lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
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. :)
lizabelle: (Default)
I've finished all of the big write-ups I'm going to manage for the Sydney Writers' Festival, so this post and the following one will attempt to summarise some of the other sessions I attended.

That means I'm not going to say much about David Mitchell and Michael Cunningham, but that's all right, because if you're interested you can read LiteraryMinded's gorgeous post entitled The epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives: By Nightfall and Michael Cunningham in Australia, and watch the entire David Mitchell session I attended, The Thousand Styles of David Mitchell, thanks to SlowTV*.

Onto things I actually am going to talk about. One of the best things about the festival, for me, is seeing writers engaging with one another's work. One reason the Jennifer Mills and Lyn Hughes panel worked so well was that each writer seemed to genuinely love the other's work and be interested in discussing it. The two novels (Flock, about a group of conservators restoring a historic house, and Gone, about a man released from prison who hitchikes across Australia) are ostensibly very different, but they both comment on the theme of memory: how our mind suppresses things, and what happens when those things come back to haunt us.

Writing is a lonely business; Hughes described writers as moving in parallel worlds, obsessed with a story that (while unpublished) no one else is interested in. On another level, this story also contains characters who have their own obsessions and parallel worlds. Added to this is the effect of the human memory, which is ever unreliable. As humans, we confabulate; we reconstruct our past in our present mind, but it is never quite accurate; it always contains an element of story. It is only natural for characters to do this, as well.

David Mitchell described the process of absorbing "stuff" from your immediate surroundings - "found stuff", he said, is the best stuff to use as a writer. He quoted (paraphrased?) Picasso, who said "First I find something, then I go looking for what it is" as a good way of figuring out writing - which also ties back to something Lyn Hughes said: "Write in wilful ignorance, and then ask why."

Michael Cunningham wins my prize for most beautiful use of words when talking about writing as art. His latest book, By Nightfall, begins with a Rilke quotation: "Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror." In the panel, "On Beauty", at which he appeared with art critic and gallery director Betty Churcher, he described his fascination with "annihilating beauty - a sort of miraculous, terrible angel that swoops on us with a sword of light and leaves us ravaged and altered forever."

Someone in the audience asked whether beauty was dependent on craftsmanship. Michael Cunningham said that he sees beauty in the gap between what the artist set out to do and what he/she achieved. As a novelist, he describes an idea for a novel as "a cathedral made of light and fire" hovering above his mind; what he gets down on paper becomes "just that book". But to him, that's part of what makes any work of art interesting - what it says about human limitation.

This, for me, was the heart of the festival: the intersection between what we are (human beings) and what we can achieve with that humanity.

*SlowTV will be uploading other videos from the festival, so keep an eye on the site if you're interested.
** If you want to melt, watch 9:00-9:20 of the David Mitchell video.
lizabelle: (Default)
This event was the highlight of the festival for me: three intelligent, strong, compassionate women all speaking eloquently and movingly on subjects close to their hearts. It's another long post, because almost everything they said felt important to me.

Maxine McKew kicked off proceedings by asking all three panellists to give their reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Ingrid Betancourt said that she did not feel Bin Laden's death should be celebrated, with which the other panellists agreed. Aminatta Forna contrasted this case with that of Charles Taylor, who in 2006 was flown into Sierra Leone to face war crimes charges in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The people came out onto the streets to watch, Forna said, because this was a time when you could literally see that justice was being done. That court was funded by the US, and yet it seems the US did not want to take the justice route with Bin Laden.

Fatima Bhutto agreed with Betancourt and Forna, and observed that she is more concerned about the current violence in Pakistan than with Bin Laden's death. People are shot every day, and the situation is exacerbated by US drone strikes - she alleged that these have killed over two thousand people in Pakistan, largely civilians, since 2006.

The conversation moved onto the personal tragedies that the three women have experienced. In captivity, Betancourt felt that she had a responsibility as well as a right to be free. Even though she knew that any rescue attempt might mean her death, she preferred to die in the struggle for freedom rather than remaining a captive for, say, another twenty years.

