Due to my perennial problems with procrastination and daydreaming (which, as I have long maintained, have been shown to be an essential part of the creative process), I now have a backlog of posts to write and put up, including my thoughts on the Brisbane Writers Festival at the beginning of September.
The unseasonal heat of that month (well, I don’t think we can refer to anything as ‘unseasonal’ anymore, due to climate change) hadn’t yet begun, so on the Friday I put on my long-sleeved, yellow, black and white Sacha Drake dress and ventured to a panel titled ‘On Whose Authority’, about writing on Indigenous issues by Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors. To make sure I could hear, the nice audio people let me in early and put my FM system on the table before the speakers. I sat and admired the plants in jars decorating the stage until people filed in.
Anita Heiss, looking gorgeous with long, sleek hair, interviewed Melissa Lucashenko, an award-winning Indigenous author of five novels, and Jacqueline Wright, author of Red Dirt Talking, which won the TAG Hungerford award. Melissa had won the Deloitte Fiction award at the Queensland Literary Awards the previous night for Mullumbimby, and her delight was palpable, which was lovely. Anita was a vibrant interviewer, with intelligent and incisive questions about whether non-Indigenous authors should write about Indigenous people. Melissa stressed that they shouldn’t, but there were exceptions such as Jacqueline’s novel, which was set in the fictional town of Ranson, and featured a 40-year old anthropology graduate student who wanted to transcribe oral histories about a massacre that occurred. Jacqueline had worked for a number of years as a teacher and linguist in the Pilbara and Kimberly on Indigenous language, interpreting and cultural programmes, and had done careful research on her book.
When the panel finished, I was somewhat confused. I could understand the need for research and sensitive depictions of Indigenous people, particularly in the face of stereotypical and degrading representations by non-Indigenous writers over the last two centuries or so, but what if a novel contains Indigenous characters who aren’t the main focus of the work? For example, Alex Miller’s Coal Creek contains Indigenous characters – should he have relayed their individual histories too? And if non-Indigenous people aren’t to write about Indigenous people, then we’re missing part of the commentary about our relationships. And if that commentary can’t be interrogated, then where is the space for dialogue and moving forward? Some of these questions were answered by Melissa when I went to the Colin Simpson Memorial which she gave in Sydney (more of this in a post I’ll write on the Australian Society of Authors Congress), but I’m still unclear about others, and need to do more reading and thinking.
As I rose to leave the session, the lady sitting next to me asked, ‘Are you a reporter?’
‘No,’ I shook my head. ‘I’m deaf, so I have to sit up the front to hear.’
‘I saw you go in early, so I thought you would be the person interviewing them.’
I explained I was a novelist, and she said it was her first writers festival, and I said I hoped she enjoyed the rest of it.
The next day I put on one of my favourite Leona Edmiston frocks and went to see Seaman Dan, a Torres Strait Islander who sang and wrote songs. I figured it would be too hard to use my FM as there were too many people on the stage (Kate Evans, the interviewer, Seaman Dan and Karl Neuenfeldt) but I hoped I would be able to hear by sitting in the front row.
Another friendly lady came and sat beside me. ‘Oh,’ she said brightly, ‘are you a Gold Member too?’
‘No, I’m just deaf,’ I replied. ‘So I have to sit close to the front to hear.’
We got talking. She was a teacher and enunciated properly so I could hear, which I appreciated. I explained I was interested in Indigenous literature and culture, and she had taught kids on Thursday Island when Seaman Dan was singing his songs.
‘And I thought he was old then!’ she quipped, and I laughed.
As it transpired, I couldn’t hear much of what Seaman Dan said, but that was okay, because I’ve ordered his book, Steady Steady, to the library.
Then I had a coffee and sat under the trees by the river and started Coal Creek, and then walked through the Quilts exhibition at QAG to listen to ‘A Sense of Wonder’, a panel between James Bradley, Ashley Hay and Bianca Nogrady on how to educate communities on science, and whether science fiction has a role to play in science communication. I sat at the front, again, and got talking to the couple who sat next to me (for someone who is a bit shy and very poor at initiating contact, it was lovely to come across so many friendly people), who talked to me about the beauty of deep sea diving. The fellow was also a marine geologist (I had no idea such professions existed) and gave me his email address in case I needed help with my current novel, which is about sea creatures.
James’ The Resurrectionist is one of my favourite novels, and Ashley is one of my favourite people, so I thoroughly enjoyed the session, which canvassed the alien nature of sharks and cats, and astronomy in Game of Thrones. Towards the end of the session, a man put up his hand, rustled his program and informed us that we were on the wrong track, and why were we not talking about wonder? I thought to myself that we had been, as science is inherently about wonder and surprise.
A few weekends later, at a book chat with Ashley at my local bookstore, Books@Stones, I mentioned this session in the context of how I love science because of this wonder. The light bulb moment that come when someone explains a theory, or how things fit together, is the same as when I read a poem and get to the last line and there’s a ping, and I think, Oh! So that’s how it works.
The last session I attended was Ashley’s interview of Alex Miller about his new novel, Coal Creek, which they had for sale at the bookstore. I bought a copy the afternoon before and had read most of it by the time I reached the talk. What stayed with me was Alex’s meander into writing as a profession (he was bored) and his statement, ‘You never get over what happens to you in your childhood’, and how our subconscious is the well from which writing springs, two ideas with which I emphatically agree. I finished Coal Creek that evening and loved it, and I would write a review of it except that I left my copy of Parental Unit’s. In short, it was tight and well-constructed, yet almost dreamy in tone, and all that aside I would have (cough) bought it for the cover alone (a brooding rural bloke with a nib in his mouth). I hadn’t been that impressed with Miller’s previous novel, Autumn Laing, which was too loose in places, so I was very happy to find him back in form with Coal Creek. All in all it was a great festival, and my brain was grateful for the nourishment as well.