News

Wooing Mussolini: the life and conquests of a warmonger

By SWF Media Hub Intern Catherine McMaster

25 May 2014

Gabrielle D’Annunzio is a warmonger, womanizer, poet and playwright. He was a megalomaniac, a fascist, and aviator, dubbing himself L’mmagnifico ‘The Great Curator’. He is the personification of Italian decadence, a creature of an unbridled appetite for fame, luxury, and women.

D’Annunzio can boast Eleanora Duse, American lesbian artist Romaine Brooks, Olga Ossani, Letizia de Felici, Barbara Elvia Leoni, and Luisa Casati as some of his many lovers. Although completely bald by 23, short, and – according to Sarah Bernhadt – with eyes like “little blobs of shit”, he was a notorious womanizer (boasting 1,000 conquests).

How do you begin to condense the flamboyant and colourful life of such a man into 644 pages? Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s book The Pike: Gabrielle D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War tackles the challenge.

French novelist Romain Rolland compared him to a pike, a predatory fish ‘lurking afloat and still, waiting for ideas’. It seems fitting that this should be Hughes-Hallett’s title for her biography in which she explores the many faces of D’Annunzio: Poet, preacher and seducer of war.

I sit down for a conversation with Hughes-Hallett. I am daunted, not just at the prospect of interviewing the Samuel Johnson Prize Winner, but also of tackling and questioning the aura that is Gabrielle D’Annunzio.

Born in Pescara Abruzzo, son of a wealthy landowner and mayor, at the age of 16 his first poems Primo Vere (1879) were published. D’Annunzio’s machinations for self-aggrandizement began early when he faked his own death from a horse riding accident to increase his sales.

“D’Annunzio was a very charming clever person who held some abhorrent opinions, and that seemed to be something worth looking into. And also to see how those appalling ideas which he was expressing towards the end of his life have there roots in some very beautiful ideas,” says Hughes-Hallett.

These binaries between romanticism and fascism, politics and sexual politics are woven in a rich fragmented tapestry that is Hughes-Hallett’s Pike.

His writings emerge out of the Decadent Period, which interplayed closely with French symbolism and British aestheticism. He was a Nietzsche-esque sort of Renaissance man, a fusion of urban sophistication and crude, violent sentiments.
This was the man whose ideas and aesthetics influenced Italian fascism and the style of Benito Mussolini.

He was highly intellectual, but there was a certain kind of intellect that evaded him. Hallett explains: “He was incapable of empathy and didn’t have much of a moral compass.”

He spent much time at the front during WWI, and describes prosaically the deaths and mutilations of his fellow Italians. Benedetto Croce was repelled by how he seemed “to enjoy war, even to enjoy slaughter”.

Perhaps it is Hallet’s background as a journalist for Vogue and as TV critic that makes her ferocious for truth, and not only truth, but emotional detachment from D’Annunzio. “I felt possessive of him, but I did not identify with him.”

Hughes-Hallett is passionate about the poet and lothario who seduced Italy to wartime slaughter with his rhetoric, scandalized Europe with his writing, and set up his own city-state in a forerunner to fascism.

“I feared I would loose interest in him before I finish, but that never happened and the great thing about him is he is never dull,” says Hughes-Hallett.

After reading her biography, I couldn’t agree more.

Amy Tan on her latest book, The Valley of Amazement

Amy Tan

By SWF Media Hub Intern Christine Kim

24 May 2014

Amy Tan is the author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife and most recently, The Valley of Amazement, a historical narrative about life in the courtesan houses of China in 1905.

Tan strode onto the stage at Sydney Theatre after many hours of waiting by her most adoring literary fans. Although she had yet not spoken a word, the auditorium was filled with silence, captivated by this mysterious woman and what she was going to say.

The Valley of Amazement explores powerful themes such as trauma, endurance, sex, unresolved family myths, forgiveness, identity and most importantly, love.

She painted for her audience the vivid world of courtesan houses. “The practice of courting was not the same as prostitution”. Young courtesans were ‘courted’, ‘pursued’, ‘given gifts’ and asked for dates in the ‘proper’ way.

These etiquettes were to be kept as men temporarily escaped the realities of their own lives in the sheer moments of being ‘entertained’ by courtesan women. Courtesans worked hard to avoid the prospects of homelessness, poverty or starvation beyond the realms of working in the courtesan houses.

Tan’s incredible charisma, wit and charm had moved the audience by the end of the session as she spoke about her grandmother and the unresolved question of whether she too was a courtesan in a past secret life.

Reason to love: David Braddon-Mitchell’s philosophy of passion

David Braddon-Mitchell

By SWF Media Hub Intern Scott Wallace

24 May 2014

Speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival’s Bloomberg Stage, David Braddon-Mitchell told us “writing and storytelling will help us find what we have reason to love.”

Philosopher, writer and Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, Damon Young, introduced Braddon-Mitchell, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sydney.

Braddon-Mitchell clarified as he began, that he was not talking about love – about high romance – but about “small ‘l’ love.” Passions and desires on a small scale were the topic of the lecture.

