San Fedele Press: The Second Ice Cream Social | reviewed by Jennifer Bryce

Most of us here in Australia were sipping coffee rather than eating ice cream when we logged into the Ice Cream Social at 7.30 am Eastern Australian Daylight Time on Sunday 31st October – it was 4.30 pm Saturday in New Jersey. Patricia A. Florio, the founding publisher of American Writers Review, was a most welcoming convenor.

This was a celebration of the huge achievement of putting together the 2021 edition of American Writers Review, an anthology titled Turmoil and Recovery in recognition of the exceptionally difficult year everyone has faced. The first reader was Andrea Rabaduex, winner of the 2021 AWR contest judged by Jean Colonomos, Richard Key, Lenore Hart, Patrick O’Neil, Holly Tappen and our very own Elwood Writers member, Margaret McCaffrey. Andrea’s poem, ‘Requiem for Believers’, was written when her husband was serving in Afghanistan. Phrases I found particularly poignant were, ‘the sun still shone somewhere that day’ and ‘This is how to exhale God – quietly / into the humid space before dawn’s clouds / meet pale mourning.’

Then our own members read their pieces that had been selected for publication in the anthology. First was Barry Lee Thompson, who read his short story ‘Glassy’. Barry was complimented on his beautiful reading. There was opportunity for questions, but, as with the poem, people were quite stunned by the beauty of the writing. A woman walking by a river sees an empty green wine bottle and there is communication between her and the bottle: ‘… a vibration. High pitched and faint, like a tuning fork … A confidential whispering of its glass body.’

Helen McDonald firstly read her poem ‘Restoration’:  ‘I wish I had a broom and could climb / mini-sized into your beautiful brain / to scrub and clean punctured vessels …’ This prompted discussion with an audience member on the themes and inspiration for the poem. Helen then read ‘COVID Lockout’, explaining that a haibun is a short piece of prose followed by a haiku that resonates with the prose. She was congratulated for her beautiful writing.

The next reader, Shelly Gill Murray read her Covid-inspired short story ‘Meeting Grandma at the Window’, a moving account of visiting her 98-year-old grandma who was in isolation in a facility. Their meeting was inevitably diminished by having to meet looking through the barrier of a window and having to talk through a phone. In the end each put their hands up to the pane of glass, but they couldn’t actually touch. Members of the audience said that Shelly’s story touched their hearts and reminded them of attempts to meet their mothers and other vulnerable people during these hard times.

Anita S. Pulier joked about her transfer from legal writing to being a poet. She started by reading a love poem she’d written during lockdown, ‘Memo’. It was about the love of older people who have loved each other for a long time: ‘what once was morphing to what is’. She then read an extraordinary poem on a similar theme: ‘IF (Barbie discovers that Ken is a Proud Boy)’.

The next piece to be read was by Ana M. Fores Tamayo: ‘New Day Dawn/El Amanecer’. Donna Ferrara (editor of AWR) read what was described as an interpretation rather than a translation from the Spanish – you cannot literally translate poetry. It was a poem of stunning imagery: ‘The wolf dog sniffed the stillborn air’ … ‘yet soon the sun would break its silent inkwell’.

Co-winner of the 2021 contest was Anne Casey, a Sydney-based Irish poet. Her poem, ‘Our Prime Minister Says the Vaccine is Not a Silver Bullet’, was read by Patricia Florio. It expresses the anguish during lockdown of hoping to have a reunion with her father in Dublin; the poem moves between Australian scenes of a kookaburra in ‘the flagging liquidambar’ and ‘icy sleet / piercing the winter’, where her father is in Ireland.

The anthology is beautifully illustrated, particularly with artwork by Holly Tappen and Carol MacAlister. After the reading of Anne’s poem, Carol passed on thanks and congratulations to Donna and Patricia for the fine publication and all of the work that had gone into judging the pieces and producing the anthology.

American Writers Review 2021: Turmoil and Recovery (San Fedele Press)

We in Australia cherished this ‘hands across the ocean experience’ – how wonderful to be able to participate in this event as it happened in New Jersey! Very few good things have come from the last two years dominated by pandemic, but although international borders have been closed, we have become more adept at using technologies which enable us to be with groups such as the Jersey Shore Writers and have the privilege of experiencing their welcoming hospitality.

If you’d like to read and appreciate more of the writing and artwork in this anthology, American Writers Review 2021 can be purchased from the link here.

A question of websites: Jennifer answers

What was your original intention when setting up your website?

Although I started my website way back in 2014, I must confess that I still haven’t made a clear distinction between my website and my blog. That is still on a hypothetical ‘to do’ list! In 2014, I hardly knew what a blog was, but like Barry I wanted some kind of social media presence. I had resolved to become ‘a writer’ after many years of working as a musician and in educational research – and this was one way of establishing a writerly presence.

