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A girl sits on a crowded train reading aloud an explicit section from Nabokov’s Lolita:

She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails…

The businessman sitting beside her departs, presumably to avoid the passage’s passionate conclusion, looking alarmed and awkward.

This was the official ad for the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival, played on the screen before almost every event. The video always elicited a laugh from the audience, and it is a provocative illustration of the theme of this year’s Festival: Public / Private – or as the ad’s tagline puts it: ‘These days, private is public.’ In his opening address, Festival Director Chip Rolley noted that ‘we now share publicly things we might only have told our loved ones.’ Our innermost thoughts and private feelings are broadcast. Perhaps not on a crowded train, but certainly on social media and, as has been shown in the UK hacking scandals, such private utterances are not always publicised with our consent. It is, therefore, a very relevant theme, and was reflected beautifully in many of the sessions I attended – circling on themes of identity, personal obsession, and the things that drive a writer to write.

I’m sitting in a packed theatre with my hand raised in the air. Though I’m in the front row, there’s a mirrored wall to my right and in it I see a forest of arms raised around and behind me. Anita Heiss, in a session on her memoir ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’ had asked those of us who identify as Australian to raise their hand, and as the Chair of the session Anne Summers noted, it was over eighty-five per cent of the room. Heiss then asked us to keep our hands up if we have any other nationalities in our heritage – almost nothing of the forest was diminished. It was a powerful moment in the room, a way into Heiss’ recounting of the Bolt racial discrimination case, and her explanation of her own identity – ‘I’m Aboriginal, but I have other heritages too.’ Heiss then asked those who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to stand and show ‘what we look like and the careers we have’ – they were directors, board members, policy makers.

The session was packed, the long line beforehand spilling out along the pier, and broadcast on a large screen in one of the cavernous warehouses. I’m not sure if it was visible on those screens, but sitting as I was directly in front of Heiss, it was clear how deeply distressing the recounting of the case was for her, and it was difficult to watch the otherwise sunny and charismatic Heiss so affected. The challenge was to her very sense of herself – ‘I was always the black girl’ she said, an identity given to her by white people. ‘They give you an identity, and then they take it away.’ She spoke of the racist comments that still spew forth on the Amazon listing for her book, and of the fact that she wasn’t called to testify at the Bolt case because she was ‘more black than they had expected.’ Fighting back tears, Heiss asked ‘What other group of people in Australia has to sit in a witness stand and defend who they are?’ The intersection of the festival’s two modes was most potent here.

Continue reading “The public and the private: Notes from the Sydney Writers’ Festival — Part II”

Guest Post by Rebecca Harkins-Cross

There is a passage in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding in which college baseball captain Mike Schwartz describes what he sees as the paradox at the heart of his sport:

You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

This paradox lies not only at the heart of baseball but at the heart of Harbach’s epic debut, in which the arts of literature and of sport are closer than we may think.

Set in Westish College, a fictional university on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, The Art of Fielding follows the rise of Henry Skrimshander, a gifted young shortstop on a path to the big leagues. Henry’s journey initially appears to be the stuff of the American Dream, an underdog hero (Harbach describes the scrawny fielder as ‘weigh[ing] a buck and a quarter, maximum’) who through diligence, perseverance and a dollop of good luck is set to become a star against the odds.

Continue reading “Guest Post — Catching the Infinite in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding