Sam van Zweden




The Line Between Book and Life: On Public Personas

One of the panels on the Thursday of NonFictioNow was called Writ Large: On Living The Lives We’ve Made For The Page. The panel featured Cheryl Strayed, Ira Sukrungruang, Mira Bartok and Barrie Jean Borich – all memoirists, talking about how they negotiate writing from life, and continuing to live that life when it’s been written.

Are we always wearing masks? Are we always mediated?

One thing that emerged as a common experience for all of these writers is that of having readers confuse the constructed, written memoir with the actual, lived life.

“[Readers] don’t see the book as an artifice,” said Sukrungruang, “they see it as your life.”

All of these authors had been approached by readers and spoken to in a way that implied that there was no gap between author and work; between the story and the world. This kind of simplistic view of memoir (that it’s a process of slapping life down on a page) is simplistic, and worrying. It concerns me that readers are expecting verbatim information – it’s fraught for so many reasons. Writing is a creative process, it’s filtered through perspective and memory, it’s forcing something non-linear or sensible into a linear narrative with… a point. As a writer, I am aware of this when reading any piece of writing that comes from life.

In a later conversation with fellow blogger Alice Robinson, we considered what kinds of personas we create online for ourselves. I feel like this blog is reasonably transparent, and that there isn’t a large gap between myself (lived) and myself (written). But there is a gap, no denying it.

I’ve had people recognize me before. “Oh! You’re Little Girl With a Big Pen!”

…Am I?

This Writ Large panel really made me think about where that gap lies for me. I won’t bother to explain it here; those who know me well no doubt can see the space far better than I myself can.

It could be a site of tension, if I let it be. I refuse to let it be that though, I just know that it’s something I’m very interested in. I find the decisions I make in crafting myself interesting, both in blogging and in my current memoir project. I also find it interesting to hear about how people understand those decisions, and whether the divide between public and private, written and lived personas is a problem.

Maybe it’s similar to the way that we all wear different masks in different situation. No situation is maskless, life being a constant performance. It’s just that when it’s written, it’s more static and dissect-able.


A Wheely Exciting Program!

Yeah, that pun again. That old chestnut. Oh, but it is! The Wheeler Centre’s September-November program came out today, and it’s HUGE. I’m just going to go through what’s on in the next month, because that’s quite enough excitement for one day. And the start of October, because if you snooze you’ll loose on these tickets.

The big one, the one I’m almost TOO excited about, is that Jonathan Safran Foer is coming to town. (Right, now go and get a towel to wipe up the saliva that you just dripped on the keyboard.
He’ll be here on the 2nd of October, and I’m up to petition for a bit group hug, if anyone’s interested, I’m pretty sure JSF will be down for that.

But it doesn’t stop there.  On the 15th of September, the folks from Meanjin will be arguing about what the “Great Australian Novel” is, this time with a special focus on books by women.

On the 29th of September the Lunchbox Soapbox is given over to the enigmatic EZB, who will be speaking in defence of slam poetry.

On the 30th of September, a HUGE bunch of awesome people (including Marieke Hardy, need I say more) share their teen-angst diaries in “No One Understands Me“.

What’s also great is how many big red “BOOKED OUT” stickers there are on the events website already. Melbourne offers SO many great things to do, and people are excited about going to literary events, so much that they sell out. That in itself is Wheely exciting.

A Voice: A Basic Human Right

“Young World, your work has the power to provoke movement from silence to empowerment, based in libratory pedagogy, and youth development. It democratizes a civic population of youth by giving them a platform to speak. Your elders in rhyme challenge you to find your own voice, to work hard to apply it, and to do so responsibly. If you’re not afraid of your own potential, we promise you that we won’t be. Hey, Young World, the word is yours…” (Marc Bamuthi Joseph, “(Yet Another) Letter to a Young Poet”)

Melbourne has no shortage of words – a UNESCO City of Literature since 2008, Melbourne is a dictionary, a thesaurus, a veritable fountain pen of words. A writing and reading hub, Melbourne’s poetry scene is particularly strong – while parts are firmly grounded in traditional forms, others are reflexive, vibrant, and fast. The recent explosion of dialogue between hip-hop and spoken word communities stands as proof of this.

The Wheeler Centre resides in the glorious prime real estate at the corner of Little Lonsdale and Swanston, and the city catches festival fever over some literary event or other right throughout the calendar, but words in our city tend generally to cater for the privileged – those who can afford books, workshops, tickets. Those with the cash can buy themselves a voice.

Words and their application are the crux of a slew of social problems and barriers. Policies, laws, rule books – they’re written with words. They dictate what you can and cannot do. They record and perpetuate people’s social standing and potential for upward mobility. They lay out the guidelines for how you’re treated. If you can’t access the words, you can’t access the rules, let alone change them. But, all things being true in their consequences, even if you can’t access the words, you’ll certainly know about what the words dictate for you. Things at a policy-level trickle down until everyday things like ordering a cup of coffee can be met by judgement.

With access to words comes a voice. A voice that is heard. With that voice comes agency, and the possibility for social change.

