I heard a rumour that this will be the last Sydney Writers’ Festival to happen at Walsh Bay. That would be a great shame, because, especially when the weather stays bright as it has this year, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place in which to gather with hundreds of other reader-types.
Today, much to our dog’s displeasure, we gave her a very short walk i the morning because we had to be at the Sydney Theatre by ten o’clock for:
10 am A Murderer in the Family
The title of this session is from Art Spiegelman’s misquotation of someone’s remark that being related to a writer was like having a traitor in the family. Each of the three panel members has recently published a memoir in which a parent is a central figure. Michael Williams, from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, did a brilliant job as chair (in fact, I reckon that if he is listed as chairing a session you can be reasonably sure it will be excellent), beginning in a way I wish every panel at the festival could begin, with each of the panellists reading briefly from their work: Nadja Spiegelman from I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, Susan Faludi from In the Darkroom, and Hisham Matar from The Return.
Such different books: a young woman’s exploration of her mother’s and grandmother’s stories, an older woman telling the story of her father whose violence led to much unhappiness in her young life and who is now a woman, and a man who returned to his native Libya after the fall of Gaddafi and searched for word of his activist father who disappeared when he was nine. Yet they had clearly read and appreciated each other’s books, and the conversation was lively and interesting.
Nadja Spiegelman did a nice inversion of the famous Kafka line about a book being an axe to break the sea of ice in the soul. ‘I needed,’ she said, ‘to freeze the sea so I could see it.’ Turning her mother and grandmother into characters inevitably flattened them, created a single version of these complex, uncontainable beings, but it was necessary for her to be able to know her own mind. And the process brought her closer to both of them.
Susan Faludi was estranged from her father for more than two decades. When her father contacted her to announce that she was now a woman, she wanted Susan to write the story of her transition: Susan insisted that the life before transition still needed to be told.
When Hisham Matar read to us, I realised I read too fast. I must have skated over his delicate, nuanced reflections on what was happening as he searched for the truth about his father. He resisted the suggestion that it was cathartic to write the book: if it was catharsis, the book would have been serving his emotional needs, but in the process of writing, he felt that he was serving the needs of the book.
Then lunch, of lentil soup in thick cardboard containers.
1.30 pm: Human Baggage: The Hate Politics of Immigration
This was billed as ‘a frank and fearless conversation on the political and personal consequences of border control policies’ among panelists from the US (Mona Chalabi of the Guardian), Australia (Indian-born Roanna Gonsalves and Palestinian-born Samah Sabawi) and Canada (playwright Stephen Orlov), chaired by academic Claudia Tazreiter who among other things is the managing editor of The Australian Journal of Human Rights.
In fact, the conversation very quickly moved from the politics of immigration to the politics of racism. This wasn’t really a change of subject: as one of the panellists pointed out, most immigrants to Australia, and most illegal immigrants, are from Britain, but these are not the ones that attract the hate-filled rhetoric. It’s the TWLPs – Third World Looking Persons – who do that.
The whole conversation was interesting. Roanna Gonsalves gave the most memorable quote. We imagine Australia as white, she said, and it’s not only the white Australians who do it. when some of her relatives came to visit from India, they were astonished. Her accent became much more pronounced as she mimicked their surprise: ‘Oh my God, there are so many Asians!’
4.30 Caroline Brothers: The Memory Stones
Caroline Brothers, a novelist, historian and foreign correspondent, chatted with Kate Evans from ABC’s Books and Arts program. Kate Evans was the most straight-down-the-line interviewer of my festival, and elicited a wonderful hour’s talk from her interviewee, who explained the history of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. It’s a terrible story. Thousands of suspected enemies of the Junta in Argentina were snatched and disappeared in 1976 – not imprisoned, but detained in unofficial places, tortured and mostly killed, leaving their families not knowing what had happened to them. Some of the snatched women were pregnant, and when their babies were born they were taken away and given to other families, mainly members of the military, to raise. The Grandmothers have for decades followed up every lead to find and reclaim these babies – so far about 125 have been found, the most recent one earlier this year.
Brothers first encountered this story when she heard that the poet Juan Gelman had found his granddaughter after 26 years of searching. The combination of those two story lines, the quest on the grandfather’s side, and the coming of age on the side of the lost child, struck her as tremendously powerful.
She spoke very interestingly about the difference between reporting on this tragic story as a journalist and writing a novel that stuck as closely as possible to the reality. I’m writing this two days later, somehow I’ve lost my notes, and I can’t remember anything about the novel (The Memory Stones), which is an indication of how powerfully her telling of the real story grabbed my imagination. She evoked very sharply the moment when a young person who has been raised in a family that believes the military dictatorship of Peron was a good thing and that those women on the Plaza de Mayo are mad is faced with irrefutable evidence that she was snatched from her own kidnapped mother by the agents of that dictatorship.
We had a lot to talk about as we made our way home through the crowd gathering to watch the Opera House being lit up to mark the beginning of Vivid.