Tag Archives: masha gessen

Sydney Writers’ Festival – SWF Gala: Power

Content warning: language, queer issues, adult themes

This was my first time attending the Sydney Writers’ Festival and it was an absolutely epic weekend. I had tickets to 7 events over 3 days and I travelled up to Sydney with my friend Kendall with a bag full of books to get signed. I’ll be sharing more about the trip as a whole later this week, but for now I’ll be blogging about each event I went to.

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The first event I went to was SWF Gala: Power, the big Friday night event at the Sydney Town Hall. This was also my first time at the Town Hall and it is an imposing venue. The perfect place to really get into the nitty-gritty of what power means.

The panel was hosted by Jamila Rizvi who opened the evening with a meditation on the subject of power from a great Australian poet:

“This time, we know we all can stand together
With the power to be powerful
Believing we can make it better

Ooh, we’re all someone’s daughter
We’re all someone’s son, oh
Give a look at each other
Down the barrel of a gun

You’re the voice, try and understand it
Make the noise and make it clear, oh-o-o-o, woah-o-o-o
We’re not gonna sit in silence
We’re not gonna live with fear, oh-o-o-o, woah-o-o-o”

Farno

The audience was pretty warmed up with that introduction, and each of the panelists took a turn talking about their understanding of power.

Aminatou Sow

Sow, who hosts the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” said that she was just trying to make Oprah proud. She said the first book she read in English was “Feminism is for Everybody”, which was simply about seeking an end to sexism and the successes and failures of feminism. She said it was 140 pages that changed her life and gave her a vocabulary to put into words what she had felt all along and what she didn’t have the models or the words to explain it in her native language, French.

Sow was the queen of one-liners and said, “I do not drink from the koolaid of women’s empowerment”. She said that if activism is fun, you’re probably not doing the work. She said that it’s easy to spot someone who has no skin in the game – they do not read books.

Sow stressed the importance of giving credit to those who have shaped your ideas. She said, don’t just call yourself an activist – DO activism. She told people to “read books and find the language to end oppression”.

Masha Gessen

Gessen is an author of a number of books including “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia” and “The Man Without a Face: the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin“. 

Gessen reflected that at a Sydney Writers’ Festival some years ago, she said something that got her into so much trouble that she was driven out of Russia. Prior to the Australian marriage equality vote, she had made comments about the institution of marriage. A conservative newspaper published a story along the lines of “Homosexual activist reveals true goal of LGBTIQ movement”, the story was published in Russian, and her life was changed.

Gessen said that she was interested in the power of uncertainty. Uncertainty, she explained, was at odds with journalism and writing with certainty: the certainty of certainty that we see in Trump’s America, and even the certainty of experience.

Gessen asked the audience to imagine a post-war world where people value each other for being human and their different ways of learning. At this point, the audience clapped (which the Auslan interpreter also signed). Gessen then asked the audience to imagine a world without borders, architects who can build buildings with no set entrances and that can be taken apart, political parties with no platform.

Gessen ended on a discussion of uncertainty of gender and said that when people ask about preferred pronouns, Gessen says “I have no preferred pronoun. There is no reason to use third person pronouns in my presence”. On androgyny, Gessen said that at the airport, there was a question of who should pat her down: the male security guard, or the female security guard. Gessen simply said, “I don’t care”, and removed embarrassment in a tiny island of uncertainty.

Sally Rugg

Rugg was a campaign director at GetUp! for the marriage equality campaign and began her talk with statement that power was how the country won marriage equality.

Rugg first realised she was gay at the age of 19 when she had a penny drop moment. She said at the time it felt like cancer, something she didn’t want and that she couldn’t control in a world suddenly hostile towards her.

She talked about the first same sex kiss on Australian TV and Lloyd Grosse’s HIV activism, and said that every inch of LGBTIQ progress has been fought for with stories. She said that queer couples would haul their children to parliament so they could look MPs in the eye and beg for their families not to be put to a vote.

Rugg explained the power of stories to make political change, but noted the pressure on marginalised groups to be perfect. She said the story she told about being gay feeling like having cancer, she didn’t tell the other parts of realising her sexuality and the stories of losing her virginity or making out with girls in nightclubs. Rugg said that when marginalised communities are forced to sanitise their stories so that they appear worthy and look like the powerful, then it is not true equality.

She said that the stories must not just be preserved for the audiences we are trying to persuade.

Tanya Plibesek

Now, Plibersek’s talk was good, but Jamila Rizvi’s introduction was amazing. She introduced Plibersek like a character from Game of Thrones: Tanya Plibesek, of the House on the Hill, first of her name. Plibersek is the deputy leader of the Labor Party and an MP in Australia’s Parliament.

Plibersek also opened with a reference to music, however she went with John Lennon’s “Power to the People”. She noted that power is not bestowed by divine right, it lives in the people and it belongs to them. It remains the people’s gift to bestow and withdraw. Her talk was focused on the power and value of democracy.

Plibersek paraphrased Winston Churchill, who said

“…it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The audience was a bit slow to warm to Plibersek.

Plibersek told the audience that this is the 12th consecutive year of global decline in freedom. There has been a decline in the support of democracy, particularly in among millennials. She said that the best way to support democracy is to broaden the circle of people it applies to.

Plibersek said that the price of democracy around the world is high, and we dishonour the people who fight for it by taking it for granted. She implored people to reject cynicism and jump into the fray. She said that democracy means engagement in civil society and things like memberships in unions and a free and diverse press.

Plibersek warned that Australia’s level of media concentration is one of the highest in the world and it is getting worse with fake news and social media echo chambers. Plibersek says that the is a proponent for free speech. Not the pretend kind, the kind that gives you the right to be a bigot, but the ability to criticise government.

