Tag Archives: Sydney Writers’ Festival

SWF 2020, 11th and final post

I’ve been blogging about the online 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival (I almost forgot the apostrophe) most of the year. The Festival is still going on, and its website is listing events to mid-January next year. I’ll keep listening, but I won’t blog any more. Here are links to the Festival podcasts currently on my phone, in case you’d like to check them out.

Drawn from Life: Alice Oseman in Conversation 21 October: YA phenomenon and graphic novelist Alice Oseman chats with media phenomenon Jes Layton.

Secrets and Lies: Donor-Conceived Rights 21 October: Dani Shapiro, USA-based author talks to Australian author Bri Lee about issues raised in her memoir, Inheritance, including those related to children conceived by sperm donation.

Griffith Review 68: Getting On 28 October: Tony Birch, Andrew Stafford and Jane R. Goodall talk with Griffith Review editor, Ashley Hay, about getting older.

Trent Dalton: All Our Shimmering Skies 4 November: Trent Dalton in conversation with Annabel Crabb bout his second novel

Guardian Australia Book Club with Helen Garner 6 November: No elaboration needed from me. The interviewer is Michael Williams, now artistic director of the SWF.

Behrouz Boochani and Tara June Winch in Conversation 11 November: Again, no elaboration needed from me about either of the participants. I will mention that Tara June Winch acquitted herself admirably in Hard Quiz recently.

Tony Birch: The White Girl 18 November: Tony Birch is here again to talk with Evelyn Araluen about his novel The White Girl.

Julia Phillips: Disappearing Earth 3 December: The author of the excellent Disappearing Earth talks to Tam Zimet, until recently associate director of the SWF.

It’s nice to finish with one of the rare books that I’ve read that also features in this year’s Festival

SWF 2020, Post 10: All fiction

The next five podcasts from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival are all about fiction. My guess is I would have attended one out of five in a non-virtual festival, but my completist compulsion kicked in. The one I would have attended, the 50th session, is about the first book in the festival that I’ve actually read!

In the intro to the fifth session in this blog post, Michael Williams introduces himself without fanfare as the new Artistic Director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I for one welcome our new Melbourne overlord.

Alex Dyson: When It Drops 16 September

This conversation about Alex Dyson’s When It Drops is part of the festival’s YA podcast series. Will Kostakis, YA author himself, does a brilliant job, and Dyson’s experience as a morning radio presenter ensures that teh entertainment quotient is high. We don’t get to the content of the book until the 20 minute mark: before that there’s a lot of very funny chat about the difference between doing a radio show and writing a novel, about the horror of discovering a typo in a freshly published book, about tiny bits of celebrity gossip, about awkward love poetry written by both these men when they were teenagers.

Even then, the conversation doesn’t get stuck in laborious detail about the book’s characters and plot. We learn snippets of Alex Dyson’s life story, and then there’s non-spoilerish discussion of how those snippets relate to the book. At the end, it turns out that Alex Dyson ran for federal parliament last year, and he has some very smart things to say about that.


Nicole Dennis-Benn: Patsy 23 September

Jamaican-born Nicole Dennis-Benn now calls Brooklyn hoome. Her novel Patsy tells the story of a Jamaican woman who leaves her husband and five-year-old daughter for a new life where she can choose how to live, in the USA. In this conversation with Australian journalist and filmmaker Santilla Chingaipe, she lays out some of the issues the novel is responding to. At its heart there’s the question: ‘What do we lose or gain when we choose ourselves as women – especially as women – in society.’

It’s great to hear a clear voice speak about Jamaican society, including aspects of class, colonialism, the importance accorded skin colour, sexism; and about Jamaican Americans in relation to African Americans and others.

My two favourite moments in the conversation are being read to from the novel (always a pleasure, and in this case reassuringly concrete in the context of a conversation bristling with terms like ‘intergenerational trauma’), and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s response to the question, ‘How did Patsy find you?’ The novel started life as a series of letters from the character Patsy to her mother back in Jamaica. Then after a whole year, another voice turned up, a girl navigating a life in Jamaica without her mother:

I realised Patsy’s saying all these things to her mother in these letters, but she’s leaving out a lot of things. She’s leaving out how she’s really doing in America – you know, she was in that one room already in that first draft. But in addition to that, Patsy wasn’t telling me – the author – something: that she left a whole five-year-old daughter behind. … I kind of refused to believe that Patsy would actually do that, because I wanted to like Patsy, I judged Patsy initially when I found that out. But I continued the Dear Mama letters and then, draft two, I trashed that. I was like, ‘You know, Patsy, you gotta tell me the truth.’ And that’s what happened. She ended up revealing a lot more.


Heather Rose: Bruny 30 September

Heather Rose’s novel Bruny, the subject of this conversation, has disappointed friends of mine who loved her earlier novel, The Museum of Modern Love. Worse, one of the more forthright members of my Book Group virtually recoiled in horror when someone mentioned it. So I was tempted to bypass this session. I resisted the temptation.

It’s a conversation between Heather Rose and Suzanne Leal, lawyer, novelist and literary award judge. Perhaps there’s a bit too much information about the novel for anyone intending to read it, but this session managed to shift me from ‘almost certainly not’ to ‘maybe, or I might wait for the movie’. It’s a novel set in the near future when an erratic right-wing president of the USA is midway through a second term and the Chinese Communist Party is becoming more aggressively involved in Australian public life.

There’s some wonderful talk about Heather Rose’s creative process. The main character of Bruny, whom she imagines as played by Charlize Theron, feels to her like an imaginary friend who says and does things she would never dare do herself.A Vietnamese character in a previous book just wouldn’t speak to her until she had read a huge amount about the Vietnam War – and when that character does speak in the novel about her backstory, no reader could guess that the couple of sentences she speaks required so much arduous research.


Favel Parrett: There Was Still Love 7 October

I’ve read Favel Parrett’s earlier books, Past the Shallows (2011) and When the Night Comes (2014). A Czech friend said every Australian should read the subject of this conversation between the author and radio presenter Elizabeth McCarthy, There was Still Love. It’s on my TBR shelf. But I wasn’t keen on the podcast because I’ve heard Favel talk about the book at length on at least one other program, and – quite apart from actual spoilers – too much talk in advance can spoil the reading experience

In the event the conversation wasn’t spoilerish in any sense. They talked about the seeds of the book in Favel’s relationship with her Czech grandparents; her research, especially in her discovery of a cousin who had lived in Prague under Communism – which is the book’s setting, but also in her reading the history of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic under first the Nazis and then the Communists; the process of writing – this is her third novel, and the first that she has played close to her chest until she was confident she had reworked it enough that it didn’t need much rewriting; the book’s reception, including the top editor of Hachette who called to say she loved the manuscript, which Favel half expected no one would publish, and the Czech cousin who first wrote angrily that she had got a detail about food terribly wrong, and then wrote to say that he had cried for days. I’m looking forward to the book.


Mirandi Riwoe: Stone Sky Gold Mountain 14 October

This is a book I’ve read before hearing about it from the SWF. I read Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain, loved it and blogged about it in June (here’s a link).

Here Mirandi Riwoe is in conversation with Rashida Murphy, who introduces herself as a first-generation immigrant woman from India, who is also a writer of novels, short stories, essay and poetry.

Ms Murphy starts out with outrage. Evidently it’s a word that Riwoe used when talking about her novella The Fish Girl, which is a retelling of a Somerset Maugham from the point of view of an Asian woman who appears in the original without a name or much sense of her as a full human being. The novella sounds very interesting, independent of its relationship to Maugham. (I confess to not having read any Maugham stories, but to have been mildly outraged or at least put off by the way he exoticises the tropics in a quote I’ve read somewhere.) Then the conversation moves to the question of some white people’s anger that this year’s Booker Prize didn’t go to Hilary Mantel. Riwoe politely and tactfully resists giving airtime to that point of view: she says that Mantel herself, while understandably disappointed, was gracious about the matter and we all got to know about a swath of writers not from the white mainstream.

The discussion of Stone Sky Gold Mountain is interesting, with an animating tension between the participants, Murphy again seeming to want Riwoe to rebut some (white?) critics while Riwoe seems happy not to define her work in opposition to someone else’s view. She talks interestingly about the book’s ghost elements, about how her research into the North Queensland goldfields transformed the book that she had thought she was writing from a cross-cultural love story into something much more interesting, about books she loved as a younger person. She mentions that Rashida has reviewed Stone Sky Gold Mountain, describing as ‘unflinching’ her accounts of violence against Chinese on the goldfields, and violence against the First Nations people, in which Chinese miners were complicit. She laughs, and says that she flinched a lot.

I was already a fan of Mirandi Riwoe as a writer. I’m relieved to say that she’s an excellent conversationalist as well.

SWF 2020, Post 9

From a septuagenarian’s memoir to queer teenage romance, the war on drugs and soundscape ecology, here are the next five sessions from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival that Covid sent into virtuality.Once again, I haven’t read any of the books discussed.

Vicki Laveau-Harvie: The Erratics 31 August

Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics won the Stella Prize last year. It’s edging onto my TBR shelf, and I’ve heard and read quite a lot about it, so I almost didn’t listen to this podcast: hearing too much about a book before you read it can completely undermine the experience of reading it for oneself.

But once I’d started listening I was hooked. Ange Lavoipierre (so many excellent interviewers at this Festival that I’ve never heard of) elicited wonderful reflections, on the difference between memoir and autobiography, the astonishing way something that’s peculiarly personal can resonate with many people’s experience, the way writing a memory down is like taking a snapshot which replaces the fluid thing that was there before, and much more.

The conversation made me want to read the book rather than making me feel, as this kind of conversation sometimes does, that I don’t need to.


Antony Loewenstein: Pills, Powder, and Smoke 9 September

Antony Loewenstein is back, this time talking about his own book about the war on drugs, Pills, Powder, and Smoke, with George Dertadian. Dertadian introduces himself as an academic who researches aspects of illegal / recreational drug use, who only put Loewenstein’s book down because he had to. So it’s a high-level journalist talking to a scholar, a good combo.

The war on drugs is like the war on terror: neither can ever be won, and both – if I remember correctly – generally make worse the thing they seek to remedy. The war on drugs can become a war on drug users, as experience in the Philippines under Duterte shows. Shockingly but not surprisingly, Loewenstein says, Duterte’s program of extrajudicial killings is generally popular. But the Philippines is an extreme example of what is happening elsewhere:

American administrations have not killed millions of Black people to fight a drug war, not within the US at least. What they’ve done is, they’ve got the world’s largest prison population, which I might add was mostly expanded under Democratic administrations, not Republicans, and Joe Biden, potentially the next US president was the key architect of the War on Drugs rhetoric.

There’s a fascinating discussion of ethical drug use, challenging the mindset, ‘My enjoyment is not connected to other people’s suffering,’ with information about the cost of the drug trade for lower level people in the supply chain in the drugs’ countries of origin. And equally fascinating, though brief, discussion of the safe injecting rooms in Sydney and Melbourne.

My favourite quote: ‘With some notable exceptions politicians on this subject are gutless pricks. I think that’s the correct academic term.’


Text on the Beach 10 September

Ronnie Scott and Madeleine Watts, authors of the coming-of-age novels The Adversary (set in Melbourne) and The Inland Sea (set in Sydney) respectively, talk with Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Melbourne-based critic and writer.

They each read from their books, always a good thing in these conversations, and both books sound interesting. The conversation mostly avoids the trap of detailed discussion of the books and instead ranges over the questions of research and the relationship of these books to others. Patrick White, Christina Stead, Sumner Locke Elliott and explorer John Oxley are all mentioned. I learned a little about ‘post-AIDS-crisis’ culture among Gay men, and enjoyed hearing a Sydney-Melbourne conversation that didn’t indulge any of the inane rivalry tropes.


