Tag Archives: Heather Rose

SWF 2017 Thursday

It was T-shirt weather for my first day of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay. The crowds and queues were big enough to create a buzz without  inducing panic. Having collected my tickets for the next five days I started out with a free event in the early afternoon:

1.30 And the Award Goes to…

This is a regular event showcasing winners of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Not all of them, of course: this year’s it was Heather Rose, who won the Christina Stead prize for her novel The Museum of Modern Love, and James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe, who won the Ethel Turner Prize for their A Thousand Hills. Suzanne Leal, the Senior Judge of the Awards, chaired.

Heather Rose spoke of the advantages of obscurity: The Museum is her seventh novel, all the others having been published to little acclaim. Add that she lives in Tasmania, and she has been able to write as she wants, without having to meet someone else’s marketing or other agenda. She said she wrote this novel as a love letter to women in art, who do marvellous work and then are sidelined by art historians. Marina Abramovich, whose performance piece The Artist Is Present is central to the book, became famous when the novel was well under way, and her new celebrity meant significant changes in the book: if I heard properly, at that stage the character in the novel had to be Marina herself rather than a fictional Marina-like character.

James Roy had a different take on obscurity. He opened with something he would have liked to say at the awards ceremony but realised it would have been graceless: even though he has been well supported and has won substantial prizes, he knew on Sunday night that if he won the award on Monday night, he would still have to turn up for his job in retail on Tuesday morning. (Suzanne Leal interjected that she had recently interviewed some women who had collaborated on a writing project because they wanted to earn a lot of money – cue disbelieving laughter.)

Noël Zihabamwe’s own story is similar to that of the book’s hero – both lost their families in the Rwandan massacre of 1994. So for him the writing was an intense experience. He told us that one effect of having the book published was to feel that he was acknowledged: ‘I’m not nothing. I’m something.’ He read from the book, and the conversation addressed the big question, how to write about such a monstrous event and keep some sense of hope.

All four people on the stage were warm, open, smart. James Roy did a nice favour to those of us who couldn’t be at the awards ceremony. He quoted a number of times from Joanna Murray-Smith’s address. An image that resonated with him and, he thought, with every writer, is that every work begins as a tiny burning wick, which if you persevere expands until it lights up all the corners of the room. I think it’s fair to say that the Sydney Dance 2 was lit up by these four luminaries.

I sat next to a young man who arrived clutching a copy of Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife (which won Book of the Year). I asked if he’d seen the play at Belvoir Street. No, but he had seen the archive video – evidently you can contact the Belvoir and arrange a time to see the archive version of any of their productions. How good is that bit of incidental learning?

3 pm: Poetry and Performance
Poetry has moved up the status chain at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This event didn’t happen in the tiny sun-drenched mezzanine room at the end of the wharf that we have been accustomed to, but in the main theatre across the road with more than ten times the capacity. And it wasn’t free.

But maybe of course it’s not poetry as such that’s moved up. Maybe today’s crowd was drawn by clickbait titles like Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind,  or fusses about menstrual images on Instagram, or the prestige of poet laureateship, or other forms of cool, rather than the art of purifying the language. Whatever, this was a terrific event. In order of appearance:

