Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016 and beyond


In 2016, I added a handful of new spines to this shelf. (Missing: UK editions of Distraction and Philosophy in the Garden.)

It's still a pleasure to see these variations of script, language, design and colour. More to come in 2017 and 2018 from Australia, UK, Germany, Turkey, China and other territories. Some new nonfiction. Some new fiction.

Better get writing.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Happy eighth birthday Sophia

Sophia at Batman Day, as Harley Quinn
Earlier this month, our little girl turned eight.

The black spikes of her newborn hair are now auburn ringlets. Her toddler pudge is lengthening. But she has the same stare: which looks and looks and only looks away once she is victorious. (In her mind, at least.)
Being fabulous
Sophia crafts like a demon, cosplays with panache, obsesses over fashion (as do I, obviously), and has a sweet tooth the size of a megalodon's. And never. Stops. Talking.

Happy birthday, creature.

The punisher and the Punisher, Ubud, Bali

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Batman: between camp and nihilism

Batman: a hero with spine
I've an essay in the new Meanjin magazine, 'Get Your Kicks in Batman '66'. I'm discussing the transition from camp 'sixties Batman to the nihilistic Dark Knight of the recent DC films. A sample:
I watch a dull grey sea. Below, a submarine commanded by thugs. Above, two officers of the law, stranded on a buoy. Without weapons, without armour, they are helpless. Torpedoes rush at them, detonating safely only at the last second. A third is launched, and the victims try to save themselves. But, no. Teeth clenched, the elder tells his partner that they are out of time. The consequences are obvious: this deputy and his ward will die. An explosion rocks the waves, and the criminals gloat over the ‘watery remains’. Sure enough, the two men are gone. 
Am I emptied out by grief? Or flushed with righteous anger? Or at least pausing at this loss? 
No. This is 1966’s Batman: The Movie. Everything is safe—except plausibility. 
Cut to the Batboat speeding away, Batman and Robin safe after all. ‘Gosh, Batman,’ the Boy Wonder says. ‘The nobility of the almost-human porpoise.’ A brief pause, and then: ‘True, Robin. It was noble of that animal to hurl himself into the path of that final torpedo. He gave his life for ours.’ 
Fifty years since Batman: The Movie was released, it has lost none of its absurdity. To begin, its world is populated with overtly silly things. Batman fights off a (rubber) shark with his fists, then with shark repellant. This spray is stocked with whale repellant in the ‘Oceanic Repellant Bat Sprays’ shelf. The Batcave is full of these labels, including ‘drinking water dispenser’, a sign that seems superfluous, but is actually an occupational health and safety failure: the tap also pours atomic heavy water. To enter this hideout, Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson jump down poles (Bruce’s is thicker) from the drawing room, pulling a lever that changes them into their costumes automatically. Batman’s outfit has white eyebrows drawn onto the cowl. The production is also dodgy. During a climactic fight scene, featuring choreography so bad it looks like the actors are cut and pasted from various films, we can see folds in the sky’s painted fabric. The film’s dialogue moves from pantomime melodrama to pure nonsense. Rhapsodising the hopefulness of eggs; criticising the sale of a surplus war submarine to a supervillain; defending the dignity of dockside alcoholics (‘They may be drinkers, Robin, but they're also human beings.’)—all spoken in a breathy deadpan. 
It is easy to trivialize this Batman as the work of innocence: childish fun for children and other naïfs. The words ‘simpler time’ are used regularly to suggest these earlier decades enjoyed a less fraught existence. This is false in general: there was no age without anxiety, cruelty—or irony. And it is false in particular. Not long before Batman: The Movie was playing Soviet détente gags in cinemas, Mao Zedong began the Cultural Revolution in communist China, and the United States was prosecuting Viet Cong sympathisers. 1966 saw massacres, mass shootings, coups, murder, torture, starvation—and so on. The point is straightforward enough: however surreal these stories seem, they arise from conflicted and compromised reality.  We cannot infer arcadia from a satyr play.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Away with the white dudes

No white dudes, presided over by the white dudes
Since May 2016, I've been avoiding myself. Well, not quite: I've been avoiding white dudes in my leisure reading. 

