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Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

A mere muse today on Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín.  It is described on the cover as “quietly magnificent”.  Well, the prose is certainly restrained – as befits both the time period the story is set (Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s) and the protagonist, Eilis Lacey, through which everything is seen.  I could quote from any page confident that the words would be quiet, simple, and measured.  No surprise, then, that Brooklyn won the 2009 Costa Award, the more ‘accessible’ UK-based literary award.  (It showcases what Stella Rimington might call ‘readability’!) 

This is in no way meant to take away from Brooklyn which I found affecting.  I think part of the reason I enjoyed it was the close third person narrative.  Eilis lives at home with her elder sister, Rose, and her mother.  Her father is dead and her older brothers are working in the north ofEngland.  Rose’s job supports the three of them.  Tóibín is not known for overtly comic writing, but there are moments of warmth and mirth here, such as Eilis’s descriptions of the local storekeeper in Enniscorthy, Mrs Kelly, which amuse her mother and Rose at dinner time.  

But there are few opportunities for work for Eilis who has starting training as a bookkeeper, and few marriage prospects too.  Step in an Irish priest visiting fromBrooklynwho knows Rose.  He arranges a stateside job for Eilis in a shop, urging her to come ‘across the water’. 

And so she goes.  The easy ‘come across the water’ line sets us up for what is a terrible crossing with poor Eilis suffering from sea-sickness the whole way.  She lives in an Irish boarding house in which she is a favourite of the land-lady, though she yearns for a more independent role in the household given her want to fit in with the other young woman living there.  She goes to dances and meets Tony, an Italian-American, and finds a love of sorts with him.  Then she is summoned back toIrelandafter a death and faces the choice between her old life and new.  Coming home she finds her options have opened up.  Coming from New Work she is touched by a certain glamour, and she has certainly experienced more of life living away from home. 

It is a strange characteristic of Eilis that the decisions in her life are all made by others, be they Rose, Father Flood, the Irish girl she shares the Atlantic crossing with, her Irish land-lady.  Writes Tóibín: “She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.”  She seems to go with the flow for the most of the novel.  It is only at the end that this is challenged by events of her own making. 

Brooklyn is a quiet and affecting story.  Tóibín has a way of depicting the inner emotional terrain of a character with precision.  I have lived overseas myself for several years and so I can relate to the opportunities and difficulties this creates in a person’s life.  (Tóibín himself went to USA to lecture, bot at Stanford and now at Princeton, and has lived in other cities and travelled extensively.)  It was nice to finally read something of Tóibín’s after he was so entertaining a guest at the 2010 Sydney Writers’ Festival, though I suspect I might enjoy The Master (2004) a touch more.  Time will tell. 

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Picador

2009

ISBN: 9780330425612

252 pages   

Source: personal library, (aka ‘the bookshelf rainbow’)

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I came across both Marie Munkara and her little gem of a book, Every Secret Thing, at last week’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF), where I went to a session with Marie in conversation with Irina Dunn.  I really enjoyed the session and the three-or-so readings that Marie did, all of which were very humorous, and so I bought the book.

Winner of the 2008 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous authors, Every Secret Thing explores the Catholic missionaries’ efforts to educate and ‘civilise’ a mob of aboriginals in the far north of Australia and the hilarious and devastating interaction of cultures and beliefs.

The novel feels like a series of short and highly entertaining stories, but there are recurring characters and a narrative arc that traces a gradual decline in the health and welfare of the ‘bush mob’.  Each story has lavish helpings of energy and wit.  Right from the opening chapter, entitled The Bishop, we know we are in for a fun-filled ride.  The Bishop, having arrived by plane (just!), sits in on a religious instruction class in which Jeremiah asks: “But why did Eve eat the apple?  Wouldn’t the snake have tasted better?” Another chimes in: “And why aren’t there any black angels?  Why are they always white?”  Each of the baptised aboriginal children is given a biblical Christian name, which gives Munkara a lot of scope for further giggles.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John run off and play in the trees as the Sisters try to organise everyone for the Bishop’s arrival.  The Bishop is a fool who answers the question about the black angels thus: “ ‘I’ll leave that for Sister to answer,’ he snorted pompously as he recalled Sister’s humiliating rejection of him when she had been on retreat six months earlier. ‘She knows all about being an angel’.”(!)

