Tag Archives: Peter Polites

SWF 2017 Saturday

I had planned to start my third day at the Sydney Writers’ Festival with Maxine Beneba Clarke talking to Peter Polites at 10 am. But a text on Saturday advised that Maxine couldn’t be here, so we had an unexpectedly leisurely start to the day, arriving in time to queue for:

11.30  Resist!
‘Resist’ is a word that has come into frequent usage in the US since the election of Donald Trump as President. Let me say up front that there was a problem with this event: it was two USers (Teen Vogue Editor Elaine Welteroth and Nadja Spiegelman, daughter of two New Yorker illuminati) talking about US politics with a third USer (Slate‘s movie critic Dana Stevens) in the chair, so they could talk to each other as if they were at home and the rest of the world, including this audience, were peripheral. Luckily the third panel member, Hisham Matar (The Return), though he was born in New York, brought a very different perspective to the conversation.

The three US representatives addressed the word ‘resist’: why ‘resistance’ rather than the more usual ‘opposition’? is this self-dramatisation, or something more substantial? They generally agreed that the election had brought about a political awakening, a new energy and sense of purpose, in many people. It was interesting to learn that Nadja Spiegelman and her mother had produced Resist!,  a free 40-page broadsheet of political comics and graphics by mainly female artists in time for the big women’s march after the election; and that Teen Vogue has become a key source of news for teen girls, including a regular feature describing the lies told by the President between issues.

Then Hisham Matar shifted the ground. It’s not so much the word that concerned him as the register. He spoke of his childhood in an intensely political home, listening to conversation among dissidents with life and death commitment. As a child, he asked (I think he said ‘mischievously’), ‘Who is more sculpted by the dictatorship, those who work night and day to defend it, or those who work night and day to resist it?’ The challenge is not to let the oppressive forces define the world. Political dogma tends inexorably to simplify matters, and rather than resist in equally simplified terms, to always honour complexity, to show up as your full, authentic self is powerful activism and resistance, to always be engaged with complexity. He hoped, I think he said, to have a response to the current situation in he USA that was complex enough to include the recognition that Trump is his brother.

Wonderfully, the other panel member responded to this perspective without defensiveness, and the conversation took an interesting turn. Spiegelman commented that in the art submitted to Resist!, the male artists tended to create images of Donald Trump (small hands, etc), while the women addressed the reality of their lives as women. Elaine Welteroth spoke of young women she knows who are taking powerful leadership, and then described her own version of ‘turning up as your full authentic self’: she was the first African American to have a particular position in a large US corporation, but when she applied for the job it wasn’t with the aim of being ‘the first’ or ‘the only’, it was simply the next challenge in her career; when the press made a big deal of it she realised that it brought responsibilities, which she embraced.

The first question at the end raised the question that had been hovering in my mind ever since I saw that the session was sponsored by a skincare product: to what extent is resistance to Donald Trump being coopted by corporate America. One of the panellists quotes a disparaging witticism, ‘Activism is the new brunch.’ We had to leave before that discussion unfolded. The last thing I heard was someone saying, ‘we could do a whole panel discussion on that Pepsi ad.’ Indeed!

1.30 Memoir: A Slippery Art
I went to this session mainly because of Kim Mahood’s wonderful Position Doubtful. All I knew about the other panellists was that Brentley Frazer’s youth was misspent to the max and Graeme Innes is a promoter of worthy causes.

Catherine Eccles, a ‘scouting agent’ from the UK, was in the chair for this unlikely gathering. She kicked the conversation off with a question about maps, and read a brief quote about maps from Kim Mahood’s book. Before addressing the question, Mahood said that she had laboured over the passage that had been read out, so as to express her meaning as clearly and precisely as she could. Asked to speak on the subject, she wasn’t sure anything she would say could measure up. I don’t think Mahood was trying to make a point when she said that, but she did make one. Nobody read to us at this session, and that is a shame.

