Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 17, 2019

2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival: Nyaal, 17/11/19

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia)

Day 3 of the 2019 Word For Word Non Fiction Festival at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre was great.  I went to three sessions, all totally different to each other but they were equally enriching experiences.

My first session featured Katherine Johnson, author of Paris Savages, in conversation with anthropologist Heather Threadgold.  Katherine had the distinction of being the only novelist appearing at this year’s festival, included because the story she has written — like all her other novels — is so closely based on factual events.

As you will know if you have read my review, Paris Savages is the story of three Badtjala people who went to Europe in the 19th century as exhibits in a human zoo.  The catalyst for this novel was a report by Daniel Browning of ABC Radio National’s AWAYE about the discovery of a human body cast in France.  This program piqued Katherine’s interest in the way that people were being taken as living exhibits for display in Europe, and that this was taking place during the Enlightenment.  Her research showed that the exhibition narratives fed into ideas about eugenics and racial superiority, and that the language used persists to this day in the shameful abuse of Indigenous man Adam Goodes.

The conversation also covered Katherine’s narrative choices which allow for insights into these events without appropriating the Indigenous voice.  Her choice to use the fictional perspective of the adolescent missionary’s daughter Hilda allows for insights more perceptive than Müller’s narrow ‘scientific’ perspective, and she also occasionally uses a ‘ghostly’ omniscient narrator who points out the ‘holes’ in the historical record.  She is acutely conscious of the problems associated with telling stories such as this, but she referenced both Peter Carey who says it’s disrespectful not to include the Indigenous presence in our storytelling, and also Indigenous woman Marcia Langton (a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations in Queensland) who says that one way of ‘othering’ is to make people invisible.  There’s another angle to this issue too: telling stories such as this is delicate, and needs to be done respectfully, but it shouldn’t just be Indigenous people doing all the work of bringing these stories to light.

My next session had potential for controversy too, but it turned out to be good-natured and congenial.  A Twitterstorm arose over John Marsden’s new book The Art of Growing Up, and from my observations of the body language of some audience members, I was expecting some hostility to erupt, but it didn’t happen.  Marsden was disarming and chatty, and poked fun at himself and the dangerous art of commenting on contemporary parenting.  His interviewer Mark Smith didn’t shy away from asking the difficult questions about the aspects of the book that caused controversy, and the answers were straightforward.  If there were people there who were unconvinced, they stayed quiet.

In a nutshell, Marsden thinks most parents do a good job, but some parenting is toxic and does the child no favours.  Obviously this is going to arouse defensiveness but he feels that his years of experience as a teacher and principal of his own school means that he has something to contribute and he doesn’t think parenting is sacred territory where no one can go.

He talked about parents who say that their child is their best friend or their hero, and how he thinks this is a fundamental error because the first requirement of a parent is to be an adult. It involves setting limits, showing a child what is acceptable and what isn’t, and it’s important to make it clear how to react to problems and to include a variety of solutions to those problems.  Parents have a responsibility to set their children on the right path: the path to knowledge and the path to wisdom, understanding and insight.  This all seems pretty harmless to me, but he was scathing about parents who rationalise not seeing much of their children with the excuse of ‘quality’ time.  He says it’s ‘quantity time’ that matters because relationships grow out of the time that you spend with the child and that’s a foundation for everything else.

He also talked about ‘curling parents’.  I think this is a reference to some kind of football, because he meant that these were parents who scraped away every obstacle in their child’s way.  In small families this can mean that the child’s landscape is restricted to home, school, the local shopping centre and a few weekend activities and this can be suffocating for children.  Children need to be guided towards readiness for adulthood, and he reminded us that they can have sex at 16 and join the army at 17, and yet there’s no gold pass that turns a child into an instant adult the day they turn 18.

The most controversial aspect of his book is apparently what he has to say about bullying and he’s been accused of victim blaming.  What he says is that he and his staff investigate every accusation of bullying, interviewing the perpetrator, the victim and the witnesses.  (There’s nothing unusual about that, it’s standard procedure in any responsible school, and yes, it’s extremely time-consuming).  But what he nearly always finds is that the victim’s account is rarely the full story.  Kids, he says, are not sophisticated enough to handle conflict maturely, and sometimes the bullying is a response to unacceptable behaviour on the part of the victim.  There is, he acknowledges, capricious, relentless and racist bullying in schools and in society, but it’s a mistake to generalise about all bullying being like that.

I haven’t read his book, because my days of worrying about parenting are over, but I think what he is trying to say is that it doesn’t help when parents can’t hear uncomfortable truths about their children because it makes it even harder to resolve the child’s problems.  I certainly met my share of parents like that when I was teaching, and I used to feel very sorry for their children because it made everything harder for the child.

My third session was fascinating.  Titled ‘Neoliberalism and the Rise of the Right’, it featured Maria Rae interviewing two authors: Dominic Kelly whose book is provocatively titled Political Troglodytes and Economic Lunatics: The Hard Right in Australia and Jane R Goodall whose book is called The Politics of the Common Good, Dispossession in Australia. Both authors are very concerned about the way the ideology of neo-liberalism has disseminated itself through economic ideas.

Jane Goodall explained what neo-liberalism is not: it isn’t a laissez-faire, free market, free for all.  It’s actually highly controlled and ideologically driven.  Its central idea is that human intelligence isn’t adequate to discern all the complexities of global interactions, so it should be left to the market to sort everything out.  Dominic Kelly added to this by saying that all the talk that we hear about economic ideas such as privatisation, free trade etc being the best way to run an economy are sold to us as common sense economics, when in fact it’s a political project.

