It begins! Melbourne Writers Festival 2009 diary part one: champagne, the city, Mieville's guns, Amsterdam's awards and Schlink's guilt
Aug 22, 2009
The elevator ride up to the Text Publishing par-tay on Thursday evening was devastatingly long (I’m a semi-claustrophobe, to add to my other semi-disorders). I met up with Kathy Charles beforehand (a Text author) to discuss my launching of her book, Hollywood Ending. The champagne flowed, the conversations were half-chewed like the piece of pizza I held for half-an-hour as one passionate face and voice replaced another. I estimated roughly 40 conversations on topics ranging from fiction, to Twitter, autofellatio, keyboard cat meets three wolf moon (worn by), to the spectacular view – we were truly at the vantage point of the tassel on the cap of Mr Stay Puft. The view of a drop, fear softened by glass after glass…
Of course, living up to my festival rep (enthusiasm for both books and partying), I was one of the stragglers who left the venue past midnight when the lights were turned on and we were ushered (kicked) out. I won’t out the other stragglers, but let’s just say I’m glad some very classy, respectable people will share the joy of a midnight slice of cold pizza.
Stories everywhere: A young guy on the tram made a pop-up book for his girlfriend’s 22nd birthday. He showed an old lady a picture on his iPhone.
Surprisingly (and perhaps also due to my semi-guilt complex) I got quite a bit of work done on Friday, despite ducking off for festival sessions. Writing in the City was Christos Tsiolkas, Barry Dickins, Kerry Greenwood and Andrea James discussing the city (and Melbourne, specifically) in their work. As MC Steve Grimwade put it, the session would ‘investigate and celebrate the writing of this city’. I ran into gorgeous young writers and fellow Tsiolkas aficionados Koraly Dimitriadis and Demet Divarorenand we listened to Tsiolkas talk about being a writer in Melbourne quite ‘by accident’, as his family were originally going to Argentina! He discussed how Loaded and Jesus Man expressed a migrant experience, how Dead Europe was an exorcism of ‘something called Greek’, finding that though he has a heritage that comes from Europe, he is ‘something else’ (being between cultures). These themes further manifested in The Slap. He expressed that, besides Indigenous Australians, it’s an ‘accident’ that we’re all here – ‘I’m writing through that accident’. I also liked how he told us about his desire to visit Baltimore, due to The Wire (‘the 19th Century Russian novel written for the 21st century’), and the film work of Baltimore-local John Waters, which he likes for its ‘perversity’ and its ‘sexual and cultural tension’.
Kerry Greenwood’s talk and reading were filled with colour, scent – the details of a historical city. She talked about her first visit to Melbourne as a girl where she ‘spoke to a small apricot-coloured poodle called Andre’. She read from her first Phryne Fisher novel (a delicious, light-sounding crime series I’ve always wanted to read), and I could hear, taste, see and smell an elegantly constructed 1920s Melbourne.
Andrea James is an Indigenous playwright and director, and artistic director of the Melbourne Worker’s Theatre, who acknowledged she was a ‘river girl’ and was comforted by Birrarung (the Yarra) just beside us in the theatre. She talked about Melbourne as a colonial construct, but also a place she loves for its culture. She wonderfully invoked the difficult, important and rich history underneath the streets – ‘a place whose present is informed by the past’.
Barry Dickins I paid particular attention to, since we are to share a stage soon. And I can’t wait to meet him. He is warm, clever, deep and hilarious. His memoir Unparalleled Sorrow just came out – on a particular eight month bout of depression, where Dickins was given ECT treatment. But ‘the memoir was the medicine’, in the end, he said. Some other things he said stuck in my mind though I’m not sure why! He’s just one of those people that weights ordinary things – infuses them with life. ie. ‘I love hotels’ and ‘There were always weetbix on the tea table’.
Session’s best quote: Andrea James – ‘As writers you have to be outside in a way, to do what you have to do’.
Stories everywhere: An old man who knows his city. On the tram back to work the German man helps the tourists and people looking for their meeting spots. He knows all the numbers, streets and stops. ‘You know everything!’ the amazed, lost woman cries, who is late for her appointment. ‘I’m like a vorking computer in my head’, he smiles.
Stories everywhere: VCA protest on funding cuts – clowns, bands, wild-happy-looking faces. Drums and trumpets.
The Future of Fiction featured China Mieville (pictured) and Steven Amsterdam (who you know I’m a big fan of), and was chaired by Ronnie Scott. I have to admit, I thought this session was a play on words, and that both these authors, who work in futuristic settings, would be talking about the ‘future’ within their own works. As it turns out, they literally addressed the future of fiction, or future of the book and reading. It’s a stellar topic, to be sure, but the authors, in this instance, were not experts. What did they do? What they do best – speculate.
Amsterdam sees the main change in the future being the way content is distributed, ie. via ereaders. But he hasn’t yet held an ereader that’s converted him. We’re pretty backwards here in Australia though – in New York, he said, there are subway advertisements, ‘not for the Kindle, but for what colour cover you want for it’. He then painted a hugely bleak far future, and in typical style injected a glimmer of hope that stories will always be shared, even if the internet collapses and all the material books are burnt (Noooooooooooooooooo!).
Mievillestood up, showing his impressive guns, and gave both optimistic and pessimistic visions, allowing the audience to mull over them. I liked his prolific use of the word ‘segue’, because it’s really the coolest word (and yes, that’s how it’s spelt). The focus of his talk was more about the future of genre categorisation – something to be embraced, as the human brain ‘is a machine for categorisation’. He works in the genres he does to express the ‘insane unreality of the reality around us all the time.’ He also said, in the future there will be a ‘proliferation of movements and manifestos’.
In question time, other points were raised such as the nightmarish possibility of author commentary on ebooks (like DVD director commentary), the problem writers face more and more in that they have to be a ‘public persona’, rather than their natural writerly selves, sitting behind a desk (something discussed on Meanjin‘s Spike blog this week), the democratisation of text and the chaotic nature of the book industry, right at this minute.
Session’s best quote: Audience member – ‘I hadn’t heard of a Kindle until today, is it an acronym for something?’
The AGE Book of the Year Awards were presented in a small ceremony prior to the keynote address. Paul Ramadge reminded a packed-out town hall about the threat to our local book industry due to the proposed changes to territorial copyright law (and there has been a new session addedto the MWF program to discuss this further – tonight). Jason Steger, The Age literary editor, presented the awards for nonfiction to Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election by Guy Rundle (accepted by Crikey ed. Jonathan Green); poetry to Better Than God by Peter Porter (accepted by his daughter); and for fiction to… YAY… Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming. Then Things We Didn’t See Coming was named overall book of the year. I gasped audibly and then whooped and cheered – for a great book, and for a high quality small publisher who certainly deserve the attention.
The keynote address Guilt About the Past was presented by Bernhard Schlink. This talk is still resonating with me and it was a layered and reasoned argument, so forgive me as I cannot do it justice by summing it up here. If you are interested in the issues of guilt (immediate, collective and mulitgenerational), about trauma and reconciliation, I think his newer book of essays Guilt About the Past (as opposed to his novel The Reader) might satisfy. Professor Schlink is a tall, thin and dignified-looking man who spoke slowly and clearly so it was very easy to understand him, despite the thick German accent. He looks like a man who carries a lot (the trauma and the guilt – the need to express a way of reconciling?). Despite his reasoned and peaceful talk, audience members startled the room with long-winded questions and statements at the end, things they had been obviously storing up, and probably thinking about, while he ANSWERED THEM ALREADY within his talk. I know the unapologetic, righteous attention-stealers will only get worse as the festival goes on. I just wish they would listen to the talk, and reconsider their questions, before getting up. Schlink was patient and responsive, though he looked sad.
Let me try and cover this very briefly. Quotes are directly Schlink’s. Guilt and trauma that affects a generation ‘casts a shadow on future generations’ through the children or grand-children’s solidarity with their own family members, and their knowledge of them as human beings, despite their acts. Forgiveness is only adequate for the direct perpetrator and the victim – ‘to ask for forgiveness for someone else’s guilt is false’. Future generations cannot directly forgive, but can reconcile. In order to do so, they must act with respect for the other’s experience and feelings. From reconciliation comes ties that bind from equality. It requires empathy and understanding. Reconciliation will never be quick – ‘it is an endeavour for the long term’.
For more MWF coverage, see the official festival blog.
The festival runs until August 30. Get some tickets!