MWF Writing Women – a review

2.30 at Fed Square and there’s a queue fifty people strong cluttering up the paving-stones, waiting to go in to ACMI for the Melbourne Writers Festival. The doors are shut. Chaos reigns. ‘Is this the museum?’ asks a lost tourist. The MWF volunteers are doing a sterling job, blithely ignoring any queue-disgruntlement and pointing the lost tourist in the right direction.

‘May I smoke?’ asks an older man ahead of me. He looks like a writer, to me – dishevelled and blinking in the sunlight. ‘I think you should,’ replies his polite companion. Not what I would’ve said.

At last, the doors are open and the queue begins to move. ‘Sorry to have kept you waiting, but it’s our first day,’ says a MWF volunteer. As this is the twenty-fourth Melbourne Writers Festival, I find this a remarkable explanation but what the heck, here we go, the well-oiled machine rolls on.

I refrain from baa-ing as I flock up the stairs to my destination: Writing Women with Carmel Bird (Child of the Twilight) and Sallie Muirden (A Woman of Seville) in cinema one.

But, what is this? Maybe I am as stupid as a sheep? Everybody else in the queue is filing into cinema two … a lone volunteer stands by the closed door of cinema one. I scuttle up and she ushers me in. I’m late.

As I sneak to the nearest seat, I feel rude and foolish – could I have bypassed the smoker, the chatty older man ingratiating himself with the women behind me to thereby effortlessly jump the queue – and just waltzed in?

No matter, here I am and just in time to hear the rather stunning chair, Christine Gordon, tell us, the audience, not to share our own life stories at question time. It’s not the time for sharing that part, she tells us. It’s time for the celebration of the author.

Righty-ho, let’s celebrate.

Sallie Muirden is first up. She reads her speech and rarely looks up. I find myself thinking about this role of writer-as-commodity and the entertainment value of the MWF. Should writers have to take presentation workshops? Can they be shy and still speak in an amateur way to paying audiences? Muirden reads from her book and only when she begins to describe the feeling of the silk dress billowing down over her protagonist’s body does she really become animated. Perhaps she has forgotten we are there.

Despite my criticism, Muirden tells me interesting and thought-provoking things, such as the idea that one can consciously seek sustenance from the writing of other women and that there is a ‘firm kinship between history and our long-ago childhoods’.

The cinema screen is used to show us a Spanish painting that was inspiration for her latest novel and a view of Seville’s rooftops that inspired the novel’s mysterious ‘ladder man’. Images that make Muirden’s book, and Spain, enticing. (A petty distraction is that pesky cursor-arrow and the appearance of the toolbar at the top of the screen – which proves that if they can’t control that at ACMI, they can’t control it anywhere).

I am relieved to hear Muirden say that the ‘seeds planted in the unconscious take seven years to become a novel’ and that ‘novels grow like trees – the roots won’t let go.’ I am also rather taken by the idea: ‘Every novel is a fluke … a roll of the dice brought about by the power of positive thinking.’ And utterly delighted by this brief quote from A Woman of Seville:

… can such buffoonish excess be allowed?

Carmel Bird bounces to the microphone to share with us her technology – a tiny Black Virgin Mary, smaller than a Freddo-frog. Carmel is a confident, engaging speaker. She begins with the legitimate complaint that there will never be a MWF session called Writing Men, where the ‘serious considerations and deliberations of men’ are discussed. Men, naturally, ‘write about the “real world”, so there’s nothing to discuss.’ Later, Gordon remarks that Virginia Woolf had the same complaint almost one hundred years ago.

‘If I have a feminist project that winds its way through my novel,’ says Bird, ‘it’s the Black Virgin Mary statues repressed by the church, favouring a whiter, prettier Mary.’ Her reading is robust and makes us laugh. Bird is the editor of The Stolen Generations – Their Stories and says there’s ‘nothing funny in that book’, but that in fiction, she consciously brings humour into her stories.

Bird says one of the hardest questions to answer is ‘Why did you do such-and-such?’ The answer is not so easy because ‘the story seemed to do the things of its own volition – plot, voice, characters, etc., are all one at the beginning and only discerned after – my fiction weaves its own webs’.

Carmel Bird is a great fan of Sallie Muirden’s novels and says the two writers are both ‘fond of Spain, France and the contested place of women and children in narrative’. After Bird’s reading, the three discuss fantasy and reality. Muirden says fantasy only works when ‘there’s the potential for it to be real’. Gordon asks about the role of art and religion in both authors’ work. It’s Bird, I think, that says, ‘Art is used to promulgate Catholic doctrine and also to challenge it.’

At question time, there’s a bit of an awkward silence. Then one of the three men asks a question on the topic of feminism. ‘Has it all gone too far?’ he wants to know. ‘It’s all very well …’ he says, ‘but isn’t it about relationships?’ Presumably, between men and women. Bird says that ‘relationships can also be between women’ and the conversation moves on.

Gordon quotes Virginia Woolf – ‘As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.’

To which Bird responds with a hearty, ‘Go, Virginia!’

Gordon asks, ‘As an author, do you have the right to go anywhere?’

‘Yes,’ replies Carmel Bird. ‘Fly.’

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

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