Tag Archives: Luke Carman

Kate Middleton, Passage

Kate Middleton, Passage (Giramondo 2017)

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Most of the poems in Passage are either erasures or centos.

/Explanatory note for the benefit of readers who know even less than I do:/
Cento is defined in my excellent Gepp & Haigh Latin–English dictionary (1888) as ‘a poem or composition made up of scraps from various authors or parts of an author’. A basic, nonsensical nursery-rhyme cento, for example, might be:

The mouse ran up the clock
to fetch a pail of water.
He put in his thumb,
see how they run,
How does your garden grow?

An erasure is created by erasing some or most of another piece of writing. I enjoy making them from newspaper columns that annoy me.  Here’s one based on a recent attack on the #changethedate movement:

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/End explanatory note/

Both forms can be fun, but when, as in Kate Middleton’s work, the source material isn’t well known or readily available, and the poem is longer and more than a fun game, questions arise that I don’t know the answers to.

Given my new policy of just talking about a single poem when blogging about poetry books, I was tempted to choose one of Kate Middleton’s fine poems that aren’t centos or erasures or in some other way symbiotic with another text (such as the handful that are responses to episodes of a TV show I’ve never heard of). There are plenty of such fine poems –  but to choose one of them would feel craven. So here’s the cento ‘Elegance’, which I’ve singled out because I’ve read its source text, Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man.

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It’s possible to read this without any attention to its cento-ness. The opening couplet announces an emotional tone and names a locality. The next two stanzas sketch an unprepossessing urban landscape – this is not the West of movies but western Sydney. Then the poem turns to address the person looking at this landscape, and becomes a portrait of a writer as one who conceals his metaphorical knife in public, is loud alone at home, and struggles to avoid clichés (‘ordinary answers’).

It’s a cento not only from Luke Carman but for him. Writing cover letters to nowhere is a pretty nice description of a writer’s job, and the references to chance and repeated falls are extraordinarily apposite to the way Carman’s writing often mimics an intense distractibility, and so much of it is about his own social awkwardness and other struggles.

It’s a sweet tribute. By the end, one wants to revisit the capitalised ‘West’ from the second line. Carman is a kind of Western hero after all, even though his West is not Monument Valley, but Western Sydney.

So what does it mean that the poem is a cento?

Being by profession a proofread type editor, and by inclination a bit pernickety, I got out my copy of An Elegant Young Man. I didn’t have time to reread it all, but I read enough to find some of the poem’s source text. ‘Barred shopfronts flicker phantasmic blue’ is distilled from ‘shuttered-up Asian supermarkets and squash centres and brick unit blocks with TV flickering a phantasmic blue through the windows’. ‘I guess you’re like a minor Aussie character / in movies’ comes from this: ‘I mostly stood still and tried to seem happy-go-lucky, like those minor Aussie characters in movies like Chopper and  Getting Square’.

So Kate Middleton hasn’t been rigid in quoting the original. As the Emerging Artist said, she’s referencing the text rather than quoting it. In these examples, she leaves out the detail of the shopfronts and the TV, and the happy-go-lucky appearance (which is ironic in its original context anyhow). It’s not just referencing, but also repurposing. She finds in Carman’s text words that describe him in relationship to the milieu that is his subject in ways that he (presumably) wouldn’t think to describe himself. It’s a kind of alchemy.

I still don’t know how the longer centos work, from writers including Siri Hustvedt, Eliot Weinberger and Sir John Mandeville; or erasures that run to several pages. I’m happy to leave that question to better informed readers than I am.

Passage is the third book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I was given a complimentary copy by Giramondo, for which horizon-expanding gift I am grateful.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night, 2015

The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards were presented last night at the State Library. At one stage I thought I might be able to go as a handbag, but it turned out handbags had to pay their own way, so you won’t see a pic of me in cocktail attire on Twitter. But speaking of Twitter, it’s now possible to participate in such events by proxy and non-simultaneously. Here’s my version of the evening.

The earliest interesting tweet was from someone worrying about the dress code. I could have told her not to worry. This is an event for writers, and though some of the pics that began to appear at hashtag  at about 6 o’clock were decidedly glam, there were plenty to put the worrier’s mind at ease.