I looked at a few blogs and enrolled for a workshop at Writers Victoria on setting up your blog. I was flabbergasted when the person taking the workshop spent her time talking about recipes and childcare! I think it hadn’t occurred to me that people would want to share these very important aspects of their lives in this way – I’d envisaged blogs as being ‘literary’.

Barry acquainted me with WordPress and my nephew helped me with the initial setting up of a blog, designed with categories covering the various areas I thought I might write about. The six categories haven’t changed over the years (although I haven’t had any travel to write up since 2018). They are: My Reading, Memoir, Comments on concerts, plays, films, Travel, Short stories and Writing.

Continue reading “A question of websites: Jennifer answers”

Margaret Ann Spence: Joyous Lies

On the front cover of Joyous Lies by Margaret Ann Spence we are told, ‘If plants can protect their young, why can’t humans do the same?’ Then, in an extract before the prologue, Maelle remembers the time she was told of her mother’s ‘accident’, which, as she guessed, turned out to be her mother’s death: ‘Maelle saw the lie in her aunt’s eyes’. Intriguing – children can sense the truth. That kind of saccharine coating is not a protection. And so the scene is set, plunging the reader into a drama with twists and turns of family relationships that provide the essence of this beautifully written book.

The Prologue is written from Maelle’s mother’s point of view and we are with her just before the fatal ‘accident’ at night in a laboratory – questions about her motive for going there and the detail of what happened will lurk, distracting Maelle from her PhD research on plants’ communication.

Most of the book is set in a commune established by Maelle’s grandparents when Neil, her grandfather, was a Vietnam War draft resister. Maelle was about ten years’ old when her mother died. She went to live on the commune with her grandparents and the various others, mainly of their generation, who had kept it together since the 1970s. There we can smell the nourishing meals of freshly-picked vegetables, the bread from the oven, and we can feel the softness of the angora, spun and knitted by Maelle’s grandmother. But there are also knowing looks exchanged, secrets, half-truths.

Most of the story is from the point of view of Maelle as a young adult with a scientific career before her – sometimes we see through the eyes of her grandmother, Johanna, who finds her partner of fifty years, Neil, a ‘grizzled man’ who ‘kept tangling in her mind with his golden youth’. In spite of the communards’ values, much of the time Neil seems to treat Johanna with disdain.

Early in the book Maelle meets Zachary, a young psychiatrist, and there is an instant attraction. When, after a short time, Maelle takes him to the commune to meet her family, Zachary acts strangely and some extraordinary links emerge that shed new light on the mystery of Maelle’s mother’s death and further divert Maelle from her studies, threatening to undo a great deal more than her relationship with Zachary.

In tandem with the mystery prompted by Zachary’s reactions when he visits the commune is another equally compelling plot line. Neil agrees to the chic thirty-something Pamela Highbury making a documentary about the commune. This poses a huge threat to Johanna, who wrongly assumes that Pamela is having an affair with Neil. And given that Pamela claims to be interested in ‘documenting human failings’, the project threatens to unravel the essential fabric of the commune. The stiletto-heeled film-maker will disapprove of the ‘feudal power’ under which the women have been engaged in traditional roles such as pottery and dairy, and the men in more strenuous activities.

But the question underpinning Pamela’s investigation is fascinating to the reader (as well as to Pamela’s potential audience): what became of the Hippies? Feeding into this question are matters of coping in old age; working on a commune doesn’t provide retirement benefits. Johanna and Neil aren’t legally married. Does Johanna have rights as his partner? To what extent has the commune genuinely adhered to a non-capitalist way of life?

When, near the end of the book, everyone comes together to view Pamela’s documentary, I was fleetingly reminded of the end of an Agatha Christie novel, when everything comes together in resolution. To the communards’ (and the reader’s) relief, some ‘lies’ are mercifully concealed.

This book is superbly crafted: deftly paced and captivating. What is more engaging than a child wanting to find out how and why her mother died? And now that those people of 1970s ‘Flower Power’ are facing old age, it is intriguing to ask, what is life like for them now? Do they still live by those ‘hippy’ ideals? There are strong characters too – I was particularly drawn to Johanna and to Maelle as she pieces together what actually happened to her mother.

Margaret Ann Spence grew up in Melbourne, Australia, but has spent most of her life in the United States where she worked as an award-winning journalist. After some years she moved to Arizona, joined a writers’ group and decided to take up writing fiction. On her website Margaret says, ‘I write about women and their families, and the secrets that lie beneath’. Margaret’s first novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, was published by The Wild Rose Press Inc in 2017. It won the Romantic Elements Category in the First Coast Romance Writers 2015 Beacon Contest, it was a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award and in the 2019 Next Generation Indie Awards. Joyous Lies is Margaret’s second novel. Do get hold of a copy of this suspenseful book. Details of how to obtain it are below.

