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).

 

 

Margaret’s Impressions of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the World War II books of Paul Brickhill dotted the bookshelves of our den – The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky and The Great Escape most notably. The sparseness of the books’ spines stood in contrast to the more embossed books on our shelves, suggesting that the former belonged to my father, a veteran of that war.

In Adelaide this year, I was curious to hear Paul Brickhill’s biographer, Stephen Dando-Collins, announce that Brickhill was not only Australian, but had been a prisoner of war (POW) of the Germans, as had been my father and uncle. No wonder they forced us kids to watch every late night TV re-run of Reach for the Sky, the film about the indomitable British fighter pilot and real life POW Douglas Bader.

As a prisoner of Stalag Luft 3 himself, Brickhill was fascinated by heroes, underdogs ‘struggling against impossible odds’. He determined that his first novel, The Great Escape, would be based on the events of the break out from his own prison camp, wherein fifty escapees were shot dead. Brickhill knew that his novel needed a hero to focus the story. He chose real life escapee Roger Bushell, or Big X as he was known. Steve McQueen played the lead role in a later movie, somewhat sensationalising the actual escape but cementing Brickhill’s career as a successful author.

Stephen Dando-Collins believes that Brickhill hit upon the need for heroes in a post-war Britain that was reeling from a broken economy and cities in ruin. There was little evidence to the British in the 1950s that they had actually won the war. Brickhill kept his Australian identity quiet so as not to jeopardise his authenticity as a storyteller. The objectivity of his ‘outsider’ status may have helped him shape Britain’s post-war view of itself by creating heroes for posterity.

Dando-Collins says that Brickhill was drawn to other hard-drinking, chain-smoking, driven men like himself. These days he would be described as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In those days he was just part of the norm. But this is a subject for another time.

The Hero Maker: A Biography of Paul Brickhill
Stephen Dando-Collins (Vintage)

Helen’s Impressions of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017

Once again Adelaide delighted with its heady mix of festival fare. Writers from round the world took to the stage in the wonderfully situated Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens by the river. This year I was drawn to the writings of the chroniclers of our times – the journalists and social commentators who strive to show us the truth of complex human situations through both non-fiction and fiction. A highlight was the poetry reading session curated by Peter Goldsworthy, with six of Adelaide’s noted poets reading from their collections. I particularly loved the simplicity of Jules Leigh Koch’s and Cath Kenneally’s readings. Their observations on the small, often suburban details of life can be both profound and poignant. Leigh Koch’s Man in the Bookshop ‘tucks his thoughts away like a bookmark’ while one of Kenneally’s characters is ‘leaking at the seams’.

In US journalist Thomas Frank’s ‘Listen Liberal’ he explores the failings of the US left and the disintegration of the middle class. He believes the Democrats cannot find the policy or conviction to alter the economy and ‘the gravity of discontent keeps pulling to the right, and the right and the right’. Ben Ehrenreich and Mei Fong, respectively writing about the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank in ‘The Way to the Spring’ and the effect of China’s one-child policy in ‘One Child’, discussed the very real issue of bias and objectivity in telling compelling stories. Ehrenreich posed the question: How can you write about Palestine objectively when it is very clear there is an absolute imbalance of power? You cannot denude the truth, he purports, and you must be transparent about where you stand. Fong concurred that the reader wants to know the truth and you must give your reader a clear point of view. Of course bias is in her book by her very status of being Chinese and a woman.

Journalists Patrick Cockburn (Ireland), ‘The Rise of Islamic State’, and Janine di Giovanni (US), ‘The Morning They Came for Us’, both Middle Eastern experts, gave a sobering and thorough account of the chaos that is Syria, painting a clear picture of the major players involved and the likely outcome. On the other hand, two novelists have brought the stories of the marginalised to readers via fiction. Mexican author Yuri Herrera, ‘Signs Preceding the End of the world’, and Korean Krys Lee, ‘How I Became a North Korean’, explore the realities of displaced people. Herrera delves into the shadowy world of border communities where people are not ‘recognisable’ (no papers or passports) and must adapt to many migrants from different worlds living together. He deems ‘art allows us not to be hostage to one version of reality’. Lee wanted to write about the people she knows who are not just ‘North Korean’, but complex human beings. How do we know what it is like to be that person who is simply a stereotype to the outside world? she asks.

I enjoyed an entertaining session on Books and Reading with Keith Houston (Scotland), an expert on the history of the book, and Alberto Manguel (Canada) who has written extensively on books and reading. It was heartening to hear both authors emphatically stating that the book will survive, that libraries are our identity and memory, and can and must collect everything, including new technologies.  Libraries must be preserved, they concurred!

Of course there was so much to sample of the Arts and Fringe festivals running concurrently. Watching the Berlin company Schaubuhne Berlin’s rendering of Shakespeare’s Richard III in German was a roller coaster of frenetic-paced, fantastic acting, to the accompaniment of heavy metal music, rapping, and with audience interaction and nudity (his) on stage. A phenomenal performance and for this writer quite thrilling as Richard limped off the stage, plonked himself next to me at the end of the row and asked ‘Do you mind?’ as Anne delivered her soliloquy over her dead husband’s body.  No proscenium arch here!

Finally, as part of the Fringe Festival, a delightful concert of popular music by The String Family, mum, dad and two teens all on cellos or violins, had everyone’s toes tapping.  Their story of life on the road for the past thirteen months, travelling around Australia, living in a caravan and winning the Australian National Busking Championship, had moments of great poignancy as they live out ‘the dream’. While missing the family and friends they have left behind, they have come to understand, first hand, the hardships of life on the land for so many Australians. Now there’s a book in that.

