Peter Carey steers into Australia’s Aboriginal past

Updated November 14, 2017 19:50:36

Acclaimed writer Peter Carey says he previously avoided writing about Australia’s Aboriginal past, fearing that it was not his place to speak about race.

His new novel A Long Way from Home follows the main characters in the Redex Trial, a brutal cross-country endurance car race.

But the book also explores some of the more fraught and shameful parts of Australia’s history.

He sat down with Lateline’s Matt Wordsworth to discuss how he approached the story.

The novel was inspired by a car race that went through his hometown in rural Victoria

“I just remember a hallucinogenic vision of the main street at night and cars coming through and Jack Davey, who was a really big deal radio star … came through Bacchus Marsh with the window open, waved and said, ‘Hi ho everybody’ and that was a pretty big deal for me.”

Race relations and how they’re ingrained in the Australian landscape

“I was thinking of a book that was about two sets of maps.

“One a sort of map you make with a Redex Trial, which is like going around the border pissing and declaring your territory.

“And then the other is what we know now — what I know now that I didn’t know then — that those maps go over a whole lot of much older maps, ancient maps, I mean songlines, storylines over the traces of religion and culture.

“And when you look at the old Redex newsreels, you see those cars ploughing through the bulldust, you know they weren’t thinking about that at all. They didn’t know where they were in fact.”

What right does he have to write about the Aboriginal experience?

“Our job is to be other people. To have empathy for other people. And it’s almost the daily task. That’s what you do.

“You mightn’t like the person that you’re writing about, but you’ve got to be empathetic … I believe I have really found a way to deal with this issue.

“And one can only talk about that by explaining the plot or explaining the characters and what happens.”

Why did he write dialogue that featured racial slurs?

“You have to not pretend that your ancestors — or my ancestors, in this case — were different. What are they really going to say? Are they going to use these words? Yes, they are.

“And my Indigenous readers and people who work closely with Indigenous people … I think, everybody in the end thought that what I was doing was correct, and yes, it’s painful and yes, its ugly and you can have someone who’s using an ugly word like that and you can still feel affection for that person.

“Isn’t that really something to think about?”

How does he think we can reconcile the past and present?

“I think as we move forward as a nation, it can only happen with conversation, with curiosity.

“And people use the word guilt, which I sort of think is a really weird word because guilt sort of means maybe you’re not manly enough to sort of confess that you had to kill people or whatever.

“I think the right word is responsibility.

“And Aboriginal Australians — all Australians — are part of a community, so we have a responsibility to respect their history, our past, our part in their history and where there’s suffering and injustice to correct.”

Topics: fiction, arts-and-entertainment, books-literature, sydney-2000

First posted November 14, 2017 19:32:43

Helen Garner, ‘surrounded by BS’, still telling it like it is

Posted November 07, 2017 15:33:39

Helen Garner is as plain speaking in real life as she is on the page.

This month, her publishers, Text, have released two new collections of her shorter work — Stories and True Stories.

These titles have a obvious meaning on the surface, but those familiar with the work of this Australian writer will know it’s not always a distinction so easily made.

“I’ve always thought there was a line between non-fiction and fiction … but I’ve always worked very close to that line,” she says.

Forty years since her first novel was published and 75 years after she was born, Garner is still thinking deeply about what stories are and how we decide which ones are true.

Why young writers must overcome their moral fear

Garner’s work prompts strong reactions, but she has one quality all critics agree on: gutsiness.

She is clear-eyed and prepared to dive in head-first, even at the expense of her personal relationships and reputation.

It’s something she’s noticed is lacking in a lot of the young writers she meets and teaches.

“Occasionally I’ll do a so-called masterclass, and what I find is that people who are trying to write have this terror of doing it,” she says.

“Of course, everyone’s terrified of writing. It’s hard to do, it’s hard to get started and it’s hard to keep going.

“But what they [young writers] seem to have is this moral terror: that they’re not supposed to be telling this story.

“They seem to feel that they have to have some piece of paper signed that says: ‘Yes, it’s OK for you to research this and to write this story.'”

Garner knows from her own experience writing confronting creative non-fiction that the craft isn’t without its risks.

“Everybody gets into trouble,” she says.

“My reply to these people is ‘blaze away’. You can’t tiptoe round these things.

“You try to make yourself into a good enough writer to avoid damaging people and you try to have some kind of honour in what you do.”

Blasting through the BS

Garner’s approach to writing is having a moment, with novelists like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk dealing in the same misty space between fiction and nonfiction.

When asked she thinks that might be the case, Garner is characteristically forthright.

“Everywhere we go we just seem to be surrounded by bullshit, clouds and vapours of bullshit,” she says.

“Some days you just feel you’re going to choke on it; you can’t breathe … in order to blast through that bullshit cloud you’ve got to be a bit brutal, I think.”

Garner fondly recalls an American critic referring to her work as “ruthless in the way I like best”.

“I thought, ‘Oh cool! I’ll take that as a compliment.'”

Her secret? ‘The recording eye’

Garner says this dispassionate perspective, so often cast as a moral failing — especially in women — is the secret to her success.

In a particularly telling moment in her 2015 essay On Darkness, she becomes somewhat obsessed with some historical crime scene photography she sees on display in a museum in Sydney.

“I see now that for some years already I have been trying to turn myself into the sort of person who could look steadily at such things, without flinching or turning away,” she wrote.

Those “things” are the scenes of brutal crimes, which have in many ways become the bread and butter of her recent work.

“If you let your emotions out at the moment when you’re contemplating the thing, you lose that coolness where you can actually see what the thing is,” she says.

“That’s the point of it: if you can hold back your emotional response to something, just hold it in check, not destroy it or trample on it, but hold it back until you are away from the situation … then you see more.”

Preserving tiny moments of beauty

In the introduction to her 1996 collection of essays, also called True Stories, Garner invoked the English poet Phillip Larkin, who said “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art”.

And as she gets older, she says, she feels this urge more strongly.

“I have an obsessive desire not to let things get past me … I want to grab them as they fly,” she says.

“For example, observations about children — because I actually spend a lot of time with my grandchildren. I live next door to them.

“They change so fast. It’s shocking, they transform overnight.

“There are these tiny moments, things they say or do that seem, to me, so beautiful and strange and precious and fresh, that I really don’t want to waste them.”

Helen Garner will appear on Conversations with Richard Fidler on November 23, 2017.

Topics: books-literature, english-literature, author, arts-and-entertainment, melbourne-3000, vic, australia

Mandela’s posthumous memoir reveals truth about his presidency

Posted November 01, 2017 13:48:56

“I have taken a moment to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back at the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

With these words, Nelson Mandela ended his inspirational and phenomenally successful autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

After serving 27 years in jail, the anti-apartheid hero was, in 1994, on the cusp of becoming South Africa’s first black president and knew he had little time to waste in building a true multi-racial democracy.

Now, 23 years later and four years after Mandela’s death, we’re taken inside those tumultuous years of power with the publication of Long Walk to Freedom’s keenly anticipated sequel, appropriately titled: Dare Not Linger.

A labour of love

“In 1998 he sat down to write this memoir and he wanted it to be a reflection on both the accomplishments of that first administration but also on the mistakes they made,” says Verne Harris, the director of archives at the Johannesburg-based Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Reflections that were all put down in longhand.

“It was quite a painful process actually because his personal assistant would then type it up and give it to people for comments,” he told News Breakfast.

“Then he would sit down with a clean piece of paper and start from scratch and this is one of the key reasons he ran out of steam and never finished.”

Mandela completed 10 chapters of the book before age and ill health caught up with him. As his widow, Graça Machel, notes in the prologue:

“The demands the world placed upon him, distractions of many kinds and his advancing years complicated the project. He lost momentum and eventually the manuscript lay dormant, through the last years of his life he talked about it often — worried about work started but not finished.”

The rest of the 359-page tome was finished by prominent South African author, Mandla Langa.

Mandela writes candidly about his sometimes-fraught relationship with the man he was to replace as president, FW de Klerk, and his equally strained dealings with his successor, Thabo Mbeki, whose AIDS denialism cost hundreds of thousands of lives, according to a Harvard University study.

‘Pick a younger president’

The book also gives us Mandela’s thoughts as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission examined apartheid-era crimes and covers his attempts to re-establish South Africa as a respected member of the international community.

In his typical self-deprecating style, Mandela writes about how he came to the presidency with some reluctance.

“My installation as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa was imposed on me against my advice.”

