Monthly Archives: May 2014

Yi Sha, Shu Cai, Yang Xie translated by Ouyang Yu

Ouyang Yu (translator), Poems of Shu Cai, Yi Sha & Yang Xie (Vagabond Press 2013)

Vagabond_Press_Asia_Pacific_Poetry_3This is the third title in Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series, but it’s the first I’ve read. The series, according to the Press’s website,

aims to create an open space for the sharing of cultural knowledge, understanding and enjoyment across national, political and language boundaries.

Working ‘in close collaboration with a growing community of writers, translators, editors and artists’, Michael Brennan, Elizabeth Allen and the rest of the small Vagabond crew have produced a dozen or so elegant volumes in the series, including work from China, Japan, the Philippines and Burma. At the Vagabond event at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, the ‘open space’ that the series aims to create was tangible in the diversity of writers and translators who were there in the flesh.

Ouyang Yu, who wasn’t at the Festival (I believe he’s a Melburnian), is a tireless writer, translator, scholar, editor and activist for Chinese literature in Australia and vice versa. His first translations of Yi Sha appeared in the second issue of Heat in 1996, twelve years before Bloodaxe Books published Yi Sha’s Starve the Poets!, describing it as his first English publication outside China. If you want a background to this book, and an overview of Chinese poetry in recent decades, you could do a lot worse than listen to ‘Neither Red Flags Nor Peach Blossom’, Parts One and Two, Poetica programs from 2013 in which Ouyang Yu speaks at greater length than his short introduction to this book allows.

The three poets in this book represent three historical stages in Chinese poetry. After the revolutionary zeal of the 1950s and 60s and the deeply coded elusiveness of the ‘misty poets’ in the next two decades, Yi Sha aimed to have poetry ‘enter into an era in which it speaks like a human being’. The poetry scene was split between the intellectual camp and the camp to which Yi Sha belonged, which emphasised oral poetry, story telling and (to judge from these poems) a degree of scurrilousness. At the end of the 1990s, Shu Cai introduced the ‘Third Road’, that belonged to neither camp, and was open to influence from the rest of the world. Yang Xie, born in 1972, belongs to a younger generation, and writes, as Ouyang Yu says, ‘a poetry that taps into the violence of daily life in small cities, with an inquisitive eye for detail’.

There’s a lot to enjoy here: the gutsy vulgarity of Yi Cha, the contemplative lyricism of Shu Cai, and the Yang Xie’s graphic narratives.

I found it a hard book to read, though, probably because of Ouyang Yu’s response to the translator’s inescapable dilemma: faced with the choice of making his translation read naturally or beautifully in the new language, or keeping readers aware that they are venturing out of the confines of their own language and culture, he has gone the latter path. Very little here reads as smooth English. In fact, it’s sometimes as if the poems have been translated from Chinese into English-as-a-second-language: prepositions feel slightly off, commas and definite articles appear in strange places, and the vocabulary is occasionally stilted. For example, the opening lines from Yi Sha’s ‘The File’:

at grade 3 junior high
when i first came into contact with chemistry
i was passionate about the experiment
and devoted myself to the research
i wanted to develop an air
that stank worse than carbon monoxide
i wanted them to be taken back
that day I was successful
the whole class withdrew from the lab
in panic

I think I chose this because I relate to the story, having once emptied a chemistry lab in ten seconds flat by exposing some potassium to air. Here, leaving aside the fact that carbon monoxide is odourless, maybe the original is just as flat as the translation, but it feels as if what we’re getting is a kind of report on the poem, which we then have to reconstruct as well as we can, each reader for him or herself. I’m no poet, but I can’t see that anything is lost if it is taken all the way into easy, spoken English, something like this:

in grade 3 at junior high
when i first did chemistry
i loved the experiments
and threw myself into research
i wanted to make a gas
that stank worse than carbon monoxide
i wanted to make them all sit up and notice
the day i succeeded
the whole class stampeded from the lab

I have an uneasy feeling that I’m out of my depth in commenting in this way on the work of such an eminent translator, but my experience in reading these three poets was all too often that the translation was simultaneously giving and taking away: showing me these interesting and exciting poems, then making it hard work to grasp them. Maybe, of course, that’s exactly how it ought to be.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 5

Sunday morning gestured vaguely in the direction of imminent winter. The sky was overcast and the breeze was making a stab at being chill. By the middle of the day, we were back in balm once more, but don’t anyone mention climate change. If I was  a truly conscientious blogger I would have managed at least three events, but non-SWF life called, so I’m reporting on only one:

10 am: Real Worlds / Imagined Worlds
This poetry session was chaired by Ivor Indyk, whose Giramondo Press publishes all four poets on the panel. (It also publishes at least two of the #threejerks from yesterday, which says a lot about the diversity of its list.)

Having acknowledged the traditional custodians, Ivor also acknowledged the slipperiness of themes at the SWF. The title and description of the session were what he had come up with for the program, he said, but the poets might well decide  to read something else altogether. The theme, which might or might not hold, was to be travel – either to other places or to other realities. Actually, it’s hard to imagine a poem that can’t be tied to that theme somehow so it was fairly safe.

