Tag Archives: Michael Williams

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.

SWF 2017 Friday

I heard a rumour that this will be the last Sydney Writers’ Festival to happen at Walsh Bay. That would be a great shame, because, especially when the weather stays bright as it has this year, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place in which to gather with hundreds of other reader-types.

Today, much to our dog’s displeasure, we gave her a very short walk i the morning because we had to be at the Sydney Theatre by ten o’clock for:

10 am A Murderer in the Family

The title of this session is from Art Spiegelman’s misquotation of someone’s remark that being related to a writer was like having a traitor in the family. Each of the three panel members has recently published a memoir in which a parent is a central figure. Michael Williams, from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, did a brilliant job as chair (in fact, I reckon that if he is listed as chairing a session you can be reasonably sure it will be excellent), beginning in a way I wish every panel at the festival could begin, with each of the panellists reading briefly from their work: Nadja Spiegelman from I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, Susan Faludi from In the Darkroom, and Hisham Matar from The Return.

Such different books: a young woman’s exploration of her mother’s and grandmother’s stories, an older woman telling the story of her father whose violence led to much unhappiness in her young life and who is now a woman, and a man who returned to his native Libya after the fall of Gaddafi and searched for word of his activist father who disappeared when he was nine. Yet they had clearly read and appreciated each other’s books, and the conversation was lively and interesting.

Nadja Spiegelman did a nice inversion of the famous Kafka line about a book being an axe to break the sea of ice in the soul. ‘I needed,’ she said, ‘to freeze the sea so I could see it.’ Turning her mother and grandmother into characters inevitably flattened them, created a  single version of these complex, uncontainable beings, but it was necessary for her to be able to know her own mind. And the process brought her closer to both of them.

Susan Faludi was estranged from her father for more than two decades. When her father contacted her to announce that she was now a woman, she wanted Susan to write the story of her transition: Susan insisted that the life before transition still needed to be told.

When Hisham Matar read to us, I realised I read too fast. I must have skated over his delicate, nuanced reflections on what was happening as he searched for the truth about his father. He resisted the suggestion that it was cathartic to write the book: if it was catharsis, the book would have been serving his emotional needs, but in the process of writing, he felt that he was serving the needs of the book.

Then lunch, of lentil soup in thick cardboard containers.

1.30 pm: Human Baggage: The Hate Politics of Immigration

This was billed as ‘a frank and fearless conversation on the political and personal consequences of border control policies’ among panelists from the US (Mona Chalabi of the Guardian), Australia (Indian-born Roanna Gonsalves and Palestinian-born Samah Sabawi) and Canada (playwright Stephen Orlov), chaired by academic Claudia Tazreiter who among other things is the managing editor of The Australian Journal of Human Rights.

In fact, the conversation very quickly moved from the politics of immigration to the politics of racism. This wasn’t really a change of subject: as one of the panellists pointed out, most immigrants to Australia, and most illegal immigrants, are from Britain, but these are not the ones that attract the hate-filled rhetoric. It’s the TWLPs – Third World Looking Persons – who do that.

The whole conversation was interesting. Roanna Gonsalves gave the most memorable quote. We imagine Australia as white, she said, and it’s not only the white Australians who do it. when some of her relatives came to visit from India, they were astonished. Her accent became much more pronounced as she mimicked their surprise: ‘Oh my God, there are so many Asians!’

4.30  Caroline Brothers: The Memory Stones

Caroline Brothers, a novelist, historian and foreign correspondent, chatted with Kate Evans from ABC’s Books and Arts program. Kate Evans was the most straight-down-the-line interviewer of my festival, and elicited a wonderful hour’s talk from her interviewee, who explained the history of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. It’s a terrible story. Thousands of suspected enemies of the Junta in Argentina were snatched and disappeared in 1976 – not imprisoned, but detained in unofficial places, tortured and mostly killed, leaving their families not knowing what had happened to them. Some of the snatched women were pregnant, and when their babies were born they were taken away and given to other families, mainly members of the military, to raise. The Grandmothers have for decades followed up every lead to find and reclaim these babies – so far about 125 have been found, the most recent one earlier this year.