Braddon-Mitchell was a lively, animated and passionate speaker, immediately ploughing into the heady, conceptual content of his lecture. Like most philosophical concepts, Braddon-Mitchell’s dissection of love was more than a little mind-bending.

He asked us to imagine two views of the world contained in all of our minds – the world as it is and the world as we want it to be. We are constantly trying to reconcile these two visions of the world, Braddon-Mitchell says.

But Braddon-Mitchell begged the question: how do we know what it is that we desire from the world? What is it that informs our desires?

Braddon-Mitchell knew perfectly how to capture an audience’s attention. He hurled expensive Italian chocolates in the crowd, and then before their lucky recipients could eat them, plainly stated that his dog had done something unspeakable to them.

With a cheeky glint in his eye, Braddon-Mitchell asked those poised over the dubious chocolate treats, “do you really want to eat it?”

“On Love”, despite its admittedly slightly “fraudulent” (in the words of the lecturer) title, was perfectly rousing given the context of the flurry of ideas and stories of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Braddon-Mitchell spoke of a better-informed potential self that we all have, one that knows precisely what we desire.

This future self is, Braddon-Mitchell explained, informed by putting ourselves in the positions of others, learning about people in other cultures, other times and other walks of life so we may better understand what is out there on which we may set our sights.

The more complicated of the metaphysical leanings of “On Love” were sure to be missed by many of the attendees, but at the centre of the lecture was one simple message, about the power of imagination and knowledge to make us happier.

Words for a voiceless nation: Adam Johnson on North Korea

By SWF Media Hub Intern Greta Mayr

24 May 2014

Adam Johnson is not just an eloquent writer and expert on North Korean life and politics. He is also a captivating orator and truly friendly bloke.

After witnessing the American author speak on Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF), I was compelled to immediately race out of the auditorium and buy myself his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Orphan Master’s Son.

In the novel, Johnson strives to create a human portrait of daily life in North Korea. His desire to portray what is true and what is right has made him an indisputable expert in the area of North Korean life and helped him develop an incredibly raw, authentic and ground-breaking novel, the likes of which have never been seen before.

Julian Morrow, a University of Sydney alumna, delved into the vast depths of Johnson’s knowledge and got behind the process that led to his acclaimed novel. Morrow and Johnson had unmistakable chemistry on stage. They managed to interweave humour in amongst the dark subject matter of the book. The audience was completely enraptured by Johnson’s evocative storytelling and the pair’s seamless comedic interjections.

Johnson, whose visit to SWF was supported by the University of Sydney, invoked a never-ending stream of noise from the audience.

They gasped with horror when he detailed stories of children being dismembered, murmured with surprise when he revealed unknown truths about North Korea’s literature censorship, and groaned with agreement when he mused about the single reality of the propaganda-ridden society. The entire crowd erupted into guffaws and sniggers as Johnson and Morrow bantered about the late Kim Jong-Il’s obscure oral sushi fetishes.

Johnson makes apparent our severe lack of understanding of North Korea and does so in an uncondescending manner. His zeal for painting an honest picture of this faceless society and perseverance in getting to know and understand the menial aspects of the peoples’ daily life has provided a rare window into this isolated state.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson explained, is a work of fiction based on real people and places. It is underpinned by years of research, scores of real peoples’ stories and Johnson’s own observations from his trip to North Korea in 2007. He hoped to exemplify that there is value in the things people of North Korea have to say.

Despite his expertise on the matter, Johnson does not pretend to know everything about North Korea, nor does he consider himself the ideal or only person to tell their stories. He expresses his hopes for more literature dealing with North Korea to emerge, particularly from within the country. This, he believes, would allow the people of North Korea to reengage with the Korean tradition – something they have been unable to do for over a century.

Johnson could have taken talked for hours on North Korean life and his experiences in creating a human portrait of it. However, Morrow fulfilled his rightful duties (unfortunately) of ensuring the author stayed on track and within the allotted timeframe. The only consolation of the session coming to an end was that it allowed me to immerse myself in Johnson’s epic literary tour de force.

Funny business: 15 minutes with Benjamin Law

24 May 2014

Benjamin Law started writing for the freebies. Now he does it to satisfy his curiosity. It seems his funny, poignant take on families and communities is paying dividends, finds Tom Langshaw.

Benjamin Law has been awake since 6am, preparing for events at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) that have occupied him all day. After he’s finished a session with travel author Tim Cope by mid-afternoon, I catch him briefly to ask about the joys and rigours of the writing process.

He speaks of being so isolated as he writes that he sometimes wants to stab himself in the face. (He’s joking, I think). He speaks of writing in his underwear. He also speaks of his work being labelled as racist.
Law’s involvement with this year’s festival started a couple of weeks ago with an interview of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, at Town Hall. As an emerging screenwriter, Law knows all too well the complexities of transferring ideas from mind to page to screen.

He says writing books can lead to a “quick turnaround of satisfaction” because once they are published, it’s a decisive finish. But screenwriting is a different beast, involving many levels of feedback from the networks, producers and audiences. Even after learning it for three years at university, Law feels less confident in the medium than the feature journalism he has been writing since he was a teenager. “I’m new to it. I’m teething, and I still feel like I’m learning.”

