Tag Archives: Abbas El-Zein

NSWPLA dinner

There’s a quote from James Tiptree Jr I’ve been wanting to sneak into my blog for some time. When an editor asked her to write an afterword to her short story, ‘The Milk of Paradise’ she wrote that some authors are ‘walkie-talkie writers … who are named Mailer and Wolfe when they are good’ and went on:

But the rest of us, poor carnivores whose innards meagrely condense into speech. Only at intervals when the moon, perhaps, opens our throats do we clamber up on the rocks and emit our peculiar streams of sound to the sky. Good, bad, we do not know. When it is over we are finished, our glands have changed. Push microphones at us and you get only grumbles about the prevalence of fleas and the scarcity of rabbits.1

That, in short, is why I’ve become a dedicated paying guest at the annual  NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner. I love to see those poor carnivores clamber up onto the podium to be honoured, even the ones who can’t manage any more than ‘Thank you’.

I nearly didn’t go this year, fearing that the dreaded PowerPoint’s incursion, begun at the shortlist announcement, would continue. I was also trying to think like a grown-up about the expense, and then there was the Dîner des Refusés precipitated by the nul prize for a playscript. But here I am again, home from the Art Gallery, out of pocket but flush with the inside dope, even though the on-the-spot tweeters and newspapers (with self-promoting or surprise-upset hooks) have beaten me to publication.

It turned out, no surprise, to be a pleasant evening. The company was convivial, the setting brilliant, the food excellent. There was no PowerPoint as such, but sadly the dinner has become an Event, the creation of Events Organisers, with glossily impersonal results. There was a would-be witty typewriter centrepiece on each table. Two huge television screens told us who was talking to us at any given moment, threatening but thankfully not quite managing to distract us from the mere humans on the stage between them. And the pause between the announcement of each winner’s name and their arrival at the microphone – that is, the time it took them to reach the stage, be photographed kissing the Premier and cross to the mike – was now filled, not just with applause and a buzz of conversation, but with a blast of fanfare from the sound system. I hope someone whispers to the Organisers that this isn’t the Oscars, still less the Logies.

Auntie Sylvia Scott welcomed us to country. As last year, she told us she was an avid reader, and revealed that though Nathan Rees had promised her a pile of books, she never saw any. As she left the stage Carol Mills, Director General of Communities NSW and MC for the evening, promised her a pile this year. She was gracious enough not to look sceptical.

Richard Fidler gave the address. He was funny, and with enough meat to be satisfying, with quotes ranging from Neil Gaiman (about the joys of being a writer), by way of Stalin (writers are the ‘engineers of the soul’) to the unnamed Bush aide (‘probably Karl Rove’) who derided the ‘reality based community’. He advise women in quest of a man to look to their bookshelves – men don’t care so much about appearances, it’s the books that count: ‘Ladies, if we see a copy of a book by Deepak Chopra or Erich von Daniken, we’re out of there.’ He recommended The Moth podcast, and inveighed against Twitter as the ruination of literature – all those writers being witty in 140 characters instead of being at work: ‘Get back to your desks you Gen Y bastards!’ (At that point I saw my Baby Boomer friend misrule discreetly tweeting.)

On to the awards:

The UTS Glenda Adams Prize for new writing: Andrew Croome – Document Z
I started to read this a while back but couldn’t bear to read yet another book on the subject. Perhaps seduced by the sub-Oscaresque music that accompanied him to the mike, Andrew Croome gave a straightforward thank you speech, an example followed by most of the award recipients. In particular he acknowledged his debt to University creative writing courses. The book started out as a PhD – ‘But that doesn’t mean it’s boring.’

The Community Relations Commission Award: Abbas El Zein – Leave to Remain: A Memoir
A lovely book. He said, ‘I never thought I’d shake hands with the Premier and be paid for it,’ introducing another recurring motif of writers responding to Kristina Keneally’s physical presence.

The NSW Premier’s Prize for Literary Scholarship: Philip Mead – Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry
I hope to read this hefty volume some day. The very tall Philip Mead (nickname ‘Tiny’) commented that it was lovely to stand next to someone of normal height. The Premier leaned over to his mike and said it was lovely to stand next to someone who was taller than her. He went on to thank, among others, independent Australian publishers, who are like tussocks: ‘we do everything we can to destroy them and they keep coming back.’

