Tag Archives: Sarah Kanowski

SWF 2020, Post 6

The Sydney Writers’ Festival didn’t happen this year, and it’s still happening now. I’ve now attended 30 sessions/podcasts, which is a lot more than I would have managed at an IRL festival. Here another five sessions featuring writers by whom I’ve never read a book, but who knows what the future may bring?

Julia Gillard: Women and Leadership 12 July

Julia Gillard is in conversation with journalist Jacqueline Maley. I’ve got nothing against events where Julia Gillard is the subject of uncritical feminist adulation, but I’m glad to report that this is not one of them. It’s part of JG’s promotional tour for Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, which she co-authored with development economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The combination of Okonjo-Iweala’s scholarship and Gillard’s political heft gained access for extensive face-to-face interviews with an extraordinary cast of characters:

  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018
  • Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 to 2018 
  • Joyce Banda, President of Malawi from 2012 to 2014
  • Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway since 2013
  • Theresa May, who needs no description for my readers
  • Jacinda Ardern, likewise with knobs on
  • Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank since November 2019, one of two interviewees who has not been a president or prime minister of a nation
  • Hillary Clinton, the other one who has never been president or prime minister, but was included for obvious reasons

Rather than giving the interviewees a chapter each, the book is structured around themes, and – according to this discussion – finds remarkable but not entirely unexpected similarities in the obstacles and difficulties faced by these women leaders in such a range of cultures, whether they are of the right or the left of politics.

Here’s a little from towards the end of the conversation:

I was conscious after I finished being prime minister that polls were showing that women were looking at my experiences and saying they were less likely to go into politics. So all of this work in the years since has been my answer to that. The message from me to those women and girls I want to be, ‘Go for it. Absolutely go for it. We need women in politics. If you’ve got a passion for change there’s no better way of pursuing it than politics. Get right in there.’ But I do feel I have to put the next sentence: ‘Get right in there, and understand it.’ This book with Ngozi is one attempt to help women understand what they’re likely to face. The more light that gets shone on those issues the more I hope that they shrivel and go away, but they’re only going to do that if we talk about them. You will see at the end of this book a message from me and Ngozi that says in capital letters, ‘GO FOR IT!’ and then we say, ‘Yes, we are shouting.’

It’s a great shame that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wasn’t part of this podcast. Her co-authorship of the book is fully acknowledged, and Gillard speaks of her with obvious affection and respect, but hers is a painful absence..


Flocks and Fakes: The dark arts of online deception 14 July

The subtitle of this session really says it all. On the internet no one can tell you’re a dog. Or a fantasist on a dating site. Or an authoritarian politician peddling nostalgia in place of policy.

Rebecca Giggs does a nice job of chairing this conversation with Stephanie Wood, author of the memoir Fake: A startling true story of love in a world of liars, cheats, narcissists, fantasists and phonies, and Soviet-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the war against reality. You can tell from those subtitles that the books cover ground that has become alarmingly familiar to us over recent decades.

Stephanie Woods tells an excruciating personal story of being taken in by a man on a dating site, made vulnerable to him by what Rebecca Griggs calls ‘patriarchal propaganda’. Peter Pomerantsev discusses the way political discourse has moved from Enlightenment values to dreams of restoring imagined past grandeurs. Even when the Soviets lied, they claimed to be about creating a better society. Now Putin, Trump and Bolsinaro, however different they may be in other respects, are all big on nostalgia.

It’s good to hear smart people coming to grips with one of the nightmares of our time.


Layla F. Saad: Me and White Supremacy 16 July

A conversation about another nightmare of our times: racism and white supremacy

According to the Festival website:

In 2018, Layla F. Saad ran a 28-day Instagram challenge under the hashtag #MeAndWhiteSupremacy, designed to encourage those with white privilege to unflinchingly examine their complicity in upholding an oppressive power system. The challenge catalysed an awakening for thousands and led to the publication of Layla’s Me and White Supremacy, ‘an indispensable resource for white people who want to challenge white supremacy but don’t know where to begin’ (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility).

In this session, Layla F. Saad talks to NITV’s Rachael Hocking. It’s a sign of our bruising times that a substantial part of the conversation at the beginning is devoted to the difficulties of being expected to do the emotional and intellectual labour of educating white people about racism, and settlers about Indigenous issues. They talked about ‘performative allyship’, which Layla F Saad described as a common though not necessarily the best first step; about ‘allyship fatigue’; about self care for activists; about the need to see the struggle against racism as something that takes longterm commitment, more than a single lifetime; about the white saviour syndrome; about the challenge of talking to one’s children about racism as the dominant paradigm of the world without implanting discouragement. Perhaps the heart of the talk is this:

The reason why we have the world that we have right now is that white people largely aren’t used to having conversations about race because white privilege means they do not have to.

This comment on the current upsurge of Black Live Matter activism struck home for me:

When this protest took off, it’s because of Black deaths. It’s taken off because it was captured on video … And the parading of Black trauma, the parading of Black deaths is what gets some white people to be able to open their eyes. And it’s like, ‘No you should care because our life matters. Our joy should matter to you, not just our pain. You shouldn’t have to see Black people dying again and again and again and again to think, “Hm, maybe I should learn about this, maybe I should think about this.”‘


David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue 16 July

The closest I’ve come to reading one of David Mitchell’s novels is enjoying his namesake’s performances on Would I Lie to You?

Here he talks to the wonderful Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, and it’s a lot of fun.

I loved the moment right at the beginning when Williams called Mitchell’s latest book, Utopia Avenue, a rip-snorter. Mitchell hadn’t heard the word and asked if it was a Australianism or a Williamsism. Brilliantly prompted, he talks about the book’s genesis and his process in a very alive way. For example, in developing one character, he says: ‘You use the cliche. You turn the cliche inside out, and then you work out how to make that a real character.’

The other moment that gave me particular joy was when Mitchell spoke of his invention, the Iwath. An Iwath (IWasThere) is the kind of detail from a scene you would only know if you had been there, or at least one that creates that illusion. To make fiction seem real, you need to include at least three Iwaths a page – any more than that and it starts to feel over-researched or over-detailed, any less and it feels like something taken from Wikipedia. (That’s from memory – I recommend listening to the whole conversation to get his exact meaning. He also talked about the encapsulator. This is a moment in a work of art that in some way contains the whole thing: the overture to an opera, a self-portrait included in the painting of a crowd scene; the Book of Psalms in the Bible. He gave examples from his own work, but they sailed right past me as an eavesdropper.

I imagine this witty conversation will give great pleasure to fans of David Mitchell and especially of this book. It’s also fun for people like me who know nothing.


Bart van Es: The Cut Out Girl 11 August

A striking thing about this podcast is the shock of hearing the sounds of a live audience. It turns out it’s not from the Festival proper, but from an event at City Recital Hall on 2 March 2020, just before we all stopped going anywhere in groups. 

Bart van Es, a professor of English at Oxford University, was born in the Netherlands. This book grew from his curiosity about photographs of a young woman who lived with his parents when they were young and had been estranged from the family for decades. She was Lien de Jong, a young Jewish girl whom his grandparents sheltered from the Nazis and who returned to live with the family after the war.

In this conversation with the fabulous Sarah Kanowski from ABC Radio’s Conversations, Bart van Es tells how he tracked Lien down. On first meeting, she grilled him abut his personal life, his beliefs, and his motives for seeking her out, and then decided on the spot to talk to him – he hadn’t even brought a notebook to that meeting, but they improvised and that was the start of many hours of conversation that gave him the basis for his book, The Cut Out Girl.

Two things stood out from the story he tells. One, horrifically, a family that played a key part in saving Lien from the Nazi were committed anti-semites in their own way, and while they were harbouring Lien they also subjected her to terrible privations and turned a blind eye to sexual abuse. Two, in writing this story, van Es had to face some very uncomfortable truths abut his own family, but in doing so he enabled some extraordinary healing to happen.

Proust Progress Report 10:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): continuing Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe

I’ve now been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for ten months. One unexpected feature of this project is that Proust and this work keep turning up elsewhere. It’s happened least twice this month.

First, on a recent episode of the ABC’s Conversations podcast, the guest Maira Kalman told Sarah Kanowski about a ‘Proust group’ – eight people who read the whole of ‘Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time‘ over seven years, a year for each volume. They read 50 pages a month, and met monthly to discuss and read aloud to each other:

It put the world in order in all of its madness, and such beauty that it was incomprehensible.

The group has moved on to other things, but will return to Proust because ‘it’s not a good thing not to have him in your life’. You can listen to the whole Conversation at this link (the Proust discussion is at about 2:30 minutes).

Then, in the latest season of the US policier Bosch, the Haitian crime boss is seen reading a suspiciously slender hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu emblazoned on its cover.

