Time Out Sydney's Editorial Director Alyx Gorman joins us this year as guest writer, to provide daily wrap-ups of the Festival's most stimulating discussions and exciting events.
Here, Alyx recaps Susan Faludi's Closing Address and Deliberate and Afraid of Nothing.
We have all sorts of ways to measure our health physically. But when it comes to the health of our spirit, there’s no pulse. There’s no blood pressure or blood oxygen level.
“When you have this kind of political reality... when members of your family are imprisoned... the accumulative effect is that you're drowning. You lose your patience for things that are complex,” Hisham Matar said at A Murderer in the Family. For Hisham, patience for complexity is a yardstick we should use to measure the health of the soul. The ability to sit in front of a great work of painting and feel something. The ability to hear someone else’s perspective and pause, instead of pushing back against it.
Where does this health of the spirit fit in with the festival’s theme — refuge? In Susan Faludi’s Closing Address she explained that one is crucial for achieving the other, but the relationship does not flow the way you might expect.
In Latin, she told us, refuge is literally “the act of fleeing backwards”. In a moment that echoed Brit Bennett’s opening address, Susan suggested: isn’t “fleeing backwards” exactly what all those Republican voters did in November of 2016? Susan began her address by describing the refuse left behind by those seeking refuge today — the pile of 450,000 bright orange life preservers, many of which are counterfeit, that are stacked on the island of Lesbos. They call it the ‘Mountain of Misery’. If the people displaced, either within their own borders or outside them as refugees were at this moment united into a single country, it would be the world’s 21st largest nation. Its population would be greater than the United Kingdom.
Yet Susan has observed that the more people try to seek refuge, the more aggressively the places they seek it push back against them. In America, there’s the promise of a “big beautiful wall” on the southern border. In Australia, there’s offshore detention. In Hungary, the country where Susan’s father was born, a country that was fled and later returned to, this pushback began in 2010 with the election of Viktor Orbán and his populist right wing Fidesz party. Now, Hungary’s third largest political party, Jobbik, is a bastion of racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. “Refuge is a Janus-faced concept... the xenophobe sees himself as the one in danger,” Susan observed. In the 1940s, the Hungarian Christians found the refuge they’d been seeking, but it “was a refuge from Jews.”
Earlier that day, essayist Durga Chew-Bose told the crowd at Deliberate and Afraid of Nothing that for her, checking in with her parents has become an energising force. This followed similar comments she made at Advice from Nasty Women where she suggested that when you’ve lost the energy to fight, you should reach out to see how your peers are doing, because if you’re feeling tired, the chances are they might be too. The whole panel, all young and extremely accomplished women of colour, agreed that spending time with those in similar circumstances was restorative — a form of self-care. From an audience perspective, just watching women as brilliant as Durga, Elaine Welteroth, Brit Bennett and Yassmin Abdel-Magied share their collective experiences felt insightful and energising, especially when Brit reflected: "White writers don't think they're writing about race. They think they're writing about people."
Difference can be confronting. It damages one’s innate sense of justice to hear that the world is an unfair place — and you’ve never noticed before because that unfairness benefits you. But, as Paul Beatty observed in his panel, it would be nice if people being told information like this could sit with it for a moment. If they could respond with “huh” instead of pushing back.
Conversely, being in a space where people implicitly understand your experience and your culture can be comforting — regardless of whether you’re oppressed. It feels good to be in an environment where nothing needs to be explained or negotiated. But this is not refuge — at least not the kind anyone should reshape the world to achieve.
On the difference between the refuge those that would have us move backward seek, and the space sought by refugees, Susan said “one is seeking relief from untold horrors. The other is conjuring enemies... they’ll likely never encounter. But if we want to take refuge seriously, we have to acknowledge its complex nature. The refuge that refugees seek is only a refuge because it's defended. Exclusionary. In that regard, the refugee and the xenophobe are odd kindred spirits, they both believe in a place that’s shielded from the world’s mayhem.” But in a world where our environment is becoming increasingly chaotic, where displacement will soon be as much an issue of climate as politics, “is it naive to think there's any refuge to run to?”
When your life is chaotic, stressful and unpredictable, when you live every day under the hypocrisies of totalitarianism, or wonder every night if you’ll ever find a safe place to sleep, the health of the soul cannot be your biggest concern. It is only after these basic needs are met that true refuge can be sought. Which means it is the job of those of us who already have our basic needs met need to come to peace with complexity – and bring others after us. According to Susan, “Refuge isn't something to be encircled and patrolled... it's a place not of safety, but atonement.”
— Alyx Gorman, editorial director of Time Out Sydney
Alyx Gorman is the editorial director of Time Out Australia, and the fashion editor of the Saturday Paper. Alyx has worked for Elle Magazine, the Mamamia Women's Network, Fairfax Media and Oyster Magazine, and written for The Guardian, Meanjin and i-D.