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Why the Hunger? NonfictioNow Day 1

November 24, 2012

By Alice Robinson

As a literary event, NonfictioNow seems to fall somewhere between a writers festival and a more academic conference and I think the balance works beautifully. There was a sense of collegiality in the air yesterday that I haven’t experienced at many writers festivals, where audience members are just as likely to have hand picked events to attend as they are to have a comprehensive pass; on day one of NonfictioNow I got the distinct impression that we were all in it together. Perhaps it was the fact that everyone wore name tags. Perhaps it was that the panelists became engaged audience members when they stepped down from the stage. Perhaps it was that whoever I happened to be sitting next to in a given session kept introducing themselves. Even in the lift a woman grinned and struck up a conversation with me. “Having a good conference?!” The positivity and welcome was overwhelming, as was the literary calibre of the attendees I spoke to: namely writers of one kind or another, lecturers, teachers, students, readers. Whatever it was about the design and execution of the conference, it worked. I came away feeling entirely buoyed up, energised in the way that finishing a great book can energise. Afterwards I felt subtly changed, for the better.

Of course, a large part of this feeling must be attributed to the panelists, whose provocative conversation – sometimes generated off the cuff, at other times carefully planned with supporting powerpoint slides – was really responsible for the success of the day. When Anne Manne said, “Why the hunger at the moment for nonfiction? For memoir? For true stories?…It seems the eros has gone out of fiction. The frisson is around true stories. The desire is to have one human heart talking to another”, I couldn’t help but feel as deeply impressed by her articulate summary of a literary climate I had perhaps sensed, but not articulated to myself, as by her lovely, poetic turn of phrase. Cheryl Strayed said of writing memoir:“It’s not about confession, it’s about illumination”, and that, “Bravery comes from going to the dark places…but bravery is only part of the work we do”, explaining that the choices a writer makes about what to include in a autobiographical work stem from the requirements of the work itself, not from any particular or implicit courage the writer embodies. Such simple statements, so powerful in their simplicity. I found the most affecting panel Sonic Writing: Radio Nonfiction, in which each writer not only discussed the many ways in which sound can be used, manipulated and experienced, but provided carefully chosen examples from their own work to illuminate their points. While listening to several of the excerpts I found myself self-consciously dabbing tears from my eyes. Kyla Brettle explained her interest in sound like this: “Radio is a particularly good medium for stories we can see…sound is very fleshy and visceral to work with…sound fills a room like light does”, but it was the recording of the emergency 000 call that really drove her point home; the sound of one man explaining to the another over the phone that his friend had just overdosed and wasn’t breathing. Fellow panelist Siobhan McHugh talked about the “aerobic practice of listening” she must employ when interviewing for radio. It is the sound of a person’s voice, she told us – the timbre, tone and evident emotion – even more so than their words, that invite the listener in to a “pact of intimacy” with the speaker on air. But the suckerpunch of her presentation was the excerpt she played from Minefields and Miniskirts, her work on women in the Vietnam War. We sat together in darkened Story Hall, listening as a woman, Jan Graham, described how she had cradled a dying Sergeant, a man meant to be on his way home to his family. He lay bleeding in her arms, legs blown off. Graham’s voice cracked. She told McHugh, us, that the man believed in those last minutes that she was his wife. He told her how much he loved her. She held him and watched him die for fifteen minutes.“It felt like five or six hours,” she said. The auditorium was silent. Collectively, we held our breath. If anyone doubted the place or validity of true stories before – particularly of those told in the subject’s own voice – there was no way to ignore the immense power of them now.

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