But despite the giggles, there are serious themes at work here.  The aboriginal children are referred to as “inmates of the Mission” as if it is a prison, which of course for the bush mob it most certainly is.  We get plenty of scenes that deal with the clash of white and black.  One such instance is the arrival of an anthropologist to study the ways of the natives.  He is called ‘Rat’ by them on account of his mannerisms and physical appearance.  Pwomiga, one of the aboriginal men, tells the misguided Rat all the wrong names for things.  ‘Spear’ becomes ‘penis’ and so on.  Pwomiga and his mates wonder how this ‘learned’ man can be so stupid.  Soon we find Father Macredie inspired to use the many words Rat has translated in his Sunday sermons – much to the amusement of the natives!  Elsewhere, a missionary woman tries to teach the aboriginal women how to cook using the stove, but is aghast when she finds puppies in their unused cooker.

One feels Munkara could have rattled on with endless stories about the ills of religion for the sake of laughs, but despite the very breezy language and atmosphere she created in the first half of the book, she has bigger fish to fry in the second half.  We see a pregnant cat imported to the mission and become the mother to an ever-expanding family of cats which go off hunting in the bush and render species that had been happily living in the area for millennia extinct.

A French couple then arrive on a ship-wrecked yacht and bring marijuana into the camp.  Not only do the mob start to smoke, but soon they are all growing it in their homes.  Odile, the French woman, gives birth to a half-caste child.  Her French husband seems oblivious to the colour of his skin.  But it is not only him, for the Missionaries decide they can’t take this half-caste child from his parents because its mother is white.  The mob see the double standards clearly: “The more erudite had reasoned that if they had to hand over their coloured kids then why shouldn’t Odile.  No matter that the mother wasn’t black, the kid was still coloured, wasn’t he, and everybody knew what happened to them.”

The decline in the wellbeing of the mob continues when one of the Brothers finds a crate of rum washed ashore on a beach.  We witness the horror of what alcohol does to the mob: “by mid morning everyone was roaring drunk except for Dinah’s baby who was busy sucking on an empty bottle and Dinah who was comatose.”  Munkara’s writing is deceivingly breezy even when we are faced with such terrible truths.

Yet it gets worse when Father Voleur replaces the retired Fr Macredie who realises as he’s leaving that he should have “let the bush mob into his heart from the beginning and been their friend.”  Fr Voleur introduces movies to the bush mob which they marvel at, but wonder how it is that a man who dies in one movie can be alive in the next.  Meanwhile, Fr Voleur blackmails the mob by saying that they’ll only get to see the movies if they come to Mass.  Pwomiga and the other men are confused by the resurrection of the actors and begin to ponder whether they are like Jesus.  This sets up the final harrowing scene which I won’t divulge here, but it caps off a wonderful little book, full of laughs yet full of demise too – one that delves into the dark side of the Catholic Missionaries and the devastating effect they and all of the aliens – feline, French or otherwise – have had, bringing hell to the place that was heaven before they laid claim to it.

Every Secret Thing by Marie Munkara

University of Queensland Press (UQP)

ISBN: 9780702237195

179 pages

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Another damp day in Sydney saw the close of the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 2010.  Peter Carey is giving the official closing address, which along with many of the sessions will be available from the SWF website.  It was another very interesting day.  This is a long post but I assume that readers can see which session interests them and read those summaries:

1. ‘Portraits of a Lady’ with Colm Toibin and Kirsten Tranter in conversation with the learned Geordie Williamson, in part discussing their work’s (Colm’s Brooklyn & Kirsten’s The Legacy) relationship with Henry James’ famous novel, although the discussion covered more than this, with Colm in particular showing his encyclopedic knowledge of James, his life, and his work.  Geordie opened the session with a quote of Virginia Woolf’s review of (I think) Henry James’ Letters; Colm told the story of how Virginia and her sister (and everyone else in London at the time) wanted to impersonate James.  James was a great friend of Virginia’s parents and was over for dinner one evening and was telling a story in his own unique way, rocking on his chair as he spoke, until he rocked a little too far and fell toppled over, but what amazed Virginia was that he kept talking through the entire descent! 