Uncle Allan Madden did the welcome to Country, playwright Ross Mueller delivered the Address (in which, as well as saying some wise things about the arts he made an AFL joke or two and commented, amicably I hope, on recent events to do with literary awards in Queensland), Acting Premier and Arts Minister Troy Brampton spoke briefly, so did Richard Neville the Mitchell Librarian, and the show was on the road.

John George Ajaka, NSW Minister for Multiculturalism, announced the winner of the biennial Prize for Translation and the inaugural NSW Early Career Translator Prize. Brian Nelson won the former, and Lilit Zelukin the latter. Few if any other literary awards include prizes for translation, so these are a win for all translators.

Multicultural NSW Award. I saw Donna Abela’s Jump for Jordan at the Griffin Theatre Company last year with the wonderful Alice Ansara, and would have been happy to see it win. The winner, Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond, is a book I hope to read.

Of the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting shortlist I’d only seen Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts, featuring Hunter Page-Lochard’s terrifying performance of a young man on the edge of self-destruction, at Belvoir. The smart money was on Tom Wright’s Black Diggers, about World War One’s Aboriginal soldiers. The smart money had it right.

The Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting was taken out by The Babadook by Jennifer Kent. I’m glad on two counts: it’s good to see a genre piece being gonged, and this film in particular has been much more honoured abroad than at home. Jennifer Kent’s acceptance remarks were recorded on Twitter as mentioning the joys of libraries.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature was shared by Tamsin Janu’s Figgy in the World and Catherine Norton’s Crossing, both published by Scholastic Omnibus.

The Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult Literature went to The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty, who shared some letters from her readers..

(At about this point in the evening, the ABC Book Club’s Twitter account decided that the embargo was lifted and revealed the remaining winners. This would have been the moment to lay bets on David Williamson.)

The favourite for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry was surely David Malouf’s  Earth Hour, which happens to be the only shortlisted book I’d read. It won. David was described on Twitter as ‘wonderful’, ‘amazing’ and an ‘Australian icon’. A text sent to me from the room described him as ‘ever gracious and lovely’.

How do people possibly choose among the range of books shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction? Intimate memoir, passionate court reporting, grand history, cultural essays: it’s a lot harder than apples vs oranges. However, choose the judges did, and gave the gong to Don Watson’s The Bush. In accepting the prize he said, no doubt with his usual gloomy demeanour: ‘You need encouragement when you’re young, but also when you’re old.’

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: I’ve just finished reading Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs (blog post to come after the book group meets) and was backing it to win. The actual winner, An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman, is a worthy recipient of whom I am a fan, though I expect the judges did some soul searching when they realised he was the only white man on the shortlist. Omar Musa congratulated Luke on Twitter within minutes.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, generally regarded as the big prize of the night, went to The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw, who compared writing a novel to running a marathon.

The special award was given to David Williamson. The State Library’s tweeter described his work as laconic. Is that the sound of pedants writhing? Laconic or not, the tall man is giving his prize money to the Ensemble Theatre to ensure the production of new Australian work. [Later: My mistake. The tweet in question said iconic, not laconic. I’m not sure how DW is iconic, but that description fits him better than the other.]

The book of the year went to Don Watson for The Bush, who Twitter said was dumbstruck.

Voting for the People’s Choice Prize, which is restricted to the grown-up novels – so Helen Garner and Biff Ward aren’t in the running – closes at midnight on Thursday. The prize will be announced on Friday.

So there you have it. Congratulations all round. People in the room acknowledged the Auslan signers. I acknowledge the tweeters. It was almost like being there.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist announced

A bit late for anyone who wants to read the whole short list before the winners are announced next month, but the (very long) short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library.

