Writers' Festival talk to explore class and sport

 Christos Tsiolkas.

Christos Tsiolkas.

Malcolm Knox.

Malcolm Knox.

In his latest novel Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas looks at class envy, politics, education and sport.

He will share his thoughts on them all at a Sydney Writers Festival event in Parramatta on May 23.

Two-time Walkley Award winner and SMH sports journalist Malcolm Knox will lead the conversation. Here both share their take on writing and sport.

Christos:

How present are themes of class and sport in your writing?

Class is part of the world of every novel I write. I came from a working-class immigrant background and now I find myself in another world, another class status. It would feel like a betrayal of my roots not to explore how class still works in this world. I think class shapes your language, your consciousness, your dreams and your loyalties. 

I use sport in my writing to reflect on class and class identity, and on what it means to be an Australian. What does it mean to be a “working-class hero”? Sport is one arena in which working-class people have traditionally achieved success. But what is the price of such success now? Just as class has changed its meanings over the last quarter century, so has sporting achievement and our relationship to it. It too is a fertile and contradictory a subject, and anything contradictory is fascinating for a writer.

What do you consider the most powerful thing about writing?

Writing fiction allows you to ask “what if”. Fiction presupposes a dialogue: and in this dialogue, the reader is as important as the writer. The best fiction doesn’t end when the last page is finished, the best fiction creates characters and a world that you continue to argue with, debate with, identify with, long after the book has been laid aside. The best fiction refutes a black and white world. I think the best journalism does this as well. 

What do you consider the most powerful thing about sport?

In Australia, sport is the one subject that allows communication across divides of class, status and identity. The great sporting moments are truly universal, the euphoria is honest and powerfully felt. I am thinking of Cathy Freeman’s winning gold at the Sydney Olympics, or the joy we all felt when the underdogs, Senegal, made it to the qualifying finals in the FIFA World Cup.

In sport, we can still believe we are egalitarian. But, of course, the more sport becomes commercialised, the more distance there is between the spectator and the athlete. I think what is happening in sport reflects what is happening in the rest of Australian society. I hated how we responded as a nation to our athletes during the 2012 London Olympics. I thought it mean-spirited, and maybe that mean-spirit says something about who we are now.

Are we a nation obsessed with sport? Is western Sydney any different to the whole?

Yes, we are obsessed with sport, it is the one area where we Australians feel we can punch above our weight. I imagine people in western Sydney are no different in that to the people in northern Melbourne where I live.

But I am suspicious of how that phrase, “western Sydney”, is used as a shorthand to describe a vast geographic area, one which is diverse, populous and complex. I am sure there are people in western Sydney who hate sport.

I am sure there are people in western Sydney who are obsessed about sport but equally as obsessed about how the world is now, about politics, about what is happening politically in our nation.

The event promo raises the question: ‘Should we teach our children to win or to live?’ Do you think this is a question many parents ask themselves?

When I was growing up, I don’t recall talking about “losers”. Maybe my memory is playing me false, but it did seem that opportunity was more important than the end goal.

I should add, I am always cautious in answering such a question, as I am not a parent. I try to be a good uncle.

I think separating the question of how to live a good life, an ethical life, from the question of what “winning” means is important.

I was very fortunate to have parents who taught me a code of honour. I challenged them, I rejected part of their values, I returned to many of them. But I knew that I had to have a code of some sort to live by.

In my experience, the worst failure, the most shameful, is when you betray your own ethical code.

There is a lot of talk from educators about building resilience in children. Some have suggested that learning to ‘fail gracefully’ is part of that. What do you think?

I was in Greece last year, and I had a wonderful chat with a cousin who recalled having to leave his the village at twelve, in the late sixties. He moved to the city, rented a flat and started work as an auto-mechanic. He had to do that, there was no choice: there was immense poverty, and there had been decades of war and political strife, he had to grow up fast. I think life teaches you resilience. 

We should count ourselves blessed that we can have such a long adolescence in Australia. We shouldn’t take that for granted. 

I wanted to be a writer when...

I first fell in love with reading.

You know you’re a writer when...

It took me along time to feel comfortable calling myself a “writer”. I realised I was one when I stopped daydreaming and started to do the work, getting up every morning, sitting down at the computer with my note book, and punching away at those keys. I have described writing as an apprenticeship with no end, every day you learn more about your craft. Failure is part of this process, there are many days when you look at what you have written and go, That’s crap.

But then the next morning comes and you begin again. When you are prepared to begin again every morning, then you are a writer.

Had you met each other before this event was scheduled?

I was very lucky to meet Malcolm when his wife, Wenona Byrne, approached me to work on adapting one of my short stories, Saturn’s Return, into a film. I remember meeting Malcolm and just beginning a conversation that hasn’t ended for close to twenty years now. He is a great writer, someone whose work both challenges and inspires me; but most of all, he is a good friend.

What about this event are you looking forward to most?

Being in Parramatta. I remember as a young man hitching across to Sydney from Western Australia and being dropped off in Parramatta, I thought it a terrific place, welcoming and full of life. And I loved that not everyone was blonde!

I am also very much looking forward to a few whiskeys with Malcolm after the event.

Malcolm:

How present are themes of class and sport in your writing?

Class is one of the main themes in all of my novels, whether it's in the foreground or not. I think just about everyone is writing about class, even when they're not. As for sport, my novels explore characters through what we used to call 'physical culture' - that place where there is no separation between body and mind.

What do you consider the most powerful thing about writing?

Tyrants burn books and imprison or kill writers. Ask them why writing is so powerful.

What do you consider the most powerful thing about sport?

Sport can be a test of fundamental human values: courage, faith, strength of spirit, much more. What makes it powerful is that it sets up an arena, or a laboratory, in which we can see these values tested before our eyes.

Are we a nation obsessed with sport? Is western Sydney any different to the whole?

We are one of many nations obsessed with sport. For Australia, sport has always been one facet of our lives where we can step out confidently into the world and know we are the best. This is obviously important to a nation that came into being as a convict colony. Western Sydney has always been one of the great nurseries of Australian sport. What makes it interesting now is how many codes - rugby league, rugby union, football, AFL - are seeing Western Sydney as a kind of frontier that they are competing to own.

The event promo raises the question: ‘Should we teach our children to win or to live?’ Do you think this is a question many parents ask themselves?

I do, although the children who do most of the winning are the least likely to be asking how to live. It's all the others, the majority, who have a more balanced approach.

There is a lot of talk from educators about building resilience in children. Some have suggested  that learning to ‘fail gracefully’ is part of that. What do you think?

I think it’s important to learn how to fail humbly. But it’s equally important to win graciously, and I don't think enough emphasis is placed on that. Children who are used to losing will learn resilience. Children who are used to winning, who have adults praising them and sucking up to them - they're the ones who will need help.

I wanted to be a writer when...

Nothing else would satisfy.

You know you’re a writer when...

You write.

Had you met each other before this event was scheduled?

Christos and I met in the late 1990s. We have been good friends ever since. He is an inspiring man, and the most supportive fellow writer you could hope for. Whenever one of his books comes out, I think: YES!

What about this event are you looking forward to most?

People seeing what a fantastic bloke and brilliant thinker Christos is.

■ Class and Sport in Australia is on Friday, May 23 at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, 8pm-9pm. Tickets are $16.

Bookings: 8839 3399.

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