She also praised the courage of her rescuers, who pretended they were working with the FARQ in order to gain access to her, and were completely unarmed when they executed their plan. They are the true heroes, she said.

More under here )

Hope, she said, comes from ordinary people. And in these three extraordinary women, ordinary people like me can certainly find plenty of inspiration and hope.
lizabelle: (Book and sea)
I have more to post (David Mitchell! Fatima Bhutto! Michael Cunningham!), but I wanted to post a bit of a round-up while everything's still fresh in my mind. Take all of this with a pinch of salt. :)

Number of events attended: 16 (out of 330)

Number of events I queued for and failed to get into: 2 (The Fascinator - Delia Falconer, Ashley Hay and Gail Jones sharing their fascination with Sydney and Desert Flowers - Indigenous writers talking about and reading from their poetry)

Number of bookloving friends and acquaintances bumped into: 8 (seriously, how does this happen among so many thousands of people?)

Number of David Mitchell events attended: 2

Number of David Mitchell events that the boyfriend attended on my behalf: 1

Most mind-blowing moment: Fatima Bhutto, Ingrid Betancourt and Aminatta Forna talking about power, politics and personal responsibility. Their standing ovation was much-deserved.

Number of books bought: 6* (1 as a gift)

Number of books added to to-read list: 34 (I wish I was joking)

Favourite new discovery: Kei Miller - self-deprecating, quietly intelligent, hilarious and lovely.

Biggest fangirl moment: The Big Reading - Kei Miller reading from his first novel (he's a wonderful reader - if there are any audiobooks of his work, he needs to read them, please); David Mitchell reading from his work-in-progress; Téa Obreht reading from The Tiger's Wife; Kader Abdolah telling a heartfelt story of giving up the language of his birth (at least for writing purposes); and Michael Cunningham reading from his work-in-progress. Five wonderful writers, and I came out completely starry-eyed.

Number of awesome women spotted on various panels: Too many to count, but a few that spring to mind are Fatima Bhutto, Ingrid Betancourt, Aminatta Forna, Amanda McKenzie, Kirsten Tranter, Sophie Cunningham, Sonya Hartnett, Anna Perera, Kelly-lee Hickey, Mardi McConnochie, Mandy Sayer and Elizabeth Stead.

Favourite evening event: Spoken Four - inspiring performers telling it like it is.

Panellist with most enthusiastic, delighted audience: David Mitchell (although Kei Miller comes a close second).

Favourite random panellist: Steven Gale, who offered a lovely foil to Kei Miller in the first session I attended, and whom I lated spotted on several occasions browsing the books and looking like any other festival-goer.

Number of worlds ended: None

Number of glasses of red wine drunk: 4 (pretty restrained, I feel).

Number of hours spent queueing: About four.

Saddest moment: Ingrid Betancourt talking about learning of her father's death while she was in captivity.

Most inspiring moment: Amanda McKenzie explaining clearly and calmly how we can help to save the environment.

Funniest moment: Pretty much anything Shamini Flint said.

Sweetest moment: David Mitchell telling the "small person" in the audience to make as much noise as he liked.

Happiest moment: The general realisation that there are many people out there (in Sydney, even) who think the way I do about many things, and who, when they do not agree, are willing to enter into thoughtful, respectful discussions.

Most memorable moment: Aminatta Forna, Fatima Bhutto and Ingrid Betancourt in one room talking about power, politics and our personal responsibility to stand up to oppression. Unforgettable and important.

* The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller, The Diamond Anchor by Jennifer Mills, The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna, The Old School by PM Newton, Family Album by Penelope Lively and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.

I'd love to hear from others: what were your memorable festival moments?
lizabelle: (Default)
Friday at the Writers' Festival started with Markus Zusak and Sonya Hartnett, two precocious Australian writers who also have a considerable international following. Jill Eddington began by asking them how they came to writing, at which point it transpired that Hartnett wrote her first novel aged thirteen, and got it published. When asked how, she basically thanked the arrogance of youth; she "didn't know she couldn't".

