Sunday, 24 May 2015

Sydney Writers' Festival - Day 3

Saturday 23 May 2015 is Day 3 of our SWF. It is a little bit quieter than the first two days with only two sessions planned. But we arrived early and I was able to secure tickets to see Asne Seierstad for half price, so a bargain as well as a delight!

We begin our day with a free session with journalist and author Caroline Overington. Mum and I had both read Overington's book Last Woman Hanged (2014), the true story of Louisa Collins who was hanged in NSW for murder. The book is very strong in making a case against capital punishment, a view I share. 

Overington spoke passionately about capital punishment and how wrong it is. She started with showing excerpts from a film about the execution of 14 year old George Stinney in 1944, a verdict which has recently been overturned as a gross miscarriage of justice. She then talked about the recent deaths of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia and of the reaction here in Australia to their murders. She cited facts and figures from research on the ineffective deterrent value of capital punishment. It was a fascinating presentation, by a journalist who knows her stuff. 

Caroline Overington
Overington then took questions from the crowd. As she lives in California now, she was able to give an interesting perspective on the thoughts about capital punishment in America. Questions included whether there were certain types of crime for which the death penalty was suited and about the psychological impact on the executioners. I wanted to ask her about 'death qualified' juries in the US, as in the recent case of the Boston marathon bomber, but did not get a chance.
After the session mum and I spoke to her briefly at the side of the stage. She had messaged me on Twitter as I said I was attending, so I introduced  myself and told her how much we enjoyed her book and that I had reviewed it on this blog. Mum mentioned that Carol Baxter has a book on Louisa Collins coming out soon, and Overington said she was aware of this and looks forward to it. I did not realise that Overington had written so many novels, as I knew of her only as a journalist,  so I might check out her fiction one day.

We next went to another compelling free session in which Jenny Brockie moderated a discussion with David Kilcullen, Mohsin Hamid and Anne-Azza Aly on fundamentalist behaviour. This was a fascinating session on the individual motivations for joining up with Islamic State, the Western response, and what to do when people involved in extremism want to come home.

Dr Aly is a respected professor and terrorism expert from Curtin University in Western Australia who has been researching how to counter violent extremism. She is the author of Terrorism and Global Security: Historical and Comparative Perspective (2011). She has been involved in working with Muslim youth on developing a counter narrative to the one used by violent extremists.  
Dr David Kilcullen is an Australian counterinsurgency expert who advised American General David Petraeus and US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice. He is the author of several books on guerrilla warfare including The Accidental Guerrilla (2009) and Out of the Mountains - The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (2013). Kilcullin also wrote the latest Quarterly Essay on Islamic State, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday.
The two were joined by Mohsin Hamid, the Pakistani author of international bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and made into a film in 2012. I missed Hamid's opening address at the Festival - "Life in the Time of Permawar" so was delighted to see him today. Having a writer of fiction join this panel provided an interesting perspective and Hamid made some interesting points which grounded the discussion.

The panel discussed the reason why individuals are heading to Syria to support Islamic State. Kilcullen said that there is no one single, simple explanation. He said "one thing I am struck by with ISIS is the number of people involved" as well as the number of women. He cited the speed with which this generation of violent extremism is occurring and said "this is a different model, in addition to the traditional model of someone feeling marginalised.... now, I liken it to pedophile grooming where they reach in and groom extremism." He said they are now using social media well and have a jihadist dating service which is attracting younger men and women to the cause.

Aly said "we are consistently looking for a profile, some kind of psychology" but it is not that simple. She questions our use of the term radicalisation as it is often used for a range of behaviours. The example she gave was of the Nazis at one end and then skinheads who "latched on to the motifs and symbols of neo-Nazi groups" but these two groups are not the same. She called for the involvement of young Muslims in trying to understand this radicalisation and said that we should "admit that we don't get it and talk to people who do."

Hamid stressed the need to understand the story behind why people engaged in this. He said that young people have a "strong desire to matter" and may join this cause in the same way that volunteers joined the Spanish Civil War decades ago. He also reminded us that there isn't a single Islam and one of the challenges is that, in the West as well as in IS, there is a notion that "the Muslim aspect of your identities the strongest aspect; it is the Muslim in you that matters most" which feeds into this idea of a single Islam. He also made a plea for considering the way in which we view migration and cited "the virulent demonisation of the migrant" and the manner in which we treat people differently.
Brockie, Kilcullen, Aly and Hamid

The panel talked about the solution for the current IS problem. Kilcullen said that a military solution to"kick seven kinds of crap out of IS" was needed to actively contain the situation, however he said the "military can never solve these problems, but we can set the conditions to allow politicians to solve this."

Hamid said the best thing we can do in Australia is to be less afraid. He reminded us that there are people in the world living in conflict zones that have real reason to be scared of violent extremism, but in Australia we do not. He likened it to being afraid of sharks in Switzerland.

I really enjoyed this lively panel discussion, and I learned a lot about what is happening in Syria from the panelists. After the session we were able to attend a book signing and Hamid signed my copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist so that was a real treat.

Asne Seierstad: Dissecting a Crime 

One of the sessions I didn't buy tickets for in the first round was to see Asne Seierstad, but I really wanted to attend her session so went to the box office first thing in the morning and picked up two tickets for her session.

Seierstad has recently published One of Us (2015) about Anders Breivik and his mass murder in Norway which I was uncertain whether or not I wanted to read about this. On the one hand I am curious about the motivation for this atrocious act of barbarity, but on the other I don't want to give Breivik any more oxygen by reading about his crime. Seierstad said she wrote the book to try and get to the bottom of the question "Who are we dealing with?" and over the next hour, through her interesting presentation, she convinced me that I wanted to read her book.

Asne Seierstad and Anne Manne
Anne Manne interviewed Seierstad about the book, and took us through a narrative of Breivik's life, telling us about his dysfunctional family and unhappy childhood, disengaged youth and his constant need for attention. She shared the horrors of the day in which he committed his crimes and the meticulous research she had conducted in preparing this book.

Seierstad at the book signing.
The session was all very interesting and so I purchased a copy of her book (actually, I started reading it on the bus ride home and I am gripped by the story and her writing). After the session we were able to meet her as she signed copies of One of Us and my old dog-eared The Bookseller of Kabul. This is one of the things that makes the Festival so great; that you can actually meet and talk with so many wonderful writers.

Other adventures
Today was a busy day of author spotting at Walsh Bay as we saw Ramona Koval, Dr Karen Hitchcock, Robert Dessaix, David Marr, Scott Bevan, Zoe Norton Lodge, Shaun Micallef and many more. Mum also picked up a couple of books she wanted to read - a David Hill and a book by Kate Grenville.

Other sessions held today that I would have liked to have attended include:
  • A Life of True Crime - in which Asne Seierstad, Julie Szago and Virgina Peters talk about the inhumanity of the worst among us. 
  • How Enid Blyton Changed My Life - Robert Dessaix talks about how Blyton's stories encouraged his creativity.
  • On Hipsters - Dr Fiona Allon talks about the rise of the hipster.
  • Les Murray: Waiting for the Past - on his new poetry collection.
  • Give me back my pre-internet brain - Richard Flanagan, Douglas Coupland, Sally Andrews and Adam Spencer talk about our reliance on devices.
  • The Golden Age of Television - Starlee Kine, Daniel Mendelsohn and Shaun Micallef on TV.  
So ends Day 3 at the Sydney Writers' Festival... One more to go, with a short day on Sunday.