festival finale. #swf2014

The final day of the Sydney Writers’ Festival – some highlights, some lowlights…

Coffee and the Papers was interesting again – as it has been every morning. Today is was about science, with Canadian author Bruce Lowry (“Slow Death By Rubber Duck” and “Toxin Toxout”) talking about the chemicals that enter our bodies and some things we can do about it (eat organic, don’t use cosmetics, take saunas…) and the reporting of science in the press. His latest book was sold out at the Gleebooks shop.

Eleanor Catton in a low-key session — a brilliant and erudite lecture entitled “Craft – On Paradox and Change”. She’s reading Shakespeare and has many lessons for us – and some stiff criticism of “literary fiction”. Cheers for plot! This session should have been a headliner.

Mr Jang Jin-Sung, a defector from North Korea, his excellent translator Shirley Lee, and US Pulitzer winner Adam Johnson (“The Orphan Master’s Son”). Moved me to tears. Mr Jang worked in the highest levels of NK government and defected from Pyongyang – plus he’s a writer. A very rare combination. Bought his book “Dear Leader”, though I expect the contents to be shocking. He is a poet, and was inspired by a bootleg copy of Byron in Korean. Amazing.

“SWF Shorts – The Garner Grip” — three actors from the Sydney Theatre Company reading selected excerpts from the stories of Helen Garner. Brilliant prose – “unsentimental”, as the director called it – and very well read. A great fiction interlude. Bought a copy of Garner’s “Postcards from Surfers” (though I think I might have a copy on my shelves at home somewhere.)

Next, a puzzling session with an actor named Brendan Cowell and a singer-songwriter named Sarah Blasko. I had never heard of these people, though there seemed to be an assumption that everyone had (one of those popular culture things I must have missed). They interviewed each other – they’re friends – and it was a bit like “What’s My Line?” as I gradually pieced together information about them. He read from a play he’d written and she performed a song (unimpressive, I’m sad to say, though they seemed like nice people).

And so the Festival wound slowly to an end, on a rather downward trajectory, with a self-congratulatory speech by the artistic director and a scrappy and somewhat sleep-inducing Closing Address by the Irish author Emma Donoghue (I preferred her 15 minute thing yesterday). The address was delivered casually, and sounded like  the sort of discussion that should have been saved for a chat over a glass of wine at the Festival Drinks. (It would have been so much better to have given this gig to Eleanor Catton).

And that was my Festival. So many astonishing things learnt and new authors discovered, a few duds, a hungry stomach because the food situation was dire in the crowds, tired and footsore, annoyed that things could have been better organised, wondering what I missed amongst the hundreds of authors and sessions on offer. But half a dozen new books to read in depth now, and the great privilege of hearing authors and thinkers like Alice Walker, Reza Aslan, Jeremy Scahill, Alan Johnson, Malcolm Fraser and the divine – the readers’ author – Eleanor Catton. And Mr Jang Jin-Sung. Unforgettable.



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