Tag Archives: Literary Events

Me Too – Stories from the Australian Movement

Literary event at Muse Canberra with Miriam Sved and Ginger Gorman hosted by Emma Macdonald about the #MeToo movement in Australia
Content warning: sexual harassment, sexual assault, bullying

18 months ago, a storm hit Twitter under the simple and otherwise innocuous hashtag #MeToo. Originally a means to highlight the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault that women experience, particularly in the workplace. As more and more women shared their experiences, and as the movement grew and evolved, and controversy after controversy has emerged, questions have arisen about the purpose and the extent of the movement. I certainly have a lot of questions about the implications and limitations of #MeToo, so when I was invited to come see editor Miriam Sved and contributor Ginger Gorman discuss the new book “#MeToo: Stories from the Australia movement” at Muse Canberra with HerCanberra associate editor Emma Macdonald, I was very eager to hear what they had to say.

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Image from Muse Canberra

Macdonald kicked off the conversation by asking where Sved and Gorman were when #metoo happened. Sved said that she recalled being impressed, awed and horrified. She said that she was not an online discloser, and it did scare her seeing so many people putting their personal trauma out there. She said that she did not participate, noting that as a fiction writer she prefers to hide behind stories, but could see that it was a watershed of relief for many people. Gorman said that as a Twitter junkie, she had been glued to the phenomenon. She said that the media industry is rife with sexual harassment, and #metoo was the first time she had ever written down her own experiences being sexually harassed by a senior colleague in the workplace. She said that at the time, she recalls a lot of people worrying that their experience wasn’t as bad or didn’t count. Macdonald said that she is a private person, but she felt that she couldn’t keep it inside. She said that she made an oblique post, but remembers feeling a sense of relief and that she wasn’t alone.

Macdonald then asked Sved about the how the anthology came about. Sved said that she had read so many fascinating experiences online, and that they had published two anthologies previously, but they still worried about whether or not they were the right people to do it. However, eventually they figured that someone should. Noting that many of the narratives so far had been from predominately rich, white Hollywood celebrities, they wanted this book to include more diverse voices. They decided to approach it with a public call for pitches across different forums to get some different perspectives from different industries. Sved acknowledged that there had been a real focus on the media, and Gorman noted that it was the media that had the platform to share the stories. They discussed how ubiquitous harassment seems to be in nursing, and how it is an open secret.

Macdonald noted how nuanced the book was and said that while nothing was shocking to her, it all hurt. She mentioned a particular contributor Sylvie Leber whose story of being violently raped really stayed with her. Sved said that her story was powerfully disturbing, and they had to include it. She said that they didn’t want to say that people were “only” sexually harassed in comparison, but that it was a challenge to represent the whole spectrum.

Gorman noted that there is an overlap between #metoo and predator trolling. She said that cyberhate costs $3.7 billion to the economy, and while both men and women are targeted, the type of harassment women receive is different. She said that women are more likely to experience doxing, violent threats and intimate image abuse, and that the harassment is far more sexualised and violent. She said that it is all indicative of coercive control, and it is real life men trying to do harm because they are angry and believe feminism is to blame.

Macdonald asked whether they thought men are more predisposed to this kind of harassment. Gorman said that she felt that it was cultural rather than innate. She said that one woman in her book who had been stalked, harassed and threatened said that men hate her because she is talking about things that they would usually talk about, and they perceive that as her taking up their space. Macdonald noted that there seems to be a theme of anger, and Sved said that editing the book was enlightening and alarming. She said that there are silos of people who are silenced and disempowered. She said that things like trolling, harassment and domestic violence are considered private and something that women should police themselves. She said that the reality is that these things exist in plain sight.

A member of the audience took the opportunity to ask a question about anger, and whether or not it is leading to change. Gorman said that she believes you cannot solve hate with hate. She said that while researching her book on trolling, she formed friendships with some of these people. She said that you can be angry, but ultimately she didn’t want to hurt them back. She said that she instead used something she calls radical empathy – going in and listening, learning why someone behaves like that and why they hate women so much. She said that while anger is a motivator, ultimately it is destructive and polarising. Sved said that she swings between pessimism and optimism. She said that organisationally, there can be changes and attention can be brought to the right people. However, she said that there was a problem with reaching women broadly, and that she felt that the broader focus should be on empowering women. She said that in a time where there is a lot of job insecurity, and when people prioritise jobs so much, it can be hard to either speak up about things or even get the support to speak up.

