The Sydney Writers’ Festival has come back from the virtual world, and though it hasn’t returned to the splendours of its old harbourside venue, the Carriageworks is an expansive site whose acoustic problems of past years are no longer an issue, and for me it has the advantage of being just a 40 minute walk from home. My festival this year got off to a slow start, with just two sessions on Friday.
Friday 30 April 4.00: Writing the Unspeakable
The Unspeakable of the title didn’t refer to the Great Australian Silence about the massive wrongs of colonisation or other vast silences, but to personal unspeakables like depression, grief, trauma and addiction. Each of the panellists has written a memoir about that kind of unspeakable – and in some ways the session played out the implication of the session’s title: you’ve written about something that’s unspeakable, but maybe that doesn’t make it any more speakable?
I haven’t read any of the panellists’ books: Lech Blaine’s Car Crash, which tells the story of a car accident where three of his friends were killed but he and two others survived; Ashe Davenport’s Sad Mum Lady, about the difficulties of being a new mother that had its origins in a blog, ‘Sad Pregnant Lady’; and Fiona O’Loughlin’s Truths from an Unreliable Witness, which deals with her long struggle with alcoholism and addiction, often in the public eye as a successful stand-up comedian. Michaela Kalowski was the moderator.
Rather than start out with each panellist reading a short passage from their book – even, say, the opening paragraph – which would have grounded the conversation, MK opened with a question to each of them in turn, ‘Why are these subjects taboo?’ The panellists weren’t terribly cooperative, but the way each of them avoided answering the question, and pretty much every question after that, led to some entertaining and sometimes illuminating conversation. Here are some snippets that I have managed to decipher from notes I jotted in the dark.
Lech (I’m going to use first names) said that these subjects aren’t actually unspeakable. He spent his childhood in a pub and by the tenth or eleventh beer anything could be talked about, though not necessarily in a civil or constructive manner. Ashe told a horrific tale of her mother being groped when a child, in full view of a room full of people who pretended it hadn’t happened.
Fiona ventured to ask her mother if there was anything in the book that upset her. ‘Of course not,’ her mother said. ‘I haven’t even read it.’ This prompted Lech to tell us that he showed his brother a passage in manuscript where the brother is quoted as saying something profoundly offensive about Labor voters. His brother said, ‘That’s brilliant! You got that exactly right.’
Ashe described the process of making the transition from blog to book. In the blog she would work hard at creating amusing anecdotes out of her struggles. The book could still be funny, but she realised that she had to become less abstract: not so much, ‘It’s hard being a new mother,’ and more, ‘This is how I struggled as a new mother.’ At MK’s prompting she told the story of how she went to an anger management group for women, thinking it would make an amusing story for the blog – and she told it to us in a way that got laughs, until she got to the point where one of the group of older women asked her a question, she burst into sobs, and the other woman simply placed a supportive hand on her back until she was finished.
Fiona spoke beautifully about the shame of being an addict – and the importance of kindness. Tom Gleeson (the cheerfully cruel host of Hard Quiz) got a special mention as a kind person, but she said that the whole community of comedians is tremendously supportive.
Each of the panellists spoke about intensely personal difficulties. That they’ve written books about those difficulties didn’t make it any less easy to talk about them. Lech was often left staring blankly into his personal voice, and I felt that Ashe wasn’t quite ready to serve up her personal pain in person to a big audience. Fiona is a professional at airing her linen to live audiences, and did most of the work of keeping the conversation aerated by comic touches. At one stage Ashe turned to Fiona and said something like, ‘You know what it’s like to feel that you’re a bad mother.’ Fiona did a nice comic routine, turning away in mock denial. As Ashe continued with her point, it became clear that she was talking about something that was still raw. Fiona reached out and touched her on the forearm. A little later, doing her own bit of mock denial, Ashe waved her arms joyfully in the air and said, ‘And now I’m completely all right!’
Asked about how it felt writing this personal material for an audience, there were two very different, but equally memorable answers. Someone recalled the reassuring words of a wise editor: ‘Always bear in mind that no one is going to read every word you write.’ Fiona said that she wrote her book ‘for my children, to explain myself to them’.
