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RALPH WESSMAN

North to Garradunga


Tasmanian Readers' and Writers' Festival, 2000

During August 2000, the Tasmanian Readers’ and Writers’ Festival was held in Hobart, Launceston, Evandale and Burnie. Poetry was well represented, with readings at the Machine Cafe in Salamanca Square and an afternoon session at T42 featuring Judith Beveridge, Sarah Day, Emma Lew, Anthony Lawrence, Andrew Sant, David McFadden and Eric Beach. Other events included prose and playscript readings, various panel sessions and the launch of Margaret Scott’s latest novel, Family Album.

The first of the Hobart panel sessions - "Translating Emotions" - was chaired by Mary Knights and featured Israeli Benny Barbash, Eva Sallis, Alan Gold and Kathryn Lomer. "Finding a way to express emotion is never easy," Eve Sallis remarked, "but it’s the writer’s job to find a way of expressing the landscape of emotion well enough to draw a response from the reader." Inspiration for Kathryn Lomer’s character Claire from her forthcoming novel The God in the Ink came from growing up in a Tasmanian country town where postwar feeling towards the Japanese was "quite ambivalent. Where there are many silences". The difficulty of translating emotion is sound in something as commonplace as one’s relationships, she said, where sometimes - even with partners - words may mean "completely different things to different people".

Israeli writer Benny Barbash said he didn’t set out specifically to portray emotion in his writing, simply wrote about relationships to the best of this ability and hoped it was convincing.

His latest work, he confessed, was never intended to be a novel. "I was recovering from a motorcycle accident, and writing a short story for my children ... something to calm them down ... about an olive tree growing mysteriously from a person’s head". Written in Hebrew, the book has been translated into English. "I had no part in translating the novel ... maybe that’s why it’s a very good translation," Barbash says with a laugh. "The efforts to revive Hebrew - a dead language - have been enormous, and many in the country still don’t speak it. You have to remember Israeli society is a very new one.." He recalled an anecdote told of a political acquaintance of Ben Gurion, the founder of modern Israel. "And don’t you feel ashamed of yourself? Twenty years of living in Israel and you’re still unable to speak Hebrew!" His friend considered before replying, "It’s easier for me to be ashamed than it is to learn Hebrew."

*****

Richard Flanagan introduced novelist Anson Cameron to the next session. "He’s one of those people who is not only a good writer, but a good bloke - as I found out last night."

"I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen so far of Hobart," Cameron responded. "I’m reminded of the current round of survivor shows on television at the moment. ‘We’re gong to fly you down to Tasmania, offer you copious amounts of Tasmanian beer then make you get up the following morning and talk about yourself. Do you accept the challenge?’ "

Cameron said he read "a lot of crap" until he was sixteen, by which time he was studying H.S.C. at school and reading Dickens for the first time and beginning to realise literature held more possibilities than he’d previously given it credit for. Nowadays, he views literature as "the great achievement of man"; although the problem for the writer essentially is that "every time you sit down to write, you find yourself in the ring with Shakespeare".

Cameron’s early writing was done surreptitiously, during work hours - until he was caught out by his boss -

      "Anson, do I pay you to write at work?"

      "No. No boss, you don’t ... you have that in common with the rest of humanity."

- but these days he writes at home. "I’ve found a window of opportunity by being able to take some time off work in the middle of the day, when I come home to an empty house. It’s ideal. I find I can’t write at night ... I’ve usually left all of my ideas on the factory floor. Weekends are out as well; a still adult is simply a magnet for kids. On occasions when I’ve needed the weekend to write, my wife has tried to shield me from the kids but still they manage to find ways around me ... even when I lock myself away in my room they’ll be sliding notes under the door saying 'Daddy, I love you’ ".

