The 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival continues. I’ve just read that Michaela Maguire’s successor has been appointed. It’s Michael Williams, formerly of the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, and the excellent facilitator of a number of sessions in this and previous years’ SWFs. He has big shoes to fill, but – to continue with an unfortunate metaphor – he has big feet.
So here are my notes on another five sessions from this years SWF, just less than a month from being current.
Animals Like Us 25 July
The main pleasure of this session is being read to – no doubt it would have been more pleasurable in person, but it’s still a joy as a podcast.
Laura Jean McKay starts out ‘perhaps controversially’ by reading a passage from near the end of her novel, The Animals in That Country, which features a viral infection (did I hear her say zoo flu?) that enables people to understand the language of animals.
Jo Lennan reads from her collection of short stories In the Time of Foxes featuring – you guessed it – foxes.
Veronica Sullivan from the Wheeler Centre then wrangles a conversation about the makings of their two very different books.
Remembering Christchurch 27 July
The festival website reminds us:
On Friday 15 March 2019, an Australian-born white supremacist entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and massacred 51 Muslims peacefully conducting their sacred Friday prayers.
In this podcast, four Muslim writers describe their responses to the massacre at the time and discuss what it means in terms of white supremacy and Islamophobia in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Osman Faruqi, a journalist who currently hosts Schwartz Media’s 7am podcast, does a beautiful job in the chair. In his introduction he makes it personal: the anniversary would normally be a time for communal events that enable a degree of healing, but because of Covid-19 this is the first time he has had a opportunity for anything like a public coming-together on this terrible subject.
The other participants are a politician, a novelist and literary activist, a journalist, and an emerging fiction writer: Golriz Ghahraman, New Zealand Greens MP and author of a memoir, Know Your Place; Michael Mohammed Ahmad, who wrote The Tribe (my blog post here) and The Lebs; Ruby Hamad, author of White Tears/Brown Scars; and Naima Ibrahim, whose work has appeared in Sweatshop Women: Volume One.
None of the panellists were surprised by the Christchurch massacre. Perhaps Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s response was most striking. He said his first reaction was an intense sense of failure. In September 2001 he was 13 years old and made a decision to spend his life trying to make the Muslim community safe. When he heard the news from Christchurch, he wept long and hard. And none of them were persuaded that progress had been made against white supremacy and Islamophobia in the year since Christchurch.
Osman Faruqi brought the conversation back to the panellists’ writings. Someone quoted Edward Said’s observation in an interview that the whole long, glorious history of Arabic culture is generally rendered invisible in the education of young people in the West. Without that invisibility, the murderous Islamophobia we are seeing could never have flourished. Many artists from Muslim / Arab countries and cultures – including the ones on this panel – are working hard to remedy that situation by creating works that show Arabs / Muslims as complex, fully rounded human beings. The writers and some publishers are doing their work: we readers need to ours.
Tanya Talaga: All Our Relations 29 July
Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe and Polish Canadian journalist whose book, All Our Relations: Indigenous Trauma in the Shadow of Colonialism is the subject of this conversation with Kamilaroi woman and Sydney Morning Herald Indigenous affairs reporter Ella Archibald-Binge.
The book looks at the high youth suicide rates in Indigenous communities all over the world, and finds common elements in those communities. In the podcast, you can hear how the Canadian and Australian experiences echo each other with extraordinary precision. I expect it’s largely familiar territory for Indigenous listeners, but very much alive and challenging for non-Indigenous listeners like me.
Towards the end, Talaga quotes Martin Luther King Jr’s notion that there are two Americas, one full of innocence and joy where the children are happy and do well, and the other, the America of Indigenous and African-heritage people, where people live in poverty. He said then that legislation would make no difference ‘if the will of the majority doesn’t get behind it’. On the importance of education, Talaga said:
In Canada we have a culture of looking away. I’m gonna say it’s probably quite similar in Australia. Non-Indigenous Canada will say, ‘Oh that’s not our problem, that’s an Indigenous problem …’ We have two Canadas. We have a Canada for Indigenous people, and we have a Canada for non-Indigenous people, and that has to change, that whole thinking has to change. We have to find a way to bring that down and move forward together, and part of that is making sure we have an education system that teaches the true history of this country,
Asked if she felt hopeful, she echoed some of the parting words from the previous session:
I feel hopeful every time somebody reads a book by a First Nations author anywhere, anytime that somebody comes out to listen to a play or to see art or to listen to me speak, that is progress and that is hope, because people are learning, and people are changing, and people are waking up to ‘You know what? This isn’t the country of our parents. We can do better than they did, and we have to do better for all of our sakes, for all of our kids.’
