lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
[personal profile] lizabelle
My last day at the Sydney Writers' Festival began with AC Grayling, who spoke without notes for an hour on the origins of his The Good Book and its reception. His intent was to create a kind of humanist equivalent of the King James bible which, instead of telling people how to live in order to succeed in the hereafter, would offer up thinking material so that they could decide how to live in the here and now.

Living in this way entails a responsibility to own our decisions. Grayling quoted Socrates, who said that "The unexamined life is not worth living." Each individual is capable of doing the thinking and making the choices which, when acted upon, will add up to a well-lived life.

I have often said that I try to treat others the way I would like to be treated - to be honest, this is pretty much my mantra for living. According to Grayling, however, George Bernard Shaw said that this was a bad idea, because others may not like being treated in that way. It's a joke, but there's a serious point to it, which is that making oneself (or one anything: you as a person, a single religion, a totalitarian ideology) the benchmark of how you like to be treated, is a very distorting, one-sided view. We need to respect difference, not try to suppress it. Grayling expressed this as the need to "be generous and capacious in our understanding of human variety."

Proving this point later that day was Mardi McConnochie, who cited a lack of empathy with the boat people around whom so much Australian political debate is centred as one of her reasons for writing The Voyagers. She asked herself when "nice, ordinary white people" were last displaced on a large scale, and came up with the Second World War. Her novel is in part an attempt to comment on the effects of war and suffering on those who live through it.

McConnochie set out to write a love story that was both satisfying and literary, using the theme of music to represent a kind of order in the face of war as a chaotic, destructive force. Music is a "heart" form of art, she said (as opposed to writing, which is more cerebral). Music is the language that the characters speak; it is their common currency. As someone who has always loved music, perhaps too much in some ways, I really enjoyed this part of the conversation.

Music allows the characters of Mandy Sayer's latest novel to connect and break out of their assigned roles - roles assigned both by the war and by society. Love in the Years of Lunacy also deals with the effects of the Second World War on ordinary people, this time in Sydney. The setting allows for another theme to emerge: the fact that US military is fighting fascism overseas while practising its own form of fascism in the form of racial segregation - segregation that Australia was required to enforce by, for example, providing separate bars for Black and white Americans.

Obviously, Australia has its own murky race issues. Nicole Watson turned to writing after being frustrated by her work as a case manager on the Native Title Tribunal. She felt that the process was not an empowering one for Aboriginal people, and imagined a situation in which the tables were turned. With her book, The Boundary, she wanted to write a story in which the Aboriginal characters had agency.

PM Newton's The Old School also features a non-white protagonist, half-Vietnamese Nhu (inevitably nicknamed Ned) Kelly. While Nhu's heritage was a conscious choice on Newton's part, she also pointed out that it is dangerous to envisage characters purely as symbols. The character has to live, breathe and speak as well as represent something. Similarly, place can play a major factor in many crime novels, but this isn't (or shouldn't be) just about the scenery. For true resonance, you need to tie the sense of place to a period in time and the issues relevant to people at that time. Her own novel is set in 1992, when the New South Wales police force was facing a major corruption inquiry, and the characters' awareness of that investigation and its implications underpins the entire story. Newton cited Michael Dibdin as a good example of this kind of crime writing, saying that the crimes in his stories could only happen in that place, to those people, at that particular time.

Shamini Flint commented that Asian novels tend to be sweeping, exotic epics covering several generations in a manner that she dubbed the "over-exoticisation of Asia for western audiences". She is more interested in the way historical strands play out in contemporary society in Asia. Each of her "Inspector Singh Investigates" novels is set in a different place (so far all in Asia), and she roots at least one motive for the crime in the society about which she is writing.

I've already read (and highly recommend) PM Newton's The Old School. After Sunday's festival sessions, I added books by Mardi McConnochie, Mandy Sayer, Nicole Watson and Shamini Flint to my to-read list; it was great to see so many articulate, entertaining women committed to using their writing to say something about the world in which we live.

And that was my last day of the writers' festival. Sixteen events and many inspiring, impassioned speakers on writing, beauty, politics, the environment and the future of humanity. Time to get out there and live. :)
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