Tag Archives: Sydney Writers’ Festival

500 people: Week Twelve

I started the week at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which you’d think would be a great place for talking to new people. But, though I caught up with a number of people I hadn’t seen for a long while, and was pretty awkward with a couple of writers whom I admire, even love, I didn’t do a lot of talking to strangers as such. See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

  1. Sunday 2 May, at an afternoon session, I fell into conversation with the woman sitting beside me. (I’m not counting the man in a wheelchair a couple of seats further away who unleashed on the subject of accessibility.) We’d seen Mehreen Faruqi in different sessions, and it was fun sharing our slightly different perspectives on her.
  2. Monday early morning at the pharmacy check-out, I got into one of those slightly awkward dances about where the queue actually went. I said to the woman at the till, ‘In Spain, instead of having queues you just ask when you arrive, “Who’s last?”‘ She said, ‘Yes, it’s the same in Cuba. You arrive and say, “Qui es ultima?” Then everyone can sit, or move around , or chat with people who arrived much earlier.’ The man I’d had the little dance with chimed in: ‘That’s what we do in my barbershop around the corner. When a customer arrives, they ask, “Who’s last?”‘
  3. Monday evening at the Griffin Theatre for Dogged (which I recommend), I was sitting next to a woman who seemed to be alone. Ever original, I asked, ‘Do you come to this theatre regularly?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m from Albury.’ and we had a very pleasant chat, reminiscing about theatre (we both used to come to that one when it was the Nimrod), grandchildren (she has more than me, and she comes to Sydney to visit them as well as go to the theatre), etc. Despite being masked, we may well recognise each other on future nights at the Griffin.
  4. & 5. Tuesday in the checkout at the supermarket, a small child (about a year old) was calling, ‘Baby,’ to the world in general. I asked where the baby was, and he pointed to the stroller with the woman ahead of him. Then he said, ‘Dog,’ and pointed over my shoulder to where there was indeed a cardboard cutout dog. I observed that there was a cat next to it, and he said, ‘Cat.’ Other words were exchanged, and his father joined the conversation less monosyllabically.
    6 & 7. Thursday morning at GymKidz, little girl came up to me and wordlessly showed me a sticker on her hand. when I admired it she peeled it off and offered it to me. I graciously accepted it, and asked if she’d like me to stick it back on her hand. She held the hand out to me, and I stuck it back on. Then I realised her father was the burly bald man with a pirate beard a couple of seats away who was wrestling an older child into his socks and shoes. I said something about the juggling act he was performing. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you learn how to stay cool under pressure and be in two places at once.’
    8 & 9. Thursday evening at the launch of Radicals, I mostly chatted with people I know. One conversation was joined by a Famous Person who, if we’ve met previously, certainly doesn’t remember me. ‘Hi E–,’ I said. ‘Who are you?’ she replied, and soon I was being eased out of the conversation she had just joined. Not rudely, but definitely. Later I had a chat with a man I’d not met before. It was an evening for reminiscence and ancient gossip, and that’s what we did. The bit I remember is that Geoffrey Roberson had told him he was radicalised by realising that the copies of a Shakespeare play given out at his school had had the rude bits cut out. I told him my story about the pious Brother who taught me Macbeth dictating the rude bits so we could write them back into our bowdlerised books: ‘Showed like a rebel’s whore, that’s W-H-O-R-E.’
    10 & 11. Saturday, at the Dobell Drawing Prize exhibition at the National Art School, I was entranced by a video component of Maryanne Coutts’s Dress Code, when two women who seemed to know a bit about art started chatting about the work. ‘It’s got a bit of everything in it,’ one of them said. I boldly offered, “I love the video.’ We watched companionably for a while. The other one said, ‘I like that outfit.’ (The video shows the artist emerging from a closet, walking about with large, Frankensteinish movements, then crawling back into the closet, her outfit changing every second or so.)

Running total is now 114.

SWF 2021 Sunday

Sunday was another beautiful late autumn day in Sydney, and another day of challenge and delight at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Evidently one of our ideologically driven weeklies ran a piece online saying the Festival was extremely ‘woke’, which is apparently a bad thing. I don’t know about woke but, as someone who nods off whenever I’m in a dark room, I was kept awake almost without fail. (The one fail was inevitable, in the after-lunch slot when I would have slept through an announcement that I’d been granted the gifts of immortality and eternal youth.)


