Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival 2014


On Saturday night I went to the gala opening of the inaugural MJWF, held at the Glen Eira Town Hall. Hosted by comedian Rachel Berger, and with appearances by some of the featured writers from the festival, it was a fun entrée to the next days of the festival (sessions ran yesterday and continue today.)

The theme for the evening, and for the festival itself, was ‘it started with a word’ and the speakers spoke in response to this. Rachel Berger commented that in a time where we supposedly have more ‘connectivity’ people are still on the street, isolated. We don’t talk to each other and say hello, how are you, the way we did.

Arnold Zable was delightful and thought-provoking. I’d never heard him speak before and he was a treat. Wry and intelligent, he circled what for him is ‘the word’ – indifference. He said writers need to be the exact opposite of this. He spoke about the people at Manus Island, how all they did was escape their countries, like many of the Jewish community did. He called for a writer who will go there and ‘sit with the damned and the innocent… and put a human face and voice to the story and break the indifference.’

Maria Tumarkin is a name I’ve seen around but knew nothing about until Saturday night. She spoke beautifully, and movingly about the meaning of languages and how they connect with emotions. This is exactly what I wrote about in my Master thesis, how language can intersect with identity and culture. During my research for that project, I read about a young Chinese man who said he had never, and could never, tell his mother he loved her in Mandarin. But could, and did, in English. Maria said similar things. She said she is much freer when speaking English than her native Russian, that she never blushes in English, that saying ‘I love you’ is easy in her second language. Her birth language is ‘hot and vulgar, world making.’ In a new world language, the words can be cold and hollow. ‘God is not listening when I speak English.’ But to have a second language is to possess a second soul, and speaking another language we are a different person. For Maria, after almost 25 years in Australia, the words ‘home’ and ‘love’ don’t seem so flat any more.

Andrea Goldsmith told a fable and again: what a treat. I’ve seen Andrea speak before, I’ve studied with her, and she is a natural on the stage. Saturday night was no exception. She told a story in the first person, and after a few lines made it clear she was speaking as a young male. It was a funny story, filled with literary references, but as it grew in my ears it became clear that it was indeed a fable, and that we were heading towards understanding and learning. I stopped taking notes at that point as I was drawn into the telling of the story. It was magical, that’s all I can say and I did wonder whether Andrea was trying out a male voice for her next novel. If so, it very much worked for me. It was wry and insightful and warm. Could have listened for ever.

Sunday sessions

Yesterday I went to two sessions, at Beth Weizmann and Lamm Jewish Library of Australia, in Hawthorn Road, Caulfield South. The first was an In Conversation with Elliot Perlman. I first read Perlman’s novels when they came out, Three Dollars around the time of publication and Seven Types of Ambiguity, again around the time of publication. I can only find the former on my bookshelves. I can’t remember whether I owned Ambiguity or not. I am not a library reader and don’t like to borrow books either, so I’m thinking I had it and loaned it and lost it. I have lost several books so this is why now, if you ask to borrow a book from me, there’ll likely be an awkward pause and then I’ll say ‘sorry I don’t loan my books. I’ve lost too many.’ This will make you think I think you won’t give it back. You’ll take it personally. And then I’ll say ‘my books are my babies’ and you’ll think I’m a complete nut. You’ll say something like ‘that’s fine, I understand’ but if you’re not a writer/serious reader, if you’re a mere dabbler, you won’t really get it. I haven’t lost any friends yet which is good and I haven’t lost any more books which is good as well.

Anyway. Listening to Elliot Perlman put him back in my sights. And not just mine it seems, if google is anything to go by. When I go to search for Perlman’s wiki page the results pop up before I’ve finished typing: Elliot Perlman, Elliot Perlman 2014, Elliot Perlman girlfriend, Elliot Perlman wife. The google algorithm is telling me these are the most popular search terms. And he is a handsome man, that’s for sure.

My first note, as they recapped Three Dollars for the audience was ‘prescient?’ It was published in 1998 and if you think about it, that Perlman was writing about alienation and personal crises (financial, career- and relationship-wise) during the Kennett era was significant. The prescient element, though, for me was no one could, at that time, know how much more critical these feelings of dislocation might become. At the moment people are struggling with the threat of change, imposed politically, so the story about a man who is struggling with these sorts of things to me was ahead of its time in a way. Ambiguity is also a social novel, about domestic relationships and different perspectives on a particular event. Sound familiar? Refreshing myself on the themes of Perlman’s first two novels made me think of Christos Tsiolkas. This is a thought I will cogitate on a little longer and possibly come back to in another post.

