This was the first time I was fully immersed in a writers festival, I went the whole hog with a three day pass. On the eve of the festival we sat around perusing the program trying to map out the day ahead - six sessions to choose from at any point in the day. The festival pennants beckoned, brimming with excitement and armed with almonds I was eager to listen to writers talk about my most favourite pastime - reading.
At the end of the first day I was in a kind of rapture, impressed by everything: how the festival was organised, the friendly volunteers, the camaraderie of festival-goers, the laughter, the open-heartedness of writers. It was a peek into how society could be - a place that welcomed diversity, encouraged deep thinking, was non-judgemental and respectful. Instead of the pall of gloom I feel when watching or reading the news, I felt hopeful about the future and our capacity to be a kind nation. After looking through the notes I scrawled it seems to me the theme was HUMANITY.
Tracy Moffat told us that her work is about the human condition, “If I’ve had a breakdown while making the work it usually works, if I have fun making it, it doesn’t work”. She headed to New York seeking a wider audience and found a frenetic group of artists where everyone was busy working on a show. “An artist’s life is up and down, you just have to keep going.” Tracy advised artists to be vague about their work, she has avoided speaking about her work because it can stop different ways of reading it.
This resonated with Lloyd Jones assertion that explaining a book is the task of the reader, not the writer. His latest book The Cage was inspired by the indifference to Syrian refugees he witnessed in Europe. His indignation lit the fire to write this exploration of the difference between looking, watching and witnessing. He believes the world is divided by people who do and do not have a home and that we will do anything to those people without a home. “Art closes the gap to evoke emotion about an issue …The eye is not empathetic it just sees what it sees”, the responsibility of empathy lies with the reader, the narrator of the book is the witness who reports to the reader in a very bureaucratic way.
“Something has been torn down in the world and must be repaired”, was Sarah Sentilles reaction to the Abu Ghraib photographs of torture. For her book Draw your Weapons she describes using collage writing to craft “a song for the dead that never get grieved”. A collection of paragraphs to speak out against violence, it’s a process of taking what you’ve written chopping it up, arranging in themes and then retyping into your computer to commit to your words. Sarah has replaced Christianity with creativity and responsibility and told us that the most ethical thing you can say is “I might be wrong”. It did me a power of good to hear her describe herself as an earth-based feminist, activist, writer and theorist who is trying to make life better for the vulnerable.
In the second worst year of his life, Kon Karapanagiotidis was approached by Harper Collins who thought he might have a book in him. His memoir The Power of Hope is about compassion, hope and despair, but also the importance of being idealistic. Kon went into the caring profession as a way of caring for himself. He volunteered for every charity he felt a connection with, the first being homeless men - he has found humanity with all these outside, marginal groups. “Our vulnerability and fragility is what makes us beautiful”, when you’re attacked for being a bleeding heart, naive or idealistic, his advice is turn turn it back on the attacker by getting them to justify their indifference. He encourages us to gather our spirit and courage, to talk about values as a way of pushing back against the national stain of our refugee policy that weaponises people and fear.
Ellen Briggs and Mandy Nolan are women like us, mothers who get on with the busyness of family life and use it as fodder for their stand-up comedy. They’ve penned a book about these experiences which while hilarious also has chapters on the sadder, harder aspects of life. As Mandy explains it takes some work to rise from the “narcissistic pit of self-loathing”. They feel their comedy is not about having a solution but that the act of sharing experience is powerful. It’s when we can recognise those moments in our own lives and have the discernment to file the experience as absurd rather than tragic which makes for comedy. Humour is a release from the intensity of living.
On the subject of “How Fiction can Foster Empathy”, Matt Haig said that “reading is a telepathy a deep conversation through time - it comes alive in your own mind”. Elise Valmorbida added that reading allows us to sort through “the murkiness of morality” by imagining ourselves in the same situations as the characters in books. What would we do, would our moral compass stay true or would we protect those we love at any cost? Trent Dalton who read books to explore other ways of living found that this gave him the emotional intelligence to see good in almost everyone. In his writing his characters help us look at life through alternate lenses. This is true of all books, Matt Haig who has battled mental illness in his life is convinced that this has made him a more optimistic writer.
Josephine Wilson took this idea further, she is interested in the ethics of plot, concerned about the character stereotypes who are dispensable, killed off even to enable the main character to move on or realise something. She puts a lot of faith in the reader leaving us to sort out what’s authentic or inauthentic, by evoking yearning with the ending the reader wants to be hopeful but can’t be sure. Josephine uses objects to help tell the story, stirring up memory, which in turn can be so unstable because we want to rewrite the past and when we find out something new we may have to rewrite that history.
Ceridwen Dovey introduced us to the intriguing notion of a Bibliotherapy Service that prescribes books to make you feel better/happier. She was given a gift voucher for the service - after answering a questionnaire, she was prescribed transcendent fiction which helped her rehearse for real life. According to Ceridwen it doesn’t matter that we fail to exactly recall books and authors “we don’t store the content, what we keep is the memory of where you were and how you were feeling”. In this panel books that had affected the authors were recommended to the audience such as Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Other - a collection of essays showing how it is possible to have full respect for others. By striving to understand the other reading becomes a political act of broadening and enriching our experience.
Finding where we belong joined authors Mark Brandi, Future D. Fidel and Lisa Walker who have written in the child’s voice discussing the appeal of this viewpoint that I have always found so readable. Their experience led to these thoughts on the subject:
The inscrutability of the adult world
How raw and emotional a child’s world can be
If you don’t have someone there for you, you can do the unthinkable
Secrets limit our decision-making
You belong where you are safe and accepted as you are
Home is wherever the loved ones are - you fight hard to find a place of belonging
Hearing Louise Milligan talk about excellence in journalism was heartbreaking. Her investigative pieces into abuses by the catholic church have relied on gaining the trust of sources, now a series of legal challenges are threatening to jail her for not revealing these sources. It was a sobering insight into the values of these dedicated professionals and difficulties put in their path to prevent publication. Such a contrast to the often shouty opinion pieces that have become a substitute for journalism. The motivation for Louise to continue is that she finds “something deeply moving about humanity”.
Sensationally impassioned Lemn Sissay was for me a new discovery. I came away from his session in a stupor of awe at his ability to to articulate his world view and to rouse a passionate response in those around him. A few of the quotes I wrote were:
“We’re so damn sanctimonious.”
“Dysfunction is at heart of all functioning families, which is why Christmas is so damned difficult."
“I dislike words that institutionalise people like Children in Care.”
“Bad things make good bridge builders.”
“I was growing wings all the time and I could fly.”
My final treat was listening to Melissa Lucashenko talk about her book Too Much Lip, written using the spirit of fight inspired by her grandmother. A humorous fictionalised follow-up to her Walkley Award winning piece Sinking Below Sight about single mothers in the “Black Belt” of South East Queensland. The book aims to lift the energy of the struggle. “Anger and depression is the current energy, I want to raise the optimism”. To finish my wrap/rapture of the Byron Bay Writers Festival 2018, a relatable quote from Too Much Lip:
“Too much lip, her old problem from way back. And the older she got the harder it seemed to swallow her opinions. The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it; the least she could do was raise her voice in anger. Give the arseholes a blast, then stand and defend, or else run like hell.”