Jeannie Baker’s Desert Jungle

Jeannie Baker, Desert Jungle (Walker Books Australia 2023)

There are no books quite like Jeannie Baker’s. For four decades she has been creating picture books that are immediately recognisable as hers. Where the Forest Meets the Sea (1988) was the first one I encountered. In it, a small boy wanders through the Daintree rainforest in North Queensland. The forest is recreated in collaged materials, most of them gathered in the real-life rainforest, to stunning effect. The book is meant for young readers, but readers of all ages are intrigued and delighted by the extraordinarily detailed work that has gone into the images.

Since then, every couple of years, a new book using similar collage techniques has appeared. All of them reflect a deep concern and love for the natural environment. Window (1991) traces the changes to a rural environment brought about by urban sprawl as seen through a child’s window. The Story of Rosy Dock (1995) features a beautiful but destructive invasive weed. Circle (2016) is about migratory birds.

Jeannie Baker has made short films of Where the Forest Meets the Sea and The Story of Rosy Dock – both of which are available from the National Film and Sound Archive. And there have been many exhibitions of her original artwork.

Which brings me to Desert Jungle. I read the book at the Penrith Regional Art Gallery, at an exhibition of the collages for this book. The gallery website describes the work (and the book) in these terms:

In this new story, Jeannie explores the Valley of the Cirios in Mexico, through the perspective of a young child and his grandfather. In parts of the Valley, towering stands of Cardon Cactus – some of the largest cacti on Earth – and Elephant Trees, mix with Cirios and other unique desert plants as a ‘forest’, almost a desert jungle. These cacti and other plants form both subject and material for Jeannie, who incorporates clippings from plants in her intricate and stunning works

The collages are in effect dioramas, displayed behind perspex that is curved to accommodate their depth. Part of the fascination is to read the labels, to see that most of the images are made from parts of the plants they represent. Even, in an image of the young boy sitting with his grandfather, the hairs on the old man’s arm are actual human hair meticulously glued in place.

In the context of these wonders, the book’s story is almost of secondary interest. When the boy visits his grandfather, he doesn’t like to go out into the surrounding desert because he’s afraid of coyotes, so he stays by the house and plays on his tablet. A coyote steals his precious technology and when he wanders out to search for it, he finds the desert isn’t so scary after all. He even encounters the coyote and nothing bad happens. It’s an understated little drama about facing one’s fears, and at the same time has something to say about the importance of engaging with the natural world.

I haven’t read it with a small child yet. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.

SWF 2023: My sixth day

Another early start with 10–11 am: Barrie Cassidy & Friends: State of the Nation

Veteran journalist Barrie Cassidy has been a regular at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, but this is the first time I’ve been to one of his sessions. He was on stage with what the festival program calls ‘his hand-picked squad of the country’s sharpest pundits’: Amy Remeikis, Niki Savva and Laura Tingle. They’re all regulars on current affairs TV, but I don’t think I’d seen any of them in person before.

The subject was politics, that is to say mainly electoral politics and the state of the major parties. The most telling comment was towards the end when Barrie Cassidy said, ‘When there’s consensus between the major parties, the media doesn’t chase it up.’ This means that the press doesn’t do a lot of interrogating of the AUKUS deal – is it actually in Australia’s interest or is it a matter of us serving the interests of the UK and the US? Similarly, coverage of climate issues through a party-political lens can often miss the point.

Nikki Savva’s subject seems to be the Liberal party. She sees the current dominance of Labor in Federal parliament and in all mainland states is largely due to the decline of the Liberals as a fighting machine and also as representative of a population. They are ceasing to be an effective opposition, or even an opposition at all. Peter Dutton’s survival strategy depends on three things: the failure of teh referendum on the Voice; an economic crash; and the rise of intolerance. Hard to cheer for him, then, and she says many dyed in the wool Liberals can no longer bring themselves to vote for what the party has become since Howard.

Amy Remeikis, introduced by Barrie Cassidy as political correspondent for The Australian much to the amusement of the Guardian readers in the audience, thought Labor’s ascendancy had something to do with changing demographics. Millennials now outnumber boomers, and in addition to the tendency of people to be more progressive when young, there’s the fact that life is particularly tough for the young these days.

Laura Tingle added that politics tends to go in cycles. This is Labor’s time for dominance, it was at rock bottom in 2014.

All agreed that there is a growing disconnect between the political class – politicians, political journalists, people who turn up for panels like this one – and the rest of the community. People are doing it hard, inequality is bigger than it’s ever been, our sense of common life is being eroded (not as badly in the USA, yet). Things are better than they were before last year’s election. The people in charge now are there with good motives, but business as usual could lead to disaster. We need grown-up conversations about tax and climate policy, and we’ve got a way to go for that.

A non-party-political subject that got some airplay was the recent resignation of Stan Grant after he was subjected to vicious and sometimes racist attack for giving a Wiradjuri perspective on the British Crown. Laura Tingle, as recently elected member of the ABC’s Board, said she had been out of action for a couple of weeks because of a bereavement, but deeply regretted Stan’s lack of support from management and the Board.

I haven’t ever watched Insiders, which used to be Barrie Cassidy’s Sunday morning show on the ABC. I imagine this was a slightly generalised version of that. One of the questions at the end referred to the fact that over a number of years not one non-white panellist had appeared on that show (the questioner didn’t need to point out that all the panellists today were white). Barrie did the only thing he could do and said it had been a mistake.

11 am: Osman Faruqi on Australia’s War Against Hip Hop

I listened to this Curiosity Lecture almost by accident. I know almost nothing about hip hop, and I guess I skip over headlines saying that it has been banned in venues including Sydney’s Royal Easter Show.

Osman Faruqi’s exasperated plea could have been meant specifically for me: ‘For once, listen to some art that doesn’t come from Bondi or Balmain.’ (Though, to be honest, I don’t know when I last listened to music from either Bondi or Balmain.)

He told us that NSW Police have taken steps to ban particular hip hop performers saying, nonsensically, that their music is used to ‘procure’ members for criminal bikie gangs etc. This censorship, he said, is ‘the greatest example of artistic suppression in Australia’s history’. If Nick Cave, who is white and part of the music establishment, sings about murdering every woman he sees, no one bans his song as inciting murder. When Bill Henson’s photographs are taken down, there’s an outcry. But if a brown rapper uses violent imagery they are banned from performing and police have their videos removed from YouTube, and there is resounding silence from the art world, including from successful white rappers.

Showing my age: in the 1970s the campaign against censorship focused on erotic material, because the banning of material deemed pornographic (the famous example if Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam was also banned). You don’t have to love pornography or be a fan of drill-rap to be uneasy about what’s happening now

12–12.30 pm: Beginnings: Remembering Robert Adamson and Frank Moorhouse

There were a number of ‘Beginnings’ sessions. It’s a nice idea: people read the beginnings of their favourite books, or perhaps their own books, on the assumption that writers put a lot of attention to their opening paragraphs.

This short session used the format to honour Frank Moorhouse and Robert Adamson, who both died in the last 12 months. I wonder if it would be an idea to plan a couple of elegiac sessions along these lines for every Writers’ Festival. Spaces could be left blank for people who die too late to be included in advance publicity. John Tranter, who died on 21 April this year, might then have been honoured.

As it was, Annabel Crabb and Mark Mordue read to us.

Annabel read the opening pages of the first two ‘Edith’ books, the first line of the third, and then the final pages, Edith’s death scene, from Cold Light, the third book. It was shockingly good.

Mark Mordue opened with a letter found in Adamson’s papers in which Frank Moorhouse responded warmly to one of Adamson’s poems. He spoke briefly about Adamson’s life, including his time in prison, his drug addiction and the role of his wife Juno Gemes. He finished with a poem that Adamson wrote for her, ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul’, which Adamson himself read at at least one previous Sydney Writers’ Festival. It ends:

_________________________ the future awaits you.
I stepped into the day, by following your gaze.

I want to make a final small observation about acknowledgements of country.

