I’ve been blogging about the online 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival (I almost forgot the apostrophe) most of the year. The Festival is still going on, and its website is listing events to mid-January next year. I’ll keep listening, but I won’t blog any more. Here are links to the Festival podcasts currently on my phone, in case you’d like to check them out.
Secrets and Lies: Donor-Conceived Rights 21 October: Dani Shapiro, USA-based author talks to Australian author Bri Lee about issues raised in her memoir, Inheritance, including those related to children conceived by sperm donation.
Griffith Review 68: Getting On 28 October: Tony Birch, Andrew Stafford and Jane R. Goodall talk with Griffith Review editor, Ashley Hay, about getting older.
The next five podcasts from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival are all about fiction. My guess is I would have attended one out of five in a non-virtual festival, but my completist compulsion kicked in. The one I would have attended, the 50th session, is about the first book in the festival that I’ve actually read!
In the intro to the fifth session in this blog post, Michael Williams introduces himself without fanfare as the new Artistic Director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I for one welcome our new Melbourne overlord.
This conversation about Alex Dyson’s When It Drops is part of the festival’s YA podcast series. Will Kostakis, YA author himself, does a brilliant job, and Dyson’s experience as a morning radio presenter ensures that teh entertainment quotient is high. We don’t get to the content of the book until the 20 minute mark: before that there’s a lot of very funny chat about the difference between doing a radio show and writing a novel, about the horror of discovering a typo in a freshly published book, about tiny bits of celebrity gossip, about awkward love poetry written by both these men when they were teenagers.
Even then, the conversation doesn’t get stuck in laborious detail about the book’s characters and plot. We learn snippets of Alex Dyson’s life story, and then there’s non-spoilerish discussion of how those snippets relate to the book. At the end, it turns out that Alex Dyson ran for federal parliament last year, and he has some very smart things to say about that.
Jamaican-born Nicole Dennis-Benn now calls Brooklyn hoome. Her novel Patsy tells the story of a Jamaican woman who leaves her husband and five-year-old daughter for a new life where she can choose how to live, in the USA. In this conversation with Australian journalist and filmmaker Santilla Chingaipe, she lays out some of the issues the novel is responding to. At its heart there’s the question: ‘What do we lose or gain when we choose ourselves as women – especially as women – in society.’
It’s great to hear a clear voice speak about Jamaican society, including aspects of class, colonialism, the importance accorded skin colour, sexism; and about Jamaican Americans in relation to African Americans and others.
My two favourite moments in the conversation are being read to from the novel (always a pleasure, and in this case reassuringly concrete in the context of a conversation bristling with terms like ‘intergenerational trauma’), and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s response to the question, ‘How did Patsy find you?’ The novel started life as a series of letters from the character Patsy to her mother back in Jamaica. Then after a whole year, another voice turned up, a girl navigating a life in Jamaica without her mother:
I realised Patsy’s saying all these things to her mother in these letters, but she’s leaving out a lot of things. She’s leaving out how she’s really doing in America – you know, she was in that one room already in that first draft. But in addition to that, Patsy wasn’t telling me – the author – something: that she left a whole five-year-old daughter behind. … I kind of refused to believe that Patsy would actually do that, because I wanted to like Patsy, I judged Patsy initially when I found that out. But I continued the Dear Mama letters and then, draft two, I trashed that. I was like, ‘You know, Patsy, you gotta tell me the truth.’ And that’s what happened. She ended up revealing a lot more.
Heather Rose’s novel Bruny, the subject of this conversation, has disappointed friends of mine who loved her earlier novel, The Museum of Modern Love. Worse, one of the more forthright members of my Book Group virtually recoiled in horror when someone mentioned it. So I was tempted to bypass this session. I resisted the temptation.
It’s a conversation between Heather Rose and Suzanne Leal, lawyer, novelist and literary award judge. Perhaps there’s a bit too much information about the novel for anyone intending to read it, but this session managed to shift me from ‘almost certainly not’ to ‘maybe, or I might wait for the movie’. It’s a novel set in the near future when an erratic right-wing president of the USA is midway through a second term and the Chinese Communist Party is becoming more aggressively involved in Australian public life.
There’s some wonderful talk about Heather Rose’s creative process. The main character of Bruny, whom she imagines as played by Charlize Theron, feels to her like an imaginary friend who says and does things she would never dare do herself.A Vietnamese character in a previous book just wouldn’t speak to her until she had read a huge amount about the Vietnam War – and when that character does speak in the novel about her backstory, no reader could guess that the couple of sentences she speaks required so much arduous research.
I’ve read Favel Parrett’s earlier books, Past the Shallows (2011) and When the Night Comes (2014). A Czech friend said every Australian should read the subject of this conversation between the author and radio presenter Elizabeth McCarthy, There was Still Love. It’s on my TBR shelf. But I wasn’t keen on the podcast because I’ve heard Favel talk about the book at length on at least one other program, and – quite apart from actual spoilers – too much talk in advance can spoil the reading experience
In the event the conversation wasn’t spoilerish in any sense. They talked about the seeds of the book in Favel’s relationship with her Czech grandparents; her research, especially in her discovery of a cousin who had lived in Prague under Communism – which is the book’s setting, but also in her reading the history of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic under first the Nazis and then the Communists; the process of writing – this is her third novel, and the first that she has played close to her chest until she was confident she had reworked it enough that it didn’t need much rewriting; the book’s reception, including the top editor of Hachette who called to say she loved the manuscript, which Favel half expected no one would publish, and the Czech cousin who first wrote angrily that she had got a detail about food terribly wrong, and then wrote to say that he had cried for days. I’m looking forward to the book.
This is a book I’ve read before hearing about it from the SWF. I read Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain, loved it and blogged about it in June (here’s a link).
Here Mirandi Riwoe is in conversation with Rashida Murphy, who introduces herself as a first-generation immigrant woman from India, who is also a writer of novels, short stories, essay and poetry.
Ms Murphy starts out with outrage. Evidently it’s a word that Riwoe used when talking about her novella The Fish Girl, which is a retelling of a Somerset Maugham from the point of view of an Asian woman who appears in the original without a name or much sense of her as a full human being. The novella sounds very interesting, independent of its relationship to Maugham. (I confess to not having read any Maugham stories, but to have been mildly outraged or at least put off by the way he exoticises the tropics in a quote I’ve read somewhere.) Then the conversation moves to the question of some white people’s anger that this year’s Booker Prize didn’t go to Hilary Mantel. Riwoe politely and tactfully resists giving airtime to that point of view: she says that Mantel herself, while understandably disappointed, was gracious about the matter and we all got to know about a swath of writers not from the white mainstream.
The discussion of Stone Sky Gold Mountain is interesting, with an animating tension between the participants, Murphy again seeming to want Riwoe to rebut some (white?) critics while Riwoe seems happy not to define her work in opposition to someone else’s view. She talks interestingly about the book’s ghost elements, about how her research into the North Queensland goldfields transformed the book that she had thought she was writing from a cross-cultural love story into something much more interesting, about books she loved as a younger person. She mentions that Rashida has reviewed Stone Sky Gold Mountain, describing as ‘unflinching’ her accounts of violence against Chinese on the goldfields, and violence against the First Nations people, in which Chinese miners were complicit. She laughs, and says that she flinched a lot.
I was already a fan of Mirandi Riwoe as a writer. I’m relieved to say that she’s an excellent conversationalist as well.
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 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..
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.
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.”‘
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!’
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.
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.
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 Poetrydevoted 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.’
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Terminallly ill Susan Sarandon has a last weekend with her family, intending to take her own life with her doctor husband's help once they all leave. All the family's suppressed tensions come to light. It's well acted, but something doesn't quite work. Then it turns out to be a remake of Bille August's Stille hjerte (2014), with the […]
This feels as if it comes from the writer-director's own childhood. A little boy, his parents, sister and grandmother struggle to make a small farm work in rural Arkansas. It's very beautiful to look at, and wonderful in many other ways, particularly in the way it makes mainstream Americans seem strange when we see them through Korean immigrant eye […]