Daily Archives: 19 May 2010

SWF: History, Memoir, panels

The Sydney Writers Festival is now in full swing. I’ve managed to go to two events in the last two days, both of them excellent.

The first, cheerily titled ‘Swindlers, Doctors and Nationalists’, was held late yesterday afternoon in the Macleay Museum at Sydney University. Anyone who got bored could contemplate the huge object in the front corner of the room, probably the cast of a dinosaur’s skull. But it wasn’t the kind of event where  such distraction was needed. On the contrary, the three historians on the panel pretty much fitted Mark Twain’s famous remark about Australian history in Following the Equator:

It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.

The panel was elegantly chaired by Jude Philp, senior curator of the Macleay Museum. She asked each of the panellists to introduce their books, then invited each of them to speak in turn to maybe three or four questions, a round on each question. I mention this format, because I’ve been to some deadly panels where the time is divided into blocks, one for each participant, and there’s very little opportunity for interaction. That wasn’t a problem here – possibly it helped that all three historians are in the same History Department. The first two were Penny Russell (Savagery and Civility: A History of Manners in Colonial Australia) and Kirsten McKenzie (A Swindler’s Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty), both doing the kind of colonial history that an acute filmmaker could make brilliant use of: comedies of manners just waiting to be made (it was widely insisted that the colonies should cleave to English standards of behaviour, but ideas of what those standards were varied dramatically), tales of intrigue, fraud, and idealism.  The third was James Curran, whose book The Unknown Nation, co-written with Stuart Ward, deals with the period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Australia’s British-based identity had been pulled out from under it and we were hunting around for a new sense of what it means to be Australian.

Then this morning, the fourth day of my festival, at last I reached the Harbour. Wharf 2/3 was humming, and I arrived just in time for a session on Creative Memoir featuring Ali Alizadeh (Iran: My Grandfather) and Rupert Thomson (This Party’s Got To Stop) talking to editor, novelist and blogger Sophie Cunningham. Again, it was excellently done. Sophie had obviously read and enjoyed both books, and other things written by both authors. They each read – well doing the voices – and then she asked a couple of questions that enabled them to talk interestingly about choices they’d made in writing the books, about how the people who feature in them feel about their family linen being aired in public. Did you know that in the UK you’re legally required to get written permission to publish a book in which you give information about someone’s private life, not because of possible libel suits, but as a result of privacy legislation?

I went to this session because I’ve enjoyed Ali Azadeh’s poetry. To judge from the passage he read to us, he is also a prose writer to be savoured.

I’m off to an excellent start. The plan is for tomorrow to be my first full day: at the Wharf by half past nine in the morning, and home from the Town Hall about half past seven at night.

Heat 22: The Persistent Rabbit

Ivor Indyk (Ed), Heat 22: The persistent rabbit (Giramondo May 2010)

This issue of Heat has much that is wonderful. The title, following tradition, is a phrase chosen apparently at random from the contents, in this case from π.O.’s exuberant nonsense poem ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’:

The average person blinksoooo22 rabbits a minute.
Burke & Wills went into the desertoooowith a dozen rabbits
Obsession isooooa persistent rabbit.
The causes of a rabbitooooaren’t clear.

Perhaps Ivor Indyk, the editor, is quietly suggesting that the seemingly  miraculous persistence of Heat owes not a little to obsession.

I understand Heat to be about diversity, about presenting a version of literary Australia that is open to the whole planet. It often includes, for instance, travel writing, translated pieces, news from abroad, and fiction, essays or images that grow from places where cultures intersect. In this issue there are examples of each of these – respectively, Barbara Brooks’s self-styled fictional memoir ‘Lost in the House’ (which powerfully combines tales of travel, dementia, memory and intergenerational relationships); Stuart Cooke’s ‘Two Mapuche Poets’ (the Mapuche people are indigenous to parts of Chile and Argentina); Priya Basil’s ‘My Home is Our Castle’ (about a communal housing project that won a major architecture prize in Berlin last year); Michelle Moo’s colonial historical fiction, ‘New Gold Mountain’ (white women and Chinese men on the Australian goldfields); Barry Hill’s ‘Ezra Pound: The tragic orientalist’; and the centre section of art by Guan Wei, ‘Longevity for Beginners’. (The last three provide a nice example of the kind of counterpoint that Edward Said recommended.)

Apart from Barbara Brooks’s memoir three pieces stood out for me.

Brendan Ryan (whose book of poetry, Why I Am Not a Farmer, I am now actively seeking) has a gripping personal essay on the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in western Victoria, which is enough by itself to justify the price of the journal. Sadly, not even part of it is up on the Heat website.

Lee Kofman’s essay, ‘Revisiting the Geography of My Body’, just as gripping and as intensely personal, includes incidental elements of a migration story, but is mainly about scars, particularly scars on a woman’s body, and their almost complete absence from literature and visual arts: wounds, scars as something to be healed, scars on men (she doesn’t have to mention Coriolanus), but scars as such, particularly on a woman’s body, reside ‘outside the linguistic and public realm’. By sheer chance, I happened to walk past this piece of graffiti in Newtown just as I finished reading the essay. I hope Ms Kofman would enjoy it:

I said I wouldn’t whinge any more about proofing errors in this Heat, but there is one good old-fashioned belly laugh in this essay. The pursuit of bodily perfection, it tells us, ‘can be traced back to Pluto’s ideal of human beauty as the “natural”, unmarked body’. Roman myth, presumably, rather than Disney.

Of the poetry, Kate Middleton’s poems on a Hansel and Gretel theme stand out for me. They are billed as excerpts from Where Dingoes Tread. I look forward to seeing the whole thing:

Remember when hunger
was simple?
ooooooooooooThere was nothing
and we ate nothing. Then plenty returned
and I turned
to austerity.