This year, Sydney Writers Festival invited Westerly to come along to some of their program. We jumped at the chance, and have asked our writers to respond. You can find all the action from the Festival in our Twitter feed.
When Artistic Director, Jemma Birrell announced the theme of the 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival, my first thought was, ‘Oh, how tame.’ The concept of ‘bibliotherapy’ brought with it all the connotations of leisurely reading in waterside cafes, of writing as meditation, an act of solace, escape, privilege.
Flicking through the Festival program, I noted the usual celebrations of award-winning authors and new releases, the panel discussions about reading and writing, but what captured my attention were the speakers selected for the Opening and Closing Addresses. Kate Tempest and Hanya Yanagihara. Two women known for their fierce and unrelenting voices, their stark confrontation of struggle, trauma, violence. This, I thought, is the kind of therapy that seemed relevant to the world today. And they did not disappoint.
Tempest stepped out onto the stage in her socks and trackpants, humbly announced she would ‘tell some poems’ before launching into her booming tirade. Hands shaking, eyes closed: ‘What’m I gunna do to wake up?’ Tempest spoke of the ‘damaging and poisonous racism at root in this country’ and the audience cheered, but she was quick to silence us. ‘Don’t clap, don’t clap, cause then it’s done. You clap and it’s done and you do nothing.’
Far from the self-congratulatory addresses Festival audiences have become accustomed to, this felt less like a conversation and more like a command. For Tempest, this was a world, a culture, an audience that needed therapy, and the role of literature was not simply to sooth, but to save. An active force, with the power to evoke the kind of aggressive empathy required to make real change.
The audience came out charged, inspired, enraged and the Festival went on: a week of lively discussions and inspiring ideas. But this unsettling undercurrent was not easily shaken—resurfacing again in discussions around gendered and family violence by Charlotte Wood and Sofie Laguna, displacement and suffering in the stories of Stolen Generation women, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Celestine Rowe and Alexis West and writing under political oppression and censorship by Deepti Kapoor, Yeonmi Park, Marie Darrieussecq—and culminating in Hanya Yanagihara’s Closing Address.
Audience members seeking an apology for the psychological trauma inflicted over the 900-odd pages of A Little Life were to be sorely disappointed, as Yanagihara took to the stage in defense of violence in literature. ‘If you’re creating a violent life, you must include violence.’ Not to provoke or shock or exercise the power inherent in literary creation—to do so is to fail as an author, she claimed—but to pursue truth, to remain faithful to the experience of those ‘impossible lives’ and make them possible. To ask the reader not to look away from the pain of our characters, to endure and feel their suffering, and in doing so, to become a more empathetic human being.
In a time and place when literature is under threat, this powerful and urgent message was a reminder of the importance of creating the space to have these discussions around the intersection of books and life. A space to bring together authors with their readers, to ask questions of each other, affirm and challenge each other’s values. And, most importantly, to create an open space, both welcoming and unsettling. A space that is not afraid to talk about pain in order to talk about healing. These, I thought, were the markers of good therapy.
The two events featuring Indigenous writers share common themes of community and connection amongst people and the natural world. For one who wants to learn the art of storytelling and performance, this lot certainly show how it’s done. The Empty Pram: Stories of the Stolen Generation begins with an acknowledgment of country by three Central Australian Indigenous boys. Ali Cobby Eckermann tells us that Celestine Rowe, Alexis West and she mentored the three boys for the occasion, and of the importance of the children’s presence at the event for intergenerational healing. Celestine’s young daughter also attends, running around and greeting those of us in the front row adding to the warm, honest ambience. The session turns to conversation fairly seamlessly but not before the presentation of a few pieces by each. The pain, the loss and the suffering are seen, heard and felt: ‘I am the heart left unresolved, I am the baby lost by shame’.
The Best of the Festival: Poetry and Performance, offers great diversity, from the beautiful and strong Jamila Woods to Nate Marshall with his seamless mix of humour and politics. Paul Muldoon’s poetry is a witty intellectual offering, including ‘I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve read the book’, but overall, I find it apolitical and out of place. In amongst menstruation, what it means to be a black man or black woman in Chicago and fluid gender identities, it doesn’t quite fit.