Geordie asked the authors how it was that they squared with themselves the task of taking on the ‘monolith’ of James.  Kirsten told the story of how The Portrait of a Lady itself was James’ response to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, so this gave her a sense of confidence that such a project was appropriate.  Cue Colm’s very witty reason: he used to work a summer job in the motor tax office, ‘sorting paper records covered in dust and grime and dirt’. Said Colm: ‘In the day, I worked in the tax office, and at night I read The Portrait of a Lady'(!)  He was astonished with the idea of a secret held to the end of a story, and was puzzled and intrigued by James, and what appears on the surface to be the ‘style of morality’ but is really ‘the morality of morality’.  Geordie then asked about the different structure that each author took in their novels, with Kirsten favouring a fairly direct use of James’ structure (with some ‘grafted-on’ mystery elements, as well as changing the scandal from infidelity to the artist’s authorship of her work).  Kirsten purposefully did not re-read Portrait before writing her work, though she did dip into it.  Colm stripped out a lot of the original structure.  He noted that a lot of James’ work is poor, some of short stories in particular (often written quickly for money), but also some of his longer works.  Colm said ‘James struggled to write about the English’, but he did have a gift in his great novels of using a very intimate third person narrative which allows the reader to ‘become the character’.  Colm said James did this very well and Portrait is a great example.  In Brooklyn, Toibin said he limits his protagonist Ellis Lacey’s ‘ambition’, but he allows her the ability to observe events and surroundings with ‘full intelligence’.  A question was asked as to whether Henry James would have written great works had he been openly gay; Colm replied that EM Forster wrote a story which was openly gay but it was very bad because everything was given to the reader, whereas in other works his use of metaphor works, and the same could be said of James.  Another observation of Colm was that James, whilst very wealthy, wrote poverty well.  Colm clearly has both the gift of the gab – and the intellect to back it up.  A very interesting session that covered so much more than the premise allowed.

2. ‘The Boat to Redemption’ – Su Tong in conversation with Linda Jaivin (who also translated).  Another great session.  Su Tong has a wonderfully sunny disposition which came across even through Linda’s interpretation.  Tong’s books have included Wives and Concubines – which was made into the acclaimed film, Raise the Red Lantern – and others, with his latest novel The Boat to Redemption winning the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, making a total of seven novels, and over 200 short stories.  The story is set in the Cultural Revolution – the time in which Su grew up.  He saw people with placards around their necks with their crimes inscribed thereon and wondered what their struggles and stories were.  There is violence in his novels, but he defends this by saying that ‘violence was a part of everyday life.’  Su said he is now very awake to the ‘nightmare and corruption of his childhood’ and all its ‘blackness’. 

Interestingly, Linda noted that the title of the novel in Chinese means ‘River, Shore’ – it is set on a river, its narrator a young boy whose father decided to move from the shore to the river and they haven’t set on land since.  Su Tong’s own parents once lived on an island on the mighty Yangtze River, so for him the river was his world.  Yet the feeling of a river lends itself more to poetry than novels, so writing a story about the river proved a great challenge even for someone with his background. 

Su said that he sees himself as a doctor that looks at the ills of humanity and figures out what needs to be done.  He says it is common in China for doctors to cut out diseased tissue and show this to their families; Tong says this is what he does with society, he cuts out the rotten tissue and shows it to us – a nice metaphor.  We then had quite a funny description of how young people learnt about sex in China, with Linda noting the theme of sexual anxiety that it present in a lot of Chinese literature, including Su Tong’s work.  Mothers commonly tell their children when they ask ‘where do babies come from?’ that they come from the mother’s armpit or they are found on the street.  Su Tong was told he was taken from a boat.  He and his friends found out about sex from The Barefoot Doctor, the book given to rural people who were given very basic medical training.  Says Tong: ‘We studied Mao in class, and The Barefoot Doctor at home. 

We then arrived at Linda’s observation about the English translation.  Linda read both the Chinese and English version simultaneously and was appalled at the differences between them.  Important sentences had disappeared, chapters had been moved, and the overall elegance of the Chinese version did not fully come across.  This was meant as a compliment to Su Tong’s Chinese version, but of course, we in the audience suddenly felt like we were getting a far inferior version.  The explanation was that the English translation was taken from his second draft, and not his final draft, the publishers were anxious to get the book out!  Tong blames himself for this, but the obvious question – which was indeed forthcoming from the audience – was: ‘will there be a ‘proper’ English translation published?’  I was certainly thinking this, but I had already bought the book the other night!  Of course, the point that should have been made was: it was the English version that won the Man Asian Prize and had Colm Toibin singing its praises on Thursday night in the ‘Judges & Winners’ session.  So whilst I have not read it yet and will provide a review soon, I’m aghast to think that there are people out there that wont read it because they feel it is a poor book, and I for one am looking forward to reading River, Shore

3. ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’ with Hugo Bowne-Anderson and Chris Andrews (translator of several of Bolano’s works into English), with chair Don Anderson.  Bolano has captured the imagination of many readers since his premature death with his mysterious and incredibly prolific writing.  Don noted in his introduction that Bolano said ‘magic realism stinks’, but he also said of Garcia Marquez, that some of his novels were ‘perfect’ – and this in a nutshell gives us a glimpse into the elusiveness of Bolano.  Hugo spoke at length about Bolano’s works, observing that either of By Night in Chile or Amulet (see my review), are good ways into his work. 

Chris then gave us a particularly well-constructed talk on what he saw as the five characteristics of Bolano: Energy; Tension; Totality; Ehtics; and, Poetry.  He quoted the opening lines of The Savage Detectives and noted its lack of adjectives as well as the immediate sense of a ‘vibration’ of energy.  Tension is ‘something that Bolano can create out of nothing’, and Chris noted that quite often his short stories, like Poe’s short stories, reveal a hidden structure at the end and what you thought you were reading turns out to be something entirely different.  Yet many of Bolano’s novels eschew endings.  Instead we have very open endings.  Bolano wants to work the reader hard; he attempts to retain a sense of mystery, and wants understanding to be elusive.  In terms of the ‘totality’, both Chris and Hugo noted how Bolano’s works are related and connected.  However, Chris observed that there are many inconsistencies – characters’ reappear in other books but sometimes with different names.  Thus, there is some sense of a plan behind the totality of the work, but not a real plan given all these inconsistencies.  Chris said that these are a small price to pay for the whole.  Ethics: Bolano was quite a moralist in his fiction (if not in life).  His cardinal vice was ‘cosying up to power’, whilst his cardinal virtue is courage – a view that I share wholeheartedly.  Courage in Bolano’s works is often represented by duels.  Finally, poets are everywhere in Bolano’s stories, both as a metaphor for the creative class but also because Bolano himself was a poet before he began writing novels.  Poetry is important to him. 

Chris was asked about the method of interpretation, and gave an interesting insight when he said that often the first translation is very dry and awkward and does not retain the poetry of the original; it takes a lot of work to then arrive at a real sense of the original Spanish in English.  An observation was then made from a member of the audience which the panel agreed with, as do I, when it was argued that had Bolano lived a long life, the sense of a real plan interlinking his entire work may never have been forthcoming, and we would have instead what we have now, a lack of a definitive ending to everything, where, appropriately enough, the session was ended!  Very interesting.  I have The Savage Detectives and 2666 on my shelf, their weight pressing down into the wood, but feel now that I have a much greater awareness of what awaits me. 

4.  ‘Australian Stories’ with Thomas Keneally (Australians – Origins to Eureka), Jack Marx (Australian Tragic), Michael Cathcart (The Water Dreamers), moderated by Richard Glover.  A fun romp through some tall tales, interesting facts, and myths that each author has come across as an antidote to the view in school-children that ‘Australian history is boring’.  Richard opened the session with Mark Twain’s famous quote from his journey to Australia, which Peter Carey used as a quote before his excellent Illywhacker, and which appears in the excellent: The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia (see my review), that Australia’s history ‘reads like the most beautiful lies’. 

There were some interesting observations made by each panelist.  For instance, Jack believed that one Australian myth is that of ‘mateship’ – he felt there is nothing special about Australian male bonds than anywhere else in the world.  Tom noted that one myth is the notion that all aboriginals were ‘supine’ to white settlement.  This was an interesting observation for me, for I am well aware that many of the aboriginals of the day openly resisted.  This notion was explored further after a question on why the stories of violence toward aboriginals goes untold.  Again, I found this an interesting assertion, as I was aware of these stories myself, but perhaps they are untold.  Jack observed that the violence continues today, providing the example of the indigenous man killed a couple of years back on Palm Is by a policeman and the lack of punishment.  Michael’s myth is the notion that ‘everyone died searching for an inland sea’, noting the irony that as far as he was aware, the only man to die whilst searching for an inland sea was a man by the name of ‘Poole'(!). 

