A session entitled Bet the Farm was an interview with two writers I hadn’t heard of: Gabrielle Chan, a political journalist, who has written a book, Why you should give a f*ck about farming, and Anika Molesworth, an agroecology scientist, who has written Our Sunburnt Country. Generally it seemed that there was too much to cover in this session. We are living in a time where we are experiencing the convergence of floods, fire and plague. Some areas discussed were: the problem of favouring the cheapest production of food (the neoliberal approach), one-third of the food produced in the world is wasted, the general lack of vision – everything is siloed – the Minister for Agriculture should have the same status as the Minister for Defence – need for a National Food Policy. Anika is hopeful. Farmers for Climate Action has 8,000 members. Yet it is hard to spread their messages – the rural press has closed down. Since attending this session I’ve been more particular than usual about not wasting food.
I loved Emily Bitto’s Stella Prize winning book The Strays, and have purchased but not yet read her most recent book, Wild Abandon. I have also attended a writing course run by Emily – she is renowned for her exquisite sentences. Her writing style has been described as ‘Baroque’ and she thanked her editor for not changing or deleting her adjectives. In the first sentence of Wild Abandon she describes New York city as ‘the seething glorious doomed mass’. Much of the discussion was about what inspired Emily to write this book about a young man trying to escape from his first failed love. The book also encapsulates Emily’s fascination with our relationship with animals – she read a news story about a private zoo in Ohio and was shocked that someone was permitted to own so many wild animals. She is interested in the fantasy of travel and its appeal to young Australians. With travel, a young person can experiment with different ways of being (in a world away from people who know him). Emily said that she chose to write in a ‘Baroque’ way so that her writing would mirror excess.
Thomas Keneally – perhaps the grandfather of Australian literature – has written thirty-three novels. He won the Booker prize some years ago with Schindler’s Ark. He must now be in his eighties. The book he was supposedly discussing is A Bloody Good Rant. It seems to cover a huge range of interests including Keneally’s abhorrence for ‘trickle down’ economics and his emphatic endorsement of the significance of Mungo Man – Aboriginal remains found in 1974 at Lake Mungo that are well over 40,000 years old. Angela Savage, who chaired the session, did a great job of trying to keep Keneally on track – he had so much to share – he could have kept ranting on for hours.
A live-stream link with Isabelle Allende had been programmed, but this couldn’t come about and instead we were treated to an in-person interview with renowned Russian historian Sheila Fitzpatrick who has written extensively particularly on the history of the USSR. She was initially asked, What might help us to understand the present situation? The Soviet Union was formed as a federation of republics, which included the Ukraine. Although there was ‘top down’ rule from the Kremlin, a lot of power was delegated to the leaders of these republics. Fitzpatrick was then asked whether she had been surprised by the invasion of Ukraine. She was. She quoted Putin who said something akin to, Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who thinks it could be restored has no brain. So does Putin want to recreate the past? Fitzpatrick said that the time of the break-up of the USSR was humiliating for the likes of Putin. Russians respect strength – Putin advanced where (he thought) he saw weakness – he miscalculated the extent of the outrage. Leaders of USSR had not wanted NATO at their borders. After World War II Eastern European countries became Soviet Satellite countries. But when Germany reunited, what had been East Germany automatically became a member of NATO. Fitzpatrick believes that Putin’s nature has changed over the years he has been in power: at first his approach was clinical and ‘scientific’, then it became more emotional and ranting. She sees in Putin some qualities of Lenin: determined, single-minded, not bothered much by casualties. Like Lenin, Putin is well educated. At the beginning of the Soviet era the new regime was seen as modern, advancing beyond capitalism – to have a Five Year Plan, Fitzpatrick said, was ‘quite sexy’. There was huge emphasis on education – to become a citizen one must be able to read. During the 1920s and 1930s a huge professional middle class emerged. The emancipation of women was important: abortion was legalised, divorce became easier to obtain – women were very hard working as they were expected to run the household as well as have a job. The fear of being considered backward was a powerful incentive to ‘modernisation’. Asked what were the golden years of the USSR, Fitzpatrick answered the 1970s. Fitzpatrick had lived in USSR as a student in the 1960s. Because borders were closed, you had to go on a state exchange – you were protected by the Embassy. She made some good friends during that time.
