Tag Archives: Michael Williams

SWF 2021 Sunday

Sunday was another beautiful late autumn day in Sydney, and another day of challenge and delight at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Evidently one of our ideologically driven weeklies ran a piece online saying the Festival was extremely ‘woke’, which is apparently a bad thing. I don’t know about woke but, as someone who nods off whenever I’m in a dark room, I was kept awake almost without fail. (The one fail was inevitable, in the after-lunch slot when I would have slept through an announcement that I’d been granted the gifts of immortality and eternal youth.)


10.30: Land of Plenty

This panel addressed environmental issues about Australia from a range of perspectives. Philip Clark of ABC Radio’s Nightlife did a beautiful job as moderator, giving each of the panellists in turn a prompt or two to talk about their work, and managing some elegant segues. The panellists did their bit to make it all cohere by referring to one another’s work. (How much better these panels work when the writers on them have read each other!)

Rebecca Giggs, whose Fathoms sounds like a fascinating book about whales, said that whales are a Trojan horse for a conversation about other animals’ relationships to humans. She described a moment when she was close enough to a whale that she could see its eye focusing on her – and only to learn a little later that whales are extremely short-sighted and there as no way that that whale could have actually seen her. What is actually there isn’t what we want to think is there,

Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu and co-author of Loving Country (about which more later) spoke about the difference between Indigenous and Western capitalist ways of relating to the land. Echoing Rebecca Giggs’s story of the whale’s eye, he said, ‘We look at animals and want to be friends with them, but as soon as a capitalist wants to be your friend …’ He begged us to take seriously the possibility of a reciprocal relationship with animals. Something terrible happened to humans, he said, when the combination of Christianity and capitalism happened. I think he has a book coming on the subject.

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man from far north Queensland, author of Fire Country. Someone from my family had the privilege of doing some video work with Victor some years ago, and his stories from that time have given me a deep respect for Victor and his work in ‘using traditional knowledge for environmental wellbeing’, as the Festival site puts it. In this panel, he took off from Bruce Pascoe’s call for reciprocity with other animals, and spoke of relating to fire as a friend and not as something to fear. It’s about reading country, listening to landscape. His project of recording traditional knowledge that is in danger of being lost is not to archive it but to get it back into people, ‘to young fellas and then to the broader community’.

Richard Beasley, senior counsel assisting for the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and author of  Dead in the Water about that catastrophe, said that the situation in the Murray-darling Basin had got so bad that ‘even John Howard’ did something about it. Howard’s legislation included clauses to the effect that whatever was done needed to be science-based. But then the lobbyists went to town, and in response to their pressure, politicians insisted that reports from the CSIRO were altered to suit the big capitalists’ agenda. His lawyerly rage was palpable.

There was a good question (a rarity at this Festival), about grounds for hope:

  • Rebecca Giggs: Thee’s hope. But you don’t get to be hopeful until you make yourself useful in some way – whatever your situation and abilities allow.
  • Bruce Pascoe: I have to think we can do it differently. We have to give our grandchildren a chance, not treat them with contempt. We need love of country, not nationalism.
  • Victor Steffensen: Language is important. [Sadly what I wrote from the rest of what he said was illegible. I think it was an elegant version of ‘Action is also important.’]
  • Richard Beasley: I’m a lawyer. I don’t know how to challenge any of this by law.

12 o’clock: Sarah Dingle & Kaya Wilson

We hadn’t booked this session in advance, but faced with a gap of a couple of hours, we spent one of our Covid Discover vouchers to buy rush tickets. Kaya Wilson, whose book As Beautiful As Any Other has the subtitle A memoir of my body, is a tsunami scientist and a trans man. Sarah Dingle, author of Brave New Humans: The Dirty Reality of Donor Conception is a donor-conceived person. Their conversation was aided and abetted by Maeve Marsden, host of Queerstories who was also donor conceived, though not anonymously through the fertility industry as Sarah was.

Sarah’s revelations about the fertility industry were nothing short of shocking. Not only is it monumentally unregulated, but records that might have allowed people to know what had happened to a particular donor’s sperm, even anonymously, have at least sometimes been deliberately destroyed. Couples using donated sperm have been systematically encouraged to lie to their children about their origins, leaving them unaware of any genetic predispositions to disease, let alone possible incest.

What Kaya told us about the systemic treatment of trans people was just as shocking. He said that he tended to keep his scientific life and his trans life separate. ‘In some ways they hate each other.’ But he has a chapter in his book that tries to reconcile them. The scientific literature, like legislation about, for instance, changing one’s ‘sex marker’ on a birth certificate, is shot through with assumptions that bear not relation to the reality of trans experience.

