Monday, September 7, 2015

In Conversation On Tariq Ali

On the final afternoon of the Bendigo Writers Festival I was lucky enough to sit in conversation with two fellow Writers In Action and discuss Tariq Ali's fascinating and informative discussion with Robert Mann on his new book "The Extreme Centre." The link below leads to an audio recording of that conversation with Tom and Kate.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bruce Whatley Exhibition Opening.

Bruce Whatley, one of Australia's most loved illustrators of children's books, was a physically imposing man. 6ft tall and broad shouldered, sporting a couple of tasteful tattoos and a goatee, he also spoke eloquently and gave the overall impression of being a wholly capable, talented and insightful individual. As he was the subject of my first formal interview at The Bendigo Writers Festival I was fairly intimidated.
Memory has faded somewhat in the intervening week since the festival so I feel it's important to write this down. Bruce, surrounded by fans and well-wishers after his exhibition opening, was nevertheless indulgent of my request for a slice of his time and I remember that we spoke for about twenty minutes. He was a fascinating guy. The collection of his work on the walls told the story of his life and work, one of constant evolution and growth as an artist. Bruce Whatley forces himself to change styles with regularity, always pushing himself into new ground.
"An Illustrator tells a story," he says "and an artist tells you how they feel about a story. I'm an Illustrator."This statement struck me as very true, evidenced by the great breadth of Whatley's styles. He seemed a man very much interested in visual narrative and communication.
For me the most interesting point of his opening speech had been when he reached images from the book Flood, a collaboration with the multi-talented Jackie French. Whatley's images are starkly emotive and far removed from much of his earlier work. The reason for this was one of my main interests in hearing Whatley speak. He completed a Phd in 2008, Left Hand Right Hand: implications of ambidextrous image making in which he concluded that, for most people, the ability to draw lies in their "other" hand. It was the work of Flood in which Whatley said he really embraced and explored art through his other hand, something he says a lecturer suggested to him 20 years ago that it took him "a long time" to adopt.
On his website he states: "I am continually looking for new innovative ways to make images to tell my visual narratives." and that resonates with my memories of our conversation. I remember asking him about Diary of a Wombat, Fire and Flood and how much those stories were deliberate evocations of place, culture and country. He agreed that they were definitely attempts to tell visual stories of the Australian environment and we discussed his use of iconic Australian animals like the Cattle Dog in Flood, the Cockatoo in Fire or the famed Wombat in the Diary. This, he said was deliberate. These were "Quintessentially Australian animals."
He also included in the exhibition several works illustrating the infamous anti-war ballad ...And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, further evocations of Australian cultural narratives explored through powerfully emotive imagery that didn't shrink from the reality of the war it portrayed.
The final reason for my eagerness to meet Bruce Whatley was that the Festival Timetable mentioned him as a Graphic Novelist and I was excited to hear him discuss his most recent project. An example from the upcoming Graphic Novel Ruben was the final piece in the chronology of Whatley's work. It was richly illustrated in black ink, something Whatley attributes to his discovery and use of 3D modelling programs, another evolution of his already broad talents. Ruben has the look and feel of some dystopian fairytale and I was both excited and devastated to hear that the release date isn't scheduled 'til 2017.
Bruce Whatley to me, was one of the most inspiring and interesting individuals at the Bendigo Writers Festival. He was the most diverse and prolific artist/author I had the pleasure of meeting. His idea's around his own creative drives and passion for pushing his work to the edge of and beyond his comfort zones made him a uniquely inspirational figure. The candour and openness with which he discussed them with me, a stranger, made me like him as a dude. An all 'round nice guy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

