Coming up: at
The Wheeler Centre

See all events »

Articles

Anthony Morris asks the eternal question: why can’t creators leave their much-loved characters alone once the story has clearly ended? Are they attempting to retain authorial control – and to stave off the alternate lives and imagined endings of fan-fiction writers? And when does fan service start to feel like exploitation?

highlight

Fantasy epics never can say goodbye. Remember how the final Lord of the Rings film seemed to have about half a dozen perfectly reasonable end points and yet it just kept on going? Does anyone really think Game of Thrones is going to conclude in a truly satisfactory fashion, even if George R.R. Martin does live long enough to wrap it all up? And why can’t Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling just leave well enough alone?

In case you missed it – perhaps you were in a submarine for the last month – J.K. Rowling recently released on her Pottermore website (advertised as ‘a unique and free-to-use website which builds an exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books’) the first official glimpse into the Potterverse since Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007.

Written as a entertainment puff piece by gossip correspondent Rita Skeeter on the occasion of the Quidditch World Cup, it’s basically a ‘where are they now’ update. Harry now has grey hair and an exciting new scar, Ron may or may not be going bald – Skeeter is notoriously bitchy and no friend to Harry and company, so there’s the strong possibility she’s exaggerating – and Hermoine is having it all… which hasn’t stopped speculation that there’s trouble in paradise between her and hubby Ron. Juicy!

The follow-up live-blog of the actual Quidditch World Cup was kind of fun too. Ginny Potter (Harry’s wife and Ron’s sister) covered the match itself, interspersed with bonus snarky asides from Skeeter for those of us who never got into Quidditch. Which was pretty much everyone, wasn’t it? Still, Rowling is clearly invested in her characters, so why shouldn’t she have some fun with them?

Well, for one thing, Harry Potter’s story is over. This isn’t a new beginning, or a deleted scene, or an untold tale that fits between what we already know to cast new light on his much-loved adventures. By just bringing them back just to say ‘here’s what they’re like now according to me,’ it feels like just yet another attempt by Rowling to throw a roadblock in the path of fan fiction writers.

The-Mortal-Instruments-City-of-Bones-2013-Stills-jemima-west-33703110-2048-1365

The Mortal Instruments started as Harry Potter fan-fiction.

Fan fiction existed well before Harry Potter (the tradition of calling romantic pairings ‘slash fiction’ comes from Kirk/Spock fan fiction in the 1970s), but there’s little doubt Harry Potter’s fan base – combined with the ease with which fan fiction could be spread on the internet – took it to new heights. There’s entire fake Harry Potter novels published in China; rival teen lit franchise The Mortal Instruments started out as Harry Potter fan fiction. Does J.K. Rowling know this? Going by the way she’s kept a death grip on Harry Potter long after his story wrapped, all signs point to yes.

One of the stranger endings in fantasy history came with the final chapter of The Deathly Hallows, where – having defeated Voldemort, thus ending the overarching story fans had been reading for the last seven books – Rowling went on to outline the futures of all the main surviving members of the cast. It didn’t read like a coda that cast what we’d just read in a new light or an extension of themes in the story that outran the plot (like the end of Lord of the Rings). It wasn’t really a ‘happily ever after’ ending either; they just grew up, had kids (who also went to wizard school) and generally got on with grown-up lives.

What it did read like was Rowling was saying to all those fan fiction writers out there ‘hands off these guys, the story might be over but I’m still the one laying out their futures’. You can’t take Harry off into new adventures, because his creator keeps popping up to point out that Harry – the ‘real’ Harry – isn’t having adventures any more.

Part of the joys of fiction used to be filling in the gaps. Wondering what happens after the last page can be one of the lasting pleasures of reading. But this kind of enforced control feels more like the work of a corporate IP manager making sure no bootlegs or unlicensed versions are out there diluting the brand. It’s a point of view that suggests giving readers any part in creating their own versions of the stories – even just by wondering what might have happened next – is a breach of copyright.

Rowling is already working on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a new film set in the Harry Potter universe. Revealing ‘official’ updates into the lives of her cast doesn’t just cut out the fan fiction writers whose work is never going to be ‘canon’; it helps keep the audience alive for new official material from Rowling. And their interest in Harry Potter is what she’s selling with these new stories: with pretty much all of Hollywood’s attempts to create new Potter-style movie franchises (The Mortal Instruments, Divergent) having flamed out, luring J.K. Rowling’s rusted-on fanbase back to cinemas is worth a lot of money.

So the question then becomes: at what stage does all this fan-service start to feel like exploitation? The original Harry Potter story – Potter versus Voldemort – was wrapped up at the end of book seven; nothing Rowling has said or written since then has suggested her version of Harry has another story worth telling in him. Do we really want to keep coming back for the equivalent of a series of Christmas cards keeping us in the loop about his grown-up life? A life his creator seems to be actively trying to make as dull as possible, mind you. The guy was a boy wizard – is a day job with the civil service really the best he can do?

Harry Potter may have cheated death at the hands of Voldemort; what his creator has in store might be worse. As Stephen King, who knows a little about being a bestselling author himself, once wrote: ‘Sometimes dead is better.’

Back to top

The current issue of The Lifted Brow has banned the first-person, as a stand against the trend towards the author regularly taking place at the centre of a story, whether their presence is relevant or not.

David Donaldson’s essay, from the Ego Issue, traces the rise of the author’s identity in publishing, looking at the place of anonymity in literature, from Homer and Austen to J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith and political novels like Primary Colors.

jk

It was a sheepish Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion Publishing, who tweeted that she had unknowingly ‘turned down JK Rowling’ after reading and saying no to The Cuckoo’s Calling. Mills’s astounding admission came after The Sunday Times revealed that the crime novel described by Mills as ‘perfectly decent, but quiet’ had been written by the Harry Potter author. ‘Anyone else going to confess?’ Mills tweeted.

The book, which follows a man named Cormoran Strike, a military veteran turned private investigator, as he investigates the suspicious death of a supermodel, did get published by another publisher, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, who was ostensibly a former army man. It initially received good reviews but only moderate commercial success, yet once the ruse was revealed, sales on British Amazon pushed it from #4159 to #1 overnight. Rowling had hoped to maintain her mask a little longer, telling The Sunday Times that ‘being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience! It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.’

The discovery of the novel’s true author was itself the result of some private sleuthing. Richard Brooks, the arts editor for The Sunday Times, followed an anonymous tip-off on Twitter and uncovered that both Rowling, the literary colossus, and Galbraith, the crime fiction debutant, shared an agent, editor and publisher. Handing the text over to a pair of ‘computer linguistic experts’, key similarities between Rowling and Galbraith’s writing emerged: both liked using Latin phrases, and both The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Casual Vacancy (Rowling’s first book after Harry Potter, published under her own name) contained scenes of drug taking and, supposedly, a disdain for the middle class. Eventually Brooks asked straightforwardly whether the authors were one and the same, and received a response from a Rowling spokesperson that Rowling had decided to come clean. Some were quick to accuse Rowling and her publisher of conspiring in a commercial stratagem, though it seems Rowling’s chief motivation really was to escape the grand expectations attached to her brand.

Unveiling anonymity in literature has a long history, exciting people in nineteenth-century Europe much as it does today – though it has often threatened to eclipse appreciation of the works themselves. After all, audiences wonder, why spend all that time and effort writing a book only to reject public recognition for your hard work?

Many of history’s famous authors published anonymously at some stage or another. The Communist Manifesto was originally anonymous. Same for all Jane Austen’s major works. Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens began their careers publishing anonymously.

In historical terms, Rowling’s desire for objective evaluation of her writing after a mid-career genre change is unusual, given that few authors ever attain such celebrity status Rowling. (Though the charge that anonymity was used as a marketing ploy is not new: George Eliot was accused of doing the same in 1859). Rowling – having sold more books and pocketed more coin than most writers would dare contemplate – perhaps can relax in the luxury of testing out new personas just because she feels like it, knowing that any time her cover is blown the story will shoot to the top of the bestseller list anyway.

Some have a philosophical objection to the so-called ‘cult of the author’. In 1980 Michel Foucault opted for anonymity in a Le Monde interview, part of a series with leading intellectuals, arguing that the synecdochic power of the famous name undercuts serious consideration of the ideas presented. Foucault yearned for a relationship between the author and reader in which ‘the surface of contact was unrippled,’ – that the words be taken on their own merit, decoupled from the persona of the author.

There is a line of Marxist thought, led by the Italian Amadeo Bordiga, which rejects named authorship as a bourgeois construct that erases and privatises past intellectual labour, leading to the veneration of a few men over the mass of workers. (Incidentally, Bordiga was the last Western communist to criticise Stalin to his face and live, having done so at a Comintern meeting in 1926). Marx himself connected anonymity to free speech, seeing it as allowing an amorphous public criticism of the state. By contrast, named authorship was a function of repression, giving the state tools to track down dissenters and imprison them. Explaining why they refuse to be photographed, one of the authors of Italian writing collective Wu Ming Foundation (Wu Ming being a Chinese term for anonymous, literally meaning ‘no name’) told an interviewer: ‘Once the writer becomes a face that’s separate and alienated (in a literal sense), it’s a cannibalistic jumble: that face appears everywhere, almost always out of context.’

It’s a problem that highlights the less noble side of publishing: as much as the writing and disseminating of literature is about a contest of ideas, the author’s personal brand plays a significant role in who actually is read and who isn’t. Doris Lessing wrote two novels under a pseudonym, ‘Jane Somers’, to demonstrate the extent to which the reading surface is rippled, for booksellers and critics in particular. The books were rejected by her long-time British publisher, received few reviews and sold only a few thousand copies – this for an author whose novel The Golden Notebook was purchased more than a million times. The experiment proved, claimed Lessing, how difficult it was for new writers to get a look-in.

Notwithstanding these examples, anonymity in publishing has become far less common. Thanks to loosened social taboos and the strengthened role personal branding plays in publishing, high-profile unmaskings are usually reserved for famous writers trying to reinvent their brands, scathing insider accounts of American Democrat presidencies (see: Primary Colors on Clinton and Story of O on Obama), or the occasional bookish fraudster (see: Helen Demidenko).

highlight

John Travolta and Emma Thompson in the film of Primary Colors

Anonymity has primarily been used to present ideas considered beyond the pale for a person of respectable social standing, or for criticism that would have been dangerous to own. Like those who use the internet to harass celebrities and irritate the sensitive, anonymity has historically provided an invisibility cloak to those who have wanted to say something unpopular, allowing discourse to be placed in the public domain detached from the consequences of its unacceptability.

Historically, most writers have chosen to publish anonymously to prevent perceptions about the book seeping into their personal lives, recognising that the content of the book itself would undermine their social standing and damage relationships. Ironically, the fascination with uncovering the author often leads to a stronger focus on biography than would have otherwise been the case. Others have used this fascination to their advantage: several major novels of the late seventeenth century were printed anonymously, despite the author’s identity being an open secret. At least some of these authors deliberately used the ‘enigma’ of anonymity to make their work appear more controversial.

When the novel first came to prominence around the seventeenth century, it was considered a base art form, a vehicle for the relation of impious stories and gossip; many in polite society were loath to be associated with the novel, as anonymous or pseudonymous invented histories marauding as the truth – such as Robinson Crusoe, a counterfeit autobiography – and stories depicting ‘realistic’, morally dubious lives (rather than those of puritanical role models) reinforced the idea among many that fiction was the realm of lies and immoral fantasies. Bibliographic historian Professor James Raven estimates that ‘over eighty per cent of all novels published in Britain between 1750 and 1790 were published anonymously.’ Marking a book ‘Anonymous’ did not send the same signal it does today, where individualised authorship is expected.

This began to change as new copyright laws were created. Previously authors were paid a flat fee for a manuscript, but received no proceeds from further editions; once the story had been sold to the publishing company the author no longer had a financial stake in the book. New laws promised royalties for future editions and tied the author more closely to the success of the work. At the same time, the loosening of the grip of church and government over the lives of citizens meant that fewer topics were taboo, and writers were less likely to end up in prison for criticising the powerful. Thus changing notions of private ownership, along with the gradual easing of social restrictions, helped nurture the embryo of today’s cult of the author, where reading in bookstores and appearing on television benefit the writer financially.

**

In a world currently obsessed with naming and categorising, anonymity in literature continues to exist, however tenuously. It continues to adapt to new circumstances: in spite of (or perhaps because of) today’s strict intellectual property laws, Web 2.0 has led to a flourishing of unattributed content and anonymous criticism, redefining legal and cultural ideas about authorship. Phenomena like fan fiction, memes and political commentary websites can reach new audiences in seconds, the authors either not wanting or not needing to be identified. Instantaneous information sharing has opened up a space similar to that created by the first printing presses: plagiarism, piracy and misinformation exist and spread alongside collectively-authored Wikipedia pages, hackers pursuing social justice, and unnamed Twitter accounts relaying news from repressive dictatorships.

For all the anxiety around hunting down and flushing out anonymous authors, it seems that there still exist some media in which anonymity is possible, and thrives. Though the power of financial incentive is tied to named authorship—and the building of a personal brand—anonymity in literature still holds importance.


This is an edited extract of an essay originally published in The Lifted Brow’s Ego Issue as ‘The Artist Is Not Present: Anonymity in Literature’. You can read the essay in full there.

Back to top

Richard Flangan makes Man Booker longlist

The Man Booker longlist 2014 has been announced – the first since American writers were included in the prize. And unsurprisingly, there’s a strong US contingent, and less Commonwealth writers represented than usual. Richard Flanagan is the only Australian, long listed for Narrow Road to the Deep North. You can read the full longlist here.

Narrow Road to the Deep North was shortlisted for this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards; you can read Sam Cooney’s review on our website.

narrow_road

Kibble and Dobbie go to Kris Olsson and Kate Richards

In local awards news, two prestigious, long-running prizes for Australian women writers have just been awarded. The Nita B. Kibble Award for Life Writing has gone to Kris Olsson for Boy Lost (shortlisted for this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Award). You can read a review by Emily Laidlaw on our site, or read an interview with Olsson about the book. The Dobbie award for a first-time book by a female writer went to Kate Richards, for Madness: A Memoir.

boylostkristina

World’s Coolest Bookstores

Feel like browsing some of the best bookstores in the world? Well, you can … vicariously, at least. CNN has compiled a list of the world’s coolest bookstores, with drool-worthy images – from the stunning El Ateneo Bookstore in Buenos Aires (pictured), housed in an old theatre, to the name-recognition cool of Paris’s famous Shakespeare and Co.

140722113109-coolest-bookstores-10-library-el-ateneo-circular-roof-horizontal-gallery

‘Selling a book won’t change your life’: Tips from a debut author

Debut author Ted Thompson offers six things he’s learned from publishing his first book, from the fact that subject matter (what your book’s about) matters more than we’re told it does, to the advice ‘don’t respond to critics’ … and that the fact that publishing his book didn’t his life, at least not in the ways he dreamed it would.

Werewolves around the world, and their origins

What is the deal, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, with werewolves? Why do cultures around the world have their own stories of men and women turning into beasts, often after being engulfed by a murderous rage? In East Africa, men transform into lions. The Arawak people of South America turn into leopards. There is a theory about how these stories came about – and it’s all about interspecies cross-dressing.

highlight

Topics:

Posted:

25 July 2014

Comments:

There are 0 comments so far
Back to top

highlight Film writer and reviewer Anthony Morris has been writing about film and television since he was a student, writing for free (and paying for his own tickets) for the university paper. These days, he’s DVD editor for The Big Issue and freelances for several publications, including Empire.

We talked to him about being horribly opinionated for a living, why there’s no point worrying about whether your writing is good or bad once you’ve handed it in to be published, and why writers should ideally marry rich (or find someone willing to support them).

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a film review – I can’t remember which film exactly, though I know Miller’s Crossing was one of the first films I reviewed – for the Deakin University paper, The Planet. I was studying journalism there and our teachers told us we had to get practical experience. As the uni paper didn’t pay I figured reviewing movies would at least involve free tickets. It didn’t.

What’s the best part of your job?

Being horribly opinionated and expecting people to care what I have to say?

What’s the worst part of your job?

I’m not really that opinionated? It’s hard for me to say what the best and worst parts of my job are, as it’s all I’ve ever done as adult employment. Plus when your job involves going to see movies for free it’s a bit difficult to expect people to care about whatever other problems you might have. I’m very lucky to have been able to find paying work in this line of business.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

It’s all been baby steps to date, I’m afraid. Probably becoming the DVD editor at The Big Issue, because The Big Issue is a great publication. And also because it was steady work that meant I could actually focus a bit more on writing and not just on trying to make money from writing.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

The best advice I was ever given was that once you’ve finished a job there’s no point worrying about whether your writing is good or bad – the readers will make up their own minds. You do the best job you can, but once it sees print (or goes online), it’s in their hands not yours. I think that’s an important approach to take as a freelancer – you write something to the best of your abilities and then you move on. There’s no money in looking back.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Probably the most surprising thing would be the time I was offered a job based on a column I was writing for a street press magazine. Unfortunately I was writing the column under another name and the place offering me the job was The Big Issue, so I had to explain to the unsuspecting editor that I was already working for them.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I have no idea – the only other job I’ve ever had was working at a one-hour photo processing lab, and they don’t have them any more.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I think it can be taught but if you’re going to be any good at it you really should have started seriously writing before puberty. It takes so long and is so hard to internalise the lessons – to not only know how to write, but to know it automatically so you can focus on what you want to say rather than how you’re going to say it – that unless you’re someone who was writing for fun as a child the chances are you’re never going to get caught up. And there goes any chance I might have had cashing in by teaching writing courses.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

They’re really two different jobs, aren’t they? I always seem to have editors who are barely into their twenties while even a really young writer seems to be late twenties at least. Perhaps that’s because being an editor is a proper job for serious people while being a writer is a crazy hobby only people unsuitable for any other line of work fall into. Anyway, my advice for writers is to marry someone either rich or willing to support you full time. That’s not a joke.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Oh God I buy books every way possible. I buy them from bookstores, from op shops, from Geelong’s excellent Barwon Books, from mail order stores based in Australia like Slowglass Books, from online sellers in Australia, from Amazon, from The Strand and Powells, from eBay, from various self-publishers, from comic companies like Fantagraphics and Rebellion (who publish the Judge Dredd and 2000AD collections), from publishers who sell direct like Subterranean Books, from those sites that sell industrial amounts of second-hand books… if I’ve missed anywhere, please write in and tell me.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Parker, from Richard Stark’s series of crime novels – only Parker doesn’t really go in for chit-chat, so unless we were planning some kind of heist he wouldn’t stick around for his side of the conversation.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Much as I wish I could name-drop some weighty tome or powerfully moving work of fiction (and I’m sure plenty of them have had an impact), it would probably have to be Joe Bob Briggs’ Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In, the first collection of Joe Bob Briggs’ drive-in movie reviews. It taught me that trashy movies could still be good movies, that a good film review could be entertaining in and of itself, and that ‘heads roll’ was the kind of information about a film that the general public needed to know.


Anthony Morris’s ‘Basically Silly, But Deadly Serious: Why Game of Thrones Doesn’t Work’ has been our most viewed article over the past 12 months.

Back to top

highlight How do we achieve true diversity in the Australian media – and why is it important? Fatima Measham looks at the gap between the cultural make-up of Australia and of our media, and asks what we can do to close that gap, and make sure we have a wider variety of voices and experiences representing us.

Earlier this year, I attended a select-entry workshop for ‘minority’ or ‘diverse’ writers run by a media organisation. The terms were used interchangeably. Fifteen participants from different states paid their own way to Sydney to pitch three stories each. For most of us, it was unprecedented access to editors and we were thrilled.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected so much. It was never actually clear what we were getting out of that session, apart from the chance to sell our wares in person. In the 22 weeks since, only seven of us got a byline, two of whom were published more than once. One of these two had already had four articles published prior to the workshop (and was published five more times afterward). As far as I can tell, he is a white man.

Perhaps he pitches more often; I do not mean to subtract from the merit of his writing. But the outcomes raise questions around the authenticity of reaching out to ‘minority’ writers, whether workshops like this really address the impediments to more varied representation in the media, and how best to cultivate a robust, permanent mix of political and cultural commentators.

The issue is of course heftier than a single organisation can address. Whether on radio, in television, newspapers, magazines or online, we are far more likely to come across content-producers and characters who are, for want of a better word, white.

It is difficult for me in this context to craft an argument for representation that is not self-serving. I am Filipino by birth, Australian by citizenship, an outer west suburbanite. I write op-eds in a cramped market and would benefit from conditions that better account for diversity.

The question is: aren’t I entitled to my own space in the public square, anyway? Surely it should no longer be remarkable for people who look like me to be there – and to be able to comment on matters at the centre, not just the periphery?

In reality, we’d be lucky to get past the perimeter. It is not an imaginary barrier. Last March, in a completely unscientific exercise, I checked the commentary by-lines in four major news organisations over four consecutive days. I drew up Column A for ‘arguably white’ (best guess from the last name and headshot) and Column B for ‘arguably non-white’. I took North European and British names and faces as ‘arguably white’.

It went something like this. Day 1: Column A (19), Column B (2). Day 2: Column A (27), Column B (0). Day 3: Column A (18), Column B (2). Day 4: Column A (22), Column B (2). The ratio of white to non-white commentators is 14 to 1. I’d be the first to concede that this comes from a statistically laughable sample, but I doubt that a wider tally would present a different conclusion.