All-in-all, the session was proof that there is a myriad of interesting stories that constantly fuel and refuel our understanding of the past, and the idea that those things that are swept under the carpet or assumed to be isolated things in our history, and thus unimportant, are actually rife within the primary records of the day, and it is not hard to find facts and myths and wonderful things if we merely open the page – an apt thought on which to end my musings on the 2010 SWF – thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring, fun, and yes, a little damp, but my mind was definitely expanded. 

Let me know your thoughts.  What were your SWF highlights? 

The D!

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Well, day three down and four more interesting sessions to muse on:

1. Marie Munkara: in conversation with Irina Dunn – A very entertaining chat.  Irina had done her homework and Marie was very engaging.  She also read a few sections from her award winning book Every Secret Thing.  The book recently won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award and also won the David Unaipon (the first published indigenous author and the man on the $50 Australian note) Award for unpublished indigenous authors.  The story centres on the Catholic missionaries in aboriginal communities, and is laced with vibrant humour.  Marie was born on a riverbank of mixed parentage.  She told us how her mother had been “promised” from birth to an aboriginal man (who had multiple wives), but refused to marry her and was sent away with the newborn Marie in shame to Tiwi Islands.  But Marie was separated from her mother when aged three and was raised a Catholic.  Needless to say, the mission clergy don’t get an easy ride in her book!  The book’s second half becomes a lot darker, tracing the demise of the aboriginal community as alcohol is introduced.  Marie talked of how she was then reunited with her mother at the age of 25 – at which point she had to learn all her culture from scratch (and almost re-learn her languages too).  Marie knows many aboriginals who still struggle to find their own place after being raised in the missions.  Fortunately for her, and us, she has found her place, and I went straight to Gleebooks to purchase Every Secret Thing.  Stay tuned for a review. 

2. Peter Carey in Conversation with John Freeman (editor of Granta).  It always interesting hearing Peter Carey talk – as well as read from his novels.  Here he was talking of his recent work Parrot and Olivier in America.  He said he had been asked many times when he was going to write an ‘American’ novel, and had one on the go which he wasn’t enjoying when the idea for True History of the Kelly Gang came to him.  So he dropped the former and went with Kelly – to much success and acclaim of course, winning the Booker Prize for the second time.  It was after this that he began to return to the American theme and what better theme to tackle than Democracy.  The book is based on Alexis De Tocqueville’s travels to America where he wrote Democracy in America amongst two other works.  Carey talked of his horror of the Bush-Chaney Presidency and noted that whilst De Tocqueville’s more affirming viewpoints on democracy are well-known in the US, he was actually quite ambivalent about democracy and saw its ills, noting his worries about the position of the President itself.  Said Carey: “De Tocqueville saw [Sarah] Palin coming.”(!)  There followed a discussion on the relationship between ‘free will’ & ‘free markets’, Carey seeing the ills of the capitalist machine – including its vice-like grip on government.  In writing Parrot and Olivier in America, Carey said he was most concerned with getting the voice of Olivier right – the voice of an aristocratic Frenchman – but in the end he said it was a matter of class, and here he drew on his own experience of the differences between Geelong Grammar – perhaps the finest private school in the country, and certainly home to many of the Australian ‘elite’ (though I shudder to use such a term) – and his upbringing in Bacchus Marsh, an interesting insight into how an author draws on their experience, no matter how oblique, and renders their story from both memory and imagination.  In the end, Carey quite enjoyed writing Olivier.  (The voice of Parrot, he said, was ‘less of a stretch’.)  John Freeman opened the session by stating that he thought the book Carey’s best.  Well, it’s good, but it’s not that good.  Illywhacker, Oscar & Lucinda, and True History are better books in my opinion, and I quite enjoyed Jack Maggs and even his first novel Bliss too.  That said, Parrot and Olivier is a far better book than his recent work, so it was a welcome enjoyment.  Today’s session was interesting, but it lacked something, perhaps John could have done a better job – having enjoyed Irina and Marie’s conversation (see above), this seemed slightly inferior.   

3.  ‘Writing Short’ – Pasha Malla & Steve Amsterdam with Mandy Sayer – a nice session with both authors reading a short story from their collected stories books and discussing with Mandy the short form – though as Pasha noted, it seems difficult to talk about the short story without talking about its big brother – the novel – too!  Mandy made one of the more interesting observations when she posited that people prefer the long stories because they ‘don’t like endings’ – readers love to invest themselves in the company of characters for a time.  That said, with everyone’s attention spans shortening seemingly by the day, perhaps the short story will be the preferred format (until, of course, we can’t cope with that and poetry usurps it!). 