John Marsden & Alice Pung

The stage of Bendigo's brand new Ulumbarra theatre was intimately lit. Two comfy looking armchairs faced each other centre-stage and two of Australia's best loved writers sat in deep conversation, seemingly oblivious to the throng of schoolchildren from across the Greater Bendigo region listening in. John Marsden and Alice Pung spoke with a great deal of respect, both for each other and their audience, ably chaperoned in their conversation by Sue Gillet.
The two couldn't be more different at surface level. Alice Pung is new to Young Adult fiction, her latest book Laurinda being her first in the genre. Previously she has been known for her non-fiction works which explore her family history and cultural identity as a first generation Chinese-Cambodian growing up in Melbourne's Western Suburbs. Laurinda, is similarly themed but approaches those issues through the eyes of a young Chinese girl, Lucy Lam, who gains a scholarship to a prestigious private school on the wealthy side of the Yarra and is forced to contend with tyrannical clique of schoolgirls who run it. Alice calls it " exploration of class and socio-economic status in Melbourne."
John Marsden is a man who needs little introduction. Having authored dozens of best-sellers for Young Adults, including the infamous Tomorrow When the War Began series, he opened the Candlebark School in 2006 and now divides his time between working as a principal and an author. He has recently published South of Darkness his first book meant for an adult audience, a book which he also analyses class mobility in a rigid society. South of Darkness tells the story of a 13 year old convict boy, Barnaby Fletcher, who comes to Australia hoping for a better life.
Pung and Marsden spoke to each other and their audience in the Ulumbarra theatre without a trace of condescension. In fact the two were earnest and frank, sometimes downright blunt with their audience.
“The trouble with being a teenager” Pung said at one point “is that you have the mind of an adult but are afforded very little power or agency [to affect the world].”
Both writers, however, commented that this was one of the draw cards of writing for a young adult audience. The themes of survival and challenge are heavy in both their works. Following on from Pung, Marsden sits forward in his chair, looking out intensely into the crowd. The moment feels very personal.
“I like to write characters who solve their own problems, who dig deep and learn things.” he says.
We are all born at a station called Ignorance but we don't have to stay there. In fact there are two journeys in life. One is to move as far away from that station of Ignorance as possible. The other is to move towards Wisdom.”
I wondered at the time if these kind of philosophical conversations might be over the head of some of the younger members of the audience, but when the house-lights came on in the Ulumbarra Theatre and we filed out the doors I heard nothing but positives from the sea of chattering students around me. One girl, maybe about 13 years old, even exclaimed loudly to her friends.
“This was the best day of my life!”
I'm not sure who exactly was to blame for that but someone up on that stage did something right.

South of Darkness by John Marsden is available now through Pan Macmillan at $39.99Laurinda by Alice Pung is available now through Black Books Inc. at $19.99

The G 'n' Tea

Take that title: "G 'n' Tea." Hold it in your mind. Use your imagination.

If you can see brightly coloured armchairs and teapots full of wine then you have a very good imagination. If you can see a stage in the Goldfields Library of Bendigo and a trio of talented poets being interviewed by local personality and total legend Gena Mclean then you are some kind of psychic freak.

After a riotously successful inaugural event in the 2012 Bendigo Writers Festival, the G 'n' Tea has been in hiatus for the last two years. But this year it made a triumphant and emotional return to Write on the Fringe, the Festival’s fringe program which showcases local community talent.

A capacity crowd filled the Goldfields Libraries auditorium space and many attendants called it the stand-out event of the Festival. I'm not just saying that either. Everyone I saw at the G 'n' Tea spoke of it afterwards with a rapturous and distant look in their eye, the look of someone remembering something beautiful that they've lost. Or not lost really. I'll carry that night with me for a long time to come.

The poets were locals John Holton and Bruce "B. N." Oakman, joined by South Australian guest Bronwyn Lovell. You could hardly find a more distinguished bunch.

John is a freelance writer, editor and publisher who creates beautiful, tiny collections of poetry in his home kitchen that he distributes through several stores in Bendigo. He has authored ten publications, including two volumes of short stories and also compiled and edited the book Raining Embers - Bendigo's Black Saturday Experience. At one point he shows us a copy of his tiny books.
“I print in 8 point type” he smiles. “Everything about my poetry is small.” He reads us a poem, brief and beautiful, then elaborates a little further.
“The word that comes to mind [for me] is urgency.” he says. “I get an enormous amount of satisfaction out of brevity."

B.N. Oakman is an ex-economist who has been writing poetry since 2006. In that time he has been published in literary journals, magazines and newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and the UK and has published two collections of his own poetry. His voice is roughen and he reclines in his chair, somehow still as tense as a steel spring.
"There's so much unnecessary observation that must be stripped away in the act of writing." He tells us, restless hands swatting at the air to dispel useless words. He follows that gem with another which grants him an eternal place in my heart.
"I don't believe in closure.” He says. “It's rubbish." As both a football and philosophy fan though, my favourite quote from B.N. Oakman was his analysis of his teams chances this season.
"Seneca” he grins sardonically “would barrack for the Bulldogs. It's a test for the Stoics."

