Another year, another writer’s festival, and this year we’ve seen a change of scenery as the Sydney Writer’s Festival has been shifted from its usual perch in Walsh Bay to the recently renovated Carriageworks and Seymour Centre for the majority of panels. As I went to approximately nine panels across the week I’m going to split this recap into two posts, with the second one only addressing All Day YA at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta.
My first panel for the year was Gods and Monsters: Mythology in Fiction featuring debut authors Dr. Eliza Robertson and Danny Denton, neither of whom I’d heard of before going into the panel but both of whom I will be seeking out to read in the future.
Robertson’s novel Demi-gods (Bloomsbury 2018) follows the relationship between a young boy and a young girl as they try to find their sexual boundaries in what Robertson described as a toxic way. She said that the novel itself was inspired by a photography series in which displayed an early contemporary idea of inverting the male gaze, and as a consequence, the novel is really a story about people gazing at other people. When it comes to the mythological aspect of the book Robertson says that it references the myth of twins Castor and Pollux, and that ‘twinning’ is a frequent feature of the work.
Denton’s novel The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow (Granta 2018) is more of a straight retelling, addressing the Irish myth of the Earlie King and set in an alternative Ireland where it always rains. Denton describes his work as a ‘literary genre mashup’ that was inspired by the ‘wayward myth’ narratives of writers such as T. S Eliot. He said that he likes mythology because of the ways in which the stories exist out of time and rationality, then telling us the Irish tale of the Salmon of Knowledge as an example of a favourite myth. One of the most interesting things that Denton mentioned during the panel was his belief that because the Romans never managed to conquer Ireland – much of the Irish folklore has remained intact.
Both authors discussed the enduring nature of mythology and mentioned recent and popular texts that also retell certain tales such as Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury 2017), or the slightly less recent The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (Canongate 2005). I would even highlight Circe by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury 2018), who also wrote Orange Prize winner The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury 2011) as further examples of the popularity of mythology in modern fiction. Denton mentioned a fascination with the nature of myth to persist and adapt, and Robertson believes that despite the adaptation of mythology to contemporary ideals the nature of much of the work has actually become more conservative. I’m not sure if I agree, but I have a lot of reading to do before I come to an opinion of my own.
The second panel I attended was Poetry in Motion which featured performances from Candy Royalle, Omar Musa, Lang Leav, Shastra Deo, and Yrsa Daley-Ward. Short of telling you that poetry performance is a transcendent experience there’s not much I can say about this panel. Except of course; that Omar Musa’s performance is particularly powerful and I believe should be seen live by any poetry lover at least once. I’ve now seen him perform three times and I will happily see him perform again, and again. The same goes for Yrsa Daley-Ward and Candy Royalle. As much as I enjoy Lang Leav’s poetry I felt that it wasn’t as suited for a performative medium and I’m keen to look up and read Shastra Deo’s poetry for the same reason.
I’m going to jump now to my last panel of the festival which was Power Play: Toxic Masculinity in Storytelling, which again featured two authors I haven’t yet read and their recent work addressing the topic. The first was Ceridwen Dovey whose most recent book is In the Garden of the Fugitives (Penguin, 2018) and the second was Gabriel Tallent, debut author of My Absolute Darling (Fourth Estate, 2017).
Dovey opened her portion of the panel by expressing her interest in both the gendered dynamics of stories but also how these change with the age of the figures who write them and the figures who exist for them. Notable for having written in multiple forms and even won awards for her short story collections, Dovey said that she keeps returning to the novel because it has such a use as a form for expression and exploration. Her latest work uses an epistolary format to tell the story of Vita, who engages in a reluctant re-engagement of communication with a former benefactor and ‘toxic man’ from her past.
Tallent’s novel tells the story of a father and daughter, highlighting the potentially abusive nature of affection as he noted that the father projects onto his daughter “a violence that purports to be love.” In the panel Tallent spoke of an interest in the idea that aesthetic power can be akin to beauty, and of his desire to use the novel to express something that cannot be explained. Tallent recognises that his heroine’s journey is a ‘mute introspective’ in that she doesn’t have the language to describe what is happening to her, and that her emotional journey requires the ability to ‘coach herself to clarity’.
Both of these works show differing aspects of what we now understand as being ‘toxic masculinity’, in that they show the potential for people to be trapped in patriarchal notions of how a man should behave and how these notions can encourage harmful behaviours. As noted in the panel this often appears in fiction as frames of passivity in heroines because of the expectation of male ‘protection’ or the use of violence against women for the sake of male gain. The panel then turned to discussions of the #MeToo movement and the origins of their feminism in which both authors related their stories of growing up and while this is not something that I’m going to recap here I welcomed the opportunity to listen to stories from other people, especially people who had grown up under different circumstances to my own.
I wish I’d read all of these books going in to the festival, but I’m also glad that I didn’t, because now I have recommendations to return to.
Part Two will address #AllDayYA.