Judith Beveridge took us to ancient India in readings from her new book, Devadatta’s Poems, written from the point of view of the Buddha’s cousin who tried to kill him three times, and in his voice: many intensely physical images of unpleasant things, delivered in Judith’s cool, self-effacing manner.

Ali Alizadeh ruminated a little about whether the whole idea of travel poem amounted to some kind of commodification, then read a number of what I think were unpublished works, plus ‘Robespierre’ from Ashes in the Air (my blog on which is here).

Kate Middleton’s most recent book, Ephemeral Waters, is a trip down the Colorado River, so she fitted the theme exactly. I especially liked a poem about Monument Valley, bristling with movie references (the Valley and the poem both). My sense is that we got the barest hint of the richness of this book.

Ivor Indyk introduced John Mateer as Australia’s main traveller poet. He read from his most recent book, Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’ and other places, taking us to mediaeval Spain and Portugal, and then to those modern places.

There was time for questions. Poetry readings always seem to provoke questions that are either profound or silly, or both. Here the first question, something like, ‘What use does poetry have in the West, for us … for me?’ provoked interesting responses. Ali Alizadeh took it as a challenge – ‘You obviously think it doesn’t have any use, from the way you asked the question’ – and went on to argue that poetry is useless: it doesn’t make any money in the novels do, and it doesn’t give information like non-fiction. He then ruined his own argument by telling us he was working on a poem called ‘The Wink’, so that people would never forget what kind of man we have as Prime Minister right now.

The other question was even more profound/silly. ‘How do you work out what words to use when you write poetry?’ As the questioner explained what she meant, it emerged that as someone from a complex cultural background, she was wrestling with how to write when it felt as if she had to choose between languages and cultures. Again, Ali Alizadeh played the enfant terrible: ‘I disagree with you about cultural difference. If someone came here from Mars and looked at us, they’d say, “You all look the same to me. Get over it.”‘

And my Festival was over: three poetry sessions, two movies, one evening of stand-up, no rain; the world as a battlefield, the heart and mind as tools for liberation; a lot of laughter, a quantity of rage, some tears, and one or two gasps of delight. I got to see a fraction of it, but I intend to see more by way of the blogosphere and podcasts as I seek them out or stumble across them. Plus, I’ve got a swag of books either already bought or on my list to buy.

I love this Festival.

 

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 4

Saturday dawned with yet another clear sky. I finally understood that El Niño and the weather gods are smiling on the Writers’ Festival this year, and my light linen jacket was all the warmth I needed. It was my busiest day at the Festival, even busier for The Art Student, who went in early for The Joy of Art with Betty Churcher, John Armstrong and Alex Monroe. Rachel Kent, director of the MCA, who chaired the session, tried to keep up the SWF tradition of ditching her advertised topic, in this case presumably because joy hasn’t been sufficiently theorised, but according to the Art Student the panellists gave the audience what they’d paid for and kept joy on the agenda.

I arrived at Walsh Bay in time to join the AS in the packed Sydney Theatre for

11.30 am: Reza Aslan: Zealot
There’s a famous clip on YouTube of Reza Aslan being interviewed on Fox News. The Fox person is outraged that Aslan, a Muslim, has written Zealot, a book about Jesus Christ. The implication hangs in the air that this close to a literary equivalent of 9/11. Aslan is the very picture of cool reason, repeating over and over that he is a scholar who studies religion and has a scholarly interest in Jesus. He insists, to the point of being boring, that his primary identity in this context is as a scholar rather than as a Muslim.

I was a little worried that he might be just as one-track boring when not dealing with a terrified fundamentalist, a worry which was intensified by my past experience of interlocutor Steven Gale as somehow impersonal, even mechanical. But my worries were total garbage  – both men were fabulous. Reza Aslan was witty, warm and exuberant as well as scholarly; Steven Gale obviously liked him and revealed a mischievous streak of his own, at one stage slapping his thighs in enjoyment.

Aslan’s book is about the historical Jesus rather than what he calls ‘the Christ of faith’, but he’s not a debunker – not, as he put it one of those biblical scholars who peers as if down a microscope and cries, ‘Ooh, look at all the people believing things!’ Asked what was known with certainty about the historical Jesus, he said that if you brought a hundred biblical scholars onto the stage and asked that question, once the fisticuffs had finished they would come up with a hundred different answers. But they would agree on three things: he was a Jew; he preached something called the kingdom of heaven, though there would be much disagreement about what it was; and the Roman occupiers executed him because of that. All the same, he says there’s nothing particularly new in his book – its aim is to open up the field to a wider audience. Sure, he takes many positions that other scholars will disagree with, but then he lists the disagreers in copious endnotes.

Jesus was almost certainly illiterate. He was one of probably hundreds of self-proclaimed messiahs of the first century of the common era, which Aslan said was the Middle East’s most turbulent period in history (cue gasp from audience!). Every messiah, including Jesus, had a project to free the Jewish people from the oppressive Romans, and when each one failed he was seen not to have been the real messiah. Jesus differed crucially (no pun intended, the cross wasn’t particularly distinctive) in that his disciples reported experiencing him as risen from the dead – something completely novel in the Hebrew context.