Our only other event for the day was the Within Reach Gala at 8 o’clock. We managed to squeeze in a celebration dinner for a friend’s 70th birthday on our way to the Town Hall. Once there, we were taken back in time by the Town Hall’s insistence that masks were mandatory – though there was a lot more non-compliance than there was back in the day.
After a short introduction from Festival Director Michael Williams – in which he said among other things that Geoffrey Blainey’s concept of the Tyranny of Distance was regressive and idiotic but part of our culture – we were treated to a dozen writers speaking on the Festival’s theme, Within Reach, reflecting on the past year. Their interpretations of the brief ranged widely. Each speaker was identified simply by their name on a big screen, so that we were spared time-consuming introductions and appreciations by an MC, which made a huge difference to the pleasure of the evening.
Tony Birch told a beautiful story of how the gift of a stone at a wake made a huge difference to him when he was depressed and despairing from the death of a close relative and the lack of progress in action on climate change. He held up the stone.
Ceridwen Dovey said she has been working on space objects, and talked about the ‘golden records’ that have been sent out into space. There was a debate about whether those records should include material about the dark sides of humanity. In the end, the woman writer on the team managed to have the sound of a kiss included – and the actual kiss that was recorded was both an expression of tenderness and the beginning of a betrayal.
Sisonke Msimang spoke of the great movement of white women in response to allegations of sexual assault in Parliament. She was onside with the protests but couldn’t join them, knowing that she couldn’t ask her group netball mothers to join her on a BLM march. She spoke eloquently and generously about this impasse.
Ellen van Neerven started with the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and the question that resounded in her mind:’When will this country see as much justice?’ She said that like all First Nations people in Australia, deaths in custody was a family matter. She pledged to continue to tell the stories that need to be told.
Geraldine Brooks spoke from Martha’s Vineyard in the USA by video. I confess that the beauty of the country where she’s living largely overwhelmed my ability to take in what she was saying. I think that was her subject: missing home.
Trent Dalton, I think, meant to remind us of the importance of human contact and the pain of physical distance in pandemic times. He misjudged the moment by presenting himself as an indiscriminate hugger of strangers, telling a story in which he hugged woman after woman who were standing a in a queue for the toilet at a previous SWF. Sorry, Trent, but issues of consent are high on the agenda right now and the humour didn’t really work – but the crowd was forgiving.
Maria Tumarkin riffed on the question, ‘How close is too close?’ What she had to say was formidably complex and wide-ranging, and she spoke tantalisingly fast. I managed to jot down one sentence: ‘One person’s specific safety makes as much sense as one person’s piece of sky.’
Michael O’Loughlin, who came out as ‘not a writer’, told the story of his illustrious career as a footballer, from telling his mother when he was 11 that he would her a house to his final words, ‘I hope you’re enjoying the house, Mum.’ I’m appallingly ignorant about sport, so his story was a revelation to me in many ways, but especially about the significance professional sport can have for First nations players, and their families and their communities.
Adam Goodes, a footballer even I have heard of, did a brilliant, modest thing. He read to us the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and confined his own commentary to a single sentence: ‘That was 2017. It’s now 2021. We’re still waiting.’
Alison Lester told us a story of a medical crisis. As she was in hospital being wheeled into emergency she saw on a wall a clumsy copy of one of her illustrations. The orderly was unimpressed when she croaked, ‘That’s my picture.’ she described the experience of an induced coma as an awareness of darkness, cold and discomfort and nothing else, and the struggle to respond when at last she heard her daughter calling to her.
Fiona McGregor read what felt like a prose poem, ‘Eight scenes from a dancing life’: the profound joy of dancing as part of a community, witnessed and experienced
Christos Tsiolkas‘s opening words were, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ It’s Orthodox Easter, and this present moment is one where the gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars brings home for him the tension between his own life as a middle-class Australian writer and the life of his Greek migrant working-class parents, especially his much-loved mother.
Michel Williams then called all but Geraldine Brooks back onto the stage for a big round of applause and we all went home.