Tag Archives: Shehan Karunatilaka

SWF 2023: My fourth day

Friday was my day for poetry, starting early:

10–11am In Conversation: Anthony Joseph

Anthony Joseph comes from Trinidad and is currently based in the UK. He was in conversation with Felicity Plunkett, one of the few Australian poets to appear on the program. Though his most recent book of poetry, Sonnets for Albert, won the 2022 T S Eliot Prose for Poetry, Felicity Plunkett assumed, correctly in my case, that the audience was unfamiliar with it, and filled us in: it’s a book, mainly in sonnets, about the poet’s father.

The conversation covered two main subjects, both engrossing: the story of Joseph’s father and his use of the sonnet form.

A young friend of mine once said of her father, with obvious affection, ‘He was a terrible dad.’ Joseph could go further: ‘He was my father, but he wasn’t a dad.’ He married very young, and left the marriage after just enough time for two sons to be born, then in the rest of his life had ten more children by a number of women. Joseph’s brother remained bitter about being abandoned until, at the very end, he was at his dying father’s bedside. Joseph himself lived with his paternal grandmother as a small boy and her affection for her son rubbed off on him. The poems, as I understand it, explore this emotional complexity. I’ve bought a copy of the book.

The sonnet – which Felicity Plunkett described as being an inheritance just as much family experience is – is more than a poem. In the English-speaking world, it’s a feeling, a thing you recognise in many places: in the shape of a pop song, even in the shape of the human body. It’s a way of thinking. For Caribbean/Black poets, it’s interesting to find ways of using the form and making it fit their experience. When he was writing the book, Joseph started out adhering strictly to the rules, but then began taking all sorts of liberties. His father’s voice said to him: ‘You can’t put me in this box.’

He quoted two Caribbean poets. Kamau Braithwaite: ‘The hurricane does not roar in pentameter.’ Derek Walcott: ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination.’

Speaking of himself, he said that luckily he has access not only to standard English but to Trinidadian Creole, which (I’m almost certainly getting this wrong) uses English words with African-derived grammar. To illustrate, he read us sonnets from the book in standard English and in Trinidadian.

There were some good questions. I loved his description of his process for writing a poem: ‘You write it. You leave it. You come back and edit it, and hope the original resonance is still there.

After grabbing a late breakfast, it was off to join a much larger audience for:

12-1 pm Eleanor Catton: Birnam Wood

Eleanor Catton was in conversation with Beejay Silcox who I know mainly as a critic in the Australian Book Review. Everyone keeps saying that Eleanor Catton’s new book, Birnam Wood, is her second, the first being the award-winning The Luminaries. Catton was careful to let us know it was actually her third, and that she didn’t disown her first, The Rehearsal, about a theatrical production in a girls’ school.

She talked about her venture in screen writing – for the 2020 movie Emma. (full stop is part of the title), directed by Autumn de Wilde. She learned a lot from her immersion in Jane Austen’s novel, and from the way film requires character to be revealed through action. She learned the dictum that every story had to have a beginning, a middle and an end was important for drawing attention to the transitions between those elements, the turning points of structure.

She and Beejay Silcox agreed that Emma is one of the great monsters of English literature, but she said that the genius of Jane Austen is to beguile the reader into committing the same mistake as Emma makes, in thinking ourselves morally superior to her, and then turning it back on us. (I do love a bit of Jane-Austen-ophilia.)

As for Birnam Wood, it sounds interesting, a satire that sets out to unsettle readers of all political stripes. I’ll wait for recommendations or otherwise from the Emerging Artist and others. Maybe I’m unsettled enough already.

Then scurry scurry scurry (I’m sure in the olden days when everything was better there was a bigger time gap between sessions) to:

1–2 pm ABC RN: The Bookshelf

The Bookshelf is an ABC Radio National program where hosts Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh chat with guest writers about their books and the books they cherish. Each episode of the program adds a number of books to an imagined bookshelf. Their guests on stage for this session were Shehan Karunatilaka (I was glad to see more of him after Wednesday evening), Jason Reynolds (interested to hear him more discursive than on Thursday evening) and speculative fiction writer Grace Chan (yay for genre!).

