Tag Archives: David Mitchell

SWF 2020, Post 6

The Sydney Writers’ Festival didn’t happen this year, and it’s still happening now. I’ve now attended 30 sessions/podcasts, which is a lot more than I would have managed at an IRL festival. Here another five sessions featuring writers by whom I’ve never read a book, but who knows what the future may bring?

Julia Gillard: Women and Leadership 12 July

Julia Gillard is in conversation with journalist Jacqueline Maley. I’ve got nothing against events where Julia Gillard is the subject of uncritical feminist adulation, but I’m glad to report that this is not one of them. It’s part of JG’s promotional tour for Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, which she co-authored with development economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The combination of Okonjo-Iweala’s scholarship and Gillard’s political heft gained access for extensive face-to-face interviews with an extraordinary cast of characters:

  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018
  • Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 to 2018 
  • Joyce Banda, President of Malawi from 2012 to 2014
  • Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway since 2013
  • Theresa May, who needs no description for my readers
  • Jacinda Ardern, likewise with knobs on
  • Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank since November 2019, one of two interviewees who has not been a president or prime minister of a nation
  • Hillary Clinton, the other one who has never been president or prime minister, but was included for obvious reasons

Rather than giving the interviewees a chapter each, the book is structured around themes, and – according to this discussion – finds remarkable but not entirely unexpected similarities in the obstacles and difficulties faced by these women leaders in such a range of cultures, whether they are of the right or the left of politics.

Here’s a little from towards the end of the conversation:

I was conscious after I finished being prime minister that polls were showing that women were looking at my experiences and saying they were less likely to go into politics. So all of this work in the years since has been my answer to that. The message from me to those women and girls I want to be, ‘Go for it. Absolutely go for it. We need women in politics. If you’ve got a passion for change there’s no better way of pursuing it than politics. Get right in there.’ But I do feel I have to put the next sentence: ‘Get right in there, and understand it.’ This book with Ngozi is one attempt to help women understand what they’re likely to face. The more light that gets shone on those issues the more I hope that they shrivel and go away, but they’re only going to do that if we talk about them. You will see at the end of this book a message from me and Ngozi that says in capital letters, ‘GO FOR IT!’ and then we say, ‘Yes, we are shouting.’

It’s a great shame that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wasn’t part of this podcast. Her co-authorship of the book is fully acknowledged, and Gillard speaks of her with obvious affection and respect, but hers is a painful absence..


Flocks and Fakes: The dark arts of online deception 14 July

The subtitle of this session really says it all. On the internet no one can tell you’re a dog. Or a fantasist on a dating site. Or an authoritarian politician peddling nostalgia in place of policy.

Rebecca Giggs does a nice job of chairing this conversation with Stephanie Wood, author of the memoir Fake: A startling true story of love in a world of liars, cheats, narcissists, fantasists and phonies, and Soviet-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the war against reality. You can tell from those subtitles that the books cover ground that has become alarmingly familiar to us over recent decades.

Stephanie Woods tells an excruciating personal story of being taken in by a man on a dating site, made vulnerable to him by what Rebecca Griggs calls ‘patriarchal propaganda’. Peter Pomerantsev discusses the way political discourse has moved from Enlightenment values to dreams of restoring imagined past grandeurs. Even when the Soviets lied, they claimed to be about creating a better society. Now Putin, Trump and Bolsinaro, however different they may be in other respects, are all big on nostalgia.

It’s good to hear smart people coming to grips with one of the nightmares of our time.


Layla F. Saad: Me and White Supremacy 16 July

A conversation about another nightmare of our times: racism and white supremacy

According to the Festival website:

In 2018, Layla F. Saad ran a 28-day Instagram challenge under the hashtag #MeAndWhiteSupremacy, designed to encourage those with white privilege to unflinchingly examine their complicity in upholding an oppressive power system. The challenge catalysed an awakening for thousands and led to the publication of Layla’s Me and White Supremacy, ‘an indispensable resource for white people who want to challenge white supremacy but don’t know where to begin’ (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility).

In this session, Layla F. Saad talks to NITV’s Rachael Hocking. It’s a sign of our bruising times that a substantial part of the conversation at the beginning is devoted to the difficulties of being expected to do the emotional and intellectual labour of educating white people about racism, and settlers about Indigenous issues. They talked about ‘performative allyship’, which Layla F Saad described as a common though not necessarily the best first step; about ‘allyship fatigue’; about self care for activists; about the need to see the struggle against racism as something that takes longterm commitment, more than a single lifetime; about the white saviour syndrome; about the challenge of talking to one’s children about racism as the dominant paradigm of the world without implanting discouragement. Perhaps the heart of the talk is this:

The reason why we have the world that we have right now is that white people largely aren’t used to having conversations about race because white privilege means they do not have to.

