Liz leaves the house: West Writers Our Stories Forum

The West Writers Our Stories Forum was first held in 2014, and continued this weekend just past. It’s held out in Footscray, in Melbourne’s mid-West, yay! (Very brown territory) Its concept is examining “what story means to a wide range of communities and how we can represent the diversity of stories and voices in Australia’s literary scene.”

[Liz attended on her own, because Steph had a prior engagement.]

This was a day-long event that included launches, panels, story walks, workshops, and a whole lot of other things which may or may not have been on the program.

If I sound snarky, that’s because there came a point where I found myself wishing I was at home, cleaning the bath.  Then I realised I could just leave, and did so.

You see, while the forum had lots of interesting speakers and activities and whatnot, and should have been well worth the $20 I paid to attend, its program lacked … something.  Like, half of its contents.

Granted, I’m coming to this from the perspective of a person who attends and has run science fiction cons.  It’s possible that the SF con community has expectations about programs which haven’t permeated the wider literary field.  I don’t mean “gender parity on panels” or “avoid all-white panels” — the forum didn’t seem so bad on that front.  I mean, the actual timetable of events.

This is the timetable I printed off and took with me.  If your eyes are straining, too bad, that’s actual size.  So far, so good, right?

Ummmm, sure, except that information about some of the workshops could only be found on the website.  Others were only mentioned in the speaker bios.

Why was the program so badly set out?  What’s happening here?

I didn’t get to the bottom of this mystery until, oh, Monday morning, when Stephanie pointed out that I was looking at the 2014 program.  Because that is the first hit when you google the event, and the 2015 program was never actually put online.


So that’s … embarrassing, but also annoying, because I didn’t see any current programs being given out on the day.  I’m sure they were around, I just … couldn’t find one.  And I was looking, because aside from being a year old (and, let’s not forget, I didn’t realise that until today!) it was way too small to read, and I had this idea that I’d printed it out in tiny form to save paper.

(I hadn’t.  When I got home, I checked, and it really was that small.)

(And there’s still the issue where some events from last year weren’t actually on last year’s program.  Don’t do that, event coordinators!  It’s a bad idea!)

Suffice to say, attempting to navigate an event with the wrong program is not an experience I’d recommend to anyone.  I accidentally went into a panel on writing courses because I thought it was a panel on writing for kids.  (I also couldn’t find a venue map.)

By the time I realised I was in the wrong place, it was too late to leave without distracting the speakers and generally being rude, and I’d dropped my iPad’s stylus (for note taking) under a chair and couldn’t retrieve it without some serious contortions.  So I was trapped.

I’m not a fan of writing courses, because, aside from generally being focused on literary fiction, which isn’t my thing, the notion that you have to go to university to learn to be a writer has always struck me as a bit elitist.  I mean, libraries are full of great writers who didn’t go to university.

(Feel free to insert some kind of good old anti-intellectual “I graduated from the school of hard knocks and the university of life” guff here, I guess.)

The panel discussion didn’t do much to change my mind.  They discussed the benefits of formal study, such as developing discipline and the ability to handle deadlines, professional practices specific to the publishing industry, and networking.

This was all great, except the first two you learn in any degree — although being required to create creatively to order is a skill necessary to an author — and the latter two are mastered every day by people who haven’t undertaken any formal study in writing.

In fairness, though, it’s pretty common for people who work and teach in a field to feel that their field is the most important possible area of study, and that everyone should undertake some training in that area.

The panellists were certainly not wrong about the value of teaching students how to craft a simple narrative — certainly, the inability to do so comes up a lot in my day job — the thing is that this is already taught.  At school, not university.  (At least, it was taught when I was in high school, who knows what kids these days learn, with their Tumblrs and their iPhones and their hippety hop.)

By far the most interesting speaker was Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty.  About halfway into her introduction, I scribbled (with my finger, since my stylus was lost) “note: Dr M is Stephanie’s new soulmate”.

She talked about reading Enid Blyton as a young girl in India.  Like many middle-class Indians, she was educated in Anglophone convent schools, and her parents approved of Blyton because those books were from the school library, and therefore appropriate and acceptable.  Whereas the cheap Hindi comics she read on school holidays were frowned upon, and she hid them in school textbooks.  This tension between languages and cultures was what set her on a path to becoming a translator.

In the ’90s, she was part of a non-profit translation collective that translated between the 20-plus official languages of India, and into/from English.  And she talked about how language shapes culture, and the choices that translators make.  For example, if she is translating a poem into Bengali, and it mentions grass, well, Bengali has 26 words for grass, so what did the poet specifically mean by that word?

In response to an audience question, she remarked that translators used to be seen as traitors to the original work, distorting it to force it to fit another language.  Now, she says, that sense of the role has evolved, and translators are regarded as collaborators.  (This reminded me of Ken Liu receiving a Hugo trophy for his work translating The Three-Body Problem.)

The white panellists also had things to say about translation, but none of it seemed especially informed or informative.

I retrieved my stylus when the panel ended, and went in search of food.  I was in a bad mood, and seriously doubting whether or not to stay — especially after I realised I was out of data on my iPad and hadn’t downloaded my library book.

I had a couple of hours to kill before the next event I was interested in, the FOOTSCARY, FOOTSCRAZY, FOOTSCRAY story walk, so I explored the venue.  The Footscray Community Arts Centre is a really excellent space, and when I have more money, I’d like to do a life drawing course there.

The problem was, I still couldn’t figure out where the meeting point for the story walk was, and I’d also done so much walking by this point that I didn’t really want to traipse all over Footers.  Nor did I want to wait around for the panel after that, even if it did have Alice “remember how she wrote my favourite book of 2015?” Pung.

(Of course, now I realise that neither of those events were actually happening, and feel slightly better about missing them.)

This was when I began to have yearning thoughts about cleaning the bath.  It felt like I was wasting my $20 ticket, but I hopped on my bike and left, did some groceries, came home … and no, I didn’t clean the bath, but I did vacuum, like, a whole cat worth of hair, so at least something was achieved.

After all this, will I go back next year?

Well, maybe.  It really depends on whether there’s a program posted online in advance of the event.  At least, if I go back, I’ll be sure to double-check which year’s website is coming up first on a google search.