Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Weekend

The weather turned on its traditional gorgeousness for the Festival’s weekend. A number of speakers drew attention to the way the sun made itself known – submitting audiences to a third degree, or blinding panellists to the obvious. There’s something exhilarating about being part of a sunlit crowd of book-lovers.

I spent Saturday with the Art Student. We did non-literary things in the morning – walked the dog, bought food, hung out the washing, then caught the train to town in time for:

1.30–2.30: Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know
Zia Haider Rahman is a youngish Englishman of south-Asian heritage who has written what sounds like a brilliant first novel. He spoke with an Oxford drawl, which sat oddly with his account of growing up in poverty. He explained: ‘This accent is completely phony, but it’s the only one I’ve got. I spent hours listening to tapes of BBC announcers and imitating the accents because I understood very young that if you want to make your way in England, trivial things like accents matter hugely.’

Louise Adler was an excellent interlocutor, mainly because of her unabashed enthusiasm for Zia’s novel, In the Light of What We Know. There was a lot of tiptoeing around certain plot points, so I may not know what was being said in a good deal of the conversation until I’ve read the book. There was also a lot of tiptoeing around things Zia wanted to say about the British literary scene – Louise encouraged him to be explicit (‘This is Australia. We can deal with bluntness.’), but he remained vaguely and tactfully disparaging.

I said this was his first novel. But maybe not. He said that he’s been writing all his life, but not with any intention of being published. Partly this is because his ideal readers were his parents, neither of whom would ever read his books, published or not. When his father was dying he had a copy of In the Light of What We Know on his bedside table, and would touch it proudly, but he was past being able to read it. And he has written a short comic novel in the last couple of months, which can’t be published because it would bring on at least five law suits.

3–4 pm: Back to the Wild
This session had an extraordinary collection of writers: lugubrious, droll Don Watson, whose The Bush sounds like compulsory reading; measured, scholarly British falconer Helen Macdonald, whose H is for Hawk has won all sorts of awards; and Leigh Ann Henion from the USA, travel writer turned nature-evangelist whose manner ranged from rhapsodic to over the top. Richard Glover in the chair made it look easy to keep the conversation on even keel – helped by the fact that the three panellists were manifestly interested in each other. While Henion whooped it up for a sense of wonder at the awesomeness of the natural world, Macdonald spoke of her connection to a particular bird and how a scientific understanding deepened her connection to nature more broadly, and Watson was full of rich anecdotes of things he had seen in the bush.

One fabulous fact has stayed with me: according to recent research, some parrots are given names when they are chicks – that is, they are known by a distinctive pattern of clicks – and this ‘name’ stays with them all their life.

In question time, an audience member observed that we are currently approaching a possible environmental disaster, and asked if these writers’ books included calls to action. Henion said her call was to rekindle our sense of wonder. The questioner, in a slightly driven manner, said, ‘But unless we take action there won’t be any nature for us to wonder at.’ Richard Glover, bless him, pointed out that Henion was actually answering the question, and Henion made the point that to reclaim a respectful connection with the natural environment is a significant action in a time when many children in the West have never seen a horizon line, and many adults haven’t seen one for a long time: if we could ensure that our political leaders each had such a connection, things would change.

4.30–5.30: The Secret State
This was another disparate panel that worked remarkably well. Nick Davies, Guardian journalist who played a central role in bringing the Murdoch press’s crimes to light in Britain and worked with Ed Snowden’s disclosures, Michael Mori, who was David Hicks’s legal representative and whom the other speakers addressed as ‘Dan’, and George Williams, a constitutional lawyer from UNSW, were wrangled by Monica Attard, distinguished ABC journalist, in a discussion of surveillance and state secrecy.

These guys all know their onions. Surprisingly, the star of the event was George Williams. Balding, bespectacled and with a slightly pedantic manner, sitting between Mr Cool from the Guardian and Mr Fight-the-Power from the US Marines, he was the one who gave us hard facts about legislation that has been passing almost unnoticed through the Australian Parliament over the last few years, using the threat of terrorism as a pretext to extend government power and curtail people’s rights. It’s not that there’s a conspiracy, he explained: politicians on both sides dread being held accountable for some future atrocity, and so they wave through any measure that is put up by the security forces. Because the measures become law without debate, the press pays little or no attention, and so we now have laws on the books that could send someone to gaol for two years for praising Nelson Mandela in his freedom-fighting days.

Sixty percent of Australians, George told us, believe that we have a Bill of Rights (we don’t). A similar percentage said they were confident that they couldn’t be wrongfully found guilty of an offence, because they could always take the fifth: that is, most Australians form their mental models of how the law works from US TV shows.

It was a chilling panel, that came interestingly alive in a different way right at the end. Nick Davies mentioned that David Kilkullen, author of the current Quarterly Essay, was at the Festival, and said he was hoping to talk to him about ISIS. Mori’s affable poise fell away for a moment and he said, ‘He wants us to do more bombing.’  Someone from the audience shouted, ‘That’s not fair!’  And we were suddenly in a spontaneous, heated argument about whether it was arrogant for the US and its allies to move in on Iraq and Syria believing we could resolve the situation (Mori) or whether failure to intervene was immoral, and based on a mindless assumption that because it was a mistake to invade Iraq once it would be a mistake now (Davies). We were out of time, and Monica Attard, who had done a brilliant job up to that point, continued her brilliance, saying something like, ‘And that’s all we have time for.’ Applause. Animated conversations about ASIO files overheard on the exit stairs.

We went to the bookshop, to a tapas bar where we celebrated a friend’s birthday, and then home through Vivid once more.

