How do novelists engage with politics? Christos Tsiolkas, Alexis Wright and Kathryn Heyman talk fiction and politics with Margot Saville at the Sydney Writers’ Fest 2014

First, to set the scene – and given I’ve been chained to my desk since January, how very welcome and extra breathtaking that scene was. Sydney Harbour at its glistening best.

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So, novels and politics. A massive subject to cover in just one hour, with each writer given 10 minutes to talk about the way they tackle politics in their novels. Here are some of the notes I scribbled, in order of their appearance.

Cristos Tsiolkas, Alexis Wright, Kathryn Heyman and Margot Saville.

Cristos Tsiolkas, Alexis Wright, Kathryn Heyman and Margot Saville.

First up was Christos Tsiolkas, who said he became a writer because he wanted to express hope and rage. He spoke about two key influences in his life: a drag queen called Lady Constance who – when Tsiolkas was 16 years old – waved her hand over their ‘drab city’ of Melbourne and showed him how it could be transformed into a magical place. She said ‘It’s all doom and gloom – but let’s forget that for a moment and laugh so loud we shake the foundations of capitalism.’ And taught him about escape and the imaginative remaking of the world.

Ever since he has been locked in an embrace between Lady Constance’s escape and the realism of his Uncle Costas, who sat him down when he was 12 and told him about Communism and the politics of his postwar working class Greek heritage. When Tsiolkas became the first person in his family to get into university, Uncle Costas congratulated him. And then he slapped him. ‘Don’t forget where you came from.’

Tsiolkas talked of the ecstatic joy like dancing he can feel when writing fiction – ‘We are lucky to be writers’ – despite the shame, humiliation, self-doubt that go with it.

For him writing non-fiction is just the opposite. Writing ‘Why Australia hates asylum seekers‘ was not like dancing. It was like wading through heavy sludge. Why? Because of the responsibility he felt to real humans, to men, women and children who through no fault of their own find themselves homeless. When writing it he wanted to step outside the ‘Manichean good/bad’ division so much of our politics and public debate is mired in, to ‘communicate our differences and find our way out of this mess’.

With non-fiction there is fidelity to the real, best exemplified for Tsiolkas in the work of writers like Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt. With fiction there is fidelity to the imagination. Non-fiction can talk about struggle. Fiction can talk about resistance.

His favourite political line is Emma Goldman’s ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ And in his novels he dances to the music of Lady Constance and Uncle Costas: ‘Create the world anew, sings Lady Constance. Don’t forget where you came from, is Uncle Costas’s refrain.’

Alexis Wright said that Plains of Promise was her first attempt to write a novel – but she felt in that book she hadn’t yet found her style. She said it took some time for her to find what she was trying to do, ‘to be faithful to the world I come from and the way we tell stories’. She needed to find an authenticity of place, mind, voice, and of all times.

Her latest novel The Swan Book began with a sudden thought: ‘I want to write about swans’. She knew nothing about swans. There are no swans where she comes from in the Gulf savannah of northern Australia. So she started asking people in central Australia where she was living if they had any stories about swans. And they started telling stories about swans, surprisingly seen in the spinifex country of central Australia and in the Gulf country, places they’d never been seen before. And then she read all the literature and poetry on swans she could find.

Wright was working on The Swan Book during the time of John Howard, who ‘squashed our big dreams’, she said, such as the idea of Aboriginal self-government, an idea which had given her people hope for the future. With their big dreams squashed they had to develop a different way of doing things – and The Swan Book represents such a different way.

She asked herself: ‘Was I going to think about what Howard was saying every day? Or was I going to think about swans?’

She chose swans. This way of thinking is part of her broader belief that her people need what she calls ‘sovereignty of mind‘. ‘If you don’t think in your own way, then your imagination closes doors. You lose your way.’

There was also a drought in southern Australia. Were the swans going to country they’d never been in before because of the drought? Global warming? Wright was thinking about all this when she wrote The Swan Book. And about global relationships, how we empathise with people and treat the other. She tried to relate global issues to ‘what’s happening on the ground here with Aboriginal people and how our rights have been taken away since colonisation – and Australia gets away with it. Nothing is done about it. This attitude gathers momentum and you can apply it to other people.’ Such as asylum seekers.

Wright said writers should be thinking about not only small things but bigger things across the world, thinking about the future and what it might mean for our children’s children. What if there were more frequent and extreme weather events across the country and the world?

“‘Acts of Mother Nature” we used to call them. And that’s a thought too. Who is Mother Nature in a world that doesn’t believe in the power of the country any more and the old ancient stories about how to care for it, Aboriginal stories?’

So writing about swans was a political decision. How are the swans?

Wright wanted to have conversations in her book that we’re not having in this country, for example, about Aboriginal government. She said she’s also developed an Aboriginal style in her novels. ‘There’s an Aboriginal way of telling stories, of doing things.’ And referred to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, where he talks about the important elements of literature: ‘inclusiveness in literature, complexity (the world is becoming more complex), visibility, lightness (or shamans, who can shed the world from their shoulders and fly to some other place, exactly like the healer in Aboriginal culture), being exact.’

Wright was in full flight when her 10 minutes elapsed – unlike Tsiolkas she had not prepared a talk – and Kathryn Heyman took the lectern. Heyman said who you pay attention to, who you choose to put in your novel, is an essentially political act. Everything is essentially political. I liked her quote from American philosopher Richard Rorty, who said: ‘The novel, the movie, and the TV program have gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principle vehicles of moral change and progress.’

Heyman called politics ‘secularised theology’ – because both deal in and manipulate hope.

All three writers spoke thoughtfully and with great feeling (Tsiolkas moved Heyman to tears) – and I thoroughly enjoyed the session. But it did make me qualify my exuberant claim of yesterday, ‘when in doubt, seek out the writers‘. Yes, it was fantastic to be among the writers, especially in this sweet autumn weather. But really, when in doubt, seek out the writers’ BOOKS. For that is where their words are at their most vigorous and foundations-shaking.

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2 Responses to How do novelists engage with politics? Christos Tsiolkas, Alexis Wright and Kathryn Heyman talk fiction and politics with Margot Saville at the Sydney Writers’ Fest 2014

  1. I like your end note, Jane. Wright made much the same points in her discussion with Geordie Williamson yesterday. And Richard Flanagan recently said he burns all his drafts and notes, etc, when he’s done with a novel, because there’s no point in anyone ever looking at them: what matters is the final text, the book itself.. As you say, that’s where the authors’ voices is clearest. John

  2. That’s so interesting, John, that Wright made similar point in her discussion with Williamson. Talk fests are fantastic and a good way of discovering new writers or books, being among books, writers and book lovers, sharing book love, etc, but ultimately I love to be alone with the books themselves.

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