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’.

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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.

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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’.

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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).




All too soon the week that had stretched before us shrank to the last day; there were final dusty gatherings by the water tap and at our sanctuary – a little café we discovered on the banks of the Torrens. There would be no more shuffling around of green plastic chairs, trying to work out which way the sun would move, and no more casual chats, sharing opinions about the latest books.

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Thornton McCamish has written a book about the Australian writer Alan Moorehead – a writer I remember well from my late childhood and adolescence – I received The White Nile as a school prize. Thornton’s book, Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead is described as a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in Australian literary history. I’m sure I never met Alan Moorehead, or heard him speak, but it sounds as though he was one of those mid 20th Century Australian gentlemen who believed you had to sound plummy English. He was first known as a war correspondent (World War II). Thornton describes him as ‘an eye level writer’. Moorehead went to Europe in 1936 (those days when to make anything of yourself it was believed you must ‘go abroad’) and of course it was an ideal time for  a journalist to be there: the British abdication, the Berlin Olympics, the Spanish Civil War. When World War II started, Moorehead was there. He wrote in a morale-raising kind of way, leaving out the blood and gore (as one did in those days).

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Thornton said he finds fascinating ‘the time machine of the prose’ – it gives a lived experience of the past. To give the right effect, Moorehead wasn’t always firm with the facts, for example, he described tulips at a battle in Holland during a season when there couldn’t have possibly been tulips there. Thornton sums him up as a great travel writer. There was too much of him in his books for him to be a great fiction writer, but he was one of the first Australians to draw attention to the importance of conservation.

‘Homegrown’ was a session about the radicalisationof young Muslims. The session started with discussion about citizenship – how you can be summed up by how you look. Kamila Shamsie described how at her citizenship ceremony in London, holding the union jack, she felt ‘both the betrayer and the betrayed’. She had seen photographs of the union jack representing ‘empire’ in her birth country Pakistan, when it was still part of India and still part of the British Empire. She wanted British citizenship mainly so that she could travel with ease. She suggested that maybe ‘identity’ is what other people see you as being.


Kamila made the interesting suggestion that if you have grown up with a faith you may be more likely to reject ISIS, which appeals to young people who need something to follow – you are more easily brainwashed, she said, if you have grown up without religion. She said that when some young ISIS joiners were arrested, they were carrying copies of Islam for Dummies.


Laleh Khadivi reminded us that the young women who are radicalised have an even more difficult time than the young men, yet they are often making a ‘teenage mistake’ that they will never be able to turn away from.

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Robert Wainwright has written a biography of Miss Muriel Matters, an Adelaide woman born in 1877, who became a famous suffragist. Her life was incredibly full: goat lady, elocutionist, educator and a leader of the suffragist movement in London.  She travelled around in a caravan pulled by a horse called Asquith – after the prime minister –  and later, used a dirigible to drop leaflets on the day the king opened parliament, at a time when most people hadn’t ever seen an aeroplane.

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Kate Cole-Adams has written a fascinating book on anaesthesia – she spent 14 years working on it (although wrote other books during that time). Anaesthesia is described as an ‘unexplored story’ – and certainly it is unusual for a non-scientist to write about this subject. Kate cited researchers who say that anaesthesia is ‘more an art than science’. It is ‘getting rid of consciousness’ and consciousness is subjective. It seems that hypnosis can be beneficial – describing what we know of how anaesthesia works, Kate outlined three stages of conventional anaesthesia used today: 1. Hypnotic (you can learn things when under anaesthesia) 2. A strong pain killer 3. Muscle relaxants that paralyse (so even if you ‘wake up’, there’s no way you can do anything or communicate).

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One point stressed by Kate is that anaesthesia is different for everyone.

To her amazement, when working on this book, Kate discovered that her grandfather had worked on a book: Mechanics of Consciousness from 1942 – 1950. He died before he could finish it.

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Understanding birds is a better way of understanding ourselves – this seems very likely after hearing Jim Robbins discuss his book The Wonder of Birds. Once again, Jim is not a scientist, indeed he suggested that science might be a barrier to understanding the ‘mystical language’ of birds. However, scientists can learn a lot from studying the brains of birds.(The derogatory term ‘bird brain’ is clearly inaccurate!) For example, canaries can grow new neurons to a far greater degree than humans are known to. If we studied this more, we might find a cure for Parkinson’s. I wasn’t so surprised to find that there is Machiavellian politics in the society of Ravens. Apparently crows hold funerals: do they have a soul? It is also interesting that birds may be able to see magnetic lines. Throughout the talk I thought about how humans have always wanted to fly – we often fly in our dreams – we create entities such as angels and fairies. It is an area of great fascination.