Why? What did I read? And how was it? Here's my feature in this weekend's Sydney Morning Herald: 'Away with the white dudes'.  A sample:
Europe seemed to exemplify civilisation in my childhood household. Most authors in my bed's drawers were from east of the Atlantic: Arthur Conan Doyle, A. A. Milne, Enid Blyton, Roger Hargreaves, Goscinny & Uderzo. My Little Golden Books were edited in blue Biro to change American spelling to English ("checkers" to "draughts", and so on). The atmosphere was of violent but jolly adventures, undertaken by flawed but fun white folks. 
At the Sydney Writers Festival earlier this year, I was interviewed about my book The Art of Reading by author Jane Gleeson-White, who remarked on the Englishness of my tastes. Afterwards, a number of interviewers, readers and listeners suggested a similar palate: from Borges and Heidegger in the first chapter, to Woolf and Joyce in the last, my references rarely strayed from western Europe. 
I was omnivorous with genres in The Art of Reading: philosophy, sociology, poetry, science fiction, westerns, superhero comics. But my featured authors, I realised, were chiefly European or American men. I resolved to read differently for leisure: for six months at least, no white dudes. 
The point was not punitive, as if I was taking revenge against Aristotle, Ernest Hemingway or Frank Miller for indulgent machismo. Aside from making a tiny investment in a more egalitarian publishing industry, the point was not instrumental at all. Instead, it was an experiment without a hypothesis: resisting my usual appetites, and seeing what I discovered. I took recommendations in festival green rooms, nudged friends for their favourites, received gifts. Sometimes just took a punt in a bookshop. What I offer here is an all-too-brief, partial report of the adventure so far.
(There's a slight error in the feature: someone has put quote marks around my words, suggesting they're Anna Spargo-Ryan's -- hopefully they'll fix this on the online version.)

My #nowhitedudes caper is continuing. I've just finished Eka Kurniawan's Beauty is a Wound (we were on a panel together here), and now I'm reading Julie Koh's Portable Curiosities.

I've also been reading comics in the same way, but I didn't have words to spare in my feature. I hope do write up a quick sketch in the new year.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Trip of Two Cities: 2016

Australische filosoof and schrijver onstage at "Storytellers" in Amsterdam 
This month the Dutch translation of The Art of Reading came out: De Goede Lezer, or The Good Reader.

I flew to Amsterdam as a guest of my publishers Ten Have, and the magazine Filosofie. The flight, which stopped in Abu Dhabi, was nothing to report on: long, desiccating, dull. (I did watch the new Bourne film, which was not desiccating.)

Hello, I am in Abu Dhabi and this is my new hat
My first official destination was London, after a blink-and-you-miss-it Easyjet over the waters. I stayed in a little hotel in Bloomsbury, the Harlingford. Breakfast was exactly what I needed after the flight.
All the major food groups: protein, oil and chitin
I had time to say a very quick hello to the lovely Signe Johansen, and buy myself a new Scottish lambswool beanie.
Jetlagged with a toasty skull (actual new hat)
I met my UK publishers Scribe for lunch and dinner, caught up with Anita Sethi, and chatted to independent booksellers about the UK edition of The Good Reader. I also... cough... bought more books. Thanks to the London Review Bookshop, Daunt Books, Foyles and Belgravia Books for this haul of goodies. (Except for Winter, which was a gift from its excellent editor, Melissa Harrison.)

Well-travelled codexes -- mostly #nowhitedudes reads
Then back to the Netherlands for press interviews, lunch and dinner with publishers past and present, and a few gigs. I stayed at the Ambassade Hotel, a luxurious literary spot by the Herengracht. Breakfast was fantastic, and another highlight was the library, filled with books from author guests (including yours truly).

Where books come to stay: the Ambassade's library
Signing De Goede Lezer in my well-appointed dungeon
Writing by the Herengracht
Meanwhile, the Amsterdam Light Festival was on, which made for some kitsch but still delightful vistas.

Figure in a landscape
Just the landscape
My first event was an "Art of Reading" class for Amsterdam's School of Life. I delivered two short lectures, we read some Henry James and Borges, then chatted about patience and curiosity.

Good readers by the Herengracht (canal)

I took some time to visit the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk: a modern art and design gallery. The Stedelijk was outstanding: a beautiful, open building with some of the greats of fin de siecle, twentieth century and contemporary art.

Martial Raysse, "High Voltage Painting" (1965)
Barnett Newman, "Cathedra" (1951)
Leo Gestel, "Reclining Nude" (1913)
Henry Matisse, "Odalisque" (1920-1)
Jean Tinguely, untitled
The next day I was at Filosofie magazine's Storytellers festival. Held in the panoramic Tollhuistuin, I gave a very casual talk about The Good Reader, chatting about my reasons for writing the book, and its main ideas.
"And so, I wanted to write about the audience, not the man onstage..." he said, onstage
My final event on Sunday was a writing masterclass, "Narratives in Nonfiction". I discussed the important role of narrative in human consciousness and society, suggested a common structure of nonfiction works, then explained how various kinds of stories fit into this structure.

Dutch prose? Can't help you. General principles of structure? I'm on it.
Then I was done, and left the Tollhuis straight for Centraal Station and Schiphol airport. Then all that was left was the long trip home, through Singapore. I described the muzak in Changi airport as "a faux-cheery hypodermic needle made of jazz, slowly draining my élan vital."

And with that, after some thirty festival events and lectures, my 2016 events calendar is officially finished. I don't have to get on a plane again until February.

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
Irrepressible
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.