Here are the last three sessions I attended at this year’s Festival.
I had heard Jenny Erpenbeck speak at the first session I attended this year. I was happy to have a chance to hear her at more length.
The session began inauspiciously. Whereas in almost every other session all the participants walked onto the stage together and sat down to welcoming applause, this time a tall, slightly ungainly man was standing centre front and had started talking before we could acknowledge him, He didn’t introduce himself, so I’ll return the compliment here. Like all the other facilitators, he acknowledged the Gadigal people as traditional custodians of the land where we were meeting, though he didn’t mention elders and somehow made it about himself: he appreciated that Gadigal people had been telling stories here for millennia and was grateful that he could tell stories here. Maybe I’m being picky here, but I think he’d lost sight of the function of the acknowledgement of country: in the absence of someone from the traditional owners to welcome us all, someone acknowledges the custodians and elders on behalf of the assembled people – it’s not about that person as an individual.
And the session continued as it had begun. Though the interlocutor professed to be a huge admirer of Jenny Erpenbeck’s work, he didn’t seem to know how to give her room to shine: he would comment on some aspect of her work, then ask whether he had got it right, and often enough she would struggle to make an intelligible response. The difficulty was no doubt compounded by her limited English and the terrible noise coming from other parts of the cavernous hall.
Nevertheless, starting with the story of her grandmother who had been a Communist in 1930s Germany, gone to the USSR to avoid the Nazis, and never trusted the Germans again when she returned after World War Two, she painted a poignant picture of the East German experience when the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and almost overnight everything changed.
My most vivid memory of the session is her graciousness in responding to borderline offensive questions from the floor. Asked if, given the current resurgence of fascism in the east of Germany, does that mean that east Germans have a deep-seated yearning for totalitarianism, she quietly demurred. First, she said, it’s not only in the east. And second, rather than asking if the questioner had been listening when she talked about the marginalisation of people from the old East Germany and their consequent sense that the political system did not represent them, she said that though she thought about the question a lot, she didn’t know what led to this resurgence. Perhaps it was … and here she repeated her earlier analysis as if it was a new thought in this conversation.
Then, when someone who was sitting very near the first questioner pointed out that the audience was mainly grey-haired (a comment that prompted noisy protest from a good part of the audience), and asked if her books were reaching young people at all. Smiling warmly, JE said she quite liked grey-haired people, and added that one of her books – perhaps Go, Went, Gone, which deals with refugees and people who have been forced to migrate – has been set for study in some localities. She doesn’t know if the book will change the minds of any of the young people, but perhaps it will, and they may have an influence when they have grey hair.
This session was the one that was most affected by the terrible acoustics. And evidently it was worse for the people on stage than for us: evidently the background noise fed into their ear-phones so that they could barely hear themselves each other. Making a virtue of it, Ece Temelkurian, the Turkish writer I’ve seen twice before, said she would use her Big Voice, and Sally Warhoft, A Melburnian whom I think of mainly as previous editor of The Monthly, said likewise – and both these women, it turns ut have big voices, big ideas, big connection of minds.
Ece’s book How to Lose a Country is not about her native Turkey. It uses the Turkish experience as a warning to the rest of the world about the process by which liberal democracy can be turned into dictatorship. Right-wing populism, which smooths the transition, is the monstrous child of neoliberalism. (She is a terrific phrase-maker.)
She is critical of easy analogies with the rise of Nazism and fascism. what is happening now is much more like the industrial revolution. It’s not about the populist leader – get rid of one and another will take his (usually they’re male) and another will take his place. It’s a change beyond party politics. And culture is over-rated. (As she clarified in question time, this is not to say we should ignore cultural specifics, but she is talking about a general process. It’s misguided to say that there’s something about Turkish or Philippine culture that makes dictatorship more likely, that it could never happen here, wherever here happens to be.) Neoliberalism has broken communities, got into our minds so we think of ourselves mainly as participants in a market rather than a society. The public concept of truth has changed, and public figures are no longer ashamed when caught in a lie.
When Sally quoted John w Howard’s pivotal assertion, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ Ece said this was a classic piece of what she is talking about: it’s a piece of nonsense, because of course you can’t control who comes to your country. But once you draw a circle like that, with someone on the ooutside who is defined as not belonging, there is no way of stopping that circle from narrowing.
Things that don’t work in response to the rise of right-wing populist leaders:
- fact checking: they lie and distort, but have undermined the institutions that would be used to expose them – the press, scientific bodies
- judicial processes: they have sowed distrust of the courts or stacked them with partisans
- opposition parties and the electoral process – I think it was Sally who said she had read that some serious people are saying it’s possible, even likely, that if Trump is voted out in 2020 he will refuse to leave the White House (mostly Ece avoided takig explicitly about Trump, but he was certainly in my mind along with Scott Morrison all through the session).
