From a septuagenarian’s memoir to queer teenage romance, the war on drugs and soundscape ecology, here are the next five sessions from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival that Covid sent into virtuality.Once again, I haven’t read any of the books discussed.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie: The Erratics 31 August
Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics won the Stella Prize last year. It’s edging onto my TBR shelf, and I’ve heard and read quite a lot about it, so I almost didn’t listen to this podcast: hearing too much about a book before you read it can completely undermine the experience of reading it for oneself.
But once I’d started listening I was hooked. Ange Lavoipierre (so many excellent interviewers at this Festival that I’ve never heard of) elicited wonderful reflections, on the difference between memoir and autobiography, the astonishing way something that’s peculiarly personal can resonate with many people’s experience, the way writing a memory down is like taking a snapshot which replaces the fluid thing that was there before, and much more.
The conversation made me want to read the book rather than making me feel, as this kind of conversation sometimes does, that I don’t need to.
Antony Loewenstein: Pills, Powder, and Smoke 9 September
Antony Loewenstein is back, this time talking about his own book about the war on drugs, Pills, Powder, and Smoke, with George Dertadian. Dertadian introduces himself as an academic who researches aspects of illegal / recreational drug use, who only put Loewenstein’s book down because he had to. So it’s a high-level journalist talking to a scholar, a good combo.
The war on drugs is like the war on terror: neither can ever be won, and both – if I remember correctly – generally make worse the thing they seek to remedy. The war on drugs can become a war on drug users, as experience in the Philippines under Duterte shows. Shockingly but not surprisingly, Loewenstein says, Duterte’s program of extrajudicial killings is generally popular. But the Philippines is an extreme example of what is happening elsewhere:
American administrations have not killed millions of Black people to fight a drug war, not within the US at least. What they’ve done is, they’ve got the world’s largest prison population, which I might add was mostly expanded under Democratic administrations, not Republicans, and Joe Biden, potentially the next US president was the key architect of the War on Drugs rhetoric.
There’s a fascinating discussion of ethical drug use, challenging the mindset, ‘My enjoyment is not connected to other people’s suffering,’ with information about the cost of the drug trade for lower level people in the supply chain in the drugs’ countries of origin. And equally fascinating, though brief, discussion of the safe injecting rooms in Sydney and Melbourne.
My favourite quote: ‘With some notable exceptions politicians on this subject are gutless pricks. I think that’s the correct academic term.’
Text on the Beach 10 September
Ronnie Scott and Madeleine Watts, authors of the coming-of-age novels The Adversary (set in Melbourne) and The Inland Sea (set in Sydney) respectively, talk with Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Melbourne-based critic and writer.
They each read from their books, always a good thing in these conversations, and both books sound interesting. The conversation mostly avoids the trap of detailed discussion of the books and instead ranges over the questions of research and the relationship of these books to others. Patrick White, Christina Stead, Sumner Locke Elliott and explorer John Oxley are all mentioned. I learned a little about ‘post-AIDS-crisis’ culture among Gay men, and enjoyed hearing a Sydney-Melbourne conversation that didn’t indulge any of the inane rivalry tropes.
Josephine Rowe: Here Until August 14 September
Josephine Rowe, described on the SWF website as one of Australia’s short-fiction greats, discusses her recent collection, Here Until August, with novelist Stephanie Bishop. Listening to this podcast was like eavesdropping on two smart, likeable strangers taking in spoilerish detail about a book I hadn’t read, a pleasant but pointless activity, until …
…. speaking of the importance of place in her fiction, JR went off piste for a moment to speak about the fascinating work of Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been recording the sounds made by particular locations over five decades:
[He has] built up this incredible archive of 1300 biomes, their sonic signatures, and how they change over time … He talks a lot about the ways in which animals communicate and the bandwidths that they use. There’s the geophony, which is the sound of the natural, non-animal, non-sentient world. Then there’s the biophony, which is all non-human creatures, sound-making organisms. And there’s the anthrophony, which is us: our noise interacting or coming in and taking up certain registers means that creatures can’t communicate with each other in the same way and they’re being edged out. So you might be looking at the same patch of forest and it might look completely the same, but when you listen to the sound signature of it you hear how much is missing.
… Of these 1300 environment that he has recorded over the past 50 years, two thirds of them are either unrecognisable or in some cases completely silent, and that’s such a terrifying idea.
The conversation then turns to craft – how writing a novel differed from writing short stories (not necessarily harder!), how building with bricks differs from building with stone … And the session finishes with a reading from one of the stories in Here Until August, which made me want to go out and by the book.
Queerly Beloved 17 September
The non-digital SWF was to have an All Day YA event. This panel was to be part of it, featuring YA writers Erin Gough (Amelia Westlake), Sophie Gonzales (Only Mostly Devastated) and Anna Whateley (Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal), all of whom have written queer romance.
Again, I felt I was eavesdropping on smart, likeable people talking about books I haven’t read, and in this case am unlikely too, because my niblings are either out of the YA age group or aren’t much interested in romance, queer or otherwise, and by the time my grandies have reached YA reader age the field will have moved on.
There wasn’t really any YA as such when I was of that age. I searched out the little book where I listed all the books I read 1961 to 1975. Not including the books set for school, the list for 1961, the year I turned 14, which I understand to be peak YA, comprises:
- 20 books by Agatha Christie
- 5 by Edgar Wallace
- 4 by Erle Stanley Gardner
- 4 racist yarns by Sax Rohmer
- 2 by Ngaio Marsh
- a guilty 2 by Carter Brown
- only 1 by Georgette Heyer, alas
- 1 by Arthur Conan Doyle
- 2 detective stories by people I’ve never heard of otherwise
- 3 historical novels – Ben Hur, The Robe and I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy
- 1 science fiction: H G Wells, The Invisible Man
- Cheaper by the Dozen by the Gilbreths
- Patrick Dennis, Around he World with Aunty Mame
- Willie Fennel, Dexter’s Court, which I noted was funny by don’t remember
- Much Ado About Nothing (I don’t know why)
I guess if there’d been YA queer romance, or any YA books at all, I would have been spared that immersion in churned-out detective fiction.
I was saved from that fate by the arrival of a huge box of books sent by my grandmother in London. The complete set of Dickens and a set of ‘classics’ (Austen, Bronte, Thackeray etc).
I wolfed them all down, no doubt missing a great many subtleties, but it did steer my taste in reading towards literature rather than anything else.
(And I’ve re-read them all since, except of East Lynne which I thought was soppy).
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