Tag Archives: Alice Pung

SWF: My Day 2

Thursday morning in Marrickville the air was grey with smoke – someone was burning off. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay, the air was clearer but there was still plenty of grey, this time on people’s heads and faces, though the festival goers aren’t as homogeneously 60+ as on weekdays in previous years.

If I had to name a theme common to the five sessions I attended today, I’d say it was intergenerational respect and co-operation.

At 10 o’clock Zelda la Grange discussed her memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela, steered deftly by veteran interlocutor David Leser.

As an ‘apolitical’ young Afrikaner who absolutely supported apartheid, la Grange accidentally found herself working for President Nelson Mandela, the man she had seen as her people’s greatest enemy. She told us of her first meeting with him in her early 20s: where she had expected hostility she not only  found a warm handclasp and interested questions about her life, but he spoke to her in Aftikaans, the language of the people who had gaoled him for decades. She burst into tears. He put his free hand in her shoulder and said, ‘Relax, you’re overreacting.’

Over the following weeks and then years, she heard more of his story, shed more tears and felt the bubble of white privilege that had kept her world narrow dissolving. She became his private secretary and, as he grew old and frail, his protector. She said he worked on her heart every day. She called him by the Swahili (I think) word for granddad. He rechristened her Zeldiña.

Since his death in 2013, she treasures their great non-romantic love, and sees it as her mission to keep alive his legacy of respect in public life.

Then on to a spectacular queue for Climate: Knowledge and Hope featuring scientists Tim Flannery and Peter Doherty, wrangled by Bianca Nogrady.

Flannery’s most recent book, Atmosphere of Hope, was written last August, when it seemed Paris would lead to good things. It did produce an agreement, but things are less obviously hopeful now, with news of record temperature increases. Doherty’s is The Knowledge Wars, which I gleaned is about current attacks on scientific knowledge on a number of fronts, beginning perhaps with climate change but extending to areas like vaccination.

Faced with the dire reality of climate change, these two men of a certain age remain ebullient. When Nogrady ventured that hope has a passivity to it – we just shrug our shoulders and hope for the best – Flannery apologised to his mainly older audience and said that many young people, scientists and activists, are less prone to despair than their elders, but see the situation as a challenge which they set about vigorously meeting. Doherty echoed that view.

My other heartening take-home from this session was that where The Australian and the rest of the denialist and reactionary Murdoch press have been very influential on the rest of the media, that dominance is now being challenged by The Conversation, a much more reality based publication which presents the work of academics online in readable form. He urged us to subscribe at theconversation.com/au.

1:30-2:30 pm: NSW Premier’s Awards: Meet the Writers: I was initially disappointed that only two of the NSWPLA winners were on the podium with ‘senior judge’ Ross Grayson Bell, but when the two are Magda Szubanski and Alice Pung less is more.

Both women are daughters of immigrant fathers who experienced major traumas in their home countries – Poland under the Nazis and Cambodia under Pol Pot respectively. Both have written about their fathers, Magda in Reckoning, her award-winner, and Alice in her earlier memoir My Father’s Daughter. Though Alice spoke a little about her award-winner, Laurinda, most of the conversation revolved around their points of similarity. In both their families, the traumatic experiences of the parents weren’t passed over in silence to protect the children, but were told, often enough, as funny stories or adventures. Alice in particular now finds herself wondering about the wisdom of advice from teachers not to tell students too much detail about the terrible ordeals described in her books.

Neither writer referred to our current government’s cruelty to asylum seekers and refugees or to Peter Dutton’s recent disparagement of some as ‘illiterate and innumerate’. They didn’t have to. This was pointedly so when someone asked Alice Pung how her mother responded to her memoir: ‘My mother’s illiterate. She said she’ll wait for the movie.’

3:00-4:00 pm: Paul Muldoon talked with David Malouf for a wonderfully loose, lucid hour, about the way a poem is a process of discovery for the poet, and for the reader. Apparently distracted by the sounds outside the cavernous room, Muldoon drew our attention to the rhythmic creaking of the wharf’s posts and a distant pneumatic drill then, as if drawing his ideas from these ambient sounds, talked about the dual activity of the poet – construction worker/ maker/ makar, and explorer/ troubadour/ trovatore. The two poets, like the two scientists and the two daughters earlier, had a wonderful rapport. Each time the conversation threatened to slacken, David Malouf (who had introduced himself here as a reader) asked the poet if he would read to us. The poems he chose for us were ‘Hedgehog‘, written when he was a teenager, and ‘Pelt’ from his most recent book. Interestingly, far from patronising his sixteen-year-old self, Paul Muldoon was in awe of him.

4:30-5:30 pm: Tammy and Lesley Williams, Murri mother and daughter who collaborated on the book Not Just Black and White, were brilliant. Lesley led a successful campaign to reclaim wages withheld by the Queensland government from Aboriginal workers last century. She wanted to write a book about it but was daunted by the task as she’d left school at the end of primary school, and also had trouble believing anyone would be interested. Tammy, then a teenager in school, now a successful barrister and Queensland’s Commissioner for Children, helped with both problems. She taped her mother’s spoken account and transcribed it. Just as importantly, she constantly reassured her mother that the story was worth telling. This book tells their story in the form of a conversation.

In question time a young woman thanked the writers because, even though her grandmother had received only $4000 in acknowledgement of a lifetime’s work, the payment made a huge difference.

I had a personal connection too, but not one I wanted to inflict on that gathering. As a white child in north Queensland in the 1950s I was completely unaware that most Aboriginal people were living ‘under the Act’. I don’t know if the Aboriginal couple who worked for my parents, the man with my father on the farm and the woman with my mother a day a week in the house, were subject to the same covert exploitation as Lesley Williams discovered. My ignorance  is given extra point as their names were Charlie and Pearl Williams (always Mr and Mrs Williams to us kids). I’m ashamed, but hugely grateful to these Williamses for their generosity and valour in putting the story out here for all of us. I’ve bought the book.

End of my Festival day. [Wipes sweat from brow]

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night

I’d love to go to the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards again one of these years, but $60 for a cocktail event is a stretch even for people who drink alcohol, and it’s way out of my range for hors d’oeuvres, sparkling water and speeches. Maybe I’ll get a freebie one of these years as a designated blogger, but for this year, as for the last couple, here’s how the evening went as gleaned from Twitter (Noting by the way that Twitter account @NSW_PLA has been silent for five years, and the facebook page ‘NSW Premier’s Literary Awards‘ for nearly three, I put my faith, mainly, in #PremiersLitAwards).

In the lead-up, there was a flurry of good-luck messages from publishers, seven tweets from one publisher lobbying for votes in the People’s Choice Award, and at least one person wondering if the recent Australia Council cuts to literary magazines would lead to an ‘interesting’ evening.

The first tweeter of the evening, a book editor from Text Publishing, turned up about 10 to 6, and a little later the State Library account posted a moody photo of the crowd gathering upstairs at the Mitchell Library, and we were away.

CikEFsYUoAA2Ki3.jpg

Twitter was fairly tightlipped during the night – nothing about what anyone was wearing, no jokes, and little from acceptance speeches. Maybe that’s what happens when it’s a cocktail event rather than a dinner. However, here’s what I’ve got. Links are to either my blog posts about books or the State Library’s listings of the awards.

Just before 7 the State Librarian officially welcomed everyone. The Welcome to Country included didgeridoo, but no one tweeted the name of the welcomer(s). Ross Grayson Bell, senior judge (I guess that’s what used to be call Chair of the Judging Panel), spoke briefly, saying that the Awards reflected the diversity of Australian writing (and so foreshadowing a major theme of the evening). Wesley Enoch delivered what Twitter said was an inspiring Address: among other things he said that when you are feeling your lowest is when you should make more art, and spoke of ‘storytelling for a nation that is in want of a memory’ (Wesley Enoch is a Murri man).

In a welcome departure from recent practice the Premier Mike Baird himself presented the awards. He spoke of J D Salinger, and said that ‘stories remind us why we’re here, what we’ve forgotten, and help us to inhabit other worlds’, echoing Wesley Enoch’s words. Jennifer Byrne took over as MC and the announcements (what she called a ‘rollcall of excellence’) began.

Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000) went to Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami (Hardie Grant Books). He gave a ‘very funny and memorable’ acceptance speech. No details.

Indigenous Writer’s Prize (a new biennial award worth $30,000). Of the shortlisted books I’d read only Inside My Mother by Ali Cobby Eckermann (Giramondo). The prize was shared between Dark Emu  by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books) and Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press), which must be wonderful books.

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting ($30,000).  The Bleeding Tree, Angus Cerini (Currency Press in association with Griffin Theatre Company). I knew I should have subscribed to the Griffin.

