I entered the Bangarra Studio Theatre to a procession of glittering yellow and purple confetti streams, wading my way through the repurposed rehearsal space and making a concerted effort to avoid stomping on wayward toddlers scurrying around like landmines. The theatre looked like the inside of Shirley Temple’s head, glossy bright signage hanging off the ceiling and coloured crayons streaked across the floor. I took refuge in the pram parking lot (seriously), evading the glances of confused/concerned parents utterly perplexed by my presence in the toddler section of the Writing Festival.
In the corner of the room, surrounded by layers of fascinated children reclined on colourful bean bags, was a man hunched over a laptop. He was frantically collecting coloured slips of paper like he was counting ballots at a closely fought election. In fact, he was taking snippets of story ideas imagined up by those same layers of toddlers, and with them he was crafting a story.
“I never work as hard as I do in the two hours I do that,” recalls James O’Loghlin, laughing over the phone. Taking prompts from lolly-addled toddlers, he and Andrew Cranna in two hours crafted a short story upwards of 3,500 words. He marvelled at the creative flights of imagination often taken by those listening.
“The question isn’t why a kid is so imaginative, the question is where does it all go when we grow up?” In essence that is the topic on which most of our conversation focussed on, the same topic that it appears James has dedicated much of his life to discovering himself.
James O’Loghlin “always admired novelists more than anyone else,” spending much of his young life balancing a passion for reading, writing and comedy with his academic pursuits. The University of Sydney, it appeared from speaking with him, was the first time these two almost competing purposes in life came into conflict, and then were finally reconciled.
“I was doing Economics-Law…to be honest I was kind of lost at Uni. I was becoming a lawyer and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a lawyer.” As a man who would go on to write a book about work-life balance, I was curious if those same impulses were present in his university years. “Not at all,” He remembers with another laugh, describing his idea of balance as constituting three years of “social life” and two years of hard work – a kind of ‘Never The Twain Shall Meet’ approach to study-social balance most students are all too familiar with.
As the conversation progressed it became clearer the links that existed, perhaps even subconsciously, between the lost student at university and the highly successful writer and personality he has since become. One perfect example is his love of stand-up comedy, progressing from a key cog of his Law Revue (“which of course we all thought at the time was cutting-edge brilliance”), to a part-time comic at the Harold Park Hotel in Glebe, into the realm of television and radio.
James started his career as a corporate lawyer, then a criminal lawyer, before finally weening himself off and into the world of television and radio. One might, as I did at the time, assume that this constitutes a pretty radical eyebrow-raising professional turn – however that’s not how James remembers it. “With law it is about stories. Every time you get a new client there is a new story…Every time you appear in court you are telling a story. You are trying to turn your client from ‘Number 36’ on a list into a real person.”
James believes there is a lot to learn from writing for children. “You can’t describe a cloud for ten lines,” he jokes. “Whenever you want to persuade someone of something, work out what you want to say and then tell it like it’s a story. If you want people to listen to you, speak in stories,” Literature truly is the ultimate meritocracy in our world of competing for people’s attention; it’s all about how well you can craft your narrative.
Asked the obligatory ‘advice for current students’ cliché, James responded with this. “To throw yourself into it…to talk about stuff that isn’t that important but [in doing so] you learn about them and you learn about you,”
In practice you get to live out your stories, and as James points out, stories are what really matters.
A Night with The Great American Novelist
By Lauren Gui
Jonathan Franzen does not disappoint.
As he takes the stage, Franzen pauses for a few moments to gaze quizzically around the room before wryly addressing the crowd: “This is a grand hall.” Instantly, I take a fond liking to him, especially since Franzen’s sentiments about Twitter beautifully encapsulate my own: “Twitter is unspeakably irritating.”
In person, the author of five internationally bestselling novels is nothing like the patronising, somewhat misanthropic persona that critics have reputed him to be. Wearing his trademark black thick-rimmed glasses, Franzen generously answered Anna Funder’s questions about his latest novel, Purity, with his characteristically wry and awkward charm. Purity is a darkly humorous novel that is emotionally raw at heart as it explores themes of moral absolutivism, secrecy, power and the social significance of the Internet in a consciously self-aware voice. Central to its plot is one of the four protagonists, Purity “Pip” Tyler, whose slightly neurotic and reclusive mother steadfastly refuses to reveal any information about her name or age. Recently graduated from college, Pip is in considerable student debt and seeks her father whom she has never met, for compensation. After accepting an internship at The Sunshine Project, a political counterpart to WikiLeaks, with the complex and charismatic Julian Assange-like Andreas Wolfe, Pip learns that all secrets come at a price.
When asked about Wolfe’s treatment of feminism in Purity as a publicity stunt or matter of conviction, Franzen replied: “Well, the negative view is that there is something skeezy of men who preen themselves on their feminism. My personal view? This is a guy who eventually becomes the image that he himself has created on the Internet. It’s as if he is no longer a human being. This is a slight exaggeration from the situation but is capable of being extrapolated from a situation at that end. And once you become obsessed with your image, your motivations for doing something become unclear – are you doing it because you want to be liked?” He adds: “I hope that if you read the book, you will not go away thinking poorly of the Internet because it serves a kind of heroic function in the world. The only reason at all that I got so involved in critiquing it is because I got so annoyed at bull****, and all of the hype about this marvelous world that is being created, which we’re all connected by.”
To Franzen’s credit, he responded graciously to a questioner whose query began with the insinuation that he ought to “reign in” his plots, audaciously ending with: “Did your publishers ever suggest that your narratives were becoming too complex, too much like airport fiction?”
As the room let out an appalled “O”, he replied good-naturedly: “I hear what you are saying. And you picked a clever way to ask it. That particular scenario is unlikely because I think it’s actually more likely that I would be asked if I really wanted to have that level of psychological violence written down on these pages and that’s not really an airport fiction thing. I do. I’ll just take your question and run with it for a bit, and say that…I like good airport fiction. Does anyone remember le Carre’s novel, The Little Drummer Girl? It’s a knockout book! It’s very, very, heavily plotted, but it’s not a stupid book. It’s a smart book. First of all, it’s a noisy world. And there’s something to be said about a story that draws and holds you in, that makes you deaf to the noise whilst you’re in it. And I do aspire to that.”
Another question posed was how Franzen managed to accurately convey thoughts of characters who were different to him in terms of sex, gender and racial identity, and if Franzen ever worried about “getting it wrong and revealing far too much about himself?”. The room let out a laugh, Franzen included: “Yes, of course I worry about that. That’s why I do…self-publish. Risk-free writing is writing that is not worth reading. But you also don’t want to be insane, and take a risk that has no safety nets. I have a safety net that consists of a circle of trustworthy readers, who will tell me what I’ve got down wrong. For this book, two out of those three readers were women, and I did get things wrong. I would not want to stop taking that risk. It is important to imagine your way into subjectivities that aren’t your own. The baggage of history is uncomfortable because of the history of sexism and patriarchy, but I have to persist with that. It’s a matter of principle for me.”
I can hardly wait to see what The Great American Novelist next comes up with.
Review: Ladies Online
Ladies Online talk at the Sydney Writers' Festival
By Swetha Das
The intersection between the power of the internet and the prevalence of misogyny has led to the omission of women’s voices in public spaces.
‘Ladies Online’, with host Emma Jane, was an insightful panel that did not shy away from addressing the inherent sexism that laces online forums. On the panel were author, Tara Moss, YouTuber, Natalie Tran, and comedy writer, Rosie Waterland.
All three women have been subjected to intense vilification on the internet, and have developed their own methods to combat it. “I’ve been horrendously targeted by men,” said Waterland.
Her solution to harsh online comments: “I’m a blanket blocker”.
She explained that it has been difficult to engage with the enormity of negative comments and found it a beneficial experience to simply block those users from her social media pages.
“I try to keep my online world as happy a space I can.”
‘Community Channel’ is Natalie Tran’s hit YouTube channel that has garnered nearly 1.8 million subscribers and has had over half a billion views. She is also of Vietnamese background and has had a mixture of racist and sexist messages littering her videos’ comments.
Tran recalled the times that overenthusiastic fans would drop gifts at her house. After reporting this to the police, she was told that she should go offline as a solution to this incident rather than the authorities investigating the problem.
Moss’ recently published book, ‘Speaking Out’, details ‘survival strategies’ that women can employ to deal with this form of harassment online.
But of course, sexism and stereotypes are not a new occurrence. As a former model, Moss received a lot of scrutiny in the traditional media when she first started to publish her novels. She had to publicly take a polygraph test to prove that a model could also be an author. She noted that social media, despite its flaws, was also a medium to showcase an unfiltered version of oneself that can help overcome labels.
For readers it’s, “harder to hold onto the stereotype when you hear from [celebrities] directly,” said Moss.
On a positive note, Tran also pointed out that the current state of media is more accessible, and is now abundant with women in comedy that did not exist when she first started in YouTube.
“During [my] ten years of making videos, I see so many funny women”.
As the younger generations begin to rely heavily on the internet for their daily interactions, the online spaces that they frequent will begin to reflect the society that they live in.
For women and minorities, it seems that there is still quite a long way to go to create a completely stable and supportive environment. As Tara Moss said, “racism and sexism is alive and well”.
Interview with Kate Forsyth: “Fairy Tales Are A Universal Language”
SWF Media Hub intern, Lauren Gui (L) with novelist Kate Forsyth (R)
By Lauren Gui
We are inextricably caught up in the paradox of endless numbered days from the day we are born, but fairytales have endured the test of time. I caught up with Kate Forsyth, a celebrated voice in fairytale retelling and acclaimed novelist of the international bestseller Bitter Greens, to talk about how fairytales resonate with both the young and old with their power to instill courage, and the complexity of good and evil choices.
You wrote your first novel at the precocious age of seven. What was it about?
It was called Runaway, and it was a story of a brother and sister who ran away from home. They were living with their mean uncle, and ran into all sorts of adventures on their quest to find their nice auntie.
You said a few months ago that fairy tales are “for all humans, having the power to help us change not only ourselves, but also the world.”
Yes, I believe that. We cannot effect change in the world until we imagine what kind of world it is that we want to live in. One of the reasons why I love writing for both adults and children is the idea that a book gives the most space in which they are a hero for a while. You can have all these adventures and do all these extraordinarily brave things in the world of the book, and it makes you feel brave. And so anything that we experience in the world of the book can change us in the same way as if it had really happened to us.
It’s striking how much you’ve written about the complexity of good and evil, or the way it’s categorised and distributed. Why is that such a recurring theme in your books?
I don’t actually know. I’ve never been asked that question before. Questions about the ideas of good and evil, and of fate and self-will have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. Are we born evil or do we become evil? Do we consciously choose to be evil? Do people who are evil know that they are evil? How do we judge what is evil? Do we judge by intention, or do we judge by effect? There is a battle constantly going on, and maybe that’s what fascinated me as a child. There are two evils which you need to judge: which is the lesser of the two evils?
When you were older, your fascination with fairy tales grew stronger. Who were the authors who were influencing you at the time?
Growing up, Nicholas Stuart Gray, Eleanor Farjeon and C. S. Lewis were amongst my favourite authors. When I was at university, I was reading authors like Robin McKinley and Jane Yolen.
Why do you write fiction? To convey a sense of rationality, or is it a kind of a search for a humanity that links everyone together?
Definitely the latter. I think this is a beautiful question, because you’ve put exactly into words what I am trying to do. One of my favourite writers is E. M. Forster and he has an epigraph in one of his books: “Only connect.” This is my personal mantra on how to live my life. With all of my work and all of my novels, I’m seeking to connect with other human beings. You can never have too much of it.
Fiction gives us the chance to slip into someone’s skin and live their life for a while, to understand their most secret and innermost thoughts. When we return to our own skin and own lives, we still carry that new clarity, understanding and empathy that book has given us.
Which of your books are you most proud of?
Every book that I have ever written has each shaped and changed me in some way, and have all been written at a cost to me. If I had to choose one, it would have to be Bitter Greens, because it was such an extraordinary experience for me as a creative artist in terms of what I suffered in writing it, but also what I won in writing that book.
You’ve just finished your latest novel, The Beast’s Garden. Are you working on anything new at the moment? Yes, I am. I’m working on a new fairytale-infused historical novel for adults. It’s got a working title of Beauty in Thorns, and it’s a re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, set amongst the circle of pre-Raphaelite artists, in late Victorian England. It is told from the point of view of eight or nine women based on historical figures such as Christina Rossetti, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Elizabeth Siddal, and Mary de Morgan, who all lived, loved, suffered and died. And so I’m telling their stories in this book. Just the sort of thing I love. I’m hoping that it’s going to come together the way I want it to. You never know. It’s always a gamble, when you’re creating.
Review: A Life in Words
By Swetha Das
French writer, Jean Cocteau, once said that “the poet doesn’t invent. He listens”.
A poet has countless influences, but for Kate Lilley and Geoffrey Lehmann, their experiences have drawn out the narratives in their work.
“A Life in Words”, hosted by the University of Sydney’s Luke Fischer, delved into the significance of familial interactions to the writings of panellists Lilley and Lehmann.
Lilley is an award winning poet, author of the anthologies ‘Versary’ and ‘Ladylike’, and is an Associate Professor of English at the Sydney University.
Lehmann is an interesting combination of poet and taxation lawyer. He has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1994.
Both poets have found that their relationships with their parents have guided the content for a lot of their poetry.
The intense relationship with her mother was a motivator for Lilley to pursue this artistic career as well as providing inspiration for her poetry.
“Doing things artistic and useless was encouraged.”
Lilley’s mother was the celebrated writer, poet and academic, Dorothy Hewett, whose controversial political views and heartfelt poetry dominated the arts sector in the 60s and 70s.
‘Dress Circle’, a short poem by Lilley, which describes the changing nature of a mother-daughter dynamic, was read out by Lilley. It was a powerful imagining of a relationship that had such a significant influence on Lilley’s work.
Along the same vein, Lehmann illustrated the contrast between his own artistic pursuit and his father’s practical working-class attitude.
Initially disliking poetry during his school years, Lehmann found that eventually an influential teacher twisted his thinking.
“Poems were like detective stories, they have several meanings in them.”
Lehmann also read out a few of his poems, all of which have a realistic but humorous tone to them.
A consistent motif that was emphasised during the panel was that the traumatic but impactful situations in life are what spurs creativity. “I’m interested in the real”, said Lilley.
As Jean Cocteau’s quote noted that poetry is a reflection of the world around them, it was a pleasure to watch two poets harness their skills to capture vulnerability and love through their art.
The Underbelly of Sydney
By Lauren Gui
Cities may burn to the ground, but their bones remain, whispering secrets into the hot dusty breeze.
On a Thursday morning bathed in dazzling sunlight, a packed room tucked away at the end of the pier buzzing in anticipation lowers to an excited murmur. Eleanor Limprecht catches my eye and offers a warm smile and quick wink, picking up on my fruitless attempt to contain my enthusiasm.
Headed by Sydney-based dramaturg Tom Wright, the panel features authors Eleanor Limprecht, Anna Westbrook and Peter Doyle, a trio that share a rather curious and what some might even consider macabre interest: exhuming Sydney’s colourful and seamy past, intermittently filed into the back shelves of history and neglected in the shadows until now.
Peter Doyle defines this mythological underbelly as a “symbolic, collective conscious”, a fragmented jigsaw composed of archival photographs brimming with untold history. These photographs, he says, are fraught with existential anxiety, and for him they raise up questions of erasure and lost history: how long are we held in living memory? They reveal a pre-identity politics that evinces tension between events and people, perpetuated by the constant pressure to survive, and even then only in pre-approved notions of who should be loved, and how much.
Anna Westbrook’s latest novel, Dark Fires Shall Burn, is set in 1940s Sydney’s Newtown, anchored in an atmospheric, seething cloud of chaos borne from second-wave trauma left over from the war.
For Eleanor Limprecht, the photographs serve as relics of a dark violence that even until today, lines the streets of Sydney, exposing a “secret, seedy and private geography that is littered with ghosts of those passed.” They are the hidden connectors that reveal the entire grid of the city, exposing its fault lines where laws have failed to protect marginalised groups of individuals in society.
Her novel, Long Bay, is based on a real-life, sombre tale of an abortionist, who gave birth to a child whilst in prison after being convicted of manslaughter.
One thought that lingered at the forefront of my mind throughout the talk was: who was the law aiming to protect? The answer is simple: under a pretense of safeguarding society’s moral code, the law in actuality, served as a legal protection of a specifically patriarchal politics of the body.
Women were subjected to oppressive social conditions that were created as a dire consequence of the misogyny rooted in the patriarchal society of the forties, and those who spoke up were silenced and punished for it. Who really, were the actual criminals here? Through their work, these authors have finally given their characters a voice, filling in the gaps of Sydney’s history.
Sydney Writers' Festival - Day four review
Julian Baggini’s talk on free will
By Angelina Kosev and Tom St John
The sun is bright, the crowd is plentiful, there are children running around and the sound of what could possibly be a xylophone is wafting out of all the buildings – it is children and family day at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, but I am walking towards the refuge of Julian Baggini’s talk on free will. Perhaps this is a different type of playground (one for the existentialist, the nihilist, or simply the interested; all of whom were spotted here).
Baggini has an interesting way of making huge ideas – free will, for example – simple metaphors, turning them into completely understandable ideas that even your casual media intern could grasp. The ultimate decision, however, as deduced by me throughout this talk, is that free will is not at all an illusion but a completely intangible idea. Baggini provided us with an anecdote about his cat, who receives exactly what he needs in a day and nothing more, surely he can exert whatever free will he wants, being an animal with all his needs taken care of? But me, your simple media intern, was wrong to agree, because Baggini’s cat has never had to make a choice, and don’t we associate that with free will? But then, aren’t there binding elements in choice? The talk was both comic and deeply engaging and insightful, opening questions and shutting down others.
Meanwhile, at the Curiosity Stage, Australian author Gail Jones spoke about the idiosyncratic world crafted by famed Russian author Vladimir Nabokov. The fantastic thing throughout the Writer’s Festival has been the opportunity to hear impressive authors in their own right give their own interpretation of other artists that have influenced their work. From his theory of spiral time, to his pessimistic musings, to his simple descriptions of coloured pencils, Jones worked through the defining characteristics of one of the great Russian novelists of all time.
In mid-afternoon David Dyer took the Curiosity Stage to link two events not often seen as connected in history – the sinking of Titanic and the Suffragette movement. The sinking of the Titanic, and the chivalrous “women and children before men” gave rise to a growing concern that women were ungrateful in demanding the vote. Moreover, it illustrated the growing fracturing within the Suffragette movement on class lines. The huge industrial loft was at full capacity until the end, a fantastic end to one of the highlights of the Festival.
The late afternoon saw workmen start to take over the wharf, beginning to dismantle posters and remove signage. An adult size Maisy – beloved character of picture books – is still entertaining a few children, but there is an obvious decrease in patrons. I sneak into one last talk – about the difficulties of poetry and publication – with the aid of my media badge. I listen in on readings by Kent MacCarter, Michelle Cahill and University of Sydney academic Kate Lilley and later step outside to watch the sun leave the wharf. Most of the attendees, instillations, children and workmen are gone. In about an hour Hanya Yanagihara will be giving her closing address and I begin to look forward to next year’s festival.
Our Food History: In Black and White
By Lauren A. Weber
I never thought that a talk surrounding cookbooks would involve politics, race, history, and of course food - all at once.
“Our Food History: In Black and White” featuring Jacqui Newling and John Newton embodied all of this juicy stuff, and I also found out that apparently the notorious Australian supervillain also known as the ‘brush turkey’ is a delicious bird that can be baked or seared like duck!
Aside from discussing fun facts about ways to cook local game and produce, Newling and Newton expressed their interest in the history and politics that underpin the recipes in their books.
Newton especially is invested in the reasons why we eat foods that are shipped in, and not native to Australia while ignoring the bountiful flora and fauna that Indigenous Australians cultivated and ate for thousands of years. He explained that “we don’t necessarily have to embrace Indigenous foods, but it is important to be aware of them”.
Newling’s book is interested in the foods on the opposite side of Australian history, as her book explores the ways in which colonial Australians experimented with local ingredients, creating innovative dishes.
She explained how historically there was an important hierarchy associated with food, colonists who were sending for English ingredients were usually wealthy. People of lesser wealth had to provide for their families by getting acquainted with the local foods available to them which created interesting and different kinds of English dishes. She explained that this then, is perhaps another way of looking at what an Australian cuisine looked, and could look like again in the future.
Both writers have an obvious love and admiration for food and history, and their books allow for a meeting of the two. They use food to construct different versions of history, the silenced are able to speak through their recipes, a colonial past is reawakened and thought out in a new way, all while instigating an act that we all know and love - the act of eating.
Nate Marshall: It's All Food, It'll All Feed You
By Nicola Cayless
The lobby at the Pier One Hotel is busy, so I suggest we sit outside for the interview, even though it is a little chilly. Nate Marshall, poet and author of Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press 2015), is from Chicago, though. I doubt the cold would bother him.
Marshall is a poet heavily connected to place - Wild Hundreds is explicitly about the south side of Chicago. After eight years away, he will be moving back to the city. Despite missing Chicago, Marshall believes that Wild Hundreds would not have happened if he had stayed in the city.
“So much of that book is about pointing out the particulars of a place that make it beautiful and hard and ugly and awesome [...] It’s when I go other places that I realise the particulars that make this place a special one.”
Much of his book is tinged with a kind of sad nostalgia for the Chicago of his childhood. That nostalgia is accompanied by a deep passion for the city of his childhood and the people that live there now.
For a poet so concerned with his experiences of Chicago touring internationally gives him a kind of freedom he acknowledges. “Americans get off easy,” he says, “you guys just know our shit.”
But he acknowledges that while we get a lot of his cultural references, we do not have the intricacies of understanding that someone living in Chicago might. “So I can say, ‘hey, there was this thing that happened, this is what you should know about it,’ […] and here, people are like, ‘oh, okay.’”
This is what makes Marshall such an incredible international performer. In being able to craft his own reality as an American man, international audiences connect strongly to Marshall’s work - his poetry becomes truth to us, which is an incredibly powerful thing for a poet to be able to do.
“I’ve had so many people from all over read my poems and say, ‘wow, this really opened up some things, this made me feel.’ I’m like, that’s cool, you’re from f**ing France. I was not thinking about you. I was thinking about what a specific kid on a specific blog in Chicago might enjoy.”
But this “clarity of focus” is what makes his poetry so accessible. Though it is remarkably linked to his home city, there is an honest truthfulness in his writing and performance which allows the international community to connect.
His work does more than just make us feel: it makes us think and learn. Self-identified as a “literary artist and activist,” Marshall’s poetry often carries a heavy political tone, due to the reality of living as a black man in an America filled with police violence. “I’m never not negotiating space as a black man, as a black American, carrying that history.”
Although political activism and social justice fuel a lot of his work, Marshall does not believe all needs to be political. He would much rather his poetry be useful.
“I do think that poetry should offer some possibility - whether it’s an emotional possibility or a practical possibility or a political possibility. In poetry it’s like, ‘yeah, trees are beautiful, and that’s my favourite tree, so here’s some pretty words about my favourite tree.’ That’s cool to start, but ultimately I should know why anyone else should care about that tree.”
I ask Marshall for advice for young writers. His advice is simple.. “Read. […] Read broadly and without bias, without that sense of hierarchy.”
He points out a truth I am very guilty of: “I think what often happens with younger writers, is that they either don’t read very much because they have this stupid notion that they don’t want their style to be compromised or too influenced, and I’m like motherf**ker, you don’t have a style, you don’t know what you’re doing yet, which is okay.”
But what I am left with is not just Marshall and his work. I leave with a little gem from Marshall’s grandmother.
“One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten was that my grandmother, who passed away, was a librarian, a high school librarian, and whatever I wanted to read, I could read. I could read smutty, trashy dime store novels, or sports biographies, or books of poems, or great literature, or whatever. She would say, ‘it’s all food, it’ll all feed you.’”
All I can say is this: read Nate Marshall. His poetry will most definitely feed you.
Sydney Writers' Festival - Day three review
David Astle's talk on crosswords in the morning
By Swetha Das
10am - David Astle’s quirky anecdotes were a great way to begin another day at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. He helped the crowd navigate through a cryptic crossword, offered advice on brain training (did you know that partner dancing helps you recognise patterns) and was an all-round charming host.
11:30am - I sat in the Writers’ Green Room nervously, waiting to interview Indian author Ira Trivedi. I whiled away my time by eyeing random authors and judging them on their coffee choices. David Astle enters the green room. He may be following me.
3pm - “A Life in Words” with host Luke Fischer and Australian poets Kate Lilley and Geoffrey Lehmann explored the nuances of humorous poetry and the importance of family for inspiration. The heavy presence of USyd educators (Luke Fischer and Kate Lilley) on the panel was a great testament to the calibre of the university.
4:30pm - The Curiosity Lecture Series was definitely a highlight of the day. T.L. Uglow spoke phenomenally well on the significance of questioning the world around you - “to doubt is one of our greatest luxuries”. A particularly poignant moment was when Uglow publicly came out as a Transwoman, to which the entire room clapped in support. Using her own experiences with this transition, she emphasised how doubt and reflection had affected her own narrative.
5:30pm - The Festival slowly started to wrap up, as hordes of people boarded buses back into the city. Surprisingly, David Astle was nowhere to be seen.
Sydney Writers' Festival: Day Three Wrap-Up
Sydney Writers' Festival
By Lauren A. Weber
It isn’t often you can say you began your day by watching Paul Muldoon read Seamus Heaney’s poems. Kicking off today’s festivities meant learning how eloquent and engaging Muldoon is as a reader, something I wouldn’t necessarily have expected from the often rolling, difficult nature of his poems.
That’s what festivals like this are all about, this unique kind of learning on multiple levels. The words you have often spent time with alone come to life through the mouths of the people who wrote them.
The festival is definitely in a new way today, it has that Saturday afternoon liveliness to it. There is a much larger crowd, and maneuvering around the festival has become a kind of skill that I’ve learned in miniature over the past few weekdays.
After the Muldoon talk, I attended “The Modern Flaneur” event which featured Luc Sante and Gail Jones.
