Can you see Tayari Jones in the pic above? She looks tiny but I had to show off the magnificent Capitol Theatre, one of the venues for this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.
I managed four sessions on my first Festival day. The highlights:
I know, I know, I didn’t love An American Marriage but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to hear from the winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Jones began by talking about her inspiration for the book – “People think Southern literature is all about grandmothers and mules but the South as I know it, is suburban.” She referred to her first book, Leaving Atlanta, which draws on her own Atlanta childhood – “…you were worried about murders but you also had to worry about training bras…”.
She won the audience when she told how she had had to attend a writers festival after discovering her books were no longer in print. Seeing her dejection, her father gathered all the copies of her books that he could find, and sent them to the festival so that Jones would have something to sign. The story ended with a brilliant Judy Blume punchline – there was a lot of collective love for Jones’s dad and Judy.
Jones gave fresh insight into An American Marriage – “People assume the story is about a woman’s fight to free her man, but actually she just wants to realise her potential in a meaningful way.” – and went on to question why ‘we’ (society) admire women who are self-sacrificing.
After relaying a story about a man on a plane who said to Jones, “I’ll buy your book for my wife,”, she reflected that all too often “…novels are judged on who reads them, as much as who writes them.”
Jones finished by talking about her writing practice and habits – she writes a letter a day (to various people); she reads her manuscripts aloud as part of her editing process; and all of her books are typed on one of her many typewriters (she noted that the 1930s-40s were the ‘sweet spot’ for typewriter production).
Emilie Zoey Baker kicked off with an historical explanation of ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’ – in (her) summary, the talismans were used for warding off vagina demons, keeping your sword arm free for fighting, and making sure the bride stays faithful.
Moreno Giovannoni read the ‘blue’ scenes from his book, The Firelies in Autumn. Manisha Anjali began with cutting the wedding dress she was wearing, before launching into ‘new’ erasure poetry constructed from various wedding ceremonies. Baker borrowed lines of ‘devastating’ poetry. Chloe Hooper’s response to ‘old’ was the highlight – she read 1380s Chaucer in the style of a bit part actor in a BBC police procedural drama. Hooper assured the audience that she’d practiced her Middle English by watching a YouTube clip on pronunciation but noted that after the Black Death came the Great Vowel Shift – who knew she was a comic?!
The panel were given the task of writing a love letter to themselves. Author Ellen van Neerven and comedian Luke McGregor both wrote very funny letters (Ellen’s opening with “Would I fuck myself? The answer is yes, I would fuck myself 100%” and Luke’s with a list of reasons why he likes himself, starting with “No.1. You always make time for video games” and ending with some tough bits about mental health), but it was author Cate Kennedy’s heartfelt reflection on age and ageing that stole the show. Her ode to the ‘shadow of her former self’ was honest and poetic – “Even if life is going well, age and weariness renders you down.”
After the letters were read, the panel took questions, and all said how difficult the task had been. On ego, Luke said, “If you like yourself too much, you’ll lose your drive to make yourself better.” He mentioned that he had saved his letter with the file name ‘Love letter to myself for MWF’ because “…if someone finds my computer when I’m dead they’ll think I’m really arrogant. That’s the level of my paranoia.”
My last session of the day was a panel talking about the meaning of home. Alice Pung and Australian Burmese Rohingya Organization founder Habiburahman gave different perspectives on their refugee experience, with Habiburahman saying, “My heart is the last home for my hope.”
Author Carrie Tiffany spoke of her childhood move from England to Australia, and then read an autobiographical piece, Horses, that was as devastating and wonderful as all of her work. Her ability to present all elements of a story with such even-handedness is what makes her writing powerful – observations about her father’s flagrant infidelity sit alongside nine-year-old Carrie’s fascination with horses. She said that despite what adults assume, children do know everything in their world, and that “Everything has the same intensity.”
She concluded by talking about the power of childhood memories in shaping your future – “Gaps in memory erase the boredom of childhood. And then minutes will compress and then haunt you for the rest of your life”.