Tag Archives: Paul Kelly

SWF 2020, Post 5

One of my favourite poets, Eileen Chong, has been mounting a formidable campaign against racism in Australian literature. She’s been tweeting up a powerful, deeply considered storm as @EileenChongPoet, and some of the storm has been captured as a single article on the Meanjin website (link here). Among other things, Eileen tweeted:

I call on you, literary festivals, to examine your commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity. I call on you to ensure these festivals for writers & readers are safe spaces for our reading & writing community. I call on you to step up, to acknowledge you have this responsibility.

I don’t know what processes the Sydney Writers’ Festival has in place, but so far the 2020 festival seems to be doing OK on the diversity front. We’ve had a white man who wrote about India in conversation with a woman from India; a white woman who wrote about Truganini in conversation with a Ngarigu woman; and a number of other Indigenous people and people targeted or marginalised by racism speaking about their own work, interviewing others, and chairing sessions. In this batch, my fifth, two of the five sessions are all white (though one of the white people, being Irish, would have been classed otherwise 150 years ago in the USA), one is mixed, two feature people of Asian, Pacific and African heritage, and questions of racism and diversity are at the heart of several of the sessions.

Paul Kelly: Love Is Strong As Death 24 Jun

In 2019 singer-songwriter Paul Kelly published an anthology of other people’s poetry, Love Is Strong As Death. At the start of this podcast, Tony Birch asks him about his early introduction to poetry. He talks about the Christian Brothers introducing him to Shakespeare (Macbeth has everything for 15 year old boys, violence, sex, revenge …) and Gerard Manly Hopkins (‘The Christian Brothers loved Hopkins, who was a Catholic priest’), and about the way his family would have get-togethers where everyone did an ‘item’, and items ranged from a niece tying a knot in a snake lolly using only her tongue to someone reciting a poem. Tony Birch said, ‘The Christian Brothers gave you Gerard Manly Hopkins. They gave me corporal punishment.’ ‘Oh well,’ Paul Kelly and I replied in unison, ‘they gave me that too.’

I was taken back to Brother Paulinus, a Marist Brother, using the dreaded cane to conduct the combined 4th and 5th grade in a recitation of Henry Lawson’s ‘The Teams’, a poem I still love; Brother Wright, a Christian Brother, entertaining a class of 15 year olds in the last week of the school year by reading the whole of Macbeth, doing the voices, for one period each day; and my mother cheerfully reciting the opening lines of Francis Thomson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven‘ at the drop of a hat. So I knew something of what Paul Kelly was talking about.

They talked about specific poems, including Archie Roach’s ‘They Took the Children Away‘, for which Paul broke his rule of not including song lyrics, and poems by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kev Carmody, Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland. Bruce Dawe was one of the few poets mentioned who was neither First Nations Australian nor Irish.

The conversation sent me off to discover or revisit the poems that inspired their enthusiasm and love. The links in that last paragraph are to the text of the poems they discussed (except I couldn’t find Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Canoe’ online).


Kawai Strong Washburn: Sharks in the Time of Saviours 29 Jun 2020

Western Sydney writers are a big presence at this festival. In this session, Winnie Dunn, general manager of Sweatshop, talks to Kawai Strong Washburn about his debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviours. True to form, I haven’t read any books by either writer.

The interview, recorded when demonstrations against racism and genocide in the US and around the world were in full flight, is a very interesting conversation about many aspects of racism, though not without reference to the novel’s strong anti-colonial theme. Strong Washburn, now living in the US, has one parent of African ancestry and one white, and was born and raised in Hawai’i, which as he says was colonised by the US, making him part of the coloniser group. Adding to the complexity, he was lived closely with an Indigenous Hawai’ian community as a child. When Winnie Dunn asks the awkward question of whether he has the right to tell the story of Hawai’ian characters, the conversation is as carefully nuanced and respectful as anyone could wish.

I learned a lot about Hula – or at least I learned that there’s a lot I don’t know. The ‘hula girl’ image is a trivialisation of a powerful tradition, an ‘extractive male-driven fantasy’. The word ‘extractive’ used in this way is new to me, and very eloquent.


Lisa Taddeo: Three Women 1 Jul 2020

Lisa Taddeo’s work of narrative non-fiction, Three Women, does, as they say, a deep dive into the lives, including the sex lives, of three women in the USA. This conversation with the Wheeler Centre’s Sophie Black talks about the immersive process of interviewing the women, and perhaps even more interestingly about their reactions to the book. The picture that emerges of Taddeo’s relationship with her three subjects is fascinating, and implicitly raises very important questions about the responsibility of a writer, or any artist, to the people they write or make art about.

Lisa Taddeo mentions in passing, that a grand total of seven men have read this best-selling book, so even allowing for that being an exaggeration, I’m not alone in not having read it. Maybe I should suggest it for my all-male book group. I’ll certainly keep my eyes open for the television series currently in preparation.


Golriz Ghahraman: Know Your Place 6 July 2020

Golriz Ghahraman, Iranian-born member of the New Zealand parliament, here talks to Roanna Golsalves who is one of our great literary interviewers. She sets up the conversation with characteristic generosity:

As I read your book, Know Your Place, I was moved to tears by some of the horrific abuse you have had to face in your life as a politician but also moved to tears by the way you write about loss and hope and transformation … It’s a timely account of how one woman navigates public life while also speaking to the broader issues that we all have to navigate in this world, and you do this in a nuanced, polyphonic way through the stories and voices of so many others woven in with your own story, which makes for compelling reading.

In this delightful chat, Golriz cheerfully subverts a number of memes in western culture that can be harmful: the grateful immigrant, the good refugee (‘Look, this refugee went on to get a Masters Degree in International Law, so it was a good thing to take her in’), the perpetual victim. Talking about her maiden speech in parliament (which is on YouTube here – listen through to where she thanks ‘a very large, loud white boy’), she said, ‘Everybody should sit down and think about what they would write in a 15 minute maiden speech.’

They discuss a line from US public intellectual Cornell West: ‘Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.’ And though in her maiden speech Golriz laughs when she quotes it, ‘That’s not me, that’s Cornell West,’ she comes across in this conversation as someone who has made that her motto.

I love the bit where Golriz talks about her reaction when she first came to New Zealand and saw people walking about barefoot. So much poverty! And meanwhile the barefoot people wanted to know if she had electricity back in Iran.


Remembering Clive James 8 July 2020

Clive James died in November last year, and it would have been odd for the Sydney Writers’ Festival not to mark the occasion. It may be a missed opportunity not to have included in this celebration of the man and his multifaceted work some participants who were excluded from his genial regard: climate change activists, for example. But I guess that’s for another occasion.

Participants are Irish poet Paul Muldoon, Peter Goldsworthy whose writing life is almost as multifaceted as James’s, Richard Glover whose Flesh Wounds could be seen as his own version of Unreliable Memoirs, Kathy Lette, carrying the torch for womankind, and Trent Dalton who along with James himself finally stops me from saying I haven’t read books by anyone taking part in this festival.

The session is good fun, if at times given to hyperbole and strained phrase-making. There are some sweet anecdotes, some quoted wit and analysis of that wit, some reading from James’s emails and poems (‘Japanese Maple‘ and ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered‘), and part of the dunnyman incident from Unreliable Memoirs.

Responses to Noel Pearson

As I’m sure I’ve said before, one of the best things about Black Inc’s Quarterly Essay is that substantial responses to each issue are published in the next one. I’ll write about Guy Rundle’s essay on Clive Palmer in QE 56 some time soon. For now I just want to draw your attention to the Correspondence section.

There’s a plan for a referendum in 2017 on changing the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This referendum has been postponed a number of times, at least partly because the subject doesn’t seem to be hitting any kind of nerve with most Australians, and partly because there’s no agreement on what proposal should be put to us.

You might think you know enough now to know how you’ll vote. Well, maybe you’re wrong about that. You really should read Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay 55, A Rightful Place and then you should read the responses in No 56. (If you’re pressed for time you could skip John Hirst, who has said elsewhere that Aboriginal matters are out of his comfort zone and demonstrates the truth of that here by creating and then dismissing as unpersuasive a breathtakingly simplistic summary of Pearson’s argument. You might also skip Paul Kelly – definitely not the songwriter – who seems intent on offering advice to Tony Abbott rather than talking to you and me.)