The “Flaneur” is usually thought of as the wandering Frenchman, taking in the sights and smells of Paris, and shaping them into art. Both Sante and Jones are examples of the globalised Flaneur, the wandering artist that takes in the experience of a place that isn’t their own. They see the place with a fresh, insightful eye, then paint it onto the page for the reader.
Jones described how the core of the Flaneur is defined by their “metaphysics of attention”. For her, this can be applied to any city, and in her most recent novel A Guide to Berlin, this gets played out. She discussed how the novel is about the “narrative impulse of cities”, which influenced “the complications of vision that all cities allow us”.
A Guide to Berlin weaves together the stories of seven tourists in the German city, exploring the ways in which the “residues of a city” replicate and respond to the grim histories of both the personal and historical. Jones explained that one of the things her novel and in turn the ‘Modern Flaneur’ is interested in is “what does it take to encounter a place that has such a difficult history to move through?”.
Sante spoke about a variety of topics related to history and the personal converging in the Flaneur, but one of his most poignant points was about nostalgia.
He explained how there is already a kind of nostalgia inherent in the walking experience, as part of our being in life is to move through it and pass things, let them move behind us. Following this thought, he mused on his own personal nostalgia: “what makes me truly nostalgic is the sociological changes in the city. There used to be people of all sociological backgrounds living on every street, and now cities have become defined by the sad reality of insanely expensive pieces of real estate”.
However, while this is an important and sad reality, he offered a positive alternative to this relatively new exclusionary feature of the city. Exploring and getting lost is the Flaneur’s trade, and biggest job. Sante solidified this, closing out the talk: “there is something really to be gleaned by walking on the wrong side of the tracks”.
I ended the day in The Loft for the “Big Read”. It was a stunning space, and I could see the mast of a sailboat through the thick wooden framed windows. Marlon James was a highlight - he read his excerpt with gusto and enthusiasm, in the same way the words of A Brief History of Seven Killings jump off the page.
I was impressed and delighted especially by Paul Murray reading a hilarious part from The Mark and The Void. His reading was so funny, and charming that it prompted me to buy the book. That’s what these things are for, right?
Needless to say, it was an especially fantastic day at the Sydney Writer’s Festival.
Review: Gloria Steinem – Life on the Road
By Angelina Kosev
I walked up to the second floor of the Town Hall building, straight into the VIP seating area, clutching both my media pass and my ticket with a potentially obvious air of pretension. A VIP ticket will do that to a person. Seated inside, though, it was possible that this palpable energy was a result of anticipation. Everywhere your ears perked, all you could catch was “I can’t believe we’re about to see Gloria Steinem!”
The crowd for Steinem’s last talk was extensive, a line wrapped around the Town Hall building and down and around the CBD. Getting them all seated resulted in a fifteen minute delay that only served to heighten the energy in the building, the woman seated next to me who was chatting to pass the time likened it to the air of a rock concert – the type of effect only Gloria Steinem could produce upon a building full of feminists. And, at last, it was time for her to be seen. Unlike a rock concert, however, the crowd fell totally silent after a solid, five-minute welcome of claps and cheers.
Steinem began by speaking, as she promised she would, “from the heart, in all honesty, of only true beliefs”, discussing ideas about inequality, related not only to women, but also to race, sexuality and social and economic standing. Steinem’s real concern, and an issue she kept referring to, was her desire that we could achieve living within a world where individuals, particularly women, could “seize control of the means of reproduction”, an issue she believes is the source of most of the conflict we experience in our contemporary world.
The talk then drifted towards Steinem’s latest book, titled ‘Life on the Road’, and a particularly poignant point arose. The moderator of the talk, Caroline Overington, asked Steinem to explain the dedication of the work, given to a doctor who provided Steinem an abortion in her early twenties in London, an illegal procedure at the time. Steinem explained that directly after leaving the doctor’s office, she did not, for a long time, think of what he had said to her. In fact, it took her thirty years later to allow herself to think about it once more.
Steinem had to reassure the doctor that after receiving her abortion she would follow her pursuits, all her desires, and create a life that she could be proud of, and, thirty years after, was able to say she fulfilled her pursuits. Steinem made a specific point of addressing the very large amount of time it took her to be able to reflect on the risk and promise that resulted in her metamorphosis into the feminist icon and trailblazer we were all there to see. Again, the echo of our need to “seize the means of reproduction” resonated. It was this seizure that allowed her that freedom.
After an avalanche of questions from the audience, Steinem had one last comment to make. Reflecting on the large amount of young women in the audience and young women working professionally and creatively today, Steinem, throwing one of her charismatic smiles said, “I had to wait thirty years for some of my friends to be born”. A standing ovation lasted long after she left the stage.
Review: Dr Megan Mackenzie - Women in the Military
Dr Megan Mackenzie speaking at the Sydney Writers' Festival. Image: Tom St John.
By Tom St John
Platoon, Blackhawk Down, Full Metal Jacket, American Sniper...Hollywood has a long tradition of hyper-masculinity in film. It’s in this fetishised world of fraternal loyalty and physical courage, argues University of Sydney senior lecturer Dr Megan Mackenzie, that we form and perpetuate the myth that women don’t belong in the armed forces.
The venue was teeming with people ready to hear from the author of the 2015 book Beyond the Band of Brothers: The US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight. Dr Mackenzie structured her speech with an almost surgical level of clarity, clearly dissecting the prevailing myths around women in the military. She dismissed the more logically incoherent arguments with an appropriate sense of humour – arguments about hormonal cycles and the like that are generally, thankfully, no longer a substantive part of the discussion. She then moved on to the two primary arguments used to keep women from combat roles in most countries around the world.
The first is about the inherent physical difference between the average man and the average woman. This seems at first to be irrefutable, but as Dr Mackenzie points out the metrics we use to grade both men and women for combat are based on archaic models developed for trench warfare. In modern combat, skills like “flexibility and complex decision making” can often be considerably more useful than the brawn we so instinctively tie with the notion of ‘the soldier’. Moreover, she also listed numerous examples of women who proved they could qualify for the military even under these restrictive admission policies.
The other argument is surrounding the idea of cohesion – something she has likely heard, and will continue to hear, too many times to count. While she agrees that most people, men and women, prefer to work with people like themselves, that isn’t always the best thing for the unit itself. Women in the military face the harsh reality of a culture unwilling to laud their bravery and hesitant to acknowledge their sacrifice. Seventy percent of women who served in the Iraq War for the US military experienced sexual harassment during their time in the service.
The most fascinating aspect of her presentation for me came when she reconciled her own two guiding principles on this debate – feminism and pacifism. “I want to see less men and women in war,” she assured the crowd, while pivoting back to the reality of the situation. As long as countries continue to fight, the option to fight for one’s country should be open for whomever so chooses.
Dr Mackenzie deliberately left almost half an hour for questions, and from seeing the degree of liveliness and engagement in the discussion it was easy to see why she did so. This is one of those topics that, as Dr Mackenzie pointed out, most people approach with very passionate opinions.
As she moved through almost half an hour of questions, Dr Mackenzie continued to explain and debunk the subtle biases with which we approach this debate. The “Band of Brothers” myth has been burned into the collective perception of war since Shakespeare first penned the phrase, but Dr Mackenzie returns to this myth to bring home her point: “How we destroy a myth is by looking at reality."
Review: Yanis Varoufakis – Living as an Outsider
By Tom St John
Yanis Varoufakis believes there are two kinds of politicians – the Insiders and the Outsiders. You didn’t need to go to his series of extended soliloquies on European economic history last night to know which of the two kinds of politicians he sees himself as. You did, however, need to go last night if you wanted to know why.
From his “very recent and very short” political career, it is clear that Varoufakis is a man with very strong opinions. The strength of his convictions generally garner a similar response in turn, hence his reputation as one of the more polarising figures in international politics. It’s almost lucky, a coincidence really, that both nights he was slated to speak at the Writers’ Festival the discussion with the moderator dragged on and the audience Q&A was abandoned. To some, the University of Sydney Honorary Associate is a game theorist academic with a keen mind unaccustomed to the pragmatic realities of international diplomacy, to others he is a belligerent patriot hell bent on the fracture and collapse of European unity. The truth, as with most things, likely lies somewhere in the middle.
For a start, the former Greek finance minister is charismatic. It’s not always common to witness the partnership of his level of extraordinary academic understanding and his very entertaining, lucid style of communication. He spoke in clear, seemingly well-rehearsed analogies, straying from the podium and followed by the watchful gaze of the audience. As with all controversial speakers, there is an air of tension in the room and one gets the sense that he relishes in turning that into a sense of understanding.
Varoufakis, as a former politician and a lifelong Outsider, didn't hold his tongue on his time in parliament. In fact, quite the opposite – it appeared he was actively trying to shape the narrative over his time in politics. He mentioned details of private conversations with the IMF Chairwoman, the German Finance Minister (both appeared to be more privately sympathetic to the plight of the Greeks than they were publicly), and even his conversation with former US Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers wherein he referred to him as “the prince of darkness”. He called the EU “a cartel” wherein “Germany is the horse and France is the coach-master”.
