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Session #99: ‘The Fascinator’: Gail Jones, Ashley Hall, and Delia Falconer in Conversation on Sydney:

Another great panel discussion marshalled by Jill Eddington, this time on Sydney and how it speaks to three authors whose latest books are set in or are about the harbour city.  I must confess I have not read any of these books yet (sigh), which, for a Sydney-sider like my good self is a bit poor, and after hearing each talk about their work it seems like even more of a shortcoming. 

Gail Jones has been nominated for the Miles Franklin Award three times.  Her latest is Five Bells is a story of four adults and a child whose lives converge on a single Saturday on Sydney Harbour – specifically around the Quay area. 

Ashley Hay has written several non-fiction books, (I have Gum on my shelf, one that I like particularly).  Her first novel is The Body in the Clouds, which has three different people in Sydney in different time periods (one of whom is William Dawes) witness the same amazing thing: a man falling out of the sky.  It sounds like a great premise for a novel! 

Delia Falconer needs no introduction, but whereas Ashley has gone from non-fiction to fiction, Delia’s latest, Sydney , sees her go the other way.  (I must admit to thinking of Peter Carey’s wonderful little book on Sydney, called Thirty Days in Sydney, which I highly recommend.)

One of the interesting points that Jill Eddington made at the start is how the three books speak to the others, and how they might be read as a triumvirate (I feel a possible reading task for the Dilettante coming on!).  Jill asked them were they aware of each other’s work.  Ashley had read a proof copy of Gail’s story.  Gail knew of Delia’s book after exchanging emails with her about Kenneth Slessor’s famous Sydney harbour poem Five Bells, which they both love.  Delia was delighted in writing a non-fiction book not to have the anxieties that a fiction author might have when they know another author is writing about the same thing.  Ashley said that she had the unnerving reality of knowing Kate Grenville was writing about Dawes too, and indeed Kate made contact with her and they discussed their projects, which she was glad about as she could see that while William Dawes features in both their novels – being the focal point of Kate Grenville’s excellent The Lieutenant (see my review here) – she also saw that they were writing vastly different stories. 

The authors then spoke about the haunting that seems to live within Sydney, the sense of time slip, an obvious influence for Ashley’s book.  Gail said the origins of Five Bells were in the haunting Sydney harbour ferry crossing the harbour in darkness (which made me think of another well known poem, Late Ferry by Robert Grey).  For Gail, there is this sense of the brash light and modern structures but there are dark underpinnings, there are always currents moving beneath the city.  There is this sense of slippage. 

Ashley loves the harbour just beneath the harbour bridge and the bridge itself becomes a character in her book.  Ironically, it was in moving to Brisbane that allowed her to enter into her own imagination more which gave her the freedom to finish the story. 

Delia spoke of the sense of loss that underpins the city, the loss of Eora in the 1789 smallpox epidemic.  She too pointed to the layers in the harbour and spoke of how the ‘fascinator’ of the session’s title spoke to her not just of the brash hat worn by ladies at the races but of a bewitching character she had read in a story that was known by such a name. 

Ashley thought that Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow which she read in formative years (didn’t we all?!) is to blame for all this time slippage, saying that to her that Park’s story was real.   There is a sense in some Sydney streets that you could look down them and not only see, say, the 1800’s, but actually feel like you are in the 1800s, so powerful is the undercurrent. 

The Rocks is one such place – the setting, of course, of Playing Beatie Bow

Gail said there is a wonderful record, I believe she said in the State Library, of photographs of buildings before they were demolished – ny building that was demolished was recorded in a lot of detail.  The photos stretch back to 1890’s – a boon for novelists seeking a streetscape of a by-gone era. 

There were research gems for each author.  Delia spoke of Reverend Franck Cash of Christ Church North Sydney who wrote an ‘insane’ book about the demolition of Milson’s Point to make way for the bridge when it was being built.  He had photos of ‘ghost’ buildings in the act of falling down as they were being demolished. 

For Ashley, going to London and being able to flick through William Dawes’s original notebooks was thrilling.  They are now online too. 

Gail said that she had a dinner with Kate Grenville in London when Kate was reading those same books at another time – a small world!  Gail spoke about her Chinese research – one of her characters in Five Bells is a Chinese woman.  Gail spoke to survivors of the Cultural Revolution when she was in Shanghai, as well as reading many accounts of that time.  Her character comes to Sydney with that weight and shows strength to carry it forward. 

Of course, the harbour is the focal point of Sydney and is that way in these books too (no matter how hard Delia might have tried to avoid it at first!). 

Delia thinks the harbour is so suggestive.  There is a ‘wateriness’ about Sydney.  It’s there in the tides too.  She feels the harbour is a mirror for us. 

Gail said the harbour is a stage – a ‘place for art’.  She tried in her novel to recreate the novelty of those iconic things such as the Opera House and the bridge which many Sydney-siders take for granted (not me!).  Ashley rounded off proceedings by saying an apt tribute to Sydney Harbour is the fact that it is used as an (international?) measure for an amount of water.  In the recent Brisbane floods, she became very aware of ‘Syd Harbs’ – how many Syd Harbs were flowing down the Brisbane River. 

