Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2017

2017 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival Day #1

It’s been a stimulating day at the first full day of the 2017 Word for Word Non Fiction Festival.

I started off at a session with Anna Broinowski and John Safran in conversation with Lisa Waller.  Both these authors are having a tilt at explaining political extremism…

Broinowski’s book is called Please Explain, The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Pauline Hanson and while it’s certainly about this unlovely aspect of Australian politics, the book is apparently more about how Australia has changed than about Hanson.  In explaining the genesis of the book, Broinowski explained that it began as a doco for SBS, when Hanson was a washed-up politician and it was intended to be a black satire showing her destructive effect on Australian politics during her first stint in the House of Representatives.  The doco never happened but Broinowski persuaded SBS to make a new one to coincide with the 20th anniversary of that inflammatory maiden speech, and so they had traipsed around on the campaign trail with Hanson and Co when she was unexpectedly elected to the Senate in the last ill-advised election.  The book attempts to explain how Australia has changed so much that this could happen.

John Safran says it’s his business to come up with stories, because #CueAudienceLaughter there is no Plan B for paying the bills.  He says he likes to follow his instincts about what he personally finds fascinating.  He likes what’s curious, bizarre and dangerous, and he’s particularly interested in religion and cultural identities.  He acknowledged that being Jewish is relevant because he’s interested in how the rise of the Right might affect him.  He became interested in a group called Reclaim Australia because he saw skinhead promotional photos on Facebook, and because he had never seen anything like that in Melbourne before he was taken aback by the sight of police in full riot gear when out of curiosity he went along to their rally.  (He’s too young to have witnessed violence at demos against the Vietnam War and the Springbok Tour.) He was also surprised to find a Sri Lankan there, screaming hostilities against Islam and multiculturalism, and he wondered how this could be.   This bizarre conjunction seems to have come about because there is a sub-group of immigrants who have hooked up with people from Christian churches who are anti Muslim.

Both these authors had interesting things to say about how social media has altered the landscape.  Press releases don’t work any more because the internet savvy use social media, blindsiding the mainstream media who are out of touch with these new forms of politicking.  That’s what makes them so difficult to deal with.  The people who follow these extremists have their own reality and they’re resistant to any other kind.

My next session was called The Truth of the Matter, and it featured Alice Pung and Maria Tumarkin in conversation with Lee Kofman.  She began by asking the authors for a definition of creative non fiction, and there turned out to be an interesting contrast between their approaches.  Tumarkin said she came to writing via history and had never studied literature, and she is particularly interested in how people survive impossible situations.  Her book Courage is not about heroes, it’s about how ordinary people continue to love, and how they sometimes manage to maintain a semblance of normal life under extreme conditions.  For her, it’s a question of treating the material ethically, because she feels she owes her subjects care and protection, and she is always transparent about her role in the process.

Alice Pung quoted Tagore, who said ‘Truth in her dress finds facts too tight. In fiction she moves with ease’.  She has written about grandparents she’s never met, in order to tell the truth of their story.  She writes both fiction and non fiction, but she is more cautious now that she is a more experienced writer, taking more time to reflect than she did with her first book when she wasn’t conscious of readers and reviewers.

My next session was Julian Burnside in conversation with Sue Noonan, but I was disappointed to find that I had heard a very similar presentation on the radio as I drove down yesterday.  Of course I understand that authors will inevitably repeat themselves one way or another, but I was not expecting to hear the exact same anecdote about one’s conception of justice.  I don’t think it’s fair to the person doing the interview either.

#SmacksForehead I mucked up my timeslot for Maria Takolander with Frank Moorhouse and Catharine Lumby, and made myself half-an-hour late.  I was really cross with myself about this because I’ve just read Moorhouse’s fascinating essay in the latest Griffith Review #58, Storied Lives.  I cheered myself up by buying Moorhouse’s book, The Drover’s Wife: A Collection from the festival bookshop, and… oh… a couple of other books while I was there, necessitating the purchase of a beaut new tote which is sold by the Geelong library.

Tonight there is a debate on the topic of ‘Fiction is just a fancy word for lying’!


  1. Sounds like a great day, but I feel your pain re messing up your time slot. I seem to have messed up (in little ways, fortunately) a few things lately! So cross with myself, when these things just needed a little care!

    Anyhow you heard some great speakers. I like Alice Pung’s description of Creative Non-fiction.


    • It was because I fell asleep. My heart was acting up a bit and I had to take some extra meds, and I fell asleep in the chair!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, poor you. I think that’s a better excuse than my basic inattention (caused by trying to do too many things and not focusing properly.) I hope the meds worked and you’re back on track.


        • I hope they do too. I am tired of feeling tired…


  2. Journalists seem fascinated by Hanson, but she’s just an everyday redneck given a platform. If she were a competent politician half of Qld (and WA) would vote for her.


    • True, but since I know pretty well noone of her ilk, I find it instructive to hear how these other people who are voting for our government think.


    • And thank goodness she’s not, and as fast as her people get nominated for parliament some revelation makes them ineligible.
      But one thing Broinowski said which is worth keeping an eye on, is that whereas Hanson herself (as distinct from the people in her party) used to be an unpolished politician, now she’s very polished indeed, and she has a sophisticated marketing strategy which bypasses all the usual channels because her supporters only listen to her media and not anybody else’s.


  3. I too am fascinated by the fascination in Hansen. Maybe I don’t know ordinary Australians at all.. the ones she is supposed to represent anyway! Great review Lisa. Sounds like you had a wonderful day. I must admit I get a bit disappointed at the sameness of an author’s exposure/tour for a book release. I have come across duplications frequently of late.


    • Hi Chele, lovely to hear from you:)
      What intrigued me when I went down to the bookshop (as you do) was that if, as she said, the book’s not really about Hanson but more about how Australia has changed so that enough people voted her back in again, well, why is that mocking image of Hanson on the front cover? It’s as if some people think she’s an easy target for mockery, and of course she is, but, well, why would you want to? What’s the point of it? I’ve noticed this with Trump too, people do all kinds of mocking posts about him on Facebook, but they must know that the mockery doesn’t make any difference to the people who vote for Trump, in fact if anything it reinforces their conspiracy theories and sense of resentment about not being taken seriously. If the mockery is meant to be for people who didn’t vote for them, don’t they know that we’d rather ignore these awful people as much as possible? I probably would have bought the book if it had been called The Rise of the Right or something like that, but I was put off by the presentation of it as another comic portrayal of Hanson (with whom I have no sympathy at all, of course).


  4. […] you know if you read my post about the Word For Word Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong, I spent some of my between-sessions time reading the latest Griffith Review.  This is the blurb, […]


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