Category Archives: Festivals

The power of the written word

I am thrilled to be joining both emerging and established writers who will descend on the Centre for Stories and other venues in Perth for the Australian Short Story Festival, running from Friday 19 to Sunday 21 October.

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.”

This powerful quote by Joseph Conrad will be in my mind when I participate on a panel at the festival on Sunday 21 October. With my colleagues Dennis Haskell and Marcella Polain, we’ll discuss the power of the written word and its conflict with the sword in a session hosted by PEN Perth.

pen-perthI am often asked what PEN stands for. Its name was conceived as an acronym: ‘Poets, Essayists, Novelists’ (later broadened to ‘Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists’) in the UK in 1921. Over many decades it has become a genuinely international organisation, encompassing a wide array of cultures and languages with over 146 Centres around the world.

PEN promotes literature and defends freedom of expression world-wide. You can join a local chapter of PEN wherever you are and receive newsletters and updates straight to your inbox. Right now that means you can access more information about the brutal killing of the Bulgarian investigative TV presenter Viktoria Marinova in Ruse, Bulgaria on 7 October, which came five days after the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of the Saudi regime, in Istanbul. There are unconfirmed reports that he may have been killed in the embassy.

In Australia, PEN campaigns for a number of writers including Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani who has just won the Anna Politkovskaya investigative journalism award for his work documenting Australia’s offshore immigration detention program. Behrouz, a refugee who fled Iran, has been held in indefinite detention since 2013 – first on Christmas Island and then on Manus Island. PEN Perth aims to raise the consciousness of the public and encourage a world where writers are free to express themselves, responsibly and respectfully.

I encourage you to participate in the Short Story Festival. You can book tickets online, and some of them are free. It should be a great event – I am particularly looking forward to David Malouf’s opening address and Maria Takolander’s sessions. I hope to see you there.

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Speaking up

What a privilege and inspiration to hear Professor Gillian Triggs, former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, speak last night.

Professor Triggs is on the first leg of a book tour promoting her memoir Speaking Up. She spoke at the University of Western Australia to a packed theatre about her life and the many challenges she faced during her five-year tenure. She withstood relentless political pressure and media scrutiny as she and the Commission advocated for the disempowered, the disenfranchised and the marginalised.

I’m thrilled that I will be interviewing Professor Triggs myself at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival in October. It will be a chance for us all to learn more about her global views and the lessons and insights she has taken from her time at the Human Rights Commission.

She left us in no doubt that as an Australian society we have failed to measure up to the human rights standards we hypocritically endorse. She worries about the decline in political leadership in Australia, and in her speech, highlighted some key issues in her book. She spoke passionately about Indigenous Australians and their human rights, freedom of speech, gender and marriage equality and the monitoring, treatment and law about asylum seekers.

She believes Australians can pull together and become a better society. She argued that the time is right for a legislated charter of human rights.

“We do not view social justice through the lens of human rights in Australia. Human rights law does not inform the legal or political discourse and is often ignored and expressly overridden by the parliament.

It is our responsibility as citizens in this democracy to become more informed and to speak up about injustices.”

I am looking forward to my interview with Professor Triggs and I’ll share some more of her thoughts on this blog.  In the meantime, I recommend the book Speaking Up to everyone.

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Woman2Drive

This month Manal al-Sharif was planning to return to Saudi Arabia, the country of her birth, to drive freely down the main streets on her own, when a ban on women driving is lifted.

However, as the historic date of 24 June drew closer Manal received death threats while six other prominent human rights activists have been detained in Saudi Arabian prisons.

She decided it is safer for her to stay in Australia where she now lives.  “I think I can be a stronger human rights advocate outside of Saudi Arabia where my voice can be heard around the world. They would lock me up again if I returned,” she said in a recent interview.

Manal has been part of a movement in the Saudi Kingdom advocating for women’s rights and the right to drive a car without a male chaperone. Her memoir Daring to Drive also gives us rare personal insights into everyday life for women in the country.

The book describes her strict commitment to Islam in her younger years and how that slowly changed.  Manal graduated from university with a Bachelor of Science focussed on computer science.  She then secured a position as an information security consultant, one of the few women to do so, at Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil company.  It was from this point in time that she sought fearless ways to break through taboos.  It was not easy, as the opening paragraph shows.Manal al Sharif

‘The secret police came for me at 2 in the morning. As soon as I heard the words Dhahran Police Station, I was terrified. My brother slammed the door shut and locked the bolt. There was a pause. Then the knocking started again.’

Manal spent a week in a cockroach infested prison for driving a car.  She did not commit a traffic offence, but the police told her she ‘broke orf’ – a tradition, custom or practice.

When I interviewed Manal at the recent Perth Writers Week, she still seemed a little surprised that her book has become a best seller around the world.  Manal has also been recognised with the Havel Prize for Creative Dissent Award at the Oslo Freedom Forum and Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world.

‘I have always wanted to tell my story.  I am a Muslim girl born in Mecca and now I am an activist.  I did not know my story would be of interest,’ she told me.

I can assure you it is… I highly recommend her memoir.

Stories that shape us

Isn’t this a great theme for a writer’s festival?   I’m looking forward to participating in the Margaret River Readers and Writers festival that runs from 1-3 June in the picturesque south west of WA.

Each of us builds a narrative about ourselves and I’m lucky enough to interview three writers with many layers to their stories. Even though two are fiction writers, each has been influenced by their own stories.

Still glowing from her Stella Award short listing, I will interview my friend Shokoofeh Azar about her book The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It is a chance for us to visit the world of magical realism and understand real life events in Iran after the 1979 revolution. It is the moving story of a family told in the style of classical Persian literature.  Here is an excellent interview with Shokoofeh that gives you some more information.

