This year’s festival was the busiest I’ve ever seen, despite the hike in ticket prices to a number of sessions. So much for 47% of Queenslanders being unable to read, Germaine! It was obvious that people in Brisbane care deeply about reading and writing. But why? Why were we all there? Why do readers keep searching for the perfect book? Why do writers continue to write despite the lack of financial, or other, rewards?
The first session I attended was French Writing in The Pacific with authors from New Caledonia and Tahiti. Chantal Spitz, the first indigenous Tahitian ever published, explained why she writes,”because if I can’t write, I would die.” And I think this rings true for a number of writers. Perhaps we wouldn’t die, but we wouldn’t “Be”to the fullest extent of our being. We write because we can’t stop. Because writing somehow IS who we are.
Chantal Spitz photo © Marie-Hélène Villierme
Chantal writes in poetic langauge with strength and courage to bear witness to the truth of the lives of Tahitians and refute the mythologised version of Mutiny on The Bounty babes and lazy fools. Her book Island of Shattered Dreams brings to life the harsh reality of a colonised people.
A small group “conversation” with Susan Johnson, one of my favourite Australian authors, was next. Susan has published nine books, including Life in Seven Mistakes, The Broken Book, A Better Woman, her powerful memoir of motherhood, and most recently, My Hundred Lovers. Despite being shortlisted for several awards over her career as a writer, she’s never managed to crack a major prize. And she could have done with the money, she said. She needed that money. Her husband was demanding she contribute to the family coffers. “Was she crazy,” she asked, “to keep on writing?”
I, for one, am glad she did. She’s recently returned to full-time work as a journalist to support her family, but I hope that soon some big prize money will come her way and give her the time she needs to keep writing her beautiful prose. Not many writers can do what she does with words, going deep into universal truths, the deeply buried secrets of the heart and body.
In response to the lack of awards for women, Susan and a group of other Australian women writers have banded together to create The Stella Prize, with the inaugural competition running next year.
In a session on Mothers and Their Families I met Claire Bidwell Smith a young American writer whose first book, The Rules of Inheritance, a memoir about the loss of both her parents to cancer, has recently been released in Australia by Text. Grief is a subject close to my heart, it has been a shaping force in my life and I’ve written my own “Guide to Grief”(currently looking for a good home), so I was interested to hear her speak. Like me, the stories of her loss were the first ones she had to tell. The old adage,”write what you know”comes down to this for me. It’s not about what you know out in the world, but what you know about your heart’s inner workings.
I stumbled into Indigenous Story Tellers next and was very glad I did. When Witi Ihamaera sang a welcome in Maori we all knew it was going to be a special session. Boori Monty Pryor, a born showman from far north Queensland, read us a poem that had us laughing and crying at the same time. Chantal again moved us with her words of struggle and Witi showed us how his wise grandmother taught him to question and subvert the ways of the white fella through nursery rhymes. It was a session that had the audience in tears, moved by the plight of these brave people who had the grace to still sit before us, to accept us and let us learn from them. It was humbling to be in their presence.
The last session I attended was Black and Write, celebrating the success of a program to discover and encourage indigenous writers and editors. Sue McPherson, author of Grace Beside Me won us all over with her wicked sense of humour and stories of battling with her inner-critic called Ethel. But it was Michael Heyward, editor at Text Publishing who encapsulated what the festival taught me this time around.
Books matter. Writing matters. Because books have the power to change people’s lives.