Sydney Writers’ Festival

by Jane

I just spent a delightful four days in Sydney with Guardian Australia for the writers’ festival around the wharfs on the Harbour – surely the most impossibly beautiful place to put a festival, and we had the most unseasonably warm weather to boot. I’ve left feeling exhausted and inspired, and with a reading list that has increased ten-fold. 

Here’s what I wrote while I was there:

David Malouf: my life as a reader

Growing up in Brisbane, he was eight when he first read Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, before his father bought him the complete works at aged ten. Since then, he says, he must have read each play “hundreds of times,” and yet, especially when watching Shakespeare in performance, Malouf continues to find lines he has never heard before. “There is nothing more extraordinary to finding your way into the mind of Shakespeare,” he says, still filled with awe. Shakespeare is, in Malouf’s estimation, the greatest writer the world has ever seen.

My Valentine, Sandi Toksvig review – a love letter to the world

The show is at its most touching when a homage to her friends and their adventures, and particularly the bond they often shared over the English language – and the puns that can be made with a language which is much more complex than Danish.

Thomas Keneally: ‘Joan of Arc was a stroppy sheila’

Watching Thomas Keneally in discussion with his biographer, Peter Pierce, you wonder if this is what their hours of interviews in preparation for Pierce’s Australian Melodramas: The Fiction of Thomas Keneally were like, or is this just a particular domain that rises between the pair when you place them in front of several hundred people, and tell them they only have an hour to look at Keneally’s 50 years as a writer?

Irvine Welsh, Sandi Toksvig and Gary Shteyngart on debauchery

Because of this, the most interesting things we hear are the anecdotes about life, rather than about writing: Shteyngart on his ex-girlfriend, who moved to Florida to date Shteyngart’s doppelganger, before she took his ear off with a hammer (“Maybe she just wanted to tell you apart,” suggests Welsh); one of Toksvig’s “few” drug stories, where she ate half a cannabis biscuit and went to bed; Welsh on discovering “let’s have a couple of beers” in America means two beers, “in the UK they mean two days”.

Culture: what is it, what’s it worth and who’s shut out?

Even as these panelists speak about listening to others, to observing how we all interact with the world, and about wanting to provide people with a voice, they are still finding they must question their own interaction with the culture. Speaking about how our society makes invisible thousands of seafarers who allow for global shipping, Rankin reflects on how he, too has made voices invisible. Recently reading Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, he was forced to question theatre he had previously made about Eureka. “How dare I exclude women from the culture?”

Tara Moss, Irvine Welsh and Damon Young on writing about bodies

Moss has been writing fictional characters for years in her crime novels, but here she discusses the analysis of the ways women’s bodies are perceived – and fictionalised – in society. Reading a section from her book, she relays quotes about women’s aptitudes and physiology from 1873 (Edward Clarke saying an education will steal blood away from women’s reproductive system), 1888 (Friedrich Nietzsche on women scholars having problems with their sexual organs), and 1915 (Charles L Dana and the impracticality of women’s spines for politics). Through this, the audience laughs – how archaic!

Amy Tan, Gary Shteyngart and Benjamin Law on being the children of immigrants

When Tan’s mother lived in Shanghai, she was a socialite. Moving to America for love to marry a poor minister, she struggled not only with the change in cultures, but perhaps even more so with the shift in status. Tan says it was in returning to China with her mother that she began to realise the complexities of her life. “I used to think she got into a lot of arguments [in America] because no-one could understand her English,” says Tan. “When I went to Shanghai with her she got into even more arguments, and I realised English only held her back.”

Emma Donoghue: ‘I didn’t need to take drugs – I had books’

The speech was written as she spent time in Australia this week at “the most fabulous of festivals. I’ve been to many festivals, and this is without peer.” She couldn’t have written it before arriving, she says, as “you should be a bit changed at the end of the Sydney writers’ festival.” And that change comes through: she references talks she heard and discussions she had with many writers over the week. She talks of Andrew Solomon’s opening speech, Sandi Toksvig’s Peas and Queues, Kate Ceberano discussing her daughter, and Nakkiah Lui on who gets to tell whose stories.

And do check-out all of our coverage from the four days at our live-blog, with many more articles about many more writers. There I have notes on Irvine Welsh being asked if people can skip his books and just watch the films; a short interview with Nakkiah Lui; a look at what festival goers are reading; thoughts on erotic fan fiction; and a short note of love to a brief glance at a first edition Enid Blyton.