It was T-shirt weather for my first day of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay. The crowds and queues were big enough to create a buzz without inducing panic. Having collected my tickets for the next five days I started out with a free event in the early afternoon:
This is a regular event showcasing winners of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Not all of them, of course: this year’s it was Heather Rose, who won the Christina Stead prize for her novel The Museum of Modern Love, and James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe, who won the Ethel Turner Prize for their A Thousand Hills. Suzanne Leal, the Senior Judge of the Awards, chaired.
Heather Rose spoke of the advantages of obscurity: The Museum is her seventh novel, all the others having been published to little acclaim. Add that she lives in Tasmania, and she has been able to write as she wants, without having to meet someone else’s marketing or other agenda. She said she wrote this novel as a love letter to women in art, who do marvellous work and then are sidelined by art historians. Marina Abramovich, whose performance piece The Artist Is Present is central to the book, became famous when the novel was well under way, and her new celebrity meant significant changes in the book: if I heard properly, at that stage the character in the novel had to be Marina herself rather than a fictional Marina-like character.
James Roy had a different take on obscurity. He opened with something he would have liked to say at the awards ceremony but realised it would have been graceless: even though he has been well supported and has won substantial prizes, he knew on Sunday night that if he won the award on Monday night, he would still have to turn up for his job in retail on Tuesday morning. (Suzanne Leal interjected that she had recently interviewed some women who had collaborated on a writing project because they wanted to earn a lot of money – cue disbelieving laughter.)
Noël Zihabamwe’s own story is similar to that of the book’s hero – both lost their families in the Rwandan massacre of 1994. So for him the writing was an intense experience. He told us that one effect of having the book published was to feel that he was acknowledged: ‘I’m not nothing. I’m something.’ He read from the book, and the conversation addressed the big question, how to write about such a monstrous event and keep some sense of hope.
All four people on the stage were warm, open, smart. James Roy did a nice favour to those of us who couldn’t be at the awards ceremony. He quoted a number of times from Joanna Murray-Smith’s address. An image that resonated with him and, he thought, with every writer, is that every work begins as a tiny burning wick, which if you persevere expands until it lights up all the corners of the room. I think it’s fair to say that the Sydney Dance 2 was lit up by these four luminaries.
I sat next to a young man who arrived clutching a copy of Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife (which won Book of the Year). I asked if he’d seen the play at Belvoir Street. No, but he had seen the archive video – evidently you can contact the Belvoir and arrange a time to see the archive version of any of their productions. How good is that bit of incidental learning?
3 pm: Poetry and Performance
Poetry has moved up the status chain at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This event didn’t happen in the tiny sun-drenched mezzanine room at the end of the wharf that we have been accustomed to, but in the main theatre across the road with more than ten times the capacity. And it wasn’t free.
But maybe of course it’s not poetry as such that’s moved up. Maybe today’s crowd was drawn by clickbait titles like Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind, or fusses about menstrual images on Instagram, or the prestige of poet laureateship, or other forms of cool, rather than the art of purifying the language. Whatever, this was a terrific event. In order of appearance:
- Miles Merrill, who has done more than anyone to foster spoke word in Australia, emceed, opening proceedings with some of his trademark mouth noises, which he told us was a work called ‘Some poems can’t be written down’
- Carol Ann Duffy, proving that a UK poet laureate can be fun, read from a lectern at the side of the stage from her collection The World’s Wife. The witty, acerbic narratives of ‘Mrs Tiresias’ and ‘Mrs Aesop’ were perfect for the occasion. ‘Mrs Tiresias’, a monologue by the wife of Tiresias, a man who was turned into a woman for seven years, lightly challenges some modern pieties about gender fluidity.
- Hera Lindsay Bird (who wrote the aforementioned clickbait) walked to centre stage and read a number of poems, including one that revolved around her dislike for the character Monica in the TV sitcom Friends. So pop culture reference, frequent use of the work ‘fuck’, and a preoccupation with relationships: not my cup of tea.
- Canadian Ivan Coyote started out by saying, ‘I’m not a poet, I’m a story teller,’ and read us a number of ‘Doritos’, which would certainly pass for poems. Most of them dealt with other people’s struggle with Coyote’s challenge to seeing people in terms of gender binaries. I loved the moment when a small child, told by his mother to stop bothering (her) Coyote, looked long and steady ito COyote’s eyes and said, ‘I don’t think he’s a lady. I think he’s a man, but with pretty eyes.’
- Ali Cobby Eckermann took things to a different place: she began with an acknowledgement of country, reminded us that this is the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report, and said that more Aboriginal children have been removed from their parents in recent years than ever before in Australian history. Having grabbed our attention, she then held it with poems from a number of her books, including the marvellous Inside My Mother.
- Rupi Kaur (who has been the subject of a big fuss on Instagram) read some poems and then performed a couple of spoken word pieces. I think I would have preferred to hear her (and Hera Lindsay Bird) at a spoken word event, where audience response is so much part of things. No clicking of foot-stamping or voting here, so lines like ‘I want to apologise to all the women I have called pretty before I’ve called them intelligent or brave’ end up sounding a little glibly correct-line.
Even if people came for the sexy controversy, they got poetry, and a fabulous variety of it.
Then I got to sit in the sun and read, occasionally chatting to passing strangers (including one man who had been to school with Tom Keneally), and back to the big theatre a bit later for:
6.30 pm The Politics of Fear
David Marr and John Safran chatted with the Wheeler Centre’s Sophie Black about Pauline Hanson’s followers and Australia’s extreme right. Sophie introduced them by saying they would join the dots between those two groups, but not a lot of dot-joining happened, or really was needed.
David Marr spoke to his recent Quarterly Essay The White Queen, and John Safran to his Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Both were interesting and insightful, and at times surprising. It was an excellent conversation, an I left it wondering if there isn’t something futile about too much close reading of the far right, with the end message that even though these people are a small minority they wield a lot of power because of the way our electoral system works. As David Marr said towards the end, the vast majority of Australians – including most Hanson followers – think same-sex marriage and euthanasia should be legalised and penalty rates should stay in place, but governments simply won’t or can’t follow the clear will of the people. It took one of the questioners at the end to ask what is to be done, and the answer wasn’t particularly satisfying.
So we went home glad we’d been but a little disgruhntled through the final run-throughs of a number of Vivid installations (opening the next night).