Tag Archives: Literary Events

Sydney Writers’ Festival – Sarah Krasnostein: The Trauma Cleaner

Content warning: trauma, abuse, LGBTIQ issues, death, suicide

My second event for the Sydney Writers’ Festival was Sarah Krasnostein: The Trauma Cleaner. I was really excited for this event because I just recently finished Krasnostein’s book (review pending) which won two categories in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award – the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Prize for Non-Fiction.

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The event was held in a huge auditorium at Carriageworks and we arrived just as it had started. Krasnostein’s book is a biography on a trans woman called Sandra Pankhurst who is a trauma cleaner. The book flits back and fourth between Sandra’s traumatic childhood and early history to Krasnostein’s own experiences accompanying Sandra on cleaning jobs. Krasnostein was interviewed by Australian novelist Ashley Hay.

Hay asked Krasnostein about Sandra’s clients, and Krasnostein said that she went to see three times the number of clients that made it into the book. Krasnostein reflected on the enormity of the mess in the houses caused by bodies left unfound, suicides, hoarding and animal hoarding. She said, “You need an industrial cleaner for those environments”.

Krasnostein read a passage from the book about her difficulties in establishing when exactly events in Sandra’s life took place. Throughout the book, Sandra struggles to remember exactly when her parents kicked her out of the house as a young boy, or when she began to transition, or when she started working as a sex worker. Hay asked Krasnostein about the gaps in Sandra’s memories, and how she coped with the knowledge that she was never going to get a clear timeline. Krasnostein said initially she was frustrated that nothing would align but eventually she realised that the disjuncts “weren’t screwing up the story, those disjuncts were the story”.

Hay asked her about her own role in the story and Krasnostein explained that sometimes the writer has to become a character, and that putting herself in the story as the railing or the banister was guiding the reader through the story.

Hay then asked about how her background in law, forensics and justice came into play in researching and writing the book. Krasnostein said “context is everything”. Law taught her how to go about fact-finding and the difference between discernment and judgment. She said that her background taught her when to rely on her intuition. Krasnostein wryly said that as much as she wanted to include 20 pages of endnotes, she was discouraged. She said that apparently other people don’t enjoy reading footnotes as much as she does (though I certainly do!).

Hay asked Krasnostein about whether this book might be considered voyeuristic. Krasnostein cheerfully responded by saying “Come for the voyeurism, stay for the lesson”. She said that one thing she learned while writing this book was empathy, and that the clients of Sandra’s she met were no different from us at all. She said that when life threw them that phone call that we’re all just two seconds away from, they didn’t have the support they needed and now they are literally buried under decades of pain.

Hay brought up Marie Kondo’s bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and asked how that might apply to some of Sandra’s clients who were struggling with hoarding. Krasnostein said that in her opinion, it was less about whether a sweater brings you joy, and more about letting go of the past. She talked about the excruciating vulnerability of making connections with other people. Although she doesn’t have the experience of growing up trans in Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s, she has felt shame and pain and that helped her make a connection with Sandra while writing the book.

Sandra gave Krasnostein a huge lesson about the nature of resilience, and also showed her how hugely important it is to sustain those human connections around us. Krasnostein said that we love imperfectly. You have to get over the stuff that doesn’t matter because that closeness and vulnerability is what will save you.

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Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Like many fanciful young girls who spend too much time daydreaming, I loved “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the sequel “Alice Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll when I was a kid. So of course when I saw Muse was going to be running a high tea event themed on the Mad Hatter’s tea party, I knew I must attend. I received an email a few days beforehand asking that we dress up and that we bring some of our favourite editions of “Alice in Wonderland” to share with the other attendees. Nobody every has to tell me twice to dress up! Of course, given my love of bunnies, I had to go as the March Hare.

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When I arrived on 22 April 2018, I was very relieved to see that this wasn’t the kind of party where I was the only one who bothered to dress up (having been to one just the day before), and there was a Tweedle (unclear which), the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, an Alice and someone who hadn’t dressed up specifically as a character but who had the most incredible Disney Alice in Wonderland skirt.

