Thursday morning in Marrickville the air was grey with smoke – someone was burning off. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay, the air was clearer but there was still plenty of grey, this time on people’s heads and faces, though the festival goers aren’t as homogeneously 60+ as on weekdays in previous years.
If I had to name a theme common to the five sessions I attended today, I’d say it was intergenerational respect and co-operation.
At 10 o’clock Zelda la Grange discussed her memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela, steered deftly by veteran interlocutor David Leser.
As an ‘apolitical’ young Afrikaner who absolutely supported apartheid, la Grange accidentally found herself working for President Nelson Mandela, the man she had seen as her people’s greatest enemy. She told us of her first meeting with him in her early 20s: where she had expected hostility she not only found a warm handclasp and interested questions about her life, but he spoke to her in Aftikaans, the language of the people who had gaoled him for decades. She burst into tears. He put his free hand in her shoulder and said, ‘Relax, you’re overreacting.’
Over the following weeks and then years, she heard more of his story, shed more tears and felt the bubble of white privilege that had kept her world narrow dissolving. She became his private secretary and, as he grew old and frail, his protector. She said he worked on her heart every day. She called him by the Swahili (I think) word for granddad. He rechristened her Zeldiña.
Since his death in 2013, she treasures their great non-romantic love, and sees it as her mission to keep alive his legacy of respect in public life.
Then on to a spectacular queue for Climate: Knowledge and Hope featuring scientists Tim Flannery and Peter Doherty, wrangled by Bianca Nogrady.
Flannery’s most recent book, Atmosphere of Hope, was written last August, when it seemed Paris would lead to good things. It did produce an agreement, but things are less obviously hopeful now, with news of record temperature increases. Doherty’s is The Knowledge Wars, which I gleaned is about current attacks on scientific knowledge on a number of fronts, beginning perhaps with climate change but extending to areas like vaccination.
Faced with the dire reality of climate change, these two men of a certain age remain ebullient. When Nogrady ventured that hope has a passivity to it – we just shrug our shoulders and hope for the best – Flannery apologised to his mainly older audience and said that many young people, scientists and activists, are less prone to despair than their elders, but see the situation as a challenge which they set about vigorously meeting. Doherty echoed that view.
My other heartening take-home from this session was that where The Australian and the rest of the denialist and reactionary Murdoch press have been very influential on the rest of the media, that dominance is now being challenged by The Conversation, a much more reality based publication which presents the work of academics online in readable form. He urged us to subscribe at theconversation.com/au.
1:30-2:30 pm: NSW Premier’s Awards: Meet the Writers: I was initially disappointed that only two of the NSWPLA winners were on the podium with ‘senior judge’ Ross Grayson Bell, but when the two are Magda Szubanski and Alice Pung less is more.
Both women are daughters of immigrant fathers who experienced major traumas in their home countries – Poland under the Nazis and Cambodia under Pol Pot respectively. Both have written about their fathers, Magda in Reckoning, her award-winner, and Alice in her earlier memoir My Father’s Daughter. Though Alice spoke a little about her award-winner, Laurinda, most of the conversation revolved around their points of similarity. In both their families, the traumatic experiences of the parents weren’t passed over in silence to protect the children, but were told, often enough, as funny stories or adventures. Alice in particular now finds herself wondering about the wisdom of advice from teachers not to tell students too much detail about the terrible ordeals described in her books.
Neither writer referred to our current government’s cruelty to asylum seekers and refugees or to Peter Dutton’s recent disparagement of some as ‘illiterate and innumerate’. They didn’t have to. This was pointedly so when someone asked Alice Pung how her mother responded to her memoir: ‘My mother’s illiterate. She said she’ll wait for the movie.’
3:00-4:00 pm: Paul Muldoon talked with David Malouf for a wonderfully loose, lucid hour, about the way a poem is a process of discovery for the poet, and for the reader. Apparently distracted by the sounds outside the cavernous room, Muldoon drew our attention to the rhythmic creaking of the wharf’s posts and a distant pneumatic drill then, as if drawing his ideas from these ambient sounds, talked about the dual activity of the poet – construction worker/ maker/ makar, and explorer/ troubadour/ trovatore. The two poets, like the two scientists and the two daughters earlier, had a wonderful rapport. Each time the conversation threatened to slacken, David Malouf (who had introduced himself here as a reader) asked the poet if he would read to us. The poems he chose for us were ‘Hedgehog‘, written when he was a teenager, and ‘Pelt’ from his most recent book. Interestingly, far from patronising his sixteen-year-old self, Paul Muldoon was in awe of him.
4:30-5:30 pm: Tammy and Lesley Williams, Murri mother and daughter who collaborated on the book Not Just Black and White, were brilliant. Lesley led a successful campaign to reclaim wages withheld by the Queensland government from Aboriginal workers last century. She wanted to write a book about it but was daunted by the task as she’d left school at the end of primary school, and also had trouble believing anyone would be interested. Tammy, then a teenager in school, now a successful barrister and Queensland’s Commissioner for Children, helped with both problems. She taped her mother’s spoken account and transcribed it. Just as importantly, she constantly reassured her mother that the story was worth telling. This book tells their story in the form of a conversation.
In question time a young woman thanked the writers because, even though her grandmother had received only $4000 in acknowledgement of a lifetime’s work, the payment made a huge difference.
I had a personal connection too, but not one I wanted to inflict on that gathering. As a white child in north Queensland in the 1950s I was completely unaware that most Aboriginal people were living ‘under the Act’. I don’t know if the Aboriginal couple who worked for my parents, the man with my father on the farm and the woman with my mother a day a week in the house, were subject to the same covert exploitation as Lesley Williams discovered. My ignorance is given extra point as their names were Charlie and Pearl Williams (always Mr and Mrs Williams to us kids). I’m ashamed, but hugely grateful to these Williamses for their generosity and valour in putting the story out here for all of us. I’ve bought the book.
End of my Festival day. [Wipes sweat from brow]