His written work allows him to pursue his own evolving interests. “I just keep doing another thing that scares the shit out of me,” he says. For his first book, The Family Law, he returned to the world of his childhood. For his next, the aptly-named Gaysia, he visited queer communities around Asia.

This is a far cry from the music journalism he once wrote (he admits that he now has no idea what is happening in music these days). “It’s not even deliberate, I just instinctively get bored of something after a while.”

What else has changed since he started out in the business? For one thing, he’s more in-demand: at any given moment, he’s doing four things at once. For another, these days the projects are longer.

Although Law’s work is imbued with his sense of wry humour, he insists that he doesn’t set out to write comedy. Simply put, if a story makes his family or his boyfriend laugh, it makes the cut. But he’s aware that you can’t please everyone: his most recent book Shit Asian Mothers Say invoked the ire of two Asian-Australian community leaders who claimed it was offensive.

The book was written at the behest of Law’s publisher, after many of his own mother’s quotes were recounted in The Family Law. He co-wrote Shit Asian Mothers Say with his sister Michelle (The siblings are also adapting The Family Law for the screen). They wrote it in a few weeks, at one point trapped in her small apartment in Brisbane’s oppressive heat. Hunched over their laptops, writing in their underwear, they kept reprimanding themselves. “No, this needs to be funnier!”

Not that they needed to worry. Their mother is a fount of well-intentioned, politically incorrect advice that is often delivered verbatim in his books for maximum effect. In fact, Law says he’s “more interested in other people’s voices than my own.” His work is replete with different voices: the private family in-jokes, different languages, and the non-verbal communication that fills the gaps in between. This acting as translator and mediator is one of his biggest challenges.

As for finding his own voice, he says he aims above all to write as he speaks – a deceptively difficult task. What was it that initially propelled him towards this kind of work, in which his voice is laid bare for the world? At first it was the prize of a stereo he won for a letter of the month to Rolling Stone magazine as a teenager. “I just assumed that writing was so well-paid.”

These days, he writes because he wants to know how other people live. “I think that’s why I read as well,” he says, “because you want to find out about something else. It’s the easiest way to gain access to a different person or a different world.”

Game on: an interview with Good Game host Steven O’Donnell

By SWF Media Hub Intern Scott Wallace

24 May 2014

Benjamin Law started writing for the freebies. Now he does it to satisfy his curiosity. It seems his funny, poignant take on families and communities is paying dividends, finds Tom Langshaw.

Benjamin Law has been awake since 6am, preparing for events at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) that have occupied him all day. After he’s finished a session with travel author Tim Cope (hyperlink) by mid-afternoon, I catch him briefly to ask about the joys and rigours of the writing process.

He speaks of being so isolated as he writes that he sometimes wants to stab himself in the face. (He’s joking, I think). He speaks of writing in his underwear. He also speaks of his work being labelled as racist.
Law’s involvement with this year’s festival started a couple of weeks ago with an interview of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, at Town Hall. As an emerging screenwriter, Law knows all too well the complexities of transferring ideas from mind to page to screen.
He says writing books can lead to a “quick turnaround of satisfaction” because once they are published, it’s a decisive finish. But screenwriting is a different beast, involving many levels of feedback from the networks, producers and audiences. Even after learning it for three years at university, Law feels less confident in the medium than the feature journalism he has been writing since he was a teenager. “I’m new to it. I’m teething, and I still feel like I’m learning.”

His written work allows him to pursue his own evolving interests. “I just keep doing another thing that scares the shit out of me,” he says. For his first book, The Family Law, he returned to the world of his childhood. For his next, the aptly-named Gaysia, he visited queer communities around Asia.

This is a far cry from the music journalism he once wrote (he admits that he now has no idea what is happening in music these days). “It’s not even deliberate, I just instinctively get bored of something after a while.”

What else has changed since he started out in the business? For one thing, he’s more in-demand: at any given moment, he’s doing four things at once. For another, these days the projects are longer.
Although Law’s work is imbued with his sense of wry humour, he insists that he doesn’t set out to write comedy. Simply put, if a story makes his family or his boyfriend laugh, it makes the cut. But he’s aware that you can’t please everyone: his most recent book Shit Asian Mothers Say invoked the ire of two Asian-Australian community leaders who claimed it was offensive.

The book was written at the behest of Law’s publisher, after many of his own mother’s quotes were recounted in The Family Law. He co-wrote Shit Asian Mothers Say with his sister Michelle (The siblings are also adapting The Family Law for the screen). They wrote it in a few weeks, at one point trapped in her small apartment in Brisbane’s oppressive heat. Hunched over their laptops, writing in their underwear, they kept reprimanding themselves. “No, this needs to be funnier!”

