I had three events on my second day at the festival.
‘Your Favourites’ Favourites’ is series of events where an established writer interviews the author of their favourite Australian debut from the last year. This was the only one of the series that we attended. It’s a terrific idea, and this pairing must have delighted whoever thought of it.
Tony Birch is not only an established writer, he’s also a seasoned interviewer of other writers, and a passionate and articulate reader. Evelyn Araluen is not only a debutante poet, she’s also among many other things co-editor of Overland literary magazine. Tony Birch has not only read her poetry, he has been edited by her. They know each other well, and were radiantly at ease with each other in this session, their deep mutual respect not excluding some friendly teasing. After introducing Evelyn as a formidable presence in Australian literary circles and beyond, Tony asked her, ‘Have I pumped up your tyres enough?’ She said it was a bit embarrassing to be described like that when her parents were in the audience. He said her father had had a quiet word to him before the session.
This friendly banter provided a leaven for a weighty conversation. Tony quoted Evelyn as saying in another context, ‘We are reclaiming this place through poetry,’ and asked ‘How so?’
I recommend listening to the whole conversation when it comes out as a podcast. What I’ve managed here is a rough and partial account.
Australian national identity, she explained, is a literary construct. As scholar George Seddon said, ‘The English language is a filter over the Australian landscape.’ Evelyn said, ‘whiteness does not understand itself in this landscape.’ Non Indigenous writers tend to go for the Gothic (Marcus Clarke comes to mind) or the cute (the work of May Gibbs features large in Evelyn’s poetry), both of which erase black presences. Both conservative and progressive white writers generally fail to get further past the erasure than shallow acknowledgement. Tony Birch quoted Anita Heiss: ‘You can’t just speak language. You have to think language.’ That is, Aboriginal people also have work to do to reclaim the place from colonising language.
Tony asked Evelyn what she had meant when she said on the festival’s opening night, ‘I’d like to write happier poems but there isn’t time.’ This prompted her to talk about the climate emergency and the responsibility of poets to address it. So most of her poems are angry and urgent (I think that’s what she said, and from what I’ve heard at readings I’d agree, but add ‘funny’). There is a place for poems, and art in general, that allows us to pause, to rest so we can go on facing our responsibilities, but for Aboriginal poets there is a need to be constantly asserting our existence, survival and resilience.
At Tony’s request, Evelyn read to us. ‘See You Tonight’ evokes an uneventful, peaceful moment of family life. It was written during Melbourne lockdown after eight months of not being able to see any of her own family. No one was surprised when, after the final words, ‘It’s all good. / I will. I will. I will,’ she raised her arms in triumph and said, ‘Got through it without crying!’ (I wiped a tear from my eye even though we hadn’t yet been told the circumstances of the poem’s composition.)
‘This is not a cancel culture book,’ she said.
There were two questions, one from another poet that moved the conversation into academic territory, with words like ‘liminality’ and ‘positionality’, and one from Evelyn’s father – we knew this because as he approached the microphone she shed at least 10 years and almost squealed, ‘Oh, Da-ad!’ He used his platform to draw our attention to all the powerful Black women who are central to First Nations life and activism – and didn’t embarrass his daughter at all.
12:30 pm: Whose Country Is It Anyway?
Nayuka Gorrie is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta freelance and comedy television writer. This is one of the events she rganised as Guest Curator at the Festival. She was in conversation with Melissa Lucashenko, author of Too Much Lip (my blog post here) among other books, and Nardi Simpson, author or Song of the Crocodile. (At one stage Tara June Winch was advertised as appearing zooming in from France for this session, but that wasn’t to be.) They were there to talk about the craft of writing Country.
As you’d expect, the conversation ranged widely. At the end of it I was keen to get hold of Nardi’s book, because a lot of what she said was tantalisingly hard to grasp. For example, ‘We inherit a never-ending process of belonging. whose country? It depends on where you’re standing. You can create a relationship to a place that’s important to you, but it cold be completely different for someone living 200 metres down the road.’
Melissa quoted Paul Kelly’ ‘Writers pay attention.’ She said there are two kinds of writers – the big, loud, macho writers (who can be women), and the quiet ones who pay attention. Her implication was that quiet attentiveness is the pathway to writing Country well. She talked about ‘extraction’ as key to the ‘western project’, and contrasted it to ‘reciprocity’.
Melissa again: It’s a writer’s responsibility to write the truth of violence without doing violence to the reader. There’s a place for writing that lashes out about injustice and cruelty, but we must write about life as much as death, otherwise we’re invading ourselves.
We did our Covid Check-out from Carriageworks to have lunch at a nearby pub (hamburgers with those horrible brioche buns), then back for our afternoon session.
2:30 pm Faruqi on Faruqi
This was a mother and son act: Senator Mehreen Faruqi and journalist Osman Faruqi. As with Tony Birch and Evelyn Araluen, there was a lot of good-natured teasing. “When I was in labour, I fervently hoped that I would have a girl.’ ‘We are a family of engineers. I so wanted him to be an engineer, and look what he’s become – a journalist!’
Sally Rugg as moderator didn’t have to do very much. She signalled at one point that it was Ok to broaden the conversation out by asking them about their theories of change. I don’t know that either of them directly addressed the question, but they took the hint and what followed was a very interesting conversation about the role of parliament and politicians in bringing about change – both of them agreed that real change came from the community and the political class played catch-up.
Both Faruqis have books coming out later this year. Mehreen’s is a memoir and manifesto, to be called Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud. Os is writing a book about racism in Australia. He would love to go back to writing music reviews, but has things he needs to get out there about racism. White friends say to him, ‘Why do you make everything about racism. When are you going to move on?’ He says, ‘You’re the ones who made everything about racism. I’ll move on when you do.’ (He probably said it better than that.)
Then we were off to the bookshop, to a number of catch-up conversations with friends we tend to see only at events like this, and to walk home on a beautiful Sydney autumn afternoon