The recent launch of Melbourne not-for-profit organization the Centre for Poetics and Justice is a move to pull words down from their pedestals, making them accessible and useful for the people who need them the most. The driving forces behind the organization, Joel McKerrow (responsible for most of the ground work), Luka Haralampou and Bronwyn Lovell, are all admirable poets in their own right, known in Melbourne for their ability to move their listeners. The CPJ knocks down the walls between those who have the cash and connections to access words and all they have to offer, and those who don’t.

By running tailored workshops for minority and underprivileged communities, the CPJ hopes to arm its workshop participants with a voice, and a stage.

Having been disappointed by the “gaps in the community development industry”, founding member Luka Haralampou hopes that CPJ “bring[s] voices forward and support[s] the stories of all of the participants”. Moving away from the top-down teaching model that often proves largely unengaging, Luka says that CPJ aims for a two-way learning experience, with workshop facilitators’ attitude, “’teach us and we will help you make something beautiful from what is shared’”.

By running “cultural learning workshops” for facilitators before they enter each workshop, CPJ aims to run workshops which educate both facilitators and participants.  Participants work together with facilitators, “understanding and articulating their own lives and their social existence as well as developing their literary and artistic skills.”

The “gaps” that Luka has observed in previous efforts, he attributes to “poor administration and lack of cultural awareness many organisations were working with … and the damage poor processes can cause when development is attempted without quality consultations”. This, given that many organisations want to cater to everyone by ticking the ‘right’ boxes on grant applications, results in events that are often unorganised and unsure of their own genre or purpose.

Where other organisations (though certainly not all – Express Media, and SLV’s New Australia Media both genuinely cater for often ignored sectors) can be motivated by a need to doff their cap to being “inclusive”, the Centre for Poetics and Justice is undoubtedly moved by a genuine desire to empower, and acknowledgement of existing blind spots.

Melbourne’s general attitude toward new literary efforts is wondrously supportive – the opening event for the Wheeler Centre packed out the Melbourne Town Hall. Smaller regular poetry readings, such as Dogs Tails in St Kilda, or Passionate Tongues in Brunswick, seem to attract something of a sporadic crowd, but a supportive one – one which is often willing to give new voices space to be heard. Hopefully the respect that the founding members of CPJ have cultivated through their own careers (being performance poets, many-time slam finalists, representatives for Australia overseas, educators and interns) and the amount of support Melbourne has to give means that the poets who find their voices through CPJ workshops will be given the air time they deserve.

“Words are empowering,” says Luka, “because they articulate concepts. And concepts are powerful because they help us see from each other’s eyes. For underprivileged people to have the opportunity to articulate their thoughts in front of their peers and the wider community is one of the most empowering acts that can be performed. Especially when these thoughts are often ignored or considered unimportant by the majority. Without words and concepts we cannot begin to become each other’s keepers. We cannot share the gamut of experience that is this world and march forward towards mutual understanding and ultimately, peace.”

We are an active writing and publishing city, we are a vibrant sharing and learning city. And now, we are a stronger, more diverse, listening city which aims to correct its own imbalances through efforts like the Centre for Poetics and Justice.

Thanks heaps to Luka for taking the time to talk to me, and best of luck to the CPJ boys and girls with their project – it’s exciting stuff!

A Wheely Great Program!

Yep, made that terrible pun again. I can’t help it. I just have to!

Today, the Wheeler Centre have released their events program for the next quarter.

I thought it would be hard to top last quarter’s program – Shane Maloney was very entertaining, Irvine Welsh was great, the Meanland panels on eReaders were important stuff. So I was curious to see what they’d be doing to beat that this quarter.

To be honest, I panicked a bit when I saw June. “The Deakins 2010” lectures take up most of June, and they’re not really something that interests me. As important as I know this stuff is.

July, however, is reasonably jam-packed with winners.

The week beginning on the 5th of July is “A Week of Love and Lust” … Most of what’s on during this week seems a little trashy, but no doubt far too enjoyable. Most of interest to me though, is the Lunchbox/Soapbox event about “The Case For Gay Marriage”. Well done, Wheeler!

Also during this week is a night about “Erotic Fan Fiction”, where the fantastic Marieke Hardy and Justin Heazelwood (and others) “turn their craft into a night of smut and hilarity”…

On the 14th of July John Birmingham, author of He Died With A falafel In His Hand will be speaking and promoting his new book.

“Voiceworks Live” on the 22nd of July will be a chance to meet fellow Voiceworks readers, as well as contributors and people behind the scenes of the fabulous publication.

On the 29th of July, Jennifer Byrne will be talking to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is a reasonably controversial feminist activist and political. This one is ticketed, and will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre, so probably quite a big night.

And THE big one for this quarter: Bret Easton Ellis. Author of Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho, amongst others, Bret will be in Australia talking about his new book, which is based around the characters from his debut novel Less Than Zero.

All in all – you’ve produced a winner, Wheeler! This kind of stuff is what makes us deserve the UNESCO “City Of Literature” title.

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