My initial prompt for this was an acknowledgement that was gobsmackingly perfunctory: the presenter didn’t look at us, but read hurriedly from a clipboard, stumbling slightly over the words. Disrespect may not have been intended, but it was certainly there.

I started to notice how other presenters made their acknowledgements personal. For example:

  • Michael Williams spoke briefly of how the land was unceded and so the issue of sovereignty was unresolved
  • Omar Sakr noted that some people object to the acknowledgements and responded that words – words like ‘genocide’ and ‘sovereignty’ – matter, that words give rise to actions
  • Sisonke Msimang made acknowledgement first in her own mother tongue and then in English
  • Felicity Plunkett quoted two lines about the power of country from First Nations poet Ellen van Neerven
  • Barrie Cassidy drew our attention to the coming referendum on a First Nations Voice to Parliament.

I was born on Mamu land in what is now North Queensland, and my father remembered as a child hearing ceremony down at the river behind our place. I’m writing this on Gadigal-Wangal land. Both places make my heart sing.

And the Festival is over, bar the podcasting.

SWF 2023: My fifth day

12–1 pm: Crime and Justice

This session demonstrated the strengths of a two-person panel. It was progressing quite nicely, as Sarah Krasnostein (my blog post about her Quarterly Essay Not Waving, Drowning here) introduced the talent, Helen Garner (my relevant blog post here) and Hedley Thomas (creator of the podcast Teacher’s Pet), and asked about their writing process.

When Helen Garner is embarking on a long project, she buys a spiral bound A4 notebook and keeps a kind of diary of everything related to the project: not transcripts of interviews, but odd details, what she did, and thought, and felt. When it came time to marshal the material she had accumulated for Joe Cinque’s Consolations she was at a loss where to start, looked to the notebooks for inspiration and discovered that they contained the skeleton of the book.

Hedley Thomas was in the middle of answering a similar procedural question, when Garner was visibly excited by something he said. With a quick look at Sarah Krasnostein, half asking permission and half apologising, she interrupted to take the conversation off in a whole new direction: the way footballers tend to have a degree of immunity from police investigation because of their almost hallowed status in Australian society. From then on we were treated to a lively conversation between two people who had deep appreciation for each other’s work and were swapping stories and genuine compliments.

Sarah Krasnosteiin made a couple of attempts to restore order, but I think she could tell things were going swimmingly. This session is sure to appear on the SWF podcast during the year.

5–6 pm Alexis Wright: Praiseworthy

Alexis Wright’s third massive novel, Praiseworthy, was published just a couple of months ago. Ivor Indyk, director of Giramondo Publishing, stepped in at short notice to discuss it with her, replacing Sisonke Msimang, who had been called home to Western Australia unexpectedly. So, in this session, an author discussed her novel with her publisher and editor – that is to say, with a reader who had some influence on how the book turned out.

I was one of the few people in the room to have read the book. I was keen to lap up any guidance from either Ivor or Alexis on how to make sense of the experience. I’m glad to report that I got plenty.

For a start, it was reassuring that Alexis mentioned some of the more bizarre plot developments with a wicked smile, and the audience laughed quite a lot as the two of them named odd characters and moments. Ivor said towards the end of the conversation that the comedy of her work was often overshadowed by its epic qualities. For me, the issue was more how seriously to take the epic qualities when, as summarised by their author in this conversation, they had such absurd qualities.

Asked about the original idea for the book, Alexis Wright said she didn’t remember – she’d have to look up her notebooks. Perhaps it had to do asking what Aboriginal people are to in the new era of global warming and climate change. She started writing it when she was working on her multivocal biography of Tracker Tilmouth in 2017 (my blog post here), and the visionary at the heart of the novel ‘Cause Man Steel, Widespread or Planet, whatever you want to call him’) is in part based on Tracker. Widespread’s plan for a global transport conglomerate using Australia’s five million feral donkeys, though, is all hers: it’s absurd to the point of surrealism, but there’s something true in the way it leads to a cycle of vision and disappointment.

The book is in part a celebration of Aboriginal people’s will to survive, manifested in many ways, tainted by 240 years of living in the coloniser’s world. The enemy in this book is the project of assimilation.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the exchange about music. Referring to the Ice Queens – grotesque, larger-than-life women who appear toward the end of the book – Ivor wondered about the influence of opera. Alexis agreed that she loved opera, but seemed nonplussed at Ivor’s suggestion that these characters are operatic. The music she listens to most while writing is classical Indian music and yidaki (didgeridoo). She tries to capture the tone and rhythm of that music – the pulse, the heartbeat: ‘We say that we’re of one heartbeat with the country.’

‘You hear what you’re writing,’ Wright said. ‘Then it gets recorded and you want it to be the voice you heard, but it can’t be that voice.’

There was a lot more. Ivor touched on the way Wright defies conventions, at times inventing words that look like mistakes, but which are anything but.

I’ll be attempting my own blog post about Praiseworthy in the next couple of days. Wish me luck!

We made a quick dash to a smaller venue for 6–7 pm State of the Art

Kate Evans of ABC’s The Bookshelf presided over another panel. This time it was Eleanor Catton, Richard Flanagan, Tracey Lien and Colson Whitehead invited to discuss the state of the novel and the future of fiction.

I haven’t read anything books by any of these authors, apart from one novel that I hated, which I’m told is completely unrepresentative of their work. I enjoyed the ebb and flow of conversation, but didn’t have anything to ground myself in.

Kate Evans asked if ChatGPT and other AI content producers spelled the end of novelists. Tracey Lien, the youngest on the panel and the only one without a string of awards to her name (and not at all intimidated by that, she said smiling bravely), said she used ChatGPT as a research assistant, but it couldn’t do the writing. On the one hand, it doesn’t have a brain, but produces word after word by complex algorithms, and the act of reading is a back-and-forth between minds. On the other hand, ChatGPT lies.

Richard Flanagan, whose scowl occasionally gave to an appreciative grimace at another panellist’s point well made, said he didn’t care about AI. He’d just keep writing.

The subject of decent recompense for the work of writing, and of all creative work generally, provoked more interest. Digital publishing changes the landscape significantly. They all agreed they weren’t in it for the money, but money would be nice. Eleanor Catton said that working as a scriptwriter was hugely more remunerative. Responding to a question at the end about how to become a writer and also earn a living, Flanagan said he had decided to be a writer when he was very young and in order to achieve it he lived in poverty for years. There was no other way. Colson Whitehead said something similar: after a significant number of successful novels he was at least temporarily able to live on his earnings as a writer. He implied that this is precarious.

Whitehead, Flanagan and Catton spoke interestingly about not repeating themselves, each new novel being a whole new challenge.

SWF 2023: My fourth day

Friday was my day for poetry, starting early:

10–11am In Conversation: Anthony Joseph

Anthony Joseph comes from Trinidad and is currently based in the UK. He was in conversation with Felicity Plunkett, one of the few Australian poets to appear on the program. Though his most recent book of poetry, Sonnets for Albert, won the 2022 T S Eliot Prose for Poetry, Felicity Plunkett assumed, correctly in my case, that the audience was unfamiliar with it, and filled us in: it’s a book, mainly in sonnets, about the poet’s father.

The conversation covered two main subjects, both engrossing: the story of Joseph’s father and his use of the sonnet form.

