Last weekend Byron Bay hosted one of the largest writer’s festivals in Australia, with three days of marquee action in the Byron Arts & Industry Estate and many more satellite events and workshops in the surrounding area. Writer’s festivals are a sublime experience, crammed with ideas and reflections on culture, politics and current events as well as the wonder of fictional worlds and the nuts and bolts of the writing profession. As usual I returned home with a stack of new books to add to my bedside pile, all bearing the scribble of their maker and some rare insight into their creation.
The Byron Writers Festival can get rather journalist-heavy with events skewing toward political panels, debates and interviews. Most of these commentators have written some form of tome which warrants their inclusion in a writer’s festival (though, yes, journalists are writers too) whether it be a memoir or a long piece of gonzo investigation. This year was no different, though it was heartening to see a range of career authors on the cards as well, both local and international.
I was fortunate to see Charlotte Wood, the winner of the Stella Prize, talking about her recent release The Natural Way of Things. Aside from winning a slew of awards this book has garnered some serious attention because of it’s rather brutal subject matter, a departure from Wood’s previous works. The novel is a quasi-future tale of a group of women imprisoned in a harsh penal system in the middle of nowhere and how they survive the various traumas bestowed upon them by their wardens. It was inspired, Wood says, by all injustices suffered by women but particularly by the Hay Institute for Girls, whose existence speaks of the ill-hidden horrors that resurface from time to time in Australia’s less proud moments. When asked by her friends (and in this session by Matthew Condon) where the heck this kind of dark story came from, she replied, to a silent audience, “from fifty years of being a woman and absorbing the message from all authorities in your life that there is something wrong with you”.
On a lighter note Dominic Smith gave a session on his latest book The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, which has also attracted it’s fair share of hype. The novel is set between 1600s Holland, 1950s New York and 2000s Sydney and follows the trail of the last remaining work of Dutch artist Sara de Vos as it is forged by a young art restorer in Brooklyn in 1950 and then shows up at the gallery where she works in 2008 in Sydney. Smith talked in raptures about his research, clearly smitten by the Dutch art scene and the almost unknown women who were professionally recognised as painters but not allowed to sign their own works and thus fell into obscurity (actually, this has some echoes of Charlotte’s comments also…). This is the book I chose to read first and I’m enjoying it immensely. The three threads are distinct and fascinating in their unique worlds and the story travels along nicely without too many complications to stretch the old grey matter. A beautiful, clever, trinket of a book.
Also of note was Jeffery Renard Allen, a poet-turned-author from the United States discussing his new work Song of the Shank. The protagonist of this novel is the real historical character of Blind Tom, an African-American pianist who lived and worked during the years of the American Civil War. His talent was so remarkable that he was a celebrity of the time, Mark Twain saying of him that his ability either came from God or the devil. Blind Tom is a fascinating character in his own right but being a slave during the Civil War and yet also a celebrity meant he occupied the two opposing spheres of privilege and oppression. Elements of this are explored in Allen’s novel as he traces the man’s experiences and relationships in a fictional retelling of his life. I had a chat with Allen after his session and we spoke about both music and writing. He said he’ll look out for my novel next year, and to write to him and tell him what I thought of Shank. Well, Jeffery, you’ll be hearing from me soon.
Worth noting also was a session called “The State of the United States” graced by William Finnegan (Pulitzer-prize winning memoirist and writer for The New Yorker), Jeffery Renard Allen, Angela Flournoy (National Book Award shortlistee), and the incorrigible P.J. O’Rourke, who, true to form, dominated the session. It was fascinating to hear the gathered minds talk about the rise of Trump and what it means about the combined consciousness of America right now. Considered in light of the gun policy issues and the Black Lives Matter movement, the panelists generally agreed that the nation is in a state of fear about the changing world and this has sparked an anti-elitist sentiment across all demographics. One of them commented that the Trump furore clearly indicates that America is hungry for a demigod, and that it might be the start of the demise of the US as a bastion for freedom and democracy.
There was also a wonderful lecture from Robert Dessaix, “How Enid Blyton Changed My Life”, which was equal parts funny, insubordinate and fiercely intelligent. And on Sunday we had the privilege of attending a talk between Nigel Milsom, winner of the 2015 Archibald Prize, his subject, the celebrity barrister Charles Waterstreet, and Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of NSW. Waterstreet spoke about his childhood growing up in Albury (the subject of his latest memoir Repeating the Leaving), living down the street from Nigel’s family and also Richard Roxburgh. It’s no surprise to learn that Waterstreet is the real-life inspiration for Roxburgh’s current TV incarnation, Cleaver Greene in Rake.
It’s wonderful to be surrounded by so many like-minds in such close proximity for several days and to revel in the cultural treasures of our own nation as well as those around the world. Events like this enlarge your understanding of the state of our cultural and political landscape and provide a snapshot of the issues and concerns affecting the world we live in right at this very moment in time. One panelist commented that the future depends on people being open to widen their minds, to consider issues from more than one perspective and to learn from those who have contrary experiences to their own, and that festivals like this enable such expansion to occur. I couldn’t agree more.