Here’s most of it – all except the translator – with links to my blog posts on the few I’ve read, all of which have me nodding my head in agreement with the judges. (Maybe it will take grandchildren to bring me back up to date on children’s lit.)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)
In Certain Circles, Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing)
Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia)
The Snow Kimono, Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing)
The Golden Age, Joan London (Random House Australia)
A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Giramondo Publishing)
Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)
The Strays, Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)
An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)
Here Come the Dogs, Omar Musa (Penguin Australia)
Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction
The Europeans in Australia, Alan Atkinson (NewSouth)
Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799‐1815, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury)
This House of Grief, Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
The Reef: A Passionate History, Iain McCalman (Penguin Books Australia)
In My Mother’s Hands, Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)
The Bush, Don Watson (Penguin Books Australia)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
A Vicious Example, Michael Aiken (Grand Parade)
Devadetta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo)
Kin, Anne Elvey (Five Islands Press)
Wild, Libby Hart (Pitt Street Poetry)
Unbelievers, or The Moor, John Mateer (Giramondo)
Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
The First Voyage, Allan Baillie (Puffin Books)
Rivertime, Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin)
Figgy in the World, Tamsin Janu (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Duck and the Darklings, Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
Crossing, Catherine Norton (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not‐Very Brave, James O’Loghlin (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature
Book of Days, K.A. Barker (Pan Macmillan Australian)
The Road to Gundagai, Jackie French (HarperCollins Publishers)
Are You Seeing Me? Darren Groth (Random House Australia)
Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)
The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Cracked, Clare Strahan (Allen & Unwin)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting
The Code Episode 1, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media)
Upper Middle Bogan Season 1, Episode 8: The Nationals, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (Gristmill)
The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (Causeway)
Fell, Natasha Pincus Story by Kasimir Burgess and Natasha Pincus. (Felix Media)
Please Like Me Season 2, Episode 7: Scroggin, Josh Thomas
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting
Brothers Wreck, Jada Alberts (Currency Press)
The Sublime, Brendan Cowell (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany (adapted from a novel by Craig Silvey) (Barking Gecko Theatre Company)
The Trouble with Harry, Lachlan Philpott (TheatreofplucK Belfast/MKA New Writing Theatre)
Kryptonite, Sue Smith (The Sydney Theatre Company)
Black Diggers, Tom Wright (Queensland Theatre Company)

Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW
Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela (Griffin Theatre Company)
Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Publishing)
Refugees, Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong (UNSW Press)
I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback, Sami Shah (Allen & Unwin)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Congratulations and good luck to all of them, and may the judges’ eyes and brains enjoy a rest.

Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man

Luke Carman, An Elegant Young Man (Giramondo 2014)

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/889/7316403/files/2015/01/img_1161.jpg Published at the same time as Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe, in a similar format (they are both Giramondo Shorts), and with a similar voice-from-Western-Sydney cover blurb, this book cries out to be read alongside that one. Both books comprise interlinked stories with a single narrator. Carman has shared the stage with Ahmad at a number of readings in Bankstown and elsewhere over the years, and his name has cropped up on this blog a fair bit, often alongside Ahmad’s. Both of them write fiction that feels as if it’s at one small remove from autobiography. They are, however, very different writers.

First, a trigger warning: if you’re sensitive to what the record companies call explicit language, you’d better give this book a miss. If you’re fine with the C word, but don’t want to have a vile image of sexual debasement served up to your inner eye, definitely skip pages 10 and 11, in which the narrator tells of an early encounter with pornography.

Quite apart from that, much of this book isn’t for the faint-hearted. The dominant theme is multiculturalism as it’s lived by working-class teenagers in western Sydney: plenty of violence, racist and sexist verbal abuse, drugs and desperation. In his performances of these stories, Carman has an oddly dissociated, almost robotic manner, with no attempt to mimic the natural rhythms of speech, or indeed of language. It’s as if we’re hearing a meticulously observed report from the point of view of a visitor from another plane – or even another planet: no judgement, no analysis, no emotive suggestions. I don’t think the stories work quite the same way on the page, but there are elements of it: after the description of porn I mentioned earlier, the narrator comments inscrutably, ‘In some ways, life was better before the Internet,’ and moves on with the story. When the narrator (named Luke, and with a number of verifiable things in common with the author) gets onto a fight with a Cronulla punk named Pivot, it goes like this:

…my head started erupting over and over with blows to my face before I realised I was in a fight. By the time I’d understood, I’d thrown a punch of my own. It hit nothing. I watched it miss and so did Pivot, delighted. The two security guards came out from the McDonald’s to cheer us on. One turned to the other and said, ‘It’s like Rocky V!’ The other guard laughed and my second punch connected so hard that I panicked. The first I knew about throwing it was the sound Pivot’s head made cracking against my fist. He toppled and clonked crown first against the concrete. I bent to my knees and put my knuckles against his forehead. Not punching. Just grinding them into him, saying things that didn’t make sense. Somebody grabbed me by the shoulders and yanked me away, saying ‘Oi! Don’t do that mate, it’s over!’ The crowd dispersed in an instant. The security headed back into Maccas and the sound of the clubs and bars came back to me. Tall bronzed meat-heads carrying cans of Woodstock in their hands helped Pivot to his feet and one in a Bundaberg jersey said ‘Better luck next time, Pivo, you weapon!’