“I advised against the decision on the grounds that I would turn 76 that year, that it would be wise to get a far younger person, male or female, who had been out of prison, and met heads of state and government.”

Mandela’s compromise was to make it clear, shortly after his election, that he would serve only one term in the job — a promise he duly kept.

Verne Harris, who in his role of archivist had many encounters with Mandela, said the new book made it very clear the new president was more than a figurehead with a dazzling smile.

“The myth is that he was a symbolic leader, that he focused on reconciliation, but actually he was a chief executive and he could be very hands-on in particular areas of governance,” he said.

“He could micromanage and drive his colleagues nuts actually.”

Prone to dark moods

Harris is also keen to remind us one of the most towering political figures of the 20th century was all too human and could actually be quite moody.

“For me, he was someone who was deeply reflective. He had a great calm about him. He enjoyed teasing,” he said.

“If he was in a bad space, if he was angry with someone, or his day was cluttered with visitors then I wouldn’t get to see him.

“But I was given space when he was able to engage and was in a good space, a good mood and so on, so I was lucky.

“It wasn’t a great experience when he was angry. He would get very silent and you got frozen out.”

The warts-and-all account of Mandela’s presidency may not scale the publishing heights of Long Walk to Freedom, and there may not be another screen turn by Idris Elba or Morgan Freeman, but it nonetheless gives us all a fascinating insight into the intense pressures faced by a man who made it all seem so effortless.

Topics: books-literature, history, government-and-politics, south-africa, australia

‘It’s mystifying’: Richard Flanagan disinvited to Perth Festival event

Updated October 18, 2017 23:00:07

Man Booker Prize winning author Richard Flanagan said he was mystified by a decision by the Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) to disinvite him to a speaking engagement in the city.

Mr Flanagan, who has recently published his first book since winning the Man Booker Prize in 2014, said he was invited to Perth for a festival umbrella event to be held this week, but the invitation was withdrawn.

He said he was at a loss to explain the reasoning behind the decision.

“Who knows, but in all my time I have never experienced something like that,” he said.

“That you would be invited and then you would be disinvited, and it was suggested that there isn’t an audience for people like me.

“But my experience here in Western Australia is that this per capita is the greatest literary culture in Australia.

“It’s got more writers, more achievements and when I’ve been to your writers’ festival it’s extraordinary [the] audiences, they’re very engaged, informed readers so it seems to me that’s a strange, new type of hostility when you’ve got the top-funded arts body in your state no longer wanting to have writers come and speak to West Australians.

“It’s mystifying isn’t it really and I think it’s a bit insulting to West Australians.”

‘We have to make really judicious decisions’

PIAF’s artistic director Wendy Martin said the decision was taken because Mr Flanagan was also invited to speak at an event at All Saints College in Perth’s southern suburbs on Wednesday night.

“What happened this time is that Dymocks made an invitation to Richard Flanagan, and of course as Richard referred to, we are a subsidised West Australian company and we have to make really judicious decisions about how we spend our money across the year,” she said.

“Audiences have the opportunity, as they absolutely should, to hear one of Australia’s greatest writers speak and it just didn’t seem to make sense for Richard to have two speaking engagements in the same city.

“It’s a complicated arrangement and Dymocks were going ahead with their event and we decided we could not do a competing event with them.”

Ms Martin said she had no doubt there was audience interest in hearing Mr Flanagan speak.

“Richard Flanagan would sell out anywhere in the world where he is speaking, but as I said to you these events even as a sell out require subsidies,” she said.

“We had to make a decision this time that it was beyond our means and capabilities at this moment.”

Ms Martin conceded the decision had angered Mr Flanagan.

“It’s absolutely regretful to hear one of Australia’s literary giants so upset. On behalf of the festival I am terribly, terribly sorry that Richard Flanagan feels this way,” she said.

“He has an open invitation to be part of the Perth Writers Festival next year if he wants to be here with us, but unfortunately on this occasion this week, it wasn’t possible.”

Topics: arts-and-entertainment, books-literature, carnivals-and-festivals, perth-6000

First posted October 18, 2017 22:31:38

Lust in the Dust: Aussie rural romance authors romp on

Posted October 14, 2017 14:00:10

It is a genre cheekily referred to as “RuRo” or “Lust in the Dust” by those in the publishing industry, and, more than 10 years after being pioneered by author Rachel Treasure, sales of rural romance books show no signs of slowing down.