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting ($30,000). Of the shortlist, I’ve seen only Last Cab to Darwin, and though it had many good things about it, it would have surprised me if it won. The winner was the fourth episode of Deadline Gallipoli, ‘The Letter’, written by Cate Shortland (Matchbox Pictures) and screened on Foxtel, so bad luck for us non-subscribers.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature ($30,000) went to Teacup, written by Rebecca Young & illustrated by Matt Ottley (Scholastic Australia). The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature ($30,000) was won by Alice Pung’s Laurinda (Black Inc.).

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($30,000). Again, I’d only read one book, Joanne Burns’s brush (Giramondo). It won!

Of the shortlist for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction ($40,000) I had once again just one book under my belt, Magda Szubanski’s wonderful Reckoning: A Memoir (Text Publishing). Once again, it won. I was doing well. Mike Baird held Magda’s phone for her so her mother and brother could hear her acceptance speech. Someone tweeted at this point that a number of award winners spoke of their family histories and ‘complex journeys to Australia as displaced persons’.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (a mere $5000) went to An Astronaut’s Life by Sonja Dechian (Text Publishing). Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($40,000)went to Locust Girl, A Lovesong by Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press), a post-apocalyptic novel. One tweeter congratulated her for helping us ‘care across borders’. The People’s Choice Prize, which is restricted to the grown-up novels, went to The Life of Houses, Lisa Gorton (Giramondo).

The Special Award (for which, if money is involved, the amount is not easily discoverable) was given to Rosie Scott, described by Susan Wyndham on Twitter as ‘admired author, supporter of young writers, asylum seekers, refugees, many social causes’.

The book of the year (again, monetary value not easily discovered) went to Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. Accepting his award, he said to the people in the room, ‘I want to hear your story, because I would be spellbound.’

Then the State Library account tweeted the hashtag #BestSpeechesEver. So those of us pressing our noses against the glass wall of Twitter know what we missed out on. It was all over bar the reading – oh, and the many pictures of underdressed young women that began appearing with the Awards hashtag during the night.

 

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 2

My Friday at the Festival was a long day. Also wet. Anticipating queues, I arrived early for my first event, and turned out to be one of three people sheltering under the long marquee for a good half hour. Sadly, attendance was pretty sparse for an excellent session:

10 am: Australia in Verse
As is often the case, this event’s title was irrelevant. With poetry events at the SWF, it’s the who that counts rather than the what.

Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckerman were in conversation with Ivor Indyk. Jennifer Maiden’s name was in the program but back trouble kept her away, that and her wish that the two Indigenous poets should have the floor. I was sorry not to see her, but it was wonderful that we got so much of the two who were there.

The poets spoke about their backgrounds. Sam’s south-east Queensland childhood was full of story-tellers, writers and artists, solidly Aboriginal though not in denial about European heritage as well. He described himself as a child of popular culture. Ali’s mother was taken from her family when very young; Ali herself was taken; and she relinquished her own baby son. Their paths to becoming poets were vastly different, as is their poetry.

Both read a number of poems, and spoke about what their poetry meant to them. Ivor Indyk was wonderful in the chair. When Sam said something about his early poems being well received, Ivor said that was because they were good: ‘And I’ll say what was good about them in a minute.’

There was a lot of laughter, and some tears.

And on to:

11.30: Writers on Writers: Rilke
I know very little about Rilke. I read his Letters to a Young Poet when I was a young non-poet, and I love this passage from Etty Hillesum‘s diaries, written on her way to Auschwitz, which makes me want to know more:

I always return to Rilke.
It is strange to think that someone so frail did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. […] In peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions, a response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities.

So I was interested.

There was a lot to absorb. All four panelists knew an awful lot about Rilke, which they were enthusiastic to share: much more than could possibly fit into an hour. Luke Fischer, enthusiastic young scholar–poet, fell over his own words as he gave us three trains of thought at once. Lesley Chamberlain, a learned Englishwoman in jeans, made sure we knew how to pronounce Brancusi properly. Peter Morgan, from Sydney University’s German department, was in the chair and had interesting things to say about translating Rilke. Elder poet Robert Gray seemed to rise every now and then from the depths of abstract thought to make a brief contribution. It was fascinating theatre, and pretty good as an impressionistic introduction to a poet who, they said, sits at the beginning of modernism.