Zusak also began writing young (age sixteen), but it wasn't until his fourth novel that he achieved publication. He said he felt lucky not to have been published earlier, and that he rather pitied some writers who achieve instant success at a young age, because some of them then feel no need to keep growing and improving, whereas he had to constantly push himself to get better.

When asked about why his books are so successful, Read more... )

*If you want to know which character this was, comment and I'll tell you. I just didn't want to spoil anyone.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
In The Count, Kirsten Tranter, Sophie Cunningham and Stephen Romei discussed why articles by and about men dominate our book pages, when so many women write and buy books and work in the publishing industry.

Kirsten started us off with some figures, including the fact that the Times Literary Supplement reviewed works by 330 women in 2010, as compared with 1036 men. The Paris Review published interviews with one woman author and seven men. The New York Review of Books reviewed works by 59 women and 462 men. The figures vary, but they are consistent in one respect: women writers are under-represented in these pages, in terms of both the reviews that are written and the books that are reviewed.

More under here. )

So what to do about all of this? Part of the task is simply to raise awareness of the problem, which events such as The Count are doing. It does seem that people are increasingly conscious of the issues, particularly since VIDA's figures made such a splash earlier this year - and yet, that almost makes the Miles Franklin all-male shortlist feel more like a slap in the face than ever.

Work is also underway on the development of a literary prize for women writers in Australia, along the lines of the Orange Prize in the UK. Tentatively named the Stella Prize (Miles Franklin's real name was Stella), its stated goal is the recognition and representation of writing by women. You can keep track of developments by "liking" the prize's facebook page.

Further links for the curious:

New Australian fiction prize for women - Meanjin interview with Sophie Cunningham.
The Miles Franklin: another "Sausagefest" - Stephen Romei's reaction to the recent shortlist announcement, plus some pithy comments.
Is it a man's world, literally? - Alison Croggon on the implications of the shortlist.
A prize of one's own: the case for an Aussie Orange - Benjamin Law.
The Stella Prize on facebook.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
I ended up taking quite a few notes today, so I thought I might as well blog about them!

The first session I attended this morning was The Last Warner Woman with Kei Miller. This is one of the few sessions where I knew nothing about the writer or his work beforehand - I picked it because the subject matter sounded interesting, and I'm very glad I did. Miller was charming, thoughtful and an excellent (and hilarious) reader, and I'd be surprised if he didn't sell quite a few books based on his performance.

Stephen Gale kicked off the session by asking Miller about the genesis of the novel, and Miller immediately disarmed his audience by warning them that he was about to lie, because like all writers, he gets carried away by a good story, and like all books, The Last Warner Woman has various origins.

The one he chose to share with us was a vivid account of a Jamaican woman in Manchester who reminded him of the warner women he'd seen in Jamaica - a warner woman being a kind of prophetess of doom.

Next, he read two excerpts from the novel which, with their different narrators, expressed a similar duality: the "writer man" providing a writerly description, and then the "warner woman", who spends the novel critiquing the writer man's words. In the section Miller read, the warner woman was also critiquing her own storytelling, as if realising that the truth perhaps lies somewhere between the two accounts.

The point of the novel seems (caveat: I haven't read it yet) to be to move beyond "the facts" to "the truth". Miller seems to see dualities in many things: he talked about how Jamaica can be both beautiful and ugly at the same time, and also about the nature of the warner woman herself - the fact that as a traditional figure in Jamaican culture she is accepted as normal, but that when taken out of this context she can seem very odd. Again, what is real; what is true?

Perhaps reading The Last Warner Woman will give me some clues.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
For the past few days, I've been at the Sydney Writers' Festival, which is based in one of the most beautiful areas of the city, with extra events all over town and further afield as far as the Blue Mountains.

The tag line this year was Read, Rethink, Respond, and there were plenty of topics up for discussion, including freedom of speech at home and abroad, how to save the world, whether we can actually save the world, political intervention in the Northern Territory, as well as lots and lots of talk about literature in its myriad forms.

