Mark’s Say: July, 2021
If you’ve been to a literary event in Melbourne, chances are you’ve come across Antoni Jach. Softly spoken, always enquiring, he is often seen intensely listening to the speaker and then afterwards in animated conversation. An artist, novelist and playwright, he’s the author of three published novels, but he’s best known as a teacher and mentor to many writers since he started teaching writing at RMIT in 1986; in 1988, with Ann Richter, he set up RMIT’s renowned Professional Writing and Editing course. Writers he has helped include Alexis Wright, Sofie Laguna, Sally Rippin and Carrie Tiffany.
In 2011, he decided to leave RMIT to run his own novel writing masterclasses and since then, he’s run over 192 of them. It’s quite likely that you’ve read one of the books that were workshopped in those masterclasses: Emily Bitto’s Stella Prize-winner The Strays, Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker and Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright. Antoni will help any style of writer shape their work, although his own work is unashamedly literary and has a strong European sensibility. Antoni has been peripatetic especially in his earlier life and he dropped by a week ago to show me his new book, Travelling Companions, which comes out in September through Transit Lounge. It’s a collection of tales told by travelers during chance encounters – ‘a bit like the One Thousand and One Nights,’ Antoni told me. ‘You can dip in and out of it – you could start with this,’ he said and pointed to the chapter entitled ‘The Nihilistic Capitalist and the Young Revolutionaries’. I’m not young I thought, so maybe he means the other. It wasn’t about a bookseller, but about a French businessman who by pure chance falls in with a Maoist-Marxist-Leninist cell. Antoni’s writing is very clever and very funny. Antoni very kindly gave me six copies to give away to our readers, so please email me if you would like one.
In Melbourne, the prospect of a lockdown hangs constantly over your head. After three lockdowns you’d think you’d get used to it, but I don’t think you do. During the more recent lockdown in June, we lost most of our customers for two weeks, people’s holiday plans were dashed, and the Australian Booksellers Association’s (ABA) annual conference moved online – a shame for ABA CEO Robbie Egan and his team, but a credit to them that they persevered. Tony Birch gave the conference’s keynote address. Growing up in working class Fitzroy, books were a luxury his family could never afford but stories and storytelling remained an integral part of family life. He discovered libraries, a place where they trusted a cheeky kid to take a book and bring it back. Later he discovered bookshops which became temples of discovery to him. It was where he found Island by Alistair MacLeod, a book of stories about the Scottish diaspora in Canada that spoke directly to him about the universality of the human experience.
I thought of Tony’s speech when I heard the sad news that former journalist Corrie Perkin’s Hawksburn bookshop, My Bookshop, is closing down, a victim of COVID-19 and rising rents. Bookshops, Tony said, are precious things and we should treasure them. Don’t forget that!