This comment on the current upsurge of Black Live Matter activism struck home for me:

When this protest took off, it’s because of Black deaths. It’s taken off because it was captured on video … And the parading of Black trauma, the parading of Black deaths is what gets some white people to be able to open their eyes. And it’s like, ‘No you should care because our life matters. Our joy should matter to you, not just our pain. You shouldn’t have to see Black people dying again and again and again and again to think, “Hm, maybe I should learn about this, maybe I should think about this.”‘


David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue 16 July

The closest I’ve come to reading one of David Mitchell’s novels is enjoying his namesake’s performances on Would I Lie to You?

Here he talks to the wonderful Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, and it’s a lot of fun.

I loved the moment right at the beginning when Williams called Mitchell’s latest book, Utopia Avenue, a rip-snorter. Mitchell hadn’t heard the word and asked if it was a Australianism or a Williamsism. Brilliantly prompted, he talks about the book’s genesis and his process in a very alive way. For example, in developing one character, he says: ‘You use the cliche. You turn the cliche inside out, and then you work out how to make that a real character.’

The other moment that gave me particular joy was when Mitchell spoke of his invention, the Iwath. An Iwath (IWasThere) is the kind of detail from a scene you would only know if you had been there, or at least one that creates that illusion. To make fiction seem real, you need to include at least three Iwaths a page – any more than that and it starts to feel over-researched or over-detailed, any less and it feels like something taken from Wikipedia. (That’s from memory – I recommend listening to the whole conversation to get his exact meaning. He also talked about the encapsulator. This is a moment in a work of art that in some way contains the whole thing: the overture to an opera, a self-portrait included in the painting of a crowd scene; the Book of Psalms in the Bible. He gave examples from his own work, but they sailed right past me as an eavesdropper.

I imagine this witty conversation will give great pleasure to fans of David Mitchell and especially of this book. It’s also fun for people like me who know nothing.


Bart van Es: The Cut Out Girl 11 August

A striking thing about this podcast is the shock of hearing the sounds of a live audience. It turns out it’s not from the Festival proper, but from an event at City Recital Hall on 2 March 2020, just before we all stopped going anywhere in groups. 

Bart van Es, a professor of English at Oxford University, was born in the Netherlands. This book grew from his curiosity about photographs of a young woman who lived with his parents when they were young and had been estranged from the family for decades. She was Lien de Jong, a young Jewish girl whom his grandparents sheltered from the Nazis and who returned to live with the family after the war.

In this conversation with the fabulous Sarah Kanowski from ABC Radio’s Conversations, Bart van Es tells how he tracked Lien down. On first meeting, she grilled him abut his personal life, his beliefs, and his motives for seeking her out, and then decided on the spot to talk to him – he hadn’t even brought a notebook to that meeting, but they improvised and that was the start of many hours of conversation that gave him the basis for his book, The Cut Out Girl.

Two things stood out from the story he tells. One, horrifically, a family that played a key part in saving Lien from the Nazi were committed anti-semites in their own way, and while they were harbouring Lien they also subjected her to terrible privations and turned a blind eye to sexual abuse. Two, in writing this story, van Es had to face some very uncomfortable truths abut his own family, but in doing so he enabled some extraordinary healing to happen.

Asia Literary Review 19 & 20

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review Nº 19 ([northern] Spring 2011) and 20 (Summer 2011)

The cover image of Aung San Suu Kyi and the accompanying line ‘The Lady in Waiting’ announce that Asia Literary Review No 19 has a focus on Burma. The halo behind her head may seem to suggest a cheerful postmodern irony, but none of the irony, and very little cheerfulness, penetrates beyond the cover. The only appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi is an interview, effectively an extended sidebar to ‘The Generals’ Celestial Mandate‘, a grim account by Bertil Lintner of the world’s oldest continuous military dictatorship. The lady in waiting’s statement that there is great hope because so many young people are joining the democratic movement is like a tiny ember glowing in the horrendous darkness of state murder, incarceration, torture, and corruption. The Burma theme is continued in a number of pieces. Jack Picone’s ‘Planet Pariah‘ is a photo essay on life on the Thai-Burma border, where refugees, mostly Karen, live perilous and sometimes heroic lives. Incidentally, it brought home to me what an inspired piece of television SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From was – having seen the reality TV version of refugees struggling to survive in a country that hasn’t signed on to the UN Convention, I found it easier to absorb information presented here in a more traditional mode. ‘Surveillance‘, a short story by Devan Schwartz in which the protagonist is broken in as an agent of the military, reads as a compassionate commentary on the former Burmese intelligence agent currently in the news in Australia (‘Maybe they kill 100 or 150 because I order them to do that. It’s not their fault, my fault. If they didn’t kill, they get killed too‘). There are poems by a political prisoner known only as Jimmy and by Ma Thida, a writer now practising medicine in Rangoon who has previously spent six years in prison.