Not that they needed to worry. Their mother is a fount of well-intentioned, politically incorrect advice that is often delivered verbatim in his books for maximum effect. In fact, Law says he’s “more interested in other people’s voices than my own.” His work is replete with different voices: the private family in-jokes, different languages, and the non-verbal communication that fills the gaps in between. This acting as translator and mediator is one of his biggest challenges.
As for finding his own voice, he says he aims above all to write as he speaks – a deceptively difficult task. What was it that initially propelled him towards this kind of work, in which his voice is laid bare for the world? At first it was the prize of a stereo he won for a letter of the month to Rolling Stone magazine as a teenager. “I just assumed that writing was so well-paid.”

These days, he writes because he wants to know how other people live. “I think that’s why I read as well,” he says, “because you want to find out about something else. It’s the easiest way to gain access to a different person or a different world.”

I sat down for an interview with Steven O’Donnell (known to many by his nickname ‘Bajo’) who took part in a panel discussion at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last night.

During A Critical Path – Leading Where, the panel discussed the purpose of criticism in contemporary media. I spoke to O’Donnell about his critical work on ABC’s weekly gaming show Good Game. We discussed how contemporary technology and methods of communication have altered the flow of discourse between creators and consumers in the gaming industry.

From the outside, O’Donnell’s job seems very easy, and he agrees “the easiest part is the playing of the games”. But the nuts and bolts of television and the push to make the show entertaining and engaging is hard work, as is navigating the expectations of critical discourse in an industry that is just in the past decade being recognised as a legitimate art form.

O’Donnell says his gig on Good Game is the “easiest job [he] ever got.” His career objective, which includes work on many short films and several features, as well as hosting a short-lived late night TV quiz show, never specifically included gane reviewing. He describes his past work as “mostly terrible,” but maintains a love and passion for it.

Six months of searching for employment ended with O’Donnell sending in an application for an open call from the ABC. Eight years on he is still hosting Good Game. Everything he worked toward “came to a point” where he can indulge his passion for gaming and technology.

Good Game aims to be a show “for gamers, by gamers”. But O’Donnell says his critical discourse is not more or less valid than any other gamer. He says criticism should be based on “people’s experience, the honesty of their words.”

He values the criticism of an established YouTube vlogger as much as a professional critic.

“We’re not trying to be the most masterful critics. We’re just trying to have honest opinions based on our experiences,” he says.

He stressed the importance of the conversations he has with other gamers, discussing their separate experiences and their shared experiences. Indeed, the structure of Good Game is that of a conversation, with competing ideas and opinions bouncing off each other.

“We try and analyse everything, but we also talk about the real things that people do in games,” he says. “Games are inherently subjective, right? You’re kind of reviewing yourself.”

The interactive nature of video games, particularly modern gaming where game-changing choices (often of a moral nature) have become common, has made the experience of the critic simply one isolated experience among many. O’Donnell says as a game critic “you need to be aware of the community… the people that will play [the game].”

A game rife with manifestly negative issues may be objectively bad, but that is not to say that it is incapable of delivering a fun experience, depending on who is playing it.

O’Donnell says “[his] role… is to entertain and inform people who are interested in the subject.” He acknowledges a duty toward the gamers to provide the information needed to make an informed decision as a consumer.

The conversation is much broader than just the gamers, though. With early, unfinished releases of games, though, allowed by online distribution, the feedback of critics like O’Donnell and gamers in general has become more important than ever.

He has “seen games which have come out one way, and then [the developers] have taken so much feedback and they’ve … re-shaped the game in certain ways to just make it more fun an interesting.”

He says developers can now be agile enough to tweak things before they even come out. Feedback is delivered and actually able to be implemented before the finished product is released.

He says the gaming industry has entered a period in which sales do not entirely dictate the output of developers, and online discourse has more power than ever. With the tools of 21st Century communication, critical communication no longer takes place in a vacuum.

The intriguing world of children's picture books

By SWF Media Hub Intern Christine Kim

23 May 2014
An illustration by Andrew Joyner.

An illustration by Andrew Joyner.

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has exciting programs running for children, from storytelling workshops to colouring-in and activity sessions.

I interviewed Andrew Joyner, author and illustrator of the children’s book The Terrible Plop, Boris Gets a Lizard and Ready, Set, BORIS.The Terrible Plop has received an award from Speech Pathology Australia, and has also received an award for the Best Children’s Cover from the APA Book Design Awards.

Today you’re a successful children’s book illustrator and author. You also contribute illustrations to The Sydney Morning Herald. What were some of your personal childhood dreams?

I think I always wanted to be a comic artist. I really loved cartoons in the newspapers, even the political cartoons at a young age. I probably learnt quite a lot of Australian history like the Whitlam dismissal in the 80’s, when I was about ten or eleven years old. I had a weird, limited understanding of political history because it was only through comics and cartoons that I followed it.

How did you come to initially discover a passion for illustrating? Was drawing pictures a part of your life during your childhood?

I always remember drawing. I just remember being told often, when I was younger, “kid, you’re good at drawing”. At school it was useful because I wasn’t a ‘cool’ kid or anything. Everyone responded to drawing. It was a good way to fit in. I was always involved in drawing, even at university for university newspapers.

