Tag Archives: Annette Shun Wah

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.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 3

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The view from outside the Bar at the End of the Wharf

On Friday the sun was still shining. My only event of the day, in the Wharf Theatre 2, confusingly located on Pier 4, was

4.30: The Big Read

This is story time for a big room full of big people. It’s not quite as comforting as dozing off on your mother’s lap to the sound of a Hans Andersen horror story. Dozing is not unheard of, but the main point, at least for me, is to sample bits from writers who are new to me or who, as with two of this year’s line-up, I’ve developed a prejudice against (I’m not saying which).

But first, the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist awards were presented by Linda Morris, who writes for the Herald on literary matters. These awards, instigated 18 years ago by Susan Wyndham who was and still is  Herald‘s literary editor, carry no monetary prize – each of four young(ish) people was presented with a certificate and what looked like a bottle of wine. They were: Luke Carman (An Elegant Young Man), who has been appearing in this blog for some years now; Balli Kaur Jaswal (Inheritance); Hannah Kent (Burial Rites); and Fiona McFarlane (whose The Night Guest won a money prize at the NSW Premier’s Awards). They stood in a row looking awkward while we applauded, then politely melted into the darkness to make way for the older writers, introduced with her trademark enthusiasm by Annette Shun Wah.

Lian Hearn, the novelist of mediaeval Japan formerly known as Gillian Rubinstein, author of much loved children’s books such as Space Demons and Beyond the Labyrinth, read to us from her latest Japan novel, The Storyteller and his Three Daughters, a smooth, lucid excerpt that was mainly about writing.

Dara Horn from the US read from A Guide for the Perplexed – her book, not Maimonides’ – giving us an intriguing glimpse of a book in which tales from two different eras explore the idea of having a total record of a life: in one, a character develops software that records everything; in the other a late 19th century scholar discovers a comprehensive trove of documents in a Cairo synagogue that had not been cleaned out for a thousand years.  Such a trove of documents really has been found, and such software isn’t entirely implausible

Alex Miller read from Coal Creek. I’m afraid I didn’t get much sense of the book from this reading. It was largely a mundane recount of a man and a horse called Mother and it went on well over its allotted time so that everyone else had to whip their readings along.

Eimear McBride read from A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. In the bit she read the character was a 13 year old girl who may or may not have been contemplating suicide by drowning. The uncertainty was in the character’s mind, rather than mine, I think. The precise meaning didn’t matter so much: as Annette Shun Wah commented, it was like listening to jazz with, I would add, a beautiful Irish/Joycean accent. (The ABC has uploaded an earlier session of Eimear McBride in conversation with Michael Cathcart.)

Adam Johnson finished us off with a chilling bit from The Orphan Master’s Son. ‘You won’t understand this,’ he said, ‘because it’s an extract.’ It was the session’s only piece with a clear, strong narrative, and I would have rushed out to buy the book only two of my companions said they had read most of it, thought it was  really wonderful, but couldn’t finish it because it was so unremittingly grim. I still might give it a go …

We were on the train home before the Opera House and Customs House lit up for the Vivid Festival. We’ll look at the lights tonight, after a full day at the festival.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going for days now, but my festival started yesterday, on a bleak, wet, grey Thursday.

I began with a 10 o’clock launch of four chapbooks in Vagabond Press’s Rare Objects series. Chapbooks are books of poetry so small they don’t even rate an ISBN. But where some chapbooks have a cheap and cheerful feel, the Rare Objects are beautifully crafted, a hundred numbered and signed copies of each title. The books being launched were by the stellar line-up of David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Adam Aitken.

Luke Davies gave one of the best launch speeches I’ve heard. He paid tribute to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press and to the four poets in warmly personal terms, as people and as creators. The mutual respect and affection among the five people on the dais was something wonderful: completely the opposite of the internecine strife for which poets are supposedly famous. Each of the four launchees read: Adam Aitken from November Already, Robert Adamson from Empty your Eyes, Martin Harrison from Living Things)and David Malouf from Sky News (which my deafness heard Luke Davies announce, improbably, as Sky Nudist, but that would be a different chapbook). We the audience were very restrained, applauding politely after each reader – my guess is that we were too busy processing the complex pleasures we were being given to be too demonstrative. It really was a brilliant reading: a stunning prose poem from Adamson, crisp imagery from Malouf, Aitken taking the New York School to a tiny French village (not really, but that’s a mangled form of his own joke), Harrison in fine rhapsodic form. I loved Martin Harrison’s account of the genesis of his ‘Wallabies’: witnessing two young Australians in full xenophobic flight in a Parisian Internet cafe (and he described them to us with great relish), he took notes intending to write a satirical poem, but realised when he sat to write that what he really wanted to do was to celebrate the part is Australia they came from.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I bought all four of the Rare Objects, found a spot out of the rain and sat and read, did email things on my iPad, and chatted. (One of the striking things about the SWF is how easy it is to strike up a conversation with complete strangers.) Then it was time for the 1 o’clock session:Harbour City Poets: Some People You May Know, my first event in the Bangarra Mezzanine, which I think of as the poets’ space at the Festival. Again it was a pleasure to be read to, this time by a quintet of poets – Margaret Bradstock, John Carey, David Musgrave, Louise Wakeling and Les Wicks. The poems were about people, real, and imagined. Margaret Bradstock’s pieces about colonial characters made me want more. And there was some witty and elegant light satire. It may be because someone had told me just before the session about the man being hacked to death in London, but I found myself thinking that light satire, especially when performed giving broad Austealian accents to its objects, is a dangerous mode in which the satirist can all too easily come off as smug, class-bound, narrow-minded, bien-pensant and otherwise unappealing.

