Tag Archives: Sheila Pham

SWF 2020, Post 4

I read a lot, but I’ve now listened to 20 podcasts from the virtual 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival, and not only have I not read any of the books being discussed, but I haven’t read any books written by the people on the podcasts, not even, in the case of Kathy Lette, Puberty Blues. It’s some consolation that three the five sessions I’m blogging about here about about kinds of books that I rarely read these days, if I ever have.

Unlike previous sessions, each of these joined like with like: two Greens, two children of refugee parents, two YA genre writers, two journalists-turned-or-turning-crime novelists, two feminist comic performers.

Bob Brown: Planet Earth Jun 11, 2020

This chat between two environmental activists and former Greens Senators Bob Brown and Scott Ludlam is what you would expect. You (and I mean ‘I’) may not agree with Bob Brown’s every position and action, but he has surely been a major force for good in Austraoian politics. His voice is as richly sonorous as ever, and he challenges his listeners as much as he reassures. The pretext for this conversation is his new book Planet Earth, which from his description is a Little Green Book of quotations, tailor-made for this age of short attention spans, and probably to be found on the front counter of your local independent bookshop. Brown says at one point that he will be going to the Galilee Basin or elsewhere in the coming months, ‘to join with the people who are directly standing in the way of the destruction of those places,’ and he continues, challengingly and with his characteristic disdain for compromise:

It’s very hard to understand why people don’t, because to do nothing is to aid and abet the flourishing of the destruction of our planet and that’s gong faster than ever before in history. It’s very hard to understand why so many people think that that is outside their capability. It’s not. The Franklin would be dammed from end to end now had 6 thousand people not gone to Strachan in the early 80s and 1500 of those got arrested. It’s very fulfilling. I’ve not run into anybody who was arrested or gaoled during the Franklin campaign who hasn’t said, ‘That’s one of the greatest things that happened in my whole life. I’m so glad I did that.’ …

I keep saying that at the last election – 2May 2019 – ninety percent of Australians, and one must assume the majority of people listening to our conversation, voted for candidates who stood for more coal mines, more gas extraction, more forest destruction, which for the Liberal party, the National Party, the Labor Party, One Nation, is their ongoing policy. When I say this at meetings there’s always somebody who angrily comes up and says, ‘Well, I voted for one of the big parties, biggest parties, but I wasn’t voting for that.’ My answer to that is, ‘Yes, but that’s because the planet’s not your priority. Your wallet is. Take your choice, but that’s the reality.’

He has a little picture book in the works, and is planning Defiance, about taking action: ‘How do we take on what’s going wrong with the planet, and how do we catapult what’s going right with the planet into the predominant mode of action and thinking for eight million human beings?’


Vivian Pham: The Coconut Children Jun 15, 2020

This is a conversation between two Vietnamese-Australians, both children of refugees. An earlier version of Vivian Pham’s novel The Coconut Children was published a couple of years ago, when she was still a teenager. It was written as part of a project to encourage school children to write, and stands as a salutary reminder not to patronise young people. It’s a historical novel set in an era before Ms Pham was born, the late 1990s. In this podcast she talks to Sheila Ngoc Pham, who produces documentaries and stories for ABC Radio National, and who was the same age as the book’s characters in the year it’s set.

The conversation is most interesting – to me as a grisled elder – when it turns to Vivian Pham’s influences. Though the book’s characters are teenage Vietnamese migrants in Cabramatta, Shakespeare is a big presence, which he wasn’t in the original version. The author says that she was emboldened to have her characters quote Shakespeare by James Baldwin’s 1964 essay ‘Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare’. And there’s a wonderful couple of minutes where both speakers riff on their debt to James Baldwin. (I read The Fire Next Time in my late teens and felt lightbulbs flicking on all over the place: it was good to be reminded.)


Chris Hammer: Silver Jun 17, 2020

A couple of years back I looked at my probably life expectancy and my To Be Read shelf and decided not to read any more detective novels. So this conversation between two crime novelists wasn’t going to send me to the bookshop, at leas not for myself.

