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The Forgiveness panel: David Vann, James Bradley and Sarah Armstrong at 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival. Photo: Kalem Horn

To Forgive and Forget: The limits of forgiveness

It may be easier to say “I forgive you” than it is to forget past wrongs. Does an apology necessitate complete forgiveness, or does the pain cut too deep for any form of absolution?

According to James Bradley, critic and author of the recently released novel, Clade, some things are unforgiveable.

Clade takes place over several decades, focusing on the Leith family as they deal with a world afflicted by the effects of climate change, along with their family dynamics. Bradley, speaking with David Vann and Sarah Armstrong at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival, said that he attempted to connect climate change to a more personal experience.

The impact of global climate change on the world is something Bradley believes we, as a species, are responsible for. He declares an anxiety from wondering how to ask for forgiveness from his own children in 15 years from now, when the global situation worsens. This anxiety formed his inspiration for writing Clade.

Circumstances, such as climate change, can be very severe and unforgiveable by some. However, David Vann, author and University of Warwick creative writing professor, believes “children have a huge capacity to forgive”.

His new book, Aquarium, tells the story of twelve-year-old Caitlyn and the tumultuous relationships between herself, her long lost grandfather, and her mother, Sheri.

Vann said that Sheri and her father’s reunion serves as a test of forgiveness for them. The grandfather abandoned his daughter Sheri at a young age, and he is seeking her forgiveness. But Sheri tries to keep Caitlyn and her grandfather apart, effectively punishing him vicariously through her own daughter.

The willingness to forgive may take longer, depending on the situation. Sometimes forgiveness might not occur at all.

Author Sarah Armstrong believes that any form of forgiveness between her novel’s characters in His Other House, would happen after the book has ended.

The adulterous main character, Quinn, falls in love with another woman in the midst of dealing with problems in his marriage. The result of Quinn’s cheating is the pregnancies of both his wife and his lover.

Armstrong said that she set out to write a lead male character that was likeable and identifiable, showing that otherwise good people often hurt others.

Perhaps it is human nature to constantly upset, disappoint, and hurt others, hence—as Vann points out—our similarity to characters in Ancient Greek narratives. Nothing changes.

“We act unconsciously and out of control,” Vann said, pushing the point that we are archetypal figures who make the same mistakes and always ask for forgiveness.

Knowing this helped Vann to reconcile with his mother, with whom he had had an uneasy relationship for years.

But forgiveness through reconciliation need not deny events.

Bradley expressed his own suspicion at the word ‘forgiveness’. He believed that it, like ‘closure’, seems to imply that the past has been dealt with and can be forgotten.

“Understanding the situation is not the same as absolving,” he said.

Vann and Armstrong agreed with Bradley when he suggested that literature should provide a way of thinking through the matter of forgiving and (hopefully not) forgetting.

Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.

Joan London reads from her latest novel The Golden Age at Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015. Photo: Kalem Horn

The simple act of reading: Why all reading is created equal

After many years of pondering, I’ve come to the conclusion that all reading is created equal.

This is not to say that all books are created equal — I’m not saying that there aren’t good or bad books. What I’m saying is that the act of reading, of diving into a story and experiencing the characters, setting, and themes is universal in literature, regardless of a story’s quality.

I think many people were very excited to attend the panel inspired by the book The Simple Act of Reading by Debra Adelaide for exactly this reason. Readers of all experience, who love everything from trashy romance novels to Greek classics, can appreciate the way it feels to dive into a book.

This Sunday morning session at Byron Bay Writers Festival included Andy Griffiths, Malcolm Knox, and Joan London, and chaired by Catherine Keenan, and it represented a hugely diverse group of authors, to say the least.

The Simple Act of Reading book itself is a collection of essays and memoirs, penned by authors on the ways that reading led them to writing.

Griffiths, who has written celebrated children’s books including The Day My Bum Went Psycho and The Treehouse series, cites his earliest reading experience as being a German book of morality tales for children called Der Struwwelpeter. Griffiths found humour and horror co-existed in these stories, where the consequences were absurdly out of proportion to the “crime” committed.

The children’s author decided that this combination was exactly the sort of book he grew up wanting to write. Recently he had re-read Pinocchio and lamented the disservice that Disney had done to the story by taking all of the horror out.

Knox, too, cited the same children’s book as being a great part of his childhood, although he joked that perhaps the reason his career “didn’t go in the same direction” as Griffiths’ was that when he read these German fairy tales, he took them seriously.

Perhaps that’s why he began as a journalist, and became a novelist later.

Author of several works including A Private Man and Summerland, Knox has not only won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, but also won a Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism.

To me, Knox’s early reading choices really reflect a desire to deal with the real, the concrete. In contrast to Griffith’s stories, which exhibit some of the silliness that he appreciated about the otherwise horror-driven works of his youth, Knox’s writing is more serious, more solidly based in reality.

A Private Man, for example, deals largely with a death and the consequences of that death. Not as fanciful, but valuable in ways different from Griffith’s work.

London boasts an incredibly varied catalogue of works including a book based on the oldest poem in the world, Gilgamesh, which serves to ground an ancient tale in modern times. She has also written The Golden Age, which follows two people, whose lives become entwined after meeting in rehab.

When asked what sorts of books she likes to read, London confessed to enjoying the sorts of stories where inventive and intelligent children are able to create a good situation out of bad ones. When she picks up a book it is to “find out what this writer has to tell me about being a human being, and how to place your experience”.

Back to my point about how all reading is created equal—this panel has three authors who have read a plethora of books in their lives. Griffiths finds himself always revisiting The Catcher in the Rye; London says that Alice Monroe was a huge influence, and Knox admits to reading what he calls “airport trash”, the junk you get from the newsstand because you have nothing else to read.

Not all of what they’ve read is quality, but all of it is valuable. Need proof? Consider that no matter what it was that they have read in the past, or what they will read in future – these are published authors. They are the sum of their experiences.

I don’t care what anyone says – that itself is valuable.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Michael Cooney (r) and Don Watson (c) mull the ins and outs of political speechwriting with session chair Jeni Caffin (l). Photo: Kalem Horn.

Putting words in their mouth: The art of speechwriting

Speechwriting is a tough profession. Crafting another’s ideas and words into an eloquent package involves a lot of people who, as Don Watson told his audience at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival, “really they never thought about words.”

Rather amusing for the man who was speechwriter to Paul Keating when he was prime minister, and who went on to lead the charge for quality and integrity in public language.

No easy task as you can imagine, and I think to be successful you must have some measure of passion for the person you’re writing about and what they stand for.

Certainly for Watson and Michael Cooney, who was speechwriter to Julia Gillard, there is no shortage of passion for the prime ministers they served.

This showed in their discussion and Jeni Caffin, their session chair at the festival, who described their books as “love letters” to the prime minsters they served.

So what makes a great speech?

Watson, who authored Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, is matter-of-fact: speeches should be direct, concrete, and never in the passive voice. He describes speechwriting an endless and often draining task, and admits to finding a certain measure of respectability in being considered a “bleeding heart”.

The most famous of Keating’s speeches, the Redfern Speech, is an intensely gritty acknowledgment of the crimes committed against Australia’s indigenous population. Watson had a heavy hand in writing the speech, however it’s interesting to note that Keating himself has claimed sole authorship, insisting that it is inherently his.

Who then do the words of the speech belong to?

There’s a lot of anonymity in being a speechwriter. While it’s generally known that speeches are written by a person hired to do so, there’s so much give and take between the writer and the speaker that there exists a sort of co-authorship that cannot be ignored.

The responsibility for the work is perhaps a little less clear. If the work is good, the praise will fall to the person you wrote the speech for. If you fail, you’ve given them bad advice. In the case of Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech, this symbiotic relationship between speaker and writer is quite relevant to me after hearing Watson speak.

The dawn of the digital age has made Cooney’s experience quite different Watson’s. Watson talks about coming from the age of newspaper transcripts, when speeches spread slowly and were much less far-reaching. Online communication has made the world considerably “smaller”.

Gone are the days of waiting for print media to write about the events. The same day Julia Gillard made her famous self-written misogyny speech, it spread as far as to where I lived in Massachusetts, US. An incredible feat, far removed from the experience of Watson’s time.

Cooney praises the internet and social media and the effect it has had on speechwriting. The increased visibility of famous speeches means that they can now be spread globally in a matter of minutes.

Cooney suggests that a great speech must form a well-thought out and impressive whole; the digital age and expansion of global media means that your 20-minute speech is going to be broken up, often delivered in 7 second clips. If the entire speech is lacking, that 7-second clip will be as well.

He suggests that the easiest way to fix a lacklustre speech is to format sentences into subject-verb-object structure, to deliver lines that are direct. In speeches such as the one Gillard delivered in Brisbane on Australian mining, the carbon tax, and the economy as compared to the rest of the globe, his short, cutting lines punctuating longer thoughts proved that this this strategy really works.

The impressive speech came just before the G20 Conference, and was one of the defining moments of Gillard’s political career.

After hearing these incredible men discuss their careers, I can’t help but wonder after the title of the conversation. Can anyone really say that speechwriting is putting words into someone’s mouths?

It’s so much more complex than that. Caffin suggests that unlike a movie script, you aren’t creating thoughts for a person. You’re voicing what they already think and feel. It’s a tremendously difficult exercise in empathy; there’s art in being able to anticipate and construct a piece that reflects what another person wants to say.

