Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sydney Writers' Festival - the wash-up

After initial fears that 2009's SWF would, quite literally, be a wash-out, the rain thankfully managed to hold out for most of the weekend and a wonderful Festival was,I think, had by most.

Here is the lowdown on what I saw:

Kazuo Ishiguro was fabulous on Friday night. After my mate and I initially baulked at paying hard-earned money to see an author via video link-up - and then relented because it was Booker-prize winning Kazuo after all - we were both very impressed with his considered and intelligent responses to Sandra Yate's questions. He also received remarkably cognisant questions from the audience with absolute no-one in a ridiculous hat making grand sweeping statements that went on and on. I put a lot of this down to the change in the political landscape as compared to previous years as there is now no excuse for anyone to jump up and down declaring that there were no weapons of mass destruction or children overboard with such vigour you would think they had only just worked out that politicians lie.

Kazuo talked about his segue way into novel writing after initially pursuing a career as a singer/songwriting and how his first love of music inspired his recent short story collection Nocturnes. He also made a quite interesting assertion that a novelists best work is usually produced in their mid thirties to mid forties (hence he claims he is well and truly past his peak) and provided startlingly true examples (Charles Dickens, Jane Austen) which completely flipped the notion that novelists are artists that grow more accomplished with the passing of age. He urged young people with the burning desire to write to get working at it now and I'm sure more than a few wannabees left his session inspired.

On Saturday I saw Christian Lander, so called celebrity blogger whose hilarious blog Stuff White People Like has been hugely popular. Christian recently managed to turn his blog into a book deal and he got a load of press while he was in Australia, this his event was completely sold out. Low and behold I find out I am pretty much the personification of his left-leaning, middle class, white stereotype as I love vintage, organic food, Arrested Development (the show and the band), Man Men, grammar, old-school hip hop and conscious rap, Oscar parties, New York, pea coats and cardigans, living by the water, expensive sandwiches and the list goes on. I guess there is nothing more enjoyable than laughing at yourself.

Christian was very self-aware and was honest about how quickly his sudden fame could disappear, but he was so funny I reckon he could make a great career for himself as a stand-up comedian or comedy writer. With his perceptive commentary on the predilections of his own race and class, he reminded me a bit of comedian Dave Chappelle (apparently white people really like him too!).

Unfortunately for Christian I don't hate my parents, drink coffee or own any Apple products, but a lot of my friends more than make up for me in these areas.

After that I saw an in conversation with the beautiful and talented Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. You probably already heard me raving about her last novel Half of a Yellow Sun and most of what Chimamanda talked about was Nigeria and her relationship with it as well as touching on her life now in the US and trying to find her way to what she really wants to do with her life (which, happily for her fans, turns out to be writing fiction for the moment). She was very smart and articulate and thoroughly impressive. I was commenting to someone last night that I've come to terms with all the sport stars and pop stars being younger than me, but I'm not quite ready for all my favourite authors to be. Hearing Chimamanda speak I was certainly aware of her youth, but there aren't many 32 year old people who can lay claim to writing two phenomenally accomplished literary novels.

And on a completely superficial note she was wearing the most gorgeous yellow fit and flare dress with strappy black stilettos and was quite stunning. She looked just like I imagined Olanna did when I was reading her book.

I also went to the launch of a new Australian memoir about dealing with familial alcoholism called The Weight of Silence. I haven't read it as yet but by all reports it is a worthwhile read.

And lastly I went along to a panel discussion entitled 'The Authors Right to Speak' with David Williamson, Monica Ali, Richard Flanagan and Neil James discussing the politics of freedom of expression twenty years on from the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. It was quite ironic to see David Williamson speaking at the Sydney Theatre as he has been in the news of late criticising Andrew Upton's and Cate Blanchett's management of it and he certainly tried to played that up. His contribution was basically just reading out an old edict from NZ tele telling writers how they can and can't represent female characters. I think he was trying to be funny and demonstrate the inanity of too much political correctness but considering he is a white alpha male it kind of just made me uncomfortable. Neil James got up and said virtually the opposite to what David was getting at but in an articulate way; Richard gave an impassioned speech which made his political allegiances (and bitterness about his home state) glaringly obvious; and Monica spoke intelligently to the topic.

I heard overwhelmingly positive comments about Richard's appearances at the Festival and more than a few bookish ladies walked away from his sessions with a bit of a crush.

Meanwhile I'm feeling reinvigorated as a reader and as a thinker, not only due to my Festival itinerary but also because I finished AS Byatt's new novel The Children's Hour on the weekend. If you were a fan of Possession you must read this book. I couldn't put it down and found myself snatching time with the book whenever I could, to the significant detriment of a tidy home. The conclusion had me weeping on the couch yesterday morning and now that I've said goodbye to the characters I can't stop thinking about them. I wouldn't be surprised if this book makes the awards rounds in the coming year.

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