Bronwyn Lovell is a poet, writer and editor who has been published in too many publications to fully list. They include, however, the Australian Poetry Journal and the Global Poetry Anthology, and in 2013 Bronwyn was the winner of the Adrien Abbot Poetry Prize. She has thick red hair and her face is earnest and sincere as she recites a slam poem in response to a request from Gena. Afterwards she sighs and says "The Art in poetry is to be concise... ...It's about distilling a moment."Later she cries out loud as she reads us John Updike's “Dog's Death.” It was an endearing, sincere and beautiful expression of empathy. We all cried with her.

The conversation, the poetry and the wine flowed freely immediately after Gena's provocative leading question: "Does anyone care about poetry?" Hopefully what I've written conveys that the answer to Gena's question is yes. Too much was said for me to summarise it all and honestly, I wouldn't want to. If you were there then you know. If you weren't, be there next year. You won't regret it.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Where does the Horror Come From?

I'm a wuss and I love Horror. I jump in every kind of Thriller/Horror/Suspense moment in a scary movie, and, for that matter, in movies that aren't scary at all. Since I was a kid I've been in a love/hate relationship with the genre. It scarred me early, and I think in a pretty big way. I saw 10 minutes of Stephen King's "It", peeking out from my bedroom door, when I was about 5. In that 10 minutes, lots of children died. Horrifically.The last nightmare I had about a clown, I was 15.
For most of my childhood after that I couldn't be alone at night without feeling the terror of something creeping up behind me. I could feel the knife in my back, the talons on my shoulders, the jaws at my throat or the eyes in the dark. Sometimes I still can. I think it's that feeling of waiting for the danger to appear, that terror and suspense, that I've grown to love now. I crave it. So when the Writers Festival held a panel called "Where Does The Horror Come From?" I was there. No way I was gonna miss it.
"Good Horror writing," Sean Williams says, leaning forward on the couch, hands fluttering in excitement "is not necessarily about the gore or grotesque horror of a slasher film, but it IS full of the tension and dread that comes from waiting for something like that to happen."
And, all things considered, I'd have to agree. Sean Williams would know too. He's cranked out some of the most popular Young Adult horror, fantasy and sci-fi novels in Australia over the last decade, as well as collaborating with fellow Master of the genre game, Garth Nix. Sean Williams was a name I knew. I was less fortunate in that the other two members of the panel were strangers. I was in for a treat and an education.
Keith Austen got the Big Chair, facilitating the discussion, and he introduced his companions in a voice loaded with all the scrape and twang you'd expect out of  a journo from East London. He told me later he gets a bit nervous before doing things like this but you wouldn't have picked it. His manner was that of a bloke in his own lounge-room half the time, though he did play up the host bit along the way and it suited him. I later had a long and thoroughly enjoyable chat with Keith and he was one of the nicest people I met all festival, but I'll save that for another blog.
Keith's written 3 books that he likes to call "Fractured Fairy Tales". He admits that they're marketed as YA Fiction  but he jokes immediately afterwards,
"That's just what the publishers say. My target audience is between eleven and one-hundred and eleven. That's my niche." The crowd laughs and Keith introduces the 3rd member of the panel. When he holds up her book I realise that I do know her.
Keri Arthur's books are everywhere. They have sexy, tough looking girls with samurai swords and assorted ancient weaponry on the cover and run the full gamut of horror fiction.Werewolves, Vampires, Demons & Ghosts, Keri told us, no matter the monster she loved and wrote them all. While I haven't read her books, I've seen them around enough to know that they're enormously popular. Personally, I was sold when she described them as "Horror and Fantasy novels with strong female protagonists who were relativity ordinary people in extraordinary situations."
These three esteemed authors of the Horror genre proceeded to take the piss out of their own fears for the next hour. Keith, for example, admitted that he was terrified of cotton wool and would leave the room if it came near him. Sean disclosed a crippling arachnophobia, calmed for now by a recent fumigation. Instead, he said, he now lives in terror at the thought of when he may find a spider again.
"Where there's one," he says, grinning in embarrassment "there will always be more."
Keri didn't have anything funny or phobic to admit to but she did discuss the irrational fears of childhood, like mine, of just fearing something in the dark & being terrified for no real reason. This fed into a cheery and philosophical discussion of Universal Fears such as :

 - Being left completely alone.
 - Death.
 - Alzheimers
 - The Unknown

This list is prestigious and a little confronting and I challenge you to think of others. What's something that Everybody fears? While you're answering the questions that came out of this session, Reader, here are some more:

Do animals feel Horror, as opposed to fear or terror?
Do Horror stories contain a moral lesson?
Is Horror supernatural or can Horror come from everyday moments?
Can you set a Horror story in broad daylight?
What is the difference between Terror and Horror?
Can Horror be defeated or does true Horror never end?

