What comes first, reality or imagination? It’s a chicken-and-egg question this year’s Writers Week: Our Imagined Selves, tries to answer.
Fantasy is built from facts but if you don’t dream, you can’t make anything real in the first place. Whether fact or fiction, stories are the essence of who we are. From our interior lives to the way we interact with our family, friends and community, we are constantly ‘writing’ Our Imagined Selves into existence.
In a world of fake news, alienation and extremism, writers’ festivals like Writers Week are more important than ever. They bring writers and readers together in real time and in the same intimate space to enrich and enlarge our lives.
Our Imagined Selves is a compass or lodestar which maps an individual’s journey from the self through relationships with others, with history and the way those feed the imagination.
It’s the conceptual guide by which the important topics of our times – climate change and the environment, gender fluidity, politics, human and animal rights, religion – could be discussed alongside art, literature, film, photography, music and architecture.
In addition, a strong sense of performance, of theatricality, of musicality, is the hallmark of any nourishing, imaginative engagement with the creative expression of others.
So, you could see a writers’ festival as a giant, provisional play or opera or symphony, in which the component parts – people and performances – are afforded that lovely Kantian notion of free harmonisation.
Anyway, enough about ideas. We asked you here tonight to introduce you to some very special people.
So, let’s for a moment imagine our wonderful Writers Week guests relaxing in the green room, waiting to go onstage like the cast in a play. Some are sitting quietly; others are chatting, excited to be here in Perth; still others are playing music or sampling the local craft beers.
Why don’t we go meet a few of them? We can then move out into the various 'theatres' together to find out what’s in store for us.
Still looking somewhat jet-lagged are our international guests. Except of course for the gorgeous Australian-born Dublin-based novelist Monica McInerney. Fascinated by family life, Monica enjoys nothing more than inventing fictional families and setting off an emotional explosion in their midst – and her last book, The Trip of a Lifetime, is no exception.
But what about that giant of literature, Nigerian novelist, poet and modern master of magical realism, Ben Okri, whose 1991 novel The Famished Road won the Man Booker Prize?
In his foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of that novel, Okri wrote, “The Famished Road is fed by the dreams of literature. I devoured the world, through art, politics, literature, films and music, in order to find the elixir of its tone. Then it became a perpetual story into which flowed the great seas of African dreams, myths and fables of the world, known and unknown… The novel was written to give myself reasons to live.”
Okri’s eagerly-awaited new novel The Freedom Artist, out in a couple of weeks, has been billed as “an impassioned plea for justice and a penetrating examination of how freedom is threatened in a post-truth society”.
And what about Canadian author Esi Edugyan? Her new historical novel of slavery and freedom, Washington Black, was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize. Her swirling, skating prose speaks for itself:
“The air clenched to ice, stinging our cheeks. It began to pinch. Sailing, we glimpsed in the passing black waters eerie, exquisite cathedrals of ice. I had not ever seen ice before, not in its immensities: I stared into the refracted light like a creature entranced. How beautiful it was, how sacred!”
Oh – that stylishly-dressed DJ over there who has just finished his dark techno set? It’s madison moore, American cultural critic, assistant professor of queer studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric.
Dare one say he’s somewhat of a freedom artist himself, working hard to close the gap between 'theory' and 'practice'? Here’s madison, writing fabulously in Fabulous:
“One of the things fabulous eccentricity pushes up against is boredom – and we can all relate to wanting to alleviate boredom when it pops up. The harsh anonymity of the urban environment turns us into a bland, mass phantasmagoria of ‘things’. We become boring.”
Alas, it’s too late for me. But at least madison can help you avoid becoming boring. How? We’ll find out a little later. In the meantime, there’s a whole bunch of people we still want you to meet.
Like Chinese poet and essayist Zheng Xiaqiong, who began writing poetry during the six years she spent as a migrant factory worker. Even her essays balance pain and pleasure on the knife-edge of poetry.
Abu Dhabi resident Deepak Unnikrishnan also writes movingly and powerfully of the migrant experience in his novel, Temporary People. Here, he combines the linguistic invention of Salman Rushdie and the satirical vision of George Saunders in his portrait of the so-called guest workers who comprise more than 80 per cent of the UAE’s population:
“Shipping containers lined the land, strung like beads, camouflaged by colours mimicking desert dunes, stacked like cargo, holes punched in to enable circulation, acting as dormitories. Inside, little cities. Inside, grocery stores. Inside, laboratories. Inside, many graves.”
By contrast, Singapore-based Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – best title ever! – which was picked by Reese Witherspoon’s book club, tells the story of an illicit creative writing class who begin to open up to each other about womanhood, sexuality, and their darkest secrets which places them all in danger in their conservative community.
Okay, see that group over there, drinking G & Ts? They’re all from the UK, nervously talking to each other about their prospects in a post-Brexit Britain.
Among them are the brilliant historical novelist Andrew Miller, whose latest novel Now We Shall Be Entirely Free sets a traumatised veteran of the Napoleonic Wars on a search for peace which turns into a nail-biting hunt to the death.
There’s the equally brilliant Amy Sackville, whose novel Painter to the King gives us a double portrait of the Spanish painter Diego Velazquez and his employer King Philip IV, as vividly realised as any by the Master himself.
There’s Lucy Christopher, whose novel Storm-Wake imagines an entirely different tempest sweeping up Miranda and Caliban in Shakespeare’s island of dreams and magic.
There’s Elleke Boehmer, a Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford and a founding figure in the field of postcolonial literature. Her acclaimed novel The Shouting in the Dark tells the story of Ella, living in South Africa and “caught between her mother’s longing for her lost Dutch home, and her father’s shattering wartime experiences in the Indian Ocean”.
But who’s that man lurking in the shadows?
It’s Greenland-based Danish crime fiction writer Mads Peder Nordbo. The Girl Without Skin is the first of his Arctic Noir thrillers to be published in English. The back cover gives you a sense of what to expect:
“When a mummified Viking corpse is discovered in a crevasse out on the edge of an ice sheet, journalist Matthew Cave is sent to cover the story. The next day the mummy is gone, and the body of the policeman who was keeping watch is found naked and flayed.”
Don’t worry. I’m sure Mads is a nice man. But we’d better discreetly move on all the same.
Hear that raucous laughter? It’s our interstate guests, most of whom haven’t seen each other for a while. Authors have often told me one of the things they most enjoy about writers’ festivals is an opportunity to catch up with one another.
Again, there are some familiar faces: Markus Zusak, David Malouf, Jane Caro, Gail Jones, David Stratton, Kristina Olssen, Peter FitzSimons, Rodney Hall, Anna Funder, Chloe Hooper, Karen Foxlee, Sally Seltmann, Fiona Wright… and Mikey Robins…
But what about that guy over there, Future D. Fidel? He’s the Congolese refugee and Queensland playwright who scored a big hit with his play and novel Prize Fighter, about Congolese refugee Isa, a former child soldier turned boxer.
Many of us, might have seen or heard Carly Findlay on TV or radio but we haven’t had a full-length book from her until now: her memoir, Say Hello, comes out next month. As she writes:
“I've been the hero of my story – telling it on my own terms, proud about my facial difference and disability, not wanting a cure for my rare, severe and sometimes confronting skin condition, and knowing that I am beautiful even though I don't have beauty-privilege.”
One of the Australian authors we’re most excited about seeing here is Walkley Award-winning journalist Trent Dalton. His semi-autobiographical debut novel Boy Swallows Universe is a knock-out. As Trent writes of the book:
“All of me is in here. Everything I’ve ever seen. Everything I’ve ever done. Every girl I ever kissed on a wagged school day, every punch I ever threw, every tooth I ever lost in a Housing Commission street scrap and every flawed, conflicted, sometimes even dangerous Queenslander I’ve ever come across, as the son of two of the most incredible and beautiful and sometimes troubled parents a kid could ever be born to.”
Another amazing journalist and author is Paul Daley, whose slim volume On Patriotism packs a real punch as it asks why commemorating the centenary of World War I so dominated our sense of patriotism.
We should go and meet some of our local authors who seem to have congregated near the stage, listening to live music.
Ah, that’s who’s jamming: Bill Lawrie, Claire Moodie and Grammy Award winning Freo treasure Lucky Oceans. Last year Claire and Bill brought out Freo Groove, a vivid portrait in words pictures of Fremantle and its musicians through the generations. Don’t worry: you’ll get a chance to hear these guys and some of their other musician friends in a free Saturday sundowner.
Looking around, I see we’re definitely on home turf. David Whish-Wilson, James Foley, Amanda Curtin, Alice Nelson, Susan Midalia, Tracy Ryan, Brenda Walker, AJ Betts, John Mateer, Meg McKinlay, Annamaria Weldon and Stephen Scourfield you’ll know and love.
Others you’ll know under different guises.
Like journalist Carrie Cox, whose work you might have come across in the West Weekend magazine. She’s written two non-fiction books, but her debut novel Afternoon with Harvey Beam promises a very different experience as it tells the story of the eponymous talkback radio presenter facing a bit of a mid-life crisis.
Or Kimberley Fine Diamonds owner Frauke Bolten-Boshammer, who finally tells her moving, powerful story in the memoir A Diamond in the Dust.
Nearby, Jandamarra playwright Steve Hawke is talking to Wirlomin Noongar Elder Helen Nellie about his debut adult novel, The Valley, a tale of murder and its consequences through a number of families and generations.
A member of the Stolen Generations, Helen’s own story is told, with the help of Margaret O’Brien, in Simply Ing:
“There was these old trees. They had Noongar way of saying them – mungart trees. And mungart trees are really beautiful light green trees. Beautiful smell in the evening. Sugar tree, jam gum, little gum and it’s the sweetest gum I ever tasted. It was like lollies. Mum used to mix them with sugar and sprinkle all the sugar round on them. That was our lollies. No use wondering when you were going to go to the toilet. It might be a week after. They usually blocked us up and all, but that was good to have sweet gum.”
Okay, we’d better leave these wonderful people to relax and get to know each other better, because they’ll be spending a lot of time together over Writers Week. Let’s join hands now as, Peter Pan-like, we fly into the night to get an overview of those 'theatres' I spoke of before.
Our week begins on Monday 18 February with our free Out & About series at different venues across the city. Fremantle’s Literature Centre, City of Perth Library, Northbridge’s Centre for Stories, The State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground and Kings Park will ring with the sounds of passionate discussion, spoken word prose and poetry and more. Another highlight will our Friday Schools Day at the Perth Cultural Centre.
Then we’re back here in the Octagon for Friday night to start the weekend, when our University Club hub will send spokes out to this wonderful venue, as well as to the Dolphin Theatre, the Arts Building lecture theatres and courtyard, the Callaway Auditorium.
Speaking of the Uni Club, with its great eating and drinking facilities, a friend told me that last year she stuck up a conversation at the bar with none other than rock legend Tim Rogers. So, you never know who you might meet.
Right. We have the cast. We have the theatres. But the play’s the thing. Let’s start with the special marquee events, those stimulating, challenging and above all entertaining weekend opening and closing panels as well as the highlights that lie in between.
Friday night’s All of Me is Here promises to be a compelling panel discussion featuring blogger and appearance activist Carly Findlay, novelist and journalist Trent Dalton and Congolese/Australian playwright Future D. Fidel – all of whom will be talking with the amazing Sisnoke Msimang.
On Sunday night, The Big Crazy Book Club with media sensation Benjamin Law, The Chaser’s Andrew Hansen, indie pop star Sally Seltmann and novelist Monica McInerney promises to be complete mayhem – in a good way.
In between these two not-to-be-missed weekend opening and closing panels are:
Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, one of the most significant literary voices of our time, talking with Sisonke Msimang about life, art, politics, and his new novel, The Freedom Artist.
Anna Funder and yours truly revisiting Funder’s acclaimed book Stasiland to ask whether our world is as divided as ever 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Anna Funder, Jane Caro, Greg Sheridan, & Andrew Hansen debating the limits of free speech in an increasingly polarised global society in I Just Want To Say This.
Washington Black, in which Man Booker-shortlisted Esi Edugyan explores notions of freedom and slavery against a rich backdrop of 19th century scientific exploration and existential calamity.
Across town at Studio Underground, madison moore asks us to stretch ourselves, fulfil our creative potential and have fun at the same time. His late-night ‘performance lecture’ Dance Mania: A Manifesto for Queer Nightlife is an autobiographical story of creativity, community, and how dance clubs are sanctuaries for self-expression. But moore also asks all of us to take the risk, take the trip, break out of your comfort zone and you’ll never look back.
Okay, there’s plenty more food for thought back at our Writers Week Hub, where we have an enticing menu of fine words, fine thoughts and fine dining with your favourite authors at the Uni Club’s restaurant.
Ever fancied sitting down to breakfast with Hugh Mackay or Amy Sackville, Gail Jones and Amanda Curtin? Lunch with travel writer Stephen Scourfield and luthier and musician Scott Wise? High Tea with Balli Kaur Jaswal, Monica McInerney and Elleke Boehmer?
Or even a Jazz High Tea, with Gatz’s Scott Shepherd – the guy crazy enough to have memorised The Great Gatsby in its entirety – and director John Collins, both of whom will be in conversation with our own Natasha Lester as a WAYJO quartet jams in the background?
Well, now’s your chance. And seriously, these things are selling like gin in a speakeasy, so get onto it.
Of the nearly 150 conversations, panel discussions and performances that flow through the week and into the weekend, I want to pluck out just a handful of the dozens I’m personally looking forward to.
In Beautiful as the sky, Paul Daley, Dianne Wolfer and Rachel Bin Salleh talk to historian Ross McMullin about the relationships between patriotism, nationhood, and the Anzac legend.
Joelle Gergis, Deepak Unnikrishnan & Patrick Nunn wrestle with the facts and fictions of the human impact on our world’s climate in The Great Moral Challenge of Our Generation, while in Judas Collar West Australian filmmakers Alison James and Brooke Silcox talk to Portland Jones about their award-winning short film highlighting the plight of feral camels. This session includes a screening of the film you might already have seen as part of our Lotterywest Films at the Somerville.
Heather Morris’s bestselling novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz, based on a true story and continuing to court controversy even as copies fly out the door, forms the subject of an in-depth conversation, at the beautiful Winthrop Hall, between Morris and fellow author Angela Meyer.
As many of you will know, architect Kerry Hill passed away last year, leaving an impressive architectural legacy. In this City of Perth Library session Kerry Hill Architects’ Patrick Kosky & architect Geoffrey London for conversation and a tour of Hill’s City of Perth Library.
And Lust in Translation, in which Baritone Robert Hofmann and pianist Tommaso Pollio perform songs of love and desire by Schubert, Schumann, Strauss et al, in German and English before discussing the pros and cons of singing in translation.
Robert promised me his outrageous alter-ego Helmut Wunderlicher wouldn’t make an appearance. But I have to admit, I’m a little concerned…
The entire weekend on this beautiful campus will be packed with children’s and family activities and we really ramp up the fun on Sunday when Family Day returns with a vengeance.
There’s a special graphic novels focus and comic-to-film retrospective Comic Book Heroes. You won’t want to miss a discussion about The Rise of Australian Comics or films like Flash Gordon and The Adventures of Tintin.
We’ll have a full-blown Zine Fair, in which you can immerse yourself in old-school words-and-pictures action by making your own zine with the help of some of Perth’s top zine, comic & graphic novel artists. It includes pop-up shops, activities & workshops for kids of all ages & their families.
The Sound of Picture Books presented by the Literature Centre and the WA Symphony Orchestra is back.
The extraordinary primary school session leaders of Curated by Kids are back.
The Paper Bird Kombi van is back, with story-telling and fun kids’ activities.
Workshops are back, running right across the weekend, and one the whole family will love is WooTube sensation Eddie Woo showing just how fun maths can be in Reimagining Mathematics.
Our amazing booksellers Boffins are back, in their giant marquee, where you can meet the authors as they sign your books.
In short, everything you expect of a writers’ festival is back. Which in this burning world of Trump and Brexit and ScoMo is somewhat comforting.
But to end as we began, with Our Imagined Selves: Perth Festival Writers Week 2019’s motto could also be “I want to sing of bodies changed into new forms, that beautiful opening line of Roman classical poet Ovid’s book of changes, of transformations, Metamorphoses."
I hope we will all come away from Perth Festival Writers Week 2019 each in our own way somewhat changed, transformed – reimagined.
In whatever guise you take, I can’t wait to see you there.