Saturday, 12 May 2018

Sydney Writers' Festival - My Big Weekend (pt 1)

I spent the weekend of 5-6 May 2018 at the Sydney Writers' Festival, attending ten sessions over the two days. Here's a run-down of my weekend at the Festival.

Saturday 5 May 2018

Sarah Krasnostein - The Trauma Cleaner
Krasnostein was attending a legal conference when she met Sandra Pankhurst, a trauma cleaner. Intrigued by this unusual profession, Krasnostein sought to learn more, quickly discovering that Pankhurst's job was the least interesting thing about her.

Assigned male at birth, Pankhurst has a life story that includes adoption, assault, marriage, parenting, prostitution, gender reassignment and running a business. Krasnostein said Pankhurst's character 'would not be believed if the book were fiction'.

Krasnostein spoke of the challenges of writing without the certainty of facts and figures. Pankhurst has many time gaps, and chronological difficulties. She said she needed a good spreadsheet to keep track of everyone.

Spending so much time with her subject, attending crime scenes and hoarder clean ups with her, Krasnostein was overwhelmed by empathy and spoke about the problem of exclusion and isolation.

For several months I have been in the queue at City of Sydney Libraries to get a copy of this book. I have finally been able to release my reserve as I purchased a copy and had it signed by the author. The Trauma Cleaner has won countless awards including the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

Peter Greste - The First Casualty
Journalist Hugh Riminton interviews Peter Greste about his career as a foreign correspondent, his time in prison in Egypt on false terrorism charges and his book The First Casualty about the assault on freedom of the press.

The session was timely as nine journalists had been killed this week in a suicide bomb attack specifically targeting the media. Greste spoke about how other journalists have been attacked, including Maria Grazia Cutuli and his colleague Kate Peyton. He sees his unjust incarceration as part of this continuum of undermining the media.

Greste spoke about the changing nature of war. What was once a conflict over tangible things - water, land etc - since 9/11 wars have been fought over ideas. Journalists have become targeted because they are vectors for those ideas.

In order to do their job, journalists need to get the whole story by talking to all parties to a conflict. George W Bush stated categorically that you are 'with us or against us' and now we fight on extremes. Increasingly draconian laws passed since 9/11 have used the threat of terrorism to deprive citizens of rights. Whistleblowers are no longer protected given the metadata laws.

Greste said 'we need journalists to stick to first principles - accuracy, fairness, balance' and that 'we need to protect the grey zone' which is a space to debate ideas.

This was an interesting session. I last heard Greste speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2015, when he spoke with the late Mark Colvin, a few months after his release from prison.

Leigh Sales - On Doubt
About ten years ago, Leigh Sales wrote an essay On Doubt. At the time she was concerned about the increasing move toward opinion instead of fact in journalism. In the age of fake news and Trump, Sales recently updated the book with a new afterward. At the festival she spoke with Julia Baird, about the essay and modern day journalism.

Sales was unequivocal, stating Í think the truth matters. Integrity matters' and is dismayed that even when you expose the lies it doesn't matter as 'people don't like to hear things that don't accord with their beliefs'. She recently had the opportunity to interview former FBI Director James Comey, and shed the light on her approach to interviews.

Baird inquired about how Trump has changed the role of the journalist. Sales said that Trump speaks in a 'word salad' and that it is essentially a 'wall of sound' that comes out of his mouth. She said it would be virtually impossible to interview him since he goes all over the place.

Baird asks how much the media is to blame for creating a culture of disbelief. Sales said the media shares culpability. For example, calling out politicians as flip-floppers, denies them the opportunity to change their mind.

They spoke about the 'insidious propaganda' that arises when the media is unchecked and the personal attacks that take place where instead of debating ideas, we attack individuals. Sales said 'the rise of Trump makes me thing there is a market for nastiness'.