I only went to one thing on Sunday:

10–11 am: Her Body, Her Choice?
This was my first all-woman panel – most of the panels I attended had three men and one woman, the woman being in the chair for two of them.

Once again, the title didn’t reflect the content of the panel with any precision. It was a discussion about the situation of women, mostly in the non-Western world, between Ayu Utami (from Indonesia), Leila Yusaf Chung (a Sydney woman who was born in Lebanon and is still deeply engaged with the plight of Palestinian refugees), and Xinran (a Chinese journalist who has been living in England for 18 years and writes over her personal name only, because non–Chinese speakers reliably mispronounce it).

(Digression: Jane Park from Sydney University, who chaired the event with charm and intelligence, said something at the start about all the women speaking several languages. Ayu Utami said, ‘I only speak Indonesian.’  No one commented on the fact that she said that, and went on to say a lot more, in perfect English: it’s as if, from one perspective, English is no longer a language like other languages.)

Jane Park asked if they thought of themselves as feminists – because, as she said, feminism has been critiqued as a western phenomenon. Ayu said she was a feminist before she encountered the theory: as a young girl she observed that the ‘killer teachers’ (that is, teachers who were particularly harsh) were all ‘old virgins’ – that is, unmarried women as distinct from nuns, who were in a different social category. Her realisation then that unmarried women were treated badly by the society and took it out on their students was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to women. Leila said she had been a feminist all her life. History, she said, was not only written by the victors, but almost entirely without acknowledging the central, vital contribution that women have made to every society in every era (she said this much more beautifully than I can reproduce). Xinran brought a whole different perspective: as a child of Mao’s China from an urban location she grew up with the knowledge that women hold up half the sky (rural China, she said, lags hundreds of years behind the cities in many respects, and women there are lucky to hold up any sky at all); it took her years in England to respond to small courtesies from a man to a woman as anything other than arrogant tokens of superiorities. Her feminism, she realised, had a harshness to it, that cut her off from being a woman.

There was a lot more to the panel – I hope a podcast turns up.

And that was it for me.

The Art Student went with a friend to a session in the afternoon: The Cold War on Sex. She came home enraged. Evidently a mutually respectful difference of opinion between Kooshyar Karimi, who has written about his mother’s oppressive experience of the veil in Iran, and Sahar Amer, who was defending Muslim women’s choice to wear the veil, was in effect shouted down by Dennis Altman, the participant chair, who declared that he was completely intolerant of an argument that Sahar Amer was putting. Young women from the audience called on him to let her speak. The Art Student said she would never go to another event that Altman was chairing.

My mind is still buzzing from those few days, and even though we were very restrained in Gleebooks I’ve got some tempting new books beside the bed. And sessions I missed are already turning up on the ABC Books and Arts podcast. I’m looking forward to more from the Writers Festival’s own podcast. But for now, it’s back to life as she is lived.

[Added later: Helen Macdonald gave the  Festival’s closing address. It’s available on podcast.]

10 responses to “Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Weekend

  1. Libby Gleeson

    Many thanks Jonathan. For various reasons I went to nothing this year – book to write, elderly mother in residence – and now I have a sense of what I missed. Thank God for podcasts! Libby

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  2. Hi Libby! Glad to be of service. As I was waiting for the Sunday morning session, I was passed by a woman with a small child, and then another, and soon a flood of small children talking excitedly about Andy Griffiths and other names I didn’t recognise, and then a human sized Grug! I realised there was a whole other Festival apart from teh one I was seeing.

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  3. Thanks for filling me in on the sessions I missed, Jonathan. I saw Rahman on Friday in On Home and Exile and wished I had been able to go to his conversation with Louise Adler. So thank you for your impressions.

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    • I’m only sorry my impressions were so brief, Karen. They had a great time with each other: she kept asking probing personal questions that he pretended to be unwilling to answer, at least my impression was that he was pretending, but really enjoying the play of it. It sounds like a very interesting book

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      • I’m going to buy his book locally. The line in the bookshop was ridiculously long. I blogged about my session with him if you’re interested.

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      • I just read your blog entry, and commented. I can see how he would have caught your attention. The difficulty with so many panels is that none of the speakers has enough space to fully gain the audience’s attention. Well, he got yours!

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  4. Thanks Jonathan. I’m in the wilds of Alaska (well just out of Chicken – look it up – gold-mining – and through Tok – pron. “toque” in the way US speakers almost totally do not have our “o” of “o”n/”o”ff vowel sound – always lengthened to the “oa” of g”oa”t/b”oa”t – to Fairbanks this afternoon – stopping briefly in North Pole (for heaven’s sake) – and Santa’s shop! Huge money-spinner!

    So good to read your thoughts on the Writers’ Festival. Some books read already – but others I will seek out upon my return somewhere post mid-year – after this odyssey around North America. Just two days ago I was in Jack London’s memorial in Dawson City – in the Yukon – and the next day someone read Robert Service’s: “The Cremation of Sam McGee” – a ballad out of Dawson City time, too. And in Chicken – my wife punched an autobiographical book written by teacher Tisha PURDY on her year in Chicken in 1939 – where she severely offended sensibilities by deigning to treat the First Nations children equally with the others sent along to the school to which the community had invited her to be the teacher. A true hero!

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  5. My wife did NOT punch that book (auto-correct got me again) – she purchased the book – for my imminent 66th!

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    • I did ponder that, Jim, and wondered if it was autocorrect for ‘pinched’, which would have given a raffish air to your travel stories. Happy imminent birthday!

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