There was much discussion of how Brentley’s use of English Prime – his writing the whole book without using any of the copular verbs, amis, arewaswerebe, been, being – made his book Scoundrel Time wonderfully immediate, especially in its (unspecified) shocking moments, but we had to take the panel’s word for it. Graeme Innes has been blind from birth, and a natural story-teller from soon after. He described his book, Finding a Way, as all the stories he tells about his life connected up. He was a pleasure to listen to, but I would have liked to hear him, or someone else in the absence of a Braille text, read from his book. And Kim Mahood, well, I doubt if anyone in the audience who hadn’t read her book would have gathered from her unassuming manner just how profound the book is.

I mean no criticism of Catherine Eccles, but I did wonder if this session would have been more interesting with an Australian in the chair. All three books have something profound to say about Australia – Kim Mahood on relationships between settler and traditional Aboriginal people who have strong attachment to the same land; Brentley Frazer on  how we imagine masculinity; and Graeme Innes is a brilliant exemplar of a distinctive Australian yarn-spinning humour. But these aspects of their work were only incidentally touched on.

3 pm  Nevertheless, She Persisted

This is the second event today that owes its title to US politics. (If you don’t know the story of Elizabeth Warren’s silencing, you can read it here.) This time, though, the focus was on women, on feminism and the struggle against patriarchy.

Clementine Ford is a feminist celebrity and misogynist hate target. I haven’t read her Fight Like a Girl, a good reason to pay to hear her speak. Robert Jensen has written the intriguingly subtitled The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. Catherine Fox, a tireless worker for women in the corporate world and the armed forces, chaired.

Ford apologised at the start, saying she was struggling with fatigue, and a possible explanation became evident in the course of the hour as her little son woke up and demanded her attention, then struggled first to be fed then to pull himself around the table on the stage picking up styrofoam cups and generally providing an alternative focus of attention.

It was a good discussion. I loved Jensen’s argument for men to join this conversation. If we put our hands in the air and say we have no right to speak, we are abrogating our personal accountability. And it’s not enough to say one is a feminist. There are many versions of feminism; he is a radical feminist. We didn’t get down to definitions about  what kind of feminism the other two panel members advocated.

There was civil but tense disagreement about pornography, about which the hour wasn’t long enough for real discussion.

Again, I would have liked to hear some of each of the authors’ books.

Then off to a little feast of poetry at:

4.30 AVANT GAGA
Toby Fitch, organiser of the monthly Avant Gaga readings at Sappho’s Bookshop in Glebe, hosted nine poets. The venue wasn’t quite as big as Thursday’s but it’s not late at night or tucked away in a glary room either. Maybe poetry is coming back out of the shadows. By way of general introduction, Toby said that all the poets had written or were writing books, some had won awards and they all had personal lives, so his individual intros consisted of a string of anagrams (which must have taken him hours to devise).

I jotted down notes of anagrams and lines that struck me, but sadly my nots are mainly illegible. In order, we heard:

  • Toby Fitch (no anagrams, but he read us a cool list poem about clouds)
  • Emily Stewart
  • Aden Rolfe (‘ear fondle’, a found poem consisting of the editorial notes on a government tender form)
  • Holly Isemonger (whose mother, in the audience, was cajoled into saying she didn’t like poetry because she didn’t ‘get it’)
  • Alison Whittaker (I wrote down a lot of quotes from her, and they’re as legible as spiders’ tracks – sorry!)
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘mean backbone lyric’; again, she knocked us out of the park)
  • Amelia Dale (this poem was brilliant in the performance, though Lord knows what it would look like on the page: she mimed while a computer-generated voice recited the text of Malcolm Turnbull’s side of an interview with Leigh Sales)
  • Jane Gibian (‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’, a poem made up of subject lines from freecycle emails – as a freecycler I loved this, even more than I loved Aden Rolfe’s editorial poem)
  • Michael Farrell (‘While My Veranda Gently Weeps’)

Sorry, no more detail than that. But it was a lot of fun.

We walked up town, had dinner in the old GPO at Martin Plaza, then to the Town Hall for:

8.30 Advice from Nasty Women
And it’s a hat-trick for US-politics-derived naming of events today. This time it’s Donald Trump’s insult of Hillary Clinton that’s being reclaimed. (Surely some of our local reactionaries have given us a memorable phrase or two, or have they all shut up since the great success of ‘destroying the joint’?)

