I attended four sessions over the first weekend of the Melbourne Writers Festival.
Saturday began with a hot topic – assisted dying. I chose this session because of its relevance to my voluntary work in palliative care. Unfortunately, although the session was informative, the panel was entirely pro-VAD (Voluntary Assisted Dying) and therefore it was not the ethical debate I was hoping for.
Take-home message? That the VAD Act gives people the opportunity to have discussions about end-of-life, and that these discussions improve our ‘death literacy’.
More death! Next I headed to a session with Buddhist monk, Gyatso; doctor, Leah Kaminsky; and journalist, Deepanjana Pal. All three panelists had written about death, and each had done so for different reasons – Leah said, “I realised I was terrified of death so knew I needed to confront and explore it. It was like a pizza chef being scared of dough…”.
Gyatso’s writing about mortality was deep and complex, although he looked up from his reading and laughingly exclaimed “Don’t wait for the diagnosis, we’re all dying!”
Deepanjana spoke about death through a cultural lens. Listening to her talk about the complexities of female infanticide in India made me determined to get a copy of her novel. She noted that from her experience as a journalist, most female infanticide happens not because mothers ‘prefer’ sons, but because they don’t want a daughter to have to live the way they have.
Her novel is written from the perspective of a doctor who performs selective abortion. She said, “Violence in fiction is often articulated through the female body. I wanted to explore the thought processes of the perpetrator, take the focus off the body.”
I know Catherine Deveny puts some people off-side but I was prepared to hear what she had to say about her personal battle with mental illness. She has co-authored a book on mental health, Mental, with psychiatrist Dr. Steve Ellen. Although they seemed an unlikely duo, Deveny explained that she pulled Ellen away from ‘text-book-speak’, while he grounded her with science and practical advice.
Ellen’s view on treatment of mental illness was clear and straightforward – “For nearly every medical illness, we have a plan – for example an asthma plan where you do a, b and c. It’s the same for mental illness. Have a plan, try different things, have time limits attached.” He emphasised that we don’t have all the answers and that what works for one person may not work for others.
I very much liked Ellen’s ‘first-aid’ approach – he said that patients will often ask why they are depressed/ anxious/ have a personality disorder. While noting that “…everything in psychiatry is a spectrum”, he said that the simple answer is that no one knows for sure. As a psychiatrist, his task is to address the ‘How can I help you right now?’ question. Once progress has been made on that front, you can delve into the ‘why’.
There were some terrific audience questions and in particular, one about writing a memoir when your family disagree with your memories. Deveny’s answer was fascinating – “Writing is very much like therapy. It’s about creating a narrative that makes sense.” She noted that your family may not like your version of events but that with memoir “…it doesn’t have to be accurate, but it does have to be authentic.” Interesting.
Finally, at the book signing, Deveny had a range of stamps – they were all funny and it was hard to choose (I was tempted by “This book was stolen from the bedside table of Tony Abbott”) but in the end I went with something that I often say to my husband(!) –
I was a bit excited about this session, mainly because at one MWF planning meeting I said “I always like to ask authors ‘What book made you a reader?’ Marieke loved that question (actually, we spent quite a bit of time answering that question…) and look! The ‘Sacred Texts’ series. So I am obviously feeling completely up myself.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty, I have to say the session was expertly chaired by Zoya Patel – she was funny, smart, and on target. The panel – Neko Case, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Michelle Law, Hollie McNish and Emily Nussbaum – each had to nominate the feminist text that ‘set them alight’. The selected texts and the stories that went with them were surprising and entertaining.
Neko Case nominated her college art history text, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. The book was inches thick and included only five female artists. It began what Neko referred to as her ‘chronic mathematics’, where in every situation, in everything she read/ watched/ listened to, she would ask ‘Where are the women?’. Reflecting on her time at university and the fact that the texts were all written by white males, she said, “Maybe we should get our money back from the institutions we went to? It was very expensive to learn about no women.”
Emily Nussbaum shared memories of an album and book combination, Free to Be – You and Me by Marlo Thomas. The songs were all based on a simple message – that all people should have all possibilities. Emily said that one song in particular stood out because it scared her – Girl Land – “There’s something to be said for frightening children into feminism.” (Girl Land is terrifying!).
Growing up, Maxine Beneba Clarke felt that being black was the bar, as opposed to being female. Although she had a deep love for The Babysitter’s Club series, the book that she returned to over and over was Liza Lou And The Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer. Maxine identified with this little black girl who had to find her way around constant obstacles. She tracked down a copy of the book for her own child and was surprised and amused to discover that it was written by a white male!
Hollie McNish cited Matilda as her feminist role model, or Lisa Simpson, which prompted Michelle Law to say that her heroine was Amy Sedaris’s character in the TV show, Strangers With Candy. Michelle’s book pick was Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.
A robust discussion about the representation of women (and minorities) in literature followed and my notes include gems such as, “I love the sociopathic qualities of Pippi Longstocking…” and “It’s not all about the Wonder Woman role models…good to have the crazy, out-of-control, disgusting…they show that we can drop our boundaries and be vulnerable” (both from Emily).
The discussion ended with an insightful and hopeful comment from Neko – “A new generation of scholars will bring women back from history. The reclaiming is going to be an exciting thing to see.”