Tag Archives: Jenny Erpenbeck

SWF 2019 Sunday Part Two

Here are the last three sessions I attended at this year’s Festival.

3 pm: Jenny Erpenbeck: Memory and Forgetting, Home and Exile

I had heard Jenny Erpenbeck speak at the first session I attended this year. I was happy to have a chance to hear her at more length.

The session began inauspiciously. Whereas in almost every other session all the participants walked onto the stage together and sat down to welcoming applause, this time a tall, slightly ungainly man was standing centre front and had started talking before we could acknowledge him, He didn’t introduce himself, so I’ll return the compliment here. Like all the other facilitators, he acknowledged the Gadigal people as traditional custodians of the land where we were meeting, though he didn’t mention elders and somehow made it about himself: he appreciated that Gadigal people had been telling stories here for millennia and was grateful that he could tell stories here. Maybe I’m being picky here, but I think he’d lost sight of the function of the acknowledgement of country: in the absence of someone from the traditional owners to welcome us all, someone acknowledges the custodians and elders on behalf of the assembled people – it’s not about that person as an individual.

And the session continued as it had begun. Though the interlocutor professed to be a huge admirer of Jenny Erpenbeck’s work, he didn’t seem to know how to give her room to shine: he would comment on some aspect of her work, then ask whether he had got it right, and often enough she would struggle to make an intelligible response. The difficulty was no doubt compounded by her limited English and the terrible noise coming from other parts of the cavernous hall.

Nevertheless, starting with the story of her grandmother who had been a Communist in 1930s Germany, gone to the USSR to avoid the Nazis, and never trusted the Germans again when she returned after World War Two, she painted a poignant picture of the East German experience when the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and almost overnight everything changed.

My most vivid memory of the session is her graciousness in responding to borderline offensive questions from the floor. Asked if, given the current resurgence of fascism in the east of Germany, does that mean that east Germans have a deep-seated yearning for totalitarianism, she quietly demurred. First, she said, it’s not only in the east. And second, rather than asking if the questioner had been listening when she talked about the marginalisation of people from the old East Germany and their consequent sense that the political system did not represent them, she said that though she thought about the question a lot, she didn’t know what led to this resurgence. Perhaps it was … and here she repeated her earlier analysis as if it was a new thought in this conversation.

Then, when someone who was sitting very near the first questioner pointed out that the audience was mainly grey-haired (a comment that prompted noisy protest from a good part of the audience), and asked if her books were reaching young people at all. Smiling warmly, JE said she quite liked grey-haired people, and added that one of her books – perhaps Go, Went, Gone, which deals with refugees and people who have been forced to migrate – has been set for study in some localities. She doesn’t know if the book will change the minds of any of the young people, but perhaps it will, and they may have an influence when they have grey hair.


4.30 pm Ece Temelkuran: How to Lose a Country

This session was the one that was most affected by the terrible acoustics. And evidently it was worse for the people on stage than for us: evidently the background noise fed into their ear-phones so that they could barely hear themselves each other. Making a virtue of it, Ece Temelkurian, the Turkish writer I’ve seen twice before, said she would use her Big Voice, and Sally Warhoft, A Melburnian whom I think of mainly as previous editor of The Monthly, said likewise – and both these women, it turns ut have big voices, big ideas, big connection of minds.

Ece’s book How to Lose a Country is not about her native Turkey. It uses the Turkish experience as a warning to the rest of the world about the process by which liberal democracy can be turned into dictatorship. Right-wing populism, which smooths the transition, is the monstrous child of neoliberalism. (She is a terrific phrase-maker.)

She is critical of easy analogies with the rise of Nazism and fascism. what is happening now is much more like the industrial revolution. It’s not about the populist leader – get rid of one and another will take his (usually they’re male) and another will take his place. It’s a change beyond party politics. And culture is over-rated. (As she clarified in question time, this is not to say we should ignore cultural specifics, but she is talking about a general process. It’s misguided to say that there’s something about Turkish or Philippine culture that makes dictatorship more likely, that it could never happen here, wherever here happens to be.) Neoliberalism has broken communities, got into our minds so we think of ourselves mainly as participants in a market rather than a society. The public concept of truth has changed, and public figures are no longer ashamed when caught in a lie.

When Sally quoted John w Howard’s pivotal assertion, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ Ece said this was a classic piece of what she is talking about: it’s a piece of nonsense, because of course you can’t control who comes to your country. But once you draw a circle like that, with someone on the ooutside who is defined as not belonging, there is no way of stopping that circle from narrowing.

Things that don’t work in response to the rise of right-wing populist leaders:

  • fact checking: they lie and distort, but have undermined the institutions that would be used to expose them – the press, scientific bodies
  • judicial processes: they have sowed distrust of the courts or stacked them with partisans
  • opposition parties and the electoral process – I think it was Sally who said she had read that some serious people are saying it’s possible, even likely, that if Trump is voted out in 2020 he will refuse to leave the White House (mostly Ece avoided takig explicitly about Trump, but he was certainly in my mind along with Scott Morrison all through the session).

We have to be prepared for a new kind of conversation. For example:

A: The world is flat.
B: Look at this photo taken from space. The world is clearly round like a ball.
A: But I don't believe that. I believe the world is flat.

How do you deal with that? she asked. How do you prove that seeing trumps belief, that evidence matters? That’s the question we’re up against. She had no answer.

Neoliberal values to the same thing to our minds as terrorism does. Recognising that Sydney hasn’t hasn’t experienced terrorism, she explained that when a terrorist attack occurs in your country, most people’s first response is to be relieved that it wasn’t in their town. If it’s in your town, you’re relieved it wasn’t in your suburb. If in your suburb, that it wasn’t in your street. It’s always somewhere else, happening to someone else, so not your problem. That’s how neoliberalism works too: Manus Island and Nauru, it’s only a couple of hundred people. It’s a vicious diminishing of our sense of humanity.

Having said to Benjamin Law the other night that she thinks the important thing is to think about all this, not to focus on how one feels about it, at this session she warned about laughter. The problem with mockery of the right-wing populous leader is that it allows the mockers and the laughers to feel superior to the subject of their mockery, and perhaps unwittingly assume they are safe. Dont’s laug, she said. It’s dangerous.

We have to remember that we are political subjects. We are living in challenging times that call for hard thinking and collective action. This is a joyful thing.

Whew!


And then there was the Closing Address delivered by Fatima Bhutto.

Before introducing the main act, Michaela McGuire, artistic Director of the Festival, took the mic for a moment to thank the tireless workers and volunteers, and to do an elegant round-up, quoting enough stand-out moments to make everyone in the room realise they’d seen only a fraction of what went on. My favourite was novelist Trent Dalton approaching the q=women queueing after his sold-out talk to thank them for their interest, only to have fellow Queenslander Matthew Condon tap him on the shoulder, ‘Mate, that’s the queue for the Ladies.’

Ms Bhutto spoke eloquently about the distortion of reality that sees Islam and Muslims as the main source of violence in the world. She listed the many barbarous acts of violence in the 20th century and since committed in the name of Christianity or (she whispered) by atheists, and called on us to reach for our common humanity in these dangerous times.

She saved her sharpest language for the Four Horsemen, by whom she meant Sam harris, Richard Dawkins and two others who in the name of militant atheism are especially hostile to Islam and to the Holy Qur’an, even though, she said, none of them have read it. (incidentally, outside the Town Hall on Friday night, a couple of men were offering copies of the Qur’an to people in the queue. I said I already had a copy next to my bed. ‘Have you read it?’ ‘ Not yet’ Read it. It’s a revelation.’)

It was great that the festival finished on such a challenging, even militant note rather than warm, self-congratulatory rhetoric about the power of the imagination.


It turned out that a clear theme emerged in my personal festival this year. In session after session people groped for definitions of home. In An Irrevocable Condition the consensus was that home is where you have your community of friends and family. In Home Truths both writers were ambivalent about being identified with their place of origin, and if I remember correctly at least one of them said she found a home in literature – writing, reading, being part of that community. Story Club was all about family – early parenthood and a vast clan reunion. In Lie to Me at the Town Hall, Patricia Cornelius’s monologue dealt with what amounted to a creepy and devastating home invasion. Simon Schama spoke of Jews as having a provisional sense of belonging: ‘If you’re a Jew, it’s natural to be cosmopolitan, on the move. The non-provisional part is observance and immersion in the Torah or for more advanced people the Talmud. In some sense, the Torah is your home.’


One last comment. I love attending the Festival in person. You get to talk to strangers about things they love, and that you also love if you’re lucky. You get to meet up with friends in a different context. You have a chance to meet in person people who have been intimately important to you, though I’ve been too shy to do too much of that. You get to notice the poets’ shoes and the heroic journalists’ hair. But these days it’s possible to enjoy a lot of this festival at a very small remove.

Some sessions are broadcast live on the ABC: SWF episodes of The Bookshelf and Conversations are are already available as podcasts – click the underlined words for links. Some sessions are live streamed, and some remote viewers have already blogged about those accounts. You can read about ‘Boys to Men‘, ‘Andrew Sean Greer: Less‘ and ‘”I do not want to see this in print“‘ on the Canberra-based blog Whispering Gums. If that wasn’t enough, the Festival has its own podcast which, if the past is any guide, will upload a huge number of sessions from this Festival over the next year.

SWF 2019: Friday

I was in England when last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival broke away from its harbourside venue, so this is my first Festival at the Carriageworks. I miss stepping out of dim rooms full of bright words into the dazzle, or sometimes drizzle, of postcard Sydney. But I can walk there and back, which is something.


My SWF this year kicked off with a 10 o’clock session on Friday: Taking Flight: Stories of Expulsion and Migration

Julian Burnside chaired a conversation with German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, and Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, which is still on my To Be Read pile.

All three participants were interesting, more than that, compelling. Jenny Erpenbeck’s most recent novel Go, Went, Gone is based on a year befriending and documenting the experiences of migrants in Berlin – the kind of migrants who would be called refugees or asylum seekers in Australia, but have been defined out of that category in Germany. It emerged that the characters in her novel are all real people with changed names, except the main character, named Richard, who she admitted is herself. Asked by Julian Burnside abut the many references to classic Greek and Roman gods, she explained that part of her goal was to make it clear that northern African peoples aren’t the Cultural Others that mainstream media would paint them – that much of that ancient culture was shared by Europe and Africa. In the very brief Q and A, asked if sessions like this and perhaps novels like hers weren’t preaching to the converted, she said that migrants are generally portrayed as millions of displaced people deserving pity or stirring dread: what fiction can do is help us realise that ‘the millions are not millions’, but each one has a story, and these stories show our connection as humans.

Omid Tofighian has an impressive CV in his own right and a scholar and activist. He was on the panel as translator of Behrouz Bouchani’s book. He was fascinating about the process of translation from Farsi to English. (Incidentally, Farsi is an Indo-European language, with many similarities to German in how its sentences are constructed.) About 40 percent English version is in verse: this is because in many passages Behrouz’s long Farsi sentences had to be broken up into smaller sentences to make them work in English, and in that process what had been beautiful Farsi prose begged to be presented as English verse. Translator and author worked closely together on the translation. Replying to an audience member who asked for a practical solution to the problem of offshore detention, ‘the key word being practical’, he said two things were necessary: first to analyse and broadcast the financial dimensions of the detention industry, in particular what he and Behrouz call the horrific surrealism of Manus, which creates vast profits for a small number of people; and second to challenge the ideology that sees refugees as passive and not fully human. On the preaching to the converted question, he said that the thing about Behrouz is that he is holding a mirror up to Australian society in general, not pleading his own case as victim or seeking a benefactor: he is calling out Australians in general to reflect on our history of harshness towards the marginalised, from the beginning of colonisation.

Julian Burnside in the chair promised at the start that we were about to hear a conversation between the two others on the stage. In the event there was very little, if any conversation between Jenny and Omid. This seemed to be mainly because there was no obvious bridge between their subjects and were both giving us information, but also because Julian Burnside, admirable activist and advocate, had his own point of view and contribution to make.

The session was marred for me bursts of laughter and applause from the adjacent hall, actually part of the same vast space separated only by thick hanging curtains. And the man next to me should be given an award of some kind. He spent a lot of the time fanning himself with a newspaper, which tended to obscure my view of the stage, send a blast of air to the woman on the other side (we talked after the show), and make creaking sounds that disturbed the people in front of him as well as us. Every now and then he would reach down to a paper bag on his lap and rustle it a bit for no obvious reason. And then his phone rang, he answered it, he left by a gap in the curtain at the front left, and after a couple of minutes came back to rejoin his paper bag and his fan. I’m pretty sure if I’d asked him to tone it down he would have done so, but I was stupidly wimpy.


At half past eleven, Christos Tsiolkas chaired An Irrevocable Condition, a conversation with Melanie Cheng, Moreno Giovannoni (my review of his The Fireflies of Autumn here) and Melina Marchetta.

The title of the session came from James Baldwin, who wrote, ‘perhaps home is not a place, but an irrevocable condition.’ I don’t know how the quote related to the conversation, but it was a brilliant conversation. Tsiolkas kicked it off by asking, ‘Where are you from?’, a question he acknowledged is often rude or hostile, but can be a way to open connection. Certainly in this case that’s how it worked. The panel members told of complex relationships with the countries of their parents’ origins – sometimes their own birth or childhood countries, others experienced only in the communities in Australia.

Christos invited each of the others to read from their work. This is always the best thing in these panels, and in this case it was beautifully integrated into the conversation, as they were also invited to reflect on how the passages they read were part of developing an inclusive Australian language.

It was a wonderfully warm, generous conversation. The four panellists had had an interesting conversation in the green room, which they referred to frequently – the mutual appreciation of each other’s writing was palpable. Christos told of a recent visit with his mother to Richmond, where he was a child. She looked around and said, ‘Christos, it’s not the same,’ namong, as he said a kind of double migration: first from Greece to Richmond, and then from Richmond to a whole other suburb. This prompted someone to say that although they had been talking about the experience of being migrants, there was something universal there as well: the childhood home no longer exists for any of us. The panel members had a fabulous range of stories about their experience of the nominal home country.

The panellists all agreed that home is where their family and friends are: the family and community that they live among now. Cosmopolitanism is great, but hard for many people, and a local community gives something that meets our deep needs.

As the lights came up, before filing out into the lunchtime crowd, I had a chat with the elderly woman who had been sitting on my left. (Elderly in this case could mean younger than me, but hey!) After we’d told each other how much we’d enjoyed the session, she said, ‘I’m fro South Africa, and I love living here. But I realise I’ve been unfair to other South Africans who complain about Australia – I’ve just thought they should appreciate what they’ve got here, but now I feel I haven’t been understanding enough about their pain.’


4.30 pm Home Truths

 This session was nominally about home, and would have made a thematic hat trick for my festival so far, but after briefly covering their discomfort at being categorised as Western Sydney Writers, Fiona Wright (click here for previous mentions in this blog) and Luke Carman (ditto here) got the bit between their collective teeth and gave us a very interesting chat about mental illness. 

Like Carman has a great gift for deadpan comedy about uncomfortable topics – in this case a psychotic episode and its aftermath. By contrast, Fiona laughs a lot, cheerfully asserting that she’s allowed to use words like ‘crazy’, at least when talking about herself. (Incidentally, I tend to be with Raimond Gaita in preferring the scary word ‘mad’ over the blandly medical ‘mentally ill’ to name a truly scary phenomenon.)

Ashley Kalagian Blunt did an excellent, self-effacing job of enabling the conversation. The Western Sydney gambit didn’t lead to much, but asking them each to name a favourite piece in the other’s book of essays and to say why was a brilliant way of setting them free to enjoy each other, their literary friendship, and their experiences with the mental health system.

Fiona said her first book of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes; her second, The World Was Whole, which is on the pile beside my desk, is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is fragile. She mentioned her poetry, adding with mock defensiveness, ‘Don’t judge me!’ (I do judge, and the verdict is beyond favourable.)

Prompted by Ashley, Luke gave a wonderful account of the genesis of one of the essays in his book: he picked ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’, in which he set out to write something that would enrage some people he was feuding with. It did that, as well as pretty much alienating everyone who read it. He decided to include it in the book all the same, as it fitted with the madness theme of the collection – an example of something written by a person who was off the air. (I just found the essay inits Meanjin incarnation, here.)


We went home for dinner, and watched a little tele, including Ece Temelkuran on the Drum. We’re seeing her in Sunday at the Festival.

Then we were back at the Carriageworks for Story Club at 9 o’clock.

Story Club is a monthly event that’s been running for 11 years at the Giant Dwarf in Sydney, created and hosted by Ben Jenkins and Zoe Norton Lodge. This evening’s hour was supposed to have a theme, ‘Fool Me Once’, in keeping with the Festival’s over-all theme, ‘Lie to Me’. As everywhere else I’ve seen at the Festival so far, the theme was completely ignored. Well not completely: it was named. But as Ben, then Alex Lee (a regular on the now defunct The Checkout with Ben and Zoe), journalist Jacqueline Maley and fonally Zoe took the stage to read stories from their lives from a big red book, if a theme emerged it was in two mercifully separate parts: excessive consumption of alcohol and the tribulations of early motherhood. Breasts, sleeplessness, public humiliation and family reunions gave rise to much merriment.

And so home to bed.