Elwood Writers has had a presence at Adelaide Writers’ Week for some years. Last year we were unable to attend because of Covid restrictions. This year, for various reasons, I am the sole attendee. I’ll try to give you a taste of my experience.
Apart from the entrance queue for people to show their Covid Vacc certificates, the temporary fencing around the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden (on the traditional land of the Kaurna People) and the difficulty of recognising people behind their face masks, Adelaide Writers’ Week is once again that relaxed gathering on the banks of the River Torrens where, for a week, one can sit and absorb all kinds of wisdom and celebrate the successes of writers new and old, Australian and international.
There will be no attempt here to try to cover the breadth of offerings over the six days – this is just an outline of some of the presentations I enjoyed.
The first program for me was Sophie Cunningham interviewing Jennifer Mills, whose recent book, The Airways, I had read. It isn’t an easy book. The idea was conceived before the Covid pandemic, in 2015, but it is weirdly prescient. The first chapter is in the first person – Yun – who is murdered, and the experience is described from their perspective. Then the airways – the life force of Yun inhabits people’s bodies – the airways, giving a suggestion of bodies being interconnected – a liminal space between life and after-life. Maybe the main protagonist is Yun and their airways, or maybe it is Adam, who shared a house with Yun in Sydney. After Yun’s death Adam went to Beijing to start afresh. The book alternates between the airways and Adam’s experiences in Beijing, where he is not entirely well. Jennifer said that she is interested in how we inhabit each others’ bodies through relationships, and she’s interested in the idea of ghosting – being haunted, and had been inspired by books such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Jennifer said that she doesn’t necessarily believe in ghosts but has been, for example, in haunted houses, where you feel a prickle at the back of your neck. The idea for the book came to Jennifer on a crowded train in China (where she lived for a short while): what if someone else’s consciousness could jump into mine? A thrilling and scary prospect. When you are living in another culture (such as China), what is ‘normal’ changes. Asked whether the pandemic influenced her writing, Jennifer said that she was in China when SARS was rampant and she was very aware of sharing air with people, animals and plants. She was editing the book during Covid lockdowns. She said that there is a lot of space for the reader to make their own interpretations. Jennifer said she felt sorry for Adam – a perplexing character.
Next I attended a livestream of Lisa Taddeo, being interviewed about her latest book, Animal. Lisa is an American writer who has twice won the Pushcart prize. She is currently living in Connecticut and was interviewed as she sat in front of a cosy fire. Lisa explores power relationships between men and women. On the back cover of Animal: ‘I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me. He was a gluttonous man and when his blood came out it looked like the blood of a pig. That’s a cruel thing to think, I know. He did it in a restaurant where I was having dinner with another man, another married man. Do you see how this is going? But I wasn’t always that way.’ Lisa said that she was shocked by the overwhelming response to her previous book, Three Women, which explores women’s appetites and desires – it took eight years of research. The character Joan, in Animal, is the voice of a woman ‘who has nothing left to lose’. Joan sleeps with a man to get back at a woman who has hurt her. Why is she seeking restitution? Taddeo is interested in exploring how memory sits in the body. What was the reason for Joan’s action? She used a quote by Cesar A. Cruz: Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Taddeo asked: Are women complicit in their own silencing? They know how to hurt each other. She said that we rage against keeping things the same, not specifically a rage against men. How does Taddeo find working with an editor? She said that a lot of us are stymied by the idea that there is a ‘right’ way to write something. But you should find your own voice, then see how the world reacts. A movie version of Animal is being written.
One of the most informative sessions I have ever attended was Up Close and Different, an interview with two women who were diagnosed, relatively late in life, as being on the autism spectrum. Clem Bastow has written a memoir, Late Bloomer, and Emma Jane, a memoir, Diagnosis Normal. Clem said that when she was ultimately diagnosed, it was a last resort, an act of desperation. She had built a façade that was starting to crumble. Clem is now working on a PhD on autistic ways of writing. Emma ‘went bonkers’ during the first Covid lockdown when she was sharing a house with her teenage daughter. She had to be sectioned, which she described as an interesting experience: ‘I didn’t see myself that way… I can read emotions…’ She likes embracing uncertainty and works at a university on complex systems theory. For me, the indelible comment made at this session was: ‘There’s not the equivalent of wheelchair ramps for people with this disability’. Autism spectrum disorder is not visually obvious – we don’t realise. These women described, for example, the utter hell of being at a meeting, with a whole lot of different stimuli happening at once. Sitting on the stage, as they were, at Writers’ Week, they were highly aware of birds in the trees, something happening on the alternative stage, all the things going on in the audience… Clem said that she is constantly in at least three time lines at once. Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) , a treatment, is, they said, like ‘Conversion Therapy’ for autistic people – who cares if they don’t look you in the eye? The equivalent of a wheelchair ramp might be a quiet space.