Here for an hour and a half we were read to, with Sophie Black as compere.

Anita Heiss kicked off with an acknowledgement of country, and a beautiful piece of writing about Barangaroo (the woman not the place), Oodgeroo, and Rosie Scott (a white woman with a black heart).

US writer, editor and cultural critic Chris Kraus, labouring through a heavy cold, took the ‘nasty’ in ‘nasty women’ literally, and read some of Kathy Ackers’s nasty letters.

Nadja Spiegelman read a personal essay about jealousy. This is the third time I’ve seen her at this Festival, and she has been good value every time, each time revealing another side of her writerly self.

Viola Di Grado, a depressed looking young Italian woman, read a depressing story about childhood bullying in a depressed manner, and ended with an exhortation, ‘Always be a witch. Always be real.’

Canadian Durga Chew-Bose read a letter to her infant niece, a kind of good-fairy blessing, and chief among the blessings she wished on the little one was to find meaning.

African-American Brit Bennett began by saying that the whole Twitter phenomenon of women reclaiming nastiness was pretty much restricted to white women, because in the US African American women have been labelled nasty already in a number of ways. In a serendipitous echo of Hisham Matar earlier in the day, she called for a more complex feminism than Twitter seems to envision.

So the take-home message from the day was to go for complexity. I took it home.

 

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 4

Saturday dawned with yet another clear sky. I finally understood that El Niño and the weather gods are smiling on the Writers’ Festival this year, and my light linen jacket was all the warmth I needed. It was my busiest day at the Festival, even busier for The Art Student, who went in early for The Joy of Art with Betty Churcher, John Armstrong and Alex Monroe. Rachel Kent, director of the MCA, who chaired the session, tried to keep up the SWF tradition of ditching her advertised topic, in this case presumably because joy hasn’t been sufficiently theorised, but according to the Art Student the panellists gave the audience what they’d paid for and kept joy on the agenda.

I arrived at Walsh Bay in time to join the AS in the packed Sydney Theatre for

11.30 am: Reza Aslan: Zealot
There’s a famous clip on YouTube of Reza Aslan being interviewed on Fox News. The Fox person is outraged that Aslan, a Muslim, has written Zealot, a book about Jesus Christ. The implication hangs in the air that this close to a literary equivalent of 9/11. Aslan is the very picture of cool reason, repeating over and over that he is a scholar who studies religion and has a scholarly interest in Jesus. He insists, to the point of being boring, that his primary identity in this context is as a scholar rather than as a Muslim.

I was a little worried that he might be just as one-track boring when not dealing with a terrified fundamentalist, a worry which was intensified by my past experience of interlocutor Steven Gale as somehow impersonal, even mechanical. But my worries were total garbage  – both men were fabulous. Reza Aslan was witty, warm and exuberant as well as scholarly; Steven Gale obviously liked him and revealed a mischievous streak of his own, at one stage slapping his thighs in enjoyment.

Aslan’s book is about the historical Jesus rather than what he calls ‘the Christ of faith’, but he’s not a debunker – not, as he put it one of those biblical scholars who peers as if down a microscope and cries, ‘Ooh, look at all the people believing things!’ Asked what was known with certainty about the historical Jesus, he said that if you brought a hundred biblical scholars onto the stage and asked that question, once the fisticuffs had finished they would come up with a hundred different answers. But they would agree on three things: he was a Jew; he preached something called the kingdom of heaven, though there would be much disagreement about what it was; and the Roman occupiers executed him because of that. All the same, he says there’s nothing particularly new in his book – its aim is to open up the field to a wider audience. Sure, he takes many positions that other scholars will disagree with, but then he lists the disagreers in copious endnotes.

