It’s thinking season. Three days at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2014


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Longtime readers of this and my previous blogs will know that one of the absolute highlights of each year is the three-day weekend in May I spend with my fabulous friend, M at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). (You can see all the previous years’ reports here.)

This past weekend was that time of the year.2014-05-23 124

As an added bonus, since last year, the weekend has also coincided with the start of the Vivid Sydney Festival, which means that in addition to over-filling our minds with all the writerly ideas floating around SWF during the day, we can feast our eyes on the stunning visual light-show that is Vivid Sydney in the evenings.2014-05-23 002

Sydney turned on a stunning weekend weather-wise. Glorious blue skies, and radiant sunshine that made queuing for some of the free SWF sessions just a teensy bit warm. (Not that I’m complaining. It can never be too hot for me.)2014-05-23 005

For the first time, M and I stayed at Pier One Sydney Harbour, which is the closest hotel to the Walsh Bay precinct where most of the SWF events are held.  It was a leisurely stroll to our first session each morning. It’s also the hotel where many of the guest writers stay, so breakfast at the hotel buffet was a game of ‘spot-the-writer’. There’s nothing quite like being a forty-something literary groupie…

And of course, the ultimate highlight of the weekend was the chance to catch up at length with M. Although day-to-day we are separated by a continent, that distance doesn’t matter at all to our friendship, and during our in-depth discussions we solved most of the world’s problems…or at least worked out who we could delegate that responsibility to.

Some of the highlights of the Festival itself:

Over the course of the three days we went to 11 sessions (seven paid, and four free). This year, our sessions had a definite non-fiction bent to them.  We saw very few novelists speak.  Our approach to choosing our sessions however, is part-lottery, part-shiny-thing – “Oh look! A session on fashion.” So we are always guaranteed a mixed smorgasbord of content and ideas.

Our first session was one entitled: The Madonna-Whore and Other Fictions which included panelists Tara Moss, Nakkiah Lui, Emma Donoghue and Kate Cebrano with facilitator Tracey Spicer.

In that session, the panelists discussed some of the (many) labels they have been given and the impact those labels have had on them. In all cases, these women had been labelled with words which they felt came with a lot of baggage and created negative assumptions about them and their work (e.g. dumb blonde, upstart, fat black sl*t). However, they also discussed the possibility of subverting the power of those words by owning them. Nakkiah Lui talked poignantly about how being labelled a ‘young leader’ of her community was, for her, disempowering, as it removed any room for her to fail, and she felt she needed that room for her writing.

An interesting point raised, was the role of fiction in altering readers points of view or beliefs, through the empathy readers feel for characters they may previously have labelled negatively.

We rounded off Friday with the Humour and Debauchery with a Few Manners in Between session at Sydney Town Hall, where the captivating Annabel Crabb (wearing covet-worthy silver Mary-Jane shoes) presided over a free-ranging chat with some of the most intriguing guests at this year’s Festival: Gary Shteyngart (Little Failure – a memoir of his American immigrant experience), Sandi Toksvig (Peas & Queues – her thoughts about modern manners) and cult author of Trainspotting Irvine Welsh whose latest novel is The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins.

Organised along the ‘Michael Parkinson’ format of Annabel Crabb chatting with, first Toksvig, then moving her along one chair and bringing Welsh on, then repeating that with Shteyngart, this was a delightfully humorous wander though a number of anecdotes from each writer. Irvine Welsh’s repeated use of the c-word probably ensured the recording of this session will never be broadcast in its entirety.

For me, Toksvig was the stand-out ‘entertainer’ of the three guests and a couple of her more memorable quotes were: ‘Manners are about making the maximum people comfortable at any one time,’ and, in relation to technology and social media: ‘Be in the moment. Enjoy the present with the people you’re with. Wait until later to go onto social media and tell everyone else how bad it was.’

