Tag Archives: Monica Attard

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Weekend

The weather turned on its traditional gorgeousness for the Festival’s weekend. A number of speakers drew attention to the way the sun made itself known – submitting audiences to a third degree, or blinding panellists to the obvious. There’s something exhilarating about being part of a sunlit crowd of book-lovers.

I spent Saturday with the Art Student. We did non-literary things in the morning – walked the dog, bought food, hung out the washing, then caught the train to town in time for:

1.30–2.30: Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know
Zia Haider Rahman is a youngish Englishman of south-Asian heritage who has written what sounds like a brilliant first novel. He spoke with an Oxford drawl, which sat oddly with his account of growing up in poverty. He explained: ‘This accent is completely phony, but it’s the only one I’ve got. I spent hours listening to tapes of BBC announcers and imitating the accents because I understood very young that if you want to make your way in England, trivial things like accents matter hugely.’

Louise Adler was an excellent interlocutor, mainly because of her unabashed enthusiasm for Zia’s novel, In the Light of What We Know. There was a lot of tiptoeing around certain plot points, so I may not know what was being said in a good deal of the conversation until I’ve read the book. There was also a lot of tiptoeing around things Zia wanted to say about the British literary scene – Louise encouraged him to be explicit (‘This is Australia. We can deal with bluntness.’), but he remained vaguely and tactfully disparaging.

I said this was his first novel. But maybe not. He said that he’s been writing all his life, but not with any intention of being published. Partly this is because his ideal readers were his parents, neither of whom would ever read his books, published or not. When his father was dying he had a copy of In the Light of What We Know on his bedside table, and would touch it proudly, but he was past being able to read it. And he has written a short comic novel in the last couple of months, which can’t be published because it would bring on at least five law suits.

3–4 pm: Back to the Wild
This session had an extraordinary collection of writers: lugubrious, droll Don Watson, whose The Bush sounds like compulsory reading; measured, scholarly British falconer Helen Macdonald, whose H is for Hawk has won all sorts of awards; and Leigh Ann Henion from the USA, travel writer turned nature-evangelist whose manner ranged from rhapsodic to over the top. Richard Glover in the chair made it look easy to keep the conversation on even keel – helped by the fact that the three panellists were manifestly interested in each other. While Henion whooped it up for a sense of wonder at the awesomeness of the natural world, Macdonald spoke of her connection to a particular bird and how a scientific understanding deepened her connection to nature more broadly, and Watson was full of rich anecdotes of things he had seen in the bush.

One fabulous fact has stayed with me: according to recent research, some parrots are given names when they are chicks – that is, they are known by a distinctive pattern of clicks – and this ‘name’ stays with them all their life.

In question time, an audience member observed that we are currently approaching a possible environmental disaster, and asked if these writers’ books included calls to action. Henion said her call was to rekindle our sense of wonder. The questioner, in a slightly driven manner, said, ‘But unless we take action there won’t be any nature for us to wonder at.’ Richard Glover, bless him, pointed out that Henion was actually answering the question, and Henion made the point that to reclaim a respectful connection with the natural environment is a significant action in a time when many children in the West have never seen a horizon line, and many adults haven’t seen one for a long time: if we could ensure that our political leaders each had such a connection, things would change.

4.30–5.30: The Secret State
This was another disparate panel that worked remarkably well. Nick Davies, Guardian journalist who played a central role in bringing the Murdoch press’s crimes to light in Britain and worked with Ed Snowden’s disclosures, Michael Mori, who was David Hicks’s legal representative and whom the other speakers addressed as ‘Dan’, and George Williams, a constitutional lawyer from UNSW, were wrangled by Monica Attard, distinguished ABC journalist, in a discussion of surveillance and state secrecy.

These guys all know their onions. Surprisingly, the star of the event was George Williams. Balding, bespectacled and with a slightly pedantic manner, sitting between Mr Cool from the Guardian and Mr Fight-the-Power from the US Marines, he was the one who gave us hard facts about legislation that has been passing almost unnoticed through the Australian Parliament over the last few years, using the threat of terrorism as a pretext to extend government power and curtail people’s rights. It’s not that there’s a conspiracy, he explained: politicians on both sides dread being held accountable for some future atrocity, and so they wave through any measure that is put up by the security forces. Because the measures become law without debate, the press pays little or no attention, and so we now have laws on the books that could send someone to gaol for two years for praising Nelson Mandela in his freedom-fighting days.

Sixty percent of Australians, George told us, believe that we have a Bill of Rights (we don’t). A similar percentage said they were confident that they couldn’t be wrongfully found guilty of an offence, because they could always take the fifth: that is, most Australians form their mental models of how the law works from US TV shows.

It was a chilling panel, that came interestingly alive in a different way right at the end. Nick Davies mentioned that David Kilkullen, author of the current Quarterly Essay, was at the Festival, and said he was hoping to talk to him about ISIS. Mori’s affable poise fell away for a moment and he said, ‘He wants us to do more bombing.’  Someone from the audience shouted, ‘That’s not fair!’  And we were suddenly in a spontaneous, heated argument about whether it was arrogant for the US and its allies to move in on Iraq and Syria believing we could resolve the situation (Mori) or whether failure to intervene was immoral, and based on a mindless assumption that because it was a mistake to invade Iraq once it would be a mistake now (Davies). We were out of time, and Monica Attard, who had done a brilliant job up to that point, continued her brilliance, saying something like, ‘And that’s all we have time for.’ Applause. Animated conversations about ASIO files overheard on the exit stairs.

We went to the bookshop, to a tapas bar where we celebrated a friend’s birthday, and then home through Vivid once more.

I only went to one thing on Sunday:

10–11 am: Her Body, Her Choice?
This was my first all-woman panel – most of the panels I attended had three men and one woman, the woman being in the chair for two of them.

Once again, the title didn’t reflect the content of the panel with any precision. It was a discussion about the situation of women, mostly in the non-Western world, between Ayu Utami (from Indonesia), Leila Yusaf Chung (a Sydney woman who was born in Lebanon and is still deeply engaged with the plight of Palestinian refugees), and Xinran (a Chinese journalist who has been living in England for 18 years and writes over her personal name only, because non–Chinese speakers reliably mispronounce it).

(Digression: Jane Park from Sydney University, who chaired the event with charm and intelligence, said something at the start about all the women speaking several languages. Ayu Utami said, ‘I only speak Indonesian.’  No one commented on the fact that she said that, and went on to say a lot more, in perfect English: it’s as if, from one perspective, English is no longer a language like other languages.)

Jane Park asked if they thought of themselves as feminists – because, as she said, feminism has been critiqued as a western phenomenon. Ayu said she was a feminist before she encountered the theory: as a young girl she observed that the ‘killer teachers’ (that is, teachers who were particularly harsh) were all ‘old virgins’ – that is, unmarried women as distinct from nuns, who were in a different social category. Her realisation then that unmarried women were treated badly by the society and took it out on their students was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to women. Leila said she had been a feminist all her life. History, she said, was not only written by the victors, but almost entirely without acknowledging the central, vital contribution that women have made to every society in every era (she said this much more beautifully than I can reproduce). Xinran brought a whole different perspective: as a child of Mao’s China from an urban location she grew up with the knowledge that women hold up half the sky (rural China, she said, lags hundreds of years behind the cities in many respects, and women there are lucky to hold up any sky at all); it took her years in England to respond to small courtesies from a man to a woman as anything other than arrogant tokens of superiorities. Her feminism, she realised, had a harshness to it, that cut her off from being a woman.

There was a lot more to the panel – I hope a podcast turns up.

And that was it for me.

The Art Student went with a friend to a session in the afternoon: The Cold War on Sex. She came home enraged. Evidently a mutually respectful difference of opinion between Kooshyar Karimi, who has written about his mother’s oppressive experience of the veil in Iran, and Sahar Amer, who was defending Muslim women’s choice to wear the veil, was in effect shouted down by Dennis Altman, the participant chair, who declared that he was completely intolerant of an argument that Sahar Amer was putting. Young women from the audience called on him to let her speak. The Art Student said she would never go to another event that Altman was chairing.

My mind is still buzzing from those few days, and even though we were very restrained in Gleebooks I’ve got some tempting new books beside the bed. And sessions I missed are already turning up on the ABC Books and Arts podcast. I’m looking forward to more from the Writers Festival’s own podcast. But for now, it’s back to life as she is lived.

[Added later: Helen Macdonald gave the  Festival’s closing address. It’s available on podcast.]

Alan Ramsey at Gleebooks

When Alan Ramsey retired in December last year he left a gap in the Saturday morning ritual at our house. Reading his Sydney Morning Herald ‘column’ (usually a whole page) aloud, with all its grumpy vehemence, its aggrieved sense of history (he’d been writing from Canberra for more than 20 years), its long screeds quoted from other people, its telling glimpses behind the scenes at Parliament House, had become as habitual as poached eggs on Vegemite toast. To judge from the mood of the crowd last night at Gleebooks we weren’t unusual.

The occasion was the recent publication  by Allen & Unwin of A Matter of Opinion, a collection of 150 of his columns. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, I imagine this book will be an invaluable resource to historians of Australian politics, because Ramsey wrote without fear or favour, and did it with formidable intelligence and intelligence-gathering savvy. Last night he was ‘in conversation with’ Monica Attard. I suppose I had been hoping for some behind-the-scenes stuff, the goss as one woman put it – not who-did-what-with-whom-and-in-what-bedroom goss, but how-it-all-works-in-Parliament goss. Instead we got an hour or so of largely misanthropic and eminently crowd pleasing opinion (I count myself one of the pleased). Monica Attard started off setting up a game: ‘I’ll give you a name, and you give me one word in response.’ But Ramsey is probably physically incapable of a one-word response, and the ‘conversation’ consisted for the most part of Monica Attard and then audience members throwing him a name or a phrase and him ripping into it until he was thrown the next one: Bob Hawke (‘I couldn’t stand him, he was a narcissist, but he was the best Prime Minister of post-war Australia’), Kevin Rudd (‘a prim, prissy prick’), John Howard (‘Let’s move on’), Peter Garrett (‘Whatever you think of his performance, you have to realise that no one in his position would do any better, and he fights for what small victories he manages’), Peter Reith (‘one of Howard’s thugs’), the best politician he observed in his time in the press gallery (John Button, an excellent politician and an attractive human being), and so on.

It was all good fun, with frequent flashes of insight, but if you didn’t already know the broad story, there wasn’t a lot of information to help you orient yourself. And much of the game could easily have been renamed, ‘Say something definite to confirm my dislike of/contempt for X.’ I It was a relief when towards the end someone asked why he referred to asylum seekers as ‘queue jumpers’. ‘Because that’s what they are,’ he snarled, and just like that we’d moved beyond show-pony opinion to what could have become a heated debate if there’d been time. My impression was that Alan Ramsey welcomed that prospect.