Josephine Rowe: Here Until August 14 September

Josephine Rowe, described on the SWF website as one of Australia’s short-fiction greats, discusses her recent collection, Here Until August, with novelist Stephanie Bishop. Listening to this podcast was like eavesdropping on two smart, likeable strangers taking in spoilerish detail about a book I hadn’t read, a pleasant but pointless activity, until …

…. speaking of the importance of place in her fiction, JR went off piste for a moment to speak about the fascinating work of Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been recording the sounds made by particular locations over five decades:

[He has] built up this incredible archive of 1300 biomes, their sonic signatures, and how they change over time … He talks a lot about the ways in which animals communicate and the bandwidths that they use. There’s the geophony, which is the sound of the natural, non-animal, non-sentient world. Then there’s the biophony, which is all non-human creatures, sound-making organisms. And there’s the anthrophony, which is us: our noise interacting or coming in and taking up certain registers means that creatures can’t communicate with each other in the same way and they’re being edged out. So you might be looking at the same patch of forest and it might look completely the same, but when you listen to the sound signature of it you hear how much is missing.

… Of these 1300 environment that he has recorded over the past 50 years, two thirds of them are either unrecognisable or in some cases completely silent, and that’s such a terrifying idea.

The conversation then turns to craft – how writing a novel differed from writing short stories (not necessarily harder!), how building with bricks differs from building with stone … And the session finishes with a reading from one of the stories in Here Until August, which made me want to go out and by the book.


Queerly Beloved 17 September

The non-digital SWF was to have an All Day YA event. This panel was to be part of it, featuring YA writers Erin Gough (Amelia Westlake), Sophie Gonzales (Only Mostly Devastated) and Anna Whateley (Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal), all of whom have written queer romance.

Again, I felt I was eavesdropping on smart, likeable people talking about books I haven’t read, and in this case am unlikely too, because my niblings are either out of the YA age group or aren’t much interested in romance, queer or otherwise, and by the time my grandies have reached YA reader age the field will have moved on.

There wasn’t really any YA as such when I was of that age. I searched out the little book where I listed all the books I read 1961 to 1975. Not including the books set for school, the list for 1961, the year I turned 14, which I understand to be peak YA, comprises:

  • 20 books by Agatha Christie
  • 5 by Edgar Wallace
  • 4 by Erle Stanley Gardner
  • 4 racist yarns by Sax Rohmer
  • 2 by Ngaio Marsh
  • a guilty 2 by Carter Brown
  • only 1 by Georgette Heyer, alas
  • 1 by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • 2 detective stories by people I’ve never heard of otherwise
  • 3 historical novels – Ben Hur, The Robe and I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy
  • 1 science fiction: H G Wells, The Invisible Man
  • Cheaper by the Dozen by the Gilbreths
  • Patrick Dennis, Around he World with Aunty Mame
  • Willie Fennel, Dexter’s Court, which I noted was funny by don’t remember
  • Much Ado About Nothing (I don’t know why)

I guess if there’d been YA queer romance, or any YA books at all, I would have been spared that immersion in churned-out detective fiction.

SWF 2020, Post 8

Usually the Sydney Writers’ Festival lasts for two weeks. Usually I blog about the dozen or so sessions I attend live, and don’t feel the need to tell you about any podcasts. This year I seem to have made a decision to listen to them all and blog about every one. Here are sessions 35 to 40: journalism, memoir, First Nations voices, the world of high tech, terrorism, violence against women.

Long-form Journalism in Australia 12 August

I know Trent Dalton’s writing from his novel Boy Swallows Universe, which I loved (blog post at this link). It turns out he has also been writing ‘long form journalism’ for The Australian for years. For even more years, Jane Cadzow has been doing likewise for Good Weekend, the magazine published on Saturdays with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Katrina Strickland is editor of Good Weekend.

This is an inside look at feature-article writing in Australia. There are lots of anecdotes about the biz, insights into the process (taping allows a journalist to take notes about things other than what is being said), and how ‘long form’ is seen by the ‘hard news’ journalists. As audience, I felt that I was listening in on a chat among people who knew each other well and moved in the same journalistic circles, rather than people who were discovering things along with us. The emphasis seemed to be on profiles of celebrities and others rather than stories from war zones or issues-based articles. But it’s a fun listen.


Jeff Sparrow: Fascists Among Us 17 August

My last batch of SWF sessions featured two white liberal male authors in conversation. This session features two white left-wing males. Jeff Sparrow, former editor of Overland, has written Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre. Here he talks to Antony Loewenstein, whose My Israel Question is terrific – and he’s written a lot since.

Starting with the Christchurch massacre, the conversation range widely over contemporary politics and media. The perpetrator (Sparrow doesn’t use his name and the discussion of his reasons is interesting) was not a ‘mentally-disturbed individual’ but a convinced Fascist, whose main inspiration was Oswald Mosley. Donald Trump is not a Fascist, but has created a sea in which Fascists can swim. Social media platforms have some responsibility for enabling Fascists to flourish. Here’s Jeff Sparrow:

Genuine Fascists were some of the early adopters of the internet, precisely because they realised the internet allowed them to mobilise and organise in a way that they couldn’t do in real life. The far right in Australia tended to be recruiting people from the outsides of big cities or small countries towns. How do you organise those people in the real world? It’s very difficult. Australis is a big country. How do you bring them all together? If you have a website, it’s much easier, and the most recent attempts to organise Fascist movements in Australia were for that very reason closely associated with platforms like Facebook, because here is a mainstream form of the internet, everyone uses it, everyone in a country town can get on Facebook, there’s this one group you can set up. It’s very well suited to the structure of Fascist organisations because it’s participatory but not democratic. You can set up a Facebook, everyone can be involved but there’s a leader at the top who runs everything. In a sense it replicates the structure of a traditional Fascist organisations. That’s one of the reasons the far right has done much better on line than the left has.

