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Posts Tagged ‘Book of Days’

We are what we hide: Sonya Hartnett, Malcolm Knox & Kari Gislason (and some thoughts on fish)

Golden Boys by Sonya HartnettSonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys was the first book I read this year, and it’s one of her best. Set in 1979 and written for adults, it is a story about children and the dark underbelly of silent suburbia, and the abusive fathers found therein. The ending is scorching and lingering, and I was very happy to see the book shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award.

Malcolm Knox’s latest is The Wonder Lover, the story of John Lover, who has three separate families, with six kids, two in each (a girl and a boy with the same names!).

Kari Gislason’s The Ash Burner is a story of Ted who grew up with his father in a small coastal town after his mother died when he was young.

Their stories are tied together by untold secrets, lies and deception, power and abuse. All use the voice/perspective of children. Jill Edington, chair of the session, asked where did the spark come from?

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm KnoxKnox said he grew up in a family environment with a moral code, defined by church. With every novel you write, he said, you go back to the well in some way. For this novel, he explores the idea of that moment when, as a child, you become aware that the rules imposed on you by adults don’t necessarily apply to them, that adults have a different set of rules by which they live.

Hartnett professed amazement about Knox’s premise, that men get up to these things. She grew up in what is now Box Hill North in Melbourne. These days it’s almost inner city, but in those days it was almost rural. What she loves is walking around suburbs and pondering the silence that often pervades them, asking where is the life?

She recalled the wonder of the moment when someone from a higher bracket of wealth decided to move into the neighbourhood, what that felt like. Why were they moving here? One family arrived and painted their house white, which made it seem ‘like a palace’. In Golden Boys a dentist named Rex and his family, including the kids who have every toy known to humanity, move into a quiet neighbourhood. In an era when fathers were, at best, more absent than today, and at worse drank a lot and didn’t care much about their kids, the arrival of the caring and glowing Rex has a profound impact on the neighbourhood kids, especially siblings Freya and Colt, who have to make do with their drunkard father, Joe.

Echoing Knox, Hartnett said the way children can’t understand the world of adults makes very fertile ground for a story. As noted above, the story is written for adults, and Hartnett said as a writer you can reach across and connect with readers as confederates: you and I, she said, know what’s really going on here, but the children in the story don’t.

On the question of the story being timely, Hartnett said she wrote it before the more recent child abuse scandals and Royall Commission became front page news. All she wanted to do when she set out was to write down some childhood memories before she forgot them.

As noted above, each of the three books use the voice of the child in their narration. Knox’s book is narrated with the unusual first person plural ‘we’, from the point of view of John Wonder’s six children. Knox used Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, which also uses the first-person plural, as inspiration. He felt as though it elevates the story to a kind of myth.

Hartnett spoke about characters, about how she learned long ago not to fall in love with them because it’s too draining when you have to say goodbye to them. All my characters ‘are tools to do what I need and want’ as a writer. People love reading about children, she said, and they’re fun to write. For those of you who have read the book, and I suspect that number will only increase given the Miles Franklin Award shortlist, Hartnett said her long-time editor, after reading the manuscript, said to her, ‘So you want to be Colt but you’re only Freya’, which Hartnett agreed was right!

The Ash Burner by Kari GislasonGislason was born in Iceland. He was unsure why he chose a first-person child narrator, but cited the novel The Fish Can Sing by the Nobel Prize winning Icelandic author Halldor Laxness. Gislason’s child protagonist, Ted, searches for his lost mother by diving into the sea and swimming down to the bottom, because it is where he believes she is. It’s a heart-rending image, and a lovely example of one author’s work inspiring another’s.

It resonated strongly for me because every year at the festival I sit and have lunch overlooking the multi-million dollar units built upon Pier 6/7. But of course I don’t look at the units, or even the luxury yachts moored outside them. No. I look down into the jade waters of the harbour and watch the silver-backed fish mingling. Some of them are a good size too!

Book of Days projectI like the idea of those fish gathering beneath the finger wharves and listening to the things people are saying in the halls above. What things would the fish say, I wonder. What songs would they sing? So I tweeted something for Zoë Sadokierski’s Book of Days project on how to live (see #swfbod). I deviated massively from the sensible stuff most people were saying. My contribution related to those fish! (A faintly absurd idea it might seem, too, but something that connects thematically with the thoughts of Helen Madonald and Jonathan Lethem about our dwindling relationship with nature and wildlife, and, now that I think of it, echoing Ben Okri’s advice on the need to listen. Okri said listening is like suffering, and maybe that’s true, but sometimes it’s a joy and a necessity.)

All this is to say that Gislason, who almost made an art of not talking about his book, had hooked me, so to speak, with that one image of the boy swimming in search of his mum. So now I have to read his book, and I feel compelled to track down Laxness’s novel too!

Sunday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: me!, for not sticking around to go to the closing address by Helen Macdonald. I had already spent a fair few dollars on the events I attended, but I would have loved to hear Macdonald again, and am looking forward to hearing the podcast of her speech when it becomes available.

Even hand for: more sessions were ticketed this year than in previous years in order to, as one volunteer said to me, ‘assist crowd control’. This is good in some ways, as it allows organised attendees to guarantee a seat at the events they want to attend and thus not have to queue for everything. But it does mean paying more. I definitely spent more money. So long as there’s always some free stuff, and the chance to see some of the bigger names on free panel sessions, I think I can live with that. The festival has become a victim of its own success. Which brings me to…:

Thumbs up for: to the Walsh Bay redevelopment plans announced in the Sydney Morning Herald here, which will see the transformation of the waterfront precinct between the Harbour Bridge and Barangaroo into a dedicated Arts precinct. On the cards are more theatres, better facilities for existing arts bodies such as the Bangarra Dance Company & Bell Shakespeare Company, a new concert hall for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and other works, including additional restaurants.

Of specific relevance to the Sydney Writers’ Festival is the reworking of the Pier 2/3 interior, which will hopefully increase the number of areas available for SWF sessions, as well as the reworking of the area between Pier 2/3 and Pier 4/5, which appears likely to improve the festival experience for everyone even further. The festival has become a victim of its own success in the last few years, with bumper crowds, so hopefully these developments will take it to another level again.

SWF LogoThat’s it for SWF 2015. Well done to everyone who worked on the festival: the volunteers, management team led by Artistic Director Jemma Birrell, corporate partners, and of course all the speakers from Australia and overseas. I’ve many great memories. I hope sharing them has given you a flavour of another fine festival. Now I’m off to listen to the fish sing…

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SWF LogoAnother year, another fabulous Sydney Writers’ Festival SWF in the sun(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

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider RahmanWell 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

H is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldThis 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.

 

Thursday ‘Thumbs’

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 ofBook of Days project 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…

 

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