Tin Toys, Cameron’s most recent novel, is a commentary on race relations. "Race is a social construct. When I was growing up, many of my good friends were black. Like most people, I was pretty flabbergasted when the Stolen Generation Report broke upon us, and I thought I owed them a book". He assumed he’d be criticised for it but wrote it anyway. "I wanted to write a book that embraced issues rather than ran away from them. If you’re going to commit the grand self-flagellation of writing a novel, you may as well write about something that matters. Literature can’t afford to be hemmed in by the tripwires of other people’s sensibilities."

*****

Personable and relaxed, Judith Beveridge’s opening bracket of carefully crafted images foreshadow a memorable Saturday afternoon at T42. Anthony Lawrence opens with a poem dedicated to Beveridge, perhaps the one he began scribbling an hour or so previously. Over a pint, Lawrence is passionate and persuasive but with an audience in hand he is steady and deliberate, carefully weighing each phrase. Sarah Day’s delivery is measured too, but interspersed with the occasional anecdotal snippet. Eric Beach finishes his bracket with ‘Stingray’, ‘The Mountain’ and ‘& zen’, three poems for Judith St. Leger. "Eric’s performance tonight has been delightful," says Andrew Sant later, "sometimes his readings are so tender; and his delivery ... I don’t know? ... possibly Eric isn’t aware how good the poems are until he’s out there performing in front of an audience." Sant assures us today’s very special since it’s the first chance he’s had to use his ABN number. "To commemorate the occasion I searched around for an appropriate poem to begin with and came up with ‘The Flower Industry’. It’s an old poem, you have to listen for the word ‘business’ ".

Canadian David McFadden reads a bracket that includes a suite of poems written following a visit to Cuba. McFadden exhibits a technical dexterity appreciated by all, but there’s a political conservatism to his Cuban poems, with their irreverent spin on complex political and social issues, that leaves me edgy. Later in the evening we manage to say hello to David when we share a lift to another venue; he’s friendly and conversational ... computers, raising kids, white collar crime and Tasmanian hospitality all fall within the orb of his interests.

*****

Sunday morning’s readings continue in the Machine Cafe as rain sloshes down outside. Early risers throw soiled clothes through the wash, eyeing Pete Hay speculatively as he prepares to read. Hay laments both the fate of his Port Arthur poem and an obduracy (his own) delaying publication of his third collection. His words wash through the cafe, digested over breakfast by supporters and patrons alike and the battery of machines beyond the partition. Later at the same venue, Stuart Solman breaks mid-sentence and wanders next door. Stripping solemnly to his jocks, he deposits a few coins and his bundled clothes in an empty machine before resuming to read "Child of Your Nakedness", the next poem in his set.

*****

The first panel session of the final day’s proceedings features Anson Cameron, Craig Cormick and Henry Reynolds. "I sometimes envy fiction writers," says Henry Reynolds. "They can use their imagination like a hot air balloon - sail in the wind, go where they will. Whereas I liken the work of historians to flying a kite - up in the air making good use of their imaginations, but still needing to keep their feet firmly on the ground."

"I found when I first started learning about history that one’s sources are often limited: partial and written only - generally - by people with particular points of view. When writing Tasmanian history, there’d generally been a great abundance of written documents and thus ease of entering the past - the difference being when attempting to address Aboriginal issues of the past. Because history of the sort I write is also intensely political, I knew my writing would challenge and threaten people’s perceptions about themselves and their conceptions of the country".

Reynolds likens historians to sappers, "to those who try inch by inch to advance the front line", who ransack documents until one is able to challenge a community’s perceptions about itself. He cautioned that a historian’s work must be supported by evidence - "if not, your argument will be pulled apart and made worthless" - and alluded to the forensic role of the historian. "All over the world in the process known as reconciliation - in Argentina, in South Africa, in Australia - society is demanding the use of the historian’s digging and burrowing capacity to get hold of the truth.... That’s why I say that historians have to let their imaginations fly but still hold on to the string of the kite, hold on to the truth."

