Just two events on the last day, both being read to.
10 am The Big Read
The Emerging Artist and I have been saddened to watch the Big Read shrink over the years from ninety minutes to an hour, and take place in ever smaller venues, in spite of being dependably booked out. The organisers seem determined to wean us of the pleasure of being read to. This year, as if being prepared for the axe, the Big Read moved to early Sunday morning. What’s more, Annette Shun Wah has disappeared from the hosting chair. Still, the show did go on, the Philharmonia Studio was packed, and Patrick Abboud had plenty of charm as rookie MC.
Desi Anwar kicked off with a reading from her collection of newspaper columns, Being Indonesian. The piece she read was a light essay on the terrible traffic in her home town, Jakarta. She set it up by saying how beautiful Sydney was by comparison, but it wasn’t hard to find parallels.
Anuk Arudpragasam (a strikingly young man initially from Sri Lanka, now based in New York) read from The Story of a Brief Marriage a gruelling account of experiencing shellfire near the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Patrick Abboud invited members of the audience to say how the reading made them feel. One woman redeemed the mistake by speaking eloquently about how Australia’s current immigration policy penalises people who seek asylum here having escaped from the kind of experience we’d just heard.
Natalie Haynes (from England) read from The Children of Jocasta. ‘I’m very funny in person,’ she said by way in introduction, ‘but there aren’t many laughs in this book.’ She did explain that the reading included an extremely recondite joke about Linear B. The book tells the Oedipus story, from Jocasta’s point of view, and it certainly starts out grimly, though compellingly written.
The tremendously charismatic Witi Ihimaera read from his childhood memoir Maori Boy, a charming passage about his grandmother’s benign interventions on his first days at Pakeha school. He invited us all to join him in reciting a couple of nursery rhymes that were part of his story, and he ended with a beautiful song in Maori ‘for all grandmothers’.
In the end, though I still lament the smaller venue and shorter time, the greater intimacy allowed for some interesting audience engagement.
Then a big gap including lunch and some time at home, before:
4.30 Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy
When I booked for this session, Carol Ann Duffy was advertised as speaking with Sarah Kanowski. What we got was arguably better: a little more than 50 minutes of Carol Ann reading her poetry.
She started out with the two poems she had read at the first event I attended, and it was a little unnerving that she introduced them with the identical patter, including the vacant stare offstage when she told us that Tiresias was punished by the gods by being turned into a woman. Clearly she has done this gig a thousand times before, and Mrs Tiresias’ and ‘Mrs Aesop’ are reliable ice-breakers. She followed them up with ‘Mrs Faust’, which she said she will rename ‘The Third Mrs Trump’ for the next edition of The World’s Wife.
Then it got serious, with a series of poems from her book Rapture, each poem representing a moment in a relationship.
Ms Duffy is the Poet Laureate of the UK, and most of the poems she read in the remainder of the session were very UK-specific: ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’ (a response to having one of her poems banned because of an examination invigilator; a protest about a directive from the UK Post Office not to name Counties on envelope addresses; a response to the inquest findings about the Hillsborough Inquest. I suppose its reasonable to assume that an Australian audience will recognise these references – we are after all a former colony. But it did rankle a little: I mean, do we really care how people in the UK address their letters? and I’d love to know how many people felt the need to Google Hillsborough after the event.
All the same, when she read the poem ‘Prayer’, dedicating it to her home town of Manchester. all was forgiven.
And my Festival was over. The theme of ‘Refuge’ didn’t have much bearing on my experience. Of all the fellow-punters I talked to, none had been to the same events as I had, so I don’t think I can comment on the festival as a whole. I missed the PEN chairs, which in past years have sat empty at the edge of the stage representing a writer in prison somewhere in the world. I wish the Acknowledgements of Country had happened more consistently, and that chairs from abroad or out of Sydney had been encouraged to learn to pronounce ‘Gadigal’ and ‘Eora’. I would prefer overseas guests to be interviewed or moderated by locals so the audience isn’t left eavesdropping on people who don’t necessarily share our concerns. I hope the festival can stay at Walsh Bay. I’ve come away with a list of books to read, and look forward to listening over the next year to more than a hundred podcasts of sessions I missed.
Witi is a wonderful writer and performer. I’m glad you had a chance to see him. He gave a marvellous session at a writing workshop I attended years ago and I’ve never forgotten it.