‘There’s this rather strange public discourse led by old white men that exists in parallel to the reality of this country,’ says ABC broadcaster and editor Jonathan Green. ‘The power elite in opinion and discourse tend to be people like me. That becomes rather self-replicating, outside acts of tokenism.’

To put it bluntly, lack of diversity is not a symptom of exclusivity in Australian media; it is the disease. The status quo essentially reflects a form of denialism. Our collective heritage can be traced to more than 270 different ancestries. Over half a million Australians identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. One in four of us were born overseas, and a further fifth of our population have at least one overseas-born parent. That these realities aren’t reflected in the media – the vehicle for much of our political discourse – is problematic.

It is a problem because it leaves us with a patently false construction of our society. This isn’t a matter of vanity, as if people who look like me merely want to see themselves in the mirror. Anyone with a genuine interest in the truth, a commitment to nuanced debate and a willingness to engage with complexity should be disturbed by the lack of diversity among our opinion-makers and policy-setters.

‘When we’re talking about social and political issues, they’re not always issues that can be detached from people’s lives and their ability to live with dignity and meaning,’ says Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Racial Discrimination Commissioner. ‘If people who are writing about them have no sense of the human cost or what is at stake, then all those dimensions of public debate can go missing. What you have is a sterilised debate.’

The ideal, according to Green, is ‘a range of ideas from a range of backgrounds being brought to bear on the big issues’. ‘That sort of conversation would shape the nature of those issues to more truly represent the actual state of affairs.’

In other words, greater diversity of perspectives and commentators leads to clarity, a sharper sense of the aspects of conflict and power that grip democratic life. It’s not just ‘talk’, as if the tensions between ideas have no bearing on real people. How values are interpreted, including the weight apportioned to them, penetrates norms and policies such as the way we treat migrants, women and people with disability. So who is interpreting for us?

The answer should compel us to critically examine the barriers to participation for non-white writers and commentators. For instance, to what degree does their invisibility in the mainstream inhibit their involvement? ‘If you have a public sphere that does not contain diversity, the real risk is that you deter people from entering the realm,’ says Dr Soutphommasane. ‘You end up perpetuating the status quo and possibly exacerbating it’. The barrier creeps forward as one generation is dissuaded from participation, discouraging the next.

There are also, quite broadly speaking, economic factors at play. Dr Soutphommasane points out that writing commentary is not lucrative, so the field tends to favour those with backgrounds that can withstand work that is not highly paid. What does this mean for news organisations who genuinely want to diversify their roster of columnists?

‘The important thing is to be able to have a conversation in the first place about these issues,’ says Dr Soutphommasane. ‘Quite often, even raising these questions is difficult and can provoke degrees of defensiveness.’ He adds that a bias toward one group of people over another may be unconscious rather than malicious, but unless we grapple with it, we won’t see progress.

It is no longer enough to suppose that it’s only a matter of time before we see greater diversity in our commentary pages and the media more generally. We’ve been anticipating this for at least a couple of decades. It is time to reconcile with who we are, if only because it is the best version of ourselves.

As Dr Soutphommasane points out: ‘Culturally diverse voices should be regarded as mainstream voices – because multicultural Australia is mainstream Australia.’


Fatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer with a focus on sociopolitical issues. She tweets as @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.

Back to top

Justine Larbalestier is sick of reading reviews that assess books based on the ‘likeability’ of their characters. As someone who enjoys reading books about vile people she wouldn’t actually want to spend time with in real life, she explains why ‘likeability’ is not a requirement for good fiction. (And why it’s subjective.)

Justine_Larbalestier

(Justine Larbalestier: ‘I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters.’

Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, that discuss the likeability of characters in novels.

Here’s what I have noticed:

I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be ‘likeable’.

II. No one agrees on which characters are ‘likeable’ and which aren’t.

III. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres. (Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about.)

IV. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the ‘likeability’ shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.

lolita

‘Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’

I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?

I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep. (Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere.) But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.

Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:

Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? … Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.

Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. When I say ‘last’, I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page. (Not literally. That would be terrifying.) Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?

I care about every character I write. Even the villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely, if I don’t care about a character, I can’t write them.

As a writer, I could not agree with Messud more strongly.

As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I started to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.

anne-of-green-gables

‘There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.’

II. No one agrees on which characters are ‘likeable’ and which aren’t.

So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.

No matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.

Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.

I hear many people talking about a character from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves them. I didn’t. I wanted that character to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.

On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate another character from a recent YA mega hit and I kinda love them. I don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon them.

Razorhurst

III. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.

I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. We YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:

I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.

I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers.

I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters who make bad decisions are easier to write about because they generate conflict and conflict makes plot. In the novels I write, plot is good.

As a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. They make many mistakes. Mistakes generate plot.

The idea that the more perfect a character is, the more likeable they are, is ridiculous. If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find much perfection on that list.

highlight

‘I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters. They would probably kill me.’

IV. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?

See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green-gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them dearly.

I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters. They would probably kill me. I want to live.

Many of the books I love are about vile people. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But is Humbert Humbert likeable? No, he is not.

Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.


Justine Larbalestier’s latest novel is Razorhurst (Allen & Unwin).

Back to top

The transformation of publishing, post-1996

Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her year working in an old-fashioned New York literary agency (where typewriters were still the norm) in 1996, around the time email became ubiquitous, has been a bestseller. My Salinger Year (Salinger, or ‘Jerry’, was the agency’s star client) is a story of publishing as it used to be. An essay in The Millions looks at Rakoff’s memoir in this context, and reflects on how dramatically publishing has changed since 1996.

My_Salinger_Year

Warzones as tourist destinations

Forget checking government websites to make sure travel destinations are safe … some tourists seek out war zones as entertainment. Kobi Marom, a retired Israel Defense Forces colonel who now works in the tourist industry, tells The Atlantic all about how he takes tourists to watch the fiercest fighting of the Syrian civil war.

‘I’ll have tourists sitting at a wonderful lunch one mile from the border, and I tell them that al-Qaeda is looking at them, and they go crazy with it. They say, “Are you sure?” To them, it’s like something from the moon, and they want to see.’

Tech anarchists create printable guns and untraceable money

Meet the two anarchists (and tech geniuses) who have created some of the most controversial software ever offered to the public. There’s the world’s first 3D fully printable gun, a prototype for a decentralised online marketplace, DarkMarket, designed to be impervious to shutdown by the feds, and Dark Wallet, a piece of software designed to allow untraceable, anonymous online payments using the cryptocurrency bitcoin.

dark_wallet_couch

Amir Taaki, left, and Cody Wilson, in Wilson’s Austin apartment. Julia Robinson/Wired.

Ten most anticipated Australian books: second half of 2014

Last week, we shared The Millions‘ selection of their staff’s most anticipated books of the second half of 2014. This week, Readings has published a similar exercise, with a twist – staff members have selected their most anticipated Australian books, covering the same period. From Wayne McCauley’s Demons to Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, there’s lots to look forward to.

highlight

Portugal’s drug decriminalisation: By Liam Pieper

Liam Pieper wrote about his experiences as a teenage drug dealer (and user) in his recent memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year. And in the current Meanjin, he writes about drugs from another perspective – looking at the results of (and reasons for) Portugal’s 2001 decriminalisation of drug use. In the five years following decriminalisation, heroin-related deaths fell by half, and new HIV injections by injecting users fell by half.

LW-drugs-1-20140515163108297853-620x349

Liam Pieper

Topics:

Posted:

18 July 2014

Comments:

There are 0 comments so far
Back to top

Josephine Rowe describes the way a bone-chilling Montreal winter seeps into her soul, making her writing life more intensely insular.

highlight

I am not pitying myself, because I chose it. Evidently this is the way it has to be. I am committed. It is a question of writing or not writing. There is no other way. If there is, I missed it.

Mavis Gallant, The Hunger Diaries 1952

This is new to me, this sound of a car bogged in snow. Three floors down in the unplowed street, the vehicle in question is trying like crazy to free itself, tyres spinning the clean drift to grey-brown slush and the engine giving a plaintive, animal whine. It’s new to me, being of the North American winter, which is also new to me. But the sound calls to some familiar and unnameable despair. It brings on a tangible anxiety that I cannot find the logical reason for and so cannot talk myself away from.

It’s been going like this for four or five minutes, and now that the battery is audibly starting to die the sound is more distressing. Like listening to a trapped animal howling and howling and howling until you are sure it will do itself some irreparable damage.

Spring comes into Québec from the west. It is the warm Japan Current that brings the change of season to the West coast of Canada, then the West Wind picks it up. It comes across the prairies in the breath of the Chinook, waking up the grain and caves of bears.

This comes from Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, but it was his Poems 1956–1968 that made me fall in love with Montreal. Or at least the idea of it that I pieced together, as a fourteen-year-old stranded in outer suburban Melbourne. There is still some part of Montreal that is and will always be wine-coloured carpets and nude women lighting cigarettes from the gas range, holding back their long hair. Behemoth nuns lumbering down St Catherine Street. Someone dreaming of Nijinsky. Dirty nylons tucked into the fireplace.

In Montréal spring is like an autopsy. Everyone wants to see the inside of the frozen mammoth. Girls rip off their sleeves and the flesh is sweet and white, like wood under green bark.

But I already know that spring in Montreal will smell like tar, like roadworks; the perennial army of machinery deployed to patch up the pot holes and cracks that opened during the deep freeze and now pit and fissure the streets. Spring will be heralded by bright orange barricades and toxic smoke, molten asphalt, which we will welcome with jokes about Mafia-metered contract work; there’s a hole on St Denis where all the money goes. Pont Champlain is shaking apart and chunks of cement are falling off the Turcot Interchange like lumps of snow melting from bumpers.

But I didn’t come here for the infrastructure. Rather, the disrepair and latent corruption are symptomatic of a larger economic malaise that makes Montreal a wonderfully liveable city in other respects: in rental costs, for instance. And, by extension, in art. I came here – convinced my husband to come here – to write. I came here because I had a small amount of money that I figured might stretch twice as far in Montreal as in Melbourne, buying me twice as much writing time. And because I wanted to live differently for a while. I wanted to live differently despite knowing, with uncomfortable acuity, that wherever you go, there you are.

We arrived in September, in the lead-up to Montreal’s immense, mythological winter. We opened bank accounts, and the clerk pointed to a postcard of Sydney tacked to her wall.

‘You leave paradise? For the Montreal winter? You are insane?’

‘People keep telling us,’ I said. And people did keep telling us. The conversation took the same route every time: Where are you from? How long have you been here? How long are you staying? Are you crazy? And I would feel the little flutter of terror when they went on, The winter, well you know, it’s not so good for your head.

When Patrick and I moved into le Plateau the ash trees were turning gold and orange and red, and their leaves rained down suddenly, like a city-wide dream of money, as we bicycled to the Mont for which the city is named, the autumnal riot spreading around it like a rumor. The leaves blew into the apartment and were so beautiful, so tactile, gathering in the corners of the unfurnished rooms that I didn’t want to chase them out again. And in any case, we had no broom. We had no couch, no desks. In the lounge room there was just a digital projector aimed at a bare white wall and two folding wooden chairs and the yellow leaves heaped in the corners. It felt like camping inside an art installation.

From the back balcony of our third-floor apartment, and from those of surrounding buildings, the spirals of iron staircases ribboned down three or four storeys, spindly as swizzle sticks. Some were painted white or aqua, as if filched from a fleet of scrapped ocean liners and they gave the impression that we were only docked here, waiting for winter to freeze us in, like the Erebus. On the last warm days I perched at the top of ours with book in hand and my bare feet on the sun-warmed iron steps, feeling a little whir of vertigo as I peered down to the garden three storeys below, where cats stalked squirrels through the greenery.

Now in winter such staircases are beautiful death traps from which elderly Québécois need to be guided down by the gloved hand of whoever happens to be walking past at the crucial moment. All the leaves have fallen away and on clear days you can stand in the kitchen and see through three miles of naked branches to the Cross on the Mont, lit up ghostly and lonely atop the now white and black hill, somehow further away than it was in November.

I watch warily as the concave roof of the blocky two-storey next door quietly fills with snow. One morning I look down and see a man shadow-boxing in the street, pivoting lightly over the rat-poison green of sidewalk salt, like a fever dream.

How stripped down life becomes. I am alone most days. I stop wearing my watch. I let my phone run flat, neglect to buy credit. Hardly anyone has the number anyway. I rarely see myself full-length. I mean this in both the literal and metaphoric sense; the only mirror in our apartment is at face level. But also, I mean that I find it difficult to see myself at any kind of remove, to gauge what others think of me. The insularity of the Montreal winter is bodily. In inclement weather everybody is bundled up into goose-down coats with periscope-like hoods that reduce peripheries. It’s as though we’re all walking around in our own little travelling caves, turning pantomimically at intersections to watch for oncoming traffic. On clear days the glare is so punishingly bright it outstrips that of a Perth summer and you have to either shade your eyes or stare at the ground so as not to be dazzled. I write long emails and letters to a handful of people in other parts of the world, but rarely speak beyond the walls of this apartment. I feel more substantial in correspondence than I do in my skin. My voice has become so soft here that nearly every interaction, English or French, begins with the request to speak up.

GR_work The windows of this apartment look out to the windows of dozens of other apartments, calling to mind two stories –‘The Persimmon Tree’ by Marjorie Barnard, and Carson McCullers’, ‘Court in the West Eighties’ – in which the quietude of both narrators’ lives is rounded out by the imagined lives of their neighbours. Revisiting these stories, I realise that each anticipates spring in its first sentence: I saw the spring come once, and I won’t forget it (Barnard); It was not until spring that I began to think about the man who lived in the room directly opposite to mine (McCullers). Both imply a dormancy and a re-emerging, the self mirroring the season. I read in Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013) about the Icelandic mindset to live the winter as though it were a long night and the summer a long day. I arm myself with such stories, of what it is reasonable to feel. Sometimes when I cannot sleep I get up and try to write and there’ll be a lit rectangle framing somebody else who is also not asleep, just there on the other side of Rue Chabot. And it does make it easier. And I do feel – as in the Barnard story – as if I am recovering from something. Or perhaps the better word is untangling. Learning how to need less and less. Perhaps age twenty-nine is the horse latitudes, a becalmed region where nothing escapes the scrutiny of its worth versus its weight, and I’ll enter my thirtieth year with only what I can carry.

During the first few weeks of living here, I spent most evenings in the bath, reading the Montreal-based stories of Mavis Gallant. Trying to form a fuller sense of the city, if a somewhat outdated one. These stories are set mostly between the 1930s and 1960s; old maps in which many of the coastlines have shifted. But what has once been is never wholly divorceable from what is.

I was on book-buying rations – the worst kind! – printing out what I could from the digital archives of The New Yorker, where Gallant published over a hundred stories. When I’d exhausted their backlog of the Montreal works, I tried a second-hand bookshop on Saint Laurent, run by a birdlike old man murmuring constantly, adoringly to the two cats that stalk amongst the shelves. The man, the cats, the shop itself would not be out of place in Gallant’s Montreal. I was prepared to spend an hour there, hunting through the precarious towers of freckled and crenulated paperbacks. But the collection I wanted was right there waiting in the window, as in a children’s story.

After the Montreal stories, I moved onto ‘The Hunger Diaries’ (The New Yorker, 2012), excerpts from the journal Gallant kept in Spain in the 1950s when she was the same age as I am now, and had just left Canada for a country with comparatively cheaper cost of living, in the pursuit of a career as a short story writer.

I was filled with ice-cold despair because she had touched on the thing I only sometimes let myself suspect might be true: that I have gambled on something and have failed.

The entries span four months of Gallant broke and close to starvation, documenting the grim public face of Francoist Barcelona and Madrid. Between hopeful daily trips to American Express, she sheds possessions to pawnshops and flea markets in order to buy food (and the occasional movie ticket). The first sacrifice is her typewriter (fifteen hundred pesetas), followed by her clock (value unmentioned) her tweed coat (thirteen pesetas) and all of her books (forty pesetas, which is later filched from her pocket).

This travelogue of poverty and quotidian dreariness is interspersed with small joys, small wonders – being sideswiped by euphoria in the middle of the street, then watching its taillights shrink to pinholes and disappear – and with reports on her novel-in-progress which echo the patterns of invincibility and despair typical of such endeavours:

‘This novel, this bird in my mind.’

‘The novel now a series of rooms all connected.’

‘No one is as real to me as people in the novel.’

‘Told Frederick I no longer believe in the novel.’

‘Something in me was lacking, or I would have kept it alive.’

All the while she is being steadily fleeced by her agent, Jacques Chambrun, whose list of other fleecees is impressive, and extends to the likes of Somerset Maugham, Grace Metalious and H.G. Wells. Chambrun was withholding both the news that The New Yorker had purchased two of Gallant’s stories, and the corresponding cheques amounting to $1,535.

I’m reading all this as my own bank account drains to double figures and comparatively modest invoices for stories and permissions go unpaid. Of course the consequences of my funds hitting absolute zero are considerably less life-threatening: I’m not alone here. And here is not Francoist Spain. You are safe, you are warm, you are loved, I remind myself in moments of panic. Still, and in spite of my discomfiture with such comparisons, I begin to form a mental inventory as to the ways in which I am, and am not, like Mavis Gallant in 1952. Which if I were to be gauche enough to lay out on paper would look something like this:

29 29
short stories short stories
unstable, alienating childhood unstable, alienating childhood
newly arrived in a foreign country newly arrived in a foreign country
no degree no degree
unscrupulous agent hahaha, agent...
so broke she was selling her possessions typewriter would fetch about 15 bucks
but then... this isn’t the ’50s and you’re not Mavis Gallant

In the meantime, there is a lot I cannot afford and more still that I am prepared not to afford if it means I can keep going this way; waking each morning with the words already there, fizzing, aflame, with nothing to keep me from carrying them to the desk.

‘Being poor is boring,’ someone once told me bitterly. This comes back to me, in the bath with my sheaf of damp-edged print-outs. I blast more hot water into the tub. There are worse things.


This is an edited extract of an essay published in Griffith REVIEW: The Way We Work. You can read the essay in full there.

Back to top

highlight Silvia Kwon was born in Seoul, South Korea. She came to Australia at the age of nine and grew up in Perth. She has worked in community arts, publishing and PR and is now based in Melbourne. The Return (Hachette) is her first novel.

We talked to Silvia about what Holden Caulfield would be doing now, advice on writing from Neil Gaiman, and the struggle to approximate what’s in her head on the page – both the best and the worst parts of her job as a writer.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a piece I wrote about my early infatuation with Elvis Presley, whom I discovered when I was nine, not long after I arrived in Australia. It was 1977 and he had, recently, died and he was there every time you turned on the television. But, because no one in my family spoke any English, we had no idea that the world was mourning his death. It was only much later that I learned, to my horror, that he had died.

I emailed it to Sally Heath, then editor of A2 section of the Age, asking her whether it was of any merit, and, when she promptly replied to say, yes, they’d love to publish it, I was so thrilled, not only by her response, but by the prospect that I may be able to try my hand at writing, after all. It was also syndicated by the West Australian.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is that I get to escape into the world of my imagination, although, it can be a struggle at times to fully realise that world on paper. Nevertheless, I can’t seem to keep away, and returning to the screen every time, I am always filled with hope that I can get closer to capturing that vast, amorphous world in my head with words.

What’s the worst part of your job?

It’s probably the flipside of the best part of my job: the struggle to approximate what’s in my head onto the paper and never being satisfied with what ends up there. Yet, I feel very fortunate to be able follow the journey of my imagination.

There is also the vulnerability that can come with sharing the contents of your brain with the rest of the world. I try to remind myself that, this opportunity to communicate what’s in my head, is one of the reasons why I write.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Getting an offer of a publishing contract from Hachette.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

the-return The best advice I heard is from Neil Gaiman, who insisted that we should make mistakes, make glorious mistakes, make mistakes that have never been made before. I try to remember this every time I’m not happy with a piece of writing and decide to start again.

I also heard someone say that writing is a bit like bricklaying; we are trying to build something with just one word at a time, and I find this quite helpful.

There is also the advice that you should write what you know, and, although, I think this is true to some extent, if you have the writerly facility and the imagination, backed up with research … well, the world is your oyster.

There is a lot of advice out there about writing, and in the end, you have to find a method of working that works best for you – even if it is in pyjamas in bed, on some days!

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself [or your work]?

That my writing is subtle and gentle. As a person, I’m pretty forthright, so to have people say my writing had these qualities was a real surprise.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I think I’d have tried to find a way to get paid to be a professional reader of some sort! I did work in publishing for a while, so I’d still be doing something with words and books.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I think you can acquire the toolbox needed for creative writing. There are many useful things like point of view, character, voice etc, that can give shape and form to the world you are trying to create in a fictional setting. I learned many of these things at a creative writing course and found the experience very helpful. So, yes, while these tools and skills can be taught, they are not for formulaic application, and what you may choose to do with the things inside the toolbox, as a writer, is up to you. And there are so many possibilities.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Be prepared to sit alone in a room for a lengthy periods of time facing that blank screen or piece of paper – whether anything happens or not.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I do both. If there are out-of-print titles that are not available in a bookshop, I try to get them on line. But I also like scouring second hand bookshops for these as well.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

When I was a teenager, I did want to hang out with Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. Like many others, I identified with his disaffected world view at that critical time between childhood and adulthood, and somehow, knowing that Salinger had managed to capture the psychology of this period so acutely, through Holden, was a great comfort to me.