Lots of people recognise your illustrations for their bold lines, bright colours and the ‘liveliness’ embodied in your artworks. Were there any significant artists or authors who influenced you that helped forge the development of your unique, artistic style?

It probably comes from my love of comics as a kid. I really loved Punch, a UK comic magazine like The New Yorker; but it’s more humorous and less sophisticated. I also loved Steinberg and Dr. Seuss.

Your illustrations are also renowned for their incredible wit and humour. They are extremely clever and they reminded me a lot of Dr Seuss.

What I liked about his stuff - and I’d like to have more of it in my work - is that his images have simple compositions, but they are very adventurous. He sort of bends a landscape and the figures to suit a page and what he wants the drawings to say. The way he positions things on a page, I think, is very striking. I admire his simple use of colour. I respond much better to his works with black and white, and maybe one or two other colours. That could do with the printing techniques, but I still think it has a real impact.

You have a very diverse audience, but in particular, a lot of your readers are children around the ages of 8 to 12 years. One thing that your books particularly do for children is that they make learning to read fun. How important is the element of ‘fun’ when children read your stories?

That is important. I do try and make something feel like it has got a happy, joyful energy to it. I feel happiest about a drawing when it has a ‘fun’ energy to it.

What’s special to you about illustrating for children, as opposed to adults?

I thought about it a bit. Nearly all of my illustrations are for children now. In terms of drawing for adults, especially when selling yourself as an illustrator, you have to have a style that’s recognisable. Almost like a ‘hip’ or ‘cool’ style – something that will have an impact on say, advertising. For children, you’re focused more on the content of an image, rather than a particular style. You’re trying to draw for an audience – and you know the audience. It’s like giving them a gift. It has a nicer feel to it.

Visiting schools helps as well. As an illustrator, it’s not really a public job. You’re drawing in a studio, then you go out and suddenly you’re drawing in front of them. It’s different from drawing at home. You can’t be too fussy when you’re drawing in front of kids – there’s more freedom.

Do you think there’s an exciting future for the children’s book industry as we move to more digital platforms?

I think so. Although, a lot of illustrators and authors say: ‘It’s hard to beat the book’. There are lots of things you can do with a book, like turning the page. You begin a joke on one page and it ends on the next, and that has a real impact.

It is very hard to beat a picture book in this way, unless you can get an app to emulate this quality of a book. In an app, you would probably have to ‘scroll’, which is just not the same.

If you would like to colour-in your own Andrew Joyner illustration, drawings can be printed from http://andrewjoyner.com.au/#/the-swap/

Reef lives and breathes through McCalman’s tales

23 May 2014
Professor Iain McCalman

By SWF Media Hub Intern Catherine McMaster

Professor Iain McCalman weaved a rich tapestry of history, science, culture and environment to explore the various identities of the Great Barrier Reef at a Sydney Writers’ Festival talk on Monday night.

The terror, nurture and wonder of what has been described as the “biggest organic wonder of the world” is the framework to his book The Reef: A Passionate History.

Speaking at the Macleay Museum, Professor McCalman said that the reef is “not just a place”, but it is intrinsic to Australia’s human as well as natural history.

The Reef is the untold story of how humans past and present have shaped this global icon. Professor McCalman achieves this by mapping the reef, starting with Cook and what he saw as a “labyrinth of terror”, to a scientific wonder, a nurturing mother, and finally to what it is now, fragile and vulnerable.

A blend of 12 key encounters between people and the reef, from Cook to castaways, to marine biologists and eco-activists, he translates the untold story of a human history with the Great Barrier Reef.

The social history of the reef is incredibly rich and he chooses his cast of 12 and recounts their personal relationship with this natural wonder. As Professor McCalman asserts “it not a biography of these 12 people, it is their encounter with the reef, and the reefs encounter with them”.

Narcisse Pelletier is one of his examples that frequently come up in his discussion. Pelletier born in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in the Vendee was a castaway who was discovered and rescued by an Aboriginal family and went to live with the Uutaalganu speakers for the next 17 years. He was later discovered by the crew of the John Bell and forcibly taken back to France. His biography contains details of the social organization, language, beliefs, treatment and rituals of the Uutaalganu speakers.

Then there is Eliza Fraser, a Scottish woman whose ship was shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland and who was captured by Aborigines. William Saville-Kent, an English marine biologist, Barbara Crawford Thompson, a castaway who lived with the Kaurareg people for five years, Judith Wright who was instrumental in saving the reef, and Charlie Veron the world’s greatest coral scientist. Their ideas and feelings about the greatest marine environment this planet has ever known are the foundation for McCalman’s passionate history.

During the hour-long talks it becomes clear that he has a great affiliation, both personal and spiritual, with this natural wonder. He explores the multitude of identities of the reef through the eyes of his twelve characters. He is passionate not only about the scientific and human history of the reef, but also its conservation.

His passion is contagious and every member of the audience nods in agreement as he asserts that we need to save this natural wonder. Iain McCalman’s reef interconnects the personal, the natural and the scientific. It is a part of history that has been ignored and now is reemerging: the social and human history of the greatest organic wonder of the world.