My personal highlights were: Lydia Cacho and Eric Lax talking about journalism on the front line and how PEN can help; Raj Patel completely living up to his wonderful writing; slam poets Sarah Taylor, Charlie Dark and Emily Zoey Baker at Spoken Four; and Emily Maguire being so fantastically articulate in No Country for Young Women.

I spent Thursday morning volunteering. I enjoyed the experience, but also found it quite stressful: no matter how often you are told that as a volunteer you have no responsibility and you are to contact a member of the festival staff if there are any problems, it's difficult to remain calm in the face of a demanding publisher or a member of the public giving you a sob story about why they need to get into a session that's already full. I have so much more respect now for the amount of organisation that goes into the festival. I only saw the very end of it, but people work really hard to make sure that everything goes smoothly.

I do wonder about venues, though. In many cases, punters had to queue half an hour in advance to be sure of getting into the free events. I know the organisers will say that if people are willing to queue for that long, then of course it's fair...but perhaps bigger venues or more listening/broadcast opportunities might be called for in some cases?

Once I'd finished my volunteer shift, I swapped my bright yellow t-shirt for incognito (it was a real relief to feel invisible again) and immediately found myself at the wrong end of a queue, so failed to get into The Lost Father.

Undaunted, I hung around for What Pen Means To Me: Stories from the Frontline. Lydia Cacho's bravery astounds me; I have no conception of how it must feel to stand up to the very highest levels of power knowing that you are putting your life in danger. Eric Lax gave the other side of the story, ie the work that International Pen does to raise the profile of writers imprisoned for their work. Like many people, I have signed petitions like those put out by PEN, and it's great to know that campaigns like these really do have an impact.

The PEN/human rights theme continued on Friday with the excellent PEN gives voice. Introduced by John Ralston Saul, Colm Tóibín, Eric Lax, Yiyun Li, Thomas Keneally, Frank Moorhouse, Larissa Behrendt and Peter Carey (what a line-up!) read from the work of imprisoned writers in China, Tibet and Burma. Ralston Saul's dryly witty commentary glued everything together, and it was sobering to hear how minor some of the "offences" committed were. One blogger was imprisoned for posting a cartoon on his blog; his very affecting poem was read beautifully by Yiyun Li.

While I'm on the subject of human rights, I was a little surprised that so few panellists and moderators acknowledged that they were on Aboriginal land. My memory may be deceiving me, but I thought that was standard practice for the past few years, and I missed it this year.

Similarly, while I liked the fact that we were given more details than previously about the writers represented by the empty chair at each of the free events, I was sorry to see this feature missing from so many events.

This is getting long, so I'm going to take a break here, and will try to post part 2 of my recap tomorrow.
lizabelle: (Sparkly flowers)
1. This is the first in a series of five fascinating posts about one of my favourite books, David Mitchell's Cloudstreet Cloud Atlas*. All the posts are up now, and I urge anyone who's read the book to check them out.

1b. I am getting increasingly impatient for David Mitchell's new book.

2. Doctor Who! The eleventh doctor debuted on Saturday, and wasn't he lovely? I felt all my adoration for early Ten (pre-angst) being rekindled, although I admit that I spent most of the episode thinking thinky thoughts like "Hi, Eleven! Hi, Amy! You're really cool!" V. much looking forward to the rest of this series.

3. I am volunteering for the Sydney Writers' Festival this year - at least, I've volunteered my services, so will be volunteering if all goes to plan. The programme comes out this weekend, and I can't wait to see who this year's guests are.

4.Vegaroo is a new website set up by a friend of mine over here to act as a resource/hub for vegans in Australia. So far, there are restaurant reviews, events, a "get involved" section (this is my favourite part), and a blog that's just getting off the ground, but which already has some excellent posts up (this post, in particular, spawned an interesting discussion about the whys and wheretofores of using the word "vegan" in marketing). They need contributors, particularly from parts of Australia that aren't Sydney, if you're that way inclined.

5. Files are DONE! And so am I. G'night, all.

*Q: When do you know you've been in Australia too long? When any book with "cloud" in the title automatically becomes Cloudstreet.


lizabelle: (Default)

June 2014

89 1011121314


RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags