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June 13, 2014 / Southerly

Week Two: History with my feet

by Claire Scobie

On my second visit to Thanjuvar, I interviewed the current Prince, Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, in his palace with its air of fading grandeur. I was hoping for pomp and ceremony, but he arrived in beige slacks and a pressed white shirt. He’s a modern Prince – he’s on Linked-In.

Bharatanatyam dancerAs we sat drinking chai in a dark room hung with chandeliers and portraits of his royal predecessors, he mentioned we were sitting in the original harem. I felt a frisson of excitement. My character, Palani, is based on the real Muddupalani, a royal courtesan and poet who lived in the palace in the mid-1700s. I wondered, would she have languished on a low divan or paced as she tried to find the rhythm in her bold, sexy poetry?

When I told him I was researching the history of women like her and asked whether any would have had relationships with European men, he said, unlikely. ‘Society was – and still is – very conservative.’

I chose to set The Pagoda Tree in the mid-eighteenth-century because, unlike the later Raj era, there was still the possibility of exchange between cultures. Paintings and travelogues from the Georgian period indicate that the temple dancer was a well-recognised figure in European literary and artistic circles. In part this was a reflection of her visible presence in Indian society; in part the fascination – bordering on fetishism – that European men had with the exotic.

Despite what the prince said, there are accounts of European men who had sexual liaisons with Indian women; some who had troupes of dancing girls. The English lawyer and memoirist, William Hickey, wrote with great affection about his Indian wife or bibi in his memoirs. In 1778 the East India Company directors went so far as to declare that they would give five rupees to every child of a rank soldier baptised in Madras. This policy did not last, however. From 1786, Anglo-Indians – those of mixed race – were excluded from European social and political life.

I soon realised the sensitivity and complexity of these issues: both of inter-racial relations and the status of these women in general. One journalist was contemptuous when I told him of my interest in devadasis; a Chennai academic told me of ‘the shame’ she experienced when doing interviews with their descendants.

As a journalist, I’ve been taught to dig deeper. The more resistance I face when researching a story, the more determined I am to pursue the leads. Then, as often happens, found an ally in Dr Perumal, the affable senior librarian at the Saraswati Mahal Library, in the Royal Palace. He found me somewhere to sit as I poured over dusty manuscripts; he ensured I received the hourly cup of sweet chai brought to all the workers.

Corridors of Big Temple_ThanjavurOne afternoon Dr Perumal invited me over to his desk and unfurled a yellowing eighteenth-century map of the city, pointing out where the British troops were garrisoned and the proximity to the street where the devadasis lived. Remnants of the barracks still exist next to the ‘Big Temple’. In order for the devadasis to reach the temple to perform their daily rituals, they would have had to walk past the garrison and Dr Puramel encouraged me to physically retrace their steps. He also conceded, with a wry smile, that it wasn’t out of the question that a relationship between a devadasi and a British man could have developed.

This is where I started experiencing ‘history with my feet’. I retraced the path that my main character, Maya, and her family, would have walked. I watched the nightly Bharatanatyam dance performances at the palace. These follow the tradition of the devadasis’ dance repertoire, albeit with much of the sensuality excised.

One day I found myself on the back of a bullock cart heading to an outlying village to celebrate the spring festival Pongal. The rutted road was lined with bushels of sugar cane and the rain pelted down. Later on, in a palm leafed feasting tent, I suddenly got a real sense of my character, Walter, an English reverend. I imagined him sitting there in itchy woolen breeches, uncomfortable in the dampness, uncomfortable in his skin.

The next morning one of the prince’s aides called me excitedly to say my picture was in The Hindu on page three. ‘There you are, Madam, most elegant on the back of a bullock cart.’ Not usually words I would associate, but delightful all the same. I kept a copy for my scrapbook.

Bullock Cart_Pongal_Thanjavur

I have a strong (though unsubstantiated) belief that stories have a life force of their own. The deeper you go, the more likely the right person, phrase or document, will land in your lap. Sometimes, literally. I’m sure this is because you’re more open and receptive. It’s also part of the mystery of storytelling.