Tales of love and fortunes lost and found in rural regions and the outback continue to strike a chord amongst Aussie readers, keen to escape city life for the broad landscapes and slower pace between the pages.

Freelance editor and publishing consultant Louise Thurtell was one of the first publishers in Australia to recognise the potential of RuRo and subsequently established a pitch system for Allen & Unwin, a way for writers to email through parts of their manuscript.

“Growing up on a farm just outside Orange, I knew that a lot of people in the country didn’t have access to publishers or agents, and publishing can be very intimidating, so I just wanted to find more stories by regional and rural writers,” she said.

“I knew that there was a real thirst for stories about both outback and rural Australia.”

The move unearthed several bestselling RuRo authors from our country towns.

‘I took on Fleur McDonald from Esperance in WA through Friday Pitch, and her books continue to be bestsellers, as well as Karly Lane from Macksville, and Nicole Hurley-Moore in Castlemaine,” she said.

“I think there’s always been a legend about the inland and the outback, and with most of us living on the coast in Australia, people seem to be interested in a way of life that’s completely different to theirs.”

It is an interest that also extends beyond our shores, with Germany and America publishing some of our outback tales.

“I’ve heard a rumour that in Germany they’re getting German writers to pen these outback sagas,” she said.

“I don’t know if that’s true, but I think you need to have experienced what it’s like to go through drought, to go through crop failures and so on, and most of the Australian rural romance writers have that country background.”

It’s no crime to write about farm life

The Dry by Jane Harper, a crime novel set in a farming community, has been a publishing phenomenon and is being made into a movie after selling more than 64,000 copies.

Harper’s most recent novel, Force of Nature, sold just under 9,000 copies in its first week.

From barns to backyards, regionally-based Aussie authors are also championing their hometowns and way of life in fiction.

Much-loved writer Tim Winton has almost always written books set in country towns, whilst Sarah Bailey’s mystery novel, The Dark Lake, is also based in a regional centre.

Anglesea author Mark Smith writes young-adult novels set around Victoria’s surf coast, and believes it is important that kids who live in our smaller towns can see themselves represented in books.

“You know there are kids out there doing exactly the same thing that the main character in my novels is doing … they’re riding bikes, they’re bushwalking and riding horses, and I think they deserve to be represented in fiction,” he said.

Watch Landline on Sunday at noon on ABC TV.

Topics: books-literature, arts-and-entertainment, rural, australia

Challenging the NT’s Crocodile Dundee stereotype one story at a time

Posted October 14, 2017 08:02:19

Everyone has a story to tell — but in a tweeting era where 140 characters is the limit — is spinning a good yarn becoming a dying art?

Darwin creative producer Johanna Bell is on a mission to ensure that it isn’t.

She is leading the way by unearthing and promoting local storytelling in the Northern Territory.

Women’s Work

We all know her — the busy woman who finds time for more. We’re celebrating the extraordinary voluntary work, done by ordinary women, in the ABC’s new series Women’s Work.

“What I’m really interested in is uncovering untold stories. Indigenous storytellers, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, people who’ve been in the Territory for different lengths of time,” she says.

“In Australia it’s really easy to find middle-aged white blokes that want to tell stories, they’re everywhere.

“I wanted locals to have a chance to tell their stories, in their way, and sometimes that way is pretty unique.”

Re-imagining the Territory

In 2015, Johanna saw a gap in the kind of stories Australians were hearing and decided to start an event called Spun — a live storytelling night showcasing people from the NT.

“It’s critical that a Spun event includes diversity because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to challenge the Crocodile Dundee stereotype of the Territory,” she says.

“I think it’s pretty hard to not listen to somebody who has the courage to stand up and reveal themselves.”

Johanna and her team of producers have now nurtured dozens of people from a wide range of backgrounds to pick up the microphone and share their tales with a live audience.

Spun has become a regular community event.

At the most recent Spun, John Price told his story about being a foster carer in Darwin.

“Johanna has just been fantastic, from the moment we met to talk about the story she’s kept things light-hearted. She’s helped me feel very much at ease to get that storytelling out,” he says.

Next generation storytellers

Aside from Spun, Johanna works in the community running writing and storytelling workshops with school children from diverse backgrounds, as well as programs for residents of regional NT towns.