And later:

We need to try to find some way to take the anti-Fascist principles that have worked in the real world into the online space. That’s easier said than done, and I don’t have a particular answer as to how that might occur, but it’s going to be a real issue from here on in, because the internet is gong to be central to whatever far right groupings emerge.

In normal times, Sparrow says towards the end of the conversation, the perpetrator’s eco-Fascist notion of mass murder as a solution to the climate emergency would be absolutely unattractive to absolutely anyone. In the context where the world seems to be breaking down, that may be changing. He concludes on what Loewenstein calls the ‘mildly optimistic note’ that it’s not enough to fight back against Fascism: we have to offer some genuine hope for a better world.


First on the Ground 19 August

As in the session on long-form journalism, here three journalists who work in similar fields compare notes and discover how much they have in common. But this trio are Indigenous, and until recently it was rare for Indigenous journalists to be have major platforms. The participants are Warlpiri woman and co-host of NITV’s The Point Rachael Hocking; Anishinaabe and Polish Canadian journalist Tanya Talaga; and Kamilaroi/Dunghutti founder of the Tiddas4Tiddas podcast Marlee Silva.

Like the earlier session featuring Tanya Talaga, this one discusses strikingly similar experiences of First Nations peoples in Australia and Canada.

This is another podcast in the Stories Worth Telling series created by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival.


Anna Wiener: Uncanny Valley 24 August

Uncanny Valley is US journalist Anna Wiener’s first book, a memoir of her time working in the high-tech industry. Here she talks about it with Rae Johnston, NITV’s Science and Technology Editor. The conversation covers many familiar topics: the rise of surveillance, the exploitation of workers in the tech industry and by companies like Uber, the steady thrum of sexism in Silicon Valley.

There’s an interesting discussion of Wiener’s decision to name no companies and very few people in the book – for instance, there’s a company she calls ‘the social media platform that everyone hates’ and there’s no prize for guessing what that is. Another highlight was the explanation of ‘Down for the Cause’, unofficial motto of a start-up that calls on employees’ devotion above and beyond their official duty, and well beyond what they are paid for. But though both speakers mention several times that the book is very personal, the conversation generally stays at an abstract, journalistic level. Here’s Anna Wiener:

I just wanted to write about the way that it feels to look for meaning in work, to think you’ve found it and then to be totally disillusioned not just by your personal experiences but by the narrative and fantasies of an entire industry … I didn’t write the book as an instrument of social change. That was never my intention. I really wrote it hoping that people might see themselves in it in some way, people might see the world a little differently. I wanted to articulate the experience of being a fairly low level employee at tech companies in the 2010s in part because I just felt that was not a perspective that I was reading much about.

I would have liked to hear her read from the book, to hear something specific about those personal experiences and those fantasies. But the conversation was a good reminder that those unnamed/nicknamed companies aren’t necessarily our friends.

A small note about entertaining differences in pronunciation: Anna Wiener spoke of the importance of higher keys and buyer says, and it took me a moment in each case to realise she meant organisations with rising levels of power and prejudices.


Reckoning and Retribution 26 August

Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena and Ellena Savage’s Blueberries are both the debut books, the former a memoir and the latter a collection of essays. They both deal with personal experience of sexual assault, and its long, hideous tail.

Maeve Marsden, theatre person and curator of the ‘national storytelling project’ Queerstories, does a lovely job of facilitating the conversation – I particularly appreciated her for having both writers read from their books at the beginning, so we got to hear their deeply considered and carefully deployed words before hearing the back and forth of conversation. In that conversation one of the writers mentioned her PhD a couple of times and spoke in academically-inflected language a little too much for easy communication, but that’s a minor grumble from a relatively uneducated listener-in, who nonetheless benefited from the conversation.


The next batch of podcasts promises to include some story-telling. And maybe there’ll be some poetry …

SWF 2020, Post 7

The 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival continues. I’ve just read that Michaela Maguire’s successor has been appointed. It’s Michael Williams, formerly of the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, and the excellent facilitator of a number of sessions in this and previous years’ SWFs. He has big shoes to fill, but – to continue with an unfortunate metaphor – he has big feet.

So here are my notes on another five sessions from this years SWF, just less than a month from being current.

Animals Like Us 25 July

The main pleasure of this session is being read to – no doubt it would have been more pleasurable in person, but it’s still a joy as a podcast.

Laura Jean McKay starts out ‘perhaps controversially’ by reading a passage from near the end of her novel, The Animals in That Country, which features a viral infection (did I hear her say zoo flu?) that enables people to understand the language of animals.

Jo Lennan reads from her collection of short stories In the Time of Foxes featuring – you guessed it – foxes.

Veronica Sullivan from the Wheeler Centre then wrangles a conversation about the makings of their two very different books.


Remembering Christchurch 27 July

The festival website reminds us:

On Friday 15 March 2019, an Australian-born white supremacist entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and massacred 51 Muslims peacefully conducting their sacred Friday prayers.

In this podcast, four Muslim writers describe their responses to the massacre at the time and discuss what it means in terms of white supremacy and Islamophobia in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Osman Faruqi, a journalist who currently hosts Schwartz Media’s 7am podcast, does a beautiful job in the chair. In his introduction he makes it personal: the anniversary would normally be a time for communal events that enable a degree of healing, but because of Covid-19 this is the first time he has had a opportunity for anything like a public coming-together on this terrible subject.

The other participants are a politician, a novelist and literary activist, a journalist, and an emerging fiction writer: Golriz Ghahraman, New Zealand Greens MP and author of a memoir, Know Your Place; Michael Mohammed Ahmad, who wrote The Tribe  (my blog post here) and The Lebs; Ruby Hamad, author of White Tears/Brown Scars; and Naima Ibrahim, whose work has appeared in Sweatshop Women: Volume One.