One of the pleasures of this panel was the way it embodied Anthony Joseph’s quote from Derek Walcott: ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination.’ An African-American YA writer, a Malaysian-born spec-fic writer, a Sri Lankan novelist, all own the language and its literatures. I did make notes of the books they mentioned, but I’ll just mention a couple of moments that gave me joy.

I loved it when someone mentioned a book I love. Jason Reynolds mentioned Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, a tiny book about a boy who writes poetry that I had forgotten until he reminded me of it. Grace Chan recommended Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho, saying that it had magic, and boarding school etc, and then referred, not to the obvious inspiration but to the late, great, beloved of me, Diana Wynne Jones. Shehan Karunatilaka was cajoled into confessing his love for the Choose Your Own Adventure books – it’s not that I loved them so much as that they were a feature of my early parenthood, and somehow it was a thrill to realise these formidable people were young enough to be my children.

Drums got a mention. Jason Reynolds quoted James Brown (I don’t remember the context): ‘Every instrument is a drum.’ Shehan Karunatilaka said he loved to play the drums: ‘I bang the drum, read some Yeats, and I’m ready to go.’

The most interesting moment was when one of the facilitators suggested that these writers of non-Anglo background were redefining the canon. ‘No,’ said Jason Reynolds. ‘We have different canons to start with.’ He listed a number of great African American writers, not as favourite authors of his, but as the eminences who defined the literary landscape. He suggested that each of the others on the panel had a similar lineage behind them. We’ve come a very long way since my days studying Eng Lit under the shadow of F R Leavis (even though that shadow was fading in my time), when there was The Great Tradition – a very short list of The Writers Who Matter. I for one am very happy for that distance.

7.30–8.30 pm The Rhythm of the Word

The thing I love most about the Sydney Writers’ Festival is being read to. The Big Read, when half a dozen writers would read to a packed Town Hall is now apparently a thing of the past, but moments like Sebastian Barry bursting into song at the beginning of his reading are still with me years after the event.

So I was happy to venture back out from my warm home for this poetry reading. Poetry readings at the SWF used to have a home-town feel, and when the festival was beside the Harbour poetry had a base in small, often crowded, sometimes glare-filled room at the end of the wharf. The Carriageworks doesn’t allow for such nooks and crannies, and poetry events have somehow become rarer.

Not that there was anything unattractive about this event.

Western Sydney poet Omar Sakr was the host. He used his platform as MC to slip in a poem of his own (the only poem I heard at the festival by a Australian living east of the WA border!). It was ‘Diary of a non-essential worker’ a Covid poem, and I wrote down two lines that struck me. I can’t read my own writing, but I think the lines are:

Everything is a miracle when you're alive
I'm learning that reluctantly

Madison Godfrey did a reprise of ‘When I grow up I want to be the merch girl’, which they read on the opening night. Their other poems were ‘Harry Styles was [illegible] on a beach and the horizon was aligned with his thighs’, ‘Utopia translates as no place’ (a heartbreak poem), and ‘Impulse’ (named for a brand of deodorant).

Joshua Whitehead, Canadian First Nations scholar and poet (a different person from novelist Colson Whitehead who is also a guest at the festival) did a stunning performance of a medley of poems from his two books, including Making Love with the Land (2022). If you heard his astonishingly rapidfire stuttering delivery on a recording you could easily assume his effects were achieved by electronic feedback but he did it all.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai read three poems, first in Vietnamese and then in English. At the end, she gave us a short lesson in the importance of diacritical marks in Vietnamese (‘those funny little marks above the letters’). She had us all pronounce Quế , and explained it means ‘cinnamon’. Then she taught us Que (which is how her English-language publishers) wanted to print it). It sounds quite different and means ‘snake’. Point made.

Anthony Joseph read two poems, quite different from the sonnets of this morning’s session. They were ‘On the Move’ and ‘The Ark’ He introduced the latter saying it was an elegy for a London hip hop performer whose name I didn’t write down. It’s a list poem, or a litany: name after name of African-heritage writer or singer or performer with the recurring phrase ‘is on the Ark’. The cumulative effect is powerful – for me, partly by making me aware of how few of the names I recognised (making me think back to Jason Lester’s observation this morning about different canons), and partly by invoking the force of those I do recognise (from Langston Hughes to Maya Angelou). At the end his friend’s name was added to the list, and Omar Sakr came onstage wiping his cheeks and saying his face had melted.