I rushed home (bus–train–bus), walked and fed the dog and was back, just a few minutes late for Robert Green: On Creativity at 4 oclock. This session wasn’t on my schedule, but a friend had a ticket she couldn’t use, and the Festival program promised ‘exercises to help rid [me] of blocks and unleash thinking that is more fluid and creative’. Given that I’m feeling out of my depth with a writing project just now, it was a case of what the hell archie, and I’d taken the tickets off her hands. It was turned out to be pretty much a motivational talk. The ‘exercises’ were three broadbrush strategies: embrace the blank page; think like an outsider; subvert your patterns of thinking. I enjoyed the talk, not least for the wealth of anecdote and Robert Green’s manifest passion for his message that every human brain is capable of brilliance, that mastery is possible. I especially liked the first question and response at the end. In summary, a white-bearded man suggested that next time a journalist asks him if he can seriously believe the stuff he says, he should try thinking like a mushroom; this was evidently meant as a witticism, but Green was completely nonplussed; after a bit of back and forth in which the point of excuse tin remained obscure, he agreed that he would give it a try.

More bus, more train, dinner at a pub in Chippendale then to the Carriageworks for Stories Then & Now. I’m a big fan of William Yang’s slide-show story telling, especially his exploration of his Chinese and north Queensland heritages over the years. For this show, along with Annette Shum Wah, he has mentored six mainly younger Asian-heritage people to tell the stories of their families (‘then’) and their personal stories (‘now’). Each story-teller had two turns alone on stage with a microphone in front of hem and two screens showing a series of photographs behind them. Ien Ang, Jenevieve Chang, Michael C. S. Park, Sheila Pham, Paul van Reyk and Willa Zheng were each completely engaging, and the combined effect of heir six presentations was extraordinarily rich. The Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, the American War in Vietnam, Indonesian independence, the White Australia Policy; a hilariously failed attempt at an arranged marriage, a weirdly romantic tale of serial fatherhood by sperm donation, a successful Internet match, intergenerational tension and conflict fled, faced and reconciled. We came out into the night exhilarated.

SWF 2012: Poetry, prose, performance

Here it is, Sunday already and this is my blog on Friday at the Writers’ Festival. Sorry! All this talking to people takes up good blogging time.

After a morning spent catching up on email and keeping the neglected dog company, I bussed back to the Wharf for what Kate Lilley called the Mum Show: Dorothy Hewett Remembered.

It’s ten years since Dorothy died and this Monday would have been her 89th birthday. The room was full of fans, friends, fellow poets and family, including my former employer Katharine Brisbane, founder of Currency Press. The elderly woman sitting beside me told me that when she was a Communist in Melbourne in the 1950s, someone from the Party had said to her, ‘There’s a young woman Party Member who’s just come over from Perth. She doesn’t know anyone yet and has a very sick baby. Would you go and visit her?’ The young woman was Dorothy and her friendship with my new acquaintance endured.

I expect that half the people in the room could have shared Dorothy Hewett / Merv Lilley stories (Merv, as larger-than-life as Dorothy, is her widower, whose health is too fragile to allow him to attend). On this occasion, fittingly, Dorothy was celebrated almost entirely through her own words: ‘I used to ride with Clancy’, ‘On Moncur Street’, ‘The Dark Fires Burn in Many Rooms’, other poems, excerpts from memoir and a conference paper.

Kate Lilley was joined by her sister Rozanna Lilley and their brother Joe Flood, as well as Fiona Morrison (editor), Gig Ryan (poet), Rosie Scott (novelist). As a finale we were invited to sing along with Dorothy’s song ‘Weevils in the Flour’, which Joe described as ‘synonymous with the Depression in Australia’:

Dole bread is bitter bread
Bitter bread and sour
There’s grief in the taste of it
And weevils in the flour.

I had a ticket for my next session, so no need to queue, and could spend some time catching up with old friends, one of whom I didn’t recognise until we were introduced – embarrassingly, we had chatted as strangers the day before.

Then I crossed the road to the Sydney Theatre for some prose in The Big Reading. This is as much a tradition as Thursday’s pitching session, but this one has been on my must-see list for years. I love being read to, and I’ve been introduced to some fabulous writers. I also tend to nod off – though not deliberately: my sleep mechanism has a mind of its own and is unyielding in its judgement. This year’s sleep-inducers will not be identified.

As always, the writers were wonderfully diverse in age, gender, nationality, and reading style.

Emily Perkins, from New Zealand, played a straight bat with an excerpt from her most recent novel Forest. Geoff Dyer’s comic tale of cultural difference and queue jumping from Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi struck a chord – pertinent for me as I’d just seen a man who could have been from Varanasi blithely bypass the previous session’s sluggishly moving queue.

Riikka Pulkkinen read her quiet, introspective piece in Finnish first ‘so you get the idea’, a great way of educating us in how to listen to someone whose English is a little unsteady. Jesmyn Ward’s Katrina piece would have been the highlight of the evening if she hadn’t been followed by Sebastian Barry, who began and ended in resonant song and filled the space with the music of his narrative, from The Other Side of Canaan.

Then we hopped in the car, stopped off at home to feed the aforementioned dog, picked up some friends and drove to Bankstown for the not-to-be-missed BYDS and Westside Publications event, this year entitled Moving People.

With Ivor Indyk as tutelary deity and Michael Mohammed Ahmad as inspired energiser, these events are always strikingly staged. This year there was a microphone and a lectern on a bare stage, backed by a screen. Each of the fourteen participating writers in turn strode out from the wings and read to us without introduction, explanation or by your leave. This created a tremendous sense of connection between each reader and the audience – there was nowhere to hide. Unlike at the rest of the Festival, there was no veil of celebrity, no established persona to speak through. The exceptions test but don’t demolish the rule: Luke Carman has appeared in the pages of Heat and in This Is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, about which I’ll blog when I’ve finished reading it; Fiona Wright, also with Heat connections, published Knuckle, her first book of poetry, last year; Michael Mohammed Ahmad himself appeared recently in Roslyn Oades’s brilliant I’m Your Man Downstairs at Belvoir Street. Their pieces – respectively an oddly dissociative tale of male, twenty-something aspiring inner-city writers, a memoir of a stint as a young female journalist in Sri Lanka, and a riproaring cautionary tale about young Lebanese men, cars and drugs – were given no special treatment, simply taking their places as part of the evening’s tapestry. Benny Ngo did some spectacular break dancing while his recorded words played. Nitin Vengurlekar had a nice turn reading absurd short poems from crumpled pages found in his jacket pockets. A smooth essay on getting the dress codes wrong in Indonesia, a dramatic monologue from a supermarket security guard, traveller’s tales, the chronicle of a shared house experience, a young Muslim woman’s story of getting a tattoo and her family’s unexpected response (this one sounded like autobiography, but the writer’s family were in the row in front of us and their attitude was not at all that of the story’s family): it occurred to me that part of the reason that I was less enthusiastic than many people about Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap may be partly that his treatment of multicultural suburbia doesn’t seem so very groundbreaking if you’ve been following the creations of this group.

And they gave us pizza!

[Added on Wednesday: Kevin Jackson, theatre blogger, was at Moving People too. You can read his excellent account of it here. And the Australian Bookshelf blogged it here.]

I’ll write about the weekend tomorrow.

SWF: Saturday

11.30: The Book of Rachael

‘What’s a nice secular Jewish girl like you doing writing a book about Jesus?’

That’s how Irina Dunn kicked off this session in the Bangarra Mezzanine room, swimming in morning light and vibrating to an occasional passing jet ski. Leslie Cannold, the nice secular Jewish girl in question, was there to discuss The Book of Rachael, one of a number of books at the festival to address religious issues from the viewpoint of respectful non-believer.

I’d been keen to attend this session. I love Dory Previn’s song, ‘Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister?’ and a novel about just such a sister has a huge appeal. It turns out that Leslie Cannold has written a number of non-fiction books, to do with abortion and other feminist issues. She was watching a series about the life of Jesus on television, and had a moment when the narrator said that, though Jesus almost certainly had sisters, nothing is known about them. She decided to write an essay bringing those sisters back to history. She headed off, full of resolve, to an institution called something like the Melbourne Theological Library, only to discover that when someone is forgotten it means they are forgotten, that we know nothing about them and never will. She decided to write a novel. Fortunately no one warned her how difficult that would be.