A young friend of mine once said of her father, with obvious affection, ‘He was a terrible dad.’ Joseph could go further: ‘He was my father, but he wasn’t a dad.’ He married very young, and left the marriage after just enough time for two sons to be born, then in the rest of his life had ten more children by a number of women. Joseph’s brother remained bitter about being abandoned until, at the very end, he was at his dying father’s bedside. Joseph himself lived with his paternal grandmother as a small boy and her affection for her son rubbed off on him. The poems, as I understand it, explore this emotional complexity. I’ve bought a copy of the book.

The sonnet – which Felicity Plunkett described as being an inheritance just as much family experience is – is more than a poem. In the English-speaking world, it’s a feeling, a thing you recognise in many places: in the shape of a pop song, even in the shape of the human body. It’s a way of thinking. For Caribbean/Black poets, it’s interesting to find ways of using the form and making it fit their experience. When he was writing the book, Joseph started out adhering strictly to the rules, but then began taking all sorts of liberties. His father’s voice said to him: ‘You can’t put me in this box.’

He quoted two Caribbean poets. Kamau Braithwaite: ‘The hurricane does not roar in pentameter.’ Derek Walcott: ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination.’

Speaking of himself, he said that luckily he has access not only to standard English but to Trinidadian Creole, which (I’m almost certainly getting this wrong) uses English words with African-derived grammar. To illustrate, he read us sonnets from the book in standard English and in Trinidadian.

There were some good questions. I loved his description of his process for writing a poem: ‘You write it. You leave it. You come back and edit it, and hope the original resonance is still there.

After grabbing a late breakfast, it was off to join a much larger audience for:

12-1 pm Eleanor Catton: Birnam Wood

Eleanor Catton was in conversation with Beejay Silcox who I know mainly as a critic in the Australian Book Review. Everyone keeps saying that Eleanor Catton’s new book, Birnam Wood, is her second, the first being the award-winning The Luminaries. Catton was careful to let us know it was actually her third, and that she didn’t disown her first, The Rehearsal, about a theatrical production in a girls’ school.

She talked about her venture in screen writing – for the 2020 movie Emma. (full stop is part of the title), directed by Autumn de Wilde. She learned a lot from her immersion in Jane Austen’s novel, and from the way film requires character to be revealed through action. She learned the dictum that every story had to have a beginning, a middle and an end was important for drawing attention to the transitions between those elements, the turning points of structure.

She and Beejay Silcox agreed that Emma is one of the great monsters of English literature, but she said that the genius of Jane Austen is to beguile the reader into committing the same mistake as Emma makes, in thinking ourselves morally superior to her, and then turning it back on us. (I do love a bit of Jane-Austen-ophilia.)

As for Birnam Wood, it sounds interesting, a satire that sets out to unsettle readers of all political stripes. I’ll wait for recommendations or otherwise from the Emerging Artist and others. Maybe I’m unsettled enough already.

Then scurry scurry scurry (I’m sure in the olden days when everything was better there was a bigger time gap between sessions) to:

1–2 pm ABC RN: The Bookshelf

The Bookshelf is an ABC Radio National program where hosts Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh chat with guest writers about their books and the books they cherish. Each episode of the program adds a number of books to an imagined bookshelf. Their guests on stage for this session were Shehan Karunatilaka (I was glad to see more of him after Wednesday evening), Jason Reynolds (interested to hear him more discursive than on Thursday evening) and speculative fiction writer Grace Chan (yay for genre!).

One of the pleasures of this panel was the way it embodied Anthony Joseph’s quote from Derek Walcott: ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination.’ An African-American YA writer, a Malaysian-born spec-fic writer, a Sri Lankan novelist, all own the language and its literatures. I did make notes of the books they mentioned, but I’ll just mention a couple of moments that gave me joy.

I loved it when someone mentioned a book I love. Jason Reynolds mentioned Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, a tiny book about a boy who writes poetry that I had forgotten until he reminded me of it. Grace Chan recommended Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho, saying that it had magic, and boarding school etc, and then referred, not to the obvious inspiration but to the late, great, beloved of me, Diana Wynne Jones. Shehan Karunatilaka was cajoled into confessing his love for the Choose Your Own Adventure books – it’s not that I loved them so much as that they were a feature of my early parenthood, and somehow it was a thrill to realise these formidable people were young enough to be my children.

Drums got a mention. Jason Reynolds quoted James Brown (I don’t remember the context): ‘Every instrument is a drum.’ Shehan Karunatilaka said he loved to play the drums: ‘I bang the drum, read some Yeats, and I’m ready to go.’

The most interesting moment was when one of the facilitators suggested that these writers of non-Anglo background were redefining the canon. ‘No,’ said Jason Reynolds. ‘We have different canons to start with.’ He listed a number of great African American writers, not as favourite authors of his, but as the eminences who defined the literary landscape. He suggested that each of the others on the panel had a similar lineage behind them. We’ve come a very long way since my days studying Eng Lit under the shadow of F R Leavis (even though that shadow was fading in my time), when there was The Great Tradition – a very short list of The Writers Who Matter. I for one am very happy for that distance.

7.30–8.30 pm The Rhythm of the Word

The thing I love most about the Sydney Writers’ Festival is being read to. The Big Read, when half a dozen writers would read to a packed Town Hall is now apparently a thing of the past, but moments like Sebastian Barry bursting into song at the beginning of his reading are still with me years after the event.

So I was happy to venture back out from my warm home for this poetry reading. Poetry readings at the SWF used to have a home-town feel, and when the festival was beside the Harbour poetry had a base in small, often crowded, sometimes glare-filled room at the end of the wharf. The Carriageworks doesn’t allow for such nooks and crannies, and poetry events have somehow become rarer.

Not that there was anything unattractive about this event.

Western Sydney poet Omar Sakr was the host. He used his platform as MC to slip in a poem of his own (the only poem I heard at the festival by a Australian living east of the WA border!). It was ‘Diary of a non-essential worker’ a Covid poem, and I wrote down two lines that struck me. I can’t read my own writing, but I think the lines are:

Everything is a miracle when you're alive
I'm learning that reluctantly

Madison Godfrey did a reprise of ‘When I grow up I want to be the merch girl’, which they read on the opening night. Their other poems were ‘Harry Styles was [illegible] on a beach and the horizon was aligned with his thighs’, ‘Utopia translates as no place’ (a heartbreak poem), and ‘Impulse’ (named for a brand of deodorant).

Joshua Whitehead, Canadian First Nations scholar and poet (a different person from novelist Colson Whitehead who is also a guest at the festival) did a stunning performance of a medley of poems from his two books, including Making Love with the Land (2022). If you heard his astonishingly rapidfire stuttering delivery on a recording you could easily assume his effects were achieved by electronic feedback but he did it all.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai read three poems, first in Vietnamese and then in English. At the end, she gave us a short lesson in the importance of diacritical marks in Vietnamese (‘those funny little marks above the letters’). She had us all pronounce Quế , and explained it means ‘cinnamon’. Then she taught us Que (which is how her English-language publishers) wanted to print it). It sounds quite different and means ‘snake’. Point made.

Anthony Joseph read two poems, quite different from the sonnets of this morning’s session. They were ‘On the Move’ and ‘The Ark’ He introduced the latter saying it was an elegy for a London hip hop performer whose name I didn’t write down. It’s a list poem, or a litany: name after name of African-heritage writer or singer or performer with the recurring phrase ‘is on the Ark’. The cumulative effect is powerful – for me, partly by making me aware of how few of the names I recognised (making me think back to Jason Lester’s observation this morning about different canons), and partly by invoking the force of those I do recognise (from Langston Hughes to Maya Angelou). At the end his friend’s name was added to the list, and Omar Sakr came onstage wiping his cheeks and saying his face had melted.

After the reading I looked around and saw just one face I recognised. We had a chat, and were soon commiserating over the absence of Sydney’s usual poetry audience from the event, and the near absence of Sydney or even eastern Australian poets from the Festival program. We happened to walk past Ann Mossop, Artistic Director, and buttonholed her briefly on the subject. She said that it’s hard to find an audience for poetry. I wonder what would happen if the Festival commissioned someone like Magdalena Ball of Compulsive Reader or Toby Fitch, poetry editor of Overland and organiser of Avant Gaga, a monthly poetry reading in Glebe, to curate a poetry stream in a tiny room somewhere at Carriageworks. If such a curator needs t be someone who’s not white, what about Eileen Chong, or Sara Mansour of the Bankstown Poetry Slam? Just wonderin’.

SWF 2023: My third day

I’m not exactly live blogging the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s now Sunday and my festival is over, but the blog is still at Thursday.

On Thursday, we arrived an hour or so before any of our booked events and caught up with friends over lunch, then we were off.

2 pm: Climate Hope

This was billed as: ‘a trio of environmental experts examine promising developments, signs of hope and viable solutions for a greener, more sustainable future.’ It delivered on that promise.

Simon Holmes à Court, founder of Climate 200 (tagline ‘climate proofing politics’), was the chair. Other panellists were a scientist, an engineer and a community activist: Joëlle Gergis (Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope), Saul Griffith (The Big Switch and the Quarterly Essay The Wires that Bind), and Claire O’Rourke (Together We Can: Everyday Australian’s doing amazing things to give our planet a future).

There was an awful lot to digest, or even grasp as it flew by. I hope it will turn up as a podcast – I recommend it.

Here are some of my takeaways:

Jöelle Gergis described how, after helping to write the IPCC report on the state of the climate, she was filled with despair. Technological solutions are pretty much all there, but there is little political will to implement them. This is no longer a scientific problem; it’s a social, cultural and political one. She found hope in looking to history. Many times in the past when there has been a major crisis, people have come together and created solutions. She gave a number of examples, but what I remember is Saul Griffith’s amplification of her point by mentioning Dunkirk: the Allied forces had been roundly defeated, and then Winston Churchill, who can be criticised on many fronts, inspired what could have seemed an irrational hope with his rhetoric (‘We will fight them with teaspoons’ – not an actual quote as far as I know), and the people famously rallied.

The motto ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle’ doesn’t point to the way out of the climate emergency. It puts the onus for action at the individual level, when what is needed is systemic change (though individual initiatives are important to achieve that). It can be paraphrased as, ‘If we just sacrifice a little, the world will be a little bit less fucked.’ (Numerous apologies for swearing were made to Saul Griffith’s mother who was in the audience, though if she’s anything like women I know who are mothers of people Saul Griffith’s age, she swears quite a bit herself.) in reality, if we do this right, we can get a good outcome and not sacrifice any of our standard of living.

Claire O’Rourke is already active in the social movement space. She gave example after example of ordinary people who have taken action and organised to bring about change at local and regional levels.

There were some great quotes:

Claudia Rankine (link to my blog post about her Citizen): ‘Every state of emergency is also a state of emergence.’

Bill McKibben (link to my 2007 blog post discussing his Deep Economy): ‘Winning slowly is losing.’

Rebecca Solnit (link to my blog post about her Hope in the Dark): ‘People today will determine the future of humanity.’

Saul Griffith recommended that each of us makes six big decisions about our lives in the next year in order to bring about systemic change: decisions about home heating, cooking, cars, nutrition and so on. Just a handful of major decisions, he means, not the hundreds of decisions involved in ‘lifestyle changes’.

Claire O’Rourke mentioned systems theory, said change happens most effectively through networks and recommended the All We Can Save Project.

Jöelle Gergis had the last word: The missing piece is a social movement.

I rushed off to arrive late and sit at the edge of the space set aside for ‘curiosity Lectures’ and ‘Beginnings’, the latter being sessions where people read the beginnings of books to the audience:

3 pm: Benjamin Gilmour on Taking Tea with the Taliban.

Among other things, Benjamin Gilmour is notable for the extraordinary film Jirga (2019), which he wrote, directed and shot in a tribal area of Afghanistan. He recently revisited Afghanistan for a new film documentary project, which if I heard correctly is to be called Taking Tea with the Taliban. In this Curiosity Lecture he told about interviews with members of the Taliban government and his time with villagers who told him of terrible brutality at the hands of Australian soldiers.

It was disturbing stuff. He relayed the Taliban’s protestations that the way they are portrayed in the western press is self-serving propaganda, that their treatment of women is misrepresented, and that it’s hypocritical for the west to condemn the Taliban for mistreatment of women when USA and Australian forces have destroyed so many Afghan lives, of women and children as well as men.

I couldn’t help thinking of those Australians who visited Stalin’s Russia and came back with glowing reports of happy workers at times when, it was later revealed, the gulags were filling up. All the same, he made a strong argument for governments to engage with the Taliban. ‘I did,’ he finished his talk, ‘and I’m just some guy.’

Benjamin Gilmour has a special place in my heart: we published a number of his poems in The School Magazine in the 1990s, when I was editor and he was a teenager. I introduced myself and we had a photo taken together. I’d share it here but I made the mistake of lowering my mask instead of taking it off altogether, and I look mildly deranged.

Then straight on to 4 pm: George Monbiot: Regenesis

A giant George Monbiot on video chatted with Rebecca Huntley. This was a brilliant talk. Monbiot’s ability to marshal facts and present a clear argument is breathtaking.

His central message was that the global food supply system is at risk of catastrophic failure. Not only that, but farming is contributing hugely to global warming. Second only to the urgent need to keep fossil fuels in the ground is the need to stop farming animals. It’s as if the scientists who have been researching this area have been shouting and waving their arms about, but have been doing it from behind plate glass, inaudible to the rest of us.

Although world hunger fell steadily from about 1960, in 2014 it began to rise again, and has been rising steadily ever since – even before the shocks to the food supply system that were Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is because the food distribution system now works in such a way that even small shocks to the system can cause disproportionate price hikes in vulnerable communities.

He gave us a brief introduction to systems theory. Complex systems, such as the climate or the global food supply system, take a lot of understanding (and after this talk, I’m keen to learn more). There are six elements required for a complex system to be resilient:

  • diversity
  • asynchronicity
  • redundancy
  • modularity
  • circuit breakers (in this case regulatory constraints)
  • back-up systems

I imagine his book Regenesis spells out how the food system scores on these elements. From the talk I understood that concentration of the control of food in about four massive corporations makes for low resilience. Industrial farming likewise. Redundancy is so limited that if the Ever Given had been stuck in the Suez Canal a year earlier, when Covid was at a different stage, the result would have been disastrous.

It’s not a question of tightening our belts. He sees hope in technology, in what he calls a technoethical shift: when something becomes amendable it becomes intolerable. That is to say, if a food can be developed that has the nutritional value of meat and it’s flavour, texture and general appeal, we will be able to face the reality of what our meat-eating has been doing to our relationships with other animals and to the planet.

The technology that he favours is ‘precision fermentation’, in which single cell organisms are used for food: we already do it with yeast, and many other species are being explored. A naturally occurring pink microbe has been discovered in Europe that when grown in a culture looks, feels and tastes like sausage. He himself was the first person to eat a pancake grown from microbes – ‘One small flip for a man’ – and it tasted like a pancake. He surmises that this will lead to a culinary revolution as radical as the one produced by the development of agriculture. And food produced in this way uses a tiny fraction of the earth’s resources.

