’s account of the first months of her employment as a brand new barrister. A non-disclaimer after the title page begins, ‘This book is a personal account based upon real events, real crimes, real people and real court cases.’

I was predisposed to like it because it mentions my niece Paula Shaw’s Seven Seasons in Aurukun in its acknowledgements. It turns out that it has a lot in common with Paula’s book. Paula went as a teacher to Aurukun, where she was confronted daily with the failure of the education system to meet the needs of the Aboriginal community; Cathy McLennan worked for the Townsville and Districts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Corporation for Legal Aid Services, and was confronted by the even greater, more tragic failure of the legal system.

The central narrative involves four young Aboriginal men who are accused of murdering an older white man, a case that landed on McLennan’s desk in her first days on the job. She is inexperienced, but the service is underfunded and understaffed, so she is given responsibility for the case. At first she is convinced of the innocence of the four, and it looks as if a standard TV episode narrative of vindication of the clients will unfold. This story, being real, is both more interesting and complex than that, and also much grimmer.

In this, and the other stories, particularly that of an appallingly abused eleven-year-old girl who meets with half-hearted good intentions from Children’s Services and peremptory punitiveness from the court system, the book forces its readers to look directly at the level of damage being done to children in places like Palm Island. She doesn’t spend time analysing the causes. She doesn’t need to. At every turn, Aboriginal people are struggling to do right by the young ones, but their efforts are thwarted by the result of the damage they have suffered and by indifferent, even hostile government bodies. Nor does she propose solutions: this is an account from the front line of a non-Aboriginal person trying to be of use, and coming hard up against the horrors (not too strong a word) of some Aboriginal lives, not a political tract.

My sense is that this is a book that should be widely read, especially by non-Indigenous Australians, but that it should be read along with any number of other books, because read alone, even though there are many strong, smart Aboriginal people in its pages, it could easily be read as preaching despair. But read alongside, say, books by Aboorignal people like Lesley and Tammy Williams’ Not Just Black and White, or Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country, or by other non-Aboriginal people who work with remote Aboriginal communities, like Andrew Stojanowski’s Dog Ear Cafe or (added later, thanks to Jim Kable in the comments) Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful, it’s a powerful addition to the knowledge pool.

aww2017.jpgSaltwater is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I’ve just come back from visiting Tokkōtai, an exhibition of work by contemporary Australian and Japanese artists to mark the 75th anniversary of the so-called Battle of Sydney Harbour. If you’re in Sydney, I recommend you try to get to see it before it closes on 12 June. It’s in the T5 Camouflage Fuel Tank in Georges Heights, Mosman.

On the night of 31 May 1942, three Japanese midget submarines made a surprise attack on Sydney Harbour. Twenty-one Australian naval personnel and six Japanese submariners were killed. Though the exhibition program says the episode ‘left an indelible mark on Australian identity and the course of our history’, really it has been swallowed up by the Great Australian Amnesia except for an occasional newspaper mention, its meaning unarticulated and its impact unresolved. In this exhibition there’s a sense of that night being dragged back into awareness, and not so much as a key event in Australian history as a point of departure for cross-cultural understanding.

Ken Done’s series of paintings, Attack – Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour, is the big surprise. It’s as far from the Sydney Harbour prints that he’s famous for as you could imagine. In fifteen paintings he tells the story of the Japanese men on the subs, from their inculcation into the ethos of self-sacrifice to their burial with full military honours in Sydney in 1942.

There are two pieces of video art. Jennie Feyen’s Sakura and Steel features dancer Kei Ikeda. Miku Sato’s Not the Yellow Submarines is accompanied by a tiny model of a submarine floating in the air, bathed in yellowish light that creates an underwater feel.

For me, Michelle Belgiorno’s A Thousand Stitches of Hope and Sue Pedley’s Orange-Net-Work are the real guts of the show. Each of these involved the participation of hundreds of people, and gained a huge emotional impact from that.

Belgiorno’s work consists of 75 senninbari belts – belts that were traditionally good luck tokens given to soldiers before they went to war. The beautiful belts in the exhibition were made in a series of sewing workshops where Japanese and Australian women ‘of all ages’ sewed together ‘while discussing reconciliation and Australian–Japanese history.

