Tag Archives: Moreno Giovannoni

SWF 2019: Friday

I was in England when last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival broke away from its harbourside venue, so this is my first Festival at the Carriageworks. I miss stepping out of dim rooms full of bright words into the dazzle, or sometimes drizzle, of postcard Sydney. But I can walk there and back, which is something.


My SWF this year kicked off with a 10 o’clock session on Friday: Taking Flight: Stories of Expulsion and Migration

Julian Burnside chaired a conversation with German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, and Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, which is still on my To Be Read pile.

All three participants were interesting, more than that, compelling. Jenny Erpenbeck’s most recent novel Go, Went, Gone is based on a year befriending and documenting the experiences of migrants in Berlin – the kind of migrants who would be called refugees or asylum seekers in Australia, but have been defined out of that category in Germany. It emerged that the characters in her novel are all real people with changed names, except the main character, named Richard, who she admitted is herself. Asked by Julian Burnside abut the many references to classic Greek and Roman gods, she explained that part of her goal was to make it clear that northern African peoples aren’t the Cultural Others that mainstream media would paint them – that much of that ancient culture was shared by Europe and Africa. In the very brief Q and A, asked if sessions like this and perhaps novels like hers weren’t preaching to the converted, she said that migrants are generally portrayed as millions of displaced people deserving pity or stirring dread: what fiction can do is help us realise that ‘the millions are not millions’, but each one has a story, and these stories show our connection as humans.

Omid Tofighian has an impressive CV in his own right and a scholar and activist. He was on the panel as translator of Behrouz Bouchani’s book. He was fascinating about the process of translation from Farsi to English. (Incidentally, Farsi is an Indo-European language, with many similarities to German in how its sentences are constructed.) About 40 percent English version is in verse: this is because in many passages Behrouz’s long Farsi sentences had to be broken up into smaller sentences to make them work in English, and in that process what had been beautiful Farsi prose begged to be presented as English verse. Translator and author worked closely together on the translation. Replying to an audience member who asked for a practical solution to the problem of offshore detention, ‘the key word being practical’, he said two things were necessary: first to analyse and broadcast the financial dimensions of the detention industry, in particular what he and Behrouz call the horrific surrealism of Manus, which creates vast profits for a small number of people; and second to challenge the ideology that sees refugees as passive and not fully human. On the preaching to the converted question, he said that the thing about Behrouz is that he is holding a mirror up to Australian society in general, not pleading his own case as victim or seeking a benefactor: he is calling out Australians in general to reflect on our history of harshness towards the marginalised, from the beginning of colonisation.

Julian Burnside in the chair promised at the start that we were about to hear a conversation between the two others on the stage. In the event there was very little, if any conversation between Jenny and Omid. This seemed to be mainly because there was no obvious bridge between their subjects and were both giving us information, but also because Julian Burnside, admirable activist and advocate, had his own point of view and contribution to make.

The session was marred for me bursts of laughter and applause from the adjacent hall, actually part of the same vast space separated only by thick hanging curtains. And the man next to me should be given an award of some kind. He spent a lot of the time fanning himself with a newspaper, which tended to obscure my view of the stage, send a blast of air to the woman on the other side (we talked after the show), and make creaking sounds that disturbed the people in front of him as well as us. Every now and then he would reach down to a paper bag on his lap and rustle it a bit for no obvious reason. And then his phone rang, he answered it, he left by a gap in the curtain at the front left, and after a couple of minutes came back to rejoin his paper bag and his fan. I’m pretty sure if I’d asked him to tone it down he would have done so, but I was stupidly wimpy.


At half past eleven, Christos Tsiolkas chaired An Irrevocable Condition, a conversation with Melanie Cheng, Moreno Giovannoni (my review of his The Fireflies of Autumn here) and Melina Marchetta.

The title of the session came from James Baldwin, who wrote, ‘perhaps home is not a place, but an irrevocable condition.’ I don’t know how the quote related to the conversation, but it was a brilliant conversation. Tsiolkas kicked it off by asking, ‘Where are you from?’, a question he acknowledged is often rude or hostile, but can be a way to open connection. Certainly in this case that’s how it worked. The panel members told of complex relationships with the countries of their parents’ origins – sometimes their own birth or childhood countries, others experienced only in the communities in Australia.

Christos invited each of the others to read from their work. This is always the best thing in these panels, and in this case it was beautifully integrated into the conversation, as they were also invited to reflect on how the passages they read were part of developing an inclusive Australian language.

