Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2020

2020 Melbourne Writers Festival Saturday 15/8/20

My sessions for today are:

How Crises Shape Literature: 

During times of crisis, we often turn to literature to make sense of the incomprehensible. But what is it like to author such a work?

Join James Bradley (Ghost Species, on my TBR) and Caoilinn Hughes (The Wild Laughter, see my review), as they discuss the growing genre of crisis literature, the turbulent events that informed their latest books, and the responsibility writers have to record and reflect on these troubled times. With Astrid Edwards.

Australia’s Response to Climate Change

As we struggle to recover after last summer’s devastating bushfires – and with the next fire season less than six months away – urgent questions must be addressed. What is missing from Australia’s climate change response? How can First Nations’ knowledge and practices help us? And what must change in the way we talk about climate change?

Join Ketan Joshi (Windfall, on my TBR), Rebecca Huntley (How to Talk About Climate Change In A Way That Makes A Difference, on my TBR), and Victor Steffensen (Fire Country) in conversation. With Adam Morton.

Megha Majumdar: A Burning

In this propulsive and mesmerising debut, a young Muslim woman’s Facebook post lands her in jail on terrorism charges – and the story that follows is a vivid portrait of contemporary India’s social and political complexities.

Join author Megha Majumdar for a discussion of power, nationalism, corruption and justice in a work that is both gripping literary thriller and compassionate social commentary. With Roanna Gonsalves.  See my review of A Burning.

Brit Bennett: The Vanishing Half

Stella and Desiree, identical twin sisters, run away from their small southern town in search of self-determined futures. Both light-skinned Black women, their lives take strikingly divergent paths as one passes as white, while the other marries ‘the darkest man she could find’.

Brit Bennett sits down to discuss The Vanishing Half (on my TBR), an expansive, multi-generational saga that dramatically exposes racial inequality and the emotional stakes of identity. With Areej Nur.

An Evening with Elizabeth Strout

No one observes the beauty of ordinary lives quite as astutely as Elizabeth Strout. Ten years after she won a Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, (see my review) she has returned to small-town Maine – and her flawed, cantankerous and much loved heroine – in the delightful Olive, Again.

The master storyteller sits down to discuss her career, her craft, and what compelled her to revisit Olive after all these years. With Kate Torney.

How Crises Shape Literature: 

The first point of discussion on the topic of writing about a crisis, was, how long does it take to be able to process a crisis in order to be able to write about it?  Both of Hughes’ novels are about the GFC in Ireland, over a decade ago now.  She said she feels it’s necessary to have time to take a long view of it.  But how does Bradley tackle climate change when there’s no time really, to wait? He said it’s not possible to reflect on the past in the same way because things are changing all the time.  He also said that a crisis also affects what people write, referencing Ali Smith’s Seasons series, capturing the feeling of the moment.

Moving on from this, why does Bradley choose the novel rather than NF?  He says he writes both, and both enable thinking through of ideas and grappling with issues, but NF timelines are shorter whereas fiction takes 2-3 years and is good at capturing feelings, a sense of what it’s like, and the texture of it, including in a dystopian future as in his book. Fiction makes the big issues of climate change comprehensible.  We understand the crisis but we can’t apply our understanding of these issues to our own lives because they just go on as normal.  [I’m not sure that victims of this summer’s bushfires would agree with this, but I think he’s talking about most people who just go on living their lives in cities, anxious about the future but not seeing any change in their immediate circumstances.] This dissonance is hard to manage, but fiction enables you to inhabit a place that doesn’t have that dissonance.  He isn’t bothered about the dismissive tags that might apply to speculative fiction… it’s not surprising that fiction about climate change involves imagining a future, but he’s resistant to the CliFi tag … he thinks that climate fiction is more than that, it touches everything about our lives, and all fiction needs to deal with it… we need a more sophisticated language to talk about that.

