Thursday, May 31, 2007


Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.
~ Virginia Woolf

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The right to write

Last week I listened to Irish author John Boyne speak - a couple of times - at the Reading Matters conference in Melbourne. I liked that he was so thoughtful and acknowledged criticism of his most recent book, the best-selling The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
He has researched, wondered and worried a great deal about appropriate ways in which to present the horrific experiences of survivors of the Holocaust and other atrocities, and also how to convey those to young readers.
He said several times that he felt that he had no right to give voice to that experience: he has no survivors in his family and is not Jewish.
"I am glad I made the decision not to pretend ..." he said.
"Pretend." Not "imagine", but "pretend", as if it would somehow be a more artificial process than his normal creative practice.
It reflects Kate Grenville's statements about the decisions she made about portraying Aboriginal characters in The Secret River:
I'd always known I wasn't going to try to enter the consciousness of the Aboriginal characters. I didn't know or understand enough - and I felt I never would... Their inside story - their responses, their thoughts, their feelings - that was all for someone else to tell, someone who had the right to enter that world and the knowledge to do it properly. (Searching for the Secret River)

But as Inga Clendinnan has pointed out, Grenville does believe she has the right to enter the consciousness of a whole range of other characters whose world - two hundred years ago on the other side of the planet - is arguably as alien to her modern urban life as any other.
I also remember a session at the Melbourne Writers' Festival about a million years ago, in which somebody - a woman - argued that male writers ought not attempt female characters because they are incapable of correctly perceiving and portraying the female experience. Another panellist - it might have been Garth Nix - extravagantly suggested the use of imagination.
One might also have added the crazy concept of extensive research.
John Boyne, of course, is selling himself short. He has imagined and created a vision of the concentration camps, albeit from a naive bystander's point of view.
But Kate Grenville's decision not to portray Aboriginal characters has an unfortunate effect quite opposite, I feel sure, to her intent. It leaves a gap in the consciousness of the reader - a hole where the indigenous experience should lie. Indeed, it means that there are no real defined Aboriginal characters in The Secret River at all. So does that force the Aboriginal people - the dispossessed of the Hawkesbury River - to once again become inexplicable fringe dwellers on the edge of the action, until, of course, they become the sudden centre of attention as they are massacred?
After all, how does a writer get into anyone's skin? How does Grenville imagine her character Thornhill, his hard hands on the oars as he sculls against the Thames tide? How does John Boyne imagine the boy Bruno sitting by the wire?
What gives them the right to imagine those experiences and not others? Does someone somewhere grant these rights? Or do we each have our own internal boundaries that we feel we can't cross? And how do we know?
I'd much rather have writers like Boyne worry about transgressing those boundaries than blindly push on regardless of cultural or other sensitivities. It'd be only too easy to assume that you could dream up anything and get it terribly horribly wrong. Especially, as Boyne suggests, with the benefit of many layers of privilege.
But surely writers have the right to imagine.
There are no rules.
Sometimes you might decide you can't possibly imagine this or that - a horrific experience, an inner life, a cultural background, a sound, a voice, an entire character.
You might do it badly or wrongly.
But that's a failure of imagination - it's a totally different thing to not being allowed.
Nobody has to seek permission to imagine.
Do they?
When? Why? And from whom?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Laid bare

Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.

~ Elie Wiesel

Saturday, May 12, 2007

New books

Never mind Pirates of the Caribbean 3.
Swashbuckler 3 is out.
No sign of Keira but she could always play Mama. Though I'd prefer ... I dunno ... maybe Frances O'Connor.
Anyway, it looks like this:

In the meantime, I'm working on a picture book (details soon) to be ready in time for Christmas.
800 words. How hard can it be?
Those are 800 hard-won words, I tell you.
Actually I think I might have crept up to 850 this week with the utterly necessary insertion of an Enid Blyton-style feast.
"Pink lemonade." Two of the most evocative words in the world.
The feast was largely written in the august Redmond Barry Reading Room over a couple of lunch breaks. Everyone else in there is solving quantum physics questions, or drafting their next Miles Franklin finalist. I'm sitting staring at the walls and agonising over whether to include chocolate crackles or pink lamingtons.
But it's a fascinating business watching your words transform into pictures and seeing characters you've dreamed up take shape - and giving up those images to allow that shape to form in someone else's mind and emerge through their drawing.
Great fun.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Dust it off

Take from the altars of the past the fire - not the ashes.
~ Jean Jaures

The cane and a dose of cod liver oil

I've had my head in "learning" on and off over the past few weeks: not my learning, since I've postponed study for at least this year, but thinking about the ways in which other people learn, and how, and why.
But it gets caught up for me in how people teach and more specifically, right now in Australia (a debate reflected in the UK, or vice versa), what people teach; what people value.
We've had this debate led, at least in the media, by the Prime Minister, about how the world's gone to wrack and ruin and nobody knows the date of Magna Carta anymore.
Or understands values - as if the mythical communal values of his youth (and age) are somehow immutable.
By all means, talk about history. Fight about it. I love it. History debates in the early news section of the Herald Sun. Wish Manning Clark was here to see it, although the debate might be rather different if he were.
Let's just pause for a moment to think about the world of Robert Menzies that John Howard is so keen to regenerate.
The Communist Party of Australia was at its most powerful and threatening, but the idea of banning it split the nation, just as conscription had divided the previous generation. Patrick White was our leading novelist; our greatest living artists included Nolan and Tucker. None of 'em particularly famous for living behind white picket fences.
Were there really any shared national values then?
What about respect? Mateship? The idea of the fair go?
Oh it was great in the fifties. Unless you were Aboriginal, female, on strike, poor, idealistic, down an asbestos mine, or some poor bastard trying to recover from one of several wars. The shared national values amounted to support for the White Australia Policy and the ability to recite Henry Lawson and down several beers at once before early closing.
You knew where you stood back then, by God: in the Ladies Lounge or at the bar, or if you were queer probably bashed and bleeding in the gutter.
History is selective, of course. John Howard's history is more selective than most. And yet it is this ill-defined fairy tale on which an idea of our national values is based, somehow tangled up in the barbed wire of Gallipoli.
But I've loved the feedback from young people channelled by researcher Anna Clark (who has written extensively on The History Wars) reported in several journals and newspapers, on learning history and particularly Gallipoli.
In The Age she writes that "kids prefer to debate it in class rather than learn it as an affirming national myth... Some politicians, public commentators and veterans' groups would no doubt like children's attitudes to the Anzac story to be more cohesive. Meanwhile students themselves show that there's no such thing as a single connection to this history."
There never was.
My family's connections to World War One include a Western Front Casualty Clearing Station stretcher bearer on one side and a whole family of anti-conscription activists on another. I have no idea how that was reconciled, or if it ever needed to be.
Was there ever really one national response to that war - or any other?
In preferring debate over myth, the students in today's schools, over whom our PM despairs, are actually displaying rigour and engagement. I'll vote for those as national values any day.
Now if I could just remember the date of Magna Carta... wasn't it Basil Rathbone who signed it?

Thursday, May 03, 2007


History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.
~ Winston Churchill