Margaret Ann Spence, Joyous Lies, The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
First Edition, 2021
Trade Paperback ISBN 978-1-5092-3472-1 Digital ISBN 978-1-5092-3473-8 Published in the United States of America. The book is now available on Amazon and will soon be available from Barnes & Noble and other good book stores.

About ‘Duets’, by Jennifer Bryce

My short story ‘Duets’ features in Every Second Tuesday, the new anthology of work by Elwood Writers.

What inspires one to write a short story? My motivation to write ‘Duets’ was different from usual, when I’ve recalled an episode from my childhood, or been moved by a particular experience, or tried to put myself in the place of someone else. In the case of ‘Duets’, I saw that the Henry Handel Richardson competition was to be judged by my writing hero, Helen Garner, and I wanted her to read my work.

Henry Handel Richardson/ Ethel Florence Richardson

The competition required that the short story have ‘some link to Henry Handel Richardson and/or her work’. I had recently read her first novel, Maurice Guest, much of which is set in the Leipzig Conservatorium – a world that interested me because I was writing a novel set in a musical environment. The story that emerged was: ‘a glimpse into the life of Madeleine from Henry Handel Richardson’s novel Maurice Guest ‘. Madeleine is a sensible and well-organised student, never frivolous, never passionately in love and I imagined how that young woman might have become a school principal’s wife, where she would have an intellectual more than a passionate compatibility with her husband. My own maternal grandmother (only about ten years younger than Henry Handel Richardson) had made a career out of being a school principal’s wife and I drew on my childhood memories as I developed my own older Madeleine.

My grandparents lived in a flat in the grounds of the school where Grandad was principal and I used my memories of this as a setting for ‘Duets’: ‘the scuffling of feet as the boys were summoned to bed’ [page 122], the dingy sitting room in the flat, ‘furnished in deep-red brocade and dark wood, the darkness broken only by cream lace antimacassars on the back of the upholstered chairs’ [page 115].

The school boarding houses, where my grandfather was principal, taken in the 1930s

Helen Garner did get to read my story and I was awarded an honourable mention. The judge’s comment was: ‘A shocking and very touching and strong story about a child’s suffering and despair, and the breath-taking dishonesty of adults.’

‘Broken Rules’ is out!

Barry Lee Thompson’s short story collection, Broken Rules is already proving to be a stunning success. It is to be launched, virtually, by Readings bookstore next Monday 14th September at 6.30pm Eastern Australian Time. Don’t miss out on the chance to hear Barry ‘in conversation’. The event is free, but you need to book:

Already there has been a range of very complimentary reviews, including in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. The following review was written by Amanda Rayner of Readings Books. We hope to see you at the Launch next Monday.

The short-story collection from a single author is something I have grown to appreciate, especially in the last ten years or so. Australian writers have definitely made their mark in this area, ranging from those works with a strong sense of concept (Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals), those linked by a sense of mood (This Taste for Silence by Amanda O’Callaghan) and those that are simply an impressive, varied collection (Fabulous Lives by Bindy Pritchard). Broken Rules and Other Stories by Barry Lee Thompson (who was born in Liverpool but now lives in Melbourne, so we’re claiming him!) touches on all these approaches but is its own unique collection and brought unexpected tears to my eyes in the closing pages.

Broken Rules and Other Stories is described as seventeen interlinked stories. I found coming to each story individually and not worrying too much about how it should ‘fit’ resulted in me slowly seeing the possible links between them. By the time I read the final and longest story, ‘Angel’, I had developed my own perspective on how these stories worked together, which bought a sense of closure for me as a reader. The stories cover two main themes. The first focuses on stories from gay male perspectives: fantasies as a young boy, first approaches, random encounters with strangers, sex work, and the continuing search for true intimacy. Scattered between these stories is a group of tales that centre on family dynamics, with a particular focus on the relationship between mother and son.

Regardless of connections the individual reader may make between the stories, there is not one weak link. All pieces capture your attention quickly and none outstay their welcome. It is Thompson’s ability to create a vivid sense of place and tone that makes this an exciting (although sometimes unsettling) reading experience. At this point I am still wondering if I can forgive the author for the terrifying pictures in my head after reading the opening story!

Adelaide Writers’ Week: another engrossing day

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My day started sitting beneath Lombardy poplars, myrtles and holly oaks in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, to hear a session entitled ‘Trees for Life’. The trees in the garden are symbolic, as I learned from Wikipedia:

The design of the garden is a simple rectangle with a low decorative brick wall. At the centre of the garden is Cohn’s sculpture of a female figure, raised on a plinth. This is surrounded by green lawns, and four garden beds with ornamental trees and shrubs at the edges. Cornish’s choice of plants was influenced by their symbolic meanings, selecting five Populus nigra “Italica” (Lombardy poplars) to represent the five women of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust; Quercus ilex (holly oak) and Myrtus communis (myrtle) for protection and love; Lonicera (honeysuckle) for love, generosity and devotion; and Syringa vulgaris (lilac) to symbolise memory, protection, youth and tenderness.

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The session on Trees for Life was held on the East Stage, a little to the East of the area around the sculpture. Sophie Cunningham’s book, City of Trees, is a collection of essays; memoir, fact – trees are characters – they tell stories, they evoke emotions. With her we travel across the world, always with trees as a focus but, as she said at the beginning of her talk, she is always drawn back to Australia. We are into the ‘withering’. By 2050 we will have lost a large proportion of trees across the globe. Old trees will die, and often there won’t be enough moisture for new ones to survive. But Sophie’s focus is particularly on loving what is here now.

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Michael Christie has written a novel, Greenwood. He was inspired when, at his home in Canada, he had to cut down a tree that was blocking his driveway. He looked at the rings in the trunk and thought of a family tree — ‘a map of time’. He used this idea to structure his book, which is about some wealthy tourists visiting an arboreal resort. I haven’t read Michael’s book and the interview didn’t venture into the detail. But there was illuminating discussion about the importance of trees and their value to mankind although, according to Michael, half of the globe’s trees have been cut down.

The next session I attended was titled ‘From Fact to Fiction’. Anna Goldsworthy and Anna Krien have both written novels after substantial careers of writing memoir and journalism. Both have written for Quarterly Essay.  Anna Goldworthy’s novel Melting Moments focuses on ‘an intimate portrait’ of moments in a woman’s life: 1940 to 2007. She said the idea emerged from stories told by her grandmother who had a late life romance after her husband, Anna’s grandfather, died. Anna made interesting comments about the 1950s, which she is too young to have experienced herself. She sees the time as a ‘whitewash’: straight after the Holocaust, we have Buddy Holly. The main character, Ruby, shows ‘female competence’. She ‘keeps everything nice’.


Anna Krien’s novel is titled Act of Grace — the term used for the compensation payment made to soldiers injured in war. Anna commented that these acts are far from ‘graceful’. The main character has PTSD — ‘a man trapped inside a nightmare’. As Anna said, ‘a man you look at, then look away’. She realised that there isn’t a literature based on the Iraq war. Anna said that she undertook an intense amount of research, but when you’re writing, she said, ‘you don’t really know what is going to come out’. Some accused her of writing about things she doesn’t know about. She disagrees with this. One of her characters has a conversation with Saddam Hussein.

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There wasn’t as much discussion as I would have liked about the line between fact and fiction. Anna Goldsworthy said that the idea for her book came from family anecdotes and both writers agreed that verisimilitude is more important than whether something in a novel is true or factual.

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Tony Birch has written a new novel, The White Girl. It addresses the former practice of  removing Aboriginal children from their families. Sometimes lighter skinned children were taken because it was thought they would assimilate better. But a brutal policeman, Sergeant Lowe must give her permission to cross town. Tony gave a beautiful description of a fictitious town that is divided by a levy bank. The wealthy live safely above it. The poor — including the Aboriginal families — are routinely flooded.

John Birmingham (famous for He Died with a Felafel in His Hand) and John Boyne (famous for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) gave a session ‘Reflections on Writing’. By this time it was cold and raining and we sheltered under umbrellas to hear their views. Both are very experienced writers. Raymond Carver has said that a successful writer needs ambition and luck. The writers agreed that you need some ego — a certain amount of boldness and arrogance, but luck is a huge component. As John Boyne said, you can make your own luck: seeing an opportunty and taking it. Don’t give a damn about upsetting people. (This comment came from his experience of writing about a transgender teenager when he, himself, is not transgender.) It wasn’t a case that he didn’t care about hurting transgender people — he didn’t want to do that — but he wanted to write about them, and the voice that tells the story is someone who is not transgender — so he doesn’t presume to know what it is like to be transgender. Nevertheless, he has received a lot of flak for this. He said that most of this was from people who hadn’t read the book! He now wishes that he hadn’t engaged with these people — they just wanted to be heard.

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Both men were asked about their writing process. John Birmingham, who is a ‘plotter’, has a clear blueprint. He goes to his desk at the same time every day and has a set program: 25 minutes to read through the previous day’s work (or a paragraph or two), a stretch, then 1 hour of writing. He then puts a red dot in his diary. A ten minute break, then another hour and another red dot. He aims for 4 red dots a day.

John Boyne writes more from the seat of his pants (what is known as a ‘pantser’) — sometimes in a frenzy, such as when he spent 60 hours straight, pouring out 50,000 words of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, because he knew he was onto something. He said, ‘something takes over you and you have to go with it’. He said that writers don’t talk enough about how enjoyable writing is, ‘It blows out of you onto the next page’. Along similar lines, John Birmingham said, ‘If a character wants to do something, let them do it!’.

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John Boyne

John Boyne writes eight to ten drafts. His favourite draft is the second — the first is just something basic to work from. He shows the sixth or seventh draft to his editor. Birmingham shows his first draft.

In terms of research, John Boyne said, ‘Get the book down, then research it’, whereas John Birmingham loves research and likes to know what he’s talking about before he starts writing.

I know that I’d love to be able to be like John Boyne and have the words ‘blow’ out of me onto the next page.

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Adelaide Writers’ Week 2020

Elwood Writers, has attended Adelaide Writers’ Week for many years — I’ve lost count how many — maybe for the last six or seven years. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Adelaide Festival, and Adelaide Writers’ Week, which has been a significant part of the Festival since its inception in 1960.

There are many attractive things about this week of listening to authors talk about their work — one of the main being that the main events are free. We sit on the banks of the Torrens River, in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, in the summer sunshine, appropriately shaded by blue canvas, with a choice of parallel events on East Stage and West Stage.

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John Boyne had come from Ireland. He has written eleven books for adults (there was discussion about the unnecessary labelling of books as ‘for young people’, ‘for adults’). His most famous book is The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, which was a New York Times No.1 best seller and sold 11 million copies.

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John was here to talk about his most recent novel, A Ladder to the Sky.  The focus of this story is something that would intrigue most writers:  Maurice, an aspiring author charms a celebrated novelist, Eric, as Boyne says, he ‘reaches inside’ him. This raises questions such as, who do stories belong to? Do we own our own stories?  Do we have the right to tell other people’s stories? Boyne said, ‘There can be no discussion of morality when it comes to art’, and ‘I read other people’s stories … that is why I write’. He says he was strongly criticised when he wrote a book about a transgender teenager — because he is not transgender. Boyne points out that the book was written from the point of view of the teenager’s little brother: it’s a novel.

John Boyne was asked, What does ‘success’ mean for a writer? For John , it’s not the winning of prizes (he has won some) but how well you have achieved what you have set out to say.

There is a section in a Sydney bookshop for ‘plotless novels’. John said that he believes the story is really important. He wants a page-turner. For him, a good novel is one where you need to want to know what will happen next.

In The Ladder to the Sky, young Maurice is ambitious — but he is ambitious for fame, not for the quality of the work. Clearly John Boyne doesn’t believe in aiming for fame.

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From hearing John Boyne, I listened to a couple of academics, Martijn Boersma and Justine Nolan, discuss ‘Modern Slavery’. I was reminded of how frequently we support the exploitation  of others — using palm oil, coffee beans, the fishing industry — apparently 95% of retail chocolate is not certified free of child labour. There is now a modern slavery law in Australia, but no penalties for not complying! There were a few encouraging examples given of powerful people, such as ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, speaking out against modern slavery — satellite imagery can survey workers at brick kilns, block chains can show the complete history of a transaction. But it was pretty depressing to realise that the world hasn’t progressed a huge way since the pre -1860s slave trade.

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Another fascinating non fiction book is by Hannah Critchlow, The Science of Fate. It used to be that discussions of Free Will and Determinism, were the province of historians, philosophers and theologians. Now, neuroscientists are important contributors. It has been shown that neuroplasiticity is an important factor in learning. We are aware of biological determinism through genomics — eg prediction of our Body Mass Index, schizophrenia, IQ, how long the natural course of a person’s life will be. Neural circuits can be studied from 20 weeks’ gestation to find whether a person will have, for example, autism or ADHD.

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There is now some serious study of Epigenetics — can memories be passed across generations biologically? Some studies with mice suggest that they can be. Maybe experiences of Holocaust survivors explain depressive illness in family members generations later.