The centrepiece of Pedley’s work is a huge orange net that was made for another artwork some years ago by volunteers in a small fishing village in the Japanese Inland Sea. Repurposed here, and hung around the four great pillars of the Fuel Tank, enclosing chunks of rock, it creates a shrine-like space that has one thinking of traditional Japanese life, zen gardens, and the underwater net that was lethal to two of the six submariners. A wall of ghostlike rubbings from clothing from the fishing village and a military museum completes this very powerful work.

Unfortunately, the remaining work, Gary Warner’s Orange-Net-Work-Soundings, a soundscape that accompanied Sue Pedley’s work, was inaudible when I was there, drowned out by the soundtrack of the videos.

It’s a terrific exhibition. Photos don’t do any part of it justice, but here’s what I could come up with.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Saga 7

Fiona Staples (artist) and Brian K Vaughan (writer), Saga volume seven (Image Comics 2017)

saga7.jpegThe adventures of Hazel, now at least five years old, and her two-species family continue.

This time she has a little brother on the way. At least, one of the cute meerkat-like creatures who temporarily join the family when they land to refuel on war-torn comet Phang is sure it will be a brother. A page-high image of an erect penis on page 3 is adequate warning that this volume is not suitable for children or for reading at work. (The Explicit Material in the first volume passed me by; this lot is unmissable.) And there’s not just (mostly joyful or comic) sex, but also (mostly swashbuckling or spectacular) violence. War continues between the horns and the wings, with vast collateral damage. Both sides, and a growing number of individuals, are still out to kill Hazel and her family. Our little crew is on a mission to rescue the Robot prince’s son. Hazel’s father, Marko, struggles to maintain his principled pacifism in the face of necessity and his remembered joy in violence.

A delightful new development is the television-headed Robot entertaining the young ones with cartoons on his screen ‘face’, and then their sneaking into his room to watch his dreams play across the screen:

Kurti: This is a creepy one.
Hazel: His dreams are always creepy, Kurti.
Kurti: I suppose. Least they’re not as boring as reading sacred scrolls with my cousins.

And in the following frames, as Kurti and Hazel lose interest and discuss the pressing matter of who will look after the baby when it arrives, we see the rest of the Prince’s nightmare play out on his screen in the background.

The juxtaposition of Hazel’s text narrative, which sometimes could almost be from a Wonder Years script, with the action taking place in the images makes brilliant use of the comics medium. For example, an image of Hazel’s mother kneeling between the prone, possibly dead bodies of Marko and the Robot prince is accompanied by the hand lettered text: ‘By the time they’re out of preschool, most children have seen thousands of acts of violence.’ Turn the page, and Hazel is playing hide and seek with her new friend Kurti, while the hand-lettered narrative continues, ‘Granted, for the average kid, these acts are mostly fictional … and unlike the real deal, fictional violence is cool as shit.’ And the last frame of the opposite page shows Kurti looking with terror into the faces (sic) of an assassin.

Most of this volume is spent in one place. At the end, we are on the move again, but the situation is, literally and graphically, very dark.

SWF 2017 Sunday

Just two events on the last day, both being read to.

10 am The Big Read
The Emerging Artist and I have been saddened to watch the Big Read shrink over the years from ninety minutes to an hour, and take place in ever smaller venues, in spite of being dependably booked out. The organisers seem determined to wean us of the pleasure of being read to. This year, as if being prepared for the axe, the Big Read moved to early Sunday morning. What’s more, Annette Shun Wah has disappeared from the hosting chair. Still, the show did go on, the Philharmonia Studio was packed, and Patrick Abboud had plenty of charm as rookie MC.

Desi Anwar kicked off with a reading from her collection of newspaper columns, Being Indonesian. The piece she read was a light essay on the terrible traffic in her home town, Jakarta. She set it up by saying how beautiful Sydney was by comparison, but it wasn’t hard to find parallels.

Anuk Arudpragasam (a strikingly young man initially from Sri Lanka, now based in New York) read from The Story of a Brief Marriage a gruelling account of experiencing shellfire near the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Patrick Abboud invited members of the audience to say how the reading made them feel. One woman redeemed the mistake by speaking eloquently about how Australia’s current immigration policy penalises people who seek asylum here having escaped from the kind of experience we’d just heard.