About halfway through the book, the narrator leaves the western suburbs and moves to the inner west, where he listens to young men talk ‘in their lilting tones as if no shadow in the coming night would trip them up’. He and another ‘Westie come good’ (I did warn you about offensive language) go to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and ask offensive questions. They get Christopher Hitchens to inscribe a copy of God Is Not Great, ‘You’re the man now dog.’ In one of the book’s many funny scenes, a lightly fictionalised Penguin Plays Rough event in Sydney Park is disrupted by an Aboriginal homeless man:

‘Be gone! The lot of you! This is my home!’ And no one knew what to do, not just because he had a big stick and was wild and homeless and drunk but because he was Aboriginal and we were all white and so if somebody wanted to say, ‘This is public space, we have a right to be here!’ he could very easily say, ‘No you don’t!’

Be reassured, the situation is resolved peacefully.

Perhaps the most striking moment comes at the end of one of the shortest stories, ‘I Heart Henry Rollins’. The narrator sees the planes fly into the World Trade Center on TV. He wakes his mother and tells her America is being attacked. ‘That’s no good,’ she says, and goes back to sleep. [That’s the closest thing I’ve read to what happened in our house that night.] Then he arrives at school the next morning to find scenes of great rejoicing. The principal makes a perfunctory attempt to stop it, and the narrator is uncomprehending. His maths teacher is standing close by:

I asked him, ‘Why is everyone with the terror?’
He scowled, then he grunted an ugly laugh. He was missing a tooth.
He said, ‘When people die in other countries are you so concerned?’
I did not know what to say. I still don’t. Johnny the Serb had overheard us, and he said, ‘Exactly sir, exactly!’ and I wanted to go home … I sensed a great phantom of history was awake and visible for the first time, shadowing my town, looming over the Western Suburbs like an oncoming colossus …
The clouded sun looked like a blood clot. No one was really afraid.

That’s the end of the story. I don’t know about the colossus, which sounds like hindsight, but the schadenfreudeof those semi-alienated young people and their teachers, which has nothing to do with being ‘with the terror’, rings true. To describe it so bluntly comes close to breaking a taboo. The same can be said for the rawness of much of the book. It comes as a breath of fresh air, not as in sweet-smelling, but as in from a new place.

A final note: Like its back cover blurb, I’ve emphasised the book’s report-from-Western-Sydney qualities. I should mention that the narrator is also bookish. He reads Whitman. A poem by Viennese flâneur Peter Altenberg (1859–1919) is a key element of ‘West Suburbia Boys’. Patrick White, Frank Moorhouse, Peter Skrzynecki and other Australian writers ate brief mentions, not necessarily honourable. In ‘Rare Birds’ he sets out to undo the harm he did by enthusing a woman friend about Kerouac and ruining her life.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 4

Saturday dawned with yet another clear sky. I finally understood that El Niño and the weather gods are smiling on the Writers’ Festival this year, and my light linen jacket was all the warmth I needed. It was my busiest day at the Festival, even busier for The Art Student, who went in early for The Joy of Art with Betty Churcher, John Armstrong and Alex Monroe. Rachel Kent, director of the MCA, who chaired the session, tried to keep up the SWF tradition of ditching her advertised topic, in this case presumably because joy hasn’t been sufficiently theorised, but according to the Art Student the panellists gave the audience what they’d paid for and kept joy on the agenda.

I arrived at Walsh Bay in time to join the AS in the packed Sydney Theatre for

11.30 am: Reza Aslan: Zealot
There’s a famous clip on YouTube of Reza Aslan being interviewed on Fox News. The Fox person is outraged that Aslan, a Muslim, has written Zealot, a book about Jesus Christ. The implication hangs in the air that this close to a literary equivalent of 9/11. Aslan is the very picture of cool reason, repeating over and over that he is a scholar who studies religion and has a scholarly interest in Jesus. He insists, to the point of being boring, that his primary identity in this context is as a scholar rather than as a Muslim.