After ten days in Thanjavur, I understood what the Prince meant about the conservatism of the region. I was feeling stifled. The whole time I was conscious of myself as an outsider and the cultural sensitivities I was navigating through. There was the question of authenticity, authority and the responsibility of a novelist in relation to historicalevidence. There was also a cultural acceptance of shame and a frequent denial of the devadasis having any historical agency. Yet Muddupalani, the first woman to write erotic poetry in southern India, a woman who celebrated female pleasure, showed another perspective.

In my last days there I contacted academics who specialised in the field. I was excited to hear back from Davesh Soneji, a Toronto-based scholar, who’s been studying the devadasis of Thanjavur for over a decade. In his email he described the voices of these women as ‘irretrievable’.

I remember sitting in an internet café, the sound of rickshaws and motorbikes screeching past. I remember the heat and how my legs were sticking to the cheap plastic chair. I read his words again and briefly felt a wave of panic. Irretrievable. I repeated the word to myself. Later that day I returned to the ‘Big Temple’. Walking through the stone corridors, I heard the swish of silk and the laughter of a child. And it dawned on me, for a historian, these voices may have vanished. For a novelist, it was a question of becoming quiet enough to hear.

Temple offeringsAll photos courtesty of Claire Scobie  www.clairescobie.com

Find her book ‘The Pagoda Tree’, here: http://www.booktopia.com.au/the-pagoda-tree-claire-scobie/prod9780670077335.html

June 6, 2014 / Southerly

In search of The Pagoda Tree: a four-part series

by Claire Scobie

Over the next four weeks I’m writing about the process I went through thinking, dreaming, researching and writing my novel, The Pagoda Tree (Penguin). Set in eighteenth-century India, this is largely told through the eyes of a temple dancer, or devadasi, named Maya whose life is transformed by the arrival of the British.

Henna hands_Claire Scobie

After my first book, Last Seen in Lhasa, was published I suffered from second book syndrome. As with many first-time authors, my first book, a travel memoir, was a labour of love, a story I felt compelled to write because of my years going back and forth to Tibet and my friendship with a wandering Tibetan nun.

I knew I wanted to set my next work in India and to focus on Indian women’s stories. Ever since 1997 when I lived and worked as a freelance journalist there for a year, I’ve been travelling regularly to the sub-continent. I explored several ideas; none had the juice to sustain me. Then I happened to read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Prestige but a memory for last of courtesans’. It struck a chord.

This told the story of a family of devadasis from Peddapuram, in southern Andhra Pradesh, who were taught to dance, sing and entertain the local elite rulers. It introduced nineteen-year-old Durga and her mother, Kumari, who described how women like them were once ‘heroines, stars’. Today, Peddapuram has a reputation for a flourishing sex industry. Without any patronage, these women have been forced to turn to prostitution to make a living and Durga, the last of her generation, suffers from HIV AIDS. As soon as I read this, I wanted to discover why and how these women – once esteemed artists, dancers and scholars – now face a life of apparent abjection.

Statue of devadsi_Claire ScobieInitially I planned to write a non-fiction book, exploring the historical trajectory of this figure from a celebrated holder of knowledge to sex worker. But I didn’t want to write something that would see my subjects as ultimately doomed. What interested me was that, prior to the nineteenth-century, before the Victorian social reform movement and moralising Christian missions, these high-caste women were the celebrities of their day. Through successive legislation, which forbade the generational inheritance of land or property from mother to daughter, their ancient connection to the temples was severed. In 1947, the devadasi institution was abolished. Today there are virtually no devadasis left and they have an ambiguous reputation in Indian society, where they are usually dismissed as prostitutes.

These women intrigued me because they operated between the spheres of sacredness, culture and sensuality – a common phenomenon in India but less so in Europe where sex and religion do not co-exist easily. While compared to the geishas of Japan, the devadasis have no parallel in the West and are unique to the religious and cultural life of south India.

As part of my research, I watched Michael Wood’s BBC series, The Story of India. Wood takes a journey to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, visiting the Brihadeshwara or ‘Big Temple’ built by Raja Raja the Great in the eleventh-century. Situated below the Cauvery delta, the fertile rice bowl of southern India, Thanjavur at its height, was a crucible of artistic and cultural brilliance, renown for sculpture, dance, music and poetry. After paying homage at the giant Shiva lingam, the British journalist walks through the temple courtyards and then the camera pans up to an exterior wall of a shrine, inscribed with rows of Tamil writing. Wood explains that all the names and addresses of the temple staff, including 400 dancing girls who were brought there for its inauguration in 1010, are etched there. Later that year, I went to Thanjavur to see them for myself.