Gorman raised the point that as a result of #metoo, some people have lost their jobs and there have been some instances of social justice. Macdonald raised the issue of Geoffrey Rush’s defamation case, and how the outcome of that has been damaging to the #metoo movement. She also noted that not everyone shared the same views about #metoo, and that Australian author Helen Garner, who she described as “tough”, had advocated an approach of “kicking him in the nuts“. Macdonald said that that approach doesn’t take into account power dynamics, expectations of politeness, embarrassment or fright. Sved said that she felt that the Garner question pits women against each other generationally.

Gorman said that when her experience happened, she was 21 years old and a man massaged her shoulders uninvited in the workplace and told her “that necklace looks good on you. You know what else would look good on you? Me.” She said that she told her managers, and they said that he does that to everyone, and that the man was later appointed the sexual harassment officer. Sved said that women are socialised not to make a fuss, and Gorman agreed that there is an understanding that women who make a fuss don’t last long in the workplace.

Macdonald asked whether they thought that structural change is happening, and if not, how do we move it forward. She acknowledged that there had been similar movements before, such as by Anne Summers. Sved said that she felt that there had been some structural changes, and that there had been some traction through social media. She said that in the book, there is a graphic narrative that is quite pedagogical which essentially states that alone, nobody can change anything and that most of us do not have the luxury of making sweeping changes, but that everyone can make small changes in their own world. Sved asserted that we still need sweeping legal and industrial relations changes. Gorman said that there has to be nuance. She said that there had been calls for movements for partners, for all women including trans women, and for supporting those around you. She talked about the issue of bystander bullying and the strategies of amplification, like women in the Obama administration, and the technique of using polite, corrective speech to help combat trolls. She says that she retweets other women and helps to enforce polite social norms.

An audience member asked the panelists a question about whether they thought that the public sector was better than the private sector for women’s safety. Sved said that she felt that at the heart of all these problems are structural issues, and that even academia, which is considered to be “family friendly”, there are has equality issues. Sved invited people to simply look at how much unpaid care work women still do. Gorman said that in workplaces, she has been bullied and harassed mostly by women. She said that she feels that often women feel like they have to fight over scraps of power and behave like the archetypes of 1950s men. She said that giving other women a break can be seen as soft.

Macdonald said that she felt that the public service is so far ahead of other industries, that it might be an unrealistic standard. She said that she found moving from the Canberra Times to HerCanberra to be mindblowingly different in terms of culture. Sved said that she felt that the community sector is the same, and that there are so many women (though acknowledged that it is a low paid industry so men often don’t go for jobs). Macdonald said that she felt that the real area that needs change to be forced upon it is in politics, and the audience resoundingly agreed. Sved said that her experience of the legal sector was also dreadful. She mentioned the “pure juvenile misogyny” Fiona Patten had experienced, and Macdonald noted Tanya Plibersek deciding not to run for leader of the Labor party due to caring responsibilities.

However, Macdonald said that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern does suggest that there is hope. Gorman said that a man she had spoken to who was part of the incel movement, who didn’t agree to being in her book, said after a year of speaking to her that he doesn’t hate women any more. Sved pointed out that the movement was originally started by a woman who was exploring human connection, and was co-opted by toxic masculinity and became all about whose fault it is. Gorman said that hatred wouldn’t be online unless it was already in society.

Another audience member asked a question about whether men who engage in sexual harassment behaviour really understand how it affects women. Gorman said that she felt that often they don’t. Gorman referred to a “This American Life” podcast episode about a woman who tries to discuss catcalling with the men who are catcalling her, and how the men genuinely did not seem to understand the impact it had on women.

I managed to ask the last question, and I wanted to go where I felt like the conversation hadn’t quite gone yet: has #metoo gone too far? I shared an example of someone I knew who had been publicly accused on social media of sexually assaulting a woman, someone I was certain hadn’t done what he was accused of. I also acknowledged that there is a deficit in the legal system, and that the difficulty in getting a conviction for a sexual assault in court can explain why people would seek justice elsewhere such as via social media. I asked the panel what they thought about the interaction between #metoo and the role of the legal system.

The panel agreed that social media is not really equipped to prosecute individual cases, and discussed grey areas like Geoffrey Rush’s alleged conduct and the anonymous article published about a date with Aziz Ansari. They agreed that there is a need for law reform, and reforms in the workplace. However, they said that they did not feel that #metoo had gone too far because the purpose of #metoo is to facilitate structural change and that in that regard, there is still a long way to go.

