Category Archives: Literary festivals

Empathy, memory, writing

IMG_3949Storytelling nurtures empathy. I’ve considered the link between them in a previous post, and during last weekend’s Perth Writers Festival it was a recurrent theme, especially in the Human Library sessions organised by the UK-based Empathy Museum.

I took part in one of these as a “living book,” the arrangement being that several people, one at a time, sat down with me for a few minutes each in the calm open-air setting of a tiered sunken garden and listened to a brief tale that I told informally about myself. Then they asked questions, made comments, and we talked on until my interlocutor’s allotted time expired and it was someone else’s turn to borrow me from the bookshelf (so to speak).

The general topic for the session in which I participated was “Age.” I talked about this with particular reference to the role of memory in my writing life. Narrating something orally, face-to-face with a listener, can quickly establish an empathetic relationship, but the medium of print makes this more complicated.

Although I’ve been a full-time writer for only a few years, the practice of shaping words creatively into stories, poems, and other literary forms has been a large part of my life since childhood. What I wrote when I was 8, 9, 10, had no connection with anything I’d experienced myself. There were stories about expeditions to distant planets and to Borneo jungles; about encounters with smugglers and with castle ghosts; about the adventures of highwaymen and pirates. And there were poems describing landscapes drawn dreamily from books, not from observation. Nothing wrong with any of that; in the early stages of learning to deploy language imaginatively, the content didn’t matter much.

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But with the passage of years my writing has turned away from the merely fanciful towards empathetic realism, and in the process it has become inseparable from my remembering – the retrieval not only of personal memories that are uniquely mine but also of cultural memories that are a shared resource.

One reason why I attach increasing importance to memory is that some significant patterns in my experience have only become legible in retrospect. Looking back, I see things I didn’t see at the time. Another reason is that people and places once influential in my life are gradually disappearing. Some friends and family members have dropped away into darkness, beyond reach except in memory. Even some of the physical environments in which I grew up are now in ruins. As earthquakes have pulverised Christchurch, where I spent my most formative years,  the landmarks of childhood and youth survive only in my head and heart.

So my memories are increasingly valuable to me. Fragments from my past life occasionally find their way, transmuted, into what I write, infused with “emotion recollected in tranquility” (in Wordsworth’s phrase). And in a more extensive way I draw on memories that are not specifically my own but belong to bygone times. In recent years the focus of most of my writing has been on historical fiction. Why set my novels in the past? Because I want to retrieve certain historical realities that our contemporary culture has largely lost or repressed. I want to resuscitate the dead. I want to reveal things (often unpleasant things) that contributed to the contours of our own society, and keep them alive in cultural remembrance.

At its best, imaginary time travel through historical fiction is not an escapist withdrawal from pressing questions that confront us in our own world. Rather, it can show aspects of the present in a new light. For example, emotionally fraught migration stories dominate news reports, and it’s hard for us to step away from the headlines and images that dramatise the current plight of refugees, so that we can think about displacement as a recurrent and necessary feature of human history; but historical fiction can help us to understand this with a different kind of empathy. My first novel, The End of Longing, evokes the era when steamship and rail were rapidly opening up the world to ordinary travellers, and my third, The Mind’s Own Place, tells the linked stories of mid-19th-century migrants to Western Australia. Cross-national journeying takes many forms, with different meanings for those who undertake it voluntarily or involuntarily.

I’ve tried to show in my fiction that many such episodes are worth salvaging from oblivion because they provide not only cautionary tales and corrective reminders but also things to commemorate and cherish. I feel the same way about retrieving memories from the early decades of my own life and times.

Debut novelists – but hardly novices

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A literary lion guards the NY Public Library
(source: Carol Highsmith – public domain)

As in previous years, this month’s Perth Writers Festival (PWF) will bring together assorted literary lions from several corners of the world and put them on platforms for three days of intensive talking. No doubt some will exceed expectations and some will disappoint. Not all authors turn out to be accomplished speakers, deep thinkers or charming personalities. Nevertheless this annual event continues to attract large audiences. What are they looking for?

Most people who scan the PWF program booklet with a view to attending at least a few sessions will hope to find not only a mixture of lively topics but also a good number of newcomers along with well-established writers. If the planners do their job well the big names will be balanced by relatively unfamiliar names. Although a festival such as this would seem incomplete without some literary lions, it’s also an occasion for emerging talents to join the parade.

The session I’ve been invited to chair (‘Reimagining’: Sun 21 Feb at 10am) will feature three writers whose first novels (all historical, based on real people and events) have recently appeared – yet none could be considered a novice storyteller.

Two of them are Australians. Remarkably, both had already won significant national and international recognition before these books were published. Lucy Treloar, whose debut book is Salt Creek, was previously the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific region. Shirley Barrett, author of Rush Oh!, has an enviable reputation as a screenwriter and director whose films have won awards not only in Australia but also at Cannes.

Their fine novels share some features. Both are family stories told by first-person narrators who are young (teenage) independent-minded women with wilful fathers. Both novels reimagine periods of Australia’s past: the first decade of the 20th century in Rush Oh! and the mid-19th century in Salt Creek. Both evoke a strong sense of place through coastal settings: the Coorong (Sth Aust.) in Salt Creek and Eden (NSW) in Rush Oh! Yet in tone, plot and theme they differ substantially.

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The location named in the title of Salt Creek is remote and lonely, an area newly opened to pioneers willing to develop the harsh land.

For the Finch family, which has recently come down in the world, it’s a hard-scrabble existence. Financial difficulties are compounded by rash decisions and troubled relationships.

As a local Aboriginal boy from the dispossessed Ngarrindjeri people becomes drawn into their lives,  values are sorely tested, secrets emerge, and young Hester Finch begins to question the assumptions held by her family about the very nature of civilisation.

 

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One of the surprising qualities of Rush Oh! is that much of it is humorous in tone, despite the often painful and sometimes gory subject matter. It’s told by Mary Donaldson, eldest daughter of a family whose father dominates the small-scale whaling operations on which their town depends. Men in little boats work in deadly yet affectionate partnership with pods of orcas to bring large migrating whales within harpoon range. Magnificent animals are slaughtered, brave men perish, but there are also moments of whimsy and hilarity, adolescent romance and disappointment,  bafflement and insight.

Mary’s portrayal of her family and community members is always lively, producing many memorably individualised characters, but it is her own equable temperament that holds the story together.

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The other writer participating in this PWF session on ‘Reimagining’ is from England. Guinevere Glasfurd, like Lucy Treloar and Shirley Barrett, already has an aura of success to enhance her debut as a novelist. On the basis of her short fiction she has won awards from the Arts Council of England and the British Council. What’s more, although her novel The Words in My Hand has just been released in English, a German translation of it was published six months ago to great acclaim. In one notable respect, The Words in My Hand resembles Rush Oh! and Salt Creek: it is in large part the story of a teenage girl’s yearning for love, seen through her own eyes. Set in the 17th century and based on fact, it explores the relationship between a Dutch maid, Helena Jans, and the renowned French philosopher, René Descartes.

While all three novels are first-person narratives, the storytelling method in The Words in my Hand takes on an additional challenge: through the medium of English it tries to create the idiom of someone whose own language is actually Dutch, whose lover’s language is French, and whose rudimentary literacy is hard-earned.

In our festival conversation I’m hoping to hear what each writer thinks about the pros and cons of her chosen voice and point of view. There will be no shortage of other topics, too, and these are all fascinating novels, so if you’re in Perth on Sunday 21st February do come along to this session. It’s a free event.

By the way, I’ll also be appearing in one of the Human Library sessions devised for PWF by the UK’s Empathy Museum. The “books” in this library are individuals with stories to share: visitors will hear from and talk with three living books over an hour-long session. My session is on Sunday 21st at 2.30 in the Sunken Garden (UWA campus), one of a series on the theme of “age.” This is a free but ticketed event – bookings can be made here.

 

What’s in a name?

Aspiring to literary stardom? Look at the program for next month’s Perth Writers Festival, and you may well feel an envious twinge when you see what a head start some writers seem to have in attracting attention: their radiant surnames are a publicist’s dream.

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In a couple of cases there’s an aura of inherited prestige. How wonderfully lucky, for instance, to be able to put ‘Nicholas Shakespeare’ on the cover of one’s books! Although his illustrious namesake’s character Juliet asks rhetorically ‘What’s in a name?’ and declares that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, Nicholas S. must be well aware that his fragrant patronymic is something to conjure with. Fortunate fellow! Yet he has also earned a stellar reputation in his own right.

A recurrent theme in this latter-day Shakespeare’s work is the intersection of passion with politics. His best-known novels are probably Snowleg and The Dancer Upstairs, where the action takes place in (respectively) cold-war Germany and 1980s Peru, but three of his books have an Australian setting. The latest of these is a novella called Oddfellows.

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It’s based on a bizarre incident that occurred in Broken Hill exactly a century ago, when two local Muslims, raising a homemade Ottoman flag above their ice-cream cart, gunned down several picnickers before being killed themselves. Critics are likely to ask whether Shakespeare’s imagined version of an already well-documented tragic-comic episode adds much insight to what can readily be gleaned from the historical record. It’s a question any of us who write historical fiction should expect to face, accentuated in this case by the fact that Oddfellows is a very short book, less complex than this author’s fully-fledged novels in its plotting and characterisation.

Few literary names approach the luminosity of Shakespeare’s. One such is Wordsworth, partly because its assonantal syllables join language with value in a way that invites incantatory repetition. (How much less evocative is the name of the village, Wadsworth, from which the famous poet’s family line derived!)