Thanjavur temple_Claire ScobieAs a historian before a journalist, I loved the fact that the presence of these women is still evident today: in the inscriptions and carvings, in frescoes and sculptures. I spent time wandering around the temple, a living, breathing institution where pilgrims still flock in vermillion, lemon and mandarin saris as they did centuries ago. While there, the idea for my novel began to germinate.

I am used to following the breadcrumbs of an idea for a story. When I worked in India, I would hole up in a guesthouse with my battered laptop and research stories to see where they took me. Sometimes the leads turned out to be false, or detours came to nothing. At other times I would meet the right people at the right time and the story seemed to have a life of its own.

But there are major differences between investigating an article and a book: the amount of stuff you need to know and how long it takes to find out. I adopted a multi-pronged approach: researching online, in books and through libraries, and the ol’ journalistic trick of following my nose. When I was in Thanjavur I also made contact with a local reporter from The Hindu and through him, set up interviews. I met scholars, local historians, archivists and dancers. I also had tea with a prince, but more of that encounter next week.

I soon realised that there was a lack of source material about temple dancers. Colonial archives have been very successful at keeping the voices of native women out and curtailing their agency. Gradually I made the transition – in my head to start with, and then on paper – from non-fiction to fiction. In many ways, writing Last Seen in Lhasa which draws upon fictional techniques – creating character and a story arc – prepared me for the transition. Still, it was challenging. It’s like going from playing one or two instruments to conducting an entire orchestra.

At first I clung on to what I knew. My journalist’s training and a historian’s need for facts kicked in. As I began to sink into the process, I understood that the lack of sources allowed greater historical imagining. Then the writing process became surprisingly liberating. Fiction requires greater surrender; the unknown must become your friend. You, as the writer, need to step out of the way. Only then can the characters emerge: fleeting glimpses, a fragment, a single image on the page.

CS1 2The Pagoda Tree http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780670077335/pagoda-tree

www.clairescobie.com

@clairescobie

June 4, 2014 / Southerly

June monthly blogger – Claire Scobie!

Many thanks to Tom Lee for his excellent posts.

This month, Claire Scobie will blog for Southerly. Her bio is below.

claire scobie headshot mid-resClaire Scobie is the award-winning author of Last Seen in Lhasa and The Pagoda Tree, chosen by Good Reading magazine as one of their Best Fiction Reads 2013She has lived and worked in the UK, India and now Sydney. Claire mentors writers and runs creative writing workshops across Australia and retreats in Italy. She has appeared as a panellist on ABC TV’s First Tuesday Book Club in a travel-writing special and is a regular guest at writers’ festivals. She is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and her Tibet memoir won the 2007 Dolman Best Travel Book Award, the only UK travel-writing prize. Claire writes for numerous publications, including London’s Daily Telegraph, DestinasianSunday Life and contributes to the Sydney Morning Herald. In 2013 she completed a Doctor of Creative Arts at the University of Western Sydney. www.clairescobie.com 

May 31, 2014 / Southerly

The Gerald M. School for The Improved Reliving of Personal Memories

A fictional interview, by Tom Lee

It was in August this year that I first heard about the Gerald M. School for The Improved Reliving of Personal Memories. M. had been a favourite author of mine for a number of years, so when I discovered the school on an Internet search I was intrigued.

The ‘About’ section on the school’s website discusses the genesis of the idea. Apparently M. learnt of a design project (http://www.materialisingmemories.com/) aiming to create strategies to assist in the navigation of the vast amount of digital images that people take in order to capture a moment, but which can actually have an adverse effect on the experience of remembering, potentially making it less immersive, less vivid and less dynamic.

M. was so inspired by the idea that he vowed to give up writing books and retreat to country Victoria and begin to build a school. He purchased a deserted monastic site and started reading up on contemporary architecture. M.’s plan was to create a series of enclosed spaces in the open terrain where students would go to practice the art of remembering in a manner comparable to the narrators of his prose fiction.