We have to be prepared for a new kind of conversation. For example:
A: The world is flat.
B: Look at this photo taken from space. The world is clearly round like a ball.
A: But I don't believe that. I believe the world is flat.
How do you deal with that? she asked. How do you prove that seeing trumps belief, that evidence matters? That’s the question we’re up against. She had no answer.
Neoliberal values to the same thing to our minds as terrorism does. Recognising that Sydney hasn’t hasn’t experienced terrorism, she explained that when a terrorist attack occurs in your country, most people’s first response is to be relieved that it wasn’t in their town. If it’s in your town, you’re relieved it wasn’t in your suburb. If in your suburb, that it wasn’t in your street. It’s always somewhere else, happening to someone else, so not your problem. That’s how neoliberalism works too: Manus Island and Nauru, it’s only a couple of hundred people. It’s a vicious diminishing of our sense of humanity.
Having said to Benjamin Law the other night that she thinks the important thing is to think about all this, not to focus on how one feels about it, at this session she warned about laughter. The problem with mockery of the right-wing populous leader is that it allows the mockers and the laughers to feel superior to the subject of their mockery, and perhaps unwittingly assume they are safe. Dont’s laug, she said. It’s dangerous.
We have to remember that we are political subjects. We are living in challenging times that call for hard thinking and collective action. This is a joyful thing.
And then there was the Closing Address delivered by Fatima Bhutto.
Before introducing the main act, Michaela McGuire, artistic Director of the Festival, took the mic for a moment to thank the tireless workers and volunteers, and to do an elegant round-up, quoting enough stand-out moments to make everyone in the room realise they’d seen only a fraction of what went on. My favourite was novelist Trent Dalton approaching the q=women queueing after his sold-out talk to thank them for their interest, only to have fellow Queenslander Matthew Condon tap him on the shoulder, ‘Mate, that’s the queue for the Ladies.’
Ms Bhutto spoke eloquently about the distortion of reality that sees Islam and Muslims as the main source of violence in the world. She listed the many barbarous acts of violence in the 20th century and since committed in the name of Christianity or (she whispered) by atheists, and called on us to reach for our common humanity in these dangerous times.
She saved her sharpest language for the Four Horsemen, by whom she meant Sam harris, Richard Dawkins and two others who in the name of militant atheism are especially hostile to Islam and to the Holy Qur’an, even though, she said, none of them have read it. (incidentally, outside the Town Hall on Friday night, a couple of men were offering copies of the Qur’an to people in the queue. I said I already had a copy next to my bed. ‘Have you read it?’ ‘ Not yet’ Read it. It’s a revelation.’)
It was great that the festival finished on such a challenging, even militant note rather than warm, self-congratulatory rhetoric about the power of the imagination.
It turned out that a clear theme emerged in my personal festival this year. In session after session people groped for definitions of home. In An Irrevocable Condition the consensus was that home is where you have your community of friends and family. In Home Truths both writers were ambivalent about being identified with their place of origin, and if I remember correctly at least one of them said she found a home in literature – writing, reading, being part of that community. Story Club was all about family – early parenthood and a vast clan reunion. In Lie to Me at the Town Hall, Patricia Cornelius’s monologue dealt with what amounted to a creepy and devastating home invasion. Simon Schama spoke of Jews as having a provisional sense of belonging: ‘If you’re a Jew, it’s natural to be cosmopolitan, on the move. The non-provisional part is observance and immersion in the Torah or for more advanced people the Talmud. In some sense, the Torah is your home.’
One last comment. I love attending the Festival in person. You get to talk to strangers about things they love, and that you also love if you’re lucky. You get to meet up with friends in a different context. You have a chance to meet in person people who have been intimately important to you, though I’ve been too shy to do too much of that. You get to notice the poets’ shoes and the heroic journalists’ hair. But these days it’s possible to enjoy a lot of this festival at a very small remove.
Some sessions are broadcast live on the ABC: SWF episodes of The Bookshelf and Conversations are are already available as podcasts – click the underlined words for links. Some sessions are live streamed, and some remote viewers have already blogged about those accounts. You can read about ‘Boys to Men‘, ‘Andrew Sean Greer: Less‘ and ‘”I do not want to see this in print“‘ on the Canberra-based blog Whispering Gums. If that wasn’t enough, the Festival has its own podcast which, if the past is any guide, will upload a huge number of sessions from this Festival over the next year.