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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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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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