Emerging Writers’ Festival Review – Town Hall Writers’ Conference

By Sonia Nair

Hailed as the cornerstone event of the 11-day Emerging Writers’ Festival, the Town Hall Writers’ Conference, which took place on Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 May 2012 at the Melbourne Town Hall, featured a smorgasbord of colourful literary events – from intimate Q&A sessions with festival ambassadors to heated, thought-provoking forums where a panel of meticulously handpicked experts debated on the vagaries of the topic on hand. Every type of writer was catered to – poets, bloggers, novelists, comedy writers, journalists and people who simply enjoy the act of writing. The sessions that most notably manifested the relationship between human rights and the arts were “Tough Topics”, “Structure in Writing”, “Aussie Voices” and “Women in Writing”.

“Tough Topics”

A somewhat sombre start to the two-day Writers’ Conference, the “Tough Topics” session was challenging, heartbreaking and inspiring. With an eclectic panel that boasted the likes of writers Romy Ash, Paul Fearne and Sydney Smith, as well as playwright Fregmonto Stokes, a broad range of tough topics were covered: paedophilia, child abandonment, issues facing Indigenous people, schizophrenia and all manner of other “monsters”.

In Ash’s latest book, Floundering, she drew upon a job she once had checking police transcripts of interviews with perpetrators of intense trauma, child abuse and rape. Ash talked about how she grew to empathise with these people, despite having to listen to the most horrible things that one could possibly fathom.

Instead of explicitly exploring such issues in Floundering, Ash traversed a sequence of events from a child’s perspective – leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions. “The tough topics I wrote about are explored in a reader’s mind rather than on page. It’s more about what I’ve left unsaid, rather than what’s on page.”

Delving into tough topics can be a frightening process, as each of the writers attested. … Yet each one of them persisted because of their responsibility as writers and the position of power they hold in influencing debate, as well as fostering discussions around the thorny issues they write about.

Stokes, on the other hand, touched on Aboriginal issues in his latest offering, 1938: An Opera, and advised writers to empathise and write about people from different backgrounds to themselves. He said his work is rendered all the more relevant by the current financial crisis, and likened it to the depression in the 1930s, when ideological differences became most clear: “We have a responsibility to deeply engage with the people our ancestors have oppressed. I’ve tried to faithfully replicate [Aboriginal peoples’] voices instead of speaking on their behalf.”

Fearne was the first of the panel to speak from personal experience about the tough topic he explored in his book, Diary of a Schizophrenic, which he wrote during a psychotic episode. Fearne examined the destigmatisation of schizophrenia in order to empower and transform the lives of people who have mental illness. A central notion to his work is the heartbreaking question: “Why is this still a tough topic?”

“Mental illness can provide great things for society and should be celebrated”, Fearne said. “The fight goes on to quell the misconception of mental illness in society”.

… tough topics are only difficult to write about because of the stigma that surrounds them, and if writers can deconstruct those notions and the misconceptions they foster, they have the ability to inform progressive action and empower change.

But it was author Sydney Smith who most captivated me from her very first line: “I’m here to talk about monsters – my mother and father are monsters.” Her candour while talking about deeply personal issues, and the unscripted nature of her speech, was intensely compelling. I hung on to her every word as she talked about an eye condition that was akin to “looking through a raindrop on a window pane with a distorted view of the world” onto the dysfunctional relationship she shared with her mother, which she wrote about in her memoir The Lost Woman.

Delving into tough topics can be a frightening process, as each of the writers attested. Fearne wrote when he was experiencing a psychotic episode, Ash was terrified about delving into the psyche of a monstrous character in her book, Smith would find herself bawling, filled with a crippling fear that she would not be able to finish her memoir, while Stokes said the scariest aspect of writing about Aboriginal issues was how recently dehumanising policies such as White Australia took place.

Yet each one of them persisted because of their responsibility as writers and the position of power they hold in influencing debate, as well as fostering discussions around the thorny issues they write about. That’s what I took away from this session – tough topics are only difficult to write about because of the stigma that surrounds them, and if writers can deconstruct those notions and the misconceptions they foster, they have the ability to inform progressive action and empower change.