None of the panellists were surprised by the Christchurch massacre. Perhaps Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s response was most striking. He said his first reaction was an intense sense of failure. In September 2001 he was 13 years old and made a decision to spend his life trying to make the Muslim community safe. When he heard the news from Christchurch, he wept long and hard. And none of them were persuaded that progress had been made against white supremacy and Islamophobia in the year since Christchurch.

Osman Faruqi brought the conversation back to the panellists’ writings. Someone quoted Edward Said’s observation in an interview that the whole long, glorious history of Arabic culture is generally rendered invisible in the education of young people in the West. Without that invisibility, the murderous Islamophobia we are seeing could never have flourished. Many artists from Muslim / Arab countries and cultures – including the ones on this panel – are working hard to remedy that situation by creating works that show Arabs / Muslims as complex, fully rounded human beings. The writers and some publishers are doing their work: we readers need to ours.


Tanya Talaga: All Our Relations 29 July

Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe and Polish Canadian journalist whose book, All Our Relations: Indigenous Trauma in the Shadow of Colonialism is the subject of this conversation with Kamilaroi woman and Sydney Morning Herald Indigenous affairs reporter Ella Archibald-Binge.

The book looks at the high youth suicide rates in Indigenous communities all over the world, and finds common elements in those communities. In the podcast, you can hear how the Canadian and Australian experiences echo each other with extraordinary precision. I expect it’s largely familiar territory for Indigenous listeners, but very much alive and challenging for non-Indigenous listeners like me.

Towards the end, Talaga quotes Martin Luther King Jr’s notion that there are two Americas, one full of innocence and joy where the children are happy and do well, and the other, the America of Indigenous and African-heritage people, where people live in poverty. He said then that legislation would make no difference ‘if the will of the majority doesn’t get behind it’. On the importance of education, Talaga said:

In Canada we have a culture of looking away. I’m gonna say it’s probably quite similar in Australia. Non-Indigenous Canada will say, ‘Oh that’s not our problem, that’s an Indigenous problem …’ We have two Canadas. We have a Canada for Indigenous people, and we have a Canada for non-Indigenous people, and that has to change, that whole thinking has to change. We have to find a way to bring that down and move forward together, and part of that is making sure we have an education system that teaches the true history of this country,

Asked if she felt hopeful, she echoed some of the parting words from the previous session:

I feel hopeful every time somebody reads a book by a First Nations author anywhere, anytime that somebody comes out to listen to a play or to see art or to listen to me speak, that is progress and that is hope, because people are learning, and people are changing, and people are waking up to ‘You know what? This isn’t the country of our parents. We can do better than they did, and we have to do better for all of our sakes, for all of our kids.’


Sophie McNeill: We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know 3 August

Sophie McNeill is one of the many strong women journalists who have recently been lost to ABC listeners, though she resigned before the resent wave of sackings to work for Human Rights Watch. She has written a memoir, We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know, which as she says in this conversation isn’t so much a look behind the scenes at the life of a foreign correspondent as a report on the kinds of human reality that don’t make it into the news. In this session, she talks to Australia Director at Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson who keeps responding ‘absolutely’ to Sophie’s observations about international injustices – which inadvertently creates the impression that she thinks Sophie is singing from the organisation’s songbook. In fact, she’s definitely singing her own song: the conversation is very personal and mercifully free of abstract preachifying.

Here’s a little taste, in an aside from tales of terrible suffering and extraordinary heroism:

People would always ask me, ‘How do you go from these countries that are war-torn, or where things are really tragic …’ I met my partner in Margaret River in Australia at a barbecue in 2007, and I spent quite a few years going back and forth between the Middle East and Australia, Margaret River even. People would ask, ‘How do you adjust between these different worlds?’ But what I find amazing is that everyone is actually the same everywhere I went. I never found it that different, whether I was at a barbecue in Margaret River or I was hanging out with Palestinian friends in Gaza or I was documenting the lives of Syrian refugees in a tent in a camp in Jordan. People are the same everywhere. When you spend time in these places that’s the main thing that comes to you: the similarities, not the differences.


The Art of the Story 5 August

This is a terrific conversation between two white liberal male writers.

George Packer describes himself as a failed novelist. He is an acclaimed essayist who writes regularly for The New Yorker and The Atlantic. His book that received most attention in this conversation is The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013), which he says is sometimes described as predicting the Trump phenomenon. He demurs, saying that like most pundits he thought Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election, but the book did describe the state of affairs that made the Trump presidency possible.

His partner in this session, Don Watson, is himself no slouch as an essayist, and has clearly engaged with Packer’s writing over decades. In his opening remarks, he sets a context for the discussion by mentioning among others Tolstoy, Nabokov, Svetlana Alexievich, John McPhee (links are to my blog posts), and describes the USA as a nation where the written word has played a key role in its creation. He mentions the reverence for the writings of the Founding Fathers, and says, ‘You can still hear Milton in the cadences of the public language.’

George Packer takes the bait. Yes, that’s probably true, but there has always been a strong tradition of anti intellectualism in US culture. Donald Trump didn’t come out of the blue.

What follows is hugely listenable. Though they didn’t frame it like this, they go on to talk about a third strand of US cultural life, what Packer calls identity politics and ‘wokeness’, which has been part of the left ‘turning on itself just when power is in its grasp’. He speaks of writers who now spend most of their writing time on Twitter being performative rather than exploratory or reflective. Trump isn’t the whole problem. If he goes the temperature won’t come down immediately.

Here’s a taste:

The aesthetics of wokeness have not been explored enough, but I don’t think we’re going to look back and say that the woke aesthetic was a great moment in American art because the mindset and the values that animate it undermine the conditions for writing good work, for doing good work. Being true to oneself, being willing to stand alone, to go against the group, to go against the current of the times, being willing to use words that tell the truth but can also make people uncomfortable, being as vivid and clear and concrete as possible, for me these are the building blocks of good writing. They’re not everyone’s and there’s good writing that doesn’t necessarily follow those rules, but I worry that we’re going to trade goodness for beauty or beauty for goodness and maybe end up with neither one,


‘All Our Relations’ and ‘The Art of the Story’ are part of a series, Stories Worth Telling, a joint creation of the SWF and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. There are at least two more instalments in the series yet to be listened to and blogged, along with some novelists, journalists, essayists, possibly some wokeness, definitely plenty to think about, and additions to the TBR shelf.

