Your voices in my head – losing one self at Sydney Writers’ Festival

My surrender to this year’s orgy of words and ideas began before I reached the main, harbourside venue, with an event at UNSW – Emma Forrest, LA-based British author of Your Voice In My Head, in conversation with public commentator Catharine Lumby. Forrest’s memoir spans a hyper-manic phase of self-harming culminating in a suicide attempt, and the premature loss (to cancer) of her psycho-pharmacologist. Women write their anxiety on their skin, observed Forrest. She’s also written countless articles since the age of 15, and three novels. With her lucid wit, humour, and Ophelia-pale beauty, she’s a glorious advertisement for psycho-pharmaceuticals, acknowledging her quality of life is much improved with the medication, and yet that it was painful to leave the madness behind because it felt good in lots of ways. I look forward to reading her memoir for its style as much as, if not more than, its content.

The next morning I rocked up to Walsh Bay, along with a few too many others, to hear Sophie Cunningham discuss: ‘Why do articles by and about men dominate our book pages?’ Joining the queue a few minutes too late, I was one of several women turned away. Why this common festival experience almost reduced me to tears seems worth at least touching upon. It wasn’t that time of the month, nor mere frustration with unpunctual buses. My resentment toward the volunteer (who’d evidently had an empathy bypass) seems to me connected to gatekeepers – those who keep returning my work, often months after having excluded it, with their bland, unhelpfully generic excuses. Festival audiences brim with writers used to such rejections, who sit amid a sea of faces, eyeing those onstage with envy, or feeling – if they’re like me – weird ambivalence: on the one hand, warmth toward those writers who’ve made a difference to their lives; on the other, rank humiliation at being herded like sheep between pens unless they’ve spent $15/$10 or more (+$7 booking fee) on a ticket. (Why not buy a book instead?) A writer can (and, ideally, sometimes should, I believe) feel isolated (even if social networks are designed to reduce that likelihood). Yet in a festival audience, strangers can find themselves talking, a counterbalance (in my case) for long and solitary hours of work; and sometimes the hearts and minds of authors/panellists and attendees merge. This is the flip side of that longed-for 15 minutes (seconds?) of fame, an ego-transcending pleasure not to be underestimated. And so to be denied this consolation upon arrival at what I’ve come to regard as the cultural highlight of Sydney’s year pretty much accounts for my needing to hold back tears. [Those events to which I subsequently gained access are logged chronologically, not according to any rating.]

#1 ROCKS IN THE BELLY May 19, 1–2pm (‘Jon Bauer talks to Steven Gale about his astonishing debut as a novelist.’)

The first of two events I booked for, this under-attended one suited my mood. Bauer deserves to pull a crowd but this slot offered some of the week’s best to choose from. As can be got from his fiction, Bauer’s no mean philosopher, saying of the measure of a life, ‘What have you done with your pain?’ In the last two hours I’d muzzled mine, loath to expose it in public. After all, to quote Bauer again, ‘We go to fiction to see people unmasked.’ But unexpressed pain doesn’t go away. Mine tends to lurk inconveniently close to the surface. Because the small audience ran out of questions before the end of the session, and given Bauer’s Jungian-style psychologising (e.g. citing four types of reader responses), I felt inspired to get personal. So I mentioned that my favourite scenes in Rocks involved its old man character and asked Bauer what he thought that revealed about me – the comic potential of which was destroyed by my struggle to project my voice: unshed tears, now two+ hours old, had formed a queue in my throat. Anyway, Bauer’s answer struck me as Jungian in spirit (if a fictional scene = a dream in which each element = a part of the self): I either needed compassion or had it; the old man having had compassion for Rocks’ narrator. Good value. Thanks, Mr Bauer. It was well worth the embarrassment.

#2 HOME AND AWAY May 19, 2.30–3.30pm (‘Two long-time friends, indigenous activist Marcia Langton and writer Peter Robb, talk about matters of race and culture in contemporary Australia.’)