It was a wonderfully warm, generous conversation. The four panellists had had an interesting conversation in the green room, which they referred to frequently – the mutual appreciation of each other’s writing was palpable. Christos told of a recent visit with his mother to Richmond, where he was a child. She looked around and said, ‘Christos, it’s not the same,’ namong, as he said a kind of double migration: first from Greece to Richmond, and then from Richmond to a whole other suburb. This prompted someone to say that although they had been talking about the experience of being migrants, there was something universal there as well: the childhood home no longer exists for any of us. The panel members had a fabulous range of stories about their experience of the nominal home country.

The panellists all agreed that home is where their family and friends are: the family and community that they live among now. Cosmopolitanism is great, but hard for many people, and a local community gives something that meets our deep needs.

As the lights came up, before filing out into the lunchtime crowd, I had a chat with the elderly woman who had been sitting on my left. (Elderly in this case could mean younger than me, but hey!) After we’d told each other how much we’d enjoyed the session, she said, ‘I’m fro South Africa, and I love living here. But I realise I’ve been unfair to other South Africans who complain about Australia – I’ve just thought they should appreciate what they’ve got here, but now I feel I haven’t been understanding enough about their pain.’


4.30 pm Home Truths

 This session was nominally about home, and would have made a thematic hat trick for my festival so far, but after briefly covering their discomfort at being categorised as Western Sydney Writers, Fiona Wright (click here for previous mentions in this blog) and Luke Carman (ditto here) got the bit between their collective teeth and gave us a very interesting chat about mental illness. 

Like Carman has a great gift for deadpan comedy about uncomfortable topics – in this case a psychotic episode and its aftermath. By contrast, Fiona laughs a lot, cheerfully asserting that she’s allowed to use words like ‘crazy’, at least when talking about herself. (Incidentally, I tend to be with Raimond Gaita in preferring the scary word ‘mad’ over the blandly medical ‘mentally ill’ to name a truly scary phenomenon.)

Ashley Kalagian Blunt did an excellent, self-effacing job of enabling the conversation. The Western Sydney gambit didn’t lead to much, but asking them each to name a favourite piece in the other’s book of essays and to say why was a brilliant way of setting them free to enjoy each other, their literary friendship, and their experiences with the mental health system.

Fiona said her first book of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes; her second, The World Was Whole, which is on the pile beside my desk, is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is fragile. She mentioned her poetry, adding with mock defensiveness, ‘Don’t judge me!’ (I do judge, and the verdict is beyond favourable.)

Prompted by Ashley, Luke gave a wonderful account of the genesis of one of the essays in his book: he picked ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’, in which he set out to write something that would enrage some people he was feuding with. It did that, as well as pretty much alienating everyone who read it. He decided to include it in the book all the same, as it fitted with the madness theme of the collection – an example of something written by a person who was off the air. (I just found the essay inits Meanjin incarnation, here.)


We went home for dinner, and watched a little tele, including Ece Temelkuran on the Drum. We’re seeing her in Sunday at the Festival.

Then we were back at the Carriageworks for Story Club at 9 o’clock.

Story Club is a monthly event that’s been running for 11 years at the Giant Dwarf in Sydney, created and hosted by Ben Jenkins and Zoe Norton Lodge. This evening’s hour was supposed to have a theme, ‘Fool Me Once’, in keeping with the Festival’s over-all theme, ‘Lie to Me’. As everywhere else I’ve seen at the Festival so far, the theme was completely ignored. Well not completely: it was named. But as Ben, then Alex Lee (a regular on the now defunct The Checkout with Ben and Zoe), journalist Jacqueline Maley and fonally Zoe took the stage to read stories from their lives from a big red book, if a theme emerged it was in two mercifully separate parts: excessive consumption of alcohol and the tribulations of early motherhood. Breasts, sleeplessness, public humiliation and family reunions gave rise to much merriment.

And so home to bed.


Moreno Giovannoni’s Fireflies of Autumn and November verse 3

Moreno Giovannoni, The Fireflies of Autumn and other tales of San Ginese (Black Inc 2018)

fireflies.jpgThe Fireflies of Autumn begins with a bang. To be more precise, one of its first stories is a tall tale involving a vast explosion and enormous quantities of excrement – the kind of story that you feel you ought to have heard a thousand times, but which is actually completely new to you. or at least to me.