The Book Group and Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (Viking 2006)

When the Book Group met by zoom on 28 July, I had been away from home for a week or so, and my copy of the book had arrived after I left and was sitting in my mail box for five days, attracting the attention of snails. I had managed to read just five pages of a friend’s copy by the time we all logged in. I’m usually one of the swats who has read the whole book, so it was an interesting experience to come to the discussion in almost total ignorance.

At the meeting: We didn’t spend a lot of time catching up on one another’s lives, and spent no time at all eating and drinking. Once we’d managed to get ten of us on the screen (the sole absentee said he was too immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light to think about any other book), this book held our attention for pretty much the whole two hours.

Let’s see.

One chap said he found the book unreadable. He kept going back to his large-print library copy with good intentions and then falling asleep: he could tell that the young protagonist was enduring terrible things but just couldn’t feel anything for him or for any of the characters. When he said he gave up at about page 116, another chap said, ‘Ah well, I felt pretty much the same until page 108 and then it just took off.’ He then gave a spirited account of the book as a study in bad parenting: the protagonist, a young boy in Gaddafi’s Libya, feels a huge obligation to look after his mother, and for a child to feel that way his parents must have failed in their responsibilities. In this case, the mother was an alcoholic (in Muslim-dominant Libya!) and the father was some kind of half-baked revolutionary who went and got himself arrested and beaten up.

And we were off.

You can’t blame the parents when the society under Gaddafi was so dire. The book is a study in how an oppressive regime infiltrates and corrupts people’s minds and relationships, including those of parents and children. A good bit of the discussion was about how the boy exploits moments when he has the power to do harm, betraying in one example the only friend he has outside his family.

Someone who had read Hisham Matar’s The Return (which I also have – blog post at this link) spoke interestingly about the relationship between that memoir and this novel: the memoir deals with Matar’s permanent loss of his father by abduction when he was 19, and his attempt over years to find out what happened to him; the novel, written years earlier, returns the father, even though damaged, to a much younger son after just a few weeks, as if Matar wrote the novel to to explore what might have happened in his own life if things had gone differently.

After the meeting: I’d expected to sit in on the meeting, enjoy making contact, hear people’s news, laugh at their jokes, and then move on. I didn’t get much news, except that the window for commenting on the egregious plans for misspending billions of dollars on the Australian War Memorial was to close on 31 July, but the rest was as expected, except for the moving on: I decided that I had to read the book after all.

Life and other books got in the way but now at last I’ve read it, and even though the Group’s discussion had been full of spoilers, I was unprepared for the book’s the impact. It’s a tremendously powerful portrait of a woman’s experience of a virulent form of male domination, as seen through the eyes of her nine-year-old son Suleiman, who is in the process of being ‘trained’ to be such a man. True, she’s a terrible mother in many ways – but we discover that she was in effect trafficked by her family when she was fourteen years old, and got pregnant soon after as a result of marital rape, all socially condoned. Your heart breaks for the mother, the son and the father, all three.

Almost equally powerful is the account of what happened to dissidents under the Gaddafi regime, including Suleiman’s father and his friends. Confessions and executions are shown in television, and Hisham Matar doesn’t let us look away from the hideous emotional and physical detail. The nine year old sees and hears everything. He knows when he is being lied to, but understands very little of the politics. There’s a terrifying moment when he is about to give damning evidence of his father’s anti-Gaddafi activities to a manipulative member of the goon squad, oops, I mean the Revolutionary Committee, which creates a visceral sense of the deeply corrupting effects the regime has on even the most intimate relationships.

At a Sydney Writers Festival a couple of month’s after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Hisham Matar was on a panel entitled ‘Resist!’ with three US women writers. Referring his childhood years living under the Gaddafi regime, he said it was important to honour complexity, otherwise those who resist allow themselves to be defined by that which they are resisting. That could sound like a counsel of moderation. Among other things, this novel demonstrates that you can honour complexity, hate injustice with a passion, and write beautiful prose, all in the same book.

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.

SWF 2020, Post 5

One of my favourite poets, Eileen Chong, has been mounting a formidable campaign against racism in Australian literature. She’s been tweeting up a powerful, deeply considered storm as @EileenChongPoet, and some of the storm has been captured as a single article on the Meanjin website (link here). Among other things, Eileen tweeted:

I call on you, literary festivals, to examine your commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity. I call on you to ensure these festivals for writers & readers are safe spaces for our reading & writing community. I call on you to step up, to acknowledge you have this responsibility.

I don’t know what processes the Sydney Writers’ Festival has in place, but so far the 2020 festival seems to be doing OK on the diversity front. We’ve had a white man who wrote about India in conversation with a woman from India; a white woman who wrote about Truganini in conversation with a Ngarigu woman; and a number of other Indigenous people and people targeted or marginalised by racism speaking about their own work, interviewing others, and chairing sessions. In this batch, my fifth, two of the five sessions are all white (though one of the white people, being Irish, would have been classed otherwise 150 years ago in the USA), one is mixed, two feature people of Asian, Pacific and African heritage, and questions of racism and diversity are at the heart of several of the sessions.

Paul Kelly: Love Is Strong As Death 24 Jun

In 2019 singer-songwriter Paul Kelly published an anthology of other people’s poetry, Love Is Strong As Death. At the start of this podcast, Tony Birch asks him about his early introduction to poetry. He talks about the Christian Brothers introducing him to Shakespeare (Macbeth has everything for 15 year old boys, violence, sex, revenge …) and Gerard Manly Hopkins (‘The Christian Brothers loved Hopkins, who was a Catholic priest’), and about the way his family would have get-togethers where everyone did an ‘item’, and items ranged from a niece tying a knot in a snake lolly using only her tongue to someone reciting a poem. Tony Birch said, ‘The Christian Brothers gave you Gerard Manly Hopkins. They gave me corporal punishment.’ ‘Oh well,’ Paul Kelly and I replied in unison, ‘they gave me that too.’

