Blow by Blow: An Overview of the 2018 Byron Writers Festival

Relive some of the most memorable moments of the 2018 Byron Writers Festival through the gimlet eyes of our Festival reporters, Katinka Smit and Anika Ebner. 

Friday 3 August

The 2018 Festival kicked off with beautiful weather that blessed us all weekend – the calm and cloudless days granting us clarity to think about the things that are important to us personally and as a society.

Leading us straight to the heart of life itself, three unconventional and courageous authors spoke with Nathan Scolaro of their experiences ‘Living Wild’. They commented on our need for non-judgemental human connection, as well as the importance of sacred spaces in which we can listen to our inner conversations and reflect on the true nature of things. Gregory Smith found the forest his greatest teacher; it taught him to care for himself in the deepest way, something he never learnt in his life with people. Jessie Cole found profound healing returning to the wildness of her child self in the forest her parents planted. Miriam Lancewood embraced challenge in a life of hunting and gathering and learnt that the bare necessities are all we actually really need.

Laughter of course, is one of those necessities, particularly if, like Andrew Hansen and Kitty Flanagan, you find ‘Comedy: the Most Addictive Thing You’ll Ever Do’. Mandy Nolan helped her fellow laugh addicts thrash out their worst gigs ever, what keeps them going, and the benefits, like good punctuation or timing, of a well-placed swear word. The packed out tent enthusiastically agreed.

In ‘How to Get Boys Reading’, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Ben Hobson and Tristan Bancks agreed that boys who see their fathers read learn that reading is an acceptable type of masculinity, while Tim Rogers thought good old-fashioned romantic yearnings might encourage lads to load up on literature. It certainly worked for him.

From loving books to making art: Tracey Moffatt shared some of her process, including a slide show of several of her works, with a discerning crowd who impressed experienced chair Jill Eddington with their deep, thoughtful questions.

Matthew Condon surprised Labor deputy-leader Tanya Plibersek with some canny questioning. The normally private politician, who feels happiest and most useful working in the back rows of the parliament, talked about her childhood and the difficulty of missing her family while participating in the privilege of serving the nation.

Discussing the foundation of the nation was at the heart of ‘First Things First: Indigenous Australia’. Beginning with the failed ‘Uluru Statement of the Heart’, Henry Reynolds, Allan Clark and Melissa Lucashenko respectfully disagreed about the wording of that document and its ability to be more than ‘beads and blankets’. Later however, all parties agreed that politics was the power of the possible and we need to make things possible. Jill Eddington gently guided this important discussion, one that concerns the nation as a whole, but also clearly mattered a great deal to this audience, packed to the Pavilion walls.

In another marquee, ‘Making the Beast Beautiful’ became an art form. Sarah Wilson, Dervla McTiernan and Jessie Cole have harnessed anxiety to enhance their creativity. No stranger to what anxiety can do to people’s lives, Sarah Krasnostein was the perfect chair for this important conversation about the void of socialised silences and writing your way through to the other side where a new reality can emerge.

Saturday 4 August

Saturday had near-capacity crowds and a bluebird day. Conversations explored many deep terrains and writers continued to share their stories with open-hearted grace. There were tears, of course, and laughter as always, but most apparent was the collective appreciation for the generosity of the human spirit and the power of stories to transform and empower us.

Readers instinctively know ‘How Fiction Can Foster Empathy’. Trent Dalton had us close to tears telling the story that lead to his Mum’s stint in Boggo Road Jail. “I coughed it out of my heart and soul. The last thing I want is the world to turn on my mum; she is a warrior, she is the hero of the story. I bet you all know women like that.” Matt Haig admitted that his writing was so bleak when he first started that “Literally everyone died. Unless you had a totally bleak ending you were selling out. Mental illness has made me and my writing more optimistic.” Nicole Abadee praised Elise Valmorbida for the depth of her research, who revealed the most difficult part of her research was finding out how to be an ordinary person in extraordinary times. “It felt like treasure to find.” They all agreed that for readers to feel empathy writers need to feel it too.

Jacquie Lambie has intimate understanding of the stumbling path that life can be and knows how to brush herself off, stand up and have another crack at it. Sarah Kanowski expertly drew out Jacquie’s story; even if you don’t agree with her politics she’s a refreshingly honest and paradoxical human being who’s not afraid to admit to (and learn from) her mistakes.

Meanwhile, brave women in another tent brought the audience and themselves to tears telling their amazing stories of courage to Rosemarie Milsom in ‘Memoir: Making a Place for Myself’. Manal al-Sharif and Hyeonseo Lee fled their countries and felt a responsibility to help those left behind: in doing so they endangered their lives and their families. Anne Aly’s flight from domestic violence left scars that still hurt, but all agreed that helping other people to speak out made it worth it.

To border crossings of a more spirited kind, Eddie Ayres, Brigid Delaney and Kari Gislason regaled us with travel stories in ‘On The Road Again’. Gislason described his impulse to travel as being driven by the idea that ‘there’s some sort of answer at the end of a journey’ that can’t be found here. In an age of mass tourism, the panel unanimously agreed that the opportunity for ‘authentic’ travel exists for those who seek it and take the time to be immersed in a place.

Stories of high seas adventure had a packed pavilion on the edge of its seat, as Norwegian investigative journalists Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Saeter took us on board their real-life thriller ‘Catching Tunder: The World’s Longest Sea Chase’ – revealing the murky waters of organised crime behind illegal fishing boats.

Other standout sessions from the day were Jenny Hocking’s revealing discussion with Kerry O’Brien about the role the Palace played in Gough Whitlam’s dismissal; ‘The Frontier Wars’ with Tom Keneally, Warren Mundine and Henry Reynolds and ‘What if Women Ruled the World’ with anti-wallflowers Anne Aly, Jacqui Lambie and Bri Lee.

Super Saturday concluded with David Ritter, Joelle Gergis, Clive Hamilton and Adam Shoemaker discussing the hard hitting topic of ‘The Anthropocene’, climate change and the “discernible human footprint” on the planet. The sense of urgency, despair and the need for everyone to take stand was stressed. The session finished with David Ritter: “think about it this way, you needn’t think about your life not having meaning, there is plenty to do.”

Sunday 5 August

Sunday kicked off to the whir of children’s imaginations, who were on site bright and early for Kids Big Day Out and already making their own books with Zanni Louise by the time the rest of us had slurped our first latte. The crowds soon filled in and it was wonderful to see so many familiar faces getting a taste for the Festival with their locals’ tickets.

In a day of many highlights just some included former President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs delivering the annual Thea Astley Address ‘Speaking Up in a Post Truth World’. Triggs galvanized her audience to take a stand in the current climate of fake-news and misinformation, inspiring a cheering standing ovation.

Lemn Sissay had us all at “hello” with his powerful conversation with Adam Shoemaker. In what many are describing as their Festival highlight, Sissay held a packed tent in the palm of his hand, hanging on his every vowel as he recited one of his poems from ‘Gold from the Stone’. The captivated gathering erupted into a standing ovation at the poem’s conclusion, testimony to Lemn’s musing that “If an alien comes down to Earth they will discover more from poetry and poets than from the politicians.”

Huge crowds listened in fascination to whale expert Micheline Jenner’s up close and personal tales of a life lived with whales while Ben Hobson shared the gruesome details of whaling, in ‘Whales: Why They Speak to Our Psyche’.

There was standing room only for ‘The State of Australian Politics’ session with Prof Gareth Evans, Prof Jenny Hocking and Warren Mundine, chaired by Karen Middleton. The discussion ranged from whether politics is broken to the parlous state of the Australian media, two-party politics, how to win elections and whether Australian policies can have an impact on the global stage.

This year’s Festival panels covered many terrains but a common thread throughout the conversations, reflected by our writers and their enraptured audiences, was that of hope; and the power that lies beneath it for us to enact change. Jo Chandler, when chairing her session ‘Keeping the Blue Planet Green’, closed with a quote from Rebecca Solent’s essay Hope in the Dark – ‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.’

To those that joined us for the 2018 Festival, we hope you had a marvellous time and left feeling as inspired and enriched as we did. We look forward to seeing Where Stories Take You at next year’s Festival.

SAVE THE DATE! 2 – 4 August, 2019.

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Byron Writers Festival