Wandering in the garden of Alice Walker's mind

23 May 2014

By SWF Media Hub Intern Tom Langshaw

What does writing mean for Alice Walker? In the screening of the documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the audience was given a few answers.

The Wharf Theatre heard that writing is “the medicine to heal the wounding” and is a “constant process of finding oneself.” It had, many times, saved the life of this compassionate artist.

The film was a spiritual portrait that told a compelling story, tracing Walker’s journey from a shack in rural Georgia via her Pulitzer Prize win for The Colour Purple to the present day. Along the way, we heard about the trials and tribulations of the self-described renegade: poverty, violent racism, and entrenched sexism. She spoke frankly of her strained relations with the literary community, other African-American activists and even her own family.

But Walker’s life is like the milieu of her most famous novels in the Deep American South. She says it is not rooted in “bitter hatred” but “sustaining love”. After the screening, we heard from Walker herself in a brief Q&A session facilitated by Caroline Baum, Editorial Director of Booktopia. Walker in person exemplified the glowing tributes given by interviewees in the film from other artist-activists, such as Whoopi Goldberg, Gloria Steinem and Danny Glover.

Walker’s answers in her soft, measured voice reflected her personal and political empathy. Earlier in the morning, she explained, she had met with Aboriginal elders and spoken of the importance of land and soil. The audience inferred the clear parallels with her own activism for the Civil Rights Movement and more recent human rights campaigns such as the 2011 Freedom Flotilla to Gaza.

One audience member asked: why was nature such a defining image in her work? She spoke of the garden as a symbol for nurturing and regeneration. In the film we had learned of her deep respect for her female ancestors and their sacrifices. For them, the garden was an outlet for creativity and a mirror for their beauty. What is the name of the blog she writes on every day, in a quiet corner of the internet? “Alice Walker’s Garden.” Had she been to the Botanical Gardens yet? “Of course.”

Walker’s physical presence attested to another quality that the film’s interviewees had spoken of: her fierce independence. We had heard about her private life, alone in a house in rural California from which her lovers come and go. On-stage at the Festival, in her public persona as a writer of great stature, at least three different people confided that she had inspired them to write themselves.

Finally, Walker turned her gaze to the minutiae of life in Sydney. She was impressed by the half-flush button on toilets and the abundance of signs that encouraged polite behaviour, rather than aggressive commerce. These were, she said, gestures of a “thoughtful culture”.

Coming from someone with Walker’s integrity and social conscience, this was a compliment of the highest order.

Label breaker: Tara Moss' the Fictional Woman

Tara Moss
23 May 2014

By SWF Media Hub Intern Scott Wallace

I was particularly struck by one moment during the launch of Tara Moss’s new non-fiction book The Fictional Woman, at Sydney Writers’ Festival last night.

Speaking of her past as a gawky teen, Moss held up a copy of the book and turned it toward us, showing us a picture of herself at that time. Smiling broadly, she self-effacingly remarked on her awkward fashion sense. “It was the ‘80s.”

The way she invited us closer after technical difficulties with the microphone, urging the front row to sit cross-legged on the floor, felt like we were at a night of Story Time with Tara, and in a way, we were.

Moss –a doctoral candidate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney – began her talk with a list of statistics. She expounded upon the lack of female professionals in politics, journalism and the film industry.

These statistics were clear in what they showed – the underrepresentation of women even in today’s supposedly flawless meritocracy. Tara, an admittedly very successful novelist, television journalist, model and now PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, assured us that she too is “one of the stats.”

The Fictional Woman represents a melding of the personal and the universal, and Moss tells her own story to also tell the story of women who, like her, have been harassed, insulted and even assaulted, purely because of their gender.

She spoke of a “toxic silence” that leaves women who have been made victims of verbal or physical violence unwilling or unable to speak out. Author, journalist and University of Sydney alumna Julia Baird, introduced and conversed with Tara throughout the night.

The book’s striking cover explores these stereotypes forcefully and eloquently. The cover image shows Moss’ face painted with words that she has been metaphorically painted with throughout her entire career. Some are marks of pride – mother, feminist, inspiration – and others the bold slander that often gets thrown in the direction of successful women – dumb blonde, gold-digger, bitch. Moss talked of the personal element of her book in addressing the striking cover; “My face, my fictions,” she said plainly.

In telling her personal story, Moss sets the record straight. “We all have fictions that are applied to us.”

Attendees at the event could choose to have their own faces painted with words of their choosing – positive or negative, true or untrue. When she summarised her intent behind writing The Fictional Woman – “Knock these fictions down” – her words were met with a round of applause.

On the surface, The Fictional Woman is the story of Tara Moss – a celebrity autobiography. But it is far more universal than that.

How do nations recover from war?

22 May 2014

By SWF Media Hub Intern Lucy Stranger

Leading foreign correspondent Hamish McDonald led a panel discussion between human rights professor Ian Buruma, author Frank Dikötter and University of Sydney Honorary Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick, on the devastation of war and the ongoing implications for both the victors and vanquished.

