Author Richard Flanagan has questioned why Australian politicians have such hostility towards writing. Photo: Simon SchluterRichard Flanagan has poured scorn on the concept of a national literature but declared the centrality and necessity of writing to Australian life.
And he said the most moving Australian writing he had read for a long time was the trove of “anonymous short stories” leaked to The Guardian – the incident reports of violence, sexual abuse, and self-harm involving asylum seekers on Nauru.
If anyone was expecting a gentle trot through the whys and wherefores of writing, the pros and cons of great writers – from Australia or elsewhere – in Flanagan’s first public lecture as inaugural Boisbouvier Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne they were in for a surprise.
The Man Booker-winning author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a man guaranteed to have a wider take on writing and its place in the world and in his address, titled “Does Writing Matter?”, at the Athenaeum Theatre on Thursday as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, he was characteristically challenging.
“Nations and nationalisms may use literature, but writing of itself has nothing to do with national anythings – national traditions, national organisations, national prizes – all these and more are irrelevant,” he said.
The impact of the Nauru files had been profound. “All around us we see words debased, misused, and become the vehicles for grand lies,” Flanagan said. “Words are mostly used to keep us asleep, not to wake us. Sometimes though writing can panic us … This writing has woken me from a slumber too long. It has panicked me.
“The stories are very short, what might be called in another context flash fiction. Except they are true stories. I suspect they will continue to be read in coming decades and even centuries when the works of myself and my colleagues are long forgotten.”
Flanagan wondered why Australian politicians had such hostility towards writing. Australia spent $1.2 billion each year to “keep innocent people in a state of torment and suffering” but less than $2.4 million a year on direct subsidies to its writers. “What Australia is willing to spend in one year to create a state-sponsored hell on earth for the innocent is what Australia would spend in 500 years supporting its writers.” And he stressed he was not arguing for more support for writing.
What, he asked, was the connection between him standing on the stage and “a child sewing her lips together … her act and the act of writing share the same human aspiration”. Asylum seekers were asserting the fact that in the face of attempts to dehumanise them, their lives still had meaning. “And is this not the very same aspiration as writing?”
The role of the writer was to keep words alive in an attempt to divine truth. And he answered the question he had set himself in his lecture title. “But even when we are silenced we must continue to write. To assert freedom. To find meaning … Because writing matters. More than ever, it matters.”