The Play Award: Controversially not awarded

The Script Writing Award: shared by Jane Campion for Bright Star and Aviva Ziegler for Fairweather Man
Jane is abroad. In accepting the award for her, the film’s producer Jan Chapman threw us the pleasing tidbit that in the absence of any letters from Fanny Bryce to Keats, Jane looked for inspiration on her character to her own teenage daughter. Aviva spoke about the ways writing a documentary is of its nature so much more a collaboration than other forms of writing.

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for poetry: Jordie Albiston – The Sonnet According to ‘M’
I bought the last copy of this on my way home.

At this point in the evening, the main meal was served. I was the only one at my table vulgar enough to want to trade fish for meat. One of my fellow guests was gracious enough to do so. The steak and mushroom and mashed potato was delicious, though it didn’t look a bit like the way my mother used to do it. Then on with the show:

The Ethel Turner Prize for young people:Pamela Rushby – When the Hipchicks Went to War
Pamela Rushby wins the Me fail? I fly! award for the best acceptance speech. She may have been the only recipient who began with the formal ‘Distinguished guests’, but she recovered from that slightly distancing moment by telling us she had pitched the book to publishers as Apocalypse Now meets A Chorus Line. Apart from giving us some little known information about young women who went to the Vietnam War as entertainers, she thanked her family, ‘without whose support the book would have been finished in half the time’.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for a children’s book: Allan Baillie – Krakatoa Lighthouse
Allan writes with remarkable precision, but he speaks with difficulty – so he can be difficult to follow. I thought he said that on this project his wife had to endure more than most writers’ wives because he’d been carrying on with an orang utan. I probably misheard, but he does have an unsettling sense of humour. He definitely did say that his wife climbed Son of Krakatoa with him.

The Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction: Paul McGeough – Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed Hit … and the Rise of Hammas
‘Madame Premier, Ms Premier?’ ‘Kristine.’ He mainly thanked his editors, and said very little about the book.

The Christina Stead Prize for fiction: J.M. Coetzee – Summertime
Unsurprisingly JMC wasn’t there. Meredith Purnell (?) from Random House read a brief note: ‘Whether I deserve to hold my head up with the esteemed previous winners is something only time will tell.’ So Summertime!

The People’s Choice Award: Cate Kennedy – The World Beneath
‘I can’t believe my luck that all this has come about from just telling stories.’

Book of the Year: Paul McGeough – Kill Khalid
This time, without notes, he spoke about the vulnerability of writers in these late-capitalist times (my term), and daringly drew a parallel with the Taliban, a ragtag collection of warriors holding at bay the great technological firepower of the USA, the closest the evening came to ‘the prevalence of fleas and the scarcity of rabbits’.

The Special Award: The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature
This may have been an inevitable award, but it was sad that we didn’t get to honour an ageing lion, who would have responded memorably.

I didn’t realise until this morning how many of the writers receiving awards were born and partly educated outside Australia: Abbas El Zein of course, but also Jane Campion, Aviva Ziegler (I’m guessing from her accent), Allan Baillie, Paul McGeough and J M Coetzee. That’s at least six out of eleven. Does this mean, as a friend of mine insists, that Australians can’t write? I don’t think so. Does it mean anything at all? I don’t know.

The main pleasure of the evening for me, and I suspect others, was catching up with friends. I was sitting with people I didn’t know well, and that was another pleasure, especially as the three people I could talk to most easily were judges who managed to be gloriously indiscreet about some of this year’s processes. It’s often said that literary awards are given to compromise candidates, books that are no one’s favourites but that no one objects to. It seems this was not the case with these awards. There were sharp divisions of opinion over a couple of them, and my impression is some of the uncontroversial decisions had their share of anguish.
——
1From the collection, Meet Me at Infinity, edited by Jeffrey D Smith, 2000, p 238

Leave to remain

Abbas El-Zein, Leave to Remain (UQP 2009)

9780702236921There was a piece on the news recently about a conference on Islamophobia. My lay thought on the subject is that the best way to make headway against that polysyllabic malady is to make friends with actual flesh-and-blood Muslims. A probably less efficacious but also less challenging cure might be to read books by Muslim writers. Irfan Yusuf’s Once Were Radicals is a case in point. So is Leave to Remain. Both books are memoirs by Australian Muslims who were born elsewhere, both deal with what it means to be Muslim and ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’ living in Australia; Irfan Yusuf comes from the rough and tumble world of blogdom and doesn’t know when to write ‘my friend and me’ rather than ‘my friend and I’, whereas Abbas El-Zein is a university professor and novelist, parts of whose book have appeared in literary journals. Once Were Radicals did a beautiful job (for me at least) of ‘de-Othering’ Islam – that is to say, I felt that the author had done a brilliant job of bridging the Islamophobia chasm. I approached Leave to Remain expecting something of the same, for a different generation, a different national background (Yusuf left Pakistan for Australia when he was a small child; El-Zein was an adult when he came here from Lebanon).

Paradoxically, even though Abas El-Zein’s childhood and youth in war-torn Lebanon could hardly have been more different from mine in what someone has called the cotton-wool peace of White Australia, I had much less of a sense of chasms being bridged with this book. Perhaps that’s because Yusuf’s memoir deals largely with his adolescent exploration of Islam, which is still pretty much a closed Book to me; while El-Zein identifies unwaveringly as ‘an adherent … to Enlightenment ideas and practices concerning the secular state, pluralism, science and technology’, close to my own cultural identity.

The book has elements of biography, but is actually a collection of personal essays with a stage of the writer’s life as subject and springboard. It’s divided into two parts, of roughly equal length: the first, ‘Origins and Departures’, takes us up to the 32-year-old El-Zein’s arrival in Sydney in 1995, the second, ‘Unhappy Returns’, deals mainly with his return visit to Lebanon and his responses to the wars that have afflicted that part of the world since. I don’t have time to say much more than that there’s some wonderful writing and give some samples.

On his adolescent anti-Americanism (which he repudiates as naive, but records all the same):

As a teenager, I worried about America because I could not understand how it could show off its wealth so casually on screens around the world. Was it not afraid of exposing itself, of being so present in the lives of so many individuals, a presence which  was all about America itself? Once, during the war in Beirut, my mother told my teenage sister not to go out with too much jewellery round her neck because the only men she would be likely to attract were robbers. I thought America could benefit from a little talk from my mother. Not that America was likely to grant an audience. America was a blind Narcissus, constantly playing mental images of himself with no hope of seeing himself, let alone anyone else, because he was Narcissus and because he was blind. America could not see. It was made to be seen.

On the War on Terrorism:

A Manichean view of history – in which ‘we’ are indisputably good and ‘they’ are inherently evil – remains the West’s dominant form of expression about terrorism, post–September 11, and barely disguises its racial overtones. It is one of the mysteries of our time that the Soviet nuclear warheads and the IRA campaign on the British mainland, to name two relatively recent threats, did not cause nearly the same ‘existentialist’ panic that a Middle-Aged tribesman has succeeded in inflicting on the West’s collective psyche from his remote hideout in Afghanistan. For all the atrocious deeds of Al Qaeda and European Jihadists in New York, London and Madrid, who does seriously believe that they pose a threat to our existence in the West?

There is a wonderfully comic–grotesque description of his first walk from Redfern Station to Sydney University a few weeks after his arrival in Australia. ‘There was more mutilation around this street than I could live with,’ he writes – and we remember that this is a man who grew up in a civil war. He writes beautifully about his parental anxieties: his little son Ali announces with glee that his name can be found in the word Australia, and a few days later, just as excitedly, that it’s also in Alien. He writes graphic and instructive accounts of religious practices, especially of the Shi-ite festival of Ashura – mentioning in an aside that the public bloodletting that is so alien to Western sensibilities may well have been imported into Islam from the practices of Catholic Spain.

Incidentally, the book was designed, beautifully, by Jenny Grigg, who has been responsible for some of Australia’s most beautiful books (she redesigned The School Magazine ten or so years ago).