I was taken back to Brother Paulinus, a Marist Brother, using the dreaded cane to conduct the combined 4th and 5th grade in a recitation of Henry Lawson’s ‘The Teams’, a poem I still love; Brother Wright, a Christian Brother, entertaining a class of 15 year olds in the last week of the school year by reading the whole of Macbeth, doing the voices, for one period each day; and my mother cheerfully reciting the opening lines of Francis Thomson’s ‘The Hound of Heaven‘ at the drop of a hat. So I knew something of what Paul Kelly was talking about.

They talked about specific poems, including Archie Roach’s ‘They Took the Children Away‘, for which Paul broke his rule of not including song lyrics, and poems by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kev Carmody, Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland. Bruce Dawe was one of the few poets mentioned who was neither First Nations Australian nor Irish.

The conversation sent me off to discover or revisit the poems that inspired their enthusiasm and love. The links in that last paragraph are to the text of the poems they discussed (except I couldn’t find Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Canoe’ online).


Kawai Strong Washburn: Sharks in the Time of Saviours 29 Jun 2020

Western Sydney writers are a big presence at this festival. In this session, Winnie Dunn, general manager of Sweatshop, talks to Kawai Strong Washburn about his debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviours. True to form, I haven’t read any books by either writer.

The interview, recorded when demonstrations against racism and genocide in the US and around the world were in full flight, is a very interesting conversation about many aspects of racism, though not without reference to the novel’s strong anti-colonial theme. Strong Washburn, now living in the US, has one parent of African ancestry and one white, and was born and raised in Hawai’i, which as he says was colonised by the US, making him part of the coloniser group. Adding to the complexity, he was lived closely with an Indigenous Hawai’ian community as a child. When Winnie Dunn asks the awkward question of whether he has the right to tell the story of Hawai’ian characters, the conversation is as carefully nuanced and respectful as anyone could wish.

I learned a lot about Hula – or at least I learned that there’s a lot I don’t know. The ‘hula girl’ image is a trivialisation of a powerful tradition, an ‘extractive male-driven fantasy’. The word ‘extractive’ used in this way is new to me, and very eloquent.


Lisa Taddeo: Three Women 1 Jul 2020

Lisa Taddeo’s work of narrative non-fiction, Three Women, does, as they say, a deep dive into the lives, including the sex lives, of three women in the USA. This conversation with the Wheeler Centre’s Sophie Black talks about the immersive process of interviewing the women, and perhaps even more interestingly about their reactions to the book. The picture that emerges of Taddeo’s relationship with her three subjects is fascinating, and implicitly raises very important questions about the responsibility of a writer, or any artist, to the people they write or make art about.

Lisa Taddeo mentions in passing, that a grand total of seven men have read this best-selling book, so even allowing for that being an exaggeration, I’m not alone in not having read it. Maybe I should suggest it for my all-male book group. I’ll certainly keep my eyes open for the television series currently in preparation.


Golriz Ghahraman: Know Your Place 6 July 2020

Golriz Ghahraman, Iranian-born member of the New Zealand parliament, here talks to Roanna Golsalves who is one of our great literary interviewers. She sets up the conversation with characteristic generosity:

As I read your book, Know Your Place, I was moved to tears by some of the horrific abuse you have had to face in your life as a politician but also moved to tears by the way you write about loss and hope and transformation … It’s a timely account of how one woman navigates public life while also speaking to the broader issues that we all have to navigate in this world, and you do this in a nuanced, polyphonic way through the stories and voices of so many others woven in with your own story, which makes for compelling reading.

In this delightful chat, Golriz cheerfully subverts a number of memes in western culture that can be harmful: the grateful immigrant, the good refugee (‘Look, this refugee went on to get a Masters Degree in International Law, so it was a good thing to take her in’), the perpetual victim. Talking about her maiden speech in parliament (which is on YouTube here – listen through to where she thanks ‘a very large, loud white boy’), she said, ‘Everybody should sit down and think about what they would write in a 15 minute maiden speech.’

They discuss a line from US public intellectual Cornell West: ‘Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.’ And though in her maiden speech Golriz laughs when she quotes it, ‘That’s not me, that’s Cornell West,’ she comes across in this conversation as someone who has made that her motto.

I love the bit where Golriz talks about her reaction when she first came to New Zealand and saw people walking about barefoot. So much poverty! And meanwhile the barefoot people wanted to know if she had electricity back in Iran.


Remembering Clive James 8 July 2020

Clive James died in November last year, and it would have been odd for the Sydney Writers’ Festival not to mark the occasion. It may be a missed opportunity not to have included in this celebration of the man and his multifaceted work some participants who were excluded from his genial regard: climate change activists, for example. But I guess that’s for another occasion.

Participants are Irish poet Paul Muldoon, Peter Goldsworthy whose writing life is almost as multifaceted as James’s, Richard Glover whose Flesh Wounds could be seen as his own version of Unreliable Memoirs, Kathy Lette, carrying the torch for womankind, and Trent Dalton who along with James himself finally stops me from saying I haven’t read books by anyone taking part in this festival.

The session is good fun, if at times given to hyperbole and strained phrase-making. There are some sweet anecdotes, some quoted wit and analysis of that wit, some reading from James’s emails and poems (‘Japanese Maple‘ and ‘The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered‘), and part of the dunnyman incident from Unreliable Memoirs.

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.

SWF 2020, Post 3

The Sydney Writers’ Festival 2020 didn’t happen, but it’s still going. I’ve now listened to five more sessions: rich conversations between authors none of whose books I’ve read (though I have read shorter pieces by some of them), sometimes about other authors whose books I haven’t read.

