Tag Archives: Rupert Thomson

My second full day at the SWF

I was off to Walsh Bay again for the day today.

10 : 00 Marie Munkara in conversation with Irina Dunn
I first heard of Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing on Will Owen’s blog last December, and it’s been on my To Be read list since then. If it hadn’t been, this session would have put it there, especially when she read the opening pages, beginning most memorably, ‘It had been a shit of a day for Sister Annunciata and Sister Clavier.’ Irina (full disclosure: she’s an old and dear friend) did a lovely job of drawing out Marie’s biography in relation to the book, giving her scope to be – miraculously –  funny about her experience as a member of the stolen generations meeting up at last with her Aboriginal family:

My mother was black. I was thinking, ‘That can’t be my mother. And you know how they say all black people look the same … I’d say, ‘Hello, Auntie,’ and my mother would say, ‘Don’t talk to her, she’s rubbish.’ I’d say, ‘But isn’t that Auntie …’ ‘No!’

When she was little her class at school had to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. She drew a figure with a red cloak and a crown. Sister Damien said, ‘Marie, you can’t be a king.’ But young Marie insisted that that’s what she wanted to be, because a king has lots of money and can do what he wants. ‘Now,’ said Marie today, ‘I haven’t got much money but I do what I want.’

11 : 30  Terrorism: How to Win a Cosmic War – Reza Aslan talking to Tony Jones about the futility of the War on Terror
I am not a Tony Jones fan. Ever since his extraordinary performance interviewing Nicole Cornes on election night 2007, I have had trouble watching him interview anyone. But Reza Aslan’s articulate confidence was a match for his combative style, and their sparring was actually enjoyable. Reza Aslan distinguished between Islamism and Jihadism. Islamism, he says, is a form of nationalism seeking to establish an Islamic state in principle no more diabolical than a Christian state like Greece or a Jewish state such as Israel. Jihadism is anti-nationalist, seeking to establish planet-wide Islamic theocracy. He went on to say that Islamism is the answer to Jihadism: that if Islamists are able to participate in normal political processes, Jihadism will lose its recruiting grounds. It was a riveting presentation, and we bought his book.

13:00 to 14:00 Three Australias: Les Murray, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Kim Cheng Boey reading their poems, chaired by Rhyll McMaster
This was the only event I attended where I had to stand in one of the monster queues and for some reason receive a “Good work” stamp on my wrist. The readings were interesting. I was especially glad to hear more of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s work, having read only her long piece on the Intervention in the Best of 2009 collection. Kim Cheng read one of the poems he read on Friday morning, and it was a pleasure to hear it again. Les Murray, who was probably the reason this event was held in one of the bigger spaces, was as always Les Murray, and a good thing too.

Ali Cobby Eckermann acknowledged the Gadigal people, as Anita Heiss and Boori Prior did yesterday. I wonder if it was by formal decision that such acknowledgements were not made at any other events, at least none of those I attended. Whether deliberate or not, I think the festival was the poorer for the absence of such acknowledgements. I also missed the PEN chairs at paid events, and the brief explanation of the imprisoned writer each chair represented. There is a roped off area in the vast Heritage Pier populated by a dozen beautifully painted chairs and a soundscape. The chairs are to be auctioned to raise money for PEN, but that’s not the same as explicit acknowledgement of named individuals.

2: 30  Who’s Interviewing Who? Alan Ramsey and John Faulkner
These two – a retired journalist famous for his take-no-prisoners opinion pieces and the Federal Minister for Defence famous for his ineluctable pursuit of corruption – have been friends for 20 years or so. They told us in all seriousness that the reason the friendship has thrived for so long is that they never discuss politics. They then moved on to discuss politics, with some tense moments. They were very funny together. At one stage Ramsey left the stage to get the quotes he’d left somewhere. Faulkner continued in the role of interviewee.

17 : 30 The Big Reading: Hanan al-Shaykh, Willy Vlautin, Dubravka Ugresic, Natasha Solomons and Rupert Thomson
This was my last event for the festival. It was, as it always is, pleasant to be read to. In particular I loved being read to again by Rupert Thomson – and the tone of the extract he read from This Party’s Got to Stop couldn’t have been further from that of the one he read on Thursday morning. It must be an intriguingly complex book.

I had been planning to stay in the general area to hear Jennifer Maiden, David Brooks and Adam Aitken read. But the reading didn’t start until 9.30, and it was in a wine bar. As a non-drinker who is very often in bed by 10 o’clock, I found the deterrents outweighed the attractions. I had heard a little of Aitken and Brooks this week (though the latter hadn’t been reading his own work), and I decided with regret that I would have to forgo the great pleasure of hearing Jennifer Maiden.

The Festival’s slogan this year was Read, Rethink, Respond. There wasn’t a lot of space at the festival itself for responding (question times just don’t do it!), and for that matter not a lot of reading got done, at least by the punters. But I’ve come away with plenty to think about, and the world is full of opportunities to respond, and far too much waiting to be read.

SWF: History, Memoir, panels

The Sydney Writers Festival is now in full swing. I’ve managed to go to two events in the last two days, both of them excellent.

The first, cheerily titled ‘Swindlers, Doctors and Nationalists’, was held late yesterday afternoon in the Macleay Museum at Sydney University. Anyone who got bored could contemplate the huge object in the front corner of the room, probably the cast of a dinosaur’s skull. But it wasn’t the kind of event where  such distraction was needed. On the contrary, the three historians on the panel pretty much fitted Mark Twain’s famous remark about Australian history in Following the Equator:

It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.

The panel was elegantly chaired by Jude Philp, senior curator of the Macleay Museum. She asked each of the panellists to introduce their books, then invited each of them to speak in turn to maybe three or four questions, a round on each question. I mention this format, because I’ve been to some deadly panels where the time is divided into blocks, one for each participant, and there’s very little opportunity for interaction. That wasn’t a problem here – possibly it helped that all three historians are in the same History Department. The first two were Penny Russell (Savagery and Civility: A History of Manners in Colonial Australia) and Kirsten McKenzie (A Swindler’s Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty), both doing the kind of colonial history that an acute filmmaker could make brilliant use of: comedies of manners just waiting to be made (it was widely insisted that the colonies should cleave to English standards of behaviour, but ideas of what those standards were varied dramatically), tales of intrigue, fraud, and idealism.  The third was James Curran, whose book The Unknown Nation, co-written with Stuart Ward, deals with the period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Australia’s British-based identity had been pulled out from under it and we were hunting around for a new sense of what it means to be Australian.

Then this morning, the fourth day of my festival, at last I reached the Harbour. Wharf 2/3 was humming, and I arrived just in time for a session on Creative Memoir featuring Ali Alizadeh (Iran: My Grandfather) and Rupert Thomson (This Party’s Got To Stop) talking to editor, novelist and blogger Sophie Cunningham. Again, it was excellently done. Sophie had obviously read and enjoyed both books, and other things written by both authors. They each read – well doing the voices – and then she asked a couple of questions that enabled them to talk interestingly about choices they’d made in writing the books, about how the people who feature in them feel about their family linen being aired in public. Did you know that in the UK you’re legally required to get written permission to publish a book in which you give information about someone’s private life, not because of possible libel suits, but as a result of privacy legislation?

I went to this session because I’ve enjoyed Ali Azadeh’s poetry. To judge from the passage he read to us, he is also a prose writer to be savoured.

I’m off to an excellent start. The plan is for tomorrow to be my first full day: at the Wharf by half past nine in the morning, and home from the Town Hall about half past seven at night.