Monday 2 October 2017

A conference! Australia and historical fiction, by Gillian Polack

My special event for September was the Historical Novel Society of Australasia’s conference. Every two years it happens and every two years it’s very special. I had to skip the evening events, because my life is just a bit fast-paced right now. Over coffee the following mornings I found out how splendid they were. The round table was particularly good, I heard, with people talking about diaspora and change. This set much of the conference up for how fiction and how history fed into the society we know. They’re not independent from our lives. 

Opening ceremony, HNSA, Photo courtesy HNSA

During my first masterclass, this approach came up a lot. We talked about silencing and about what responsibilities writers had and how to be ethical and still write the amazing fiction one dreams of. I seem to be teaching this a lot recently, which is good. 

I love it that so many writers care about living in a better world and don’t just say “This is my dream novel – I’m not interested in finding out how it affects others.” These days more and more writers are asking “How can I know what goes into my fiction. How do I understand what baggage I’m carrying and how do I make active choices to write responsibly?”

It wasn’t just my masterclasses. It was most of the panels I attended, and it was one of the academic sessions, and it was one of the subjects that many people chatted about during breaks and over drinks in the evening. Being a fiction writer has cultural consequences and so many writers are saying “I can write my best work and still be aware of those consequences.” This is one of the reasons I respect writers so very much. Not all writers. Some are still shuttered in a closed world. But so many of the ones I’m working with admit that fiction is an active part of creating culture and that we all have a part to play in the way the world works.

Over the weekend there was a lot of attention paid to developing good writing. Some people donned mail and helmets. Some checked out costume (and Rachel Nightingale wore one of the costumes, for she was the one doing the teaching). There were craft workshops and subject-matter workshops, and manuscript assessments. I brought in some of my teaching objects and we used them in my masterclasses and even in one panel. 

I delivered a paper, photo courtesy HNSA

Linking up the physical world with story is a complex business and it was fascinating to see how different writers reacted to different objects. A group of audience members for that panel were romance writers. When we sat round after the conference had finished and they said “We would’ve reacted differently.” I brought the items out again, and we explored them from a new angle and it was fascinating to see how each writer had perfectly useful approaches to transmuting an object into a part of a story: all of them were valid. For one writer a potsherd wasn’t useful at all, and for another it became a whole story.

What was really interesting was the number of non-writers attending panels that I’d mentally assumed were mainly for writers. Someone asked a question of my panel from the audience and prefaced it with “As a reader…” Australian readers love finding out how writers think and what techniques writers can use.

Discovering history over food, photo courtesy HNSA

We’re living in a difficult historical moment. This kind of thought and questioning give me hope. This conference was very good for my sense of what the future might be if everyone keeps the levels of inquiry and questioning this high. What’s particularly important to me is that novelists and their readers (both!) are taking on this understanding that history is not static. That we interpret the past all the time. That not all interpretations are equally safe for all of us. The interpretation we each choose matters.

This is where organisations like the HNSA make a difference. 

They’re publishing most of the academic papers in November or December, by the way, so you’ll be able to explore some of the topics for yourselves. All the best of the discussion was ad hoc, so my recommendation is that you have a dinner party. I would say that, for I’m back into historical food. Pity my friends…


Satima Flavell said...

A great little con, eh? I really enjoyed it and wish it was held every year! Congrats on all your appearances: good work! And wasn't the armory session amazing?

Joan Lennon said...

"Being a fiction writer has cultural consequences" - this puts it so well! Thank you!