I attended a discussion about the present situation of school education in Australia entitled, Taking Down the Decorations. Both discussants agreed that at present the system looks like an over-decorated Christmas tree where more and more pieces are crammed in, weighing down the whole system, to the extent that we lose sight of its function and purpose. Paul Barclay interviewed Pasi Sahlberg who is the deputy director and research director of the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales, and Gabbie Stroud, a writer, who describes herself as a ‘recovering’ teacher. The inequitable situation of education in Australia was the main theme of this discussion. Pasi started by saying that the neighbourhood public school should be good enough for all children. (That is where he sends his own children.) If we get our institutions right, he said, the good economy will follow. The Australian education system has recently fallen in regard internationally, why is this? (For example, comparative academic results have fallen.) With the present system, a high percentage of Australian students go to disadvantaged schools. Pasi said that funding is not the solution, although he agreed later that if only government funding to independent schools could cease, the situation would be better – Australia is the only country in the world that provides such funds. In other countries private education is paid for by those parents who want to use it. Gabbie was asked why teachers are leaving the profession. She said that teachers want to make a change but their hearts are breaking – they are overwhelmed. The job has become impossible. The notion of rigid, standardised compliance needs to be changed – there is a tension between equity and individual excellence. Pasi commented that a teacher’s job is not to change the system but to teach well. However at present teachers are stymied because of the inequitable system. If we take care of teachers, he said, the students will do well. Pasi finally commented that we are too obsessed with academic outcomes. A better measure is the extent to which a school has helped a young person become what they want to be.
I had attended an oratorio, Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan, playing concurrently as a part of the Adelaide Festival:https://jenniferbryce.net/category/comments-on-concerts-plays-films-etc/
Tim Reeves, an Adelaide-based historian and author is an authority on the case of the Dr Duncan murder and has recently written a book, The Death of Dr Duncan. He was ably interviewed by David Marr. The beat where Duncan was murdered in 1972, had operated since 1910 – these days Grindr and Tinder have taken the place of beats. Within eleven weeks of the murder, a Bill had been introduced to State Parliament for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. It was considered that the case of Dr Duncan became a cause célèbre largely because Duncan was an academic. As the oratorio poignantly reminds us, many anonymous young men lost their lives in a similar way. The local newspaper, The Advertiser, was very supportive of the law reform and followed the inquest with precision. Although three South Australian policemen were brought to trial, no one has been convicted of Duncan’s murder. Tim Reeves considers that the case is still not closed.
There was a time when no one spoke about suicide, but in a discussion, The Silence Between Us, a mother and daughter talked about a devastatingly honest memoir they have written looking at the time about twenty years ago when daughter Oceane Campbell attempted suicide at the age of eighteen. On the panel with them was Patrick McGorry, professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne. He is a founding member of headspace, which delivers support to young people aged from 12 to 25 years to reduce the impact of depression, anxiety, stress, alcohol and drug use, and to improve relationship issues associated with sexuality, sexual health, families, and bullying. Patrick started by commending the courage of Oceane and her mother to go on their ‘writing journey’. Oceane said that the book started as an idea that she contemplated when walking, in the form of a letter to her mother. She and her mother had jotted down their thoughts and she was ‘blown apart’ when she discovered that they had both referred to similar things. She said, ‘It was bigger than the two of us’. The paucity of treatment of people who’ve attempted suicide was outlined – they are just triaged in Emergency, like everyone else – a harrowingly superficial response. Oceane was able to joke about the fact that she nearly had her appendix removed instead of the surgery on her wrists, which was required. The hospital care was so awful that Oceane said, throughout treatment she was terrified that she would be resectioned. She said, mental health tends to be at the bottom of the pile. At the end of the session I recalled how, when I was a child, the big mental ‘asylum’ (not hospital) in Kew was referred to as ‘the loony bin’ and I thought of Janet Frame’s horrific accounts of the asylum at Seacliffe in New Zealand. From what Oceane and her mother were saying, it seems as though mental health has not advanced significantly since those days.