Both people spoke of the joy of finding themselves to be members of communities they weren’t aware of when young. When asked what they read for relief, both named writers I’ve loved: Sarah chose Terry Pratchett; Kaya chose Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.


2.30: Bruce Pascoe & Vicky Shukuroglou

Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia was an initiative of Hardie Grant Publishers, who approached Bruce Pascoe suggesting a follow-up to Marcia Langton’s guide to Indigenous Australia, Welcome to Country. Pascoe joined forces with Vicky Shukuroglou, a non-Indigenous woman born in Cyprus, who took the photographs and also contributed to the writing. The Festival website says that the book ‘offers a new way to explore and fall in love with Australia by seeing it through an Indigenous lens’. Daniel Browning, host of ABC Radio National’s Awaye, chaired this conversation.

Again, we were called on to love this country. The thing I loved about the session was the way the two authors could disagree. Bruce Pascoe, speaking of the horrendous bushfires last year, said that the disrespect for Country shown by authorities afterwards was in some ways worse than the fires themselves. We meekly accept the terrible destruction of heritage in the Juukan Gorge. We have to rebel as a people, he said, meaning all of us, not just First Nations people. Vicky Shukuroglou argued against the idea of rebellion, and spoke of the importance of conversations and of love: ‘If we’re going to talk about marginalisation, we first need to look at our humanity.’ From where I was sitting it didn’t look as if the two things were incompatible, but I was struck by the way as a non-Indigenous woman she was secure enough in their friendship and working partnership to challenge an Indigenous man. I would have liked to know more about what she had done to achieve that confidence.

The book, Pascoe said, is about how to restrain human go and let Country have a voice, He got Vicky to tell a story about a sick echidna that, without her realising it, had come to know and trust her, as a result – she thinks – of her being still around it over time.

We don’t need a black armband.
We just need to know the facts.
This is the country that invented society, bread and the Richmond Football Club.


4.30 pm The Unacknowledged Legislators

This was a great way to end my festival. (The Emerging Artist’s festival ended with the previous session: she thinks poetry and she don’t like each other.) Seven poets read to us, hosted elegantly by ‘writer, poet, essayist and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta’, Declan Fry. Here they are, in order of appearance.

Eileen Chong, whose poetry my regular readers will know I adore. She read five poems from A Thousand Crimson Blooms, which I’ll be blogging about soon. I was glad to hear her read the three part poem, ‘The Hymen Diaries’ after I had spent some time with it and checked out the artworks it refers to.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, poet laureate of the Saturday Paper, read three poems. I won’t report what they were because i wasn’t sure I heard their names correctly. One of them began, ‘When I say I don’t want to become my mother,’ and went on brilliantly to challenge the internalised sexism of that sentiment.

Ellen van Neerven read three poems from Throat (my blog post here), including ‘Treaty of shared power’ and ‘Such a sad sight’. The first-named is a play on the relationship between the writer of a poem and its reader that worked beautifully in this context.

Erik Jensen, reading to an audience for the first time, read six short poems from his first book of poetry, I said the sea was folded, a book that, he told us, is about falling in love and learning to be in love. He then read a poem by Kate Jennings, who has just died (this was how I heard the news) – and wept as he read it. He wasn’t teh only one to shed a tear.

Felicity Plunkett followed that hard act, reading four short poems from her 2020 collection, A Kinder Sea. The first, ‘Trash Vortex’, whose name tells you a lot, may be the kind of poem that Evelyn Araluen had in mind when she said artists have a responsibility to address the world’s urgent issues.

Omar Sakr read three poems, ‘Birthday’, Self-portrait as poetry defending itself’ and ‘Every Day’. This is the first time I’ve heard or read any of his poetry. I hope it won’ be the last.

Alison Whittaker, Gomeroi woman and a crowd favourite, read a piece that depended on knowledge of and (I think) contempt for ASMR, not that there’s anything wrong with such poems. She reminded us of the tragic reality of Black Deaths in custody and read a poem consisting of anodyne found phrases from court proceedings.


And my 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival was over. There were at least four moments when someone on stage paid tribute to a parent in the audience or, in one case, on stage with them (and I’d left my run too late to see Norman and Jonathan Swan, and I probably missed other trans-generational moments). I didn’t see any of the international guests who attended on screen. It was a thrill to hear such a diversity of First Nations voices. I came home with a swag of books and a list for borrowing from the library. Hats off to Michael Williams and his team for making this happen in the flesh, and making sense of the slogan Within Reach: a living demonstration that the famous cultural cringe, while it may not be dead, has not much reason to live.