Jesus was almost certainly illiterate. He was one of probably hundreds of self-proclaimed messiahs of the first century of the common era, which Aslan said was the Middle East’s most turbulent period in history (cue gasp from audience!). Every messiah, including Jesus, had a project to free the Jewish people from the oppressive Romans, and when each one failed he was seen not to have been the real messiah. Jesus differed crucially (no pun intended, the cross wasn’t particularly distinctive) in that his disciples reported experiencing him as risen from the dead – something completely novel in the Hebrew context.

The four Gospels, he pointed out uncontroversially, were written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Given that the Jesus movement had been pretty unsuccessful among Jews, the Gospel accounts were tailored to make it more attractive to the Romans. This they did in three ways: they made Jesus’ teachings seem less embedded in Jewish culture, more ‘universal’; they removed the nationalism, translating it into ‘spiritual’ terms; they shifted the blame for his death from the Romans to the Jews (what we know of the historical Pontius Pilate’s extraordinary cruelty makes the Gospels’ account of him reluctantly complying with the High Priests’ demand that he crucify Jesus completely implausible).

Aslan ended on an enigmatic note: in all the gospels, it was women who discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead. This is a stumbling block for historians, because at that time women could not be called as witnesses, so if the gospels were inventing the story they would have picked  someone else as the discoverers. [I immediately decided that Mary Magdalen was the key person who ensured that the Jesus movement survived his death.]

We had an hour for lunch and then were just about the last people to squeeze into the Philharmonia Studio for

1.30: The Changing Face of Indigeneity: Now and Beyond
Wesley Enoch, Anita Heiss and playwright Nakkiah Lui were on a panel chaired beautifully by Lydia Miller. If I understood what Lydia Miller said in her introductory remarks, Native Title legislation of the early 1990s changed the way people in Australia think about indigenous identity, because it led to a diversity of narratives. There is also diversity because of intergenerational differences – I think I heard correctly that 60 percent of Aboriginal Australians are now under 25 years old, and 40 percent of those are under 15.

The panellists, two from the theatre and one novelist, addressed the theme interestingly. Wesley Enoch described himself as a psychological vampire, looking around for young Aboriginal blood for use in the theatre. Anita Heiss told us that there are 60 different pieces of legislation in Australia defining what it is to be Aboriginal, and this obsession on the part of whites with defining Aboriginal identity  was something that Aboriginal artists constantly have to negotiate: ‘We don’t sit around discussing identity with each other all day, you know. We have other things to do, like shopping.’  Nakkiah Lui, who spoke very quickly with the result that she was often incomprehensible to me (more about that later), said she was interested in critiquing the power relationships that were the context of cultural work. All three of them brought both zest and urgency to the question of challenging the dominant culture’s unremitting project of containing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in straitening identities.

[I’m writing this after seeing the wonderful Brothers Wreck at Belvoir Street on Sunday evening. The play reminded me of two other comments: Nakkiah Lui pointed out that there had been two Indigenous productions a year at Belvoir Street for some time now, and that this was building on an established tradition of Aboriginal theatre making. Wesley Enoch said that at the Queensland Theatre Company (of which he is Artistic Director) they find that if the audience is more than 20 percent Aboriginal, the response to Aboriginal theatre is completely different – the white audience members become a lot less uncertain in their responses, more open to the work.]

And then with a rapid change of mindset, to

3 pm: #three jerks,
This is a descendant of Alleyway Honour, a highlight of the 2009 Writers’ Festival. Like that event it is an austerely theatrical reading devised by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and directed by Roslyn Oades. Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman and Peter Polites, three of the five readers from the earlier production, here read interlocking first-person stories. My assumption is that each of them wrote his own story.

Opening with an infamous 2006 quote from Sydney Muslim cleric Sheikh Hilaly about where blame should be apportioned for a number of rapes in Western Sydney, the stories play out a key couple of days in the lives of a number of Western Sydney adolescents – a gay Greek boy, a white boy who gets caught up in a petty crime, and Lebanese boys dealing with adolescent sexual politics. Some of it is confronting stuff, but there’s an intelligent reaching for understanding, and a basic decency in all three narratives.