Sales has a new book coming out in October, called Any Ordinary Day about how ordinary people cope when life changes on them suddenly. I enjoyed this session, listening to two intelligent women discussing ideas. I recently read Julia Baird's amazing Victoria: The Queen, so it was great to see her in person.

Various Authors - The Body Politic
One of the things I love about going to writers' festivals is learning about new authors and books I have never heard of. I booked into this session, precisely because I knew nothing about the international authors on this panel.

Carmen Maria Machado (USA), Emma Glass (UK) and Sharlene Teo (Singapore) had each written books which placed the human body centre stage.

Glass' debut novel Peach is about the aftermath of a violent assault. Teo's Ponti is about a young woman remaking a cult horror story that once stared her mother. Machado's short story collection Her Body and Other Stories, also uses the horror genre.

There was much discussion about gender and language in this session. Machado's book sounded quite interesting, but I doubt I will read any of these authors. Still, it was good to learn about what some up-and-coming novelists are writing about.

Various Writers - Its' Not a Moment, It's a Movement
After a full day at Carriageworks, I travelled into the city to attend two evening sessions at Town Hall with my Festival friend. First up was this timely panel about the #MeToo movement.

Journalists Tracey Spicer, Irin Carmon and Jenna Wortham spoke with Sophie Black about evens that happened in the last 48 hours: the scandal engulfing the Nobel Prize for Literature judges, the allegations against author Junot Diaz resulting in his sudden withdrawal from the writers' festival and return to the USA, and Carmon's expose of an additional 21 complaints against Charlie Rose.

They spoke about the victim blaming playbook being continually used and the 'himpathy' in which a disproportionate empathy is displayed for men we have a relationship with - like male celebrities (e.g. Cosby, Spacey).

Carmon spoke at length about the reporting she did on the Charlie Rose case, and the difficulty of getting sources to speak out. Spicer argued that Australian defamation laws have restricted the ability of journalists to report on cases - Don Burke had been a known predator for thirty years.  Wortham spoke about social media and its use to out R Kelly. The #MuteRKelly campaign is trying to get him off the radio.

The most powerful moment of the night came when one woman came to the mike and said she was someone who had contacted Spicer to report on something that had happened to her. She spoke with gratitude to journalists like Spicer and Kate McClymont and the importance of believing women. She encouraged media companies for being bolder in allowing reports to be made.

This was a thought-provoking panel. I was particularly keen to hear Carmon speak as I read her wonderful biography on Ruth Bader-Ginsburg earlier this year, the Notorious RBG.

Julia Gillard - Power and Gender
The Town Hall was abuzz with excitement waiting for Julia Gillard to be interviewed by Laura Tingle about gender and power.

The opening question was whether Gillard thought people had changed their views on her. She said that over time the 'froth and bubble' gets forgotten and they tend to remember what was underneath. She talked about her legacy of the NDIS, the Royal Commission into Child Abuse, the Carbon Price and various other achievements.

Gillard talked about her current work. She is Chair of Beyond Blue and her she spoke passionately about the importance of mental health. Gillard is also Chair of the Global Partnership for Education, which focuses on education for children in developing companies. Earlier this year Gillard opened the Kings College Global Institute for Women in Leadership which is involved in researching what works and doesn't in terms of leadership initiatives to increase women's representation in positions of power/authority.

They spoke about the #MeToo movement and Gillard is of the view that this will be part of a major wave of feminism. She says that MeToo must have meaning for cleaners, migrant workers etc, not just those with labour market power.

Tingle asked whether there has been a loss of respect for leadership roles. Gillard said there has been 'a loss of respect and faith in institutions - school principals, bank managers, doctors, teachers, and priests were held in high regard. We are in an age of more cynicism'.

It was a fascinating discussion, which ended in a standing ovation for Julia Gillard. I read her memoir, My Story, in 2015 and at the time I wondered what would happen to her. I am pleased to see she is following her passions for education, feminism and mental health issues. She has a lot to offer the world.

So that was my big day out at the Writers' Festival. Stay tuned for my recap of Day 2.

See also: