Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » Australia http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org The website for the 2012-13 Edinburgh World Writers' Conference Thu, 31 Oct 2013 16:37:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.2 EWWC Highlights Film http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/all-presentations/ewwc-highlights/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/all-presentations/ewwc-highlights/#comments Thu, 12 Sep 2013 15:43:51 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5435 EWWC Highlights Film Watch this video showcasing the highlights of the festival throughout the past year]]> Watch this video showcasing the highlights of the EWWC festival throughout the past year, and read more about the Conference on our About the Conference page. ]]> http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/all-presentations/ewwc-highlights/feed/ 0 The Southernmost Edge of the EWWC – Margo Lanagan reports from an “exhilarating” Melbourne http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/the-southernmost-edge-of-the-ewwc-margo-lanagan-reports-from-an-exhilarating-melbourne/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/the-southernmost-edge-of-the-ewwc-margo-lanagan-reports-from-an-exhilarating-melbourne/#comments Wed, 04 Sep 2013 14:56:36 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5413 Last year I was immensely privileged to attend five days of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh. What writers, what brains, what passions were brought to those five days! It was all very stimulating—perhaps slightly too much to digest in such a short time, on top of the normal adrenalin of a book festival and of being on the other side of the world, and in the beautiful city of Edinburgh for the first time, and I was glad that it was all recorded and put up online for later digestion and consideration.

Last Friday I managed to get along to two of the five sessions of a more condensed version of the Conference, presented all in one day in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival. The sessions were held in the Deakin Edge, part of the Federation Square complex in the central business district and a great venue, bigger and airier than the Edinburgh marquee, with trams and Yarra Bank trees visible beyond the talking heads and bodies of the presenters and Auslan interpreters.

The first session I went to was Censorship Today, Censorship Tomorrow, where writer and lawyer Larissa Behrendt gave the keynote, and Ali Alizadeh then ran the discussion between Larissa and Scottish poet John Burnside, who had been a very vocal part of the proceedings in Edinburgh—and of whose poetry I’ve been a fan for several years. I took scads of notes for the purposes of this blog post. How to condense them into something meaningful?

Well, the difference from Edinburgh was immediately obvious with the acknowledgements of the original custodians of the land, and it was the many issues surrounding the silencing and marginalisation of Indigenous points of view that dominated the session. These are vital matters in Australia today, with many writers feeling a strong taboo around the use, and possible misuse, of Indigenous cultural material in their work.

Larissa talked about three powerful kinds of censorship: the first was the cultural erasure practiced by colonial and assimilationist Australia on Indigenous people in the past. Indigenous children still face stark disadvantages in education and career prospects, and it’s difficult for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities to maintain their cultures when they are denied tools such as literacy and numeracy and taught not to aspire to progress to tertiary education. Larissa applauds the ongoing drive in ATSI communities, despite this powerfully antagonistic history, to continue telling Indigenous stories in written (fictional and factual), visual art, craft, dance and film form.

The second kind of censorship was all the forces operating to keep non-Indigenous Australia steadfastly uninterested in hearing Indigenous narratives. She wished that past practices of child removal and cultural genocide could be told to Australian schoolchildren, so that more Australians could see what Indigenous people face, and echoed Tony Birch in urging white Australia to take ownership of its colonial past. In the face of strong assertions of the Indigenous experience such as the Bringing Them Home report and the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, she said, which show us a history that’s difficult to face, we should not fall silent, or fall back on the contested statistics thrown up by the ‘history wars’, or distract ourselves with semantic arguments about the competing non-Indigenous narratives about our past.

In pursuit of a more healthy debate about Indigenous matters, and one that includes Indigenous points of view directly, Larissa urged non-Indigenous Australians, particularly writers, to get over the third kind of censorship, our self-censorship when it comes to including Indigenous characters and matters in their fiction. ‘Writers with talent can write from any perspective,’ she said.

The pursuit of absolute authenticity is important if we choose an Indigenous perspective, and in the light of our general ignorance about Indigenous history and culture it’s very difficult to get it right. But—and this to me was the most powerful message of the address—blowing it isn’t the worst thing we can do. Larissa talked about the effect on her of reading Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. Though it depicted well a black man torn apart by exposure to the possibilities available to whites and the limitations imposed on him by his black skin, she felt it presented very one-dimensional Indigenous women—yet she was glad he had written and published it, because it gave her more to think about in terms of her gender and her race, more provocation to articulate her own views. It is better to have these gifts of brave, thoughtful, imaginative and uncensored writers out there, she said, than to present Australians, white and black, with a frightened silence.

‘Talented writers translate, interpret and hold a mirror up, and that is why they are so very, very threatening,’ she finished, and her clear implication was that we should get out there and be as threatening as we could.

During the discussion, which elaborated and extended this message (with John Burnside drawing parallels with the Norwegian Sami people and with his own working-class upbringing in Scotland) and explored ways in which non-Indigenous Australians might be engaged in listening Aboriginal stories, Larissa further suggested that writers shouldn’t sit down with a political agenda. The best writing would come from our trying to tell the best story we could. ‘Write for the story and passion; don’t try to…write propaganda,’ she said, just try to arrive at the particular truth the story is leading you to.

In response to Paddy O’Reilly‘s question about offensiveness (Is part of a writer’s role to not be afraid to offend people?), Larissa talked a lot about writers coming from ‘a position of good’. A greater debate can happen, she said, when you try to work out a situation from a position of good. She decried the ‘crippling of [non-Indigenous] people of goodwill’, the ‘concerning silencing’ of them/us. We shouldn’t deal ourselves out of debates about Aboriginal people; because we are the dominant culture, we have the greater responsibility to keep the conversation going, so self-censorship becomes almost an abrogation of responsibility.

Her goal isn’t to keep Australia as an ‘us and them’ society. All Australian people, she says, should see Aboriginal culture and history as our own culture and history. Honest questions shouldn’t be shut down because people find them offensive. The debate has become bland because a lot of good people have dealt themselves out of it for fear of offending.

This was an exhilarating session—particularly for a writer whose latest novel had mired itself in just this complex of issues. Both the keynote and the discussion went right to the heart of one of the most significant issues of censorship in this country today.

The other session I went to was the one I was a participant in, along with the brilliant Scottish writer Kirsty Gunn, with Francesca Rendle-Short doing a top job of steering us through the shoals that awaited us in the discussion of Style vs. Content. Kirsty’s keynote was a strong assertion of the primacy of form, form ‘which gives birth to style and content’, while I hummed and hawed about form and style being more or less the same thing, but operating on different scales in a work. It’s always fascinating to see how other writers think about what they’re doing, and how much you can’t actually glean from a reading of their work. It was stunning to me, for example, to hear Kirsty talk about the impossibility of dealing with character, of truly inhabiting another human’s consciousness, after having read, in the previous week or so, her novel The Big Music, whose characters live and breathe so believably on the page—or within the stack of files of which the narrative is built—that it becomes almost impossible to believe in the story as a fiction.

The audience questions kicked us along into other territory—the influence of editors, the making of sentences, what constituted tone and voice—but it all stayed within the realm of what was useful to a working writer in thinking about these different components of the writing. I still hold to my sense that they are mostly useful for diagnostic purposes when the writing falls over and I need to identify which part isn’t functioning, that when I’m in full flow, thinking about style and content, let alone style versus content can be not only pointless but inhibiting. But it was all fascinating to explore, especially in tandem with such an intelligence as Kirsty’s, and under such gentle but shrewd guidance as Francesca provided.

I had hoped to hear great things about the panel on A Post-National Literature, which I thought was a particularly crucial topic in an Australian context, but I heard from a friend who was able to attend it that not a lot was ventured in the way of general pronouncements, which was disappointing.

However, overall, the Australian EWWC did a pretty good job of giving some by now fairly well-worn discussions fresh flavour and juice, and rounded off the conference neatly.

Copyright: Margo Lanagan, August 2013

Were you at EWWC Melbourne? Have your say below!

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BEHRENDT & BURNSIDE – Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-burnside-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-burnside-censorship-today/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 13:30:10 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5103 Melbourne Writers' Festival 2013
Friday 23 August 10:00am AEST Censorship Today Keynotes: Larissa Behrendt & John Burnside Chaired by: Ali Alizadeh]]> BEHRENDT-&-BURNSIDEMelbourne Writers Festival 2013

Friday 23 August 10:00am AEST

Censorship Today

Keynote: Larissa Behrendt joined by John Burnside
Chair: Ali Alizadeh

Author Biographies:

Prof. Larissa Behrendt is the Professor of Law and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. She has published numerous textbooks on Indigenous legal issues. She is a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and a founding member of the Australian Academy of Law. Her most recent book is Indigenous Australia for Dummies.  Larissa wrote and directed the feature film, Innocence Betrayed.