It would be interesting, I think, to revisit Holden in middle age, to see where he ended up, and to hear his life tales since Catcher in the Rye. I suspect he became an advertising copywriter or a screenwriter, with at least one marriage behind him, and like all of us, juggling kids with work, and along the way, trying hard to hold onto that spark of life that we all possessed, once, early in our life.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I’m not sure I can answer this with one book. Of course, Catcher in the Rye was an early favourite, but there have been many books that have had an impact on my life at various stages, and, I think, have added to my work in ways that I’m, probably, not even aware of. I reread Margurite Duras’ The Lover, recently, after nearly 20 years, and it still managed to grip me with its mesmerising language, so this is a favourite, as is The Dubliners by James Joyce, which, I also reread not that long ago, thoroughly enjoying its simplicity and power, all over again.

Topics:

Posted:

16 July 2014

Comments:

There are 0 comments so far

Related event:

Back to top

Optimism is not something we commonly associate with a life in politics, but recently retired Greens leader Bob Brown is an exception in more ways than one. His biographer, James Norman, reflects on Brown’s life and career – and his contribution to Australian life.

highlight

Bob Brown defies most stereotypes we hold about politicians, and transcends much of the cynicism.

Whenever I speak with him these days, he asks how my boyfriend Tanel Jan is going. They have met a few times at Greens functions and at Bob’s recent photographic and poetry events. The first time they met Bob asked Tanel Jan where he got a feather that was behind his ear from. Bob notices those kinds of details, because he cares deeply about people.

When Bob Brown announced last year that he would resign from Australian politics in April 2012, the party he had led for 16 years was at its prime. He exited as one of the great survivors of Australian politics, having endured six changes of Labor leadership and four on the Liberal side since he was first elected to the Senate in 1996 after 10 years in Tasmania’s state parliament.

The reasons for Brown’s departure seemed simple enough − he turns 70 in December this year, so he knew he was not getting any younger and felt confident the Greens were a strong enough team to continue into the future. It was surely a decision he didn’t arrive at lightly; he may have mixed feelings today about the fate of the party he helped found.

Brown has recently rearranged his life in Tasmania, given his famous bush property in Liffey to Bush Heritage Australia (an organisation he founded in 1991 that has gone on to preserve close to 1 million hectares of bushland around Australia) and moved to the idyllic farming town of Cygnet in the Huon Valley.

Since leaving parliament Bob has remained in the public eye – joining a number of national protests, including the successful bid to stop mining company Woodside build a massive gas factory at James Price Point in the Kimberley, setting up the Bob Brown Foundation that has galvanised national outrage against the federal government’s attempts to wind back the World Heritage listing of the Tasmanian forests, and becoming an Australian head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

As if those tasks weren’t keeping him busy enough, Bob also has his 20-year relationship with Paul Thomas, a Tasmanian former sheep farmer and shopkeeper. The two men have certainly had more time for long hikes in nature since Bob escaped the tiresome drudgery of parliamentary sessions, but it’s worth remembering that none of the many things he achieved in his personal and political life have come easily.

As a young medical student in Canberra he struggled to accept his homosexuality, submitting to gay conversion therapy and at one point contemplating suicide on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin. Later in Tasmania, as a young GP, he finally ‘came out’ as gay by first knocking on the doors of his neighbours and then writing a letter to the Launceston Examiner. This ability to merge the local with the national, the personal with the political, is surely one of Bob Brown’s most endearing qualities.

He has never been one to keep up with the passing fashions of the times. Indeed, he says the closest he got to the 60s counterculture was when he was a young medical orderly in London and Jimi Hendrix was brought in on a stretcher.

Later, as a young GP in Launceston, Brown was drawn into the battles over Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam; he emerged somewhat reluctantly as an environmental leader. He still suffered from crippling nerves at the thought of public speaking, and was always more of a political figure by necessity, rather than being driven by ego or lust for power. These early experiences ensured he has always retained his empathy for the underdog.

The idea of transformation is central to Brown’s story. Just as he has had to overcome personal demons and transform himself into the man we know today, he has been able to take that power of transformation into national and even international political spheres. During the Howard years, Brown was regularly called the ‘de facto leader of the opposition’ and was frequently a lone political voice against that government’s involvement in the Iraq war and increasingly draconian refugee policies. He told mass rallies around the country in 2003 that, ‘The prime minister has never, ever been given a mandate by the people of Australia to go to war with Iraq. The prime minister has abused the terms of freedom and democracy in his own country.’

Brown’s words cut through the cynicism that many Australians feel towards politicians and gave much-needed voice and heart to a movement that would become one of the largest anti-war movements in history.

Although the focus of Brown’s activism has changed over the years, the fundamentals have remained: the attempt to keep in check the forces of rampant industrialisation, inject humanism and compassion into national politics, and preserve what is left in the natural environment for the sake of future generations. His story begins and ends in the lush, silent fertile forests of Tasmania.

One of his favourite quotes is from Machiavelli: ‘If you want to change the world, prepare to feel the full force of the reaction against you from those that have the most to lose.’ Even from his enemies there is grudging respect. It’s telling that although News Ltd papers in particular have attacked and criticised Brown at every turn, The Australian recently voted him the most influential politician in the country.

Bob Brown threatens the big end of town because his politics are the politics of democratic revolution: sustainability over capitalism; compassion over profit. He will be remembered as one of Australia’s true revolutionaries. As his recent return to grass-roots activism has demonstrated – Bob Brown’s contribution is far from over.


James Norman is author of Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary, published by Allen & Unwin.

Bob Brown will be speaking about optimism, and his life in politics, in three big events with us. He’ll be in Melbourne on Tuesday 5 August, in Geelong on Monday 4 August, and in Hobart on Wednesday 6 August.

Back to top

If you want to succeed, you have to be prepared to fail … and the bigger the hoped-for success, the bigger the canvas for potential failures to play out on.

We asked Australian writers to share their stories of so-called failures that paved the way for success, or inadvertently put them on the path to achievement. Some learned that success doesn’t always look the way you imagine, others find that pushing past disappointment pays off, and for others, abandoned career paths prove weirdly useful later in life.

With Graeme Simsion, Toni Jordan, Joel Deane, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Justin Heazlewood, Angela Savage, Sam Cooney and Brigid Delaney.

highlight

Graeme Simsion

Well, there’s the 25-year career in information technology… But then, after deciding that I could learn to write, and selling my consulting business with that in mind, I enrolled in a PhD in creativity … in database design. What was I thinking? Closure? Bucket list? A flight to something safe? I suspect my motivation was akin to that which sets us to cleaning the garage instead of writing.

It took me four years, part-time. It did contribute, in a small way, to my writing career. I got a setting for The Rosie Project, practice in working alone on a large piece of writing, and knowledge of the creative process. And I earned the thing that everyone suspected I was after – the title of doctor. Which my GP wryly added to my patient profile.

Three years later, that GP sent me for a blood test. I was feeling pretty sick, and asked if I could have the results expedited. The nurse started to argue, then saw my title on the form. ‘Of course, Doctor.’ That indulgence got me to the emergency room 24 hours earlier and quite possibly saved my life.

Graeme Simsion is the author of The Rosie Project (Text). The sequel, The Rosie Effect, is due in September.

Toni Jordan

I’m very cautious about using words like ‘success’ or ‘failure’. I think they’re both a lot of rubbish, actually. I dislike the whole idea of categories like that and I object to forcing all the things that make up my wonderful, fortunate, messy life into two groups. There is no celestial checklist. I never think: if this book sells X copies, it’ll be a success and if it sells X-1, it’s a failure.

I’ve certainly had manuscripts and relationships and jobs that I’ve left behind but I work hard to focus on the process, on every minute of every day. That’s what it’s about: just me and the work and this thing we’ve got going together. When I think about my professional life, I feel like I’m up there on the high diving board, steeling myself to jump.

I object to the whole idea of a group of judges sitting on the sideline, waiting to hold up cards with numbers on them − even if one of the judges is me.

Toni Jordan’s latest book is Nine Days (Text).

Joel Deane

JoelDeane-MelbPrizeWhen I was living in San Francisco, a wise friend told me that the danger with depression was that, when you’re all alone in that dark room, it feels like it will never end. Is eternal. That advice came in handy during the decade when, for a great many reasons I’d rather not go into, I didn’t publish anything. Not a book, not a story, not a poem, not a word. At the time, that was a disaster. I felt as though I was underwater, unable to surface. Stopped thinking of myself as a writer. Couldn’t find a way out of that dark room. It took a while, but I found the door (it was in the ceiling, not the wall), and started to write again and publish again and become the sort of person I could live with.

That experience came in handy two years ago when, at the age of 43, I had a stroke. This time, the circumstances were tougher, but I was stronger. Unlike last time, I didn’t panic about the fact that I could barely read, let alone write. Instead, I focused on the day to day grind of getting myself (literally) up and running again, focused on the people I love (my wife and children) and told myself that there was no rush – that the words would come back when they were ready. And I was right. The words have come back. I’m a writer again. I’m not extinct. Not yet.

Joel Deane is a poet, novelist and former speechwriter. His novel is The Norseman’s Song (Hunter Publishing).

Ambelin Kwaymullina

Amberphotocrop What is success? I thought I knew, because all I have ever wanted to do was write a novel. Once I had achieved this dream I imagined I would have this amazing moment in which birds would sing, music would play, and light would shine down from above. So when my YA novel The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was released, I went and stood in front of it in a bookstore. And waited. But nothing happened. No birds, no lights, no Handel’s Hallelujah chorus playing somewhere in the background … something had gone terribly wrong.

Months later, I was running a writing workshop for disadvantaged teens. There was one girl who wanted desperately to be a writer, and who was the only one in the group brave enough to have her work read out. At the end of the session I gave her the copy of the book I had with me, and said, ‘Sometimes courage is rewarded.’ She just about burst into tears – and that was my moment. And I realised the reason the book hadn’t meant anything to me when it was sitting on a shelf was that I couldn’t hear it speaking to the people I’d written it for.

I had come terrifyingly close to committing the failure that leads to all others: the failure to understand what matters. It is a lesson I have never forgotten. I still volunteer some of my time to run workshops; often other adults will tell me that the teenagers I teach are privileged to have me there. They are wrong of course, as the grown-ups of this world so often are. It is my privilege to be with them.

Ambelin Kwaymullina is the author of the Tribe series (Walker Books).

Justin Heazlewood

170004-2392-Justin_Heazlewood_new In 2012 I self-produced my own stage show/musical called The Bedroom Philosopher’s High School Assembly. It had a budget of $10,000 (funded myself) and was at the Forum Theatre which cost $16,000 to hire for ten shows. Despite selling 1200 tickets during Melbourne Comedy Festival, I lost a tonne of money, and embarrassingly, wasn’t able to pay any of the 20 cast members. This was a clear-cut financial disaster (and still is, as I pay off one credit card with another). It left me so ashamed and down and out that I was spiritually compelled to write about it.

This flashpoint of anxiety acted as the nucleus which gave birth to my book Funemployed. Without a train-wreck, there’s no story. I felt enough pain to warrant spilling my guts about my entire artistic operation and what wasn’t working. I’m now getting grateful feedback from fellow artists around Australia. Go art! Spinning shit into gold since 1980.

Justin Heazlewood is the author of Funemployed: Life as an Artist in Australia (Affirm Press).

Angela Savage

savage-angela_Size4 What turned out to be the most significant step in my career came about as a result of failure. It was 1992 and I’d secured a grant to conduct research into women’s risk of HIV in Laos. I made arrangements to work in collaboration with a local institute and planned to stay away six months. But a week before I was due to leave Australia, all my best-laid plans fell to pieces. I postponed my departure and spent several weeks contacting anyone I could find who worked in Laos or had an interest in HIV in the region. I offered my research skills and findings free of charge in exchange for visa sponsorship. I met a lot of interesting people, none of whom could help me.

In the end, I decided to go to Laos. I’d been issued with a one-month visa and figured this was long enough to know whether there was any point being there. Within two weeks, I had a volunteer role at the United Nations Development Program, helping to organise the first national conference on HIV/AIDS in Laos. That led to a job with the Australian Red Cross in HIV program development, and my six-month stay turned into more than six years in Southeast Asia.

Had I left Australia expecting everything to go according to plan, I doubt I would’ve lasted a week in Laos. Having virtually no expectations was the best possible preparation I could have had.

But then I put my career in international development on hold and returned to Australia to write fiction full-time and nurture my dream of becoming a published author. It took seven years, and multiple rejections and rewrites, but my Victorian Premier’s Award winning unpublished manuscript was eventually published as Behind the Night Bazaar in 2006.

This has basically become my career pattern: to seize interesting opportunities for paid employment when they arise, only to later turn my back on ‘success’ in these areas in order to write more books. Most recently, in March this year, I left a very happy workplace to enrol in a PhD in Creative Writing and write full-time.

To be honest, I’ve lost sight of what it means to succeed and to fail when it comes to my career. By some measures, I am a complete failure, neglecting to fulfil my potential, squandering opportunities, substituting dreams and risks for a stable income and job security. But to live an artistic life in this day and age, even intermittently, is such a privilege; to write feels like the greatest success of all.

Angela Savage is a crime writer whose latest novel is The Dying Beach (Text).

Sam Cooney

Cooney-Sam-Events-OR-Writers-SML The biggest mistake I made as far as pursuing a career (ultimately in the industry of words: writing them, editing them, publishing them, teaching them, etc), one that would be of worth to both me and others, was to listen to the one-dimensional/cardboard cut-out ‘careers counsellor’ at the uber-conservative private boys high school I attended as a very malleable teenager, which ended up with me enrolled in a Bachelor of Business (Marketing), straight outta Year 12, when I would’ve actually only needed the slightest prodding to be convinced that a career as a writer or word-worker was even possible. I ‘completed’ three whole semesters of this BBus (with long overseas breaks in between semesters as I ran away from life), often driving to the university and then sleeping in my car for however many hours I was supposed to be in lectures and tutes before driving back home to my parents' place to lie about how much I’d learned about Maslow’s bullshit hierarchy and Herzberg’s misguided theories as to what makes us do things and whatever other bilge I’d occasionally absorb by osmosis by being even near the Business Faculty of Monash University. It was one day, when I was in the middle of giving a 30-minute Powerpoint presentation about Woolworths' supply chain to a class of disinterested Marketing Planning and Implementation (MKF3121) students, that I decided fuck this, walked out the door as soon as I’d finished the presentation, got in my beat-up 1985 200,000kms+ champagne-coloured BMW, went to a pub, and then home to start looking at writing degrees at any and all of the universities that exist on planet earth. One accepted me; I still have my business textbooks to remind me of what once was.

After I’d done a few semesters of this writing degree and was in my early twenties and ready to implement my good self upon the world, I was turned down − super politely and professionally, in a terrifying face-to-face meeting with Sophie Cunningham − for an internship with Meanjin (at least partly only because they took on very few interns at that time and there was no room for me, but also partly because I wasn’t up to the standard required [the interns at that time were people like Jessica Au and Ian See, just outrageously talented and hardworking humans], which was a big blow to my confidence as someone who wanted to be involved in the industry of words. But instead I just ‘pulled up my britches’ and ended up interning with Sleepers Publishing, which taught me how a love of literature can overcome skyscraperishly tall and mountainously wide obstacles, and with Griffith Review, which taught me the value of cold hard professionalism, and then I joined the editorial committee at Voiceworks, and was suddenly in a groove that was heading in a direction that made my guts churn excitedly.

Sam Cooney is publisher and editor of The Lifted Brow.

Brigid Delaney

bd When I finished university, I travelled around Europe for a year, then took up a job that had been arranged before I left – an article clerk at a law firm, in a small country town on the border of SA and Victoria.

The job was hard won. It was the middle of a recession and there was an oversupply of law graduates. After six years of study, I was determined to be a lawyer – even if it meant living five hours from the nearest city.

I didn’t really fit into the small town. I had nowhere to live, so spent my first months living in the local caravan park. With no driver’s licence or car, I felt trapped there – unable to get away on weekends. I didn’t play netball or enjoy watching local football, so I found it difficult to make new friends. And as for the law? I was okay, but as I walked back and forth to the court room – helping clients get intervention orders, fight drug and assault charges or mediate a fence dispute – I wondered how long I would last.

Things did improve. I got my driver’s license … but promptly had a car accident, and racked up speeding fines. I made some friends and enjoyed terrifyingly boozy nights at the local pub appropriately named the Iron Bar – where I’d nod at but try and avoid clients of mine, who drank with intent at the end of the bar.

And, gradually, I got into the swing of being a junior lawyer. On a good day, you could have described my work as good – but I would never be great.

I was 25, and I wondered if this was it – nights at the Iron Bar, bakery lunches, waiting in the old, cold courtroom for my clients names to be called. Slowly paying off the debts from my car accident. (I was, unfortunately, not insured.)

All this time, I was writing a book about a debauched protagonist who works as a young lawyer. She is barely competent at her job – rocking up late most days, disabled by hungovers. Only when she is sacked is she liberated, and able to pursue the career she really wants.

I see now the book was just a way of trying to steer myself towards a different path – if only in my head. I stayed with the law, but changed firms, and eventually I did lose my job … and became a writer.

I could have saved myself six years of study and a couple of years working in the country, and just gone straight into books and journalism – but I look back at that time with real fondness now. Yes, I was sort of a mess, and yes, I barely rose above mediocre. But without the mediocre years, I would not have been propelled to write a book that fictionalised my escape.

Brigid Delaney is an author and journalist. Her latest book is Wild Things.


Hear about the goofs and setbacks that paved the way for success for several prominent Australians at Epic Fail – on 30 July at the Athenaeum Theatre. With Rob Oakeshott, Julian Burnside, Nahji Chu, Julia Morris, Sam Bramham, Sarah Blasko, Clare Wright and Erik Jensen.

Back to top

Her Struggle: If Knausgaard was a woman

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part autobiographical novel project, My Struggle, has been a worldwide literary sensation. But would it be as successful – or as heaped with critical praise – if it were written by a woman (what’s more, an American woman)? Katie Roiphe thinks not.

‘I don’t think we would be able to tolerate, let alone celebrate, this sort of domestic diarylike profusion from a woman … The novelist Hari Kunzru told the New York Times that Knausgaard “has the courage to say ‘my ordinary life as a father in a regional town is going to be enough to hold a reader’s attention.’ ” But what in a male writer appears as courage or innovation or literary heroics would be read, in a woman, even by the liberal, enlightened, and literary, as hubris or worse.’

140707_ROIPHE_Knausgard.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlarge

Peter Rose takes on John Dale on book reviewing in Australia

There’s been a lot of chatter this week about John Dale’s lambasting of the standard of Australian book reviews as consistently poor, and of reviewers as lacking – after all, there’s no Australian James Wood. Today, on The Conversation (where Dale’s argument was published), Peter Rose, editor of Australian Book Review, defends Australian reviews and reviewers, and takes apart Dale’s argument: ‘What a clichéd, ungenerous and discreditable overview of book reviewing in this country, with its sentimental and predictable coda about mythic Manhattan standards.’

New Gone Girl trailer

There’s a new, updated trailer for the much-awaited Gone Girl film, by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck and Rosalind Pike. Get a fix while you’re waiting for it to hit cinemas.

Tattoos from favourite children’s books

Buzzfeed has put together a gallery of 50 tattoos from favourite children’s books, from Alice in Wonderland to Dr Seuss. Some look a bit dodgy, but others are pretty charming.

secret_garden_tatt

harry_potter_tatt

highlight

alice_tatt

Best Books of the second half of 2014: The Millions

Literary site The Millions is once again giving us a sneak peek at the books their staff are most looking forward to in the second half of 2014. It’s well worth a browse, with titles including novels from Sarah Waters, Ian McEwan and Marilynne Robinson, memoir-essay collections by Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler, the first William Gibson novel in four years, and a new Frank Bascombe novel by Richard Ford.

ford_frank

Topics:

Posted:

11 July 2014

Comments:

There are 0 comments so far

Related event:

Back to top

highlightTim Coronel is an editor, writer and former bookseller. He’s currently the editor of fortnightly community magazine MetroWest and works with the Small Press Network to coordinate this year’s Independent Publishing Conference. He was publisher of Bookseller and Publisher magazine, has edited two film magazines and is a freelance editor and proofreader for various publishers.

We spoke to him about ‘real real’ deadlines, chasing payment as a freelancer and sharing his name with a Dutch racing-car driver.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a review in what was then called Australian Bookseller & Publisher (now Books+Publishing). I honestly can’t remember the title of the book but I do recall I didn’t like it very much!

What’s the best part of your job?

I still get a thrill seeing and touching printed things I’ve played a part in: opening that box of magazines fresh from the printer, or getting that first copy of a book in the mail.

What’s the worst part of your job?

As a freelancer, it’s chasing payment. Some clients pay promptly … and some don’t.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

It’s hard to pick a single most significant moment. A recent highlight was last year’s Independent Publishing Conference that I coordinated for the Small Press Network. It was well-attended and well received and I’m hoping we can build on its success with this year’s conference, which will be held in Sydney in mid-November.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

I probably shouldn’t let this trade secret out, but editors have a real, real deadline and then they have the deadline they tell contributors: always build in a bit of a buffer to your schedules because things will inevitably not go entirely to plan.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

I’m always surprised when ‘I’ win the Dakar Rally or a round of the European Saloon Car championship – I share my name with a Dutch racing-car driver.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d like to be a professional tester of mattresses, pillows and doonas. Being paid to sleep is my dream job!

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

For people who already have an affinity for writing, I’m sure that the structure of a course helps: you’re meeting other writers, getting feedback and advice and hopefully good, practical advice on how to improve your writing and your chances of publication.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

Read. A lot.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. Sometimes if I know exactly what I’m after it’s quick and easy to buy online, but nothing beats the serendipity of browsing in a good bookshop and coming across a book you wouldn’t otherwise know about.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I have this odd belief that fictional characters aren’t real people and don’t have a life beyond that page, so whoever I chose I’d also have to have the author sitting alongside so they could write the dinner party into existence, and the author would be the one responsible for the dialogue.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

There have been so many books that have influenced who I am and how I think, but if I have to choose a single book that I call on again and again as an editor I’d have to nominate the Style Manual. No matter how long you’ve been editing, every now and then you need to check if it’s ‘per cent’ or ‘percent’ or whether a previous prime minister deserves capitalisation.


Tim Coronel is the editor of MetroWest and coordinator of the Independent Publishing Conference.

Back to top

Justin Heazlewood (aka The Bedroom Philosopher) has had national success – and failure. He says that most artists experience failure on a daily basis, whether it’s an idea turned sour or a second draft. And provided you don’t beat yourself up too hard, it’s those negative experiences that you can learn from the most.

highlight

Image by John Haynes Photography.

Australian society doesn’t always value ambition, and by the same token overlooks the value of failure. The reality is that artists live and breathe it on a daily basis. Whether it’s an idea turned sour, a second draft in a heap or an album with a lukewarm review, it is these negative experiences from which an artist learns the most. The trick is not beating yourself up along the way. Perhaps the process would be more constructive if failures were rebranded as ‘experiments’. Artist as cultural scientist: researching material, combining ideas and injecting them into an audience in a bid to find a temporary cure for apathy.

Angie Hart understands the importance of experimentation and failure. She’s going through the process to write her new album. ‘You have to have that time before you write the actual album where you write all the shit songs.’ She laughs. ‘How do you move forward without having the time to really suck?’

‘Failure is something we have to live with,’ says theatre-maker Tim Spencer. ‘Only quite recently have I come to reconcile the idea of failure as a beautiful thing. As artists, I think we exist outside the dominant paradigm of our society.’

Playwright Lally Katz counts as some of her greatest accomplishments those that went wrong. ‘All of my great opportunities, or the next thing that’s happened in my career, have usually come out of the something that felt at the time like a failure. Years later some of my biggest failures are the plays that I’m most proud of. The people I’ve formed really big connections with have been from them seeing my works which have failed in some way, but they’ve seen something in it and offered me another opportunity.’

If an artist isn’t a perfectionist, they will be an idealist, meaning their work will always struggle to live up to the purity of their vision. After recording my first album, In Bed With My Doona, I sat on the couch listening to it through headphones. My God, I thought, this is the best work of my life! I fantasised about radio and media clamouring for it as I was bathed in rave reviews. I could feel it in my guts – this was going to be my ‘big break’.

Funemployed_final_front_cover To my casual horror, it wasn’t. ‘I’m So Post Modern’ was played on Triple J, but the album didn’t receive a single review. By the time I realised, I’d already moved on. Two years later I listened back to the songs through scalding ears. How deluded was I? I thought. I’m ten times better now.

And so this process of experimenting, creating, delighting myself, tripping on expectation, being disappointed, getting over it, growing and tucking into the next project has continued. It’s the cycle of creative life.

While the creative process means the artist can experiment from the safety of their bedroom, once the work is submitted for public approval, the process becomes much more embarrassing. In my early years as The Bedroom Philosopher I was wildly inconsistent, struggling to exorcise brilliance from my ouija board of humour. For comedians, these creative experiments are especially challenging as they are not only conducted in front of a live audience, but also graded on the spot.

My fourth year of The Bedroom Philosopher, 2005, was a pivotal one. I was performing my third Melbourne International Comedy Festival show and beginning to attract some buzz. I was courting a high-level manager and being told that if I played my cards right, it could be ‘my year’. Meanwhile, I was still deeply insecure and trying to douse industry pressure with onstage overcompensation. In the space of a few months I had a number of onstage meltdowns. During filming of a live DVD for musical comedy gala Laughapoolooza I broke a string, covering with a performance-art Björk impression, which involved knocking over most of the equipment and going well over the strict seven-minute curfew. In my Super Band performance of ‘Anarchy in the UK’, I spontaneously took off my clothes in front of eight hundred punters and peers at the Hi-Fi Bar. At a gig in the foyer of the Seymour Centre in Sydney, I ripped off my shirt while screaming, ‘Fuck art, it’s all about comedy,’ picked up a large metal sculpture and tried to put it in the bin. (I was later told the piece carried a price tag of $25,000. The venue manager was later heard muttering, ‘Yes, but why did he pick it up?’)

While audiences appreciated these rock star antics, the industry did not. When my manager championed me to television producers, he was told I had a reputation for being ‘wild and unpredictable’. I was passed over by the major comedy agencies3 and, despite winning the 2010 Director’s Choice award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, was unable to get a hub venue at Adelaide Fringe because the bookers, as I was told by a colleague, ‘didn’t know which Justin they were going to get’. Bad reviews were one thing, but this was deeper. I was being rejected by my industry. I took it to heart, which soon became infected, forming a chip on my shoulder, infuriating the monkey on my back.

John Safran says that rejection is a healthy part of the creative process. ‘The key is to not psyche yourself out. A lot of the struggles and the disadvantages aren’t just you. It is tough, but it’s not as if the world’s picking on you. Every other artist is going through a similar thing and they’re just processing it differently.


This is an extract from Justin Heazlewood’s Funemployed: Life as an Artist in Australia (Affirm Press). Justin received a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship to work on the book.

Hear about the epic failures that paved the way for success for seven prominent Australians at our big event, Epic Fail, on 30 July. With Rob Oakeshott, Nahji Chu, Julia Morris, Sam Bramham, Sarah Blasko, Clare Wright and Erik Jensen.

Back to top

There are practicing doctors around Australia who still oppose abortion and even refuse to prescribe contraception, citing ‘conscience’ as their explanation. But is that legitimate? And aren’t pro-choice campaigners driven by conscience too?

Former Victorian health services commissioner Beth Wilson looks at where this type of so-called conscientious objection leaves women – and how the removal of choice can impact women’s health.

highlight

Image by Eva Blue, art by Banksy.

We all have biases; it’s important to declare them. I believe everyone has a right to safe, effective health care. I believe women should have access to abortions where necessary, and to other reproductive health services − in a timely and safe manner, free from harassment and discrimination. Recently we have seen a concerted effort by some groups of health service providers seeking to limit or prohibit women’s access to these services on the basis of ‘conscience’. But conscience does not belong solely to people who are pro-life or anti-choice; for those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose, conscience is our main motivating factor.

Women’s reproductive health services continue to be the subject of controversy and some extreme views. There are some people who regard abortion as ‘murder’ − meaning people who have had abortions, like me, are murderers. But there’s a convincing counterargument: that health service providers who refuse to provide abortion services (and other contraceptive assistance) to women are not conscientious objectors at all; they are really engaging in ‘dishonourable disobedience’.

When ‘conscience’ leads to harassment

‘Conscience’ can lead to harassment and discrimination. I accept that health service providers should not be obliged to provide services that go against their consciences, except in emergencies. But they should exercise those consciences in ways that do not harass or discriminate against women.

So what is this thing called conscience?

According to the The Oxford Dictionary (2008) it is:

The faculty or principle which pronounces upon the moral quality of one’s actions or motives, approving the right and condemning the wrong.

This doesn’t help us much, because we live in a morally pluralist society and what I decide is right, you may decide is wrong. We need to strike the correct balance between people’s right to safe medical treatment and the right of health workers to conscience.

steenair_Abortion_on_Demand

Image by Steenaire.

Abortion and the law: Section 8

The major recent issue in Australia has been section 8 of the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 (Vic). I believe section 8 strikes the right balance. Some opponents of abortion have tried to mislead the public by arguing it forces doctors to refer a woman for an abortion or to participate in abortions, but here is the exact wording:

ABORTION LAW REFORM ACT 2008 – SECT 8

Obligations of registered health practitioner who has conscientious objection

(1) If a woman requests a registered health practitioner to advise on a proposed abortion, or to perform, direct, authorise or supervise an abortion for that woman, and the practitioner has a conscientious objection to abortion, the practitioner must—

(a) inform the woman that the practitioner has a conscientious objection to abortion; and

(b) refer the woman to another registered health practitioner in the same regulated health profession who the practitioner knows does not have a conscientious objection to abortion.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a practitioner who is under a duty set out in subsection (3) or (4).

(3) Despite any conscientious objection to abortion, a registered medical practitioner is under a duty to perform an abortion in an emergency where the abortion is necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman.

(4) Despite any conscientious objection to abortion, a registered nurse is under a duty to assist a registered medical practitioner in performing an abortion in an emergency where the abortion is necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman.

Referring a woman seeking an abortion to another registered practitioner who does not have an objection is not forcing anyone into referring for abortion – though this has been claimed by opponents of section 8. What happens once the woman has been referred is a matter for her and her health provider. The consultation may well lead to a decision to terminate the pregnancy, or it may not. The legislation, which won support of all sides of the parliament, recognises that the woman has a right to learn what all her options are. Doctors who refuse to refer in accordance with the Act are breaking the law, risking their registration − and seem to be arguing that the only point of view a woman is entitled to hear is theirs.

Abusing the right to conscience

When I was Health Services Commissioner, I heard many stories of health service providers (doctors in particular, but also some pharmacists and nurses) abusing the right to conscience. One woman, who was in her early forties and had teenage children, found herself unexpectedly pregnant. She sought help from a general practitioner who threatened to certify her under the Mental Health Act if she persisted. This extremely poor health care led to much distress, and was a clear abuse of the doctor’s responsibilities. All in the name of conscience? I wonder.

Unfortunately, there are many examples of harm being done to women because health service providers have refused to treat them, claiming conscience. Leslie Cannold has documented some of these in an Opinion broadcast on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics programme (25/3/2011). They include: the suicide of a 13-year-old girl refused abortion after being raped by her 24-year-old cousin; the death of a woman with a painful colon disease when doctors refused on moral grounds to treat her because she was two months pregnant; a woman who had been advised to have an abortion because of the impact the pregnancy was having on an existing eye disease. The abortion was refused; she went blind. Deaths have also occurred in Catholic hospitals where women were refused abortions: who can forget the death of the young dentist in Dublin? She was refused an abortion because a faint fetal heartbeat was detected. She was not a Catholic. She was left to die anyway. Is this conscience, medical negligence or manslaughter? Or is it all of the above?

The obligations of pharmacists

Some pharmacists also claim conscientious objection to contraception and to dispensing the so-called ‘morning-after pill’ or emergency contraception. Dr Sally Cockburn has reported that a woman who sought the morning-after pill was refused by a pharmacist. She became pregnant and had to have an abortion. I’m not sure how the pharmacist reconciles that outcome with his or her conscience. And I wonder how the pharmacist would have reacted if she proceeded with the pregnancy and sued him for child support?

The obligations of pharmacists are set by the Pharmacy Board of Australia and administered by the national registration authority, AHPRA. Pharmacists who have a conscientious objection to providing oral contraceptives on moral or religious grounds should nevertheless always act professionally and ensure that consumers are informed about where they can access these items.

In February this year, the national president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, Grant Kadachi, commented on a Victorian pharmacist who was asking his customers to shop elsewhere for birth control pills and was putting notes in packets of oral contraceptive pills indicating he is opposed to the use of artificial contraception on religious grounds. Mr Kardachi said that under the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia Code of Ethics, a pharmacist has the right to decline provision of care based on a conscientious objection, but this should not prevent the consumer from accessing healthcare that they are entitled to. He said, ‘Therefore in these circumstances the pharmacist should inform the consumer of the objection and appropriately facilitate continuity of care for the consumer.’

Women seeking contraception and emergency contraception should be free to do so without harassment or discrimination. There are particular difficulties in regions where there may only be one pharmacy. Pharmacists in these circumstances are advised by their professional organisations to keep a supply but to advise the customer to seek services elsewhere in future.

Nurses and conscientious objection

In her paper, ‘Nurses and Conundrums of Conscience’, assistant professor Carolyn A. Laabs (Marquette University US) explores the controversy concerning conscience, conscientious objection and health care, focusing on nursing. Nursing is a profession that includes much ‘morally serious’ work and Laabs argues there is a misunderstanding of the meaning of conscience that may be leading to much distress among nurses − and possibly to a chronic shortage of nurses. The obligations of nurses who claim conscientious objection are also prescribed by the Nurses Board of Australia and administered by AHPRA. There are various codes of ethics of the College of Nursing and other professional nursing organisations.

The College Code of Ethics for Nurses, in common with those of the other nursing organisations, is framed by the principles and standards set out in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These codes of ethics (including that of the Australian Nursing Federation) recognise the right to conscience, but also instruct all nurses to behave professionally at all times and not to discriminate or harass patients who do not share their religious or moral views.

The history of backyard abortions

Dr Bertram Wainer set up his clinic, providing safe abortions, because of his conscience, in the late 1960s. Dr Wainer, in common with many other health workers, had witnessed the dreadful infections women were experiencing because of the unhygienic practices of the backyard abortionists, or because of self-administered or forced home methods of trying to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

racket In Gideon Haigh’s excellent book, The Racket: How Abortion Became Legal in Australia (MUP, 2008), he documents the history of backyard abortions in Victoria. He shows what happens when a much-needed service is prohibited − and the rogues come out of the woodwork (and the abattoirs) to capitalise on women’s distress. Some of the names of the backyarders continued to feature in Victoria’s gangland families: for example, Moran and Lewis. As a young woman who required an abortion, I am eternally grateful to Dr Wainer: because he acted on his conscience, I was safe. Haigh’s book ends with my personal story and begins with that of another young woman who was not so lucky. Carolyn Mary Jamieson was 21 when she died during an illegal abortion.

Anti-choice advocates and control

Jo Wainer (Bertram Wainer’s wife) discovered in her research that the reason women’s reproductive health attracts so much controversy is control. Anti-choice advocates want women to remain subservient; they cannot abide the thought or reality of women having true autonomy. What better way of attacking and shaming us than by focusing on our reproductive health?

In Victoria we are extremely lucky to have an Abortion Law Reform Act (2008) that carefully balances different views and allows for conscientious objection. This should never be abused. Women in Australia still have great difficulty accessing services in the regions, or where later term abortions are required. The laws vary between the states and I would urge all to consider following Victoria’s example, but to also add restrictions on protestors harassing women at clinics.

Medical abortions are now available and legal, but there are serious access difficulties. Not enough general practitioners and pharmacists have registered to provide the service. This may be because of conscience, but the attitudes of some major medical insurers have also been an obstacle. Some are charging the same premiums for medical indemnity for medical termination of pregnancy as for surgical. That is three times as much as is warranted. Doctors wanting to register to provide these services may like to know that one insurer is not taking this approach and they may wish to ask their insurers what their policy is. I don’t know if conscience or economics are influencing the insurers who are charging the higher fees, but their approach is limiting access to medical abortions − and therefore limiting women’s choices.

Conscience belongs to all of us. The right to pronounce on the moral quality of one’s actions or motives, approving the right and condemning the wrong, should be available to us all. However, we should exercise conscience responsibly − without harassment, gross exaggeration or discrimination − if we are to live together in a civil society that respects individual beliefs.


This is an edited version of a Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Health Service Providers and Conscientious Objection, given at the Wheeler Centre.

Back to top

What exactly does a literary agent do? How has the role changed in tandem with the brave new (digital) world of publishing? And do Australian authors really need agents? (The answer: not necessarily, but there are advantages … not all of them linked to advances.) Angie Andrewes investigates.

highlight

Image by Choo Cin Nian.

It was in the late 1800s in Britain that the literary agent first emerged. But the entrance of a middleman in the publishing game was not such a surprising development. After all, writers were focused on the more literary aspects of their craft, leaving many disinclined to broker deals. The man widely regarded as the first literary agent was A.P. Watt and Henry James was one of his clients. ‘[Watt] takes 10 percent of what he gets for me,’ James explained in an 1888 letter to his brother. ‘But I am advised that his favourable action on one’s market and business generally more than makes up for this.’

For more than a century, the role of agent remained more or less that of a bridge between publishers and writers; agents crunched numbers, did deals and presumably ensured the best outcome all round. That is … with the exception of shysters like Jacques Chambrun, a New York literary agent in the 1940s who notoriously pocketed cash from the sale of W. Somerset Maugham’s world rights and left Canadian short-story writer Mavis Gallant starving in Spain, unaware that two of her stories were in The New Yorker.

But the role of modern literary agents has evolved a lot since then, especially in recent years, as the industry goes through its most seismic shift since the invention of the printing press.

Alex_Adsett

Alex Adsett

Alex Adsett is one of the industry’s most recent additions, last year teaming up with veteran bookseller Paul Landymore to create a literary agency under the banner of Adsett’s Brisbane-based consultancy business, Alex Adsett Publishing Services (AAPS).

Adsett started AAPS in 2008, drawing on her career in publishing, specialising in copyright and contract work. At first her consultancy focused mainly on business and contract advice, but Adsett always knew that when the right manuscript came along, she’d make the jump into working as a more traditional agent as well. With one of the agency’s clients, Alan Baxter, set to launch his book, Bound, next month with Harper Voyager, that has become a reality.

‘Now it’s a full-time job, just reading the manuscripts coming in, even though officially we’re closed to submissions,’ Adsett says. The plan is to give it a year, branching out into the UK and US markets, before deciding whether to separate the businesses and establish a fully-fledged agency.

At the other end of the spectrum of modern agents is Sophie Hamley, an established literary agent with the prestigious Cameron Creswell agency and president of the Australian Literary Agents’ Association. A literary agent since 2006, Hamley has worked as a bookseller, editor, writer and website producer. She also has a law degree. A good legal knowledge can hold an agent in good stead.

sophie_hamley

Sophie Hamley

Both Adsett and Hamley agree that the role of agents is changing with the industry. Agents these days, says Hamley, are more managers than deal-makers. Adsett also says she is keen to set her venture apart from agents in the old style who prioritise deal-making, numbers games and author advances. These agents, she believes, are ‘part of the problem and are part of this monetising of the publishing industry, pushing up advances rather than looking at the quality of the work’. But, she is quick to stress, ‘I don’t think that most of the agents in Australia are like that.’ Hamley’s priority is to manage authors’ careers so that, as she puts it, ‘they not only get published, but stay published’.

Adsett sees the key practical aspects of the business as threefold: “Get the deal in the first place, negotiate the contract, and manage the career.” Her partner Landymore calls the role a ‘collaborative bridge between the author and the publisher ‘. For Landymore, part of the role is to educate writers who have little experience with the industry. ‘There is an aspect of care,’ he says.

Hamley agrees: ‘Many writers – even the self-published writers – like having to someone to talk to.’ And surprisingly, says Adsett, even some of those who know what they’re doing ‘still want the hand-holding!’

But Adsett also argues that not all authors need an agent. She estimates that in Australia, about 60% of published books never go through an agent at all, whereas ‘in the US and UK, 99% of what’s published has to go through an agent’. She adds, however, that ‘if you want someone in your corner, if you want someone to explain things and hand-hold and just be there for you, then those are the reasons to get an agent’.

But with the publishing industry in flux, is a career as a literary agent even viable? When AAPS was first launched, Landymore says, the idea raised a few eyebrows. ‘Some [people] commented that it seemed a strange time to set up a new agency, with all the options and facilities open to writers these days to self-publish, especially in digital.’

But he and Adsett are finding that publishers are still very keen to work with agents. ‘A majority of people…still hanker after the traditional publishing model.’ Hamley agrees that literary agent work can be risky, though ‘it always has been… Anyone who is looking to start an agency needs to manage their risk or accept the level of risk they’re taking on.’

One key to success in the business is flexibility. ‘I also teach yoga, so that helps!’ Hamley jokes. Passion is also key, Landymore says. ‘We do it because … we’re passionate about the stories and the people who write the stories.’ Hamley agrees: ‘If we believe that stories are important and storytellers are vital to our culture and communities – then there are opportunities open which make the risks feasible, if not worthwhile.’


This article was first published in The Big Issue Australia.

Back to top

Melbourne’s designer cat and dog magazines

Melbourne is known and loved for being the centre of independent publishing; the natural home of publications or publishers with a quirky edge. Geoff Lemon reports for the Guardian on two quintessentially hipster-Melbourne projects: glossy, impeccably stylish pet-themed magazines. Four&Sons ‘brings together an eclectic mix of inspiring 'dog-centric’ content to dog-lovers passionate about culture and creativity'. And Cat People is ‘a bi-lingual (English/Japanese) magazine – featuring 146 pages of interviews and work by cat-obssessed artists, designers, photographers and writers’.

highlight

CatPeople-5-LucyJames

Why Facebook made us sad on purpose

In 2012, Facebook conducted a massive psychological experiment on nearly 700,000 users, to see whether it could alter their emotional state and prompt them to post more positive or negative content. The research was published in March this year, and immediately prompted an uproar, with commentators and social scientists questioning the ethics of the experiment – and suggesting that data scientists should routinely receive ethical training.

