Tony’s Reading List at the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival – Part One

Friday the 22nd of August was a beautiful late-winter day in Melbourne, and it also happened to be the day for my annual visit to the Melbourne Writers Festival.  I only go in for one day, but I do my best to make the most of it, and this year I managed to fit four events into about five-and-a-half hours.  And what, exactly, did I see?  Well, stick around, and you’ll find out…

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One of the main reasons I ended up making the trip in to the big city was the (free) event with Spanish writer Nicolás Casariego, whose novel Antón Mallick Wants to be Happy I read a few days before heading to the festival.  This was actually a late addition to the programme after the cancellation of another event, and many of the people who attended were actually unaware of this – the printed programme still had the old details…

The event was MCed by local academic and translator Lilit Thwaites, and considering that the majority of the people in the small ACMI Cube room had heard of neither the book nor the writer, it all went fairly smoothly.  Both Thwaites and Casariego read short extracts from the novel, and they then discussed the book, particularly in relation to similarities between the writer and the eponymous hero of the novel.

The book (which I will be reviewing in early September) is the diary of a man seeking happiness, and one way in which he does so is through an analysis of self-help books and classics.  Casariego said that the reading was perhaps the best part of the writing process; however, he’s not a fan of self-help books himself, believing that they’re rather aggressive and help to create egotistical monsters.  As for the other books he read in the search for Antón’s happiness, he actually preferred some of the more pessimistic ones…

Antón Mallick… is a funny book, something which Casariego says isn’t true for all of his works.  One of his biggest challenges was to temper the use of humour in the book, lest it overpower and overshadow the story (certainly, the early sections have a lot of scenes where getting a laugh is the main focus).  The style of the novel, written in the form of a diary, is also important as it allowed the writer to play with the reader.  For one thing, he was able to be a little less politically correct than is normally the case as Mallick is writing for himself, with no need for self-censorship.  However, it also allows him to be a little tricky as there’s no guarantee that Antón is telling even himself the whole truth…

Never one to hold back, I asked Casariego a question at the end of the session.  You see, with so many loose ties at the end of the novel, I was wondering if the writer had ever considered a sequel to Antón’s quest for happiness.  The answer was a fairly firm ‘no’, but now that the idea had come up… 😉  If Antón Mallick does return for a second outing, then, you know who to thank/blame 🙂

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After a thirty-minute break spent chatting to Lilit, getting my book signed by the author and cramming a sandwich down as fast as possible, it was back to the cube for the second of the day’s events.  This was one of the four City-to-City events designed to give insular Australians more information about some of our Asian neighbours, and the first in the series was on Shanghai.  Author Nic Low was the moderator, and the guests were famed Sino-Australian writer Ouyang Yu (Sino-Australian in that he’s lived and worked here for a good while) and two fellow Chinese academics, Gong Jing and Hongtu Wang.

In all honesty, this was by far the weakest of the four sessions I attended.  As an ESL teacher, I’ve spent many an hour listening to Chinese students reading a prepared script while other students struggle to understand what’s being said, and this hour was like a flashback to presentation moderations of times past.  Jing, in particular, merely read a text talking about her life in Shanghai and then barely offered a word in English for the rest of the hour.  When you add to that the fact that the session actually had very little to do with literature, you can imagine how disappointed (and bored) I was for the most part…

Luckily, the third member of the panel was a far better, and more charismatic, speaker, and Yu entertained and informed the small audience with his Shanghai experiences.  From his anecdote about his introduction to Australian literature (when getting his first academic position, all he knew about it was that in Patrick White’s fiction “people farted a lot”), to the poems he wrote on his return to Shanghai, about a cheap hotel room and a student who simply could not master a point of English grammar (“She wrote ‘Aftering I finished the exam, I felting bad.’ – I felt bad too.”), Yu was a relaxed, witty speaker – I really must get around to reading one of his books…

Still, it wasn’t quite enough to make this a session I would recommend to others, and I walked out hoping that the rest of the day would be better.  The good news?  It definitely was – but you’ll have to wait until next time to find out why 😉

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10 thoughts on “Tony’s Reading List at the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival – Part One

  1. I guess the problem is finding international authors who are confident enough in their English to be willing to come to Australia (a long way away, particularly considering the focus on European translation that seems to obsess publishing houses in the English-speaking world), then be interviewed for an hour by a stranger they meet ten minutes before the event starts. That's a big ask, and I can't imagine a whole load of authors who are willing to do so. Then, if their English isn't that good, they come off as quiet, like Gong Jing in the session you attended.

    You could always get an interpreter, but that's not going to be quite the same, and when you've only got an hour, you don't want to spend time going back and forth between a third party. And then you have to find an interpreter who is familiar not only with the target language, but with the work being discussed, so they know the “official” ways of translating phrases and titles into English.

    Then you have to fly them to Melbourne (or Sydney, or wherever) – which is so very far away from everything.

    It would obviously be great to see more international authors from non-English-speaking background, but there are a lot of good reasons why it doesn't happen very often.

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  2. Matt – Asia's not that far 😉 I think the European focus is a valid point – why not some Japanese or Korean writers (although this is often where the poor English skills come into play…)? I realise that there a lot of issues to overcome, but at times, it all seems a little provincial or (dare I say) colonial…

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  3. But which Asian writers would you get that have name recognition? Andrea Hirata's best-selling Indonesian novel (as far as I can tell) flopped here, so he's probably out. I can't name any other SE Asian author.

    In terms of NE Asia, I reckon you could get enough recognition out of Shin Kyung-sook, Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, Murakami Haruki (though he, I imagine, charges an insane amount of money for public appearances), Yoshimoto Banana, and a handful of crime writers like Kirino Natsuo and Higashino Keigo. I'll eat my hat if any of them are fluent enough in English to come and give a talk.

    I can't imagine festival organisers are sitting there plotting to make sure no international authors come. Sydney and Melbourne festivals are not huge international shows like, say, London or Berlin, so their focus is understandably more on local stuff. It's not ideal, I agree, but I don't think it's deliberate…

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  4. Matt – No, Murakami is unlikely to be coming here any time soon 😉 I don't think you need lots of megastars, just a few good names who will attract 50-100 people (who would probably be the same people regardless of who comes). The English issue is likely to be a problem, but there must be some writers out there who can hold up their end of the conversation. I saw a session with Kim Young-ha online, and his English was fairly competent.

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  5. Glad Yu was worth listening to. I have finally read a novel by him – his latest – and would love to see him live. I heard him interviewed recently – ABC RN I think – and found him fascinating to listen to.

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