Life in Australia has become depoliticised, said Robb towards the end of this exchange, ‘which means the most important things never get talked about anymore’. That didn’t hold true for this event (or, indeed, one or two others I went to) – so what to make of those attendees who kept talking amongst themselves? Both Langton and Robb are highly theatrical in their different ways, so though they were no doubt retracing old ground, having been friends for four decades, their conversation had all the immediacy you’d expect from a really good play. When someone’s name had slipped 59-year-old Langton’s mind, she evinced impatience: ‘I’m having trouble with the name… senior moment!’ Whether owning her late-onset gluten intolerance or recalling the ’70s when there was a contract out on her (or was that just Robb?), this soft-eyed, deeply funny woman defies all stereotypes that her activist, academic or Indigenous cred might suggest. [For a supplement to this dialogue, see Robb’s enthralling profile in the April 2011 Monthly, ‘Who’s Afraid of Marcia Langton?’ Apparently she’s been a Buddhist for at least as long as Robb’s known her.]

#3 MY OWN BOOK REVIEW May 20, 11.30am–12.30pm (‘Jon Bauer and Pamela Burton discuss the reviews their books received – and the one they should have got.’)

The ghost of yesterday’s missed event continued to shadow me: I kept noticing gender-based disparities. This session’s participants – an older female biographer and a younger male novelist – didn’t, despite the male chair’s best intentions, take up equal time. For one thing, Burton’s self-penned review was shorter than many book-jacket blurbs, while Bauer went significantly further. Writing as Rocks in the Belly’s eight-year-old narrator, he satirised the it’s-all-about-me style of review that Burton disdains (and recycled a few pithy lines from his novel via cut-and-paste). Whether or not a boy of eight, however precocious, could write for pages with such wit and focus, Bauer’s skills include comic timing and his performance delighted the audience.

On the topic of book review culture, Burton (invoking my ghost) observed that women often decline to review outside their field of expertise, whereas men tend to rush in – implying that women possess less confidence in their own unqualified opinions. Part of what makes Bauer so entertaining is the rate at which provocative opinions leave his lips. He’d mentioned that even the best peer reviews he’s received bear a taint, however faint, because (unavoidably) they and he are competing. I’ve just reread the major newspaper review that sold me on Rocks, and detected no such taint. In fact, after the session I asked its writer (who’d brought his own copy along to have signed, and with whom I’d workshopped novel chapters at uni), if he thought his review in any way tainted. No, he said in all sincerity. Though his novel’s on hold for now (with a nonfiction book due out), his admiration for Rocks in person, as in print, is pure. Still, I’ve seen countless examples of what Bauer means. So what provoked me? He then spoke of the few bitter writers who don’t celebrate his success like most do because they wrongly assume there’s not enough room for them too – because what’s good always eventually gets recognised. Did I mention that Rocks’ younger narrator sounded way smart for eight? Well, Bauer’s glass-half-full philosophy smacks of eight-year-old logic! There’s only so many fish that can swim in the small pond of Oz – and so, even if we could all agree on what ‘good’ looks like, how can there be room for all its producers? That’s either deluded or wilfully obtuse. Basically, ‘good’ in the given context means conventional enough (re form, themes and morals) to be saleable, before we even begin to debate questions of literary merit. I’d have liked to hear from Burton – a lawyer – at that point, but she remained comparatively self-effacing. It’s hard to imagine how any serious writer could deny Bauer’s work’s great worthiness. Yet maybe his expansive, honed and confident persona rubs a few less secure egos the wrong way on occasion?

#4 OVERLAND EVENT: WIKILEAKS AND THE LEFT May 20, 1–2pm (‘Overland editor Jeff Sparrow and Guy Rundle discuss what WikiLeaks means for the left. Is “Assangism” a new kind of activism?’)

If I were an alien from outer space sent to Earth to research leftists, and saw no other examples, I’d classify them as straight-faced, middle-aged, bald-headed men in black. But as an alien from a downscale part of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, I tend to suspect that these guys were sending themselves up. Their well-attended exchange panned out to be less of a shared discussion than Sparrow interviewing Rundle, the former pronouncing ‘Assange’ with a broad ‘a’, as in ‘ask’, while the latter favoured a flat ‘a’, as in ‘hacker’ (a more Australian inflection) yet more than once echoed Sparrow’s broad ‘a’, as if highly suggestible. Rundle said Assange’s philosophy is ‘not a crackpot individualistic thing’, that it ‘connects to different traditions’; but for a vastly more in-depth treatment of themes this session touched upon, see Robert Manne’s March 2011 Monthly essay, ‘The Cypherpunk Revolutionary’ or Rundle’s April 2011 Monthly essay, ‘Crayfish Summer’. [BTW, I’m not being paid to plug the Monthly; it’s just the only political/cultural print forum to which I can afford a subscription.]