4. ‘A Wombat at My Table’ – Jackie French talking with Geoffrey Lehmann.  Okay, so every now and then I like to go to something completely left-field!  And one thing’s for sure, you cannot come into contact with Jackie French and not be in any doubt as to her passion for wombats.  She has written stories for children, as well as her adult memoir A Year in the Valley.  Geoffrey also read a lovely poem featuring wombats that was published in New Yorker. I came out knowing a lot more about something and had quite a few laughs in the process.  Good fun.

I had wanted to get into ‘Still the Lucky Country’ but you have to line up pretty early for the free events, particularly on the weekend, although I had the same issue on Thursday with one session too.  Oh well, you can’t get to everything.  If anyone was there, let me know how you found it.

What are your SWF highlights?  Let me know!

More to come tomorrow, the final day of SWF2010, including a session on Roberto Bolano which I’m quite looking forward to. 

The D!

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Wow, another great day at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.  Even the intermittent rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of the many attendees.  I went to three sessions today and thoroughly enjoyed each one. 

1. ‘First Nation Stories’ – undoubtedly the highlight of the day, with Canadian, Richard Van Camp, a member of the Dogrib Nation of Canada’s North West, and Boori Monty Prior, from North Queensland, moderated by Anita Heiss. 

Richard spoke first and it was soon clear that this was to be an interactive session!  He told us the story of how his people call the Northern Lights with whistling or rubbing of fingernails, and also how to ask them to go away with fingernails clipping the inside of one’s front teeth, and other methods besides.  He said the lights have a distinct smell (dead fish!) and also a distinct sound (like bacon sizzling in the next room!).  He told us that when he was young and people came around to his family;s house, his mother would say ‘Come, listen’ instead of ‘Go play’ – what a wonderful thing for a child!  He was thus trained to listen from the earliest age, not just to words but to the silence between them – silences which are just as important than the words themselves.  He told us about frogs (keepers of the rain: cue the first rain shower of the day!), saying, ‘where there are frogs there’s clean water.’  He told us about mosquitos – kill one & ten others turn up to his funeral! – a message of violence begets violence.  We heard also of the dragonfly secret he traded with a potter women in BC, and challenged us to remember all four lines, the last of which was ‘You need dragonfly wings for love.’ He also read his book Lullaby for Babies which a few years ago was given to every new baby’s family born in British Columbia.  It was a highly entertaining talk. 

Next up was Boori (whose name means ‘fire’).  He has worked for twenty years going around Australia and teaching aboriginal stories to school children and had some hilarious anecdotes of this journey.  He also backed up Richard’s point about how children are the great teachers.  He noted too that he believes stories are a way to save our country – we are far too keen to sell our native culture overseas and to overseas visitors, but how many of us non-indigenous Aussies know any people from this great culture?  Boori also briefly explored the immense family tragedies that he has had to grow up with, and it is a measure of the man – and the power of stories – that he has not only survived such trauma but has lifted the spirits of so many with his stories.  Indeed, the session itself was proof of the power of stories and story-tellers.  If you ever get a chance to see either of Richard or Boori speak, do yourself a favour and go – and take your children with you!  A great session.

2.  ‘Family Fictions’ – with readings from four female authors from their respective works that each deal with families, their foibles and secrets. 

Larissa Behrendt read from Legacy, a book whose inspiration came from the tension between the generations in an aboriginal middle-class family. 

Alison Booth then read from her well-known Stillwater Creek, set in 1957 and delving into family secrets in a rural town where it seems everyone knows everything about others, but people always carry secrets. 

Kate Veitch noted before her reading the incredible small number of men in the audience – true!  I thought I was the only one, but I think I counted two others! – and commented on how it is women who are the real backbone – not just of families, but of the book publishing industry too – well, that seemed to be true from the audience, but there are some men who read(!)  She noted that ‘everyone experiences families differently, even siblings in the same family – a real truism.  Kate then read quite a racy section from her work Trust. 

Last, but not least was Caroline Overington who had worked in journalism for many years and has written award-winning non-fiction before as well.  She read from her pyschological thriller Ghost Child, a fictionalised story based on based on a really terrible crime and the affect it had on a girl whose sibling was murdered by her mother and her partner, with the girl and another sibling forced to watch.  This occurred in NSW.  It is an unimaginable event.  The book is told in first-person from the point of view of its many cast members – an interesting way to get the varying angles of the girl’s life. 

