Browsing Tag

Canberra

Canberra Writers Festival 2019

25 August 2019

It’s festival season again and I chaired the first panel of the Canberra Writers Festival weekend. It sold out all 200 seats within two days of going on sale! How great is that?!

It was the largest panel that I’ve ever chaired, with six writers: Paul Daley, Marion Halligan, Tracey Hawkins, MP Andrew Leigh, Nicole Overall and Marg Wade. As chair, the challenge is always to ensure that everyone gets enough ‘air time’ and that the conversation flows seamlessly. With such a big panel that’s more of a challenge than ever, but the feedback from audience members was so overwhelmingly positive that I’m pretty sure we nailed it. And the panellists each brought such unique and interesting perspectives to the discussion.

Marg Wade, Andrew Leigh, Marion Halligan and me

We were there to talk about our much-derided capital, using a new anthology, Capital Culture, in which we all have stories, as the springboard. I think it’s fair to say that few countries show as much contempt for their capital as Australia. Canberra bashing is a national pastime and the fact that journalists use ‘Canberra’ as a shorthand for federal parliament doesn’t help. (Paul Daley and Marion Halligan both spoke about being on a mission to change this.) It is often conceded that Canberra is indeed a liveable city, but it is not lovable. According to its detractors, it is a city without a soul.

Continue Reading…

I was once one of those detractors. While I was living in the UK my family moved from Melbourne to Canberra. I was outraged. ‘I will never live in Canberra!’ I declared. But by the time I had tired of England’s consistently moody weather, I missed my family too much not to join them. I enrolled in a creative writing degree at the University of Canberra. I told myself that I would stay only three years, get my family fix, and then head back to Melbourne. Twenty years later I’m still here. Four of my five brothers have moved back to Melbourne but I love it here. I don’t know if I’ll ever leave (though I’m now wary of grand definitive statements!).

Question time — not quite so greulling as parliament, though clearly we took it very seriously

The conversation on the panel was wide-ranging and fascinating. We spoke about what makes Canberra so great (yes, it is), including the wonderful writing community (which I am so grateful for) and the hills and bushland that surround us (which I am equally grateful for). We also talked about the more problematic aspects of our city, with Paul noting that Canberra’s poor are largely rendered invisible. I always find it difficult to provide a detailed account of an event that I’ve been part of, but Sue Terry from Whispering Gums has written up a most excellent summary.

 

I also managed to get to some other fascinating sessions. The highlight was a session with asylum seeker, journalist, author and filmmaker Behrouz Boochani, live from Port Moresby, where he was moved several days ago, and his translator Omid Tofighian who was present in the National Library theatre. Omid spoke about how Behrouz has changed his life and been ‘an enormous inspiration’. Indeed, Behrouz is clearly a dignified and intelligent man who has now been imprisoned for six years, simply for seeking asylum.

I was particularly struck by his comments around censorship and that the government’s greatest weapon is to refuse to acknowledge him, or any of the other refugees, by name. In this way the government denies them their identity and the ability to be human. But Behrouz’s work through literature and film has meant that many of us now are able to see the human cost of the government’s inhumane policies. If you haven’t read Behrouz’s book, No Friend but the Mountain, I’d recommend that you get your hands on a copy immediately. It has rightly won two major literary prizes.

There was so much love in the room for Behrouz, with the session concluding with a standing ovation. I feel privileged to have spent an hour with him, and we would be fortunate indeed to have him as an Australian citizen. Our government continues to disgust me.

The last panel of the festival was another highlight. David Marr, Sally Rugg and Sally Wheeler, brilliantly moderated by Nigel Featherstone, spoke about growing up queer. The conversation was both extremely funny and deeply moving. They each shared their coming out stories, which were for the most part ‘disappointing’ in that they weren’t met with any surprise.

A lot of time was spent discussing the postal survey on marriage equality and the emotional toll that it took. LGBTIQ activist Sally Rugg said: ‘It was utterly shameful and saw the worst in our parliamentary system, but also the best in people.’ David added that the government can never take away the fact that 61.9 per cent of people voted for marriage equality. The panellists all agreed that the legislation was a powerful symbol of equality.

Sally Wheeler compared the Australian process to the English one, which she experienced firsthand, noting that in England the legislation was passed painlessly and without fuss. It left me thinking again about Behrouz Boochani’s assessment of the Australian government, and the means by which it attempts to control its citizens. Behrouz urged us not to be complacent — to be mindful of the ways in which the government is eroding our freedom and liberty.

A good festival should challenge us and get us thinking about the world and our place in it. CWF 2019 certainly did that for me.

Update: The stats from the CWF team are in and it was lovely to hear that the panel I chaired was the second most popular session, behind only Simon Winchester and Richard Fidler. For deatils on the different stats, Whispering Gums has an excellent post that breaks it all down.

Take four

15 May 2017

‘I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.’ Audre Lorde

This is what we writers do, in our private corners of solitude. We put words on the page that go out into the world and speak to readers. But a writer’s job also involves getting on a stage and speaking directly to those readers, trying to articulate the thinking behind the messy and elusive process of creating a work of fiction. It can be nerve-racking and exciting and stimulating. In the lead-up to an event I always feel anticipatory nerves, but once I’m on the stage I enjoy myself, and often come away feeling buoyant.

I’ve been part of four very varied events on writing and/or editing in recent weeks and I thought I’d share a little about the experience of each of them.

‘Animal Rights Writing’: Nigel Featherstone, Sam Vincent, Karen Viggers and Irma Gold

Most recently I was on an ‘Animal Rights Writing’ panel with Karen Viggers and Sam Vincent. I’ve never seen a panel programmed on this subject before. (Hit me up in the comments if you have, because it’s a topic I’d love to see discussed more.) This session was chaired by Nigel Featherstone who managed to expertly guide the discussion through our respective areas of interest. Our books deal with kangaroo culling (Karen, The Grass Castle), international whaling (Sam, Blood and Guts) and the exploitation of elephants for tourism (me, a children’s book, Seree’s Story, due out with Walker Books, and a work-in-progress novel, Rescuing Chang). Our conversation covered much ground, but, for me at least, the key idea that emerged was that conservation issues tend to be distilled into polarised positions which don’t necessarily reflect the complexities involved. Life is full of grey, and solutions are rarely of the black-and-white kind. Fortunately, writing can explore the grey. While this event delved into the darker side of humans’ impact on the world, it was a thoroughly stimulating and thought-provoking discussion. And as the icing on the cake, I returned home to an email from an audience member who felt moved to get in touch after hearing me speak about the devastating situation facing Asian elephants. With both my books yet to be released, I’m looking forward to many more conversations like this one.

Continue Reading…

Noted: Ashley Thomson, Irma Gold, Alan Vaarwerk, Sian Campbell

As part of Noted Festival, I was on a panel with Alan Vaarwerk (Kill Your Darlings) and Sian Campbell (Scum Magazine), ‘Literally the Worst: Bad Writing and Badder Editing’, with Homer Editor Ashley Thomson chairing. I wasn’t keen on the title’s negative angle, but I guess a feisty premise draws the crowds, and the event was certainly packed. Fortunately the focus of discussion was productive, emphasising ways for writers to improve their craft. We also spoke about the hallmarks of good editing and when to identify ‘bad’ editing. In particular, I spoke about the need for editors to work with the author’s voice, not impose their own. Our own idiom is always what sounds ‘right’, so good editors learn to recognise their own preferences and then set them aside. They essentially become chameleons, taking on the colours of the manuscript in order to help the author make their work the very best it can be. (As you can see, Shauna O’Meara choose to illustrate this part of our conversation; my first time immortalised as a cartoon!) We spoke about a whole lot else besides and the event was podcasted here if you’d like to have a listen.

For the next two events I was the one in the interviewer’s hot seat. It’s such a responsibility being the interviewer. Over the years I’ve seen the way poor interviewers give authors no place to go and leave everyone feeling flat, and conversely the way brilliant interviewers draw the very best out of their subjects, gleaning new insights. Part of the skill is developing a rapport with the interviewees before hitting the stage, which is of course easier if you already know them. It’s also important to be super prepared but then be able to go with the flow on the day, so that the conversation evolves, rather than rigidly following a pre-existing set of questions.

It’s such a privilege chatting with other writers, and the in-conversation event with Marion Halligan and John Stokes about their lives together was one of the loveliest events I’ve been a part of. Marion and John are perhaps best described as Canberra literary royalty. They are a warm, generous and supportive presence in the local community, and our discussion reflected that. There was much laughter, but also tears. Both have written so movingly about grief and loss, and John’s reading of his prose poem about the death of Marion’s daughter, ‘Funeral Address for a Stepdaughter’, had the audience reaching for the tissues. Marion once wrote, ‘Grief does not dissipate, it is something that exists, and must be valued, even treasured.’ Wise words indeed. It was a rich and wonderful hour spent with two marvellous writers.

And finally, I interviewed Robyn Cadwallader about her stunning debut novel, The Anchoress, as part of Festival Muse. I wrote about some of our discussion here, so I won’t rehash it, but Robyn was a delight to interview—thoughtful, insightful and intelligent. Our discussion lingered in my mind long after the event was over.

Next up, I’m heading to Holy Trinity Primary School in my role as Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge. School visits are always heaps of fun, so I can’t wait to meet all those new little readers.

SOMETHING SPECIAL

13 December 2013

Receiving the award for Outstanding Service to Writing and Publishing in the ACT and RegionSome days everything falls in a heap, and that’s what happened to me yesterday. Plans went awry and I scrambled to get to the announcement of the ACT Writing and Publishing Awards. I arrived as they were announcing the last award. Massive fail. Most particularly because they had created a special award just for me. And I missed it.

Thanks to much hand waving and pointing by the likes of Penelope Cottier and Craig Cormick I was invited on stage to receive my award. Here’s a little of what was apparently said earlier (which I only read via email today): ‘In a one off, the Writers Centre has decided to present the Outstanding Service to Writing and Publishing in the ACT and Region Award to Irma Gold for her work with The Invisible Thread anthology…Irma has shined a light on the incredible literary scene that Canberra has had and still has today.’

What an incredible recognition of the last four years work. I feel so honoured that I am really at a loss for words. But it also doesn’t feel quite right accepting these awards (last month I was awarded a Canberra Critics Circle Award for The Invisible Thread) when there are so many others behind the scenes who have made the publication such a success. So I’d like to take this opportunity to name just a few of those who should share in this award.

Continue Reading…

Firstly, Anne-Maree Britton, Chair of the Advisory Committee and literary mover and shaker. Without Anne-Maree there would be no anthology. Together we dreamed up the idea, secured the funding, invited Halstead Press on board, and so on. Anne-Maree may have since left the ACT for a sunnier state but after 15 years as director of the ACT Writers Centre and Chair of the Thread committee her legacy is significant.

To the Advisory Committee — Maureen Bettle, Adrian Caesar, Alan Gould, Marion Halligan, Clare McHugh and Robert Phillips — who spent the better part of a year reading and reading and reading their way through the work of over 250 writers. At times I think we were all a little overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. And of course we had to make many tough decisions. I thank the committee for sharing their time and expertise so generously. Though we disagreed at times, we always agreed on one thing: there is a wealth of talent in the ACT and it deserves to be acknowledged on a national stage.

To the Centenary of Canberra team, most particularly Creative Director Robyn Archer, Julian Hobba and Bev Growden, for their support right from the start. And to the ACT Government who came to the party and made it all possible.

To all our sponsors: Maxeme and Roger at Paperchain Bookstore, the Molonglo Group and their brilliant Events Manager David Caffery, Greg Gould at Blemish Books for his work creating the ACT Writers Showcase website, and the National Year of Reading team.

To the ACT Writers Cen7347971tre Board and staff, particularly Director Kelli-Anne Moore, who provided me with admin support (and much-needed moral support on many occasions).

To Judy Horacek for making the book so beautiful, and Halstead Press for publishing it.

To a fabulous filmmaking crew: Dylan Jones for producing the video interview series, James Hunter for a stunning book trailer, and Daniel Cahill for the charming animation of Judy Horacek’s Invisible Thread illustrations.

And finally, but most importantly, to all the writers who make the anthology what it is. It has been a pleasure to work with you.

These are only the main players — there are so many others who were involved in different capacities. You all know who you are. And I am grateful to each and every one of you.

A WINNING THREAD

27 November 2013

With Chanel Cole at the awards

Twenty-three has always been my favourite number. I was born on the 23rd. In my 23rd year I graduated from university into this writing and editing life. And last night at the 23rd annual Canberra Critics Circle Awards I picked up an award for The Invisible Thread.

Earlier that day I had been preparing documentation for the Centenary of Canberra summarising our year of achievements. Most importantly, of course, there is the anthology itself. A collection of 100 years of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by 75 writers with a connection to Canberra. The book has been enthusiastically received by both readers and critics, with Australian Book Review calling it ‘a captivating collection’ and Whispering Gums concluding that The Invisible Thread ‘should be on every Australian bookshelf’. I can’t think of a better endorsement than that!

In addition there have been a series of video interviews with Invisible Thread authors, a book trailer, an animation of Judy Horacek’s illustrations, eight incredible events featuring so many of our authors, and the creation of the ACT Writers Showcase website, the first site of its kind in Australia.

Needless to say it has been a busy and wonderful year. I’ve had the good fortune to share it with the dedicated anthology Advisory Committee and all the authors who make The Invisible Thread such a special book. And to receive a Canberra Critics Circle Award is a grand way to top it all off, particularly given that it was alongside Thread authors Lesley Lebkowicz (for The Petrov Poems) and Robert Macklin (for Dark Paradise), as well as that super talented crew from Scissors Paper Pen.

To read about the full list of award recipients across all art forms see this article in The Canberra Times, and for photos of the night click here.

Woven Words

29 April 2013

Whenever people talk to me about Woven Words the word ‘magic’ seems to crop up (read a review here). And I can’t help but agree that it was indeed a night on which magic happened.

You never quite know how an event is going to unfold. Woven Words was, in some ways, a grand experiment. An innovative idea driven by NewActon’s David Caffery, we couldn’t be sure if the event was going to soar or crash. I was pretty certain it was going to be spectacular, but in the end it was much more than that. If you’re lucky, an intangible connection — a synergy, if you will — happens between the artists and the audience. When it does, it’s electric. And it was.

The evening kicked off with Sara Dowse reading from her Invisible Thread essay about a weekend spent with Hollywood movie star, Ava Gardner, when she was seven years old (you can read more about it in my interview with Sara here). This story captivated me all those months ago when I first read it, and it still draws me in every time. Hearing her read live was an absolute pleasure. She is a wise and gracious lady.

Sara and I have exchanged countless emails in the lead up to this event but I met her for the first time on Saturday. She was so much smaller than I expected (she commented that I was so much taller than she expected!). More importantly, she is an incredibly warm person with so many fascinating life stories to tell. I eagerly await her memoir which is currently in the works.

Sara chose two jazz standards to bookend her reading, ‘Speak Low’ from the movie One Touch of Venus, in which Ava Gardner starred, and ‘Old Devil Moon’ from the 1947 musical, Finian’s Rainbow. Chanel Cole performed both songs, accompanied by pianist Adam Cook. For those who aren’t aware, Chanel made it to the number five spot on Australian Idol in 2004 and since then has been gigging about town (as well as doing a million other things, as you do).