And the way it has come to dominate the discourse began with think tanks and advocacy groups, like Quadrant, the IPA (Institute of Public Affairs), the H R Nicholls Society, the Samuel Griffith Society, and the culture warriors associated with these groups.

Jane Goodall put all this in context by explaining that in the postwar era an Austrian economist called Ludwig von Mises saw the alarming phenomenon of socialist governments turning to totalitarianism and his writings were intended to prevent other governments falling into the same trap.  He wanted to avoid hostile legislation, the abuse of power and the curtailment of freedom of the press. But he was an ideologue too, and these problems have likewise arisen under neo-liberalism.

The talk surveyed economic policies under governments since Whitlam leading to the present situation where the Banking Royal Commission hasn’t punished any unconscionable behaviour in comparison to the punitive provisions of Centrelink’s Robodebt.  Where we have sold our public utilities to make some people very rich, but it hasn’t turned out to be better or cheaper for us.  And where the average citizen remains so captive to misunderstandings that he votes against the reform of franking credits when he doesn’t even get them…

Well, I’m as naïve about economics as the next person, so I left this session wondering whether what I’d been hearing was sound common sense, or left wing ideology equally irrational as the right wing version.  What I do know is that our society is more unfair and meaner than it was when I was young, and that these days it’s easier for people to get stuck in a poverty trap not of their own making.  I would like to see it change, and I’d like to see a genuine contest of ideas over a better way.


Congratulations to the organisers and all the volunteers who contributed to the running of the festival.  There was something for everyone in the program, and everything ran super smoothly. I’ll be putting the 2020 dates into my diary as soon as they become available because this festival is one of the highlights in anyone’s bookish year.





  1. Thank you for a comprehensive overview of your weekend. I enjoyed each lucidly distilled conversation. And yes, as you predicted, I was particularly attracted to your review of the session on neo-liberalism. I don’t think the right (in parliament) are particularly ideological, but they are clearly driven, first by winning, yes, at any cost, and secondly by the interests of their, donors, big business which is, increasingly, ideological. Unfortunately, Labor since Keating, led to the trough by the NSW Right, has also been captured by big business. Leaving us with nowhere to turn. I think we can only wait until they have fully recreated the early C19th and then work our way back up from the shop floor – a situation which will be greatly complicated by robotics and widespread unemployment. Let’s smash a few looms, I say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m just trying to make sense of it, handicapped by the fact that I’ve never taken any interest in economics and I find it very confusing.
      I do think we’ve in for some rough times ahead: have you checked this out?


      • Interesting article. I think China’s gaming of the world economy will force all nations to adopt defensive strategies.


        • Well yes… but didn’t Russia do the same thing, and the West responded by inventing the welfare state, to stave off any support for socialism?


          • No. Russia was an example, a beacon of hope. China is an actor, using its national wealth to buy into other countries’ economies.


            • Maybe, but Russia, remember didn’t have the option. Western nations wouldn’t trade with it.


  2. I’m with you on economics, Lisa – it’s really complex and starts to do my head in, and, as you say, you feel that pretty well anyone you talk too is coming from one point of view or another, so it’s hard to assess what they say.

    Thanks for giving some time to the Marsden session because, knowing him (not personally!) I couldn’t believe that what he was reported as saying was quite that simple. Like you, I saw many parents in my role as School Board Chair who wouldn’t countenance any wrongdoing from their own children. Used to make me mad. There is of course bullying of children who are different, but I’m sure there is also a lot of stuff that happens as he describes it. You only have to have had two children to know that you never listen to just one sibling about what happened between them! Once again, people get caught up in binary thinking don’t they? BTW The only “curling” I’ve heard of is a sport on ice, where they push a disk around the rink (I’ve seen bits on Winter Olympics reports). I don’t know anything much more about it than that, but the disc would scrape everything in its way I think.

    And re Paris Savages, yes, you make a good point about the story needing to be told from multiple perspectives – but with awareness of the voice you are using. BTW That point about invisibility has also been made by Margaret Merrilees – if I remember correctly. At least I have written about it and I’m pretty sure it was based on an article or essay written by her, when she talked about the dangers of indigenous people being absent. Another book I need to read. Oh dear.


    • That’s exactly why I went to the Marsden session… I thought, it can’t be as B&W as has been reported.
      I did look to see if I could find the quotation by Langton, but could only find long PDF articles and I was too tired last night even to contemplate opening them. But regardless of the source of the idea, I think it’s right: books written or set in the historical that act as they didn’t exist are another kind of dispossession, I’d say.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that’s been one of the arguments I’ve read, and it makes sense. The challenge then is how to do it.


  3. Interesting summary of 3 diverse events. I worked as a speech pathologist for 35 yrs with children. Don’t get me started on the unnecessary anxiety of some parents. Curling involves scraping the ice in front of the disk to it’s stop to control the distance and direction it takes. I like the way Marsden used the expression. Made me laugh. I’m sure you could find an example on you tube.


    • IS it an American game? I thought it might have been Irish…


      • I’ve only seen it in reference to Canada!! Let’s see what Pam says!

        Liked by 1 person

      • No, not American. Canadian? Or Scandinavian? I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Dr Google.


  4. It’s a Scottish game.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] my TBR, I have The Politics of the Common Good by Jane R. Goodall, (see my summary of it from the Word For Word NF Festival 2019) and Talking to My Daughter about the Economy, by […]


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