I’m reading quite a bit faster than Ms Kalman’s group, though I’m evidently enjoying it a lot less than them. And since I read it in the morning before getting out of bed, I don’t get to flaunt it as a sign that I’m more than just another evil thug.

There’s still a lot about the politics of salons, dinners and at-homes, still a lot about unconventional sexual practices, which I’ve just realised might be meant to be read with an ooh-la-la inflexion, still a lot of laboriously explained wordplay, still a lot of rhapsodic descriptions of scenery. There’s also still a lot that’s left brilliantly unsaid, much silliness, an occasional flash of self-mockery, and then observation that cuts right to the reader’s heart.

There are shocking moments, too. For example, in the middle of some gossip about the aggressively vulgar Mme Verdurin there’s this, about a Princess who had taken up her cause with people of high society (le monde):

Elle avait même prononcé son nom au cours d’une visite de condoléances qu’elle avait faite à Mme Swann après la mort du mari de celle-ci, et lui avait demandé si elle les connaissait. 

She had even mentioned her name [that is, Mme Verdurin’s name] in the course of a visit of condolence which she had paid to Mme. Swann after the death of her husband, and had asked whether she knew them [the Verdurins]. 

Unless I’ve missed something, that throwaway line is the first – and, so far, the only – mention of the death of Swann, who has been so significant in the narrator’s life and whose mortal illness has been achingly observed earlier in the book. Blink and you miss it.

And then, in the midst of an interminable recount of a dinner party, where conversations overlap and intersect like in an Altman movie, the narrator will rhapsodise about a beautiful sunset, will take a letter from his pocket and criticise the quirks of its writer, of will plunge without warning into melancholy reflections on lost loves of youth, like this one which reminds us sharply that the narrator is in terrible health, looking back at the events he describes, and also reminds us of his frankness about sexual maters (sorry, it’s a bit long):

On peut quelquefois retrouver un être, mais non abolir le temps. Tout cela jusqu’au jour imprévu et triste comme une nuit d’hiver, où on ne cherche plus cette jeune fille-là, ni aucune autre, où trouver vous effraierait même. Car on ne se sent plus assez d’attraits pour plaire, ni de force pour aimer. Non pas bien entendu qu’on soit, au sens propre du mot, impuissant. Et quant à aimer, on aimerait plus que jamais. Mais on sent que c’est une trop grande entreprise pour le peu de forces qu’on garde. Le repos éternel a déjà mis des intervalles où l’on ne peut sortir, ni parler. Mettre un pied sur la marche qu’il faut, c’est une réussite comme de ne pas manquer le saut périlleux. Être vu dans cet état par une jeune fille qu’on aime, même si l’on a gardé son visage et tous ses cheveux blonds de jeune homme ! On ne peut plus assumer la fatigue de se mettre au pas de la jeunesse. Tant pis si le désir charnel redouble au lieu de s’amortir ! On fait venir pour lui une femme à qui l’on ne se souciera pas de plaire, qui ne partagera qu’un soir votre couche et qu’on ne reverra jamais.

(page 1422)

 We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time. And so on until the unforeseen day, gloomy as a winter night, when we no longer seek for that girl, or for any other, when to find her would actually frighten us. For we no longer feel that we have sufficient attraction to appeal to her, or strength to love her. Not, of course, that we are, in the strict sense of the word, impotent. And as for loving, we should love her more than ever. But we feel that it is too big an undertaking for the little strength that we have left. Eternal rest has already fixed intervals where we can neither make a move or speak. To set a foot on the necessary step is an achievement like not missing the perilous leap. To be seen in such a state by a girl we love, even if we have kept the features and all the golden locks of our youth! We can no longer undertake the strain of keeping pace with youth. All the worse if our carnal desire increases instead of failing! We procure for it a woman whom we need make no effort to attract, who will share our couch for one night only and whom we shall never see again.

I’m finally just gong with the flow as I read this book, and just today realised that I look forward to my daily 20 minutes or so. I’ve also started looking up some of the unfamiliar words. Sometimes it turns out that the general meaning had been obvious even if the English word hadn’t leapt to mind; at other times, the dictionary translation of a word is no help at all. When aa boy is described as coqueluche de toutes les dames, I could tell from the context that it meant he was the darling of all the ladies, which sure enough is how Moncrieff translates it. But the dictionary tells me that coqueluche is whooping cough. I do my best attempt at a Gallic shrug and read on.