Philippe Sands: The Ratline 27 May

Otto von Wächter was one of Nazi Germany’s mass murderers. In 1945 he disappeared from public view and turned up dead in a Roman hospital four and a half years later. Philippe Sands, barrister and author of other books about Nazi leaders, gained possession of a huge trove of the papers of von Wächter and his wife Charlotte, and set about rediscovering the story of this almost forgotten Nazi. He produced a podcast and radio series and now a book: The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive.

This is a terrific conversation between Sands and SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen. Because of his access to private papers – given to him by von Wächter’s son Horst – Sands has been able to give an account of Wächter’s personal life and relationships.

At the end of the conversation, Janice Petersen asked why he thinks there is such a continuing interest in the Nazis. He confirmed her premise: if you put the word ‘Nazi’ in a book’s title or subtitle, he said, its sales in the UK increase by 50 percent, though it’s probably not the same in other parts of the world, including the US.

For the British in part it’s a reminder of what is seen as a glorious episode, the vanquishing of evil, and it is also the fact that the people we are dealing with were highly educated, highly cultured, highly intelligent, highly organised and they left behind a wealth of detail. …
I think what’s different in this case is Charlotte. Charlotte is the beating heart of this story because Otto was not alone. Otto had a close, loving, dutiful, intelligent, articulate, literate wife who recorded the totality and so we’re able to get another perspective, and that enables us to think a little bit more about the question, ‘How is it possible?’ and the related question that any reasonable person might ask themselves, ‘Could I do it?’ …
In our own countries, we cross lines. In Britain as in Australia, the treatment of refugees and of certain minorities is a very very big issue. Some of the conditions, for example, in which women refugees are being held in Britain and of course the treatment in Australia of the refugee community, parts of it, parking them on faraway islands, raise very serious questions. It raises to my mind a most serious question which is evoked indirectly in The Ratline, ‘What happens when we commit ourselves as a society to cross a line?’ The lesson of Otto Wächter is that once you’ve crossed one line it becomes a lot easier to cross another line.


James Bradley: Ghost Species 1 June

I hope to read one of James Bradley’s books one day. But as I’ve heard quite a lot of him on the radio recently, I skipped through this conversation with Cassie McCullagh of ABC Radio’s The Bookshelf about his most recent book, Ghost Species, in which there is a project to resurrect extinct species, including Neanderthal humans. In my skipping, I heard some fascinating tidbits, including this about the role of CliFi, as someone is calling fiction about climate change:

We inhabit this weird space where we know what’s going on but we don’t let ourselves know.
One of the things fiction can do is let you sit in that space for a while and let you actually let go of having to keep that other stuff at bay. You can encounter your anxieties, think about them. …
One of the things that fiction helps people do is to find their way to a space of acceptance, that space of recognising the reality of things, which seems to me to be a good place to get to, because if people get there then we can start having honest conversations about where we are.


Cassandra Pybus: Truganini 3 June

Truganini is on my TBR shelf. This is a brilliant conversation about it. It’s by Cassandra Pybus, white historian, whose family ‘owned’ land on Bruny Island, Truganini’s country, land that Truganini visited often in her last years. By all accounts, including the account given in this podcast, the book reclaims Truganini’s memory from the prevailing image of her as the archetypical victim of colonial violence, ‘the last Tasmanian’, and presents her as a woman who was never colonised, who was resourceful and strategic and ultimately in important ways successful.

Here she talks with Jakelin Troy, a Ngarigu woman from south-eastern Australia and professor at the University of Sydney, who clearly loves the book, and loves that Cassandra Pybus has written it:

For me, as an Aboriginal woman, it’s so important to have this story told, and by somebody who is an expert at interrogating the historical record but who can bring out the reality of the story. It’s obviously something that has become part of your own story. I love when you say that Truganini inhabits you now. I’m sure that’s what she intended to do by continuing to walk across your family’s country, which was her family’s country. She was making the point, I’m sure she was making the point, that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.


Kay Kerr: Please Don’t Hug Me 3 June

This is a conversation between two neurodivergent women from southern Queensland, both of whom have young-adult novels appearing at about the time of the conversation. The focus is on Kay Kerr’s epistolary novel Please Don’t Hug Me, but there is frequent reference to Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley, her interlocutor.

Both women are smart, charming and have interesting things to say, especially about autism and prevalent misconceptions about people living with autism.

If this had been a live event, I would have been hoping someone would ask about ‘own voices’, a term they used to describe their books. The term is close to self-explanatory, and I’d heard it vaguely in the past, but it sounded as if there was history attached to it. In the absence of a Q&A session, I went online, and found that #OwnVoices is a hashtag originated in 2015 by a Dutch writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy novels, Corinne Duyvis (a longish interview with her about the hashtag is at this link).

A quick look around Young Adult publishers’ sites shows that the hashtag has taken off and, though sometimes used as a weapon by call-out warriors, it represents a powerful movement to recognise that the best people to write about a marginalised group are those who experience that marginalisation. Both participants in this conversation are #ownvoices authors about characters on the autism spectrum.


Eimear McBride: Strange Hotel 9 Jun, 2020

I heard Eimear McBride read, beautifully, from her first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing at the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Here she talks to Heather Rose (whose books are on my TBR list) abut her third novel, Strange Hotel. I enjoyed the conversation. Unlike A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the new novel is punctuated conventionally, but the author says she doesn’t think it’s any easier to understand (she’s a big fan of Joyce and Beckett). She read an excerpt, which was beautifully written, but – and that ‘but’ says more about me than her – it’s a scene where the protagonist is in a hotel in Auckland, and thinks of herself as being at the very edge of the earth, about to go over the edge. This raised my antipodean hackles. I was reminded of a British writer who visited my student household in the early 1970s and treated us to a stoned fantasy about how the edge of the world lay just outside the heads of Sydney Harbour. Too easy, and too unaware of the audience.


Coming when I’ve listened to them: Bob Brown and some interesting-sounding genre fiction, but still no books I’ve read.