ADELAIDE WRITERS' WEEK - My Highlights
Updated: Mar 11, 2019
Writers' week 2019 started on Saturday 2 March, at 9.30am and despite the 42C (approx 107F) I was there. The outdoor venue, Pioneer Womens' Memorial Garden luckily has lots of trees and has sails installed to provide shade but the heat was made it a bit uncomfortable. I took two breaks and wandered up to the department store and their air conditioner although I was always hot again by the time I came back. Later in the week it cooled down so much people were wearing jumpers, and I got rained on during one session. Quite an erratic week for weather, but consistent quality from the speakers and discussions. With seven sessions scheduled each day, Twilight sessions on Monday and Tuesday evening and the Adelaide Arts Festival opening concert (free) in Elder Park on Saturday night, it was an exhilarating but tiring week.
One great feature of writers' week is the thought provoking talks and the reasoned and rational discussions. It's unfortunate that these talks are mainly attended by those who already have an open mind and want to learn more. Given our media is full of shrill right-wing commentary shouted deafeningly to drown out any other voices and to provoke fear and division we need more events that don't rely on opinion only. How wonderful it would be to have those who disagree, willing to listen and engage in a conversation where evidence and rational thought were the primary tools. However, I do enjoy spending time in the company of others who share the ideal of compassion, evidence-based arguments and centre/left leaning values.
The first day had an impressive range of speakers. At times it was hard to choose between the two stages. I was also surprised at how popular many of the sessions were (given the heat). The session by Gillian Triggs, ex-President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, was a highlight. Her strength and resolve in the face of the then governments pressure. She was able to explain events and the legal requirements that the then government and the media seemed to generally ignore. Her book, Speaking Up, should be an interesting read.
Another highlight was listening to Kassem Eid, , a Palestinian Syrian, tell of his personal experience living under a dictatorship while being stateless and a refugee. He is a survivor of a Sarin gas attack. He discussed the current war on facts and truth while also talking about the moment of truth, when you find out what you stand for. I'm sure his memoir, My Country: A Syrian Memory, would open our eyes to what refugees are fleeing. So often the narrative around asylum seekers is about stopping them from 'coming' when they are 'fleeing' conditions we can't even imagine. The push factors need more attention.
Ben Okri (Man Booker Prize winner), The Freedom Artist, Talked about our 'collective sleep' and how we all need to question what authorities tell us.
I enjoyed Kerry O'Brien's chat with David Marr. It was like listening in to two friends reminiscing and they're insights into politics and politicians, gathered from their careers, made for a funny and entertaining chat.
For me the theme that seemed to pervade the entire first day was the need to ask questions and to challenge what we are being told, especially when in Australia our media is controlled by one voice.
Day 2 Highlights
Mohammed Hanif, Red Birds, is a Pakistani writer whose wit and intellect shone through his talk. His first novel, The Case of the Exploding Mangoes' was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. Red Birds is a fiction novel about an American Pilot who crashes near to a refugee camp and is helped by the refugees he'd been sent to bomb. I was so engaged by his stories and his humour I bought his book. His stories followed the theme of needing to question authorities, but added that we need to also ask the right questions.
Day 3 Highlights.
The session titled "Out of Sight' reinforced the theme I'd seen emerging from the sessions I attended. It identified how the experience of refugees is often not reported or seen. This is especially true when our government maintains a veil of secrecy around detention centres and those detained, going so far as to punish any employees that dare to speak of the experience of the Detention Centres. Between questions to the author the man sitting next to me said how sorry he felt for the refugees but how they had 'come here illegally'. It really shows how pervasive the propaganda is. Seeking refuge is not illegal.
I was inspired by artist Ben Quilty and his talk of uncomfortable truths and will be sure to see his art exhibition at the Adelaide Art Gallery. He is a remarkable man who has adhered to his personal principles even when others threaten or harangue him.
The day ended with a lively and interesting interview of Markus Zusak, Bridge of Clay, (and author of Book Thief). A great way to finish day 3.
Day 4 Highlights.
Adam Wakeling, Stern Justice, spoke of the Australian led Pacific war crimes trials held primarily in Hong Kong but also in other locations (for the lesser officials), of Japanese commanders and soldiers after WW2.. It was an eye-opener. I'd never heard of them. A chapter of history that we all should know.
Eileen Ormsby, The Internet's Evil Twin, is a lawyer turned Investigative journalist and her investigations into cyber crime was the backdrop to a chilling and eye-opening talk about the Dark net. Hearing about the Dark net and the Darker net we were all grateful to be spared stories of the Darkest net. A frightening insight into an underworld people like me are rarely, if ever, exposed to.
The final panel discussion titled, Rise of Right' left us all feeling insecure but much more aware of some of the sinister organisations feeding hate and disunity. The panel consisted of three impressive speakers, Carolin Emcke (Against Hate), Nancy MacLean (Democracy in Chains) and Jeff Sparrow (Trigger Warnings) and each had a unique perspective. I came away with my copy of Democracy in Chains, although this true-life thriller might be daytime reading only.
Day 5 Highlights
Out of the seven options for the day the most popular and the talk I enjoyed the most was listening to David Marr being interviewed by Tom Wright. The big message for me was that we need to decide what matters and that even good people can get it wrong. A quote I particularly related to was 'Great moral principles are not established by a show of hands."
The panel discussion for the "Disunited States' was interesting, informative but also scary. Speakers Gina Apostol, Damien Cave and Duke University Professor Nancy MacLean (Democracy in Chains) discussed the ugly partisan divisions fuelling toxic political culture and what's behind it.
I also enjoyed the talk by Toby Walsh, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and author of the book titled 2062, in discussion with Scott Ludlum about the digital revolution, technology and the development of artificial intelligence. It was frightening to learn that 28 Nations have called for a pre-emptive ban on the use of artificial intelligence in war to kill humans, but Australia is refusing to sign and is actively disrupting the efforts to achieve this.
'South African Rising' was discussed by a panel made up of Ndaba Mandela (grandson of Nelson Mandela and author of Going to the Mountain), Sisonke Msimang (Always Another Country) and Marlene van Niekerk (short listed for Man Booker Prize and author of Triomf and The Way of the Women). Their observations on the progress but also the amount of work to be done to achieve true democracy and lift living standards for all was sobering and informative. Again it was interestingly noted that liberators are not necessarily saviours and that people can be sceptical without being cynical.
A fabulous day.
Day 6 Highlights
I could only attend one session on day 6 but it was well worth the trip into town. Clare Wright, You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world, highlighted the Australian story of suffrage and Federation and how the two were intertwined. Amazing that this history is not mentioned in other history books and shows how often the achievements of women are not acknowledged or even recorded. Wonderful to have a book that has been so well researched to tell the story.
The week went so quickly and although I was determined not to buy anymore books (I have too many waiting to be read) I again managed to come home with two: Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif and Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean. I also have a list of books to keep an eye on and perhaps buy when I might have some more time to read.
The topics this year had a stronger focus on non-fiction and current issues. That made the sessions thought provoking and enlightening although I did miss finding some new fiction authors to add to my reading list (although maybe I should be grateful for the chance to catch up on all the books I bought last year).