But it’s an interesting conversation anyhow, between Chris Hammer, much -lauded author of Scrublands and now Silver, and Paul Daley, journalist and author of a forthcoming novel Jesustown. They have been friends for a long time, encouraged each other to move from journalism to fiction, rejoiced in each other’s success. Their discussion of the differences between journalism and fiction writing is interesting. They talk about the two kinds of novelists, plotters and pantsers: plotters plan out the whole action of their books before they begin writing, sometimes to teh extent of writing a 300 page treatment, while pantsers proceed by the seat of their pants, and end up doing a lot of rewriting. Chris Hammer says that he’s a pantser, though for his third novel he’s learning to be more of a plotter. When Silver had been accepted for publication, he announced to his editor that he had decided to change the ending, and with her blessing proceeded to rewrite the last 45 pages.

My resolve not to read crime novels was sorely tested when he read the opening pages of his next novel. But I’ll wait for the movie, which will be a cracker.


Writing on a Knife’s Edge Jun 17, 2020

This session is about YA genre literature. Not that YA is a genre – the term indicates that the publishers, or at least the marketing department, consider a book suitable for teen readers, and such books can be in any genre.

It’s three-way conversation. ABC Radio’s Rhianna Patrick talks to two YA authors, Sarah Epstein (Deep Water) and Astrid Scholte (The Vanishing Deep). Among other things the plotter–pantser binary is discussed again, though not with those labels. My sense is that this conversation was really for the fans, or at least for the YA literature community. There was no YA literature in my teenage years, and I’ve got a very spotty acquaintance with the field, so I was very much an outsider listening in. I imagine that insiders will enjoy it a lot.


Kathy Lette Gets Candid 22 Jun 2020

Kathy Lette’s new novel is  HRT: Husband Replacement Therapy. She discusses it with Wendy Harmer, stand-up comedian and now ABC radio morning host.

Somewhere during their conversation, Kathy Lette, rebutting the cliché that women aren’t funny, talks about the way women talk when no man are around. This podcast is probably an example of what she means.

The conversation opens with the kind of joking-not-joking-I’m-not-bitter comments about men that used to appear in the Australian Women’s Weekly‘s ‘Mere Male’ column in the 1950s. Later, when the conversation turns serious and Kathy Lette’s relentless punning and wordplay ease up for a moment, she says that the world needs men to step up as allies to women against patriarchy, and she rejoices at some evidence that this is happening among young men. But there has been so much clever stereotyping and objectifying of men in what went before that it I found it hard to hear this as anything but dutifulness to the sisterhood.

Men, Kathy Lette complained, don’t read novels by women. Well, I haven’t read any of her books, but if they’re about post-menopausal women swinging from chandeliers with toy boys between their teeth, or encouraging women to stand firm on their own two stilettos, which was the kind of thing that took up a lot of this conversation, or about three fifty-something sisters caught up in sexual rompery on a Cougar cruise, which evidently is the set-up of HRT, I won’t be adding them to my TBR list.


I’m not complaining. I probably wouldn’t have signed up for any of these sessions at a flesh-and-blood festival, and each of them gave me a glimpse into whole worlds most of which I had only the vaguest notion of beforehand.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going for days now, but my festival started yesterday, on a bleak, wet, grey Thursday.

I began with a 10 o’clock launch of four chapbooks in Vagabond Press’s Rare Objects series. Chapbooks are books of poetry so small they don’t even rate an ISBN. But where some chapbooks have a cheap and cheerful feel, the Rare Objects are beautifully crafted, a hundred numbered and signed copies of each title. The books being launched were by the stellar line-up of David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Adam Aitken.

Luke Davies gave one of the best launch speeches I’ve heard. He paid tribute to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press and to the four poets in warmly personal terms, as people and as creators. The mutual respect and affection among the five people on the dais was something wonderful: completely the opposite of the internecine strife for which poets are supposedly famous. Each of the four launchees read: Adam Aitken from November Already, Robert Adamson from Empty your Eyes, Martin Harrison from Living Things)and David Malouf from Sky News (which my deafness heard Luke Davies announce, improbably, as Sky Nudist, but that would be a different chapbook). We the audience were very restrained, applauding politely after each reader – my guess is that we were too busy processing the complex pleasures we were being given to be too demonstrative. It really was a brilliant reading: a stunning prose poem from Adamson, crisp imagery from Malouf, Aitken taking the New York School to a tiny French village (not really, but that’s a mangled form of his own joke), Harrison in fine rhapsodic form. I loved Martin Harrison’s account of the genesis of his ‘Wallabies’: witnessing two young Australians in full xenophobic flight in a Parisian Internet cafe (and he described them to us with great relish), he took notes intending to write a satirical poem, but realised when he sat to write that what he really wanted to do was to celebrate the part is Australia they came from.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I bought all four of the Rare Objects, found a spot out of the rain and sat and read, did email things on my iPad, and chatted. (One of the striking things about the SWF is how easy it is to strike up a conversation with complete strangers.) Then it was time for the 1 o’clock session:Harbour City Poets: Some People You May Know, my first event in the Bangarra Mezzanine, which I think of as the poets’ space at the Festival. Again it was a pleasure to be read to, this time by a quintet of poets – Margaret Bradstock, John Carey, David Musgrave, Louise Wakeling and Les Wicks. The poems were about people, real, and imagined. Margaret Bradstock’s pieces about colonial characters made me want more. And there was some witty and elegant light satire. It may be because someone had told me just before the session about the man being hacked to death in London, but I found myself thinking that light satire, especially when performed giving broad Austealian accents to its objects, is a dangerous mode in which the satirist can all too easily come off as smug, class-bound, narrow-minded, bien-pensant and otherwise unappealing.

I rushed home (bus–train–bus), walked and fed the dog and was back, just a few minutes late for Robert Green: On Creativity at 4 oclock. This session wasn’t on my schedule, but a friend had a ticket she couldn’t use, and the Festival program promised ‘exercises to help rid [me] of blocks and unleash thinking that is more fluid and creative’. Given that I’m feeling out of my depth with a writing project just now, it was a case of what the hell archie, and I’d taken the tickets off her hands. It was turned out to be pretty much a motivational talk. The ‘exercises’ were three broadbrush strategies: embrace the blank page; think like an outsider; subvert your patterns of thinking. I enjoyed the talk, not least for the wealth of anecdote and Robert Green’s manifest passion for his message that every human brain is capable of brilliance, that mastery is possible. I especially liked the first question and response at the end. In summary, a white-bearded man suggested that next time a journalist asks him if he can seriously believe the stuff he says, he should try thinking like a mushroom; this was evidently meant as a witticism, but Green was completely nonplussed; after a bit of back and forth in which the point of excuse tin remained obscure, he agreed that he would give it a try.

More bus, more train, dinner at a pub in Chippendale then to the Carriageworks for Stories Then & Now. I’m a big fan of William Yang’s slide-show story telling, especially his exploration of his Chinese and north Queensland heritages over the years. For this show, along with Annette Shum Wah, he has mentored six mainly younger Asian-heritage people to tell the stories of their families (‘then’) and their personal stories (‘now’). Each story-teller had two turns alone on stage with a microphone in front of hem and two screens showing a series of photographs behind them. Ien Ang, Jenevieve Chang, Michael C. S. Park, Sheila Pham, Paul van Reyk and Willa Zheng were each completely engaging, and the combined effect of heir six presentations was extraordinarily rich. The Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, the American War in Vietnam, Indonesian independence, the White Australia Policy; a hilariously failed attempt at an arranged marriage, a weirdly romantic tale of serial fatherhood by sperm donation, a successful Internet match, intergenerational tension and conflict fled, faced and reconciled. We came out into the night exhilarated.