Write around the Murray Festival panels – Into the Light and Blokes on Belonging

Imagine being 12 years old, living your life in Australia when an event on the other side of the world reverberates to the point that it not only touches you, but throws you and changes the way people see and treat you.   The event was the terrorist attack on New York City and Washington on September 11, 2001 and the girl in Australia is the main character in Libby Gleeson’s Mahtab’s Story.

Speaking on the panel Into the Light – Women’s Stories, Women’s Identities with authors, Jesse Blackadder and Sydney Smith and facilitator, Irina Dunn,  Libby said she was in Canada when the attack happened.  When she returned to Australia she heard Australian Muslims were being blamed for the attack. She organised to interview a number of Muslim girls and wrote Mahtab’s Story. ( Listening to the excerpt describing Mahtab’s journey across the sea, I thought of the current discussion on asylum seekers and wondered how we can turn them away.)

Libby spoke of the sense of not wanting to appropriate someone else’s story, but of staying true to the psychological and emotional journey Mahtab had made.  Irina referred to the double burden women in Afghanistan had been under with the return of the Taliban.
“I knew of women who had been doctors. There were now two generations of women who had been rendered into the position of staying inside and being covered.”

In her novel,  Chasing the Light, Jesse Blackadder also chose to write about women crossing the seas and to bring into the light the story of Ingrid Christensen’s four journeys to Antarctica in the 1930’s as part of the Norwegian Whaling Fleet: the little-known true story of the first woman to set foot on Antarctica. (Her research also brought to light the connection between Marie Stopes, best known for her contribution to contraception for women, to Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic.)

“I was indignant about the way these women had been left out of history. These women had been unknown in Norway and I wanted to pay tribute to them and to tell the story of their emotional and inner journey.”

Jesse travelled to Norway where she saw Christensen’s grave and ‘asked permission’ to tell her story. “Not a single word of Ingrid’s is recorded, but she was heroic in her emotional journey.”

Sydney Smith, author of the memoir, The Lost Woman, endured a life of physical and psychological abuse, but said her memoir, far from being a defiance and an assertion of herself, had become a “love letter” to her mother.

In response to Irina’s question of where Sydney had found that sense of self that had preserved her throughout her life, Sydney  responded: “ I have no idea. It is a part of me that is invisible but it was always there.”

“As a mentor for writers I try to teach them to tap into that subconscious. I respect the subconscious. It helps me to see signs. I believe very much in the power of fairytales and dreams and they are how I understand my experiences.”

On the question of whether female courage differs to male courage, Sydney replied: “I am driven. I don’t know whether you would call that courage.”

Blokes on Belonging – Australian Identity and Culture (including lives spent with hairspray and bobby pins.)

Phillip Gwynne, John Danalis, Tony Birch (facilitator) and Bruce Pascoe contemplate the world of blokes

Phillip Gwynne, John Danalis, Tony Birch (facilitator) and Bruce Pascoe contemplate the world of blokes

While the women’s panel explored emotional and physical bravery, the scene for the Blokes on Belonging – Australian Identity and Culture panel was set by Albury lawyer and Rugby enthusiast, Don Cameron in his introduction, but much of what the panel discussed was the influence of the women in their lives on them.

Don recalled reading an essay by journalist, Bob Ellis about an old man who lived in a one-bedroom bed sit and had died in squalor, but Ellis had written that there was a sense that the man had done his duty.  “He had attended school; after school he had served as a soldier; when he returned from the war he had been a husband, a father and a mate and he’d done his duty.  “There was a sense his life was not wasted because he had done his duty.”

Don went on to speak about the influence of his grandfather on his own life. “I learnt from him. Hunting, fishing, playing cricket. He would think it an abomination that if you nicked the ball and stayed, even if the umpire didn’t put his finger up.”

Tony Birch, author of Blood, spoke of his relationship with his four daughters and asked about the relationship each of them has with their children.

