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Sydney Writers’ Festival Roundup 2017

Katie Lavers

Festival theme of refuge investigates one of the most urgent issues of our times
Sydney Writers’ Festival Roundup 2017

2017 marks the first year of the Sydney Writers’ Festival programmed by the new artistic director Michaela McGuire, and her program had at its heart the urgent theme of refuge.

The panel entitled Maybe This Will Help brought together a widely diverse group of writers to discuss their own personal approaches to finding relief and mental refuge from the barrage of  pressing political and social problems. Two of the panelists both relied on walking. Ruth Quibell, the Australian author of The Promise of Things described how the rhythms of walking calmed her mind in moments of great personal stress and debilitating illness. Bill Hayes, New York based author of Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, which details his relationship with the late Oliver Sachs, talked about the refuge provided by walking in his neighborhood in New York, and connecting with neighbors and local shopkeepers. He went on to show some of the photographs he has taken on these walks.

Jamie Morton, creator of the highly successful comedy podcast My Dad wrote a Porno, which has now been downloaded over 50 million times, said in times of stress he relied on alcohol and social media. He said they both worked well as long as they were kept separate amd not combined!

Ivan Coyote, Canadian author of 11 books, the most recent being Tomboy Survival Guide, described taking refuge in a ritual of intense cleaning involving scrubbing bathroom grout with an old toothbrush and making chicken soup. Hisham Matar, winner of the Pulitzer prize for autobiography for his memoir The Return, giving perhaps the most in-depth response to the provocation, proposed that the wording of the title Maybe This Will Help suggested that a solution to stress can be provided  from outside. He proposed that in times of extreme duress the only real solution is to examine one’s own behaviour closely and to make sure in every circumstance  to behave with kindness, scruplosity and self-sacrifice.

Deng Adut, NSW Australian of the Year 2017, came as a refugee to Australia  at the age of 14, and taught himself to read, eventually winning a scholarship to study law and now has his own law practice. His memoir, Songs of a Warboy was published in 2016.

Deng spoke about his life as a child soldier in South Sudan before coming to Australia. At the end of the interview one of the questions posed by a member of the audience was, ‘How do you rehabilitate from experiences like the ones that you have undergone?’ His answer was striking and cut to the heart of many of the assumptions that are held widely about recovery from trauma.

‘Rehabiliate?’ Deng Adut said. ‘If anyone knows how, please tell me. I still live with those experiences every day’. He went on to remind the audience that a hundred thousand children crossed the border into Uganda last year seeking refuge from South Sudan, and that the problem of refuge for these children remains urgent.

Susan Faludi, in her closing address for the Festival, also spoke on the topic of refuge, describing it as one of the most urgent problems of our age.

She decribed three landscapes created by people seeking refuge. First, she spoke of the piles of fluorescent orange or what is known as 'The Mountain of Misery' in the Greek Island of Lesbos, created by the discarded life jackets of hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to Europe through Lesbos. Next she described the piles of bicycles left on the border between Finland and Russia, all abandoned by people trying to make the crossing from Russia to Finland and take advantage of a loophole in Russian law banning people from leaving the country on foot. The third and final landscape image she presented us with was a description of miles of road in Mexico approaching the American border where the possessions of thousands of people have been left discarded.

Faludi said that by the end of 2015, the UN estimated the number of displaced people in the world at 65.3 million and went on to say that if these people were citizens of a country it would be the 21st largest in the world.

She went on to examine the notion of refuge, arguing that is a Janus-faced concept. She proposed that the xenophobes who try to prevent entry into their territory are trying to hold on to a notion of refuge that they have, whilst other people are striving to reach refuge. This creates two faces of refuge as something that some people are trying to hold onto and that others are trying to reach.

Faludi then went on to talk about her father, the subject of her recent book, In the Darkroom. Born in Hungary and persecuted as a Jew throughout the Second World War, her father sought refuge in Copenhagen, Brazil, and finally the United States.

Seeking refuge in his darkroom from an unhappy marriage, her father eventually became violent with his wife, leading to an estrangement between Faludi and her father which lasted for 25 years,

In the 1990s Faludi’s father returned to Hungary, and, in 2004, Faludi received an email informing her that he had undertaken gender reassignment surgery.

Eventually by coming to understand some of the reasons for her father’s violence, Faludi and her parent were able to reach some accommodation of each other. Through this process of reconciliation, Faludi learnt that achieving peace or refuge relied on giving up on the idea of either seeking or defending territory, and was instead dependent on a process of allowing each other in through a process of atonement and reconciliation.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2017
22-28 May

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Dr. Katie Lavers is a writer, director, producer and researcher based in Sydney.