I was a little worried that he might be just as one-track boring when not dealing with a terrified fundamentalist, a worry which was intensified by my past experience of interlocutor Steven Gale as somehow impersonal, even mechanical. But my worries were total garbage  – both men were fabulous. Reza Aslan was witty, warm and exuberant as well as scholarly; Steven Gale obviously liked him and revealed a mischievous streak of his own, at one stage slapping his thighs in enjoyment.

Aslan’s book is about the historical Jesus rather than what he calls ‘the Christ of faith’, but he’s not a debunker – not, as he put it one of those biblical scholars who peers as if down a microscope and cries, ‘Ooh, look at all the people believing things!’ Asked what was known with certainty about the historical Jesus, he said that if you brought a hundred biblical scholars onto the stage and asked that question, once the fisticuffs had finished they would come up with a hundred different answers. But they would agree on three things: he was a Jew; he preached something called the kingdom of heaven, though there would be much disagreement about what it was; and the Roman occupiers executed him because of that. All the same, he says there’s nothing particularly new in his book – its aim is to open up the field to a wider audience. Sure, he takes many positions that other scholars will disagree with, but then he lists the disagreers in copious endnotes.

Jesus was almost certainly illiterate. He was one of probably hundreds of self-proclaimed messiahs of the first century of the common era, which Aslan said was the Middle East’s most turbulent period in history (cue gasp from audience!). Every messiah, including Jesus, had a project to free the Jewish people from the oppressive Romans, and when each one failed he was seen not to have been the real messiah. Jesus differed crucially (no pun intended, the cross wasn’t particularly distinctive) in that his disciples reported experiencing him as risen from the dead – something completely novel in the Hebrew context.

The four Gospels, he pointed out uncontroversially, were written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Given that the Jesus movement had been pretty unsuccessful among Jews, the Gospel accounts were tailored to make it more attractive to the Romans. This they did in three ways: they made Jesus’ teachings seem less embedded in Jewish culture, more ‘universal’; they removed the nationalism, translating it into ‘spiritual’ terms; they shifted the blame for his death from the Romans to the Jews (what we know of the historical Pontius Pilate’s extraordinary cruelty makes the Gospels’ account of him reluctantly complying with the High Priests’ demand that he crucify Jesus completely implausible).

Aslan ended on an enigmatic note: in all the gospels, it was women who discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead. This is a stumbling block for historians, because at that time women could not be called as witnesses, so if the gospels were inventing the story they would have picked  someone else as the discoverers. [I immediately decided that Mary Magdalen was the key person who ensured that the Jesus movement survived his death.]

We had an hour for lunch and then were just about the last people to squeeze into the Philharmonia Studio for

1.30: The Changing Face of Indigeneity: Now and Beyond
Wesley Enoch, Anita Heiss and playwright Nakkiah Lui were on a panel chaired beautifully by Lydia Miller. If I understood what Lydia Miller said in her introductory remarks, Native Title legislation of the early 1990s changed the way people in Australia think about indigenous identity, because it led to a diversity of narratives. There is also diversity because of intergenerational differences – I think I heard correctly that 60 percent of Aboriginal Australians are now under 25 years old, and 40 percent of those are under 15.

The panellists, two from the theatre and one novelist, addressed the theme interestingly. Wesley Enoch described himself as a psychological vampire, looking around for young Aboriginal blood for use in the theatre. Anita Heiss told us that there are 60 different pieces of legislation in Australia defining what it is to be Aboriginal, and this obsession on the part of whites with defining Aboriginal identity  was something that Aboriginal artists constantly have to negotiate: ‘We don’t sit around discussing identity with each other all day, you know. We have other things to do, like shopping.’  Nakkiah Lui, who spoke very quickly with the result that she was often incomprehensible to me (more about that later), said she was interested in critiquing the power relationships that were the context of cultural work. All three of them brought both zest and urgency to the question of challenging the dominant culture’s unremitting project of containing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in straitening identities.

[I’m writing this after seeing the wonderful Brothers Wreck at Belvoir Street on Sunday evening. The play reminded me of two other comments: Nakkiah Lui pointed out that there had been two Indigenous productions a year at Belvoir Street for some time now, and that this was building on an established tradition of Aboriginal theatre making. Wesley Enoch said that at the Queensland Theatre Company (of which he is Artistic Director) they find that if the audience is more than 20 percent Aboriginal, the response to Aboriginal theatre is completely different – the white audience members become a lot less uncertain in their responses, more open to the work.]

