Every session at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival begins with acknowledging a chair. That’s right. Not a publisher, not the Indigenous elders of the area, but an empty chair. The chair is part of the PEN program and represents a writer who is in prison for writing what someone in power, somewhere, believed was ‘Off Limits’.
This ritual is particularly humbling as we sit with three writers who have all pushed boundaries in their recent publications; Paul Carter, Tony Cavanaugh and Jim Hearn. None of them were imprisoned, but all, as well as our host Kate Veitch, have had tensions with their publishers about aspects of their novels that their publishers believed should not be published.
Carter’s book, Smoking Monkeys, Drilling Rigs, Biodiesel Bikes and Other Stories, was read by an army of lawyers because of its exploration of the oil and gas exploration industry and the possibility of him ‘getting his arse sued’. Veitch was asked to remove all references to underage drinking in her novel in order to publish in America. But is that what we have really come to? Are the limits of our literary explorations set by lawyers and publishers over lunch?
Perceptions of what is off limits are cultural. Russian all-girl punk band Pussy Riot are facing up to seven years in jail for a three minute anti-Putin protest-performance in a cathedral in Moscow. Russian culture is in the midst of change, the protestors who line the streets in support of the band are all part of re-defining what is off limits.
Ideas of what should not be published are also generational. Cavanaugh spoke about his experience of scriptwriting on the eighties Australian TV series Flying Doctors where a love scene involving an Indigenous female and a white male became the object of censorship.
The zones of literary and cultural limits are always shifting, and it is the writer who is encumbered with the gift and the privilege of pushing those boundaries. This is not always experienced as an emancipatory political triumph by writers, as in the writing of Cavanaugh’s recent novel Promise, where he writes from the mind of a character who rapes and murders teenaged girls, he explained he had to ‘shower after writing every chapter’.
Jim Hearn is passionate about the idea that unwitting actors and victims should be able to tell their stories without censorship, he describes these stories as narratives of transgression. His latest novel High Season, has three different of transgressions; hospitality, prostitution and heroine.
He described the writing of the book as a cathartic process, one which shifted the way power relationships worked in his life, resulting in a book which represented the veracity of lived experience. In terms of limits, writing from this lived experienced can redefine what is accepted as normal.
Audience questions focused around the link between representation and culture, the responsibility of the writer when sociopaths and psychopaths bring the writers imaginative worlds to life, this being a pertinent issue especially to the film industry. Cavanaugh spoke about his experience as writer on A Country Practice where within a week of an episode where children were injured by fire crackers, a large number of children across the country were hospitalised for firecracker injuries. Not one of the writers could think of an instance where this had occurred as the result of reading a novel.
The session closed with a reflection on Wikileaks and the way the site has pushed the boundaries of what is published. I think of Julian Assange. The empty chair comes into focus. Cavanaugh makes a pertinent point, ‘If writers don’t push the limits, who will?’
Ajita Cannings is a media student at Southern Cross University.