Other times, the dictionary is more fun. As in these from the last week or so, pretty much all in the context of a Thursday evening chez Mme Verdurin:

  • gourgandine hussy
  • gredin crook, wrongdoer
  • astucieusement slickly, diplomatically
  • escarmouche skirmish
  • débandade stampede

That’s it until next month.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Weekend

The best laid plans etc. I was going to blog about the SWF daily, but it turned out that though I only got to one event on Saturday I still had no time to write about it then or on Monday or Tuesday, so here are my days 3 and 4 all mooshed up.

Saturday returned to the cloudless sky that’s traditional for the festival. The average age of the punters dropped by about 20 years, but the crowds at Walsh Bay didn’t seem to be any worse.

My day started with the half past two session, Shami Chakrabarti: WOW at Sydney Writers’ Festival Lecture. WOW, ‘Women of the World’, is a big feminist festival held annually at London’s Southbank Centre. There were a number of WOW events at this festival, a kind of taster-festival within the festival, and a friend I met at quarter past two or thereabouts had been wowed at one of them in which a number of women spoke for ten minutes each (there’s a nice blog post about that one on Guys Read Gals).

The 2.30 session was a tepid affair. Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre and founder of WOW, gave a long and  promising introduction – introducing herself as a very senior arts administrator, WOW as a feminist festival unlike any other in the world, and Shami Chakrabarti as her friend and a foremost human rights activist in the UK. ‘Why Women of the World rather than Feminists United?’ she asked, and I honestly thought she was going to say, ‘Because Wow! is so much more attractive than Eff you!’ Sadly no: she explained that it was because the word feminist had such a bad rep and they wanted to attract as many people as possible. This explanation enraged one of my companions, who also bridled at Jude’s admittedly eccentric suggestion that the men in the audience should consider themselves to be women for the occasion. Neither of those things particularly distressed me, but I could understand.

Then Shami Chakrabarti spoke. The same friend told me later that Ms Chakrabarti is a brilliant and heroic activist, who often appears on British TV and is completely formidable, someone you are very glad to have on your side. That wasn’t evident from this speech. She started off saying that in her view gender rights is the most important human rights issue in the world today – she hadn’t always thought so, but she now does. But instead of giving the reasons for her change of mind – arguing, for example, that no other human rights abuse can be adequately addressed unless women’s issues are also addressed – she just repeated the assertion, listed off a number of appalling statistics and atrocities, gave us a timeline of the gaining of important rights by women in Australia and the UK respectively (a part of her talk that someone said afterwards sounded like notes she had taken in preparation for visiting Australia, failing to realise that a Sydney audience might already know, for example, that women had the vote here 20 something years before Britain). Towards the end, she said, ‘It’s not my place to tell you what you should be doing in this country …’, and it struck me that that may have been the problem: as a citizen of London she was trying so hard not to be condescending to us ex-colonials that she ended up not saying anything much. Or maybe she was just jet-lagged.

Whatever, I think I picked the wrong WOW event. I do wonder if at I’m a Feminist – Can I Vajazzle? Jude Kelly invited the men in the audience to consider themselves as women.

I tried to get into the 4 o’clock Marathon Poetry Reading, but if the room holds 100 people, I was 102 in line. I tried to sit in the sun and listen: the ear was willing but the bum was sore and I got a cramp. So I went and sat and read until I could meet up with my companions who had gone to hear Bob Brown on the Future of Activism, where the reciprocal passion so absent from the WOW talk was by all accounts there in spades – even though he kept pointing an accusing finger at his audience and telling them that come September they were about to vote against their own interests and the interests of their children.

Sunday was another brilliant day – I speak mainly of the weather and the way it was possible to strike up an interesting conversation with compete strangers.

We started with Sylvia Nasar: Is the West Over and What Would Keynes say? at 10 o’clock, probably my most worthily motivated event of the festival. As is often the case, the conversation bore very little relation to the title of the session. It was mainly a promotion of Sylvia Nasar’s book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, which tells the history of economics through the lives of its key practitioners, and argues that economics is responsible for transforming the possibilities for human wellbeing. As one of my companions remarked afterwards, if the book is as facile as this session, it’s a good one to skip. Her responses to two questions at the end are indicative of that facileness.