I asked my boss whether she thought there was a story in this for the Manly Daily, and after some convincing I found myself heading south to visit and interview M. in his school. The account below is composed from my short (one week) stay at the school and an interview with M. that I conducted through a gauze partition in a structure remarkably reminiscent of a confession box.

TL 4 1Within the confines of the school M. makes himself scarce. He is presence is largely sonic. Students can plug themselves into a listening station at various points around the site to receive advice on the routines they should adopt in the reliving of their memories. After receiving such advice students then retreat into any one of a number of igloo-like structures made from what looks like translucent netting. The structures have two interiors. The first is what M. describes as the “gloaming-sphere”, which is always filled a hazy light reminiscent of dusk. When pressed about his reasoning for this M. suggested that in a sense, “all our memories take place within a kind of dusk”. The second interior is completely black and features a soft, grass-like floor prefect for lying down in.

During my short stay in the school, I discovered that M. was unhappy with certain connotations of the word ‘memory’. He suggested that memory and the imagination are best understood as part of the same process: there is no memory without the imagination and no imagination without memory.

“We are wrongheaded”, he said to me while walking through the outer interior of one the humpies, “in treating memory and imagination as distinct entities, even though for some abstract purposes it might make sense to distinguish them.”

He continued, “If it wasn’t so esoteric, I would have used the term ‘mental entities’ in place of ‘personal memories’ in the name of the school: The School for The Improved Reliving of Mental Entities. I might have also dropped the word ‘reliving’ and replaced it with ‘cultivation’ because students here aren’t simply reliving things; they are always training themselves to exist in the other places folded into their mental entities. But to some extent one needs adopt the vernacular of the era, at least this is what I’ve come to understand with the help of my publicist. We try to change the attitude of students once they are through the gates”.

One of the many simple routines for cultivating mental entities begins with the question: Have you ever lost a camera? The idea is that participants begin with images they have lost, or can’t otherwise access, but which still have a sense of cohesiveness and vivacity in their memory. I recalled various disposable cameras that I never got developed, and one camera that was stolen from me during my first trip overseas after finishing high school. Despite never having the chance to review these images in digital or printed form, I still had memories of what some of the photographs might have looked like, as though in the mere event of taking the photograph something was preserved, even though the material substrate for the photograph never manifested. The image was a row of leafless trees that bordered a series of grass sporting fields, the sky was grey, with brown, yellow and green being the other dominant colours. The atmosphere was moist and cold, and the mood adventurous, naïve, hopeful and melancholic.

M. told me that this was one of the more successful routines adopted by the school, and they had developed into a series of other practices, one of which involved a students taking a series of photos on an analogue camera and then devising an elaborate, virtual or material container for the camera. After putting the camera away in the virtual or material container the students then began a weeklong series of writing exercises devoted to the unseen images.

“Often the descriptions of the images are strikingly limited and vague,” said M., “Your image of leafless trees bordering a field is exemplary in this sense.”

“However”, M. continued, “the vagueness and simplicity doesn’t make the images any less important to the people who take, or rather, house them, as I prefer to say.”

TL 4 2Democracy Street, The Main Playing Field [Blog Post]

In M.’s view photography and fiction writing both demand a different style of reasoning to what is commonly adopted.

“People often don’t think about why they are taking photos, at least not in the sense that I want them to. They don’t think about the lives their images will lead, what material or virtual structures might house or frame them. What we aim to teach our students is that before they take an image they have already imagined a system of interior spaces in which the image is centrally located. I suggest that they need to think of themselves as opening doors or lids or drawers in order to get to the image they are thinking about taking. ”

One student M. mentioned had wrapped a camera in ten rolls of masking tape, each cut to a length of ten centimetres. What’s the point? According to M., ideally the repeated physical activities of wrapping and sticking would have an effect on the relationship between the subject and the concealed images.

“With any luck there’s a feedback effect between the physical ritual and the memory of the image such that the image is preserved in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible,” remarked M., “Wrapping the camera has a reciprocal effect on the way the image is regarded internally. These kinds of practices tend to be completely absent in digital archives or in the relatively arbitrary, chronological ordering systems into which we log our digital memories.”

The tabernacle is an excellent example of the kind of structures M. hopes his students are creating.

“The tabernacle has always been something of a ideal form for me. It’s a dwelling place for a divine presence. A mental entity is more or less a secular interpretation of a divine presence. Elsewhere I’ve hinted at mental entities being comparable to ‘soul mates’—forgetting the exclusively anthropocentric connotations of that term. You might even describe this school as a school of virtual tabernacle design for non-religious divinities. But my publicist would certainly advise me against that.”

TL 4 3Custom Made, The Cenacle Tabernacle.

The rest of this article will be made available at some stage in the near future on my blog or in a book…

May 23, 2014 / Southerly

The architecture of grass

by Tom Lee

In Bill Gammage’s remarkable book on the land care practices of the first Australians, The Biggest Estate on Earth,‘grass’ is among the most frequently indexed words. It’s up there with ‘Europeans’, ‘animals’, and ‘forest’. In the ‘grass’ entry in the index the reader is told to see also “clearings; fire; grass names; plains”, and the subcategories include: introduced, native, beside water, corridors (see also belts, paths), and on good soil. The word’s semantic reach includes more than half the book. Why is this word so central to Gammage’s thesis? Because the first Australians were experts at caring for land that was a subtly designed mosaic of grass and forest. As Gammage systematically argues in the first part of the book, earlier settlers frequently described the landscape they confronted as “park-like”, in the sense that it combined seemingly purposeful arrangements of open and closed spaces, albeit with no groundskeepers’ cottages. In the descriptions of the early colonists that Gammage cites, grassland and forest were said to merge such that fields of grass would grow amongst sparse woodland, without the dense undergrowth common to scrublands and bush.

TL 3 1Unsurprisingly the kinds of grassy landscapes Gammage describes tend not to go together with the probable living spaces of modern Australians, especially those who live in cities. I’m reminded of this fact whenever I walk past Prince Alfred Park on Cleveland Street and admire the “Indigenous Grassland”, implemented as part of the City of Sydney Urban Ecology Strategic Action Plan.  It’s a particularly favoured vantage of mine across the city, with the silhouettes of the skyscrapers in the distance foregrounded by the park and what is usually a pleasing variety of outdoor sporting activities, including tennis, basketball, soccer, Frisbee and the more esoteric exercise routines adopted by those on the outdoor gyms.

Looking across at the city from this spot, I realised some time ago how resoundingly unfamiliar it was to see the iconic skyline of a modern city in the proximity of messy, lank grass—especially the motley, almost fleshy coloured reddy-green-pale yellow mass of kangaroo grass here. From the right perspective the kangaroo grass forms its own silhouette against the sky, and it’s easy to imagine that its tall stems would be a CDB of sorts to an insect.

Lawns are the kind of grass I expect to find in modern cities, characterised by homogeneity of colour, blade length and species. And while lawns no doubt offer far less to bugs and critters, I do have a soft spot for them also, perhaps not to the extent that would justify their current abundance.

Lawns seem the product of a highly regulated, geometric understanding of space, with definite edges, evenness and flatness prioritised. Lawns don’t hide anything. They facilitate the symmetry required for games. The messy kangaroo grass in Prince Alfred Park does not belong to the same spatial paradigm. Indeed such messiness is antagonistic to the smooth space of lawns. I’m tempted to assert here that one grassy paradigm belongs to a topographical understanding of space and the other a topological. What I mean by this distinction is that one model is about bringing a certain area under control through mapping, whereas the other is about interrelational possibilities of different spaces and shapes. The plastic systems of burrows supported by tall grass isn’t the kind of environment suited to topographical mapping, where everything is either an inside or an outside, not both at the same time.

In 2012 I touched on the subject of grass in a paper I wrote for the first issue of the Environmental humanities Journal. I quoted from a poem by Martin Harrison titled “A Patch of Grass”, in which the poet focuses on a “Small patch of earth” and from that seemingly humble demarcation of space strings together a cascade of glimpses, directed both outward and inward, such that at the poem’s conclusion there is a sense of having learnt something, albeit difficult to articulate, about the way perception works as part of a broader ecology. Harrison’s patch of grass is a buzzing, networked space that appears to deepen as the poet looks into it, telling stories of the longer journeys that have led to particular arrangements of rock, slope and species. It certainly suggests a topological rather than topographical understanding of space, as different surfaces and observations seem to curl and deform into each other, in a manner not unlike the Mobius strip, which is an emblem of topological thought.

