Seasoned Thinking – Sydney Writers’ Festival 2014


LYNNE SEGAL: THE MARCH OF TIME May 23, 11.30am–12.30pm (‘Social activist, feminist, author and academic Lynne Segal turns her formidable gaze towards the thorny issue of aging. She discusses her new book Out of Time, which has garnered widespread acclaim.’)

Not having heard of Lynne Segal, I came only because I’d just read an in-depth review of her book by Brit author and critic Jenny Diski, whom too few Oz readers have heard of; she deserves wider recognition. This audience, even more than most at SWF, comprised female baby boomers, packing the space to capacity.

Topics included how women, conspicuously more than men, are aged by culture. Out of Time enthused publishers less than Segal’s previous books: ‘they think people don’t want to hear about old age’. Having observed that ‘baby boomers is almost a poisonous word now’, Segal noted a contradiction: we’re living longer but aren’t able to value late life. Yet, from early on, ‘women have internalised the sense of having ugly bodies’.

After the session, in the Portaloo queue behind me, two boomers were debating what men their age like. Big breasts, said one. The other, who had a modest bust, disputed this, citing the ’60s ideal of beauty (which I’d guess she once embodied), and railed at how many women today look like bimbos. ‘That’s because of pornography,’ I chipped in. And as I peed I could hear them, still disagreeing, from their cubicles. The petite woman denied that her partner uses porn; her friend assured her all men do, they just don’t admit it. Isn’t that a sexist view? Some men I know find porn, bimbos and even big breasts a turn-off; just as big penises don’t interest some women.

Homeward bound via a department store, I was startled to see, above a display: ‘Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.’ Franz Kafka

Who’d have thought that Kafka could be used to sell exfoliants? Unable to link this quote with the potions below it, I searched the relevant website, and found a reading list, then an interview with Orhan Pamuk, neither of which would inspire me to buy anything but books. So this juxtaposition of treats for both mind and skin is lost on me. Yet I’d guess it lures a few affluent readers to the brand. At least these costly products aren’t tested on animals.

Which reminds me: the extent to which monetisation before compassion defines our society ought to suggest that feminism is less passé (as some whine) than fledgling. Recently, a 70-something woman I know, who speaks a few languages and whose command of English is outstanding, expressed dismay – in relation to the Abbott government’s budget – at an issue also raised in Diski’s review: ‘the neoliberal notion that the old are demanding welfare and medical aid which the young have to pay for’. To translate: how dare she take up space – a freedom that, incidentally, women more than men are denied all their lives, if even more so as they age. Yet, this 70-something woman’s sharp mind is a rare repository of knowledge – which today’s society is forgetting how to prize, as linguistic diversity succumbs to globalised culture, and even the dominant tongue, English, is losing nuance and subtlety.

ALEXIS WRIGHT: THE SWAN BOOK May 24, 1.30–2.30pm (‘Miles Franklin Award winner Alexis Wright speaks to Geordie Williamson about The Swan Book, her new novel in which energy, humour, myth, legend and fairytale come together to create a book of startling originality.’)

The burning topic of climate change was under-represented, to say the least, at this year’s festival. So it surprised me that Alexis Wright, whose provocative latest novel is set in a catastrophic future, drew a smaller crowd than Segal. Obviously, women (and men) dread ageing. Yet whether we’ll all get the chance depends to some extent on how fast global warming transforms our planet. Should I survive long enough, the quality of my ‘late life’ will be subject to pressures presented by drought, flood and other effects of extreme weather – such as food and water shortages, mass migration/extinctions, epidemics etc.

While only halfway through The Swan Book, I’m struck by its scant treatment of technology: no impressive advances or regressive nostalgia. Wright’s concerned with our impact on the Earth, not the means by which we dissociate from it; cares about living, breathing beings, not the potentials of machines. Using a fictive future to critique Oz politics now, Wright explores the idea of Aboriginal self-government. As she said, it’s ‘a conversation we’ve never been able to have in this country’.

Geordie Williamson asked her if The Swan Book is ‘magical realism’. She told him that’s an old-fashioned term. Indeed. How are two vastly disparate cultures supposed to agree on what ‘realism’ means? Jane Gleeson-White spells it out:

For this apparent blend of real and fantastic, Wright’s novels have been described by some critics as magic realism. But not only does this Western literary critical construct serve to reduce the Indigenous to ‘magic’ while maintaining the settler view as the measure of ‘reality’, it also fails to account for the complex reality of the world that Wright endeavours to bring to fiction. Her novels’ hybridity, their challenging of form and style, their foregrounding of nature – or Country – and the agency with which they endow the non-human world are part of a deliberate strategy on Wright’s part to embody in a Western literary form a contemporary Aboriginal cosmology in its entirety – with serious political intent and real world implications. Wright herself vouches for this reading of the multiple realities in her fiction: ‘The world I try to inhabit in my writing is like looking at the ancestral tracks spanning our traditional country which, if I look at the land, combines all stories, all realities from the ancient to the new, and makes it one – like all the strands on a long rope.’