The discussion was wrapped up there but if you want to find out more about the movement, people’s experiences and its limitations, you can check out the book yourself.

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Carly Findlay – Say Hello

Literary event with debut author and disability activist Carly Findlay

Content warning: sex, language, cyberbullying

Over the weekend I was very excited to go to see Carly Findlay speak about her new book “Say Hello” about living with a chronic skin condition called ichthyosis at an event organised by Muse which had to be held at the Street Theatre, tickets were selling so fast. Findlay was interviewed by writer Ginger Gorman, and they both arrived on stage wearing pyjamas!

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Left: Ginger Gorman Right: Carly Findlay

Gorman introduced the discussion by saying that she and Findlay were book buddies, and their new books had been photographed side by side around the country because they were generally in the same section (and, I presume, because Findlay comes right before Gorman!). They explained that the reason they were wearing pyjamas was because they first time they met in person, Findlay was feeling sore and advised Gorman that she would be wearing pyjamas at their catch up in a fancy hotel. Gorman apparently turned up wearing pyjamas as well, and the friendship began.

Findlay explained that she actually wears pyjamas to work most days because she now works a lot from home. She said that people with disability should be allowed to work in comfort. She said that when she previously worked in government she had to wear conservative clothing but now she dresses for comfort.

Findlay and Gorman then discussed the issue of accessibility, and the fear that many people with disability have to speak up for their needs. Findlay reflected on a comment she once made to an artist about how it is difficult to attend her performances because they are often on so late. The artist told her that they were on too late for her as well given her illness. Findlay asked her why she didn’t ask for an earlier time slot, and the artist said it was because she didn’t know she could.

Gorman asked Findlay whose responsibility is it to ask about accessibility and adjustments, and Findlay said it was everyone’s. She said that everyone needs to make sure that it’s an environment where people are comfortable asking, especially people who do not look like they have a disability.

Gorman then asked Findlay about her appearance activism and told a story about how her own daughter had seen a little person and had asked questions, so they approached the person to ask questions. Findlay said that she is constantly asked in public about her appearance, and that parents frequently make up stories about her (e.g. that she is sunburned) and take their children up to speak to her. Findlay said that she doesn’t want to educate people all the time, and that it is not your right to know how someone became disabled. She said, “Our bodies are not up for public discussion” and noted that a lot of people may simply have been born that way. She said that despite this, strangers often demand to know and feel that they have a right to know and educate their children. However, often this comes across incredibly insensitively.

Gorman asked Findlay about some of the things she has been asked by strangers, and Findlay described one incident when someone asked her how long her life span is. She said, “I’m not a budgie”. Findlay said that people often want to ask about sex and whether she can have sex. She said that someone once asked the late activist Stella Young whether she had a vagina, a question that you would never ask someone without a visible disability. Gorman noted that the chapter on sex in Findlay’s book is basically “fuck off”. If you have questions that you really want to ask, I really recommend that you watch Findlay’s episode of “You Can’t Ask That” on Facial Difference.

On the topic of inappropriate questions, Gorman turned to an incident that became notorious for how insensitively Findlay had been treated. Findlay explained that she had been on many radio interviews where she had awkwardly been asked to describe herself on air (something she noted that people without a facial difference would never be asked to do) and had been a regular guest on radio in relation to her work in the Melbourne arts scene. She was invited to do an interview with ABC Mornings host John Faine to discuss microaggressions. She said that she was encouraged to do the interview because of the exposure, but noticed when she arrived it was already a bit strange.

She said that he seemed tetchy about her moving a sit/stand desk down so she could sit, there was no briefing and he didn’t seem to know who she was. She said that he described her as looking like a burns victim and made the infamous comment about her face on Halloween. She said that even when he asked her whether she could have sex and said that she should be grateful for people praying for her, she felt that she couldn’t walk out because it was live radio. She said even callers who rang in said his questions were inappropriate and afterwards she thought it was going to ruin her career, but it ended up becoming a trending topic. Findlay has written about the experience herself, so you can read about it here.

Gorman then asked Findlay about another issue that went viral: the Reddit attack of 2013. Findlay said that she noticed something strange was going on when after her boyfriend had stayed over and they went to see a band, and her website started getting a much higher than average number of hits. It turned out that a photo had been posted of her on the subreddit /r/wtf and had received a huge number of hate speech comments. Findlay read out the response she wrote to huge applause from the audience, and then said that after she posted it it was upvoted thousands of times. The response was so upvoted that it floated to the top of the thread, prompting a (backhanded) apology from the original poster and interview requests from CNN. Findlay reflected that the experience was not good but the exposure was excellent and she won the internet.

