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Festivals

May 24, 2012

The public and the private: Notes from the Sydney Writers' Festival -- Part II

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A girl sits on a crowded train reading aloud an explicit section from Nabokov’s Lolita:

She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails…

The businessman sitting beside her departs, presumably to avoid the passage’s passionate conclusion, looking alarmed and awkward.

This was the official ad for the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival, played on the screen before almost every event. The video always elicited a laugh from the audience, and it is a provocative illustration of the theme of this year’s Festival: Public / Private – or as the ad’s tagline puts it: ‘These days, private is public.’ In his opening address, Festival Director Chip Rolley noted that ‘we now share publicly things we might only have told our loved ones.’ Our innermost thoughts and private feelings are broadcast. Perhaps not on a crowded train, but certainly on social media and, as has been shown in the UK hacking scandals, such private utterances are not always publicised with our consent. It is, therefore, a very relevant theme, and was reflected beautifully in many of the sessions I attended – circling on themes of identity, personal obsession, and the things that drive a writer to write.

I’m sitting in a packed theatre with my hand raised in the air. Though I’m in the front row, there’s a mirrored wall to my right and in it I see a forest of arms raised around and behind me. Anita Heiss, in a session on her memoir ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’ had asked those of us who identify as Australian to raise their hand, and as the Chair of the session Anne Summers noted, it was over eighty-five per cent of the room. Heiss then asked us to keep our hands up if we have any other nationalities in our heritage – almost nothing of the forest was diminished. It was a powerful moment in the room, a way into Heiss’ recounting of the Bolt racial discrimination case, and her explanation of her own identity – ‘I’m Aboriginal, but I have other heritages too.’ Heiss then asked those who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to stand and show ‘what we look like and the careers we have’ – they were directors, board members, policy makers.

The session was packed, the long line beforehand spilling out along the pier, and broadcast on a large screen in one of the cavernous warehouses. I’m not sure if it was visible on those screens, but sitting as I was directly in front of Heiss, it was clear how deeply distressing the recounting of the case was for her, and it was difficult to watch the otherwise sunny and charismatic Heiss so affected. The challenge was to her very sense of herself – ‘I was always the black girl’ she said, an identity given to her by white people. ‘They give you an identity, and then they take it away.’ She spoke of the racist comments that still spew forth on the Amazon listing for her book, and of the fact that she wasn’t called to testify at the Bolt case because she was ‘more black than they had expected.’ Fighting back tears, Heiss asked ‘What other group of people in Australia has to sit in a witness stand and defend who they are?’ The intersection of the festival’s two modes was most potent here.

In his session ‘Geoff Dyer Could Say Anything,’ Dyer talked about his love for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which, he quipped, he now regards as ‘no more than a trailer for my book.’ Dyer’s work Zona is an essay and description of the film, working almost like a literary DVD commentary, and Dyer read aloud passages from his new work over the footage of the film. Tarkovsky’s film tracks the journey of three men into a mysterious, technicolour place known as ‘the Zone’ within which is ‘the Room’: a place where one’s deepest wishes come true. The danger and unknowability of the room is that it might not only fulfil our consciously expressed desires, but our more fundamental, unconscious ones too. What then, Dyer asked, is one’s deepest desire? Can we ever know, given that desire is constantly having to be re-forged? Is one’s deepest desire the same as one’s greatest regret?

Chad Harbach spoke of graduating from college and feeling lost, not knowing how to create the book he wanted to write, to make it into what he wanted it to be. In the end, Harbach took eleven years to write The Art of Fielding. After sending the manuscript to several literary agents he was rejected by all but one, but then had precisely the opposite experience when submitting the work to publishers, famously sparking a bidding war for the rights. It was a book about sport, with homosexuality in it – ‘my two potential audiences cancel each other out’ he said of his realisation of the commercial opportunities for the work, and he too received hateful reviews after a section of the book was excerpted (not alluding to the homosexual themes) in Sports Illustrated.

‘The novelist,’ Rolley said, ‘gets into the small moment, the private moment. The novelist gives the private moment its worth.’ At writers festivals, authors are always expected to open up, to reveal something more of themselves. Though their novels may indeed offer ‘their heart, their throat their entrails,’ audiences always want something more, some further – usually more personal – insight. While they become adept at it – as Jonathan Franzen put it in his address at last year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival on questions audience members ask, it’s the price writers pay for appearing in public – it must feel strange and exposing to be thrust there after the solitude of years of writing. But the best appearances throughout the festival were indeed those where authors opened up about their private doubts and desires — giving us a glimpse into their own personal Room.

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