Varoufakis referred to multiple moments in European history when Greece, “a tiny pipsqueak of a country” became the flashpoint for world-shaping events. From World Wars to Cold Wars to present day – a powder keg for the breakup of the EU and a central player in the refugee crisis – the home of democracy and haloumi spends a decidedly disproportionate amount of time in the news. His most fascinating discussion came when illuminating the often forgotten role of America in the design and interference in post-WW2 European affairs.
Most of his more controversial economic proclamations were not fully covered, hidden deep beneath layers of clever asides and EU rumour-mongering (for example, the somewhat dubious and nostalgic fixation with the pegged-currency system of Bretton Woods). This may also just be that the situation itself wasn’t exactly well suited for a complex explanation of the Marshall Plan and quantitative easing.
Just like at Angel Place in the middle of the CBD, Yannis Varoufakis entered the European political body as an unknown. Like with all bodies the foreign antigen was attacked by antibodies until it existed no more. Yanis Varoufakis is an Outsider, but you get the impression he wouldn’t want it any other way.
Reconciling Two Worlds
By Swetha Das
Associate Professor James Brown
The privilege of naivety when it comes to understanding the hardships of war was a sentiment that rang true during the talk “The Reality of War: Reconciling Two Worlds”.
Host James Brown, former soldier and now Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, chaired the panel in which he navigated the realities of a soldier assimilating into the ‘normality’ of society - an experience that most of us cannot fathom.
On the panel was Australian journalist, Mark Dapin, former General, John Cantwell, and Jamie Zimmermann, who used to be a Special Forces soldier and now works in the property sector.
The speakers explained the difficulties in integrating into society after experiencing the effects of war. Cantwell, who has fought in three wars and has nearly four decades of experience in the military, explained that soldiers often come back feeling resentful of the trivial aspects of society.
“Absent is a framework that sustained them through challenging times”, with soldiers missing the support and discipline that is abundant in a military setting.
The chair of the panel, James Brown, added that soldiers miss their loss of status, and relying on having a clear purpose and position in the community around them.
Dapin, whose book ‘The Nashos’ War’ required research interviews with more than 150 Vietnam War veterans, said that he found that a majority of servicemen felt underwhelmed by the transition.
“They were not at all prepared for the boredom of a return to civilian life”.
What echoed at this talk was the resounding acceptance that the enormity of war cannot be fully expressed.
With 20 years of experience in the Special Forces, Zimmermann noted that there needs to be more dialogue on military experiences.
Both Dapin and Cantwell agreed that it is hard to find people who are willing to speak about their experiences. Many also tend to distance themselves from their stories, instead choosing to talk about their friends rather than centering themselves in the action.
Dapin also found that soldiers felt overwhelmingly dissatisfied with what soldiers have accomplished during their time in the service. Cantwell countered this by emphasising the importance of the profession.
“You are doing a job no-one else wants to do… be proud of what you’ve done”.
A questioner asked whether soldiers felt that they were doing the right thing and if they perceived themselves as the “good guys”.
Despite disagreements amongst the panel, one message resonated. Regardless of the ethics of the State when it comes to participating in war, it is the servicemen that are physically and emotionally affected.
Cantwell summed it up well.
“You’re doing something that is beyond yourself.”
Review: The Great White Lie - Christopher Neff on Shark Attacks
Dr Christopher Neff
By Tom St John
I’ve never actually seen Jaws before, and yet it’s almost impossible to go further than neck-deep at my local beach before the rhythmic ‘Dada…dada…dada-dada-dada’ starts echoing through my mind.
It’s this primitive fear that shouts louder than any statistical probabilities or rational thought. Your limbs tingle, the hairs at the back of your neck stand up, and you begin to scan the horizon for that tell-tale fin – the forerunner of your doom.
This is all a very natural response, University of Sydney public policy lecturer and media commentator Dr Christopher Neff assures us – yet it appears this paranoia has crept on shore, and into the minds of our “theatrical political process”.
Dr Neff provided enough statistics to quell any sneaking suspicion that the Human versus Shark battle is anywhere close to fair. The Australian Government has pledged $62 million in shark bite mitigation this year alone, comprised of patrols and nets up and down the coast. Yet helicopter patrols are only successful in spotting sharks in highly specific circumstances, circumstances that only favour the patrols 12 to 15 percent of the time. Forty percent of sharks are caught on the swimmer’s side of the net, and in a statistically significant public survey twice as many of the respondents thought the Government should act to calm the public in times of shark attacks, as opposed to protect them.
Yet, as Dr Neff explained, Australia seems now to have an almost conditioned response to these things; if we see a supposedly threatening predator streaking through the water towards us, we overreact. Luckily for them, the sharks have avoided off-shore processing.
Dr Neff owned the Curiosity Stage while he plead his case, turning a crowd partly comprised of those hostile to his opinions into converts to his way of thinking. The more he spoke, the more his argument seemed the only legitimate response. He concluded that when we over-politicise shark attacks for the benefit of seeming ‘tough’, and when we engage in peculiar ritualistic revenge attacks on sharks for doing what they are organically programmed to do, we perpetuate mass-hysteria and do more to harm victims and their families than help them.
Sharks attacks are genuinely something we try and avoid speaking about in Australia, except when indulging the whims of certain tourists desperate for vicarious thrills. Our information comes from a news source whose primary interest is in talking down the threat. Shark attacks are viewed in Australia on the same media-coverage scale as natural disasters. So is it the government that feeds the hysteria, or the hysteria that feeds the government response? As long as we struggle to wrestle apart the causality, we’ll continue to chase the Great White Lie.
Sydney Writers' Festival: Day Two Wrap-Up
Sydney Writers' Festival day two
Alistair Kitchen and Nicola Cayless offer their highlights from day two of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Alistair: If there were any old media acolytes wandering around the Sydney Writers' Festival on Friday, they found no solace in John Birmingham’s talk. Appropriately named ‘Death Spiral: The Future of Media and Publishing’, Birmingham used his time to lambast the decisions of media heads trying to adjust to the brave new world of media.
At the centre of his sights was NewsCorp, which Birmingham unhappily labelled the "most likely" of the old conglomerates to survive the transition. Their strength, he said, is that they sell a different product to other news organisations. In his words, what NewsCorp sells are "not facts, but meaning".
Nicola: Coming from an event where John Birmingham spoke about the cheerfully named “death spiral” of contemporary media, I was feeling a tad down in the dumps as I sullenly ate my chickpea salad, looking over the water between Piers 4/5 and 2/3. How dare he discredit the very thing I wish to dedicate my life to? How dare he make me feel as if there were no hope?
I went to ‘Inside the World of Publishing’ with an expectation for more of the same. After all, with three international publishers such as Jenna Johnson from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Anish Chandy from Juggernaut, and James Gurbutt from Corsair, surely the event could only focus on the inevitable death of print media and the shift into the digital age.
Never assume. To my surprise, they spoke with a hopeful, cautious optimism, agreeing on one thing: the rise in ebook sales has actually given the print medium the jumpstart it needed. For an hour, they spoke elegantly and intelligently on the role of the reader, the editor, and the publisher, alongside new and developing technologies, and how this allows for more readers of more content than ever before.
I left the event having gone from being certain I’d end up as a Starbucks barista to being – like them – hopefully and cautiously optimistic.
Alistair: Here’s a problem. Australia currently spends $62 million every year on the prevention of shark bites. According to University of Sydney public policy lecturer Dr Christopher Neff, it’s a problem because these policies don’t work and the threat of shark bites is a problem that doesn’t exist. If that’s true, it’s not good news for Australia’s artists, who will lose about $60 million in funding from the Australia Council over the next four years.
Throughout the day a constant stream of authors of readers crossed paths in the Gleebooks bookshop. They were all there for one thing – the books – and I couldn’t help but admire the constant efforts of the Gleebooks staff, who not once let the conveyor belt of book-buying halt.
Over on the Curiosity Stage, the remains of the day were left to Philip Dwyer to muse on the history of violence. There were no conclusions to be found here – only concerning, and revealing, comments on the worst tendencies of humanity. What was clear was this: every individual act of violence has its own history, and our relationships to it are dependent entirely on our community. We are only as good as those around us, and no community is immune from criticism.
What I learned from meeting Marlon James
Tom St John and Marlon James
By Tom St James
Pier One hotel guests recline on cushioned cane benches, cruise ships move through the harbour blotting out the setting sun, and two Dark and Stormy cocktails are on their way.
At the Sydney Writers' Festival, Marlon James is shaking himself out of the inevitable jetlag that comes with acclimatising to the Australian time zone.
"A novelist is an identity. I don’t think Marlon James the writer is Marlon James the person. They both came from this same body…[but] I don’t recognise that person," says James.
In a way the overwhelming impression from speaking with James about his 2015 Man Booker Fiction Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is that this disassociation is not an accident, but necessary to the novel’s very construction.