Things don’t get any more frivolous when the journal moves away from Burma. In the photo essay ‘Qi Lihe’, Stephen J. B. Kelly explores the plight of impoverished Muslims driven from the increasingly arid countryside of northwest China to a scarcely less bleak life on the outskirts of Lanzhou. John Evans’s ‘Blood Money‘ is an ebullient but desperate tale about professional kick-boxers in Korea. In Meira Chand’s story ‘The Return‘ a young man comes home in disgrace from employment in Hong Kong that had been his family’s hope of financial salvation. These pieces contain a lot that’s rich, but it’s a grim world they inhabit.

Hsu-ming Teo’s ‘Fables of a Fractured City‘ departs from the pervasive grimness. The city of the title is, delightfully, Sydney, ‘the most Asian of Australian cities’. The fractures of the title are the four points of the compass, but also the disjunction between mainstream and Asian perceptions of the city: is the south to be represented by Cronulla, notorious for the 2005 riots, or by the fabulously multicultural ‘temple-land’ of the south-west?

Just as I’d finally got around to reading issue 19, issue 20 arrived in my letterbox. Having made the former wait, the least I could do was move the latter to the top of my teetering bedside pile. The image of a broken Godzilla toy lying amid debris with the line ‘Tales from Japan’ gives an accurate account of its content. All but roughly 20 of roughly 200 pages are related in some way to Japan.

Perhaps the most interesting items are those that deal with the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear threat. Jake Adelstein’s ‘The First Responders‘ is a fascinating account of the role the yakuza played in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and the history behind their surprising (to me) civic responsibility. While government agencies were locked in bureaucratic straitjackets the criminal organisations moved swiftly and efficiently to bring aid and maintain order in shelters where there were reports of violence and sexual assault (a yakuza organisation sent 960 ‘peace-keeping’ members across the nation, while the National Police Agency managed 30 officers). Masaru Tamamoto analyses the government’s failure to respond flexibly and effectively in ‘Conformity, Deference, Risk Aversion: Parsing Japan’s CDR Complex)’. In ‘Reaction to Disaster‘, a manga-like comic by Sean Michael Wilson and Michiru Morikawa, a British resident of Southern Japan tells his story.

There are two short stories set in the aftermath of  the earthquake – by authors described at the back of the book as a ‘Singapore-born American novelist’ and a US expat who has ‘lived most of his life in Japan and Thailand’. I felt uneasy about them, as if it might be too early for fiction-writers to exploit these terrible events without disrespect being part of the package.

Other stories and poems move away from the recent news: a crosscultural relationship blooms and dies beneath the cherry blossoms and the fires of Obon; the great poet Basho has an inconclusive encounter with a young woman, also as the cherry blossoms fall; a man is slated for ‘voluntary’ euthanasia in a dystopian future; a depressed and overworked nashi farmer falls in love with a bird.

As this is an English-language journal, it’s probably not surprising that very few of the writers are Japanese – just Masaru Tamamoto, the poet Akiko Yosano (1878–1942), whose ‘Four Poems from the Kanto Earthquake of 1923‘ are perhaps the high point of the journal, and the poet Gina Barnard, who may not be the only mixed heritage Japanese writer here, but she is the only one who makes it her subject, which she does powerfully. Most of the other writers are from elsewhere in Asia or are North American or British writers who are living in Japan or have lived there. (Featured artists and photographers, on the other hand, are mostly Japanese, not the least of them being manga artist Michiru Morikawa.) The best known presence in the journal is novelist David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, who is interviewed by James Kidd. The interview addresses possible unease about this preponderance of outside voices:

Having set many of his stories in Asia, from Japan to Korea, China to Mongolia, Mitchell is understandably sensitive to charges of Orientalism. I ask whether he has ever had any reservations, political or aesthetic, about writing in English about Asian culture. ‘I worry now,’ he replies. ‘At the beginning of my career I was too young and ignorant. I read Said’s Orientalism in my early 30s. I remember thinking, “Jesus, this guy would hate me and my books.” But still.’
Today, however, he improvises a response to Said’s hypothetical objections by posing a succession of counter-questions about his ‘right’ to imagine cultures other than his own. ‘Why do you have to be Asian to write about Japan? Why can’t I have a protagonist who’s my age but Japanese? Isn’t there a reverse racism if I say, “I’m white, therefore I have no business writing about non-white people”? By the same rather crap logic, no novelist from India or Pakistan or Africa or even South America has any business writing about the British – an untenable argument leading to a mutually uncomprehending world, right?’

It’s an issue that Asia Literary Review can be seen to grapple with constantly. With the temporary demise of Heat, though, it stands out as a publication in our region that has a deep platform of cultural diversity. I feel my horizons expanding with every page.