The long table was beautifully decorated with playing cards, tea pots and little signs saying “Eat Me” and “Drink Me”. Everyone received a copy of “Mad Hatters and March Hares“, a collection of short stories inspired by Lewis Caroll’s works, and we were joined by local authors Kaaron Warren (who also has a story in the anthology) and Robert Hood (an Alice enthusiast and extremely knowledgeable about the life and times of Lewis Carroll). In the background, a projector was playing the Disney version of the story.

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This was an absolutely lovely way to spend an afternoon. When I had arrived, it had just started drizzling which made it feel extra English. Paul got us all started with a glass of champagne (of which, owing to my over-enthusiasm the previous night, I only took half) then took our tea and coffee orders. Dan brought around the most amazing little cakes and sandwiches on tiered stands, and then the scones with fresh cream and jam came out as well.

Unlike your everyday book event, this one was very participatory. All the guests took turns introducing themselves and sharing some memories about how they first fell in love with the Alice stories. Kaaron told everyone about her story, and her horror writing generally. Robert shared fascinating tidbits about some of the more adult jokes disguised within the children’s books. Then we all got to talk about the editions of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” that we brought along, and I was very pleased to talk about the copy that my mum used to read to me when I was a kid and some of the fancier new editions I have.

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This really was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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Festival Muse

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This long weekend just past had a lot of things going on in Canberra, but one of the most exciting was the second annual Festival Muse. Muse is several things: bookshop, cafe, restaurant and wine bar but it is especially a venue for fantastic literary events. The schedule was jam-packed over four days and I managed to get along to two very interesting talks.

Turn Me On – Festival Opening

The opening event was at 6pm on Friday 9 March 2018. I had just finished a very long week at work, and so I very pleased to be ushered in with a glass of wine so I could take a seat and watch some intellectual weightlifting.

There were five speakers at this event from a broad range of backgrounds, experiences and beliefs and each gave a short monologue about what kick-started their engines and got them passionate about their chosen fields.

The first speaker was Michael Brissenden, ABC journalist and author, who is one of those rare people who actually grew up in Canberra in the 1960s. The Canberra nightlife wasn’t then what it is now, and people had to make their own fun. He described the house party culture as one of “cheerful desperation” – full of politicians and poetry, drunks and musicians. Brissenden read from his father’s book of ballads about Canberra, “Gough and Johnny Were Lovers“.

Next was Zoya Patel, editor of Feminartsy (a magazine I contribute to) and soon to be published author. While acknowledging the special kind of “affluent, privileged political echo chamber that is Canberra”, Patel nevertheless found plenty of opportunities while growing up to “keep the pilot light of her feminism burning”. Growing up in an Indian-Fijian household, Patel was an early adopter of feminism and began writing from a young age. When she became an editor for Lip Magazine, she witnessed the onslaught and impact of internet trolls against her writers first hand. Patel said that feminism is not about the individual but about the sisterhood and this experience motivated her to lift up her writers’ voices even more.

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The third speaker was not a writer, but conductor and musical director Roland Peelman. Peelman acknowledged early that he is a musician, a job of “no great political feat or activitism”. Rather, the is more interested in how music can bring people together with their hearts beating at the same pace. Peelman was born in Belgium, and reflected on the differences in politics between his native home and adopted home. He reflected that in politics, despite what people may think, compromise is not disfunctional and messy can be functional because an untidy government means making room for minorities. Coming back to his music, Peelman said that traditional formulas of economic rationalism do not necessarily apply even though he has encountered plenty of skepticism about how his organisations would remain sustainable. Art isn’t about satisfying shareholders, it has different objectives, and Peelman finished on the note that music is about building community.

The next speaker was neither writer nor musician, but local politician Elizabeth Lee MLA. Lee began by saying that even if her political beliefs are different, she still felt like she has lots in common with the other speakers. She drew parallels with Patel’s experiences and said that in her family, a Korean family with three daughters, her dad was the original feminist. Lee said that he would tell her that as the oldest, she was the needle and her sisters were the thread and where she goes her sisters will follow. After progressing in her legal career in both private practice and as a lecturer, Lee decided to follow her passions of organising people and getting people involved and run for the ACT Legislative Assembly. Lee has also experienced her fair share of sexist and racist online trolling, however has found that her firm responses have been a source of inspiration for young Asian women.