The book announces itself as a collection of tales told by Ugo Giovannoni, who migrated to Australia in 1957 – stories about the tiny Tuscan village of San Ginese that he left behind. These tales include folk versions of the distant past (as in the explosive one already mentioned), lore about Ugo’s forebears and relatives (much of it scurrilous), tales of the village during the Fascist era and World War Two (including the marvellous title story, in which the whole village decamps to a forest glade to avoid being caught in the crossfire between the Americans and the retreating Germans), and a little historical documentation.

I was reminded often of Fellini’s masterpiece of nostalgia, Amacord. The celebration of community, the occasional bawdiness (see my versification below), the indignation at the repressive role of the Church, all feel a little Felliniesque. But these tellings differ from Fellini’s in being told, not just from a different time, but also from a different place, in the diaspora.

Migration to America, Australia and occasionally Argentina is a dominant theme. Over the decades, those who leave often return once they have earned enough money to buy some land, or perhaps when the longing for home becomes too much to bear. As well as the wonderful, possibly romanticised evocation of village life, there is some fine writing about the effects of dislocation from migration:

And they would go to America and become lost over there, and when they returned to San Ginese they would still be lost, as if they could not find the place they had left, but kept looking for it, anywhere, somewhere, but it was always elsewhere – on top of a hill, along the walking paths between the villages, in a field, inside a stable or a pig-sty, inside a woman, a wife, a neighbour’s wife. You could see the men wandering about in the courtyards and between the houses, aimlessly at first, and then slowly they would give the appearance of settling into their lives again, but remained as sad as trees that have had half their roots hacked off. Such trees can barely feed and water themselves and are in danger of toppling over in the gentlest breezes.

In a way this collection of stories is itself a symbolic return, as a telling and reclaiming of the stories that had to be left behind. Ugo’s introduction tells us that he wrote the tales in Italian and sought out ‘a translator expert in the writing of immigrants’ to render it into English. That translator is of course the actual author, Ugo’s son Moreno, who came to Australia as a child in 1957. Some of the later stories in particular make it clear that, though Ugo may be the source of many of the tales, Moreno has drained many other tongues and done his own wandering about. The painful melancholy that is never far beneath the surface of these tales is his as much as Ugo’s.

After reading excerpts in Southerly a couple of years back (blog entries here), I was looking forward to the book’s publication. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s never boring, I smiled constantly and laughed often. Then in the final chapters, possibly affected by Altitude Adjusted Lacrimosity Syndrome as I read them on a plane, I wept copiously.

I recommend Lisa Hill’s review for a beautiful account of the book.

Because it’s November, and my blog has to include 14 14-line poems in the month, here’s a versification of a tiny story in the brilliant long chapter about the villagers in wartime:

November verse 3: The widow Pasquina
No one noticed when Bucchione
vanished as the sun went down,
gone to visit la Pasquina,
wealthy widow of that town.
She’d come out, no need for knocking,
ask you in (now is this shocking?),
offer you a bowl of wine
and several more till, feeling fine,
you told your troubles, like confession,
she’d strip you, take you to her bed,
then later make sure you were fed
and bathed beside the fire, refreshing
limbs and mind. In those hard days
she did this service for no pay.

Southerly 75/3

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 3 2015: War and Peace (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger 2016)

Southerly75.3.jpg

In last May’s Quarterly Essay, Blood Year, David Kilkullen quoted Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

The only war to take an active interest in me (so far) was the US war in Vietnam. I attended fiery Front Lawn meetings at uni, marched in Moratorium rallies, was punched in the head by a policeman and beaten up, incompetently, by a neo-Nazi. My birthdate came up in the conscription lottery, I went to court and was granted conscientious objector status. On Anzac Day this year, I commemorated those times by wearing a white feather along with a sprig of rosemary.

So I’m glad to see that this War and Peace themed issue of Southerly includes a voice from the resistance part of the war story, in ‘Wanted for War’, a short memoir of the 1960s by Michael Hamel-Green. (Hamel-Green is one of many men and women interviewed for Hell No! We Won’t Go, a documentary about draft resistance during the Vietnam War currently being made by Brisbane filmmaker Larry Zetlin. The project has a facebook group. Excerpts from Hamel-Green’s interview are here, here and here.)

Eloquent voices from other perspectives are also represented: ‘Eye into Eye’, a short story by Peter Dickison, formerly an officer in ‘various Special Forces units of the Australian Army’ is a convincing evocation of a terrible incident in Afghanistan and its long aftermath; ‘Iran–Iraq War: Diplomats on the Ground’, a memoir by former Ambassador to Iraq Rory Steele, captures the strangely removed world of diplomats in a time of war; Tessa Lunney’s short story ‘V’ consists of five linked monologues from survivors of World War Two – two Russian soldiers, a woman from Berlin, a British officer, and a Jewish survivor of a death camp; Beth Spencer’s poem ‘The Nine Principles of Breema’ imagines its way into one of Australia’s inhumane and illegal offshore detention camps.