Natalie Haynes (from England) read from The Children of Jocasta. ‘I’m very funny in person,’ she said by way in introduction, ‘but there aren’t many laughs in this book.’ She did explain that the reading included an extremely recondite joke about Linear B. The book tells the Oedipus story, from Jocasta’s point of view, and it certainly starts out grimly, though compellingly written.

The tremendously charismatic Witi Ihimaera read from his childhood memoir Maori Boy, a charming passage about his grandmother’s benign interventions on his first days at Pakeha school. He invited us all to join him in reciting a couple of nursery rhymes that were part of his story, and he ended with a beautiful song in Maori ‘for all grandmothers’.

In the end, though I still lament the smaller venue and shorter time, the greater intimacy allowed for some interesting audience engagement.

Then a big gap including lunch and some time at home, before:

4.30  Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy

When I booked for this session, Carol Ann Duffy was advertised as speaking with Sarah Kanowski. What we got was arguably better: a little more than 50 minutes of Carol Ann reading her poetry.

She started out with the two poems she had read at the first event I attended, and it was a little unnerving that she introduced them with the identical patter, including the vacant stare offstage when she told us that Tiresias was punished by the gods by being turned into a woman. Clearly she has done this gig a thousand times before, and Mrs Tiresias’ and ‘Mrs Aesop’ are reliable ice-breakers. She followed them up with ‘Mrs Faust’, which she said she will rename ‘The Third Mrs Trump’ for the next edition of The World’s Wife.

Then it got serious, with a series of poems from her book Rapture, each poem representing a moment in a relationship.

Ms Duffy is the Poet Laureate of the UK, and most of the poems she read in the remainder of the session were very UK-specific: ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’ (a response to having one of her poems banned because of an examination invigilator; a protest about a directive from the UK Post Office not to name Counties on envelope addresses; a response to the inquest findings about the Hillsborough Inquest. I suppose its reasonable to assume that an Australian audience will recognise these references – we are after all a former colony. But it did rankle a little: I mean, do we really care how people in the UK address their letters? and I’d love to know how many people felt the need to Google Hillsborough after the event.

All the same, when she read the poem ‘Prayer’, dedicating it to her home town of Manchester. all was forgiven.

And my Festival was over. The theme of ‘Refuge’ didn’t have much bearing on my experience. Of all the fellow-punters I talked to, none had been to the same events as I had, so I don’t think I can comment on the festival as a whole. I missed the PEN chairs, which in past years have sat empty at the edge of the stage representing a writer in prison somewhere in the world. I wish the Acknowledgements of Country had happened more consistently, and that chairs from abroad or out of Sydney had been encouraged to learn to pronounce ‘Gadigal’ and ‘Eora’. I would prefer overseas guests to be interviewed or moderated by locals so the audience isn’t left eavesdropping on people who don’t necessarily share our concerns. I hope the festival can stay at Walsh Bay. I’ve come away with a list of books to read, and look forward to listening over the next year to more than a hundred podcasts of sessions I missed.

SWF 2017 Saturday

I had planned to start my third day at the Sydney Writers’ Festival with Maxine Beneba Clarke talking to Peter Polites at 10 am. But a text on Saturday advised that Maxine couldn’t be here, so we had an unexpectedly leisurely start to the day, arriving in time to queue for:

11.30  Resist!
‘Resist’ is a word that has come into frequent usage in the US since the election of Donald Trump as President. Let me say up front that there was a problem with this event: it was two USers (Teen Vogue Editor Elaine Welteroth and Nadja Spiegelman, daughter of two New Yorker illuminati) talking about US politics with a third USer (Slate‘s movie critic Dana Stevens) in the chair, so they could talk to each other as if they were at home and the rest of the world, including this audience, were peripheral. Luckily the third panel member, Hisham Matar (The Return), though he was born in New York, brought a very different perspective to the conversation.

The three US representatives addressed the word ‘resist’: why ‘resistance’ rather than the more usual ‘opposition’? is this self-dramatisation, or something more substantial? They generally agreed that the election had brought about a political awakening, a new energy and sense of purpose, in many people. It was interesting to learn that Nadja Spiegelman and her mother had produced Resist!,  a free 40-page broadsheet of political comics and graphics by mainly female artists in time for the big women’s march after the election; and that Teen Vogue has become a key source of news for teen girls, including a regular feature describing the lies told by the President between issues.