The final speaker for the evening was ACT Marriage Equality campaign director, Jacob White. He opened with a question: why are people into politics? For White, he was born into it. As the middle child with two sisters either side, he was born to be an agitator. He was also inspired by his Nanna and her disability advocacy for her daughter, White’s aunty. Although raised among political attitudes limited to “Paul Keating is an arrogant prick, John Howard is a weirdo and Mark Latham is a psychopath”, from an early age White was writing letters to his local council complaining about lantana in his cubby house. Using that gumption as a springboard, he eventually found himself leading the charge for marriage equality in Canberra.

After such a diverse array of speakers, the formal part of the event closed and Muse opened the restaurant area up with drinks and canapes. It was a great evening with plenty of opportunity for me to pursue one of my favourite hobbies: telling strangers what books they should be reading.

The Burning Issues of Now

Like a little bookend, the second event I went to was on Monday 13 March – the other side of the festival. Three panelists, journalist Gabrielle Chan, writer Siv Parker and reporter, presenter and broadcaster Dan Bouchier settled in for a robust discussion on what is going to be the next “big issue” in Australia now the marriage equality campaign is done and dusted.

Now, I must admit here that I was so captivated by the discussion that I actually didn’t take especially good notes, but on top of the list for Parker’s burning issues was the treatment of Aboriginal women. Parker reflected on her own upbringing as an Aboriginal woman in black-soil country in north-western New South Wales and Bouchier compared his own experiences in Tenant Creek, Northern Territory – “the Red Centre”. Parker explained that during her professional life working around the country, one constant that she has seen among Aboriginal women from all backgrounds is that they feel like they don’t have the opportunities to do what they want to do with their lives.

One of the biggest issues standing in their way is domestic and family violence, which Aboriginal women experience and even die from at far higher rates than other Australian women. Family violence has unavoidable spill-on effects on children’s outcomes as well. The panelists turned then to two issues that have been flooding the media: Aboriginal kids in youth detention and Aboriginal kids in care.

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Bouchier talked about the reaction to the terrible crime that happened in Tenant Creek recently, and the erroneous conflation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being in out of home care at 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous children and the Stolen Generation. Parker explained that where the Stolen Generation was the result of a racist policy designed to make a generation of servants, the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in care is an issue tied to trauma and disadvantage.

Bouchier noted the reluctance of governments and media to explore these issues deeply due to a fear of not being politically correct. Chan said that as a journalist following the schedules of politicians, having to get across and report on multiple issues in a day with only limited opportunities to get a question in, it’s very difficult to report on issues in very great detail. The panelists talked about the many, many Royal Commissions that are supposed to investigate these issues in depth, but that even those get manipulated and the recommendations which are handed down can be ignored for decades.

The panelists then turned to last year’s historic Uluru Statement From the Heart, which, despite being a statement achieved from a convention of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from around the country, was dismissed by the Government. However, despite it not turning out to be the magic solution, the panelists were hopeful that this is not the end and that the Uluru Statement feels more like a strong beginning.

Both Turn Me On and The Burning Issues of Now were great, thought-provoking events with engaged, diverse speakers. Even though it’s only been a day, I can’t wait to see what Festival Muse 2019 brings.

If you want another perspective, check out Whispering Gums‘ post.

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ACT Lit Bloggers of the Future: A Portrait of Shōjo

My second event for the ACT Lit Bloggers of the Future Program was to go see A Portrait of Shōjo: The Poetic Ambience of Japanese Girlhood, a National Library of Australia fellowship talk by Dr Masafumi Monden.

I love anime…There is something compelling about characters who are at once paragons of independence and yet still ultra-feminine.

Read more about the event at the ACT Writers Centre blog.

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ACT Lit Bloggers of the Future: Hugh Mackay

I recently got to go to my first event for the ACT Lit Bloggers of the Future Program to see Hugh Mackay at the National Library of Australia.

Everyone has their happy place, and mine is without a doubt an author talk. Like-minded people, interesting conversation, wine, snacks and the opportunity to get your book signed by the person who wrote it? Sheer bliss.

Read more about the event at the ACT Writers Centre blog.

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