I look forward to the Sydney Writers’ Festival every year, eagerly scanning the program for my favourite writers and the topics that hook me. For me, the festival is about two things – learning more about the world I live in, and understanding how writers write.
This year I attended sessions with almost exclusively Australian writers. I didn’t plan it that way and I’ve got nothing against international authors. It’s just the way it turned out.
As always, there was a great collection of journalists talking about writing and broadcasting their stories. These sessions reminded me of the darkness out there in the world. Helen Garner, one of my all-time favourite authors, spoke about why she chose to write her new book, The House of Grief, the story of the man who murdered his three boys by driving them into a dam. She said that Robert Farquarson, the man who committed such a horrendous crime, reminded her that love can sometimes lead to destruction and great suffering. She’s fascinated by the ‘secret darkness inside all of us’ and I think that’s why I love both her fiction and non-fiction, because she understands that humans are such imperfect creatures and she’s not afraid to explore these dark recesses.
The dark side of human behaviour was explored in depth by British journalist Nick Davies, the author of Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch, in his book about the UK phone-hacking scandal, and Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, author of One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. Davies said his drive to tell stories came from an abusive childhood that has given him a lifelong urge to expose abuses of power. Seiserstad said she was compelled to tell the story of Breivik’s massacre of innocent teenagers because he was ‘one of us’ – he lived in a nearby street to Asne and she’d knew of him. She told a heartbreaking story that brought me to tears, of a Kurdish refugee who had moved to Norway and wanted desperately to buy and wear the Norwegian national dress for a national holiday. She was so desperate to identify with her new country but people told her only traditional Norwegians did that. She was one of the people killed by Breivik.
In the Back Story session, SMH photographer Kate Gerraghty talked about photographing the crash of MH17 in war-torn Ukraine, producer Ronan Sharkey talked about taking a group of bigoted white Australians to Indigenous Australia in First Contact and channel 7 cameraman Greg Parker talked about filming the Martin Place siege for 17 hours. In different ways, they all showed how professionalism is so critical in bringing these distressing stories to everyone.
The session on ‘Shaping Australia: How a century of war changed us’ was a fantastic take on busting open the myths of war Australians are so attached to, and which have been so thoroughly over-exposed in the recent ANZAC ceremony. The three historians, Stephen Garton, Jenny Hocking and Tim Rowse, did a brilliant job of looking at this somewhat jaded topic in a completely different way. Rowse talked about how WWII for the first time since settlement permitted indigenous Australians to move more freely around Australia after they had to be evacuated from the north because of fear of Japanese attack. The panel also talked about how Australia’s frontier wars with indigenous people, which lasted until the 1930s, have been completely left out of our war narrative. This is not the case in other countries such as the US and Canada, where those wars are an integral part of their history.
All three agreed that the concept of Gallipoli forging the nation just doesn’t stack up under historical scrutiny. Jenny Hocking told a lovely story of a convict couple who actually sued the British government for losing their luggage when they were transported – a story she felt was much more indicative of how the Australian nation and character was forged, long before 1915. Stephen Garton talked about how Australian exceptionalism – the idea that we ‘own’ the idea of mateship and nationalism that was evident in WWI, are also concepts that other countries, not surprisingly, also experienced in that war. The panel highlighted our failure to talk about the things that don’t fit our traditional narrative – the sex scandals at Duntroon, the navy’s role in turning back asylum seeker boats, and the ultimate failure of the Iraq war.
An audience member really exposed how our narrative of war fails to capture the full effect it has had on Australia when she said that her father, a Vietnamese refugee always felt most at home at the RSL with the Vietnam veterans who understood his country best. These are stories we rarely hear.
The only panel discussion that was slightly disappointing was the ‘Mistakes we’ve made and other lessons in feminism’. The panelists – Annabel Crabb, Anna Bligh, Amy Bloom (US writer) and Ayu Utami (Indonesian writer) were great but I didn’t feel anything new or thought-provoking came out of it. It may be that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – perhaps we now know well enough what needs to be done to make the world more equal for women, we just need to get on and make it happen.
But the most compelling part of the festival for me is always listening to the fiction writers. I can’t get enough of hearing about how successful writers work and always come away inspired. This year my take-home message was go with your gut instinct and write what is true to yourself. That’s easy for them to say – they’ve been published! But nonetheless, it is a good reminder. Richard Flanagan showed some of the intensity he brings to his fiction, telling a big audience at the Sydney Town Hall that his Booker winning novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ sat like a stone inside him waiting to be written. He threw out five drafts before even settling on the structure. On winning the Booker, he said the worldwide recognition was overwhelming but sadly said it was hard to be a writer in Australia because we are a country of conformists and writers are therefore regarded with suspicion.
Flanagan said many writers have influenced him but the only way to write is to be true to your own soul and not find yourself in the tradition of other writers. Helen Garner reflected on what art is for in relating how she had to think of the drowned children in the Farquarson case as ‘water sprites’ that swam away because it was the only way to deal with the horror of the story. ‘Maybe that is what art and imagination are for, to hold back the darkness,’ she said.
Steven Carroll, winner of last year’s Prime Ministers prize for literature, said that memory and past experience infected his writing but it was not the drama of those experiences that made good writing, but rather the intensity the writer brought to it. I was very interested in his ideas about poetry and how it helped him find his rhythm and circularity of writing. He said he wrote first drafts by hand and often got the rhythm of the sentence right before nailing the final words. Amanda Lohrey also spoke about rhythm and how writers revered musicians. ‘The most seductive thing about narrative is to imitate music,’ she said, but cautioned that ‘musicality gets the reader reading but then events keep them reading.’
Her new novel, A short history of Richard Kline is about a middle-class Sydney man going on his own spiritual journey to find the meaning of his life. I finished it last night and am feeling a bit ambivalent about it. She said Australia doesn’t have much of a tradition of the meta-physical novel. I wonder perhaps whether readers like me are the reason why!
Yet again a great, thought-provoking festival and enough inspiration to last me a few months.