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Controversies, epiphanies and the case against Canva: highlights from Sydney writers’ festival | Sydney writers’ festival


Rebecca Solnit: there’s a role for beauty and joy in the left

If the political leaning of Sydney writers’ festivalgoers wasn’t already glaringly clear, the elated mood the morning after the election, at a talk with US writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, spoke volumes.

“I really thought I might be coming on to scold Australia. Instead I’m here to sing your praises, and celebrate your future,” Solnit said via video link as the audience erupted into cheers and hoots.

Solnit’s latest book, Orwell’s Roses, uses George Orwell’s love of gardening as a jumping off point to discuss the role that pleasure, joy and beauty can play in the progressive movement.

“These things are often dismissed as frivolous, unnecessary, idle distractions in a serious and committed life,” she said. “I’d accepted the idea that Orwell was grim, austere, pessimistic … [but he] not only took pleasure in small ordinary things, but also organised his life to make sure they had a pretty big place in his life.”

There’s a lesson in that we can all take on board. “Everyday things kept him grounded and sane and able to do the other work he did, which he once called ‘facing unpleasant facts’ and we can also call ‘being one of the great anti-fascists of the 21st century’,” she said.

“The left is full of killjoys … I grew up in the left and it fucking sucks. And I’m here to try to provide alternative models, examples, and even hope.” – Steph Harmon

Chelsea Watego: Canva has a lot to answer for

Another Day in the Colony author Chelsea Watego has a different take on hope, which she finds a particularly useless tool in the fight for racial justice. But at Thursday night’s storytelling gala, she had a different bone to pick: with Australian software platform Canva.

“Canva is at the heart of one of the biggest challenges to Black liberation,” she proclaimed, only partially joking. “Canva must be abolished.”

As the audience tittered with slightly nervous laughter, she loaded up a slideshow: “Hear me out, white people.”

Chelsea Watego: ‘Leave our intellectual contributions the fuck alone.’ Photograph: Jamie Williams

People use Canva to pair images with text – making the platform largely responsible for the deluge of inspiration quote tiles all over social media. And a lot of those tiles misquote Black radical theory from activists like bell hooks and Audre Lorde – appropriating it and repurposing it to make it more palatable for white people, which Watego described as an “act of violence”.

You may scroll past a quote from Audre Lorde, for instance, set against a gorgeous sunset: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” The rest of the quote? “It is an act of political warfare.”

“She wasn’t talking about bubble baths and face masks and hikes in the wilderness,” Watego said. “She was talking about the need to care for Black women’s bodies. Those same bodies burning down the colony. Not burning fucking sage.

“When Audre spoke of self-care she was not speaking to you, white women – but rather the importance of self-care from you … Go do whatever you need to do to maintain your middle-class mindfulness – just leave our intellectual contributions the fuck alone. Surely you’ve taken enough.” – Steph Harmon

Yassmin Abdel-Magied isn’t coming back to Australia any time soon

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was warm and insightful as she discussed her latest book, Talking About a Revolution, with Sisonke Msimang. She appeared via video link from the UK, where she relocated after her 2017 Facebook post about Anzac Day led to such ferocious and racist backlash and threats that she no longer felt welcome in Australia. At the end of the panel, an audience member asked: will she ever return?

“One of the essays starts with my fantasy of giving up my Australian citizenship … Unless something irrevocably changes, I don’t think I will be making it my home again any time soon.”

Have you felt pressure to answer in a different way, Msimang asked, to perform a measure of forgiveness?

‘Nothing has changed. So why would I return?’
‘Nothing has changed. So why would I return?’ Photograph: Jamie Williams

“It’s partly why I avoid friendships with Australians after I left – because inevitably … that is the question people ask: when are you going back? And my answer is: why would I go back? … The social contract between me and the country was broken. And not everything broken needs to be healed.”

The next few lines were electrifying, delivered as Abdel-Magied stared fiercely down the barrel of the camera. “It is important that people understand that: nothing has changed. So why would I return? No accountability has been taken. So why should I be the one that slinks back?

“No. They do not get that. The state does not get that. The colony does not get that. I deserve better – and I have chosen better for myself.” – Steph Harmon

Hanya Yanagihara: there’s value in writing others’ stories

Between fervent fans asking questions about A Little Life on Friday night, author Hanya Yanagihara was asked why she thought she had the right to write about gay men. What does she think she can say about that experience better than those who live it?