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When I opted to go to a talk by Bart van Es, I was expecting to hear of another story like The Diary of Anne Frank. Bart van Es, a professor at Oxford, is recognised as a Shakepearean scholar. But this book takes a very different path. van Es, whose family is Dutch, was aware that something had happened in his family during World War II — there was some secret — not talked about. When a Great Uncle died, Bart van Es realised that history would slip away if he didn’t try to get to the bottom of what had happened. As he said, ‘without families you don’t get stories’. Lien was still alive, in her eighties. She had been sheltered from the Nazis by the van Es family and other families from 1942 to the end of the war. Bart tracked her down and visited her. He’d been told that she would be reluctant to talk about her wartime experiences but he said that when Lien opened the door of her apartment ‘it felt like family’. The resulting book tells Lien’s story, but not just that. It describes how difficult it has been for her to live with those experiences. How there was a family rift as recently as the 1980s, resulting from tensions accumulated from the time of the war. It questions why it was that the Netherlands society  in the 1940s was ‘unresilient’ — how do you respond when authority is not to be trusted? There had been no recorded anti-Semitic attacks from 1550 to 1942 — the Dutch people were not used to having to be resistant. Apparently the family friction of the 1980s revolved around the grandmother’s belief that Lien should ‘move on’ — forget that time. Lien’s parents had been sent ‘East’: that meant to a concentration camp. When, at the end of the war, she realised their fate, she let two rings her parents had left with her drop through floor boards to be lost forever. But of course that physical act could not expunge the pain of the separation. Many years later she visited Auschwitz and said, ‘It’s over’. The book is also about what it was like for Bart van Es to uncover this family story.

Adel writers Bart van es

Adelaide Festival Writers’ Week 2019 | Guest post by Tony Thomas

Many thanks to Tony Thomas for sharing his experience with us — Jennifer.

Sat 2 March 2019     Esi Edugyan interviewed by Geordie Williamson

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Esi Edugyan (pronounced Ed-oó-jun) is a Canadian writer of Ghanaian descent whose third novel, Washington Black, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year – and deservedly so I thought when I read it last year. She read to us the impressive opening pages where the protagonist, the child George Washington Black, a slave on a sugar plantation in 1830s Barbados, describes the arrival of his new master, the evil (it turns out) Erasmus Wilde, but here passing by dressed in splendid white, together with his brother Titch, a scientific experimenter, who becomes Wash’s mentor and protector.

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The first part of the book deals with the horrors of slavery, and these scenes are suitably horrific, but it’s the little details which strike us as absolutely real, such as the large mysterious covered object which Titch brings with him (it turns out to be an early airship) “bigger than the whipping stone” in the field. Esi said her idea for the novel started with an interest in the Tichborne Claimant. [Historical aside: Lady Tichborne refused to believe that her son and heir Roger had been lost at sea, and instead credited stories that he had been rescued and come to Australia. She advertised widely in Australian newspapers for news of him. A Wagga butcher eventually put up his hand as Roger, and Lady Tichborne asked her retired black servant, living in Sydney, to interview the claimant. The interview was inconclusive, but “Roger” was accepted as the heir, went to England and lived the good life for a while, until he was tried for perjury and imprisoned. Patrick White was also influenced by this story in his late novel, The Twyborn Affair, which however takes off on a very different tack.] Esi instead was fascinated by the life story of the interviewing servant, a former butler, who had been taken from the West Indies as a slave, had worked as a freeman for years as chief of a household, and whose life thus had been totally turned around in wholly unexpected circumstances. This then also became the core of Wash’s story in Washington Black.

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The Tichborne Affair

Esi said that in writing she always starts with character, that this is what fascinates her in the first place – but then of course, around the third draft she told us, the need for shape arises, a story has to take place as well, and in Wash’s case it was the story of a life being turned around completely. And not just one of being (eventually) released from slavery, but also a life of science, because Wash is endowed with a natural talent, a genius, for scientific drawing, especially of marine life, which comes naturally to him without training, and which becomes the most important part of his life. Science, she says, “was a way of engaging with the world without the need for solid relationships”. “Wash sees it as a benign equaliser”. And she wanted to focus on the idea of slavery not just as an unjust deprivation of freedom, not just lost bodies, but as something which causes a vast amount of lost potential, of which Wash’s genius can stand as example. Where are the great black scientists of the past, she asked: they hardly exist. So then her story developed into one of a restlessness of narrative, with many shifting locales after the slavery section at the opening, to the US, the far north in Nova Scotia, eventually to England, where Wash and his colleagues create the first aquarium and where in a shed in the gardens of a house, Wash has the first place that he can call home – very much a picaresque, she said in conclusion.

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Adelaide Writers’ Week 2019: the second day

In spite of the heat, crowds of people attended the discussion with Leigh Sales, popular ABC presenter of The 7.30 Report, among other things. Leigh started by saying that while she conducted her interviews, so often with people who had been ‘blind-sided’ by some terrible event, she kept asking herself, when is something going to strike me? And it did, in 2014. The birth of her second child was highly traumatic. Leigh and the baby ended up in Intensive Care — she didn’t see the baby for 3 days — the baby contracted viral meningitis among other things. Then … her 2 year-old had some problems, Then … Leigh’s marriage of 20 years broke up. Leigh mentioned ‘doubt and dread’ — how rapidly life can change.