The next question Gorman put to Findlay was about the support she had as a child. Findlay said that she was really lucky because her parents (including her mother who was there in the audience) treated like any other child. She said that they made the choice not to engage with the media, and when she did as an adult, that was her choice to make. She said that her parents taught her respect and worthiness. She said that at school in a small country town, there was another girl with a different disability, but that she didn’t make a connection between their experiences. She said that she didn’t understand the social model of disability then and that it is society that makes barriers.

Findlay went on to talk about her school experience, and said that children excluded her. She said that her mother would make her the most beautiful, elaborate lunches to show her how much she loved her, but Findlay said, heartbreakingly, that she didn’t understand why her mother loved her so much when nobody else seemed to. She said that she didn’t have a friend, so she didn’t know how to be a good friend. However, she said that everything changed when she got a job at Kmart. She said that she made friends and then afterwards went to university and was treated like everyone else. Findlay said working at Kmart was a turning point in her life.

Gorman’s last question for Findlay was about identifying as having a disability. Findlay said that she first started identifying as having a disability after volunteering and getting involved in the community, and having to identify became about asking for assistance and accessibility. Findlay talked about the importance of belonging to a community, but said that she had also experienced lateral violence. She said that because there are so few opportunities created for people with disability, when someone is successful, people think that that means that they won’t get a break. However, she said actually it opens up more opportunities. Findlay said that she has been told that she had to choose between being mainstream and being an activist, but that you can’t grow only talking to the same people. Gorman reframed this as the fear of people taking up too much space and noted that it’s not a pie. Findlay said that she does like pie.

There were quite a few interesting audience questions which I’ll summarise:

  • a request for a verbal description of the stage (which Findlay did very eloquently),
  • how Findlay deals with intrusive questions and comments like “I’d kill myself if I had what you have” (Findlay gave some examples of when managers and colleagues had and had not been supportive, and said that unfortunately she couldn’t tell people offering her stem cell treatment to fuck off because of the code of conduct; Findlay gave some advice about speaking out to HR, supervisors and supervisor’s supervisors),
  • what the most ridiculous thing Findlay has ever been asked was (has she been licking lollies? facial peel? microdermabrasion?)
  • what books was Findlay inspired by as a child (Findlay said that she got books as presents while she was in hospital as a child, and they were a lifeline),
  • what’s next?

Findlay said that she is very tired and is going to take a long rest from her book tour. However she said that submissions are open for her next project, “Growing Up Disabled in Australia” and she’s hoping to do a picture book, like a junior version of “Say Hello”. Gorman said that it doesn’t sound like much of a rest, and Findlay finished off the event by joking that she needs her mum to take away her devices.

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Melina Marchetta – The Place on Dalhousie

Literary event with acclaimed Australian author Melina Marchetta

Content warning: suicide, terrorism

I have just gotten home from this event at Muse, and I’ve just put dinner on the stove, so I thought I’d type out my thoughts while they’re still fresh in my mind and while I’m waiting for the soup to boil. I was absolutely thrilled to see Melina Marchetta speak at Muse for the second time. In conversation with our friend author Sean Costello, she was here to talk about her new novel “The Place on Dalhousie”. Costello managed to get in lots of great questions, and I was furiously taking notes in the front row.

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Costello kicked off the event by asking Marchetta about genre, noting that her books can now be found in just about every section of a bookstore. Marchetta said that she “wanted to prove I could write more than about Italian girls in the suburbs”. However, in this novel she completes what she describes as her “Inner West trilogy”, revisiting characters from her books “Saving Francesca” and “The Piper’s Son”.

Costello then asked Marchetta about writing about multiculturalism, and her thoughts about multicultural Australia today. Marchetta said that her character Josie from her first novel “Looking for Alibrandi” (Costello tried without success to penalise mentions of this book with the audience shouting out tomato, but Marchetta couldn’t help bringing it up several times in the discussion) would be disappointed with where we are now. She felt that there has been little progress made and said that she feels devastated when she hears racism coming from the Italian community. She said that while it wasn’t all bad, it wasn’t always a positive experience and her own grandfather was interned during World War II. She said that while there has been some progress, it hasn’t been enough and Australia exports this idea of a monoculture which doesn’t reflect the Inner West.