The results of the experiment? ‘For people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.’

Meanjin’s Zora Sanders on pitching and being edited

As part of Estelle Tang’s new initiative to encourage women’s writing, Pitch Bitch, Kill Your Darlings has interviewed Meanjin editor Zora Sanders about the differences in the ways men and women pitch work and respond to being edited – and she’s offered some great advice from an editor’s perspective. Though the advice is pitched to women specifically, many of her insights, from the editor’s side of the desk, will be relevant to all writers, and especially useful for emerging ones.

The urge to pre-empt someone’s negative opinion of you is SO STRONG, but you must fight it! Don’t apologise for your pitch or your submission. … I’ve also had the experience where I really like something, and the author is constantly telling me how shit it is. I start to doubt my own judgment and it can make me question the quality of a piece that I loved at the beginning.

ZoraPicLarge-800x533

Junot Diaz on the colour problem with MFAs

There’s been a lot of chat this year, in literary circles, about the question of university creative writing programs – MFAs – and the publishing scene as two distinct cultures, and methods of working your way into a writing career. (It was sparked by an essay by Chad Harbach that became a book, MFA vs NYC.)

In a New Yorker excerpt from the book, Junot Diaz writes about signing up to a MFA program at Cornell in order to take his writing really seriously, and hating it, due to the lack of people of colour on the faculty and the reading lists. The problem, he says, is systemic – and he’s working to address it, with his own Voices of Our Nation Workshop, for writers of colour.

junot_diaz

Luke Ryan on comic writing

Luke Ryan was one of last year’s Hot Desk Fellows, working on his just-published memoir of getting cancer, twice (as a child and as a twenty something), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo. Over at the Readings blog, the writer and comedian praises comic writing, and explores the art of it.

‘Comedy has always had trouble being taken seriously by the literary establishment, subject to a sort of Victorian-era bromide that whatever is enjoyable cannot possibly be worthy.’

funny_thing

Back to top

Melissa Cranenburgh is associate editor of The Big Issue Australia – and a Melbourne-based writer, editor and broadcaster with particular interest in books and bike riding. She regularly hosts The Reading Room book segment on Triple R’s The Grapevine. and her work has featured on ABC’s Radio National and in The Big Issue, the Sydney Morning Herald and countless bike riding magazines.

We walked to Melissa about the pleasures of editing, hanging out with Big Issue vendors and why writers should grab opportunities to hone their craft wherever they can.

mc

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Okay. Pretty sure it was a … poem. Yep. That’s right. I’d written some Emily Dickinson-inspired thing under duress as a class exercise in Year 8 … or was it 9? Anyway. My English teacher, despite my reluctance, organised to have it published in the school magazine. Totally cringeworthy.

What’s the best part of your job?

Well … I get to work with words for a living. My inner 12-year-old book-nerd self is still amazed that this is what I get to do. All. The. Time. And, I have to say. I really love editing. Helping to tweak and smooth a piece of writing in a way that is (hopefully) true to the writer’s intention is a real pleasure. It also helps that I work with a truly lovely group of people, we have crazily flexible conditions and we can dress as daggily as we like. Not to mention getting to hang out with Big Issue vendors. A constant reminder of what really matters. People.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I guess sometimes it can feel a little samey working on a fortnightly cycle. We do liven it up with different content. But sometimes there’s a sense of…okay, deadline over. Now, guess we’ll just do it all over again. But I’m not complaining: it’s a pretty great job.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

Honestly? A few years back I got nominated for an editing award. Which I didn’t win. But the thing that really made it significant was that nominated editors were picked by freelance writers who thought they did an okay job. Considering that editors are often seen as picky souls who slash and burn precious words, it was really lovely to get that vote of confidence from writers I’ve worked with. (Thanks, whoever you are.)

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?

Best advice about editing: don’t be too interventionist. The best editing is a subtle craft. Writers should feel like the piece is just the best version of their writing.

461-HarrisonFord-lowres__featureWhat’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

People have bizarre notions of who Big Issue vendors are. To frame it simply, they are just people who – whether through disability or any other long-term disadvantage – have found selling our magazine a viable way of earning enough money to help pay the bills, buy a decent lunch or just ameliorate life with a few small luxuries. Some people may be socially isolated and want some means of reconnecting with society. Which can be tough if you’ve been living on the streets or don’t have a regular job. And the magazine they sell? It’s a truly independent magazine and a pretty good read.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I don’t think there’s much else I could do … Um. I guess I’d be unemployed.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Absolutely! Good writing is a craft and a discipline, as well as an art. I guess the issue is that when everyone is exposed to the same types of writing, and don’t define their own voices, there can be a kind of … homogenisation. It’s important to learn from others to a certain extent, and then carve out something that reflects your own unique perspective.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?

Read. A lot. And all types of writing. Write as much as you can. It can help to study writing or editing. It not only gives you a craft and discipline, it can give you access to people in the industry. Having said that, there are many excellent writers and editors who have learned their craft on the job by just … doing. Volunteer. Grab opportunities to hone your craft whenever you can. And surround yourself with people who can support you in your writing life. It can be a lonely one, so that will help.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I now have zero impulse control when it comes to ebooks. If I know I can download a title straight away, and I haven’t totally blown my book budget, I find it almost impossible to resist. But I love bricks and mortar bookstores. And the chance to chat with bookshop staff who really know their stuff. Plus the papery beasts will always have a visceral claim on me. The weightiness of them. The new book feel and smell … it evokes a deep pleasure.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

So many characters. But to narrow it down to one? I read Pride and Prejudice about a million times when I was in my early teens. And I particularly loved Elizabeth Bennet’s takedown of Darcy when he delivers his incredibly backhanded proposal. While Bennet is a creature of her times, the strong-minded woman beneath the Empire-line dress feels like an old friend. What would we talk about? Well, I’d just love to know what she’s reading at the moment.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The most significant? Wow. I really feel like In Cold Blood totally reframed the notion of journalism for me when I was in my late teens. For me, fiction has always been the best truth drug. Delivering epiphanies, reorganising your brain. Capote’s non-fiction ‘novel’ used the same descriptive techniques to achieve that end. I guess the morality of how he did that is certainly something I’ve pondered more as I got older. But, at the time, it floored me.

Another book that rates a mention is Jennie by Paul Gallico. My favourite book as a kid. In it, a young boy ‘becomes’ a cat. At the time I marvelled at how Gallico could know what a cat was thinking. More than anything else, showed me at a formative age how words could make imagined universes truly real.


The Big Issue Australia turns 18 this year – and sold its nine millionth magazine last month. The magazine sells for $6 per issue; the homeless or unemployed vendors who sell it keep $3 of every sale.

Back to top

Sian Prior, author of the acclaimed memoir Shy, reflects on how shyness manifests in her body – and on writing a memoir to trace its effects.

sian_headshot

Imagine you are about to deliver a talk to a room full of strangers. Perhaps your palms are sweating, your face slightly flushed. Perhaps your heart rate has increased. Perhaps there is a slight tremor in your hands as you shuffle the pages of your talk, anxiously checking that they’re in the right order.

Imagine yourself imagining that everyone in the audience is staring critically at you, waiting for you to stumble over the first paragraph.

Imagine yourself standing in front of that critical audience, wishing that you were invisible. Imagine feeling like this every time you find yourself in a social situation with people you don’t know intimately, because you are shy.

Imagine trying to write a memoir about how that shyness might feel in your body, in moments, or for hours, or over years, or throughout decades.

Imagine using that writing as a way of tracing how a life lived in a shy body might profoundly shape your sense of identity.

This talk is called ‘On Shyness’ but perhaps it should be called ‘IN Shyness’ because shyness is a state you inhabit, fully − physically, as well as mentally.

Shyness locks you up and throws away the key. Shyness freezes you over and refuses to let you thaw out until you feel safe. And feeling safe is the hardest thing, when you’re shy.

So what are we shy people actually afraid of? Why are our autonomic nervous systems telling us there’s a hungry lion about to pounce on us, when in fact we’re just standing minding our own business in the corner of someone’s balloon-strewn living room?

Shyness, according to the experts, is a temperament trait. That temperament trait is a spectrum. A spectrum from withdrawal to approach. Picture a bird on an electricity wire. If you’re very shy you’re hanging around on the far left of the wire, the withdrawal end, staying away from the other birds, but every now and then chirping hopefully at them – hoping simultaneously that they’ll ignore you and that they’ll chirp back.

Because you really want to be hanging with the other birds, but you’re afraid of them.

Okay − enough with the bird-on-a-wire metaphor. I don’t want to stretch it too far. (And enough with the bad puns…)

You’re afraid of people because you’re afraid of their judgment – their negative judgment – of you. You fear their negative evaluation. You fear their rejection. And there’s a voice in your head telling you that you probably deserve their negative evaluation and their rejection, because you’re a bit weird and a bit hopeless and very, very afraid. And that very fear makes you feel a bit weird and hopeless. So maybe you are. And so the cycle goes on.

And if you’re lucky, like me, you might find a strategy or two for hiding that fear, or for setting it aside when it really counts.

Like in the workplace.

highlight In the workplace I had a collection of superhero cloaks I could put on. I could be Super-Greenie in the environment movement, or Super-Comrade in the union movement, or Super-Broadcaster at the ABC, or Super-Teacher at the university. I could let go of my fear of rejection because if people wanted to reject a Super-Greenie, well, they were idiots. Anyone could see the world needed saving!

But away from work, when I was at the pub or at a party or sometimes even just having dinner with a couple of friends, the fear came back and I had to keep my face very, very still so no one could see the fear. I suspect I would make a good poker player, with my still face.

Except if there was a camera anywhere near. Because cameras can see through the masks – through my masks – cameras unmask me, as mirrors do. Cameras and mirrors make me long for invisibility. So I try to steer clear of cameras and mirrors. But staying away from mirrors is hard because mirrors are useful for checking that the mask is in place.

So – back to the shy body, and temperament spectrums, and what the experts reckon. Here’s some expert language for you.

According to psychologists, shyness manifests as a form of social anxiety (or, at its most extreme, social phobia) that usually provokes a range of physical symptoms, from blushing, trembling, sweating, hyperventilating and feeling physically stiff, to hyper-vigilance and hyper-awareness of one’s physical presence in social environments.

Shyness induces intense physical self-consciousness; a perpetual state of performance anxiety when in company. The shy person’s mental preoccupation with how they are being perceived − and perhaps judged − by others stimulates the physical symptoms listed above via the autonomic nervous system. The visible aspects of arousal (the blushing, trembling, etc.) can in turn increase a person’s feelings of self-consciousness. In social situations, the shy body can easily become caught up in a distressing feedback loop of awkwardness and discomfort.

Over years, even decades, these repeated experiences of anxiety-related distress (and the mere anticipation of these experiences) can become inscribed upon the body. Deciphering these inscriptions has been part of my task in writing a memoir called ‘Shy’.

In the book I describe shyness as a kind of poison that enters my body, a slow-working poison of anxiety that has eaten away at my digestive system so that now I can really only comfortably eat what I ate as a baby – comforting, squishy, easy-to-digest foods like potato, pumpkin, rice and porridge.

I also describe a lump in my throat that used to appear every time I felt acutely socially anxious, a lump that no amount of swallowing could remove, because it was a constriction, a spasm, it was my own body trying to strangle itself, my own body punishing me for my idiotic fears. ‘Globus hystericus’ it’s called – the hysterical globe in my throat that only disappeared when I started trying to prevent the hysterical destruction of our globe.

I describe the marble blocks from which Michelangelo carved his religious sculptures − imagined that my shy body was like the immobilised, as-yet-unrevealed figures awaiting the artist’s chisel to free them from their solid rock casing − imagined the shy body as physically entrapped, longing for metamorphosis and for the chance to escape the casing of awkward self-consciousness and to emerge fully formed into the waiting world as a ‘true self’.

I describe the visceral sensation of liquefaction that can accompany the experience of social anxiety. I describe the shy body temporarily liberated from anxiety through the liquefying sensation of sexual desire; I describe my longing to be limpid, a liquid state defined as ‘absolutely serene and untroubled’. And I describe the way my shy body, weighed down by anxiety, revels in the weightlessness of immersion in the surf.

And, finally, I describe a condition called ‘body identity integrity disorder’, a psychological condition that makes people think that one of their limbs is an interloper – that it doesn’t belong to them – and that it is possibly dangerous to them. So they must get rid of it – even if that means amputation. For me, shyness has been like a form of body identity integrity disorder, except that the interloper is a temperament trait – my shyness – and I have been trying to get rid of it my whole life. I have been berating myself for its existence my whole life. It doesn’t belong to me, I thought – and it is dangerous – it gets in my way.

At the end of writing my memoir I have not managed to get rid of my shyness, as I hoped – but I have come to this realisation – that shyness belongs to me, it is mine, it won’t go away, but it can be managed. And I have been managing it, pushing myself over a million small cliffs in the effort to not let shyness get in the way of me doing many of the things I’ve wanted to do.

And, as Morrissey sang – ‘Shyness is nice’. Shyness has its own gang – it comes with a whole bunch of positive character traits and qualities, like empathy. Shy people care about what other people think − sometimes too much – but too much is better than too little, don’t you reckon?

And shyness isn’t something I have to be ashamed of. It’s normal. It’s necessary. If we were all bossy, un-empathic extroverts there would be even more wars. Possibly ONLY wars.

And maybe there would be fewer good writers, because being a writer usually requires you to think carefully about how other people think and feel.

Imagine this – you’re standing in front of an audience of people, strangers, who you’ve suddenly realised are not here to judge you. Your hands aren’t trembling, your face is not flushed, and you don’t need to be invisible. Because these people here, these people sitting quietly and generously listening to you talking about your shyness, are probably here because they’re shy too.


This is the text of a talk delivered at the Wheeler Centre during the event On Shyness.

Shy by Sian Prior (Text Publishing) is available now.

Back to top

Fatima Measham was awarded one of last year’s Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships to work on an essay in defence of her suburb, Werribee. That essay – an attempt to subvert prevailing perceptions of the suburb – has just been published in Meanjin.

In this extract, Measham gives the history of the Western Treatment Plant (second only to Kakadu as one of the most biodiverse areas in Australia, and a mecca for birdwatchers – including Jonathan Franzen when he visited Melbourne in 2011) and explains the dangers of ‘postcode superiority’.

highlight

Image by Flying Cloud.

It was one of those moments of congeniality in a friend’s kitchen. I was narrating the many wrong turns I had taken before arriving at their house, when his three-year-old suddenly asked where I live. Before I could answer, his dad said, ‘It’s where your poo goes.’ The gleeful tone stung for days.

The words were a statement of fact, I suppose, but the tenor felt like an indictment of the place itself and the people who live there, including me. Was I expected to laugh along because it was such a joke? I looked at his son’s face and felt unexpectedly humiliated. This child thinks that I live at the endpoint of his toilet.

All I could do was sputter. ‘Actually, the Western Treatment Plant is one of the most highly biodiverse areas in Australia. Second only to Kakadu.’ My friend hadn’t known that, of course. Hardly anyone does. They’re too busy cackling over poo jokes.

I live in Werribee, west of Melbourne. It is ‘the capital of the New West’, according to a council newsletter, part of the Wyndham ‘growth corridor’. It sprawls east from Laverton to Little River, and north towards Mount Cottrell, south of Melton.

The relative isolation has until recently preserved the rural features of Werribee district. Even in the late 1990s it was a sort of no-man’s-land between the cosmopolitan delights of Melbourne and the surf coast charms of Geelong. No-one really stopped by unless they needed to fill up on petrol. Besides, it hosts the Western Treatment Plant, formerly called the Werribee Sewage Farm.

I’m never sure what people visualise when the sewage farm is mentioned, but we don’t grow poo there. The area features wetlands, mudflats, coastal saltmarsh, estuaries, native grasslands and pastures. It sprawls across 105 square kilometres, three times the size of the city of Melbourne. A lagoon system of thirty ponds, known as Lake Borrie, is a habitat for many waterfowl, including some that migrate from as far as Siberia. Around 270 species of birds have been identified there. It is home to endangered native wildlife such as the growling grass frog and the fat-tailed dunnart.

When novelist Jonathan Franzen was in Melbourne for the 2011 Writers Festival, he made a point of visiting the Western Treatment Plant. An avid bird-watcher, he was reportedly blown away by the size of the area and the diversity of birds hosted there. It holds such high ecological significance that it was recognised under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, an international treaty on wetland conservation.

swamp_harrier_wayne_butterworth

Image of swamp harrier at Werribee by Wayne Butterworth.

It is a picture that interferes with people’s shit-driven narrative of Werribee, one that also exposes most people’s ignorance about the historical and scientific basis for the sewage farm. The truth is that Melbourne wouldn’t be what it is now if it weren’t for Werribee.

Prior to 1890, Melburnians conducted the affairs of their bowels and bladders into cesspits, buckets and, if you were a little more civilised, porcelain chamber pots decorated with rosettes. ‘Night soil’ would often be dumped on public roads. All manner of excreta ran down the street. The Yarra became a de facto sewer − a gigantic open conduit for human and industrial waste. British journalists dubbed the city ‘Marvellous Smellbourne’. Not surprisingly, outbreaks of diphtheria, typhoid and other communicable diseases attended the era.

Such a state of malady and malodour would have persisted had London physician John Snow not made the connection between cholera and contaminated water in 1854. While investigating an outbreak in the Soho district, Snow used maps and statistics to trace the source of the disease. It turned out to be a public well pump in Broad Street that had been dug only a metre from an old cesspit.

Snow’s study led to the construction of significant sanitation infrastructure, which did more for public health than anything else before it. It was a scientific triumph that reverberated all the way to Australia, where in 1888 the Royal Sanitary Commission established the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works. Two years later, a British sewerage expert, James Mansergh, recommended land irrigation and soil filtration to the Victorian parliament as the best methods for treating sewage. This involved an underground drainage system that pumped waste towards large tracts of pasture, which clarify and oxidise impurities. The idea was to let nature take its course. The resulting abundance of grass would be dealt with by livestock, which would then be sold to sustain the system financially. It was a neat solution for a modern problem.

Werribee was chosen for the new sewage farm. It was suitable for irrigation, but more importantly, cheaper and further from the metropolitan boundary than the south-eastern option, Mordialloc. It also wasn’t anywhere near Brighton, which even then was a hub of affluence and influence. So Werribee got left with the effluent.

The board bought a portion of the Chirnside family holdings, establishing the sewage farm on 8857 acres. The Metropolitan Farm, as it was later called, was one of the largest public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century. It goes without saying that it was critical to reducing the spread of disease. Its benefits, however, were manifold.

It provided job security for many farmers during the 1890s economic crash as well as the 1930s depression, when it employed more than 400 people. During the postwar immigration scheme instigated by then minister Arthur Calwell, around a hundred men from the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre in north-west Victoria found work there.

The State Research Farm that was established on-site in 1912 was pivotal to creating cereal varieties that could withstand non-English climate and soil conditions. Livestock research was similarly conducted to improve breeds. The agricultural, animal husbandry and dairy practices developed there were implemented throughout Victoria.

By the time the Chirnsides left their properties in 1921, they had turned over a further 25,914 acres to the state government for use as farms under the Closer Settlement Act 1904. Part of this land was used in a soldier settlement scheme, enabling many First World War diggers to reintegrate into the community as farmers. When they moved elsewhere or onto other work, migrants from Italy, Greece and Macedonia took over the farms. About 150 farms comprise the Werribee South market garden industry today, from which a good portion of the produce in Victoria comes.

Given such significant contributions, it’s a wonder that outsiders are still fixated on such a narrow version of Werribee. An unprocessed equivalence between residents and the treatment plant runs through the language used by outsiders.

werribee_plain_sunset

Image of sunset on Werribee plains by ccdoh1

I realised as much a few years ago, when I was teaching at a local state school. I took a group of Year 11 media students to the Channel 9 studios in Richmond. We were there for a taping of the now-defunct quiz show Temptation (formerly known as Sale of the Century). It was a terrific opportunity given that we were studying production processes and roles at the time. It was also a chance to escape our outer suburban bubble. I was keen for my class to make the most of the experience.

A handsome young model, whose task it was to showcase the prizes, came over to welcome us to the set. We were mostly a mix of school groups, so he asked each contingent where they were from. He seemed pleased that there were delegates from a certain private school where he had studied.

Then he turned to us. The most confident of my brood told him the name of our school. He asked where it was and she told him. This was met with a brief but loaded pause. I only realised how loaded when my student snapped, ‘Don’t judge us!’ I may have involuntarily clapped. In the space of mere seconds, she had detected the prejudice and confronted it. I was abashed that I hadn’t been as quick, but felt proud that one of us was.

The exchange said something to me about the burden that my students face, going out into a world that assumes so many things about them because of where they live. It underlines the injustice of being judged solely on provenance, which hardly anyone gets to choose.

There are places across the country that prompt similar responses at the merest mention, such as Logan and Inala in Queensland; Blacktown and Campbelltown in New South Wales; Bridgewater and Glenorchy in Hobart; Elizabeth in South Australia; and Gosnell in Western Australia.

werribee_river maccinate Flickr

Image of Werribee River, upstream by maccinate.

There is a pattern to these negative perceptions, some sort of code that applies to certain places. It seems to emerge from a combination of observation, hearsay and lore. Perhaps such attitudes are an unremarkable form of tribalism or remnant anxiety over what lies beyond the horizon—a kind of ‘there be dragons’ for our time. We all pass judgement on places for various reasons, some of which may even be valid.

