Sunday 5 June 2016

Sydney Writer's Festival 2016

Some times you see so much, hear so much and think so much it's hard to bring it all together into a coherent whole.

There were so many wonderful moments and details about my time at this year's Sydney Writer's Festival.

Now that I've had some time to reflect as well as discuss our shared experiences with my colleagues and customers, the one thing that it all keeps coming back to is that a lot of people really love books.

The festival consisted of a lot of great experiences and a few not so great (for some people) but it all boils down to a lot of people who love reading.

Every year the people who attend SWF love to catch up with their favourite authors but they're also willing to listen to authors outside their comfort zone, outside their usual genres, outside their usual experiences.

New connections are made. New loves get discovered. New ideas are explored.

I was fortunate enough to attend the launch of this year's Festival back in April. I hobnobbed with authors, booksellers, publishers and just a few media types.

The champagne flowed as we took in the vibe in the huge cavernous space that is Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay.

This place that has become the home to storytellers of all kinds - dancers, playwrights, authors - it's a place that fosters storytelling and creativity.

This place that also has a story of its own to tell - if only the old timber walls and floorboards could talk.

And if only the ancient shell middens and rock engravings underneath all of that could tell us their stories too.

But for now, this night, the story was about books, or 'bibliotherapy' to be more precise. The theme and new logo for the SWF were revealed by Artistic Director, Jemma Birrell.

The spark for this year's theme came from a New Yorker article by Ceridwen Dovey, entitled Can Reading Make You Happier?

Dovey wrote about her experience with a bibliotherapist and discovered that,
Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
The launch ended with a list of the authors attending this year's SWF and a video presentation from Kate Tempest, her words,
/I know Hell is empty cause all the devils are here/
captured my attention.

I exited the building to witness a glorious autumnal sunset - no devils here after all!

Jump ahead a few weeks to another glorious evening in May.
Monday night, my first SWF event was Austen's Women performed by Rebecca Vaughan.
A one woman performance piece featuring 13 of Austen's women.
This time my evening view was from Pier 4, looking back towards Pier 2/3 and the Harbour Bridge

Vaughan did a tremendous job in moving from one character to the next, using minimal props.
For lovers of all Austen's work (like me), this was a treat of the familiar brought to life.

Thursday was my day off work and my chance to enjoy a whole day at the festival.
I was reading Tempest's book to get into the right vibe for the week even though I was not planning on seeing any of her talks. See accompanied me to all my venues and made a great chatting prompt with others waiting in the lines.

Coffee and reading break

One of the free events I attended was a Meet the Writers chat. It featured some of the folk who had won awards at the previous evenings NSW Premier's Literary Award ceremony.
Magda Szubanski and Alice Pung were both in attendance.

This was a very personal discussion about two very different women, from very different generations and with very different backgrounds, who both shared in common the difficulty of being second generation children of refugees who fled war torn countries. 

They talked about their loneliness and sense of exclusion and how their families used humour to cover up their pain.
They discussed the role of gratitude and stoicism and survivor guilt. 
Vicarious trauma was something they both experienced as they grew up.
They both wrote to vent and to escape.
And they both spoke with great affection and understanding about their parents.

Although Pung won the NSW Premier's Award for her recent YA novel, Laurinda, after hearing her talk with Magda about her father, I would also love to read her memoir, Her Father's Daughter.

I then moved across the road to the Roslyn Packer Theatre for my next event.

This was one of my paid in advance events.
At the time I booked it I was focused on wanting to see Gloria Steinem live and didn't pay attention to who else was on the panel. And this is what I love about the SWF, the unexpected pleasures from the unknown. Because Indigenous poet Ali Cobby Eckermann and Jean-Christophe Rufin were both fascinating guests. I particularly enjoyed Rufin's talks about his time with Medicins san Frontieres and his big walk along the Camino de much so, that I bought his book.

Journeys was the theme and they all left us with little pearls of wisdom:

Gloria "The road blows away your preconceptions."
"You're not more important than anyone else, but also, you're not less important."

Jean-Christophe "Camino is like a virus - when you touch - you're infected."
"You become addicted to this life - this vagabond life - you don't think, your body thinks for you."

Ali "The road takes away social stigmas and labels. Friendship can bloom anywhere."
"The stories live in the land."

I went straight from this discussion to Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads talk.
I was seated right at the back of the hall, so I spared you all the fuzzy far away photo of this event!

I have yet to read The Silk Roads, although I have been eyeing off the glorious cover ever since Christmas. 
And just quietly, between you and me, I knew nothing about Peter Frankopan, so I expected an old Oxford don type with messy hair and a faded but neat suit to walk out on stage.
Imagine my pleasant surprise to discover that Frankopan is only in his early 40's, likes to wear a tailored suit and looks rather dashing as he does so!

His aim with this book was to challenge the Eurocentric version of history.
He talked about why his title has a plural, why globalisation is nothing new and why it is important to study history.

Needless to say, I now also own a copy of The Silk Roads.

Mr Books then joined me for one of the evening sessions with David Marr. He interviewed Nikki Savva about her recent political sensation The Road to Ruin.
It was an interesting political discussion but mostly about how Savva wrote the book, collected her information and how she chose what to put in and what not, who to get on the record, who to leave off and her motivation for writing it in the first place.

Unfortunately this was one of the events marred by unfortunate timing as a live band began playing in another event further down the wharf about half way through the talk. We had to listen to two songs through the un-insulated walls before we could hear our speakers clearly again.

A minor annoyance quickly forgotten as Mr Books & I enjoyed a dumpling dinner with a glass of wine and a healthy bookish debate at our new favourite Lotus Dumpling Bar across the road.

Saturday night saw me at my final event for the festival.
This time at Town Hall, all lit up in preparation for VIVID.

Ferrante Fever was a panel discussion featuring translator Ann Goldstein. 
She discussed the publishing and reading phenomenon that is the Neapolitan tetralogy (we all fell in love with how she used this word!) I was fascinated to discover that Goldstein only learnt Italian in her 30's because she wanted to read, as you do, Dante, in the original.

Sharing the panel discussion with Goldstein were Emma Alberici, Susan Wyndham, Benjamin Law and Drusilla Modjeska. They all had little snippets of insight into character development and why the books have struck such a chord with English speaking readers.

The energy and excitement around this chat caused the organisers to announce that the talk would be extended for another half an hour. It also had the positive effect of convincing me to finally finish reading the series myself.

For me the buzz of the SWF's continued for at least a week afterwards as customers came into work asking for books from the authors that they heard. This led to lots of stimulating chats, comparisons and reading suggestions.

Many of the events eventually get turned into podcasts for general consumption. Check the website here for updates.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating and very interesting event. Wish I could have been there. It is fantastic to listen to and meet like minded people. They are inspiring and give you a lot of energy and ideas. Lovely post, thank you.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments.

      I could have written a much longer post - I took so many notes at each event. But I know that most people don't have time to read a long post about someone else SWF experience!
      So I tried for light and succinct.

      I'm hoping I'll be able to use some more of the notes I took when I write my reviews the various books mentioned.

  2. Anonymous5/6/16

    That's it if's and's or but's....
    I'm coming to Sydney to go to this festival.
    What an experience this must be!
    In all seriousness...I'd love to visit Australia...but I have to wait until my cats die!
    Thanks so much for all the information you gathered and I have marked down a few books I want to read.
    (especially Silk Roads (..history lover as I am) the a dashing author!

    1. It would be so wonderful to catch up with you in Sydney and Yi share some if my favourite places (have you checked out my photographic Sydney blog - Four Seasons - link on side panel).

      Some of the commentators and podcasts might have some Aussie references that you might be unfamiliar with, but I think they'd give you a good taste of what the event is about.

  3. Anonymous5/6/16

    Thanks so much..., I told the cats "your days are numbered!" (just kidding!)
    I keep forgetting to look at the "Four Seasons' blog. Will do it today!
    I know it is early ..but are you plannin AusReadingMonth in November? Is there a theme...or something else you are thinking of? I can start searching for books....

    1. All I've thought of for Nov so far is that I will read Ruth Park's Miles Franklin award winning book, Swords and Crowns and Rings. So maybe my theme could be to read any Miles Franklin award winning book this year - that covers people who like classics and people who like contemporary reading :-)

  4. Great post Brona, you got to lots of interesting sessions- one of the things that I like best about writers festivals is that everyone has a different festival depending on the events that they attend. Maybe we'll get to meet up next year?

    1. Thanks Louise I always enjoy your posts about the Newcastle and Mudgee Festivals too. And I really must get to the Mudgee one one year!

      I'd love to meet up at next year's SWF or for a coffee any time you're in Sydney and have a little free time (which I understand is not usually how a trip to Sydney works.)

  5. How fascinating the Goldstein learned Italian in her 30s! Her translations of Ferrante's novels are excellent. I enjoyed reading this post... what an amazing experience.

  6. How exciting to be so close to the Ferrete Fever! Imagine learning Italian in your 30's, I love the courage and adventure in that.

  7. An excellent write-up with great pictures - what a wonderful event. I've never been to a literary festival apart from the very odd event at the Birmingham one (sporadic rather than strange), but I have to say I'm tempted now myself.


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