What a great event to begin the WORD festival with. The Piano is a brand new venue and perfect for a literary festival. This panel discussion was chaired by Peter Biggs, and drew us immediately into the ethics of being a writer. Is it about engaging with real world events, or do writers just tell stories. Is there any such thing as ‘just a story?’
Kate De Goldi had some interesting reflections on how children can be engaged morally and ethically. “Writing is an ethical act, especially as a children’s writer.” She explained that children’s literature happens in the space between knowing and not knowing. It grows out of children’s misunderstandings of the world around them. To read allows children to develop empathy and curiosity.
Literary magazine editor and writer John Freeman gave a political and American voice to the discussion. He explained that writers don’t often set out to engage in political views, rather they are addicted to writing, it is a habit, and out of it a voice grows, and you gain confidence that it speaks truthfully. It is not just about characters, but situations. Once you develop a voice you have to ask where to situate yourselves. He sees literature as a political act.
Victor Rodger got all the witty lines. As a part Samoan, part Palagi gay man, his story was there, unique and ready to be told. He used writing to make sense of a confusing childhood – and to share his experiences to help others in the same situation. He sees theatre as being able to push boundaries and make people squirm, citing his popular play Black Faggot as an excellent example. He also reflected that books do change the world, something the other two didn’t commit to – citing The Bible, and the Qu’ran. Kate De Goldi noted that there are still families in which the only written word available at home is the Bible – undoubtedly this is also true of the Qu’ran.
Peter Biggs saw books as providing a slower form of narrative in this fast-paced world. “Forms of longer narrative are crucial to working out who we are, and what our world is. Books re-enlarge our idea of what a citizen is, while the world around us is reducing us to consumers.” In response, Kate noted that it was ironic in a way that books had become a commodity themselves – making the point that not all books matter. “The cul de sacs of interiority children’s books need have been ironed out by the requirement of action.”
Biggs then pulled us into a further discussion of how it is that the world is in such a state – the rise of Trump, Brexit, Australia changing Prime Ministers frequently: this world should know better – why doesn’t it? Freeman answered on behalf of America: “It is a structural problem, and related to the privatisation of the education system. When a populace is strategically de-educated, they can be controlled.” Rodger agreed –he was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Hawaii last year, and saw among those there a lack of consciousness, a failure to get angry when it was warranted.
When considering how to educate children via fiction, Kate’s response tends to be: children’s books need more semi-colons. The use of semi-colons gives children the layers of complexity that are needed to make sense of the world.
John Freeman doesn’t think books change the world – he thinks they allow us to survive the world. “The people that are most resilient in surviving trauma are those who can narrativise it.” For him, the construction of self can be dangerous, and a book is valuable if it can allow us to see that there is a self beyond our own – to explode the notion of self.
The role of libraries and of booksellers was also noted in the conversation, with the revival of the physical book and the regeneration of independent booksellers. Children’s bookshops in particular have survived through, a) knowing their clients, and b) knowing their stock. Likewise libraries have survived, and even in places where books have been fully digitised in libraries, it is the physical book which kids still prefer.
It was an interesting discussion with the take-away concept being that of the responsibility of writers to be morally and ethically true to their readers. There were also a few book titles and names dropped that are worthwhile hunting down at your local bookshop: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Fiona Farrell’s The Villa at the End of the Empire, Susanna Andrews & Jolisa Gracewood’s Tell You What series, anything by Angela Fornoy – and Freeman noted that those who are writing the most considered work at the moment are writers of colour, queer writers, and those who are otherwise marginalised.
Reviewed by Kathy Watson and Sarah Forster
From The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle
by Kate De Goldi
Published by Longacre
Freeman’s Literary Journal: Arrival
edited by John Freeman
Published by Text Publishing
John Freeman also appears in:
A Literary Life: John Freeman, Fri 26 Aug, 11am
by Victor Rodger
Published by Huia Publishing