At the end of one of the cool, cloudless autumn days that makes you love Gadigal-Wangal land in the Sydney Basin, we headed to the Carriageworks for the Sydney Writer’s Festival. We took our seats in Bay 17 and remembered too late that if you allow the booking office to give you the ‘best available seats’, they’ll put you right up the front on the very end of a row, so you risk a stiff neck from watching everything in profile. Next year I’ll remember! My grumpiness evaporated when the show started.
6.30 Opening Night Address
(link is to the SWF website blurb on the event, as I plan to link event titles for the rest of the Festival)
After a huge, loud ad for the City of Sydney, Uncle Michael West did an eloquent welcome to Country, pointing out that the Carriageworks was once an important source of employment for Aboriginal people who came to Redfern from far and wide.
Then we had a number of necessary speakers, who all managed their curtain-raiser status with grace. Brooke Webb, the festival’s CEO, thanked its many partners. John Graham, the NSW Minister for the Arts, by his mere presence demonstrated that the ALP values art and literature more than the other side of politics, and in a well crafted speech managed to quote appositely from Frank Moorhouse, Sarah Holland-Batt, and Shehan Karunatilaka (who we’re going to hear tomorrow night). Edward Federman, Executive Chair of ARA, the construction company that is the festival’s principal partner, won my heart by talking about brining his granddaughter to Children’s Day ten years ago, and every year since. Ann Mossop, Artistic Director, was mercifully brief and introduced the speakers.
As has been the custom recently, the address was a multivocal affair. Four writers were invited to address the theme, ‘How the Past Shapes the Future’.
Bernadine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other and Mr Loverman (links to my blog posts), began with a quote from Oscar Wilde: ‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.’ She then said a lot of things that need to be said again an again – about the way the ruling class and the dominant culture tell a narrative, inculcate a timeline that negates the experience of women, conquered peoples, etc. She spoke mainly of England, and had fun with the notion that Cheddar Man. the earliest human remains found in England has recently been discovered to have black skin: the great grandfather of England and possibly of Europe was Black. Now, she said, the marginalised are moving the centre towards them. We need to know and honour multiple timelines.
Alexis Wright, currently looms large in my reading life with her mammoth novel Praiseworthy. I won’t try to summarise her talk. She began by saying that she has tried to write about living in the all times. Aboriginal culture doesn’t have linear time in the way western culture does. ‘We live in the eternal clock of country.’ ‘we cannot step out of or apart from the pulse of country.’ She spoke with wonderful gravitas, sometimes stumbling over her words, as she tried to communicate across a great cultural divide. My companion observed on the way home that not so long ago when white people spoke as allies to Aboriginal people the discourse was about alleviating the harshness with which these oppressed people were treated. Now, thanks to Alexis Wright and other people doing this mammoth labour, we white people are coming to understand that we have a lot to learn from First Nations people – a lot we need to learn.
Benjamin Law, creator of The Family Law and author of the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101, had a hard act to follow. He managed it with wit and charm and intelligence. Ten years ago he was thrilled to be invited to his first Sydney Writers’ Festival. When a volunteer asked him how he was enjoying the festival, he said how delighted he was. The volunteer said, ‘Enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t last forever.’ Ten years later, he knows he belongs here, knows he belongs in writers’ rooms for TV shows, and when he encounters shocking (to me) dismissiveness of his presence as a token non-white, he takes comfort from that volunteer’s words. Things are changing. This stuff won’t last forever.
Madison Godfrey (pronouns they/them) put a similarly personal spin on the Past-Future theme. They read a medley of poems from their second book, Dress Rehearsal, asking us to imagine them as a young emo in the first poems, and as an older emo (not so old from my perspective) in the later ones. There was a memorable image of wanting to press one’s face into the tattoo on a loved one’s back like an old woman smelling a mango before putting it in her shopping basket. And they finished up with a glorious ode to their kneecaps – at one stage inviting the audience to join in on a kind of refrain.
The place was buzzing as we all headed out into the brisk night air.