Bruce Pascoe (author of The Chainsaw File and Fog a Dox) said he had a much more open relationship with his children than he had had with his father and that had been very liberating.

“My dad was very traditional. He parted his hair down the middle and wore a checked shirt and a car coat. Dad was a very soft man, but he played lots of good footy. I have a very open relationship with my son. I’ve done a lot of coaching and even coached my own son, which is not a good thing. My son was liberated out of company for a number of years, but now he’s my best mate. There’ve been some sensational times in my life and he’s been there.”

In contrast, John Danali, (Riding the Black Cockatoo)  is not a football fan. “I don’t like footy. For a start I’m cross-eyed so I could never see the ball to catch it! My mission when I was younger was to spend time in the library, or with a paintbrush.  It’s important to acknowledge that you are what you are.  With daughters, I now live in a world of bobby pins and hairspray. I gave up the pretext of trying to fit in to those bloke ‘boxes’.  I’ve been through a journey of belonging. My father liked to go hunting and fishing and I tried to be like him, but I worked out a couple of years ago that I wasn’t. It only took forty-five years.”

Phil Gwynne said his father got some things right and one of those was that he spent time at the pub with his mates – not every night, but some and it gave him a chance to talk. “He wasn’t a talker at home.”

Tony then introduced the topic of writing about women, asking the panel what dynamic it provided them with.

Bruce Pascoe said all of his best friends were mostly women and there had been strong women in his family.

“A parent, grandparent, great aunts. It didn’t surprise me at all that women could run the world. I love talking to women. If I am somewhere and the men start to bag women I will go out of the room. I won’t bag my best friend.” Bruce later spoke about the ability of sex to interfere with a friendship.

“There was fifteen years of friendship I misses out on because of that.”

John said he liked the way women cut to the chase. “You can have a profound conversation with women in just two minutes. There’s no mask to peel off. But I do like male company. I’m a cyclist and go on bike rides with other men. There’s a language in the silence.”

Tony said his ‘terrible’ relationship with his father meant that he sought out men who could be mentors, and asked the panel about mentors in their lives. (Tony spoke more on this in his conversation with Age literary critic – Jason Steger. This will appear in an upcoming post.)

Bruce Pascoe said as an Aboriginal man he liked talking to other Aboriginal men, and that role models for young men needed to be male.

“But I looked to literature for mentors: Steinbeck and Dickens, and I am a mentor to my son and have made him aware of the limitations that can be placed on your life if you make certain choices. But the message I want to give is that you can be this creative and something else as well. You can be in touch with your feminine side and be a big boofy bloke.”

Picking up on this, Tony spoke about the ability of writing to break through and its potential to solve problems.

Bruce: “Yesterday I had kids from a B stream class (What does it say about our education system when we have a B stream) They’d been in the room just three and a half minutes and I knew they shouldn’t have come. There was a ratbag kid in the group. Hormonally they’re all over the joint. But I got them to talk about themselves and this kid started to talk about things that were very sensitive to him. The group could have laughed at him or gathered around him. It could have gone either way. We need to respect the background these kids come from.”

John spoke about the power of healing and storytelling and the ability of stories to fix things up.

“I didn’t realise until I had finished a poem that it had been a way of working through my first experience of shooting something. My father expected me to step up, but I made a mess of the whole thing and all I saw on his face was disappointment.  You write from the heart and don’t intellectualise.”

For Phillip Gwynne, stories can make order of a messy life. “It helps to reset our moral compass. The bad guys get their come-uppance. The good guys get rewarded. “

In the final minutes of the session, the blokes talked about the lessening of the gender divide and all agreed that there had been benefits from this.

And the final takeaway from Tony: Don’t give up on the potential of a good relationship from others.

“There are gems among the bullshit.”

Still to come … Poh at the Festival, and The Big Book Club: Jason Steger in conversation with Tony Birch.






About Robyne Young

Writer, creative writing teacher, editor, columnist. Literary lover. Short story collections, The Only Constant and The Basket and the Briefcase available via website.
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