After a bite to eat and a pleasant walk in the sunshine to relax after the rigours of the morning session (as related last week!), I returned to Federation Square ready for another couple of sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival. After a morning in Italy, the afternoon was to see a couple of new locations with talks on writing in Australia and Indonesia, and very good they proved to be too 🙂
After the cosy morning sesion with Tim Parks, it came as a bit of a shock to return to ACMI only to see the queue for my next session snaking up the stairs. I shouldn’t have been surprised, however, as the Talking Text Classics session was always likely to be popular. Luckily, I managed to grab a spare seat near the front just before Michael Heyward, publisher at Text Publishing, introduced his guests, young writer Fiona McFarlane and the newly-rediscovered grande dame of Australian literature, Elizabeth Harrower.
For those unaware of the series, Text Classics were introduced in 2012, and the hundredth classic, Mena Calthorpe’s The Dyehouse, was recently published. Heyward spent the first part of the talk explaining how and why the series came about, talking of his desire to fill the out-of-print gaps in the country’s literary history while bringing writers long forgotten back into public awareness. One obvious focus of the list has been on twentieth-century female writers, making Calthorpe’s novel about poor female factory workers in Sydney an apt choice to bring up the century.
However, if one writer epitomises the Text Classics mission, it’s Harrower (and Heyward was quick to say that if the series had achieved nothing but make people aware of her writing, then it had done its work). While many readers will have tried The Watchtower, much of the talk here was about another work, In Certain Circles, which was longlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award. The novel was finished in 1970, but met with a lukewarm reception by the British publisher, even after the writer revised it substantially, leading Harrower to decide not to publish it – until, that is, the persistent Heyward managed to changed her mind more than three decades later…
This was an excellent talk, with Harrower interesting and funny at times (on editing In Certain Circles, she said ‘Every book is improved by being cut – by the writer‘). Sadly, McFarlane, who wrote the introduction to The Dyehouse, was slightly marginalised as the talk progressed, a shame as what she did say about the book was interesting. In truth, this was a mix of a session celebrating the belated success of an excellent writer and an important anniversary for a wonderful literary project. Happy 100th release, Text Classics – here’s to many more 🙂
After a short break, it was back to the same cinema for my final session of the day, featuring Indonesian journalist and writer Goenawan Mohamad and his Australian translator, Jennifer Lindsay. They were here to talk about Mohamad’s recently published book of essays, On Indonesia, but as Lindsay explained at the start of the talk, they were missing someone – the moderator! Luckily, Lindsay did an excellent job of steering the talk herself, even if (as she told us) it was a little strange for the two of them to be speaking together in English, not Indonesian (Mohamad quipped that they’d been practicing for the past few days!).
The talk consisted of a few bilingual readings from On Indonesia, with Lindsay inviting the writer to talk about various topics arising from these essay fragments. The first major theme was language, with Mohamad explaining how he was part of the first generation forging the new Indonesian language, a native speaker of Javanese who used the tongue meant to unite the country in his writing. He stressed the importance of Bahasa Indonesia in helping promote the sense of unity in the young country after its independence post-WW2.
Later, Mohamad recalled his childhood and his love for books in any language (whether he could read them or not…) before going on to talk about his university days. Having opted to study psychology purely so that he could study philosophy (which he considered essential for a writer), he left the country for a while, returning later to found the famous political magazine Tempo. Part of the role of Tempo was, again, concerned with language. The writers involved felt it their duty to rage against the ‘Newspeak’ of clichés and acronyms used by the military; Mohamad said “Tempo wanted to free language from this kind of rubbish“. Now, he sees a similar threat from Islamists seeking to control the social agenda, and regards this “creeping movement to control your mind” as perhaps more dangerous than the old military regime.
This was another fascinating talk, with Mohamad an entertaining speaker. The theme of language continued to pop up, and the session ended with the writer’s thoughts on English and the danger of the global tongue causing Indonesian to be seen as a marker of inferiority – and reinforcing social division. In response to my question (yep, another one!) about who he thinks might be the next Indonesian writer to make it big in English after Eka Kurniawan’s recent success, he said there were a lot of them, and many better than Kurniawan! He continued with an interesting theory about the reason for the lack of Indonesian fiction in English, claiming that Americans were interested in the places they’d had wars in. Not having ever been involved in Indonesia, they had no reason to read about it…
And that was it for my big day out 🙂 I enjoyed my day in the city immensely, but I do hope that there’s more in the area of translation and world fiction at next year’s festival. While there was a small strand concerned with female Indian writers, this was more political than literary, and it didn’t really appeal, to be honest. I’ve pretty much given up on hoping for a truly big name to make the journey down to Oz, but surely they can attract *some* decent writers next year? I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see…