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Our Festival Blogger: SWF Opening Night

Hello friends, my name is Madison Godfrey, or as those of you who attended Tuesday night’s Festival Opening Address may recognise me as, ‘the kneecaps poet’. As a brief introduction; I’m a writer and educator, I’ve flown here from Boorloo/Perth, and my favourite colour is purple. I’m at the Festival talking about my new book Dress Rehearsals (out now from Nakkiah Lui’s JOAN Press), and I’m also your 2023 SWF Festival Blogger. I’ll be checking in each day with observations and behind-the-scenes goss; consider me the Gossip Girl equivalent of your Festival.

Tuesday night’s opening event was one of the strongest festival line-ups I’ve ever encountered. Opening with Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, followed by Miles Franklin winner Alexis Wright, then winner of our hearts Benjamin Law (who was recently the co-executive producer, co-creator and co-writer of Wellmania). A night of heavy hitters, who tackled heavy topics with grace and expertise, that gave insights into how writing shapes the future; as a fistfight with historical ‘truth’, an act of caretaking, a cultural mirror you never encountered so you had to write it into existence. The event was introduced with a Welcome to Country and moment of silence from Michael West, and the event was shared in Auslan by two live interpreters. The event concluded with a poetry performance by yours truly!

How beautiful to be here, how impossible to feel this exact way ever again.
Madison Godfrey

Was I nervous before the event? Yes. Did people say I seemed remarkably calm? Yes. Does wearing my favourite Lucy & Yak jumpsuit help every high-pressure situation? Oh, you bet it does.  

Some BTS observations from the green room; 

  • Bernardine Evaristo drank a coffee at 6pm, which in my mind, is quite an astounding time to consume caffeine if you want to sleep that evening. Impressive. 
  • Benjamin Law’s mum, Jenny, was a green room guest of honour. It’s clear where her son gets his charisma and ability to bring joy into a room just by entering it. 
  • Alexis Wright and I discussed the weight of her new book Praiseworthy. Not, as you may assume, the significant cultural and emotional weight of a book that discusses the climate emergency and Aboriginal sovereignty. Rather we discussed the practical inconvenience of carrying around such a large book when travelling for festivals.

If you were in the audience, you’ll know that there’s no way to briefly summarise the three speakers. To blurb them here, would be an injustice to their expansive ideas. I implore you to spend time with each of them throughout the festival, as I most definitely will. Here are some of my favourite quotes, 

  • Alexis Wright says, “you might say, we live in the infinite clock of Country, its pulse, its constant heartbeat ... we are part of the same heartbeat that is ancient and still revolving and renewing itself. We cannot step out of or apart from the pulse of Country.” She explores how books can be attempts to understand, with the writer “travelling imaginary paths.” I am excited to hear more from her on Saturday night.  
  • Talking about “tomorrow, and all of our tomorrows” Bernardine Evaristo says that the “voiceless now have more of a voice ... the marginalised are moving the centre towards them.” Bernardine speaks of curiosity, of treating dominant history as a truthless artefact of power, of how society stretches far beyond a singular storytelling gaze.  
  • Benjamin Law says “I belong in this room” while discussing tokenisation in television writing rooms. However, the statement clearly applies in this room, on this festival podium, too. Benjamin belongs here. He positions himself as the bodyguard of all debut or emerging writers who have been told their inclusion is tokenistic, and I catch some author faces in the audience beaming back at him.
I implore you to spend time with each [of the speakers] throughout the Festival, as I most definitely will.
Madison Godfrey

As the opening of his witty speech, Law details his very first Sydney Writers Fest, how a volunteer (we love you, SWF volunteers!) told a younger debut author Benjamin Law to “enjoy it while it lasts, because nothing ever does.” Of course, this is a blessing and a burden. Both our joys and our sorrows have an expiry date, as do our successes and failures. Yet, these are the sentiments I find myself clutching to, as I step on stage to share my poetry in front of almost 900 audience members. It is these words, alongside those from Evaristo, Wright and Artistic Director Ann Mossop, I will hold tight throughout the festival. How beautiful to be here, how impossible to feel this exact way ever again.

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