Not that it was like a fish and chip shop, but I had three takeaways:

  • Rilke is the one who ended a short poem describing an ancient sculpture with a phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere, ‘You must change your life.’
  • He regarded his letters as part of his literary output. (This was a relief, because if the Letters to a Young Poet were dashed off there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
  • Something that came up in response to a question at the very end, that seems relevant to to Etty Hillesum quote is Rilke’s concept of the reversal. As far as I could understand, the idea is that if you set out to experience any pain and painful emotion fully rather than numbing them out or seeking distraction from them, then at some point a reversal happens, and the pain is in some way transcended.

Time for lunch, in what was now a beautiful sunny day by the Harbour, and then:

1.30: The World in Three Poets

3 poets

This was a wonderful session. Kate Fagan (not pictured), herself no mean poet, did an amazing job of introducing poets Ben Okri, David Malouf and Les Murray. That is, she said just a few extraordinarily well crafted words about each of them, leaving most of the hour for them to read to us, followed by a short question time. It was an almost overwhelming combination of talents.

The woman sitting next to me said she was there mainly for Ben Okri – she’d read some of his novels (‘if you can call them novels’) and hoped that hearing him read in person would help to understand them. As if he’d heard her, his final reading was from his current novel, which he introduced by saying that his novels had often been described as poetic. My transitory companion was pleased.

Les Murray read nothing from his most recent book, which of course was because he had a whole session on that book – Waiting for the Past – the next day. What he did read was marvellous. And when David Malouf read, Les was a picture of concentration – as if he was in training for an Olympic event in Listening to Poetry.

David began with his ‘Seven Last Word of the Emperor Hadrian’. Heard in the context of the previous day’s session on the classics, this revealed itself more clearly: the speaker, anticipating death, bids a tender farewell to his soul, the reverse of what we would expect in the Judaeo-Christian mindset, and there is something deeply moving about that.

All three of these extraordinary poets shone in the question time.

3  pm: Australia’s Oldest Stories: Indigenous Storytelling with Glen Miller
It’s 51 years since Jacaranda Press published a children’s book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl by Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and Wandi (Olga Miller), which has been described as the first book written by Aboriginal people. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation have re-published it this year. Glen Miller, nephew and son respectively of the authors, talked to Lydia Miller about his own very interesting life – as very young worker in the coal mines, public servant, cultural tourism entrepreneur, and now as elder and activist in the Maryborough Aboriginal community – and about the origins of the book as he remembered them. He was very good value, but I can’t have been the only person in the audience who was hanging out to be read to. Eventually, he did read us one story – almost apologetically, as if an audience full of adults wouldn’t want to be read a children’s story. There were no complaints.

It being Friday, I was joined by the Art Student for:

4.30: The Big Read
The Big Read is where a big theatre full of people, mainly adults, sits back to be read to. This event used to be for ninety minutes, but it’s sadly been cut back to just an hour, and that hour has to accommodate the presentation of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Awards.

This year the awards presentation featured some unscheduled theatre. The set-up has always been a little awkward, as one by one the young novelists stand silently off to the side of the stage while their novels are described, and then again while the others have their turns. This year, the first recipient, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, clearly feeling the awkwardness acutely, sat down in a spare chair while his book (The Tribe) was being described. When he was shepherded away from that chair after receiving his award, he looked around and saw that there wasn’t a chair (Beatles reference intended), so sat on the floor. His successors – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and Omar Musa (Alice Pung, the fifth recipient, was in Melbourne with a small baby) – each made the decision to join him. Linda Morris from the SMH said it was like a sit-in. Perhaps next year there will be chairs, and the young novelists may even have a moment each at the microphone.

On to the show itself: Camilla Nelson read from Alice Pung’s book; Kate Grenville read from One Life, a kind of biography of her mother; Steven Carroll read an extended passage about a guitar from his novel, Forever Young; Damian Barr gave us a snippet of Glaswegian childhood from his memoir Maggie and Me. Annette Shun Wah was as always a warm and charming host.

It’s probably telling that when we went to Gleebooks on our way to dinner to buy Damian Barr’s book it was sold out. After a dinner up the hill at the Hero of Waterloo, we uncharacteristically returned to the Festival for an evening session:

8.00 Drafts Unleashed + Slam
MCd by Miles Merrill, mover and shaker on the Australian spoken word scene, this featured an open mic plus a number of featured guests, all of whom were invited to read something completely new. Benjamin Law read us the opening scene of the TV series currently in production based on his memoir The Family Law. He did the voices and the accents, and it was a wondrous thing to see this slight, mild man transformed before our eyes into a big, loud, wildly inappropriate woman. The rest was fun too, but we were weary and left before the show was over, walking back to Circular Quay through the spectacle and crush of the Vivid festival.