I’ve always wanted to see Chanel perform live but somehow never have. Her renditions were tender and full of grace. Sara whispered to me that they gave her goosebumps. Afterwards I got to spend a bit of time with Chanel as we ate olives and bread in the emptied out venue. Not only is she talented and beautiful but also incredibly sweet. Now I’m doubly a fan.

After each author’s section we took a break to absorb and reflect on what we had just experienced. Our host for the evening, Genevieve Jacobs from ABC 666, kept everything moving along with her usual finesse.

The middle section showcased Alex Miller reading from his novella The Sitters, extracted in The Invisible Thread. Alex has long been one of my favourite authors but I have only recently discovered that in person he has a biting wit. He can also imitate any English accent you’d care to throw at him, and is not afraid to speak his mind. I collected him from the airport on Saturday evening and over dinner he announced to the table that he could tell I had children because my car was a state. He should have seen it yesterday, I thought. Before his arrival my daughter had removed all the books and shoes and discarded items of clothing and vacuumed it thoroughly. It was as pristine as it will ever be. He did, however, claim it made him feel entirely at home given the (far worse) state of his grandchildrens’ car. As it turns out my daughter and his granddaughter share not only poor car etiquette but the same unusual first name.

Later that evening Alex managed to stir up the entire Woven Words audience by provocatively asserting that no one lives in Canberra by choice. Alex Miller, I’ve decided, is a wicked man, and I like him enormously. Hearing him read from The Sitters, I was spellbound. Alex recounted how his original draft of The Sitters was a 400-page tome, but on a long flight he ‘dreamt the book’. The voice of the story came to him and he knew exactly what he had to do. So he tossed the whole lot out and started from scratch. The result was the much tauter novella-length work that was published in 1995.

To bookend Alex’s reading Adam Cook performed ‘City of Carcosa’, the first movement from ‘Sonata No. 2’, written especially for him by composer Larry Sitsky, who is undoubtedly a genius in our midst. Adam’s performance of this technically challenging work was so powerful that I’m actually at a loss for what to say. As Alex Miller commented, it is not possible to truly comprehend or explain music — it speaks to our souls, moves us in ways that words cannot adequately express. Let me just say that I was witness to something extraordinary.

Then came Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, composed in the year of Alex Miller’s birth, performed by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) string quartet. Part of Barber’s ‘String Quartet Op. 11’, it is one of the most popular of all twentieth-century orchestral works. ‘Adagio for Strings’ is so sorrowful, so full of pathos, that I felt quite weepy listening to it (as photos from the night attest!).

In the last section Alan Gould read six poems that covered everything from the sea and sex to the staccato rhythms of flamenco-inspired poems. The latter two works presented plenty of breathing challenges but Alan pulled them off to great applause. Having worked closely with Alan as part of The Invisible Thread’s Advisory Committee, it was a particular joy to see him on stage. He is always such a lively and engaging performer of his work.

Alan selected ‘Molly on the Shore’ by Percy Grainger in response to his Invisible Thread poem, ‘Roof Tilers’ (you can watch Alan talking about this poem — and more — here). Some years ago I edited a book on Percy Grainger and I’ve always had a soft spot for him. Grainger wrote this work in 1907 as a birthday gift for his mother and it is a lively arrangement of two contrasting Irish reels. The CSO quartet’s performance was foot-tappingly good.

In response to Alan’s flamenco poems, guitarist Campbell Diamond performed two works, ‘Junto Al Generalife’ by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, and Finale, from the ‘Sonata’ for guitar by Antonio Jose. Rodrigo’s music counts among some of the most popular of the twentieth century, and the title of this work translates as ‘next to the Generalife’, the gardens surrounding the great Alhambra palace. The ‘Sonata’ is Jose’s most famous work and is regarded as one of the most technically challenging and conceptually profound works in the guitar repertory. I adore flamenco dance and music, so the dynamic interplay of Alan’s poetry and Campbell’s playing was, for me, a perfect note to end on.