Sydney Writers’ Festival has wrapped up for another year. Seven days of workshops, interviews, panels and performance. I’ve been attending SWF for a few years and there’s always something to be learnt at the various events, whether it’s a great tip for writing, learning about a new writer or simply being entertained.
My week started with a 3 hour writing workshop run by children’s author R. A. Spratt (Nanny Piggins series, Friday Barnes series). I signed up eagerly to the “Writing Masterclass” only to discover it was aimed at people writing for kids. Oops! We focused on plotting out a murder mystery where, following the untimely death of her boyfriend in a scaffolding accident, an acrophobic stained glass artist arrives in the village to repair the local church windows only to be embroiled in the murder of the church’s priest. Was her boyfriend’s identical twin brother somehow involved or is he the crime solving hero? I’d really love to know how that story ended.
The theme of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival was “refuge”, with a lot of panels and guests focused around refugees, race and identity. Sticking to the theme, I went to listen to NSW Australian Of The Year, Deng Thiak Adut. He’s published a book, “Songs of a War Boy”, which chronicles his journey from his village at age 6, taken by the army to become a child soldier, to his time with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and finally being rescued by the United Nations. He arrived in Australia as a refugee at the age of 14. He taught himself English, managed to get himself an education and qualified as a lawyer. Amongst all the horror – Deng described himself as “still broken” – the encouragement Deng gave to fellow refugees trying to survive in Australia was: “First, learn to speak Australian. Then learn to speak English.”
I’ve been a fan of Henry Lawson (1867-1922), poet and short story writer, longer than I can remember. His short story, “The Loaded Dog” was outrageously funny to my young mind. Later, I’d discover “The Drover’s Wife”. Of course, his poems are my favourite. I first heard ‘The Water-Lily’ performed in song form as part of a stage production based around Lawson’s life when I was 17. Its beauty and sadness got under my skin and I couldn’t forget it. I can recite that poem almost verbatim. When I booked tickets for a session called ‘Henry Lawson: The Drover’s Wife’, I had no idea what I was in for. All I knew was that it was about Henry Lawson. It was a panel discussion featuring Frank Moorhouse, Kerrie Davies and Ryan O’Neill, who have all written books around The Drover’s Wife. The convener had problems keeping Frank from dominating the discussion – clearly he’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable on the topic of Lawson. The Drover’s Wife has been in the news a bit recently. Leah Purcell’s play – a retelling of the short story – won Book of the Year and the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting at the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards announced on 22 May 2017.
The Writing Race panel was bereft of Maxine Beneba Clarke, who had cancelled a day earlier, much to my immense disappointment. However, it was richly filled by Sri Lankan (Tamil) Anuk Arudpragasam, US writer Paul Beatty (2016 Man Booker winner) and Yugambeh woman, Ellen van Neerven. The convenor Roanna Gonsalves added great perspective while the other writers spoke on how race and identity influence their writing (or not).
By far my favourite event of the Festival was listening to Scottish writer, Ian Rankin in conversation with Australian crime/thriller writer, Michael Robotham, who, like me, was born in Casino, NSW. Robotham interviews in a chatty style that makes it feel like you’re sitting opposite him at the dinner table while he’s bantering with his guest rather than sitting in a sold out auditorium. It’s 30 years since Rankin published his first Rebus book and he proved himself a marvellous raconteur. That hour zipped by.
I rounded out my festival listening to Frank Moorhouse discussing the current state of affairs for writers in Australia (it wasn’t a pretty picture). He wrote a dire article for Meanjin to give you a picture of what was discussed. Happily, Frank spoke about his call to writing, the books that influenced him, including Alice in Wonderland, tales of publishing and how it feels to be interviewed for a biography on his life by two of his friends.
A joy of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, for me, is running into friends – writers and readers – however briefly. This year, yet again, I ran into my writers’ festival stalker, Andreas. Last year we found ourselves sitting coincidentally on the same bench at the end of the wharf eating lunch. In previous years we’ve been allocated seats next to each other in a Helen Garner talk and met in the bookshop. This year, we both attended Frank Moorhouse and then stood next to each other in the cafe queue. It was only slightly disturbing when Andreas’s wife said, “oh, when you said it was your stalker, I knew who it was straight away”.
Until next year, Andreas … and Sydney Writers’ Festival.