After the reading I looked around and saw just one face I recognised. We had a chat, and were soon commiserating over the absence of Sydney’s usual poetry audience from the event, and the near absence of Sydney or even eastern Australian poets from the Festival program. We happened to walk past Ann Mossop, Artistic Director, and buttonholed her briefly on the subject. She said that it’s hard to find an audience for poetry. I wonder what would happen if the Festival commissioned someone like Magdalena Ball of Compulsive Reader or Toby Fitch, poetry editor of Overland and organiser of Avant Gaga, a monthly poetry reading in Glebe, to curate a poetry stream in a tiny room somewhere at Carriageworks. If such a curator needs t be someone who’s not white, what about Eileen Chong, or Sara Mansour of the Bankstown Poetry Slam? Just wonderin’.

SWF 2023: My third day

I’m not exactly live blogging the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s now Sunday and my festival is over, but the blog is still at Thursday.

On Thursday, we arrived an hour or so before any of our booked events and caught up with friends over lunch, then we were off.

2 pm: Climate Hope

This was billed as: ‘a trio of environmental experts examine promising developments, signs of hope and viable solutions for a greener, more sustainable future.’ It delivered on that promise.

Simon Holmes à Court, founder of Climate 200 (tagline ‘climate proofing politics’), was the chair. Other panellists were a scientist, an engineer and a community activist: Joëlle Gergis (Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope), Saul Griffith (The Big Switch and the Quarterly Essay The Wires that Bind), and Claire O’Rourke (Together We Can: Everyday Australian’s doing amazing things to give our planet a future).

There was an awful lot to digest, or even grasp as it flew by. I hope it will turn up as a podcast – I recommend it.

Here are some of my takeaways:

Jöelle Gergis described how, after helping to write the IPCC report on the state of the climate, she was filled with despair. Technological solutions are pretty much all there, but there is little political will to implement them. This is no longer a scientific problem; it’s a social, cultural and political one. She found hope in looking to history. Many times in the past when there has been a major crisis, people have come together and created solutions. She gave a number of examples, but what I remember is Saul Griffith’s amplification of her point by mentioning Dunkirk: the Allied forces had been roundly defeated, and then Winston Churchill, who can be criticised on many fronts, inspired what could have seemed an irrational hope with his rhetoric (‘We will fight them with teaspoons’ – not an actual quote as far as I know), and the people famously rallied.

The motto ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle’ doesn’t point to the way out of the climate emergency. It puts the onus for action at the individual level, when what is needed is systemic change (though individual initiatives are important to achieve that). It can be paraphrased as, ‘If we just sacrifice a little, the world will be a little bit less fucked.’ (Numerous apologies for swearing were made to Saul Griffith’s mother who was in the audience, though if she’s anything like women I know who are mothers of people Saul Griffith’s age, she swears quite a bit herself.) in reality, if we do this right, we can get a good outcome and not sacrifice any of our standard of living.

Claire O’Rourke is already active in the social movement space. She gave example after example of ordinary people who have taken action and organised to bring about change at local and regional levels.

There were some great quotes:

Claudia Rankine (link to my blog post about her Citizen): ‘Every state of emergency is also a state of emergence.’

Bill McKibben (link to my 2007 blog post discussing his Deep Economy): ‘Winning slowly is losing.’

Rebecca Solnit (link to my blog post about her Hope in the Dark): ‘People today will determine the future of humanity.’

Saul Griffith recommended that each of us makes six big decisions about our lives in the next year in order to bring about systemic change: decisions about home heating, cooking, cars, nutrition and so on. Just a handful of major decisions, he means, not the hundreds of decisions involved in ‘lifestyle changes’.

Claire O’Rourke mentioned systems theory, said change happens most effectively through networks and recommended the All We Can Save Project.

Jöelle Gergis had the last word: The missing piece is a social movement.

I rushed off to arrive late and sit at the edge of the space set aside for ‘curiosity Lectures’ and ‘Beginnings’, the latter being sessions where people read the beginnings of books to the audience:

3 pm: Benjamin Gilmour on Taking Tea with the Taliban.