The next question Costello asked was about writing about home as someone with Italian heritage. Marchetta said that she spent a lot of time trying to run away from being “that Italian girl” when she was young, but says that she feels differently now she has a child. She said that she has never had such a strong sense of where she belongs as she does now. She said that home is belonging to a community, and as her daughter originally came to her as a foster child, it is really important to provide that sense of community.

Marchetta and Costello compared their experiences visiting Italian relatives after growing up in Australia, and shared stories about how familiar their relatives seemed but how traumatising it was to leave in a time with no Skype or Facebook, and likely no opportunity to see your family back home again. She said people assume that Italian families are all very close, but in reality, relationships are not always easy. She said that families take work and in her new book, one of her characters has to learn what it means to have a family.

In her current book, Marchetta said that she writes about two Italian girls with different backgrounds – one whose family migrated to Australia pre- and post-WWII, and another who moved here in the 1990s because of Italy’s economic situation. She said that the different migration periods really determine experience and how much family support there is around. She said that people expect that Italy is a wealthy country, but there is a lot of poverty, especially in Sicily.

Costello asked her about the connection between the three books. Marchetta said that in “The Piper’s Son”, there was a notable absence of Jimmy. She said that people wanted her to write about him, but she had to know where he was before she could fit him into a story. She said that she wanted to put three characters together in a situation and see how they reacted, but admitted that “sooner or later they’re going to end up in Sydney”.

Costello then asked her about her “Lumatere Chronicles” series (which I adore) and the links between those books and her “Inner West Trilogy”. Marchetta said that there are common themes such as romanticising the motherland, the loss of language, being an exile or a child of a migrant, and the experiencing of leaving a place forever. She stressed again that for her, it is people, not a place, that is home.

Costello said that he had heard Marchetta describe her writing style as like that of a gardener rather than an architect. Marchetta said that she also thinks of it as a pioneer, rather than a settler. She said that the relief she feels at getting a first draft of a book out is almost the same sense of relief as seeing it in bookstores. However she said that she often finds the magic in the rewrites, and took the opportunity to mention how valuable her editors are at this point.

Costello asked her what audience she has in mind when she is writing her books, and Marchetta said that she never thinks about audience or genre. She said that when “Looking for Alibrandi” was published (tomato!), it was marketed as both a young adult and adult’s book. She said that someone once said to her that they almost didn’t find her novel because they didn’t go to the children’s area. She said that was great, because they charged $3 more for the adult version. She said her current book has less sex in it that some of her young adult novels, but is still marketed as an adult novel.

Costello noted that there is a lot of music in “The House on Dalhousie” and asked her about the soundtracks that she listens to while writing. Marchetta said that the book is set in 2011, so she was trying to be true to that year. She said that there is music by David Gray, and that she was hoping to include a song by The Lumineers that felt perfect, but that it didn’t actually come out until after 2011. She said that she did sneak in a Game of Thrones reference that was probably a few months too early hoping that people who don’t have a life don’t notice.

Costello then confronted Marchetta with the rumour that her book “Looking for Alibrandi” (tomato!) is the most stolen library book and asked her how she felt about that. Marchetta said that she thought it was a rumour made up to promote the film adaptation, but then one day had a hairdresser admit to her that she had in fact stolen the book from a library herself. Marchetta said that it was her favourite kind of theft.

Soup interlude.

OK, so Costello said that for many kids growing up, her books changed their lives, and asked what book changed Marchetta’s life. Marchetta said that her favourite book growing up was “Anne of Green Gables”, but that she was a troubled reader as a child. She said that her mother didn’t give up on her, and look where she ended up! She said that she is still surprised at how much solace a book can bring you, and that she returned to the “Queen’s Thief” series recently when she was having some sleepless nights.

Then it was time for audience questions, and I was first of the mark with a question about Marchetta finding redemption in her male characters, looking particularly at Froi in the “Lumatere Chronicles” and Bish in “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil”. I said that I had always enjoyed Marchetta’s fluid morality and asked whether she looks at redemption again in her new book. Marchetta said she does try to be optimistic and believe that people can change, but she did note that people are more willing to forgive men than women. She said that women often receive far more criticism for wrongdoing than men. She said that in her new book, it is a female character who she explores the theme of redemption with this time.

