lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
[personal profile] lizabelle
For the past few days, I've been at the Sydney Writers' Festival, which is based in one of the most beautiful areas of the city, with extra events all over town and further afield as far as the Blue Mountains.

The tag line this year was Read, Rethink, Respond, and there were plenty of topics up for discussion, including freedom of speech at home and abroad, how to save the world, whether we can actually save the world, political intervention in the Northern Territory, as well as lots and lots of talk about literature in its myriad forms.

My personal highlights were: Lydia Cacho and Eric Lax talking about journalism on the front line and how PEN can help; Raj Patel completely living up to his wonderful writing; slam poets Sarah Taylor, Charlie Dark and Emily Zoey Baker at Spoken Four; and Emily Maguire being so fantastically articulate in No Country for Young Women.

I spent Thursday morning volunteering. I enjoyed the experience, but also found it quite stressful: no matter how often you are told that as a volunteer you have no responsibility and you are to contact a member of the festival staff if there are any problems, it's difficult to remain calm in the face of a demanding publisher or a member of the public giving you a sob story about why they need to get into a session that's already full. I have so much more respect now for the amount of organisation that goes into the festival. I only saw the very end of it, but people work really hard to make sure that everything goes smoothly.

I do wonder about venues, though. In many cases, punters had to queue half an hour in advance to be sure of getting into the free events. I know the organisers will say that if people are willing to queue for that long, then of course it's fair...but perhaps bigger venues or more listening/broadcast opportunities might be called for in some cases?

Once I'd finished my volunteer shift, I swapped my bright yellow t-shirt for incognito (it was a real relief to feel invisible again) and immediately found myself at the wrong end of a queue, so failed to get into The Lost Father.

Undaunted, I hung around for What Pen Means To Me: Stories from the Frontline. Lydia Cacho's bravery astounds me; I have no conception of how it must feel to stand up to the very highest levels of power knowing that you are putting your life in danger. Eric Lax gave the other side of the story, ie the work that International Pen does to raise the profile of writers imprisoned for their work. Like many people, I have signed petitions like those put out by PEN, and it's great to know that campaigns like these really do have an impact.

The PEN/human rights theme continued on Friday with the excellent PEN gives voice. Introduced by John Ralston Saul, Colm Tóibín, Eric Lax, Yiyun Li, Thomas Keneally, Frank Moorhouse, Larissa Behrendt and Peter Carey (what a line-up!) read from the work of imprisoned writers in China, Tibet and Burma. Ralston Saul's dryly witty commentary glued everything together, and it was sobering to hear how minor some of the "offences" committed were. One blogger was imprisoned for posting a cartoon on his blog; his very affecting poem was read beautifully by Yiyun Li.

While I'm on the subject of human rights, I was a little surprised that so few panellists and moderators acknowledged that they were on Aboriginal land. My memory may be deceiving me, but I thought that was standard practice for the past few years, and I missed it this year.

Similarly, while I liked the fact that we were given more details than previously about the writers represented by the empty chair at each of the free events, I was sorry to see this feature missing from so many events.

This is getting long, so I'm going to take a break here, and will try to post part 2 of my recap tomorrow.
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