Anthony Durkin interviewed Gideon Haigh about his recent book on ‘Doc’ Evatt, The Brilliant Boy. Sadly famous cricketer Shane Warne had just died. As Haigh is recognised as a world-class cricket journalist, a bit of time was spent talking about Warne. H.V. Evatt died in 1965 and it is realised that today a lot of Australians haven’t heard of him. A brilliant scholar, who became a justice of the High Court of Australia when still in his twenties, Evatt later entered federal politics and became leader of the Labor Party on the death of Chifley in 1951. Haigh’s book is about Evatt’s cleverness. He was left-leaning when the Bar was very conservative. In some ways he was an unlikely member of the Labor Party – he had ‘soft hands’ in days when the party was very much associated with the workers. The book is about Evatt’s time at the Bar in the 1930s and how he handled the case of a young boy Maxie Chester, who drowned when playing in a rain-filled trench. The question was whether Maxie’s mother was entitled to compensation and this was a difficult case to prove, because Maxie wasn’t earning money. Evatt was able to show that the mother’s ‘nervous shock’ was a ‘cumulative sense of dread’ over the day while she was searching for her son (who wasn’t found until about 6 pm). According to Evatt, she was looking for her child, not for the body of her child – hopeful that he was alive. There was also discussion about Evatt the man – his love of art. John and Sunday Reed developed a special hue of red that he liked. Evatt probably saw himself as a future Prime Minister.
In the final session I attended, Hannah Kent discussed her latest book, Devotion. She was interviewed by Anton Enus. Hannah found the amazing success of her first book, Burial Rites, quite disorienting. She was ‘paralysed’ by the understanding that she would have to ‘measure up’ with her second novel, The Good People. She said, ‘writing feels like breathing, to me’. She never thinks of themes, always something less concrete. She’s interested in exploring things that don’t have a ready answer – things that are intuited, such as how people relate to the supernatural rather than exploring the supernatural per se. Devotion, Hannah’s third novel, was sparked by a fascination with the country around the Adelaide hills. She doesn’t regard herself as an historian – her interest is in characters. Anton asked, How true to life does your landscape have to be to draw the reader in? She said it needs to be very accurate – you have to be able to feel the grit. She can’t write about something unless she can see it. She feels she has an obligation to be accurate. Hannah stressed that historical novels today are for a contemporary (ie 21st century) audience. You can’t actually replicate a time. Research should inform the writer’s understanding – then focus on the characters. Devotion is about a girl who is a loner in a family that is being persecuted. She can commune with a natural world, but is being pushed into a domestic world. At that time, in that place, life for a woman was ‘church, kitchen and children’. The special relationship that develops between Hanne and Thea would not have had a name in those times. Hannah said that she didn’t want to write a narrative of shame (given the pious communities the girls come from). Hannah says that in her first draft she overwrites – using lots of words – she loves to read lyrical writing, poetry, etc… Then she does a lot of editing. There was some discussion about writing about ‘real’ people in history. Hannah would honour all facts. She respects historical figures as much as possible, though there is the fallibility of historical records. Hannah said that it was particularly difficult to write with sensitivity and contemporary understanding about the relationship in the nineteenth century between the Europeans and the local Aboriginal people – Hannah had no desire to perpetuate the racism of that time.
And so the 2022 Adelaide Writers’ Week ended for me: a heavy bag of books to read and many thoughts running through my head.