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The final session I attended was inspirational. I have written about it elsewhere: Eddie Ayres, discussing his latest book, Danger Music.





I had heard of English novelist Alan Hollinghurst. His novel The Swimming Pool Library was openly gay at a time when such writing was still emerging from a murky, clandestine time and it was the height of the ‘AIDS Crisis’. In 2004 Alan won the Man Booker prize with his novel The Line of Beauty.

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He was in Adelaide to discuss his latest book, The Sparsholt Affair, which, in five parts spanning the time of World War II to the 1990s, tells the story of three generations of Sparsholts and hinges on an affair that takes place in 1966. What a great name, I thought, it sounds a bit sinister.

The book starts in Oxford in October 1940, when the war had been going for just over a year. Alan pointed out that Oxford was both convenient to London and a safe distance from it. The MI5 had a base there. He read the section where we are introduced to David Sparsholt, seen through a window, lit up at dusk, doing his exercises. Young students watching from an opposite window admire his body without making overtly gay remarks. The story is never told from David Sparsholt’s point of view, he comes over as a young man without an inner life. Alan described him as ‘locked into a muscular carapace’.

We see Johnny, David Sparsholt’s son, who is a young man in 1970s London. Alan read out a wonderful description of the ‘bright pulsing square’ of the dance floor of a gay nightclub of that time; brilliant.  It made me determined to read the book.

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There was an interesting discussion on writing about the past. Alan says that he tries to do this without giving a sense of what is to come – he aims to convey what it’s like to be alive at that moment. Asked about the extent to which he draws on his own life or the lives of his friends, he said that he never consciously uses a friend as the model for a character but, on the other hand, memory is a novelist’s main resource.

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As a writer of memoir I was interested in a session entitled ‘The Self in Story’. Participants were Sarah Krasnostein (The Trauma Cleaner), Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (The Fact of a Body) and Ashleigh Young (Can You Tolerate This?). Each writer was asked what was the starting-point for their books. Sarah had attended a conference. Ashleigh had asked herself the question: why do I feel so awkward in the world?, and Alexandria had been wanting to fight the death penalty in the US since childhood, and this motivated her to study Law.

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There was a lot of discussion about whether and when to show a manuscript to family or people directly involved in the story. All writers had waited until they were close to publication and then some expressed surprise at how little change was sought. It was agreed that even though you, the writer, may be in the book, you still need to craft a kind of persona for yourself.

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Ashleigh Young

Robert Drewe is a popular Australian writer and I went to a discussion of his latest book, Whipbird.

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‘Whipbird’ is the name of a vineyard where a family gathers for a large celebration hosted by Hugh Cleary. The family has been in Australia for 160 years (they missed out on celebrating 150 years, and 200 years is too far away!). Having a large family gather in a remote place provides a tantalising setting for drama and some unusual characters such as the ‘grimly worthy’ unmarried sister Thea (rhymes with diarrhoea). She is a doctor and announces to the family that they all have a condition where there is too much iron in the blood. Another interesting character called Sly (distinguished by being written in the 1st person) has a condition where he believes he is dead (a state of befuddlement originating from his participation in the 1980s and 1990s rock culture). Through this strange condition, Sly perceives the ancestor who started the Australian branch of the family.

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Drewe said he was inspired to write this from his own family history: a great grandfather who sired 15 children, his last when he was 70. But Drewe said that, while family is very important to him, he has never been to a large family gathering. Asked, what does your book say about modern Australia – looking at Australia as a family?Drewe considered that the family is safe, but elements can be very dangerous.

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A session entitled ‘Berlin Stories’ attracted me. Catherine Chidgey’s book gives a perspective of Hitler’s Germany from the point of view of young children living there at the time. David Foenkinos tells the story of an almost forgotten German Jewish artist who was killed at Auschwitz.

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Catherine lived in a farm in Germany when she was 16. Her host father had fought on the Eastern front and, although he hadn’t talked about it to his family, he told Catherine of some of his experiences. He described killing men and ‘carrying their ghosts’. Catherine went to school while in Germany and found that German history after 1933 was glossed over. When, much later, as a young adult Catherine returned to Germany, her partner dug up in their back yard tin soldiers in Nazi uniforms – as a result Catherine tried to imagine what it was like to be a child just before and during the war. She believed that although there are a lot of World War II stories, there was still a need to ‘breathe life’ into a story that had been forgotten.