And then with a rapid change of mindset, to

3 pm: #three jerks,
This is a descendant of Alleyway Honour, a highlight of the 2009 Writers’ Festival. Like that event it is an austerely theatrical reading devised by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and directed by Roslyn Oades. Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman and Peter Polites, three of the five readers from the earlier production, here read interlocking first-person stories. My assumption is that each of them wrote his own story.

Opening with an infamous 2006 quote from Sydney Muslim cleric Sheikh Hilaly about where blame should be apportioned for a number of rapes in Western Sydney, the stories play out a key couple of days in the lives of a number of Western Sydney adolescents – a gay Greek boy, a white boy who gets caught up in a petty crime, and Lebanese boys dealing with adolescent sexual politics. Some of it is confronting stuff, but there’s an intelligent reaching for understanding, and a basic decency in all three narratives.

The show is scheduled for a second appearance at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne: at the Wheeler Centre 7 pm Friday 30 May. So if you’re in Melbourne here’s a chance to hear voices direct from Western Sydney, to provide some kind of counterpoint to the constant wailing about Western Sydney in the political commentariat.

[Luke Carman read very quickly, too quickly for me to understand most of it. This being the third time I’ve made such a complaint at this Festival, I have to ask if the problem isn’t with me rather than the rapid speakers. My ever-sympathetic partner is adamant that the problem is not that Melbourne poets, young playwrights and anglophone Western Sydneysiders talk too fast, but that my deafness has passed the point where I need a hearing aid.]

Bickering amiably about my growing disability, we headed up the queue outside the same theatre for the next session:

4.30: Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars
Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist from the US, chatted for an hour to Australian TV journalist  Mark Davis about his book detailing the extent of the US’s covert military operations, particularly those undertaken by the Joint Security Operations Council.  This was pretty scary stuff: Scahill’s early discoveries were dismissed by a spokesman for the White House as conspiracy fantasy, but the Snowden tapes confirmed that he was right on the money. Denied access to top levels of the military and the government, he has nonetheless built a substantial number of sources at the operational level. Mark Davis repeatedly expressed his astonishment and envy that in the US public employees seem to be willing to speak frankly to the press in a way that is not only illegal in Australia, but also simply not done.

Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (subtitle taken from a Dick Cheney memo) is a hefty paperback. We stayed to watch the film of the same name, which follows his investigation into darker and darker territory until it reaches the climax of the killing by drone of a 16 year old boy, a US citizen against whom no charge had every been made. This was by a military unit that was legitimised by Rumsfeld but now operates under Barack Obama’s direct authority.

We walked to the train though the incredible crowds that had turned out for the first Saturday night of the Vivid Festival. The Opera House, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Customs House are all lit spectacularly. Having just come from these revelations of what the government of our special allies are doing in almost complete secrecy it was hard not to think of bread and circuses. Here’s the bit from Juvenal’s 10th Satire (which I found on Wikipedia):

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

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.

Western Sydney on Western Sydney

Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna (editors), On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012)

In early 2011, an issue of the University of New South Wales’ student newspaper Tharunka had a cover illustration of maps of Sydney according to four different regions. Like Yanko Tsvetkov’s stereotype maps, their probable inspiration, they manage to be cheerfully offensive about just about everyone, but you’d have to be thin skinned to take serious umbrage.
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All the same, look at Western Sydney: ‘out there’, ‘someone has to live there’, ‘yummy exotic food’, ‘cultural cringe’, ‘refugees’, ‘day trip’. The anonymous cartographer has caught something, but if you stop and think for a bit you realise that he/she/they has/have surely pulled her/his/their punches, avoiding any references to drugs, sexual violence, Islamophobic stereotypes or the class attitude invoked by the word westies. More interestingly, there is no ‘Sydney according to Western Sydney’ map. Evidently, in the mind of the maps’ creator(s), Western Sydney lacks a view of its own.

Westside Publications exists to create a counter-narrative: to provide a platform for Western Sydney voices and, at least in part, to undermine the stereotypes, less by denying them outright than by seeking to paint a fuller picture. ‘I don’t mind a story that makes us look bad,’ writes Michael Mohammed Ahmad, chief editor of Westside, in his introduction to On Western Sydney, ‘so long as it’s honest and complex.’