10.30: Land of Plenty

This panel addressed environmental issues about Australia from a range of perspectives. Philip Clark of ABC Radio’s Nightlife did a beautiful job as moderator, giving each of the panellists in turn a prompt or two to talk about their work, and managing some elegant segues. The panellists did their bit to make it all cohere by referring to one another’s work. (How much better these panels work when the writers on them have read each other!)

Rebecca Giggs, whose Fathoms sounds like a fascinating book about whales, said that whales are a Trojan horse for a conversation about other animals’ relationships to humans. She described a moment when she was close enough to a whale that she could see its eye focusing on her – and only to learn a little later that whales are extremely short-sighted and there as no way that that whale could have actually seen her. What is actually there isn’t what we want to think is there,

Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu and co-author of Loving Country (about which more later) spoke about the difference between Indigenous and Western capitalist ways of relating to the land. Echoing Rebecca Giggs’s story of the whale’s eye, he said, ‘We look at animals and want to be friends with them, but as soon as a capitalist wants to be your friend …’ He begged us to take seriously the possibility of a reciprocal relationship with animals. Something terrible happened to humans, he said, when the combination of Christianity and capitalism happened. I think he has a book coming on the subject.

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man from far north Queensland, author of Fire Country. Someone from my family had the privilege of doing some video work with Victor some years ago, and his stories from that time have given me a deep respect for Victor and his work in ‘using traditional knowledge for environmental wellbeing’, as the Festival site puts it. In this panel, he took off from Bruce Pascoe’s call for reciprocity with other animals, and spoke of relating to fire as a friend and not as something to fear. It’s about reading country, listening to landscape. His project of recording traditional knowledge that is in danger of being lost is not to archive it but to get it back into people, ‘to young fellas and then to the broader community’.

Richard Beasley, senior counsel assisting for the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and author of  Dead in the Water about that catastrophe, said that the situation in the Murray-darling Basin had got so bad that ‘even John Howard’ did something about it. Howard’s legislation included clauses to the effect that whatever was done needed to be science-based. But then the lobbyists went to town, and in response to their pressure, politicians insisted that reports from the CSIRO were altered to suit the big capitalists’ agenda. His lawyerly rage was palpable.

There was a good question (a rarity at this Festival), about grounds for hope:

  • Rebecca Giggs: Thee’s hope. But you don’t get to be hopeful until you make yourself useful in some way – whatever your situation and abilities allow.
  • Bruce Pascoe: I have to think we can do it differently. We have to give our grandchildren a chance, not treat them with contempt. We need love of country, not nationalism.
  • Victor Steffensen: Language is important. [Sadly what I wrote from the rest of what he said was illegible. I think it was an elegant version of ‘Action is also important.’]
  • Richard Beasley: I’m a lawyer. I don’t know how to challenge any of this by law.

12 o’clock: Sarah Dingle & Kaya Wilson

We hadn’t booked this session in advance, but faced with a gap of a couple of hours, we spent one of our Covid Discover vouchers to buy rush tickets. Kaya Wilson, whose book As Beautiful As Any Other has the subtitle A memoir of my body, is a tsunami scientist and a trans man. Sarah Dingle, author of Brave New Humans: The Dirty Reality of Donor Conception is a donor-conceived person. Their conversation was aided and abetted by Maeve Marsden, host of Queerstories who was also donor conceived, though not anonymously through the fertility industry as Sarah was.

Sarah’s revelations about the fertility industry were nothing short of shocking. Not only is it monumentally unregulated, but records that might have allowed people to know what had happened to a particular donor’s sperm, even anonymously, have at least sometimes been deliberately destroyed. Couples using donated sperm have been systematically encouraged to lie to their children about their origins, leaving them unaware of any genetic predispositions to disease, let alone possible incest.

