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There was an unplugged authenticity

I loved this Byron Bay Writers Festival more than any of the past five I’ve blogged, or attended, going back to 2004. Yes, I say that after every festival! But this year I felt it more. There was an unplugged authenticity. And the calibre of the writers was strong right across the board, from the big stars of which there many – where does one start?  Stuart Littlemore, Katherine Boo, Jessica Watson,  Gail Jones – this link talks about Jones’s incredible tempering of her speech and writing with poetry.
It’s never easy to précis all that you learn and hear over three days. I never can decide how to blog. It’s a stresser – when you step away to write you miss too much and when you are listening to panels all that you hear fills your brain layer by layer to overflowing.
Think of a smorgasbord being catered for by the world’s top chefs…
So this year I tweet, tweeted #bbwf2012 and left bigger recollections to bubble to the surface afterwards. Here are a few of my highlights and a rough kind of archive. (Apologies for the unscheduled delay in finalising.. pleading the firstborn’s HSC trials/18th defence.)

Kerry O’Brien and Bob Brown. Photo: Evan Malcolm

In any festival there is so much of the ‘Who knew?’ variety of facts collected. How compelling Bob Brown’s telling of his growing up years was. His policeman father and his divorcee mother who had to go from church to church in order to find someone who would marry them. How events echo down the years… Brown’s inner turmoil about being unexpectedly made school captain, about winning the hurdles race, about being caned for watching a whale from the classroom at Coffs Harbour High School, and how he was made school captain when another boy got into trouble, and he left and cried. Where did his passion for the environment start? Brown came home one day with flowers from the bush and his mother told him they’d have been best left there. These things shaped Brown.

His years far from home, in an inner wilderness, that changed when he heard some of the most important words ever spoken to him: Why don’t you be who you are?
He said the Prime Minister Julia Gillard had kept her word with him. And at a private farewell dinner with the PM and her partner, Brown’s partner Paul Thomas, had asked her about her position on gay marriage. She explained it to them, just as she explains it in public. It still mades no sense to him, said Brown.

Who knew that Adrian Franklin proudly has more vases than any other man in history? He was influenced in this by Pablo Picasso who said that vases enabled people who were not wealthy to have real art in their homes. He also collects curtains that were designed by artists, including Henry Moore. Collectors sometimes get a bad press said Franklin. The whole psychology of labelling collecting as obsession is not warranted. Research is compelling and sometimes people mistake that for psychosis, says Franklin.

The program also covered the newest of novelists. One of the sessions I heard people talk about most – and that they are still talking about for I’ve lost count of how many people have told me about it – was the homegrown panel about Writers’ Groups. This included Sarah Armstrong, and debut novelists, Lisa Walker and Jessie Cole, chaired by Jesse Blackadder. These writers are fantastic in their support of each other within their groups. I knew this already and not without some envy from past soirees that these groups go far deeper than a cuppa and a natter. Now writers’ groups members all over the NSW North Coast and beyond, including the one I am in, are being told about these writers who send their work to each for editing ahead of their meetings. I wonder what the ripple will be …..

Nicole Moore reveals to people a collection of censored books – it’s the absent library that a country keeps away from itself. Australia barred hundreds of book up until 1973. Some of them were books not banned anywhere else in the world. There were 22 Micky Spillane books banned, and literary books aroused the most suspicion and were all read by one man. Apparently he did not enjoy his reading.

Who knew about Niromi de Soyza? She appears now, as far from being a child soldier, as anyone could be. My first sighting of

Niromi de Soyza’s book

her was at a session on schools Thursday. It was a gorgeous afternoon and she had herself and teachers, and students in tears. What struck me most was how one minute she and her parents were going through all the normal teen/parent angst, and then the next she and a friend were Tamil child soldiers. And yet mid a deadly game they still wanted the connections and rites of passage that every teen wants. But she, and her family came through. I know this because I gave them a lift, spending 30 minutes with them, trapped in traffic to Byron.

Despite the deliberately eclectic programming, there seemed to be a large number of ex-members of the legal profession…. Stuart Littlemore, Michael Kirby. And John M Green, Shamini Flint, Elliot Perlman and Sulari Gentill – how many lawyers does it take to make an audience laugh? Shamini Flint can’t afford a sports car any more – and somehow amid bringing up a family she produces novels – childrens novels, detective novels, and adult – prolifically. Sulari Gentill drew the dots of herself, not practicing law any more and instead writing in baggy pyjama pants, and Elliot Perlman painted in the picture of himself wearing those same pants, as he wrote. I realise he said something more than that but after a while there was too much laughter, and little wonder I only ended up with a signature on his book (that I can’t wait to read).

Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and someone who clearly knows where to source the best of Indian cotton clothing. More than once, I was tempted to ask – where DID you get that dress? But instead I asked her if she would mind repeating to me, something she said during a panel. She’d told us of wanting to write about a housing project in the US that deserved writing about and of the disappointment when told that while it was a worthy story, editorial budgets would not run to it. It’s not right, what can I do? she said. Her editor said, “Subsidise their lack of interest with your surplus.”

I thought the best place to remember what Katherine Boo said was in her book

I think that’s what writers do. And soon, very often there is interest, and community, readers and something much more comes.

Marian Edmunds


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