Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 28, 2011

Melbourne Writers’ Festival #2

Well, I think I’ve redeemed myself today at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival.  I went to a great session with Kim Scott, Kate Grenville and Rohan Wilson, I met up with a lovely lady called Marg who blogs at The Intrepid Reader, and I managed to (mostly stay) awake in one of the most boring sessions I’ve ever been to so that I could tell you, my dear readers, all about it.

The Place for a Village: How Nature Has Shaped the City of MelbourneFirst, the disappointment, let’s get that out of the way…

Imagine, if you will, that you’ve paid $21.50 to attend a session called A Classical Education? Not a vast amount, but you’ve also made a donation to the festival within your means so that the organisers can afford to invite international guests.  On top of that, choosing this session means that you’ve had to forego a session you’d dearly love to attend: a walk with Gary Presland exploring ‘The Natural Origins of Melbourne’. (You may remember that I fell in love with his book  The Place for a Village: How Nature Has Shaped the City of Melbourne  when I reviewed it a while ago?)  Expectations are high, right?

The session began well.  The first speaker was Ian Morris who spoke yesterday about his book Why the West Rules – For Now, but today was more focussed on how the emphasis on Graeco-Roman classics came to be so pervasive.   Morris is a professor of classics at Stanford University and he explained how it was that people came to believe that the Roman Empire was a kind of Golden Age, a perfect Christian Empire, and that this belief persisted until the Renaissance.  It was only then that people recognised that they were in a position to recapture the glory of Rome while also integrating the Classical World into the 16th century.  (Which is why Cardinal Scipio Borghese filled the Villa Borghese with classical allusions: his very home associated him with the power of the Roman Emperors.)

This preoccupation with the Graeco-Roman classical world inevitably led to a belief that Europeans were better than everyone else and that this justified bringing that culture to the rest of the world (through colonialism), an idea that persisted until the 20th century.  The barbarity of two world wars, the end of colonialism, the growth of anthropology and mass migration infusing old cultures with ideas from beyond Europe led to a sense of discomfort and disenchantment with the idea that traditional classics should be the basis of education and literature.  Today most universities study World Classics, of which the traditional classics are a part.  It was nice to hear Professor Morris say that Australia was a world leader in this field.

And not nice to hear Barry Hill (the Australian essayist and poet) dismiss this claim on the basis that he’d never heard of World Classics (as if that were proof that Morris was wrong).  Arguing with a world authority on the classics made Hill look foolish, and it was an embarrassing moment.  But that wasn’t my only concern.  I had trouble following Barry Hill‘s train of thought as he seemed to be mainly interested in talking about his pet enthusiasm (coincidentally the subject of his own book Broken Song: TGH Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession).   He claimed that Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia was the Australian Classic but none of us could read it because it’s out-of-print and costs about $8000 to buy it secondhand.  Oh. Right.  Well, that’s that, then, eh? He then went on to say that nobody reads the Graeco-Roman classics any more (tell that to The Spouse who is studying them at university this year!) and furthermore that history education in Australia was a dead-loss or words to that effect.  I think he was a bit liverish.

Now all this time the other international presenter had been looking very bored but he perked up a bit when it was his turn, only to announce that he hadn’t prepared anything but would speak off the cuff.  Yup, that’s what Eliot Weinberger unashamedly declared, that if nothing else he hadn’t even bothered to jot down some ideas on the long-haul flight from the US.  And as he rambled on in one of those peculiarly flat nasal American drones, I nodded off, waking up just in time to hear him state that modernists have only two agendas, to do something new and to discover something old, which is why you get Picasso using traditional African art and Ezra Pound putting fragments of Ancient Greek with Chinese poetry.  He also said that American poets haven’t had anything new to say for 30 years because they are insular and self-obsessed.  I did not feel that these pearls of wisdom justified his plane fare, and neither did other aggrieved members of the audience who were muttering about it as we made our way out.  (Presumably they stayed awake for all of it, unlike me.)

The LieutenantThe Secret RiverThis shabby and unprofessional performance could not spoil the day for me however, because late last night I had booked myself into an afternoon session with Kate Grenville, Kim Scott and Rohan Wilson who were talking about ‘Native Titles’.  All three of these authors have been tackling the topic of First Contact and the relationship between indigenous Australians and the early settlers.

Asked why this subject mattered to her (because she has now written a trilogy on the subject, (The Secret River, The Lieutenant and now Sarah Thornhill) Kate Grenville said that she had grown up in the 1950s when the subject was airbrushed almost out of existence, but that she had had an epiphany during the Reconciliation Walk Across the Bridge and realised that her own ancestors had probably acquired his land by dispossessing the indigenous people.  Her original plan to write a non-fiction text dissipated when she realised that her ancestor Wiseman was a symbol for a much bigger story and she wanted to tell his story using fiction instead.  Sarah Thornhill

Sarah Thornhill is the story of one woman’s attempt to deal with her family’s ugly secret and to make reparation.  Grenville hopes that by telling stories like this people may change their attitudes.  She described herself as a ‘wild didacticist’ hoping to do more than tell a story but to ‘sneak up on readers’ and make them empathise and identify with the characters that she has used as symbols for her agenda.

That Deadman Dance Kim Scott, author of the Miles Franklin winning That Deadman Dance  augmented what he had said yesterday (see my MWF #1) by talking about how he wanted to fill a silence, the voice of those whose stories had not been told.  As a child he himself didn’t know much about his Noongar ancestry, and what he found in the records was mostly derogatory.  He wants to give agency to his people, working with history to create a consciousness for people he never knew.  He made the point that history is narrative too, and that in the case of certain groups (indigenous people, women, marginalised groups) its biases mean that it’s not worth being loyal to some histories.  And therefore not to get too hung up about historical inaccuracies if they occur.  (Grenville said that she deliberately renamed some characters to emphasise that she was not writing history).

The Roving PartyFor Rohan Wilson, the youngest member of the panel and a debut novelist (in august company too!), being Tasmanian made the issue of voice redundant.  Where Grenville said she was determined not to appropriate indigenous voices because she thought they should tell their own stories, and Scott reminded us that he could only try to create a Noongar voice because the paucity of records meant there was little to guide him, Rohan’s purpose in The Roving Party is to give voice to the Palawa people and  in the character of Manalaganna create a strong Aboriginal hero to be admired. At the moment no one is writing these stories but he knows that as a non-indigenous author there is a risk he will be criticised for it, but is willing to face that and learn from it if he is corrected.  He realises that he has no idea of how indigenous people felt in 1829 but his story is a representation, it’s not ‘history’.

It was at this terrific session that I met up with Marg from The Intrepid Reader and I recommend that you read Marg’s take on this session too!

I would have finished reading Rohan’s marvellous book on the train going home but I met up with some friends and we talked all the way home instead. If you haven’t already got a copy of The Roving Party, click the link and get one, you won’t be sorry!

More about the MWF next week, what a pity I have to go to work!!


  1. Thank you for writing these — I don’t have anything to add, but I’m reading them. Did Barry Hill tell you why Strehlow’s book was out of print? I’ve tried searching for it, and someone on Amazon claims that “due to australian indigenous politics, as the book deals with the secret sacred, it will not be reprinted by the current copyright holders. We will have to live with its rareity until copyright expires around 2044 approx.”


    • Fascinating. I wonder if that is the truth. I’m going to dig for more information.


      • Well — (I’ve just been looking around) — the Arrente protested when Strehlow sold photographs of secret ceremonies to the German Stern and then to an Australian magazine,* and Hill’s own book about Strehlow had to be “vetted by the Strehlow Research Centre in Alice Springs prior to publication and certain passages have been omitted or disguised,”** so the “indigenous politics” explanation sounds feasible. “Strehlow’s powerful but strangely anachronistic work makes a case for elevating the Aranda Aboriginal poetic corpus to the level of the European epic canon, which includes Beowulf and the Norse Sagas,” reckons Stephen Bennetts.***




        • Well, there you go, I wonder if Barry Hill said any of this? Maybe I nodded off in his bit too…
          But seriously, maybe it’s not politically correct to say so but I fail to see how anything can be a classic if most people are not able to read it.