Her latest workshop has been with Year 5 and 6 students at Malak Primary School in Darwin’s northern suburbs, where she has helped children illustrate and write picture books about local animals.

Johanna’s well qualified to inspire her students, having just received a Children’s Book Council Award for Go Home Cheeky Animals, her second book collaboration with Tennant Creek illustrator Dion Beasleyn, who is profoundly deaf and confined to a wheelchair.

Together they have created educational and fun picture books with a sense of place for Indigenous children.

“One of the reasons I like working with children and young people is that it’s an opportunity to get to them early, help shape their ideas and show that everybody’s story counts,” she says.

“If we don’t invest in them now, if we don’t help them develop the courage to take risks, then it might be a pretty sad and boring place in a decade’s time.”

Disclosure: Johanna Bell is the partner of an ABC employee. He played no role in nominating Johanna to feature in this series.

Topics: arts-and-entertainment, author, books-literature, darwin-0800

Dolly Parton on same-sex marriage, children’s literacy and touring Down Under

Updated October 13, 2017 08:52:21

Country music superstar Dolly Parton has weighed into Australia’s same-sex marriage debate, declaring gay couples should have the right to wed.

“Why can’t they be as miserable as us heterosexuals in their marriages?” she joked with News Breakfast from her home city of Nashville, Tennessee.

Parton said that, all jokes aside, same-sex couples should not be treated differently to everybody else.

“Hey, I think love is love and we have no control over that … I think people should be allowed to [marry],” she said.

“I’m not God, you know. I believe in God, I think God is the judge. I don’t judge or criticise and I don’t think we’re supposed to.”

Parton, who has a large gay following, has been a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage.

Same-sex weddings were illegal in Tennessee until June 2015, when the US Supreme Court ruled that gay couples should be allowed to marry in all US states and territories.

A literary milestone

Dolly is also on the verge of winning a new generation of fans as she releases her first album of songs for children.

She wrote and recorded all 14 tracks on I Believe in You and said it was one of the most enjoyable projects of her nearly 60-year music career.

“I’m from a big family surrounded by little nieces and nephews. I’m a very childlike person,” she said.

“I love kids and I love their energy and when I’m surrounded by them it gives me ideas.”

All proceeds from the album will go towards the Imagination Library, a literacy program the music star set up 20 years ago.

Children in five countries, including Australia, receive a book each month from birth to the age of five.

The library has now given away 100 million books and Parton said she was as proud of the program as she was of anything else she’d done.

“If you can read you can learn,” she said.

“I just think it’s so important that kids get books in their hands when they’re very young and when they’re most impressionable.”

Getting the band back together?

Parton certainly made an impression herself when she, together with her co-stars on the hit 1980 film “9 to 5”, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, made a joint appearance at the Emmys last month.

Fonda and Tomlin used the occasion, and the worldwide audience, to take a not-so-thinly veiled stab at US President Donald Trump, comparing him to their “sexist, egotistical and lying” movie boss played by Dabney Coleman.

Parton looked slightly uncomfortable and quickly moved the presentation on.

She insists she didn’t feel awkward on the Emmys stage and was pleased to be reunited with her co-stars.

“I love getting the chance to go out with them, because the movie was such a big hit worldwide,” she said.

“We got a standing ovation, we came in with a bang and went out with a bang. And it was all good.”

Sadly, for the many fans of the movie, Parton has ruled out a “9 to 5” sequel.

“We’d probably have to call it 95 now. We’re a little old now!”

An Australian return?

Age is also catching up with Parton’s long-time friend and duet partner, Kenny Rogers.

The 79-year-old singer is in the midst of his farewell tour and, later this month in Nashville, Rogers and Parton will sing on stage together one last time.

The 71-year-old Parton said it would be a bittersweet moment.

“I really can’t believe he’s retiring. It’s sad, but I guess we all get to that place. We can’t live forever,” she said.

“I love Kenny. It will be an emotional night for us, I’m sure.”

Speaking of tours, Parton is keen to get back to Australia.

“I wish I could come today. I’ve talked about it and I’ll eventually get back there because I love my fans and I love Australia,” she said.

Topics: music, gays-and-lesbians, books-literature, australia

First posted October 13, 2017 08:49:56