“Structure in Writing”

A logical progression from the “Tough Topics” session, “Structure in Writing” touched on the fundamentals of form and structure in informing one’s prose. After all, how do we go about expressing crucial points without the know-how to do so? The panel comprised philosopher and writer Damon Young, journalist Anita Sethi, TV writer Fiona Harris, as well as Indigenous novelist and poet Ali Cobby Eckermann.

Young kick-started the session by elegantly encapsulating why writers put the proverbial pen to paper in this digital age: “We write because we believe the world is a little better with our words”. He advised writers to use anything – from shock to humour – to bring a reader into their world: “The most important thing is putting people on a rug … you have to get them on that rug with you so you can pull it from under them.”

Sethi, on the other hand, drew upon British journalist Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy and rebirth. She advised writers to plant signposts in their writing so that readers do not get lost along the way. “At the beginning of a paragraph or chapter, let the reader know where you’re coming from. The tension between form and content is pivotal because form influences content.”

[Eckermann’s] closing thought beautifully summarised the overarching sentiments of the session: “My structure is my truth. My advice is to listen to that truth, no matter how basic that may be”.

Like Young, Sethi emphasised the importance of taking the reader along on a journey with a gripping first sentence otherwise known as the “hook”. Despite emphasising the importance of form in writing, Sethi concluded by saying that writers should never be scared to deviate from structure – underlined by this Robert Frost quote, with which she closed her speech: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

TV writer Fiona Harris charted out her ordered way of writing, which entails using sheets of A3 paper to map out characters, timelines and plot sequences. She advised writers to just write, write and write, as “you will always find nuggets of gold among the crap”. She said the rise and flow of obstacles, the level of suspense, and a balance between exposition and narrative were all crucial to the way a piece is constructed.

Conversely, Eckermann, the final speaker, veered the discussion away from methodological techniques and grand structures in writing. For her, the aspect of her Aboriginal heritage wherein talking too much is seen as a sign of conceit or mental illness, her role as a Stolen Generation writer, the central desserts in which she lives and her oral storytelling background have informed her writing most. For Eckermann, “It is more important for the writing to be written, rather than worrying about structure.”

Her closing thought beautifully summarised the overarching sentiments of the session: “My structure is my truth. My advice is to listen to that truth, no matter how basic that may be”.

“Aussie voices”

I’m ashamed to say this – and it bears testament to very issue this session explored – but despite being an Australian writer of Indian-Malaysian heritage, I was still imperceptibly surprised that the panel at the “Aussie Voices” session was such a racially diverse one. It comprised Westside Publications editor and producer Michael Mohammed Ahmad, writer Stephanie Convery, writer Bruce Pascoe of Bunurong-Tasmanian heritage, and Indonesian journalist Lily Yulianti Farid, who acted as an international observer of Australian literary writing.

The three questions tackled throughout the session were:

  • Does Australia have a literary voice?
  • Who tells the stories of Australia?
  • Are our literary voices representative of the people of Australia?

Ahmad opened the dialogue with the emphatic warning that the session “would be quite a loaded discussion”, and immediately kick-started it with the hefty statement: “Yes, Australia does have a literary voice but it’s not a literary voice that represents Australia. It’s white and Euro-centric.”

Ahmad’s sentiment was mirrored by other writers throughout the session who unequivocally agreed that Australia’s literary voice was flawed and not reflective of the multicultural diversity that resides within its borders.

Ahmad said his detractors always cite the fact that “Australia is a new country” as a reason why Australian’s literary voice is underdeveloped – a notion that Ahmad effectively tore to shreds: “We’re not a new country, we’re an ancient country. We have one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Even if, for argument’s sake, we are a new country, we are defined by waves of immigration.”

Convery added that it is important to be critical of any national identity, as it is more often than not exclusive. “Australia’s national rhetoric rests on the national identity of a white, Christian, bush-bound male.”

She used the phrase “navel gazing” to describe how Australian writers find themselves in the groove of Australian writing because they think it will sell, and sadly, she admitted, in most cases it does. “I think it’s lazy literature to write about something you know. The problem with white writers is that they stay within their social milieu, but they must critique power structures and challenge stereotypes.”

What struck me as most worrying was the fact that Australian literature is perceived to be “white” in the international arena as well.

Pascoe weighed into the discussion by expressing consternation and astonishment at how Australians “fiercely cling to such an altered version of its history”, leaving many of them unaware of many crucial Aboriginal stories and history.