I think it might be a nice future project to read all three and see if Jill was right – whether these three books, two novels, one non-fiction, do indeed speak to each other…

The D!

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Friday at the Festival: Another glorious autumn day in Sydney:

Session #86: ‘Bright Sparks’: Markus Zusak & Sonya Hartnett in Conversation:

What a fascinating session with two of our best Aussie talents, very well chaired by Jill Eddington.  Jill first asked the authors about how they came to writing.  Sonya started early!  She was 9 years old when she started and 13 when she had her first novel.  She was published when still in high school.  She told a delightful story of how she was too young to be intimidated like so many first-time authors are today – all she did was pick up the yellow pages and look under ‘P’ for ‘Publisher’, picked one, sent it in and they published it!  She said she never really wanted to be an ‘writer’ and still has trouble with that label.  She was just an ordinary suburban kid growing up in a large family.  She thought only special people could be writers.  (She calls herself a journalist on the forms you have to fill in in airports for her  job title!)

She spoke of how she has trouble going back to look at a book, something Markus spoke of too. 

Markus turned to writing early on as well: he was 16 when he decided he was going to be a writer, and ‘nothing was going to stop me.’  His first ‘novel’ was only 8 pages – he couldn’t get past there.  Writing for him was the thing that makes him happy, and also miserable, but he finds happiness in that misery(!)  He spoke of how even though he has been successful fairly young, his early work was rejected.  At first he wondered why as he saw others getting published that were about the same level, but he now thinks those rejections were good for him because it made him determined to be better. 

As to why their novels have had such large overseas readerships, Sonya said that good books travel.  There are publishers overseas who will be interested, though some books naturally settle in some places better than others: she said she has had a lot of success in Scandinavian countries, and books that do well there might not do so well in the USA. 

Markus relayed a telling story from his childhood: he said he was in a running race at school and thought he had won it, but he was placed 6th.  When he complained to his father, his dad said, ‘one, stop whingeing, two: I thought you won too, but it proves that when you win you have to really win.’  Equating this lesson into his writing, Markus said that ‘you’ve got to write something that only you could write, that nobody else could do.’  That is part of his measure of success.  He said he didn’t feel brave in his choices made in The Book Thief (see my review here) – the ‘dark’ things were necessary to write that story. 

For him, writing The Book Thief was not a great leap – he just scratched the surface of his parents stories (they are both great storytellers), and reach in and pull out the world.  He did some research, but the bulk of it came after he had finished the manuscript. 

Sonya said you need to write what interests you.  Dark subjects, like death, which feature in her work, interest her, and she thinks interests most of us too.  She said she can see other writers who get to a point in their story and need to be brave but cop out – that annoys her.  In terms of her own work, she said using animals and children to explore dark themes seems to work really well as those characters have a ‘cleanliness’ about them, they see the truth in dark things. 

Markus was asked whether the books in The Book Thief were a deliberate prop he developed, but he said ‘you just stumble upon these things’.  He was doing some writing with some school kids when teaching and wrote some stories in that time, one of which had Death as the narrator, and another of which featured a girl in Sydney who goes around stealing books.  He gave the analogy of a painter in art class who paints something and then has paint dribbling down the canvas, and the art teacher tells them they must leave the dribble in.  Accidents are not really accidents.  They might seem so at first, but when he looks back he sees that those things were the only way to tell the story.  This also extends to plot: he said his favourite character in the book is Rudi, but although it might have been nice to keep him alive, there was never any consideration to do so: his death was necessary for the book. 

Sonya echoed this, saying that a book chooses its own focus.  Things like the narrator, their point of view, and so on, choose themselves. 

Markus spoke about how he came to have Death as the narrator.  He said people often say to him that he must have a great imagination, but he always responds by saying, ‘No, I just have a lot of problems’!  Necessity is the mother of invention.  He tried Death as narrator but didn’t have the right voice for him.   He then tried Leisel as narrator but that didn’t work either – he just ended up with the most Australian sounding German girl!  He returned to Death as narrator and eventually found the right balance in his character and from that the right voice.  This gave him a route to the end and the impetus to finish. 

The two authors then spoke about the process of writing which was very interesting and quite funny.  Sonya spoke about her storyboard approach.  She studied film after school but the ‘cards’ storyboarding method took her years to develop.  She used to start a story and make a lot of mistakes – this is the best way to learn, she says.  She calls it the ‘Ride the Wild Pony’ approach.  Now she does ‘Dressage’! – starting with what she calls ‘clouds’ – characters, setting, plot issues, ideas, (etc), and organises them visually before she writes a thing.  These clouds are colour coded so she can see when there is an imbalance in the structure, and see where she might need to add/subtract a scene. 

Markus says he rides the wild pony!  He organises by chapter headings.  He has a mathematical mind and so sees the structure in the number and order of chapters.  He will only start a book if he knows he can finish it.  He has plenty of bad days, getting thrown off the pony, but he gets back on always having a sense of where he’s going.  You need tenacity as a writer. 

When asked by an audience member about ‘contentment’, Markus said he is content with the success in material terms but never content with his writing.  He said, ‘you’re never going forward unless you’re unhappy’! 

Sonya answered this same question by talking about her Astrid Lindgren Prize win by saying it was nice to win, but it was already in the past – she was already wondering about what was next.  Also, to make the next book better, you need to ‘hate’ the last one! 

Markus said he thought The Book Thief would be his least-read book.  He didn’t try to please the audience.  He considered his first four novels his ‘first’ novel, The Book Thief his second, and his next, titled (The) Clay Bridge, the third: due ‘soon’.  He said he regrets the end of Messenger, he didn’t get it right, but the risk he took gave him the ability to write The Book Thief.   

Sonya says as a writer there are countless decisions you have to make and you need to stand by the ones you made at the time.  Her own regret is killing off Adrian in Of a Boy.

A fascinating insight into the minds of two of our best.  The similarities in determination, in never settling, in always looking to improve all stood out.  And the differing ways they go about the process of writing were very interesting.  A great session.

More to come from Friday…

The D!

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(#69): The Finkler Question: Howard Jacobson in discussion with Rick Gekoski

Well, confession time: although I managed to read a few of the authors’ books that I went to sessions on today, such as Tea Obreht and Kim Scott, I haven’t yet got to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question.  As Darren Hinch might have said: “Shame, Dilettante, Shame!”  And it seems that it is a shame as this session was so entertaining.  Jacobson seemed more comedian than author, but of course, one would expect that as that is his thing: comic fiction.  It will be very difficult for me to convey the humour in static, bland, black on white text.  I thoroughly recommend you all hunt down the audio (possibly video too?) recordings on the SWF website when they get them up, you’ll have great fun. 

Given Finkler’s Man Booker Prize win Jacobson was asked by Rick Gekoski what his views on literary prizes were.  He replied by saying that he has two views: one when he hasn’t won (they are the worst things, an abomination), and one when he does win (literary life is healthy and all is right with the world)!  He said he could never be a judge.  He is a writer not a reader.  He couldn’t read that many books, he said.  When he was shortlisted, he thought for moment, ‘I’ve won’ – as it meant the judges had read his book at least twice and for some just getting past the first page of his books is a problem!  He had many funny tales of his mother.  She told him he wouldn’t win, it was too Jewsih – he said that as a Jewish mother she couldn’t stand her son being in a state of hope!  (Apparently when he was accepted into Oxford he got his acceptance letter and told his mother he was in – she said, ‘let’s just check the envelope was addressed correctly!)  So he went to the Booker presentation dinner not feeling nervous as by then he had calmed down and wasn’t nervous, unlike everyone else.  As Andrew Motion, the chair of judges last year, summarised the winner, he was using words that Jacobson thought described Peter Carey’s book, then others’ books, until there was one word that caught his ear and he thought, I’m going to win this.  But then came the announcement that the winner was the Finkler Qu- and he thought, Damn, some guy called Finkler has won!  (But he did have an acceptance speech ready, he says he always has one ready, even on Oscars night he has one ready!). 

When he was asked why his books are so polarising, he said it was because laughter is divisive – comedy is harder to get people to agree on.  One look at people’s reviews on Amazon or the blogosphere will tell you that.  But when all is said and done Finkler will have outsold all his other novels combined.  He mentioned a very curious fact: that he has been #1 in Pakistan.  When asked why that might be so, he said that he always saw the flip side of questions and said, I don’t know why I’m number one, but the flip side is this: why haven’t I always been #1 in Pakistan?!  Still he thought it wonderful that Osama Bin Laden might have been captured because he was so deeply engrossed in the stories of Jewish men in London!

Jacobson has a long history with Australia and with Sydney in particular – he lectured at Sydney University for three years ‘way back’ and said of his time that he loved it, that he was having too much fun, that to work, to become a success, he needed to get back to dreary old England.  Too much fun can be a bad thing. 

When it was said that he is often compared to Philip Roth, he said he prefered to be thought of as the Jewish Jane Austen.  He spoke lovingly about Persuasion.  He said both he and Austen both write about social comedy.  Other influences include all the English titans: Dickens and Austen particularly, and all the big names, as well as ‘the Russians’: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. 

He did one reading from The Finkler Question.  He said of the book it is a tragedy, but one that should, he hopes, make us laugh out loud. 

I don’t think anyone in the audience left without a smile on their face.  Really great fun.  And Finkler is going straight to the top of the To Be Read Tower!

That’s it for Thursday.  Bring on Friday! 

The D!  🙂

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(#59): ‘On Our Selection’: The Art of the Anthology with Cate Kennedy and James Bradley, with Tim Herbert

The Bangarra Mezzanine is a lovely room, but just not at 4-5pm on a beautiful sunny autumn day in Sydney with all that sun, sun and more sun streaming in!  I had a similar experience last year.  I don’t know why the event organisers can’t put up some shade cloth over at least some of the windows.  We in the audience were all wearing our sunglasses and shading ourselves with programmes from the sun!  It was a shame as the room was not full and I just wonder whether it was because of this, as the topic was very interesting with both James and Cate talking about the art of creating an anthology. 

Cate, of course, has done a few anthologies, most recently last year’s wonderful The Best Australian Stories – and has signed up for this year’s as well.   James Bradley has edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean.  So, what is the art of the anthology?  Well to kick things off, Tim Herbert gave us the etymology of the word ‘anthology’: from Greek: ‘anthos’ meaning ‘a flower’, and ‘logia’ meaning ‘collection’ – so off we went to talk about how these two well known authors in their own right came to select the flowers for their bouquet. 