As she was completely ignorant of religion, her research involved reading the entire Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, but not too much interpretation of it, though the limited amount she read included daunting texts such as Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her. She drew a parallel with the process in which hints and silences in the official histories must be interpreted to unearth the the histories of subject peoples – ‘women have essentially been a subject people’. The project of telling the story of Jesus’ sister ran into many difficulties, among them being the way Jesus’ story kept drifting into the foreground, as it did a couple of times during the discussion.

Irina Dunn did a lovely job of letting Ms Cannold shine, and supplied a couple of sweet theatrical moments when she tried to discuss elements of the plot, and had to be almost physically restrained. ‘But I never mind if people tell me a book’s plot,’ she said, genuinely astonished that people should object to spoilers. ‘It’s the writing that matters.’

One lovely thing I wrote down:

I love and respect all these characters. I assume they are believers and respect that about them, but I needed to tell their stories in a way that made sense to me, and I don’t believe in miracles.

The book was sold out when I tried to buy itbut I did embarrass myself by approaching Leslie Canold at teh signing table and singing a few bars of Dory Previn to her.

1 pm: The Director’s Notebooks
Former National Gallery of Australia director Betty Churcher chatted with Terence Maloon about her new book about the drawings she did of beloved paintings when she thought ahe was going blind. This was a marvellous session, not least for the unabashed affection these two people showed for each other. To kick things off, Maloon read a passage from early in the book, where Betty describes herself aged eleven being enchanted by a painting (in a serendipitous echo of the spirited intelligence of Leslie Cannold’s Rachael). It was a lovely passage, and when he finished reading, Maloon simply sat and beamed at the writer of it. After a long moment, she said, ‘That was the start of it,’ and the conversation was under way.

4:00: The Big Reading
This is a regular event where a big theatre full of people is read to by an all-star international crew of novelists, with SBS’s Annette Shun Wah as ring mistress.

Kei Miller read from his first novel, The Same Earth. Introducing him, Annette made a teasing reference to the Caribbean accent as impenetrable. In fact he was brilliantly articulated, as much a pleasure for the music of his voice as for the slightly fabulist text.

David Mitchell and Michael Cunningham read from works in progress, the latter explaining that reading published works feels to him like showing a cucumber that won a prize at a county fair several years ago. It didn’t seem to occur to him that this might seem to be disparaging his companions on stage. Still, both WIPs were intriguing.

Téa Obreht, originally from the former Yugoslavia and now living in the US, read from The Tiger’s Wife, a piece that blended vampire elements with tales of the recent Yugoslav wars.

Kader Abdolah, sporting an impressive Mark Twain moustache, was an established novelist in Iran, but now lives in The Netherlands and writes in Dutch. He was the stand out of the session, reading us a short story that was a lightly fictionalised account of his refugee journey – this was both affecting and funny. Then he read the first paragraph from his new book, The House of the Mosque, and held the book up, saying that he had been missing Iran for many years, but had finally been able to go there again, ‘in this book’.

We had an excellent and surprisingly cheap Lebanese meal watching the sunset over Walsh Bay, then walked up George Street to the Town Hall for:

8:00: We (Still) Need to Talk About America
This was the fizzer of the festival for us. Four interesting people on the panel, with an idea that sounded promising: the US sometimes seems scarily incomprehensible from the outside, and this was a chance to hear what it’s like inside. Michael Connelly is a crime novelist who engages with live issues. Téa Obreht is a young novelist who arrived in the US as an immigrant when she was (I think) 12 years old. Daniel Altman is an economist with an interesting résumé. Gail Dines is a sociologist who takes on the influence of porn. It went nowhere. From the front stalls it looked as if Anne Summers mishandled the moderator role, moving doggedly through her list of things that are weird in the US – the cheering of the killing of Bin Laden, the failure to introduce gun laws, disenchantment with Barack Obama, and so on – asking questions that couldn’t help but make the panelists defensive, and jumping in too often to display her knowledge of things USian, in effect clamping on the brakes whenever any momentum seemed to be developing among the panelists. Dines and Altman, sociologist and economist, gamely worked up some edgy sparring, and they both had interesting things to say, but for me the dominant mood was encapsulated in this exchange:

Summers (to Connelly): I saw you smile. You had a thought there.
Connelly: No, I was just waiting for this to pass.

My guess is that the whole thing would have gone better if a moderator had opened with a brief statement to the effect that many things about the US are incomprehensible to outsiders, maybe giving a couple of examples, then having each of the panelists take 5 minutes to respond what it looked like from their vantage point. And trust them to take it somewhere interesting.

Still, we had plenty to talk about in the long wait for a bus.