With only an hour to grapple with some of the largest historical questions of the 20th Century, Hamish McDonald led a varied, yet compelling discussion that focussed on the aftermath of World War II. It seemed fitting that the panel included leading historians that specialised in Soviet Russia, China and human rights issues.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, a specialist in modern Russian History spoke on her recently released memoir, The Spy in the Archives, which reflects on her time as a young academic in Soviet Russia during the Cold War.

What was most compelling was her observation of the lasting presence of the war in Russian society during the 1960s. After World War II there was an initial sense of liberation, but the long-term economic and social exhaustion was a constant, not only for Russia, but all those that had been involved in the ruins of the Second World War.

Ian Buruma, author of Year Zero, highlighted that since World War II “we have seen recent wars boosted by people who have never seen war, the generations that do not know that the story of every war, whether justified or right ends with collapse.”

World War II crystallizes these issues, in particular legitimacy. Who has the right to undo and then rule? The Cold War that followed demonstrated the long-lasting impact; fallen states faced the internal mess of new states, and victors faced the conflict of who was to lead.

Historian Frank Dikötter drew insight into the struggle between capitalism and communism during the Cold War. He noted that communism held a substantial influence, with the Red Army occupying half of Europe, Korea and China.

It was clear by question time that we were looking to the past to make sense of today; questions from the audience ranged from the impact of the Atomic bomb on the US, to the political crisis of North Korea, and ended with a passionate audience member lecturing Frank on his differing view of Chiang-Kai-Shek.

Such is the bittersweet pleasure of history, the dichotomy of perspectives that fuelled questions from the audience and answers from the historians that resulted in a vivacious and expansive discussion. It was half past 12, and even though the session had ended, all the queries left members in a buzz of discussion as they wound their way out of the dance hall.

Taking the temperature of the Arab Autumn

By Luke O'Neill

20 May 2014

Civil society is keeping the early vision of the Arab Spring alive, according to a leading expert in Arabic, Islamic and Middle East Studies.

Dr Lucia Sorbera of the University of Sydney will join the Arab Autumn panel at the Sydney Writers' Festival on 24 May, to discuss social and political change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since the first uprisings of 2010.

Dr Sorbera said Arab intellectuals do not use the terms 'Arab Spring' or 'Arab Autumn', a fact that poses challenges to the West's common narrative of the revolutions as mere false dawns.

"The revolution did not promise anything; therefore it did not fail anybody. That said, the revolutionaries shared a common project and a common vision: freedom, dignity and social justice," Dr Sorbera said.

"The new governments which have been in place since the fall of the dictators claim to be a result of the revolution, but they do not share the vision of the revolutionaries. On the contrary, they are trying to restore authoritarian policies."

Hopes for true change lie with civil society, said Dr Sorbera.

"The real question is not whether the promises of freedom, dignity and social justice have been delivered. The question is how long it will take before these projects and these visions will be fulfilled. It's just a matter of time.

"Grassroots activists and public intellectuals reject the violence of both the state and its disruptive adversaries.

"In a public space which tends to be more and more polarized, human rights and feminist organisations are on the front line to protect the values of the revolution: freedom, dignity and social justice.

"If there has ever been a spring, the flourishing of social and intellectual activism is a 'continuing spring' of resistance against political violence," said Dr Sorbera.

Sydney Writers' Festival announces 2014 program

By Luke O'Neill and Kate Mayor

4 April 2014
Sydney Writers

The University of Sydney is bringing bold and bright ideas to the 2014 Sydney Writers' Festival (SWF), with members of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences featuring right across this year's program.

The upcoming festival was unveiled last night down in Walsh Bay, where this homage to ideas will be held from 19-25th May. SWF Artistic Director Jemma Birrell announced some of the featured festival guests such as Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Gary Shteyngart and Irvine Welsh to a room of publishers, sponsors, writers and journalists.

The University of Sydney is an official sponsor of SWF for the third year running and is thrilled to support the visit to Australia of Adam Johnson, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning author of An Orphan Master's Son.

Johnson's stunning novel tells of corruption and casual cruelty in North Korea, where protagonist Pak Jun Do journeys through icy waters, dark tunnels and eerie spy chambers to find camaraderie, and stolen moments of beauty and love. His conversation with Julian Morrow is bound to be a 2014 highlight.

The University of Sydney is also proud to support an event with author and journalist, Tara Moss, who will launch her new book The Fictional Woman at the festival. Part memoir, part feminist essay, The Fictional Woman explores what it means to be a woman in the modern world. Moss, who is currently undertaking a Doctorate of Social Sciences at the University of Sydney, will discuss feminism and fiction with alumna Julia Baird.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, an Honorary Professor in the Department of History, will detail her experiences as a doctoral candidate in Russia in the early 1960s. A Spy in the Archives, titled after Fitzpatrick's book of the same name, will explore a period when few foreigners were permitted in Russia and Fitzpatrick herself was under surveillance by the KGB.

Bringing history closer to home, Professor Iain McCalman will take a fresh look at the Great Barrier Reef. Off the back of his latest book, The Reef: A Passionate History McCalman gives a sweeping and insightful view of the Reef. He will be speaking at The University of Sydney's Macleay Museum.