The problem is that we do not only expose our sense of postcode superiority when we use places as shorthand for certain types of people. We also abdicate responsibility. Reducing people to the characteristics of their neighbourhood gives us permission to do nothing about the things that make it problematic. Suburbs are ‘bad’ because the people in it are bad. Prevalent disadvantage and restricted social mobility are thus seen as the outcome of such people congregating, rather than as pre-existing conditions that they must endure.

It is a mentality that keeps us from engaging with the structural nature of social problems. We do not realise that such conditions cluster and entrap entire families, sometimes for several generations. We freely mock these places instead of wondering why they have lower rates of educational achievement and higher rates of domestic violence, unemployment, juvenile delinquency, mental illness and third-generation poverty. Such failures of insight affect the lives of real people.


This is the shorter version of an essay published in the current Meanjin. You call read the full version at Meanjin online, or in the journal.

Back to top

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator; she has published both picture books and a YA dystopian series, The Tribe. In this engrossing essay, which doubles as a call to arms, she describes what it’s like to be an Indigenous writer, the importance of ‘laughter-stories’ even (or especially) about terrible things, and why writing for young people demands an ‘impossibly high’ standard.

She argues for the importance of diverse books for young people: so that all young people can access stories that are written by and about someone like them. ‘Be aware,’ she urges – we should all ask that bookshops and libraries, writers festivals and events, stock books and program writers that allow children and teenagers to find themselves in the faces on the covers and the names of the authors.

highlight

I come from generations of storytellers who told tales in words, painted them in art, and sung and danced them in rhythm with the seasons and the sun and the stars. The people were one with the stories and the stories one with the people, and every tale both embodied and sustained the whole. The Indigenous peoples of the globe have always understood the universe to be a continually enfolding and unfolding place where everything holds everything else. We had no fractured stories, until the colonisers arrived, bringing with them tales that divided people from people and people from the earth. Indigenous peoples learned to navigate these stories too; we had to if we wanted to survive. And today, I am merely one of the many millions of Indigenous people who walk in many worlds.

My perspective is shaped by the culture and Country of the Palyku people from whom I come; by individual and collective Indigenous experiences of colonisation; and by my family and my ancestors. But I speak only for myself. The many Aboriginal nations of Australia, and Indigenous peoples elsewhere, are diverse peoples with diverse perspectives. We share much in common, but we are also different individuals from different nations, and our cultures are and always have been pluralist in nature. As such, we do not hold a single, static view between us all.

The worlds in which I walk are sometimes disparate but not disconnected. Each one is shaped by stories, including the worlds of the things that have been and those of the things that are yet to be. As Cherokee author Thomas King writes: ‘Most of us think history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past.’ (1) And Indigenous people are well aware of the many ways in which stories of the past continue to shape our future. We deal daily with the ongoing and intergenerational consequences of colonialism; with the negative stereotypes; and with the mistaken assumptions about us upon which law and policy is so often based.

I often think of a tale told by Yuin elder Eileen Morgan in her memoir The Calling of the Spirits. She writes of a hidden valley of Aboriginal people who live naked as our ancestors did, and have a single set of clothes to be worn if ever one of them ventures out of the valley. It seems to me that Indigenous people send out our stories in much the same way. We clothe them in forms which non-Indigenous hearts and minds will recognise so that they might understand us. Except we use those forms differently, and Indigenous work is sometimes criticised for failing to comply with genre expectations or scholarly conventions that were never ours to begin with. We are aware also of the dangers of becoming too comfortable in Eurocentric forms and writing ourselves out of our own stories. In the words of Plains Cree Metis poet and author Dr Emma LaRocque, reflecting on the academic world:

I’ve walked these hallways

For a long time now

Hallways without windows

No way to feel the wind

No way to touch the earth

No way to see

I do my footnotes so well

Nobody knows where I come from (2)

Indigenous peoples are unlikely to ever use the written word in the same way as those to whom the English language belongs; we reinterpret and subvert to make someone else’s form communicate our substance. In the end, we are not writing. We are speaking, singing, laughing, crying. And we know it is desperately important to be heard. We know because we are ones who bear the cost of the silence that causes us to vanish from national consciousness and allows harmful distortions of our cultures and histories to pass unchallenged. Beyond that, this planet has always needed a diversity of voices to sustain its diversity of environments (and therefore life on earth). In the words of Arrente elder Margaret Kemarre Turner: ‘The Land must have people through whom it can talk.’ (3)

One commonality shared by many Indigenous peoples of the globe is our use of humour. We sometimes laugh at terrible things; it is an aspect of Indigenous storytelling that is often misconstrued. It does not in any way mean the terrible things were not terrible, or that we take them lightly. But our ancestors taught us that making light of them can make them a little easier to bear. Laughter is a gift; and anyone who has ever survived something terrible knows its value and its grace.

asher_wolf Laughter-stories are much needed now, along with all the other stories, and they are most especially needed by those to whom my books speak. Because I write novels for young adults and picture books for children. And of all the worlds in which I walk, it is the world of the young which is closest to my heart.

I am aware, of course, that there are those who believe that writing for children or teenagers is not as difficult or as worthy as writing for adults. It’s becoming a semi-regular event for someone to make the allegation that YA/children’s literature is not ‘real literature’. This does not bother me so much on my own behalf – in fact, if anyone ever did think my books were ‘real literature’ I’d just as soon they never said so, at least not where any child or teenager likely to read my books could hear them. It’s perilously close to saying my books are educational, and the only people who think that’s an attractive quality in a YA/children’s books are adults. But such allegations do bother me on behalf of the people I write for, because it implies that (a) the standard is lower and (b) the young won’t notice. I think the opposite is true. I think the standard is and should be impossibly high; children and teenagers deserve and demand more. And of course they notice when a story is not well told. Failing to perceive the blindingly obvious is an ability we only develop as we grow older.

The world of the young is a place that abounds with infinite possibilities and infinite terrors. Every horror that can be visited on the grown ups of this world exists too in the lives of the young, only they must cope with their realities with less experience and less resources. And the stories that shape and inspire and comfort the diverse children and teenagers of this world are not the stories they’ll read when they’re all grown up. It’s the stories that speak to who they are now. That is why it is so important to ensure not only that the young have access to stories, but that at least some of those stories are written by and about someone like them.

There is a campaign in the United States called ‘We need diverse books’; as part of it, people posted pictures of signs that finished the sentence ‘we need diverse books because…’ One of the images that has stayed with me is a sign sitting in front of Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian author Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. The sign reads: ‘We need diverse books because everyone’s story deserves to be told’.

I am often asked if there are any limits on what I would write for the young. I accept at least one limit, and it is this: I will never tell a story without hope. It is perhaps why I enjoy YA literature so much; I want to see good triumph over evil and it generally does in my genre, although not without hardship and sacrifice. Good triumphs because that is exactly what should happen in a world of infinite possibility (including the possibility of justice). And if some adults are inclined to think that narratives of unremitting bleakness are more realistic, then that is surely an indictment on the world we create for the young and not the one they would create for themselves, were they ever given the choice.

The first story I ever published and illustrated is a book called Crow and the Waterhole. That story came to me in a dream. I saw a crow who gazes down at her reflection in the waterhole below her tree. She believes she is seeing another crow, one far more wonderful than she is. So she goes out in the world to seek her destiny, but she keeps seeing other crows – in a river, a lake, and a puddle. Each new Crow is more wonderful than the last, and Crow despairs. Finally, a clever kookaburra explains that she is staring at her own image. So Crow flies back to her tree, and from that time on, whenever she meets someone seeking their destiny, she says to them: ‘Your destiny lies within you. All you have to do is learn how to see it.’

I believe the tale was a gift given to me by my ancestors. They knew I was at a stage in my life when I needed to hear that story. And it is still my dream, but no longer for myself. It is what I want for all the children and all the teenagers of this earth – to be able to find their own image in the world around them and recognise their own value. That value then multiples ten-thousandfold because those who have travelled through doubt and fear to be able to nurture themselves are also the ones who will be the most nurturing of others. The reverse is also true; we all understand that a lack of self-worth leads to destructive cycles of behavior. The effects of our actions are always exponential, which means we can be more powerful than we know.

cover-ember-crow I am going to assume that anyone who loves stories thinks that more stories (and more perspectives) are better than less. So to all the book lovers, I say this: be aware.

When you go into a bookstore or shop online, start paying attention to the faces on the covers and the names of authors. Are you seeing the complexity and diversity of the world looking back at you? This is important for adult readers, of course, but it is more important for the young. Where are the stories in which they are the heroes, the ones written by and about people like them? And if these books are not present, don’t let anyone tell you they don’t exist, at least, not without investigating that claim.

Certainly in Australia there is a wealth of Indigenous narratives across all genres, largely (but not exclusively) due to the amazing work of Aboriginal publishers – IAD Press, Aboriginal Studies Press, and Magabala Books. Many non-Indigenous publishing houses are also producing stories written and/or illustrated by Indigenous people (including Allen & Unwin, Little Hare Books, Random House, Penguin, Omnibus Books, Fremantle Press, Spinifex Press, University of Queensland Press, Giramondo Publishing, Walker Books and many others).

If you find a lack of stories, ask that bookstores and libraries stock the books that allow children and teenagers to find themselves in the faces on the covers and the names of the authors. Ask that writers’ festivals and events do too. And if there is a lack of monetary resources, make some noise about that as well. The likelihood is that the critically under-resourced schools and libraries will be those located in disadvantaged areas (in other words, the very places where the young need stories the most).

So let’s do what we can to help create the world the young would choose for themselves, the one where they are valued. And then watch as different cultures and perspectives interact in narrative space, affirming their understanding of themselves and gaining a better understanding of each other.

The world of the young is one of limitless possibilities – give them enough support, and they will expand the boundaries of all worlds into infinity.


Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and law academic. She comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She has published a number of picture books as well as a dystopian series – The Tribe – for young adults. Find out more about Ambelin at her website: www.ambelin-kwaymullina.com.au


Footnotes

(1) Thomas King, An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012, p3

(2) Emma LaRocque, ‘Long Way From Home’ in Socialist Studies, Vol 9(1) Spring 2013 pp22 – 26 at 23

(3) Margaret Kemarre Turner, Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What it means to be an Aboriginal person, IAD Press, Alice Springs, 2010, p33

Back to top

Evie Wyld wins Miles Franklin 2014

Evie Wyld has won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award for her second novel, All the Birds, Singing. Judge Richard Neville said, ‘Flight from violence and abuse run through the core of the novel, yet never defeat its central character. All the Birds, Singing, an unusual but compelling novel, explores its themes with an unnervingly consistent clarity and confidence.’ Born in London, where she now lives, Wyld spent periods of her childhood living on her grandparents’ farm in New South Wales; she holds dual nationality, and the novel is set between Australia and the UK. She was named one of Granta’s 20 Best British Writers Under 40 last year.

Wyld was a guest at the Wheeler Centre earlier this year, where she was interviewed by Benjamin Law. You can watch the video below.

How the CIA used Doctor Zhivago to fight the Cold War

Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, banned in the Soviet Union, was ardently admired elsewhere – including by the CIA. ‘Pasternak’s humanistic message—that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state—poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of the individual to the Communist system,’ wrote a CIA staffer in a 1958 memo. Later that year, the agency slipped clandestine copies of the book to Russian readers at the World’s Fair in Belgium.

highlight

New David Sedaris: With Melbourne setting

There’s a new David Sedaris personal essay in the New Yorker, available to read online for free. Among other things, he’s pondering the joys of a Fitbit (an electronic bracelet that measures your steps taken per day) for obsessive types … and he kicks off in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne, hearing about housekeepers, cataract removal in remote China, and the Fitbit.

Free pregnancy tests in Alaskan bathrooms

Foetal alchohol syndrome is a serious problem in Alaska; its prevalence is linked to a high rate of accidental pregnancies (nearly one half of all pregnancies in the US). In a novel approach to solving the problem, Alaskan researchers are about to install free-pregnancy-test dispensers in the bathrooms of bars, emblazoned with warnings about the dangers of drinking while pregnant.

140617_MEDEX_PregTests.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlarge

Julian Assange headed for the catwalk?

Julian Assange has been asked to star in a fashion show as part of London’s Fashion Week (from his Ecaudorian Embassy base), by Ben Westwood, son of the legendary Vivienne, who is a supporter of Assange’s. Ben says Assange is ‘good looking’ and a ‘popular hero’.

Back to top

Indira Naidoo calls for a new conversation about refugees in Australia – one based on compassion, empathy and ethics, rather than fear.

She speaks from experience, as a refugee from apartheid South Africa to a racist 1970s UK, then a welcoming Australia – followed by a return to Africa, in the form of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, then a second refugee’s journey back to Australia again.

She also looks at the politics and history of our current hardline (and hard-hearted) stance, and its roots in the original mass boat arrivals to Australia: The First Fleet.

highlight

If you had to describe me, what descriptors would you use?

Migrant? Refugee? Woman? Indian? Ethnic? Tamil? Hindu? South African-born? Australian? TV newsreader? Journalist? Writer? Author? Minor celebrity? Chardonnay-sipping bleeding-heart leftie − or just plain annoying?

Most people will engage with me through one of these stereotypes.

None of us seem to be able to avoid ‘labels’… being put into boxes that have become a short-form way of explaining who we are, how we think…. what our hopes and dreams might be.

But like all of you, I am much more than the sum of my parts.

No group is more stereotyped in Australia than refugees.

The word ‘refugee’ invokes so much emotion that it’s almost impossible to utter the word without immediately polarising your audience.

As Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers takes us into our darkest days since the White Australia Policy, I’ve been questioning my values and the values of the country I have called home since my family migrated here almost 40 years ago.

I thought I knew it well, this Great Southern Land of ours – from its eucalypts and bush rock, to its footy ovals and cricket pitches, from its meat pies and kebabs, to its sun, surf and zinc cream.

These days I’m not so sure.

The Australia I see reflected in the media, on the floor of our national parliament, on the world-stage, looks more foreign to me every day.

I want to explore some of the issues I believe have brought us to the moral impoverishment of our current refugee and asylum seeker policy and how we might begin navigating our way through the current hysteria to a more humane, compassionate and thoughtful approach.

Firstly, I’d like to give you some insights into my perspective.

‘Fate intervened’: Leaving South Africa

This is me. One of the earliest photos I have of myself. I’m about a year old − and those who know me well would say my mood hasn’t improved much since!

indira_baby2

The arrival of a new baby is usually met with great joy. My parents should have been imagining all sorts of exciting things for my future. But they already knew precisely the way my life would unfold.

You see, I was born an Indian girl in apartheid South Africa in 1968.

As a fifth-generation South African Indian, I was destined to live a life where everything I did would be dictated by my gender and the colour of my skin.

As a non-white citizen, the state would determine where I lived, where I went to school, what park benches I could sit on, which beaches I could swim at, who I could marry and where I would be buried. A life of dehumanising discrimination lay ahead for me.

But fate intervened and gave me courageous parents who decided to leave South Africa, their family and all they knew to find a new home for their growing family.

In fact when we left, my parents had to actually smuggle me across the South African border into Zambia because at the time it was illegal for non-white children to leave South Africa.

My mother still talks of her terror as I slept soundly in the back seat covered by blankets as South African border guards prodded the bundles on top of me with their rifle butts.

My parents’ search for a new home took me and my two younger sisters on an extraordinary sixteen-year adventure across five countries, straddling three continents, twelve homes, six schools. The only thing that remained constant – and possibly not accidental if you know my family – is that every country we migrated to was obsessed with cricket!

From South Africa we went to Zambia, then England, then Tasmania, then back to Africa to Zimbabwe and finally back to Australia, to South Australia.

Looking for a safe place to bring up families

In our search for a new home we crossed paths with hundreds of people who were doing the same thing … at airports, at railway stations, at ports, at border checkpoints … people looking for a safe place where they could bring up their families.

Most of these people would never have left their homes if they could have built a good, safe life where they were born.

We conveniently categorise people into economic migrants, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, but the reality is most people permanently leave their homeland reluctantly.

It’s only a privileged few who choose when they leave, how they leave, where they go and if they come back.

My parents’ professional qualifications and English-speaking skills gave them more choices than most.

In the global labour market of the 1970s they were in demand – particularly my father’s dental skills.

‘Rock star welcome’ to (rural) Australia, 1974

When the Whitlam government came to power in 1972 we were living in England and having a pretty tough time of it, like many of the waves of Eastern European and South-East Asian immigrants. My father’s dental qualifications, gained in India, weren’t recognised by British authorities and he had to re-sit the last part of his degree again.

Our family was struggling financially and when Gough Whitlam introduced his Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, which provided financial assistance to new migrants, my parents didn’t hesitate. With my father’s professional qualification our entire family would be resettled in Australia with a house and job.

This is how we found ourselves in 1974 in the tiny country town of St Mary’s on the rugged east coast of Tasmania. Population?

….20,000 kangaroos ….

…….. and 400 people …. give or take a few.

St Mary’s was a sleepy little hamlet. Most of the townsfolk were fourth and fifth generation Tasmanians, with a few newly arrived Eastern European immigrants.

The Indigenous population had been decimated and there was little Asian immigration which up until then had been directed towards the major mainland cities.

So our arrival in the hamlet was certain to cause a stir.

What my parents didn’t expect, given the racism they had experienced in South Africa and England, was the rock-star welcome we would receive.

To the townsfolk of St Mary’s we were exotic and novel.

The town’s local socialite – the bus driver’s wife − arranged an afternoon tea for my mother and my sisters to meet the other families. They were all dressed in their finery – some even wearing hats with flowers. They’d prepared these exotic delicacies we’d never seen before: lamingtons, butterfly cupcakes, fairy bread. We were greeted in a line as if we were the royal family … everyone taking turns to shake our hands.

I remember it well. I was six years old. One little girl even asked if she could touch my skin. She’d never seen dark skin before. She was fascinated. Of course we all had British accents as well so we must have seemed very odd!

We were so welcomed by that town. We were made to feel so included and special. Children wanted to sit next to us in class. We were invited to weekend BBQs and fishing trips.

That sense of specialness bestowed on us by the people of St Mary’s has stayed with me ever since.

I know my experience contrasts vastly to the mixed or lukewarm welcome many immigrants can receive.

Why were the townsfolk of St Mary’s so open and accepting?

Personal contact tempers most prejudices

Some would argue that my family was treated differently because we came via the ‘proper channels’… we weren’t ‘queue jumpers’… we weren’t ‘illegals’….we arrived on a plane with a visa and went through immigration and customs.

But of course the people of St Mary’s didn’t care how we had arrived. We were part of the community making a contribution. And they knew how difficult it was to get a good dentist in a rural town. Sadly something that’s still difficult to do.

They showed us compassion and empathy. They wanted to get to know us as individuals, to find the commonalities, to learn about our experiences.

After all, this was 1974.

Television hadn’t yet brought the worst of the world’s stereotypes and fears into their lounge-rooms.

9/11 was still three decades away.

The people of St Mary’s didn’t have many pre-conceived ideas of what someone from South Africa ‘was like’ or what ‘God’ an Indian person would worship. And if they did they just wanted to get to know us.

Personal contact will temper most of the prejudices we can fall prey to.

If you want to kill compassion and demonise difference, segregate people.

It’s what apartheid South Africa did so effectively.

It’s what Australia is doing now by putting asylum seekers – including children − behind razor wire thousands of miles off-shore, removed from the Australian community.

Next stop: Zimbabwe

My family soon got a dose of life away from the protection and privilege of Australia when, eight years after we arrived in Tasmania, my parents decided to move back to Africa to Zimbabwe in the early 1980s.

Yes − as well as being courageous, my parents are a little nutty. They wanted to be closer to their family in South Africa, they thought their professional skills would come in handy in the fledgling nation and they wanted to give their children a taste of Africa.

All admirable goals, but when we arrived in the central town of Gweru, Zimbabwe was still healing from a vicious civil war.

I was 13 years old.

We got a front-row seat to war, conflict, racial upheaval − some of it played out in the school playground.

It very quickly became apparent that Prime Minister Robert Mugabe was going to be no Nelson Mandela.

He began an ethnic cleansing campaign against the minority Ndebele people, took control of the media and the army and set up one of the most bloodthirsty regimes Africa has ever seen.

As food and petrol shortages swept the country, there was a mad scramble to leave. Some of our school-friends and their families fled to South Africa and Botswana, a lucky few made it to Great Britain, and our family were able to escape back to paradise because we possessed a little piece of paper – an Australian passport.

I’d never understood the preciousness of my citizenship and nationality more so than on that day, as a 16-year-old, when we boarded a plane back to Australia via South Africa. I saw why some people risk everything to one day be cloaked under its protection.

Journalism: Dominated by Anglo, English-speaking backgrounds

Given my experiences and my background, it wasn’t surprising that I would build a career in journalism.

What did surprise me were the sorts of students I met in my journalism course. They were mostly from Anglo, English-speaking middle-class, private school backgrounds.

I was the only non-white student in my graduation year of 33 students.

And really, for the rest of my career in broadcast journalism in Australia, that was to be the statistical mix I would encounter.

Even when I moved to SBS, our multicultural network − to anchor the Late News in the late 1990s − I was the only non-European person on my late news team.

While the mix has changed slightly in the past 20 years, Australia’s media is still dominated by journalists from Anglo, English-speaking backgrounds.

