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Five talks to bookmark at Adelaide Writers’ Week

As readers prepare to converge on the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, InReview’s Diary of a Book Addict columnist recommends five must-see Writers’ Week sessions ­– as well as a string of other local and international authors worth seeking out.

Feb 27, 2024, updated Feb 27, 2024
Photo: Shane Reid / supplied

Photo: Shane Reid / supplied

Conversations around last year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week were dominated by debates about Israel and Palestine, with some questioning whether certain Palestinian writers should be included. So, it’s not surprising that this year, when Israel’s war on Gaza dominates most public conversations, the region is well represented on the program once again, with a thoughtful mix that reflects director Louise Adler’s long interest in this most complex and difficult of issues.

Avi Shlaim’s Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab Jew is a complex reflection on being caught in the crossfire of Zionism and nationalism, after his Jewish family were forced to flee Iraq for Israel in 1950, when he was five. Renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappé is the author of some seminal – and fiercely critical – books on his country. The two will speak at separate Writers’ Week sessions on Monday and Thursday (details here and here).

Jerusalem-based American writer Nathan Thrall’s critically acclaimed work of narrative journalism, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama (also the title of his Writers’ Week talk), takes a Palestinian father’s tragedy as a springboard to explore the deeply entrenched, too-often-deadly inequities of life in the occupied territories and Israel as a Palestinian, ranging back and forth through decades. His superlative book was deservedly one of the New Yorker’s top reads of 2023.

Tareq Baconi, author of Hamas Contained (and guest speaker at a session titled The History of Hamas), wrote in the New York Times last December: “Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7 was heinous, murderous and unforgivable, and that makes it more, not less, important to try to understand what Hamas is, how it sees itself and how it presents itself to Palestinians.”

And human rights lawyer, poet and now novelist Sarah Saleh – who lives in Australia and was born in Cairo to a Lebanese-Palestinian mother – writes about place, memory and identity in her work. She will discuss both her new poetry collection and debut novel Songs for the Dead and the Living in a conversation with local author Karen Wyld.

There’s also a lot in this program for literary aficionados, with star international writers including Anne Enright, Bryan Washington, Patrick DeWitt, Anne Michaels and Richard Ford.

I’m personally excited about Jonathan Lethem, whose semi-autobiographical 2003 Brooklyn novel Fortress of Solitude – probably his most famous work – I adored. His latest, Brooklyn Crime Novel, an evocative exploration of his childhood neighbourhood through time, is a sort of companion to the earlier book, with echoes in the text. It’s also an interrogation of the crimes we regulate and prosecute – and the ones we don’t name as such, inviting the reader to do their own imaginative work.

I’m chairing a panel with Lethem, the excellent Bryan Washington (whose fiction similarly explores neighbourhood, belonging and gentrification – as well as connection through mouth-wateringly described food) and Nathan Thrall.

And I can’t mention everything here, but I should add that there’s also an enticing spread of Australian writers on the program – including Anna Funder, just longlisted for the UK’s inaugural Women’s Nonfiction Prize, on Wifedom; gorgeous memoirist Maggie Mackellar on Graft, her account of a year on a Tasmanian wool farm; and internationally acclaimed author of The Boat, Nam Le, talking about his debut book of poetry, 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem.

And I’m also delighted for the opportunity to chat to Catherine Lumby about her magnificent, intimate, ideas-rich memoir of Frank Moorhouse (which I raved about in Diary of a Book Addict last year) – and to Lynne Malcolm, former presenter of ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind, about her book of the same name. I’m an avid listener of the show.

There are chances to hear from some stellar South Australians, too: Peter Goldsworthy on his memoir The Cancer Finishing School, Peter Goers on his memoir of losing his parents in a plane crash, Rachael Mead on The Art of Breaking Ice, Pip Williams on The Bookbinder of Jericho, and Nicholas Jose talking to David Marr about The Idealist, his novel set against East Timor’s fight for independence.

Five recommended sessions:

The Wren, The Wren – Anne Enright, (Sunday, March 3, 1.15pm)

I haven’t read Booker Prize winner Anne Enright’s latest novel, The Wren, The Wren – but I love the experience of being lured into reading a book through listening to the author speak, which I suspect I will be. I loved The Gathering, the novel that won the big prize, set during a family wake after a suicide, and The Forgotten Waltz, a flinty novel about an affair.