Dr Lucia Sorbera of the School of Languages and Culture will join Yasmine El Rashidi and Karima Bennoune to discuss the Middle East in the event The Arab Autumn.

The festival has introduced a new Curiosity Lecture Series featuring discussions on philosophy. Professor David Braddon-Mitchell will explore the Philosophy of Love, while Dr Luke Russell will cast an equally astute eye over the Philosophy of Evil. Meanwhile, Dr Dalia Nassar and Associate Professor Kristie Miller will gauge and vouch for the value of philosophy in contemporary society.

Turning The Tide returns again in 2014 to celebrate Indigenous literature and culture. Ali Cobby Eckermann is Artist-in-Residence at the Faculty of Education and Social Work and a celebrated poet and voice for the Stolen Generation. Eckermann will explore the history and implications of the Northern Territory intervention alongside Henry Reynolds.

Judith Beveridge of the Department of English joins fellow poets John Mateer and Luke Fischer to discuss their work in a panel discussion interspersed with live classical music. Beveridge will also join Ali Alizadeh, Kate Middleton and John Mateer to discuss real and imagined worlds.

Emeritus Professor Rodney Tiffen of the Department of Government and International Relations will join journalists Paul Barry and Monica Attard to discuss Rupert Murdoch's wide reach and issues of media integrity.

Natalie Costa Bir, Digital Producer at the University of Sydney, will facilitate an in-depth discussion of authors' growing roles in the publishing process. Forest for the Trees: Pushing Your Own Cart will also feature established writer Kate Forsyth, debut novelist Kirsten Krauth and self-published author Darrell Pitt.

Alongside university staff, a large number of university alumni feature in the program, such as David Marr, Michael Kirby, Julia Baird, Anne Summers, Peter FitzSimons, and many more.

For further information, visit the University's SWF website, which will be a hive of activity during the festival. It will feature daily session reviews, author interviews, news and social media feeds, to keep you across our involvement in this premier cultural event.

Media contact: Kate Mayor, kate.mayor@sydney.edu

Flashback: Our favourite chapters from last year’s festival

By Luke O'Neill

2 April 2014

There was a literary journey to Afghanistan, extraordinary stories of migration and a lesson from the New Yorker’s literary critic about how drumming and book reviewing share similar beats. The University of Sydney enriched and enlightened the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival program.

Almost 20 of our people featured in festival sessions last year, adding to the annual buzz at Walsh Bay as Australian and international book lovers enjoyed a glut of literary thought. And six students from the University of Sydney were there to report on it all as part of our Media Hub at Walsh Bay, acting as roving reporters by producing news stories, author interviews, session reviews and photography during a packed schedule of events.

James Wood, The New Yorker’s feared and respected literary critic, shared off-beat (and on-beat) musings on reviewing and his passion for drumming. Wood revealed his reviews are “a story about a story” and reflected on receiving – rather than dishing out – criticism after the publication of his own first book. The university supported Wood’s visit to the festival and welcomed him to our Camperdown campus for a special workshop with postgraduate students.

James Wood and Susan Wyndham

Elsewhere, Political philosopher Dr Tim Soutphommasane led a thought-provoking and emotional panel talk about migration, which drew on the rich personal histories of alumni and authors from Sudan, Vietnam and New Zealand. Pamela Nguyen spoke of her deeply personal memoir, Secrets of the Red Lantern, which traces the history of her family and their journey to Australia. The room fell silent as Nguyen fought tears and recalled the huge challenge of “starting from scratch” in Australia.

Other chapters shared an internationalist streak. China’s rise was on the agenda, as experts put their heads together to tease out the implications of the Asian giant’s ascent up the global order. Is it a friend or foe, they wondered? Professor Bates Gill, CEO of the United States Studies Centre, and Professor Kerry Brown of the China Studies Centre contributed to a lively talk, co-sponsored by The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

China event

Fifty Shades of Grey has loomed large since it was published in 2012, spawning love it and loathe it reactions from the book world. But what of the genre where it was born, fan fiction? The Fan Fiction panel, featuring Joseph Brennan and David Large of the University of Sydney with Amanda Hayward of The Writer’s Coffee Shop, and novelist Lauren Beukes, explored the genre and questioned the line between homage and plagiarism.

With ideas flowing, Education and Social Work experts turned their attention to the engine room of art: creativity. Professor Robyn Ewing, children’s author and Adjunct Associate Libby Gleeson, and Honorary Associate Teya Dusseldorp looked at how creative nurturing can foster freedom and education. Perhaps the most telling observation came from Professor Ewing, who told the gathering “creativity can’t be taught, but it’s there in all of us”. Meanwhile, at Turning The Tide, Debra Reid of the University of Sydney led an explosive investigation of Indigenous Australian literature and identity, in discussion with Lionel Fogarty, Jeanine Leane and Melissa Lucashenko.

The University of Sydney was proud to bring engaging thinkers and writers to last year’s festival and we are excited to continue our collaboration with the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2014.