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On Visiting Melbourne UNESCO’s City of Literature: Iowa City’s Australian Other

November 15, 2012

By debtaffa


Our Country’s Good is a triumph, a tribute to the transforming power of drama. It is heartening to find someone standing up for theatre’s spiritual power.” The Guardian on the Olivier Award Winning Play

Photos of the Summer Art Festival in Iowa CityCity of Literature, my hometown

Early Research for the Trip to Melbourne:

Similar to Iowa City, especially during the annual International Writing Festival, Melbourne is an international place, nearly a third of the city’s population was born overseas. According to the Lonely Planet Guide, Melbourne “is one of the youngest cities yet also one of the longest-inhabited places on earth.” I want to learn more about the young urban and artsy Melbourne, as well as the long inhabited.

“Our Country’s Good” is a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, based upon the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally, and is one of three associations I conjured after first being informed that our department would be traveling to Australia. List it under the first pieces of history about a country, the ones that spring to mind unbidden and reveal your natural interests. It’s the list that you think about after hearing you are to attend a gathering of your literary heroes in Melbourne., which means you will be traveling with your colleagues in the University of Iowa’s MFA program in nonfiction. A kind philanthropist to the arts, Barbara Bedell, is going to buy your airfare for the NonfictioNow conference. All you have to do is speak on a panel, meet talented writers, contribute to the blog, miss out on Thanksgiving with your family, and skip your wonderful husband’s birthday. You will not see your oldest son when he comes home from his Connecticut campus. You will miss out. But you will also gain, plenty.

I love to travel. I’m a fool for travel adventures but flying all the way to Melbourne and back in seven days, accounting for the airport and transit hours, did not strike me as a vacation. I am not crazy about flying such long distances for such a brief stay. I recently visited the Philippines, for three weeks. I backpacked across the Indonesia archipelago a long time ago, for two months. Still, I was curious about the conference and the city of Melbourne. I had met Australians on the road in Bali and Java -I remember one guy was partial to neon orange or lemon-lime colored shorts with Bon Jovi T-shirts. But I have never touched ground in Australia and these associations, especially the last one, are doing nothing but exposing how ignorant I am about the place.

For full disclosure as a conference guide, here are my other strong associations with Australia. I believe my priorities, obsessions, interests, and personal history reveal themselves in this list and expose my sensibilities and relationship to the world: the movie Rabbit Proof Fence, the Aboriginal concept of dream time, the blind singer Garrumul, some old neighbors in West County St. Louis who worked with Monsanto and came from Tasmania, and the severe drought Australia has seen in the last decade. I could throw in a few bands and the hurdler from the Olympics that did that cute little dance before her qualifying race but they mean less than the formal list.

Might I blog about bugs or animals or environmental issues in addition to the conference? Will I have things to say about the night life and/or an escapade of an anonymous colleague? Like any traveler, I can’t wait to see the beach at St. Kilda, the bakeries on Acland Street, and to walk through Victoria Market. But my interests outside the conference -if I were traveling for pleasure rather than work- would have me camping and hiking on an overland trip. I’m open to learning. I’m open to impulsive outings. I’m open to adventure. The best of travel involves the unexpected. I’m not even sure where I’m staying yet.

I’m an old pro at overland travel. I’ve schlepped my herd of kids through markets in Chiapas and driven motorcycles on the mountain’s ridge around Lake Como. I’ve come down with malaria in the Gambia. I avoid five-star hotels on principle and find history more alive and easier to assimilate once a place has been visited; seeing a place makes the stories come alive. I believe education, an experiential education, is the beauty of travel. It is beneficial for the physical body as well; rubbing shoulders with people on the road, walking and using public transportation. The one activity I love more than travel is creative community. It might happen that I get lost in the conference and write obsessively about the craft of nonfiction. One never knows, I’m a wild cannon like that.

The play Our Country’s Good covers the beginning of Australian penal colonies. The setting is 1788 in Botany Bay, the historic day that the First Convict Fleet arrived to form a society. Governor Phillip loathes the idea of bad beginnings as a country; he fears the jailer-versus-jailer mentality and wants to believe in the potential for community. Rather than suffer without a struggle, he embraces a plan to uplift the convicts via the arts. A communal activity will inspire, he reasons, and therefore recruits his men to help the convicts memorize a play for production. Though many of his fellow officers ridicule him, he upholds oral storytelling as a classic form of education.

Phillip says,:“The Greeks believe that it was a citizen’s duty to watch a play; it was a kind of work in that it required attention, judgment, patience, all social virtues.” These concepts interest me as I come from a history of oral storytelling. I come from Arizona and New Mexico where the tribal traditions are strong, where people still value community myth and ritual.

I look forward to the NonfictioNow conference in the spirit of the cited quote. A writing conference always requires attention and patience with differing aesthetics. Traveling with one’s colleagues requires social virtues. The take-home lessons require discernment; you judge what is valuable while listening to the panelists. Thus, I see the NonfictioNow conference as a chance to listen and engage with ideas that vary from my ideas that come from diverse teachers. In a medley of voices, I anticipate that attendees will debate and attempt to define nonfiction. Most importantly, writers will examine the craft employed in the work. There are different genres within the field of nonfiction; the conference will be a spectrum of writers from both camps.

The spectrum, seen by me, operates as follows. The far right side is a dense, information-rich prose style that the world cannot live without: the hard-hitting research, the rigor of facts and events and the commitment to social justice characterize the best of this intention. The author believes that facts hold political import and that certain events deserve to come to light with documentation. This writer works to expose the stern edge of his inner knowing, to toe the line by discerning with a scalpel: am I being anywhere near honest with myself? This writer is not only willing to record, accrue letters, newspapers, police reports, trial transcripts, and other documents—because documentation is crucial to the meaning of the story—but because the research process feels crucial to the historic rendering of the events written about. No bending of facts to serve the art.

On the far left side of the spectrum is the writer who feels that the sensory impact, the beauty of an image rendered in careful prose, contains a sensual delivery that trumps the information feed. The image leads to a bodily experience of the documented event and presumably the sensory impact will make it difficult for the reader to forget. The reader response is more important, in this case, than the authorial struggle to make sense. Just as Barthes declares the death of the author, this writer argues that a hard-handled struggle for individual meaning can threaten the artistic process, the craft, the quality of the work. Meaning is best filtered through stained glass rather than hammered over the reader’s head. Meaning is most beautiful when it is suggestive and ambivalent, this side of the spectrum argues. The image-driven writer often uses elliptical prose, small condensed nuggets that jolt the reader’s perception like they themselves were the glass, the body filtering the sensory experience as the images accrue.

The middle of the spectrum combines the two strategies and many writers aim for that space. The last few writing conferences, as reported to me by my peers, have produced stories of a nonfiction world imprisoned over differences -one end of the spectrum seeking truth, the other end admitting that truth might be cognitively impossible given the function of memory. These are debates we have in class every month. Accepting that both approaches are necessary and viable, I intend to seek craft advice at the conference, ideas about how to fuse image to idea and setting: pacing, dialogue, scene, handling of time, verb tenses, form and structure, as well as how to incorporate outside texts in a creative work.

Philosophical differences aside; craft is what brings us together. There will be many speakers whose wisdom blows me away.

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