The next afternoon, Lionel Fogarty forms one end of an eight-strong panel for Connection and Belonging: Indigenous Poetry and Performance, Maggie Walsh and a diverse group of writers from Redfern Indigenous Writers group join him. Elizabeth Wymarra introduces the event as ‘deadly Indigenous spoken word ‘ and that’s exactly what we get. They present mostly in what Lionel refers to as ‘the invasionistic tongue’ and their use of it is powerful. Vanessa Lee, who has been writing for only three months, gives an outstanding performance, as does Elizabeth herself: ‘my connection grounds me, profounds me identifies me, gives me equality’.
This sliver of SWF reinforces for me the immense impact of storytelling as a tool of inspiration, activism, education and healing. Ultimately, this string of artists accesses my full emotional spectrum, and for that I am grateful.
I knew that going to the Sydney Writer’s Festival and tweeting live for Westerly was going to be a highlight for 2016, and the events I attended surpassed my expectations. The Festival was jam-packed with engaging literary events scattered over the piers and theatres of Walsh Bay. Bathed in Autumn sunshine, patrons chatted, grabbed coffee between events, or simply sat and read, making for a wonderful feel to the Festival as a whole.
I’ve always been interested in what life is like in secretive countries such as North Korea, so I was excited to attend the event ‘Escaping North Korea’ with Yeonmi Park. Yeonmi spoke with Suzanne Leal on her memoir In Order to Live, and the horrors she experienced growing up in North Korea under the political oppression of Kim Jong Il. Transfixed, I listened to the author’s detailed accounts of brainwashing, fear and violence. Yeonmi offered more than a book discussion, she acted to give a voice to the silenced suffering of her people. The discussion evoked deep empathy from both myself and other emotional audience members. I knew the rare chance for someone to speak out against North Korea to be a powerful tool for activism and a catalyst for possible change. To be able to hear Yeonmi’s stories in a forum that encouraged free speech, beyond the risk of death inherent to such discussions in North Korea, was indeed a privilege.
Yeonmi’s themes of women’s strength, struggle, and breaking silences continued in other discussions, such as that of Jane Caro and Alice Pung. In discussing her book, Plain-Speaking Jane, Jane spoke candidly about suffering from anxiety and neurosis for fifteen years. Rather than adopting a tone of despondency, Jane was optimistic: ‘My neurosis was the healthiest part of me because it made me seek help.’ Flipping things around to see weaknesses as strengths and secrets as simple facts was as refreshing as Jane’s honesty. She spoke about abortion, the ‘giant female silence around this topic’, and stated that she herself had had an abortion and didn’t regret it. The host, Tracy Spicer, asked audience members to raise their hands if they’d had an abortion. Many women raised their hands, and there were audible gasps. I wanted to applaud the crowd members for their bravery. Such truths are spoken only on rare occasions, moments in which judgement is lifted, and a forum for unconcealed honesty created. For that Jane Caro was to thank, who, through her own courage in breaking the silence gave other women permission to publicly do the same.
Discussing her novel Laurinda, Alice Pung talked about growing up as a daughter of Cambodian immigrants in Australia. She too spoke of judgement by others and like Yeonmi, Alice shared her experiences of culture, class, race and power. Through Alice’s upbringing in the suburbs of Melbourne, I saw Australian culture from the perspective of an Asian immigrant family, far from the white, middle-class upbringing I experienced. Alice talked about pretending to be her mother to sort out utility bills over the phone in English, pushing around younger siblings in shopping centres, and being judged as a teen mother while school friends wearing brand labels hung out with boys at Timezone. I was in awe. Alice managed to reflect the ugly aspects of privileged private-school culture and white middle-class Australia simply by describing what it’s like to be excluded from it. Her discussion was frank and evocative, meeting with her novel in challenging the dominance of the white Australian middle-class perspective. Attending this trio of events, I witnessed the power that literature has in giving voice to matters of strength, conflict, powerlessness and truth. The Festival reinforced for me the importance of having a forum for communication and exchange between readers and writers.