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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


With Richard Flanagan and Adib Khan.

If there was one session that I was worried about, it was this one. It wasn't about the great authors on the panel, it wasn't the issue spelt out for discussion, rather it was the setting for the discussion. My worry centred around discussing Adib Khan's 'Spiral Road' and Richard Flanagan's 'The Unknown Terrorist' in a lunch setting. Would this work while the audience was sipping wine, tucking into their irresistible Alila lunch (the food was fab, the dessert sinful), would they listen, register, question?

As things would unfold, this should have been the least of my worries. Yes, yes, I know you want more of the Juicy Julia and Naughty Nury session, but that'll have to wait.

A lot was discussed at this year's festival and as I take baby steps to recount all that happened, I have to start at the beginning with Adib and Richard, who made this a session to remember. Award-winning authors both, they've turned their attention to the issues of our times with their latest work. Adib who started writing in his 40s made his debut with 'Seasonal Adjustments' in 1994, which went on to win the Commonwealth Writers First Book Award. This was followed by 'Solitude of Illusions' in 1996, 'The Storyteller' in 2000 and then 'Homecoming'. His latest book 'Spiral Road' deals with Muslim identity in relation to terrorism and is set in Bangladesh.

Tasmanian author Flanagan is a Rhodes scholar, who survived near-death experiences as a kayaker. One look at his palm and you know such experiences come naturally to him. His books throw critics into a tizzy, its amazing to see how much they can read and often (mis)read his work. But Flanagan has survived more than just the critics, to give us 'The Sound of One Hand Clapping,' 'Gould's Book of Fish' which won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize and most recently 'The Unknown Terrorist' - the nightmarish tale of a woman mistaken for a terrorist after a one-night stand with a man of 'Middle-Eastern' appearance.

Richard set out "to write a book that was a mirror to these times and a book that I hoped might be a warning to people about what I feel are a series of frightening tendencies in our society."

If you imagine this would set the tone for a heavy take on the war on terror, think again. His unmatched academic credentials haven't made him a dry narrator. Each episode, each story that went into the making of his book packed punch, humour and insights. When questioned about identity, he narrated the journey through parts of the US, where he was introduced as a "Tanzanian author," where he got away with very little talking on some shows as the eager questioner told the whole story. He backed journalists and journalism for putting stories in perspective - the ones who believe in it still do that, he reminded us. His book is a sober testament of our times, the story of 'The Doll' resonates despite what David Marr had to say about it in his rather unflattering review in The Sydney Morning Herald:
"In Gould's Book of Fish, he created a magical little universe somewhere at the far end of Macquarie Harbour two centuries ago. It was brilliantly inventive. The book has fans all round the world. I didn't believe a word of it. Nor can I believe the Doll."

Pity about that because there is more than just flashes of Flanagan brilliance in 'The Unknown Terrorist.'

How much control then does an author have over his work? It's a question I'd put to Adib before we started another panel discussion that took off with a reading from 'The Spiral Road.' In this conversation though, Adib re-traced his steps to Bangladesh, a place he'd left in 1973, when he moved to Australia. And there are traces of his identity, his fractured sense of self in the protagonist Masud Alam, the 53-year old librarian, who has to go back to Bangladesh to reconnect with his family. His father is dying, the family's fortune is gone and the world Masud left behind when he moved to Australia doesn't exist anymore. Khan uses many of his own experiences to draw attention to several issues - betrayal, alienation, identity or the lack of it.

The Age dubs it a novel that "bears re-reading on many counts."

As I re-visit one of the many passages I'd marked for the discussion and for this post, I couldn't agree more:

'That made them uncomfortable,' the woman chuckled. 'Are you a migrant?'
'Yes,' I replied.
'So am I,' she said. 'If you don't mind, I'd like to talk to you about the questions you asked.'
I liked her forthrightness.
Afterwards we headed off for coffee.
'I'm Amelia.' She held out her hand.
'Are you....' she hesitated. 'Indian?'
'A Hindu? Sorry! I don't mean to pry.'
Nowadays Amelia and I occasionally go out for dinner and then to a concert or a play. We no longer talk about our shared migrant experiences.

Wish we'd had time to talk more....

While I wait for another time, I leave you with some pictures through Shelley Kenigsberg's lens:

P.S. The thing about Richard's palm. In a nutshell, your palm is supposed to have three main lines, each of which indicates a separate area of your life. Your love line is the one on top, your head line is in the middle, and the bottom line is your life line. Richard Flanagan's palm is missing one key line, making it most amazing palm I've seen in my life time. (Perhaps, that explains the superior intellect as well!) Thanks Dad for everything and the palmistry training, in particular.

Pictures on this post courtesy Shelley Kenigsberg

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