Byron Writers Festival: Live review | 2 – 4 August, 2019

Running for its 23rd year, the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival showcased an impressive line up of authors, activists, poets, environmentalists, musicians and politicians. With a wide range of interesting sessions, the Festival shared stories of hope, courage and change through a diverse program featuring more than 130 writers. Reminding everyone of the power of words and conversation, the program featured challenging discussions ranging from intergenerational trauma, to domestic violence, to trolling on the Internet. Yet, it also reminded us of the need to relish the beauty and curiosity of our surrounds and the world in general, through discussions on jellyfish, the future of the planet and stories embedded in the Australian landscape. As it was literally (pardon the pun) impossible to see everyone, highlights from the weekend included:


Jock Serong

Following the release of his latest novel, ‘Preservation’, a captivating piece of historical fiction based on the shipwreck of Sydney Cove on the Furneaux Islands and the 700 mile journey the 17 survivors embarked on in order to get to Sydney, Jock spoke of the writing and creative process followed whilst penning the novel. The book, set in 1797, takes the reader to a time in Australia where shipwrecks were the norm and rum was the most valued currency (if only) and truly makes the modern day camping and hiking trip look pathetically amateur. During the session, Jock discussed the beauty of weaving a story from a thin historical fragment and transforming it into a fleshy, adventurous novel, a process he coined as being a fine balance between a regimented process and a sense of adventure.


Power, Control and Domestic Violence

This was both a riveting and horrifying presentation, as journalist and writer Jess Hill reeled off domestic violence statistics in Australia throughout the hour. With one woman a week killed and the fact there is a domestic violence call out every two minutes, it is without a doubt this issue is a public health crisis. Jess’ latest book, ‘ See What You Made Me Do’ is all about tearing down the stereotypes associated with domestic violence, raising awareness and presenting forward thinking solutions, such as the intriguing and to date, successful ‘focused deterrence’ approach. Pushing for the term domestic violence to be changed to domestic abuse, as it encompasses abuse from all aspects of physical and emotional, Jess shed light on this a grim topic, giving the audience a sense of hope that change in regards to the Australian way of dealing with offenders, is afoot.


Writers and Music

This lively presentation, chaired by Adam Spencer, featured a panel of writers, comedians and musicians, namely singer Claire Evans, from YACHT, comedian Hung Le, and music journalist  Andrew Stafford.Having all recently written a book, the three panelists spoke of their love of humour, music and the written word, each sharing the common element of dedication and commitment to the written word. It was one of those down to earth conversations that had you chuckling, yet at times, left you feeling teary and emotional in hearing a couple of the raw stories of their vulnerability. This was a presentation that had you running to the bookstore to get  a hold of ‘Broadband: An Untold Story of the Women who Made the Internet’ by Claire, ‘The Crappiest Refugee’ by Hung Le and the musical memoir, ‘Something to Believe In’ by Andrew Stafford.

All must reads.


What’s Happened to our Politics?

A packed marquee turnout was justified, given some of the impassioned speeches and discussions heralded by Natasha Stott Despoja, former party leader and now Chair of ‘Our Watch’, Scott Ludlum, writer, activist and former Australian Greens senator and award-winning author, Don Watson. Discussing all things political, ranging from the lack of integrity in modern day parliament, the amount of toxicity and vitriol that exists amongst the ranks and both governments ongoing refusal to face up to the issues that matter, namely climate change, immigration and democracy, the debate was a lively one indeed. With some heated arguments in regards to where Australia is headed and whether or not we’ll actually get there, as well as the ways in which policies are made, or more often the case, not, Natasha nicely summed up the discussion up by saying that although many politicians want to stand by their principles, whether or not they are aligned with what their party believes, it ultimately comes at a cost. Hence, most of them remain silent and nothing happens. Undoubtedly, this needs to change.

Reporting on the Middle East

Jess Hill, investigative journalist and Middle East correspondent for the Global Mail and Megan Stack, war and terrorism reporter in almost 22 countries since 2001, are truly inspiring women, who throughout their illustrious journalism careers lived in war zones such as Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. As they took the audience to a place where most of us only get a chance to glimpse on the TV or hear on the radio, these ladies spoke of getting shot at, living dangerously and amidst all the chaos and danger, particularly during the Arab Spring, working tirelessly to report the facts and cover the conflict in a fair and just manner. Both ladies also spoke of how Twitter and the Internet has changed the face of reporting and as a result, more respect is paid to the people living in the war zone, coverage that just didn’t t exist in the past. In contrast however, they also discussed the pitfalls of social media used when covering war, in that has led to an increase in the muddiness of real accounts of what actually happened. Anyone can take footage and portray it how they want. A fine balance indeed.


