My second day at the festival turned out to be fairly light on – just two events.
We had double booked for the 11.30 am session, and reluctantly chose to pass on to friends our tickets to Akala‘s sold-out session (the Festival has a no-refunds and virtually-no-exchanges policy). The Emerging Artist then went to The Kingdom and the Power: Saudi Arabia, and I went to:
Poetic Justice. This was in ‘Track 12’, a small theatre space that was only about a fifth full, but soundproof. Dunya Mikhail, Iraqi journalist and poet now living in the USA in exile was in conversation with US poet Michael Kelleher.
Dunya Mikhail’s most recent work is a non-fiction prose work, The Beekeeper of Sinjar, but for the sake of this session she was a poet. Unusually, I turned up with a question in mind. Having learned from an excellent issue of Southerly edited by Laetitia Nanquette and Ali Alizadeh that poetry occupies a central and honoured place in Iranian culture, I wondered if the same was true of Iraq. The question was given added point by the apparent discontinuation of the lively strand of poetry events at this festival, and by Fiona Wright’s admittedly facetious defensiveness about her poet identity on Friday.
My question was answered resoundingly in the positive. Actually, it was implicitly answered in Dunya Mikhail’s whole demeanour and way of speaking. Michael Kelleher asked her to read the title poem from her first collection, The War Works Hard, which manages to be both slyly witty and devastating, and then invited her to talk about her first 15 years, the only years of her life when there has not been war in Iraq. She painted a marvellous picture: children in Baghdad lived their lives on the roofs or the streets. It’s a big city, but if a child wandered too far from home, someone would always bring them back.
She spoke of the ancient Mesopotamian practice of burying the dead with food and water to sustain their bodies and poetry to nourish their souls in the afterlife. And it is still the practice in Iraq to have poetry recited at funerals – bad poetry at her father’s funeral, she said. There is a strong oral poetry tradition of which the funeral poems are a part, and poetry is held in high esteem: when she was about to go into exile, a friend was concerned, not whether she would be able to continue working as a journalist (she hasn’t really) but whether she would sill be recognised as a poet (she has been).
Though was brought up Catholic, religious, ethnic, or linguistic differences weren’t used as pretexts for mistreatment in her childhood, she said: the oppressive regime was pretty even handed on those matters. And the Qur’an has a surah about poets.
Asked if the 1001 Nights had been an influence, she said not directly: she had heard many of those stories, and others, from her grandmother, and they had found their way into her poetry.
Poetry, she said, has literally saved her life: she put ‘Poet’ on her passport when she thought she was going to travel to the US as a young woman; that fell through, but much later when she was fleeing the country because it had become seriously dangerous to be a journalist, the official at the airport noted that she was a ‘Poet’, and waved her through.
She spoke interestingly about translation. Poetry, she realised when she started writing poetry in the US, was her true homeland. Now, she writes her poems in Arabic and translates them herself. She prefers to do this because she has more freedom than a translator who is not her. In effect, she produces two distinct poems.
I don’t think I mentioned that yesterday, talking about mental illness, Fiona Wright and Luke Carman agreed that writing doesn’t work terribly well as therapy. Dunya Mikhail echoed their sentiment in response to a question about the role of poetry in terrible situations such as Saddam’s Iraq or the decades of war since his overthrow. ‘My poetry,’ she said, ‘will not save. Poetry doesn’t heal a wound, but it is a way to see it and understand it.’
Michael Kelleher was an exemplary interlocutor – self effacing, well-informed, flexible, and asking questions that opened doors.
We went home for lunch etcetera, then I caught the bus back intending to go to the 3 o’clock session, Blak Brow: Blak Women Take Control, with Evelyn Araluen and other first Nations women poets. But it was a free session and I’d forgotten about the SWF queues. I arrived at 2.45 to see a queue of about 30 people, who turned out to be the ones who were left over once the room was full. So I went home and finished blogging about Friday.
After an early dinner we went downtown for Lie to Me: An Evening of Storytelling at Sydney Town Hall. Our tickets were for General Admission in the stalls, so we arrived with more than half an hour to spare. The queue that snaked around Town Hall Square must have been a thousand people long, but we eventually got decent seats, and the readers/performers all appeared on a huge screen as well as in their tiny persons, so all was well.
I hadn’t looked closely at the program, and was half expecting a fun evening along the lines of that British TV show where you have to guess whether a panellist is telling an outrageous lie or an even more outrageous truth. That’s not what I got.
Benjamin Law, warm, suave and revealing naked ankles, did a great job as host. Each of six story-tellers delivered their piece, and then had a brief chat with him.
Patricia Cornelius, whose plays I’m ashamed to say I’ve not seen any of, read the powerful opening monologue from a new play, Julia, which turned out to be about child sexual abuse and the Catholic church, and added something I didn’t understand about Julian Assange. Chatting with Benjamin, she said she didn’t care for naturalistic drama, and often wrote dialogue in a very poetic move, but no one seemed to notice.
Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran’s opening gambit was to say that though she knew we expected her to talk about politics, she was going to tell some long concealed truths about herself. ‘I was a concubine in Saudi Arabia for ten years,’ she said, and before we could even gasp, she went on, ‘It was fun.’ She then reeled off a string of sordid, deeply cynical and increasingly improbable confessions. All these things had been written about her, she said, and not by Twitter trolls but by prominent journalists. She went on to talk about the absence of shame about lying in public life under neo-liberalism, and not only in Turkey. The idea of freedom, she said, has been corrupted so that it now applies only to consumption and sex.
Tim Soutphommasane, former Race Discrimination Commissioner, spoke soberly of the foundational stories of Australia, about our fabled egalitarianism and commitment to the fair go, which he argued don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Nayuka Gorrie, a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta writer, warmed us up by chatting about the Harry Potter movie where Harry is accused of lying when he has told an uncomfortable truth, and his punishment includes ‘I must not tell lies’ being magically carved into the skin of his arm. Then they spoke powerfully about the lies that colonisation depended on – White lies about Black truths, repeated in curriculums, in literature, in speeches, until they become accepted as truths.
Oyinkan Braithwaite gave a deceptively modest talk. She began with assertions young women make to each other. ‘All men are cheats,’ for example. And she talked about things she learned about the oppression of women in Nigeria when she challenged these assertions.
Scott Ludlam was the only one in my festival who spoke about climate change. Memorably, he said that the Antarctic ice shelfs haven’t even heard of Tony Abbott.
And the evening finished with a song by Megan Washington: I’m probably showing my age here, but I wish they’d managed to get Tim Minchin.