The next day I went to a session titled Legally Bound: Change, Activism and the Law. Three high profile lawyers discussed how they use their legal practice to advance important causes. In 2021, David Barnden represented students in Sharma v Minister for the Environment. The students were seeking protection from future harm caused by climate change. Michael Bradley is the Managing Partner of Marque Lawyers. Marque was established by Michael and some colleagues in 2008 with the stated ambition of completely revolutionising legal practice. They achieved this by getting rid of timesheets and not treating law like a ‘blood sport’. He has written on law and legal practice, in journals such as The Australian Financial Review, and published a book titled Kill all the Lawyers. Michael participated on livestream. Terri Janke is an Indigenous Australian lawyer of Wuthathi/Meriam heritage. She is considered a leading international authority on Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, and is the Solicitor Director of Terri Janke and Company. She has written a book, True Tracks, about respecting Indigenous knowledge and culture. Terri considered that one of the worst instances of lack of respect is where pharmaceutical companies use Indigenous knowledge in creating new medicines, with no acknowledgment. David is hopeful that there can be litigation relating to Climate Change, but it is difficult – there are limits to the law. In discussing sexual assault, Michael said that survivors want the restoration of what has been taken from them (more than the perpetrator being punished) – but the system is set up for punishment. With Terri there was discussion about the Aboriginal flag design – the copyright. It is now owned by the Australian government – ‘there is some irony in that’, she commented. It should be owned by a national Indigenous body.
Jennifer Down discussed her recent award-winning novel, Bodies of Light. Jennifer has twice won the Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year Award. In her book we live (rather than learn about) the life of Maggie from 1973 (well before Jennifer was born) to 2020. Maggie reinvents herself twice (as Holly and Jo) during this time. Jennifer undertook copious amounts of research, which she plotted on a spreadsheet. In the first draft of her book Jennifer got to know Maggie, she described it as a kind of telepathy. Maggie experiences repeated failures of care. Jennifer drew on The Forgotten Australians report where she learned of recent despicable treatment of young people in care – eg hidden cameras in their bedrooms. When Maggie is three she lives in a motel with her father – a very rough environment, the father battling substance abuse, yet he loves her. Maggie gets through school and goes to university. She falls in love with and marries Damien – a brief happiness – but her three children all die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: how much heartbreak can one human being take? Maggie first reinvents herself as Jo in her mid-twenties (the name of a dead child). She had to be bright to do this, there are so many secrets about her identity that she will have to keep – you can’t contact a single person from your past life. Where to end the book? Ultimately someone does track down the reinvented Maggie. Somebody knows who she is, and cares about her. Jennifer ended by referring to John Donne: Maggie wanted to be an ‘island’ but it can’t work. We all want to be remembered.
A complete jump now to The Artful Dickens. The author, John Mullan, a Charles Dickens scholar, was interviewed livestream from London. The session was ably chaired by Linda Jaivin, who had to fill in for a while until the connection was established. She spoke of ‘idiolects’ – the way Dickens’ characters are distinguished by their speech – he doesn’t need to specify who is speaking, the reader knows (once the character has been introduced). Mullan commented that in Dickens’ day, critics seemed unaware of some of the techniques he used that are common today, but were unusual in the 19th century, such as alternating between past and present tense. Dickens was not a moralist, but his monsters live – he tells us about the monsters in our own heads. There was discussion about Dickens’ use of coincidence, such as Mr Creakle being in charge of a school and then later, a prison. He does things that ‘good writers’ shouldn’t do, such as use of cliché. Mullan spoke of Dickens’ ‘epicure of fear’ – particularly in the opening of Great Expectations (which Mullan described as his favourite). His characters are ‘aspects of humanity’. It was agreed that much of Dickens’ writing wouldn’t be accepted if produced by a new writer today, but there is in fact a huge amount a writer can learn from reading Dickens.