A comment that this session ‘Going Home: Belonging, Family and Food’ at the SWF was “up there with some of the most stimulating sessions I attended at the festival” summed up the quality of the discussion and the engagement of the audience at this sold-out session with Debra Jopson, Beth Yahp and Adam Aitken. The Sydney-based authors on this panel were a pleasure to facilitate.
Their latest books could almost be described as political histories even though two are memoirs and one is a novel. They are full of journeys, fascinating facts, family and sensory depictions of home and place. Perhaps surprisingly, they are as much about Australia as they are about Lebanon, Malaysia and Thailand.
Debra Jopson is a journalist. She’s been an investigative reporter, focusing on social and Aboriginal issues. She has won the prestigious Walkley award for journalism and Human Rights Commission honours.
There’s been lots of media interest in Debra’s debut novel, Oliver of the Levant which draws on Debra’s experiences of living in Beirut for two years as a young adult during the start of the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s.
Her protagonist Oliver is a multifaceted 15 year old who desperately seeks a parent to love him and give him boundaries.
He runs wild in Beirut.
His attempts to romance an older Lebanese girl and his fascination with making bombs have explosive consequences.
Beth Yaph grew up in Malaysia and lived in Paris for five years, as well as in Australia. She’s part Thai, part Chinese and part Eurasian but even that’s not an completely accurate description of her heritage.
She studied Communications at UTS and has worked as an editor and teacher of creative writing at university level. She is an accomplished presenter, formerly hosting a travel program on ABC Radio National.
I first knew of Beth’s work through her novel The Crocodile Fury and her interest in music, explored in her memoir, has been showcased by the libretto she wrote, Moon Spirit Feasting.
Her memoir Eat First, Talk Later describes a road trip with her elderly parents trying to retrace their honeymoon trip. There are many diversions along the way – literal changes of direction – as well as diversions into the near past of Beth’s childhood and further back into her parents’ youth and the history of Malaysia.
Adam Aitken also has a fascinating heritage.
His Australian father worked in advertising and became a landscape architect and gardener.
His Australian grandfather was a soldier.
His mother was a beauty and university student from Bangkok.
His Thai grandfather was a governor’s deputy and his great-grandfather a fortune-teller and magician.
His Thai grandmother had nine children and loved chewing betel nut.
Adam was born in London. He lived in Thailand, Malaysia & Australia. As a young man he returned to Thailand to become ‘a real Thai’.
He studied English literature at Sydney University and now works as a researcher in writing at UTS. I first became aware of Adam’s work when I was promoting the poetry anthology he co-edited, Asian Australian Poets.
His memoir One Hundred Letters Home is a very frank depiction about his family and his life as the offspring of parents from Australia and Thailand.
It was quite a tricky brief to combine two memoirs set mainly in Asia and a novel about a boy in Lebanon but a synergy happened on stage and discussion flowed. Thanks to Adam, Debra and Beth.