SWF 2021: Friday

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has come back from the virtual world, and though it hasn’t returned to the splendours of its old harbourside venue, the Carriageworks is an expansive site whose acoustic problems of past years are no longer an issue, and for me it has the advantage of being just a 40 minute walk from home. My festival this year got off to a slow start, with just two sessions on Friday.


Friday 30 April 4.00: Writing the Unspeakable

The Unspeakable of the title didn’t refer to the Great Australian Silence about the massive wrongs of colonisation or other vast silences, but to personal unspeakables like depression, grief, trauma and addiction. Each of the panellists has written a memoir about that kind of unspeakable – and in some ways the session played out the implication of the session’s title: you’ve written about something that’s unspeakable, but maybe that doesn’t make it any more speakable?

I haven’t read any of the panellists’ books: Lech Blaine’s Car Crash, which tells the story of a car accident where three of his friends were killed but he and two others survived; Ashe Davenport’s Sad Mum Lady, about the difficulties of being a new mother that had its origins in a blog, ‘Sad Pregnant Lady’; and Fiona O’Loughlin’s Truths from an Unreliable Witness, which deals with her long struggle with alcoholism and addiction, often in the public eye as a successful stand-up comedian. Michaela Kalowski was the moderator.

Rather than start out with each panellist reading a short passage from their book – even, say, the opening paragraph – which would have grounded the conversation, MK opened with a question to each of them in turn, ‘Why are these subjects taboo?’ The panellists weren’t terribly cooperative, but the way each of them avoided answering the question, and pretty much every question after that, led to some entertaining and sometimes illuminating conversation. Here are some snippets that I have managed to decipher from notes I jotted in the dark.

Lech (I’m going to use first names) said that these subjects aren’t actually unspeakable. He spent his childhood in a pub and by the tenth or eleventh beer anything could be talked about, though not necessarily in a civil or constructive manner. Ashe told a horrific tale of her mother being groped when a child, in full view of a room full of people who pretended it hadn’t happened.

Fiona ventured to ask her mother if there was anything in the book that upset her. ‘Of course not,’ her mother said. ‘I haven’t even read it.’ This prompted Lech to tell us that he showed his brother a passage in manuscript where the brother is quoted as saying something profoundly offensive about Labor voters. His brother said, ‘That’s brilliant! You got that exactly right.’

Ashe described the process of making the transition from blog to book. In the blog she would work hard at creating amusing anecdotes out of her struggles. The book could still be funny, but she realised that she had to become less abstract: not so much, ‘It’s hard being a new mother,’ and more, ‘This is how I struggled as a new mother.’ At MK’s prompting she told the story of how she went to an anger management group for women, thinking it would make an amusing story for the blog – and she told it to us in a way that got laughs, until she got to the point where one of the group of older women asked her a question, she burst into sobs, and the other woman simply placed a supportive hand on her back until she was finished.

Fiona spoke beautifully about the shame of being an addict – and the importance of kindness. Tom Gleeson (the cheerfully cruel host of Hard Quiz) got a special mention as a kind person, but she said that the whole community of comedians is tremendously supportive.

Each of the panellists spoke about intensely personal difficulties. That they’ve written books about those difficulties didn’t make it any less easy to talk about them. Lech was often left staring blankly into his personal voice, and I felt that Ashe wasn’t quite ready to serve up her personal pain in person to a big audience. Fiona is a professional at airing her linen to live audiences, and did most of the work of keeping the conversation aerated by comic touches. At one stage Ashe turned to Fiona and said something like, ‘You know what it’s like to feel that you’re a bad mother.’ Fiona did a nice comic routine, turning away in mock denial. As Ashe continued with her point, it became clear that she was talking about something that was still raw. Fiona reached out and touched her on the forearm. A little later, doing her own bit of mock denial, Ashe waved her arms joyfully in the air and said, ‘And now I’m completely all right!’

Asked about how it felt writing this personal material for an audience, there were two very different, but equally memorable answers. Someone recalled the reassuring words of a wise editor: ‘Always bear in mind that no one is going to read every word you write.’ Fiona said that she wrote her book ‘for my children, to explain myself to them’.


Our only other event for the day was the Within Reach Gala at 8 o’clock. We managed to squeeze in a celebration dinner for a friend’s 70th birthday on our way to the Town Hall. Once there, we were taken back in time by the Town Hall’s insistence that masks were mandatory – though there was a lot more non-compliance than there was back in the day.

After a short introduction from Festival Director Michael Williams – in which he said among other things that Geoffrey Blainey’s concept of the Tyranny of Distance was regressive and idiotic but part of our culture – we were treated to a dozen writers speaking on the Festival’s theme, Within Reach, reflecting on the past year. Their interpretations of the brief ranged widely. Each speaker was identified simply by their name on a big screen, so that we were spared time-consuming introductions and appreciations by an MC, which made a huge difference to the pleasure of the evening.

