Difficult truths

Melbourne Writers Festival

Rhonda Dredge 

Good storytellers don’t make deals with the reader. Their pages invite you to suspend disbelief and follow their narration into surprising settings.

At the 30th Melbourne Writers Festival, two experts disarmed the audience with their storytelling techniques.

Former federal finance minister Lindsay Tanner showed how it felt on the inside to be responsible for an electorate and New York artist Molly Crabapple spoke of the excesses of the US Government.

The cruel logic of global financial and security systems has left an empty space in the heart of the 21st century and these narrators attempted to fill it.

At the centre of Tanner’s tale Comfort Zone is a taxi driver from Carlton called Jack who is imprisoned in a world of gripes and bigotries. The beauty of a Somali woman breaks him out of his comfort zone and drives him into action.

Crabapple’s deft lines highlight the way authorities use sanctions to shape their control over us. While allowed to sketch in Guantanamo Bay, she was forbidden to include faces or doors, forcing her to focus on the floor. Her sketches come stamped by the censor.

It might come as a surprise that a well-known and respected politician has taken to fiction. Narrators tend to camouflage themselves rather than take high-profile positions.

“Writing a novel enabled me to say things I couldn’t say in speech,” Tanner told the festival.

Similarly, Crabapple is uncomfortable in the limelight. She prefers to be the one sitting in the corner with a sketchbook, not standing on stage flogging her wares.

One of the most powerful of her images shows the way guards of Guantanamo Bay gave up their humanity to become cogs in a punitive machine by force-feeding those on hunger strikes.

Novelists can use their work to present a thesis. Tanner seems to be saying that Jack, for all of his inappropriate comments, is quite a good bloke underneath.

And Crabapple, in a similar tradition, is offering insights into the real meaning of affirmation. In her book Drawing Blood there is a sketch of her great grandfather, a Jewish storyteller who had the trick of hanging upside down by his feet.

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