Under the auspices of BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service), Westside has work for years in schools and the community to develop skilled writers. On Western Sydney is their twelfth anthology featuring established and/or emerging writers and artists connected to the region. Ahmad says the goal has been ‘to source writing from Western Sydney and writing about Western Sydney’. Of course it’s not the only place where writers from Western Sydney get published – in my time at the School Magazine, for instance, some of our regular contributors were from the west, and off the top of my head eminent poets Jennifer Maiden and Peter Minter have strong Western Sydney connections. And a number of the writers in this anthology have been published elsewhere, including in the definitely Inner West This is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. But there’s no doubting the significance of Westside. Last week Mohammed Ahmad received the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award which honours ‘outstanding leadership from young people working in community arts and cultural development, particularly in the areas of reconciliation and social justice’.

20120921-175932.jpg So On Western Sydney is a phenomenon. It’s also a good read, and not at all the dry sociological collection the title might suggest. It includes short stories, poetry, absurd parables, a photo essay; there’s lyricism, satire, rap, stinging social commentary, domestic observation, fantasy, memoir (I think), travel writing … from as culturally diverse a bunch of writers as you’re likely to find anywhere. Many of the contributors are familiar from Westside’s readings at recent Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and scattered throughout are Bill Reda’s photos of Moving People, this year’s event.

I wouldn’t rush to say that the stereotypes are completely repudiated. Some are reversed with varying degrees of subtlety. Two poems – Andy Ko’s surreal ‘A South Line Travel Guide’ and Fiona Wright’s deliciously ironic ‘Roadtrip’ (which begins ‘And it certainly felt like a Food Safari, such a long way from Kirribilli’) – could be read as direct, mocking responses to Tharunka‘s ‘day trip’ and ‘yummy exotic foods’ stereotypes. Predatory men are scarily realised in Amanda Yeo’s train-story ‘Nine Minutes’ and Frances Panapoulos’ poem ‘”puss puss”‘, though there’s no racial profiling in either. The class attitudes not quite articulated by Tharunka are challenged throughout, as when the protagonist of Peta Murphy’s ‘Roughhousing with Aquatic Birds’ suffers through some kind of arty inner west event (‘She doesn’t speak to me, / it’s as if she can see my Bunnings uniform’). The world evoked in Lachlan Brown’s long poem ‘Poem for a Film’ could well be labelled ‘Someone has to live there’, but there’s art – and heart – in the telling:

______On a blistering afternoon
a council truck is removing tall trees

so that no one will confuse this vista with
a place of moneyed elegance. And maybe

the scream of the chainsaw means you’re
not ignored, as cut limbs crash through

the dry air. And maybe what’s left is
for your own good, and the streetscape

becomes a mouth mashed up during a bar fight,
with its bare stumps grinning cruelly in the heat.

My guess is that the writers are mostly under 35. The problems of negotiating relationships is a dominant theme: under the judgemental gaze of older Arab women in Miran Hosny’s ‘The Weight Divide’; by phone in Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s own brief contribution, the deeply unsettling ‘The First Call’; in the gap between the world of song and the world of experience in Luke Carman’s ‘Becoming Leonard Cohen’ (though it’s pretty impertinent to describe Carman’s weird tangential verse as about anything); in bitter-sweet recollection of a high school crush in Tamar Chnorhokian’s ‘Remembering Leon’.

There’s so much to like. We’re told that this will be Westside’s last print publication. Maybe there’s a sense that its work is done, and the writers it has fostered can now find platforms further afield – in Asia Literary Journal, for example, whose current issue has a number of pieces exploring migrant identity. I hope so.

I received my copy free from BYDS. You can buy one from independent book shops in Sydney or directly from BYDS (email in@byds.org.au with your postal address and they’ll give you details on cost and bank transfer details).

Penguin Plays Rough, the book

Pip Smith (editor), This Is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories (Pip Smith, 2011)

Since 2008, first in a room in a flat above a convenience store in King Street, Newtown, and then in the front section of a warehouse in St Peters, Pip Smith and her housemates have hosted Penguin Plays Rough – a series of monthly short story readings. I’ve been twice, and each time has been a joyfully mixed bag with an appreciative mostly inner-west, mostly young crowd.

