Melbourne Writers Festival 2019 – the last bit

I’m hopelessly late reporting on my last two 2019 Melbourne Writers Festival events, but both were fantastic and worth a mention.

Corey White – The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory

I think my favourite session this Festival was comedian Corey White talking with Sarah Krasnostein about his memoir, The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory.

White has survived family trauma, foster care, boarding school and drug addiction. The book strikes the delicate balance between humour and telling the story in all its heartbreaking and horrific detail. In real life, White was exactly the same. He began by saying that writing the book was a decision to put to rest a certain phase of his life, adding that he also had an ‘advance’ – “…our country’s official arts stipend – the dole”.

Krasnostein observed that trauma plays tricks on memory and that although White labels himself an unreliable narrator, some details are crystal clear. He said that his early memories are scant, and that what’s there is ‘feeling-toned’ (*isn’t that a lovely way to describe a memory?*) – “I liken memories to archipelagos as opposed to a land mass.”

A large part of the discussion focused on the current state of the welfare and foster system in Australia, and peoples lack of understanding – “The disconnection from larger society is natural. I mean, we have no thoughts about agricultural practices in northern Turkey because we can’t affect them. It’s the same with trauma.”

There are many things that White believes would make a difference to the system – “…more resources plus look more deeply and more radically”. He specified more social workers, more foster carers, and a program where drug addicts are paid to be given long-term contraception (like the US Project Prevention), “…when a child is taken into care, it exacerbates the parent’s drug abuse…”.

White talked about his reluctance to be labelled a ‘victim’, wary that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Let’s not enshrine the trauma. Let’s look at strength and resilience.” He finished with saying, “If you want to shrink something, let it expand.”

Corey White appeared on Australian Story in 2015, talking about his foster care experience.

The Child Within

Authors Peggy Frew (Islands), Peter Fenton (The Days of In Between), Carrie Tiffany (Exploded View), and Alice Pung (Laurinda) discussed writing from a child’s perspective. Peggy began by admitting that her choice of narrator was driven by the desire to hold on to elements of her childhood, and Peter was fascinated by the fact that people speak about age with such surprise and bewilderment (“I just turned 70 and yet I feel 22!“).

In contrast, Carrie said that she avoids the child’s point-of-view because it is often pretentious and annoying – “So I’m startled to find myself here with a child narrator,” laughingly adding, “In the future, the children will accuse us of appropriation and fair enough.” She went on to say that in Exploded View, she tried to write as a woman looking back but the narrative was ‘too cool’ and Carrie’s memories of her own childhood were ‘hot’. Alice agreed about the intensity of childhood, attributing it to a sense of powerlessness.

In talking about creating an authentic child character, Peter said, “Children rely on very little evidence to form opinions about what is happening around them. They are inherently perceptive, they observe the non-verbal.” This comment was part of a broader discussion but the ‘very little evidence’ bit has lingered, and picks up on something Carrie said in an earlier session, that children do know everything in their world, and that “Everything has the same intensity.”


9 responses

  1. Interesting that in list of things White had to survive, boarding school is up there with family trauma and drug addiction. How do you feel about child narrators? I think they often know too much. I was pretty oblivious of what was happening to adults for most of my childhood.

    • Yes, I thought the same about boarding school! I have a few friends that went to boarding school – they are all very defensive about their school but in a rush to send their own kids away…

      I agree, child narrators often know too much (which is basically Carrie Tiffany’s issue with them as well). I look back on my childhood and although I may have been largely oblivious to the day-to-day stuff, I very much knew when something was different – there was a tone that my mother spoke in, especially with her friends, and when used, I knew they were talking about something interesting or important.

  2. Really pleased to see that the Corey White event was as good as expected, especially after your fascinating review. I don’t know if I am in the right place to read his memoir at the moment, but it sounds excellent.

    • I think like any perspective, you notice if it’s done poorly or doesn’t sound genuine. I’ve read some amazing books this year written from a child’s perspective (The Choke and Exploded View) and both had an authentic voice.

  3. These both sound such interesting discussions. Corey White’s approach is so appealing and I rarely like a child narrator so I’d be really interested to hear how the panel tried to make it authentic – it sounds as if they may have succeeded.

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