3. ‘Reading Muster #5’ – with Nada Awar Jarrar, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall, and Alex Miller, all reading from their most recent work – another interesting session.  Nada read from her book which the moderator Melaine Ostell described as ‘a love letter to a city’ – that city being Beirut.  Her reading explored some of the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. 

Next up was Peter Goldsworthy, who read a short story entitled The Nun’s Story, a riotously funny story about a boy being taught piano by a rather (at first) attractive nun.  The boy smuggles in Womens Weekly magazines to the nun from his mother.  Even the boy’s father fancies the nun, thinking ‘What a waste,’ as he drives the boy home from the lessons.  The story ends with the nun trying on her ‘bible’ black one piece swimsuit – it is all very funny and highly recommended.  Peter was asked about the length of his career (as all panelists were) and had some interesting points on the learning process that each piece of work brings, whether it is poetry, short story, novel, play and so on.  For him, the learning never stops, but each genre and format gives him something to take to the next project, and skills are transferable across formats. 

Rodney Hall then read from his first memoir.  Author of too many books to mention, including Miles Franklin Award winners Just Relations (1982) & The Grisly Wife (1994).  I was particularly interested to hear Rodney as Just Relations had been recommended to me an author on Sunday after a discussion on Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest which I finished a few days ago (see my Siddon Rock review).  Rodney’s memoir deals with fragments of memories he recalls from his childhood, and one of his two readings was from a bombing raid in WWII when he was a young child in England.  He also spoke about what is important to his writing, and that is the voice.  It is key.  He talked about how each of his (14 I think!) novels each have a distinctive voice – particularly the seven he has written in first person. 

Finally there was Alex Miller, who read from Lovesong, a worthy book on this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist .  What is immediately apparent about Lovesong is the sparse prose.  Indeed, what was apparent from each of the writers’ readings – and Peter Goldsworthy himself made this observation – was that there was not one superfluous word.  (This provided me with an interesting personal juxtaposition, given I’m reading Jose Saramago at present – a man for whom the narrative aside is like breathing!)  Alex read a section dealing with his gloomy protagonist father’s return from Venice, and another section.  There was a wonderful humour in the sombre man’s thoughts.  He said of his work, ‘it explores a moment, and when I’ve finished exploring the moment, that’s the end of the book.’

I had to steal away after this session, but there is plenty to look forward to over the weekend – except that usually benevolent Sydney sunshine, which seems likely to remain hidden behind plenty of rain.  I’m sure the crowds will continue to find their enthusiasm hardy whatever the elements. 

What are your SWF highlights?  Thoughts?  Let me know!

The D!

  

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Well the first full day of the SWF 2010 has come and gone and a great day it was too.  (I did enjoy a couple of lunch time lectures earlier in the week at The Mint too).  I went along to four talks today and enjoyed each of them.

1. ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ – with Kath Leahy, David Foster & Jeremy Sims (who stood in for Jack Thompson), moderated by Katharine Brisbane. There were plenty of laughs and each speaker added depth to the discussion, which delved into the history of the accent, its transformation from a prim English accent – particularly in public life and broadcasting, through to the various incarnations we have today, including quite distinct regionalised language and delivery. 

2. ‘Tales of Adversity & Survival’ – with US author David Vann who wrote ‘Legend of a Suicide’ about his father’s suicide, Brenda Walker’s memoir Reading by Moonlight which is one of the books of the month on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, and Ross Fitzgerald, who has battled alcoholism and drug dependency and lived to tell the tale (and many others besides).  Each author spoke about the method in which they addressed tragedy, grief and/or illness, which ranged from quite distant or oblique structuring (Vann) through to the very direct (Fitzgerald).  What was clear was that each method seemed perfect for the story they were trying to tell. 

3.  ‘Performing Words’ – in which Jana Wendt discussed the role of music in their respective memoirs with Anna Goldsworthy (Piano Lessons) and Linda Neil (Learning How to Breathe).  Anna played a couple of wonderful piano pieces from Bach & Chopin, and Linda sang a song she had sung with her ill mother in hospital and then played a violin piece she had written whilst in India watching dead bodies float down the Ganges.  This session was excellent with moving performances & insightful discussion of how music informs both writing and life.  What struck me is how these women grew up with music around them and what a powerful force it has been in their lives, with Goldsworthy describing how her music teacher’s piano lessons taught her so much more than music, including great little gems of wisdom on how to live.  Neil described how her mother was a wonderful singer and would cook whilst singing opera!  This was then juxtaposed with her battle with Parkinson’s which stole her voice.  The emotion in the pieces played by both Anna and Linda was infused with these life-long lessons and knowledge, and it was a privilege to be party to some of their thinking and their gift for music. 

