One of the joys of the Sydney Writers’ Festival is hearing from friends and complete strangers about events you’ve missed. This morning in the coffee queue an older woman, a Millers Point resident currently threatened with eviction (Millers Point residents can look down in the festival from their rear windows) was off to a session on how to kill yourself (though probably phrased less bluntly than that) but was also planning one on enjoying old age. I went in out of the sunshine into the very life affirming
This event, presided over by the genial Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press, more or less continued the launch of that publisher’s new Asia Pacific Poetry Series at Gleebooks on Saturday.
A modest crowd sat around at small tables, while, to quote the Festival web site, a line-up of 10 writers made ‘poetry sing in its many voices across languages and get a little beyond the anglosphere’.
Kyoko Yoshida from Japan kicked off with a surrealist short story from her collection Disorientalism. She said she’d never been to Australia before, but the story was set here, and featured a weird love triangle in which one participant was a kangaroo who was very good at sales.
Violet Cho read a long poem in a Karen language, followed by David Gilbert reading us his English version. It’s fascinating to hear the music of a poem before having any idea of its meaning. And Karen is very musical.
Robert Nery, a Sydneysider, read poems translated from Tagalog: crazy, dangerous street scenes filled with brand names, many immediately recognisable to a Sydney audience – capitalism makes the whole world kin, perhaps.
Elizabeth Allen, one of the two pillars on which Vagabond Press stands, represented the Anglosphere – anglophone Australia is after all part of the Asia Pacific.
Nhã Thuyên fro Vietnam was next. In introducing herself she said she was nervous (and perhaps she had a cold as well), that she was usually more human than she was right then. She read beautifully and musically in Vietnamese, and Liz Allen stepped up to the mike with an english version.
Bella Li, from Melbourne, read in a dour, uncompromising Melburnian manner.
Mabel Lee, who had been introduced by Michael Brennan as the matriarch of Chinese translation in Australia, read magisterially. ‘There must be as many women writing poetry in China as men,’ she said by way of introduction, but it’s men who get all the attention in the outside world.’ Her edition of poems by three Chinese writers, two of them women, Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian, is Number 6 in the Asia Pacific Poets Series.
Adam Aitken is too young and too mild-mannered to be called the patriarch of anything, but he brought a certain local gravitas with him. He read ‘Ala Moana’, which was published in his chapbook, Tonto’s Revenge, and is the only poem of the session that I’d read previously. Adam described it in his introduction as an anti-touristic touristic poem.
Dinah Roma read last. Her Naming the Ruins is the first book by a Philippine poet living in the Philippines to be published in Australia.
We walked out into the sunlight ‘with fragments of poems like ornaments in our hair’ (to quote a poem a student wrote for me in my brief stint as an Eng Lit tutor in a bygone era).
Usually it rains and is nasty for at least some of the Writers’ Festival. Not so far at this one.
11.30 am: David Malouf: Celebrating 80 Years
David Malouf is probably the most loved public figure in Australia. His novels are justly acclaimed. His poetry too. I was surprised to learn from Tegan Bennett Daylight, his interlocutor in this session, that the recently published A First Place is the first collection of his essays: it seems as if his writing about Brisbane and his Queensland education have been working away on the general consciousness for decades.
This was a wonderful session. Tegan Bennett Daylight mentioned in passing that she had been immersed in Malouf’s work for a couple of months in preparation, and it showed – not in any encyclopaedic knowledge but in a deep appreciation, and in a willingness to risk interpretations.
At one stage David said that in a conversation about a book, the only person who hasn’t read it is likely to be the author. Everyone else is in a position to see things that the author can’t see. (Doesn’t that just cry out for the hashtag #oftwasthoughtbutneersowellexpressed? A lot of his talk does that.) Emboldened, TBD offered her observation that all DM’s novels are about a man who finds himself removed from his usual environment, and in the new environment, seeing things freshly, discovers what it is to be. The example she gave as her test case was from Ransom. DM didn’t respond directly to her thesis, but spoke charmingly at some length about what he was trying to do with that part of the book. A little later almost apologised, saying that what he had said didn’t in any way contradict her thesis.
The conversation played out like a beautiful piece of theatrical improvisation: no one blocked, every question led somewhere interesting. A couple of times Tegan had to take a moment to process what had just been said to her, while David stayed ready to field whatever she gave him as a result. When she ventured into potentially dangerous waters and asked this eminently private author about being in love when writing one of his books, he managed with extraordinary grace to give no information about his private life while answering the question very interestingly about the book.
The session finished with David reading ‘Night Poem’ from Earth Hour (I would have asked for ‘A Green Miscellany’ or ‘Touching the Earth’), and then, most beautifully, Tegan drew our attention to David’s generosity as an interviewee, in particular his generosity to her. I hope this conversation turns up on the radio. Do listen to it.
I dashed home to walk and feed the dog and generally attend to the rest of life, then back for the next session. In the queue, we heard about a brilliant session with the writers of The Gods of Wheat Street, in which among other things they talked about how tough Jimmy McGovern had been with them when they were working on Redfern Now: ‘Make the characters bleed,’ he would say, and ‘That’s furniture, cut it out.’
4. 30 pm: Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth
This was a documentary movie by Pratibha Parmar, followed by Alice Walker, again in conversation with Caroline Baum. It went some way to explaining the awkwardness of the previous evening’s conversation: how could they talk about Alice Walker’s life and times when they knew that the next afternoon many of the people in that audience would be seeing this movie, which is nothing if not the life and times of Alice Walker? The film goes into detail about her work, her activism and how they relate to each other in a way that was frustratingly not there yesterday. Her early life, her participation in the Civil Rights movement, her relationships, the writing of her books, all were in the film, where yesterday had tiptoed around them.
The film also shed light on what I registered as a kind of serene abrasiveness. Alice Walker hasn’t been in the habit of speaking in order to be liked: I knew The Color Purple had been criticised, but had no idea what a vehement and sustained attack she had endured. And there has been plenty of nastiness in the press since then, often enough from African and African communities, about her writing about uncomfortable truths as much as about her personal life. She has been on the receiving end of some of the worst of celebrity culture, so a little wary defensiveness is more than understandable.
Also, my companion pointed out, she has fabulous clothes and has created a beautiful living, meditating and working environment for herself.
We didn’t stay for the talk, because we had to eat, catch up and walk up town for our next session. Having just been to a movie, which arguably belonged in the Film Festival rather than the Writers’ Festival, we now went to a stand-up show, which you might think belonged in the Comedy Festival.
8.30: Sandy Toksvig: My Valentine
We knew Sandi Toksvig as one of the occasional women panellists on QI. This show, she said, was her Valentine to Life. It began and ended with bits of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; we learned a little Danish which led to a surprisingly poignant pay-off; we found out that Sandy Toksvig has been on British Television for 34 years, and some of the audience vocally remembered her from a children’s show – ‘I see that some of my children have gown up,’ she said). We laughed a lot, and bought one of her books, which turns out to be a female to male cross-dresser who enlisted to fight in the Boer War.