Skewed media view of refugee debate

This cultural imbalance has been one of the reasons I believe we get a skewed media view of the refugee debate in Australia.

It’s much easier to frame the debate as ‘us’ and ‘them’ when you don’t look much like ‘them’.

Many people in the mainstream media simply can’t relate to refugees, and lack the cultural awareness to empathise with their experiences. Sometimes, rather than connecting you, seeing the world only through a camera lens can put an enormous gulf between you and your subject.

Of course there are media outlets – mainly at the ABC and SBS and a few press outlets – that give refugee issues balance and deeper analysis.

Often they do so at their peril.

Critical assessments of government policy can lead to threats of funding cuts – as we’re witnessing at the moment − or unrelenting campaigns, public pillory and accusations of left-wing bias from conservative media outlets.

Cuts to public broadcasting have also limited the time and resources journalists can spend investigating refugee and asylum seeker issues.

The journalists and editors who continue to pursue this story are courageous and to be applauded.

Spin doctors and anti-refugee sentiment

But as Australia’s traditional media industry contracts and more news services are axed many journalists are forced to find work elsewhere.

The ranks of public relations firms and government spin doctors inevitably swell. Some are then employed to pump out more anti-refugee sentiment.

It was revealed last year that the previous Gillard Government engaged 72 media advisers and communication staff in the Immigration and Health departments alone. The total staff employed in public affairs was five times the number of journalists and staff employed in the entire Canberra Press Gallery.

And the spin doctors are achieving their goal.

The dehumanisation of refugees is complete when a young, vulnerable soul under our protection is killed in one of our facilities and the national outrage is barely audible.

Four months after Reza Berati’s death on Manus Island, an investigation and an ongoing Senate inquiry later, and the Australian public still doesn’t know the details of who killed Reza and how it happened.

We took away Reza’s hope and then we took away his future.

Can there be a greater stain on our national soul?

Detention centres and other ‘weasel words’

Why are those fleeing their homes now locked up indefinitely like criminals with no charge, in prisons we euphemistically call ‘detention centres’?

‘Detention’ is a short-term punishment you give naughty children who haven’t done their homework. ‘Detention’ is one of the many ‘weasel words’ we have corrupted to hide our inhumanity.

From the most recent figures from the Australian Human Rights Commission, there are currently 5,867 people locked away in Australia’s 21 immigration detention facilities. 1,006 of them are children.

3,391 people are a little better off in community detention and 1,631 of these are children. 119 people have been in detention for over 2 years. Two years of traumatic incarceration to add to the untold horrors they have fled.

And what our political leaders and the shock jocks won’t tell you is that 90% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are found to be refugees. So, we’ve spent almost $3 billion this financial year on Temporary Protection Visas, mandatory detention, migration excision zones, and offshore processing arrangements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea to persecute vulnerable people who – in the end − are found to be, mostly, genuine refugees.

And on top of this it was revealed last week that the Immigration Department is paying asylum seekers $10,000 each to voluntarily return to the tormentors and bullets they have fled.

And this is all held up as sound economic management?

Australia as international pariah

Once a human rights defender, Australia is now being condemned internationally as a pariah. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly found Australia to be in breach of its obligations under Article 9 (Section1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Our problem is not refugees.

Our problem is the fear industry that has been allowed to grow and profit from exploiting refugees.

This industry includes the politicians who use refugee-bashing as an easy way to get re-elected, it includes the well-paid newspaper columnists who lack the compassion or cleverness to talk about the complexities of the issue, it includes the media shock jocks who use their loud megaphones to bully the moderate voices and incite the extreme ones, and it includes an inattentive public who would prefer to talk about real estate, renovations and recipes.

Despite what we are constantly told, our refugee numbers are small.

In 2012 a total of 17,202 asylum seekers on 278 boats arrived in Australia. By mid last year 14,000 people had made it to our shores. While significant, the reality is that Australia still receives less than 2% of the 50 million people fleeing persecution, conflict and war across the world. Less than 2%.

Let me put this into context. Lebanon, for instance, has taken in almost 1 million refugees, mainly from the Syrian Civil War. It only has a population of 4 ½ million people, so these refugee numbers pose a grave threat to its stability but it still keeps its borders open.

Climate change refugees – the near future

While our refugee intake is tiny in comparison, my concern is that with the growing challenges climate change will place on our fragile world, Australia will face in the near future an influx from ‘climate change’ refugees in our region.

And unless we can begin formulating a sensible policy based on ethics − about refugees and about climate change – we will encounter a very real humanitarian crisis we will be ill-equipped to deal with.

Just in the past year, typhoons and cyclones have hit low-lying parts of the Philippines, India and Bangladesh leaving millions homeless.

And we already know how vulnerable many of our Pacific neighbours are to rising sea levels. Some communities in the Pacific and South-East Asia will be forced to relocate to safer regions, and Australia will be one of the obvious destinations. Interestingly under the wording of the UN’s pre-climate change 1951 Convention on the Rights of Refugees, people fleeing ‘natural disasters’ are currently not classified as refugees. No doubt this definition will need to be revisited.

Australia is the most climate-change-at-risk developed nation on the planet. Throwing more money at ‘border patrols’ or ‘border protection’ will not save us from a changing climate.

‘Borders’ aren’t real

‘Border Protection’ will not stop climate change. ‘Borders’ aren’t real. They are not a force of nature like gravity. They are man-made. They are artificial constructs that can be redrawn, absorbed, extended or extinguished in a nanosecond by a red pen in a distant office, or by a tank in a battlefield. It’s happening right now in The Ukraine as I speak.

Asylum seekers pose NO THREAT to our borders.

While we obsess with ‘turning back the boats’ the real menace to our way of life has already arrived in our atmosphere, unchecked, moving freely and it gets harder to turn back every day we keep ignoring it.

Let’s concentrate our efforts on turning back climate change.

It is time we closed our off-shore processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island.

It is time we ended mandatory detention.

It is an inhumane and expensive policy that does no one any good.

It is a policy that breaches Australia’s international obligations and persecutes the very people we have committed ourselves to protecting.

We’re diminished as a nation every day we allow it to continue.

Detention in these facilities is unlimited and arbitrary and those detained are denied legal aid and avenues to challenge their detention in a court of law.

‘Australia needs to reset its moral compass’

The Australian Human Rights Commission has found that our detention facilities ‘inflicted serious psychological harm’ on detainees that amounted to ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’.

The Commission recommended that a person should be detained only if they are individually assessed as posing an unacceptable risk to the Australian community and if that risk could not be met in a ‘less restrictive way’.

Asylum seekers should be permitted to reside in the community while their immigration status is resolved. This can be achieved through the use of ‘community detention’ or with ‘bridging visas’. This is happening at the moment for some detainees and is working very well. They should also have a right to pursue paid work, which will give them some dignity. Community detention and bridging visas are both alternatives that allow for the wider community to be protected from identified risks while ensuring at the same time that people are treated humanely and in line with internationally accepted human rights standards.

Australia needs to reset its moral compass.

‘Compassion is the radicalism of our times’

We know there are no queues for these people to jump.

We know there is no such person as an ‘illegal’. Everyone has the legal right to seek asylum. If we turn back the boats at our borders, their occupants could possibly die somewhere else due to our intervention. They may not die within our borders, but is this still not something we should feel a responsibility for? Of course we should. It is heartless to feel otherwise.

We should refocus our resources on resolving the issues which force refugees to flee their homes and undertake risky journeys in the first place.

In places such as Afghanistan and Iraq where we contributed to the war we have a duty to contribute to the peace.

We should use our influence with countries such as Sri Lanka to curb its human rights abuses not make excuses for them.

We must redouble our efforts to work more closely with Indonesia and Malaysia and the UNHCR in the processing and resettlement of refugees.

Australia needs to resume its moral leadership in the region rather than bullying poor nations such as Cambodia and Papua New Guinea into doing our dirty work for us.

The Dalia Lama showed his great insight when he said that ‘compassion is the radicalism of our times’.

To show compassion publicly on this issue takes great courage. It is to step outside the mainstream. It is to swim against the tide.

We are attacked and condemned for showing kindness, even though that is what we teach our children to display in the playground.

All too often we see a chilling coldness in the eyes of a politician explaining on the news why some people are more equal than others. Getting rid of national debt seems to justify every abuse. We may eradicate debt but don’t we risk replacing it with a new moral bankruptcy?

Australia’s fear of boat arrivals linked to First Fleet

Our fear of boat arrivals is nothing new. In fact, it can be argued that since the first boat people came here on the First Fleet, boat arrivals have occupied a paranoia in our national psyche that few other fears have.

I’ve often wondered ‘why?’ when the perceived threat has never matched the reality – and when those who arrive by plane and overstay their visas far exceed boat arrivals in numbers.

Recently a philosopher at Deakin University Patrick Stokes offered a theory that I do find compelling.

He argues that boat arrivals remind us that we haven’t earned what we have.

‘Our prosperity rests on happy accident rather than cosmic justice.’

Just as we took this land illegally from the First Australians, we subconsciously fear that someone will come along and take it from us.

John Howard’s now infamous declaration −‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’ − comes from a frightened place of deep insecurity.

The emphasis is on sovereignty, not on mercy…. ‘if I don’t defend my patch someone will take it away’.

While the truer reality is that while we fight over borders and sovereignty, and who we let in and who we don’t, climate change is stealing our future away from us inch by inch.

I am very blessed and very proud to be an Australian but I am also a global citizen. I have an allegiance to this planet as well.

When we talk only about our world in terms of borders, and countries, and nationalities, cultures and religions, all we’re doing is creating damaging divisions when we should be strengthening our shared humanity.

People often ask me where I’m from or where I consider ‘home’ to be, given my nomadic childhood.

This is my home. This is our home. Let’s start a New Conversation.


This is the edited version of a talk that was given at the Wheeler Centre this week, Are We There Yet?: Searching for Home in a Globalised World.

Back to top

highlightHoa Pham’s novels include Vixen (which made her one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Young Writers of the Year in 2001) and Quicksilver. Her play Silence was published by Currency Press in 2010 and was on the VCE Drama List. She is the founder of Peril, an online magazine focusing on Asian Australian issues. Her latest book is The Other Shore, winner of the Viva Novella 2 competition.

We talked to Hoa about evoking the imagination through writing, the pains of copy editing, and why you should writer what you want to write.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

My short story ‘Reality’ in Aurealis, the Austrralian sci-fi and fantasy magazine.

What’s the best part of your job?

Being able to evoke the imagination.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Copy editing!

othershore-206pp__2_What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?

There are so many I wouldn’t know where to start. Most recently being a winner of the Seizure Viva la Novella prize.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

From Neil Gaiman – write what you want to write, not what other people would like you to write.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

That Vixen, a historical fantasy I wrote about fox fairies, was about the environment!

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d be lying on the beach in the sun!

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I think technique and craft can be taught, like learning how to read music to compose. But the happy synergy of imagination and ability to self-reflect on your writing practice comes with time, patience and of course, writing and reading lots.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Stay true to your original intention and read read read what you would like to write.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I still like paper.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Orlando. We would converse about poetry and the fluidity of gender.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I first encountered an excerpt of it when I was at Varuna, The Writers House. It showed me what was possible with history and surreal fantasy in an urban setting in Japan. It had subtlety and depth with many quirky details.


Maria Tumarkin will launch Hoa Pham’s novella The Other Shore at Readings Carlton next Tuesday 2 July at 6.30pm.

Back to top

Today, there are close to a hundred literary festivals around Australia – many of them in regional and rural areas. It’s driven by both grassroots demand for cultural activity and a demographic shift in these areas, as creatives are priced out of the capital cities. Andrew Nette looks at what these literary festivals offer, why they’re booming, and what the advantages and downsides might be for writers.

highlight

Image: NZatFrankfurt, Flickr.

In 1962, Australian had one literary festival, Adelaide Writers’ Week. By 1980, literary festivals had expanded to most capital cities. Local website Literary Festivals currently puts the number taking place across the country, large and small, at 89. Some observers believe the figure may be well over a hundred.

The growth is occurring in spite of uncertainty in the publishing industry and the supposed terminal decline of the printed book. Interestingly, regional centres and rural areas seem to be experiencing as much activity as capital cities. Why is it happening? And is it a good thing for writers and readers, who now have to contend with an increasingly packed festival calendar?

Why are literary festivals so popular, while book-buying declines?

‘I know there is a view that books are dead – newspapers cop the same negativity – but they are not,’ says Newcastle Writers Festival director, Rosemarie Milsom. ‘Yes, we’re reading e-books, but we’re still reading. And many people are engaged in writing, be it via blogs, family history, self-publishing. There is a hunger for information and guidance about the writing and publishing processes.’

‘The underlying factor [behind the popularity of festivals] in my opinion is a very human desire to get together to discuss with others what they are reading and compare and contrast experiences,’ says Maryanne Hyde, director of the Word for Word Nonfiction Festival, which will take place in Geelong for the first time in mid-August.

This desire appears to be growing in parallel with rising frustration about the way political debate in Australia is managed. Writers are increasingly viewed as public intellectuals and festivals are emerging as a key space to engage in discourse around important issues. Furthermore, the internet appears to be driving, not hindering, the profusion of literary festivals.

Effects of the internet: ‘Consuming is a group activity these days’

‘The internet has changed how we consume culture,’ says Myke Bartlett, a journalist and author with one young adult book under his belt (Fire in the Sea, winner of the 2011 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Publishing). ‘Consuming is very much a group activity these days. We’ve grown accustomed to sharing the experience with others, which perhaps lends itself towards the rise of certain niche festivals that might have previously seemed unprofitable.’

The diversification of literary culture, not a uniquely Australian development, has led different communities based on geography, genre, age and platform, to look for their literary niche. ‘Far from disconnecting us from each other, the digital space has created more opportunities to connect with each other and with the world, and the rise in festivals reflects this desire to come together for collective experiences,’ believes Lisa Dempster, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

‘The internet, paradoxically, creates a hunger for real world experiences and makes them seem more attainable,’ says Bartlett. ‘Add to that the fact that readers appear to want to engage with writers more than they might have in the past. This is something else facilitated by the internet and the growing online presence of authors.’

‘I recall a time when I read, loved a book, looked for other books by the same writer but didn’t really care who that writer was, why they wrote, how they wrote, etc. For me it began and ended with the book,’ says lawyer turned author, Sulari Gentill, who writes a historical crime fiction series set in the 1930s about Rowland Sinclair, a gentleman artist-cum-amateur-detective. ‘Listening to the writer talk about his/her book has possibly become a more natural thing than it might have been in the past.’

Grassroots demand and demographic shift

These factors help explain the growth of regional and rural events. In addition to meeting economic needs and capturing tourist dollars, literary festivals are increasingly viewed as an important way of enriching community and cultural life.

‘I think a lot of the development of Victoria’s regional writers festival is being driven by literary enthusiasts in the area who want to bring the same kind of activity to their community as they see in Melbourne,’ says Dempster. ‘So it’s very much developing from a grassroots level rather than being driven necessarily by the publishing or literary industry.’

Demographics shifts are another influence. ‘Writers have always been drawn to rural areas and, increasingly, are being pushed out of inner cities because of exorbitant rental and house prices,’ says author Kirsten Krauth (just_a_girl), who moved to Castlemaine from Sydney a few years ago. ‘They are often looking to move to places where they can afford to be creative. When they move, they bring with them certain expectations and often hopes of building a creative community around them, or joining one.’

Milsom, former The Sun Herald books editor, moved back to Newcastle from Sydney in 2009. ‘I missed Sydney a lot after the move and one of the things I missed the most was easy access to the Sydney Writers Festival. I had been involved with the festival as a facilitator and avid audience member for a number of years. I began to think that there was scope for Newcastle to have its own festival.’

Hyde, whose previous experience includes setting up the Literati festival on the Gold Coast, is another example. ‘I relocated from the Gold Coast to Geelong around four years ago and was interested to learn that a city of this size didn’t have a sizable event celebrating reading and writing.’

Challenges of regional and rural festivals

The first Newcastle Writers Festival, in 2013, was an ‘enormous amount of work’, says Milsom. Key to successfully pulling it together was the support of the local council, businesses, and the university, who could see the economic benefits and threw their weight behind it.

‘It can be tough to compete against the capital cities for talent,’ says Milsom. ‘Publishers obviously want their writers to get maximum exposure and the large festivals provide this. Because the Newcastle Writers Festival is held about seven to eight weeks before the Sydney Writers Festival, a lot of authors opt to appear there and will be advised not to appear anywhere else beforehand.’

Competition for talent with metropolitan events is only one challenge facing regional and rural literary festivals. Securing funding is another. Dealing with the sentiments of longer-term locals can be another issue, if reports in some locations of resentment towards the inclusion of out-of-town business and talent are true. Concerns have also been raised that the increasingly hectic festival calendar will result in oversaturation and festival fatigue.

Festivals plug gap of publishers' declining publicity budgets

Whatever the longer-term impacts, no one interviewed for this article believed it would end any time soon. Declining marketing budgets of publishing houses mean festivals play an increasingly important role in book promotion. ‘Publishers aren’t spending the money on touring authors any more, but the festival circuit helps them allay some of the costs and guarantees larger audiences,’ says veteran Australian crime writer, Michael Robotham.

‘In an economy in which commercial publishers are doing less book publicity, and more writers are publishing independently, many authors are also taking a proactive approach to engage with writing festivals in order to interact directly with their audiences,’ agrees Writers Victoria director, Kate Larsen.

Many writers are increasingly reliant on public appearances to make ends meet. ‘So festivals play a crucial role in ensuring the ongoing health of the writing sector,’ says Dempster. ‘Not only by ensuring audiences are engaging with literature, but by creating a cycle of publicity and payment for participating authors.’

‘I think it’s basically swings and roundabouts,’ says Gentill. ‘The bigger metropolitan festivals allow you to meet a lot of fellow writers and rub shoulders with literary stars. The smaller festivals treat you like you are a literary star. The larger festivals pay you for your time, the smaller ones are really grateful that you have given your time. And so it goes on. I’ve had the privilege of doing a mix of the big festivals as well as the small ones. Both have their own charm.’

Competition and branding: How to get a gig

‘The festival circuit is getting increasingly competitive and there can be a sense of having to market your own personal story or “author brand” rather than the book you’ve worked hard on,’ says Krauth. ‘I feel that with regional festivals, this is less the case, and readers are more interested in your work rather than the idea of celebrity, and also festival organisers are more keen to focus on debut authors and take risks with their programming.’

One issue is the time pressure an increasingly busy festival circuit places on writers. ‘The privilege of success, for artists, should ultimately translate into finally possessing the time and resources to freely work, and work on projects they truly care about,’ wrote The Lifted Brow arts editor, Ellena Savage, in issue 20 of the magazine. ‘But instead, for authors at least, success means the opposite. So what value is there in writers festivals if they draw writers away from the thing they live for most, the thing that makes them interesting to hear from in the first place?’

Downsides for writers

‘The downside to increased festivals is simple for me: if I’m at a festival I’m not writing,’ says regional author, Laura Jean McKay, who published her first short-story collection, Holiday in Cambodia, last year. ‘Or at least not much. Generally the ideas that are generated just by being at the festival are worth it though, and I come away tired but inspired.’

‘As far as pressure to appear is concerned, I suppose it’s no different any other pressure,’ says Gentill. ‘Most writers juggle multiple responsibilities… work, family, community… and somewhere in amongst all that we have to write. I guess the ability to say no is just part of managing time and priorities. I don’t know that the pressure to appear at festivals is any greater than the pressure to work overtime, attend social occasions, help kids with homework, clean the house, etc.’

The pleasures and pitfalls of performing ‘off page’

So important is the need for writers to be engaging off as well as on the page, Writers Victoria now runs workshops on public speaking and performance skills to help prepare writers for the festival circuit.

‘But festival appearances aren’t for everybody and some writers can do themselves more harm than good with unprepared or poorly delivered presentations,’ cautions Larsen.’ So make sure it’s the right place to focus your publicity before signing on the dotted line.’

‘The proliferation of festivals gives writers valuable opportunities to strut their stuff and attract new readerships but it does impose a lot of performance pressure,’ says Carmel Shute, convener of Sisters in Crime, and one of the organisers of the upcoming Death in July women’s crime writing festival in Ballarat. ‘You might be a wonderful writer but unless you can be passably articulate, you’re not going to cut the mustard. Conversely, you might be fairly ordinary in the prose stakes but if you know how to star (preferably in a humorous vein), the invitations will roll in.’


Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based crime writer and reviewer. You can follow him on Twitter @Pulpcurry. He will be participating in some of the events mentioned in this article.

The Word for Word Nonfiction Festival (Geelong), Death in July Festival (Ballarat), Bendigo Writers Festival and Melbourne Writers Festival are all taking place this winter.

Back to top

Julian Cribb warns of an environmental danger that looms larger than climate change in terms of its immediate threat to human health – the deluge of chemicals we are all now subject to, 24/7.

highlight

Image by Pavel P./Flickr.

Something larger and more dangerous even than climate change stalks the human future – and it is time we gave it the same attention.

Most of us know that some chemicals are not good for us, but few people have much idea about the universal chemical deluge which we are all now subject to, 24/7.

Earth, and all life on it, is being saturated with human chemical emissions in an event unlike anything which has occurred in all four billion years of our planet’s story.