What Kaya told us about the systemic treatment of trans people was just as shocking. He said that he tended to keep his scientific life and his trans life separate. ‘In some ways they hate each other.’ But he has a chapter in his book that tries to reconcile them. The scientific literature, like legislation about, for instance, changing one’s ‘sex marker’ on a birth certificate, is shot through with assumptions that bear not relation to the reality of trans experience.

Both people spoke of the joy of finding themselves to be members of communities they weren’t aware of when young. When asked what they read for relief, both named writers I’ve loved: Sarah chose Terry Pratchett; Kaya chose Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.


2.30: Bruce Pascoe & Vicky Shukuroglou

Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia was an initiative of Hardie Grant Publishers, who approached Bruce Pascoe suggesting a follow-up to Marcia Langton’s guide to Indigenous Australia, Welcome to Country. Pascoe joined forces with Vicky Shukuroglou, a non-Indigenous woman born in Cyprus, who took the photographs and also contributed to the writing. The Festival website says that the book ‘offers a new way to explore and fall in love with Australia by seeing it through an Indigenous lens’. Daniel Browning, host of ABC Radio National’s Awaye, chaired this conversation.

Again, we were called on to love this country. The thing I loved about the session was the way the two authors could disagree. Bruce Pascoe, speaking of the horrendous bushfires last year, said that the disrespect for Country shown by authorities afterwards was in some ways worse than the fires themselves. We meekly accept the terrible destruction of heritage in the Juukan Gorge. We have to rebel as a people, he said, meaning all of us, not just First Nations people. Vicky Shukuroglou argued against the idea of rebellion, and spoke of the importance of conversations and of love: ‘If we’re going to talk about marginalisation, we first need to look at our humanity.’ From where I was sitting it didn’t look as if the two things were incompatible, but I was struck by the way as a non-Indigenous woman she was secure enough in their friendship and working partnership to challenge an Indigenous man. I would have liked to know more about what she had done to achieve that confidence.

The book, Pascoe said, is about how to restrain human go and let Country have a voice, He got Vicky to tell a story about a sick echidna that, without her realising it, had come to know and trust her, as a result – she thinks – of her being still around it over time.

We don’t need a black armband.
We just need to know the facts.
This is the country that invented society, bread and the Richmond Football Club.


4.30 pm The Unacknowledged Legislators

This was a great way to end my festival. (The Emerging Artist’s festival ended with the previous session: she thinks poetry and she don’t like each other.) Seven poets read to us, hosted elegantly by ‘writer, poet, essayist and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta’, Declan Fry. Here they are, in order of appearance.

Eileen Chong, whose poetry my regular readers will know I adore. She read five poems from A Thousand Crimson Blooms, which I’ll be blogging about soon. I was glad to hear her read the three part poem, ‘The Hymen Diaries’ after I had spent some time with it and checked out the artworks it refers to.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, poet laureate of the Saturday Paper, read three poems. I won’t report what they were because i wasn’t sure I heard their names correctly. One of them began, ‘When I say I don’t want to become my mother,’ and went on brilliantly to challenge the internalised sexism of that sentiment.

Ellen van Neerven read three poems from Throat (my blog post here), including ‘Treaty of shared power’ and ‘Such a sad sight’. The first-named is a play on the relationship between the writer of a poem and its reader that worked beautifully in this context.

Erik Jensen, reading to an audience for the first time, read six short poems from his first book of poetry, I said the sea was folded, a book that, he told us, is about falling in love and learning to be in love. He then read a poem by Kate Jennings, who has just died (this was how I heard the news) – and wept as he read it. He wasn’t teh only one to shed a tear.

Felicity Plunkett followed that hard act, reading four short poems from her 2020 collection, A Kinder Sea. The first, ‘Trash Vortex’, whose name tells you a lot, may be the kind of poem that Evelyn Araluen had in mind when she said artists have a responsibility to address the world’s urgent issues.

Omar Sakr read three poems, ‘Birthday’, Self-portrait as poetry defending itself’ and ‘Every Day’. This is the first time I’ve heard or read any of his poetry. I hope it won’ be the last.

Alison Whittaker, Gomeroi woman and a crowd favourite, read a piece that depended on knowledge of and (I think) contempt for ASMR, not that there’s anything wrong with such poems. She reminded us of the tragic reality of Black Deaths in custody and read a poem consisting of anodyne found phrases from court proceedings.