For Cate, the process is really about choosing the absolute best stories.  She is aware of the reader’s experience in terms of the emotional charge of the stories and their order of placement and orders stories in this way. 

For James, the task with the very well reviewed Book of the Ocean was different.  He tried to make a shape.  The stories needed to talk to one another and the order of them was a very deliberate thing.  He reflected on how hard it was for him to lose some things which perhaps should be in the book but just didn’t fit the shape.  He equated editing his anthology with trying to make a poem out of found objects, which I quite like the idea of.  Following on from this ‘fitting’ comment he talked about how he sometimes had to select a piece from an author which wasn’t their best piece of writing because it didn’t fit or because another of theirs fit better.  He gave the example of the account of the sinking of the Essex, written by Owen Chase, which Melville used as the inspiration for Moby-Dick.  The section that Owen wrote after the sinking, where the survivors resort to cannibalism to survive is much more harrowing and riveting, but he needed to use the account of the sinking itself as it fit with the inclusion of a section of Moby-Dick

What was interesting was the discussion that there is not a lot of Australian stories set in the sea or ocean with the obvious exceptions (Nam Le’s excellent The Boat or Tim  Winton’s stories).  Most of our stories are landlocked. 

Cate selects stories that are still speaking to her several days later.  Interestingly, the 2010 collection were quite dark and she spoke about how she thought whether she needed to balance this darkness out, but she eschewed that approach, believing that if the submissions for that year were dark then that was reflecting something in the public mood which she didn’t want to tamper with.  She also said that the gender balance (very close to equal male and female representation) was not intentional. 

James was aware right from the off that he was going to have quite a gender imbalance.  There was no way around it, he said, most of the accounts of sailing and sailors were written by men.  Part of his response was to open and close the book with pieces by women.   

Cate spoke of the enjoyable challenge of reading so many submissions (last year around 800 short stories, this year already 600 submitted and counting).  It is a huge task but Cate loves it.  She said she gets to find those special gems.  The stories are not really edited, they are selected, so they need to come in as perfect as they can be.  She spoke of what made a good short story: how she preferred things should be implicit rather than explicit, how it should be cinematic in the sense that we are shown something happening and all the subtext and theme are implicit.  She talked about how there were a huge range of formats of stories that make it interesting, such as one story from last year which was a list of 100 things, and which, when you reached the end had revealed the structure and theme in this implicit manner.  She gave some sage wisdom on what constitutes plot, which she summarised in three words: ‘things get worse'(!) – a fantastic description!  And she talked about her own journey as a writer and how short stories are wonderful learning ground – “nothing teaches like the blank page” – and nothing teaches like the short form. 

There was an interesting discussion on the so-called renaissance in short stories.  James made the point that he thought it was not so much a renaissance in the form but more a renaissance in a certain literary culture.  Cate hopes that the reason short stories are becoming more popular is not because we are all time poor but simply because there is a realisation that the form is a wonderful thing in itself, when it is done well, there is nothing like it.  I couldn’t agree more. 

There was also some discussion on the evils and benefits of social media.  James was more in favour.  Cate sees them as antithetical to the creative process. 

A great little (sun-drenched!) session. 

BTW: James writes an excellent blog at: City of Tongues

The D!

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Not a bad spot for a literary festival!

(#51): ‘The Tiger’s Wife’: Téa Obreht in Discussion with Stephen Romei:

Well just about everyone has heard about the sensational debut novel by Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (see my review here).  It is a sparkling and ambitious novel.  And in person she is sparkling too.  Obreht is in her words a ‘nomad’.  She was born in Belgrade, has lived in Cyprus and Egypt on her way to New York where she has lived since she was 12.  Given that around half of her life has been spent in the US Stephen asked her why it was she chose to write about the Balkans.  She responded by saying that distance helps.  She spoke about the tremendous influence her own grandfather has been on her life and how she came to write the novel 7-8 months after he had passed away unexpectedly.  Those events drew her to writing about her childhood, (and she made the interesting observation that many novelists’ first book is about their childhood). 

There is a great oral story-telling tradition in the Balkans countries, but also Cyprus and Egypt.  Those old tales, the folklore, the history are ever present things in people’s lives.  There is immense superstition – something which readers of the book will be familiar with! – in these cultures.  She told the story of how I think it was her grandmother who places a pair of scissors on the floor with the sharp edge pointing toward the door to ward off evil. 

When asked about how she has found the immensely positive reaction and whether it places extra pressure on her for her next book, she said that her only fear is that the 2nd novel might not come from the same emotional ‘well’ that The Tiger’s Wife has come from.  She said stories are like people: some you date, some you fall in love with.  She needs to feel that she is in love with the next story, that there is that emotional bond with it, that way she feels it will have the same resonance for readers too.  The sudden readership, she says, is wonderful and amazing and surreal. 