My second interview is with Mohammed Massoud Morsi an Egyptian/Danish/Australian writer. If you visit his website you’ll see he is a photographer and so much more. I spent two hours with him over coffee this week and we could have talked for much longer. We will be discussing his latest book, Twenty Two Years to Life, which is a work of fiction, based on a true story. His raw and powerful words took me, as the reader, to the realities of daily life for an ordinary family living in Gaza.

My final interview is with Sisonke Msimang. We will trace her life through the lens of race, gender and democracy. Sisonke’s memoir is called ‘Always Another Country’. If you get a chance have a look at her TED talk. you will hear her question our emphasis on storytelling, as well as spotlight the decline of facts.

I round out my festival participation in an enticing session called Coffee and the Papers on Sunday morning. Fellow panellists Ian Parmeter, Nikki Gemmel and Chris Nixon and I will dissect recent news events. Should be interesting!

I’ll let you know about any new writers I discover at Margaret River.

Enlightenment of the greengage tree cover  twenty-two-years-to-life cover  always another country book cover

Everyone belongs

Yesterday’s Harmony Day, promoting inclusiveness and belonging, brought to an end a week of celebrations around Australia. I was lucky enough to attend several wonderful events celebrating Harmony Day and was inspired to hear of some great initiatives happening in Western Australia.

One of the highlights of the week for me, was seeing a video clip called Same Drum. Recently released by students of Aranmore Catholic College in Perth this three-minute video was created during a series of workshops with students from the Intensive English Centre. It’s sung in three African languages – Swahili, Dinka and Kinyarwanda – as well as English. The project was devised by artist and filmmaker Poppy van Oorde-Grainger. It’s gone viral! I really recommend you take a look.

I attended a major event at Curtin University for the launch of the 2017 Catalyst Report. The Catalyst Youth Summit was held over three days and once again, provided nearly sixty young, multicultural Western Australians the opportunity to build relationships, speak with politicians and work together to develop solutions to issues that face their peers. The report is up on my Research and Reports page.

And lastly, as usual the town of Katanning in the Great Southern region of WA put on a fantastic celebration for Harmony Day. I have a personal connection with Katanning as I wrote a chapter about its extraordinary success with multiculturalism in More to the Story. While I couldn’t get there this year, I have heard the Shire, local businesses and community groups put on a great event full of local food, music, performances, art and activities. With 6,000 people attending over the weekend Katanning knows how to celebrate! Check out the photos on their Facebook page.

 

Inspiration at Perth Writers Week

Congratulations to Will Yeoman as guest curator of the 2018 Perth Writers Week.

My head is still spinning from all the great writers I heard. And isn’t that what a good festival does?   It inspires us; it educates us and it entertains us. It also provides time for new or different ideas to be presented.

One of the highlights for me was listening to Kim Scott (Taboo) and Helen Garner (Everywhere I look) in conversation.  These are two of Australia’s literary giants.  It was an interesting pairing – but what a rich evening they provided for the sold out crowd at the Octagon Theatre in Perth.   It was also obvious how much they respected and admired each other’s work.

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Helen Garner and Kim Scott

Tim Winton’s solo performance about his new book The shepherd’s hut and his powerful interwoven messages that society has failed young boys because they have ­remained trapped in an idea of manhood that is toxic, was fascinating and quite disturbing. I thought about the implications as I made my way home.

I came away inspired from a session with Liz Byrski, Rob Dessaix and Alex Miller, who discussed creativity in later years. They reaffirmed to me that I have a bright future ahead and gave me permission to become more selfish with my own time, say no and even be a little bit rude!

I was lucky enough to interview three women from the Arab world: Manal Al-Sharif, Amal Awad and Tess Woods. With Palestinian, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian heritages the conversation showed the audience life from three different countries and cultures. It was an informative, amusing and sometimes poignant conversation. I recommend all three books – Daring to Drive, Beyond the veiled clichés and Beautiful Messy love.  All would be great book club reads.  I’ll have a review of Daring to Drive up soon, as I spent another hour with Manal in a different session discussing her life and activism in more depth.

So hats off to all in the Perth Writers Week program. Reading ideas abound!

 

Manal Tess and Amal

Manal Al-Sharif, Amal Awad and Tess Woods

 

 

Writers Week is here

The Perth Writers Week is almost here. It starts on Monday 19 February and runs until Sunday 25 February.  I am pleased to be involved again this year, and particularly to be chairing two discussions that demonstrate, once again, that there is always more to the story.

On Sunday I will be interviewing Saudi Arabian woman Manal Al-Sharif who is best known for her YouTube videos for the Women2Drive campaign.

Manal campaigns for women’s rights. Her life story of being raised under a religion of strict fundamentalism to her change to an activist who fights women’s equality in a society that is unequal is incredible. Her book Daring to Drive is a story of resilience. I can’t wait for the conversation.

Manal will also be participating on panel conversation on Saturday called ‘Free to Love, Free to Learn’.  She is joined by Amal Awad who has written a book that is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the Middle East. It’s called Beyond Veiled Clichés. The third participant is Tess Woods who draws on her Egyptian heritage, cross cultural marriage and her insider’s knowledge of professional football (She’s a physio in her day job). Her book is called Beautiful Messy Love and is set in Western Australia.

Will Yeoman, who is curating his first festival, has also catered for my love of crime writing.   I re-unite with Alan Carter who splits his time between Australia and New Zealand these days. We’ll be discussing his new book Marlborough Man at a free event on Wednesday at the fabulous Perth city library.

The full program is available on line or you can pick up a free, easy to read, printed program from most good bookstores. If you are not in Western Australia, some of the Perth Writers Week sessions will be recorded by ABC radio and available as podcasts.

I’ll see you there.