Jennifer’s Impressions of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017

What will I take away this year from Adelaide Writers’ Week? One of the visiting writers, Ian McGuire, when asked why he writes, quoted John Cheever: ‘I write as a way of making sense of my life’. Yes, I thought, that’s what I try to do.

I spent quite a lot of time not attending the talks on the banks of the River Torrens. It seemed better to savour a few things than to come away crammed with a confusion of wisdom. This allowed time to attend some of the concurrently running Adelaide Festival: plays, concerts and two excellent interviews/panel discussions on The Secret River and Richard III, conducted by David Marr.

Adelaide writers week

I attended (and years ago had read) Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, I had recently read Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom and I have become particularly interested in how writers might use a little-known historical incident as the starting-point for a piece of fiction – most of the sessions I attended related to this interest.

Armando Lucas Correa uses the story of the ship, St Louis, which, just before World War II transported Jewish families from Nazi journey to find a safe haven. But they were turned away from Cuba, Correa’s home country, from New York – with its vibrant Jewish community – and other places, to have to return to Europe, to countries such as the Netherlands, which were later occupied. Many of those Jewish families seeking asylum ended up in Nazi concentration camps. Correa has created a young girl on that ship, who happens to be the same age as his own daughter, and he tells the story of those families through the eyes of the young fictitious Hannah.

Glaswegian Graeme Macrae Burnet found intriguing documents when he was researching his family history: medical reports and court transcripts of a murder trial in 1869. A seventeen-year-old youth wrote a lucid confession to three violent crimes. Why?  The context is a remote crofting community where stoicism and violence may have been the only way to respond to feudal conditions and grinding poverty. One of the characters sums up what is explored in Macrae Burnet’s book: ‘One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone’. The book, His Bloody Project, was short listed for the Man Booker award.

Hannah Kent found a short newspaper article one day when she was undertaking some other research. In the early 19th century, in Ireland, a woman was tried but ultimately pardoned for a drowning murder because she believed that she was dealing with a changeling – a child brought by the fairies and substituted for another child. This led to Kent’s book, The Good People. Kent spent 6 weeks in Ireland, going to the place where her story is set, walking through the muddy fields, learning some of the expressions used in the isolated communities of that time. From a brief newspaper article a vivid depiction has unfolded of a life governed not only by faith in God but, with poverty so grim that a doctor can’t be afforded, with spirits and superstition.

Ian McGuire studied the journals of surgeons on whaling ships to inform his book about mid 19th century whaling in the Arctic region, The North Water. The book is a thriller, but not a ‘whodunnit’—we know from the first chapter that Henry Drax committed murder. There is an abundance of smells, suggesting that Drax is like an animal, moving through a world of smells as animals do. He is also animal-like in that he lives in the present moment, with no sense of consequences. McGuire grew up in Hull, where the book is set – it has changed greatly since those whaling days, but his familiarity with the town helped him to recreate it in an early 19th century context.

Although it is set in the past, the interviewer did not dwell on this aspect of Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom. There was greater interest in her treatment of domestic violence, which indeed is a central theme of her book. Zoë said that her main character ‘just appeared on the page’ one day when she was doing a writing exercise. Presumably her vivid accounts of performing a Rachmaninov concerto come from personal experience, as Zoë is an accomplished pianist.

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Two other sessions that I particularly enjoyed were Caroline Baum’s discussion of her recently published memoir, Only, and Paula Byrne’s discussion of research into the life of Jane Austen. Caroline, an experienced journalist, mentioned how refreshing she finds it to write in the first person – something that is pretty much taboo for journalistic reporting. I was hooked when she read from her prologue, using the metaphor of a triangle as the situation of an only child – there are pointy ends, things don’t mesh together. Caroline mentioned that a life of privilege can in many ways be a handicap for a writer. Now she has had to tackle the fact that her mother doesn’t agree with all that she’s written, and grapple with the possible fallacy of memory – we think we remember something accurately – but is it accurate?

Paula Byrne has written several biographies of Jane Austen. From her talk I got further insight into Austen’s genius. Byrne said, ‘nothing Jane Austen does is an accident’. For example, the way characters play the piano has a purpose. The Real Jane Austen is organised around objects: each chapter begins by focusing on an object, such as a cashmere shawl. Byrne stressed that as a young woman Jane Austen was playful and naughty – not the demure young lady that the Victorians described, and Byrne emphasised Jane Austen’s independence and feminism – her female characters think for themselves, they don’t defer to men. Byrne is sure that Jane Austen could have married – in fact she turned down one poor man pretty much on the day of the wedding. She may have been anxious about childbirth, or she may have realised that as a married woman she would have less freedom to write.

Elizabeth Harrower

Something quite different, though, was the opportunity to hear Elizabeth Harrower. How exciting that today we could see this 89-year-old writer, right there on the stage in Adelaide, and feel connection with the Australian literary canon. Harrower had attended the first Adelaide Writers’ Week in 1960. She used to have long phone conversations with Patrick White! She is a survivor of the generation of Patrick White and Christina Stead. Being there reminded me of musicians who, through their venerable teachers, have links to Liszt or Beethoven. After tremendous success as a young writer in the 1950s and ’60s, Harrower stopped writing when a manuscript was rejected by a publisher – she locked it away in a library and it was retrieved only recently by Michael Heyward of Text Publishing, who was her sensitive and intelligent interviewer on this occasion. In some ways we writers of today may feel that things were easier in the 1960s with so much less competition, but there also wasn’t support. It seems that back then there was no one to tell Elizabeth that she was right to think her writing good and that she should have persisted and not given up with the ‘rejection’. Fortunately, Text Publishing came along 50 years later.