More than one online review of Wright’s novels I read refers to ‘hard work’. Well, why not? Writing The Swan Book took Wright 10 years, and she’s clearly au fait with white literature. Open-minded readers have found The Swan Book wildly original. Charlotte Wood reports being ‘thrilled’ by ‘its almost anti-narrative stance’. Williamson concludes his own review with:

For all its confusions and longueurs, its cynicism and bitterness, The Swan Book should be regarded as one of the most beautiful, furious and urgent novels to be published in this country in recent years. It reminds readers that the misery and upheaval promised by climate change has already come to Australia’s first people. Their exile is not a story from our distant past, in other words, but a harbinger of our collective future.

Then there are those who complain because Wright breaks the rules of whitefella narration. Says Caroline Baum: ‘I got brief glimpses of brilliance […]. But in the end the book defeated me.’ And ‘Its premise is terrific […] but the style is dense, repetitive and intimidating.’ And ‘I know this is an important book by a major talent […]. But it’s not an easy read, and its mockery is at times off-puttingly harsh, leaving this reader feeling slightly battered and unwelcome.’

Is the qualifier of ‘slightly’ a concession to political correctness? But then ‘battered’ is such a strong word. Can someone feel ‘slightly abused’? Maybe Baum felt duty-bound to level with readers whom she knows would find the book heavy going; Wright doesn’t make concessions to pop fiction conventions.

So why should – or might – any of us want to embrace ‘difficult’ writing? Ease can mean comfort, complacency; that which feels familiar, safe. And some books serve little or no purpose beyond diversion from a harsh world. But often our attitudes re what’s good, or just valid, hinge on habit. And some habits can prove unhealthy, if not downright destructive.

By shunning difficulty, we shelter ourselves from otherness, whether among or beyond our own species, closing both our hearts and our minds; so along with losing empathy for all sentient life we grow mentally, morally lazy and cede ever more of our will to hi-tech corporations.

WRITING BODIES May 24, 4.30–5.30pm (‘Some of the most memorable writing is fleshy – with skin, blood and orgasm. And writers too are bodies: who swim, jog, box and meditate. Damon Young, Irvine Welsh and Tara Moss explore bodies in fiction and philosophy with Lawrence Hill.’)

While queuing for this session, I watched hundreds of festival-goers walk past, and noted their posture, especially if they wore glasses. I’d just read Eyebody, a book on ‘the art of integrating eye, brain and body’, according to which:

In modern society the frontal lobes tend to dominate. […] The way we live has become increasingly disconnected — from our selves, what we really want in life and what we are able to envision in the future. The decisions we in modern society are making … are generally short-sighted — an overall vision is lacking.

And glasses (or contacts) compound the problem:

… refractive lenses are cut in such a way that […] we are using only 5% of the photoreceptors actively and 95% lie dormant. The rest of the retina is under-stimulated […]. A large portion of our brain is being starved of information and stimulation.

Why do I mention this? It’s a workable analogy: the vicious circle of managing short-sightedness with lenses that tend to make the wearer progressively more short-sighted, seems akin to the dependence of so many readers on formulaic fiction that feeds an addiction to, e.g., likeable or at least recognisable characters, suspenseful plotting, rising action, a dramatic climax, a happy ending etc.

Anyway, Damon Young, Tara Moss and Irvine Welsh all read from their latest books. In the scene Welsh picked, one character steals another’s glasses while he’s asleep, sneaks away and destroys them with glee, then returns to find the short-sighted character freaking out because he can’t see.

A.M. HOMES: MAY WE BE FORGIVEN May 24, 6–7pm (‘Celebrated writer A.M. Homes speaks with Susan Wyndham about May We Be Forgiven, winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. The novel is a breathtaking satire of modern American life that begins at full speed and never lets up.’)

Why did I pay to attend this event? It cost more than Homes’s novel, which I may never buy or read, as it sounds less compelling to me than some of her others. To be honest, I’ve read none of them. Yet. But I’m in awe of a couple of her long stories. Part of why Homes interests me is that she doesn’t write like most women. ‘I want to write what I don’t know,’ she said, and described her work as ‘emotional science fiction’, which makes more sense when you consider she mostly writes from a male perspective.

As she once told Jeanette Winterson about May We Be Forgiven, ‘I seem to have got into trouble in the US for writing a big book, a funny book. A book about sex. And race. A book about politics.’ And that, it now occurs to me, is why I went to see Homes live on stage – I want exposure to women writers who dare to take up space.

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