And my 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival was over. There were at least four moments when someone on stage paid tribute to a parent in the audience or, in one case, on stage with them (and I’d left my run too late to see Norman and Jonathan Swan, and I probably missed other trans-generational moments). I didn’t see any of the international guests who attended on screen. It was a thrill to hear such a diversity of First Nations voices. I came home with a swag of books and a list for borrowing from the library. Hats off to Michael Williams and his team for making this happen in the flesh, and making sense of the slogan Within Reach: a living demonstration that the famous cultural cringe, while it may not be dead, has not much reason to live.

SWF 2021 Saturday

I had three events on my second day at the festival.


10 o’clock: Your Favourites’ Favourites: Tony Birch & Evelyn Araluen. ‘Your Favourites’ Favourites’ is series of events where an established writer interviews the author of their favourite Australian debut from the last year. This was the only one of the series that we attended. It’s a terrific idea, and This pairing must have delighted whoever thought of it.

Tony Birch is not only an established writer, he’s also a seasoned interviewer of other writers, and a passionate and articulate reader. Evelyn Araluen is not only a debutante poet, she’s also among many other things co-editor of Overland literary magazine. Tony Birch has not only read her poetry, he has been edited by her. They know each other well, and were radiantly at ease with each other in this session, their deep mutual respect not excluding some friendly teasing After introducing Evelyn as a formidable presence in Australian literary circles and beyond, Tony asked her, ‘Have I pumped up your tyres enough?’ She said it was a bit embarrassing to be described like that when her parents were in the audience. He said her father had had a quiet word to him before the session.

This friendly banter provided a leaven for a very weighty conversation. Tony quoted Evelyn as saying in another context, ‘We are reclaiming this place through poetry,’ and asked ‘How so?’

I recommend listening to the whole conversation when it comes out as a podcast. What I’ve managed here is a rough and partial account.

Australian national identity, she explained, is a literary construct. As scholar George Seddon said, ‘The English language is a filter over the Australian landscape.’ Evelyn said, ‘whiteness does not understand itself in this landscape.’ Non Indigenous writers tend to go for the Gothic (Marcus Clarke comes to mind) or the cute (the work of May Gibbs features large in Evelyn’s poetry), both of which erase black presences. Both conservative and progressive white writers generally fail to get further past the erasure than shallow acknowledgement. Tony Birch quoted Anita Heiss: ‘You can’t just speak language. You have to think language.’ That is, Aboriginal people also have work to do to reclaim the place from colonising language.

Tony asked Evelyn what she had meant when she said on the festival’s opening night: ‘I’d like to write happier poems but there isn’t time.’ This prompted her to talk about the climate emergency and the responsibility of poets to address it. So most of her poems are angry and urgent (I think that’s what she said, and from what I’ve heard at readings I’d agree, but add ‘funny’). There is a place for poems, and art in general, that allows us to pause, to rest so we can go on facing our responsibilities, but for Aboriginal poets there is a need to be constantly asserting our existence, survival and resilience.

At Tony’s request, Evelyn read to us. ‘See You Tonight’ evokes an uneventful, peaceful moment of family life. It was written during Melbourne lockdown after eight months of not being able to see any of her own family. No one was surprised when, after the final words, ‘It’s all good. / I will. I will. I will,’ she raised her arms in triumph and said, ‘Got through it without crying!’ (I wiped a tear from my eye even though we hadn’t yet been told the circumstances of the poem’s composition.)

‘This is not a cancel culture book,’ she said.

There were two questions, one from another poet that moved the conversation into academic territory, with words like ‘liminality’ and ‘positionality’, and one from Evelyn’s father – we knew this because as he approached the microphone she shed at least 10 years and almost squealed, ‘Oh, Da-ad!’ He used his platform to draw our attention to all the powerful Black women who are central to First Nations life and activism – and didn’t embarrass his daughter at all.


12:30 pm: Whose Country Is It Anyway?