A Brief History's accolades are a long way from early rejections when James and friends considered re-submitting his first book, John Crow's Devil, under a pseudonym and with a photo of a white person - he imagined he'd have been then lauded for his "cultural ventriloquism".
A Brief History is based peripherally around the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley, imagining a swirling array of adjacent characters pulled into a world of global subterfuge and emotional trauma. The novel totals over 700 pages and features the looming spectre of death as a constant threat.
"A book is yours when you're writing it – a painting is yours when you're painting it. Once the painting is done, it's not your painting," he says with a fleeting smile. "I'm a deadbeat dad when it comes to these 'children'. I've got nothing else to say or do with it anymore."
With A Brief History steeped in the cultural influence of Marley and his homeland, it will come as no surprise that music plays a big role in James writing. "Usually, even in my manuscript, I will type out at the top what I was listening to while I was writing that part." If you were wondering what that music is, it's as eclectic as the characters he has created – from Bjork to Black Sabbath to "tonnes of jazz".
For his next project, he wants to embrace his "geek" identity. With a fantasy novel.
"I've always been interested in surrealism,” he says, before launching into a soliloquy on his Lord of the Rings. "[I'm] so sick and tired of European mythology!" He remembers a friend arguing that Lord of the Rings is absent of any ethnic variety because it is a "European story", to which he responded with the core thesis of fantasy – "it's not real! So keep your flipping hobbit".
How do you follow a book based in truth, with one that is fantasy? He explains the meaning of the Jamaican proverb "if it no go so, it go near so", a refrain of many characters in A Brief History, and the novel’s opening quote."[It means] if the story is not the true story, it's something close to it."
James hears the truth "through gossip, through rumour, through innuendo, through half-truths, through people who actually didn't intend to tell you that much". Fantasy, he says, is the one genre where you could argue that even if it doesn’t go so, it goes near so. There are, in fact, some aspects of the human condition where you "can only use the surreal." What truth can he tell young writers?
"You have to read everything. Read more than you write. I can tell when a writer isn’t reading. Art is as much creativity as it is influence. When you have one without the other, you have a very…almost kind of unintelligent art."
And with that Marlon James the person, the near-truth, the rumour, left an empty Dark and Stormy behind and headed off down the pier.
Review: William Boyd and Julian Barnes “History and Fiction”
By Lauren A. Weber
This is one of the big talks, one of the ones that you can’t wait to tell your friends and family about. Everyone has either read Boyd or Barnes for pleasure or study, they are two of the most important contemporary fiction writers of the English literature world.
Barnes is wearing long red stripy socks under the pants of his suit, and I can see them from the third tier of the balcony stage. He looks half asleep at this point before anything has really started, but Boyd is beaming.
Amelia Lester, ex New Yorker editor, now editor of Good Weekend acted as moderator, and the conversation tumbled up and over a variety of fascinating topics: what makes a ‘life novel’ so compelling to readers, how authors can never read their own work, Updike, Woolf, the power and legality of found photographs, and even the premier soccer league. Needless to say, Barnes came very much alive once the talk got rolling, and the crowd moved through all the multiplicities of conversation with laughs and intrigue.
I thought the best approach to this piece would be to provide you with some of my favourite quotes from the talk. That way if you weren’t there, now in a way, you were. It was an exceptional discussion, and for any bibliophile it solidified why we invest so much in our beloved writers.
One of the things that I think came through the most, was that Boyd and Barnes love their craft. More than anything. They repeatedly talked about how “fiction is the only thing that is true”. So, here you are.
Boyd on his characters: “They are my creatures, as Nabokov said; ‘they are my galley slaves.”
Barnes on how authors can’t ever truly fall into their own characters: “You’re so much in control you can’t respond to the characters in the same way, you can never be the reader of your own work”.
On the importance of variation in form, moving away from strictly describing his newest novel The Noise of Time as “flexible first person”. He said that this “was the technical key to get into my story. You sometimes need a wider view.”
Just a great quote, for all people who love books from Barnes again: “Fiction is such a broad church”.
Boyd on his great farce Nat Tate, the unassumingly fictional biography of a ‘great American artist’: “I was colonising the world of the Real... in order to see how powerful fiction is… We have the license as fiction writers, to go where the biographer and historian can’t, and won’t go.”
Boyd, Barnes, and Lester interacted with one another gracefully, tenderly, and contrastingly in what proved to be an example of how not only literature, but festivals like this can be truly enlightening.
Review: A “New” American Poetry
Don Share, Nate Marshall and Jamila Woods
By Nicola Cayless
On stage sit three big names in the contemporary American poetry world. Little me, baby poet from Sydney, is shaking in my boots.
Don Share (the editor of POETRY magazine), and Nate Marshall and Jamila Woods (two superstar poets, activists, and performers from Chicago), chat amongst themselves, waiting for the audience to file in. Every so often, Marshall’s childlike bark of a laugh echoes out amongst the empty seats, washing over me.
As a media hub intern, I am able to enter the room a little earlier, but I now regret it, because the longer I sit alone in a room amongst these great people, the more I want desperately to be in their shoes one day.
The three of them are here to discuss the ‘new American poetry.’ However, I cannot help but think as I listen that this is something of a misnomer. What these guys are doing is not truly new. It’s innovative, it’s interesting, it’s nothing short of good, but really, what Marshall and Woods are doing - activism through poetry - is something that has been around for hundreds of years. As Share says, “poetry is real activism.”
But even if poetic activism is not a new concept, it is no doubt that Marshall and Woods are pretty damn good at it. While there is some discussion around the meaning and purpose of poetry in contemporary America, today is really just all about the words.
To a captive audience, silent except the sudden bursts of laughter to moments of poignant humorous irony, the two poets perform numerous pieces - both poetry and song - and each retains and builds upon the fire of the previous piece.
Marshall performs first, selecting pieces from his book Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press 2015). His work seems to deal with themes of race, inequality, and living in a society which positions you on the outs.
“Out South” is a particular hit. “Every kid that’s killed is one less free lunch,” he says, and an audible swallow is heard from the collective throat of the audience, as if they were trying to devour every nuance of meaning and skill in Marshall’s work - and there are definitely many of these.
Woods is no less well received. She commands the stage with strength, her hands moving emphatically with the rhythms in her work. She tells us she has a particular love of writing on black hair, as she has taken a while to grow to love her own. “Black hair is awesome. I have it. I love it.”
The crowd chuckles, but those frivolous laughs die away as she launches into “The Big Chop”: “I cut off spiders & out grew balls of cotton. I cut off cotton & out grew slaves.”
And that is what is so good about the “new American poetry.” It’s not that they write about new things, new feelings, new emotions. It’s that they’ve taken the old frustration and experiences and brought a new passion and dedication to change.
After all, as Woods says in “Blk Girl Art”, “poems are bullshit unless they are eyeglasses.”
Review: Have We Reached Peak Internet?
A round table discussion with writer Richard Watson, podcast host PJ Vogt and Google employee ‘T’
By Angelina Koseva
We’ve all heard the possible predictions about the Internet and our near future: is it burning our retinas right out? Is it making us socially inept? Will it lead to our total inability to read or write or love?
A round table discussion with writer Richard Watson, podcast host PJ Vogt and Google employee ‘T’ attempted to address some of the big questions arising form our fast moving internet age.
My own constant fear – one that is probably resonated with most my age, about the possibility of an utter dependence on the Internet and social media – was the first issue tackled, and was settled so surely I’m sure I can once again sleep without fear (if I can put down the Blue Light).
Consider this: ‘T’ put forth the fact that we have always been hungry for information, from the man riding on horseback to deliver news from a neighbouring town to reading about news at least 24 hours after it happened in your morning paper, to settling down for the evening news, and nothing has ever beaten the Internet in terms of speed for gathering this information. How can something that feels so right – both mentally, and to our natural, human tendencies – ever be wrong?
But how much information is too much? How much information turns into distraction? Ultimately, “is it making us better or worse people?” That’s what Richard Watson wanted to know.
‘T’, my knight and savior, forever defending my obvious addiction to the Internet, enlightened us all. Of course we haven’t been taking in too much information, for the clear reason that we filter it. We filter what we receive and we filter what we contribute. When you consider it realistically, our method of taking in information from the Internet will probably heighten rather than dull in the future, by learning how to filter even outside of staring at our screens.
‘T’ spoke about how memes (yes, those great little, pictures we all love so well), are an obvious example of this, they’re a collection of two or three complicated thoughts, feelings or ideas placed upon an image that we gather immediate information from. Who knows how we’ll synesthise ideas in the future, via the Internet? It’s hard to not, suddenly, feel very optimistic.
P.J Vogt wrapped up the talk with a reflection on the Internet as it affects us in the present, and how, at first, we didn’t know how to control it, or when to stop. Is it all right to text someone a meme at 3am? Probably not, and we’re obviously now learning how to move outside of that.
