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Canberra Writers Festival Highlights with Emma Gibson

By Emma Gibson

As Sue mentioned on her site Whispering Gums there were so many choices on offer at the Canberra Writers Festival, and I attended too many to list them all, so here are a few of my highlights…

Merlinda at festival

Book launch – Merlinda Bobis

Often we go to book launches for writers with whom we are already very familiar. Having heard great things about Dr Merlinda Bobis’ work, I felt a book launch would be a good way to get better acquainted.

An accomplished playwright, poet and novelist from the Philippines, Merlinda has taught creative writing in Australia for two decades. Her volume being launched, Accidents of Composition, is a collection of 75 poems, the spark for which was a photo she snapped while travelling through Arizona—a view of an eerie sky with a white-blot sun and a silhouetted bird. This led Merlinda to think about accidental composition, how we perceive things, and how we story what we see. She expanded on these ideas further in what was much more than a book launch, but part lecture, interspersed seamlessly with poetry and song. She spoke about her process and how she doesn’t go looking for poems, but they come to her as a ‘gift of place’.

Merlinda is a compelling performer and her poetry and philosophy really spoke to me. At the same time, her work is very accessible and contains immense hope, seeking to show kinships across cultures, rather than focusing on things that divide. In all, an engaging event that I am very glad I attended, and I’m looking forward to reading her poetry collection.

Writing in the age of humans – Jane Rawson and James Bradley with Dr Martha Sear

There is still some contention around the term Anthropocene, but there is broad agreement that whatever we call it, we have entered an epoch in which human and natural forces are so entwined that one can affect another. So how do we write in an age of alteration, and why is it important?

Writers Jane Rawson and James Bradley joined National Museum of Australia’s Dr Martha Sear to explore this question.

James, author of the novel Clade, said writing can be a process of working out how you feel about things: ‘Fiction can help you get a hold on something you can’t in your head.’ Clade follows multiple generations of a family against a backdrop of a changing climate in Australia. It is structured as 10 stories, with an incremental increase of time between each story. As James had recently started a family when he wrote the novel, it is not surprising that it explores what family means in the Anthropocene.

Jane Rawson is the co-author of The Handbook: surviving and living with climate change, co-written with James Whitmore, fellow environment editor for The Conversation. Jane said that when thinking about big issues, people often lose the capacity to look to the future. The Handbook is not about stirring up fear in what for some is already a fearful environment, but providing a range of practical tips to help people adapt to change. As Jane described it: ‘It’s not the apocalypse, but just really annoying. In the near future, life will be maybe 80% more annoying, like sewerage backing up in your shower more often’.

The panel discussed books that are concerned with life in the ‘age of humans’, recent trends in fiction, and the role of arts in talking about difficult things. There was an interesting conversation about why people enjoy reading apocalyptic or dystopian fiction, and how these types of fiction can perhaps promulgate a sense of ‘learned helpless’, that a sense that nothing can be done when problems are so large.

What then is the role of writers, beyond dwelling on the terrible? Both Jane and James agree that it can help people to think about issues that might otherwise loom too large to understand in relation to their immediate lives and to prepare for what might change or be lost.

It’s a big conversation and this hour-long session only skimmed across the surface of how we as humans view ourselves in relation to the environment. Instead of leaving the audience feeling helpless, the session ended on a hopeful note: things are changing, but life goes on.

Careful with that axe – Sarah Schmidt in conversation with Sulari Gentill

Sarah Schmidt had never intended on writing a story about Lizzie Borden, the infamous alleged axe murderer. Wandering through a second-hand book store in Melbourne, searching for inspiration, an old booklet fell from a shelf, outlining the case of Lizzie Borden. Sarah thumbed through the booklet, put it back on the shelf and found something else more interesting to read. That night, she dreamed Lizzie Borden was in her room, sitting on the end of her bed and saying, ‘I have to tell you about my father’. The intense nightmares continued for the next seven days, until finally Sarah decided she had to write Lizzie’s story down. The result is the novel See What I have Done.

On August 4 1892, the story goes, Lizzie Borden found her dead father, hit multiple times in the head with an axe. After the police arrived they discovered her step-mother in a bedroom upstairs, also killed by an axe. But was Lizzie involved in the murder?

In conversation with crime writer Sulari Gentill, Sarah spoke about her experience writing the novel. The subject matter was quite dark, but the conversation was very funny at times. I also really enjoyed Sulari’s questions and the rapport between the two writers as they discussed how the novel changed over its development. See What I Have Done is written from the perspectives of four different people, including Lizzie and her sister. In an early draft, one section was narrated by the Borden house, although Sarah’s editor talked her out of it as being ‘a bit too modernist’.

Sarah doesn’t view herself as a historical fiction writer, but as a fiction writer who wants some plausibility. While she did undertake research (including staying overnight in the Borden house which is now a bed and breakfast) she also made some choices to combine characters or compress events in order to have a coherent story. And what better motivation than being haunted by a character demanding her story be told!

So has Lizzie finally left Sarah alone? Not entirely. But Sarah has now moved on to a new novel—a book that also came to her in a dream—although one set much closer to home.

Emma Gibson is a writer and performance maker from Canberra, Australia. She writes plays and writes about place. Her previous plays include Johnny Castellano is Mine (Canberra Youth Theatre/Street Theatre), The Pyjama Girl (HotHouse Theatre), Widowbird (The Street Theatre).

Emma’s work has been performed internationally and includes War Stories (24:7 Festival;  Re:Play; Greater Manchester Fringe; Buxton Fringe), Bloodletting (Bread and Roses Theatre, London), and collaborations at the Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and The Lowry.

Emma has undertaken artist residencies and participated in festivals internationally. Turning recently to prose, Emma has had short pieces published in the Skagastrond ReviewSeizureIceview, and an anthology written in the sands of the Sahara Desert. She’s previously contributed to Broadway BabyBMA and Lip Mag. Emma has created a site-specific poetry installation in Spain, helped run an artist residency in remote Iceland, reviewed 100 shows at Edinburgh Fringe, and made an audio walking tour around Garema Place for Canberra’s You Are Here Festival. She is currently studying a Masters of Creative Writing (Place Writing) with Manchester Metropolitan University.


Emma is participating in the 2017 ACT Lit-Bloggers of the Future program, which is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre in collaboration with the National Library of Australia. Participants are mentored by Sue Terry of Whispering Gums.

One thought on “Canberra Writers Festival Highlights with Emma Gibson

  1. Thanks Emma for this write-up of sessions I didn’t get too. Given it’s impossible to get to all sessions, I love reading posts about ones I didn’t to, particularly ones I really wanted to get too!

    BTW I saw Sulari Gentil last year, and thought she was great – intelligent but warm and with a great sense of humour. And she knows historical crime fiction.

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