  • Miles Merrill, who has done more than anyone to foster spoke word in Australia, emceed, opening proceedings with some of his trademark mouth noises, which he told us was a work called ‘Some poems can’t be written down’
  • Carol Ann Duffy, proving that a UK poet laureate can be fun, read from a lectern at the side of the stage  from her collection The World’s Wife. The witty, acerbic narratives of ‘Mrs Tiresias’ and ‘Mrs Aesop’ were perfect for the occasion. ‘Mrs Tiresias’, a monologue by the wife of Tiresias, a man who was turned into a woman for seven years, lightly challenges some modern pieties about gender fluidity.
  • Hera Lindsay Bird (who wrote the aforementioned clickbait) walked to centre stage and read a number of poems, including one that revolved around her dislike for the character Monica in the TV sitcom Friends. So pop culture reference, frequent use of the work ‘fuck’, and a preoccupation with relationships: not my cup of tea.
  • Canadian Ivan Coyote started out by saying, ‘I’m not a poet, I’m a story teller,’ and read us a number of ‘Doritos’, which would certainly pass for poems. Most of them dealt with other people’s struggle with Coyote’s challenge to seeing people in terms of  gender binaries. I loved the moment when a small child, told by his mother to stop bothering (her) Coyote, looked long and steady ito COyote’s eyes and said,  ‘I don’t think he’s a lady. I think he’s a man, but with pretty eyes.’
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann took things to a different place: she began with an acknowledgement of country, reminded us that this is the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report, and said that more Aboriginal children have been removed from their parents in recent years than ever before in Australian history. Having grabbed our attention, she then held it with poems from a number of her books, including the marvellous Inside My Mother.
  • Rupi Kaur (who has been the subject of a big fuss on Instagram) read some poems and then performed a couple of spoken word pieces. I think I would have preferred to hear her (and Hera Lindsay Bird) at a spoken word event, where audience response is so much part of things. No clicking of foot-stamping or voting here, so lines like  ‘I want to apologise to all the women I have called pretty before I’ve called them intelligent or brave’ end up sounding a little glibly correct-line.

Even if people came for the sexy controversy, they got poetry, and a fabulous variety of it.

Then I got to sit in the sun and read, occasionally chatting to passing strangers (including one man who had been to school with Tom Keneally), and back to the big theatre a bit later for:

6.30 pm The Politics of Fear
David Marr and John Safran chatted with the Wheeler Centre’s Sophie Black about Pauline Hanson’s followers and Australia’s extreme right. Sophie introduced them by saying they would join the dots between those two groups, but not a lot of dot-joining happened, or really was needed.

David Marr spoke to his recent Quarterly Essay The White Queen, and John Safran to his Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Both were interesting and insightful, and at times surprising. It was an excellent conversation, an I left it wondering if there isn’t something futile about too much close reading of the far right, with the end message that even though these people are a small minority they wield a lot of power because of the way our electoral system works. As David Marr said towards the end, the vast majority of Australians – including most Hanson followers – think same-sex marriage and euthanasia should be legalised and penalty rates should stay in place, but governments simply won’t or can’t follow the clear will of the people. It took one of the questioners at the end to ask what is to be done, and the answer wasn’t particularly satisfying.

So we went home glad we’d been but a little disgruhntled through the final run-throughs of a number of Vivid installations (opening the next night).

NSWPLA 2017

Last night (that is, Monday 22 May), the New South Wales Premier’s Literature Awards were announced at a cocktail event at the Art Gallery of NSW. The award recipients collectively took home a total of $310.000. I have attended this event in the past, but for a number of years now I’ve settled for watching from afar, depending on the generosity of tweeters for glimpses of the event. Here’s what I garnered this year, depending mainly on the hashtag #PremiersLitAwards. Links are mainly to either my blog posts about books or the State Library’s listings of the awards.

In the lead-up, there were plenty of congratulations to the shortlisted authors, plus an occasional erotic spam and on Sunday the rumour that the evening would be hosted by Sunil Badami. A little before 6 last night that rumour was scotched when Hamish Macdonald (not the comedian Hamish who appears on radio with Andy) tweeted that he was ‘delighted to be hosting’ and added that the awards were to be presented by ‘@GladysB’, which I think makes her the first non-Labor premier to have done so in person for a very long time.

Uncle Allen Madden started things off with a ‘wonderful’ Welcome to Country. Joanna Murray-Smith gave the keynote address. Don Harwin, Minister for the Arts, spoke briefly. Gladys Berejiklian gave the Premier’s address. No tweet quoted any of them as saying anything memorable – which I attribute to the tweeters not realising that there were people out here hanging on their words.

Hamish Mc took the mic. His first act was to pay a ‘lovely tribute to the late Dr Rosie Scott’, recipient of the special award last year. His second tweeted utterance was to promise to tackle anyone who made too long a speech. This may be the reason that hardly a word from any of the recipients was tweeted from the room. A pity, because the acceptance speeches are part of the joy of these evenings.

The serious business of handing out the prizes began with the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting. My money was on The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell. I hadn’t seen any of the other shortlisted works, but they would have had to be bloody brilliant to snatch the prize. They didn’t.

The Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting was shared by The Code, Series 2 Episode 4 by Shelley Birse and Down Under by Abe Forsythe. No argument from me, though a citizen of Sutherland Shire, the setting of much of Down Under, had dimmed my enjoyment of that movie with some pretty telling information about its lack of attention to detail. (I wonder if anyone from the Shire is on the judging panel.) .

They were now zooming through the prizes. The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature went to Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall, and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature to One Thousand Hills by James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe.

Peter Boyle’s Ghostspeaking won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, and he had the distinction of being quoted on Twitter. He thanked Vagabond Press for ‘allowing him to have the length he needed to express himself’.

I’m glad I wasn’t a judge for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, because i would have found it hard to pick between Talking To My Country by Stan Grant, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft by Tom Griffiths and Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner. It turned out the judges chose Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead by Thornton McCamish, which must be a fabulous book.

About now, @RobinElizabee tweeted, ‘So many authors were so confident that they wouldn’t win that they didn’t prepare a speech. Imposter syndrome is real.’ Ah, the humility!

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing went to Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, one of the big ones, went to The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. I haven’t read this book but the Emerging Artist has been going on about it for months, so the judges’ decision is heartily endorsed in my house.

At this stage, the Premier handed over the Distributor of Bounty role to Ray Williams, Minister for Multiculturalism, He spoke and presented the next three awards.

The biennial Translation Prize went to Royall Tyler (who translates from Japanese). This year for the first time, there’s a second translation prize, the Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize, which was won by Jan Owen.

Of the contenders for the Multicultural Award NSW I’d read only The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (aka @slamup). I was very happy to see it win. @JulieKoh tweeted a photo of the book’s publisher Robert Watkins, a very white man, accepting for Clarke, a very black woman. On the screen above him his words are being typed: ‘I am very clearly not [her]’, the only laugh of the night that made it out to the Twitterverse. It was followed by tears: @RobinElizabee tweeted, ‘Robert Watkins reading of @slamup’s speech had him and all of us in tears. Let’s do better.’

Now @thatsunilbadami, earlier rumoured to be hosting the event, appeared on Twitter to congratulate Maxine Beneba Clarke ‘for her powerful, inspiring & accomplished memoir’. Western Sydney solidarity is a beautiful thing.

The People’s Choice Award went to Vancouver, the third novella in the series Wisdom Tree by Nick Earls, who shortly afterwards tweeted this photo with the words, ‘People! Look what you did! Thank you.’gong.jpg

The evening ended with the big prize: Book of the Year went to The Drover’s Wife, the first play to win this award. I wish I’d been there to applaud. The State Library tweeted video of Leah Purcell’s completely charming acceptance speech (if you watch, be sure you stay to the very end). ‘I’m speechless. Just as well I got my thankyous in first, eh?’ You have to love the contrast between her demeanour and the completely appropriate tone of the judges’ report as quoted in today’s Guardian:

Leah Purcell’s retooling of Henry Lawson’s story represents a seismic shift in postcolonial Australian playwriting. Brave, ruthless and utterly compelling from the first image, this epic tragedy is a passionate howl of pain and rage … a bold and exciting contribution to Australian playwriting – and, arguably, to Australia’s very identity.

Which is part of why I love these awards evenings. People of whose achievements I am rightly in awe step up to the podium one after another and reveal themselves as people just like you and me, even though they are still awe-inspiring. Who knew?

Added later: Lisa Hill has a post on the awards that gives links to reviews, her own and other people’s, of almost all the winners, plus the shortlisted titles. Click here to get there.