There’s cultural history:

  • Robin Gerster’s ‘Our Ground Zero: Future Wars and the Imagined Destruction of Australia’s Cities’ extends his work about Australia and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his wonderful book Travels in Atomic Sunshine and in a previous Southerly, this time writing about Australian novels about nuclear devastation in the decades since 1945.
  • Moreno Giovannoni’s ‘When the War Came to San Ginese’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming Tales from San Ginese. It’s at least the second excerpt to appear in Southerly, and I look forward to the book itself.
  • ‘Aileen Palmer: Political Activist and “poet of conscience”‘ is part of Sylvia Martin’s project to salvage the reputation of this heroic woman, up until now known mainly as the ‘tragic daughter’ of Vance and Nettie Palmer. Here she emerges as a rare literary person who actually volunteered to be part of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, to work as nurse and translator. Martin’s biography of Palmer, Ink in her Veins, was published earlier this year. If this essay is any indication, it’s well worth reading.
  • Two articles revisit the story of Anzac. In ‘Writing the Anzac legend: The Moods of Ginger Mick’ Philip Butterss explores CJ Dennis’s role in creating that legend. Ffion Murphy and Richard Nile’s ‘The Naked Anzac: Exposure and Concealment in AB Facey’s A Fortunate Life’ hold that much-loved book up against the historical documents, and discover that Facey misrepresented his childhood suffering and war experience. Neither of these essays is the kind of academic nit-picking those descriptions might suggest: taken together, they deftly challenge what we are being urged to take as a national foundation myth. In particular, Facey’s apparent evasions of the fact that much of the damage he suffered in the trenches was mental and emotional rather than physical are discussed respectfully as an unsuccessful attempt to deal with that damage.

Not all the poems are on theme. Of those that are, apart from Beth Spencer’s poem that I’ve already mentioned, the most telling are Brook Emery’s ‘The Brown Current’, which counterposes scenes from peaceful Bondi with events from conflict zones, Lorraine McGuigan’s ‘Questions’, a lament for a ten-year-old girl suicide bomber, and Anne M Carson’s ‘Of the 2,700: one voice’, which visits the Nazi murders. Off topic, Jordie Albiston’s ‘Δ4’ is a 10-syllables-to-a line joy.

There’s more, including 21 ages of reviews, and a number of scholarly essays. All in all, this is a fabulous issue.
—–
A little note that might not matter to anyone but me: I’ve been puzzled by some of Southerly‘s house style decisions. Why US spelling and punctuation sometimes but not always, for example? This issue has put an end to my puzzlement: a character’s name in one story is spelled ‘Deidre’ 7 times and ‘Deirdre’ 13 times, often the two versions within a single paragraph. So it seems clear that the editorial team regards consistency in such matters as the hobgoblin of little minds. Mind you, the town Grañén is consistently misspelled with an acute accent over the first n, and elsewhere someone makes a ‘complementary’ remark, so perhaps the problem isn’t just disregard for consistency.

Rhyme #4 and Southerly 75/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 1 2015: Elemental (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger)

Rhyme #4: What’s in a title (with anagrams)?
Blow the wind southerly, Southerly, southerly,
rattle our windows and slam dunny doors,
blow off the same old stuff, bring on the Otherly,
bust up the torpor that stifles these shores.
The name holds promise that the journal
challenges what seems eternal –
our bow to all that’s from the North,
our faith in all it issues forth.
The title tells us what’s been hidden:
a home-made tool that truly hoes
this soil, as surely hot it grows.
Shout, lyre! Play something that’s forbidden.
The RSL you knew is now
A rusty hole, a sacred cow.

s152I have a love-hate, or at least an affection-irritation relationship with Southerly.

As one who was educated before what someone in this issue calls ‘the cultural turn’, which I guess refers to the rise of Theory and cultural studies in the academy, I am often left whimpering uncomprehendingly in the dust of the more scholarly work – of which there’s a fair bit in this issue, including at least five examples of reviewers indulging in clever exegesis of a book or other work’s title (hence my rhyme above). On the other hand, there is always something that more than justifies the price of admission.

In this issue, two essays – ‘Oi Kaymeni (“The Burnt Ones”)’ by George Kouvaros and ‘Angry Waves’ by Dael Allison – are wonderful.

