Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 9, 2020

2020 Melbourne Writers Festival Sunday 9/8/20

These are my sessions for today, with the festival blurb harvested from the MWF website.

We Can't Say We Didn't KnowWe Can’t Say We Didn’t Know: We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know (which I have on order at Readings) bears witness to human stories of devastation and hope from civilians – the children, families, refugees, doctors, dissidents, and asylum seekers – who are the collateral damage in the relentless politicking and war-mongering of nations. Challenging us not to look away, Walkley award-winning journalist Sophie McNeill confronts the horrors of an unsettled world and calls not for hope – but for courage. With Sami Shah.

The Rain HeronThe Fire StartersA Touch of Magic: ‘The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper,’ Eden Phillpotts once wrote. Robbie Arnott and Jan Carson have both written novels that bring that magic to the fore – while still being grounded in the familiar world – in The Rain Heron (on my TBR) and The Fire Starters (on order at Readings) respectively. The authors sit down to discuss magic, meaning, and why sometimes the only proper response to reality is to disregard it. With Angela Meyer.

How We DisappearedJing Jing Lee: How We Disappeared: At once an enthralling family mystery and a meticulously-researched exposé of a dark chapter of history, How We Disappeared (on my TBR) bears unflinching testimony to the experience of Singaporean ‘comfort women’ during World War II. Join Jing-Jing Lee as she discusses her powerful and elegiac debut novel, which has been hailed as an ‘unforgettable image of how women were silenced and disappeared by both war and culture’. With Adolfo Aranjuez.

ActressAnne Enright in Conversation: Anne Enright’s new novel Actress (see my review) is a beguiling tale of fame, creativity, courage, survival, and the troubled love between a magnetic, capricious mother and the daughter who’s unable to escape her long shadow. Here, Enright sits down to discuss her funny, unsentimental and shrewdly observed new book – and delves into her craft, the writer’s life, and her brilliant career. With Gail Jones.

My first session was at 11:00…

Sophie McNeill’s book is not a memoir, it’s a tribute to the amazing people she’s met over the years she was reporting for Four Corners.  Asked if the book was ‘hopeful’ she said she wasn’t interested in hope, she was interested in courage.  Sami Shah asked the question, how does she reconcile being now in a safe and comfortable place in WA and hearing people complaining about trivial things?  She said at first she was angry about the complacency but now she feels that what Australians have, is what people in the Middle East want too.  We can understand why people in Australia might turn away from her book because the world is a scary place.  But what she wants is to be a catalyst for people to have courage and feel that there is something they can do to make it better.  We can’t look away, and we can’t expect that it won’t affect us because the world is so small.

Sami Shah asked her what she meant by the ‘age of impunity’ and she explained that what’s happened is that all the rules are being broken, not just by terrorists and dictators but also by the states we work with, causing, for example, the starvation of hundreds of Yemenis and the targetting of hospitals.  We turn a blind eye to atrocities done by states like Saudi Arabia because of trade interests.

Sophie shared one story from her book, and Sami commented that these ordinary people are just some of many.  He asked her how she guarded against cynicism which is part of the journalist’s armour.  But I thought, listening to her impassioned words, that this question was unnecessary.  Her argument is that we cannot go on looking away, we are all interconnected and COVID_19 is the reminder that health depends on others, not just in our neighbourhood but in the world.

Angela Meyer chaired the session with Robby Arnott and Jan Carson, identifying the elements of magic realism in their novels.  In The Rain Heron Robbie Arnott created an entirely invented mythological creature: he likes the idea of what’s just faintly possible in his fiction.  He felt more free to tell a story that was not grounded in the real Australia, or Tasmania.

Arnott talked about his journey to writing.  Influenced by Raymond Carver, he had explored writing realism (and was terrible at it, he said).  But his mother gave him Richard Flanagan’s Gould’ s Book of Fish,  and he loved this impossible account of the place he comes from, and yet conveys imaginative truth.  So that’s when he became a magic realist…

The Fire Starters explores the history of sectarianism in Northern Ireland in a novel where the ghosts of the past inhabit the present during the Marching Season in Belfast.  These echoes of the past can be seen in real life: Carson said that whenever you see a limping man of a certain age in Belfast,  it’s because he was knee-capped during the Troubles.  The book  traces a father’s dismay when he learns that his son is involved in the violence that often accompanies the bonfires set by the competing sides.  Realism blends with the fantastic with rebellious young people setting mega fires that spark a conflagration.

