Big Stories at Brisbane Writers Festival 2017

Brisbane Writers Festival has had a new lease of life with the appointment of CEO and Artistic Director, Zoe Pollock for the festival’s 55th anniversary. The festival was about “The big stories – and the little ones in between” and the biggest story of them all was probably the recognition of Indigenous literature and creators, particularly the tenth anniversary of Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin award. This was uniquely celebrated as an immersive dramatic and visual performance inside “Angel’s Palace”, a specially constructed “art-tent”, designed by Gordon Hookey.

The opening address was given by Alec Doomadgee, who spoke about “Indigenous knowledge creation”. He showed excerpts from his seminal film Zach’s Ceremony. Alec said that “reading books gives you a real history of the country you’re in”. He uses the arts and culture to tell stories and create change and urged us all to go away and do something for change. My family has something planned …

I was fortunate to moderate a panel session about “Connecting to Place” which explored how three authors create place as a character (or not – as we discovered) in their stories.

Melissa Lukashenko spoke about the significance of land in her beautifully written, award-winning novel Mullumbimby. Ashley Hay let us look inside a special Brisbane house, peopled over time by two vulnerable women whose lives interconnect. Her novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, has just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards. Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel, Skylarking, was one of my best books of 2016 for the Weekend Australian. It is set on a windswept, isolated cape and is a fine piece of writing about friendship between two young women. Kate is destined for big things in the literary world if she continues to write at such a high level.

I also attended a session about the Australian book industry, “Published in Oz”. It was exciting to hear how writing and reading is the biggest art form that people engage with in Australia. 20% of Australians attend a book event annually and Australia has the highest per capita attendance at writers’ festivals in the world. Reading books is the number 1 favourite leisure activity of Australians. Double the number of Australians enjoy reading books to attending sporting events, playing video games or other pursuits. Australia also has the world’s top independent bookseller market.

Another enlightening session was a workshop for adults on visual literacy by James Foley. He has illustrated Sigi Cohen’s, My Dead Bunny, The Last Viking by Norman Jorgensen and other books.

The BWF also hosted “Word Play” an outstanding program for young people. My highlight was hearing Wendy Orr, author of the Nim’s Island series (the genesis of the movies), Peeling the Onion and the masterful historical fantasy based on the Minoan myths of bull-dancing, Dragonfly Song. This novel has also just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards.

Thanks to the organisers of the 2017 BWF and to those involved. There was a very special buzz in Brisbane.

Meet Bruce Pascoe: Seahorse

SeahorseThanks for speaking to Boomerang Books, Bruce Pascoe.

Where are you based? How has this influenced your new adventure story for children, Seahorse (Magabala Books)? I live at Gipsy Point near Mallacoota in Victoria. I have spent all of my life near the lighthouses at Cape Otway, King Island and Mallacoota and the sea is a big influence.

Is there a real Jack who you have based your story on?

Jack is my son and his courage on tackling the rough seas at Cape Otway is inspirational.

Was there an enormous koala colony when you lived at Cape Otway? Were they regarded as a pest?

They were re-introduced in 1976 but the population exploded and destroyed the forest. My son is the environmental scientist at Cape Otway Environment Centre and his opinion that the koalas were introduced from French Island where they were in plague proportions and consequently had lost the ability to control their own population. In the last 18 months Jack has grown 120,000 seedling trees (mostly manna guns and she oak) and has replanted Cape Otway. There was a small cull of the koalas and Jack is waiting to see how the Cape responds.

Your descriptions of place are a key part of the book. How have you crafted them?

Those places are etched in my memory and I often dream I am swimming or diving on their coasts.

 Why have you selected the symbol of the seahorse?

I’m entranced by seahorses but have only ever seen a few while underwater. I have a seahorse on my keyring.

In the book Jack’s grandfather’s mother died and so her son grew up in a Home where ‘they knocked the children around something terrible’. Has your family suffered in this way? Our family were shifted about but I’m not sure any of them were physically harmed by anything but poverty. The early days on Tasmania would have been cruel but I don’t know any family details.Bruce Pascoe

You have seamlessly incorporated some other terrible experiences that Indigenous people suffered at the hands at white pirates and sealers in the past. How were you able to incorporate these appropriately into this book for children? They have to enter the story naturally but most families can supply an endless number of examples so it’s reasonably easy.

Truganini is such an important figure in Tasmania. Did you consider using her story in this book?

Many Aboriginal people in Tas and Vic are related to Truganini so it’s a bit delicate to use her as an example. I made a short film, Black Chook, ABC later this year, which explored parts of her life. There are strict protocols around these matters.

The shady character wearing black shows contempt and a racist attitude towards Jack’s family. What do you hope your readers take from this scene? I want people to see Aboriginal families as a normal part of Australian life.

Fog a DoxI reviewed your excellent prior novel for younger readers, Fog a Dox for Australian Book Review. This book went on to win several awards including the Prime Minister’s Literary Award (YA Fiction). How has winning this prestigious award affected your life? It gave me a lot of confidence that people were noticing my work. Writers lead a lonely working life so it was encouraging to get some feedback.

 What books have you enjoyed reading?

Anything Jack London wrote. Faulkner, Steinbeck, Sholokov. Birds without Wings is one of the best books I’ve read.

Who do you admire in the Australian literary community?

Ali Cobby Eckerman, Alexis Wright, Anita Heiss, Archie Weller, Kim Scott, Carmel Bird, Helen GarnerRuby Moonlight