Kouvaros’ essay begins with his mother’s reluctance to watch the 1950s movie A Place in the Sun on TV, and fans out to tell the story of her emigration from Cyprus, then to reflect on the role played by Hollywood movies in the lives of people in peasant cultures facing rapid modernisation and sometimes massive dislocation. An excerpt:

Recounting this history helps me to understand the events that shaped my mother’s personality. It also provides an opportunity to clarify two interrelated propositions. The first is that migration is not just about a dispersal of individuals  across continents; it is also about a dispersal of the narrative details that we use to understand the people close to us.

His second proposition, which has to do with a movie’s unchangingness as opposed to that of living people, leads to the realisation that for his mother ’embedded in the film’s story was her own history as  a sixteen or seventeen year old cinemagoer’.

What he writes is specific to his mother’s life, and to the history of Cyprus, but it will resonate richly for anyone of a certain age who loves the movies.

Dael Allison writes about the impact of climate change on Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass – Kiritimati is the Kiribati spelling of Christmas) from the point of view of a westerner who has lived, worked and had friendships there for some years. As you’d expect, the picture is alarming – the brunt of climate change is and will be felt by those who have done least to cause it. Allison’s wealth of detail and observation and quotation brings the situation home sharply. For instance, the recent damage done on Kiribati, unlike that on, say, Vanuatu, is not the result of cyclones, but of tidal events which bring the angry waves of the essay’s title; unlike the damage on Vanuatu it cannot be quickly healed because coral reefs do not regenerate as forests do. There’s no cause for total panic:

Unless there is a massive global catastrophe like a melting Antarctic ice shelf sliding into the sea, Kiribati will not all become unliveable at once. But the process of relocating villages because of inundation, coastal erosion or salt contamination due to wave over-topping of the fragile freshwater lens, has already begun. Projections suggest entire atolls may become uninhabitable in the next generation. Some islanders say they will stay on their land despite that outcome.

There are other treasures: ‘Wyenondable Ashes’, Alice Bishop’s memoir of losing  her family home on Black Saturday 2009; ‘St Thomas’ Churchyard’, in which Roslyn Jolly takes a closer look at the gravestones that dot her local park, formerly a colonial cemetery; ‘A Richer Dust’, where John Stephenson finds resonance between a passage from the Aeneid he happens to be reading and a ‘sentimental conversation’ from a week earlier, and arrives at a sweet elegiac moment.

The poems that stand out for me are Dugald Williamson, ‘Caprice’; Pam Brown, ‘Twelve noon’; Stuart Cooke, ‘Old World’; Laurie Duggan, ‘After a storm, Brisbane’; David Brooks, ‘Choosing to Stay’ and ‘Silver’ (which only a vegan could have written); and Brett Dionysius, ‘American Love Poem’ (not a sonnet, not set in Queensland, but terrific).

Of the short fictions, Moreno Giovannoni’s ‘The Bones of Genesius’ make one look forward to Tales from San Ginese, the book he is writing about his birthplace; and Claire Corbett’s ‘The Trillion Pearl Choker’ is a weird tale of the forces of nature fighting back on the climate change front.

As a rule, I don’t read Southerly‘s reviews of books I haven’t read, of which there are many here. But I did dip this time. Felicity Plunkett introduces her review of a book of criticism with a selection of trenchant quotes from writers ‘writing back’ to the critics; Nicolette Stasko makes me want to read Peter Boyle’s Towns in the Great Desert; Vivian Smith and Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s grey hairs lend distinction to the review pages; Kate Livett draws attention to a timely new edition of Judith Wright’s 1971 account of a battle to save the Barrier reef, The Coral Battleground:

Weirdly, although this battle for the Reef took place from 1969 to 1975, Wright’s text initially reads as if it could be taking place today, with the ridiculous ‘postmodern’ political moves made by Bjelke-Petersen’s government, such as employing an American geologist with no knowledge of biology, let alone marine biology, to do a three-week survey on the Reef.

And now for a little grumpiness. Some of the writers here would do well to read Joseph M Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. One essay in particular  veered from banal to incoherent to impenetrably technical. I persevered for a while, but threw in the towel when principle appeared as an adjective – just a typo perhaps, but in that context very dispiriting. And what’s with the US spellings throughout – harbor, jewelrymeter (as a measure of distance)? In the absence of a statement that this is policy, it creates the impression that the English Association, Sydney is made up of people who don’t care much about the language.