Then Hisham Matar shifted the ground. It’s not so much the word that concerned him as the register. He spoke of his childhood in an intensely political home, listening to conversation among dissidents with life and death commitment. As a child, he asked (I think he said ‘mischievously’), ‘Who is more sculpted by the dictatorship, those who work night and day to defend it, or those who work night and day to resist it?’ The challenge is not to let the oppressive forces define the world. Political dogma tends inexorably to simplify matters, and rather than resist in equally simplified terms, to always honour complexity, to show up as your full, authentic self is powerful activism and resistance, to always be engaged with complexity. He hoped, I think he said, to have a response to the current situation in he USA that was complex enough to include the recognition that Trump is his brother.

Wonderfully, the other panel member responded to this perspective without defensiveness, and the conversation took an interesting turn. Spiegelman commented that in the art submitted to Resist!, the male artists tended to create images of Donald Trump (small hands, etc), while the women addressed the reality of their lives as women. Elaine Welteroth spoke of young women she knows who are taking powerful leadership, and then described her own version of ‘turning up as your full authentic self’: she was the first African American to have a particular position in a large US corporation, but when she applied for the job it wasn’t with the aim of being ‘the first’ or ‘the only’, it was simply the next challenge in her career; when the press made a big deal of it she realised that it brought responsibilities, which she embraced.

The first question at the end raised the question that had been hovering in my mind ever since I saw that the session was sponsored by a skincare product: to what extent is resistance to Donald Trump being coopted by corporate America. One of the panellists quotes a disparaging witticism, ‘Activism is the new brunch.’ We had to leave before that discussion unfolded. The last thing I heard was someone saying, ‘we could do a whole panel discussion on that Pepsi ad.’ Indeed!

1.30 Memoir: A Slippery Art
I went to this session mainly because of Kim Mahood’s wonderful Position Doubtful. All I knew about the other panellists was that Brentley Frazer’s youth was misspent to the max and Graeme Innes is a promoter of worthy causes.

Catherine Eccles, a ‘scouting agent’ from the UK, was in the chair for this unlikely gathering. She kicked the conversation off with a question about maps, and read a brief quote about maps from Kim Mahood’s book. Before addressing the question, Mahood said that she had laboured over the passage that had been read out, so as to express her meaning as clearly and precisely as she could. Asked to speak on the subject, she wasn’t sure anything she would say could measure up. I don’t think Mahood was trying to make a point when she said that, but she did make one. Nobody read to us at this session, and that is a shame.

There was much discussion of how Brentley’s use of English Prime – his writing the whole book without using any of the copular verbs, amis, arewaswerebe, been, being – made his book Scoundrel Time wonderfully immediate, especially in its (unspecified) shocking moments, but we had to take the panel’s word for it. Graeme Innes has been blind from birth, and a natural story-teller from soon after. He described his book, Finding a Way, as all the stories he tells about his life connected up. He was a pleasure to listen to, but I would have liked to hear him, or someone else in the absence of a Braille text, read from his book. And Kim Mahood, well, I doubt if anyone in the audience who hadn’t read her book would have gathered from her unassuming manner just how profound the book is.

I mean no criticism of Catherine Eccles, but I did wonder if this session would have been more interesting with an Australian in the chair. All three books have something profound to say about Australia – Kim Mahood on relationships between settler and traditional Aboriginal people who have strong attachment to the same land; Brentley Frazer on  how we imagine masculinity; and Graeme Innes is a brilliant exemplar of a distinctive Australian yarn-spinning humour. But these aspects of their work were only incidentally touched on.

3 pm  Nevertheless, She Persisted

This is the second event today that owes its title to US politics. (If you don’t know the story of Elizabeth Warren’s silencing, you can read it here.) This time, though, the focus was on women, on feminism and the struggle against patriarchy.

Clementine Ford is a feminist celebrity and misogynist hate target. I haven’t read her Fight Like a Girl, a good reason to pay to hear her speak. Robert Jensen has written the intriguingly subtitled The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. Catherine Fox, a tireless worker for women in the corporate world and the armed forces, chaired.