There were plenty of other great questions from the audience as well, and unfortunately I can’t completely remember what everyone said. However, I do remember that Marchetta said that her earlier books particularly were about girls in a boys’ world. Marchetta talked about the differences between writing a book and writing a screenplay, and some of the things she advocated to keep in the film and how she negotiated moving a key event from the end of “Looking for Alibrandi” (tomato!) to the middle, rather than having it removed altogether.

She was asked about whether she would change anything in her earlier books, and she said that she wouldn’t write about suicide now because since her first book was published, she has known people who have taken their own lives. She said that when she wrote the first draft of “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil”, the Paris Attacks hadn’t happened yet. She said that her editor had a family member who was in Paris while she was reviewing the manuscript, and that she wouldn’t write about it now. Marchetta said that writing about things that are close to you is incredibly hard.

There were plenty more questions, but unfortunately our hour was up. Marchetta very kindly stayed back and signed copies of her new book for everyone (including a copy for my sister that she gave me tips on how to read first without anyone knowing). A fantastic event with great questions and I can’t wait to read this new book.
 

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Festival Muse 2019

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Festival Muse has become a Canberra Day long weekend tradition, and although I didn’t get to attend as many events as I would have liked, I did get to attend one very good one.

Creating Worlds

After a little silent reading picnic, a couple of friends in my fantasy book club and I decided to finish off the afternoon with something very on-theme. Horror and speculative fiction author Kaaron Warren chaired a discussion with other local authors Sam Hawke and Leife Shallcross on what goes into creating worlds.

From left to right: authors Sam Hawke, Leife Shallcross and Kaaron Warren

The event began with readings by each author of a passage from one of their books. Shallcross read a passage from her novel “The Beast’s Heart”, a retelling of classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. Hawke read a passage from her epic fantasy novel “City of Lies” and Warren read a passage from her book “Walking the Tree”. One of the most striking differences between the three novels was the size of the worlds. Where Warren’s book takes place on an island and Hawke’s in a city, Shallcross’ world is much smaller and takes place (for the most part) within the confines of a single house.

The authors talked about finding a balance in how much detail to provide the reader. Hawke said that as a writer, it is a game she plays with readers deciding how much description to give them and how much to let them imagine for themselves. They also compared writing different points of view, and the difference it makes to what characters notice and focus on.

Warren then asked the authors how they found coming up with names and words when writing speculative fiction. Warren said in her own book, she drew on botanical names to name her characters. Hawke said that she focused a lot on food that she wanted to eat, however she was careful not to exhaust the reader with too much new vocabulary. She said that she struggled quite a lot with names, and in fact wrote a third of her book with [name] in place of her main character’s name.

Hawke also gave us a little behind-the-scenes insight into a tool that she uses to come up with new fantasy words. She explained Vulgar, an online tool that generates fantasy languages which, if you’re a fantasy writer, you may wish to check out yourself. She said that she had been reluctant to adapt existing languages because she didn’t want linguists asking her why she called a lady “Chamberpot” or something!

Shallcross said that she drew a lot from Germanic names, and used names from a map, but did receive critique from a cartographer friend who pointed out that all the names she had used had the same rhythm. Warren said that she had received criticism from the same cartographer when she first drew a map of her world. She said that it had been terrible, because it was basically just a big circle, and the cartographer said that people living in her world on the edge of an enormous tree would think of themselves as being connected to other communities in a line rather than in a circle.

The writers agreed that when worldbuilding, you need to get the parts that you’re focusing on right and everything else can be fuzzy and allow readers to use their imagination. Hawke said that unlike many people, she was not particularly visual and when she imagines things, she tends to focus on touch, smell and other sense. She said that as long as you get the little things right, readers will trust you.

Warren then explored how the writers felt about actually knowing a place. Shallcross said that it was challenging, not having traveled to France, and instead she used meticulous research of maps and historical photographs to understand place. Hawke said that she had not traveled much growing up, and what she lacked in personal experience she tended to make up for with imagining her own worlds and research as she went along. Warren then shared about a short story she is working on about the demolition of the Northbourne flats. She said that after seeing all the steel, brick and glass as she drove by, she was drawn to visiting them in person to see how they felt and to get the smell of them as inspiration for her story.

The talk then opened up to audience questions. There were quite a few speculative fiction buffs in the audience and it was really great to see so many different takes on what goes into to building fictional worlds. Although unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to catch all the other great events of Festival Muse this year, this one was definitely a great way to round off a long weekend.

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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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