Astrid said that what made The Wild Laughter relevant for her at this time… (she looks to be of an age to have never lived through a recession) … is that the book’s focus on the devastating effects of recession was a glimpse of what might be in store for us in a post-Covid world.  Bradley made the point that The Wild Laughter is also about family and parenting and bringing up children in an uncertain world.  Hughes talked about the need to have honest conversations between the generations, the young have never had the opportunity to share their experience of a disrupted world, but C-19 has now made uncertainty universal because it’s affecting everybody. [I can only assume that she’s referring to baby boomers here, and not people of my parents’ generation who endured the disruption of WW2.  But she’s wrong about the boomers, anyone who experienced the existential threat of a loved one being conscripted to fight and possibly die in a foreign war has that experience of powerlessness seared into the soul.]

Bradley raised the issue of all the people who feel too paralysed to write.  It’s difficult for him with kids at home, but it’s a really interesting time to write.  It’s an incredibly charged and important moment and it’s more important to write at the moment than ever.  He also feels it’s better to be doing something than sitting around worrying, but it’s important to be thinking, to be involved, to be engaged with government plans for recovery and so on. Hughes’ was different, she’s giving herself space before she writes.

This was a great session and I’m looking forward to reading Bradley’s book…

Minor quibble: Astrid began by saying that ‘we all experienced” the GFC.  Australia didn’t.  We had a competent government whose economic strategies kept Australia out of recession.

Australia’s Response to Climate Change

Adam Morton started the session on climate change by asking Ketan how his move to Oslo changed his thinking on the climate change debate in Australia.  He found himself writing a book about Australia and climate change right at the time when the media was firstly focussed on the summer bushfires, and then everything was eclipsed by the coverage of C-19.  But he said that both Norway and Australia share the problem of the morality of fossil fuel extraction which contributes to emissions.  His work involves analysing communication data about climate change —  media reports and social media chat — and because of the wind farm ‘debates’ [a.k.a. beat-up] — he has become interested in communicating science effectively.  He thinks that if equity and fairness are baked into initiatives (e.g. giving people a share in the profits of wind farms) then community opposition fades away.

Rebecca is also interested in the issue of communicating.  It’s clear that just communicating facts is not enough.  Asked why climate change became a professional focus, she said that the student climate strikes were a catalyst because her own children felt there was no future.  But it was also that she perceived that although most Australians are concerned about climate change, that concern is not translating into changes in ‘the electoral map’.  It is the trickiest communication job in front of us, because measuring the communication issues involves measuring heaps of other things as well: politics; trust in government; understanding of science; economic issues and cultural issues. There’s also the issue of conflict. Morton asked:  people don’t want to be involved in conflict, so how do you talk to people who don’t believe or care about climate change?  Rebecca says not to waste your time if they’re not people with power.  Ignore your uncle at Christmas if he listens to Andrew Bolt! Save your energy for forcing professional deniers out of power. And it’s important to bring the conversation back to the middle ground, away from the polarisation…

Bringing Victor into the conversation, Morton asked for his reaction to the bushfire emergency.  He said it was no surprise because he’d been working with communities and he knew that people haven’t been managing the land properly.  He felt frustrated and angry and sad because he feels so strongly that drought and fire need to be managed together, not separately, and he hopes that something good may come from it, i.e. using old knowledge to manage the land. He says there are encouraging signs about this.

Ketan talked about how change is more do-able if conversions to lower levels of emissions focus on immediate benefits to people.  Converting buses to electricity makes the air cleaner and that is not only noticeably better air quality in a city like Oslo but it also improves health.  This could translate really well in Australia where the air quality during the bushfires was so terrible.  He noted that a lot of us are feeling better during lockdowns because the air quality is better.

On the topic of communicating effectively, Rebecca said it was important to start from a position of care, that you want things to be better, and to communicate that you want to avoid further losses caused by climate change.  I am looking forward to reading her book.   Victor’s approach is to use practical strategies, to take people out onto the land to learn. He thinks that meeting in board rooms is a waste of time… but he acknowledged that getting politicians to come and do that isn’t easy.

Ketan says he’s mainly works with people who are convinced of the need to act but don’t know what to do because they’re not across the detail.  He compared the way in which the pandemic has been treated as urgent, and the way that people think that there is time to deal with climate change.  So he aims to reframe the narrative in a way that’s new and focusses on the urgent need to deal with specific things like the development of new fossil fuel extraction plans in Australia.  He doesn’t think he’s turning anyone around (he mainly uses Twitter, which, he said, is hardly a fertile ground for changing the minds of people who disagree!) and he now wants to do things differently… but Rebecca thinks that social media is where some people engage and it’s possible to equip people with knowledge that they need to influence others.

This session went a bit over time so I skipped the concluding remarks…

Theresa has also reported on this session at Theresa Smith Writes.

Megha Majumdar: A Burning

As you know, I really admired Megha Majumdar’s A Burning and was keen to hear her discuss it with Roanna Gonsalves.  Asked how she came up with her unforgettable characters, she said that she wanted to show how or if people can hang onto their dreams even in the face of very difficult conditions.  Jivan is one who works really hard and is tripped up by the system.  Lovely is seduced by dreams of fame. PT Sir shows how a little taste of power leads to making really difficult decisions about what to surrender even at the cost of integrity.  Megha’s studies in anthropology have guided her into detailed observation of how things really are, invoking the layers of social hierarchy — that some benefit from and others can’t despite individual initiative.

Roanna noted that all the characters speak in different registers of English.  This is an issue that writers in India have to address in a way that writers don’t when they’re writing in other countries where there are not so many different forms of English. It’s not easy to render and avoid clichés.  English is the colonisers’ language in India and now it’s the language of the elite and aspiration: she learned early that English was essential to get ahead.

Megha said that the use of social media is extensive in India, and people think that it means people can be free to say anything, but it’s not so.  It’s Jivan’s casual comment, using English, that gets her into trouble.  And she has a naïve belief that if she can only get her story out, that everything will be fair. It was intriguing to hear Megha talk about how her work is nourished by good journalism — that’s not something we’d hear too often in Australia!

It was really good to have this interview conducted by someone who was familiar with the milieu of the novel, and I’ve noticed that this MWF has a greater diversity of interviewers and panel chairs, and that’s very pleasing to see.  One of the interesting aspects of this, was that Roanna raised the issue of ‘telling other people’s stories’, that is, asking an Indian author about writing about people from different classes and ethnic groups within India.  In order words, listeners were made aware of the complexity and diversity of Indian society instead of succumbing to assumptions about it being an homogenous society.  Roanna’s questions also gave Megha the opportunity to explain that she wanted to push back against simplistic and unexamined renderings of anyone which is what tends to happen with nationalism’s representation of who people are supposed to be.

Roanna Gonsalves is the author of a collection of short stories called The Permanent Resident, (UWAP) which won the Multicultural NSW Award in the 2018 NSW Premier’s Awards.

Brit Bennett: The Vanishing Half

Areej Nur started by saying that The Vanishing Half was the best thing that had happened to her this year.

Bennett began her novel  with the idea that black/white are not fixed identities… the premise of this story is that the identity of her protagonist is mistaken by others and in slow and not really deliberate ways she decides to take advantage of it.  Small decisions can and do affect our lives and people in a widening circle of our lives.  One of the interesting things about people who ‘pass’ (i.e. get away with not being recognised as black) is that there’s no real research on it.  Research that is available is about the people who’ve been discovered, or revealed themselves, but she was interested in the hidden history of ‘passing’.  Areej thought that there was something magical and like a fairy tale in this story of fifty years of people ‘passing’.   These people are different, and their children are different, and it all comes back to a small decision that took place almost accidentally.

Digression: this session would have benefitted from including an Australian context.  Indigenous people in Australia, if they were ‘white enough’ could ‘pass’, but if they did, they had to renounce their Aboriginality and avoid all contact with family.  I don’t know much about this but I know that (at least until the threat from Japan in the Pacific War) in both World  Wars Indigenous people were not supposed to enlist but some did if they could ‘pass’.  And during the assimilationist phase of our history, there was also an official system of enabling Indigenous people to ‘pass’ which isolated them from their communities.  I think that some Indigenous people in contemporary Australia often experience a questioning of their identity and this is very hurtful.  But the session was framed entirely from an American context.  Brit Bennett actually said that the situation of ‘passing’ was distinctively American, and I know that this isn’t true, because it occurred in South Africa too, during the Apartheid regime.

