This Wednesday – Thursday, my husband is playing me on the home front and doing the daily school run marathon so that I can devote myself to literary pursuits. I spent all day Wednesday editing my manuscript, which was absolute bliss, and yesterday I went to Sydney Writers’ Festival. When we first moved here in 2001, I was delighted to discover that our new city had a first-class literary festival. It was one of the things that made me feel instantly at home in Australia, and I look forward to it every year the way other people look forward to their annual vacation. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed watching it explode from a fairly intimate event to a massive celebration of literature with Disney-style crowds and queues. It makes it harder to hop straight from one event to the next, and getting a cup of coffee now requires serious effort, but who could complain about a mob of people turning up to talk writers and books?
The first event I went to was Gender, Genre and Literary Prestige, featuring Kate Grenville and Emily Bitto, who just won this year’s Stella Prize, in conversation with Stella Executive Director, Aviva Tuffield. (Ceridwen Dovey was supposed to be present as well, but was unfortunately home sick with the flu.) This discussion was close to my heart as it focused on the gap between attention paid to men’s writing and that afforded to women. Kate talked about how women’s fiction has long been criticized for focusing on the domestic, but as we all know, women have historically been relegated to domestic, teaching, or nursing environments, so naturally much of their fiction to date would reflect those experiences, and only in the light of increasing women’s liberation would we begin to see increasing diversity in settings. She also talked about her mother minding her children a couple days a week to give her the gift of writing time. Emily discussed the concept of artistic “genius”, and how the term has always been used in relation to men, whereas women who made great art were considered “almost” male and lauded for “transcending” their gender. Sigh.
I next went to The Body: Sin, Sex, and Denial with James Boyce, Robyn Cadwallader, and Caitlin Doughty talking to Ashley Hay. I just featured Robyn and her debut novel, The Anchoress, on the blog last week so it was great to see her up on stage talking about an anchoress’s role in her community and the oddity of any woman choosing to become what most would consider “the living dead” by opting to be sealed into a cell off a church for the rest of her life. It was also a treat for me to be introduced to Caitlin, who has made it her life’s mission to expand the way we relate to death. She talked about the way the Western world has evolved to distance itself from death as much as possible, which means that culturally we celebrate the beginning of life but have no way to process—and therefore come to terms with—its ending.
The third event I attended, Canada Now: Raising a Little Hell, had a special resonance for me, being an expat. It was an exploration of cultural identity in Canadian literature, featuring Kim Thuy, Michael Christie, and Lynn Coady in conversation with Hal Wake. Kim had some interesting comments about how, having originally come from Vietnam, she had an outsider’s perspective on Canada and could therefore interpret it in her own way. She talked about the stereotype of Canadian literature having “lots of weather”, and said that for her, weather chat was still original and interesting because she grew up in a country where the weather was exactly the same day in and day out, so if she wanted to write about the ever-changing and extreme Canadian weather, she did. The panel also gave some air time to the curious dilemma faced by a bilingual country, with Kim pointing out that her work (written in French) had been published in Europe before being translated into English for Anglophone Canada. They also discussed the fairly recent rising tide of interest and appreciation for Canadian literature on a global scale, and talked about how Canada had finally begun to embrace and celebrate its own literary successes. As Michael Christie noted, “What better thing is there to be proud of than your country’s literature?”
My last event of the day was Quickies and Corsets: There’s More to the Story of Women and Sex, with Jane Caro chairing Krissy Kneen, Lee Kofman, and Marie Le Moel. This was a frank discussion of women’s sexuality in both “the real world” and as represented by the media and in literature. Krissy launched the talk with a reading from her book about a woman with a vagina that glows blue when she’s sexually aroused, so this was very much a no-holds-barred sort of session. Lee, who was also recently featured on WordMothers with her book The Dangerous Bride, discussed the false notion that non-monogamy and polyamory is exclusively a male thing. Marie spoke to the curious stereotype of French women being promiscuous by reading statistics that reveal they apparently have fewer sexual partners than most of their Western counterparts, and the panel wondered if the stereotype had partially evolved because France has produced so much wonderful erotic literature. This evolved into a discussion about whether “positive” porn has a place in society and what—if anything—we should be teaching younger people about sexuality and sexual expression.
Back Friday for more!