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Yes, M-H, he ‘s wonderful. In fact, he fleshed out the thing Hisham Matar had said earlier, that being your authentic self is the best kind of activism. The content of his reading was about the damage to Maori culture done by colonialist education. But he didn’t protest, or use words like colonisation, just joyfully and humorously, not aggressively or defensively, told small stories of his grandmother inoculating him by some shrewd questions after his first days at school
Jonathan: I can’t find better reviews of the WF anywhere. Thanks so very much for your dedication – not only to listening so well – but for your always intelligent commentary! Especially for those of us outside Sydney.
You’re very kind, Jim. Thanks
I’ll second Jim’s comment. I nominate JS for the job of official blogger for the festival next year!
I feel a bit discombobulated to hear that the PEN chairs are gone and that Acknowledgement of Country was a bit shabby. Not good enough SWF!
Wouldn’t that be a dream job, to be paid to go to the Festival and blog. But then who would fee the dog?
Only a little bit shabby, Lisa, but it is a bit of a worry that most of the ‘international’ moderators, at least the ones that I saw, didn’t acknowledge country – I don’t think it would be unreasonable for them to do it. And maybe the PEN chairs were judged to be tokenistic. Certainly I couldn’t swear that I remembered the names of any of the writers whose stories were read out. But I think it’s a good practice anyhow.
Well, I’m a member of PEN and it’s my view that if raising consciousness at festivals results in just a few people joining PEN and becoming active, it can make an enormous difference to writers in custody around the world. But even if it just makes people feel a bit uncomfortable and encourages them to take a bit of notice of how things are in the rest of the not-so-comfortable world, then that’s a good thing too.
As it happens, I’ve just written two PEN letters today, one to the Turkish government over their arrest of Cumhuriyet daily web editor Oğuz Güven, bringing the number of Cumhuriyet staff currently jailed pending trial to 13, and one to Uganda where Dr. Stella Nyanzi has been charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication. These people are in strife just for expressing opinions, and what they are charged with is in contravention of UN Human Rights and often also of the country’s own constitution and laws. It’s international attention and persistent harassment from organisations like PEN and Amnesty that leads to improvements in treatment of people detained in these oppressive regimes, and speaking for myself I’ve felt enormous satisfaction when as a result of collective letter-writing from PENs around the world, one of ‘my’ prisoners has been released and has made public the fact that their gaol conditions improved from the time that the letters started coming.
So, I’m going to get in touch with my local PEN contact to find out what happened at Sydney and hopefully to make sure that it doesn’t happen at the MWF.
Well put, Lisa. If I remember properly, the PEN chairs weren’t there last year either, so it’s not the new Festival Director who has let them disappear, and it’s well worth raising. I did mention it in my feedback form.
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Good for you, let’s make a fuss! I’ve been in touch with Melbourne PEN re the MWF and they will be there this year, so it’s a Sydney thing.
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As always, thanks for your Festival write ups Jonathan. I saw them come through but the end of May early June, as always, were so busy for me. (I’ts big birthday/anniversary time here – and this year I had a cold as well.)
You know, I understand your being sorry about The Big Read, but then, one of the things I hate about the big festivals are the crowds. I love intimate venues so I liked your last point that that was a plus. The main thing, it sounds, is that it survives.
And what a great summation, particularly re local chairs/moderators for international guests. Part of me thinks it shouldn’t matter – that this is a global world – but it is an Australian festival, and sessions starting from an Australian perspective, then branching out, would probably be more engaging.
Thanks, Sue. Happy birthday to whom it concerns. I think my point about having local moderators is partly that if everyone on stage is from, say, New York, the conversation can become alarmingly parochial because people from some places can’t tell that they’re only talking from a limited local perspective. And at least one fairly dull panel might possibly have been quite riveting if the ‘international’ moderator had understood that the Australian angle would have raised very interesting ‘global’ questions.
Yes, I get that point when I read the next post (I’m reading them in reverse). I guess the problem would occur particularly as you saw when all the overseas people are from the same place – mightn’t be quite so bad if they were from diverse places because they’d be forced out of their more local perspectives.
As for birthdays – there were a few, father, daughter, niece, plus a couple of friends. My father turned 97.
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OK, that’s a busy time of year then. The most we have is three in March, four if you count my brother who lives in Brisbane
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Yes, it is, particularly when you add Mothers Day a bit earlier in May.
We used to have a busy March too with my paternal grandmother, maternal grandfather and me all occurring within 8 days, but the grandparents are gone now so I can revel in March on my own!
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