Melbourne Writers Festival 2017 – Day 3


Second Generation Narratives

My third day at MWF started with an incredibly impressive panel – Randa Abdel-Fattah, Maxine Beneba Clarke, AS Patrić and Alice Pung (chaired by Arnold Zable) – discussing the second-generation Australian experience and how it’s reflected in literature.

From the outset I knew that one hour wasn’t going to be enough to cover this topic, let alone hear all that the panel members had to say. Arnold began by asking the writers about their experience growing up with ‘survivors’ as parents. Their responses were varied. Maxine said that she felt that she was a bridge between generations, tying together the past (her parents) but looking forward to the future (her own children) but regardless, “I feel like there’s one story that I write every time…refuge, hope, escape.”

In regards to The Hate Race and the experiences she described in that memoir, Maxine said “We all feel like we have ordinary lives but this story was playing out in suburbs right across Australia. We have this whole catalogue stories.” (And if that catalogue is as good as The Hate Race then we have lots of great books ahead!).

Alice had a slightly different view, identifying more closely with the first generation than the second. This is predominantly because her sister is much younger and seems more comfortable with her identity (whereas when Alice was growing up, those around her were fighting their Asian heritage).

Randa had perhaps the strongest and most different perspective – “I don’t see it as second generation because I feel my life is ‘raced’ and I see myself in terms of that.” She reiterated this point with “I don’t care that I’m confused by my identity, that I’m never going to ‘feel’ Australian, because I’m always going to be ‘othered’.”

There was extensive discussion around the importance of stories as a way of preserving history (and the fact that in exploring their heritage, the authors wrote about places they hadn’t necessarily visited). Randa emphasised “…how important story is for people who’ve lost so much” and added that stories are “…needed to validate their pain, celebrate their resilience and as a way of speaking back.”

I could go on and on – AS Patrić had lots to say about patriarchy in relation to the publishing industry; Maxine had interesting thoughts on the use of language and they way words are anglicised; Alice spoke of the challenge of cultural stereotypes, particularly in relation to book cover designs (basically, if she’s presented with one more cherry blossom, she’ll scream); and Randa talked about understanding your audience when you’re a ‘non-white writer’. All in all, a fantastic session.

History & Place

Although I’ve heard Hannah Kent speak on many occasions (and I never get tired of hearing her talk about Agnes), this time she was with Tracy Chevalier (chaired by Maxine Beneba Clarke).  The discussion was focused on the challenges in writing historical fiction and more specifically how they create the interior lives of their female characters.

The session began with Maxine asking why the authors chose to write historical fiction. Tracy said that she “…liked writing history because it allows me to step out of myself”. She thought that science fiction writers probably experience the same thing – stepping out of themselves and into the future – but she likes to go back in time. Hannah agreed, adding that she loves research and keeps encountering true stories that niggle until she does something with them.

Maxine highlighted the importance of landscape in both Tracy and Hannah’s work (I think Hannah’s descriptions of landscape are exceptional). Hannah talked about the historical importance of landscape (that we once lived much closer to nature and were exposed to the seasons) but the highlight was Tracy’s description of the Sequoia trees and the ‘Sequoia dance floor‘. Importantly, if she hadn’t visited the trees, she wouldn’t have understood the instinctive response to them; or that the branches are so high that it makes the forest floor quiet and windless; or that you walk differently because the forest floor is covered in duff (thousands of years of fallen pine needles).

The session concluded with both authors talking about how they managed their ‘modern agendas’ alongside their historical characters. Tracy said, “The temptation to give characters a slightly 21st century perspective is almost overwhelming but if we did that, we’d lose your {the reader} respect.” She went on to say that readers come to historical fiction knowing what’s going to happen – for example that there’s about to be a famine or a war, and that adds another layer of complexity to writing. She used the book she’s currently working on as an example – the story set in 1932 at Winchester Cathedral, where a group of women embroidered kneeling cushions. Three of the cushions featured swastikas yet Tracy must write as if she doesn’t know about WWII – sounds like it will be a fascinating book.

A brilliant end to my three days at the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival.

13 responses

  1. I’ve just finished proof reading nearly 300 pages of dense and boring text for the spouse so I am brain dead and can’t think of anything to say, but I just wanted to say thanks anyway:)

  2. I’ve just recently read the Chevalier with the sequoias, she writes very movingly about them (the title’s something about an apple orchard).
    Back to the top, I think we are blessed with our second generation writers (though surely Patric is first gen.), they give a unique perspective to writing about being Australian – Tsialkos for instance.

    • The Chevalier is At the Edge of the Orchard – she had lots of interesting stuff to say about using the beloved folk-hero Johnny Appleseed as the basis for her story. I hadn’t planned on reading the book but now I want to read the bit about the trees.

      Patric fessed up immediately and said that technically he was first generation 🙂 He arrived in Australia when he was two years old but I think was on the panel because he grew up hearing stories from a place he had no memory of. I agree with you (and Maxine) – there’s a wealth of stories from these ‘sandwiched’ generations. This was a fantastic panel (Tsiolkas would have been another great addition – have you heard him speak before? He’s very compelling) and reminded me of how festivals create these unique opportunities.

  3. Another lovely write up Kate – keep them coming. (Or, is this it?) I would have picked both these sessions to go to.

    To be honest. I’m not a very picky historical fiction reader, and so wouldn’t worry about “a slightly 21st century perspective” (though it does have to feel generally authentic of its place and time) because there are a range of perspectives in any society or culture – those who haven’t left the past, those very much in the present, and those who are already thinking about what comes next. I think readers can fuss too much about this latter group, when they are in fact the ones who tend to move us forward (they are the women’s rights proponents for example.)

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