Our first session on Saturday morning. Australia and The World was very interesting. Former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, and former NSW Premier (and also onetime Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs) Bob Carr discussed their (differing) perspectives on whether it’s time for Australia to move away from the US and the UK to a more strategically independent foreign policy.  In an eloquent and considered way, these two men put their cases for each point of view. At times, Fraser gently chided Carr for being ‘political’ and ‘bringing politics into it’, but there was a respectfulness of both their approaches which often seems to be missing from contemporary political discussion.

Fraser spoke about the idea of ‘exceptionalism’ and highlighted times when US President Obama has used the concept that the US is ‘exceptional’ to explain foreign policy decisions and actions. Fraser argued the danger of any nation or people holding that belief.

The session on The Art of Indignation on Saturday afternoon crystallised in my mind some thoughts I’ve been mulling over in recent months. The session, with panelists,  Michael Leunig (cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher and poet), Richard King (writer – On Offence), Tim Wilson (Human Rights Commissioner) and Neil James (Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation – Writing at Work) examined why so much daily discourse now swings from indignation to outrage back to indignation again, leaving little room for thoughtful and reasoned engagement on issues. Michael Leunig summed it up best when he described his dismay at this ‘intellectual road rage’.  They also discussed why so much political discourse is now framed in tribal terms of left and right, rather than seeking common ground to engage on issues and intelligently work through the differences at the edges.

People of the Letters was a late addition to our schedule, replacing a session we had previously chosen, but just couldn’t be bothered going to.  It was a good decision.  In this session (part of the Women of Letters franchise), twelve writers, performers and well-known Australians were paired off and invited to write ‘A letter to my other half’. Actor, Ella Scott-Lynch and her step-brother comedian Eddie Sharp kicked off the session with heart-felt letters about the roles they have played in each others lives since their parents came together when they were five years old.

The last pair was actor, teacher and writer, Kristin Williamson and her playwright husband David Williamson. After Kristin’s emotional letter written about the hours after David’s stroke, while she waited to see if the ‘miracle’ treatment would work to save him and his faculties, she, David and all the audience were quite overcome. In fact, David stood up, removed his letter from his jacket pocket and then said that he couldn’t do it. He told Kristin he loved her and sat back down.  Although I was dying to know what his letter said, it was a fittingly dramatic cap to the emotion of the session.

After a dreary event to start Sunday morning which involved one of the few novelists we actually saw, reading a heavy academic essay for a full 40 minutes, we were ready for something a bit lighter and we found it in the session, Fashion Icons where authors Helen O’Neill (Florence Broadhurst – Her secret and extraordinary lives) and Robert Wainwright (Sheila: The Australian ingenue who bewitched British society) were on a panel with English fashion commentator Colin McDowell.  They discussed what it takes to be labelled ‘an icon’, and McDowell managed to offend many in the room by declaring first that Florence Broadhurst and Harry Seidler were not icons, they were minor local people with a small degree of celebrity, and then by suggesting that the job of a fashion photographer could be equally well carried out by a trained chimpanzee.  I suspect he delights in cultivating controversy.

M and I always like to throw a ‘sciency’ session into the mix, and this year’s was What Makes Us Human?an examination of the science of what separates humans from our closest animal relatives. The writers, Thomas Suddendorf (developmental psychologist and author of The Gap – The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals) and Rob Brooks (evolutionary biologist and author of Sex, Genes & Rock ’n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World) both have a real talent for communicating their research in an engaging way. In fact, at one point the session digressed into a discussion about the importance of and the responsibility of scientific researchers communicating their research to a wider public. Fascinating stuff.


This was three days of total indulgence. I look forward each year to the opportunity to set aside the day-to-day concerns and issues of life, in order  to focus on thoughts and ideas across a wide landscape. Throw in some hastily grabbed lunches, the required cups of coffee, plus a couple of lovely dinners and glasses of vino and a browse in the Festival bookstore, and its as close as I can get to a perfect weekend. Running into and catching up with some old friends was an added bonus.

But of course, it all wouldn’t be nearly as fabulous without my partner in crime, M. Thanks again, M for being excellent Festival company!


NB…in some cases, I’ve added the most recent book by writers mentioned, in bracketed italics after their name but do click through to the SWF website for more extensive bios. 




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