Larissa won the 2002 David Uniapon Award and a 2005 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for her novel Home. Her second novel, Legacy, was released in October 2009.  Larissa is Chair of the Bangarra Dance Theatre and a board member of NSW Museums and Galleries. She is the Ambassador of the Guwara Aboriginal Campus at St. Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney and a board member of the Sydney Story Factory, a literacy program in Redfern. She was awarded the 2009 NAIDOC Person of the Year award and 2011 NSW Australian of the Year.

John Burnside‘s last two books were the novel, A Summer of Drowning, shortlisted for the 2001 Costa Prize, and his poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, which won both the 2011 Forward Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. His latest book is Something Like Happy.

http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-burnside-censorship-today/feed/ 1 BIRCH & HYLAND – A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/hyland-birch-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/hyland-birch-a-national-literature/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 13:25:36 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5113 Melbourne Writers' Festival 2013 Friday 23 August 5:30pm AEST A National Literature Keynotes: MJ Hyland & Tony Birch Chaired by: Peter Goldsworthy]]> Birch-&-HylandMelbourne Writers Festival 2013

Friday 23 August 5:30pm AEST

A National Literature

Keynote: Tony Birch joined by MJ Hyland
Chair: Peter Goldsworthy

Author Biographies:

Tony Birch‘s books include Shadowboxing (2006), Father’s Day (2009), and Blood (2011), shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award (2012). His new collection of stories, The Promise, will be released in 2014. Tony teaches at the University of Melbourne. He holds a PhD in history and a Master of Arts in writing. His short fiction has been published widely, as have his critical essays. In addition to his creative and critical writing Tony Birch works with community groups and secondary students as an educator. He also does collaborative work with artists and activist. Tony lives in Carlton, just around the corner from where he was born.

MJ Hyland is an ex-lawyer and the author of three multi-award-winning novels: How the Light Gets In (2004), Carry Me Down (2006) and This is How (2009). Carry Me Down (2006) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won both the Hawthornden Prize and The Encore Prize. M.J Hyland has twice been longlisted for The Orange Prize (2004 and 2009), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2004 and 2007) and This is How (2009) was longlisted for the Dublin International IMPAC prize.

M.J Hyland is a lecturer in Creative Writing in The Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester where she has run fiction workshops alongside Martin Amis (2007-2010), Colm Tóibín (2010-2011) and Jeanette Winterson (2013). M.J Hyland also runs regular Fiction Masterclasses in The Guardian Masterclass Programme, has twice been shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Prize (2011 and 2012) and publishes in The Guardian ‘How to Write’ series and The Financial Times, the LRB, Granta and elsewhere. Hyland is also co-founder of The Hyland and Byrne Editing Firm. She has made more than a dozen appearances on national and international radio, including Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, and has been appointed as writer-in-residence in programmes at Arizona State University (Feb, 2014) and writer-in-residence at Griffith University, Australia (June/July 2013).


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COLE & DENA – The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-dena-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-dena-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 13:20:18 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5105 Melbourne Writers' Festival 2013 Friday 23 August 11:45am AEST The Future of the Novel Keynotes: Teju Cole & Christy Dena Chaired by: Liam McIlvanney]]> COLE-&-DINAMelbourne Writers Festival 2013

Friday 23 August 11:45am AEST

The Future of the Novel

Keynote: Teju Cole joined by Christy Dena
Chair: Liam McIlvanney

Author Biographies:

Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, and photographer. He was born in the US in 1975 to Nigerian parents, raised in Nigeria, and currently lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of two books, a novella, Every Day is for the Thief, and a novel, Open City, which was awarded the Internationaler Literaturpreis 2013, 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the New York City Book Award for Fiction, and the Internationaler Literaturpreis; nominated for the National Book Critics Award, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, and a prize from the Royal Society of Literature; and named one of the best books of 2011 by Time Magazine, the New Yorker, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and many others.

Christy Dena is a writer-designer of playful stories. She also consults on films, games, literature, performance, and TV to extend storylines across artforms. Recent projects include her web audio adventure for the iPad, a mix of radio drama and online storytelling. This project, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS, was nominated for a Best Writing in a Game Award at the 2012 Freeplay Independent Games Festival. She wrote the first PhD on Transmedia Practice, and lectures worldwide at industry events and Universities on new writing. She co-wrote The Writer’s Guide to Making a Digital Living for the Australian Literature Board; was Digital Writing Ambassador for the 2012 Emerging Writers Festival; and awarded the 2013 Digital Writing Residency at The Cube, QUT’s new Science and Engineering Centre.

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Behrendt in Australia – Keynote on Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-in-australia-keynote-on-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-in-australia-keynote-on-censorship-today/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 12:01:16 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5323 1-behrendtlCensorship Today

Keynote address given by Larissa Behrendt

First presented at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Larissa Behrendt keynote text: “Censorship Today, Censorship Tomorrow”

At the end of Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, there is a powerful image of a colonial mansion, the new home of ex-convict-turned wealthy land-owner, William Thornhill and his family, being built on rock that has a sacred Aboriginal carving of a whale on it. The house represents the wealth of the new settlers, those who have conquered the Australian landscape, made their fortune and built their future here. The foundations of the house are the Aboriginal people and their culture.

The power of Grenville’s metaphor is that she preserves the Aboriginal presence and connection to land. It is not destroyed in the face of the on-coming colonisation; it is buried. Although it lies hidden, one day, when the civilisation eventually crumbles, the rock with its carved etching, will once more be revealed, the ancient connection to land continuing.

It is easy, when thinking of censorship, to think first of legal definitions. But Grenville’s image evokes a broader, more complex reflection on the concepts of silencing, one that goes beyond the arbitrary and shifting concepts within the dominant legal system. What lies hidden beneath and unseen – like the foundations under a stone house – is also silenced.

Winners vanquish losers; we all know they write history. But each instance of conquest has its own historical peculiarities, its own legacies. And within those historical distinct events and repercussions are a multitude of experiences, the plethora of stories. Some of those stories triumph and become canonical. Others are supressed, still handed down from parent to child and transmitted amongst subgroups and subcultures, but outside of the dominant national narrative.

The capacity of Indigenous people to tell their own stories was impeded in several complicating ways as part of the process of the colonisation of Australia. As an oral culture, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures relied upon transmission from generation to generation through stories, ceremony, dance, music and art. The high mortality rate from introduced diseases, the processes of dispossession, dislocation and relocation, and the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families, are all factors that made the continuing transmission of these oral traditions difficult, especially in the areas where colonisation was most aggressive.

And secondly, while the removal of Aboriginal children was supposed to give them the advantages of dominant culture, education levels were appalling and Aboriginal young people, no matter what their talents, were ear-marked for manual labour. Boys were to work on cattle stations; girls were to work as domestic servants. Among all of the insidious ways a peoples can be colonised, denying them the tools that allow them to communicate in the imposed and dominant culture is one of the most effective in disenfranchising, disempowering and continually marginalising them.

Literacy rates in Australia have improved gradually but even today there is a large gap between the literacy rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students emerges early. Non-Indigenous students out-perform Indigenous students in benchmark tests for reading, writing and numeracy in Year 3 and Year 5. By Year 7, the gap has widened, even more so for numeracy and competency in science. As Indigenous children get older, the gap continues to widen. Indigenous students are 2.2% of the population in the age groups that can engage in higher education yet Indigenous students make up only 1.3% of student numbers. While 82% of all Australian students enter tertiary education through their previous educational attainments, only 46% of Indigenous students enter university this way. The gaps in their earlier education mean that Indigenous students often have to do additional studies to be able to enter university. It is not a matter of the students not being clever enough for tertiary studies but they were denied the shortest pathway and come to university studies later in life and through a more circuitous route.

The resilience of living cultures must frustrate those hell-bent on assimilation or achieving a cultural hegemony. Attempts to assimilate – no matter how extreme or how subtle – often have the opposite effect. They further bind an identified and persecuted group through a shared suffering and its associated experiences and trauma. Discrimination only succeeds in reinforcing difference, in testing attachment to culture and reinforces a sense of identity.

Attempts to reintroduce marginalised voices into the dominant narrative are not always welcome. My grandmother was removed under the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their parents. Her experiences as a ward of the state – and my father’s childhood in an orphanage – inspired my first novel, Home. Growing up, I was surrounded by other children, well-meaning but innocently ignorant of these historical practices of separating Aboriginal children from their families as part of a policy of assimilation. Their views were sometimes crudely racist and often lacking in empathy. I had always thought that if Australian children were taught this history, it would increase the understanding of the issues facing Indigenous people. Even if it would not win people over to the Indigenous point of view, at least it would explain why Indigenous people face the issues we face and why we have the political agenda we have.

But the response to the publication of the Bringing them Home report – the detailed national investigation into the extent and impact of the children removal policy – was instructive and sobering. The official response was to dismiss the report by saying that “only one in ten” Indigenous people were removed, that the term “cultural genocide” was too emotive and that, whatever the report concluded, the motivation for the removal of children was often done with the best of intentions and for the best interests of the children involved.

Aboriginal poet, novelist and historian, Tony Birch, wrote of this response to the Bringing them Home report:

Indigenous communities across Australia have become the memory bank of white Australia’s violence by proxy. It is time for white Australia to take over that responsibility. Perhaps it is time to make an ethical withdrawal of responsibility. Such a need has become more acute in recent years, with the outcome of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Bringing Them Home report providing an opportunity for white Australia to take ownership of its colonial past in a more than selective manner. Unfortunately the backlash against Bringing Them Home has been more substantive than any acceptance of, and responsibility for, the colonial violence that it has provided testament to. It was the delivery of the report that motivated the most ferocious elements of the History War; an orchestrated campaign conducted by the right in Australia against the legitimacy of Indigenous memory.

Birch’s observations resonate with me and are a reminder that these “history wars” or “culture wars” that waged amongst academics and writers of opinion pieces may have argued the semantics and the numbers in the halls of universities and on the pages of broadsheets but, like the stone hidden under William Thornhill’s house, the lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by those polices remained unchanged by those debates. The ideological battle was not really about Aboriginal history; it was about the competing narratives that non-Indigenous Australians want to tell about themselves.

And this reaction, which included the official government response, showed me that I was wrong to believe that hearing the stories of people who had suffered under the removal policy would be the pathway to better understanding of Indigenous history and culture.

The response was much more complex than that. What it did show was that evidence in its most human form can be so powerful that it is simply too confronting and the easiest way to deal with it for some people is to attempt to silence it, dismiss it by falling back on to contested statistics or distract from it with semantic debates.

This reaction does, however, give testament to the power of stories. The Bringing them Home report was littered with extracts from testimony – not just from those taken away, but from the parents, grandparents and siblings left behind. So many government reports are written after investigations, contemplation of the research and a list of sensible recommendations to address the problem to sit on shelves, gather dust and fade into the mists of bureaucratic memory. What challenged people more than any legal or historical argument made in the report, what made it so dangerous to those who felt so challenged was the power of human testimony, the power of their stories. George R. R. Martin, author of the now culturally iconic Game of Thrones wrote in another novel, A Clash of Kings, that “when you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

The impact of the removal policy has been a strong theme through much Indigenous writing – not surprising since it formed such a large part of the contemporary Indigenous experience. Sally Morgan’s My Place and Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence are quintessential examples of this – and the response to the Philip Noyce film adapting Pilkington’s book to the screen was met with a similar response to the Bringing them Home report from, predictably, the same quarters.

Telling these is not just an essential part of Indigenous culture; love of stories is instinctive and primal to all human beings. So it is no surprise that there is a vibrant creative drive within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia to continue to tell stories. The renaissance of Indigenous writing, which has been driven by writers such as Tony Birch, Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kim Scott and a pantheon of others. It been accompanied by other Indigenous storytellers using other mediums – Stephen Page and his work through the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Wesley Enoch and his work on the stage, the rise to eminence of Indigenous art whose aesthetics point to ancient connections to country, the new wave of Indigenous film makers, including Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton and the establishment of National Indigenous Television Ltd. All these new technologies have been adopted for the telling of our most ancient stories.

So coming from this perspective, it might seem natural that I would blindly embrace the concept of the “right to free speech”. But it is more complicated than that. An essential part of any rights culture and of any human rights framework is the complex balancing of rights. I believe free speech is important but, like any other right, needs to be balance with others, including the right to be free from racial discrimination and vilification. Where that line is drawn should be the debate of a healthy and inclusive participatory democracy. Observing the psychological and emotional scars of racism enacted as policy or disseminated through popular culture and political narrative, I am wary of blanket claims of absolute rights, suspicious of extremes demanded by a dominant culture that has only championed well its own interests, not those of the groups it has marginalised.

The heightened precedence given to the right of free speech against other rights is a particularly American value but also symptomatic of the way that our civil and political rights are often given precedence over economic, social and cultural rights. For marginalised and culturally distinct groups, exclusion from economic and social participation and freedom of cultural expression are perhaps valued more and seen as being of equal importance to the civil and political rights that more easily engage members of dominant cultures and political elites. Besides, the notion that any society supports the concept of free speech in an unfettered way is absurd. It is regulated, rightly, in relation to defamation and libel. It is regulated, rightly, in relation to trade practices, to ensure that consumers are not duped by unsubstantiated claims.

I find it difficult to support blanket statements about the concept of censorship. For me, the arguments about where to draw the lines in theory are slippery and contradictory. Of more interest, and of more importance, is the question of what is seeking to be censored and why. When the censorship is one where the weight of the dominant culture is used to silence dissenting views and to silence the marginalised, I think it raises a complex set of moral and ethical questions. I don’t pretend to know where that line is but I believe that the balancing of the right to free speech against other rights is one of the on-going conversations in a healthy participatory democracy. This might sound utopian but I say this as someone who is inherently suspicious of the way the dominant cultures laws sometimes draw lines. The fact that the dominant culture often gets to decide that line is often problematic. Its adjudicators are never without their own cultural bias even though they often assume that they can be objective on such matters. But I do think the discussion about where those lines are drawn needs to be an open, honest and fluid one and needs to include voices that are often marginalised within the dominant culture.

It strikes me that one of the deepest cultural differences between Indigenous culture and dominant Australian culture is around the concept of knowledge. Within the spiritual life of Indigenous societies there was a clear delineation about knowledge holding. There were issues that were “men’s business” and “women’s business” and the concept of “secret and sacred” knowledge, which only the custodian or the initiated were entitled to know. The concept that there is information that you are not permitted to know is one that sits uncomfortably with European intellectual tradition. It remains the case today across Australia that there is still knowledge, images, practices and artefacts that remain sacred to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and cannot be shared.

Respecting that, I do not, however, ascribe to the view that a non-Indigenous person can never write from the perspective of an Indigenous person. Writers with talent can write from any perspective. The trick is to get the authenticity – the truth – of the situation, the characters and the essence of the interaction. The challenge in crossing any divide – gender, religious, cultural – is that unless the writer can stand in the shoes of the character, can adeptly interpret the perspective, the writing will ring hollow, will ring untrue.

In this way, Indigenous writers are advantaged. They better understand, by virtue of their interaction with the dominant culture, the views from the other side of the cultural divide. It has always challenged Australian writers – even writers of great skill – to be able to interpret well the world of Indigenous people. That is not because it is impossible but just because the level of understanding needed to write authentically is so deep, that the general ignorance of Indigenous culture often makes the translation a challenge for those seeking to interpret it from the outside.

Patrick White, one of our greatest writers, meditated on the perspectives on Indigenous people within Australian culture in several of his books. He did so reflectively in Riders of the Chariot and Voss. But he was much less successful in his novel inspired by the shipwreck of Eliza Fraser in the 1860s, A Fringe of Leaves. During the heroine’s time amongst Aborigines, she becomes closer to her more natural state and, as part of this psychological reconnection, engages in a ceremony that includes an act of cannibalism. Instead of understanding that there was no practice of cannibalism within Indigenous communities in Australia, White buys into this myth – and thus perpetuating it – but seeks to excuse it by using the act of consumption of flesh as a metaphor for our most primitive desires, the instincts our society represses. White paints the Aboriginal people in this novel in the classic noble savage role. I’ve argued elsewhere that the depiction of Aboriginal people in this romanticised role is an unhelpful and dangerous as the portrayal of Aboriginal people as savages.

Grenville avoids this trap in The Secret River. She tells the story of William Thornhill’s conquest of his land and the Aboriginal people who lived there before him without romanticism. Her novel also tells the story of Aboriginal people and she chose not to do this by creating an Indigenous character to guide us through this perspective but by telling us the same story from the unsympathetic viewpoint of a white Australian who sees Aboriginal people fearfully – fearful they will retaliate, they will fight, they will challenge. And through the eyes of such characters, she says so much with deep truth about the underlying unease which not only pervades the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal people and the dominant Australian culture, she also explains why so much unease and conflict remains amongst that dominant culture about the way in which they tell the story of their own history.