Sophie McNeill: We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know 3 August
Sophie McNeill is one of the many strong women journalists who have recently been lost to ABC listeners, though she resigned before the resent wave of sackings to work for Human Rights Watch. She has written a memoir, We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know, which as she says in this conversation isn’t so much a look behind the scenes at the life of a foreign correspondent as a report on the kinds of human reality that don’t make it into the news. In this session, she talks to Australia Director at Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson who keeps responding ‘absolutely’ to Sophie’s observations about international injustices – which inadvertently creates the impression that she thinks Sophie is singing from the organisation’s songbook. In fact, she’s definitely singing her own song: the conversation is very personal and mercifully free of abstract preachifying.
Here’s a little taste, in an aside from tales of terrible suffering and extraordinary heroism:
People would always ask me, ‘How do you go from these countries that are war-torn, or where things are really tragic …’ I met my partner in Margaret River in Australia at a barbecue in 2007, and I spent quite a few years going back and forth between the Middle East and Australia, Margaret River even. People would ask, ‘How do you adjust between these different worlds?’ But what I find amazing is that everyone is actually the same everywhere I went. I never found it that different, whether I was at a barbecue in Margaret River or I was hanging out with Palestinian friends in Gaza or I was documenting the lives of Syrian refugees in a tent in a camp in Jordan. People are the same everywhere. When you spend time in these places that’s the main thing that comes to you: the similarities, not the differences.
The Art of the Story 5 August
This is a terrific conversation between two white liberal male writers.
George Packer describes himself as a failed novelist. He is an acclaimed essayist who writes regularly for The New Yorker and The Atlantic. His book that received most attention in this conversation is The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013), which he says is sometimes described as predicting the Trump phenomenon. He demurs, saying that like most pundits he thought Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election, but the book did describe the state of affairs that made the Trump presidency possible.
His partner in this session, Don Watson, is himself no slouch as an essayist, and has clearly engaged with Packer’s writing over decades. In his opening remarks, he sets a context for the discussion by mentioning among others Tolstoy, Nabokov, Svetlana Alexievich, John McPhee (links are to my blog posts), and describes the USA as a nation where the written word has played a key role in its creation. He mentions the reverence for the writings of the Founding Fathers, and says, ‘You can still hear Milton in the cadences of the public language.’
George Packer takes the bait. Yes, that’s probably true, but there has always been a strong tradition of anti intellectualism in US culture. Donald Trump didn’t come out of the blue.
What follows is hugely listenable. Though they didn’t frame it like this, they go on to talk about a third strand of US cultural life, what Packer calls identity politics and ‘wokeness’, which has been part of the left ‘turning on itself just when power is in its grasp’. He speaks of writers who now spend most of their writing time on Twitter being performative rather than exploratory or reflective. Trump isn’t the whole problem. If he goes the temperature won’t come down immediately.
Here’s a taste:
The aesthetics of wokeness have not been explored enough, but I don’t think we’re going to look back and say that the woke aesthetic was a great moment in American art because the mindset and the values that animate it undermine the conditions for writing good work, for doing good work. Being true to oneself, being willing to stand alone, to go against the group, to go against the current of the times, being willing to use words that tell the truth but can also make people uncomfortable, being as vivid and clear and concrete as possible, for me these are the building blocks of good writing. They’re not everyone’s and there’s good writing that doesn’t necessarily follow those rules, but I worry that we’re going to trade goodness for beauty or beauty for goodness and maybe end up with neither one,
‘All Our Relations’ and ‘The Art of the Story’ are part of a series, Stories Worth Telling, a joint creation of the SWF and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. There are at least two more instalments in the series yet to be listened to and blogged, along with some novelists, journalists, essayists, possibly some wokeness, definitely plenty to think about, and additions to the TBR shelf.