I think I would have enjoyed this session more if I’d read the book before the session, because I wasn’t always able to follow the conversation, for example when Areej said at the end ‘thank you for bringing Jude back to life’…

An Evening with Elizabeth Strout

It’s a long time since I read Olive Kitteridge, and TBH I didn’t like it as much as Amy and Isabelle, but having heard Elizabeth talk about her portrayal of Olive as an older woman who had grown ‘bigger’ (not physically) I’m now interested in following up with this sequel.

It was fascinating to hear about how these characters just arrive in Elizabeth’s imagination — what wonderful imaginations some authors have!

Listening to Kate Torney and Elizabeth Strout talking about Olive, was as if they were talking about some person that they both knew in real life: it kind of broke a spell when they began talking about the process of writing instead.

It is no reflection on this session that my notes are scrappy: it was late by the time I got to it, and I just relaxed and enjoyed it.

Theresa from Theresa Smith Writes reported on this session as well.

I’ll try to be up early tomorrow for my first session!


  1. ‘she looks to be of an age to have never lived through a recession’… LOL 😂
    The Elizabeth Strout session was delightful, wasn’t it? My post is about to go up.


  2. Hi Lisa, thanks for the update, what a great session. Olive Again is wonderful.


    • Thanks for that recommendation, I’ll chase it up when the libraries are open for business again:)


  3. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing.


  4. I loved the Elizabeth Strout session although at only 40 minutes I thought it was way too short .I hope it wasn’t because Kate Torney ran out of questions. I was fascinated to hear that the Isabelle, Olive meets in aged care, is the same Isabelle who was in Amy and Isabelle.To Strout these women do seem to be real people. The Olive in Olive Again is a much more relatable woman. As Strout pointed out as we get older we can choose whether to be “bitter or better”.


    • The Offspring gave me Amy and Isabelle for Christmas back in the 90s… I hope I’ve still got it somewhere…


  5. I am enoying your comments about the MWF. Thank you so much for sharing. Interesting comments about the author of The Vanishing Half. I enjoy your “corrections” and also your correction of the GFC.


  6. Hmmm … except I don’t totally agree with you about the GFC. People who retired in 2007/2008 actually took quite a hit to their superannuation. We didn’t suffer anywhere near as badly as people it other countries, but there is a group which did suffer. They either had to delay retirement or retire which significantly less capital. I was lucky because of my government scheme, but I had a top up amount to invest and it lost quite a significant amount in that year. Fortunately it represents a very small part of my income so the impact was small but if that amount were bigger and my main source of income I would have done badly.

    I hadn’t heard the term “crisis literature”, but it sounds fair enough to me!

    I was interested in Bradley’s comment about cli-fi. You won’t remember this, but I had quite a round of comments about the term on my post on Alice Robinson’s Anchor point. Dan Bloom, who coined the term was very emotional about Bradley’s put-down of the term!

    I haven’t read any Brit Bennett, but a couple of years ago I think she had a book called The mothers or Mothers (?) that featured on a lot of top lists. I thought then that I should read her. BTW it’s a shame she is so blinkered that she doesn’t know that “passing for white” happens in most places where white is seen as the “better” colour.


    • LOL I had a long (and rather wearying) conversation with him too…

      RE the GFC, yes, it’s true that people did suffer economically, but listening to the tone of voice, I got the impression that she thought what happened here was comparable with the rest of the world. I was in Spain, Portugal and Ireland when they were in the throes of austerity and in the most recent Griffith Review Christos Tsolkias writes about the impact on Greece. Even in Bordeaux there were demos which led them to shut some of the public buildings like museums and art galleries. There was nothing like that here…I think when talking to an author who’s written about the economic catastrophe that hit Ireland and make it sound as if Australia suffered in the same way, it’s a bit of an embarrassment.
      Re Bennett: all it needed was a question to bring out this wider truth about passing but it didn’t happen.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Lisa. It’s certainly true we didn’t suffer anywhere near as much. I just wanted to make sure it didn’t look like people didn’t suffer at all! Pedant to the last – that’s me!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for doing this, Lisa – such interesting panels! And I was intrigued to hear what you thought about the Brit Bennett talk – good point about moving outside the idea that only Americans had passed…


    • I’m guessing that it happens in the UK and Europe even now…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] book, but in a good way. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and featured in last year’s online Melbourne Writers’ Festival, The Vanishing Half is a story that explores race and identity to expose in all its stupidity the […]


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