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The full Sydney Writers’ Festival program has just been released and new Director Jemma Birrell has curated a wonderful line up.

As well as showcasing our incredible Australian writers and authors, I’m particularly excited about the international guests coming out — such as Diego Marani, Anis Mojgani, Naomi Wolf, James Wood, Karl Ove Knausgaard, even Molly Ringwald.

I’ll be covering the festival for Crikey again this year and I’ve been putting together my own festival schedule this morning, so I thought I’d share here a few of my highlights:

Continue reading “Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013 program highlights”

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.

Continue reading “The public and the private: Notes from the Sydney Writers’ Festival — Part II”

Scribbled notes / Late nights / Early mornings / Lilting author signatures still fresh inside new novels / The mesmerising experience of prose read aloud by the author who penned it / Black coffee / Dead phone batteries / Lightbulb books hanging overhead / Sitting in the green room watching authors prepare for their sessions / The sunny sky and glittering water almost mocking my decision to sit inside theatres all day / Getting lost in the winding streets of Sydney / Wise and kind advice from the lovely Jennifer Byrne / Audience questions that are monologues / Media pass like a magical key / Nights spent at the Chaser’s Empty Vessel in the cavernous Pier 2-3 / Anita Heiss’ tearful recounting of the Bolt case / Jonathan Biggins’ derisive tirade against the worth of bloggers – ‘If I need a root canal, I don’t go to see someone with a dentistry blog.’ Sigh / That strange man who insisted at two sessions that Malcolm Turnbull and Godwin Grech had something to do with a plane going down on the Kokoda track / Meeting Tara Moss, Kristen Tranter, Jason Steger, Susan Wyndham, Chris Taylor, Charlotte Wood, Paddy O’Reilly, Deborah Forster / The Harbour Bridge a magnificent looming presence in the distance / My suitcase arriving home three kilos heavier from the weight of new books to consume.