What struck me as most worrying was the fact that Australian literature is perceived to be “white” in the international arena as well. Farid talked about how she organised a literary festival in Indonesia and suggested bringing in Omar Musa, an Australian writer of Malaysian heritage – a suggestion that was opposed by the other organisers, who wanted a “white face”.

Faced with the depressing reality of Australia’s confined literary voice, the discussion took a positive turn in the Q&A session, when each writer weighed in with suggestions on what could be done.

… we – as consumers of Australian literary works or writers based in Australia – can play a part in propagating writing that focuses on the alternative voices present in our society …

“We need to convince publishers to take risks and encourage alternative publishers! Problem is, how do we get them to do it? We have to hound them”, Ahmad said, adding that “They shut us up by advocating a half-caste character in both Home and Away and Neighbours, but we need to push beyond this.”

Pascoe said that it is ultimately up to readers, who dictate what sells and what doesn’t: “Publishing is a business and it does respond to sales. It’s up to readers to respond and buy these books. There are books penned by multicultural identities but no one is buying them.”

The writers encouraged attendees at the session to buy works of Melissa Lucashenko, Alexis Wright and Marie Munkara, as well as watch the movie Mad Bastards, which Pascoe said “ought to be an iconic moment in Australian history”.

The three questions posed at the beginning of the session seemed like a lifetime ago, but the categorical answers were:

  • Yes, Australia does have a literary voice.
  • But “white writers” tell the stories of Australia.
  • Therefore, our literary voices are not representative of the people of Australia.

On the upside, we – as consumers of Australian literary works or writers based in Australia – can play a part in propagating writing that focuses on the alternative voices present in our society, by either seeking out and supporting such works, altering our perspective on what constitutes the “Australian voice”, or writing about experiences outside our comfort zone which are critical of the environment we live within.

“Women in Writing”

The intimate “Women in Writing” session was led by novelist and journalist Emily Maguire and writer Anna Barnes. A candid and informational session on how women are represented in Australia’s literary landscape and what it is like being a female writer in Australia, Maguire and Barnes touched on a range of issues – from literary awards and support for women’s writing to gendered divides between young girls and boys.

Barnes and Maguire both talked about the stereotypes that accompany female writers – whether it is the common perception that they inevitably write memoirs or the reality that it is difficult for female writers to veer away from mining their own lives in “confessional writing” – be it in journals, websites or magazines.

“It’s not challenging any stereotype if newspapers employ many women but they are merely working in the ‘life and style’ pages. Similarly, it’s not changing anything if female authors are marketed only to women.”

…“women in writing” is a gender issue, not an issue that is only important to women.

What I found most interesting was the gendered nature of children’s publishing and the role children’s literature plays in the recognition of women in writing. Maguire teaches creative writing to children, and her experience shed light on the fact that around 50 per cent of girls have a male protagonist in their stories, while nearly all boys’ protagonists are boys.

“Children imitate stories they like – whether it be films, games or books – and boys are essentially exposed to ‘boys’ books’ where the lead characters are male, whereas girls are exposed to more heroines in the stories they consume”, Maguire said.

Another crucial point raised was the fact that “women in writing” is a gender issue, not an issue that is only important to women. When a spectator in the crowd expressed her frustration that men who talk about women’s issues are often thrust into the spotlight, and seem to lend more legitimacy to the battle than women themselves, Maguire echoed her sentiments but said it is essential that the issue is talked about by everyone, as only then can change occur.

“It is frustrating but it is important for men to talk about these issues as well because in reality, they reach large audiences.” Importantly, Barnes also made a point that under-represented women in the literary world are but a small facet of an overarching discussion about all marginalised segments in our society.

… Australia’s literary voice should be symptomatic of the very society it endeavours to represent.

So what can we do to encourage and support women’s writing? Barnes suggested only buying books by female writers for a season – a project initiated by Jack Heath – and having a healthy mix of both male and female writers in our library of works.

Despite both panellists expressing weariness at always being asked to appear at token panels that talk about women in writing, they both said it is pivotal to continue discussing, questioning and challenging the established paradigms that prevent women from emerging in the literary world.

All in all, the Town Hall Writers’ Conference was a crucial platform in facilitating vital – and much needed – discussion about how difficult issues should be portrayed, the most effective means for doing this, and how Australia’s literary voice should be symptomatic of the very society it endeavours to represent.

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