This is a deft skill but I want to conclude by celebrating what uncensored, unselfconscious writing can achieve even when it misses the mark. Another great Australian novelist is Thomas Keneally. Of his enviable body of work sits a book, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, written in the 1970s when Australia was confronting a new political era in its relationship with Indigenous people. Influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States, a black power movement and a land rights movement had emerged , along with a new kind of Aboriginal activist. Keneally’s novel is inspired by the outlaw Jimmy Governor and explores the inevitable consequences of trapping a young man between the ambitions available to white people and the discrimination against his own black skin. What blind ambition to try to write a book about this subject matter. And in the most part, Keneally succeeds. But the portrayal of Aboriginal women seemed so one dimensional, especially contrasted to the insights Keneally showed for Jimmie’s own plight as an Aboriginal man. That aspect of the book annoyed me n contrast but I have a great affection for both the book and the author for its audacity. Keneally has since written that he would write the book differently if he wrote it now. I am glad he wrote it when he did. It gave me more to think about, more to contend with, a greater slate against which to try to articulate my own views about my feminism and the intersection between my gender and my race and what that meant in contemporary Australia against this historical backdrop. Along with A Fringe of Leaves, Keneally gave me a book that provoked me to articulate my own views, providing me with a conversation of depth and intelligence I could find nowhere else within Australian society. That is the gift a brave, thoughtful, imaginative and uncensored writer can give.

So I don’t think the territory is off limits but I think that the challenge for writers who want to explore that terrain is that the extent to which one must be familiar with it if coming from the position of the privileged, from a position where many of the voices will be hidden, is very difficult.

And such is the skill of great writers. They translate. They interpret. They hold a mirror up. And that s why they are, when talented, so threatening.

 © Larissa Behrendt, 2013

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Birch in Australia – Keynote on A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/birch-in-australia-keynote-on-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/birch-in-australia-keynote-on-a-national-literature/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 07:30:26 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5364 2-birchtA National Literature

Keynote address given by Tony Birch

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Tony Birch keynote text: ‘A Post-National Literature?’

I want to thank the Melbourne Writers Festival for allowing me the opportunity to recall my discovery of the post-national novel, which occurred on North Richmond railway station in 1971 when I was fifteen years old.  I had been expelled from school after falling through a shop window in a fight with another boy.  I was slight but never bullied as my father had taught me to box and punch above my weight.

While his training held in good stead in the street, it equipped me for little else.  I was an angry teenager, prone to settling all disputes with my fists.  I was taught by the Christian Brothers in primary school.  I was a good student and thrived in the highly regulated atmosphere as opposed to the chaos of my home life.

Such was not the case at the state high school I attended.  We were left to our own devices (and vices) by a group of young teachers, fresh out of university, fueled by the politics of the anti-war movement.  Although I learned little in high school, I remained a voracious reader.  I’d held a public library card from the age of five, and picked up secondhand paperbacks whenever I could.  My train was cancelled that day and I had a further half hour to wait.  I retrieved a novel from my bag that I had borrowed from the library.

Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave was published 1968.  It is set in the depressed working class north of England, geographically a long way from inner Melbourne.  Those around him – a bullying older brother, schoolyard thugs and psychopathic teacher – repeatedly whack Billy Casper, the slightly built boy at the centre of the novel.  His respite from violence is discovered in his love for a bird, a headstrong but graceful kestrel, and in the wonder of a nearby wood, itself a relief from the grime of coal mines, slag heaps and narrow overcrowded terraces of the town.

I had read many novels by the time I picked up Kes.  My older brother was a champion of many pursuits, including football, handball, marbles, any game requiring skill and sharp reflexes.  But he was no student of literature.  So, despite my relative delinquency, I was his scholarly proxy, devouring his English school texts, including Catcher In The Rye, Travels With My Aunt and To Kill A Mockingbird.  I penned his school essays and would have sat exams in his place had I been half a foot taller.

No book left the impression on me that Kes did.  I was convinced it had travelled the globe to find me.  From the first pages, when Billy wakes in the early morning in his damp, crowded room and is teased and abused by his brother, I felt more than empathy for him.  I was sure I was Billy.

When my train finally arrived I continued reading, and after I got off the train and headed home, open book, I found myself walking into light-poles.  Buried deep in the novel I went to my bedroom and finished it.  Closing the final page, I rushed from the house, ran through the narrow streets of my life.  I didn’t stop until I reached the banks of the Yarra River, which, at the time was a maligned and neglected stretch of water, home to car wrecks, the homeless and neglected, and water rats.  I lay in the long grass on the riverbank and thought more about the book until I became so excited I ran back home and read it again.

That night I broke the expulsion news to my mother.  She shrugged her shoulders dismissively.  Clearly, the information was of little surprise to her.  She sternly instructed me to ‘get a job in a week or I’ll find one for you.’

I found gainful employment, as a telegram boy, riding a pushbike across the city.  Whenever I could pinch a few minutes I would ride along a back lane and sit and read.  I was never without a paperback in my pocket.  I was arrested around this time out the front of a local dancehall.  Along with some mates I was lined against a brick wall and patted down.   The subsequent police discovery included half bottles of vodka, flick knives, a touch of mascara and lipstick to enhance the collective glam-rock persona, and a suspicious article in the back pocket of my powder-blue flares.

A copper pulled it from my pocket and shoved it in my face.

‘What the fuck’s this, hard boy?’

‘Ahh … it’s a novel, The Outsider, by Albert Camus.’

He hit me over the back of the head with the book.

‘Never heard of him, smartarse.’

This potted history of my life of crime, punishment and books does little more than state the obvious.  Good fiction has traditionally impacted through its ability to transcend boundaries of class, ethnicity and collective identity, even, as is the case with Kes, a story deeply embedded and invested in the regionalism of northern England.  Barry Hines and Billy Casper touched my heart in a manner that no Australian book had done at the time, or has achieved since.  I understood the challenges of inequality that Billy faced with clarity.  Sadly, I related most strongly to his sense of shame.  It is the shared emotion of people relegated to the social and economic scrapheap.  You keep your head down, just as Billy does, ashamed of your own identity and burdened with the discrimination society becomes strategically blind to.

Therefore, we don’t require a national literature to draw attention to issues of the human condition – or the heart – in Australia.  As my experience of Kes indicates, good writing migrates and finds a home.  Granted, there have been important novels published in recent years in Australia that draw attention to important issues from a domestic perspective.  Michelle de Kretser’s multi award-winning Questions of Travel is such an example.  And of course, it will travel and impact on global readers interested in good writing and the plight of the globally stateless.

A particular issue to a discussion of both national and post-national fiction in Australia is Aboriginal writing and writing about Aboriginal people (which can be both inter-related and mutually exclusive).  Historically, Aboriginal writers of fiction have produced, if not definitively anti-nationalist writing, a sharp critique of an inclusive and collective sense of identity that pervades popular culture and the politics of populism.

White Australia’s twentieth century approach to the so-called ‘Aboriginal problem’ was dominated by the twin policies of child removal and limited assimilation.  In attempts to legitimate dubious and often cruel policies, successive governments, national and state utilised the spectre of the ‘half-caste menace’ to support the violence underpinning assimilation.

Not surprisingly then, Aboriginal writers have often focused on issues of identity, the politics of colour, and the hypocrisy of miscegenation, first interrogated in the seminal Wild Cat Falling, by Colin Johnson in 1965; a novel presenting an unflattering and tragic portrayal of the modern ‘half-caste’, understood through the experiences of a young man emotionally and culturally detached from society.

The novel represents the failure of an obsessive national identity project.  No other writer in Australia, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal would apply a similar literary critique to the assimilation project until Kim Scott’s award winning Benang was published in 1999.  This novel, which ranges across the period of ‘Aboriginal Protection’ under the leadership of A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, is subtitled from the heart.  And it is with heart and humour and pathos that Scott lances the festering sore of assimilation, exposing its devastating impact on individuals, families and communities.

Other Aboriginal writers have since produced intelligent and engaging portraits of the nation, through fiction that defies the nation.  This list includes Alexis Wright, Bruce Pascoe and Melissa Lucashenko, amongst others.  Wright, in her novels Carpentaria (also a Miles Franklin winner), and the recent The Swan Book provokes Australians to come to terms with the impact of British occupation on Aboriginal land and people. Her writing provides far more than a critique of a dominant national story.  She is offering us another way of engaging with place and people, be they the first inhabitants of this land, or as with de Kretser’s work, the plight of the displaced.

Such novels are perhaps a version of national fiction looking beyond the nation.

In recent years the wider literary community in Australia has celebrated Aboriginal writing, although it also continues to be received and consumed defensively, within a mindset stuck in the colonial imagination.  I call this the ‘disloyalty effect’, whereby some critics, commentators and readers respond to what they feel is a negative critique of the national story; an act of ingratitude.  The degree of disloyalty is compounded when delivered by ‘mixed-blood’ Aboriginal writers, who are, after all, the wayward children of the benevolent nation.

There are those of course, who understand the potential for Aboriginal writing to productively shift the national story.  Geordie Williamson, literary critic of The Australian newspaper, in his review of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book commented on the ‘urgent importance’ of the novel and the themes it tackles, going far beyond the borders of a national story, dealing with issues such as climate change, refugees, and the outsider.

The Swan Book is an ideal example of post-national fiction.

Both Scott and Wright are widely read outside Australia, particularly in Europe, where their work has been translated.  Global readers have little or no investment in ensuring that our fiction underpins an unwritten patriot act.  Accepting that my belief here is largely anecdotal, but based on international readers I have engaged with largely as an academic, a global engagement with Aboriginal writers increasingly locates the writing in a global context.

Let me be clear, Aboriginal writers in Australia are not alone in this achievement.  To argue such a point would invalidate the impact that A Kestrel for a Knave had on a fifteen-year-old boy both lost and in love with books.  It would also display a deep level of disrespect for both the writers and readers enjoying this festival.  I would argue though, with confidence, that too many Australians remain ignorant of the creative and intellectual reach of Aboriginal writing, knowing little beyond the degree to which it serves us and fits within a national narrative.

In February this year I was invited by Screen Australia, along with a group of Aboriginal writers, to spend a week at Uluru with the acclaimed film writer and novelist, Guillermo Arriaga.  Amongst other achievements, recognised with a BAFTA nomination and the Cannes festival award for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006), Arriaga wrote the screenplays for Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.  He has visited Australia previously, and has a passionate interest in Aboriginal storytelling, through both writing for film and fiction.  In several conversations I had with Guillermo, he returned to the same point.  While he is excited that Aboriginal writing has introduced him Australia’s domestic story, it spoke directly to, and resonated with him most particularly as it provided him with an additional insight into the story of his own country, Mexico.  He was not referring to indigenous issues, but human issues.  He is also adamant that Aboriginal writers in Australia were some of the bravest he’d met, when choosing how subject matter is shaped into story.  ‘It speaks to the world,’ he said over and over again.

Before concluding with a comment on two books that have influenced me greatly I want to briefly discuss the elephant in the room.  This elephant impinges on discussions of both Aboriginal writing in Australia and writing about Aborigines.  I want to offer a position that I hope is helpful and pertinent when contemplating both a national and post-national literature in this country.

I have been teaching at university for close to twenty years now.  I also regularly appear at writer’s festivals.  It is rare for an event concerned with Aboriginal writing to pass without the question coming from the floor, ‘can non-Aboriginal people write an Aboriginal character?’

Let me dispose with the mundane and move onto a (hopefully) productive response.

Firstly, the point is moot.  Non-Aboriginal authors have been writing about Aboriginal people for more than 200 years now, and enough of them will continue to do so in the future.  As a writer and educator I’m interested in questions such as, in what ways do non-Aboriginal writers portray Aboriginal characters in fiction?  And what might be the intellectual and creative motivation behind this writing?

Secondly, and problematically, many would-be writers who ask the question are seeking absolution and endorsement; a misguided notion on two counts.  If the Aboriginal writer endorses their ‘right to creative expression’ a beaming smile appears on the face of the would-be writer.  He or she has been saved, cleansed and become ‘entitled’.  If an endorsement does not follow the question, perhaps with the blunt comment ‘don’t do it’, the would-be writer is prone to either break down in tears or verbally attack the Aboriginal writer.

My advice is simple.  Please do not ask as refusal may offend.  If I were to offer advice it would be that the responsibility for what is written sits with the author.  Totally.  Whenever I feel uneasy about subject matter I come to a clear decision to tackle the material and, hopefully do it justice.  Or leave it alone when I don’t feel equipped to write well.

This, by the way, is the reason I don’t write sex.

What I would like to say, which I hope is a more generous point, one that I hold with conviction, is that there are many non-Aboriginal writers in Australia who have produced vitally important novels dealing with Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships.  Just a few of these writers include Randolph Stow, Alex Miller, Kate Grenville and Peter Goldsworthy.  Other writers have failed the task miserably, unable to rise above two-dimensional stereotypes, sentimentality, moral superiority or guilt, sometimes in the one book.

But our measuring stick must be novels of quality, the stories that attempt to question and shift the culture.  I guess I want to have a bet each way here.  I like stories about this place, this country.  But not those that do little more than mimic the rah-rah of the sporting field.  Nor those that want to uphold a shallow lie about this country, even when posing as fiction.  I also want to read stories that travel, like a bird I adore, the Arctic Tern, which bravely navigates the globe each year to nest on the beaches of southern Australia.

Finally, I want to mention two heroes.  When I read Junot Diaz’s first book, his 1996 linked story collection, Drown, I had a similar experience to that on discovering Kes.  I was a lot older, calmer and more settled.  Here was a book set in both the Dominican Republic and New Jersey that again spoke to my heart and head.  Once I had put the book down I understood that it was time stop scribbling around with the occasional poem and short story and try to become a writer.  For better or worse, Diaz is partly responsible for my first book, Shadowboxing, a linked story collection following the life of Michael Byrne, from the childhood badlands of inner Melbourne to an adulthood of resolution.  Drown, as with Kes, as with other books I am sure people in this audience have read and will always transcend the nation.  Clearly, a post-national literature has always been with us.

While preparing for this festival and this event I have been reading a new book, Ali Alizadeh’s Transactions.  It is a story cycle that traverses the globe, dealing with the greed and cruelty of rampant capitalism, the displacement and exploitation of vulnerable people, and the yearning for a home that exists, not in a slogan, a t-shirt, or a pledge of loyalty, but in the blood that flows through the body, in the spiritual resonances that we sometimes attempt to deny.  While Transactions has been favourably reviewed in Australia, we have also been reminded that it is ‘bleak’.  It is not.  It is a book of love that refuses an easy exit.  It is fiction that exposes the prejudices and violence of society.  In doing so Alizadeh generously offers us a better ‘way of seeing’ the world and ourselves.  It is truly a book without borders.

© Tony Birch 2013


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Lohrey in Australia – Keynote on Should Literature Be Political? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/lohrey-in-australia-keynote-on-should-literature-be-political/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/lohrey-in-australia-keynote-on-should-literature-be-political/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 05:30:19 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5347 9-LohreyaShould Literature Be Political?

Keynote address given by Amanda Lohrey

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival


Amanda Lohrey keynote text: “Can Literature Affect Political Change?”

My argument in brief is that the novel has little power to make an effective political intervention. The novel comes after the event; it is a chronicle of or argument with the event but does not shape it. Only in repressive societies can the novel achieve a form of symbolic power as a gesture of resistance which may help to fortify the morale of activists on the ground but it cannot do more than this to overthrow regimes. To quote Marcuse, art by itself can never achieve transformation but it can under certain circumstances ‘free the perception and sensibility needed for the transformation’.

The first half of the twentieth century was characterised by fierce debates about the relationship between politics and art, largely inspired by militant Left movements throughout Europe. One thinks of Bolshevik agitprop on the role of art to enlighten and inspire the masses by unmasking false consciousness and modelling possible utopias. My generation of Left artists was influenced by debates between European Marxists on the politics of representation and the most politically effective genres of realism. Among the most robust of these was the argument between German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht and the distinguished Hungarian theorist George Lukacs and the strategic nature of all literary forms was encapsulated in a checklist of questions posed by Brecht: Who is this sentence of use to? Who does it claim to be of use to? What does it call for? What practical action corresponds to it? What sort of sentence results from it? What sort of sentences support it? In what situation is it spoken? By whom? (Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans John Willett 1977).