Here are some snippets.

From Megan Davis, professor of law at University of NSW:

Even before the Quarterly Essay went on sale, Pearson’s potentially complementary proposal was dismissed as ‘grandstanding’ and ‘unhelpful’. Having served on the prime minister’s expert panel on constitutional recognition alongside Pearson, I found this an exasperating reminder that although black leaders regularly chant ‘leaders are readers’ to our young mob, Australia’s political leaders are in fact, on the whole, not readers.

From Rachel Perkins, filmmaker and activist:

Noel’s notion of tethering cultural survival to constitutional reform is intriguing. When I grasped the potential of his idea, I realised it may be our best hope – in the short term – of attracting national interest on this issue. It lit a spark for me and gave me hope, for we have only to look back on our history to understand the trajectory we are on. The question is: will our people be able to put their differences aside and unite, as they did in 1967, towards this possibility?

From Celeste Liddle, Arrente woman and trade union organiser:

As a trade unionist, I support a hearty process of negotiation between parties wishing to work together to achieve outcomes. There has never been a negotiated agreement between First Peoples and the government in this country and I feel that it is integral to achieve this before we look at amending the constitution to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

From Henry Reynolds, historian:

Noel Pearson’s powerful advocacy notwithstanding, Australia has regressed on indigenous matters– a generation ago the question of a treaty was seriously discussed, as was the status of traditional law. And this leaves us far behind comparable societies such as New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the Scandinavian countries. Noel argues that we cannot expect any more because, unlike the Maoris, indigenous Australians are only a very small minority. But this carefully avoids comparison with the much higher status of the Native Americans in North America and the Sami in Scandinavia.

From Robert Manne:

During the 1990s, under Paul Keating and Patrick Dodson, there existed an atmosphere of intense hopefulness about the role reconciliation might play in the creation of a better nation. In May 2000, at its climax, hundreds of thousands of Australians walked across the bridges of Australia in support of a reconciliation ceremony at the centenary of federation, an idea which, unforgivably, the Howard government quickly killed. The mood of hope was still not altogether extinguished, as the passions stirred by Kevin Rudd’s February 2008 apology to the stolen generations demonstrated. However, in recent years that atmosphere has faded. Somehow, if the referendum is to succeed it will now have to be rediscovered. Pearson it probably right to believe that unless the movement for indigenous constitutional recognition is led by a rock-solid conservative it is unlikely to succeed. The problem is that a rock-solid conservative is the least likely kind of political leader capable of reigniting the social-justice passions of Australians.

From Fred Chaney:

It is helpful to read this essay alongside a viewing of Noel’s address at Garma this year, published on YouTube. There you get the force of presentation as well as intellect. Following reference to the destruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, he posed the question ‘we are still grappling with today’: ‘will European settlement of Australia enable a different people with a different heritage to have space in it?’ He poses it as a question still unresolved. He says that in the 1820s in Tasmania we answered the question by our actions. Then in stark terms he suggests, ‘If we don’t come to a just answer to that question today, that same answer will come about for benign reasons.’ If he is correct in this, and I think he is, it is a matter of great seriousness for all of us.

Really, I recommend you to read the whole thing.

Journals: Asia Lit Review 16 & Overland 199

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review Nº 16 ([northern] Summer  2010)
Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland Nº 199 (Winter 2010)

Both these journals have been sitting on my desk for too long.  This is the first Asia Literary Review with Stephen McCarty as editor, which is not the hot news it would have been if I’d read it when it arrived months ago. With Overland, my tardiness is even more embarrassing – the  much awaited special 200th issue is being launched in Melbourne this weekend, making issue 199 so last season.

This is only the third issue of the ALR I’ve read, and as far as I can tell the editorial change doesn’t herald any major shift in direction.

This issue includes work from and about Thailand, Laos, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Turkey, and their diasporas. Intergenerational tensions loom large in almost every piece. Two sayings, one Indian and the other Chinese, capture something of the tenor of that looming. In Sandip Roy’s ‘No Country for Old Women‘, reporting on government attempts to reunite families where elderly parents have been abandoned or abused, he comments:

Love, my mother always says, flows downwards. You can’t force it flow the other way if it does not want to.

The fading popular singer who narrates Stephen Hirst’s ‘It’s All in the Silhouette‘ quotes a ‘lovely Chinese saying’:

one generation plants the trees, the next gets the shade.

Story after story, some very good, deals with a parent’s love and sacrifice, a child’s obedience or resentment and rebellion. There’s an awful lot of pain – grandmothers with bound feet occur in more than one story, and there are a number of guilt-pricked young men living in the USA.

There are other subjects: Gary Jones reports on the Red Shirt encampment in Bangkok earlier this year; Jaina Sanga’s story ‘The Maharaja and the Accountant‘ is a tale of politics from the dying days of the Raj; and there’s a short essay by Tippaphon Keopaseut, ‘Looking for Laos‘. In this last, the writer explores the cultural traditions of her country, beginning with the shocking observation that ‘compared to the great nations of the world, Laos seems little more than an empty space’, continuing with savage wit to give a history of colonisation and concluding:

So, I continue looking for Laos. And if it doesn’t exist? I’ll just have to invent it. After all, isn’t that what writers do?

I hope that’s not just youthful braggadocio. Certainly it’s not the words of someone obliged to stay in shade that someone else has sacrificed their life to plant for them. (The full stories behind those links are available only to subscribers, sorry!)

If the Asia Literary Review serves to expand an Australian reader’s horizons, Overland helps one see more clearly what’s happening near at hand. The entire issue is, as always, available online, so it’s a bit ironic that the first item in the real-world version is ‘Driven to Distraction‘, in which Cate Kennedy inveighs persuasively against internet addiction. As soon as I’d read it, I opened the Twitter app on my iPhone and unfollowed @annabelcrabb, @andrewbolt and the other Tweeters whose witty observations had been delighting (and distracting) me since the election. My Twitter addiction is nipped in the bud. Thanks, Cate! All the same, as with many articles here, I did have a ‘Yes, but’ response: Yes, the internet is a distraction, but I hope not all blogging grows from ‘a compulsion that blunts our capacity for reflective, private contemplation’.

Sean Scalmer and Jackie Dickenson in ‘The March of the Insider‘ do a nice job of deconstructing the historico-journalism of Paul Kelly. I haven’t read any of his books, or indeed any insider accounts of Australian parliamentary politics, but I did recently read Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Race of a Lifetime, and this article’s shoe fits that book’s foot pretty well:

… the claim of political journalists to a special ‘insider’ knowledge might be considered an impediment rather than a spur to full democratic participation. The ‘inside’ requires an ‘outside’. The same rhetoric that elevated the journalist and the politician thereby also positions the voter as a perpetual outsider, sending the message that there is a separate political sphere of which they are not, and never can be, a part.

Yes, but isn’t it a whole other story when journalists, political or not, write books about issues such as the Tampa, the AWB scandal, or events on Palm Island?

Tad Tietze analyses the rise of the Greens as a party attractive to the left but with a complex relationship with left politics and left perspectives. Thomas Caldwell argues against the likes of Antony Ginnane and Louis Nowra who have recently been critical of Australian films en masse, with box-office takings as their sole criteria of success or failure. There’s a trio of articles that save from possible oblivion aspects of activist history: Zanny Begg discusses and illustrates political art and the counter-globalisation movement (yes, a tremendously interesting piece which I recommend, but isn’t it odd to discuss participatory art in terms that exclude people not trained in artspeak?); Michael Hyde’s memoir ‘Getting out of the Boat‘, gives the inside story of some key moments in Australian opposition to the Vietnam war; Seb Prowse talks to Iain McIntyre about the latter’s How to Make Trouble and Influence People (Breakdown Press, 2009) which deals with imaginative Australian protest, culture-jamming and graffiti from White settlement to the present.

And there’s literary stuff as well: short stories, poems, reviews, an engagement with the controversy around the PEN/Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature and the new Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

I skipped the article on literary piracy, part of the Meanland project of exploring the implications of new technology for the written word. I know its important, but for now I’m very happy to get my literary journals in holdable, stainable, dog-earable form.