sophie cunningham

MWF 2013 Take 2

I’ve finally caught up on everything that I’d put to one side while I was at the MWF, which means I’ve got time now to give you a run down on my second weekend at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

With Oscar now at school, I was able to swing into the city for a few Friday sessions, a first for me.

20130909-133130.jpgWith barely a minute to spare, I found a seat just in time to listen to Eric Beecher, Pamela Willams and Mark Forbes in the session; ‘The News About News’ (as part of the New News Conference). This incredible panel, filthy rich with journalism experience, provided a level of insight into the workings of media that I’d never thought I’d get. It was a rare opportunity and one I relished.

Eric provided a vital, impartial and slightly rebellious perspective to the conversation, whilst Pam and Mark spoke passionately about the future of Fairfax, the nurturing of quality journalism and the economic challenges facing traditional media, particularly as it struggles to find a new, workable business model. It was even suggested at one point that newspapers may in fact need to be run as not-for-profits or charities in order to ensure their survival. They are that important.

The panel was trying to communicate hope, whilst at question time, the audience brought to bear a far greater degree of scepticism. It was difficult to know whether Pam and Mark spoke positively from a position of employee-loyalty, professional passion or blind optimism. It was, nonetheless reassuring to hear that individuals working at top levels of the media game are still talking the talk, and hopefully also walking the walk.

I finished up at this session and headed to ‘The Politics of Sex’ featuring Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel and Anna Krien, author of Night Games. It was chaired by Sophie Cunningham who added her own experience and intelligence to the topic.

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Shereen spoke of her experience of sexuality in the Arab world and Anna concentrated mainly on her investigations into sexuality as found in amongst the sporting clubs of Australia. Their contexts were different, as were their experiences, but the central issues were similar – the balance of power between genders, the perception of women – positive, negative and indifferent, and the overall conversations occurring within these environments (or in fact, the lack thereof).

I found this session frightening, and at times confronting. Still, it was quite constructive, with both writers suggesting ways that they believed change might come about and communications that might aid in addressing the current disconnect between the genders and help us all to behave a bit better towards each other.

I travelled home pondering on some pretty big topics.

Saturday morning was an absolute highlight for me, as I attended a seminar called ‘The Art of Literary Criticism’ with Jeremy Harding, contributing editor and Mary-Kay Wilmer, editor of the London Review of Books.

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As you know, I love to review books – to read them, to reflect on their content, their context, and their purpose. I enjoy putting them into place within my own experiences and to consider who might love them and why.

This session provided some incredible advice regarding evaluating a text, describing it to a reader, essentially telling the story of the book. Mary-Kay and Jeremy offered advice as to how best approach reviewing a book, should you not like it, treating it in such a way that a constructive and readable account can still be created.

The London Review of Books are publishers of the fine art of long-form journalism, and as such, I was thrilled to hear more of what it takes to put three, four, or five thousand words together on a bookish topic, how it is then edited and finally the joy that comes of having it read and appreciated by many.

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After this session, I put aside my pride and had Jeremy and Mary-Kay sign my copy of London Review of Books and had a little chat with Jeremy about That Book You Like. I hope I came across okay…

Finally, before heading home I had the privilege of having tea with the very talented Claire Scobie, author of The Pagoda Tree (Penguin). We had a great chat about her book, which I’m reading at the moment, and tee’d up the next TBYL Event. Claire will be joining us online in October as part of the TBYL Book Club (The Pagoda Tree will be our book for October!)… keep an eye out for full details later in the week.

All up, the Melbourne Writers Festival 2013 has been fantastic. I’ve learnt so much and meet some really wonderful people. I’m already counting down the days until next year’s program…

 

Mythbusting at the MWF

On a good day I learn something new. On a really good day, I might get a few ah-ha moments. An excellent day is full of new facts…and that was my Sunday.

The issue of gender, as it relates to identity, equity and ability is an emotive one. I certainly know it’s a topic quick to raise my ire. It’s a passionate topic, but still, it is one best treated with intelligence and reason. The two sessions that I attended on Sunday did just that.

Dissecting Gender presented neurological, biological and psychological perspectives on what it means to be male or female, and explored whether or not we are in fact hardwired to be fundamentally different from each other. The resounding answer of the panelists; Jane McCredie, Rob Brooks and Cordelia Fine was clear – no, we are not.

Any such science that suggests that all males and all females are and must perform and behave in a particular way is at best mistaken, and at worst fraudulent.

McCredie, Brooks and Fine are, without doubt, committed to their work in this in field, each having published works seeking to dispel the many myths surrounding what it is to be a man or a woman. Interestingly, McCredie is even more inclusive in her study, investigating what it is to be “outside the binary” of gender, considering situations of ambiguity in gender allocation and idenfication.

Reassuringly, Fine assured us that although women have on average, a smaller, lighter brain than men this doesn’t in fact act as a determinant of success or intelligence in any field: “Claims about gender differences are based on incorrect, and at times fabricated data,” states Fine. Brooks argued well to dismiss the outdated notion that we are slaves to either our nature or our nuture, assuring that many options remain open to us all. And McCredie was decided: “Science should apply to us all, and not just to those that fit neatly within the accepted stereotypes…stereotypes seem not to apply to many people.” Further, she asked the question, how do any of us come to understand who we are, and what it is to be male or female. Science, in all it’s certainties and averages has not yet been able to explain many of the complexities that create differences between us all, let alone between males and females.

I left this session feeling encouraged…my little brain was not necessarily less powerful, and any stereotypical strengths and weaknesses would seem to be more likely about self-fulfilling prophesy or stereotype threat than about an overarching biological or neurological predisposition.

In this mood, I took my seat in the BMW Edge to listen to Sophie Cunningham. I had heard very good things, and was excited about being at this session. The crowd seemed to be feeling the same way, and I got the sense that the audience was eagerly awaiting inspiration, and perhaps a bit of illumination.

Many things were made much clearer to me by Sophie’s presentation A Long, Long Way to Go: Why We Still Need Feminism, not the least of which was the scale of the issue of women’s invisibility. Sophie provided a set of most incredible and infuriating statistics relating to women’s place in literature, business, fine arts and law. Example after example illustrated the extent to which women have disappeared, and the degree to which we’ve simply gotten used to it. Frightening stuff.

Cunningham laid blame for this in both the political and cultural sphere, and made several suggestions as to how this imbalance might be addressed. One of these solutions was featured in The Age today, namely the Stella prize, a women’s only literary prize. I will be watching this with great interest. Her conviction was strong, and she disputed the belief that women need simply to be more assertive: “You can be as assertive as you like, you’re still starting from a lower base,” citing examples of starting wages of male and female graduate lawyers and the distinct difference therein. It would seem that equality will take more than a loud voice and a forthright personality.

I was personally quite moved by her views of women’s self perception, our habitual self-loathing, which damages our chances and holds us back by diminishing our self-confidence in contexts such as work, earning and education. In Sophie’s opinion: “This self-doubt is political, it’s like tinnitus and we have to learn to ignore it, we must learn to block it out.”

I was moved by the presentation, and buoyed by the rousing reception that Sophie received. I trust that this is a sign that, should it be needed, the forth wave which Cunningham referred to would be fervently supported by a new generation of woman.

Did you attend any Sunday sessions? What were the highlights for you?

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