Once again Adelaide delighted with its heady mix of festival fare. Writers from round the world took to the stage in the wonderfully situated Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens by the river. This year I was drawn to the writings of the chroniclers of our times – the journalists and social commentators who strive to show us the truth of complex human situations through both non-fiction and fiction. A highlight was the poetry reading session curated by Peter Goldsworthy, with six of Adelaide’s noted poets reading from their collections. I particularly loved the simplicity of Jules Leigh Koch’s and Cath Kenneally’s readings. Their observations on the small, often suburban details of life can be both profound and poignant. Leigh Koch’s Man in the Bookshop ‘tucks his thoughts away like a bookmark’ while one of Kenneally’s characters is ‘leaking at the seams’.
In US journalist Thomas Frank’s ‘Listen Liberal’ he explores the failings of the US left and the disintegration of the middle class. He believes the Democrats cannot find the policy or conviction to alter the economy and ‘the gravity of discontent keeps pulling to the right, and the right and the right’. Ben Ehrenreich and Mei Fong, respectively writing about the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank in ‘The Way to the Spring’ and the effect of China’s one-child policy in ‘One Child’, discussed the very real issue of bias and objectivity in telling compelling stories. Ehrenreich posed the question: How can you write about Palestine objectively when it is very clear there is an absolute imbalance of power? You cannot denude the truth, he purports, and you must be transparent about where you stand. Fong concurred that the reader wants to know the truth and you must give your reader a clear point of view. Of course bias is in her book by her very status of being Chinese and a woman.
Journalists Patrick Cockburn (Ireland), ‘The Rise of Islamic State’, and Janine di Giovanni (US), ‘The Morning They Came for Us’, both Middle Eastern experts, gave a sobering and thorough account of the chaos that is Syria, painting a clear picture of the major players involved and the likely outcome. On the other hand, two novelists have brought the stories of the marginalised to readers via fiction. Mexican author Yuri Herrera, ‘Signs Preceding the End of the world’, and Korean Krys Lee, ‘How I Became a North Korean’, explore the realities of displaced people. Herrera delves into the shadowy world of border communities where people are not ‘recognisable’ (no papers or passports) and must adapt to many migrants from different worlds living together. He deems ‘art allows us not to be hostage to one version of reality’. Lee wanted to write about the people she knows who are not just ‘North Korean’, but complex human beings. How do we know what it is like to be that person who is simply a stereotype to the outside world? she asks.
I enjoyed an entertaining session on Books and Reading with Keith Houston (Scotland), an expert on the history of the book, and Alberto Manguel (Canada) who has written extensively on books and reading. It was heartening to hear both authors emphatically stating that the book will survive, that libraries are our identity and memory, and can and must collect everything, including new technologies. Libraries must be preserved, they concurred!
Of course there was so much to sample of the Arts and Fringe festivals running concurrently. Watching the Berlin company Schaubuhne Berlin’s rendering of Shakespeare’s Richard III in German was a roller coaster of frenetic-paced, fantastic acting, to the accompaniment of heavy metal music, rapping, and with audience interaction and nudity (his) on stage. A phenomenal performance and for this writer quite thrilling as Richard limped off the stage, plonked himself next to me at the end of the row and asked ‘Do you mind?’ as Anne delivered her soliloquy over her dead husband’s body. No proscenium arch here!
Finally, as part of the Fringe Festival, a delightful concert of popular music by The String Family, mum, dad and two teens all on cellos or violins, had everyone’s toes tapping. Their story of life on the road for the past thirteen months, travelling around Australia, living in a caravan and winning the Australian National Busking Championship, had moments of great poignancy as they live out ‘the dream’. While missing the family and friends they have left behind, they have come to understand, first hand, the hardships of life on the land for so many Australians. Now there’s a book in that.