Angela asked: Can aspects of reality be better addressed by using the fantastic?  Carson said that the Northern Ireland tradition is realism, whereas in the republic, this is not so.  Citing writers like Salman Rushdie, Carson likes fantastic elements being used to show how absurd reality can be.  She says she doesn’t want people to ‘like’ her work, she wants then to wake up and pay attention to what’s in it.  Robbie says that we can become inured to things happening in the world but an imaginative work can make us look at things going on, in a different way.  His invented country is peopled by people doing environmental damage and not doing anything about it.  Carson doesn’t like ‘patronising books’ which tell you want to think, she wants readers to actively engage with the book and trigger thinking about things, and she thinks The Rain Heron is reconditioning people how to think.  (It was nice to hear these two readers actively engaging with each other’s work).

Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes was at this session too: see her thoughts here.

Jing Jing Lee is a Singaporean author currently living in Amsterdam and How We Disappeared is her first novel.  Longlisted for the Women’s Prize, it was also nominated for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize, (which made me realise just how little I know of WW2 fiction set in Asia, our own backyard).  Adolfo asked her why she wanted to write about the experiences of the Comfort Women in WW2. She didn’t set out to, the impulse came from a short story about an older women she had written… the character took on a life of her own.  (I’ve read non fiction about the Comfort Women but never any fiction about it).  Jing was in Germany when she was writing, but she was able to research online, from testimonies, British and Singaporean archives. It was interesting to hear that Singaporeans were taken by surprise when the Japanese invaded: they had thought that the British would protect them.  What Lee wanted was to explore the long term effects of war so the book is set in two time frames, WW2 and 60 years later.

Her character Wang Di is one of the  ‘Cardboard ladies’, those living in poverty who make a living in Singapore by recycling cardboard: some of these women find that what welfare there is, is not enough, and others find it demeaning to be on welfare.  Wang Di is also a hoarder, which derives from her time as a Comfort Woman.  She feels ‘safe’ if she is surrounded by things, and this is like the experiences of the author’s aunt who was also a hoarder because of her terrible experiences during the war.

Adolfo also noted that although there are many women characters in the novel, the novel also depicts the subservient role of women in a patriarchal society like Singapore. Wang Di in the novel reinforces the way Comfort Women were thought to be worthless except as a pleasure object for men, and after the war had no worth as a wife or mother because they were ‘damaged’. The shame impacted on the family, and many of these women could not go home after their experiences because everyone would know what had happened and breaking the silence was taboo.  Healing for the women was not considered important…

Jing Jing Lee also had personal reasons for her authorial choices: she knows that her father wanted a son, not her, and this is typical of the way women are considered second-rate in Singaporean culture.

Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes was at this session too: see her thoughts here.

I loved listening to Anne Enright: she just bubbled with good humour, poking fun at herself and everything else.  She said she hadn’t ‘exiled’ herself from Ireland as so many Irish writers do because there is enough in Irish life to ‘provoke’ her.

Gail Jones talked too much, and too much like an academic in  tutorial group, but she raised a good point about the tension between intimacy and distance in Norah’s narration, and Anne Enright’s reading of the first page was a perfect illustration of this.

Enright talked about how many writers are interested in the period before a psychiatric diagnosis when we don’t know what the cause or trajectory of confusion and odd behaviour might be.  The narrative announces from the beginning that Katherine O’Dell is crazy, signalled when she shoots a man in the foot. Norah’s portrait of her mother is an attempt to untangle that craziness, and that is revealed by showing the entertainment industry demands of women.  #MeToo was happening as she wrote the book, and this was good because that meant she didn’t need to explain.

She also thinks that post #MeToo in 2017, sex will be written about differently in books, it has to be.

Enright said all her books are about survival in one way or another and that one of the things that surprises her is how little vengeance is done by women compared to how much violence is done to them.

I really liked the way Enright poked fun at her own work, saying that it’s pointless to search it for profundity.  She said that she always manages to thwart any tendency towards this, because she wants her books to ‘move’.

Update, a moment after publishing: somebody tweeted Enright’s words: I find that if my prose becomes monumental, it’s like I’m digging a grave. I have to write a book that’s alive and shifts under the reader’s eye.’

I also liked it when she refused to  buy into the current narrative about women being manipulated or bullied into feeling sexual shame, because her character Katherine transcends this.  Enright doesn’t want to re-subjectify (was that the word?) women’s experience of sex: she wants to show the joy of it because characters can’t know the truth about the bad things without knowing the good. Referencing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, she said that it’s been important for the silence about dysfunctional relationships to be broken, but now there’s a silence about loving relationships within marriage.  Enright wants to write this yin and yang about human behaviour.

