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Adelaide Writers Week 2020

March 13, 2020

The Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden is a tribute to South Australian pioneer women, including suffragettes and social reformers. Adelaide Writers Week (29 Feb – 5 Mar) was held at two venues in the parkland, well-shaded by huge leafy trees. Attendance often overflowed the chairs, so people lolled around on the lush grass. During the week, 117 writers, poets, journalists, historians, scientists, politicians and academics from around the world took part. Here are some of my highlights.

Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden (CC Licence)

Fiction

Charlotte Wood (Photo: Chris Chen)

Charlotte Wood spoke about writing her novel, The Weekend, while she was Writer in Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre, a multidisciplinary health research centre at the University of Sydney. She told workers at the centre about the dementing dog in her novel, and said she was worried she wasn’t getting it right. ‘You should talk to our demented dog unit,’ they told her. They introduced her to a group researching dog ownership and human health, and their information was invaluable to Wood in creating seventeen-year-old Finn and his relationship with his owner in The Weekend.

During her session, Wood was asked, why write? To make something beautiful, she replied, and to make something true. If you have talent, you have a moral obligation to use it. And she writes to defy emptiness, by making something that didn’t exist before. Finally, she writes to bear witness. Paying attention is a moral act.

Tara June Winch (CC Licence)

Tara June Winch bears witness. She gave an inspiring talk about her new novel, The Yield, which took a decade to write. Indigenous writers feel the weight of responsibility, she said, especially after the success of her first novel, when she was 24 and trying to say everything and feeling it was too much for her.

Indigenous language is central to The Yield, which shows the spiritual and cultural loss caused by the suppression of language. One of the main characters, Albert Goondiwindi, is writing the history of his people, using entries in the Wiradjuri dictionary he has compiled (based on Stan Grant Snr’s dictionary). Winch struggled with the rules of literature. Can a dictionary be part of a novel? Now she feels like a plasterer who has learnt to build a whole house.

Another First Nations writer, Tony Birch, spoke about his novel, The White Girl (my review here). He described it as a book about love, especially the love Aboriginal women have for each other. He also wanted to show that people can be so damaged by crimes against them that their loss can’t be repaired by reunion or an apology.

Julia Phillips grew up in New Jersey, studied Russian and became a Russophile. Her novel, Disappearing Earth, is set on Kamchatka, the large peninsula in east Russia, where Phillips lived for a year and a half. The novel is written from the point of view of thirteen local women, Russian and Indigenous, after the disappearance of two little girls. Disappearing Earth has received universal praise, and was one of the New York Times books of the year for 2019.

Phillips is charismatic and articulate, and it was only after the session that I began to consider the dangerous thing she had done. Was she really able to inhabit the minds of the Russians and First Nations people of Kamchatka? Or has she filled her characters’ heads with American concerns?

Poetry

Joy Harjo

The most moving events of the week were the poetry readings, especially those by two First Nations poets: Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, and Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckermann. They are friends who spark off each other. I loved Joy Harjo’s strong voice. ‘Poetry,’ she said, ‘is what I go to when I have no words, such as after a massacre.’ It was impossible to remain dry-eyed as she read her long poem, Washing My Mother’s Body, which begins:

I never got to wash my mother’s body when she died.
I return to take care of her in memory.
That’s how I make peace when things are left undone.

 

Non-Fiction

On Sunday of Writers Week, we attended two sessions that ended with standing ovations. The first was for Bernard Collaery, the lawyer for Witness K, who revealed that Australia bugged the Timor-Leste Prime Minister’s office to gain a commercial advantage in oil and gas negotiations. Collaery has just published Oil Under Troubled Water. There was some nervousness among attendees that the session might be raided and all copies confiscated. After the session, people rushed to the book tent, and Collaery’s book sold out in ten minutes.

Many Timorese died helping Australian soldiers in the Second World War and Collaery says that since then we have repaid them with much bastardry, culminating in the bugging.

In Australia, he said, to report a crime is to commit a crime. We have the most repressive legislation in the world. A Bill of Rights is part of the answer, but we also need to value democracy and remove rorters. The rule of law, he said, is still working in the UK.

The second standing ovation was for Megan Davis and Thomas Mayor at the session on the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Davis and Mayor are eloquent advocates for the Statement. It is an endorsement of dialogues that took place all over Australia and proposes voice, treaty and truth – a voice to parliament for consultation when making laws about First Nations people and a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreement-making and truth-telling.

Megan Davis said that the dialogues show that symbolism is not enough anymore. All the dialogues were separate but reached similar conclusions. She believes that the announcement of the Statement was a constitutional moment, something that the nation should celebrate forever.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart

But wait, there’s more …

With plenty of good food and coffee, over 80 sessions to choose from, and the relaxed, friendly atmosphere created by the gorgeous outdoor setting, Adelaide Writers Week is unique. And the bonus is the Adelaide Festival program each evening. The highlight for us was the Tim Minchin concert that opened the Festival.

Thank you, Adelaide!

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