I’ve been meaning – a phrase which I fear is becoming too much a part of my lexicon of late – to write this post for months, but was waylaid by a swathe of postdoctoral applications, which sadly came to naught. However, they did help me to refine my research topic, and I’m going back to the drawing board to regroup my battalions and launch another attack next year.
After flying back north from my residency in Hobart, I had three days in Brisbane before flying out again, this time to Sydney. From there, H and I drove to Bowral with an old uni friend who was leaving to go to business school in London, to have a weekend with another bunch of uni friends. H had booked a house which had floral chintz on every available surface, a variety of fake flowers stuffed into vases and, mysteriously, a finished jigsaw puzzle in a frame. It wasn’t the sort of place where you would want to come home drunk with the dizzies, but it was fantastic to catch up with our friends and their varied lives. We drank and ate, did crosswords, played Scrabble (I lost, and sulked), walked into town in the rain (passing a store that sold onesies), and sourced some excellent coffee at a cafe which had a hangover from the Raj. At the end of the weekend, I went on to Canberra with some other friends, though we stopped first to have a look at Berkeleouw Books in a barn.
In Canberra I worked on my conference paper, drank coffee at a lovely French café, caught up with a friend I’d studied creative writing with, and met her two kids. Then my friends left me in their favourite morning café (there is a theme here, yes), until it was time to catch a Countrylink bus, then train, to Wagga Wagga, where I was attending the annual Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference (this was in Wellington last year). I loved the green and wintry landscape outside, even thought it was cold and wet, and I was still defrosting after Tasmania.
When I stepped from the train at Wagga, which had shunted painfully slowly along the tracks, I bumped into my friend and poet Nat O’Reilly, who I’d met at the conference in Hyderabad last year, and we made our way down the main street to our respective hotels.
The theme for the conference was ‘Country’. That evening, after a welcome to country from Wiradjuri Elder Aunty Isabel Reid and the presentation of the ALS Medal to Michelle de Krester, Brain Castro gave the Barry Andrews lecture. Brian spoke of Patrick White’s defence of his work, which AD Hope referred to as ‘sludge’, but which was seminal for his attempts to incorporate that language of the refugee. He referred to Voss as an emotional exploration of repression, and spoke of the uncanny, the repressed and the unhoused, as being that which drives us to create, something I identified with.
The next day Jeanine Leane, author of the wonderful Purple Threads, gave the Dorothy Green lecture. She described how whiteness in literature defines itself by what it is not, and how landscape, when it is peopled, becomes ‘scape’. She talked about the representation of Indigenous people in twentieth and early twenty-first century literature, referring to Drusilla Modjeska’s foreword to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo, in which Modjeska writes, ‘The point about Hugh is that he is a decent man’. Does this then mean, Jeanine prompted, that Aboriginals are only allowed less decent men? In A Fringe of Leaves, she notes how White drew on colonial subjectivity in order to represent Indigenous people in a degrading way so as to use them as a foil to Ellen Roxburgh, and pointed out that none of the Indigenous characters speak for themselves. And in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, which is a ‘transmission text’ because it is so widely read that its ideas are transmitted to many, Grenville uses the word ‘them’ to refer to Aboriginal people, effectively distancing them, and depriving them of identity. Indigenous literature, by contrast, is a way of writing country back, and here my notes sadly ran out – I think I might have had trouble hearing by this point.
That evening I gave a reading at the Thyme Out restaurant with Jeanine, Michelle de Krester and Brian Castro. I read first and was, as I said, somewhat starstruck by being in such the illustrious company. Brian’s reading was entertaining, though his voice was soft and hard to hear. Michelle de Krester joked that her book, although entitled Questions of Travel, was difficult to travel with as it was so long, so instead she had a ‘rather grubby piece of paper’ which she unfolded with delicate fingers. Her reading was wry and clear. Jeanine read from Purple Threads, which was set in the country around Wagga Wagga as this was Wiradjuri country, her own. She selected a passage about the seasons turning, which extends over several pages and is one of the most beautiful parts of the book. To hear its rhythms in her voice, in the country that was her people’s, was moving and beautiful.
And the next day was a keynote by Alison Ravenscroft who talked about ‘sense’, as in making sense and in our sensations. She discussed the deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who feels vibration through the soles of her feet, and how for people who don’t listen to music in this way, their bodies don’t know how to read and write music – they are deaf to it. She tied this to an experience she’d had in the Indigenous homeland of Utopia in the Northern Territory, in which, sleeping by a fire slightly apart from two Indigenous women she was with, instead of sleeping between them, she had experienced a moment of inexplicable, unparalleled terror, and wondered if there was a force that only the Indigenous women could hear because they were attuned to it through their cultural practices. My notes get a bit incoherent at this point, but she mentioned that in undecideability is the possibility of moving forward. We cannot know, and we cannot ever be certain about other forms of knowledge, so rather than resolving it, we should let it remain.
Amidst all these fine lectures, which were like manna to my starving brain, there were a number of other wonderful papers, including Brigitta Olubas on artist Ian Howard; Julie Montgarrett on her artistic practice, which included embroideries that are incomplete, like unfinished sentences; Beth Driscoll on Clunes Book Fair; Nat on non-Indigenous belonging in Winton’s Cloudstreet (the novel offers a fantasy of reconciliation), Carroll’s The Time We Have Taken (on the role the suburbs have played in dispossessing Indigenous people) and Entitlement — and his inclusion of my novel pleased me no end. My own paper on fantastical representations of country towns was yet another last-minute affair, but I pulled it off alright, and received some good feedback.
There was also an excellent reading from poets in a shed with a ute parked in it, which was attached to a pub. These included Nat, Derek Motion, Keri Glastonbury and Lachlan Brown. I also met some wonderful & friendly women from the Booranga Writers Centre, which published a poem of mine many moons ago in FourW.
I had to leave early on the last day, to catch a plane back to Sydney, then to Brisbane, where I happily absorbed myself in the latest edition of Country Style. Even if I’m now a city girl through and through, I’ll never forget my roots, not least because they influence every aspect of my writing.