When organisers of the annual Scone Literary Festival announced that Christos Tsiolkas would be delivering the 2019 Patrick White Oration on Saturday, November 16, it marked the beginning of an entirely new and stand-alone literary event.
Held before the historic backdrop of the Upper Hunter township and still in only its sixth year of celebration, the festival itself has become a drawcard for some of this country's most distinguished journalists, authors and novelists.
Yet even the most spirited book lovers have marvelled at this most recent announcement. As though the attendance of award-winning literary celebrities was not enough, on that Saturday (November 16) the festival will launch its 2020 program (it runs March 13-15) with Tsiolkas paying homage to the most celebrated Australian novelist of all - the Nobel Prize-winning, former Upper Hunter Valley resident Patrick White.
Like Tsiolkas did in his most famous novel The Slap, the 2019 oration will examine some of the ethical ambiguities that underlie contemporary Australian values.
Among the most pressing issues for Tsiolkas are the realities faced by writers who, alongside other public voices, are now competing against a broadening vitriol.
If writers are to be heard above the static of an increasingly parochial conversation, are they obliged to only say what is uncontroversial? Should they appeal to their readers for calm, or take their aim by speaking their own minds?
"I think at the moment we are all a bit confused about what it means to be moral or what it means to live a good life, regardless of what work we do or what our story is," Tsiolkas says. "But since I've been thinking about what I am going to say at the oration, I think I am really going to ground it around the question of what it means to be a writer. Especially a writer in the world here and in the present."
If some of that sounds slightly abstract and philosophical, then parts of it probably will be. But what is certain is that Tsiolkas will do something even more challenging - offer to his audience an unvarnished collection of very personal truths.
For all of his prominence as an acclaimed literary stylist but still commercially successful author, his humility is as authentic as it is uncommon. "I'm very proud but also a little bit terrified about giving this oration," Tsiolkas confesses.
"It's just because Patrick White means so much to me. He was fearless. He is one of those writers who has guided me for such a long time and who I have had such a long history with."
This history and intellectual guidance has this year contributed to the publication of yet another provocative offering by Christos Tsiolkas. In several, vividly captured moments through his new novel, Damascus,it's even possible to sense the spectral presence of Patrick White himself, his heroic but bewildered characters, his sweeping yet meticulous eye over an unforgiving land.
Larger parts of the novel square the imagination of Tsiolkas against the enormity of the Christian narrative, a 2000-year-old epic in which a saint named Paul once saw his Saviour appear before his very eyes. But where the Bible might only have shone the brightest light upon this apostle, his faith and what became his relentless devotion, Tsiolkas has foraged bravely in the shadows. In the outer turmoil and the inner depravity he finds Paul as he might have lived as the man, fumbling about in rags and drunken immorality.
"Saints to us have always been the icons," Tsiolkas says. "They're not thought of as living, breathing, suffering, confused and doubting human beings. That was my way into Paul if you like. Once I came to understand the letters that Paul wrote, I was able to make my own journey from the fear of adolescence into a young man who understood that message.
"I think that's why Paul spoke to me.
"Before that happened I only thought of Saint Paul as the official representation of the institutional Church. That hesitancy I felt back then also relates to what I want to talk about in this oration.
"There's really a kind of fear for writers about speaking at the moment. About who we are allowed to speak to and on behalf of. To me that fear is not a good place to live in or work from."
- The 2019 Patrick White Oration & 2020 Scone Literary Festival Program Launch, November 16, 5:30-8:30pm, Scone Arts & Craft Hall.
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