*****

In a panel session focussing on writing for film and television, Ronald Allan suggests the predominant feature of screenwriting lies in its extraordinary reduction of language. "As a writer, it’s like going from epic poetry to haiku".

*****

The next session features Merlinda Bobis with a captivating performance of poetry and song which for many of us is the highlight of the festival. Her violent, tragic images escape the confines of the page, their confronting presences hush the room. Beside me, Anne Collins shakes her head in awe. "I wouldn’t want to read after that," she says. She’s not alone. Charlotte Wood, next to read, prefaces her contribution with "that’s a terribly difficult thing to follow".

*****

A lively session entitled "Remote and Regional" features Adrian Caesar, Craig Cormick, Matthew Kneale and Dorothy Johnston. Adrian hasn’t visited before, and shares his first impressions of the city.

"What are you doing in Hobart?" asked his taxi driver as they drove in from the airport.

"I’m in town to take part in a literary festival. I’m a poet."

"A poet eh. Well nothing wrong with reading poetry, so long as you do it in private and have got clean hands," his driver replied.

"So I hope you’ll excuse me," Adrian implores, laughing, "I haven’t got clean hands.".

*****

Louis Nowra and Mandy Sayer combine to talk about their new anthology of Kings Cross writing, In the Gutter... Looking at the Stars: A Literary Adventure through Kings Cross. "What is common to books and stories about Kings Cross," says Nowra, "is that invariably a person arrives from a small-minded town to escape conformity in an environment where people don’t judge you."

Compere James Griffen asks what first sparked their interest in publishing an anthology together. Sayer said she’d held a fascination for Kings Cross ever since her first memory of the place, where she’d witnessed a high speed car chase when she was seven. Nowra said he’d been drinking in a Kings Cross nightclub late one night, when a beautiful woman seated herself nearby at the bar. "I said to her, I suppose an anthology is out of the question... ?"

*****

In one of the final sessions of the day, Douglas Lockhart, Elizabeth Knox, Heather Rose and Brenda Walker discussed "Gods, Ghosts and Angels (writing the invisible realms)", where Lockhart posed a few questions on the subject of God’s desires for the world:

"Personally, I do not believe that God - whatever God might be - has desires of any kind. Such a God is almost too terrible to contemplate. For a God who intervenes or interferes in history must end up embroiled in history, and such a God cannot but end up taking sides. Argue as one might for a righteous God who wants to see righteousness flower on the earth, the notion of a God who interferes in human history is simply too limited a conception of deity to be of use in the twenty-first century. No, I do not believe in a God who intervenes in history, but I do believe that history influences the way we perceive God, and I consider that the more telling perception. God may not stave off the horrors of a concentration camp, but we can, damn it, if we wake up and take responsibility for our lives."

*****

Over four frenetic days of activity I found little to criticise. Perhaps Adrian Caesar’s programme might have been tailored to allow him to read some verse, but I assume his panel participation was on the strength of The White, his non-fiction biography of the Antarctic journeys of Scott and Mawson. And maybe more thought needs to be put into finding a venue where poetry isn’t competing above the noise. But overall, the readings and panel sessions were free, well attended, and invariably absorbing ... Merlinda Bobis, in an off-the-cuff remark at the weekend’s conclusion, said it was the best festival she’d been to.


Along These Lines, Cornford Press

David Owen launched Along These Lines in Hobart in July, an anthology from Cornford Press, edited by CA Cranston. Acknowledging the courage of a local publisher in publishing a 442 page anthology, Cranston gave wry thanks elsewhere too, to someone "who kept me company late at night, demonstrating untold enthusiasm for the project and volunteering such a great deal of information - all completely unasked for". For unasked, read unwelcome; Cranston was referring to "the little monitor man with revolving arms and legs" inhabiting the bottom of her computer screen. "Poetry was his biggest problem," she said. "It looks like you’re typing a letter. Do you need help?" And I’d find the beginning letters of every line suddenly capitalised; spaces closed up; spelling altered. Conrad, White, Greer ,Pitt, all were reconstructed. ‘Found poetry’ was created by interfering with place names, for instance in the narrative where Louisa Meredith is travelling from the East Coast to Port Sorell, the town of ‘Carrick’ became ‘Carsick’, 19km from Launceston. And in Barney Roberts’ poem ‘Cephissus Falls’ beginning

