"Everything should not be told,” said Elizabeth Jolley.
“It is better to keep some things to yourself.” Jolley was notoriously reluctant to talk about her personal life. Now, five years after her death, and by way of a memoir by Susan Swingler, Jolley’s stepdaughter (hitherto unknown to her readers), we learn about elaborate deceptions that were surely at the core of Jolley’s reticence. Who would have thought she actually had something to hide?
The 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival focused on the line between the public and the private. The question of the limits of what is personal is one of the hottest subjects around.
“Privacy is for paedos,” ex-News of the World journalist Paul McMullan told the UK Leveson Inquiry into the media. Now, via Facebook and Twitter, we voluntarily tell the world things we previously might not have told even our loved ones. Investigative journalists thrive on leaks and finding out what others don’t want us to know. And the state knows few boundaries (personal or political) in its need to prevent another 9/11.
But is everything fair game? As individuals, shouldn’t we want to have things (however trivial) to hide?
Our Sydney Town Hall discussion on this very topic included former High Court judge Michael Kirby, former director general of MI5-turned-thriller writer Stella Rimington, former CIA interrogator Glenn Carle, renowned media and news blogger Jeff Jarvis and trailblazing investigative journalist Heather Brooke.
The private and the personal are subjects that have always preoccupied writers and have been the focus of much fiction as well as memoir, biography, history and reportage. This year’s guests exemplify powerful examples of such writing.
In The Private Moment, our Opening Address, UK-based Libyan novelist Hisham Matar gave testament to the power of fiction to approximate the feelings and emotions that defy articulation. Matar, whose father was kidnapped by Gaddafi’s regime in the early ’90s (and is still missing), speaks of the “very peculiar political atmosphere” where private life is infiltrated by the totalitarian regime.
Our all-star line-up of authors from here and around the world included Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Eugenides, Sebastian Barry, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Man Booker Prize-winner Roddy Doyle and Geoff Dyer.
Another Man Booker Prize-winner, Hilary Mantel, spoke to us live from London via videolink on May 19 – the 476th anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s beheading.
We introduce new stars: the acclaimed debut novelist, Chad Harbach, US National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward, and from Iceland, poet, novelist (and Björk lyricist) Sjón. All tell stories of the personal.
Kathy Lette’s latest book touches on some very personal territory with the story of Merlin, the autistic son of the narrator, a story inspired in part by her own son.
In The Hare With Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal told his family’s history by tracking an inherited collection of Japanese miniature sculptures through one and a half centuries. When Jeanette Winterson left home at 16 because she was in love with a woman, her mother asked her, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” – now the title of Winterson’s powerful memoir.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young, whom we met in Norman Doidge’s book on neuroplasticity, told us how she changed her own brain. In [sic] the young composer Joshua Cody took us on a stimulating ride through music, poetry, illness and sex.
Lemon Andersen has produced a poetic performance memoir, while Marc Lewis’s Memoirs of an Addicted Brain tells of the depths he reached, with the insights of a neuroscientist.
Biographers, journalists and historians have long considered the rules of engagement when tackling their subjects. How deeply do you go into the private life of your subject? Where should a journalist draw the line in pursuit of a story?
Masha Gessen’s study of Vladimir Putin shows his brutal use of political power to achieve a bold personal agenda. Joe McGinniss’s biography was credited with stopping Sarah Palin’s presidential campaign. Italian journalist Loretta Napoleoni argued that China has better capitalism than the West. Anne Sebba tells the Duchess of Windsor’s secret. Dava Sobel chronicles the life of Copernicus, and Caroline Moorehead takes us to Auschwitz with women of the French resistance.
Finally, this year brought one of our best-ever children’s and young adult programs, including Jeff Kinney, whose Diary of a Wimpy Kid series shows that our captivation with the idea of a personal account of one’s private thoughts begins at a very young age.
We presented more than 300 events with over 400 participants in a week designed to stimulate, move, inspire and provoke.
Private. Public. Discuss.