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:
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.