A number of pieces were written especially for the book, so it’s not so much a ‘Best Of’ as a print equivalent of the anarchic creativity of those evenings, a showcase for the PPR talent. The text doesn’t lie quietly on the page as in a well behaved book. Each story is set in a different font, ranging from 8 to 24 point. One seems to have been hand lettered on note paper and scanned in. One (which I found unreadable) is laid out as a Wikipedia entry. Each has its own illustrator, and the range of graphic styles is impressive (email addresses and web sites are listed at the back).  It’s a shining example of self-publishing.

And it’s a good read. Fidel Castro walks in its pages, along with Johnny Cash, Lot from the Book of Genesis, Emanuel Swedenborg (in his own words), Tariq Ali, Cosmo Kramer and the characters from The Wonder Years. Some startling pieces seem to run close to memoir. There are well-made stories,  a film pitch, a playlet, some cut-ups.

It’s probably a generational thing that there’s quite a bit of explicit sexuality that seems to my aged sensibility to owe quite a bit to sustained exposure to porn. Zoe Coombs Marr’s ‘Genesis’ is a kind of Biblical fanfic whose subtitle gives fair warning: ‘The story of Lot, comprising the invention of buggery; the downfall and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Lot’s family’s flight to the mountains when his wife is turned into a pillar of salt; and his date-rape by his daughters in a cave’. The photographs illustrating the story are tactfully low res. If you have a low tolerance for misogynistic porn, do not read Luke Carman’s ‘All That Pap’, a memoirish piece that includes shocked adolescent exposure to some of it. It’s possibly relevant that when the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed Pip Smith (here), they found it necessary to substitute prim little dashes for some of her evidently unladylike language.

The stand-out pieces, to name just three in random order, are Pip Smith’s neat ‘Five Husbands’ (yes, she hosts a salon, edits a collection and also writes!), Amanda Maxwell’s pseudo horror story, ‘Playing Imaginary Cards with Jeremy’ and Michael Sala’s tale of love lost, financial intrigue and tourism, ‘The Catacombs’.

I’ve been discovering lately that some books I bought in the 1970s would be worth hundreds of dollars now if I had kept them in good shape. Who knows what this will fetch in 2050? Sadly, I’ve already given away the gorgeous poster it comes wrapped in.

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: Inside the Westside Writers Group

One of my highlights from last year’s Sydney Writers Festival was a staged reading in Bankstown Town Hall by members of the Westside Writers Group. Naturally, we trekked west in the rain to see what they were putting on this year.

A big room in Bankstown Youth Development Headquarters had been set up with a couple of sofas, cushions, a standard lamp and a coffee table for the group and seats for the audience in the rest of the room. They proceeded to have a meeting like the ones they’ve been having every fortnight for years: each member of the group read a piece she or he had been working on – some brand new, some reworkings or extensions of things the group had heard before.

It was a risky idea, and could have failed in any number of ways. But it was great. All the writers have been trained in reading to an audience, and as their mode of working is to read to each other rather than circulating printed copies of their work, they have all become skilled listeners. So we were treated to a lovely range of readings, and then some tender but forthright exploration of what made each one tick and where it could be improved. Luke Carman and Michael Mohammad Ahmad were the stand-outs for me, the former with another of his strangely surreal monologues/stories, the latter with a vignette (a word evidently much discussed by the group) of life in a small ethnic community in the western suburbs. Nothing was dull: sestinas by Lachlan Brown, other poems by Fiona Wright, Lina Jabbir and Rebecca Landon, stories by Susie Ahmad, Sam Hogg, Felicity Castagna and Peter Polites (the dark-haired man on the couch in the pic, shaven headed and unrecognisable on the night), and video in the making from Bilal Reda. All this with the delicate, respectful probing and prompting of Ivor Indyk, resident literary guru.

And you know, from where I was sitting none of these young writers seemed at all fazed by having an audience of roughly fifty people watching and listening from the shadows as they exposed the fruits of their imagination to one another’s critical gaze.

Later addition: I can’t believe I forgot to mention that Alexis Wright was there as a special guest, putting her two cents worth into the discussion and reading what may end up as the start of her next book. When she’d finished her reading – an unsettling piece involving a personification of drought, a young woman carrying a not-quite dead swan in her arms – Ivor Indyk challenged the group: ‘Anyone want to take on a Miles Franklin winner?’