In the post 1945 Cold War era debates on politics and aesthetics continued with decreasing potency of address and penetration, especially in the Anglo-American world where influential and often CIA funded critics and academicians maintained the line that political fiction was mere propaganda. Literature transcended politics; it was about the fundamentals of love, death and the landscape. True poetry was a meditation on how light was reflected in a rockpool or the outline of a maidenhair fern at dusk. Political fiction or poetry was ‘didactic’ and it ‘dated’. Meanwhile Left writers and critics continued to argue that writers should make it an integral part of their project to contest official histories, to interrogate the so-called master narratives of the culture and show how history and politics construct the personal. At the very least, such writing could give a voice to the voiceless so that the oppressed could recognize themselves in the work of art and gain strength from a mirroring effect that validated the experience of the marginalized.  In addition, sales and critical acclaim could endow the writer with a prestige that he or she could wield on the campaign trail, as in the case of German novelist Gunter Grass who campaigned actively over two decades for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP).

Whichever side you are on it is important to acknowledge that writing about politics is inherently problematical. Brecht’s questions are a blunt address to the cognitive but what of the unconscious? How sound are the rationalist assumptions that underlie the Left/liberal political project, namely that all people are inherently reasonable? Social utility is a Victorian notion that does not sit comfortably with post-Freudian perspectives on the riddle of human subjectivity. Art that aims to make a political intervention must grapple first with the unconscious, that substratum of desire, pleasure, fatalism and pain. This is a potential quicksand for the artist who is aiming to do more than write as a navigator of the psyche, who has specific goals of social utility in mind, namely converts. There is always a danger that an artist who paints a lurid picture of the apocalypse will seduce not repel; consider audience response to the character of Colonel Kilgore in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, or Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

In his essay ‘Right and Wrong Political Uses of Political Literature’ (1997) Italo Calvino attacked the ‘wrongheaded notion of the committed writer’ and raised this question of the unconscious. ‘We can never forget that what books communicate often remains unknown even to the author himself, that books often say something different from what they set out to say, that in any book there is a part that is the author’s and the part that is a collective and anonymous work.’ In other words, in any text the writer’s unconscious engages with the reader’s and the outcomes are highly unpredictable.

But there is a further factor at work here and it is an historical one. The second half of the 20th century saw a decline in Left politics, the rise of affluence, consumerism and the mass media and the triumph of neo-liberalism and globalized capitalism, promoted during the ideological counter-attack of the 1980s which saw the foundation of a number of business financed right-wing think tanks in developed countries (see Alex Carey’s Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, 1995). I think you can argue that these think tanks have been far more influential than literary fiction is constructing public narratives of the political. They have, for example, successfully planted in the mainstream media a number of pundits and columnists whose vicious paranoid narratives continue to be retailed ad nauseam.

Some artists may strive to counter this but who is listening? Artists are a product of their culture, as are their potential audiences. One of the insights of the Frankfurt School was to predict that when the utopian impulse in western culture was converted to consumerist mode and the project of a purely individual and psychological model of salvation, the artist who sought to make political interventions would become enfeebled. And so it has proved. Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci made two of the most remarkable political movies in the history of cinema, The Conformist (1970) and 1900 (1976) but when asked in 1988 why he had abandoned political cinema, Bertolucci replied: ‘The cinema always depends on reality. I couldn’t make 1900 today. Even though it was an historical story it corresponded to something in Italian society in the mid-70s…It is very difficult today to talk about politics…Or even to talk about what is Left and what is Right. Everything is mixed up in this soup called consumerism’.

Fredric Jameson has written of the power of systems to co-opt and defuse even the most potentially dangerous forms of political art by transforming them into cultural commodities, especially in the case of case of modernist art but also in the domain of fiction. In his scarifying critique of the postmodern novel, The Postmodern Aura (1985) Charles Newman writes of ‘the redundancy of the adversary style’ in an era in which avant-gardism becomes fashionable and a consumer passion for novelty creates ‘an entire culture of short-term traders’. What is new and temporarily shocking soon passes into the banality of the over-exposed and in first world countries the ‘problem’ of art becomes not its repression but public indifference to it.

One could argue at this point for satire, for making your readership laugh and your opponent look ridiculous, but if we consider the fine tradition within North American literature of the anti-war novel (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five) the political outcomes are not encouraging. Widely acclaimed on publication, Catch 22 sold millions of copies and is still taught in schools and universities. But has it inhibited any further US military adventurism? One of the criticisms of Heller’s novel is that it deflates into a lame ending when its hero Yossarian deserts to Sweden. In his essay, ‘The Deserters: The Contemporary Defeat of Fiction’ Carl Oglesby, a radical student activist in the 60s and later a writer, castigates Heller for this tepid resolution. Why, asks Oglesby, doesn’t Yossarian assassinate the villain of the novel, Colonel Cathcart?  Instead of rebelling within history, Yossarian rebels against it in a narrative in which Sweden stands for the ‘beyond’ of history. The possibility of rebellion is foreclosed. What I find interesting here is that in the best novel about the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978) the regular soldiers have indeed made this progression and do assassinate their officers; it’s called fragging. But for them there is no escape either. Or rather, they escape into fantasy and the novel has no exit other than into a form of magical escapism and the pathos of men who can envisage no authentic political agency. Theirs is an even more extreme form of desertion than Yossarian’s. And thus we progress from Vietnam to Iraq and a culture in which the writer, in Oglesby’s words, is a figure of ‘privileged impotence’. Unless, of course, like Arundhati Roy, she chooses to abandon fiction for polemical non-fiction and a role as a frontline political activist.

The end of the Cold war and the advent of the postcolonial moment to some degree reconfigured the critical and artistic terrain that prevailed up until the 1980s.Writers in Britain’s ex colonies produced a wave of novels about imperialism and its effects and these invariably won the Commonwealth Writers Prize which became a mirror of the postcolonial moment. In Latin America the Leftist writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez made of magical realism a romantic form of political opposition but one that for readers in the West was read mostly for its romance rather than its oppositional politics which, in any case, tended to be occluded by the ‘magic’. The early works of Salman Rushdie promised a new form of story-telling based on a richly inventive bricolage of cultural reference and hybrid modes of rhetoric but in James Wood’s recent and famously adversarial view the genre eventually declined into a decadence which he provocatively labelled ‘hysterical realism’ (2000). Such novels, wrote Wood, ‘accumulate meaning only to disperse it’. With their ‘cartoonish’ plotting and bizarre characters they create a manic surface the effect of which is to deny the possibility of character development and hence of reader empathy (‘no-one really exists’). Wood writes of a ‘weightless excess’ that is not genuinely experimental: ‘the practical effect is a grammar of realism that challenges nobody and nothing’. Newman too has a great deal to say on this subject, citing its ‘easily purchased surrealism, wilful randomness and cheap narrative collage’, its ‘logorrhoea’, its decline into a ‘routinized disturbance available to any middle-class terrorist’. The initial freshness of perception that Marquez and the early Rushdie introduced has proved to be short-lived.

Wood doesn’t offer a political explanation of this but Jameson might characterize it as a form of postmodern panic or hysteria in the face of globalising capitalism’s colonization of every sphere and dimension of experience, its totalizing character which can only be escaped through wilful indeterminacy and chaos, including in fiction. This, however, creates a form of weak narrative which offers weak resistance to strong or fundamentalist narratives. To this I would add the decline of the writer as sage or oracle, along with the decline of the potency of the serious literary novel in the hectic, multi-vocal world of television and the internet with their ‘flood of secondary realities’. The novel is now a very small player in what Hans Magnus Enzensberger called the ‘consciousness industry’.

What is left? Two things, I would suggest. Firstly, the revelatory power of the documentary and secondly the mythic power of the story. The novel as honest chronicle is still a means to documenting and celebrating, in Newman’s words, ‘the particularity of partial knowledge.’ It can still bring news, it can still bring to our attention those areas of human experience that are passed over or denied in the mass media. But to have political influence it must be first be read, and read sympathetically, by a large audience and that is another matter.

On the mythic plane, I would argue that the novel takes its place as one agent, along with cinema and television, within the Levi-Strauss model of the function of myth, namely to mediate between and resolve within narrative those contradictions that are not susceptible to resolution in everyday life. In other words, mythic story-telling offers substitute gratification within, and compensation for, a fraught reality. As such the primary function of narrative is the opposite of reformist; it is to console and pacify, to dissipate rage rather than to incite it and to relieve the pain of the incomprehensible. To borrow from that prodigious reader Karl Marx, story-telling is the heart of a heartless world.  Is it then the opiate of the masses? Probably.