A young woman, after a courteous squee about having a woman discuss economics, asked how Ms Nasar’s account of the vast benefits brought to humanity by economics related to the imminent threat from global warming. Ms Nasar said that many problems had been solved in the past and there was plenty of time so she was optimistic that economics would solve this one too. She probably didn’t mean that we should just place our faith in neoliberalism, but she could have meant that, and evidently didn’t see any need to dissociate herself from that view. Then someone asked what she saw as the importance of Amartya Sen. This question might well have been a chance to distance herself from the neoliberal world view, and perhaps come at last to the advertised theme of the session; instead she told us how she had followed ‘Amartya’ around in India for weeks when writing the book, and been struck by the way his photo appeared constantly on the front page of newspapers there – that in India economists could be treated as rockstars are in her native USA. End of reply.

Sylvia Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind, the book about economist John Nash that was made into the excellent movie with Russell Crowe, so she’s clearly done better than this. Maybe she was jet-lagged too.

I dashed to the scene of my unsuccessful queuing on Saturday, and this time I was among the last five people admitted – to stand at the back of the room for Research and Writing. This session turned out to be a lot of fun. The panel was the winner and two shortlisted authors for the 2012 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature: Jane Gleeson-White (Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet), Robin de Crespigny (The People Smuggler: The true story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oscar Schindler of Asia’) and Fiona Harari (A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld & Teresa Brennan). They were billed as talking about their approaches to research, and that’s what they did.

If there was a common thread, it is that each of their books began with the discovery of an interesting person, and none of them knew when they started what the book was going to be about. Jane Gleeson-White (who incidentally had just done a fine job as Sylvia Nasar’s amiably sceptical interlocutor) started out writing about the Viennese Monk Luca Bartolomes Pacioli, intimate of Leonardo and teacher of Dürer, and had to be told by her editor that she had actually written a history of accountancy. Robin de Crespigny set out to make a film about people smuggling, but was so captivated by Ali Al Jenabi that it had to be a book and, evidently, an enduring friendship. Fiona Harari began with questions about Marcus Einfeld, the eminent former judge who perjured himself over a speeding offence and ended up disgraced and in gaol, intending to devote just one chapter to Teresa Brennan, the deceased person he had claimed was the speeding driver, but expecting hostility from Einfeld’s friends and family she decided to write the Brennan part first, only to discover a whole rich story there. The panellists enjoyed themselves and each other, and a good time was had by all.

Fiona Harari said that Teresa Brennan was famous for telling outrageous lies for the fun of it – she had convinced Sir Gustav Nossal that she was planning to become a nun. As I’d relayed on this blog something I was told by Teresa when I met her in 1976, I used question time to ask if I’d been sold a pup: but no, it’s on record that, among many other improbabilities, she had indeed been a publicist for Barry Humphries and it was quite plausible that she had written jokes for Edna.

My final event was Karl Ove Knausgaard in conversation with Sarah Kanowski. I’d nearly finished the first book in his six volume novel My Struggle, A Death in the Family, which we’ll be discussing at my Book Group, and which I’ll write about here after the meeting. So this session was like homework. All homework should be so mesmerisingly interesting.

Sarah Kanowski seemed to have read everything Karl Ove had written, some of it at least twice. She pronounced his name as if she had been speaking Norwegian all her life, and was right up there with Ramona Koval in establishing a warm rapport with her interviewee. Karl Ove said that shame is the dominant emotion in Norwegian culture and these books set out to name things that are simply not talked about: drunkenness and incontinence, but also mistreatment of children and sexual matters. When he was writing the novel he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read it, and now he is alarmed to think there are more than 500 thousand people who know all about his sexual inadequacies. He claimed that when he finished speaking to us he would go off by himself and vomit with shame. Was it just me, or would everyone in the room have been willing to hold him by the shoulders while he vomited?

I hadn’t been sure I would read on past the first book, even though I was exhilarated by it. Now it looks as if I won’t be able to resist reading the whole 2000+ pages. Evidently the final book is a 400-page essay about Adolf Hitler. Can you believe I’m looking forward to it?

So that was my festival. We didn’t get to the Big Read, a highlight of previous festivals, because its new time slot was in working hours. I’ve subscribed to the podcast of  ABC Radio National’s pale shadow of the Book Show so as to hear some of the sessions I missed. I’ll happily advise people devising sessions to think in terms of readings and conversations rather than delivery of papers or rambling discourse. I recommend anyone travelling to Sydney to time it so you can attend, especially if it continues to overlap in time and location with the Vivid Festival (about which I’ll blog a little tomorrow).