2016 Wordstorm – Day 3
Image by Tasmanian cartoonist and festival guest, Eleri Harris.
The Sun came up today. The weather was warm and humid. I woke up to a glowing review of THE BURNING ELEPHANT in the Sydney Morning Herald after another wonderful review in the Australian Book Review. Not every morning begins like this.
I attended a number of panels. The first panel was WRITING MEMOIR: What’s mum going to say? This panel featured strong, stoic women Toni Tapp Coutts, Magda Szubanski, Marie Munkara and Linda Wells who shared their incredible life stories with fierce intelligence, humour and verve.
After this there was a focus on new Indonesian literature featuring Eliza Vitri Handayani and Eka Kurniawan. I was excited to meet Indonesia’s Eka Kurniawan author of the novel, ‘Beauty is a Wound’, which was translated into English last year. Eka Kurniawan’s Lelaki Harimau, Man Tiger (Verso Books) is in contention for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Eliza Vitri Handayani’s ‘From now on everything will be different’ is a love story set in contemporary Indonesia and it is her first novel to be published in English.
Eka’s work explores the repression, violence, perpetrated by various official structures in Indonesian history. From the occupiers to the current political leaders these authors talk about a rift between the leaders and the ordinary people.
Eliza and Eka are interested in testing the limits of freedom and democracy, their work pushes against power structures and the apparatus of assimilation and hegemony. Eliza’s book launch was cancelled at last years Ubud Writers Festival because of censorship and this attracted world wide attention. So naturally Eliza asked a number of questions. How can we realise ourselves fully if society is oppressed by more powerful groups? Are we free to be who we choose to be? Maybe freedom is madness?
Recently, Eliza has begun growing her own vegetables and cooking vegetarian meals, which she finds more difficult than cooking meat and so it pushes her to be creative with spices and ingredients. In her family, Eliza explained, girls and women are expected to be able to cook, and her dislike and inability to do anything in the kitchen has influenced her thinking of what kind of woman she wants to be. Eliza also talked about a scene in her novel where the characters go to various restaurants and talk about their forbidden relationships.
Both Eliza and Eka are interested in gender politics. But Eka’s main character is not an ordinary person she is a half-caste, beautiful prostitute and a ghost. The novel has a most, memorable opening line. ‘One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.’ It is a ghost story that shows macho, pathetic men imprisoned by their repressed, sexual desires. Listening to these exciting, new voices I want to visit Indonesia and learn more.
In the afternoon, there was a panel on graphic novels, expanding the literary family. This discussion featured Christine Black who is a Kombumerri/Munaljahlai woman from South East Queensland and is a Senior Research Fellow with the Northern Institute. She is interested in graphic novels with indigenous content. Toni Griffin writes gay pornographic novels, Levin Diatschenko is a graphic novelist who has had one of his works translated into Japanese and his bio described him as the ‘Kafka of the outback’ and Eleri Mae Harris is interested in making non-fiction comics.
After this I was on a panel about food with some terrific writers. The panel is called ‘The family recipe’ and the discussion centred around how food and family and writing meet. The kitchen is the engine room of most families and in Darwin, I was joined by Toni Tapp Coutts, Beth Yahp and Indonesian author Eliza Vitri Handayani and we shared how exactly food helps us write about family, in all ‘its intricacy of ingredients and flavours.’ Food is after all the ‘fabric of family’.
Toni Tapp Coutts, the eldest of ten children, grew up on the Tapp Family cattle station in the Katherine region. Her memoir ‘A Sunburnt Childhood’ published by Hachette Australia just six weeks ago has leapt straight into the top sellers of Australian Biography in its first few weeks of release.
In ‘A Sunburnt Childhood’ Toni Tapp Couts has written about her childhood, growing up in the Northern Territory on the massive Killarney Station where her step father Bill Tapp was a cattle king. Toni’s take on family recipes reflects her outback childhood, fresh beef straight off the beast into the coals. Lots of fresh damper, no butter. Her kitchen table was the open fire for many years as they sat cross legged on the ground and ate off tin plates. Steaming corn beef, big stews and rib bones and a regular feed of bulls balls when branding and castrating the young bulls. Bush tucker, goanna and bush turkey were a big part of her diet in the early days as she went hunting with her aboriginal mother and aunty. Due to poor water supply and no electricity/refrigeration they didn’t have a veggie garden and no way to store food so what ever was killed was eaten immediately.
Beth Yahp’s ‘Eat First, Talk Later’ is a memoir about Malaysia, about love, betrayal, home and belonging.
For all of us, food is clearly important and appears in our writing. Food lends itself perfectly to writing. I like the vocabulary of food. It arouses all the senses and works more on a subconscious level. Writing underlines the importance of sensory experiences in conjuring memories. We are what we eat. It is a cliché but it’s true. Every cell in our body was formed by the food we ate and the water we drink.
After the panel we were all hungry and so Richard Glover, Eliza Vitri Handayani, Beth Yapp, Leisl Egan and Eleri Mae Harris made a beeline to a Vietnamese restaurant. My day ended there but for others there was an enthralling evening with Magda Szubanski, one of Australia’s best known performers and now critically acclaimed memoirist, at the Christ Church Cathedral.
– Christopher Raja
Christopher Raja is the Wordstorm 2016 festival blogger. Having migrated to Melbourne from Kolkata in 1986, he now lives and works in Alice Springs. His co-authored play, The First Garden was published by Currency Press in 2012 and shortlisted for the Chief Minister’s Book of the Year in 2014. His debut novel, The Burning Elephant was published by Giramondo in 2015.