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May 31, 2013
Walsh Bay Sydney, Big Rock on Car

Sculpture at Walsh Bay, site of the Sydney Writers Festival (photo by sosodave via Flickr, cc licence)

What do we do with our unfulfilled dreams?

At the Sydney Writers Festival, the American novelist Claire Messud spoke about her latest book, The Woman Upstairs. The protagonist, Nora, dreams of greatness as an artist, but ends up a teacher, disappointed and bitter.

This struck a chord with the other speakers at the Defining Moments session, Cate Kennedy and Georgia Blain. Kennedy is interested in how people deal with their own powerlessness, and Blain noted that she, Kennedy and Messud each wrote about characters who were very aware, but who still made bad decisions.

The implications of unfulfilled dreams differ in America and Australia. Messud talked about the American belief in agency and redemption, the conviction that if we make the right decisions we will live long, happy and healthy lives. This belief makes the consequences of failure greater than in Australia. In a culture where it’s more natural to make bad choices, people may not feel so bad when they do so.

Is there such a thing as the “human condition” when cultures are so different? In another session Michael Brissenden, who until recently was the ABC’s Washington correspondent, commented on American resistance to the state providing for health care, despite the fact that more the half the bankruptcies in the US are caused by health costs. “Health and guns,” he said. “It’s about what makes America America. They are fundamentally different from Australians.”

Perhaps guns and deficient health care are what you get when you have an absolute belief in agency and redemption.

In the Messud, Kennedy and Blain session, an audience member issued another challenge the idea of “the” human condition: the different expectations and experiences of men and women. Boys are allowed to be less nice and sociable than girls. Women are told that they can do anything and so may have a greater need to cope with disappointment. The question of service is different for women – in Messud’s novel, a male character tries to tell the bitter teacher Nora about the nobility of service.

Messud suggested that it is not wrong to speak of the human condition. While many things make us different – culture, gender, age, class – these differences are overshadowed by what we have in common. Kennedy pointed to this commonality by giving a one word definition of the human condition: “ouch!”

More from Claire Messud

Messud brought her Sydney childhood back to the city in her closing address, about that trickster, memory, which produces what Salmon Rushdie described as “imaginary homelands”. One audience member (Sokaleidoscope) summed up her address in a tweet: “Rootlessness but also possibility of multi-faceted roots. We are all far from home these days.” For more, see Josephine Rowe’s SWF Blog here.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2013 4:52 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, it sounds like a most interesting session.


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