Sunday, November 20, 2016

Think West and Word For Word festivals 2016

A vanity of Damons: a display at VU Footscray's TSOL pop-up
A couple of western adventures...

Last weekend I tripped off to Footscray to run an "Art of Reading" workshop at Newport Community Hub, part of the new Think West Festival.

I gave a couple of lectures on reading and its virtues, then we examined two texts -- from Henry James and Jorge Luis Borges -- in light of these. Some excellent conversation about varieties of patience and curiosity. For example, some believed Borges was genuinely curious, others curious but narrow (he rarely read women), and others still who believed narrow curiosity was not curiosity at all.
"And you get a virtue, and you get a virtue, virtues for everyone..."
Then off to Victoria University Footscray, where I first indulged in a glorious kebab, dip (cacik and chilli), pide and salad.

How the west was won: noshing like a champion
Fuelled by grilled meat and very black coffee, I then read My Sister is a Superhero.

The expanding family: Pop, Sister, Nanna, at The School of Life, VU Footscray
Today I took an early train to Geelong for the Word For Word nonfiction festival, in Geelong's striking domed Library and Heritage Centre.

Geelong Library's Sue Noonan hosted a conversation about The Art of Reading with me and Shirley Bateman, from the Melbourne City Library Service. It was a great, wide-ranging chat, which touched on ideas from my book, but also reflected more generally about reading in a "post-fact" era, the conceit of popular political discourse, and more. It was fascinating to hear about Shirley's curation of the new Melbourne libraries, including Docklands.

Three bibiliophiles and a microphone stand: SB, DY, SN
Thanks very much to the Think West and Word For Word teams for their enthusiasm and administrative yakka.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2016

Not exactly a cubicle: writing in the Desa Visesa restaurant
This morning we -- my sallow, heavy-lidded family of nostoi -- arrived home from Bali, Indonesia. For a week, I was a guest of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF).

We landed in Denpasar last Tuesday, both Nikos and Sophia overwhelmed by the humidity. They're used to Melbourne's 40ºC spells, but 30ºC and humid is another universe of sweat altogether.

Bali is hot, and we inhabited an odd region of gratitude (Melbourne was 8ºC when we arrived today) and exhaustion (now I understand Pokari Sweat).

After an hour and a bit in the car, we arrived at our hotel: Desa Visesa, the Royal Tulip. I say 'hotel', but it is a resort. An enormous world within a world, with its own permaculture farm, fish ponds, rice paddies, cows and more. And this is before you get to the villa, with its private infinity pool, gorgeous Balinese carvings, huge four-poster beds, outdoor bath and shower, and population of custodial geckos on the walls and ceilings.
Pool fountains, Desa Visesa villa
Sunset, Ubud
A welcoming table, Desa Visesa
Later that day, my first official function was drinks at the stunning Amandari--I rocked up to this gorgeous, architecturally designed hotel in my best formal wear: cargo pants (fresh off the plane) and a Transformers t-shirt.

Epic envelopment: the Amandari pool and valley
On Wednesday, while the kids played with Balinese puzzles and flew kites, Ruth and I had lunch with Annabel Smith, author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. Annabel generously introduced us to a few words of Balinese, and we chatted about writing, parenting and other rewarding trials. Marvellous to finally catch up in the flesh.

Later was the festival's gala opening, which featured snacks from local hotels and restaurants: from raw chocolate fudge, to perfectly crisp spring rolls, to a smoked salmon cone that tasted like happiness. (If you don't believe me, ask Anita Heiss.) After some speeches, the opening hosted a new performance by a Balinese playwright: a dance and musical show celebrating the traditional Balinese village, marked by intricate syncopation of claps and shouts, and some powerful singing. (The lead female soloist was incredible.)

Opening night gala performance
Then we had a delicious dinner at Casa Luna, where I enjoyed a chat with journalist and novelist Suki Kim, author of, most recently, Without You, There Is No Us (we first met in Brisbane -- yes, that Brisbane).

On Thursday my gigs began. First was "The Art of Reading", which saw me discussing my latest nonfiction book with Jeni Caffin (former director of Byron Writers Festival, former international program director of UWRF).

The Art of Reading, Indus restaurant.
Photo: Greg Saunders
The Art of Reading conversation, Indus restaurant: JC, DY
Jeni steered the conversation well, drawing me out as a reader and parent of readers, and reflecting on her own literary idiosyncrasies. One of the audience questions was about translation, and how I feel when my words appear on the page in another language. My experience so far is that this adds to the existing alienation of writing (that a finished book no longer feels like it's yours), and congenial powerlessness. All authors take a risk, and must give up some sovereignty--but translation makes this more intense.

Then I was on a panel entitled "Origin Stories", with Indonesian authors Eka Kurniawan and Sidik Nugroho. Our deft host Kirsti Melville nudged us to revisit our childhood literature, with one obvious cross-cultural theme: teenage sex and violence. But we also discussed Enid Blyton novels and Asterix comics (both very popular in Indonesia, it seems), and the importance of supernatural stories. One man asked, in Bahasa Indonesia (so I can only go by the translation), one of my very favourite audience questions. It began with a short lecture on the tropes of Javanese horror, and ended with a direct query: did Sidik plan to depart from these genre cliches? I plan to read Eka's Beauty is a Wound soon, as part of my ongoing #nowhitedudes reading adventure. Eka also recommended Pramoedya Ananta Toer's quartet.

Translator, SN, EK, DY, KM
Don't believe the hype
After a short video interview, I tripped back to Desa Visesa for another UWRF dinner -- this time with just Ruth and I together on a table, chatting like we were on a date. A date with frogs and swallows and bats.

Saturday was Nikos' eleventh birthday, and we began the day with a surprise song and cake from the hotel restaurant. Then Nikos continued with his usual holiday breakfast: bacon, sausages, hash browns, eggs, two doughnuts and a chocolate brownie, washed down with fruit juices.

Birthday breakfast
Birthday cake
Birthday boy
Then I strolled off to my next event: a workshop with high school students from Cikal Amri, Jakarta. The theme was superheroes -- because of my latest children's book -- but the class itself was about poetry composition and illustration. This was an enthusiastic and articulate group of students, among whom were some talented writers and artists. I expect a few will feature in the UWRF in years to come.
That subtle superpower, prosody: teaching the Cikal Amri students
My final event was a 'jalan jalan', or walk. A group of about forty festival attendees strolled with authors around the alleys and backstreets of Ubud (itself a fascinating trail) to Moksa. This plant-based restaurant has its own permaculture garden, complete with huge rainwater tanks and water recycling systems, compost, worm farm. There was elephant dung (this is not a metaphor). While we snacked on Moksa's treats, we authors read briefly from our books. There were passages from Charlotte Wood, Lionel Shriver, Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, Paul Hardisty, Susana Moriera Marques, and me.
Mad, bad, plaid: on the walk
Philosophy in the Garden, in the garden: Moksa restaurant
More Moksa (more audience)
My favourite reading was from Susana, whose Now and At the Hour of Our Death looks haunting and beautiful. No copies were available in Bali, but I will find a copy soon.

The next day, Ruth dropped in on two sessions: 'The Look of the Book' and Hannah Kent's 'The Good People'. Meanwhile, I took Nikos and Sophia to the Monkey Forest. It is aptly named, and a primal scene of appetites: food, violence and the other thing.

Born from a drinking fountain on a mountain top: Monkey Forest dweller
Hairless monkeys
I've not described the swimming -- sublime, of course -- or eating, but both were enjoyed in abundance. Bali has brilliant local food (from the island itself and the whole Indonesian archipelago), as well as fine quality meals from around the world -- Nikos gorged on penne bolognese. The coffee was fantastic: earthy, nutty, and without the antsy twitch of many Melbourne brews.

Boy and infinity
Nasi campur in full effect
Coffee, ink and other forms of liquid happiness
There is also that Bali hallmark: shopping. I spread the sambal of consumption very thinly, stopping only to buy Ruth a silk scarf. But Sophia revelled in the crafts, picking herself up a lovely wristband and dress, amongst other things.

The Punisher and her father
This was a luxurious trip, rich in literature, conversation, food and drink. Congratulations to UWRF director Janet DeNeefe and other festival staff, with special thanks to Donica Bettanin, Petra Kamula, Imroatun Nafi'ah and Fian Rakhmania Arrafiana. Thanks also to the festival volunteers, who went above and beyond to help. I'm also grateful to Desa Visesa management and staff for their hospitality: we all felt very welcome.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kiama Readers Festival

Last week I travelled to New South Wales' southern coast for the inaugural Kiama Readers Festival. I was invited to launch the festival, talking about The Art of Reading.

I arrived in the afternoon, and shuffled off to the surf beach for a dip. Tenderised and salted by the waves, I air-dried, cleaned up, grabbed a sushi plate, then headed to my gig.

The library quickly filled and, after an awards ceremony for local writers, I gave my talk. I began with the hunger of Albert Camus: for sea, sun, food, adventure -- and reading. My point was simply that reading is not merely a cognitive pursuit; not somehow opposed to the pleasures of physicality. The same joy of life seeks games and pages.

I then discussed the value of reading, and the importance of the reader's responsibility: without us, the texts are just lumps of paper and ink, or glass and plastic. We have to render these worlds -- and do it well. This introduced virtues of reading, and I spoke of two: courage and curiosity.

After some good questions from the audience, I signed books for a while, sipped some shiraz, collapsed into my cabin, then flew home the next morning.

An all-too-brief introduction to a gorgeous town. Many thanks to everyone from the Festival (including Ken, who picked me up), and congratulations to Michelle Hudson.

Monday, September 26, 2016

This foundering polity

Five-masted barque in broken bottle (c.1970), Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, in the Tempest exhibition
I've an essay in the most recent Island magazine, 'The Foundering Polity'. I'm looking at an old, powerful trope: the shipwreck, the marooned sailor, the drowned seaman.

Versions of this metaphor colour our political debate, suggesting insecurity, risk, horror. But it is a reality for those seeking asylum by sea -- the very people we reject to keep 'lifeboat Australia' afloat. A sample:
In politics, as in maritime adventure, to step off the land is to risk becoming marooned and drowned. And we must step off the land: there is no humanity without politics. So it is reasonable and often necessary to feel some fear about our communal existence. But this ‘should depress only those,’ writes Oakeshott, ‘who have lost their nerve.’ As this suggests, the ideal is to recognise the danger, feel the anxiety, without becoming paralysed, reckless or worst of all: cruel.  
Australia is cruel. We respond to literal alarm at sea with rejection (and possible refoulement) and punishment. The risk is recognised in a public relations mantra (‘deaths at sea’), but the policy has what Hume might call ‘a savage heart’. Having survived perilous waters—to say nothing of threats in their home countries— refugees are jailed by multinationals in small countries, all bankrolled by our wealthy state. There they face more dangers, including assault, rape, disease and mental illness. Prospero was more kind to his marooned enemies than we are to these crimeless strangers.
Island is available in all good bookshops and newsagents. You can also subscribe.

Friday, September 23, 2016

It Is and It Isn't

Duchamp: not merely taking the piss
I've an essay with Aeon magazine, written with Graham Priest: "It Is and It Isn't".

We argue that the best way to understand Duchamp's famous readymade 'Fountain" is as a dialetheia: a true contradiction.

A sample:
In 1917 a pivotal event occurred for art and philosophy: Marcel Duchamp unveiled his artwork Fountain in Alfred Stieglitz’s New York studio. This was simply a porcelain urinal, signed ‘R. Mutt’. 
Fountain was notorious, even for avant-garde artists. It has become one of the most discussed works of art of the 20th century. The Society of Independent Artists rejected it, though every artist who paid the exhibition fee was supposed to have their work shown. For almost a century, it has remained a difficult artwork. The philosopher John Passmore summed up Fountain as: ‘a piece of mischief at the expense of the art world’, though many have taken it very seriously. 
No doubt there was some tomfoolery involved – Duchamp did not choose a urinal randomly. Yet there is more to Fountain than nose-thumbing. What makes this artwork so striking is its philosophical contribution. 
Commentators often highlight the influence of Fountain on conceptual art, and this most ‘aggressive’ readymade, as Robert Hughes put it, has certainly had an enduring legacy. In 2004, it was voted the most important 20th-century work by hundreds of art experts. From Andy Warhol to Joseph Beuys to Tracey Emin, this urinal inspired artists to reconsider the traditional artwork. Instead of paintings and sculptures, art was suddenly Brillo boxes, an unmade bed, or a light-bulb plugged into a lemon: ordinary objects, some readymade, removed from their original contexts and placed on display in art galleries. The art critic Roberta Smith sums it up this way: ‘[Duchamp] reduced the creative act to a stunningly rudimentary level: to the single, intellectual, largely random decision to name this or that object or activity “art”.’ As we will see, Duchamp’s choice was not random at all, but Smith’s description points to the broader shock that Duchamp’s work prompted: if this can be art, then anything can. 
Since then, scholars have discussed Fountain to demonstrate a shift away from aesthetics to thought. As the philosopher Noël Carroll notes, it’s possible to enjoy thinking about Duchamp’s work without actually looking at it, which cannot be said for Henri Matisse’s vivid paintings or Barbara Hepworth’s dignified stone sculptures. 
These traditional ideas, as we will see, are all important to Fountain. But they do not go far enough. They treat Fountain as art, but of a mocking sort: a kind of intellectual heckling that nudged artists to taunt and scoff more academically at their own field. Our explanation of the artwork’s power is much more controversial: we believe that Fountain is art only insofar as it is not art. It is what it is not – and this is why it is what it is. In other words, the artwork delivers a true contradiction, what’s called a dialetheia. 
Fountain did not simply usher in conceptual art – it afforded us an unusual and intriguing concept to consider: a work of art that isn’t really a work of art, an everyday object that is not just an everyday object.
(Marcel Duchamp, "Fountain" replica, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, photo by Kim Traynor)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Brisbane Writers Festival 2016