Nayuka Gorrie is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta freelance and comedy television writer. This is one of the events she rganised as Guest Curator at the Festival. She was in conversation with Melissa Lucashenko, author of Too Much Lip (my blog post here) among other books, and Nardi Simpson, author or Song of the Crocodile. (At one stage Tara June Winch was advertised as appearing zooming in from France for this session, but that wasn’t to be.) They were there to talk about the craft of writing Country.

As you’d expect, the conversation ranged widely. At the end of it I was keen to get hold of Nardi’s book, because a lot of what she said was tantalisingly hard to grasp. For example, ‘We inherit a never-ending process of belonging. whose country? It depends on where you’re standing. You can create a relationship to a place that’s important to you, but it cold be completely different for someone living 200 metres down the road.’

Melissa quoted Paul Kelly’ ‘Writers pay attention.’ She said there are two kinds of writers – the big, loud, macho writers (who can be women), and the quiet ones who pay attention. Her implication was that quiet attentiveness is the pathway to writing Country well. She talked about ‘extraction’ as key to the ‘western project’, and contrasted it to ‘reciprocity’.

Melissa again: It’s a writer’s responsibility to write the truth of violence without doing violence to the reader. There’s a place for writing that lashes out about injustice and cruelty, but we must write about life as much as death, otherwise we’re invading ourselves.


We did our Covid Check-out from Carriageworks to have lunch at a nearby pub (hamburgers with those horrible brioche buns), then back for our afternoon session.


2:30 pm Faruqi on Faruqi

This was a mother and son act: Senator Mehreen Faruqi and journalist Osman Faruqi. As with Tony Birch and Evelyn Araluen, there was a lot of good-natured teasing. “When I was in labour, I fervently hoped that I would have a girl.’ ‘We are a family of engineers. I so wanted him to be an engineer, and look what he’s become – a journalist!’

Sally Rugg as moderator didn’t have to do very much. She signalled at one point that it was Ok to broaden the conversation out by asking them about their theories of change. I don’t know that either of them directly addressed the question, but they took the hint and what followed was a very interesting conversation about the role of parliament and politicians in bringing about change – both of them agreed that real change came from the community and the political class played catch-up.

Both Faruqis have books coming out later this year. Mehreen’s is a memoir and manifesto, to be called Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud. Os is writing a book about racism in Australia. He would love to go back to writing music reviews, but has things he needs to get out there about racism. White friends say to him, ‘Why do you make everything about racism. When are you going to move on?’ He says, ‘You’re the ones who made everything about racism. I’ll move on when you do.’ (He probably said it better than that.)


Then we were off to the bookshop, to a number of catch-up conversations with friends we tend to see only at events like this, and to walk home on a beautiful Sydney autumn afternoon

SWF 2021: Friday

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has come back from the virtual world, and though it hasn’t returned to the splendours of its old harbourside venue, the Carriageworks is an expansive site whose acoustic problems of past years are no longer an issue, and for me it has the advantage of being just a 40 minute walk from home. My festival this year got off to a slow start, with just two sessions on Friday.


Friday 30 April 4.00: Writing the Unspeakable

The Unspeakable of the title didn’t refer to the Great Australian Silence about the massive wrongs of colonisation or other vast silences, but to personal unspeakables like depression, grief, trauma and addiction. Each of the panellists has written a memoir about that kind of unspeakable – and in some ways the session played out the implication of the session’s title: you’ve written about something that’s unspeakable, but maybe that doesn’t make it any more speakable?

I haven’t read any of the panellists’ books: Lech Blaine’s Car Crash, which tells the story of a car accident where three of his friends were killed but he and two others survived; Ashe Davenport’s Sad Mum Lady, about the difficulties of being a new mother that had its origins in a blog, ‘Sad Pregnant Lady’; and Fiona O’Loughlin’s Truths from an Unreliable Witness, which deals with her long struggle with alcoholism and addiction, often in the public eye as a successful stand-up comedian. Michaela Kalowski was the moderator.

Rather than start out with each panellist reading a short passage from their book – even, say, the opening paragraph – which would have grounded the conversation, MK opened with a question to each of them in turn, ‘Why are these subjects taboo?’ The panellists weren’t terribly cooperative, but the way each of them avoided answering the question, and pretty much every question after that, led to some entertaining and sometimes illuminating conversation. Here are some snippets that I have managed to decipher from notes I jotted in the dark.