One thing I liked about Perlman’s session was that he checked, by a show of hands, who hadn’t read or finished reading his latest novel, The Street Sweeper (published 2011.) He saw the hands, not many, mine one of them, and made sure he didn’t give spoilers while talking about it. I bought the book and look forward to reading it. Perlman had doubts whether he was the right person to write this book about the Holocaust. One interesting piece of history   discussed was that African-American soldiers were at the liberation of Dachau, something not documented but corroborated by people’s memories and stories, and something central to this book.

I enjoyed this session plus I got to meet local author Eli Glasman too.


Second session

The Moral of the Story: ethics of fiction. Can reading Anna Karenina, Puberty Blues or Primary Colors make you a better person? This panel had Renata Singer, Peter Singer and Louise Adler. Adler’s intro included the phrase ‘the industry is suffering’ and a request for us to buy books out in the marquee (a marquee I have to say which was cosy and warm, and hosting an array of really nice food, a bagel bar, hot soup and yummy dessert. Also coffee station. All well organised and the author signing table was in there, as well as the Readings outlet. I think it was the best marquee I’ve ever been in.) Unfortunately the co-edited Singer anthology was not available, but it’s title is The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature.

Louise Adler: why do we read, what do we learn, can writers of reprehensible [character] write great books? These were some of the questions the rapid-fire speaker threw at us. My pen couldn’t move that fast. Does literature inspire empathy? Should literature inspire and enlarge, is that its function or ‘responsibility’? Adler mentioned a book, A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, and said it contained a story of a man in a concentration camp, who was well read and who ‘offered himself up as a library to the other inmates.’ How words can be of such value to people.

Renata Singer said the words we take into ourselves as literature powerfully inform us. She was a voracious reader, a more than one book a day habit, sometimes three. She read anything. Comics, westerns, anything with a nice cover. She said when you ‘go into a good book you don’t come out of it the same way.’ She talked about how the English have the culture of anthropomorphism in literature, eg Peter Rabbit, Mole and Rat and Toad, and that having grown up with these characters, it was to her no coincidence the English had earlier animal anti-cruelty laws than elsewhere, because they grew up identifying with animals, reading stories from their points of view. She believes that literature ‘reacts with your deep self’ and makes you understand yourself and others better. She read The Tale of Genji, written a thousand years ago. If not for reading that, Renata would never have gained an understanding of what Japanese society was like then. Horror and fairy tales allow us to face a lot of terrors that we don’t have to face in real life; we can explore transgressions and fears. We can go to Antarctica, climb Everest, face evil. Graham Greene’s The Third Man helps us learn about evil (Renata read a bit from the ‘ferris wheel scene’.) And to wrap up: story animates empathy in a way that cold logic cannot.

Peter Singer came at the question from the philosophical direction. He talked about Plato’s Republic and asked whether if we could all get away with [evil], wouldn’t we act unjustly? And is the ultimate question whether it is the consequences that matter or the means? Peter talked about the Isaac and Abraham story. God ordered a man to kill his son, which Singer believes was a ‘terrible thing to do’. He said that if there is a god making such orders, that is a being who should not be obeyed. He mentioned The Good German by Joseph Kanon and An Unnatural Mother by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Singer juxtaposed the ethical centres of each story; in one a mother is criticised for saving a village at the expense of her child and in the other a mother is criticised for doing something different (my notes don’t tell me exactly what here, but I remember Peter made the good point that in one circumstance, an action may be criticised, but in another it may be seen as moral and right.)

He mentioned a story in the collection, the one that is ‘hardest for him to read’ called This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, by Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski. Singer questioned whether ethics can exist at all in circumstances ‘utterly different from those in which ethics evolve and develop.’ This point drew murmurs of agreement from the audience.

Louise Adler asked the question: do writers have an obligation to include or write about certain things, for example ethics?

Renata said no. Writers write for lots of reasons, and don’t have to come to it with a moral purpose. But some books and authors ‘can’t help themselves’ and they ask those questions and include the reader in their questioning.

Peter said it’s fine to read books just for entertainment but sometimes it’s good to challenge yourself (he was very either/or on this. I wondered whether it wasn’t possible to have a book with moral import that is entertaining as well. I thought a bit about it and couldn’t get any further than Jodi Picoult. Her books for me are not what I was trying to think of.)

Renata said you’re not reading books for their moral purpose, that’s ‘not how it works.’ She said ‘I want to find something out with writing. I’m not a scientist… this is [my] way of finding things out.’

Peter said not every writer has an obligation to speak out on political issues, but maybe you can expect them to, more than a dentist. Renata mentioned controversy when Geoffrey Blainey talked about Vietnamese immigration but didn’t know about it. She said it can be problematic for writers to talk about things they don’t know anything about.

Questions from the audience:

1. there was a question about the morality of children and what they are exposed to, with reading. Renata said she believes ‘children can read everything.’ She didn’t expound on this but I took it to mean children should not be prevented from reading anything. I agree with this. Peter said research has shown children have a moral compass from very young, even before they can talk.

2. there was a question about ‘evil’ characters, like Humbert Humbert from Lolita. (The quotation marks are mine. I can’t talk about evil without them for some reason. I think it’s because no one can define what evil is and how is happens, not to my satisfaction anyway.) I didn’t write what was said but there seemed to be agreement, between Louise and Renata anyway, that while Humbert is a monstrous character, the reader can end up with empathy for him.

3. Linda Jaivin asked a question about what book to send Malcolm Turnbull, to try to persuade him to be more empathetic towards asylum seekers. There was some conversation around the possibility that Turnbull might personally have sympathy for this issue but is following the ‘party line’. Louise said it would need to be ‘something that would move him’ and Renata said she’d need to think about what might be a good book and THEN Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers stood up and offered N by John A. Scott as a terrific read. (BTW Linda J was wearing the most wonderful green nail polish and specs and stripey woollen tights.)

I didn’t get to any other sessions but there was plenty on offer across the two days. I’m looking forward to this as a regular event on Melbourne’s literary calendar. And thank you to the organisers who sent me a ticket to the opening night.

Lisa Hill’s blog post on the events she attended

Books purchased:

John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi
Andrea Goldsmith’s The Prosperous Thief
Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper

#mjwf2014 #melbournejewishwriters


5 thoughts on “Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival 2014

  1. I’ve read Lisa’s write up and now yours. Sounds like a fascinating day. Re “Does literature inspire empathy? Should literature inspire and enlarge, is that its function or ‘responsibility’?” I would say YES it does (or can) but no it SHOULDN’T. A bit like Renata I suspect. The literature that I like best is that which does inspire and enlarge, but I think the arts are, really, about expression and an artist/creator is only bound to express themselves truthfully/sincerely. The have no other “requirement” than that. At least, that’s my understanding of the arts from a costumer not a practitioner’s perspective. Love that point about animal rights!

    I’ve also been wondering about ethics in different cultures/societies. Are there absolutes? Surely there must be. Is hanging a woman because she changes religion ok because her culture says it is OR is killing another human being just plain wrong? (And then I get a bit bogged down between ethics and morality. Am I talking morality here?)

    1. Hi Sue thanks for your comment. You last question is about cultural relativism. Some would say there are absolutes that should be held up, others (the cultural relativists) say not when it comes to things like FGM and ‘honour’ killings etc. I find it almost impossible to find a solid position on, because once I think one way, then I talk myself out of it, or hear a really good argument against it, eg something to do with cultural imperialism and ‘who are we to say our way is better’ etc. I can swing back and forwards and never settle. I think, though, with your example of hanging a woman for apostasy – you’d have to argue it’s absolutely wrong, because to me human rights include the right to freedom of religion, or no religion, or changing religion.

      The festival sessions were both fascinating to me. I didn’t include all of what Elliot Perlman talked about. I took notes but to reproduce them here, the details of his research into his novel centering on the Holocaust, seemed insensitive. But it was a great session. Hope you can make it next year!

      1. Yes, I was exactly talking about cultural relativism and I am exactly like you … I find myself swayed too, but keep thinking there must be some absolute rights that we should all be able to agree on.

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