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Leigh tried to gain control of her life by writing Any Ordinary Day. And she has realised that you can’t have complete control of your life. It isn’t a book about Leigh. She has interviewed a bunch of resilient survivors of all kinds of traumatic experiences. She has also looked at research into the brain, which shows that humans prefer certainty and predictability — we look for cause and effect. We think we can see cause and effect where there is none — because we want it so much.

Leigh spoke to the Vice Chancellor of Sydney university, to get a clear perspective of what to examine, where to go. He too had gone through a devastating personal experience. She spoke to people about the science of the brain and, although not a believer, to a priest. After speaking to these people she said she felt ‘strangely buoyed’.

There was discussion about how to interview people who have gone through severe trauma. Leigh said she tried not to cry in front of them — ‘it’s about them, not me’. There was mention of how important it is to talk to someone after they have been through some terrible ordeal — don’t make it worse by abandoning them, even if you think you don’t know what to say. There was mention of the different methods of interviewing on TV and for a book. On TV you have limited time — you interrupt to get to the point. When interviewing for a book it’s best just to ask a leading question and then let the interviewee talk: ‘How was that?’ rather than ‘that must have been awful’.

I hadn’t heard of Bruno Maçães. He was Portugal’s Minister for Europe. The government changed and he left the country (comments from the audience — a pity that more defeated ministers don’t do that!) and travelled — a long journey across Europe and Asia — he said you must go by road or train, not plane. You need to approach a city gradually. He started by saying that Australia could be the first Eurasian nation.

There was much discussion about what is the division between Europe and Asia. It has existed for centuries, yet it is artificial. Think of the difference between Japanese and Arabic people. Historically, Asia has been the ‘anti-Europe’. Does ‘Asia’ mean anything to Asians? Maçães described it as a ‘European myth’.

Adel Writers 2019 Bruno 2

There was discussion about how culture develops. A civilisation starts with trade and commerce. An infrastructure is built. Then culture develops.

Maçães now lives in Beijing. He said that arriving in Beijing is like arriving in the future. There is a love of technology and history suggests that technology is usually a basis for power — he reminded us of the superior technology of the 15th Century Portuguese, with their ship building industry. Maçães gave some examples of Beijing being like the future: you don’t use cash (we had come across this the previous evening at the Adelaide Festival Centre where we had to buy drinks with a card), there is now visual recognition at ATMs. New Chinese cities are being created. He described a gambling culture — your life is a gamble. According to Maçães, two big differences between China and Europe is that in China technology is embraced and English will not be the common language.

Adel Writers 2019 Bruno belt and road

Maçães compared the world today to the world of the 19th Century — but this time the world will not be led by the West. He said, we are entering ‘a world without adult supervision’. Asked about climate change, Maçães suggested that within about 30 years there will be trade routes through the Arctic (I wondered what there might be to trade — what will we be eating?), Arctic beach resorts with 24 hour sunlight.

I left the talk more pessimistic than Maçães seemed to be.


Elwood Writers at Adelaide Writers’ Week 2019: the first day

An annual event for Elwood Writers is attendance at the Adelaide Writers’ Week.  We are all over here in Adelaide — the first day was one of  40 degree heat. We particularly enjoy this festival because of its location on the banks of the Torrens, the excellent choice of speakers and … most events are free.

Adel Writers 2019


The first event I attended was an interview with Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, former President of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, who has written a memoir, Speaking Up.  On the front cover, Geoffrey Robertson QC, Human Rights Barrister describes Gillian Triggs’ way of refuting her detractors as being ‘with reason not rancour’.  How true. Through heated, often mysogenistic battles, Professor Triggs manages a calm demeanour. She always refers to people with courtesy: Mr Turnbull, Mr Abbott, Mr Dutton … Most of the talk was about her work in human rights, but there was some mention of her early life. Until 12, she lived in England. It was just after World War II. She said that the end of the war and effects of the holocaust ‘seeped’ into her life. From this childhood she remembers ‘the smell of poverty’ — TB, coal, bombed out sites.

Adel Writers 2019 Gillian Triggs

Professor Gillian Triggs

After a career in Law — particularly International Law, the invitation to become President of the Human Rights Commission came from Nicola Roxon, who was Australia’s first female Attorney General and happened to have been a student of Gillian Triggs. There was discussion about the weakness of Australia’s constitution and the fact that Australia is the only Western democracy that doesn’t have a charter of human rights.  The constitution is more to do with state powers than matters such as freedom of speech. As a model of what could be, Gillian Triggs held up the example of Dr H.V. Evatt, who, as Chief Justice of the High Court and leader of the Australian Labor Party from 1951 to 1960, linked the importance of human rights to world peace. Gillian Triggs reminded us of the Magna Carta (1215): no man may be held without the judgement of his peers. Yet in Australia we have held people in detention without allowing them to go before a court.