This conversation, dear Readers, was a privilege to be a part of. It reminded me of my love/hate relationship with fear and my infatuation with a genre that shaped my childhood and young adult life. The questions and themes inspired me to start my brain thinking about the genre more and I'm already crafting stories in response.
Fear is fun. With the lights on...

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sometimes Words Echo...

Tonight I went to the G 'n' Tea at the Write on the Fringe Festival & I don't think anything else that happens this week can top it, folks. Tariq Ali might blow my mind tomorrow, Alice Pung might agree to go steady with me and John Marsden may finally give me a job but I still think that the collective catharsis that came from watching these 3 poets share their words and their passion will be a life changing memory for me forever.
In the next few days I'll write something that can hopefully sum up how enormous the experience was, but in the meantime I've been getting drunk and inspired.
Imbibing poetry, philosophy, wine and cigarettes on the back veranda of my mate Jaci's house, we've been stewing over our thoughts for hours. When Jaci went to bed I immediately grabbed a pen and paper and started to write. I hope she understands. It's nothing personal. We  both agree we prefer to write alone and it was our conversation as much as what came before that gifted me the inspiration to find something to say. I found this:

Words Echo

Sometimes Words echo.
Maybe not Forever,
but long enough...

Life is like a drug.
You might say you wanna stop,
but you're never really gonna quit
until the day you finally realise
that you've had too much.

Love is like a Song.
It's better when it Hurts
'cause it means more
when you try to sing along.

Lust is like a River.
It's full to the point
that it's bursting its banks
but it's already passed you by
before you can take what it gives you.

Sweetness is Bitter,
Peace has a Temper,
& Lies are Forever.
Duty is a mountain,
Death is a Feather.

Beauty is the Weather,
Changeable, Strange
& Always a bother.

The Desert is my Brother,
The Jungle is my Father,
My Mother is the Sun
& the Moon is my Sister.

& Sometimes Words echo.
Maybe not forever,
but long enough...

Thanks for the conversations Jaci. Love you.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Milieu In The Middle.

I want to talk more about dichotomy. I want to try and understand the differences of personal identity and stories that separate us; and I want to find the commonalities of narrative and place that makes us the same, no matter how big the gulf can seem.
At the risk of sounding like a wanker I'm going to try and investigate these ideas through my my own experience of the "Artistic Process."

God I hate myself.

When I write, friends, It's like the great, gasping heaves of a hefty and aging emphysema patient, like a beached and dying whale. Writing to me is the tantalising breathe of clean air between the waves of feeling like I might die. Not because writing is pure, or real or inherently good. That's bullshit.
Beauty can sometimes be the Truth but the Truth is not very often beautiful.
Writing just makes me feel like the darkness, the sadness, and the frustration actually serve a purpose. Not a purpose external to me, understand, the opposite. Writing cleans out the plumbing.
After I've plumbed the Depths of what it means to be me, expressed my Baseness and Abhorrence and Bad-Feeling, there comes a time when I'm ready to see what's on the other side.
And surprise, surprise, Friends, the other side is good. The other side is inspired and pure and golden, and every bit as real as the other.
So I write when I feel good, even if I'm writing about feeling bad, and vice versa.
These are the dichotomies of my nature. Good and bad, light and dark, whatever. All that.
I've learnt that I can't actually express myself, my story, with any claim to Truth without accepting the fact that I'm actually a mess of mismatched and broken parts.
But I'm still whole.

Death and rebirth, love and hate, sadness and joy, anger and calm. These are dichotomies.
Black and White.

I feel like knowing these opposites exist can either separate us as Human Beings; or they can grant us the understanding to better perceive the million shades of grey in-between.
Life is not simple.
Never as simple as Black and White anyway.
Putting two things together like that, so simplistically, highlights their differences, sure, but I believe that with a little Intuition, some Old Fashioned Good-Feeling and the spit of Creativity, it can do the opposite.

Difference can bring people together.

Tonight I went to my first official Bendigo Writers Festival function, an exhibition opening for Co.lab Arts. I saw this exhibition last year and fell in love with the idea. Hugh Waller, the man who kicked the idea off 4 years at the first Fringe, seemed a passionate and charming fellow. Colab. is an interdisciplinary collaboration between artists that can swing both ways. Visual Artists compose and share works to which Poets can respond, or vice versa. The result is a simple and beautiful symbiosis that speaks volumes about the human ability to empathise. Melinda Rodnight, a Visual Artist from Castlemaine and a contributor to the Colab, exhibition, alongside her poetic counterpart, Lisa D'onofrio spoke of the experience of shared creation as " intuitive experience."
"Lisa and I never spoke about themes in my work, or big ideas" she said.
"The whole thing was about letting the artwork speak for itself and inviting the viewer into a conversation about the nature of the work."
Melinda's image, titled "Journey" spoke to me about the Bendigo bush. I'm from the Blue Mountains in N.S.W and it's a lot wetter there. Bendigo is dry. The earth here is red and hard, the bush sparse and torn. Even after 160 years after the wholesale removal of timber from the Goldfields, the scrub around here is pretty scrubby. The harsh and hot contrasts of reds and blacks spoke of heat and drought and hardship; but there was a warmth and a story in this image too. Broken in to four panels, the image presented a kind of visual narrative, no less tangible for it's evocation of nameless places, rather than people.
Lisa words were all the more impressive as accompaniment to the image for the lack of any communication between the two artists. Picking up on the stark distance and the emphasis on struggle and space, Lisas poem put me in the mind of Neitzche and Camus. The struggle through life, almost definitely meaningless, takes on meaning through itself. This is the journey. To learn. To grow.
To find Life in the Desert.
If you haven't picked it already, Reader, I'm a big fan of the Existentialists. Life sucks, make it better.

The introductions to the evening were an interesting affair. The Mayor, Peter Cox, was there. He made mention of two very potent facts, if we're still discussing the nature and narrative of a Place. He performed a heartfelt Acknowledgement of Traditional Ownership, which was roundly applauded; and he happily informed us that the much disputed Bendigo Mosque had been approved for construction. On both counts the room was full of smiling, happy and sincere faces. White faces. Not a shade of brown or a hijab in the room. I mention this not out of spite or vilification, Dear Reader, but to discuss a point that Peter Cox himself raised. Bendigo has a history rooted in the Goldfields that built the State of Victoria and provided Bendigo with a long and proud history of independence and nation building. Those selfsame Goldfields, however, were also hotbeds of racial tension in their day, loaded with memories of inequality, wage disparity and White Australia. No sooner could I make this connection, however, than the Mayor was hailing the "New Spirit" of Bendigo. A spirit of Culture and The Arts which had cemented Bendigo as a hub for the region. This is a point I could not dispute. I lived in Bendigo for 6 months a while back and I love the place.
The Gallery here is phenomenal. Culturally and stylistically diverse, it was one of the places that taught me a greater appreciation for Visual Art. The Golden Dragon Museum holds a proud position near the centre of town and celebrates the long history of a culture once so divisive in this country; and it Belongs there. Its tiled walls, Lion statues and Paifang fit the Victorian cityscape perfectly. Somehow they all seem both modest and grand.
There are book stores here too. Good ones. And tattoo shops. Pizza places and art galleries, pubs and cafes, laser hair removal clinics and some of the best antique stores you'll ever see.
Bendigo to me is a conglomerate of things. It is history and present, past and future, stasis and change. It's a place where these things seem to co-exist without truly blending.
At least, you could choose to see  these things as separate, rigid, and irreconcilable ideas; or you could see the milieu in the middle. The million shades of grey between those opposing ideas that make a city like this live and breathe.
Bendigo is alive with it's history and it's looking toward the future, building it's culture. That's a narrative. Bendigo has a story and I think it's a good one.
I was lucky enough to meet Cecile Shanahan, the Communication Officer for the Festival, at the Colab. launch and I collared her for a quick chat. A semi-recent arrival to Bendigo, she seemed to share my enthusiasm for the it's story.
"This city" she said "is experiencing growth and opportunity, and a cultural change that is ecclectic and booming."
"The festival this year" she said "is about opening the city up. It's not just for readers and writers. It's about sharing ideas and stories,  inviting everyone to come and engage with ways to live "The Good Life."
Amen Cecile. Amen.