Last week was my first Sydney Writers’ Festival — I somehow missed it completely last year. Even this year I only managed a paltry two sessions, but it was sufficiently worthwhile to keep a close eye out for next time.
The first session, “Writing and Research”, was a panel discussion between four writers of creative non-fiction. Alice Pung, who I’ve discussed previously on Re:Print, spoke engagingly about her desire to subvert expectations of Asian writing. Her main point was the efforts she went to avoid what she called the “Tony Robbins” narrative of Wild Swans and Amy Tan’s books. “The biggest adversity I’ve overcome was head lice in Grade Two,” she quipped. I’m not sure what this had to do with research, but it was entertaining.
Most of the panelists struggled to get a word in, thanks to the gregarious investigative journalist Gideon Haigh. He was meant to talk about his James Hardie exposé Asbestos House, but ended up giving a sneak preview of the upcoming abortion history The Racket. A significant part of his investigation involved 1960s court transcripts from abortion trials and they make fascinating reading — so fascinating in fact that Haigh spent half his time reading them verbatim.
The closing address, the second session I was able to attend, was presented by Junot Diaz. Author of buzz novel and Pulitzer Prize winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz spoke on the topic “All Our Gratitudes, or Literature Is Not Forever”.
I didn’t like Oscar Wao’s style much, but it had a lot of heart. The same could be said of Diaz’s speech. His delivery was mostly in a monotone and read straight from a pile of A4 notes. The overly formalist structure seemed more appropriate for an essay than a speech, but that’s to be expected from a writer — possibly less so for a college lecturer, though, which is what Diaz is in his day job.
The heart came through when Diaz talked about librarians and books and reading as the things that had “saved [his] life”. Literature is not perfect, he told us, but we love it because it reflects our own imperfections. Nor is it eternal, as his title pointed out, but we enjoy the ephemeral pleasures. It was an appropriate reflection on the importance of books for a festival dedicated to their celebration and appreciation.
Diaz closed his brief (25 minute) address with a reference to the importance of outside voices. As a Dominican, Diaz brings a different perspective to the mostly domestic line-up at this year’s festival. On reflection, it seems odd that he didn’t take the opportunity to draw on that perspective in his closing address.