Ford apologised at the start, saying she was struggling with fatigue, and a possible explanation became evident in the course of the hour as her little son woke up and demanded her attention, then struggled first to be fed then to pull himself around the table on the stage picking up styrofoam cups and generally providing an alternative focus of attention.

It was a good discussion. I loved Jensen’s argument for men to join this conversation. If we put our hands in the air and say we have no right to speak, we are abrogating our personal accountability. And it’s not enough to say one is a feminist. There are many versions of feminism; he is a radical feminist. We didn’t get down to definitions about  what kind of feminism the other two panel members advocated.

There was civil but tense disagreement about pornography, about which the hour wasn’t long enough for real discussion.

Again, I would have liked to hear some of each of the authors’ books.

Then off to a little feast of poetry at:

4.30 AVANT GAGA
Toby Fitch, organiser of the monthly Avant Gaga readings at Sappho’s Bookshop in Glebe, hosted nine poets. The venue wasn’t quite as big as Thursday’s but it’s not late at night or tucked away in a glary room either. Maybe poetry is coming back out of the shadows. By way of general introduction, Toby said that all the poets had written or were writing books, some had won awards and they all had personal lives, so his individual intros consisted of a string of anagrams (which must have taken him hours to devise).

I jotted down notes of anagrams and lines that struck me, but sadly my nots are mainly illegible. In order, we heard:

  • Toby Fitch (no anagrams, but he read us a cool list poem about clouds)
  • Emily Stewart
  • Aden Rolfe (‘ear fondle’, a found poem consisting of the editorial notes on a government tender form)
  • Holly Isemonger (whose mother, in the audience, was cajoled into saying she didn’t like poetry because she didn’t ‘get it’)
  • Alison Whittaker (I wrote down a lot of quotes from her, and they’re as legible as spiders’ tracks – sorry!)
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘mean backbone lyric’; again, she knocked us out of the park)
  • Amelia Dale (this poem was brilliant in the performance, though Lord knows what it would look like on the page: she mimed while a computer-generated voice recited the text of Malcolm Turnbull’s side of an interview with Leigh Sales)
  • Jane Gibian (‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’, a poem made up of subject lines from freecycle emails – as a freecycler I loved this, even more than I loved Aden Rolfe’s editorial poem)
  • Michael Farrell (‘While My Veranda Gently Weeps’)

Sorry, no more detail than that. But it was a lot of fun.

We walked up town, had dinner in the old GPO at Martin Plaza, then to the Town Hall for:

8.30 Advice from Nasty Women
And it’s a hat-trick for US-politics-derived naming of events today. This time it’s Donald Trump’s insult of Hillary Clinton that’s being reclaimed. (Surely some of our local reactionaries have given us a memorable phrase or two, or have they all shut up since the great success of ‘destroying the joint’?)

Here for an hour and a half we were read to, with Sophie Black as compere.

Anita Heiss kicked off with an acknowledgement of country, and a beautiful piece of writing about Barangaroo (the woman not the place), Oodgeroo, and Rosie Scott (a white woman with a black heart).

US writer, editor and cultural critic Chris Kraus, labouring through a heavy cold, took the ‘nasty’ in ‘nasty women’ literally, and read some of Kathy Ackers’s nasty letters.

Nadja Spiegelman read a personal essay about jealousy. This is the third time I’ve seen her at this Festival, and she has been good value every time, each time revealing another side of her writerly self.

Viola Di Grado, a depressed looking young Italian woman, read a depressing story about childhood bullying in a depressed manner, and ended with an exhortation, ‘Always be a witch. Always be real.’

Canadian Durga Chew-Bose read a letter to her infant niece, a kind of good-fairy blessing, and chief among the blessings she wished on the little one was to find meaning.

African-American Brit Bennett began by saying that the whole Twitter phenomenon of women reclaiming nastiness was pretty much restricted to white women, because in the US African American women have been labelled nasty already in a number of ways. In a serendipitous echo of Hisham Matar earlier in the day, she called for a more complex feminism than Twitter seems to envision.

So the take-home message from the day was to go for complexity. I took it home.