Another year, another fabulous Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). Over the coming few days I’ll post some thoughts on each of the main days’ highlights, beginning with Thursday. You can already catch some sessions on podcasts on Radio National’s Books and Arts website, and the festival’s podcast site will have podcasts up at some stage (not sure when).
Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know
Well done to the festival organisers for scheduling an additional session with Zia Haider Rahman, which enabled me to see him on Thursday morning. The session was well marshalled by Aussie expat David Francis, a human rights lawyer based in New York. I wished I had have taken a photo of them, because they walked onto the stage wearing basically the same outfit of brown boots, blue jeans, red check shirts, and similarly styled and coloured jackets. They had only met in person just before the session but Rahman joked they had been separated at birth!
Rahman is the author of In the Light of What We Know, a sprawling epistemological novel that I’m reading now and which has garnered lavish praise from critics around the world. A ‘big’ book, its themes are myriad, including class, friendship, belonging/home/exile, religion and the East-West divide, knowledge and the ‘reliability of what we know’. It owes a debt to WG Sebald’s Austerlitz in terms of structure, a point Rahman made himself, with an unnamed narrator relating the story of his long-lost friend Zafar, whom he met at Oxford University where they studied mathematics.
Zafar is a true outsider, and his rage increases throughout his life at this unmoored life. He arrives at Oxford knowing the mathematics but not how to correctly pronounce the names of the serious mathematicians like Gödel, who devised the ‘Incompleteness Theorem’, which serves as a thematic touchstone for the story. His naivety over pronunciation reminded me of Laura Rambotham in Henry Handell Richardson’s delicious The Getting of Wisdom when she arrives at the posh city school knowing the French language but not how to pronounce it.
The novel features many narrative deviations, which one audience member in a question described as ‘slippings away’. This extends to the occasional footnote. Rahman said he knew when he sat down what the story would be about and where it was going. The ending changed a little after discussion with his publisher, reducing the number of ‘possibilities’. (He later said getting published was an ‘accident’. He sent it to a friend who sent it on to someone in the publishing world.)
He said his fiction is ‘grounded in reality’, which seems a bit of an understatement as it draws heavily on his own life experience. Rahman is a serial over-achiever. Born in Bangladesh (like Zafar), he was educated in Oxford, Cambridge and Yale, studying mathematics (like our protagonists), worked as an investment banker on Wall Street (like our protagonists) and then as a human rights lawyer.
Rahman said he wanted to explore the universal through the specific. He was concerned with this notion of ‘belonging’, how we all romanticise and yearn for ‘home’, and how class clashes or fulfils this need. Zafar, he said, ‘makes a home in the world of ideas.’ Rahman made an interesting point about there being not enough contemporary political writing, and how memoir has been so popular in the last two decades it has crowded out such writing.
I was a touch sceptical of the theme for this year’s festival, which asked the question of ‘how we should live’—sceptical because, to my mind, that is what literature always explores. Couldn’t any literature festival be said to ponder this? Nevertheless, one of the best things I heard said all week was Rahman talking about empathy. He said ‘we can do nothing more valuable than widen our empathy for others’. What a great mantra for how to live.
It was clear from my reading and also from the session that Rahman is a very thoughtful writer. Francis drew out Rahman on questions of masculinity in the book, the bond of male friendship that exists between the narrator and Zafar; and the very Englishness of the name for Zafar’s old girlfriend, Emily Hampton-Wyvern.
Francis also noted that the book reflects well on America. Rahman said this was because Zafar lives in that world of ideas, and the US is that kind of place. It’s a place of optimism and hope. Britain is about ‘muddling through’, a place where pragmatism trumps idealism. In the US, words matter, those founding documents matter.
However, Rahman himself, when asked about his life’s meteoric trajectory, said that he was the anomaly. The notion fed to us that ‘we must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps is rubbish’, that so many of us fall through the cracks and needed lifting up.
Knowledge can’t answer every question. The irony is not lost on Rahman: it took a book about knowledge to show us this.
Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk
This was another very well chaired session, with Caroline Baum asking the questions of Helen Macdonald on her bestselling and multiple award-winning memoir H is for Hawk. I read Macdonald’s book (not reviewed here) long before the SWF program was announced, so was thrilled to see her. She also gave the closing address, so do check that out on the SWF website when it becomes available. I know I will. As it turns out, Jane Gleeson-White was also in attendance and wrote up the session brilliantly over at her blog here. It’s a great read.
So rather than cover the same ground, I’ll simply say that one of the most fascinating things about the book and Macdonald’s answers was the way she described becoming one with the bird, almost teetering on the edge of sanity in the wake of her grief. The world became ‘tessellated’, and her senses were so ramped up she could feel ‘intuitions’ in the landscape as she took Mabel out to hunt, the sorts of things Mabel herself was sensing and reacting to. As Baum noted at the beginning, H is also for Helen.
Macdonald, as a poet, writes beautifully. She read out one passage in which she describes Mabel’s appearance, and it is achingly beautiful. I highly recommend reading H is for Hawk. In the meantime, read Jane’s blog post!
These two sessions were the pick of Thursday at the festival.
Thumbs down for: the ridiculously long twitter hashtag preferred by the festival organisers: #SydneyWritersFestival – it was way too many characters. Why not use #swf, #swf15, or even #swf2015 … ? (Ashley Hay beautifully skewered the hashtag on the weekend when she said it’s ‘apparently okay’ for it to not have an apostrophe!); thumbs down also to the change to red shirts for the (wonderful) volunteers from the usual and more distinctive orange. I think I’ll start a hashtag of my own(!): #Bringbackorange
Thumbs up for: the ‘Book of Days’ collaborative project. Over the course of the four days of the festival, Zoë Sadokierski, together with Astrid Lorange and Monica Monin, was tasked with creating an illustrated anthology—or ‘living index’—of the whole festival, based on the theme ‘how to live’. This included pieces of writing and art from selected presenters, as well as the ability for festival attendees to contribute through tweets or typewriters at Pier 2/3. Zoë is an award-winning book designer who also found time to chair and participate in a book design session on Saturday. The anthology will be available on a print-on-demand basis sometime after the festival, here.
Next up: Festival Friday…