      It was a playful exercise
      After the wild mating of many streams

‘Stones in the Cephissus’ became ‘Stones in the Syphilis’. And Marie Bjelke-Peterson’s ‘Jewelled Nights’, set at Waratah and Savage River, became - logically enough - Warpath and Savage River."


Launch of Katherine Scholes' The Rain Queen

July was a busy month for David Owen, accompanied by Lindsay Simpson he launched Katherine Scholes’ novel The Rain Queen at Hobart Bookshop. Scholes grew up in Tanzania, where much of the novel is set. "I was a missionary’s daughter growing up in Africa during a colonial era and had always wanted to write a novel taking me back to my past."

For Lindsay Simpson, also from the African sub-continent, it seemed inevitable the two women would meet. "I’d been holidaying in the tiny village of Binalong Bay on the Tasmanian coast last year, and telephoned my publisher in Melbourne from a local phone box. 'That’s a coincidence,' she said, 'I’ve been speaking only recently to another writer ringing from the very same phone box, a Tasmanian writer now liveing in Melbourne'."

"Another six months elapsed," Simpson continued, "and I found myself speaking to the same publisher. 'Oh, do you remember the writer I mentioned previously, ringing from Binalong Bay? Her name’s Katherine Scholes ... she’s returning to Tasmania to live, perhaps you’ll run into her.' "

"Some months passed ... til one day my mother, who’d been strolling down the beach, said she’d just run across a writer - Katherine - also from Africa."

"Yes. Yes, I’ve heard of her" I confirmed.

"And on the first day of the new school year when all the parents are there with their children, who should I run into but Katherine? It was destined, you see ... and ... I’m delighted to be launching Katherine’s book tonight."


Ulitarra magazine ceases publication

Michael Sharkey and Winifred Belmont published Ulitarra’s final issue in July. While closure of the journal will allow the pair more time to devote to other projects - Winifred to her artwork, Michael to his writing - their decision will be rued by contributors and supporters. Editors make many investments in their magazines, with Michael and Winifred it came in the form of a generosity of spirit which will be sadly missed


John Marsden visits Hobart

Children’s writer John Marsden visited Hobart in May, helping celebrate the centenary of the birth of children’s writer Nan Chauncy. Marsden has the happy knack of getting along well with adults and children alike.

"And what’s your hobby?"

"Well, I like to play rugby...."

"Rugby? Do they play that down here?"

"I play it at school."

"I used to play rugby at school too, in fact we didn’t have a choice in the matter," Marsden confided. "I played second row. One day playing against another school, I found myself watching the game from the sideline. It dawned on me that the game had stopped for what seemed an inordinately long time. 'What’s the problem?' I asked the linesman".

"Oh they can’t pack down the scrum, they can’t find the Kings’ team’s second row."

"Who of course ... was me," Marsden concluded.


James Finnegan on reviewing

What do we want from reviewers? How do we adequately gauge if the reviewer is really speaking to us about the publication in question? James Finnegans’s pet peeve is a review that doesn’t quote amply from the book. "I want a reviewer’s opinion about the book, of course," he says, "that’s what the reviewer is bringing to bear. But I also want to see enough of the work to gauge whether we’re seeing eye to eye on the relative merits of the writing. We all know reviewers who are intelligent and thought provoking but share views opposite of our own sensibilities. We know reviewers who are kindred spirits but not very incisive or illuminating. With a little bit more of the book in their review (recognizing that space is at a premium in certain periodicals) one gets a better sense of whether the book is worth a longer and harder look".