ANNETTE MARFORDING Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian authors. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
These interviews construct exciting and substantial explorations of Australian literature.
Annette Marfording, lawyer and academic, ‘fell in love’ with Australian literature after moving here from Germany. But she is puzzled. ‘Why is it that Australian writing is appreciated so little in Australia?’ she asks in the introduction to this self-published volume of her interviews.
Originally broadcast on 2BBB Community Radio Bellingen, the conversations interrogate 21 writers working in different genres. The authors are satisfyingly diverse, including some whose background and work reflects a migrant experience (Gregory Day), and others whose work connects with their Indigenous identity (Larissa Behrendt, Kate Howarth). There are emerging as well as established writers, and popular authors (including Di Morrissey, Bryce Courtney, and Michael Robotham) are interviewed with the same respect as literary authors. And why not?
The book’s juxtapositions reveal the sometimes arbitrary nature of categories. In one boundary dispute, Robert Dessaix criticises Helen Garner’s novel The Spare Room (2008), saying it is actually non-fiction, yet categorises what he writes about his own life as fiction. Genre boundaries, too, blur. For example, Chris Womersley’s The Low Road (2008) won a Ned Kelly Award – a crime writing prize – although Marfording sees the book as a literary work.
Marfording prepares for her interviews by reading as much as possible of an author’s body of work, attempting to find previously unasked questions. Thus, when she asks Courtney about his characters’ distinct speech patterns in The Potato Factory (1995), he answers:
I’ve never been asked that question before, but I’m very glad you asked it, because I do an enormous amount of work on the semantics of the time until I’ve got the speech patterns absolutely perfect […] because the essence of speech is who we are.
Certain topics recur in the various interviews. ‘Families’, for instance, is one thread running through the collection. Jon Bauer’s Rocks in the Belly (2010) explores how an adult son abuses his power over his dying mother. Robert Drewe notes that, between his short story collections The Body Surfers (1983) and The Rip (2008), his focus on families has shifted. Kristina Olsson and David Malouf both talk of family secrets. Families are, says Malouf, ‘the greatest repository of secrets, and secrets are what writers are interested in’. He further explains: ‘family is also reflective of the larger society we live in’. Womersley, referring to his 2010 novel Bereft, confirms this: ‘I realised that the Walker family served as a metaphor for other families […] who’d lost their sons or daughters in the war.’
The exploration of Indigenous stories forms another fascinating theme. Both Howarth, author of the memoir Ten Hail Marys (2010), and novelist Behrendt are happy to be known as Indigenous authors. Behrendt gives a nuanced response:
… it’s very easy to be ghettoised as an Aboriginal author, and in that sense I think a lot of us resist that [… But] within our writing […] there are universal themes about family, about love, about betrayal, about hurt, about anger and jealousy, and these are things that actually unite us.
When it comes to non-Indigenous authors writing about Indigenous characters, Alex Miller discusses how he has built several novels on the foundation of his own Indigenous friendships. Morrissey uses romance fiction as a platform for Indigenous issues that ‘concern and interest’ her, and hopes her readers will ‘absorb’ understanding while reading for entertainment.
Behrendt praises Kate Grenville’s approach in The Secret River:
… she does not at any stage try to tell her story from an Aboriginal point of view … but through using her non-Indigenous characters, by showing their ignorance, their violence, their sense of entitlement, their fear, she tells a very strong story about Aboriginal experience.
Clever sequencing of the interviews then leads to Debra Adelaide, whose Serpent Dust (1998) uses multiple perspectives – including that of Dyirra, a young Eora woman – to tell the story of the smallpox epidemic among Indigenous residents of early Sydney. Asked how she wrote Dyirra’s first-person voice, Adelaide uncomfortably confesses ‘[I’m] still not convinced that I got it right’, saying that the cultural and historical gap ‘is unbridgeable in my opinion’.
The interviews capture the interviewees’ sometimes prickly personalities, as well as offering insights into the writing life – the close loyalties between writers and their editors, for instance. Or attitudes towards awards and prizes (Charlotte Wood: ‘Increasingly I feel quite anti-awards actually …’). Or the difficulties of writing short fiction (Adelaide: ‘The short story is an enormous challenge and I’ve just never been able to write them until recently …’).
But even though the interviews are individually tailored, some questions are presented to all authors. Each is asked for a ‘central tip’ for would-be writers, for instance. Alex Miller is succinct and passionate: ‘Write about something you love.’ Marele Day and Robotham use exactly the same phrase: ‘Just sit down and do it.’ Several emphasise the importance of reading. Or as Adelaide puts it: ‘Read and read and read and read till your eyeballs pop out.’
Probably too much credence is given to Delia Falconer’s comment, made elsewhere, that ‘Australia lacks a real culture of short fiction’. Cate Kennedy points out the ‘classical Australian short stories’, by Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton, that she read at school. While the country may be too small to have publications like the New Yorker to support a short fiction ‘culture’, short stories are nonetheless constant. Peter Carey’s collections The Fat Man in History (1974) and War Crimes (1979) are arguably more impressive than some of his longer works.
When asked ‘What makes good writing?’ Dessaix answers: ‘That sense of many, many internal connections and of a kind of rich seething liveliness about the text or about the life …’
This collection creates precisely that sense of vibrant complexity, and it is a true celebration of Australian writing. Even presented in a ‘raw’ form (transcripts of interviewer and interviewee rather than finessed into the form of an article), Marfording’s multiple conversations construct exciting and substantial explorations of important aspects of Australian literature.
But ironically this achievement suggests that Marfording has misplaced her criticism of some interviewees for choosing ‘overseas writers as their favourite authors’. Without embracing Turgenev or Gide (Dessaix), or The Iliad (Malouf), or the ancient Greek story of Persephone (Kennedy), or Josef Conrad and Michael Ondaatje (Kevin Rabelais), Australian literature would be parochial and shrivelled. That’s not cultural cringe; that’s simply how shared cultural references enhance and complicate stories with sophisticated layers of meaning.
Annette Marfording Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian authors Annette Marfording 2015 PB 280pp $30.00
Jeannette Delamoir is an ex-Queenslander and former academic. She combines her passions for writing, reading, culture and food by teaching at WEA Sydney and she blogs at mmmmFULL
You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from lulu.com (All profits go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation of Australia.)
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