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.
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.
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.
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.