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David had just arrived from France and it is his first time in Australia. When asked to read a passage from his novel (translated into English) he said it was the first time he had ever read out aloud in English. He did a good job.

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Why didn’t the Jewish ‘pillars of society’ see what was coming in the 1930s? David said that these families saw themselves first as German, secondly as Jewish. Would their own country kill them? Impossible! The pessimistic left and ended up in Hollywood. The optimistic ended up in Auschwitz. David’s novel is written in a form where each sentence begins on a new line. His book isn’t generally about the war at all, but a tribute to the artist Charlotte Salomon – he seems to have become quite obsessed with telling the world about this young woman who died in the gas chambers when pregnant at 26. He says it is not an historical book. David’s obsession with Charlotte started at an art exhibition in Paris in 2006. Charlotte knew she was in danger and gave her paintings to her doctor, saying ‘This is my life’. Hence her paintings survived.

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Charlotte Salomon

As David said, this is a novel, because you can’t really know Charlotte – you can’t know what is in her thoughts or her heart.

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Free Speech and Democracy: A Further Taste of Adelaide Writers’ Week

I go to Writers’ Week for a number of reasons. One is to identify as a writer and to get ideas about writing. Another is to give myself time to think, particularly about the world around me. Two sessions were inspirational for this latter purpose.

Clive Hamilton’s book Silent Invasion: Chinese Influence in Australia received publicity recently because a number of publishing houses were not game to publish it. Just over a week ago the book came out, thanks to publisher Hardie Grant. In this book Clive Hamilton examines the influence of the Chinese government in Australia. At the talk, he paid tribute to his researcher, Alex Joske.

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Most of us are aware of the consequences of some of the more blatant instances of politicians/ political parties accepting money from China. Clive Hamilton was convinced of the need to write this book at the time when (then) Senator Sam Dastyari became embroiled with such events. In the preface, Hamilton says: ‘China and Australian democracy had collided again. Something big is going on, I thought. I decided to investigate and write a book so that Australians could understand what has been happening to our country.’

Most of us are aware of the cases that have made news headlines, such as that of Dastyari, and the selling of the Port of Darwin. But in this book Hamilton reveals some of the more insidious happenings: Chinese students in Australia being prevented from protesting, CCP agents observing Chinese at their church services in Australia, the role of the CCP and the Chinese military in funding (and therefore having control over) some research in Australian universities. He also draws our attention to instances of Australia supporting the Chinese military, for example by building aircraft components.

Hamilton implied that Australia should see itself as a bigger player in international politics. He drew our attention to the fact that the GDP of Russia is the same as that of Australia, yet, he said, we think of Russia as a bear and Australia as a koala!

It was encouraging to see that there was a huge audience at this talk and there was a sense of mutual support and agreement that the criticism and anxiety raised by Hamilton writing this book sends a stark message about freedom of speech in Australia.

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In another session, English philosopher A.C. Grayling and Australian journalist and political commentator George Megalogenis met to discuss Democracy and Populism. The introductory statement was that this is the 12th consecutive year that democracy has been in retreat around the world. How might this situation be reversed?

A.C. Grayling suggested that we must stop politics from being a career. As a ‘career’, the participants are more interested in keeping their jobs and their ratings than in thinking intelligently about the problems facing the country/ the world. He also suggested later that the role of a politician these days is not attractive to highly intelligent people, who can make more mark in the world and earn more money working in Silicon Valley.

What if the world just wants security and not the freedom of democracy? Grayling reminded us of the quote of Benjamin Franklin : Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Grayling reminded us that it is essential for people to feel that their vote counts.

George Megalogenis stressed the need for transparency in democracy, yet politicians now avoid ‘difficult’ journalists – they prefer to be seen doing the right things – it is easier to walk around a work site wearing high vis protection gear. Yet Megalogenis is hopeful that there is a new breed of younger politicians who can relate to younger people (under 45) because these politicians have grown up in the world that younger people understand.

Grayling finds encouragement in the young people in US currently campaigning for gun control.


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I’ve been coming to Adelaide Writers’ week with colleagues from Elwood Writers for the past three years now and it’s by far the best writers’ festival I’ve been to. Here I am again for Writers’ Week 2018. There are 14 sessions every day – one has to pick and choose, so here I will mention just a few that interested me.

