Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2016

2016 Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival Monday 23/5/16

MJWF adAlas, I only got to one session at today’s Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival.  There was a bit of a sound glitch at my second session so I headed off to the temptations of the refreshment tent while they sorted it out and found myself distracted by good company and then the excitement of actually meeting the Israeli author Nir Baram and also Bram Presser (from yesterday’s session).

And then I was suddenly overwhelmed by tiredness and had to go home to recharge my fading batteries.

Still, the session I attended was well worth the day.  It was titled ‘Writing out of the Rubble’ and it featured one of my favourite authors Andrea Goldsmith, author of The Memory Trap, and Gail Jones, author of Guide to Berlin.  Moderator Tali Lavi kept the conversation moving along nicely.

Jones explained how a short story by Nabokov prompted her to put aside the book she had gone to Berlin to write, to write Guide to Berlin instead.  She talked about strangers telling a story about a city that’s not their city, and how it’s a ‘broken’ novel, influenced by the broken six-sided Star of David from the Jewish Museum in Berlin.  Jones’s character is a Holocaust survivor who can’t make himself go to Warsaw, but he goes to Berlin and sets a paradigm by telling his story to strangers who all feel that they then have to follow with their own disclosures.  (It’s strange how we tend to do this with strangers when we are away from home… it’s as if our normal inhibitions are loosened by distance).  She read an excerpt from the novel which I can reproduce here because I have the novel (though I haven’t read it yet).

‘… Papa gave me my first real sense of the mystery of things, specific things, how something ordinary might carry extraordinary detail.  Once, when he’d become tired of the ignorance of my questions, he drew an umbrella and named all the parts.  There was the ferrule at the top, there was the open cap, the top notch, the ribs all joining the rosette in the centre, there was the runner, the stretcher, the top and bottom springs.  There was the shaft, the crook handle, and at the end of the crook handle there was the nose cap.  Above was the canopy, that lovely shape, the dome some call the parasol.  I remember him saying this in Yiddish.  “Some call this the parasol.”   He sat back in his chair, surveying his named umbrella, and this was the closest to contentment, even happiness, I’d ever seen him.  He was transfixed by his own drawing, and by the modest vocabulary of his labour.

‘When the factory closed down in the early sixties, and he was dying of some unknown illness that made him even less substantial and more withdrawn, Papa one day, out of the blue, entered a kind of confused monologue, mixing Yiddish and English, about the bits and pieces of umbrellas.  I understood then that he probably made the springs by hand.  He’d been a watchmaker before the war, and it made sense to me then, that he might find a more simple expression of the skill his eyesight no longer enabled.  He had a contempt for newer umbrellas with metal shafts and mass-produced springs, and owned a stick umbrella from the olden days, beautifully fashioned, a pointy miracle, which stood propped like a kind of furniture by our front door.  I never saw him use it.  I don’t know where it came from.  I know only that the old umbrella was his single treasure.  When I popped it open after his death, the canopy was torn in two places.  He must have known this, but kept it still.’ (Guide to Berlin, Vintage, 2015, p.20-21)

This was a session that made me think deeply about many things.  If you’ve read my review of The Memory Trap, you know how it triggered reflection on the process and purposes of memorialisation.  Well, in this session, Andrea Goldsmith touched a raw nerve when she talked about how we keep things – bits and pieces of a loved one’s life – as part of creating a private memorial.  We make sacred objects in our own homes.  But, she says, we can never really know a person, or what their possessions really meant to them.  Memory, she says, is infinitely corruptible at both the personal and the public level, often more in the service of the present than the people it’s supposed to serve.

Page 1That is, I realise, what I have done when making a scrapbook about my mother, who died last year.  I have remembered her the way that I want to, I have appropriated bits and pieces of her life to suit the narrative that I want to remember.  I did know that I was doing this this when I made the scrapbook, and indeed I acknowledged on the last page that my sisters would have done things differently.  But hearing this truth articulated so clearly by Andrea made me think more about the authenticity of my task.  My descendants may look through this scrapbook but they will be viewing a selective portrait.  In grief, we are desperate to prevent forgetting, but perhaps part of coming to terms with grief, is that we have to accept that forgetting is inevitable.

In The Memory Trap the characters choose to deal with memories differently, sometimes to avoid looking closely at their own lives, ransacking life to create a distorted view of now.   Goldsmith said that she thought goodness is inherent, but that contemporary narcissism is influencing how it is manifested, and her characters exemplify this.  (This is where writing ensemble novels is powerful, because the author can bring in more points-of-view, not just dichotomies).   Jones says we are torn between two models of remembering and forgetting: forgetting is perhaps an evolutionary development that we have developed to protect ourselves, but the pathological psychoanalytical model says that we need to remember in order to be a complete person – if not, you may be repressing or storing memories where they can damage the psyche. It’s complicated.

On the other hand, a lot of state-sanctioned memorialising can be manipulative… Goldsmith is particularly concerned about the militarisation of Australian memorialising, and she was also concerned about what she called the narcissism of second-generation children, wanted to claim victimhood for themselves.  Jones also mentioned the way some people appropriate catastrophe for their own purposes – it made me think of those people who are always around for the media, reporting how shocking it was that such-and-such had happened in their street, as if it made them victims too.

