Tag Archives: Trent Dalton

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 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.

The Book Group and Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe (Fourth Estate 2018)

Before the meeting: This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, most obviously because it happened online, with participants spread from Bondi to Balmain, and less obviously because it’s the first time a book has been chosen that I’ve already read.

So for my pre-meeting take on the book, I’ll just point you to this link, and limit myself to saying that I enjoyed the book, and risked a visit to the supermarket to buy a bottle of sarsaparilla to flourish at the zoom screen.

After the meeting: As you would expect, we spent time checking how we were all going in our separate households. One of us reported the death of a friend in England. One made only a brief appearance because he is a health worker and exhausted, as well as putting himself at risk as an essential worker. Another has been working very long hours as his business adjusts to having most people working from home and he spends many hours every day in online meetings, which, he says, may actually be more productive than in-person meetings, but are exhausting. Several of us, me included, reported intergenerational tensions as people variously worried that others weren’t taking enough care or were annoyed by other people’s worry. A number spoke of the odd sense of having a relaxing time to do gardening and sit about and read, while outside – where you’re not allowed to go – terrible things are happening. I got the impression that many of us are addicted to Covid-19 news. There were no jokes.

We did get to the book. Without food to share or the possibility of fragmenting into small incidental conversations the whole thing was a lot less fun than we’re used to. It felt almost like an Eng Lit seminar – not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that. Most of us enjoyed the book. One chap said that generally if a book hasn’t grabbed him by page 72 he gives up on it; this book took until page 272, but then he decided to go with it and really had a good time. Some didn’t care much for the longish expository opening. (I think they were referring to the evocation of Brisbane suburbs, which I loved.) Another felt that the magic realism elements were the least successful, and I think we can look forward to an excellent film.

Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe (Fourth Estate 2018)

Just when I was beginning to think I’d become that typical older white man who doesn’t enjoy fiction, along comes Boy Swallows Universe and demonstrates that if anything my taste is reverting to that of a much younger demographic. It’s depressive fiction that I don’t enjoy. I want my novels to be fun, and this one is fun. (Come to think of it, it’s not so long since I read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, and some bits in that keep coming back as unbidden memories that make me laugh, so Boy Swallows Universe isn’t an anomaly).

This is a novel full of odd characters, vivid villains, plenty of colour and movement, twists and turns, silliness and tears, something new and diverting on every page. Eli Bell, the narrator, is thirteen at the start of the novel. His brother August/Gus hasn’t spoken since their parents split up years before, but communicates by writing in the air. Their mother and de facto stepfather are recovered junkies, now dealing heroin, precariously involved in organised crime. The story that unfolds involves terrible violence, of the out-of-control domestic variety as well as the spine-chillingly calculated kind. It involves deep betrayal, and at least one moment of abject self-abasement more horrible than any of the violence.

But it’s also a love story. The boys’ babysitter, Slim, is a notorious criminal, who once served time for murder. Whether he did the crime is left an open question – as it must, because, we’re told in an author’s note, the character shares the name and the history of a real man was actually the author’s babysitter. Slim is Eli’s mentor: he helps him develop his remarkable powers of observation, and offers profound philosophical advice – usually with a half smoked durrie hanging from his lip: ‘The tricky part is learnin’ how to be good all the time and bad none of the time. Some of us get that right. Most of us don’t.’ There’s no doubt that he loves the boys. No doubt either that their mother, stepfather and even the father who turns up much later in the book, that they all love them in their wounded ways, and are loved in return. Eli knows that all these people have done bad things, and more, worse things are revealed as the novel progresses, and he wrestles with the question – not, How can you love a person who does bad things? but, What is a good person?

There’s a story early in the book that beautifully foreshadows some of this complexity. The school bully tells Eli to meet him in a secluded spot after school. When they meet, he and his thuggish offsider force Eli to splay his fingers on a flat surface while the bully, blindfolded brings a sharp knife dow=n, betting that he can land the blade between Eli’s fingers. They are interrupted in the nick of time by a school teacher, but Eli refuses to say anything untoward was happening. Later, asked by the bully’s mother – a powerful figure in the local drug trade – why he didn’t dob, Eli says, to the bully’s astonished pleasure, ‘Because he is my friend.’ And means it.

I was enjoying the book from the first page. The point where enjoyment turned to love is when Eli says:

I’ve never tasted the natural spring waters of Helidon, but I doubt they could match the sweet, restorative powers of an ice cold sarsaparilla.

(page 125)

You may need to be a Queenslander of a certain age to even understand what that sentence means, and I’m pretty certain that only a Queenslander could have written it. (Sarsaparilla, pronounced sarsprella in my childhood, is a soft drink that tastes like root beer, hard to find outside of Queensland, and not manufactured by the transnationals that otherwise dominate the softdrink market.)

Because, this is a Queensland novel through and through. Slim’s many escapes from prison earned him the nickname the Houdini of Boggo Road. The object of Eli’s infatuation works at the Courier-Mail. The beautiful names of Brisbane suburbs ring out through the story: Inala, Birrong, Sandgate, Toombul, Toowong, The Valley, The Gap. People feast on mud crabs, and no one trusts the police (it’s a just-post-Bjelke-Petersen novel).

There are fantasy elements – impossible conversations on a red phone, some romantic wish-fulfilment, maybe even the whole strand about Gus’s silence – that aren’t really integrated, and might irritate someone who wasn’t onside. For my part, I didn’t even have to forgive them: they work fine as decoration, they’re part of what make the book fun.

I feel a bit strange saying that a novel that includes scenes of terrible violence, a couple of teenage boys getting involved in drug trafficking, and some general degradation is fun. It’s not fun in the way, say, Breaking Bad, is, where sheer style carries the day. It’s fun because we encounter all those elements with an indomitably open-hearted narrator. Possibly spoiler alert: this is the kind of novel where the young hero, meeting the immensely powerful, chillingly evil villain, asks him on the record, ‘Are you a good man?’