Gestures of bafflement: DY on The Art of Reading (Photo: Dani Taylor)
Last week was the Brisbane Writers Festival, and I hauled myself up north to suffer the indignities of warmth, sunshine, good company and some amazing food.

As always, the hotel offered me an abundance of pillows (not Wi-Fi). I finally figured out what to do with them.
Fort Pillow, Brisbane
My BWF began with the opening night launch on Thursday, which included a fantastic speech from University of Queensland (UQ) Provost Joanne Wright. I skipped the launch speech from US novelist Lionel Shriver to write, but you can read it here. For the record, and contra Shriver, I believe good writing does often 'honour reality', including the experiences of others unlike ourselves. Contra some of her critics, I believe this is a reason to write well (which is shorthand for an enormous moral and aesthetic task), not to shrink from the challenge, or chastise others for even trying.

My first gig on Friday was 'Everyday Philosophy', my workshop. Smaller this year, it involved some excellent discussion -- particularly on cultivating philosophy in the classroom, and the tensions (genuine and dubious) between technology and reflection.

Then 'Writers and their Gardens' with journalist and scholar Margaret Simons, hosted by chef and entrepreneur Brenda Fawdon. It was a relaxed, often-funny conversation, which touched on everything from the philosophy of nature to the ethics of killing and letting-die (baby rats for Margaret, a mouse for me).

Tend to your vines and crush the horror: BF, MS, DY
Saturday morning saw me up early to speak at a UQ alumni breakfast: on my approach to philosophy, and how this relates to my children's books like My Sister is a Superhero.

Comical philosopher, graphic art
Next was my main event, 'The Art of Reading', a conversation with Queensland's State Librarian and CEO of the State Library, Vicki McDonald. Vicki prompted me to reflect on the virtues of reading, the value of literacy, my own literary idiosyncrasies, and (among other fun questions) my favourite word. (I chose 'reverie'.) Some good discussion on the role of librarians and teachers in promoting an lifelong devotion to the written word.

The importance of being earnest: VM, DY
Philosopher in the spotlight (Photo: Dani Taylor)
Finally, I was on a 'New Philosopher' panel on nature, with neuropsychologist Nicola Gates and Margaret Simons, chaired by New Philosopher editor Antonia Case. The session touched on the ambiguity of the word ''nature', the intellectual and psychological value of romantic landscapes and 'green spaces', the threats to healthy ecosystems, and how to value life other than our own.

When I hear the word 'nature' I reach for my...:
AC, NG, DY, MS (Photo: Dani Taylor)
As always, every gig is only an introduction to ideas and personalities; a nudge, a glimpse, a faint scent. As with reading, it's up to the audience to take it further (and sometimes to surpass the 'talent').

Many thanks, once again, to festival director Julie Beveridge and her staff, and all the volunteers (without whom...). Special thanks to Yen-Rong Wong for her contributions.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Melbourne Writers Festival 2016

People in glass houses...should still read well
This week was the Melbourne Writers Festival.

For me, it began with a conversation in the Dumbo Feather caravan, chatting about The Art of Reading and Philosophy in the Garden in their gorgeous mobile cafe. If you get the chance, do drop in.
Caravan of courage conversation
Next was "Why I Read" with actor and author Magda Szubanski, chaired by Antoni Jach. The event, held at Federation Square's light-filled Deakin Edge theatre, was sold out--a nice high-five for readers and reading.

We spoke about our childhood reading. I mentioned The Magic Faraway Tree, with its adventure without authority (echoes of philosophy there), maturing into Sherlock Holmes and Batman. The Victorian detective helped me see myself as a reader, the World's Greatest Detective as something hopeless but perhaps beautiful.

"And when I do this, it means I"m Batman..." (Photo: Text)
We touched briefly on the bible (no love there from Magda), the huge worth of libraries and librarians (to rightful applause from the crowd), the moral power of Tolstoy's War and Peace, and so much more.

Antoni chaired the panel deftly with his usual erudition and enthusiasm, and Magda was a charming and generous interlocutor. All in all, a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Thanks, as always, to Lisa Dempster and the MWF gang for their hospitality. Special thanks to the MWF volunteers, who really do make things easier and more relaxed.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Philosophy in the Australia (ABC TV)

Last night I was on Gardening Australia, the long-lived and much-loved ABC TV series. 

I spoke about Philosophy in the Garden, and my own experience of horticultural reverie and speculation. It was filmed in Melbourne's gorgeous Botanic Gardens (including one of my favourites spots: Guilfoyle's Volcano.)

I'm not sure how long the video will remain available, but for now you can watch the show here. It'll be repeated today (Sunday) at 1pm.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Byron Bay Writers Festival 2016

Earlier this month, I tripped off to Byron Bay for the Byron Writers Festival.

It promised a welcome break from Melbourne's wet squalls. And honoured its promise: on the day I arrived. Minutes after my shuttle bus stopped in Byron, I picked up boardshorts and sunglasses, and headed to the gorgeous beach. Then tortured locals and tourists alike with my white glare.

Follow me round perdition's flames: white whale and sea
And then the clouds came: dense, dark, and not sparing their soak. The festival site was damaged by high winds, shredding tents and damaging books. Kudos to the festival staff, who worked tirelessly to keep the events running.


Bibliophiles immersing themselves in literature
My first gigs were over the next two days, Primary School Days with over a thousand kids from the region. Illustrator Peter Carnavas and I offered tips on writing and drawing, a fiendish quiz, and a reading of My Sister is a Superhero. Some clever questions from the kids, alongside some outstanding illustrations.

Wednesday night fever: Primary School Days
Five hundred students, two authors, one book: My Sister is a Superhero
First on Thursday was my philosophy workshop, which included a brief lecture, some exercises and discussion. The class discussed Seneca, Nietzsche, alongside poetry and essays--and the relevance of each to everyday life.

On Friday I spoke on the "Writing for Kids" panel with Anna Fienberg and Nick Earls, chaired by the lovely Ashley Hay. We spoke about the ties between reading and writing, the value of reading aloud, and much more. Fascinating to hear about the origins of these hugely popular tales from Anna and Nick.

Grown-up kids, AKA children's authors: Ashley Hay, DY, Anna Fienberg, Nick Earls
Over drinks on Friday night, I received an upgrade to my name-tag from illustrator Tony Flowers.

Werewolves of Byron
The next day began with "Reading: Portal to a Thousand Worlds"--a title taken from Geordie Williamson's review of my The Art of Reading. Geordie chaired the panel, which starred Charlotte Nash, Catherine KeenanJeffrey Renard Allen and me. It was intriguing to hear about the value of reading for each: from Catherine's brilliant work at the Story Factory, to Jeffrey's emancipating escapism.

The (Relatively) Famous Five; Geordie Williamson, Catherine Keenan, Charlotte Nash, DY
Later on Saturday was "The Art of Walking", with Ailsa Piper and John Faulker, again chaired by Ashley Hay. Much of the session was devoted to seemingly foolhardy feats of pedestrian adventure, but we also touched on the psychological and intellectual rewards of walking. At one point, John described me as the maddest person he'd met--high praise from a career politician.

A truly pedestrian panel: John Faulkner, Ailsa Piper, DY, Ashley Hay
Sunday began with the Kids Big Day Out, and I spoke to a huge marquee full of kids, parents and grandparents. A great buzz in that room, and lots of enthusiasm for My Sister is a Superhero, which was heartening.

Not born in a tent, but comfortable in one: The Big Kids Day Out
Finally, my last gig was a panel with Peter Stuchbury and Wendy Whiteley: "Creating Sacred Spaces". I began with a definition of the sacred from my Philosophy in the Garden, though the conversation wandered with a combination of vagueness and reverie. I tried to introduce a little quotidian detail to the chat: the sacred in urban life, rather than just in 'natural' landscapes or high art.

Creating sacred spaces, then filling them with talk: Janet Hawley, Peter Stuchbury, Wendy Whiteley, DY
All in all, a busy and rewarding week away, which included some gobsmacking local food, handsome landscapes and memorable conversation.

A glimpse of the sublime: Byron Bay beach at dusk
Great to meet other authors in various genres, including Nick Falk, Luke Stegemann, Osamah Sami and Rosalyn D'Mello. I'm reading Rosalyn's Handbook For My Lover, an intelligent and fiercely sensual memoir.

Thank you to the very welcoming Byron Bay Writers Festival staff and volunteers, with special thanks to Edwina Johnson, Sarah Ma, Cherrie Sheldrick and Coralie Tapper.