Tayari Jones

Author Tayari Jones spoke next, and she said that she had been apprehensive to speak about power. As a woman of colour, she often felt like her conversations about power involved necessary discussion about being excluded from power and she just didn’t want to have to go through it all again.

She said that she could talk about the impact of police violence on her community, all the way to the fact the microphone doesn’t match her face.

Jones instead decided to tell a story about how she managed to regain some power. She had already had two books published and was writing her third when her publisher decided not to run it. Her publisher had bought some software called BookScan – and I tell you now, the way that Jones said the word BookScan was utterly compelling – and BookScan told the publisher that she hadn’t sold enough books. Her publisher decided not to run the book, and even though she kept working on the book and tried to live by the lessons she taught her students – don’t write what you think will get you published, but try to get published what you want to write – nobody else would publish the book either.

Some time later, Jones was invited to a writers’ festival. She was the only black woman invited, however she didn’t want to go because of how ashamed she was of the impact BookScan had had on her writing career. However, she nevertheless felt obligated to go because of the fear that if she didn’t, they wouldn’t invite other black women.

She got a call from the festival saying they couldn’t find any copies of her books to sell. It turned out that not only had her publishers cancelled her third book, but they had put her first two books out of print. Jones was mortified, and had no idea what to do. Shortly afterwards, she got another call saying that they had found four books for her to sign at the event. It turned out her dad had sent through the two copies and had hit her uncle up for two more.

Jones spoke to her dad and asked, what would she do when she ran out of the four books she had? Her dad said, if you run out, just smile and tell them you’ve sold out.

So Jones went to the event, she signed her four books, and sure enough a fifth person came along. Jones smiled, and told her that she had sold out. However, the woman said that she had heard Jones was out of print. More than that, she had heard that Jones couldn’t get a publisher. Jones said she was so embarrassed.

The woman took her hand, led her across the foyer, and literally put her hand in the hand of a publisher. One that had already rejected her third book. She and the publisher chatted for a bit, and then the publisher turned to her and asked how she knew Judy.

Jones was confused, and said I don’t know a Judy. The publisher said, you know, the woman you came over with, Judy Blume! Jones said it was like her nerdy childhood had come to rescue her in the time of need. However when she turned to where Judy had been, she had disappeared like a magical fairy godmother.

Jones said that her hard work had intersected with Judy Blume and her generosity and power, and finished by concluding that art will always find a way.

Warwick Thornton

Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton was up next.

He started out by reminiscing about how when he was 6 years old, he lived on the kind of street that all towns have – where the kids are hungry, the mums are working and the dads are full of shit. He said that he had a best friend called David, and by sheer coincidence, he became a camera assistant and David became a boom swinger.

They had adventures together on sets all around Australia. They got older and uglier and they moved from documentaries to features. They worked together on the film The Sapphires, and his friend told him that he had a great idea for a movie.

Now, Thornton said that he hears that a lot, and usually says to them go ahead and write it. He said, 99% of the time he never hears from them about it again. However, this time, when he met David up in Arnham land on a project, David told him he had written the film.

Thornton was torn: he wanted to be a good mate, but what was he going to do if he read it and it was terrible? He’d have to tell him it was bad. He put it off and put it off but then he finally read it: it was terrible, but it was also brilliant because David had something to say.

He had written it from the heart. It didn’t have any structure, but Thornton said that he had been unable to recognise its brilliance when he first read it due to elitist crap. He told David what he thought, and that it needed a lot of work. David told him that he understood: he had just wanted to tell his grandfather’s story.

David had told the truth about his grandfather. Thornton said that history was told by the coloniser, and that it had been told with a lead pencil and an eraser. Thornton said that he had lost his connection and had been too busy focusing on what Hollywood expected. So he hooked David up with a screenwriter called Stephen, and together they made a film called Sweet Country.

Wesley Morris

The last speaker of the day was Wesley Morris, a journalist and critic with the New York Times.

Morris began by saying that he was feeling very literal today. He hadn’t gone to therapy this week, and he hadn’t really prepared a talk, so he wanted to talk about something that had happened to him recently.

He said that he had been dumped about a week ago. It was a plutonic dumping, they weren’t romantically involved, but the person had been in his life since he was about 17 years old.

He actually hadn’t heard from him for about 9 months, and after a few unanswered messages, the friend finally agreed to talk to him about what had happened. Morris got slotted into a 10:00am to 10:40am timeframe, and so he knew it wasn’t going to be a long, in-depth conversation.

He said that he had worked with his friend for about 2 years, and his friend told him that the reason they weren’t speaking anymore is because that he apparently did not help his friend at a moment when he needed help. Morris said that he had no idea his friend needed help. His friend said that Morris had the power to help him and chose not to use it: he could have used whatever clout he had in his position to speak on his friend’s behalf.

Morris was taken aback by this. He said that he had never though of himself as really having any power to help others like that.

Morris said that one factor in this equation was that he is black and his friend is white. He doesn’t carry himself through the world thinking about the power he has, but his friend does think, when moving through a space, about the power he carries. Morris said he doesn’t even know what that looks like because he simply doesn’t believe he has that power.

He said that his friend has the power – he gets himself into nightclubs, and can get people to call him back.

Morris realised that this is a fundamental difference between them. When his friend goes to work, he takes his family and his day-to-day life with him. When Morris goes to work, he takes 400 years of people working so that he has the right to go to work every day. He doesn’t have time to think about the power he has and how he can use it on people. He doesn’t think of himself as having institutional power.

This was a curiously intimate discussion, and Morris clarified he wasn’t looking for a response. He said he wasn’t sure what was going to happen with his friend, but he asked the audience to think about the power they do have and how they use it.

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