Lech (I’m going to use first names) said that these subjects aren’t actually unspeakable. He spent his childhood in a pub and by the tenth or eleventh beer anything could be talked about, though not necessarily in a civil or constructive manner. Ashe told a horrific tale of her mother being groped when a child, in full view of a room full of people who pretended it hadn’t happened.

Fiona ventured to ask her mother if there was anything in the book that upset her. ‘Of course not,’ her mother said. ‘I haven’t even read it.’ This prompted Lech to tell us that he showed his brother a passage in manuscript where the brother is quoted as saying something profoundly offensive about Labor voters. His brother said, ‘That’s brilliant! You got that exactly right.’

Ashe described the process of making the transition from blog to book. In the blog she would work hard at creating amusing anecdotes out of her struggles. The book could still be funny, but she realised that she had to become less abstract: not so much, ‘It’s hard being a new mother,’ and more, ‘This is how I struggled as a new mother.’ At MK’s prompting she told the story of how she went to an anger management group for women, thinking it would make an amusing story for the blog – and she told it to us in a way that got laughs, until she got to the point where one of the group of older women asked her a question, she burst into sobs, and the other woman simply placed a supportive hand on her back until she was finished.

Fiona spoke beautifully about the shame of being an addict – and the importance of kindness. Tom Gleeson (the cheerfully cruel host of Hard Quiz) got a special mention as a kind person, but she said that the whole community of comedians is tremendously supportive.

Each of the panellists spoke about intensely personal difficulties. That they’ve written books about those difficulties didn’t make it any less easy to talk about them. Lech was often left staring blankly into his personal voice, and I felt that Ashe wasn’t quite ready to serve up her personal pain in person to a big audience. Fiona is a professional at airing her linen to live audiences, and did most of the work of keeping the conversation aerated by comic touches. At one stage Ashe turned to Fiona and said something like, ‘You know what it’s like to feel that you’re a bad mother.’ Fiona did a nice comic routine, turning away in mock denial. As Ashe continued with her point, it became clear that she was talking about something that was still raw. Fiona reached out and touched her on the forearm. A little later, doing her own bit of mock denial, Ashe waved her arms joyfully in the air and said, ‘And now I’m completely all right!’

Asked about how it felt writing this personal material for an audience, there were two very different, but equally memorable answers. Someone recalled the reassuring words of a wise editor: ‘Always bear in mind that no one is going to read every word you write.’ Fiona said that she wrote her book ‘for my children, to explain myself to them’.


Our only other event for the day was the Within Reach Gala at 8 o’clock. We managed to squeeze in a celebration dinner for a friend’s 70th birthday on our way to the Town Hall. Once there, we were taken back in time by the Town Hall’s insistence that masks were mandatory – though there was a lot more non-compliance than there was back in the day.

After a short introduction from Festival Director Michael Williams – in which he said among other things that Geoffrey Blainey’s concept of the Tyranny of Distance was regressive and idiotic but part of our culture – we were treated to a dozen writers speaking on the Festival’s theme, Within Reach, reflecting on the past year. Their interpretations of the brief ranged widely. Each speaker was identified simply by their name on a big screen, so that we were spared time-consuming introductions and appreciations by an MC, which made a huge difference to the pleasure of the evening.

Tony Birch told a beautiful story of how the gift of a stone at a wake made a huge difference to him when he was depressed and despairing from the death of a close relative and the lack of progress in action on climate change. He held up the stone.

Ceridwen Dovey said she has been working on space objects, and talked about the ‘golden records’ that have been sent out into space. There was a debate about whether those records should include material about the dark sides of humanity. In the end, the woman writer on the team managed to have the sound of a kiss included – and the actual kiss that was recorded was both an expression of tenderness and the beginning of a betrayal.

Sisonke Msimang spoke of the great movement of white women in response to allegations of sexual assault in Parliament. She was onside with the protests but couldn’t join them, knowing that she couldn’t ask her group netball mothers to join her on a BLM march. She spoke eloquently and generously about this impasse.

Ellen van Neerven started with the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and the question that resounded in her mind:’When will this country see as much justice?’ She said that like all First Nations people in Australia, deaths in custody was a family matter. She pledged to continue to tell the stories that need to be told.

Geraldine Brooks spoke from Martha’s Vineyard in the USA by video. I confess that the beauty of the country where she’s living largely overwhelmed my ability to take in what she was saying. I think that was her subject: missing home.

Trent Dalton, I think, meant to remind us of the importance of human contact and the pain of physical distance in pandemic times. He misjudged the moment by presenting himself as an indiscriminate hugger of strangers, telling a story in which he hugged woman after woman who were standing a in a queue for the toilet at a previous SWF. Sorry, Trent, but issues of consent are high on the agenda right now and the humour didn’t really work – but the crowd was forgiving.

Maria Tumarkin riffed on the question, ‘How close is too close?’ What she had to say was formidably complex and wide-ranging, and she spoke tantalisingly fast. I managed to jot down one sentence: ‘One person’s specific safety makes as much sense as one person’s piece of sky.’

Michael O’Loughlin, who came out as ‘not a writer’, told the story of his illustrious career as a footballer, from telling his mother when he was 11 that he would her a house to his final words, ‘I hope you’re enjoying the house, Mum.’ I’m appallingly ignorant about sport, so his story was a revelation to me in many ways, but especially about the significance professional sport can have for First nations players, and their families and their communities.

Adam Goodes, a footballer even I have heard of, did a brilliant, modest thing. He read to us the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and confined his own commentary to a single sentence: ‘That was 2017. It’s now 2021. We’re still waiting.’

Alison Lester told us a story of a medical crisis. As she was in hospital being wheeled into emergency she saw on a wall a clumsy copy of one of her illustrations. The orderly was unimpressed when she croaked, ‘That’s my picture.’ she described the experience of an induced coma as an awareness of darkness, cold and discomfort and nothing else, and the struggle to respond when at last she heard her daughter calling to her.

Fiona McGregor read what felt like a prose poem, ‘Eight scenes from a dancing life’: the profound joy of dancing as part of a community, witnessed and experienced

Christos Tsiolkas‘s opening words were, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ It’s Orthodox Easter, and this present moment is one where the gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars brings home for him the tension between his own life as a middle-class Australian writer and the life of his Greek migrant working-class parents, especially his much-loved mother.

Michel Williams then called all but Geraldine Brooks back onto the stage for a big round of applause and we all went home.


500 people: Week Eleven

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Friday this week, I heard my name called. It was a friend who said, ‘It’s no good talking to us, you already know us.’ Thus encouraged, here’s my next report on the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge.

  1. Monday 26 April, in the sauna, when I came back from my shower, a chap was lying down on one of the benches, reading his phone. Though I said not to worry, I had plenty of room, he sat up at a notionally Covid-safe distance. I had my book in hand (Rabbit poetry journal, the Science issue). He said, ‘Time goes slowly in the sauna when you don’t read.’ I agreed. I didn’t bring a book last time I was here and spent the whole time willing the minute hand on the clock to speed up. ‘But is it safe for your phone?’ I asked. ‘Everyone says that, but I have to have something to read.’ We went back to our devices, then I realised that the glue in some books melts in the sauna heat, and showed him where a number of pages had come loose in my journal in only 10 minutes: ‘Phones might be OK, but not books.’
  2. Wednesday, in the sauna again, reading Rabbit again (I’m going a lot because it does wonders for a stiff neck). A chap came in and before he sat down poured water from a plastic bottle onto the coals. If people ask, I never object to this barbarism, but as far as I’m concerned the sauna is for dry heat and there’s a steam room two metres away for anyone who wants steam. I didn’t say anything, but got up immediately and left. The third person in the sauna laughed: I must have made my displeasure crystal clear. As I showered in the dressing room, I regretted not saying something, preferably something civil, but as I was putting my shoes on the situation was redeemed. I tuned in on two men who were chatting loudly. ‘So rude,’ one of them said, ‘reading a magazine in the sauna. Some people have no respect.’ He was the man who laughed, taking to the man with the bottle. As he walked past on his way back into the sauna, I asked, ‘Are you having a go at me?’ ‘Was that you?’ he asked – people look different with clothes on. ‘Not having a go, but you shouldn’t read in the sauna. There are too many memories.’ At least I think that’s what he said. Maybe it was ‘too many members’. For some reason this little exchange had me smiling all the way home.
  3. Wednesday evening, I had a call to say that a friend with Parkinson’s had had a fall and none of her friends who are on call could get to her place. A young man had helped her from the nature strip to her apartment and waited there until I arrived. He and I had a brief chat before he, his partner and their little white dog went on their way. Really, the chat was pretty transactional, but I’m including this encounter because it’s not right that acts of kindness to strangers should always go unrecorded. (My friend is fine, except for a badly scraped knee.)
  4. Thursday midday, we went to Observatory Hill to have lunch with the Granddaughter, and visited the extraordinary Tree of Life exhibition at the S H Ervin gallery while we were at it. As I was leaving, the volunteer at the cash register asked if I’d enjoyed the exhibition. I said yes, very much. That doesn’t really count as a conversation though, more of flesh-and-blood evaluation survey. A woman leaning heavily on a walking stick spoke to me from the doorway: ‘It’s spiritual!’ Not a term I would have used but she was describing something real. We exchanged a few more words and then I was back to grandfathering.
  5. Thursday, 5 to 1 at the Sydney Observatory – I know the time because we were waiting for the Time Ball to drop – another woman leaning on a walking stick, with whom we’d crossed paths in the museum, joined us. ‘That’s a powerful smell,’ she said. My sense of smell is feeble at best and I couldn’t smell a thing, but I said, ‘It could be the lavender.’
  6. Friday early afternoon, picking up some new lights for our kitchen, I said to the man behind the counter, ‘Now we’ll be able to see.’ ‘Always a good thing,’ he said. So I told him the story I’d just heard from Lily Brett on ABC Conversations – she had cataract surgery and suddenly could se how filthy her apartment was.
  7. Friday at our 4 o’clock session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, I had a chat with a woman sitting beside me. My opening line was, ‘Do you know who we’re here to see?’ ‘No,’ she said, and we both laughed, then looked up our programs and remembered why we’d booked these tickets so long ago.
  8. Friday an hour or so later, as we were leaving the Carriageworks, I spoke to a security man with an impressive waxed moustache. ‘This must be a cushy job,’ I said. ‘Yep,’ he said. ‘It’s a writers’ festival. I don’t know what they’re paying me for.’ ‘Just wait,’ I said. ‘All these silver haired people will get rowdy when the sun goes down.’ At least I wish I’d said that.
  9. Lateish Saturday morning as we were arriving at Carriageworks for our second session of the day, a small family group with English accents were walking just behind us – a man, a woman and a child in a stroller. They the woman was saying they had great seats in Row CC. Given that we had seats in Row BB, which I had assumed meant way up the back, I turned around and asked her if she knew for sure that BB meant up the front. ‘Definitely,’ she said. They went on ahead of us, him reminding her several times in few seconds to keep left on the footpath.
  10. Saturday, just before 12.30, waiting in Row BB (second from the front – the Englishwoman was right) for the session to start, a man sitting in the front row a couple of metres from me turned around and we caught each other’s eye. we didn’t speak, but there was a definite friendly exchange. He did talk to the women sitting right behind him, and I fairly brazenly listened in. He was the partner of one of the speakers, down from the country, and pretty glad to be there. He and I exchanged friendly glances a couple of times during the conversation: I think he may have been glad to have at least that much contact with another man.
  11. Saturday, after that session, in the Festival bookshop, I had picked up a copy of Nardi Simpson’s book, Song of the Crocodile. A woman said to me, ‘I’ve got a hundred pages to go in that.’ And we chatted for a while about the session we had both just attended. You hear a talk differently depending on whether you’ve read the book or not. Both our book groups have read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip.
  12. Saturday, before the next session, I stepped out of the queue when it started moving because the Emerging Artist hadn’t come back from the toilet. The volunteer who was policing the queue asked if I had a problem. I explained, and all was good. Later, I asked her how long her shift was, and thanked her for volunteering and doing the work so cheerfully.

Running total is now 103. Posts on the Festival are coming soon.

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.