She’s always wanted to be a writer.  She lists many literary influences and loves: as a kid she was exposed and loved Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling (no surprise there – The Jungle Book is a very important ‘prop’ for the grandfather character in her book).  Then the Bronte sisters. Then Victor Hugo and Mikhael Bulgakov’s marvellous The Master and Margarita – which is one of her favourite books (and mine too – I like her taste!).  Gabriel Garcia Marquez also a big influence and then modernist masters like Hemingway, Chandler, et al.  She believes that the favourite experiences of reading these authors seeps into her own writing – and it is clear to me that Bulgakov comes through in The Tiger’s Wife very much. 

She talked a lot about one of the other characters in the book: the Deathless Man.  Apparently he is one of people’s favourite characters.  She intended him to be more sinister at first, but as she went she found him to be very sympathetic and easy to write.  Many of his sections survived editing without much rework.  She said the shock death of her grandfather fed into the character; he was in part a response to death and her trying to comes to terms with it in her own life.  She admitted that he was probably her favourite character. 

She was asked whether the story of the tiger’s wife is real folklore: she said it was her own (based a bit on a Beauty and The Beast theme) but it’s structured and told in the form of a real folklore story.  Having read the book I can attest that this is how it reads: as if it was one of those real stories that grew out of a village.  She also spoke about some of the research she did: and how a much earlier visit to that part of the world in chase of village stories on vampries gave her a real sense of not only how such stories were told, but how the villagers told them.  Also, she mentioned that the digging scene(s) in the book where people dig up fields in search of family members killed during the war so they can be given a proper burial is based on fact – many people have done exactly that. 

She is optimistic about the future of the book and the future of the former Yugoslavia.  And finally, she loves editing.  She had to lose sections of the story in editing which she was attached to, but could see the reasons for editing them out and has learnt a whole new side of writing and a new skill in the editing process. 

Another great session: Tea Obreht has a very bubbly and engaging sense of warmth and humour.  I highly recommend The Tiger’s Wife and look forward to her next book.  

More to come from Thursday…

The D!

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Not a bad spot for a literary festival!

Well, what a great – and packed – start to the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF).  Here’s the start of my summary of the sessions I managed to get to today. 

1: (session #18): ‘That Deadman Dance’: Kim Scott in Discussion with Geordie Williamson

I couldn’t think of a better way to start the heart of the SWF week than sitting down to listen to Kim Scott talk about his Miles Franklin and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-shortlisted That Deadman Dance.  I loved the book (read my review here) so it was great to hear Kim talk about some of the thinking behind it.  Asked about where the title came from he spoke about how it refers to an actual historical event in which the indigenous Noongar people appropriated a British soliders’ drill which they had seen and made it into a dance – how this signified both the way in which Noongar people shared stories and absorbed culture into their own, and also how it spoke of something that is essentially a show of force and rigour into something that became an altogether more poetic thing – a dance.  There were many such examples of cross-cultural pollination.  The novel seeks to do the same.  

Kim works spends time working on the revitalisation of the Noongar language.  He spoke about the reading of landscape, how the Noongar most probably believed at the time of colonisation that the white settlers could not steal the spirit inherent in the landscape and in their people.  This in part might explain why they were so willing to help the new comers, to lead them to good land and show them where to find water. 

Kim was asked to speak to a specific image in the later part of the book in which the heavy weight of the nation’s flag flies atop the bones of his people.  It was not just his people, but those of Dr Cross, one of the few white settlers in the book who attempted to recognise the Noongars’ right of ownership of the land.  It is something that is difficult to think about and talk about, said Scott, that heavy weight built on the bones of such people. 

He spoke of the Noongar literary records he has been researching and how the Noongar people appropriated words of English such as glass into their documents – this is another example of the possible grafting of languages, one into another.  Culture is not a static thing, it is dynamic. 

He said when asked about the black and white worlds in Australia, how he preferred to think of it as one world, though he made the point that this is very simplistic.  He went onto make a very telling point about how western thinking is one way of thinking: empirical, linear, and so on – whereas Noongar and indigenous thinking is different, is centred on place.  He spoke that we have perhaps made the mistake of trying to make one way of thinking (black) fit into the other (white) way, whereas we should be trying to fit the white way into the black – that is to say we should make more of an effort to think in terms of place.  Geordie made the point that this is not just an Australian-centric issue, that all countries are faced with trying to make this shift too, to look after the scarce resources, to take care of the world in which we live. 

He spoke about how difficult it was to write about the inter-tribal relationships in the book, how some non-Noongar tribes acted in consort with white settlers against Noongar, but it was part of the richness of relationships that needed to be part of the novel. 

He spoke too about the character name of Bobby Wabalanginy – how his surname is a combination of noongar words which means ‘all of us playing together’, and yet Bobby was a name routinely given to black ambassadors in colonial records, something derogatory and demeaning to turn these helpful people into ‘Bobby’, (possibly based on the English Bobby as the local policeman).  So the character name is a combination of these things: the ambassador, the ‘cruel’ name of Bobby, and the positive surname. 

The richness of the Noongar language, said Scott, is ‘mindblowing’.  The word for kiss – which sounded like ‘Muun’ (forgive my spelling, I figure it is incorrect) – is wonderful as the act of saying that word with the lips makes the act of kissing.  Saying the word makes the word.  There is a richness in indigenous language which he sees as something we should all be protecting and also as something which can empower indigenous peoples. 

A great book.  A great session. 