At almost every moment of our lives, from conception to death, we are exposed to thousands of man-made substances, some known to be deadly in even minute doses and most of them unknown in their effects on our health and wellbeing, or upon the natural world.

These enter our bodies with every breath, each meal or drink, the clothes we wear, the products we adorn ourselves with, our homes, workplaces and furniture, the things we encounter every day.

There is no escaping them.

Most chemicals not tested for health or safety

Ours is a poisoned planet, its whole system infused with the substances we deliberately or inadvertently produce in the course of extracting, making, using, burning or discarding the many marvellous products on which modern life depends.

This has all happened so fast that most people are still unaware of its extent or of the danger it poses to us and our grandkids.

Currently humans produce around 143,000 different chemicals, around a third of which are suspected of causing cancers, mutations and birth defects or brain damage − or are toxic in some way.

However, the United Nations Environment Program warns that most of these chemicals have never been properly tested for health or safety.

Global output of industrial chemicals alone is 30 million tonnes a year, and is on track to triple by the mid-century.

However, these deliberately made chemicals are just the tip of the iceberg.

Each year, for example, we also emit:

• 130 million tonnes of elemental nitrogen and phosphorus (mainly in food production and waste disposal)

• 400 million tonnes of hazardous wastes, including 50 million tonnes of old computers and phones

• 13 billion tonnes of coal, oil and gas

• 30 billion tonnes of mineral wastes

• 35 billion tonnes of carbon, and

• 75 billion tonnes of topsoil.

Not to mention other things like nuclear and chemical weapons, illicit and legal drugs, cement, vehicle and industrial fumes, nanoparticles and so on.

This chemical outpouring – around 150 billion tonnes a year − is, by far, humanity’s greatest impact on the planet and all life on it.

What effect is it having?

The impact of this chemical flood

poisoned_planet Thousands of scientific reports are now piling up which document in disturbing detail the impact of this chemical flood on our health and on our future.

Because these reports are scattered across hundreds of journals and dozens of scientific disciplines in scores of countries, the big picture is still missing for society as a whole. We see a few trees, not the forest.

In Poisoned Planet, I have attempted to piece it all together to understand the chemical impact humans are having on the Earth system − and on ourselves. And to propose a practical solution to it.

The science shows human chemical emissions are now moving relentlessly round the Earth in water, air, soil, wildlife, fish, food, trade. In people and in our genes.

Researchers are finding toxic man-made chemicals from the stratosphere to the deep oceans; from the peak of Mt Everest (where fresh snow is too polluted to drink) to remote Pacific atolls; from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

These substances are routinely found by researchers in birds, fish, mammals and other life-forms that have never had contact with humans, as well throughout our food chain. Tests show that the average modern citizen is a walking contaminated site.

‘Chemicals of concern’ in the blood of most Americans

The US Centers for Disease Control does a regular survey which finds certain industrial ‘chemicals of concern’ in the blood of the vast majority of Americans.

In independent tests, the US Environmental Working Group found 414 industrial toxins in 186 people, ranging in age from newborns to grandparents.

It found 212 chemicals, including dioxins, flame retardants and known carcinogens, in the blood of newborn babies who were contaminated while still in the womb.

These tests raised such concern among medical scientists that they are now being replicated across 700,000 infants in seven countries in an attempt to understand the lifelong chemical burden we now all carry – and its effects on our health and wellbeing.

Mother’s milk is contaminated with pesticides and industrial chemicals in America, in 15 European countries and in China. This is probably the case in every country in the world which bothers to look.

UNEP says about 5 million people die (and 86 million are disabled) as a direct cause of chemicals every year. This makes chemical contamination one of the world’s leading causes of death – yet this does not include the tens of millions more cases where chemicals are implicated in cancers, heart disease, obesity and mental disorders.

These chemicals − intentional and unintentional – interact with tens of thousands of other compounds in our environment and daily intake to form billions of potentially toxic mixtures. The full impact of this universal chemical suffusion is not yet clear, though suspicions are rising.

Global ‘silent epidemic’ of brain disorders

Eminent Harvard medical professor Philippe Grandjean, in an article in The Lancet, called on all countries to ‘transform their chemical risk-assessment procedures in order to protect children from everyday toxins that may be causing a global ‘silent epidemic’ of brain development disorders’.

In a recent report on endocrine disrupting chemicals The World Health Organisation and UNEP warned that reproductive and other hormonal disorders are on the rise globally, that man-made substances are implicated by more and more laboratory studies, and that the scale of the problem is probably underestimated.

Falling sperm counts in males, reduced fertility in females, genital deformities, changes in gender and sexual orientation are all now thought to be linked to man-made chemicals.

There are two important points. First this chemical assault is quite new. Most of it has occurred in just the last 50 years. It is something our ancestors never faced. Second, its impacts are for the most part preventable and avoidable. The big question is: does society wish to prevent them?

Each year around 1000 new chemicals are released onto world markets, most of them without proper health, safety or environmental screening.

Regulation has so far banned just 18 out of 143,000 known chemicals in a handful of countries.

At such a rate of progress it will take us at least 50,000 years to clean up the world, country by country. Clearly, national regulation holds few answers to what is now a global problem. Furthermore, the chemical industry is relocating out of the developed world (where it is generally well regulated and observes ethical standards) and into developing countries, mainly in Asia, where it is largely beyond the reach of the law.

However, its toxic emissions are returning to citizens in well-regulated countries in wind, water, food, wildlife, consumer goods, industrial products and people. For instance, ABC Four Corners investigators found dioxins (banned in this country since the 1980s) in herbicides imported from China, on sale at Australian garden centres.

Pesticide use increased thirty-fold since Silent Spring

The world awoke to the risks of chemical contamination when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring half a century ago, in 1962, where she warned specifically about pesticides in agriculture.

Since her book came out, the volume of pesticides in use worldwide has increased thirty-fold. Chemicals and minerals are valuable and extremely useful. They do great good, and save many lives and much money. No one is suggesting they should all be banned.

But their value may count for little if the current uncontrolled, unmonitored, unregulated and unconscionable mass release and planetary saturation of chemicals continues.

Since the poisoning of the people of Minamata in Japan with toxic mercury in the 1950s, there has been a string of high-profile chemical scandals, and many lesser ones. (The Love Canal, Serveso, Bhopal, Erin Brockovich – most recently Fukushima and the Indian school lunch tragedy.)

The one thing all these events have in common is that the victims are invariably forced, by the combined might of industry and governments, to prove they have been harmed. Industry and government are seldom required to prove that chemical processes are safe or harmless. There is now a pattern of unproductive confrontation between angry citizens and industry and regulators, which usually ends in long, drawn-out legal battles that deliver justice to nobody. An important point in my book is that blaming industry and calling for tougher regulation is not going to solve the problem of the poisoned planet.

We need to find much smarter ways to protect society and all future generations from the toxic flood.

This starts with recognising that we are the real ones at fault.

We are the ones who generate the market signals that lead to the mass production and ill-considered release of toxins.

Every act of consumption on a crowded planet has chemical consequences.

Those consequences, in all likelihood, are now causing a casualty toll larger than that of World War II.

In a sense, we are all getting away with murder.

This uncomfortable thought is essential to modern society taking effective action to clean up the Earth and protect our children into the future.


This is an edited version of a talk that was originally given as a Lunchbox/Soapbox address at the Wheeler Centre.

Back to top

YouTube to start music streaming, block artists

In a matter of days, YouTube will start blocking videos by artists from labels who’ve refused to sign on to new licensing terms of service, as YouTube enters the music streaming business. Is YouTube set to be the new Amazon, in terms of its relationships with suppliers?

viacoms_youtube_loss_a_victory_for_online_speech_collaboration-460x307

Why Name Your Book After Hitler’s?

Karl Ove Knausgaard is a worldwide literary sensation; his six-part series of autobiographical fiction (or fictional memoirs), My Struggle, has been described by the New Yorker as ‘a ruminative account that treats no detail of middle-class life as too banal to recount’. Knausgaard originally believed his project would have no literary appeal; asked why he named the series after Hitler’s memoir, he says it was ‘a way of saying “fuck you” to the reader, a way of claiming that his allegiance was to the work as he chose to write it rather than to an intended readership. 'If it was boring, I wanted it boring.… No compromises were made in this book. The title kind of makes that statement.’

knausgaard-580

When global warming kills your god

The Atlantic shows the effects of global warming on one indigenous Alaskan village, which may be two years away from the first of its houses falling into the sea. The village was not originally a permanent settlement for the once-nomadic villagers, who were forced into settlements by missionaries and the government; some of them are currently on trial for fishing for salmon, as they’ve always done. Thanks to climate change, numbers are dangerously low. ‘This is momentous. This is climate change on trial.’

highlight

Almost half of Europe’s water threatened by pollution

Researchers have just released the results of the broadest-ever analysis of organic chemicals in Europe’s freshwater. The findings show ‘strong evidence that chemicals threaten the ecological integrity and consequently the biodiversity of almost half of the water bodies on a continental scale’. Those chemicals were prevalent enough to cause chronic health effects at 42 per cent of the sites.

In this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox, Julian Cribb described the unprecedented deluge of chemicals in our everyday lives as a bigger and more urgent disaster than global warming. Watch out for the published text of his talk on Monday.

lead_large

What’s the point of editors?

In the New York Times, select staff members tell why editors are important – and how they make their work better. (Sorry, can you tell Friday High Five is compiled by an editor? Interest declared.)

Reporter Amy Harmon says, ‘Great editors engage in your story, conceptually but also in the details, suffer through multiple bad drafts and know your characters almost as well as you do. Only then can they talk you back from the brink — and persuade you that you better file the damn thing and get on with your life.’

Back to top

highlight Ellie Marney is a teacher and young adult author who specialises in crime (writing it, not committing it). Her highly awarded adult short stories have been published in Australia and the UK, and her latest YA crime thriller Every Word (June 2014), the second in a trilogy, has just been published. The first in the series was Every Breath. Ellie will be appearing at The Next Big Thing next Monday 23 June.

We talked to her about bringing her daydreams to life on the page, why being a writer is a bit like being a stand-up comedian or a tightrope-walker, and the value of Bum Glue.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

You mean, physically in print? Um, I wrote a prize-winning essay in Grade 8, I think, about the natural environment on Fraser Island – I believe it may have made the local paper up in Brisbane somewhere! I remember I won a book about Fraser Island – that was the prize. Non-fiction, so not really my scene, I’m afraid. I don’t think I ever read it (please don’t tell the organisers!)

What’s the best part of your job?

Making shit up. No, really, that’s the best part! Being given permission – nay, being encouraged! – to bring my daydreams to life on the page. Developing a relationship with a character, so you know them like you know your own breath. Like their heartbeat is matched with your own. Incredible.

I mean, you have to do it anyway, or you go a bit crazy. But being allowed to do that as a job? – that is a unique and priceless gift.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Balancing writing work, domestic life and online engagement. I find that really hard. The writing is pervasive. It’s like a constant background hum all around you: in bed, on family holidays, while you’re parenting … It’s distracting. You can’t switch it off. I guess you wouldn’t want to. The online stuff is very busy. I actually enjoy the social media engagement, but oh my god, sometimes I feel like my phone is permanently glued to my hand. My partner has threatened to throw it in the dam, on a number of occasions.

I share the domestic load with my partner, but I know he often carries the can – that’s hard, and unfair. There’s just never enough hours in the day. I mean, I don’t exercise, or garden, or go out, or watch TV right now – I don’t know where I’m supposed to fit everything in. I’m still trying to work out a balance. I’m hoping it will come with time – I’m still pretty new to all this.

I guess the other thing I’ve found hard to manage is my own constant sense of mild panic about it all – it’s like being a stand-up comedian or a tight-rope walker or something, you really feel like you’re living by your wits. Again, I hope to find a balance…one day.

every_breath_word

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Winning the Scarlet Stiletto Award in 2010 was a big thing. I had a good feeling about it, that something was going to happen. But in terms of profound moments, I guess it was signing with Allen & Unwin for my first book, Every Breath, and getting the call from my agent, Catherine Drayton, all in one week. In the space of a few days, I had a New York agent and a two-book deal – it was a bit overwhelming. I called my partner at work to tell him, and he was, like, ‘So can I just walk out of work right now and quit?’ and I laughed and said ‘Whoah, hold on there, tiger…’ I think his expectations were a bit less realistic than mine!

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice was from Stephen King. When I read what he said about having Bum Glue in his book/memoir On Writing, that really resonated with me. I thought, ‘Yep, that’s what it is.’ Good old Bum Glue: just sitting there and thumping away at the keyboard until you’ve got it done. Treating it like a job, being professional about it, like a plumber or a bricklayer. Because writing is work. And it doesn’t become real work until you make it a job in your head. Not just the writing part, the rest of it too – you have deadlines, you have to have a professional approach.

I don’t know if I’ve had any bad advice about writing. Everybody is different, so what works for me may not work for someone else. ‘Waiting for the muse to strike’ always sounds a bit like bullshit to me, though. You live with your muse, sure, you get inspiration all the time. But in my experience, waiting around for inspiration to arrive before you write, like waiting for some divine bolt from heaven, is just a great excuse for not doing anything. Like I said, though, that’s me. I have a big family – if I’m not using this time to work, right now, then I may as well be packing school lunches or something.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

That my writing is good! Seriously, I find every positive review of my work kind of astonishing. Because I’m never completely happy with it, not really. In my head, it’s never quite the right word, or exactly the right phrase. It’s just … what comes out. And I use as much craft as I can to make it into something better, something more approximating what I’d like it to be – I just craft it all to hell. Sometimes I’m happy with a phrase or two, but I often look at a piece as a whole and think ‘Yeah, it’s still not exact’. I’m learning as I go. I think we’re all learning, aren’t we?

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Probably teaching! I like teaching quite a lot. Not as much as writing. But who knows, I might still end up teaching – another author I know has just gone back to nursing. Ask me in a few years time! We’ll see where all this goes.

I was just about to resign myself to going back to teaching part-time when I got the call about the book. That was the year, you know? I was really on a knife-edge that year – all our children (we have four boys) were ready to enter school, the time for me to go back to teaching work was looming up fast, there was financial pressure … It was the year of ‘fish or cut bait’. I felt like if I didn’t achieve something with my writing at that stage, it would be my last year of yearning, my last year of wishing for the dream…

I consider myself incredibly lucky, I have to say. That was the year I needed some good luck, and my god, it came through.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

That’s a hard question. Because yeah, like I said, I still feel like I’m being taught. I tend to learn through reading, though. I’ve never studied. I have gotten something out of writing courses, but the bulk of my learning is through reading, and an ongoing writing practice.

I think you have to have something inside you that begs to be let out. Something that drives you a little insane if you don’t write. I have seen students in creative writing classes – the kids with talent, their work has this glow. So yes, I believe in talent. That’s not to say that a promising student can’t be made better by being taught craft. I would still class myself as ‘a promising student trying to be better’.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Keep working – I mean, both jobs. The paying one and the writing one. Keep writing. Don’t stop. Just write and write and write. Enter competitions, set yourself deadlines, find reasons to keep going. Learn craft. And read as much as you can.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both, but primarily in bookshops. I love touching covers, admiring them, I love seeing the displays, I love the feel of the pages. I buy books for my e-reader, and then go and buy hardcopies of the same books. I’m incorrigible. I desperately need more shelves.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

My god, what a question! I’m tempted to say Hannibal Lecter, but he would scare me to death. And I’d have to eat vegetarian.

You know, I think I would like to go out with Don Tillman and his wife, Rosie. Don is a bit of a gourmand, so the food would be good. I would bring my partner along, and we’d all have a few drinks and get a bit tipsy, and sit around and talk about, oh, a huge range of things, and have a bit of a laugh. I think we’d all have a pretty good time, actually.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The Bible, probably, because I was brought up religious. Not so much now, though! I discovered Shakespeare in high school, and I thought ‘This – yes, this is how words work’.

I read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris about once a year. I keep going back to it, I’m not sure why. Every element of that book – the characters, the dialogue, the detail – has a tone that contributes to an entire menacing symphony. It’s a masterful piece of writing. The police procedures have dated a bit, so it’s like an historical record, but the writing is as startling and clear as a new-struck bell.


Ellie Marney will be appearing at The Next Big Thing next Monday 23 June at 6.15pm, with Liam Pieper, Diana Sweeney and Tom O'Byrne.

Back to top

Tony Birch connects the lack of genuine remorse within Australia’s colonial psyche with our regressive stance on climate change – and our lack of will to protect environment.

In recent times I have been fortunate to have experienced the friendship and wisdom of other Aboriginal people working for the recognition of our culture and history, in concert with environmental protection for both Aboriginal people and the wider community.  

In a recent conversation with my good friend, Bruce Pascoe, he spoke of the absence of any genuine sense of remorse within the colonial psyche. He was not referring to the momentary guilt that some white Australian experience in relation to the theft of Aboriginal land and a history of violence against our people.

I believe Bruce was considering something far deeper. Inhabiting a relaxed and comfortable view of colonisation in Australia requires little thinking at all, let alone responsibility for the sins of the past. True remorse, while asking more of people, would produce invaluable outcomes for all Australians. With remorse comes reflection. With remorse comes recognition – and with will – mutual respect.  This was Bruce’s point.

highlight

Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia

I see strong connections between this lack of remorse, the subsequent absence of thought and Australia’s regressive stance on climate change generally and the degradation of our environment more specifically.  I also see a clear connection between a lack of will to protect the environment and the Australian government’s abuse of Aboriginal country. Equally, an abuse of Aboriginal cultural and sovereign relationship to country is ultimately an attack on all Australians.

The Australian government is currently attempting to reverse the World Heritage listing of 74,000 hectares of old-growth forest in Tasmania, in order to allow logging to recommence. Within the World Heritage area important Aboriginal sacred sites will again come under threat if the heritage listing is reversed. This is a shameful act. Considering the history of violence and repeated attempts of dispossession and extermination that the Tasmanian Aboriginal community have faced, one would hope that the wider community would not allow this violence to continue. If were were a truly remorseful nation, hopefully due consideration and thought would result in a more informed view. But in a country that plays lip service to Aboriginal rights, such reflection is not possible.

Reading the newspaper yesterday morning (Age - 14 June 2014), in an essay by Andrew Darby, I read about the courage of Ruth Langford and Linton Burgess, two Aboriginal people, among many others, who are fighting to save their country and protect the World Heritage listing of the rain forest surrounding important cultural sites. On a visit to the area recently, the couple ‘called to the old fellas … we let them know we are still here.’

We are still here.

Please consider for a moment the deep courage of this act. Consider that the Aboriginal nations of a land that came to be called Tasmania by British colonials, have resisted proactive attempts of genocide for more than 200 years and today stand tall to protect both their ancestors and their children. Ruth Langford, Linton Burgess and the Aboriginal people of Tasmania are heroes to Aboriginal people throughout Australia. They should also be regarded as heroes to the nation, as they are fighting to protect their country and environment. In doing so, they are protecting the planet.

Next week, Ruth Langford will join scientists and environmentalists at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, Qatar, in an effort to stop the Australian government’s move. I wish her, and her brave people, every success - always was, always will be.


This piece was originally published on the Weather Stations blog.

Back to top

Bernadette Hince is developing a dictionary of Arctic and Antarctic words. She’s also one of our current Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellows – and she reports from her desk at the Wheeler Centre to give us a taste of her project.

Sunset_Arctic_NASA_Goddard_Space_Flight_Center

Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Here at this hot desk on the mezzanine corridor of the Wheeler Centre, I’m chewing my way through Arctic and Antarctic words as I begin writing a grand polar dictionary. Yum.

Do you remember the fun you had as a child, trying to make someone laugh while they were going red in the face trying not to? The Inuit have a word for that game you used to play – aaqsiiq. In this traditional northern game, the winner succeeds in making the loser utter a noise (typically laughter).

2000 Naqi Ekho and Uqsuralik Ottokie in Jean Briggs (ed) Interviewing Inuit elders vol 3: Childrearing practices. Nunavut Arctic College, Iqaluit: page 113.

We used to be silly. Aaqsiiq was the name of a game where we would try to keep a straight face while trying to make others laugh.

Antarctic_Iceberg_Debra_Tillinger_NOAA_s_National_Ocean_Service

Image by Debra Tillinger/NOAA’s National Ocean Service

Another word that’s come up this week is Adelaite. Sounds as though it should be someone from Adelaide, doesn’t it? But there’s another meaning. When you are in the polar regions, it’s an occupant of the British Antarctic Survey base that existed on Adelaide Island (off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula) from 1961 to 1977.

Navigator John Biscoe sighted this island in 1832, and named it to honour Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, who married William IV and became Queen Adelaide. Yes, the same person the Australian city of Adelaide is named after.

How do I know about aaqsiiq and Adelaites? By spending the last 25 years looking for quotations like this one in polar literature:

1967 British Antarctic Survey Newsletter 5 (Aug): page 5.

He and John enjoyed the hospitality at Adelaide, which they repaid by dog driving tips, and by John taking some ‘Adelaites’ on a trip northwards.

Writing dictionaries is heaven. I’m so glad to be here.

highlight

Image by USFWS/Keith Morehouse


Bernadette Hince is one of our current Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellows.

The Wheeler Centre will provides fellowships to 20 writers in 2014, providing them with a desk in the Wheeler Centre for two months and a $1000 stipend, courtesy of the Readings Foundation.

Back to top

Site topics


Privacy Policy|Community Guidelines | Site by Inventive Labs.