Among other things, Benjamin Gilmour is notable for the extraordinary film Jirga (2019), which he wrote, directed and shot in a tribal area of Afghanistan. He recently revisited Afghanistan for a new film documentary project, which if I heard correctly is to be called Taking Tea with the Taliban. In this Curiosity Lecture he told about interviews with members of the Taliban government and his time with villagers who told him of terrible brutality at the hands of Australian soldiers.

It was disturbing stuff. He relayed the Taliban’s protestations that the way they are portrayed in the western press is self-serving propaganda, that their treatment of women is misrepresented, and that it’s hypocritical for the west to condemn the Taliban for mistreatment of women when USA and Australian forces have destroyed so many Afghan lives, of women and children as well as men.

I couldn’t help thinking of those Australians who visited Stalin’s Russia and came back with glowing reports of happy workers at times when, it was later revealed, the gulags were filling up. All the same, he made a strong argument for governments to engage with the Taliban. ‘I did,’ he finished his talk, ‘and I’m just some guy.’

Benjamin Gilmour has a special place in my heart: we published a number of his poems in The School Magazine in the 1990s, when I was editor and he was a teenager. I introduced myself and we had a photo taken together. I’d share it here but I made the mistake of lowering my mask instead of taking it off altogether, and I look mildly deranged.

Then straight on to 4 pm: George Monbiot: Regenesis

A giant George Monbiot on video chatted with Rebecca Huntley. This was a brilliant talk. Monbiot’s ability to marshal facts and present a clear argument is breathtaking.

His central message was that the global food supply system is at risk of catastrophic failure. Not only that, but farming is contributing hugely to global warming. Second only to the urgent need to keep fossil fuels in the ground is the need to stop farming animals. It’s as if the scientists who have been researching this area have been shouting and waving their arms about, but have been doing it from behind plate glass, inaudible to the rest of us.

Although world hunger fell steadily from about 1960, in 2014 it began to rise again, and has been rising steadily ever since – even before the shocks to the food supply system that were Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is because the food distribution system now works in such a way that even small shocks to the system can cause disproportionate price hikes in vulnerable communities.

He gave us a brief introduction to systems theory. Complex systems, such as the climate or the global food supply system, take a lot of understanding (and after this talk, I’m keen to learn more). There are six elements required for a complex system to be resilient:

  • diversity
  • asynchronicity
  • redundancy
  • modularity
  • circuit breakers (in this case regulatory constraints)
  • back-up systems

I imagine his book Regenesis spells out how the food system scores on these elements. From the talk I understood that concentration of the control of food in about four massive corporations makes for low resilience. Industrial farming likewise. Redundancy is so limited that if the Ever Given had been stuck in the Suez Canal a year earlier, when Covid was at a different stage, the result would have been disastrous.

It’s not a question of tightening our belts. He sees hope in technology, in what he calls a technoethical shift: when something becomes amendable it becomes intolerable. That is to say, if a food can be developed that has the nutritional value of meat and it’s flavour, texture and general appeal, we will be able to face the reality of what our meat-eating has been doing to our relationships with other animals and to the planet.

The technology that he favours is ‘precision fermentation’, in which single cell organisms are used for food: we already do it with yeast, and many other species are being explored. A naturally occurring pink microbe has been discovered in Europe that when grown in a culture looks, feels and tastes like sausage. He himself was the first person to eat a pancake grown from microbes – ‘One small flip for a man’ – and it tasted like a pancake. He surmises that this will lead to a culinary revolution as radical as the one produced by the development of agriculture. And food produced in this way uses a tiny fraction of the earth’s resources.

We went home for a vegan dinner, then caught public transport into town for our one event not at the Carriagework:

8 pm: Storytelling Gala: Letters to the Future

Not to cast shade on any of the readers or organisers but this ‘gala’ was a bit of a dud. A stellar line-up of writers got to read to a packed Sydney Town Hall. They had evidently been given the title ‘Letter to the Future’. Most of them gave us a piece that began, ‘Dear Future’, and too many wrote what could be summarised as: ‘Dear Future, we have fucked up the world. I expect Earth is posthuman/a disaster where you are. Please forgive [or forget] us.’ After hearing someone say in the 2 o’clock session that people find it easier to imagine a disastrous future than one where the problems have been solved, it was dispiriting to hear so many people take the easier path as if they were doing something serious.