My only gripe?  Some of those windows letting in the glorious Sydney sun behind the stage need to be covered up to improve attendees’ viewing comfort.  There’s plenty of natural light coming in through the sides. 

(More to come from day one…)

The D!

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The yellow portion of my bookshelf rainbow needed a little boost so I was very happy to receive Téa Obreht’s much hyped The Tiger’s Wife in the mail.  It is a wonderfully produced hardback.  The cover is really well done.  Full marks.  It’s very different to the US version which is quite dark and stolid (see right), although I do like the tiger creeping across the top.  The differences between the two couldn’t be more pronounced.  But I’m not here to judge a book by its cover so it’s on with my musings…

Regular readers will know that I’m a bit partial to magic realism and fable, Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie, Saramago, Grass, Murakami, early Peter Carey, and so-on.  Looking at this list makes it seem like I’m a little stuck in the ‘80s and perhaps need to modernise my exposure to more recent speculative fiction from the likes of Neil Gaiman et al, a list to which Obreht can be added.

I picked up The Tiger’s Wife not knowing much about the story, only that it had some magical realist elements.  The reason I came to it was that Obreht is coming out for the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few weeks.  The only other thing I knew was that Obreht had made it onto the New Yorker’s list of “20 under 40 Fiction” issue, and therefore comes with a lot of hype.   Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia and was raised in Belgrade.  Her family moved to Cypress in 1992, then Egypt, and then finally to the US in 1997.  The Tiger’s Wife deals with the troubled history of her birthplace, and is thus an ambitious book.

I was immediately captivated by prose peppered with vivid details reaching out from the first line, [p1]:

In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.  He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress.  It is autumn, and I am four years old.  The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park.  Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. …

All our senses are engaged, including the one that matters: our sense of wonder at the ritual and the importance of The Jungle Book to her grandfather – something that he carries with him everywhere he goes.

In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Obreht was asked: “What, in your opinion, makes a piece of fiction work?”  Her answer was: “When something inexplicable happens in the transfer from writer to reader, and the piece, despite its imperfections, rattles and moves the reader. The best fiction stays with you and changes you.”

Well, this sense of magic that lifts off the page is very much evident in her writing.  The animals in the zoo are a pointer to the vivid descriptions which are a hallmark of the rest of the book.  A panther, [p3], has “ghost spots paling his oil-slick coat”; and the tigers are “awake and livid, bright with rancour.  Stripe-lashed shoulders rolling, they flank one another up and down the narrow causeway of rock, and the smell of them is sour and warm and fills everything.”

Set in an unnamed Balkans country split by the ravages of war, the story itself is divided into two strands: the one in which the now adult Natalia, our grand-daughter narrator, pieces together the last days of her grandfather’s life, and the one in which she recounts the memories of the stories of her grandfather’s life in the mountain village of Galina where he grew up.  The two strands wind tighter until they intersect.

Both the grandfather and Natalia are doctors.  This is an important distinction – for in times of war these doctors stand outside the conflict and deal with casualties on both sides.  And the Balkans conflicts form a backdrop to these stories, stories rife with superstition and characters who are persecuted for being outsiders.

Natalia’s father tells her stories about ‘the deathless man’, a man who cannot die, who he meets gathering the souls of people about to die for his uncle, Death.  The grandfather’s life is bound up in the two stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife.  These are the more ‘magical realist’ stories and characters.  And then there are events which are realist but no less magical, such as the night, in the middle of the war, when the grandfather wakes Natalia, then a youth, and takes her out into the middle of the darkened city where they see an elephant walking up the main drag to the zoo that they can no longer go to because of the war.   Apart from the elephant’s handler, they are the only witnesses to the miracle of the elephant being delivered to the zoo.  Her grandfather tells her then that this was a story just for them, that it was not to be shared.  He says, [p54]:

We’re in a war … the story of war – dates, names, who started it, why – that belongs to everyone.  Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before.  But something like this – this is yours.  It belongs only to you.  And Me.  Only to us.

There is a strong sense that war is a thing that devours us all, something that comes back to haunt the story later, when the city zoo’s tiger begins to eat itself, starting with its legs.  The city’s inhabitants gather at the zoo dressed up as the animals, protesting the bombing.  Despite the futility, and the tiger eating itself, there is some hope: for the cubs of the tigress are saved from their mother – who threatens, it seems, to want to eat them – and are raised elsewhere.  Whether intended or not, this renewal of life is a nice touch.

Fortunately, just as war devours us all, demeans us all, stories have the power of life.  Before the current war there was another and a tiger escaped from the zoo and made its way through the countryside until it found Galina.  It terrifies the townsfolk, but it enthrals the young grandfather.  It also captures the heart of an abused, deaf-mute woman, a Muslim and thus an outsider, who begins to leave meat for the tiger.  She becomes known as the tiger’s wife.  There are tales of a great bear hunter and we find out why this woman’s husband is the way he is and what happens when these characters intersect, for they are all after the tiger, all except the tiger’s wife and Natalia’s grandfather.  We find out too, how the grandfather got his copy of The Jungle Book, a gift from the apothecary, who has his own story that is told, a story with tragic consequences for the grandfather – the apothecary might have given him his beloved book, but he takes something away from the boy just as important.

The stories are rife with superstition.  There is the forty days of quiet mourning that a family undertakes after the death of a family member; the burying of hearts at crossroads; the power of apothecaries; the appearance of the Virgin Mary in water; and the necessity of ensuring that the dead are properly buried.  Natalia, for instance, is busy going across the new border and giving medicine to a local orphanage.  Staying with a local family who own a vineyard, she sees an extended family digging in the vineyard, almost all day and night, searching for one of their cousins who was killed in the war and buried there hastily.  Sickness now stalks their family and they believe it is the soul of the dead man crying out for a proper burial.  Again, the war is never too far from the surface.  (Landmines still riddle the fields and mountains.)  It is here, too, that Natalia tries to track down the man who captivated her grandfather so much: the deathless man.

There are a couple of things which don’t quite work.  There is a strange pulling between some of the old stories, a sense that the whole is less than the sum of the parts.  The characters have these wild back-stories which seem to want to stand for the story itself.  For me the emotional depth comes from some of the stories of the war – how Natalia and her fellow medical students source their cadavers.  Her grandfather’s stories are filled with creative imagery, but they don’t quite carry the same emotional punch.  We spend a lot of time with, for instance, the deaf-mute’s failed musician husband as a boy.  The title is a pointer to this sense too: it was originally the title of a short story, but this novel is no more about the tiger’s wife than it is about Natalia’s grandfather, the deathless man, or Natalia herself. (It is, however, a great title.)  But it is with the grandfather talking to Natalia that we feel the impact of all the war when he says [p282-3]: “In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground.”

Does it live up to the hype?  Yes and no.  The Tiger’s Wife is not perfect.  It is though, a very fine debut.  The quality of the writing, the vivid details, the great story-telling, the way the past informs the present, the way, too, Obreht casts the devastation and mindlessness of war and persecution, mark her out, not so much as an author to watch, but as someone who we can already enjoy in her sparkling The Tiger’s Wife.  The judges of the Orange Prize agree: The Tiger’s Wife has been shortlisted for the 2011 Orange.

I’m looking forward to seeing Téa Obreht at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.  And I can’t wait for her next book.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Orbreht

Orion Books

2011

ISBN: 9780297859017

336 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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Do you like a good brouhaha?  I do.  Even if it’s just so I can use that word: brouhaha.  And that’s certainly what we’ve had in the last week since the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced.  Of course, last year it was all the ‘genre’ debate when Peter Temple won for Truth.  Not satisfied, this year we’ve doubled up with two debates!  The first of these is on the prize’s requirement that books portray ‘Australian life in any of its phases’.  Does this shut out some novels, some themes?  The other is the gender debate.  Three shortlisted novels and no female authors.  Feathers have flown!  These are important debates and need an airing.  The number of female winners (13 by my count) of the MF is small compared to male winners (40, soon to be 41) – roughly 24%.  That seems low, but it’s just a statistic.  I’d love to join the cut and thrust, but I’ve felt compelled to sit on the sidelines.  The reason?  Pure and simple: I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, let alone the long-list.  How can I point to any bias when I can’t support my arguments?  All I can do is quote statistics and we all know what they say about them.  Numbers give us a headline, and perhaps part of a story, but the whole story deserves more intellectual firepower than the Dilettante has at his disposal.  (And look – it’s got me talking about myself in the third person, that can’t be a good thing!) 

The only downside to a brouhaha is that it creates noise.  Books that have been shortlisted, like Kim Scott’s novel, are at risk of being drowned out.  And that would be a shame, for That Deadman Dance is a fine novel. 

It tells the story of first contact between ‘the pale horizon people’ and the indigenous Noongar people in the area ofAlbany and King George Sound on the southern West Australian coastline. 

The story is layered, multi-stranded and non-linear.  There is a large and wonderful set of characters.  There are shifts between Noongar and settler points of views and ways of seeing.  The different time frames have caused some readers difficulty.  I found a couple of small sections a little hard to follow at first, but overall I didn’t find the shifts too difficult.  I think a second reading would illuminate them even more.  There is certainly no way of missing where the story is and where it is heading in a larger sense.  What they sometimes produce is a bit of repetition which I found, in some cases at least, a little ponderous.  It hope to learn more about these shifts when Scott talks about the novel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. 

For the most part, Scott’s writing has a lovely rhythm to it.  This is no surprise given his Noongar heritage, for the Noongar are a very musical people.  Noongar language is often used which adds a depth and a sense of music to the prose.  The environment is wonderfully drawn too.  There are touches of Melville’s Moby-Dick in the whaling scenes – the peeling of whale blubber “like rind from an orange” is a notable echo [p242]. 

I enjoyed the way Scott weaves in the aboriginal customs and culture into the story, how he explains things.  There are some nice ironic inversions too.  For example, [p13] we have Menak, one the elders of the Noongar, thinking about the newcomers: “… if nothing else, they might be useful allies against others who, to Menak’s mind, were little more than savages.”  [my emphasis]

Relationships between Noongar and settlers occur on several levels.  There is sharing, mutual benefit and friendship.  There is love.  There is misunderstanding, theft, betrayal and whitewashing.  There is murder and loss. 