© Amanda Lohrey, 2013



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Gunn in Australia – Keynote on Style vs Content http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/gunn-in-australia-keynote-on-style-vs-content/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/gunn-in-australia-keynote-on-style-vs-content/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 03:30:53 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5335 6-gunnkStyle vs Content

Keynote address given by Kirsty Gunn

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Kirsty Gunn keynote text ‘Style vs Content’:

Generally, it seems to me, when people get together to talk about style and content in the novel they talk about just that: There’s the way a story is written and there’s what is written about. And the two, as any Literature Professor in charge of any introductory undergraduate course on the novel would say, are inextricably linked.

But nobody talks much about form. Or if they do, as the programme notes for this event suggest, they use it as another word for style.

And we need to talk about form. “Significant form”, as Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf had it. Form that is the shape and idea and raison d’etre of the novel. Form that sits behind the style and generates it, that informs the presentation of content and makes sense of it, giving context. If content is the “what” of a novel – what it’s made of – and style the “way” – in which way it is written – then form is the “how”. How a story is made in the first place, the plan for its very being. And it’s form, the mother of style and content, I may say – if I want to be rather classical and 18th century about things! -  that I want to concern myself with here today.

As I say, it’s something we don’t hear much about. Form is fancy. It’s “highbrow”. It’s the word used by Modernists and for Modernism, it’s for academic papers and critical theory and discussions about aesthetics. Form, for all that it is talked about in general literary circles, in the papers and at Writers Festivals (though not this one!) may as well be a dirty word.

Yet, I return through the mists of time to my undergraduate English programme, headed up, no doubt, by that same professor I talked about earlier, who tells us that “style and content are inextricably linked” and the core course: Introduction to the Novel 101. And what I remember is this: That as we marched our way through the canon that year, from “Pamela” and “Clarissa” through to “Robinson Crusoe” and “Tristram Shandy” and “Tom Jones” and all the rest, stopping resolutely as we did in those Oxbridge syllabus dominated days with DH Lawrence, it was form that gave instruction to the writer I wanted to be. I had no or little interest, not really, in what went on in those books. All the stuff that was happening, riveting and dramatic as it may have been. I wasn’t turned on by the stories’ historical contexts, either; I didn’t care to keep track of the characters’ individual actions and remember what happened to whom, and when. No, I was interested in how they were made, those books, for what purpose their authors deemed they were fitted. I was interested in how an imaginative idea was going to be made as real to me and as necessary and vital as anything else that might be going on in my life. Once that was in place, I could figure, all the rest would follow.

And follow it did. The exam questions kicked in and I knew exactly what to do: “In what way does the word of Middlemarch reflect a changing England? “Forget it. “At what point in the novel and why does Dorothea realise her sense of independence has been challenged?” Pass. “Show passages of speech and description that reflect class prejudice.” Not now. But once I got to “How has George Eliot gone about creating a social document within a novel?” I was off and running.

Form was my way in, then, to those often lengthy, densely written, character rich narratives that have all of us flipping back pages in the midst of our reading to remind ourselves of whether such and such was the same one who had said something to so and so in the first section, or whether he was her uncle. There was so much content! And then the paragraphs, the circumlocutions of period speech, the details of descriptions that were needed in a world before photographs and films. There was so much style! Getting through the canon of English language literature in three years – it’s a relentless business, alright! But what books! What mighty books! And each one utterly unlike the other – no two authors writing in the same way and each literary project with its own unique shape. Like exciting novels we read now that transport us, that take us fully into their reality and keep us there, that aren’t just some copycat project based on research, or that follow a trend, or trick us with a fancy style or overwhelm us with plot. The books that have form have unity and wholeness. They answer fully and with integrity the question: How am I going to create a world for this story to live in? That’s what form does. It brings content and style together in unity in a novel. Without it, the style, original as it may be, is just echoing in an empty chamber. The content, box new perhaps but without its own form, dull and second hand and boring to read.

I have a million examples of writing of the other kind, that miss the point of form, and still the books are praised and bought and read. Seemingly, just because we’re talking about novels, that great rag bag of a genre that can hold anything from chick-lit to “War and Peace”, we can throw form out the window. Because in the novel, anything goes. But should it be that way? That a writer putting together a novel about, say, insanity in rural Ireland in the 19h Century, (and I’m making up the examples here, by the way, to be polite) a novel with an uneducated central protagonist who is keeping a diary from her cell, has not considered a form for that book that would make sense of that woman’s status and condition? So, for example, she would not write at all –because she can’t. She’s not educated. She wouldn’t be able to fill the pages of a journal in her cell. But still there would be some other way of the author creating that character’s thoughts and life on the page? Can’t that writer think about that, instead of just relying on the substance of his content, to make the story real? James Kelman knows how to solve that kind of challenge. He knows about form. He has characters who don’t read, who’ve gone blind, yet still move through the pages of their stories in a way that’s rich in literary terms because of how he has invented his books, to have come up with a form where, as the great late Dr Gavin Wallace, former head of literature at Creative Scotland described it, “the life being lived is contiguous with the writing that describes it.” Kelman’s form is made up of his very characters, who talk to themselves continually, apprehending, sensing, understanding, not understanding. What we read on the pages of his books are the entire contents of their minds. It s a world away from the tried and tested journal style used by that other writer, and countless like him, who’ve all copied in turn from Defoe – because Kelman has form. He’ s not like anyone else. Form doesn’t want to be.

Or, to take another example, that a book, say, written from a child’s point of view might consider issues of vocabulary and understanding in a young mind, that it might encapsulate a sensibility more fractured and acute than the sophisticated adult who’s writing it? Yet how many writers – some of them very successful – really capture in their words what it is to be a child? Carson McCullers did, perfectly, in “Member of the Wedding”.  She knew about form. Frankie’s world, in that book, is complete, but made up of parts of disparate seeing and understanding and she grows up in the story with different ways of being, and speaking. Everything about the construction of “Member of the Wedding” is idiosyncratic and wild, mixed up as a dream. That’s what a child’s world is like. It’s not a version of an adult novel cut down to size. It’s not a controlled narrative, or masses of character and interiority. It’s scattered and intense. Why don’t so many authors who write from a children’s perspective get it? That kids’ worlds aren’t like theirs? Why doesn’t form seem to matter to them, that they should think that just by inventing a young voice they’ll pull off the trick of making childhood seem like childhood?

As I say, I could go on and on here, with examples. Books written from the first person that have never considered what it is about the first person that might be exciting actually, that the reader might not feel she’s been stuck in someone’s solitary company for too long. Books written that seem to be about character, until, ten pages in, you realise they’re only about stereotypes; or books set in ancient times with all the research in place, all those details about iron vessels and agriculture,  only the teenagers who live in the freezing hovels sound like they come from LA. Or books that seem to be about fancy writing but the writing has no context because there’ s been no central aesthetic governing it, nothing to put it in. Or books that seem to be about plot but really it’s the setting that the writer loves, that could have been the plot in itself, if only the author had thought about form, if only, if only, if only… The writer had thought about form so many of the novels might come together.

But then, form is a challenge. It’s the hardest part. It’s why most writers stick with the tried and tested, that good old workhorse, the realist novel. Broken and harnessed to plough the fields of 19th century fiction, we know what to expect of it, what it’s supposed to do. Indeed, how many other, very different kinds of books are always held up to it for comparison? If you listened to enough of the hugely successful realist novelists at work today talk about the novel, their novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the canon stopped its march right there, in the turned earth of the classical English novel, with its showing and telling and character development and narrative arc.

Yet the examples I gave before describe two ways form may have stepped in and created something new and exciting from the materials in hand without having to revert to copied and repeated methods. And I gave two masters of form, two great artists, as examples of how one might find solutions to the basic challenge of writing fiction, that is, making the words on the page believable and real. These are writers whose every book shows them having thought through completely the requirements of what they need to do to tell their stories. They know that idolect does not form make. Nor crazy looking chapter headings or multiple fonts. Nor content designed to impress or over-act. They know that form is not just tackling certain challenges of plot or character in isolation – but is the very “how” of their work, as I said at the beginning of this talk, its beginning and its end.

Virginia Woolf’s novel  “The Waves” tells the unbroken story of six friends from childhood into age. By creating a kind of banner of prose, without break, that segues from the mind of one character to the next, she tells about the private and public circumstances of their lives. So that’s the style, that’s the content. But the “how” is how she gets started. Two places divided by a corridor, is how she first thought of “To the Lighthouse”. It was music for “The Waves”,  “rhythm”. Yes, the work unfolds, as it does to any writer as she or he is writing, but it took shape first as a concept, an idea that was abstracted from the imagination and the intellect and sometimes, too, from the psychological make-up and even psyche of the author and then fashioned into fiction. I can imagine writing a novel that would be like a ship at night “strung about with lights” Katherine Mansfield wrote as though in response to Woolf’s own definition of the novel as a “row of lamps”. How far these ideas are removed from the rigid, rectilinear narratives, that flinty mass-produced form, that constitute so many novels today. How wild, by contrast, how trippy, how exciting and involving…This other kind of novel that has as its beginning a complex, aesthetic idea to do with the story’s origin and design, that is nothing to do with what is safe and familiar.

In a recent lecture to writing students, critic and author Gabriel Josipovici talked about the “terror” of creation. He was addressing the modernist condition of making art in the void, described so beautifully in his recent polemic “Whatever Happened to Modernism?” as the “fading of the numinous”, the relaxing of a religious medieval mind, content with its world order and heaven, into the troubled, questioning condition of humanism. There is time in which to create, Jospipovici said, and out of that time can come the excitement – of making something new – but alongside it is the terror, too, that the writing may not succeed. All we have to hold onto is the sense of the form of the project.

So to finish: There’s writing as representation, and there’s writing as a living thing. There are novels that are about, and like, and for. And there are other novels that …Simply are. To consider form, the shape, the concept of a work of fiction, is to go at reading from the most exciting perspective – one that gifts us with fresh sight, that makes reading not passive – part of out consumer consumption, an extension of the entertainment industry – but something active, engaging, affecting and real.

Let me conclude with a remark made by science-fiction-writer China Mieville, who had much to say on the future of the novel at the conference in Edinburgh last year and who was talking about novels there again this past week and at a book reading he gave a couple of months back. The word he had for what I’m wanting to get at here, in this talk of mine about what novels are made of, was “uncanny” – the notion of a thought, or a sentence that is homeless, somehow, in the text. He was referring to future-fiction and fantasy, and also the modernist idea of looking at something anew, so that the familiar seems strange  – saying that both these concepts need to find a home in the story so the reader can make sense of them. But the idea works beautifully for us here, today, too. Because that’s what form does. It gives the words, it gives style and content, a home.

© Kirsty Gunn 2013

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Cole in Australia – Keynote on The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-in-australia-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-in-australia-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 01:45:59 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5318 4-coletThe Future of the Novel

Keynote address given by Teju Cole

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Teju Cole keynote text: “The Novel After the Novelist”

“A great writer is one who elongates the perspective of human sensibility,” Brodsky wrote. This is one understanding of what novels do: they take us to the limits of experience and of ourselves. For Brodsky, exemplars of such writing were Platonov and (he cites her memoirs) Nadezhda Madelstam. In the twentieth century, we can think of any number of writers who might fit Brodsky’s criterion. Among those whose work is more troubled and strained, there are Camus, Woolf, Beckett, and Blanchot, just to name a few. But there are many others who also show us that human sensibility is more than we might have guessed. Our world is bigger because of Achebe, García-Márquez, Laxness, and Yourcenar. The diversity of these names indicates the obvious: excellence in the novel is not one-dimensional. It is a capacious form, one which allows for many kinds of victory.

But another kind of novel exists, one which Brodsky perhaps would not have recognized as elongating the perspective of human sensibility. When we talk about “the novel,” are we referring to the examples cited above—literary novels of high achievement, diverse as they are—or are we talking about novels that are written as a product for the publishing market? It is true that the line between a purely commercial novel and an accomplished work of art is not completely clear. Some bestsellers are very well-written, and some magnificiently strange books sell well; but we cannot claim that they are indistinguishable. So, when we talk about the future of the novel, it is worth acknowledging that there are distinct ambitions, independent of style, in the works classified by the very term “novel.” I would like to follow Brodsky and be concerned only with those works that elongate the perspective of human sensibility. I acknowledge the existence of the other kind, the kind that an author can write many of in one year, the kind that the reader hardly remembers reading, the kind that fits neatly into a genre and whose main purpose is to help the reader pass some hours on a plane: the survival or evolution of this more ubiquitous type of novel is not of particular interest to me.

Instead, I want to think about the health of that artificial line that goes from Rabelais to Flaubert to Joyce to Jelinek. What will become of this tradition of the novel which, as Randall Jarrell wrote, is “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”? If there is more and more pressure from the other kind of novel, the neat and untroubled novel that has nothing wrong with it, how shall we sustain the novel that has something wrong with it?

But we are thinking about a tradition whose founders, Rabelais and Cervantes, did not consider themselves “novelists.” What they did was write long (very long) prose full of productive defects. This, I think, might be where the novel will begin to return. There might be a homing instinct inside the novel that is carrying it back home to its wild origins.

The novel’s great flourishing, market-wise, was in the nineteenth-century, when Pride and Prejudice and Effi Briest and the French roman d’analyse entered fully into the life of the middle classes. It was a flourishing and it was also, of course, a poisoning, because one strand of the novel intensified what was human—ragged and flickering—about the form, but another strand became the crammed attic of all that was sentimental and settled. The early twentieth-century kicked against this. We entered the era of the future of the novel: one answer to the question “What is the future of the novel?” even now is still “Ulysses.” Another is “Mrs. Dalloway.” Yet another is “The Man Without Qualities.” It was in this era that the novel began to escape the novel again, with all kinds of inclusions that had not been seen since the early days, since Rabelais, Fielding, and the other rough-mannered originators. The twentieth-century modernist novel made itself a home for a long narrative about characters and their interactions, but it also allowed for their thoughts, their philosophical digressions, and their walks. The novel contained memoir, philosophy, law, letters, history, theology, yesterday’s news, and, with full gusto and disorienting commitment in Finnegans Wake, even dreams and incomprehensibility.

It was electrifying, but we had gone too close to the edge. We had to retreat. And so—and of course I’m simplifying terribly—the Anglo-American novel in particular became quite a conservative thing (the French continued to fight the good fight). For every Faulkner in the US, there was a highly-praised Pearl Buck and a deified Steinbeck. What could not be understood and enjoyed by everyone was considered with suspicion. We, particularly in America, entered the age of prizes and consensus. Experimentation remained alive, particularly as the novel found its way to cultures that had hitherto not written many novels, but the biggest names in Anglo-American publishing tended to be safe, the sort of names that did well on school curricula or found themselves quite happy in book clubs. The Pulitzer Prize for literature was unerringly middlebrow. This was the age of Austen and Dickens all over again, but with little of the sparkling quality of those popular but brainy novelists.

All the while, though, futurists of different stripes carried on their work, for the most part with less glare on their enterprise. Barth and Coover, Ondaatje and Naipaul, Frame and Murnane, Bender and Shields: many kept on sewing the suit of experimentalism in the shadows, influenced by their contemporaries in poetry. The Latin American boom and the Indian and African literatures it infected carried this work forward. Tristram Shandy migrated to Cartagena and to Bombay.

This was the work of the full-dressed post-Ulysses school (though no one is post-Ulysses; we are all somehow still catching up to it). It is against this backdrop that we might try to understand what the Internet in general, and Twitter in particular, mean for experimental prose. For isn’t this, in all its narration and ungoverned excess, where we might now be going? Isn’t Twitter the most vivid illustration since Ulysses of what full inclusion might mean? There are two-hundred million people on Twitter. They are all writing, and all are writing under a formal constraint.

This leads one, almost, into a mystical formulation: on Twitter there is no “novelist” but there is a novel: Twitter is the continuity of the published thoughts of all the people present on Twitter. It had a beginning, but it has no end. And each second, thousands of pages are added, millions of contributions per day. And each person who reads it, as Heraclitus might have promised, reads something different from everyone else. This is an inclusiveness, from an unexpected direction, that might begin to affect even the practice of the conventional published novel. It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t: most young novelists are themselves active on Twitter now. The atomized mode of information dispersal is more and more natural, and less and less “experimental” or elite.

Consider this statement: “Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” This was written by William James’ in 1890, in The Principles of Psychology. It was later taken as an apt coinage for the efforts of Joyce, Woolf, and Mansfield. The description fits, even more exactly, the experience of reading Twitter.

Though there are interesting individual experiments on Twitter, I am drawn to the original meaning of “individual”: that which is undivided. It is the undivided, undifferentiated cascade of thoughts streaming past the timeline that makes me suspect that Twitter is, indeed, elongating the perspective of human sensibility. I want to suggest, then, that Twitter is one of the futures of the novel. In a time of commercial publishing and excellent television, the novelist is smaller than ever before. But the novel itself, it seems, is suffering the opposite fate: it is getting bigger and bigger, and gradually swallowing the whole world.

 © Teju Cole, 2013


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