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.

Last days of writers fest 1

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).

Last days of writers fest 2

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.   https://jenniferbryce.net/2018/03/09/eddie-ayres-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.

Day Five Alan Hollinghurst 2

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.

Day 5 Krasnostein etc 1

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.

DAY 5 Krasnostein etc 2

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.

Day 5 Berlin Stories 3 Charlotte Salomon 1

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.

Day 5 Berlin Stories 1

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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Adelaide writers week 1

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.

Adelaide Day 1 1.15pm

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.  http://arts.sa.gov.au/2018-adelaide-festival-awards-literatureOther 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.

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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.