One of the highlights of the Mad March period here in Adelaide is the wonderful Adelaide Writers’ Week (#AdlWW).
As the incomparable David Marr asked as he surveyed the crowd before him from East Stage; “isn’t this the most beautiful setting for a writers’ festival?” Having sat under the trees of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens for six days in March for many a year, I can only but agree.
Marr is indeed a living national treasure and he was in full flight during this year’s event; either reviewing an extraordinary career with his memoir My Country, or while chairing the Writers on Writers session with Bernadette Brennan and Ceridwen Dovey. His sparring with the equally legendary Kerry O’Brien during O’Brien’s own memoir discussion was an #AdlWW highlight. I am subtitling that session the battle of the memoirs.
With a new look and a new director Jo Dyer, #AdlWW once again didn’t disappoint. As flagged in my overview blog of week 1 of @adelaidefestival, the core theme of Telling Truths was also a central part of this year’s #AdlWW conversations. In an era where the truth is increasingly a fragile commodity, questions such as – what is truth, what truths are we telling, who can tell certain truths and what happens when truth is suppressed? Were raised over the six days.
In the early 21st century there is no greater debate on truth and which voices are being listened to than in the area of asylum seekers and refugees. This conversation was kicked off right at the outset of #AdlWW with Gillian Triggs on her memoir Speaking Up.
Triggs let the facts, rather than her personal experiences, tell the story as she covered a range of topics including refugees, human rights and gender equality. Her grace, compassion and rigorous search for the truth shone through.
Here in Australia our understanding of the refugee story tends to occur at a political level, either through activists and intermediaries such as Triggs or our politicians. However this year’s #AdlWW provided opportunities to hear the refugee story first hand as Ben Okri, Kassem Eid, Sisonke Msimang and Future D. Fidel revealed their truths.
For me one of the great moments I have ever encountered at an #AdlWW was Kassem Eid’s poignant description of the day his village in Syria was subject to a chemical attack by the Assad regime. Describing it like “the day of judgement” the whole audience shared his anguish, his confusion and ultimately his anger on the events that unfolded during and immediately after the attack. Living the experience with him, the audience was so riveted that it seemed that you could virtually hear a pin drop. Special mention must also go to session chair Jon Jureidini on his sensitivity, allowing Eid the space to tell his story in his own time.
Nazanin Sahamizadeh’s account of bringing the play Manus to light, based on Behrouz Boochani’s award winning book No Friend but the Mountain provided another intriguing angle to the refugee/asylum seek tale.
All I have is my art and as a person of peace my art is what I have to make a difference (Nazanin Sahamizadeh)
Investigating just whose truth we are telling was another fascinating topic among the #AdlWW conversations. For those of us who have a voice, do we have a right to speak for others? This is a question that seems to be particularly fraught when dealing with the Holocaust, as discussed by Morris Gleitzman, Bram Presser and Maria Tumarkin.
It was also one of the questions at the core of the analysis on white/black relations whether it was Australia’s shameful Aboriginal past, post-Apartheid South Africa or the slave story of the Americas. Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, Reg Dodd and Malcolm McKinnon with Talking Sideways, Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, Aunty Sue Blacklock and Lyndall Ryan with Remembering Myall Creek, Marlene van Niekerk and her body of work, Ndaba Mandela with Going to the Mountain, Patrick Nunn with The Edge of Memory and Molly Murn’s Heart of the Grass Tree; all contemplated this vexed issue. In some of these cases the prism of class relations was also applied.
While historical fiction can, to a certain extent, circumvent the question over who can discuss certain truths, nearly every writer of this genre pointed out how behind their fiction the facts still matter. The experience of the World War II comfort women, depicted in Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared, is also a story of her Grandparents generation, while Gina Apostol looks at the tricky history of the Philippines and United States, juxtaposed with today’s Philippines under Duterte in Insurrecto. Rebecca Makkai brings back the AIDS era of the 1980s with The Great Believers, Andrew Miller looks at the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on its combatants in Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, while Amy Sackville recreates the court of Spain’s King Philip IV through the life and times of the great Baroque painter Diego Velazquez in Painter to the King.
An always exciting element of #AdlWW is the introduction to new authors, particularly international writers. With quite a few debut writers generating significant buzz within the book world over the past year, it was no suprise that #AdlWW 2019 featured a considerable number of this new wave to the program. MUD Literary Prize winner Trent Dalton (Boy Swallows Universe) led the crop of first time Australian authors accompanied by Chris Hammer (Scrublands), Margaret Morgan (The Second Cure), Molly Murn (Heart of the Glass Tree), J.P. Pomare (Call Me Evie) and Jane Harper (The Dry). International debuts included Annaleese Jochems (Baby), Oyinkan Braithwaite (My Sister the Serial Killer), Singapore’s Jing Jing Lee (How We Disappeared) and Preti Taneja (We That Are Young).
Debut writers from the non-fiction ranks included Gabrielle Chan (Rusted Off), Soraya Chemaly (Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger), Kassem Eid (My Country), Ginger Gorman (Troll Hunting), Ndaba Mandela (Going to the Mountain: Life Lessons from My Grandfather), Rick Morton (One Hundred Years of Dirt), Sarah Smarsh (Heartland) and Sujatha Gidla (Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India).
Finally, you can’t discuss the theme of Talking Truths without involving politics and politicians and #AdlWW had plenty of them and some of the leading political commentators on hand to look at the 2019 political landscape both globally and internationally. Whether it is the dawn of Eurasia, the ascendency of China, the Disunited States, the rise of the right or recent events in Canberra; there was plenty of fodder for a political junkee like me.
The Hon. Bob Carr, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, George Megalogenis, Fiona Patten, Bruno Maçães, Richard McGregor, Bernard Keane, Katharine Murphy, Don Watson, Carolin Emke, Nancy MacLean, Damien Cave and Jeff Sparrow brought national and global geopolitics and issues to the stage.
There is so much more I could say about #AdlWW. I haven’t even touched on the various conversations over such social issues as cyber bullying and hate, gender relations, the rise of AI (artificial intelligence), mental illness and rape/domestic violence.
This year’s event included several new initiatives such as the opening address (given this year by Ben Okri), twilight talks, the Zeitgeist Series at Elder Hall, the New York Times Crossword Challenge, the Middle and YA Readers Day and the Queerstories event. These events all provided an opportunity for new voices and truths to be contemplated and discussed.
To Jo Dyer and her hardworking team, thank you for a wonderful six days in March and I am looking forward already to the 2020 #AdlWW. In the meantime there is always the pile of books I brought home via the book tent to sustain me for the next 365 days.
I don’t read for the distraction, I read for the hunger. I read to save my life. (Ben Okri).