Grass can seem like chaos or noise, and even the perceptual lie of perfect flatness, as seen in golf greens and cricket pitches, hides a buzzing profusion of networked layers that offered the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari a perfect alternative to the organized, hierarchical form of the tree. Here I’m also reminded of that classic scene toward the beginning of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where the camera zooms into the vague, darkened, mulchy disarray of what previously seemed to be a perfectly kempt suburban front lawn. All the while the fuzzy, granular spray of the garden hose augments the move away from clear and distinct perception witnessed in the visuals with a similar sense of impossible to differentiate multiplicity and the feeling of being overwhelmed that sometimes goes with it.

While previously grass in the tradition of European landscape gardening has perhaps been associated exclusively with horizontal space, the trend now seems at least in part to be tending towards the vertical, with grass walls not an uncommon feature of green architecture. But in a sense this is simply the flatlands of horizontal grass reappropriated on another dimension.

Grass is something of a formless form, and this is perhaps why in Gammage’s index we see it shaped into corridors, belts and paths. Unlike trees that seem to have a slightly more hardened form, grass flows, sprays and bends in a chaos of directions that warrant comparison with liquid, as the expression ‘sea of grass’ attests. Perhaps tall fields of grass would have also provided Leibniz with a good analogy for the microperceptions he described as crowding in on the edges of clear and distinct consciousness (Deleuze 1993, 86). His ‘go to’ example was the noise of the ocean, in which one can hear lots of sounds going together without being able to distinguish them as such. The same goes for a field of grass, we know it is composed of many stems and blades, but we have no hope of perceiving each of those blades in a clear and distinct fashion. Instead we view the grass as a fuzzy mass.

Readers please include references to other grass poems in the comments if you know of any, would be most grateful.

List of works cited

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and The Baroque. Trans. Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Gammage, Bill. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011.

Harrison, Martin. Wild Bees: New and Selected Poems. Crawley: Western Australia, 2008.

May 21, 2014 / Southerly

Southerly wants your Speculative Fiction!

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May 20, 2014 / Southerly

An Open Letter on the Future of Arts Funding

Below is an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Minister for Arts George Brandis, in protest against the cuts to arts funding in the most recent budget. This has been published in the Guardian, Meanjin and Overland, among others. If you would like to sign the letter, please comment on the Meanijn site, so your name can be added to a letter sent to parliament.

The Southerly editorial team.

Rust 1

Dear Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Minister for Arts George Brandis,

We view with dismay the many proposed changes to health, education and welfare support announced in the 2014 budget, and fear that the consequences these changes are likely to have will be dire for our most vulnerable citizens: the young, the elderly, the disadvantaged and Indigenous Australians.

We also strongly object to the reduction in arts funding, specifically the Australia Council’s loss of $28.2 million (not to mention the attack on Australian screen culture with cuts of $38 million to Screen Australia’s budget and a massive $120 million cut from the ABC and SBS over the coming four years). This decrease in federal support will be devastating to those who make art of any kind in this country, and many important works, works that would inform national debate and expand the horizons of Australia and its citizens, will simply never be made. Ultimately, these cuts will impoverish Australian culture and society.

Cutting the support the Australia Council offers will mean the loss of libraries, galleries, museums, concerts, regional tours, writing centres, and community and regional arts centres. In 2009, 11 million people visited an art gallery. To give that number context, it’s more people than went to the AFL and NRL combined. Those numbers tell us what many already know: that art is as crucial a part of our national identity as sport. Australians are passionate about creating, attending, consuming and investing in art.

The sector is “central to the social life of Australians”, as last year’s Creative Australia policy noted, and “an increasingly important part of the economic mainstream”. Following two comprehensive government reviews and a long process of consultation, the Creative Australia policy had promised to invest an additional $200 million in the sector; there is no mention of this additional funding in the current budget.