I could have listened to these two authors unpack these issues for another hour.  They talked about Nabokov, and Sebald, and Iris Murdoch and all kinds of strands deriving from their experiences overseas.  It was great.


  1. I got half way through Guide to Berlin before losing interest but I never picked up any allusions to the Star of David…..


    • LOL it was probably on the next page you would have read!
      She did mention that there are lots of sixes: hexagons, 6 characters, other things I can’t remember. Kim from Reading Matters might know, she reviewed Guide to Berlin recently.


  2. Thank you for your posts about the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival – you’ve really brought the experience alive. One day I’ll have the time to get to more (any!) festivals but until then blogs like yours are gold. I rely heavily on podcasts too.


    • Thank you *smile*.
      I think I’ve done better this time because I’ve reverted to plain old pencil and paper note-taking instead of trying to blog on the run. I’s much easier when I get home and have had time to process the ideas a bit, and can pull the threads of the session together.
      I’m hoping that my usual sources have gone to the Sydney festival and will be blogging their days too:)


      • Have you tried handwriting apps on your iPad? I now use those – it’s quiet and I have some text that I don’t have to completely rewrite, But, still, I wouldn’t blog on the run because I find I do need to massage into shape whatever notes I take! I just love though having my notes immediately in digital text form!


        • To be honest Sue, I haven’t touched my iPad in months, maybe not this year at all. I am quite content with a small Moleskine and a pen!


          • Ah, I use my iPad every day – for so many things. I usually check Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on it over breakfast, and sometimes comments on my blog though I don’t write blog posts on it; I have a recipe app where I store my favourite recipes; I make notes for our travel blog as we are travelling in the notes app; I take notes at the various meetings for which I need to write minutes or reports or blog posts; I do yoga to yoga apps or you-tube yoga routines most days; I listen to the radio on it (particularly when we are out gardening); I use the map and GPS functions regularly when on road trips or going to new to me addresses in Canberra; I check the weather on it and overseas time zones (e.g. our daughter is travelling now); I often use Google on it and the dictionary. I do other things on it too but these are the main things! Some of these of course you can do on a laptop or desktop – I’m writing this now on my laptop – but I love my iPad!! I have a shoebox full of lovely notepads that I don’t think I’ll ever use.


  3. I too was at this session with Andrea Goldsmith and Gail Jones. It was a bit hard to hear Gail for her voice is very soft and Andrea obviously hates hand-held mikes. Nonetheless, like you Lisa, it gave me much to think about. Remembering and forgetting and reinventing a memory are all very much on my mind in relation to ‘Solly’s Girl’. Even though my memoir eschews the ‘deep and meaning-fuls’ in favour of self-deprecation and humour, I’m now beginning to see what’s happening underneath. Andrea’s comments and your reflections about the scrapbook have given me a lot to think about. It was almost an afterthought to put family trees at the end of my book – after all it’s not one of those ‘A married B and they had kids C, D and E’. But when I ‘named’ four great-uncles (whom I’d never heard of prior to doing a little research) and created a text-box to announce that they were murdered in Auschwitz I was memorializing them; and that leads me to consider libraries, national and state libraries and indeed the Lamm Library where (natural disasters permitting) these memories will be permanent truths. And the trivia: the horseshoe nailed to a tree trunk outside my window – eighty-eight years ago my father nailed it above the kitchen door in suburban London as a symbol of love for my mother. I hope Andrea is right about ‘goodness’.


    • Yes, I hope Goldsmith right about that too. I think she is if my experience is anything to go by.
      It was lovely to meet up at the festival and share the experience. It makes it so much more special… I suspect that you and I will be unpacking the ideas from this session over many a cup of tea in the future.


  4. Interesting Lisa. I like your point about your scrapbook re your mother, but that doesn’t invalidate what you’ve done, I think. All memory, all history changes with time and with perspective. I love Henshaw’s statement in The snow kimono that “Memory is a savage editor. It cuts time’s throat.” He was looking at it from a slightly different perspective to what you’re describing here but it is related. Re possessions, though, I wear my maternal grandmother’s engagement ring and my paternal grandmother’s eternity ring. I don’t know, really, what those possessions meant to them, but for me they keep those two very special women close. So they represent MY memory of them rather than their feelings about their lives and marriages.

    I’m a bit concerned though about Goldsmith’s comment on “the narcissism of second-generation children, wanting to claim victimhood for themselves”. I think it’s a documented fact that second generations often suffer what the first generation suppressed, because in their suppression they often behave in difficult ways that impinge upon the second generation. This, I understand, is one of the issues that comes out in Magda Szubanski’s memoir Reckoning – which I haven’t read, but which I’ve heard her talk about. But she’s just one of a story I’ve been hearing for some time now, such as the children of PTSD sufferers. Those people were often difficult parents – completely understandably – so I can understand how some of their children suffered badly and may feel like “victims”.


    • Well, I was interested that no one in the audience took her up on this narcissism issue (though there wasn’t much time) . I am curious to read a book about narcissism that I heard about at the Bendigo Writers Festival, I can’t remember its author now, but it seemed like one of those must-read books to deal with a contemporary issue. I’ll have to hunt it out….


      • There never is enough time is there – and usually I find I think of my questions too late!


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