This debate has swirled around Yanagihara’s work for a while, and she stuck to what she’s previously said: “A writer should be able to write about anybody.” (“The only thing a reader can judge is whether I have done so well or not,” she told the Guardian this year.)

“Writing about otherness is not only an artist’s right but an artist’s responsibility,” she added, a choice of words that noticeably dialled up the tension in the audience. She clarified: “If you live in a diverse world – however you want to define that – part of what an artist is doing is projecting themselves into another person’s life.”

Ultimately, she said, she takes playwright Tony Kushner’s view: “I refuse to think there’s any harm or violence in taking empathic flights into the lives and minds of another.” – Imogen Dewey

Even Christos Tsiolkas and Michelle de Kretser have ‘shit’ first drafts

There was something incredibly satisfying about hearing two of the country’s most decorated novelists admitting to moments of abject defeat.

Speaking with Christos Tsiolkas, two-time Miles Franklin winner Michelle de Kretser said she wanted to test herself while writing her latest novel, Scary Monsters, trying out the first-person perspective for the first time. But “it was just shockingly bad. I panicked!” So she rewrote what she had, in the third person this time. Except, it happened again. “It was just SO bad. And then I remembered the thing that I manage to forget between each book, which is that the first draft is ALWAYS mortifyingly bad.”

Michelle de Kretser.
‘The first draft is always mortifyingly bad’: Michelle de Kretser. Photograph: Jamie Williams

“OH MY GOD YES,” Tsiolkas yelled, gesticulating so wildly he almost fell off his chair. “For me it was the first draft of Damascus … I remember saying to my partner Wayne, just going, ‘It’s fucking SHIT!’”

De Kretser had some advice: “My partner says to me, ‘When you say it is not working – what’s actually not working is a tiny thing. Find that tiny thing. Don’t just say, ‘The whole book is terrible’, because it’s not. And it’s so true. Go back and look at it and you can isolate it: sometimes it’s just a paragraph that’s not working, or it’s a scene – you’ve made a character do something [that doesn’t work]. You just have to DELETE.” – Steph Harmon

Damon Galgut doesn’t regret boycotting Sri Lanka

In 2011, South African author Damon Galgut was invited by a friend to take part in a book fair in Sri Lanka. But before the event opened, its writers were targeted by a campaign calling on them to boycott over the government’s human rights record.

For festivalgoers, the story felt eerily familiar: in January there were calls to boycott Sydney festival over a funding deal the organisation struck with the Israeli embassy. Programmed artists faced a similar moral reckoning to that which Galgut described; more than 20 eventually withdrew.

Author Damon Galgut at Sydney writers festival 2022.
Booker prize-winning author Damon Galgut at the Sydney writers’ festival. Photograph: Jamie Williams

“The petition rocked me,” Galgut recalled. “I think it’s fair to say that the days that followed were some of the loneliest moral moments of my life … and it felt like a very very agonising time before I came to the decision to betray my friend. I pulled out of the festival and went home.”

But pulling out didn’t provide him catharsis or moral release. “I’ve been haunted by it ever since. I’ll tell you honestly that even now I’m not sure that I made the right decision,” he said. Galgut was the only writer to withdraw, the festival went ahead, and the regime continued to prevail. “And of course I did lose my friendship with the person concerned. He has not spoken to me since, and I have to say I don’t blame him for that.”

But while he didn’t gain anything by boycotting, Galgut said: “What I achieved was not to lose something even more vital … If you turn your head away from other people’s suffering you lose something very essential to yourself – something that’s perhaps difficult to give a name to. And when I try to measure that thing-I-cannot-name against the other things I can, it seems to me that it wasn’t such a bad decision after all.” – Steph Harmon

Torrey Peters: the future of trans literature

Much like her surprise bestseller, Detransition, Baby, Torrey Peters’ session was erudite, expansive and often uproariously cutting. All three qualities coalesced in a model she presented to explain how trans authors relate to the mainstream. Like all minority literature, she said, it had progressed over three stages: from assimilation (“we’re just like you”) to rejection (“we posit ourselves in opposition to you”) to disinterest (“actually, we have nothing to do with you one way or another”).

“Then I think there’s a fourth stage,” she said, “where the dominant culture picks up the lens of that smaller culture and starts applying it to themselves … You can see cis people being like, ‘Oops, I’m doing a gender. I didn’t realise I’d be doing it for years.’

“We didn’t move to the world – the world moved to us. Now how are we going to reframe ourselves?”

Detransition, Baby – a gossipy comedy-of-errors spanning motherhood, divorce and throuples – was Peters’ way of breaking new ground instead of defaulting to tired discourses around gender. “Trans people aren’t a monolith,” she said, and the novel is certainly not “writing for trans people as an identity … It’s Fleabag – except she’s trans and lives in Brooklyn.” – Michael Sun

Julianne Schultz and Marcia Langton: two ways to fix Australia

Marcia Langton, Julianne Schultz and moderator Clare Wright are three of Australia’s foremost thinkers on politics, history and identity – and in an hour on Thursday they covered big ground, from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to Langton and Shultz’s shared past at the University of Queensland, where Schultz edited the student paper. (“We would reject Clive Palmer’s pitches regularly,” she said. “He was a very needy, skinny streak of a [man].”)

Claire Wright, Julianne Schultz and Marcia Langton at Sydney writers festival 2022
Claire Wright, Julianne Schultz and Marcia Langton. Photograph: Nick De Lorenzo

For her final question, Wright asked for one big blue-sky idea to change Australia for the better. Langton answered after barely a beat: “All of our debates are irrelevant unless we tackle climate change … But just like [stopping] racism, I don’t think human beings are going to stop being stupid. I think we are walking into the end of times.”

Schultz was a little more optimistic: “I would like to see something that made equality – income equality, education equality, social equality, gender equality – actually real. If people were freed from the disparities which have become so sharp, I think that would be a liberation.” Langton agreed: “Without the intellectual capacity, the social circumstances and conditions [that enable] people to confront the truth, they can’t confront the truth.” – Steph Harmon

When documenting trauma, nuance is vital

Michael Mohammed Ahmad shared a string of profound proverbs, but one in particular resonated: “Poetry in language is our mathematics,” he said. “It is the writer’s way of ordering chaos.” It summarises an intention Ahmad and fellow author Amani Haydar shared when writing their memoirs: to document family trauma with nuance, complexity and humanity.

Australian author amani haydar at the SYdney writers festival 2022Nick De Lorenzo
Australian author Amani Haydar at the festival. Photograph: Nick De Lorenzo

From the murder of Haydar’s mother at the hands of her father, to taboos that saw sexual assault and abuse swept under the rug in Ahmad’s family, both authors reflected that, to be a writer, one must have courage – and work to counter preconceptions of violence as a “Muslim problem”, as Haydar put it.

The Arab literary canon is “actually incredibly romantic and chivalrous and funny”, Ahmad said, adding that he wanted to “reclaim the narrative” in order to “reclaim our dignity, and our humanity”.

Haydar shared a similar sentiment in a second conversation, this time with Maxine Beneba Clarke: “Not speaking out is suffocating. It became urgent that I write this book, tell my mum’s story, and contribute to the discussions we are having as a country.” – Rafqa Touma

Journalists are up against it

After reporting on the experience of women in Canberra, Four Corners’ Louise Milligan copped public backlash so extreme she had to change her home’s security system. “People lined up [against me] are generally older white men, and they are relentless,” she said, adding and they had been encouraged by the conservative media.

Milligan was speaking on a panel about the issues limiting Australian journalism, which she said is becoming defined by “ideological poleaxing … a Trumpist phenomenon where people are lining up on either side of the debate and yelling at each other.”

Bundjalung activist Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts said newsrooms are further skewed by a “white, male, privileged” lens that determines what is newsworthy. “Stop tokenising Black issues. We are more than just Sorry Day, Naidoc Week, reconciliation … We deserve to be part of the year, not just particular events.”

ABC global affairs editor John Lyons said journalists are also up against the pressure of lobbyists, especially when writing about issues in Palestine. “If you write a story of what you see in front of you – the Israel police attacked the mourners – you will be attacked in all sorts of ways,” he said. “Your editors will be approached … The aim is to exhaust [journalists] so they think twice before writing anything critical on Israel.”

It is actively working against these conditions that defines much of the journalist’s work, Milligan reflected: “What we are trying to do is get to the truth. We actually want to make positive change.” – Rafqa Touma


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