In The Wren, The Wren, Enright returns to unhappy families, exploring a celebrated poet’s personal legacy over two generations: the daughter he abandoned when he left her mother for an American wife, and his granddaughter, who admires him from a distance, through his poetry. The novel has been rapturously reviewed, with The Guardian praising Enright’s mastery and “the wry, almost surreal wit with which she has always laced her acute observations of human folly”.

Change – Édouard Louis (Monday, March 4, 2.30pm)

Bookseller friends, in my experience, give the best recommendations. One of mine practically ordered me to read Édouard Louis, the French autofiction writer whose debut, The End of Eddy, explored his miserable working-class village upbringing as a bullied homosexual misfit in a dysfunctional family – in elegant prose, starkly rendering his family as characters. It was a world bestseller, and has been followed by a series of similarly unflattering books about his family (father, mother and brother), all of them sharply dissecting class – and the difficulty of transcending it.

Louis is friends with recent Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux, whose work his is compared to. Change, his latest work of autofiction, picks up where his debut ended: university, away from his stifling home village.

Note: Louis will also be performing in the Adelaide Festival show Qui a tué mon père (Who killed my father), based on his book of the same name.

The Best Minds – Jonathan Rosen (Monday, March 4, 10.45am)

In The Best Minds, Jonathan Rosen tells the story of his brilliant childhood best friend, Michael, who had just been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he learned he’d been accepted to Yale Law School. After Michael wrote for the New York Times about succeeding despite his diagnosis, he sold a memoir for a large sum and Ron Howard bought the film rights to his story. But then Michael killed his girlfriend, in the grip of a paranoid fantasy. Now, he lives in a psychiatric institution.

Last year, I read an extract from The Best Minds, which uses Michael’s complex, heartbreaking story to interrogate the failures of America’s mental health system, and immediately spent a ridiculous sum on importing the expensive hardback. But you won’t have to! It’s just out in paperback and you can buy it in the book tent. I’m looking forward to hearing Rosen talk about his extraordinary book.

PenanceEliza Clark (Tuesday, March 5, 5pm)

Eliza Clark was recently named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. Penance, her second novel, is an intricately savage dissection of the politics of adolescent girlhood, with echoes of Mean Girls and The Craft. It cleverly explores our voyeuristic fascination with true crime, using the savage murder of a teenage girl as a way into its characters and its small-town community. (Very Twin Peaks.) Sorry, I’m making a lot of references! But I feel like it’s warranted for this very self-aware, pop-culture-savvy book, which is also concerned with how culture influences behaviour.

A 16-year-old schoolgirl was beaten and set on fire by three schoolmates. The question isn’t who did it – but why. The prologue presents the novel as a controversial true-crime book, whose author was accused of fabricating interviews and content. The story unfolds through true-crime podcasts, interviews with families and friends, and what we’re told are interviews with the perpetrators. But from the first page, it invites us to question it. I loved this book and am excited to hear Clark talk about the ideas behind it.

The Israel/Palestine Question – Ilan Pappé (Thursday, March 7, 12pm

Israeli historian Ilan Pappé’s book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, has been widely circulated since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel – and the brutal war Israel has waged on Gaza in retaliation, with more than 29,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza so far, according to the territory’s Health Ministry. So many of us are hungry to understand the history behind the headlines. And on book every list I’ve read, Pappé’s book is among the most highly recommended. (Side note: it’s also been impossible to get hold of: I’ve had a copy on order for months. So I recommend buying it at the book tent if you can.)

Pappé’s groundbreaking work tells the story of what Palestinians call the Nakba, decisively debunking the myth the Palestinians left what is now the state of Israel of their own accord. Between 1947 and 1949, more than 400 Palestinian villages were deliberately destroyed, civilians were massacred and around a million men, women, and children were expelled from their homes at gunpoint. Had it happened today, reads the publisher blurb, it could only have been called “ethnic cleansing”.

And in The Biggest Prison on Earth, he picks up where he left off, using declassified archival material to analyse the decision-making that laid the foundation of the current, decades-long occupation.

Adelaide Writers’ Week will be in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden from March 2-7. The full schedule is available online.

Jo Case is a monthly columnist for InReview and deputy editor, books & ideas, at The Conversation. She is an occasional bookseller at Imprints on Hindley Street and former associate publisher of Wakefield Press.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

InReview is an open access, non-profit arts and culture journalism project. Readers can support our work with a donation. Subscribe to InReview’s free weekly newsletter here.

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