The show is scheduled for a second appearance at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne: at the Wheeler Centre 7 pm Friday 30 May. So if you’re in Melbourne here’s a chance to hear voices direct from Western Sydney, to provide some kind of counterpoint to the constant wailing about Western Sydney in the political commentariat.

[Luke Carman read very quickly, too quickly for me to understand most of it. This being the third time I’ve made such a complaint at this Festival, I have to ask if the problem isn’t with me rather than the rapid speakers. My ever-sympathetic partner is adamant that the problem is not that Melbourne poets, young playwrights and anglophone Western Sydneysiders talk too fast, but that my deafness has passed the point where I need a hearing aid.]

Bickering amiably about my growing disability, we headed up the queue outside the same theatre for the next session:

4.30: Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars
Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist from the US, chatted for an hour to Australian TV journalist  Mark Davis about his book detailing the extent of the US’s covert military operations, particularly those undertaken by the Joint Security Operations Council.  This was pretty scary stuff: Scahill’s early discoveries were dismissed by a spokesman for the White House as conspiracy fantasy, but the Snowden tapes confirmed that he was right on the money. Denied access to top levels of the military and the government, he has nonetheless built a substantial number of sources at the operational level. Mark Davis repeatedly expressed his astonishment and envy that in the US public employees seem to be willing to speak frankly to the press in a way that is not only illegal in Australia, but also simply not done.

Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (subtitle taken from a Dick Cheney memo) is a hefty paperback. We stayed to watch the film of the same name, which follows his investigation into darker and darker territory until it reaches the climax of the killing by drone of a 16 year old boy, a US citizen against whom no charge had every been made. This was by a military unit that was legitimised by Rumsfeld but now operates under Barack Obama’s direct authority.

We walked to the train though the incredible crowds that had turned out for the first Saturday night of the Vivid Festival. The Opera House, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Customs House are all lit spectacularly. Having just come from these revelations of what the government of our special allies are doing in almost complete secrecy it was hard not to think of bread and circuses. Here’s the bit from Juvenal’s 10th Satire (which I found on Wikipedia):

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

SWF: Inside the Westside Writers Group

One of my highlights from last year’s Sydney Writers Festival was a staged reading in Bankstown Town Hall by members of the Westside Writers Group. Naturally, we trekked west in the rain to see what they were putting on this year.

A big room in Bankstown Youth Development Headquarters had been set up with a couple of sofas, cushions, a standard lamp and a coffee table for the group and seats for the audience in the rest of the room. They proceeded to have a meeting like the ones they’ve been having every fortnight for years: each member of the group read a piece she or he had been working on – some brand new, some reworkings or extensions of things the group had heard before.

It was a risky idea, and could have failed in any number of ways. But it was great. All the writers have been trained in reading to an audience, and as their mode of working is to read to each other rather than circulating printed copies of their work, they have all become skilled listeners. So we were treated to a lovely range of readings, and then some tender but forthright exploration of what made each one tick and where it could be improved. Luke Carman and Michael Mohammad Ahmad were the stand-outs for me, the former with another of his strangely surreal monologues/stories, the latter with a vignette (a word evidently much discussed by the group) of life in a small ethnic community in the western suburbs. Nothing was dull: sestinas by Lachlan Brown, other poems by Fiona Wright, Lina Jabbir and Rebecca Landon, stories by Susie Ahmad, Sam Hogg, Felicity Castagna and Peter Polites (the dark-haired man on the couch in the pic, shaven headed and unrecognisable on the night), and video in the making from Bilal Reda. All this with the delicate, respectful probing and prompting of Ivor Indyk, resident literary guru.

And you know, from where I was sitting none of these young writers seemed at all fazed by having an audience of roughly fifty people watching and listening from the shadows as they exposed the fruits of their imagination to one another’s critical gaze.

Later addition: I can’t believe I forgot to mention that Alexis Wright was there as a special guest, putting her two cents worth into the discussion and reading what may end up as the start of her next book. When she’d finished her reading – an unsettling piece involving a personification of drought, a young woman carrying a not-quite dead swan in her arms – Ivor Indyk challenged the group: ‘Anyone want to take on a Miles Franklin winner?’