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Alas, no Wordsworths figure on the program for next month’s PWF event, but among those scheduled to appear is John Marsden, one of Australia’s leading writers of fiction for adolescents, and the origins of his latest novel – his first for adult readers – surely have something to do with his resonant surname. The main character in South of Darkness, narrating his own story, is transported to Botany Bay as a young convict, and the author’s family tree includes a great-great-great-great uncle well known to colonial historians. Rev Samuel Marsden arrived in New South Wales as a passenger on a convict ship at about the same time as John Marden’s fictional character. It’s said that this notoriously harsh clergyman sentenced people to death on Friday, gave them communion at church on Sunday, and supervised their execution on Monday. Part of the impulse behind South of Darkness, I’d wager, is an authorial inquiry into – and exorcism of – that murky period in his family’s past, a bit like a fictionalised episode of the TV program Who Do You Think You Are?

If you don’t happen to inherit a notable name, it’s possible to invent a pseudonym. One of this year’s Festival guests, an expatriate Australian, devised for himself a quirky brand, a brand-new name: ‘DBC Pierre’ is more eye-catching than his given label, Peter Finlay. Or, like another writer featured on the Perth program (a virtual visitor, to appear by videolink), you can adopt a moniker from someone you know: Hilary Thompson chose to replace her unremarkable surname with something more distinctive, cloaking herself in the Mantel of her unofficial stepfather. Pierre’s most recent books are Petit Mal, a strange glossy-format jumble of fictional and nonfictional pieces along with cartoons and photographs, and a creepy novella called Breakfast with the Borgias. Mantel is best known for her whopping historical novels, but her latest book is a short-story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, its title piece being inspired by what the author calls her ‘boiling detestation’ of the former British PM. As that title reminds us, certain names on book covers and in other cultural productions can be arresting even when they don’t belong to an author. Margaret Thatcher’s ghost wanders across the titles of various books, plays, songs and television dramas, and references to her are continuing to haunt dozens more.

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On the list of writers coming to Perth are other Big Names from overseas along with a number of Australian writers making a name for themselves internationally.

This latter group includes the best-selling crime writer Michael Robotham, whose latest release is the thriller Life or Death. It also includes Rohan Wilson, who won The Australian-Vogel award for his first novel, set in early 19th-century Tasmania, and has now produced a sequel, To Name Those Lost, in  which the squalid, brutish world of Launceston and its surrounding district in the 1870s bristles with menace.

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And of course there are also New Names, such as the euphonious Miranda Richmond Mouillot, whose A Fifty-Year Silence relates how the author’s grandparents escaped from Nazi-occupied France but later came to grief, and reveals their story by tracing the author’s own quest to uncover the elusive truth of it.

Yet literary festivals, after all, are much more than celebrations of ‘name’ writers. As my former colleague Wenche Ommundsen observed some years ago in one of the few serious analyses of Australian literary festivals, what they really celebrate is a set of symbiotic relationships: between writing and reading, between aesthetic and commercial ways of framing literature, between the privacy of creative effort and the spotlight of public performance, between the culture of refined criticism and the arena of popular consumption.

The readers who attend in droves may be nameless, but they are not homogeneous. To each session they bring diverse tastes and motives. Some of them may be future writers; some may remain mute inglorious Miltons. But in any case there could be no literary events of this kind without them. As the chair for two of the sessions in Perth next month (one featuring Nicholas Shakespeare and Miranda Richmond Mouillot, the other John Marsden and Rohan Wilson), I’ll be keeping in mind the simple fact that it’s as much a Readers Festival as a Writers Festival.

Literary festivals from Perth to Pakistan

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Here in Perth the 2014 Writers Festival (part of the annual PIAF show) has come and gone. It posed the usual difficult choices between parallel sessions, and perhaps the program was over-ambitious in trying to squeeze about 200 featured authors into three days. Why not four or five days?

There can be a simple pleasure in hearing writers talk intelligently about what they do, even if it’s hard to remember much of it afterwards. But some seem a little awkward on the public platform, perhaps uneasy at being puffed into momentary celebrities by marketing hype. Some speak with affected nonchalance, some with forced joviality, some with heavy earnestness. While a few are impressively eloquent, a few others exemplify the truism that a person may turn to writing because speaking is not his or her forte.

Literary festivals come in many shapes and sizes. In the UK alone there are more than 300 literary festivals annually – most of them fairly small in scale, with a local focus. And countless large book-based events take place each year across the globe, broadly comparable to the one organised by the Perth International Arts Festival.

A few days ago I read a commentary by Sarah Humayun on the Karachi Literary Festival and the mixed feelings it roused in her. Humayun counts herself among the target consumers of events such as this: she teaches and researches literature, keeps up with bookish trends, and joins in ‘the doleful chorus that there not enough literary and cultural events.’ Yet she confesses to being critical of literary festivals, ‘annoyed by their tokenism and their cronyism, their opportunist promotion of some types of literature at the expense of others.’ Often the panel discussions seem perfunctory, the writers jaded, and the events generally elitist and commercial – ‘commodified capitalism trying to pass itself off as progressive engagement.’

On the other hand, she remarks that literary festivals are less elitist than the settings in which most literary pursuits are conducted. They are open to everyone, and literary reception isn’t totally dominated by the machinery of literary production. Even if a festival session is driven primarily by commercial imperatives, people in the audience can still experience aspects of it as moving and thought-provoking.