          • I wonder if it would be possible to produce a bowdlerised version. Take out the photographs that bother the Arrernte, take out the details of the sacred ceremonies, keep the rest, and sell it in paperback with a big ABRIDGED on the front and an explanation in the introduction. Or is the whole book one huge ongoing description of so many sacred ceremonies that it would be impossible — you’d have no book left? Someone on abebooks wants to sell a slightly chipped copy for four and a half thousand dollars, but without that money it looks as if the only way to see the thing is to ask the Uni of Western Sydney if you can carry out research in their rare books section.


            • I suppose we might know the answers to these questions if we read Barry Hill’s book…


      • Hi Deane and Karen – the first thing I did when I got home was to Google the book and couldn’t find it anywhere. It makes sense that it’s because certain songs might be ‘secret sacred’ – but what is the point of telling a general audience about a book they cannot access??


        • I like Deane’s idea of an Abridged version so that it may be accessible to all. Otherwise, I’m with you Lisa…not much point discussing a book that cannot be accessed. It’s like turning the clock way back to when only the scholars were deemed worthy of discussing the merits or otherwise of artistic works. Academic Elitism is neither pretty, nor helpful…in my humble opinion.


          • The more I think about it, the more tricky issues it raises.
            If a book that’s been published includes privileged information that (for whatever reason) it shouldn’t, then who is it some decades later that can give permission for it to be read by an academic, a reader in a library or just someone who can afford to buy the expensive 2nd hand copy? Who can give permission for it to be edited, and on whose say-so are some things judged ok to share and others not? It’s an ethical minefield.


            • You’re right, it would be massively tricky. If Hill’s book had to be “vetted” by the Strehlow Foundation then I’m guessing they’d be the ones who would have to give permission for the editing of Songs. They must have control of the copyright, and they’re likely to be in contact with people who could talk to them about the kind of Secret Business they’d need to edit out, or who could tell them that this pick ‘n’ choose approach was impossible. But that negotiation itself would be tricky. And both sides could expect to feel tense after publication, wondering what they’d missed. Someone who hadn’t been consulted would probably argue, “But Fred there shouldn’t have told them they could include …” Easier not to do it. And who would benefit, and how? And who would suffer, and how? Unpredictable.

              There’s a long post to be made here about the idea of secrecy, and what one culture considers naturally private, and what another culture considers naturally not, and the strangeness of a writing culture and a nonwriting culture trying to work around one another’s mores (silencing Secret Business is simpler when you’ve only got a small group of people who pass down ideas orally, but once that information is written down it goes anarchic, it runs away from you, it’s free, it doesn’t care), and the twilight that Strehlow’s work seems to be in — the cat is half out of the bag, the horse has half-bolted from the stable, and the only thing that gives or denies permission is the same mercantile swirl that set the information free in the first place — but I don’t know enough to write it.


              • (And this is just assuming that the Amazon poster is right, and “politics” is the reason it hasn’t been republished, and that it’s not just a matter of the publishers looking at this seven hundred page thing and saying, “No thank you.”)


  2. Thanks, Lisa, for filling us in on how these sessions went. I haven’t had a chance to attend MWF so I appreciate you bringing them to life. Looks like there are more books I need to add to the pile!


    • Thanks, Anna:)
      I do the same when the other states’ festivals are on and I like blog posts that tell you what the session was about, so that’s what I try to do with mine.


  3. Wow, how obnoxious to not even do any preparations, and then openly admit that!

    I find it interesting that we attended the same session and yet picked out different things to focus on for our posts.

    And you are right, it is very inconvenient to have to go to work when you know that there are all these fabulous festival events going on just down the road!


    • Yes, it’s fascinating that two bloggers sitting right next to each other (both writing furiously during the session) have a different take on it.
      It’s just like reading: two people reading the same book can have a completely different response to it because they bring different knowledge and experience to it.


  4. Great post – makes me wish I was in Melbourne :)


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