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Q&A, August 29, 2011 (Click to access the ABC web page)

The panel for this special Melbourne Writers Festival edition of Q&A consisted of some of the attending writers. I’ve listed their works that were mentioned. I hadn’t read any but didn’t find that a barrier to following the discussion. All of the authors except for Malalai Joya are Australian.

Don Watson, former speechwriter for Paul Keating. A Portrait of Paul Keating PM.
Kate Grenville, The Secret River.
Anna Funder, former international lawyer who has worked in Berlin. Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall and All That I Am
Malalai Joya, former Afghan parliamentarian who has written her memoir together with Canadian writer Derrick O’Keefe in a book entitled (in Australia) Raising My Voice.
Omar Musa, Rapper and poet. My Generation.

Kate Grenville provided the grubbiness quote that is part of this week’s title in her answer relating to Craig Thomson’s alleged activities with prostitutes. This struck a chord with me because it ties in with a commonly recurring theme of people who have made wonderful contributions to humanity and yet have led flawed, sometimes seriously flawed, personal lives.

The central theme of Kate’s book Secret River is Aboriginal-Settler relations. Apparently it has evoked a certain amount of controversy due to two historians that have taken a possibly pedantic exception to its content. The author herself was clear that it is a fictional novel inspired by a history that she describes at one stage as “a bit unpalatable” and says that she does not write with the intention of shifting people’s view of history but “with a view to shifting people’s hearts .. their minds also.” She expressed regret that the issues she wanted to explore are getting masked by discussion about historical accuracy.

Kate also provided the quote: “Someone’s gotta stand up for the Labor Party here”. Well, no. No problems with anyone’s views being informed by their political affiliations, but I felt cheated that many of Kate’s comments were echoes of standard Labor sound bites; if instead they had been personal insights I feel that would have been an altogether different thing.

Don Watson presented his own thoughts in his own words and in his own deadpan manner, and what a joy they all are. Were I to do more than cherry pick from all his worthwhile comments this article would be far too long but I recommend listening to his Q&A answers for the pure enjoyment, particularly the one about political speeches from 46:18 in iView. In his answer related to the public engaging with politics, he drawled “It’s not that I want from politicians inspiring oratory, I actually just want verbs – doing words – I want concrete language rather than abstract language.” I can’t be certain but I had the impression that any slur on English education in our schools that might be imputed from his inclusion of “doing words” in implicit parentheses after “verbs” was purely intentional. He argued that his approach to his biography of Keating was the correct one for him because he believed it to be, a position that might seem superficially shaky but ultimately comes down to artistic integrity.

In relation to politicians and prostitutes Watson made the point that it is not uncommon over the years for even politicians who have done great things politically to have had unconventional sexual histories, a point referred to by Kate Grenville when she made the grubbiness remark. Applying the more general topic of separation of personal behaviour from public worth, Don Watson’s respect for Keating reminds me that at some time I should make the effort to look beyond my dislike of Keating’s vicious personal putdowns.

Omar Musa writes about Gen Y, to the early 80s birthday end of which he belongs. He presented his opinions on all issues with the enthusiasm of youth, but I was impressed that they were well considered opinions. Loved the rap he performed at the end; a poetical series of (male oriented) pithy observations of the 21st century experience of his generation which culminated in a warts and all generational appraisal.

On non-literary questions Anna Funder was quietly spoken although her stated opinions were thought through. She got a bit more animated when discussing her books. She appeared to sympathise with Kate Grenville over the type of controversy that has engulfed her books and expressed a desire to avoid it. To that end made she made it clear that her latest book, although loosely based on a historical event, is a fictional novel and that she makes no claim to knowledge of what really occurred “in a locked room in London in 1935”. She let drop that courage was the central theme of her books and provided some interesting insights into the fallout from her portrayal of the ex-Stasi agents that she interviewed for the earlier book. She mainly left her books to speak for themselves but I got the impression that they have a lot of interesting things to say.

Although Tony Jones made an effort at unification there were essentially two separate but interleaved Qandas today; one about Australia and one about Afghanistan. For this reason I have left Malalai Joya to last. Although in Melbourne for the festival due to having published her memoirs, Malalai Joya is primarily an Afghanistani patriot and activist. Her life has been threatened in response to denouncing the warlords, who include members of the current government. This requires extraordinary courage and commitment. Her views are probably best summarized by her statement that in the Taliban’s time in government “we faced only one enemy, but now, these ten years of occupation, we are facing three enemies: warlords, Taliban, occupation forces. When the troops leave, who stop bombing from the sky … the backbone of these fundamentalist warlords and Taliban will break and our people … will fight to the end against the warlord and the Taliban because of the hatred that they have.” I have to say that this view is hopeful but very bleak as regards the near future.