4. ‘Judges and Winners’ – a highly entertaining panel discussion, with Colm Toibin (twice a Man Booker Prize bridesmaid, but winner of many other awards including the Dublin IMPAC & also himself a judge on several major literary awards including the Man Asian Prize), Tom Keaneally (winner of Booker for Schindler’s Ark), John Carey (twice Booker Prize Chairperson, including the year Keneally won), Chinese author Su Tong, (he of Raise the Red Lantern fame, and more recently The Boat to Redemption – winner of the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize), moderated by Caroline Baum, herself a regular judge on Australian literary awards.  This discussion was a lot of fun.  It ranged from how on earth does a judge read circa 130 books in what amounts to just a four-month period in the case of the Booker Prize, which amounts to one book per day.  Astonishing!  I favour ‘close reading’, which is slow, so I’d be toast.  There was admissions of judges leaving the room knowing that the best book (in their opinion) hadn’t won (cue gasps from the audience!), judge’s walk-outs, as well as the inside experience of someone shortlisted for the Booker – with all the rigmarole of the presentation dinner – hilariously provided by Colm.  Colm also provided high praise for Su Tong’s book The Boat to Redemption, which sounded so good I bought it at the end of the session.  Tong gave some rare glimpses into the world of Chinese literary scene, including not only dodgy publishers, but street sellers who would copy out recognised authors’ works and sell them passed off as their own work!  Finally, there was all-round agreement on the announcement of  JG Farrell as the winner of the 1970 Lost Booker Prize for his book Troubles, the first of the Empire Trilogy, decided by public voting, with Troubles garnering a clear win with 38% of the vote.  Colm Toibin & John Carey were effusive in praise for a deserved win. 

I had wanted to go to another talk in the mid-afternoon, but not only was that one full by the time I’d had a quick sandwich, but all the rest were full too – clearly a sign of the popularity of the festival.  Otherwise, it was a very entertaining day, with a smaller number of talks on tomorrow and the weekend to come as well.

The D!

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Well, I’ve booked my programme of (ticketed) events for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (Saturday 15th of May – Sunday 23rd), though I still have a few choices to make for some (inevitable) overlaps.  For example: should I go to E32 ‘Who Owns the Story’ – dealing with the rights of authors in the use of aboriginal myth and dreaming stories, or E34: ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ with Jack Thompson et al?  For a Libran like myself, such decisions are nigh on impossible!

It’s certainly shaping up to be a busy and interesting week.  I’m not going to give a critical opinion on how the SWF measures up to, say, the recent Adelaide Writer’s Week, which had some pretty big names in Sarah Waters and others… Sydney will have to ‘make-do’ with the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, Colm Toibin, and Peter Carey amongst a host of local talent too numerous to list.    

Some of the events I’m particularly looking forward to (amongst others) are:

  • E66: ‘Judges & Winners’: John Carey, Thomas Keneally, Colm Tóibín and Su Tong dissect the agony (and fun) of the Booker prize fight.  (This promises to be very intriguing – everyone has an opinion on the Booker Prize!).
  • Reading Muster 5: Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall and Nada Awar Jarrar pass the word around.
  • E148: ‘Marie Munkara’: The award-winning indigenous writer of ‘Every Secret Thing’ shares her stories.
  • E167: ‘Peter Carey’: Peter Carey talks to ‘Granta’ editor John Freeman about ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’.  (Carey is also delivering the festival’s closing address.) 
  • E192: ‘The Colony & Sydney Harbour’: Grace Karskens and Ian Hoskins retrace the history of Sydney.
  • E236: ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’: A celebration of the work of the late Chilean novelist and poet.  (Okay, so I’ve only read the (slim) Amulet – see my review which I liked a lot, but I am stalking both The Savage Detectives & 2666(!) – which are both on my shelf.  Perhaps I should start one of these before the festival!

Is anyone else going? What are the events you’re most interested in?

The Dilettante!

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