There were exceptions.

Anthony Joseph (about whom more tomorrow) read two poems in a form known as the Golden Shovel, where the last words of the lines spell out a quotation. His first one took Kierkegaard’s ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards’: I was too busy trying to spot the line breaks to follow the poem, but it sounded great.

Shehan Karunatilaka spoke elegantly about the impossibility of the task and told a fable about a child refusing a hug to her father, thereby setting of a chain of events leading to disaster.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai wrote an imaginary letter from her ten-year-old self, bookended by fabulous a cappella song.

Jason Reynolds also read a letter from his past self: I found it hard to follow, but his performance was fabulously musical.

Nardi Simpson rejected the idea of the future, saying that as a First Nations person she has responsibilities to Now. It was striking how she echoed Alexis Wright’s talk on the opening night.

Tabitha Carvan got the only laughs of the evening with a comic bit about a leadership course where on the first meeting the participants wrote a letter to their future selves.

It was a day full of excellent things, and things that will bear thinking about and acting on for some time.

SWF 2023: My second day

After a day on grandparent duty, we made our weary, head-cold-heavy but cheerfully expectant way to Carriageworks for:

8 pm: Shehan Karunatilaka: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

The Emerging Artist loved The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, which won the 2022 Booker Prize and which the Festival program describes as an ‘epic, searing and darkly funny satire’. Shehan Karunatilaka was in conversation with Michael Williams, former acting director of the Festival, current editor of Melbourne’s The Monthly, and one of my favourite SWF interlocutors.

Michael Williams kicked the session off with a joke about the smell of a room full of book people. When that fell a little flat – very flat, actually – he followed it up by saying the SWF was Nerd Christmas, which went over much better, all the more because this was a Melbourne person who didn’t indulge in tiresome inter-city comparisons.

The session was everything I could have hoped for. Shehan Karunatilaka was urbane, witty, serious about his work but not at all self important.

The book, I gather, is about a recently dead war photographer at the end of the Sri Lankan conflict in the 1980s. It’s a ghost story, in which the ghost investigates his own death while dealing with the bureaucratic system of the afterlife.

Karunatilaka gave a number of different origin stories for the book. He wanted to write about something other than cricket (he mentioned his cricket novel, Chinaman, quite a bit), and thought that the complex ‘squabbling’ and blame-laying at the end of Sri Lanka’s long and devastating civil war was a good subject. A good way of resolving the squabbles would be to ask the ghosts of those who had died in the war.

On the other hand, he just wanted to write a ghost story, not something political. In fact, an early draft was a horror-slasher set on a bus. The book is genre rather than magical realism.

‘Why does this beautiful island go from catastrophe to catastrophe?’ The malign presence of ghosts seemed a plausible explanation.

There was much more: the rules for ghosts; the reason for making his protagonist a war photographer; the book’s relationship to a real-life journalist who disappeared during the war; whether as a ‘cis het normative man’ he would write a gay character if he were starting the novel today.

I have to mention the audience questions. There were five, all of them interesting.

  • Asked about his influences, he named a number of South Asian writers as well as westerners including Kurt Vonnegut, then told us about Carl Muller
  • The questioner said that Shehan’s identifying as heterosexual was a great disappointment to the gay men in the audience, and asked how much of himself was in the character. He said that one of the joys of fiction is that it lets you inhabit different people, but of course you also draw on yourself
  • Asked about the book’s reception by religious people in Sri Lanka, he said it hadn’t been an issue. His afterlife was sufficiently nonspecific not to offend, but the earlier questioner’s mention of The Satanic Verses had him worried
  • A young woman who sad she was a writer passionately concerned about Sri Lanka asked him how he did it. His reply began, ‘I wake up at 4 o’clock every morning.’
  • The final question could have been a classic of the genre. Told we needed her to be very brief, the questioner read from her phone a brief essay explaining that she’d only just started reading the book but saw it as an obituary for the casualties of war. A question followed but I didn’t make a note

Oh, I should mention that had been allocated excellent seats, four rows from the front, in the middle of the row