The responsibility of writing for another person is a heavy cross to bear, but if Cooney and Watson’s passion and fervour for the work they’ve done is anything to go by, it’s well worth the struggle to succeed.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 


Sheng Keyi with translator Martin Merz, at Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015.

New Asia Now: Miguel Syjuco, Annie Zaidi, and Sheng Keyi

According to New Asia Now contributor Sheng Keyi, there is a saying in China: “If a Chinese person wants to learn about China, they have to learn English.” And the author of speculative novel Death Fugue points to the heavy censorship in the Chinese media and publishing industry.

Keyi should know, Death Fugue has been banned in mainland China.

Many Asian writers have difficulty expressing themselves as a result of either oppression or corruption in their countries.

A common atrocity among the nations of Miguel Syjuco, Annie Zaidi, and Sheng Keyi was the levels of corruption in their societies. They each chose to write openly about the dark, and rarely scrutinized, aspects of particular Asian countries.

They are all part of New Asia Now, a Griffith Review collection of work from young Asian writers, all born after 1970. It is the journal’s most ambitious edition, according to the Griffith Review editor and session chair, Julianne Schultz.

The session began with the three authors reading excerpts of their work, and then they leapt into discussing the socio-political climates of their respective countries.

Filipino author of Illustrado, Syjuco, believes that it is his responsibility, as an artist from the Phillipines, to tell the world about the corruption evident in his country.

When a writer sits down to write they often ask why they are writing, said Syjuco, particularly when they are politically engaged. He hopes his writing will reach out to the next generation so they can take on some of his ideas.

Annie Zaido and Miguel Syjuco, with

Annie Zaidi and Miguel Syjuco, with Griffith Review editor and session chair, Julianne Schultz.

Syjuco’s essay in New Asia Now, Beating Dickheads, shows the parallels and contrasts between Australian and Filipino politics. He talks about how Australians will sit down at breakfast, read the newspaper, and become disillusioned with the state of parliament.

“What a dickhead!” is the usual response to the daily political disgrace, writes Syjuco.

This is, he says, a “defence mechanism” responding to a feeling of helplessness among the electorate. You can elect parliamentarians, but yet not feel any positive shift in society, or that parliamentarians provide an accurate representation of the needs of citizens.

Similarly, in The Phillipines, people feel this way about their governments. The difference, Syjuco said, is that you can go to jail for expressing such beliefs. He believes it would be unlikely that his essay would be published in his country, as it would be considered defamatory.

India presents a similar situation, according to Zaidi, author of Gulab and Love Stories #1 to 14.

In her essay, Embodying Venus, Zaidi writes about the rape of schoolgirls in Ajmer, Rajasthan. The perpetrator took so-called ‘compromising photographs’ and used them to blackmail the victims and their supporters into remaining silent.

Zaidi, who lived a sheltered youth, was taught to be ashamed of nudity, and the rape case galvanized the belief that “this is what happens to girls who go out to meet boys”.

A woman’s body is incessantly commodified, scrutinised, and ultimately shamed, Zaidi said.

She writes that the media gives “fresh reminders of the power cameras have over a woman’s body”.

This was another similarity between India and the Phillipines, Syjuco noted, although he pointed out that one in three women worldwide have been victims of abuse – so this is not only an issue evident in third world countries.

Keyi said, through translator Martin Merz, that while Syjuco and Zaidi were debating which of their nations were more corrupt, she was looking at which of the three – Philippines, India and China – is more rotten.

She said that instances of sexual abuse in China aren’t particularly notable, but there are cases of officials abusing their positions of power to enact violence on women and children.

“The situation for women in China is terrible,” said Keyi.

She read an excerpt from A Little Life, a story based on one of her relatives. It revolves her relative, who despite being unmarried falls pregnant, a fineable offense in China. Keyi said that an impoverished single mother cannot hope to survive in China.

Although A Little Life ends positively, such an outcome could never occur in reality in China, said Keyi.

The authors were asked if the rise of social media has allowed for a democratisation of their messages in the midst of oppression.

“Social media is one of the best tools we have to force freedom of speech and challenge the dogma,” said Syjuco.

Zaidi partly agreed with Syjuco, but pointed out that access to social media is restricted in India, with less that 10 percent of the population having access to the internet.

In China, Keyi believes there is no plurality in her country’s news media as it is dominated by a handful of state-run organisations. Money is frequently used to silence people and journalists are pressured to present a purely positive story.

“Some of what goes on in China can only be reported on when sourced outside of China,” Keyi said.

New Asia Now is clearly providing such a platform for writers and activists to do just that.

Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.