Tony Birch told a beautiful story of how the gift of a stone at a wake made a huge difference to him when he was depressed and despairing from the death of a close relative and the lack of progress in action on climate change. He held up the stone.

Ceridwen Dovey said she has been working on space objects, and talked about the ‘golden records’ that have been sent out into space. There was a debate about whether those records should include material about the dark sides of humanity. In the end, the woman writer on the team managed to have the sound of a kiss included – and the actual kiss that was recorded was both an expression of tenderness and the beginning of a betrayal.

Sisonke Msimang spoke of the great movement of white women in response to allegations of sexual assault in Parliament. She was onside with the protests but couldn’t join them, knowing that she couldn’t ask her group netball mothers to join her on a BLM march. She spoke eloquently and generously about this impasse.

Ellen van Neerven started with the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and the question that resounded in her mind:’When will this country see as much justice?’ She said that like all First Nations people in Australia, deaths in custody was a family matter. She pledged to continue to tell the stories that need to be told.

Geraldine Brooks spoke from Martha’s Vineyard in the USA by video. I confess that the beauty of the country where she’s living largely overwhelmed my ability to take in what she was saying. I think that was her subject: missing home.

Trent Dalton, I think, meant to remind us of the importance of human contact and the pain of physical distance in pandemic times. He misjudged the moment by presenting himself as an indiscriminate hugger of strangers, telling a story in which he hugged woman after woman who were standing a in a queue for the toilet at a previous SWF. Sorry, Trent, but issues of consent are high on the agenda right now and the humour didn’t really work – but the crowd was forgiving.

Maria Tumarkin riffed on the question, ‘How close is too close?’ What she had to say was formidably complex and wide-ranging, and she spoke tantalisingly fast. I managed to jot down one sentence: ‘One person’s specific safety makes as much sense as one person’s piece of sky.’

Michael O’Loughlin, who came out as ‘not a writer’, told the story of his illustrious career as a footballer, from telling his mother when he was 11 that he would her a house to his final words, ‘I hope you’re enjoying the house, Mum.’ I’m appallingly ignorant about sport, so his story was a revelation to me in many ways, but especially about the significance professional sport can have for First nations players, and their families and their communities.

Adam Goodes, a footballer even I have heard of, did a brilliant, modest thing. He read to us the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and confined his own commentary to a single sentence: ‘That was 2017. It’s now 2021. We’re still waiting.’

Alison Lester told us a story of a medical crisis. As she was in hospital being wheeled into emergency she saw on a wall a clumsy copy of one of her illustrations. The orderly was unimpressed when she croaked, ‘That’s my picture.’ she described the experience of an induced coma as an awareness of darkness, cold and discomfort and nothing else, and the struggle to respond when at last she heard her daughter calling to her.

Fiona McGregor read what felt like a prose poem, ‘Eight scenes from a dancing life’: the profound joy of dancing as part of a community, witnessed and experienced

Christos Tsiolkas‘s opening words were, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ It’s Orthodox Easter, and this present moment is one where the gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars brings home for him the tension between his own life as a middle-class Australian writer and the life of his Greek migrant working-class parents, especially his much-loved mother.

Michel Williams then called all but Geraldine Brooks back onto the stage for a big round of applause and we all went home.


SWF 2020, 11th and final post

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.

Drawn from Life: Alice Oseman in Conversation 21 October: YA phenomenon and graphic novelist Alice Oseman chats with media phenomenon Jes Layton.

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.

Trent Dalton: All Our Shimmering Skies 4 November: Trent Dalton in conversation with Annabel Crabb bout his second novel

Guardian Australia Book Club with Helen Garner 6 November: No elaboration needed from me. The interviewer is Michael Williams, now artistic director of the SWF.

Behrouz Boochani and Tara June Winch in Conversation 11 November: Again, no elaboration needed from me about either of the participants. I will mention that Tara June Winch acquitted herself admirably in Hard Quiz recently.

Tony Birch: The White Girl 18 November: Tony Birch is here again to talk with Evelyn Araluen about his novel The White Girl.

Julia Phillips: Disappearing Earth 3 December: The author of the excellent Disappearing Earth talks to Tam Zimet, until recently associate director of the SWF.

It’s nice to finish with one of the rare books that I’ve read that also features in this year’s Festival

SWF 2020, Post 10: All fiction

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.

Alex Dyson: When It Drops 16 September

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.


Nicole Dennis-Benn: Patsy 23 September

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: Bruny 30 September

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.


Favel Parrett: There Was Still Love 7 October

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.


Mirandi Riwoe: Stone Sky Gold Mountain 14 October

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.

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.