We are, at this very moment, developing Internet etiquette, and finally figuring out how to use it to improve us – like installing apps to monitor glycemic influences in diabetics – and that’s even more exciting. Essentially, we are finally learning how to cater the Internet to do exactly what we want, and we’re only going to be fine-tuning that to work in even more practical ways in the future.
P.J Vogt agreed that we should sometimes feel bored and be quiet with ourselves, but is it the Internet’s fault if we cant? Of course not, we just haven’t perfected it yet, and we’ve only just started looking to.
In conversation with Damon Young
By Alistair Kitchen
Damon Young is a philosopher and writer, and is at the Sydney Writers' Festival to discuss his new book The Art of Reading.
Are you still in the academy?
I was a Fellow, I’m about to become an Associate, of the University of Melbourne. I still collaborate with other academics, but most of my paid work is outside the academy.
Was it always your intention to step out of it?
Not really. But it was always my intention to write. And those two drives can be in conflict. I found myself, having finished my PhD, writing for a general audience, and I just built on that.
This is your seventh book – is that right?
Including edited stuff, it’s my ninth.
You’ve written before on exercise, and now you’re on to reading. Why did you turn to this topic?
Well, there were three strains to it. One was biographical – when I look over my life, I see that every major stage was associated with some book. And in order to take stock of what I’ve become and what I’m becoming, I needed to think about what I’d read. Not in the sense that reading made me something; I’m not a sort of literary determinist who thinks that you can take a book as some kind of widget and produce people. I don’t think it works like that. But there’s no doubt that these books were formative in some way.
The second thing was a sort of philosophical question, which was, “what then does reading offer?”. Because I’m really wary of the idea that reading is automatically a sort of moral, self-improving device. I think there are certainly moral books, and you can respond to them ethically, but the idea that you can use a book to make yourself better, I think, is deeply flawed. And I’m also wary of the idea of books as therapy, because firstly, there are some works of a very high quality and yet aren’t in any way therapeutic, and secondly, again, these are not widgets. You can’t just assume you put person A with book B and person A will become happy or sane – it doesn’t work like that.
So what I wanted to do was talk about the value of reading in a way that was nonreductive and flexible, to understand the ways in which we read and kind of things we read, the circumstances in which we do it. So the thing I talk about is experience. Reading offers experiences. And that’s no small thing, because experience is vital in existence. This kind of to and fro with the world. But beyond that there’s not a lot you can say. Some experiences have a kind of intellectual tone, some are immersed in feeling, others are perceptually rich – each might have a dominant mode, but what you take from that is another thing all together.
The third thing was just looking around and hearing a lot about writing, and not a lot about reading. There are a lot of courses and ten-point rules about writing. We spend a lot of time celebrating writers – and that’s fine. But you don’t hear a lot about readers. And it strikes me that as kids we learn to write, and then there’s this ambition in there somewhere that you can keep writing and learn to write better, and become a gifted writer, but we learn to read as kids and that’s it. There’s no sense that you could be a more ambitious reader.
Interview: Luc Sante
By Angelina Koseva
Your work always explores nostalgic topics, usually huge, sordid cities that don’t really exist anymore, yet you also manage to simultaneously keep it quite clinical. This theme has been spanning from the beginning of your career, with the found photography book Evidence and your collection of essays Kill All Your Darlings, all the way through to your latest book, The Other Paris. How do you achieve that?
Nostalgia is a very difficult thing, in the preface to my book Low Life I renounced nostalgia, it can be this blunt instrument of a word that’s used to dismiss any kind of interest in the past. I think my work moves further than nostalgia. I don’t think you can be nostalgic for something that happened when your grandparents were infants. I do think I am nostalgic for a world that I did witness, that doesn’t exist anymore, where you could exist differently, where maybe you didn’t have to make that much money.
So nostalgia is a vex topic. It’s a word that can be used to dismiss a very complicated and nuanced range of reactions to the passed and the present. Even though I acknowledge my part in it I try not to overemphasise my own nostalgia. I try to minimalise it in my own writing. One thing that marked me forever was emigrating to the U.S when I was a child. In those days, Europe hadn’t reached the economic miracle of the mid-sixties.
For example, we lived in a new house in Belgium, where I emigrated from, but it had no central heating, no running water, no refrigerator, no telephone, yet we were middle class. When we went to America we were further down the social scale, but we had all these things. Between America and Europe in the sixties it was like jumping back and forth between decades. It wasn’t just a cultural difference, but a difference of time. This made me more aware of how it passes. I think you can be loyal to a certain time period, but that can exist outside of nostalgia. That’s what I try to recreate.
What influences you outside of that? Are there any specific writers?
The American writer Joseph Mitchell is a deep influence, oh golly, Walter Benjamin who wrote a bit about photography, cities and obviously the arcades project is a giant influence to me, and it comes out most in my most recent book. If any writer made me a writer, it was Rimbaud, I found him when I was about 13. I wrote a little biography of Rimbaud on a website run by friends called HiLoBro.
Finally, do you have advice for young writers?
Golly. My favourite bit of advice that I always give to my students is whenever you’re writing about a subject trust in a reader to the extent that you explain the topic in the order in which you learnt it. Reconstruct your experience for them and that will make things different. If you try an academically determined approach, if you get your sequence out of some book, it will not be as good. I learnt in factories, the latest hire is always the one to explain to the new hire how to work the machines, because the learning experience is still new in their heads. The older hires were too removed from that. This way it’s a new experience. Any piece of writing that’s worth its salt is the writer taking the reader on a genuine trip.
Adam Ford: “My Life in Ruins”
By Lauren A. Weber
It’s my first time attending a talk at the Sydney Writers' Festival, and I feel very cool because I have a laminated badge that says “Media” which means I don’t have to wait in line and can get into awesome talks without a ticket as long as I stand in the back.
It’s a real deal interview set up in Wharf Theatre 2. On the blackbox style stage there are two modern chairs shaped like black beans and water glasses filled and ready to go on the table, all illuminated by a spotlight.
When I first read up about Adam Ford, I thought ‘this guy sounds like Indiana Jones’. Ford has spent time excavating archaeological sites in Barbados where he got his start, the Middle East, and now Australia. His archaeological occupation spans over 25 years, and he explained early in his talk that he decided on this career at the age of seven.
Ford’s sense of humor, perhaps representative of his Britishness, opened the session, taking a selfie and beginning the talk by joking about archaeologists: “We don’t do dinosaurs..we don’t do gold either...”.
He quickly shifted from the lightheartedness of his introduction to a discussion on how archaeology is related to the literary, “I’m not that interested in the artifacts themselves, but the stories these artifacts have”.
Ford discussed his previous anxieties about the real meaning behind his work, rooted in a fear that it doesn’t save lives or have political influence: “there’s no archaeologists without borders”.
This is where the title of his book comes from, he was concerned that his life was both literally and metaphorically ‘in ruins’. Ford turns away from this anxiety however, and the remainder of his talk is interested in exploring the ways in which archaeology is all about telling stories, and how that is in itself the important stuff.
One of the most striking things he said was related to the idea of how we accumulate both our national and personal histories. Ford thinks of the past as “the sum of all that we have done, and all that we have learned”.
The talk moved in the direction of the political throughout, but only in slight, meaningful ways. He related the destruction of historical sites in Syria by ISIS as proof of the importance of archaeological past, they are for Ford, physical manifestations of our history: “Even the idiots with the guns understand the power of cultural heritage, and this wound will always fester”.
The event finished with Ford reading an excerpt from his book, an account of a wonderful and fortuitous encounter with a Jordanian hajji who had a letter in his wallet from a famous historical archaeologist. The passage describes “the pride of a man held in a single letter”.
Ford seems to blend personal experience with meaningful meditation on how we accumulate and write our own stories, all streaked with glittering humour - the passage included a description of goats deploying furious farts to the face.
His passion and interest in how we build, destroy, and write our stories served as a great thinking point for me as my first event here at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and I look forward to more encounters with his writing.
Going Home: Belonging, Family and Food
By Alistair Kitchen
“What a book for someone in solitary confinement!”
These were the first words conveyed to memoirist Beth Yahp from the prison cell of Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim. Yahp’s book, Eat First, Talk Later, was a fitting text to smuggle to a man with no one to talk to.
The issues at the heart of Eat First, Talk Later – identity, place, and family – were given full expression in Going Home: Belonging, Family and Food. In a busy harbour-side theatre, Yahp, Debra Jopson, and Adam Aitken spoke to Joy Lawn about their work and about their own sense of home. It was a conversation that ranged from the political to the personal, and in which each author expressed both gratitude and ambivalence towards the country in which they now write and live.
In this talk, as in their writing, Yahp, Jopson, and Aikten spoke in delicate, measured terms about the sense of belonging they feel in Australia and abroad. It was striking that Jopson, who had a long and celebrated career at the Sydney Morning Herald, expressed the least attachment to Australia. For Jopson, “home” is as much found in Australia as it is in the Middle East, where she spent much of her youth. Her novel, Oliver of the Levant, follows a group of boys in Lebanon and uses the troubled personal lives of the characters to express the turmoil of the society around them.
But for Aitken, whose memoir probes his family’s Thai history, Australia is as close to a sense of home as he has. ‘I honestly feel that as a nationality, “Australian” is good enough,’ he said at one point in the discussion. Even if he and his mother did seek to return to Thailand, he said, they ‘wouldn’t feel at home… Our sense of freedom, our sense of free speech, would be so restricted.’
His comments speak to the sense in which our sense of belonging is formed as much by our relationship to a community as it is by that community’s relationship to us. And how we relate to a community is so often shaped, as it was for Jopson, Aitken, and Yahp, in the act of writing. Writing for each of them is both a personal act and a social one. To balance both when writing a memoir, Aitken says, “you need a moral sense that you are being fair.”
But on the question of finding a home, Yahp turns to a line from Frost: ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’
Dr Beth Yahp is a Lecturer in Creative Writing in the Department of English Studies at the University of Sydney.
Catriona Menzies-Pike: Why I’ve Lost Every Marathon I’ve Ever Run
Dr Catriona Menzies-Pike
Written by Nicola Cayless
I wonder if Catriona has ever read Aesop.
"Slow and steady wins the race," the adage goes. I’m sure at the very least, she's aware of the concept. The hare, with all its speed and velocity, tires out, while the tortoise plods across the finish line victoriously.
Catriona assures us all that she, like the tortoise, is an extremely slow runner. Really. Recounting to us stories of an awkwardly gangly adolescene, joining the choir in May just to avoid a marathon in July, she wants us to know that that history of clumsiness has to some degree translated into her adult history of running. When friends ask "how quickly do you run a marathon," she quickly responds with how slowly she runs them.
Catriona, like the tortoise, runs slow and steadily. But unlike Aesop's creatures, she has no interest in winning.
Running, which for Catriona began almost by accident, coming out of a throw-away comment to her cousins while on holiday in India, was not about winning. Nor was it about getting the fastest possible time. For her, all she wanted to do was cross the finish line. She didn’t care about the stats and the times and the victory at the end of the day. The only thing that mattered to her, she says, was "losing track of time while my feet hit the ground."
This view of running is something of an anomaly. As someone who has just begun running herself, all I can think of is how fast I can run. I try to run at the gym at least four times a week, for at least forty-five minutes. The day I ran a six minute kilometre I told both my parents on Skype, and consistently bragged to my roommate.
But listening to Catriona talk about the misery of jogging, the objective reflection of inadequacies in the statistics on the page, I realised something: I have never once enjoyed a run.
In fact, at the end of a run, I hate everyone and everything, and want to sleep for a million years. And for all that, I have never felt what Catriona calls "the poetics of running" - I have never felt that euphoric rush, that meditative serenity that comes from the repetitive pounding of feet on the ground.
To be honest, I have no intention of ever running a marathon. Running does not have the same blissful quality for me that it does for Catriona. But perhaps pushing myself to beat my best time means that I am missing out on the simple joy Catriona seems to have found.
In constantly striving to do better, go faster, perhaps I have forgotten to congratulate myself for beginning to run at all.
Sydney Writers' Festival: Day One Wrap-Up
Sydney Writers' Festival day one
Tom St James' highlights from day one of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
It may have been influenced by the fact it was my first day at the Sydney Writers' Festival 2016, but Thursday the 19th felt like a day of discovery. Foreigners discovering how beautiful a sunset on Sydney Harbour can look, authors discovering a new style, Rotarians discovering the selfie feature on their smartphones and doe-eyed young children discovering how a book can make you feel.
For me, the day started with a talk from Dr John Francois Vernay on French interpretation of Australian literature. The presentation was part of the Curiosity Lecture Series, supported by the University of Sydney, and was a great example of the strange cross-section you can experience at the Festival. The academics who interpret work and the authors who create it within only a couple of hundred metres of each other, engaging in a thought-provoking literary discussion. Dr Vernay himself outlined the virtue of outsider commentary, both as a Frenchmen and an academic, describing France as “the most Freudian country in the world”. His unique position caught between what one might consider very disparate cultures, almost in opposition to one another but for a communal love of coffee, crafted an opinion I hadn’t heard before. However, in a curiously common French tradition, the lecture was running late and I was on to the next event for the day.
Next was a panel discussion in Dance Theatre 2 of local authors Peter Doyle (City of Shadows), Anna Westbrook (Dark Fires Shall Burn) and Eleanor Limprecht (Long Bay) gathered to discuss the ominously termed "Underbelly of Sydney". All the writers had crafted stories based around painstakingly researched historical facts, utilising their narrative skill to tell the individual stories too often forgotten in sprawling historical tomes. From Sydney-wide epidemics of spiteful thallium-poisonings to the tragic proliferation of backyard abortions, the authors discussed what the city’s history means for the city’s future. The most interesting part for me was the discussion of what is unique to crime in Sydney, with each author offering their own theories from the grand anonymity of our proximity to the open sea, to Anna Westbrook’s discussion of our “cultural obsession…with erasure and replacement”.
The final event of the day for me was a discussion with two of the winners of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards – the Non-Fiction category award winner, and noted Australian treasure, Magda Szubanski (Reckoning) and the Young People’s Literature award winner Alice Pung (Laurinda). Both authors were children of immigrants to Australia; Pung the daughter of a Chinese-Cambodian family that had escaped Pol Pot’s ‘Killing Fields’ and Szubanski the product of, this isn’t a typo, a Polish assassin. Together they launched into fascinating story-telling soliloquys that left the moderator feeling rather obsolete, even digressing to argue they were “duty bound” to share their stories of Magda’s “Jesuit training” as part of a “matrilineal hegemony of funny women” and Alice’s experiences posing as her mother on the phone to the bank. As it turns out, Alice Pung was appropriately named by her parents after Alice in Wonderland, and together the two writers took the keenly watching crowd down the rabbit hole with them into the world of discovery as the Festival came to life.
Five things you need to know about our Sydney Writers' Festival sponsorship
We’re passionate about electrifying debate on today’s biggest issues. That’s why the University of Sydney is proud to bring exciting thinkers and writers to the public stage in a continued collaboration with the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2016.
From Monday 16 to Sunday 22 May, join us in celebrating the best of Australian and international writing. Here are five things you need to know about our Sydney Writers’ Festival sponsorship in 2016:
We have British philosopher and international author, Julian Baggini, presenting on the importance of personal freedom in today’s world, at the New Law Building on Thursday 19 May. He is well known for the bestselling The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten and The Ego Trick. His latest book, Freedom Regained, is an exploration of free will http://bit.ly/1U0PLsq
We are major sponsors of the Curiosity Lecture Series, and it’s bigger than ever in 2016. Our academic facilitators and speakers are spread over four days at the Walsh Bay precinct. All lectures are free so make sure you check out your favourite sessions http://bit.ly/1SPwFjV
This year we have 40 speakers including 22 staff members, 16 alumni and 2 PhD candidates. Officially the biggest involvement from our USYD community to date http://bit.ly/1S781iF
The Media Internship Hub is returning in 2016. Selected students will be involved in producing daily session reviews, interviewing authors and contributing to social media content across the festival. It’s a great chance to gain hands-on experience in media production and story writing and to also be part of Sydney’s cultural scene. There are also opportunities for students to be involved in event podcasts. More about previous experiences at http://bit.ly/26c0NQD
The University of Sydney has been sponsoring the Festival for the past five years. We have hosted big international names such as James Wood (literary critic from The New Yorker), Adam Johnson (Pulitzer Prize Winning author of The Orphan Master's Son), and American novelist Jonathan Lethem. We had hosted an event in the Great Hall on the Occupy Protests and our student media interns have interviewed many exciting authors including Lauren Beukes, Luke Davies, Tara Moss, William Dalrymple, Daniel Mendelsohn, Emily St John Mandel, Benjamin Law and more.
It’s festival season, so let our ideas tantalise your literary senses and inspire your creativity. Festival highlights this year include Gloria Steinham, Jeanette Winterson, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Franzen, Starlee Kine and more. Find out more at Sydney Writers' Festival.
SWF Media Hub
7 April 2016
The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is seeking applications for student interns to volunteer at the University's popular 'Media Hub' at the Sydney Writers' Festival Walsh Bay precinct.
Media Hub interns will produce daily session reviews, interview authors and contribute to social media across the festival. This is a fantastic opportunity to meet some of the world's leading literary figures, gain hands-on experience in media production and story writing, and be a part of Sydney's vibrant cultural scene. There are also 3-4 additional internships available for students with a flair for sound recording and editing to help Sydney Writers’ Festival with the creation of their event podcasts.
Interns are required to be available on certain days throughout the SWF program, including some evenings and weekends, from 14-20 May 2016. Full details of the SWF Media Hub internship are available here .