#5 POSTCARDS FROM THE FRONTIER May 20, 2.30–3.30pm (‘Poet Kelly-Lee Hickey and novelist Jennifer Mills, both from Alice Springs, tell us about the role of regional arts in preserving and stimulating the cultural communities of remote Australia.’)

To be frank, the r-word lately makes me roll my eyes and grit my teeth. Speaking as an outsider to the ‘urban cultural elite’, a position today way more marginalised than that of any young regional artist (‘regional’ being the new ‘multicultural’ in terms of arts funding), I braved this session solely because I’d once read a stunning short story by Mills. And boundaries between urban and regional lingo, I learned, are breaking down; the word ‘contested’ got a workout. Yet, hats off to Mills, who dismissed the risks of solo hitchhiking on the mainland (as a woman who in my 20s thumbed rides in the outback and on the east coast, I’d guess she’s much tougher than she looks or incredibly lucky or both). On living in her car for a while, Mills said she’d decided to write full-time, ‘and … the only way was to reduce my expenses to nil.’ (I’m not sure whether she owned the car before or after her hitching days.) Said Hickey of writing poems on family violence: ‘[It’s] part cathartic, part social change agenda.’ Her passion complemented Mills’ intriguing detachment, exemplified by such statements as: ‘Writing a book feels like remembering something that never actually happened.’

#6 THE NEW FINNEGANS WAKE May 20, 4–5pm (‘Danis Rose tells [a guy and a chick] about the 30 years of work making 9000 editorial changes to James Joyce’s last masterpiece, much of it written when Joyce was almost blind.’)

I’m holding in my hand the old Finnegans Wake, a novel of 626 inscrutable pages. If, as Rose’s life work attests, it contains 9000 errors, that’s an average of 14+ errors per page. But does that matter, you might well ask, if it makes little sense on a line-by-line basis (e.g. ‘He addle liddle phifie Annie ugged the little craythur.’)? No amount of amendments will render the meaning of such sentences transparent to the uninitiated. You can lead a reader to order, but you can’t make him think. What humbled me was the devotion required of Rose (and his co-editor) to know the text wholly (or holy text?) enough to correct it. Having spent three decades with Joyce’s mss, Rose says ‘the evidence is that he was horrifically sane’ (Jung is reported to have judged him schizophrenic), and cites ‘a single-mindedness that is almost manic’, based on Joyce’s doodle-free pages. The climax of this session saw Rose take to the lectern and read passages of the newly definitive text, alternating with commentary, more passionately than most evangelists – an experience so lyrical, uplifting and moving that after a 15-minute walk to Circular Quay I still had goose bumps.

#7 THE DISSIDENT CAFÉ: TWEETING FROM PAKISTAN May 22, 2.30–3.30pm (‘The Festival Café is transformed into a cyber-lounge where patrons can quiz dissident writers in Pakistan. Join James Fergusson, Fatima Bhutto and Mustafa Qadri as they talk and tweet about … a country at the vortex of the so-called war on terror.’)

What actually happened was that patrons could quiz panellists and read incoming tweets projected on a screen. When a passionate Pakistani gen Xer, whose quizzing from the floor morphed into a comment, was told by the chair, a gen Yer, to send in his question via Twitter, another man – a baby boomer (if not older) – jumped up and yelled, ‘He’s not that generation!’ Clearly the older man was expressing his own frustration. How to distil dissidence into 140-character snatches without losing all emotional nuance? Not only did this event offer no clues, it so lacked immediacy, let alone cohesion, that – despite acute insights from Bhutto – my partner fell asleep.

#8 ADAPTATIONS: HAVE WE LOST THE PLOT? May 22, 4–5.30pm (‘Ross Grayson Bell, John Collee and Greg Haddrick debate the pitfalls of adapting literary works for the screen.’)

When those in this queue were given stickers redeemable for a free drink and told that there’d be food after, too, my apparently naïve expression of pleasure and appreciation was joined by cynical mutterings about the nearby bookstore staying open for trading. This got me wondering whether the affluent middle classes (which comprise the bulk of SWF audiences) are – as they become ever more pampered, techno-centric and well informed – losing the humanising capacity for gratitude. Meanwhile, the mainstream three-man panel (which threatened to bore me senseless) was redeemed by the surprise arrival of director and feminist Gillian Armstrong, a superb incentive to hang around for the hors d’oeuvres.

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