Sydney writers’ festival 2017 roundup: six things we learned – The Guardian

The hypothesis of Hitler’s drug habits

Just when we thought we knew everything there is to know about the second world war, along comes novelist Norman Ohler, whose nonfiction book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, on the Nazi regime and substance abuse, has radically reframed some of our understanding of historical events.

For example: a crucial meeting between Hitler and Mussolini about the course of the war could have had a different outcome had a high Hitler not jabbered nonstop for hours.

Ohler’s hypothesis: Hitler was on heavy-duty stimulants that made him like a coked-up bore at a party. The Italian dictator couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Maybe the war would have taken a different turn if he’d had a chance to speak.

Ohler also contends that the blitzkrieg would not have been possible without the German soldiers being supplied with crystal meth, which was being pumped out at a rapid rate by German pharmaceutical factories. The drugs kept the soldiers awake for days and removed their fear; their opponents had superior firepower, but it was the German army that won. – BD

You can write about whatever you want, so long as you think hard

In his controversial conversation with Radio National’s Michael Cathcart on Saturday, Man Booker prize winner Paul Beatty spoke of a white male student he taught at Columbia University who submitted a paper he said he “always knew I was going to get”: a story about a black man raping a white woman.

“I thought, ‘Oh jeez, it’s going to be a long class tomorrow.’”

Sure enough, when the student read the story aloud, his classmates eviscerated him: “The class is just yelling at him – ‘You can’t do this! You can’t do this!’”

Eventually, Beatty stopped their shouting with a question: “Can you, this amorphous you, can you write a story about a black guy raping a white woman?” The class conceded that yes, that story could be written.

“So I said, ‘Well, now talk to him.’”

This approach changed everything. “Their critique of the paper was so good after that. Because it was about, ‘How are you portraying the women?’ ‘How are you portraying this guy?’ ‘What are all of these cues that you’re using?’ It wasn’t about this [event], but it was about how he shaped it,” Beatty said.

“You get to go where you want to go, you get to step on any landmines you want to step on, but you just need to be considerate,” Beatty said. “I can’t tell him as a writer what he can or can’t say, but I can ask him to be considerate.”

US author and Man Booker prize winner Paul Beatty.



US author and Man Booker prize winner Paul Beatty. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

US author Brit Bennett took a similar view, speaking on the Nasty Women panel on Saturday night: “There are kind of two really entrenched camps. There’s one side that says you should never write outside of your identity or lived experience because that’s appropriation; and there’s this other side that says cultural appropriation is just PC bullshit, you can write whatever you want,” she said.

“I find both those camps very reductive, and I think this dichotomy presents a false choice. On one hand I reject the idea that my imagination and empathy are so limited that I’m incapable of writing outside my own perspective. But at the same time it takes a hell of a lot of work to begin to understand another cultural experience.”

She said the cultural appropriation debate is “mostly a problem of bad writing, lazy writing … You have to push past the easy image, which is to say: do the work of writing, of imagining, of always reaching for more complexity, not less … But we also have to acknowledge when we fall short, when we get something wrong, because that’s also the work of being human: being willing to face what you don’t understand.” – SH

Refuge is a ‘Janus-faced concept’

As author Susan Faludi began her final address on the topic of Refuge – the theme of the festival – it was not unexpected that she would address the refugee crisis. As she said, “The concept of refuge has become the urgent issue of the age”. The UN had counted 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world by the end of 2015, she told us; if they were citizens of a separate nation, that country would be the 21st largest in the world.

There were audible intakes of breath as she brought to life the horrifying details of those displaced people, but it was when she asked the audience to consider the dual nature of refuge, and the unlikely parallels between those who seek refuge and those who refuse to allow them in, that the audience sat up.

Susan Faludi



Susan Faludi addresses the Sydney writers’ festival. Photograph: Andrew Vincent

“The refuge that refugees seek is only a refuge because it is defended, exclusionary. In that regard, the immigrant and the xenophobe are odd kindred spirits; they both believe in a place that is shielded from the world’s mayhem. Which raises some fundamental questions: is refuge what we seek or what we defend? … Is it naive to think there is any refuge to run to? Are we not all refugees?”

To illustrate her point, Faludi shifted to discussing her father (and the subject of her recent book In the Darkroom), who was born in Hungary and persecuted throughout the second world war, before fleeing to Copenhagen, Brazil and lastly the United States. “If ever someone sought refuge, it was my father,” she said.

Unable to corral his demons, her father turned to violence against his wife and his child. Faludi would become estranged from her father for more than 25 years, each seeing the other as the cause of the breakdown.

Her father moved back to Hungary in the 90s, and in 2004, Faludi received an email stating that he had undergone gender reassignment surgery. Over the next decade the two spent time together going over their history, and eventually reached an accord – and peace. “[She] owned the history she had denied, and I came to understand some of the extenuating circumstances behind my father’s violent behaviour.

“In a funny way, whatever accommodation we reached depended on giving up the idea of refuge as a place to seek or a place to defend,” she said. “Only when we let each other in and shouldered responsibility for each other’s distrust and animosity could we find sanctuary.”

Faludi’s deeply personal experience taught her something that could be applied to the current global crisis. “That refuge isn’t something to be encircled and patrolled; that the xenophobe who builds fortifications around his refuge has already stripped it of the title; that the very idea of refuge demands an intense negotiation between self-inspection and forgiveness, between facing your own history honestly and seeing yourself in the other. [Refuge] is a place not of safety but of atonement. True refuge comes from the understanding that there can be no refuge from that reckoning.” – AS

We need a more diverse pool of reviewers in Australia

This will come as no surprise to anyone who reads the arts pages, but Australia is severely lacking when it comes to the diversity of our criticism culture. “We have a huge problem in this country when it comes to who’s reviewing,” the Indigenous writer Ellen Van Neerven said on Friday. “You can quite comfortably say that the majority of review culture is white Australian men.”

When Van Neerven is asked to review works, they tended to be from other Indigenous artists. “We don’t very often get asked to comment on different topics that are not political,” she explained. And that process itself was “a bit of a headfuck. You’re like, who am I writing for?”

She continued: “You automatically kind of feel like you need to mould yourself into something that you’re not – because that white gaze is such a strong current. At the same time you feel a lot of responsibility to educate – how much detailing do you have to do? Because there is such a basic level of understanding about some issues.”

She said when it came to criticism of Indigenous works, there was “such a low standard”.

“Sometimes you kind of think, ‘Is it good enough just to have a review in the paper or a review online? Can we just take that?’ … How do we educate and how do we create a more healthy review culture? I think we need to create a more healthy country first, to be honest.” – SH

Facts are in the eye of the beholder – until they’re not

Immigration is an area filled with facts, but all too often we see them being distorted by those with agendas.

In her talk on Thursday, the Guardian US’s data editor Mona Chalabi walked us through how data can be manipulated by those who want us to see the world in a particular way. Her talk set out how to spot the facts used to draw false inferences, and the ways that data is used and misused on a daily basis to talk about one of the defining issues of our generation.
An added takeaway was that facts and figures don’t need to be boring bar graphs; this kind of thinking is too often designed to a induce a false sense of verisimilitude, according to Chalabi. Facts can be visualised in all kinds of ways, as her Instagram account shows. – PF

Audience questions are almost uniformly bad – unless they’re not

When a writers’ festival event is opened up to questions from the audience, a minority make their way to the nearest mic and the rest collectively hold their breath: will it be question, or will it be a self-involved stream-of-consciousness statement that the author will try gamely to engage with, as though trying to organise an octopus in front of a crowd of hundreds?

I have been to very few events where questions from the audience have contributed to my enjoyment or understanding of a speaker, and the Friday night session with US author Chris Kraus was no different.

Chris Kraus in conversation with Krissy Kneen



Chris Kraus in conversation with Krissy Kneen. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Her 1997 novel I Love Dick has an ardent cult following, and its fans packed out the audience at the Rosalyn Packer Theatre. You’d think there’d be no shortage of fans wanting to pick her brains over her unique, enormously influential novel or the real-life events that informed it. As it was, the first question directed at Kraus was in response to the reading she gave from her 2006 novel Torpor, and was essentially as follows: “I read Torpor many years ago and don’t remember it being so ironic. It’s very ironic, isn’t it?”

When Kraus said she hoped it was intended as a compliment – and the MC had explained that Kraus’ hearing precluded easy back-and-forth – the speaker doubled down: “I’m not sure!”

The second question was very long and hard to reproduce here but the thrust of it was that Kraus, in explaining her use of the Kierkegaardian remove in I Love Dick – that the perspective that comes with age was necessary to represent the experience of adolescent infatuation – had sounded “dismissive” of younger women. When Kraus politely responded to the question, the audience member argued back. A Twitter search after the event revealed many raised eyebrows.

Third time’s a charm, and the final question came from an informed, polite young woman who had read and understood the book, asked a specific query relating to her and Kraus’ shared knowledge of art criticism, and thanked her for her response and returned to her seat. The harrowing experience of the preceding seven minutes (nearly 8% of Kraus’ total time on stage) was just enough for me to dare to hope for a better way, in future festivals. The movement will be hashtagged: #NotAllAudienceQuestions. – EH

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