Race & multiculturalism
Debut novels announcing the arrival of fresh, young talents are often praised for their capacity to dazzle. Freshly anointed literary darlings are ‘brilliant’, ‘precocious’ and ‘virtuosic’.
But such descriptions don’t exactly fit with 26-year-old Californian author Brit Bennett, whose stirring first novel, The Mothers, is remarkable not for its flashy prose or clever metanarrative manoeuvres but for its restrained eloquence.
This idea that art can be divorced from the politics, I don’t believe that.Brit Bennett
Bennett’s protagonist, 17-year-old Nadia, lives in a conservative black Christian community in Southern California. The Mothers is a story that navigates both familiar coming-of-age fare (stifling small-town life, evolving friendships, vocation) and complex moral terrain (abortion, suicide, religion) with subtlety, intelligence and wry humour.
Bennett’s talents have seen her rise in demand as an essayist, too. Her non-fiction work, much of which has centred on American racial politics and identity, has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Paris Review.
In conversation with Emily Sexton, Bennett talks about the duties of writers, the politics of art, the burdens of identity, and The Mothers.
Brit Bennett — Photo: Jon Tjhia
I don’t feel beholden to whatever role people are or aren’t imagining for me.Colson Whitehead
There is only one living writer whose work has traversed the subjects of slavery, poker, commercial nomenclature and zombies. Colson Whitehead is audacious, inventive and utterly unpredictable. This singular voice in American literature joins host Michael Williams for a conversation about race and resistance in fiction.
No matter the subject, the acclaimed New York-based novelist always delivers strange and striking slants – often speculative or satirical in nature. His latest book, The Underground Railroad, won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and was chosen by one Barack Obama for his summer reading list. It recently won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Underground Railroad takes a real-life historical phenomenon – the secret network of subterranean routes used by African-American slaves to escape to free states in the 1800s – and adorns it with fantastical elements: locomotives and boxcars delivering the fleeing slave protagonist, Cora, to various surreal and nightmarish scenarios. It’s a novel about the hijacking of black narratives and the crimes at the foundation of the United States.
In this discussion, Whitehead talks about The Underground Railroad, his reluctance to being cast as a spokesperson in the media, his responsibilities as a person and as a writer, his compulsion not to retread old creative ground, and his hunger for new literary challenges.
Colson Whitehead — Photo: Jon Tjhia
Photo: Jon Tjhia
I have personally grown weary of this genre of critiquing feminism as sport. I’m more interested in: let’s do some of the work of feminism.Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay’s latest book, a collection of short fiction called Difficult Women. The pages of the book are populated with resilient, perverse, bold, provocative, hilarious and heroic female characters.
It’s some of these very same qualities that have propelled Gay herself to feminist stardom. As a writer, and as a distinctly 21st-century voice in American feminism, Gay embraces complexity and contradiction and packs a powerful rhetorical punch whether she’s writing for Twitter, Tumblr, the New York Times, novels or comic books.
The academic, essayist and novelist rose to prominence in 2015 with the book Bad Feminist – part manifesto, part memoir, part cultural critique – and today has more than 190,000 Twitter followers, tuning in to her thoughts on everything from The Bachelor to American higher education policy. Most recently, she’s been working on an upcoming memoir, Hunger, and co-authoring a Marvel comic, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, with Yona Harvey and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
At Northcote Town Hall, the singular Roxane Gay talks politics, pop culture and Beyoncé with Santilla Chingaipe.
The Alt Write
If we’re more careful with language, hopefully less people will think that gestures mean things. Because they don’t.Roxane Gay
Our favourite writers move us and inspire us: our imaginations, our humanity, our understanding of the world. But sometimes their writerly purpose can carry a little more bite. What is the role for the writer as shit-stirrer and agitator, provocateur and agent for change?
With host Michael Williams, four incredible writers and contrarians – Roxane Gay, John Safran, George Saunders and Brit Bennett – discuss how they push against platitude, prejudice and power in their writing. Are we living in a ‘post-truth’ era of degraded language, where the integrity of words and meaning are under siege? Is it just the nature of language? Is meaning always up for grabs?
And, in such an age, what, if anything, is the responsibility of the writer? Is it to change minds? Or even the world? These four very different writers – whose work traverses overt provocation, subtle subversion and radical inclusion – get down to the nitty gritty of the politics and purpose of the act of writing.
George Saunders, Roxane Gay, Michael Williams, Brit Bennett and John Safran — (Photo: Jon Tjhia)
From afar — (Photo: Jon Tjhia)
Not Seen, Not Heard: The Hidden Stolen Generation
Mat Tinkler, Muriel Bamblett, Andrew Jackomos and Natalie Lewis
In 2008, when Kevin Rudd made his historic apology to the Stolen Generations of Indigenous Australians, he envisaged ‘a future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.’
Since that speech, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care has surged by an appalling 65 per cent. Today there are more than 15,000 Indigenous kids living in out-of-home care; they are nine times more likely than non-Indigenous kids to be removed from their parents.
With host Mat Tinkler, Muriel Bamblett, Andrew Jackomos and Natalie Lewis discuss the attitudes and policies that lead to child removals, and the thinking behind these practices. How does systemic discrimination lead to child removal? How are Indigenous leaders shaping the conversation and bringing change?
Are governments willing to listen to, and empower, Aboriginal communities and people to direct solutions? The panel talk about the importance of a Treaty that has specific provisions for Aboriginal kids, and of developing national guidelines rather than state-specific policies and organisations, in this discussion of a critical issue for all Australians.
Presented in partnership with the Family Matters campaign.
In previous Quarterly Essays, David Marr has turned his merciless pen to powerful men of the establishment: George Pell, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten. In his new biographical essay, however, Marr’s subject is a self-styled populist outlier and a woman: Pauline Hanson.
As Australian political figures go, they don’t come much more colourful than Hanson. Her divisive speeches and curious catchphrases are etched into the memories of many Australians, from the maiden speech to Parliament (‘we are in danger of being swamped by Asians’) to the famous response to the question of xenophobia on 60 Minutes (‘Please explain?’). Then there was the prison stint, the Dancing with the Stars stint, and the extraordinary recent comeback. The former fish-and-chips shop owner is both loved and loathed. And she’s a serious threat to both major parties, with climbing national approval figures.
Today, Hanson has much in common with other anti-immigration, protectionist and populist political figures gaining traction across the world. Join David Marr, one of the finest minds in Australian journalism, as he discusses Pauline Hanson and the uniquely Australian strain of the politics of resentment. Hosted by Sally Warhaft, and recorded live at Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove.
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