Brothers first encountered this story when she heard that the poet Juan Gelman had found his granddaughter after 26 years of searching. The combination of those two story lines, the quest on the grandfather’s side, and the coming of age on the side of the lost child, struck her as tremendously powerful.

She spoke very interestingly about the difference between reporting on this tragic story as a journalist and writing a novel that stuck as closely as possible to the reality. I’m writing this two days later, somehow I’ve lost my notes, and I can’t remember anything about the novel (The Memory Stones), which is an indication of how powerfully her telling of the real story grabbed my imagination. She evoked very sharply the moment when a young person who has been raised in a family that believes the military dictatorship of Peron was a good thing and that those women on the Plaza de Mayo are mad is faced with irrefutable evidence that she was snatched from her own kidnapped mother by the agents of that dictatorship.

We had a lot to talk about as we made our way home through the crowd gathering to watch the Opera House being lit up to mark the beginning of Vivid.

SWF: My Day 3

Circumstances made me miss Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Emerging Artist, however, got two sessions under her belt.

10:00–11:00 am: Sri Lanka: This Divided Island. She said this was marvellous. Samanth Subramanian, an Indian Tamil journalist, spoke with Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Quite apart from its main thrust, an account of the recent three-decade war and its aftermath, the conversation helped her think about the ethics of her own current art project, which involves many people making small terracottta hearts.

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Jonathan Franzen: My Reading Life. The main things she reported was that he enjoyed the famous German sense of humour, and was influenced by a number of women writers.

At 3 o’clock the Emerging Artist went to Migration: A World Without Borders? and pretty much fell in love with Aleksandar Hemon. She bought two of his books, even overcoming her vehement dislike of zombie stories to buy his novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.

At 4:30 she went to hear Starlee Kine: From This American Life to Mystery Show and discovered a new podcast to subscribe to, dealing in ‘mysteries that can’t be solved by Google’.

Meanwhile, apart from sitting and chatting over lunch, my Festival day began at 3 with The New Australian Poetry. Unlike previously, this year’s poetry events are in largish rooms and mostly aren’t free. This one was a book launch – of an issue of the US journal Poetry devoted to Australian poets.

As we queued in the scorching afternoon sun (yes, scorching in mid- May), we were regaled by the booming opinions of a youngish man who had evidently been all over the world (perhaps his time in the US accounted for his LOUDNESS) and wanted the world to know that poetry is held in lower esteem in Australia than anywhere else.

The room was filled to capacity. After brief remarks from Don Share, soft-spoken editor of Poetry, and Robert Adamson, guest editor of this issue, we were read to by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Gorton, Michael Farrell and Robbie Coburn. In response to an audience request, some of them read poems by other people that appear in the anthology. Then two poets – Susan Fealy and Petra White – were drafted from the audience. Taking a cue from David Malouf the previous day, I asked if any of them would read the same poem a second time – I named Lionel Fogarty and he obliged.

There were two questions, both from the same person, one for each of the Indigenous poets. Don Share made that’s-a-wrap noises, and we were gathering up our stuff when Lionel Fogarty stepped up to his mic again and called on us to break out of our individualism and think in terms of community.

Ali Cobby Eckermann took a turn at the mic and told us, shockingly, that when she was at an international gathering of poets recently some Syrians had asked her how come she writes war poetry. They recognised in her poetry about Aboriginal Australia striking similarities to their own war-torn lives, and she realised that, however deep and strong the denial, the Australian war of dispossession is still going on.

Don Share rose beautifully to the occasion: ‘The difficulty we have in understanding a poem,’ he said, ‘is the same as the difficulty in hearing another person.’

I went home to deal with various animals, then rejoined the EA in the evening for Magda Szubanski and George Megalogenis: Rated PG (Polish and Greek), an entertaining conversation between two children of immigrants.