Okay, so here’s the promised follow-up post on the EWF.
I’ll stick my contribution to my own panel discussion The Great State Divide at the end, so you can choose to ignore it if you so desire! In the mean time, here’s some wonderful feedback about it written in Reeling and Writhing: The excellent State Divide panel started late and should have run at least another half-hour longer – it was a pity to bring these people from all over the country and only allow them about eight minutes each to speak (less for some, regrettably.) Simonne Michelle-Wells’ presentation in particular was remarkable… (Thanks Genevieve!)
My two favourite panels over the weekend were The Best Ways Forward with Steven Amsterdam, Rijn Collins, Stu Hatton, and Pooja Mittal, and Letters to the Editor with Luke Devenish, Kathryn Heyman, Jennifer Mills, Daniel Ducrou, and Tim Sinclair. The Best Ways Foward looked at the merits of the different ways of getting your stuff out there. I must admit that I could easily have listened to Pooja Mittal for many hours! Her advice was not to sit on things for too long. Yes, it’s necessary to get through the other end of the honeymoon period (where what you think you’ve written is actually what you have written) so you can effectively edit your stuff, but if you edit forever you’ll never put anything out there. “Statistically, you’ll have a win if you have enough stuff out there!”
Steven Amsterdam, whose book is out now, mused that the workshops he did through his Masters, and still does, were invaluable tools for sharing ideas and having people with different points of view etc comment on his stuff. What an interesting background he’s had! If you get a chance to hear him speak, I highly recommend it.
Speaking with Luke Devenish, one of the Festival Ambassadors, was a lovely experience (it’s always a wonderful thing to meet such successful products of Perth! (see my panel talk below)), and I hope I get to pick his big brain some time soon!
Here’s a pic of Angela from Literary Minded doing some cutting edge live blogging at The Page Parlour (where loads of fabulous journals and zines were displayed and for sale). And one of Luke Devenish hogging the microphone again in the Letters to the Editor panel.
Here’s my panel talk, prompted by: The interstate panellists will be set a challenge to discover the unique voice of their State. Is there one? And what does this say about the Australian voice?
This is a problematic topic in itself because every writer has a unique voice, regardless of where they’re from. It’s problematic, too, because while I think there is a distinct Australian voice, I’m not completely convinced about distinctive State voices. Not that I am by any means an authority, and you’ll notice that by the end of my 7 minutes, I have pretty much convinced myself that there IS a unique West Australian voice. But I wonder, really, if that the WA experience and voice is really so different to the rest of Australia? Perhaps you can answer that.
For me, if there is indeed a unique voice of Western Australia, it’s a dark and brooding one, born of lurking dangers and an insidious guilt and anger that covers every corner of the land and buries itself inside the Western Australian psyche like a cancer. Often our literary style is one that is pared back and pared back until all that remains is an unsettling foreboding that anchors itself to the story.
Perth is the most isolated city in the world, and WA is a State of rugged coastlines, searing deserts, deathly creatures, and vast vestiges of unimaginable remoteness. Around Perth, where I come from, and the South East and West coasts of WA, is Noongar country. The history of this land and of these Indigenous peoples is one of great destruction, violence, and death, as well as resilience, pride and survival. This immense isolation from the rest of the world, along with a sordid, racist and violent Indigenous and migrant history has created a neurosis about identity in Perth that, I think, in many ways feeds all of our artistic and cultural endeavors.
My own personal history includes a migrant Italian prisoner of war Grandfather, and a lesbian, Indigenous Aunt who hails from Murri country in top end Queensland. These histories influence and inform my own voice because I have grown up with a deeply ingrained understanding of what it is to suffer in all this isolation, where home never really feels like home. And of course I hold dear to me the parts of me which are most under threat.
I spent every Sunday afternoon of my childhood being force-fed delicious Italian food because my Italian Grandmother was so scarred by her migrant experiences that she was rarely able to speak anything of her true self, her heart, her history, and her grief. She spoke through food. I have no doubt that me witnessing this lack of voice, this searing isolation and anger that informed and brooded within her, has informed my own voice as a writer. It brings to mind prominent WA writers like Shaun Tan, Kim Scott, Jack Davis, and Tim Winton. There is a deep yearning to tell these untold stories. To speak for the damaged, crushed, and dying. To splash long stuck tears onto the page and give voice to the whispers of those lost, stolen, isolated, or alone.
In the 1800 and early 1900s in Perth, 95% of the Noongar population was wiped out in 50 years. On top of the massacres, was the assimilation policy that lead to the Stolen Generations, which though backed by laws in every state, was implemented with particular fervour in WA. The violence and racism in WA was (and still is) acutely embarrassing, and has created voices and stories like Doris Pilkington Garimara’s Rabbit Proof Fence and Kim Scott’s Miles Franklin winning Benang. It’s in the background of all of Tim Winton’s work – this sense of darkness, of guilt and anger, danger and ignorance. The sharks that pervade so many WA works, like Winton, Scott and Robert Drewe are a symbol of these dangers. In this sense I think the Western Australian voice almost feeds the Australian one. It is almost like we are the ultimate embarrassment, the State with the worst identity crisis in a country riddled with hypocrisy and shame over how it treats its own indigenous peoples, how it treats migrants, and how it treats the land itself.
What does this do for our story-telling and our literary culture in WA? I think it fosters both a desire for inclusion in our writing, and a sense of separateness, where our own stories, which, due to very nature of our isolation, are unique. It also fosters a great desire to be heard, acknowledged and accounted for in the Australian and International literary scene.
Surprise always accompanies our state pride when a literary or artistic work puts Perth on the map. As much as we want to see our label of being an unsophisticated backwater sloughed off, deep down, it is a belief that most of us still actually carry. So this dualism goes part way to explaining our identity crisis issues. Not to mention of course that there does seem to be a disparity in National funding.
My own experience, coming from Perth and now living in Melbourne, is that the writing networks and community in Perth aren’t strong enough. Across the board in artistic endeavours in Perth, there is almost an unspoken acknowledgement that one has to first ‘make it’ in the East if one is ever to gain recognition.
The writing groups and houses in Perth don’t link themselves enough to the rest of Australia. I’d never heard of Meanjin or Harvest until I came here. That training ground in the literary journals doesn’t really exist in Perth, so the jump for emerging writers to publication is a huge and very daunting one. So often new Perth writers begin with looking at the end result, seeking publication and recognition, instead of putting in the hard yards, alone at the keyboard. Recognition is too important to us – often times more important than the work itself.
After I came back from Varuna in Sydney – where I received a LongLines residency from WA to work on my first novel, my Perth friends kept (and still do) asking me who the best publisher would be for the ‘novels’ that they hadn’t actually started writing yet and I keep telling them to forget about publishers and focus on the writing. It also shows the general lack of understanding in Perth of the publishing industry itself.
I’d like to leave you with a passage from the end of Kim Scott’s book Benang – a truly Western Australian story told in what I now think of as a truly West Australian voice – it speaks of the Noongar peoples, almost wiped out, and it calls to the ancestors, and to the rest of us.
Phew! You still here?