We went home for a vegan dinner, then caught public transport into town for our one event not at the Carriagework:

8 pm: Storytelling Gala: Letters to the Future

Not to cast shade on any of the readers or organisers but this ‘gala’ was a bit of a dud. A stellar line-up of writers got to read to a packed Sydney Town Hall. They had evidently been given the title ‘Letter to the Future’. Most of them gave us a piece that began, ‘Dear Future’, and too many wrote what could be summarised as: ‘Dear Future, we have fucked up the world. I expect Earth is posthuman/a disaster where you are. Please forgive [or forget] us.’ After hearing someone say in the 2 o’clock session that people find it easier to imagine a disastrous future than one where the problems have been solved, it was dispiriting to hear so many people take the easier path as if they were doing something serious.

There were exceptions.

Anthony Joseph (about whom more tomorrow) read two poems in a form known as the Golden Shovel, where the last words of the lines spell out a quotation. His first one took Kierkegaard’s ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards’: I was too busy trying to spot the line breaks to follow the poem, but it sounded great.

Shehan Karunatilaka spoke elegantly about the impossibility of the task and told a fable about a child refusing a hug to her father, thereby setting of a chain of events leading to disaster.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai wrote an imaginary letter from her ten-year-old self, bookended by fabulous a cappella song.

Jason Reynolds also read a letter from his past self: I found it hard to follow, but his performance was fabulously musical.

Nardi Simpson rejected the idea of the future, saying that as a First Nations person she has responsibilities to Now. It was striking how she echoed Alexis Wright’s talk on the opening night.

Tabitha Carvan got the only laughs of the evening with a comic bit about a leadership course where on the first meeting the participants wrote a letter to their future selves.

It was a day full of excellent things, and things that will bear thinking about and acting on for some time.

Books I read in October [2007]

[27 May 2023: This was originally posted to my old blog on 1 November 2007, and not retrieved when I moved to the WordPress platform. I’m republishing it now because Bill McKibben’s name came up at the 2023 Writers’ Festival, and this blog post is where I made a note of my first impressions of his Deep Economy.]

Charles Firth, American Hoax (2nd edition, Picador 2007)
William Carlos WIlliams, Selected Poems (edited by Charles Tomlinson, New Directions 1985)
Yukio Mishima, The sailor who fell from grace with the sea (translated John Nathan 1965, Vintage 1994)
Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future (Henry Holt 2007)
John Tranter, editor, The Best Australian Poetry 2007 (UQP 2007)
Caroline Overington, Kickback: Inside the Australian Wheat Board scandal (Allen & Unwin 2007)
Geoffrey McSkimming, Cairo Jim and the Astragals of Angkor (Hachette Children’s Books 2007)

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Charles Firth invented five commentators, basing their opinions on top hits on Google, and set out as an experiment to see if they could make it in US public debate. One of them got a lazy, plagiarised, largely nonsensical article attacking Cindy Sheehan published, and others had moderate success in being taken seriously in Internet conversation. It’s a disturbing and intelligent book, but undermined by the author’s apparent commitment to his comedian identity. Clive James objects to being classified as a humorist. He wants his wit and humour to be elements of his essays rather than their purpose: the essays, he says, are serious attempts to communicate ideas. I’d like to see Charles and Clive get together for a quiet chat some time, and Charles come out from behind his relentlessly Chaserian persona.


Having acquired a BA (Hons) in the 1970s majoring in Eng Lit without ever reading any William Carlos Williams, I thought it wouldn’t be a crime now to read more than ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘This is just to say’ … And indeed the book is an education and a joy. I did go hunting for learned commentary so as to deepen my appreciation of the poetry, and had the perverse pleasure of deciding that in some cases I would trust my own reading over that of the scholar. For instance, in an article on WCW’s most anthologised poem – essentially unparaphraseable eight short lines noting the existence of a red wheelbarrow and some white chickens – I found this:

This is a poem about the tension between regularity and irregularity, and it invokes irregularity on many levels: metrical, sexual, racial. Mouth/vulva, this ‘colored’ object beckons ‘white chickens’, which like the satyrs on Keats’s urn, approach but never touch, except in the palpable rhythms and vowels of the lines, which rise – but then fall again. After the phallic assertion of the emphatic iamb ‘upon’, the poem shifts to falling rhythms, and as the speaker and his Lucy roll forward like the wheel of the barrow (a tumulus or mound over a grave) in the twelve months/feet of the year with its four regular seasons/stanzas in their ‘diurnal course’, the speaker stammers in the long i’s of the final stanza: I . . . I . . . chicken out.

I would have solemnly, if disappointedly, accepted the Freudian reading of the wheelbarrow as a female symbol, but really: ‘upon’ as a phallic assertion! ‘barrow’ as tumulus! racial tension! the fantastical invocation of Keats and Wordsworth! I’m glad I don’t have to earn a living writing things like that. In fact the way I read the poem it’s pretty much a dismissal of that kind of discourse.


I came to The sailor who fell from grace with the sea with quite a lot of baggage. Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide when I was 23. This, along with his extreme right-wing politics and his reported preoccupation with body-building put me off. How could someone who was acclaimed as a great writer, a runner-up for the Nobel Prize for Literature, get things so bizarrely wrong? (I was 23, OK?). This is his one novel that I know about without looking, and from its perch on my Reproach Shelf (where it has sat unread with War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice) it exuded a kind of sulphurous glamour.

Without all that foreknowledge I might have thought this was a finely executed exercise in genre horror. It’s certainly well written, capturing beautifully the way people – adults and children, men and women – misunderstand each other’s silences. But it’s not an exercise: in this narrative the writer is fairly evidently struggling with his membership of a death-cult of one: mad, repulsive, deeply horrible, but in the end (for him, apparently) irresistible. It strikes me as being an adult version of the drawings young Mary Bell did in the days before she murdered that little boy: a cry for help. Like Mary’s, it went unheard.


Don’t be put off by the title of Deep Economy. It’s a tremendously readable journey through the hope and terror of our times (not Terror with a capital as in suicide bombs, but lower-case terror as in the world going to hell in a handbasket). Someone once told me of a rule of thumb for comic writers that you need at least three laughs a page to keep up the momentum (a rule which – see above – I wish Charles Firth would ignore). Bill McKibben seems to work to a three-striking-bits-of-information-a-page rule. It was only great self-restraint that stopped me from constantly regaling (or should that be assailing?) companions or passers-by with tidbits.

The subtitle more or less says what the book is about: it challenges the single minded preoccupation with growth as the supreme indicator of economic success, and the ‘hyper individualism’ that that preoccupation involves; and advocates for a durable future as opposed to the likely outcome if things keep moving in the current direction with the current impetus. It’s a passionate, research-based argument for renewed – or brand new – attention to the local: in food production and consumption, and in all other economic activity. It piles up examples of the loss in human terms caused by the ruthless pursuit of economic ‘efficiency’ but it also accumulates a persuasive number of counter-examples, of people forgoing large profits for the sake of the common good.

We assume, because it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, that industrialised farming is the most productive farming. I mean, if I sit on my porch whittling toothpicks with my Swiss Army knife, I can produce a hundred in a day. If I install a toothpick-whittling machine, I can produce a thousand in an hour. By analogy, a vast Mid-western field filled with high-tech equipment ought to produce more food than someone with a hoe in a small garden. As it turns out, however, this simply isn’t true. If all you are worried about is the greatest yield per acre, then smaller farms produce more food. Which, if you think about it some more, makes sense. If you are one guy on a tractor responsible for thousands of acres, you grow your corn and that’s all you can do: one pass after another with the gargantuan machines across your sea of crop. But if you’re working on ten acres, then you have time to really know the land, and to make it work harder. You can intercrop all kinds of plants: their roots will go to different depths, or they’ll thrive in each other’s shade, or they’ll make use of different nutrients in the soil. You can also walk your fields, over and over, noticing. … Does this sound like hippie nonsense? According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories or dollars.