This writers festival has done exactly what festivals should do: it makes us want to read the books!

That’s it for this weekend, more festival fun next weekend!

Sue from Whispering Gums went to a session on short stories.  See her thoughts here about Let Me Be Brief.

Theresa also posted about #MWFDIGITAL: Clare Bowditch – Your Own Kind of Girl


  1. You attended some great sessions by the sounds of things. I only watched the Enright one and got frustrated by Jones dominating the conversation… I wanted to hear more of Enright, she’s such an interesting person to listen to, but she really didn’t get room to breathe or say too much because you-know- asked to many very long-winded questions. Aargh.


    • It was funny when she knocked the wind out of Jones’s sails with that remark about profundity…
      I mean, really, who did Jones think her audience was?


  2. It’s frustrating when the chair or moderator asks long-winded questions.

    I agree with McNeill’s concern that “We turn a blind eye to atrocities done by states like Saudi Arabia because of trade interests” BUT these days I feel that we can be hypocritical focusing on other’s atrocities when we have some things to fix up in our own back yard!

    And, re magic realism, your report reminded me of Dorothy Johnston’s comment on my blog a little while ago that back in the 70s many Aussie writers tried magical realism, but without a great deal of success! I loved that idea of writers seeing new trends and trying them out for themselves.

    You’ve done a good job of summarising these sessions!


    • I’m not sure, because I haven’t got the book yet, but I think what she meant was not that we should be focussing on other states’ atrocities, but on our own and/or in situations where we are complicit because we work in conjunction with e.g. the USA which has different rules of engagement to our own. I could be wrong, but I think those drones rely on Pine Gap in some way.
      There is also the recent exposé about our troops in Afghanistan…


  3. Your summary has definitely made me want to read the books! The Lee in particular sounds fascinating. The Enright interview sounds a delight, despite the interviewer.


    • It’s on my bedside table. I just have to finish The Wild Laughter first (because Caoilinn Hughes is also appearing at the MWF).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I ‘attended’ the Touch of Magic session and thought it was just wonderful. The two panellists were warm and engaging and – best of all – they engaged with each other, rather than just waiting for questions from the moderator (who was also great, though). There were some real insights, and plenty of food for thought. I didn’t enjoy the Anne Enright session nearly so much. I’ve heard Enright interviewed before, and really all you have to do is wind her up and let her go – she’s a terrific speaker. But, as mentioned above, she wasn’t really given the space to do that.


    • They were, and Angela was expert at letting them tell their stories. I can’t wait to read their novels:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah, I’ve wanted to read The Firestarters for so long! What a great session that sounds like.


    • Yes, I haven’t read much from Northern Ireland so I was impressed that the festival directors brought this one to our attention.


  6. Thanks for the link Lisa. Not sure if I’ll make any others, but I was really pleased to make at least one that really interests me.


    • I’ve added your link to my summary as well:)
      Between you and me and Theresa, we’re not doing too badly at covering the festival!


      • I’ll add you and Theresa to mine when I get to my computer … not easy to do on the iPad, which I read over breakfast, and then I forget.


        • Here’s a tip. When you find a link to Theresa’s on mine, (in View), just copy the words with the link over to yours (in Editor). Much quicker than to-ing and fro-ing.


  7. I made a last minute decision to go to the Jing-Jing Lee session and really enjoyed the session. It’s a hard subject for sure, and the concept of shame was interesting given that was a focus of the session with Becky Manawatu the previous day as well.

    It’s definitely a book that I am interested in reading now.


    • Ever since I first heard about the Comfort Women, I’ve never understood how the Japanese got away without an apology or compensation. Germany is still paying reparations, Japan never has.


  8. […] Melbourne Writers Festival.  I have already read and reviewed Anne Enright’s Actress, and listened to her session yesterday; and I enjoyed listening to Jan Carson talking about her book The Fire Starters, and have the book […]


  9. […] for Fiction, How We Disappeared was featured in the 2020 (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival, where Jing-Jing Lee discussed the book with Adolfo Aranjuez.  It’s a remarkable book and a stunning achievement for a debut […]


  10. […] At the 2020 (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival, Jan Carson was paired with Tasmanian author Robbie Arnott whose new novel The Rain Heron (n my TBR) also uses magic realism in a setting grounded in everyday reality. To quote from my report about what Carson said in this session: […]


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