We Need to Talk About Trolling

This all female panel, made up of four terrifically feisty and brave women, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ginger Gorman, Sarah Hanson-Young and Julia Shaw, discussed all aspects of trolling, how it manifests online, as well as how it had affected them on an individual and personal level. Given the fact the upper cost of cyber hate in Australia is $3.3 billion a year (sick leave, relocation, medication and so on) and that 8.8 million adults have been affected by online harassment, it is without a doubt that something needs to change. As the women told their stories, their strength and humour in the ordeals they had endured shone through. The hilarity, yet at the same time, horror of some the tales Sarah Hanson-Young, in particular, retold made it apparent that trolling is not just an issue of personal safety, but is also an issue that can affect careers, families and confidence. Julia Shaw’s and Ginger Gorman’s detailed research into a troll’s profile was intriguing, reminding us all that anyone is capable of everyday sadism.

The limits to free speech was also discussed, yet as the ladies conceded, there are limits off-line, so why shouldn’t there be limits online? There’s a fine line between abuse and free speech and undoubtedly, it’s something the perpetrators of these revoltingly slanderous comments, need to remember.


Family Saga

Chaired by the quirky comedian and author, Benjamin Law, Family Saga revolved around the fact that everyone’s family has a saga. With renowned authors, Min Jin Lee (Pachinko), Jennifer Clements (Gun Love) and Marcus Zusak (Bridge of Clay), the audience was treated to a relatively light-hearted discussion about the process of characterisation in their novels and where and how the writers gained inspiration. All of them spoke of the importance, yet difficulty of coining the ‘perfect’ first sentence, a few words that can actually take years to get right. In addition, they all spoke about the fact that a number of characters in their latest books were based around someone they knew, either a family member or friend and how these ‘real’ voices were reflected and incorporated in their novels. Speaking candidly (or not so) of their siblings and parents reactions to their successes, it was comforting to hear that yes, everyone’s family truly does have a saga and there are few and far between ‘Hallmark’ card-type families. And for those of you wanting to pen a novel, Marcus brought the reality of writing home saying, ‘You don’t get your best ideas for a book going for a walk on the beach. That’s when you think of your taxes. You get your best ideas for a book by actually writing.’


No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison

As people spilled from the doorways of the crammed Belongil Room, Behrouz Boochani, on live cam from his cell on Manus Island, had everyone listening intently to his every word. The scene felt surreal, a windswept Behrouz and his piercing green eyes speaking through his computer from prison, whilst everyone at the Writer’s festival sat there in the comfort of a heated room, sipping coffees and able to come and go as they pleased. In the discussion he had with Geordie Williamson, alongside the translator of the book, ‘No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison’ Omid Tofighian and illustrator, Alex Mankiewicz, Behrouz alluded to the fact that he didn’t want his book to be compared to other prison literature,

‘It’s more than just a recount of the prison and the refugees, it’s a book about history, tragedy, love, philosophy and morality. My idea was to describe life in the prison and allow readers to ‘live’ with us.’

Speaking of the incredible loss of identity he and his fellow inmates experienced while in detention, naming literally everything in the book, even every day objects, he felt he regained a sense of identity and power against the system that had taken their names.

‘They took everything from us so I named everyone and everything to make people and objects beautiful in front of the ugly situation we are in.’

Throughout the live stream, Behrouz spoke candidly of the friendship he had established with his translator, Omid, describing it as a shared, philosophical relationship and Omid himself spoke of feeling as though he had been welcomed into ‘Behrouz’s mountains.’

Behrouz also spoke of the struggle the men in detention had endured in their personal lives – wives leaving them, family separations, children, some men had only briefly met, now six years older and the mental stress of being detained for six years.

‘I think six years is enough yet they continue to torture us mentally and physically. I know when I talk about these things it makes people uncomfortable, but it is a reality. People in Australian need to recognise what is going on here, when they recognise, they can fight it.’

When asked if he felt lucky in any way, given the success of his book, Behrouz replied that he purely felt lucky in the fact that he has had the opportunity to express himself and meet the people he had met. As audience members dabbed tears from their eyes, the helplessness of his situation and the fact we could do very little at that moment except hear his story, had everyone feeling that Australia’s immigration policies need to be reviewed.

When asked what we as Australians could do to help, Behrouz once again met the question with his cheeky sense of humour and humility,

‘Um, don’t work for Liberal! Seriously though, please read this book and ask other people to read it. Teach the younger generation that hopefully Australia doesn’t do what it has done, again.’

When asked what he would like to do when he is released, Behrouz was remained humble to the end.

‘I just want to have a simple life. I don’t care where I go, as long as I leave this island. I don’t want to be a Prime Minister or politician, I just want a simple, safe, quiet life.’

Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later. Buy the book, either for yourself, for a friend or for your children. His story needs to be told.

IMAGE: Behrouz Boochani (c) Ashley Gilbertson

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