The four Gospels, he pointed out uncontroversially, were written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Given that the Jesus movement had been pretty unsuccessful among Jews, the Gospel accounts were tailored to make it more attractive to the Romans. This they did in three ways: they made Jesus’ teachings seem less embedded in Jewish culture, more ‘universal’; they removed the nationalism, translating it into ‘spiritual’ terms; they shifted the blame for his death from the Romans to the Jews (what we know of the historical Pontius Pilate’s extraordinary cruelty makes the Gospels’ account of him reluctantly complying with the High Priests’ demand that he crucify Jesus completely implausible).

Aslan ended on an enigmatic note: in all the gospels, it was women who discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead. This is a stumbling block for historians, because at that time women could not be called as witnesses, so if the gospels were inventing the story they would have picked  someone else as the discoverers. [I immediately decided that Mary Magdalen was the key person who ensured that the Jesus movement survived his death.]

We had an hour for lunch and then were just about the last people to squeeze into the Philharmonia Studio for

1.30: The Changing Face of Indigeneity: Now and Beyond
Wesley Enoch, Anita Heiss and playwright Nakkiah Lui were on a panel chaired beautifully by Lydia Miller. If I understood what Lydia Miller said in her introductory remarks, Native Title legislation of the early 1990s changed the way people in Australia think about indigenous identity, because it led to a diversity of narratives. There is also diversity because of intergenerational differences – I think I heard correctly that 60 percent of Aboriginal Australians are now under 25 years old, and 40 percent of those are under 15.

The panellists, two from the theatre and one novelist, addressed the theme interestingly. Wesley Enoch described himself as a psychological vampire, looking around for young Aboriginal blood for use in the theatre. Anita Heiss told us that there are 60 different pieces of legislation in Australia defining what it is to be Aboriginal, and this obsession on the part of whites with defining Aboriginal identity  was something that Aboriginal artists constantly have to negotiate: ‘We don’t sit around discussing identity with each other all day, you know. We have other things to do, like shopping.’  Nakkiah Lui, who spoke very quickly with the result that she was often incomprehensible to me (more about that later), said she was interested in critiquing the power relationships that were the context of cultural work. All three of them brought both zest and urgency to the question of challenging the dominant culture’s unremitting project of containing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in straitening identities.

[I’m writing this after seeing the wonderful Brothers Wreck at Belvoir Street on Sunday evening. The play reminded me of two other comments: Nakkiah Lui pointed out that there had been two Indigenous productions a year at Belvoir Street for some time now, and that this was building on an established tradition of Aboriginal theatre making. Wesley Enoch said that at the Queensland Theatre Company (of which he is Artistic Director) they find that if the audience is more than 20 percent Aboriginal, the response to Aboriginal theatre is completely different – the white audience members become a lot less uncertain in their responses, more open to the work.]

And then with a rapid change of mindset, to

3 pm: #three jerks,
This is a descendant of Alleyway Honour, a highlight of the 2009 Writers’ Festival. Like that event it is an austerely theatrical reading devised by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and directed by Roslyn Oades. Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman and Peter Polites, three of the five readers from the earlier production, here read interlocking first-person stories. My assumption is that each of them wrote his own story.

Opening with an infamous 2006 quote from Sydney Muslim cleric Sheikh Hilaly about where blame should be apportioned for a number of rapes in Western Sydney, the stories play out a key couple of days in the lives of a number of Western Sydney adolescents – a gay Greek boy, a white boy who gets caught up in a petty crime, and Lebanese boys dealing with adolescent sexual politics. Some of it is confronting stuff, but there’s an intelligent reaching for understanding, and a basic decency in all three narratives.

The show is scheduled for a second appearance at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne: at the Wheeler Centre 7 pm Friday 30 May. So if you’re in Melbourne here’s a chance to hear voices direct from Western Sydney, to provide some kind of counterpoint to the constant wailing about Western Sydney in the political commentariat.

[Luke Carman read very quickly, too quickly for me to understand most of it. This being the third time I’ve made such a complaint at this Festival, I have to ask if the problem isn’t with me rather than the rapid speakers. My ever-sympathetic partner is adamant that the problem is not that Melbourne poets, young playwrights and anglophone Western Sydneysiders talk too fast, but that my deafness has passed the point where I need a hearing aid.]

Bickering amiably about my growing disability, we headed up the queue outside the same theatre for the next session:

4.30: Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars
Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist from the US, chatted for an hour to Australian TV journalist  Mark Davis about his book detailing the extent of the US’s covert military operations, particularly those undertaken by the Joint Security Operations Council.  This was pretty scary stuff: Scahill’s early discoveries were dismissed by a spokesman for the White House as conspiracy fantasy, but the Snowden tapes confirmed that he was right on the money. Denied access to top levels of the military and the government, he has nonetheless built a substantial number of sources at the operational level. Mark Davis repeatedly expressed his astonishment and envy that in the US public employees seem to be willing to speak frankly to the press in a way that is not only illegal in Australia, but also simply not done.

Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (subtitle taken from a Dick Cheney memo) is a hefty paperback. We stayed to watch the film of the same name, which follows his investigation into darker and darker territory until it reaches the climax of the killing by drone of a 16 year old boy, a US citizen against whom no charge had every been made. This was by a military unit that was legitimised by Rumsfeld but now operates under Barack Obama’s direct authority.

We walked to the train though the incredible crowds that had turned out for the first Saturday night of the Vivid Festival. The Opera House, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Customs House are all lit spectacularly. Having just come from these revelations of what the government of our special allies are doing in almost complete secrecy it was hard not to think of bread and circuses. Here’s the bit from Juvenal’s 10th Satire (which I found on Wikipedia):

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 3

20140523-161141-58301843.jpg

The view from outside the Bar at the End of the Wharf

On Friday the sun was still shining. My only event of the day, in the Wharf Theatre 2, confusingly located on Pier 4, was

4.30: The Big Read

This is story time for a big room full of big people. It’s not quite as comforting as dozing off on your mother’s lap to the sound of a Hans Andersen horror story. Dozing is not unheard of, but the main point, at least for me, is to sample bits from writers who are new to me or who, as with two of this year’s line-up, I’ve developed a prejudice against (I’m not saying which).

But first, the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist awards were presented by Linda Morris, who writes for the Herald on literary matters. These awards, instigated 18 years ago by Susan Wyndham who was and still is  Herald‘s literary editor, carry no monetary prize – each of four young(ish) people was presented with a certificate and what looked like a bottle of wine. They were: Luke Carman (An Elegant Young Man), who has been appearing in this blog for some years now; Balli Kaur Jaswal (Inheritance); Hannah Kent (Burial Rites); and Fiona McFarlane (whose The Night Guest won a money prize at the NSW Premier’s Awards). They stood in a row looking awkward while we applauded, then politely melted into the darkness to make way for the older writers, introduced with her trademark enthusiasm by Annette Shun Wah.

Lian Hearn, the novelist of mediaeval Japan formerly known as Gillian Rubinstein, author of much loved children’s books such as Space Demons and Beyond the Labyrinth, read to us from her latest Japan novel, The Storyteller and his Three Daughters, a smooth, lucid excerpt that was mainly about writing.

Dara Horn from the US read from A Guide for the Perplexed – her book, not Maimonides’ – giving us an intriguing glimpse of a book in which tales from two different eras explore the idea of having a total record of a life: in one, a character develops software that records everything; in the other a late 19th century scholar discovers a comprehensive trove of documents in a Cairo synagogue that had not been cleaned out for a thousand years.  Such a trove of documents really has been found, and such software isn’t entirely implausible

Alex Miller read from Coal Creek. I’m afraid I didn’t get much sense of the book from this reading. It was largely a mundane recount of a man and a horse called Mother and it went on well over its allotted time so that everyone else had to whip their readings along.

Eimear McBride read from A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. In the bit she read the character was a 13 year old girl who may or may not have been contemplating suicide by drowning. The uncertainty was in the character’s mind, rather than mine, I think. The precise meaning didn’t matter so much: as Annette Shun Wah commented, it was like listening to jazz with, I would add, a beautiful Irish/Joycean accent. (The ABC has uploaded an earlier session of Eimear McBride in conversation with Michael Cathcart.)

Adam Johnson finished us off with a chilling bit from The Orphan Master’s Son. ‘You won’t understand this,’ he said, ‘because it’s an extract.’ It was the session’s only piece with a clear, strong narrative, and I would have rushed out to buy the book only two of my companions said they had read most of it, thought it was  really wonderful, but couldn’t finish it because it was so unremittingly grim. I still might give it a go …

We were on the train home before the Opera House and Customs House lit up for the Vivid Festival. We’ll look at the lights tonight, after a full day at the festival.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 2

One of the joys of the Sydney Writers’ Festival is hearing from friends and complete strangers about events you’ve missed. This morning in the coffee queue an older woman, a Millers Point resident currently threatened with eviction (Millers Point residents can look down in the festival from their rear windows) was off to a session on how to kill yourself (though probably phrased less bluntly than that) but was also planning one on enjoying old age. I went in out of the sunshine into the very life affirming

10 am: Marathon Reading: Asia Pacific Poetry

This event, presided over by the genial Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press, more or less continued the launch of that publisher’s new Asia Pacific Poetry Series at Gleebooks on Saturday.

A modest crowd sat around at small tables, while, to quote the Festival web site, a line-up of 10 writers made ‘poetry sing in its many voices across languages and get a little beyond the anglosphere’.

Kyoko Yoshida from Japan kicked off with a surrealist short story from her collection Disorientalism. She said she’d never been to Australia before, but the story was set here, and featured a weird love triangle in which one participant was a kangaroo who was very good at sales.

Violet Cho read a long poem in a Karen language, followed by David Gilbert reading us his English version. It’s fascinating to hear the music of a poem before having any idea of its meaning. And Karen is very musical.

Robert Nery, a Sydneysider, read poems translated from Tagalog: crazy, dangerous street scenes filled with brand names, many immediately recognisable to a Sydney audience – capitalism makes the whole world kin, perhaps.

Elizabeth Allen, one of the two pillars on which Vagabond Press stands, represented the Anglosphere – anglophone Australia is after all part of the Asia Pacific.

Nhã Thuyên fro Vietnam was next. In introducing herself she said she was nervous (and perhaps she had a cold as well), that she was usually more human than she was right then. She read beautifully and musically in Vietnamese, and Liz Allen stepped up to the mike with an english version.

Bella Li, from Melbourne, read in  a dour, uncompromising Melburnian manner.

Mabel Lee, who had been introduced by Michael Brennan as the matriarch of Chinese translation in Australia, read magisterially. ‘There must be as many women writing poetry in China as men,’ she said by way of introduction,  but it’s men who get all the attention in the outside world.’ Her edition of poems by three Chinese writers, two of them women, Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian, is Number 6 in the Asia Pacific Poets Series.

Adam Aitken is too young and too mild-mannered to be called the patriarch of anything, but he brought a certain local gravitas with him. He read ‘Ala Moana’, which was published in his chapbook, Tonto’s Revenge, and is the only poem of the session that I’d read previously. Adam described it in his introduction as an anti-touristic touristic poem.

Dinah Roma read last. Her Naming the Ruins is the first book by a Philippine poet living in the Philippines to be published in Australia.

We walked out into the sunlight ‘with fragments of poems like ornaments in our hair’ (to quote a poem a student wrote for me in my brief stint as an Eng Lit tutor in a bygone era).

Usually it rains and is nasty for at least some of the Writers’ Festival. Not so far at this one.

It should be raining

11.30 am: David Malouf: Celebrating 80 Years
David Malouf is probably the most loved public figure in Australia. His novels are justly acclaimed. His poetry too. I was surprised to learn from Tegan Bennett Daylight, his interlocutor in this session, that the recently published A First Place is the first collection of his essays: it seems as if his writing about Brisbane and his Queensland education have been working away on the general consciousness for decades.

This was a wonderful session. Tegan Bennett Daylight mentioned in passing that she had been immersed in Malouf’s work for a couple of months in preparation, and it showed – not in any encyclopaedic knowledge but in a deep appreciation, and in a willingness to risk interpretations.

At one stage David said that in a conversation about a book, the only person who hasn’t read it is likely to be the author. Everyone else is in a position to see things that the author can’t see. (Doesn’t that just cry out for the hashtag #oftwasthoughtbutneersowellexpressed? A lot of his talk does that.) Emboldened, TBD offered her observation that all DM’s novels are about a man who finds himself removed from his usual environment, and in the new environment, seeing things freshly, discovers what it is to be. The example she gave as her test case was from Ransom. DM didn’t respond directly to her thesis, but spoke charmingly at some length about what he was trying to do with that part of the book. A little later almost apologised,  saying that what he had said didn’t in any way contradict her thesis.

The conversation played out like a beautiful piece of theatrical improvisation: no one blocked, every question led somewhere interesting. A couple of times Tegan had to take a moment to process what had just been said to her, while David stayed ready to field whatever she gave him as a result. When she ventured into potentially dangerous waters and asked this eminently private author about being in love when writing one of his books, he managed with extraordinary grace to give no information about his private life while answering the question very interestingly about the book.

The session finished with David reading ‘Night Poem’ from Earth Hour (I would have asked for ‘A Green Miscellany’ or ‘Touching the Earth’), and then, most beautifully, Tegan drew our attention to David’s generosity as an interviewee, in particular his generosity to her. I hope this conversation turns up on the radio. Do listen to it.

I dashed home to walk and feed the dog and generally attend to the rest of life, then back for the next session. In the queue, we heard about a brilliant session with the writers of The Gods of Wheat Street, in which among other things they talked about how tough Jimmy McGovern had been with them when they were working on Redfern Now: ‘Make the characters bleed,’ he would say, and ‘That’s furniture, cut it out.’

4. 30 pm: Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth
This was a  documentary movie by Pratibha Parmar, followed by  Alice Walker, again in conversation with Caroline Baum. It went some way to explaining the awkwardness of the previous evening’s conversation: how could they talk about Alice Walker’s life and times when they knew that the next afternoon many of the people in that audience would be seeing this movie, which is nothing if not the life and times of Alice Walker? The film goes into detail about her work, her activism and how they relate to each other in a way that was frustratingly not there yesterday. Her early life, her participation in the Civil Rights movement, her relationships, the writing of her books, all were in the film, where yesterday had tiptoed around them.

The film also shed light on what I registered as a kind of serene abrasiveness. Alice Walker hasn’t been in the habit of speaking in order to be liked: I knew The Color Purple  had been criticised, but had no idea what a  vehement and sustained attack she had endured. And there has been plenty of nastiness in the press since then, often enough from African and African communities, about her writing about uncomfortable truths as much as about her personal life. She has been on the receiving end of some of the worst of celebrity culture, so a little wary defensiveness is more than understandable.

Also, my companion pointed out, she has fabulous clothes and has created a beautiful living, meditating and working environment for herself.

We didn’t stay for the talk, because we had to eat, catch up and walk up town for our next session. Having just been to a movie, which arguably belonged in the Film Festival rather than the Writers’ Festival, we now went to a stand-up show, which you might think belonged in the Comedy Festival.

8.30: Sandy Toksvig: My Valentine
We knew Sandi Toksvig as one of the occasional women panellists on QI. This show, she said, was her Valentine to Life. It began and ended with bits of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; we learned a little Danish which led to a surprisingly poignant pay-off; we found out that Sandy Toksvig has been on British Television for 34 years, and some of the audience vocally remembered her from a children’s show – ‘I see that some of my children have gown up,’ she said). We laughed a lot, and bought one of her books, which turns out to be a female to male cross-dresser who enlisted to fight in the Boer War.

SWF: My Day 1, Part 2

In my haste to get my last post up I forgot to mention Archie Roach. He came on right at the end of the conversation between Caroline Baum and Alice Walker. Alice had met him and his partner Ruby Hunter when she was a guest at the Adelaide Festival 22 Years ago, and she named one of his songs in her Desert Island Disc selection.

He told the story of his recent hard times: Ruby’s death, a stroke and lung cancer all in a shot period. Along with the staunchness of his friends it was music – composing and performing it – that helped him come out of the very dark place he found himself in. He performed ‘Took the Children Away’, and the final lines – ‘The children came back, I came back’ – had even deeper resonance than they have had in the past.

The awkwardness of the preceding conversation was forgotten.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

By one count, the Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going since the weekend. The opening address, by all accounts brilliant, was on Tuesday night. My festival started yesterday.

My first event – a poetry reading in the English Department’s Common Room at the University of Sydney – wasn’t strictly part of the Festival, but two of the poets were in Sydney for the Festival, so I’m counting it. I had to leave early to catch a bus to the Opera House so I only got to hear one and a half poets, all of Fiona Hile and half of Kate Lilley. Sadly, I missed out on Louis Armand from Prague, and Pam Brown.

The room was full of poets. Overheard pre-reading conversations (there were nibbles and drinks) included happy reports of ‘having something accepted ‘ in a coming anthology. John Tranter recorded proceedings for the Penn Sound Archive. Vagabond Press was selling in a back corner.

I enjoyed Fiona Hile’s reading but I wouldn’t say I understood much of the poetry. Partly this was because she read fast, the room was a bit echoey, and I’m a bit deaf. Mainly, though, I expect it was because she’s what the Spoken Word people call a page poet, and even more an experimental poet, which tends to mean that meaning isn’t easy to grasp. There were lots of striking lines. I managed to jot down:

The lilliputian threads of the old ways make me want to lose a limb

and in a context to do with sheep:

That wolf you’re wearing goes with everything.

In introducing Kate Lilley, Fiona Hile conjured up a fabulous image. She said she used to think it was uncool to have heroes, but when she began writing her own poetry, she had four horsewomen: Kate Lilley, Pam Brown, Gig Ryan and Jennifer Maiden. I’d love to see the movie that has those four poets charging into battle.

Kate Lilley read from Ladylike, and was about to read from Realia when I reluctantly tore myself away to catch a bus to the Quay, have dinner and then climb the stairs to the Joan Sutherland Hall of the Opera House for:

7.30 pm: The Life and Times of Alice Walker, in which Alice Walker was interviewed by Caroline Baum and joined by Archie Roach. The SWF blog already has a report.

As is customary at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the session bore little relation to its title. Alice Walker was in no mood to tell her life story, or to discuss her ‘times’ with any specificity. The tone was set right at the start when Caroline Baum asked, ‘Are you nervous at the start of events like this?’ and Alice Walker replied, ‘No,’ and waited serenely for the next question. CB bounced back by asking her to read us a poem, and she obliged with ‘You Should Grow Old Like the Carters’, which she read beautifully, giving each word its full weight, conveying the music , treating herself and the poem as worthy of our full, serious attention. That mix of awkwardness, resilience on Caroline Baum’s part, and weight on Alice Walker’s kept up for the whole session.

Part of the awkwardness came from the level of unaware racism in the room, or at least a reasonable expectation of it on Alice Walker’s part. She didn’t give her interlocutor the benefit of any doubt. For example (from memory, so probably missing a lot of nuance):

CB: So you grew up in a house without books and were part of an oral, story-telling culture.
AW: Oh, no, we had books. My parents got hold of old books that people had thrown out. But yes, there were lots of stories that everyone told, wonderful stories. [End of reply.]
….
CB: You read a lot when you were young. I believe your favourite books were … and Jane Eyre. What was it like the first time you read a book with black characters you could identify with?
AW: Oh, I identified completely with Jane. White people seem to think they can’t identify with black characters, but when we read it’s not about these divisions. It’s the spirit we identify with.’ [Applause]

Fortunately, Caroline Baum has a wonderful capacity for putting herself out there, and then bouncing back when she has her knuckles ever so serenely rapped.

Another reason the session seemed such hard work is possibly a problem of definition. Is Alice Walker at the festival as a writer, an activist, or a vague kind of celebrity?

Well, obviously, she’s a writer. But The Color Purple was published roughly 30 years ago, and I wonder how many people in that huge hall had read Possessing the Secret of Joy, or made it all the way through The Temple of My Familiar. As a poet she would draw a crowd, but not this big a one. Many of her essays are absolutely brilliant: ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’, ‘Only Justice Can Remove a Curse’, her essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Bessie Smith, on olive oil, the scar in her eye … I can rattle those off without googling. And a new collection of essays – Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way – has just been published. But how many essayists can fill the Opera House?

As an activist, she has an impressive record. She campaigned very visibly against female circumcision a while back, and was part of the flotilla that was intercepted so dramatically on its way to Gaza. But as far as I know she’s not part of any activist organisation and her activist philosophy boils down to stressing the importance of having friends (a ‘circle’) you can be completely honest with, and meditation seems to fit there.

Celebrity seems to be the key. So although the conversation touched on many things, and Caroline Baum kept pulling the conversation back to the recently published book, my overwhelming impression was that we were in the presence of celebrity, who was dispensing her wisdom for our benefit. The most telling celebrity moment was when she was asked about her daughter’s very public statements that her activism had made her a neglectful mother. Her reply included no whiff of self doubt, no hint that her daughter might have had a legitimate point (as the children of many activists surely would). The problem was that her daughter suffered from ‘mental instability’, from which she had now mercifully recovered. This dismissiveness was cloaked in serious and valid reflections on the legacy of slavery on her family, but it was dismissive all the same. We were to make no mistake who was the important person in this conversation.

I’m sorry if that’s jaundiced. I’m still a fan. I will buy the new book of essays, and probably her new book of poetry as well. I’m seeing another session with her on my second day, and hoping I’ll have a change of perspective.

Linda Cowgill’s Art of Plotting

Linda J. Cowgill, The Art of Plotting: Add Emotion, Suspense, and Depth to your Screenplay (Lone Eagle 2007)

20140518-223632.jpg It’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged about my reading, and this book is a partial explanation. (The rest of the explanation lies in small matters like a nephew’s wedding, paid work, dense bedside reading, too much television.)

The person sometimes known in the blog as the Film Director has been at me to write a feature film script to build on our modest success with Ngurrumbang (which incidentally just screened at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne and is scheduled for the St Kilda Film Festival on Saturday week). I don’t share his confidence in my ability but I’m up for the challenge, so I’ve just done an online course in Screenwriting for Film through AFTRS, and am well on the way to the beginnings of a first draft – though not the one the FD wants. The course was brilliant. Anne Brooksbank, the teacher, led 15 or so of us in two chat sessions a week for 10 weeks and commented on weekly assignments, managing to be both encouraging and challenging, collegial and inspirational. She made us watch some awful films as well as some brilliant ones, and we learned from both kinds.

One of the lesser things I learned was how to read a book like this one. You have to ignore the occasional motivational-speaker language (too many sentences starting ‘Great screen writers …’), and not get too snooty about the movies used as examples (I didn’t care much for American Beauty, and hadn’t seen Se7en – which I have now watched because of this book, and on the whole wish I could unwatch). You have to realise that the way things like structure, character or theme used to be discussed in Eng Lit courses (and probably still are, only more so) may be more fun, but is very different from the way you talk about building them. This isn’t a manual, but it’s immensely practical. It assumes knowledge of the established wisdom about structure – assumes the equivalent of the course I’ve just done. I don’t know how it stacks up against the myriad similar books out there, but I found it clear and helpful. I imagine it works best if, like me, you have a project more or less under way, so when Linda Cowgill talks about, say, having a logical progression from one scene to the next, or informing the audience about a character not by telling, or by showing, but by dramatising, you have examples of your own work fresh in your mind and can immediately see how the advice can be applied.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night

Last year I didn’t attend the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner because it cost too much. Tonight’s presentation was a lot cheaper, being not a dinner but a cocktail event. But for the first time in many years I had read almost none of the short-listed books, so decided it didn’t make sense to attend.

However, I’m loath to let the occasion go completely unremarked in this blog, so here I am, reporting from afar.

For a moment it looked as if the event itself was superfluous. This tweet appeared almost two hours before the doors of the Library opened:

Was it a hoax, or a leak? The link was dead. I stayed tuned to Twitter. Once Ross Grayson Bell had delivered the address and a couple of tweeters had found each other, the announcements came thick and fast.

Hakan Harman announced the joint winners of the Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW Award as The Secret River, Andrew Bovell’s play based on Kate Grenville’s book, and Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser. I’ve wanted to see/read both.

Of the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting shortlist I’d only seen Medea, Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate Mulvany, but didn’t expect it to win, though glad it was shortlisted. Van Badham’s Muff won. I haven’t seen it, but if the play is as good as her MCing of the March in May in Belmore Park yesterday it definitely deserves the prize.

I’d seen four of the six shows on the Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting list. My money was on Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket, though it would have been nice to see A Moody Christmas score a victory for comic writing. Devil’s Dust by Kris Mrksa won, completely appropriate for a prize named after old Com Betty Roland.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature list included some familiar names. It was won by The Girl Who Brought Mischief by Katrina Nannestad, which I haven’t read.

The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature went to Zac and Mia by Amanda Betts.

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry went to Novelties by Fiona Hile, who will be reading at Sydney University on Wednesday.

None of the subjects addressed in the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction list grabbed me by the throat: a 50 year old mystery death, a larrikin cricketer, an actor’s memoir, a ‘horrible history’ for grown-ups, a bit of war history, and – the one I would have chosen on the basis of the subject alone – the excavation of a dark family past. So I was glad when Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir by Kristina Olsson shared the award with Rendezvous with Destiny (the one about war and diplomacy) by Michael Fullilove.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Though I’d read none of the listed books, I had extra-literary reasons to cheer for one of them. It didn’t win. The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane took home the bacon. I look forward to reading it, as well as the other.

The pre-emptive tweet had taken much of the suspense out of the next couple of awards (whatever wins the novel prize is generally reported as having scooped the pool, even if it’s not book of the year).

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, which has been beckoning from my bedroom bookshelf for months, won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, but not the People’s Choice, which went to The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay. It did win Book of the Year, so Michelle de Kretser took home three prizes. It couldn’t happen to a nicer person.

The special award went to Rodney Hall. I love this award, because every year someone who has worked long and hard and generously in literature is honoured. This one continues that tradition. According to the tweeters he gave a rousing and topical speech in defence of funding for the arts.

And in less than two hours it was all over till next year.

Eileen Chong’s Peony

Eileen Chong, Peony (Pitt Street Poetry 2014)

1peonyThis is Eileen Chong’s second book of poetry. It’s bigger and more varied than her first, Burning Rice, but is just as lucid, friendly, and resonant.

Between reading it and writing this blog post, I made the mistake of reading comments by other poets on Eileen Chong’s page at Pitt Street Poetry. It was a mistake because, well, what can I say here beyond ‘Go and read what they said’ and then ‘Go and read the poems’?

This is from Rhyll McMaster (the phrases in quotes are, obviously, from the poems):

Displacement, attachment, sweat, warmth and food, communion, aloneness, disquiet and longing – these poems coax shadows out of dark recesses, ‘layered like memory, like grief.’ Their strength lies not in their settings but in their familiarity with the human spirit, ‘at our true selves, so far, yet so close to home’.

Then I read Kim Cheng Boey’s review in Mascara of Chong’s first book, Burning Rice:

The poems here are informed by what James Clifford calls ‘the empowering paradox of diaspora’, which is ‘that dwelling here assumes solidarity and connection there.’ They ride the creative tension between countries, cultures and languages. …

At the heart of Burning Rice are delicately and meticulously crafted meditations on the complex web of attachments, loss and longing, so rich with imagery and narrative that they transcend the poet’s own ethnic, cultural and regional background.

So yes, what they said, it’s still true of this book – diaspora, familiarity, meticulousness, complex web of attachments – though they don’t mention the pleasure these poems bring to the reader.

Eileen Chong came to Australia from her native Singapore in 2007, and her poems are shot through with the experience of migration, with a sense of displacement. To use Kim Cheng Boey/James Clifford’s terms, some look back to there; some burrow into the intimacy of here; others go elsewhere (it’s interesting, the way traveller’s tales, traveller’s poems, have a different weight when written by someone with a history of migration).

The book is divided into four untitled sections. The first deals largely with grandparents, parents and childhood memories. The second, which includes most of the travel poems, is largely addressed to a spouse – and who could resist the comic vision of terror and intimacy in ‘Mid-Air Disaster’? The third section turns to other friends and family, celebrating births and birthdays, reminiscing, cooking together. (Food and cooking loom large all through the book.)

The fourth section is a miscellany – ekphrasis (a word my iPad’s autocorrect doesn’t like, and nor do I much, a hi-falutin way of saying poetry about artworks), history, dreams, Sydney scenes and more. This section sent me off to read Adrienne Rich’s fabulous ‘Love Poems’ and to rediscover Robert Wiles’s famous photograph of Evelyn McHale taken just after she suicided by jumping off the Empire State Building. The book ends with the title poem, whose last lines may be the only place where the notion of diasporic identity is raised in the abstract, only to be challenged, with characteristic equanimity:

——————One lady nods and smiles:
China’s national flower. Is it? Am I? I’ve forgotten.

Here’s a video of Eileen (pronounced Ee-leen, by the way) reading three of her poems.

awwbadge_2014Peony is the fifth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Pitt Street Poetry sent me a complimentary copy with a personal – and accurate – note saying it was for my reading pleasure.