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Bernice Chauly, Michelle de Kretser and Vivek Shanbhag spoke in a session entitled ‘Lost Things’. Bernice’s book, Once We Were There focuses on the Reformasi movement in Kuala Lumpur. Her book, she said, was triggered by the jailing of Anwar for sodomy – it’s not talked about. She implied that by writing in English she could say things that others might not dare to put in print. She admits that it is a bleak book. Malaysia, she said, is a fractured country.

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In Michelle de Kretser’s new book The Life to Come, narrative is linked by a recurring character, Pippa, a writer. Five stories unfold: a tale of youthful ambition, a tale of young love, a story about an émigré Australian in Paris who questions her life’s meaning and the commitment of her married female lover, there is a tale of motherhood and betrayal, and finally a tale of the awfulness of dementia.

Vivek Shanbhag’s book Ghachar Ghochar has been translated into English. While this has given him a much wider audience, he mentioned some of the difficulties, most interestingly, I thought, the need to translate into English what is not said. The book is a family drama set in Bangalore. He read a beautiful passage about the pervasiveness of ants.

Various themes were covered in this session. Families: Michelle found writing about families alluring from when, as an undergraduate, she studied kinship lines in Anthropology. Vivek described how, in India, every decision a person makes must be considered through the family, although, he admits, this is starting to change. Violence was another theme. Michelle mentioned that there are not many books about friendships between ‘grown-up’ women – maybe this is why the Eleanor Ferrente novels were so popular. Food was another theme. Bernice saw food as a salve, ‘it’s what binds us together’.

I then went to a session entitled ‘Invented Histories’, where Catherine McKinnon spoke about her novel Storyland, and Jane Rawson spoke about From the Wreck. The structure of Catherine’s book is interesting, with five narrators talking from different times in history (including the future and the far future) bound together by the one environment, Lake Illawarra.  Catherine said that her writing was triggered by asking: What does it mean to be Australian today?

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Jane Rawson’s book is her second novel. She said that she’s preoccupied by thoughts of ecological disaster and how humans relate to nature. The ‘historical’ character in this story is based on Jane’s great-great grandfather. The character George Hills, survives the sinking of the steamship Admella off the South Australian coast in 1859. He is haunted by memories of the disappearance of a fellow survivor, and his life becomes intertwined with that of a woman from another dimension, who seeks refuge on Earth. Jane said she wasn’t comfortable writing purely in a historical mode, so the woman is an alien: a fascinating mixture of the genres of historical and speculative fiction. Jane said she’s fascinated by our inability to think outside the time in which we are living.

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The Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature were announced, with the premier present to give the Premier’s Award to Eva Hornung. winners were, Justine Larbalestier, Pam Brown, Tim Winton (who donated his prize money to research into preservation of the Great Barrier Reef), Emily Steel, Annette Marner, Jude Aquilina, Danielle Clode and Edoardo Crismani.

Finally I went to a session entitled ‘War and Peace’, which featured journalist John Lyons and American writer Sarah Sentilles. John has written a memoir, Balcony Over Jerusalem, in which he chronicles 6 years of living in Israel and gives a scathing account of the treatment of Palestinians.

Adelaide writer day 1 5 pm 1

In her book, Draw Your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles explores her responses to photographs of Abu Ghraib, she particularly spoke of the responses of a guard there, who ended up ‘befriending’ prisoners and teaching them to play chess among other things.

The discussion focused on: Is it possible for human beings to live at peace? Both writers started with readings from their books where they described humans observing fighting in war as though it were a spectator sport. John said that people sit in cafes in Israel and when they get a ‘code red’ app on their phones they go to watch the trouble. Sarah spoke of an American conscientious objector to fighting in World War II – and, although a pacifist, she questioned whether, given the atrocities carried out by the Nazis, it is acceptable to opt out of fighting. There was reference to Hannah Arendt’s observations of the Nazi trials and the claim, ‘It wasn’t me who did that. I was carrying out someone else’s orders’. The question of whether we inherit trauma was discussed. Sarah referred to an experiment carried out with mice, where one generation was made to hate the smell of cherry blossoms and this hate was passed on through several generations. Another area of discussion was: can we become more empathetic? Sarah suggested that rather than empathy we need to learn how to respect ‘otherness’ – to build on an ethical system that deals with dis-ease.