Looking west: an evening with Tim Winton

It’s four years since I left WA and in that time I keep hearing about how it’s changed. ‘It’s so expensive.’ ‘The airport is full of miners in fluoro.’ ‘The place has changed.’

But I brush it off – I’ve been back many times in these four years and the port city of Fremantle where I grew up has been much the same in many ways. The differences have been small enough to ignore — after all, I’m there on holiday so it’s easier to stay disconnected.

Sunset from South Beach – Olympus OM-1N, Kodak Gold 100 (exp 1989)

But after hearing Tim Winton speak at a Wheeler Centre event at Melbourne’s Town Hall in late October, all this talk about WA is starting to sink in.

I had mixed feelings going to see Winton speak about his new novel Eyrie. It’s set in Fremantle, one of the two places I call home. I was nervous about this famous novelist – even though he’s from the west – getting stuck into my town in his fiction. There was something odd about seeing Winton speak on the wrong side of the country – as though I might be mistaken for an east coaster, a Melbourne bohemian looking across the desert with a condescending eye towards that distant western city. Continue reading

Book review: Eleven Seasons by Paul D. Carter

For outsiders, the attraction of Aussie Rules football is hard to understand. In WA it hovered at the edge of my consciousness in winter, and I chose a team as an easy way of identifying my allegiances to the north or the south of the river.

In Melbourne, football culture assaults me with the presence of loud fans in the city after games. Wide-eyed children on the tram, bedecked in team colours with a parent by their side, bring to mind memories of my mother’s stories, of going to the football as a teenager with a much-loved older cousin who has long since passed away.

Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘Life Cycle’ gave me something of an insight as a youngster into what it meant to grow up with football in Melbourne. Now, Paul D. Carter’s Eleven Seasons, which won the The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for 2012, has added a stirring contribution to the way I understand the culture of AFL, revealing both its problems and its power from the inside.

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Emerging Writers’ Festival: Aussie Voices

On Sunday I attended the Aussie Voices panel as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Town Hall Conference. The panel proposed the questions, “Does Australia have a literary voice? Who tells the stories of Australia? And are our literary voices representative of the people of Australia?”

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, because some of the questions it raised relate to things that I am grappling with in my own work.

Tamara Barrett has blogged about the session, and she has some good quotes from the panellists that I missed. What I want to engage with here is the question of how white writers – writers of Anglo descent – can contribute to a diverse voice in Australian literature. It’s something that Barrett raised in her blog post, and that crossed my mind during the panel as well.

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Australian Literature: what should I read next?

For the last few months, Thursdays have been a good day. Most Thursdays, I’ve jumped on a tram in the afternoon and headed into the city for the Wheeler Centre’s Australian Literature 101 series.

But now the series is over. I’m going to miss it, as every session has without exception provided food for thought or inspiration for my creative writing. Better still, it’s prompted me to read books that I might otherwise have neglected.

The question is, what should I read next?

Admittedly, I still need to catch up on the reading that I begun as a result of the series. I’ve yet to finish Patrick White’s Voss, dense tome that it is, as I was distracted by Monkey Grip and That Deadman Dance.

That Deadman Dance was the subject of the final session. I’ll write a post specifically about it soon, but in the meantime I want to start a list of Australian literature to read once I’ve finished Voss. (And once I’ve handed in the 10,000 words of essays that I have due over the next month!)

Michael Heyward of Text Publishing has an article in The Age today about the lack of interest in Australian literature, specifically at universities. It’s a topic that Heyward has been writing about a lot lately, alongside of the release of the Text Classics series.

It’s great to see this debate getting so much air, and I know that my reading experience has been enriched over the last few months thanks to the spotlight that’s been turned onto Australian literature.

The Wheeler Centre is going to run a second series next year, Australian Literature 102, and they have invited us all to contribute to the discussion about what that series should look like. Should it be thematic? Or chronological? Should the books be famous, or relatively obscure?

Readers, what do you think? In Australian literature, what books or plays or collections of poetry would you like to talk more about, or learn more about?

AusLit101: on Voss and Monkey Grip

Two Thursdays in a row I’ve climbed the short steep steps outside the Wheeler Centre, each time with a half-read novel in my bag. First Voss, then Monkey Grip: two very different books.

And, in the space of one hour on each of these evenings at the Wheeler Centre’s Australian Literature 101 series, two very different literary critics have shared their thoughts on these Australian classics and on what they mean to our literary landscape.

These two books, one that I’ve now nearly finished in the few hours since the session ended, are flooding my mind and my diary with very different thoughts and ideas, about writing and life.

Last Thursday the book presented at the Wheeler Centre was Voss, the author of which is Australia’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White.

The presenter was Peter Craven, critic and cultural commentator, seeming ever so slightly bored to be there but more than happy to talk about Patrick White, about how White “imagined us into being”, and what this meant to Australia.

Tonight the book was Monkey Grip, originally published by McPhee Gribble because it was a bit radical. The author is Helen Garner, writing of and from within the Melbourne that she knew, in the ’70s.

Kerryn Goldsworthy was the presenter this time. She was given a copy of Monkey Grip for her twenty-fifth birthday, the year after it was published. She spoke about the book as one who loves it and for whom it resonated, most particularly at the time but, one senses, even now.

My copy of Voss, half read before I put it down to start Monkey Grip for this week’s talk, is smooth and nearly new and cost me $5 on a bargain table. It’s a Vintage Classic, print tight and thick on cream pages. It sat unread on my shelf for nearly two years and now is waiting on my bedside table until I get back from my journey to 1970s Melbourne.

Monkey Grip has my mother’s name inside the front cover, and the date, January 1979. It was published in 1977, so maybe it did not immediately seem so relevant across the continent, far away, where the sun sets into the ocean and the changes of the seasons are easily missed.

The book falls open in a precise spot, where a few pages are falling out. All through the text, against the small print on brown pages, there are pencil marks. I recognise what I think might have been my mother’s concerns, her interests, back then.

There are lines beside the paragraph on children delimiting the scope of women’s lives and freedom. Grey pencil runs under those phrases where something is captured, purely and cleanly in prose, something messy about love, or loneliness, or addiction.

Voss impressed me from the beginning; I saw the characters of Laura and Voss drawn so densely in the opening chapter. I read on through their meeting in the garden, their meeting of minds or souls; of recognising each other’s flaws. Peter Craven placed the novel in a hierarchy of worth. He said it was a parallel of Moby Dick. He was certain of Patrick White’s place in the canon of literature in English – not up to the mark of James Joyce, of course, but as “good as Beckett or Nabakov”.

Kerryn Goldsworthy spoke tonight of what makes a classic. Critics don’t decide what makes a classic, she said, but readers do. She spoke of the second wave feminism of Monkey Grip – how it was not just about the fight for equal pay but also about women working out how to live their sexual lives. Goldsworthy said that Monkey Grip, and Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, both with main characters named Nora, marked the beginning of a period when more female writers were able to get their work published.

Monkey Grip makes me want to write more, and it makes me think I can, and should, write with more surety than I do, in this voice that I have, this voice that is mine.

Reading Voss, I admire it and appreciate it, but I struggle for the vision – struggle to ever imagine having the vision to be able to write like that. That’s to be expected, you might say, for it is Patrick White after all.

Reading Monkey Grip, I think instead, I don’t need that vision – I have my own, I just have to free up my mind and my words and let it come, with the clarity of my own voice, and thought, and imagination.