There was discussion about the ‘cycle of poverty’ for women — the gender pay gap in Australia is increasing rather than decreasing. For example, at present women retire on 46% of the superannuation that men have. The figures don’t match our perception of ourselves. Gillian Triggs  suggested that her own generation of women ‘played the game’ — of getting well educated, turning up for work on time, nicely dressed … and consequently lost the ability to challenge the rules. The more privileged women must speak up for those ‘at the bottom of the pyramid’.

AdeL wRITERS 2019 2

Gillian Triggs also said that we will never be a coherent democracy unless we engage our indigenous people. She finds ‘identity politics’ an offensive term.

It was poignantly relevant to then attend a talk by Kassem Eid, whose identity card is marked XXX for nationality and he has a Protection Visa from Germany. Among other horrific experiences, Kassem Eid was involved in al-Assad’s  Sarin gas attack in Syria in 2013. He has written My Country: A Syrian Memory.


Adel Writers 2019 Kassem Eid

Kassem Eid

Kassem Eid was born a refugee in Syria — his family having been ‘kicked out’ of Palestine in 1948. He described Syria as a place where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in harmony before the military coup. Kassem Eid learned his excellent English from reading The Reader’s Digest as a child. During the military regime, Eid’s family lived ‘under an iron curtain of fear’. Before the revolution it was Eid’s dream to leave Syria but afterwards he wanted to stay there, to make Syria a better place.

Children wrote ‘freedom’ on their school walls and were arrested and sexually abused. You are ‘safe’ if you do nothing, he said. If not, the punishment is unimaginable. By 2012 there was a siege around Kassem Eid’s town (near Damascus). Power was cut off. There was no medicine. ‘They bombed the shit out of us.’ Kassem Eid and his remaining friends and family survived by eating grass and a few olives. He described old Soviet/ Nazi tactics that were used. A lot of journalists lost their lives, he said, trying to send out images of what was actually happening. Then came what he called ‘Judgement Day’ in August 2013. He described a most terrifying and unimaginably horrific gas attack — everyone was suffocating — ‘something I cannot describe in words’. He was thought to be dead but he survived. He picked up a gun for the first time. He had not wanted to resort to violence.  ‘All I could think of was revenge.’ He ended by saying, ‘refugees love life — if not they wouldn’t go through such danger to get the minimal things a human being should have’. Having mentioned the pain of civil war where a friend fights a friend, he said, ‘get to know people that you think you hate’. I walked out holding back tears. Why hold them back?

After this devastating presentation  it was a relief to attend a session that focused on writing ‘what you know’, although it turned out that what the speakers ‘knew’ was still pretty shocking. Joelle Taylor, a poet from the UK has written Songs My Enemy Taught Me. She said that you ‘own those dark spaces’. Her ‘dark spaces’ were particularly about being sexually assaulted: ‘No one notices/ That the daughter is eating herself’. Joel helps others to write. Asked, can you write successfully about the banality of life, Joel said, ‘we need those stories, we need to find the beauty and poetry in going to the shops.

Before flaking in 40 degree heat, I attended Toni Jordan’s session on her latest novel The Fragments.


Adel Writers 2019 Toni Jordan

Toni Jordan said that for her, the hardest part of writing a book is getting the ‘idea’ — by this she meant, the idea that will spark off the story. For this book she was inspired by the publication of a second book by Harper Lee, more than fifty years after her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was highly acclaimed and won the Pulitzer Prize, and also by the fact that the identity of successful writer Elena Ferrante was revealed — she found Ferrante less interesting once she knew who she really was. Thus formed the idea of exploring author identity.

Toni Jordan doesn’t enjoy doing research for a book. She says she does as little as possible: ‘readers just need to feel as if they are there’. She in fact does what research is needed after writing a first draft of her book. Then she finds Trove very useful. She prefers not to have to move away from her desk.

Asked how she built up the ‘architecture’ of the book, Toni replied that she is a ‘knitter’ rather than a ‘quilter’. A knitter must start at the beginning (casting on) and continue, writing in the order that the book will be read. On the other hand, a ‘quilter’ would write ‘scenes’ and piece them together later.

Speaking of description (eg of surroundings) — ‘the particulars’ must always relate to the character . For example, in The Fragments, James lives in an old tumbledown Queenslander — this tells us a lot about him.

And, apart from Toni saying that when she’s finished one book she thinks she’ll never have another idea, there’s another book on the way — a clue to it is a tattoo on Toni’s arm — don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with tattooing (or dragons).