It’s very much a US book, and I don’t know how much of the specifics is true of Australia (far too much, I expect); but it also looks at the global picture. It has felt like a lifeline as both major party leaders in the current federal election campaign bang on about upward pressure on interest rates in what is fairly blatantly baby-talk economics. Intuitively, to this uneducated mind the prevailing view that permanent growth is the only way forward looks like a recipe for disaster. Here is a substantial, reasoned, systematic move towards an alternative way of thinking about these things. Not that Bill McKibben is trying to pass himself off as a brilliant innovator; his brilliance lies not only in his throng of memorable stories to flesh out his argument, but also in the mass of telling quotes from an army of researchers, experimenters and thinkers.


I confess that with The Best Australian Poetry 2007 and me it was irritation at first sight. What does it mean to publish ‘best of 2007’ book in September? A quick look up the back of the book reveals that a couple of its poems were first published in 2005 and the rest in 2006.

Ok, that’s my first nitpick out of the way. Then I looked at the list on page 98 of ‘Journals Where the Poems First Appeared’ (the book is subtitled ‘a selection of the best poems from Australia’s literary journals’), and was a bit surprised to see that Quadrant didn’t get a guernsey. But it turns out that there are poems from that venerable right-wing rag, and from the equally venerable left-wing, though less well funded, rag Overland, which also doesn’t rate a mention on page 98.

And there’s more substantial cause for irritation: more than 40 of the book’s 120 pages are devoted to commentary: introductory material by and about the guest editor and the series editors, and then notes from the contributing poets about the poems, which reminded me inevitably of William Carlos Williams’s remark: ‘You should never explain a poem but it sometimes helps nevertheless.’ Some of the poets’ own commentaries here are witty, some are illuminating, but most are plain dull – this is not a criticism of the poets, since the poems themselves are presumably what they wanted to say.

My mounting irritation didn’t  put me in a mood to enjoy the forty poems, some of which, it turns out, are very good. Some, of course, left me cold and uncomprehending. Perhaps all the bumph is meant to deal with the all-to-frequent failure of a lot of post-modern poetry to grab the lay reader; sadly, it only adds to the alienation for this one.


Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have picked up Kickback or Leigh Sales’s Detainee 002 (which I read in September). I’d read enough about both scandals in the newspapers as they were unfolding. But some members of our book club (really a Book Swap) do relish that sort of thing, and recommended these books strongly at our last meeting. I somehow came away with both of them. Caroline Overington’s epigraph, which turns out to be her punchline as well, is a found poem from the utterances of Alexander Downer, who I hope will soon be relieved of the burden of producing such gems:

What you don’t know, you don’t know.
And you can’t get to the heart
Of what you don’t know.

This is a book about last year’s headlines, but it contains a lot of the news that stays news. It’s largely a blow-by-blow account of shonky dealings – Iraq’s corruption of the UN’s Oil-for-Food program as aided and abetted by a highly reputable Australian company and the subsequent cover-up – involving hundreds of millions of dollars: illegal, immoral, carefully ignored for as long as possible by lily-white John Howard and shameless Alexander Downer (who seem to have people on staff whose job is to make sure they never actually see faxes, emails, cables and other inconvenient communications). This was an excellent follow-up to Deep Economy (which I intend to urge on my co-Book-Clubbers), as an extended case study of collateral damage from a single-minded pursuit of profit. I found myself drawing morals from the story:

  • For those who sup with the devil, no spoon-handle is long enough
  • If you have a conflict of interest with the USA, make sure you’re squeaky clean
  • When top members of your organisation go by nicknames like ‘Slug’, don’t let your guard down
  • Government organisations that are privatised may not be nastier than long-established capitalist enterprises, they may just be more likely to get caught
  • Too many Australian journalists take the government at its word too much of the time
  • Page 2 of the newspaper may contain gems
  • Not only ladies do protest too much
  • Seekers after the truth sometimes have vile motives
  • Seekers after the truth can expect to have vile motives attributed to them
  • Suppressors of truth sometimes have good intentions
  • Under the Howard government, the public service tradition of frank and fearless advice has taken a battering.


I read Cairo Jim and the Astragals of Angkor in a day, just after the final episode of The Sopranos was screened here, while Tony Abbott was impersonating an arrogant callus in his final days in office. As a finale, Astragals offers less closure but more certainty than the former, and inspires more hope and more sorrow than the latter.

In Cairo Jim’s world words like ‘flabbergast’ are part of normal speech, alliteration runs as wild as jungle creepers, similes (all more original than any I’m offering here) sprout like hairs in a mole, evil never wins the day but life would be much less interesting if it didn’t try. I think Geoffrey McSkimming may be the one who told me the rule about frequency of laughs I referred to above: and sure enough, even though this is a chase story with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, it’s the laugh lines that provide the momentum. These books have captured and sustained a loyal and ever-expanding following among their intended readership with no boost from awards and little notice in the press – quite an achievement.

SWF 2023: My second day

After a day on grandparent duty, we made our weary, head-cold-heavy but cheerfully expectant way to Carriageworks for:

8 pm: Shehan Karunatilaka: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

The Emerging Artist loved The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which won the 2022 Booker Prize and which the Festival program describes as an ‘epic, searing and darkly funny satire’. Shehan Karunatilaka was in conversation with Michael Williams, former acting director of the Festival, current editor of Melbourne’s The Monthly, and one of my favourite SWF interlocutors.

Michael Williams kicked the session off with a joke about the smell of a room full of book people. When that fell a little flat – very flat, actually – he followed it up by saying the SWF was Nerd Christmas, which went over much better, all the more because this was a Melbourne person who didn’t indulge in tiresome inter-city comparisons.

The session was everything I could have hoped for. Shehan Karunatilaka was urbane, witty, serious about his work but not at all self important.

The book, I gather, is about a recently dead war photographer at the end of the Sri Lankan conflict in the 1980s. It’s a ghost story, in which the ghost investigates his own death while dealing with the bureaucratic system of the afterlife.

Karunatilaka gave a number of different origin stories for the book. He wanted to write about something other than cricket (he mentioned his cricket novel, Chinaman, quite a bit), and thought that the complex ‘squabbling’ and blame-laying at the end of Sri Lanka’s long and devastating civil war was a good subject. A good way of resolving the squabbles would be to ask the ghosts of those who had died in the war.

On the other hand, he just wanted to write a ghost story, not something political. In fact, an early draft was a horror-slasher set on a bus. The book is genre rather than magical realism.

‘Why does this beautiful island go from catastrophe to catastrophe?’ The malign presence of ghosts seemed a plausible explanation.

There was much more: the rules for ghosts; the reason for making his protagonist a war photographer; the book’s relationship to a real-life journalist who disappeared during the war; whether as a ‘cis het normative man’ he would write a gay character if he were starting the novel today.

I have to mention the audience questions. There were five, all of them interesting.

  • Asked about his influences, he named a number of South Asian writers as well as westerners including Kurt Vonnegut, then told us about Carl Muller
  • The questioner said that Shehan’s identifying as heterosexual was a great disappointment to the gay men in the audience, and asked how much of himself was in the character. He said that one of the joys of fiction is that it lets you inhabit different people, but of course you also draw on yourself
  • Asked about the book’s reception by religious people in Sri Lanka, he said it hadn’t been an issue. His afterlife was sufficiently nonspecific not to offend, but the earlier questioner’s mention of The Satanic Verses had him worried
  • A young woman who sad she was a writer passionately concerned about Sri Lanka asked him how he did it. His reply began, ‘I wake up at 4 o’clock every morning.’
  • The final question could have been a classic of the genre. Told we needed her to be very brief, the questioner read from her phone a brief essay explaining that she’d only just started reading the book but saw it as an obituary for the casualties of war. A question followed but I didn’t make a note

Oh, I should mention that had been allocated excellent seats, four rows from the front, in the middle of the row

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2023: My first day

At the end of one of the cool, cloudless autumn days that makes you love Gadigal-Wangal land in the Sydney Basin, we headed to the Carriageworks for the Sydney Writer’s Festival. We took our seats in Bay 17 and remembered too late that if you allow the booking office to give you the ‘best available seats’, they’ll put you right up the front on the very end of a row, so you risk a stiff neck from watching everything in profile. Next year I’ll remember! My grumpiness evaporated when the show started.

6.30 Opening Night Address
(link is to the SWF website blurb on the event, as I plan to link event titles for the rest of the Festival)

After a huge, loud ad for the City of Sydney, Uncle Michael West did an eloquent welcome to Country, pointing out that the Carriageworks was once an important source of employment for Aboriginal people who came to Redfern from far and wide.

Then we had a number of necessary speakers, who all managed their curtain-raiser status with grace. Brooke Webb, the festival’s CEO, thanked its many partners. John Graham, the NSW Minister for the Arts, by his mere presence demonstrated that the ALP values art and literature more than the other side of politics, and in a well crafted speech managed to quote appositely from Frank Moorhouse, Sarah Holland-Batt, and Shehan Karunatilaka (who we’re going to hear tomorrow night). Edward Federman, Executive Chair of ARA, the construction company that is the festival’s principal partner, won my heart by talking about brining his granddaughter to Children’s Day ten years ago, and every year since. Ann Mossop, Artistic Director, was mercifully brief and introduced the speakers.

As has been the custom recently, the address was a multivocal affair. Four writers were invited to address the theme, ‘How the Past Shapes the Future’.

Bernadine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other and Mr Loverman (links to my blog posts), began with a quote from Oscar Wilde: ‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.’ She then said a lot of things that need to be said again an again – about the way the ruling class and the dominant culture tell a narrative, inculcate a timeline that negates the experience of women, conquered peoples, etc. She spoke mainly of England, and had fun with the notion that Cheddar Man. the earliest human remains found in England has recently been discovered to have black skin: the great grandfather of England and possibly of Europe was Black. Now, she said, the marginalised are moving the centre towards them. We need to know and honour multiple timelines.

Alexis Wright, currently looms large in my reading life with her mammoth novel Praiseworthy. I won’t try to summarise her talk. She began by saying that she has tried to write about living in the all times. Aboriginal culture doesn’t have linear time in the way western culture does. ‘We live in the eternal clock of country.’ ‘we cannot step out of or apart from the pulse of country.’ She spoke with wonderful gravitas, sometimes stumbling over her words, as she tried to communicate across a great cultural divide. My companion observed on the way home that not so long ago when white people spoke as allies to Aboriginal people the discourse was about alleviating the harshness with which these oppressed people were treated. Now, thanks to Alexis Wright and other people doing this mammoth labour, we white people are coming to understand that we have a lot to learn from First Nations people – a lot we need to learn.

Benjamin Law, creator of The Family Law and author of the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101, had a hard act to follow. He managed it with wit and charm and intelligence. Ten years ago he was thrilled to be invited to his first Sydney Writers’ Festival. When a volunteer asked him how he was enjoying the festival, he said how delighted he was. The volunteer said, ‘Enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t last forever.’ Ten years later, he knows he belongs here, knows he belongs in writers’ rooms for TV shows, and when he encounters shocking (to me) dismissiveness of his presence as a token non-white, he takes comfort from that volunteer’s words. Things are changing. This stuff won’t last forever.

Madison Godfrey (pronouns they/them) put a similarly personal spin on the Past-Future theme. They read a medley of poems from their second book, Dress Rehearsal, asking us to imagine them as a young emo in the first poems, and as an older emo (not so old from my perspective) in the later ones. There was a memorable image of wanting to press one’s face into the tattoo on a loved one’s back like an old woman smelling a mango before putting it in her shopping basket. And they finished up with a glorious ode to their kneecaps – at one stage inviting the audience to join in on a kind of refrain.

The place was buzzing as we all headed out into the brisk night air.

2023 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night

Tonight, the New South Wales Premier’s Literature Awards were announced at an event livestreamed from the State Library of NSW. I missed the start but got to see two of Debra Dank’s four acceptance speeches, and Sara Mansour and Bilal Hafda accepting the Special Award on behalf of Bankstown Poetry Slam (Bilal’s hands were a joy to watch). It’s been a while since a Premier has actually presented the awards – Chris Minns may be the first to do it since Christina Keneally in 2011. The recording is on YouTube, and I can think of worse ways to spend a couple of hours if you’re interested in Australian literary culture.

The winners (with links to the judges’ comments):

UTS Glenda Adam’s Award for New Writing: We Come With This Place, DEBRA DANK (Echo Publishing)

Indigenous Writers’ Prize: We Come With This Place, DEBRA DANK (Echo Publishing)

Multicultural NSW Award: The Eulogy, JACKIE BAILEY (Hardie Grant)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting: Whitefella Yella Tree, DYLAN VAN DEN BERG (Griffin Theatre Company/ Currency Press)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting: Blaze, DEL KATHRYN BARTON and HUNA AMWEERO (Causeway Films)

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize: People from Bloomington, BUDI DARMA, translated from Indonesian by TIFFANY TSAO (Penguin Classics)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: The Upwelling, LYSTRA ROSE (Hachette Australia)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: The First Scientists: Deadly Inventions and Innovations from Australia’s First Peoples, COREY TUTT and BLAK DOUGLAS (Hardie Grant)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: The Singer and Other Poems, KIM CHENG BOEY (Cordite Books)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction: We Come With This Place, DEBRA DANK (Echo Publishing)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: Women I Know, KATERINA GIBSON (Scribner)

The People’s Choice Award: Every Version of You, GRACE CHAN (Affirm Press)

The Special Award: Bankstown Poetry Slam

Book of the Year: We Come With This Place, DEBRA DANK (Echo Publishing)

The evening ended with a bunch of flowers to Jane McCredie, Senior Judge, to mark her final year in that role.

I have read exactly none of the winning books, plays or TV shows, but I am a huge fan of the Bankstown Poetry Slam and couldn’t be more delighted by that award.

Books I read in July [2007]

[I originally posted this in my old blog on 31 July 2007, but didn’t retrieve it when I moved to the WordPress platform. I’m republishing it now because I’m about to blog about Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy, and what I wrote about Carpentaria here is true of Praiseworthy as well. Retrieving the post is also a tiny way of having the blog mark Robert Adamson’s death on 16 December last year.]

Robert Adamson, The Goldfinches of Baghdad (Flood Editions 2006)
Alexis Wright, Carpentaria (Giramondo 2006)
Marjane Satrapi, Chicken with Plums (Jonathan Cape 2006)
J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Bloomsbury 2007) (begun)
Harold Bloom’s Best Poems (continuing)


The Goldfinches of Baghdad includes an elegy for Arkie Whitely, thereby providing a smooth segue from the last book I read in June, Another Country, which is dedicated to her. Bob Adamson’s book is published by a US company. Couldn’t he find an Australian publisher? Or does this give him a crack at a larger readership? Or is it just an an example of globalisation with no subtext at all?

The book is in three sections, of which I expect to reread the first two many times. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, or the music that happened to be playing as I read, but these poems, almost all of them featuring birds, the Hawkesbury River and/or fishing by night, just picked me up and took me with them: the word that comes to my mind for the interplay of real birds, the real river and what the poet’s mind makes of them is ‘charming’, as in having magical force. Without a hint of appropriation of Aboriginal stories or images, it seems to me, Adamson manages to create a sense of sacred involvement with his country.

After been immersed, as it were, in whitefella Robert Adamson’s Hawkesbury, it felt quite natural to move on to Carpentaria, which starts with a river. This is from page 2:

Imagine the serpent’s breathing rhythms as the tide flows inland, edging towards the spring waters nestled deep in the gorges of an ancient limestone plateau covered with rattling grasses dried yellow from the prevailing winds. Then with the outward breath, the tide turns and the serpent flows back to its own circulating mass of shallow waters in the giant water basin in the crook of the mainland whose sides separate it from the open sea. To catch this breath in the river you need the patience of one who can spend days doing nothing.

The book is like nothing else I’ve ever read. I suspect that my decades of working as an editor, mainly of things written for children, have set me up for a quite distinctive relationship to it. It matters to me that words are used with their correct meanings (I hate ‘discomfit’ being used to mean ‘make uncomfortable’, for instance), that punctuation and spelling are correct (though I yearn for spelling reform and love George Bernard Shaw’s spelling of ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’ and, truly, am not a rule-bound comma-curmudgeon), and that writing makes syntactical sense (I cringe when ‘none’ is used with a plural verb, but I acknowledge that no meaning is lost and don’t see it as absolutely incorrect). Mixed metaphors, stock phrases, tautologies, inconsistencies, all are guaranteed to turn me off or – if I’m so empowered – to make me reach for the blue pencil. I think of these attitudes as constituting a passion for the language, and of myself in my small way as a defender of its integrity. Well, Carpentaria is like a grenade lobbed into the middle of that way of reading.

It’s a wonderful book, richly poetic (I defy anyone to read it quickly), passionate, and funny. There are extraordinary, surreal set pieces, a stunningly original cast of characters and a plot full of surprising turns. But the most striking thing about it is the language. Alexis Wright has said that she based the narrator’s voice on a conversation she overheard between two old Aboriginal men in the street in Alice Springs. I don’t doubt it. But this isn’t Aboriginal English, or a literary equivalent of it, as the language of Beasts of No Nation suggests an African English. It’s pretty standard English, but as used by someone coming at it from outside: it contains every one of the things that make my editor’s heart shrink and fingers twitch, with the possible exception of the greengrocer’s comma: a dog lies with its belly belly-up; something has ‘flown the coup’. I had been shocked to read Ivor Indyk, redoubtable editor-in-chief of Giramondo, quoted in the newspaper as saying that the manuscript when he first saw it was ‘woolly’. But I now think he was misquoted, or at least misunderstood. He was most likely referring to the peculiar challenge this book must have posed to any copy editor: what in almost any other manuscript would have been errors to be corrected, in this one are integral elements. Here’s a passage, chosen at random:

Initially, on that eventual morning, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the month of November, when Gordie did not play the remembrance bugle, everyone thought: Alright! Something is astray. Something smells mightily funny to me. Although, at first, everyone had thought very little about it. Perhaps Gordie was sick with the summer flu. Nothing to be done about that. Life went on as usual. Desperance was a normal town where even the bugle player had as much right as everyone else to get sick with influenza and stay home in bed. Normal people knew how to tell the time without depending on a clock, or a signal, and had enough decency, unlike the rest of the country, to stand for a minute’s silence in respect of the fallen on the eleventh hour, even without the bugle of the returned, to remind them.

There are some changes that a competent copy editor would make almost automatically to this: change ‘mightily’ to ‘mighty’, delete the comma between ‘returned’ and ‘to remind them’ (this kind of mis-comma-ing is rampant in the book, often rendering the sense very difficult to determine), change ‘on the eleventh hour’ to ‘at the eleventh hour’. One who had slavishly subjected his or her will to the style manual would ruthlessly make other changes: fix the fragments ‘Although … about it’ and ‘Nothing to be done about that’, amend ‘Alright’ to ‘All right’. Someone with an eye for redundancy and consistency would suggest fixes for the contradiction between what ‘everyone thought’ initially and what ‘everyone had thought’ at first; would query the assertion that ‘normal people’ were ‘unlike the rest of the country’; would circle ‘flu’ and ‘influenza’ and the repeated ‘on the eleventh hour’. This tidying up would make the passage read more smoothly, and make its meaning easier to access, but what it would lose is exactly the thing that is so distinctive about the prose: its outsider quality. The narrator loves language. The words come tumbling out, alliterative, onomatopoeic, idiosyncratic … and in some sense out of control.

In one of her many appearances at the Sydney Writers Festival this year, Inga Clendinnen said that whereas essayists invite the reader to come on a companionable walk with them, writers of fiction are always playing Catch Me If You Can. That may be true of some, even most, novelists: they build worlds which they invite us to enter. Reading Carpentaria, one feels that the author is running as hard as anyone else trying to catch up with her own creation. I mean no disrespect when I say that the book is less a raid on, than a prolonged campaign by, the inarticulate. The language is out of control and refuses to be tied down to the rules of ordinary discourse. It might seem that I’m talking about a trivial aspect of the book, and perhaps I am. But I found it profoundly challenging; it invaded my dreams. And the constantly unnerving play with language is a key part of that challenge.

[Added 7 August 2005:
Ivor Indyk was quoted in Thorpe’s Weekly Book Newsletter as saying of Carpentaria:

It was quite an intellectual challenge for me as an editor: there are ungrammatical moments that you wouldn’t want to cut out, even though your training tells you to ‘fix’ them.

Which says elegantly a lot of what I was trying to say.]


Marjane Satrapi’s stark black and white comic strips provided a brief holiday from Alexis Wright’s tumultuous ride. The plot of Chicken with Plums has been unkindly summarised on LibraryThing: ‘a man without his musical instrument is depressed.’ Which is like ‘old man gets dementia’ as a summary for King Lear. It’s a fine romantic tale about true love lost twice over. I’m glad to see that Satrapi can move on from her powerful autobiographical Persepolis, and tell this touching, complex tale so elegantly. (All the same, I’m eager for the English version of Persepolis, tome trois, in which Marjane goes to Austria.)


I continue to make my meditative way through the Harold Bloom anthology, and I’m mostly enjoying it and getting an education. For someone who has a reputation as being a great upholder of the canon of great writers, he’s remarkably idiosyncratic in his selection of ‘the best poems in the English language’, and in his annotations on the selection. I think I already mentioned that he disparages Edgar Alan Poe, but includes a poem or two because he’s so popular. Well, when he gets on to Ezra Pound, our Harold makes no bones about despising the Fascist anti-Semitic montageur, and he takes eight pages ripping into him, followed by one poem, a translation from mediaeval French, included because Pound is an excellent translator. At least that’s why Harold says he included it; it’s pretty darned obvious that the poem’s there because without it he wouldn’t have been able to include his extended anti-Pound bile. Of course the publisher probably came up with the book’s title: Shorter English and United States Poems I Feel Like Anthologising, with Some Notes on Poets I Hate would have been more accurate, but isn’t as catchy.


Given Professor Bloom’s feet of clay, I don’t feel any need at all to defend myself against his judgement on the Harry Potter books: ‘Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? Yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.’ I did, however, have to overcome other sources of reluctance – I’ve not been totally grabbed by what I’ve read of the saga previously; I had an unpleasant exchange of emails with JKR’s agent nearly a decade ago; and I’m moderately disgusted by the way the press piles onto the Potter bandwagon, heaping lazy and ignorant generalised scorn on the extraordinary wealth of other works written for children. But I joined the 35+ million, and bought the children’s edition at the recommended retail price, of which Gleebooks assures me a certain amount will go to the Fred Hollows Indigenous Literacy Program. I wanted to read for myself HOW IT ENDS. I’m half way through it as I upload this, and so far, I have to say, it’s also like no other book I’ve read – in this case because of the constant sense that I’m not just reading a book but taking part in a major cultural event, being just one of millions of people absorbing these very words at roughly this very time. Having found out ten minutes ago what the Deathly Hallows are, I still want to know what happens next.