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Our highlights of Sydney Writers’ Festival

Emma Joyce

Empathy was the recurring theme of this year’s Writers’ Festival. It started with a rousing opening address from woman-of-the-moment Kate Tempest, who spoke uncomfortable truths about Australia’s issues with racism and the West’s fixation with consumerism. She also spoke of empathy and love, which was echoed by Hanya Yanighara’s closing speech on Sunday. It was a week packed with opportunities to talk about the nuances of words on a page and the big concerns we have in contemporary society. And, as it often is, the festival was over all too quickly. Time Out Sydney's editors have picked out their favourite moments from the festival, so you can relive the talks or find out what you missed...

Annabel Crabb receiving the gift of cakePhotograph: Prudence Upton

Annabel Crabb: Food and Friends
Bars and Pubs Editor Emily Lloyd-Tait says:
One of the most interesting things about Annabel Crabb and Wendy Sharpe’s recipe book Special Delivery is the way they structured the index. It’s not ordered by ingredient, which is the traditional method, but rather by occasion, or need. Crabb explained during her talk that some dishes in the celebrations section would not be appropriate for the bereaved, and anything too taxing would only make an overwhelmed person feel worse. In fact, she recommends spicy nuts for a truly couch-cocooned overwhelmed person. Crabb is quick to mention that writing a cookbook is a lot more fun than a book on politics, if for no other reason than people don’t tend to troll you mercilessly when you’re talking about pea tarts. To the person who called Annabel Crabb a baby-rapist, you are a garbage human and you should be ashamed of yourself. 

Charlotte Wood: The Natural Way of Things
Bars and Pubs Editor Emily Lloyd-Tait says:
Writing is so often framed as a labour of love, and so it was oddly refreshing to hear that Charlotte Wood did not have a nice time writing her dystopian novel about ten women imprisoned in an outback workhouse. She spoke very candidly about the discomfort in inhabiting dark imaginary places for your work, and about the anxiety that can produce. To cope she found inspiration in the difficult and confronting sculpture practices of Louise Bourgeois. Fortunately for her readers, Wood is a merciful writer. She didn’t want to leave us in the darkness for too long so what took three years to write is actually a relatively short book, and a page-turner at that. But Wood is still angry. She points to the hypocrisy of the hand wringing about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse while offshore detention practices continue. She makes a good point. 

Gloria Steinem talking to Jennifer ByrnePhotograph: Prudence Upton

Gloria Steinem: Life on the Road
Lifestyle Editor Emma Joyce says:
“How come we’re not further along than we should be right now?” That’s one of the most common questions posed to feminist demigoddess Gloria Steinem and one that she addressed in the first few minutes of her sold-out talk at Sydney Town Hall on Saturday. Controlling women’s bodies in order to control reproduction is the fundamental reason Steinem gives for the ongoing struggles for parity, control over abortions, and many other ways in which we’ve been taught to accept that the female body is controlled in some way by the system. Steinem has been studying First Nations all over the world and she talked about the things she’s learned about democracy within the home and its power to change democracy on an institutional level. She spoke of the great tragedy of forced adoption as part of our shared political history and tragedy between Australia and the USA. She said it was “comforting to know it wasn’t always this way,” through conversations she’s had with various tribes. The big takeaway was that violence towards women is an issue that has a rippling effect on national violence – and it’s one we need to focus on changing. The founder of Ms. Magazine talked about her marriage at age 60-plus and how she did it to give her husband a green card visa. It also made her realise that she had even more support for marriage equality after she understood the benefits in a medical emergency. She talked about her support for Hilary Clinton (“Hilary is the doctor” the US needs). She apologised for Donald Trump, saying, “He’s the candidate of hate and resentment. He’s a successful conman. If he does become president, I’m coming here.” But most of all Gloria Steinem charmed the socks off the audience with her comment to baby feminists, saying “Know yourself and trust yourself. Don’t listen to me.” What a babe.

Hanya Yanighara and Benjamin Law taking selfiesPhotograph: Prudence Upton

Hanya Yanagihara
Arts & Culture Editor Dee Jefferson says:
Everyone in the audience who had been girding their loins for battle with some kind of Priestess of Pain was visibly relieved to find the author of A Little Life thoroughly charming – and funny. In conversation with Ben Law, Yanagihara delivered the kind of insights about the human condition that remind you that the writers’ festival is as much about people as about books. That said, her comments on the craft of her 700-page odyssey were also fascinating. She said she does not consider A Little Life to be about child sexual abuse. She conceived it as a story about someone who tries and tries and tries to heal themselves, and fails. Secondly, it was always planned to be that long. In fact, she said that she’d guessed it would be about 150 pages longer. She also said that her editor tried to make her cut it by a third, “but I won that battle.” She conceived the structure of the novel as symphonic: the end returns to the themes of the opening, and each of the seven parts has three sub parts, and each sub part has three sub-parts. It had to be about men. If it had been women, said Yanagihara, they would not have felt so constrained in communicating their pain – but it was integral to her story that these four men felt so unable to talk about their feelings. And, talking about the exploration of friendship and different kinds of relationships in her book, Yanagihara offered some food for thought: our current understanding of marriage as a site for sexual, romantic and intellectual fulfilment (not to mention friendship, financial security and procreation) is extremely recent in the context of human history, and a blip on the radar. 

Inside the New Yorker
Music and Nightlife Editor Jordan Kretchmer says:
The New Yorker’s prolific poetry editor, Paul Muldoon, still can't quite explain the magic of a New Yorker poem. “What is it that makes a New Yorker poem? I never know [but] I’m open to anything that will hit me. A poem should [also] be at least as interesting as a film review. And as well written.” Muldoon also told us that works of fiction work best when there is not just a psychological viability but also a factual one. Facts in New Yorker fiction are always thoroughly checked.  We also found out which words the publication has on their banned list from editor Ann Goldstein – intrigued? Well, ‘intriguing’ was on the list for when you really mean puzzling. Also, don’t use ‘pretty’ as an adverb and ‘massive’ should be only ever be used when referring to something's physical size. Which would pretty much make for massively better writing, we reckon. 

Jeanette Winterson: The Gap of Time
Lifestyle Editor Emma Joyce says:
This year marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, and honouring the Bard’s works was a big part of this year’s Writers’ Festival. For Jeanette Winterson, who is very at-ease on stage, reciting Shakespeare comes as easy to her as reading her own writing. Her latest novel The Gap of Time is a cover version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which Winterson first read at age 13 – in her car, outcast from her family, and in search of hope. The author talked about the way Elizabethans visited the Globe and how Shakespeare wrote about women, but especially about forgiveness as something we all need – Shakespeare included – as we age. “Forgiveness takes us beyond the last page into the realm of possibility,” she said, before she read a chapter of her own story, set in a familiar time with bankers, hospitals and unwanted babies, but with that sense that this story could be taking place in any time, at any place and with any soundtrack. If you’re a fan of creative retelling, we suggest adding it to your winter reading list.

Kate Tempest during her opening addressPhotograph: Prudence Upton

Kate Tempest: The Bricks that Built the Houses
Lifestyle Editor Emma Joyce says:
Tempest was in top form during her Saturday afternoon talk in the loft space at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay. “It’s been two minutes and I’ve already made a big statement,” she said referring to her newfound notoriety after her Q&A appearance on Monday and her politically charged opening address. Fierce and vulnerable at the same time, she joked, “Nobody puts Kate the poet in a corner” in response to a question about whether she put ‘Kate the poet’ to one side when she wrote her novel. She also said that “This trip has been fucking scary,” as it was her ‘political outing’ in a way; she hasn’t previously articulated her political views in her work before going on Q&A and she says she had been scared to before now. “I could feel this story and this fury,” she said. “This is the next stage of my development as an artist. Now it’s time, not just to make proclamations, but to let my work do the talking.” If you’re wondering, she does share the same political views as her character John Darke (she thinks). This came via a question from the audience and she responded a childlike amazement, exclaiming, “You’ve read my novel! That feeling, it’s still new”. We love you, Kate. 

Jeanette Winterson speaking at The Book That Saved MePhotograph: Prudence Upton

Sydney Writers’ Festival Gala: The Book That Saved Me
Lifestyle Editor Emma Joyce says: 
There was a queue trailing around the block for Friday night’s Gala featuring Herman Koch, Vivian Gornick, Marlon James, Kate Tempest, Andrew Denton and Jeanette Winterson. Richard Glover introduced each writer and one by one they described the book that saved them: Koch chose James Joyce’s Ulysses and Dubliners for pulling him out of a break-up; New Yorker Gornick described herself as ‘the odd woman in the city’ as she spoke about George Gissing’s fiction about early feminists Odd Women; Tempest spoke of political poet Christopher Logue (“I just knew he was a cool guy,” she said) who write War Music. Denton chose Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (“It salved me,” he said) and Winterson selected Orlando by Virginia Woolf who she says “took an axe to the patriarchy” and was “90 years ahead of her time in gender politics”, before breaking all our hearts by saying wife Susie Orbach taught her that “love could be as reliable as the sun”. But it was Booker Prize-winning Marlon James who quietened the room with his generously personal story of his “fall off the chair moment” when reading Sula by Toni Morrison at a time when he was denying his sexuality and close to suicide. He was working as an exorcist for the church at the time. “[I learned] I’m not here to meet anyone’s approval,” he said. “Who in this world is deserving of me being less of myself? I still define things in my life as ‘Before Sula’ and ‘After Sula’.”

Yanis Varoufakis: And the Weak Shall Suffer What They Must?
Editor Alyx Gorman says: 
When Yanis Varoufakis first became the finance minister of Greece, Larry Summers (a man Varoufakis described as the ‘Prince of Darkness’ in his book about the GFC) took the economist under his wing and told him, “there are two types of people in politics: outsiders, who speak their mind and are quickly ejected from the system, and insiders, who enact incremental changes, but may never speak out against another insider”. Less than a year later, Varoufakis is out of a job and on stage at Sydney Writers’ Festival talking about his book. Which path do you think he chose? His talk was a heady blend of gossip about Europe’s most powerful people (at one point, he told us that the head of a major monetary organisation told him “we know this won’t work, but we have to do it anyway”, before saying “I won't tell you who ​she is” – ouch), and complex macro-economic history lesson. Varoufakis may call himself an ‘erratic Marxist’, but he’s really more of a Keynesian. His unpacking of the crisis that still grips Europe, a dense situation to say the least, was erudite and entertaining. Indeed, he was so impressive in full flight, his interviewer George Megalogenis barely asked a question and there was no time for crowd questions at all. This was for the best. He needs no moderation. That being said, I have a degree in the very field he used to teach at the University of Sydney and find it relatively easy to distinguish between Marxist and Keynesian economics. On a scale from The Big Short to General Theory, it fell somewhere in the middle. But if you're not an econ nerd, that middle may be too far out. 

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