Among the first colonists is Dr Cross who lets the Noongar sleep in his house and share his food.  He understands the land has been seized from them.  “He is our friend,” says Wooral, another elder, [p24].  But already Menat, the sole female elder, is seeing what Wooral cannot, that [p24] the white men more generally are “Devils!  Smile to your face but turn around and he is your enemy.  These people chase us from our own country.  They kill our animals and if we eat one of their sheep … they shoot us.”  Menak, growing into his role as one of the few elders after sickness takes the lives of many Noongar, listens closely to her argument.  It shapes him, the story, and in the end it shapes us. 

Dr Cross looks out for one of the Noongar in particular: Bobby Wabalanginy, whose name means [p39], “all of us playing together”.  This is the story’s theme in a nutshell.  He is a young Noongar boy when the story starts.  We see him dancing on a ship’s deck.  He is a leader.  It is obvious in his dancing, for when he first danced he broke out of the ‘chorus’ line, if I can use that term, and comes centre stage, joining the elder leading the dance even though he is the youngest amongst them.  Bobby is playful, comic, a performer.  His stories come with a smile and ready wink.  When he recounts his story he says of himself, [p67], “Bobby … never learned fear; not until he was pretty well a grown man did he ever even know it.”  For Bobby, that deadman dance “was a dance of life”.  Bobby is the fulcrum around which the large cast of characters swings.  He is the binding between peoples, growing up in both camps, just like Kim Scott himself. 

Good Dr Cross dies and is buried next to his great friend Wunyeran.  It is Bobby who tells us of this earliest contact, the love between the two men, the sharing.  Bobby [p350] “imagined their bodies rolling toward another as the flesh fell away, bones touching, spirits fusing in the earth.”  But the graves are disturbed for progress’ sake and Cross is removed to another graveyard while Wunyeran’s bones are left exposed, stolen by dogs, crunched by thoughtless builders.  Bobby is dismayed, as are we: the division and ‘leaving behind’ metaphor is powerful.   

Cross is replaced by the mercantile Chaine.  He controls trade with the whalers and begins to hunt whales.  He employs Bobby who acts as a steerer on one of Chaine’s whaleboats.  For a time there is a shared pursuit.  There is ‘plenty’.  Bobby is happy, although he does not delight in the deaths of the whales and doesn’t eat them – he has a special affinity with them [p274]: “Bobby heard the whales singing.  They sang for him.”  Menak, older now, set in his ways, defiant, he sees the devastation of the whales for what it is.  He mourns the doleful music their bones make on the beaches.  He knows they will run out.  

In the early days the colonists are outnumbered by the blacks.  There is fear.  Over time the balance of power shifts.  By the end the whitefellas have the ascendency, the Noongar are the minority.  Food is scarce.  The whales are gone, hunted almost to extinction.  When the whites arrived the blacks shared their food with them.  Now their food is gone, they want to share the sheep of the white man but he is not willing.  Food was always a flashpoint in all first contact relationships, from the days of Sydney Cove on.  

In the second part (1826-30) we are thrown a little we go back in time but the narrator is Bobby looking back on these years from some future time.  He recounts his life for tourists, for scraps.  But even here he is a showman, not just because of a natural inclination, but out of necessity.  He needs that showmanship to earn a crust.  He says, [106]:

Me and my people … My people and I (he winked) are not so good traders as we thought.  We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours.  We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours… 

He is then forced to add directly after:

But yes, of course, you’re right, you’re right; my life is good, and I am happy to talk to everyone, and welcome you as friends.  The same God and the same good King looks over us all, does he not, my fellow subjects?

And what can we do for Bobby now, after all that has happened to him and the Noongar?  Bobby (and Scott) offers us this, [p128]:

All his friends and family kept that boy Bobby Wabalanginy alive, just by loving him, wanting him, and wanting him to stay where he was.  Stay is his place.

With the unravelling of relationships and the demise of the promise of the earliest friendships, we sense that things cannot end well.  Old Menak and Menat lose their status as proper elders.  Bobby begins to make trouble, railing against the injustices perpetrated by Chaine and the colonists. 

Bobby has this to say about the power of stories, how they can transform us, [p86]:

… you can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface, and are surprised at yourself, your new and so very sensitive skin.  As if you’re someone else altogether, some new self trying on the words. 

The end is poignant, powerful, memorable.  When I finished That Deadman Dance I just wanted to sit with its final images.  Turn them over in my mind.  Feel them resonate.  I wanted to go and find Bobby and say to him, ‘What can we do together?’  We should all be facing Bobby Wabalanginy, looking at his dance, embracing his offer of friendship, of family.  Our bones will all go down to the sea together and mix with the bones of whales and become something else.  In the meantime we should face him.  For all those wrapped up in other debates about missing books and themes and authors, take a seat and share Bobby’s story.  Those debates are important, but there is no more important theme than our country, our people, our family, how we might share the past and the future. 

That Deadman Dance is an important book.  

I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing Kim Scott at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few short weeks.  That Deadman Dance is shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the winner of which will be announced at the festival.  Can’t wait.      

Lisa over at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed That Deadman Dance, (as well as the other two MF shortlisted books). 

And Morag Fraser’s – one of the MF judges – loved it too.  See her SMH review.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 4.5/5

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

Picador

2010

ISBN: 9781405040440

395 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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