Australia’s lost soul. While Generation Z runs amok in the streets, shouting slogans and jostling Julie Bishop, the rest of us channel our protesting energy into something much less exhausting: going to events at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Yesterday afternoon I joined several hundred concerned, politically aware citizens in sensible shoes to hear Michael Leunig, Richard Flanagan and Thomas Keneally debate the question “Is Australia still the land of the fair go, has Australia lost its soul?”.

In the wake of a budget that appears to have benefited only fledgling ballerinas and Paddington design students, the answer appeared to be obvious. But we had a very interesting time getting there.

Flanagan said his grandparents had been illiterate and “the only difference between me and them is two generations of free state education and free tertiary education. Whether [my books] would exist if this new Australia that’s being created in the budget comes into being, probably not.”

Keneally told us that “when you are totally consumed by economics, which exalts some of its children and devours others,” the system is akin to the god of the Old Testament. Even in economic terms, we could send every single asylum seeker on Christmas Island to Harvard or Yale and still save money, he said.

Taking up the refugee issue, Flanagan said the idea that some people are less than other people was a “weeping sore on the soul of this nation”. “We are beginning to reap a very bitter harvest, and in some sense we are all guilty of what has happened,” he said.

When she was UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson had had a conversation with former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, Keneally said. Downer, defending his government’s asylum seeker laws, told her they were “popular” back home. “Human rights has nothing to do with popularity,” she retorted.

Artist and social commentator Michael Leunig told us that when he was growing up, the great divide in Australian society had been between Protestants and Catholics. “Now it’s Left and Right,” he said, adding that we had become a joyless society, pursuing pleasure but not understanding joy.

“The politicians on both sides have run out of vision and hope,” Flanagan said. “They are now preaching to what is darkest within us. There has been a collapse of moral authority in the political establishment, and people are looking elsewhere. It’s a time of great flux.”

Luckily, he was able to send us out on an optimistic note, quoting French writer Albert Camus.

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”

Christos Tsiolkas gets personal. My favorite author event of the Festival was Christos Tsiolkas, expertly interviewed by fellow writer David Marr. The author of five novels (including The Slap), essays and scripts, Tsiolkas is a superb subject — he speaks carefully, thoughtfully, every syllable imbued with meaning. As Marr asked him a question, the entire audience sat in rapt silence, collectively holding a breath while he paused, searching for exactly the right word.

“He talks quietly and writes loud,” Marr quipped; the books are famously full of drug taking, gay and straight sex (and masturbation). Marr asked the question we’d all wanted to ask: had his Greek immigrant parents ever read them? Tsiolkas’ parents’ inability to read English had given him the freedom to write, he said; when they were translated into Greek, his father had started one and never finished it.

His first novel, Loaded, about a Greek boy rebelling against the traditional mores of his family and discovering his sexuality, was made into an extremely graphic movie called Head On. The author’s description of taking his mother to see it was very moving. She watched the screen, unflinching, he said, and afterwards vanished into the bathroom to emerge with red eyes. Together, they went to a pub to “get hammered” and there, armed only with the “Greek of a young boy” and her imperfect English, they had bared their souls to each other. There are very few times in which we and our parents stand naked before each other and speak the truth, he said, and this had been one of them.

On Sunday afternoon, he launched the 2014 edition of Sight Lines, the anthology of student writing from the University of Technology, Sydney. Speaking to the students, whom he called “my fellow writers”, he told them that writing was a vocation, not a career, and more important than living in the right suburb or owning a large television.

It was only in the past few years that he had been able to earn a living as a writer, he said, telling them that he had spent eight or nine years working as a vet nurse to pay the bills (which must explain the pivotal character of the vet nurse in The Slap).

“I’m ashamed that I was of a generation to have the great good fortune to have the protection of a free education,” he said. “We must support education by supporting the notion of a public education system.”

His latest novel, Barracuda, has just been published, and it is stunning.

Unhappy families. Another highlight of any literary event is, of course, going to hear people talk about their unhappy childhoods. It is an almost universal truism that for many writers, penning books about their horrendous parents has been the best, most lucrative form of therapy ever created, with the added advantage that your version lives on forever.

My own devotion to the genre is based on two principles: relief that my own childhood was not quite as bad (an unpublished manuscript about growing up in the Toowoomba suburbs notwithstanding) and a keen need to tell my own children that although I’m clearly a terrible mother, at least I’ve never held a meat cleaver to their throat, like Amy Tan’s mother did.

The ageless Tan, expertly interviewed at the festival by ABC Radio National’s Michael Cathcart, said that when she was 11, both her father and her brother had died of brain tumours, leaving her alone with her mother (who clearly suffered a mental illness) and another brother.

Tan’s mother believed that as they were all going to die anyway, the easiest thing to do would be to put her daughter out of her misery, and so threatened to kill her with a cleaver.  Luckily, she survived, writing the story of her mother’s generation into The Joy Luck Club, which has sold 2 million copies.

Masters of the maternal memoir are brother-and-sister act Benjamin and Michelle Law, whose book Sh*t Asian Mothers Say is one of funniest, most politically incorrect books I’ve ever read. The Law siblings write that the book is a “gesture of love, respect and affection towards the aggressive racism of our own Asian mothers, whether it be directed at taxi drivers of another Asian race, lazy fat white people or just black people in general.” Their Sunday afternoon event, attended by their mother, was a sell-out.

With more than 300 events involving 400 authors, attended by more than 80,000 people, Jemma Birrell’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, aka Schoolies Week for the Middle-Aged, is over for another year. For anyone with withdrawal symptoms, I can highly recommend reading the newly released Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn, a brilliant satire on the politics behind prestigious literary prizes. See you next year.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey