St. John's my middle name. The books go under M.
Deciphering my notes from Adelaide Writers Week
“We are a migrant country,” the Australian author Brenda Niall said, “and the deep Australian question is, where is home?”
“If I absolutely had to choose a god to worship,” said the British novelist and historian Tom Holland, “I would probably choose Athena.”
Later, a question from the audience: “If you could choose to have been born at any time in history, which time period would you choose?”
Holland: “I’d have been born now. Dentistry. It’s as simple as that.”
An Australian novelist, Rohan Wilson, on a panel about the history of Tasmania. This history has extremely dark moments and includes a genocidal attack on the local aborigines. “You realize,” he said, “[that] … you’re living on land that doesn’t belong to you.”
Later at the same panel, possibly the best audience question I’ve ever heard:
“You’ve talked about this very dark history of colonization in Tasmania,” the woman standing at the microphone said. “What lessons can we learn from that history? If in future we go out into the galaxies and colonize new planets, what can we do to make it different?”
On a YA panel, a writer—I couldn’t see who it was from where I was sitting—on the disorienting and warping pain of losing one’s mother:
“You had a love, it existed, just because it’s gone doesn’t mean you can’t be yourself.”
Charlotte Wood, Australian novelist, on her childhood, which sounds very much like mine: “We always had beauty around us. There was very little money, but beauty and creativity steeped through our lives. There were books everywhere.”
Charlotte Wood, Australian novelist and extremely sensible person, on success and competition: “Younger writers are more competitive, you know, ‘her book is doing better than mine,’ etcetera. But as you get older you let that go, because you’ll bore yourself to death.”
She spoke of noticing and paying attention to details — the particular blue of a pair of shoes, the shape of leaves, etc. — as a way of honoring life.
Chika Unigwe, author of the novel On Black Sisters Street, which I want to read and which I would’ve bought if I hadn’t been traveling solely with carry-on luggage and thus acutely conscious of keeping the suitcase under the weight limits.
Unigwe is originally from Nigeria, but has lived in Belgium for some time. She interviewed trafficked Nigerian women for the book. These are women who went to their smugglers and asked to be brought into Europe, women sometimes bought and sold at auction, who will work for years to pay off their enormous smuggling debts while sending money home to their families. What did their families—often conservative, often religious—think of the arrangement?
Some, she said, were unable to admit the truth of what was happening, even to themselves. She told the story of a girl trafficked into Turin from Nigeria: she was told she’d be a dancer, but when she arrived she was expected to work as a prostitute. She couldn’t bear it, and called her mother begging to go home. Her mother seemed unable to comprehend what she was saying.
“It’s dancing,” her mother said, “you can handle it.”
“It’s not dancing,” the girl said. “It’s prostitution.”
“So it’s topless dancing,” said the mother. “What’s the big deal?”
The girl sent her mother a photograph of herself standing by the roadside, dressed to attract clients. She called her mother. “You see?” she said.
Her mother said, “My darling, your shoes are so beautiful.”
A note about names: Chika Unigwe said that the Nigerian sex workers with whom she spoke tended to go by short names that their clients could easily pronounce: Juli, Hani, Susie. On Sunday mornings they went to the black churches, and reverted to their real names while they were there. When they stepped out of the church, they were again Juli, Hani, etc.
Another panel on Tasmania, toward the end of the festival. The Tasmanian writer Rodney Croome:
“Tasmania has a lot to teach the world about belonging. In the twentieth century, the dominant idea was individual freedom, but in the twenty-first, it’s interconnectedness.”
He spoke of interconnection as a driver of social change. Tasmania went from having the lowest to the highest levels of support for gay rights in Australia, and this was achieved, he said, by gay rights activists talking to everyone who would listen. And people would listen, he said, because they knew these activists and had known them all their lives.
Countless gay people had left Tasmania, he said, but he’d refused. “I carried a sense that I couldn’t be free unless I could be free in Tasmania. … I thought, no one is going to turn me into a sexual refugee.”
“You’re never free,” he said, “unless you’re free in the place that shaped who you are. It doesn’t have to be a geographical place. But for me it means Tasmania.”
I will travel very long distances if there are books at the other end.
I’m going to Australia soon! The distance didn’t really sink in until the wonderful festival organizer who booked my travel said something about getting me back to the other side of the world, and I realized: Right. The other side of the world. I am going to the other side of the world.
(I know air travel’s one of those things that we’re just supposed to take for granted in the modern world, like telephones and the Internet, but I frankly find all of these things somewhat breathtaking.)
But anyway, if you’re in the vicinity of Adelaide, Australia, next week, perhaps you’ll consider stopping by the Adelaide Festival. I have four events. There will be books. I’m greatly looking forward to it. I’m presently neither published nor distributed in Australia and have no idea how this festival even knows I exist, but I am honoured and grateful that they’re importing me.
Later, I’ll fly directly from Australia to AWP. I’m looking forward to AWP! I’ve never been. But to clarify re: travel, by the time I arrive at the hotel in Boston I will have been traveling for 29 hours straight. I will sleep for a few hours and then get up for a morning panel. What I’m trying to get at here is that I apologize in advance if you say hi to me at AWP and I can’t remember your name. Candidly, I probably won’t remember my name either. Also, if you come to my panel, and I look like I’m hallucinating? It probably won’t be your imagination. I will probably actually be hallucinating.
Four questions directed to me by the same person over the course of an evening at a reading earlier in the year (where my name and the word “novelist” were displayed prominently in the venue), in this order:
1) “Your name’s Evelyn, isn’t it?”
2) “Your name’s Elizabeth, right?”
3) “For how long have you been a poet?” [nb: I’m not a poet.]
4) “Oh, is this your husband? Is he a poet too?”