Importantly, the arts sector is one of the largest employers in the country. “In 2011, cultural industries directly employed 531,000 people, and indirectly generated a further 3.7million jobs,” critic and writer Alison Croggon recently observed. “Copyright industries were worth $93.2 billion to the Australian economy in 2007, with exports worth more than $500 million.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that in 2008–9, the arts contributed $86 billion to the Australian GDP – that is, 7% – $13 billion of which flowed directly from our field, literature and print media.

It is worth noting that the mining sector only provides $121 billion to the GDP, and employs fewer workers (187,400 directly, 599,680 indirectly), yet receives far more government financial support at federal and state levels.

Government support of the arts is vital to civic participation, as well as employment, innovation, growth, education, health, trade and tourism. The arts, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found in 2011, help build a “socially inclusive society”, one that makes people feel of value, and encourages greater participation in employment, education, training and volunteering.

Australia has a long history of valuing the arts and supporting its artists and writers. The Commonwealth Literary Fund was first started in 1908 and eventually became the Literature Board, before moving to the auspices of the Australia Council. The $200 million in grants the Australia Council as a whole currently bestows enables large organisations, such as the Australian Ballet, to put on annual programs, but also allows regional companies such as Back to Back Theatre or Bangarra Dance Theatre to tour internationally. It helps decades-old publications continue to foster a love of literature, finding and supporting new writers who will become tomorrow’s great Australian authors.

The loss of funding indicated in the 2014 budget will devastate these smaller organisations and practitioners, robbing Australia of a whole generation of artists, writers, publishers, editors, theatre makers, actors, dancers and thinkers. Crucially, it will deprive people, particularly in rural and regional areas and in remote communities, of the opportunity to create, educate, learn and collaborate. These proposed funding cuts endanger us intellectually, artistically and severely damage our reputation internationally. Moreover, we fear the prospect of a world of culture and art that is unaffordable to the majority of Australians.

You have an opportunity now to restore and increase funding to the arts. We ask you that you don’t devalue our artists or their work, and instead recognise what art offers Australia.

We look forward to your response.

Zora Sanders, Meanjin

Jacinda Woodhead, Overland

Alex Miller, author

Alexis Wright, author

Anna Funder, author

Christos Tsiolkas, author

JM Coetzee, author

Sonya Hartnett, author

Chloe Hooper, writer

Don Watson, writer

Hannah Kent, author

Shaun Tan, author and illustrator

Garth Nix, author

Peter Temple, writer

Sally Rippin, author and illustrator

Andy Griffiths, author

Kim Scott, author

Alison Croggon, writer and critic

Daniel Keene, playwright

Robert Drewe, author

Kirsten Tranter, author

Fiona Capp, author

Tony Birch, writer

Michelle de Kretser, author

Larissa Behrendt, writer

Lisa Dempster, Melbourne Writers Festival

Jennifer Mills, author, fiction editor Overland

Martine Murray, author

Andrea Goldsmith, author

Emeritus Professor John McLaren AM, author

Marion Halligan AM, author

Dr Jessica Wilkinson, poet, academic and editor

Ivor Indyk, Giramondo Publishing, UWS

Evelyn Juers, author

Peter Rose, Australian Book Review

Professor Gail Jones, author

Dr Jeff Sparrow, Overland

Favel Parrett, author

Dr Benjamin Law, author

Dr Maria Tumarkin, author

Matthew Lamb, Island

Sam Cooney, The Lifted Brow

Rjurik Davidson, writer and editor

Amy Middleton, Archer Magazine

Alice Grundy, Seizure

Elizabeth McMahon, Southerly

Tessa Lunney, Southerly

David Brooks, Southerly

Geoff Lemon, Going Down Swinging

Robert Skinner, The Canary Press

Alex Skutenko, Overland

Lesley Halm, Island

Dr Peter Minter, Overland

Dr Kate Fagan, author and musician

Susan Hornbeck, Griffith REVIEW

Geordie Williamson, Island

Kent MacCarter, Cordite Poetry Review

Josephine Rowe, author

Richard Watts, writer and broadcaster

Angela Meyer, author and literary journalist

Delia Falconer, author

Connor Tomas O’Brien, Tomely

Van Badham, writer

Melissa Keil, author and editor

Professor John Kinsella, poet and writer

Gideon Haigh, journalist

Dr Tom Cho, author

Judith Beveridge, Meanjin

Kalinda Ashton, author

Simon Mitchell, author

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