One of the strangest things about being an author programmed at Sydney Writers' Fest, is the surreal hotel breakfast situation. Nobody warned me about this in advance of my first festival appearance last year. Each morning, barely awake and severely under-caffeinated, authors are generously offered a free breakfast (thank you, SWF!). However, for anyone like me, this often means that as you’re slumping in your hoodie and tracksuit, your brain still loading pixel by pixel, you are likely eating toast beside some of the best writers in the world.
I’ve had a successful author disclose to me that, at their first Sydney Writers' Festival, they paid for room service rather than accept complimentary breakfast, simply because of how intimidating it would be to eat breakfast surrounded by other programmed writers.
This year, I’ve become more comfortable with being openly sluggish around writers I admire. It turns out, they’re human too. This morning, I sit with guest curator Sisonke Msimang, who like me has flown over from Boorloo/Perth. Sisonke has a copy of Manifesto: On Never Giving Up beside her coffee, as she is interviewing Bernardine Evaristo later tonight, and I talk to her about a strange encounter at the Opening Address on Tuesday. Afterwards, now caffeinated, I write it down for you...
On Tuesday night, beside her at our Opening Address, I was surprised by how often Bernardine Evaristo was approached with the compliment, “I love your book” yet no book was specifically mentioned. After hearing this multiple times, I asked her, “which book are they talking about?” She replied, “oh, you know which book.” Let’s clarify something upfront; I’m the sort of person who gets deeply obsessed. I’ve had the same Gang Of Youths album (Go Farther In Lightness) on repeat for five weeks and even my University students have been dragged into discussing the poetic techniques in those lyrics. My teenage music fandom trained me as a scholar of obsession. When I adore an author, I commence a miniature dissertation into their back catalogues.
Yes, I recognise Girl, Woman, Other, the most famous of Bernardine’s books due to the 2019 Booker Prize win (alongside Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments), is a seminal text. As she mentions on Wednesday night, it’s the first time a black woman wins the Booker, and she describes ascending “the stage, hand-in-hand, to rapturous applause” with Atwood as a “landmark historical moment, for literature, and for the sisterhood.” Undoubtably, such a significant prize is a career-changing accolade. Yet you know what’s an even bigger deal in my mind? The perseverance of an author who has written 10 books, including a verse novel, a novel, a poetry collection and most recently the memoir Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. Especially considering the content of Evaristo’s recent work, which details her perseverance as an author (and person), I am more interested in the longevity of her literary legacy than a sticker on one of the covers. While in literary circles, winning a prize may be considered the peak of a metaphoric mountain, this singular mindset robs readers of so much greenery. I want to take my time hiking through Evaristo’s books, stopping to enjoy what grows there. Yes, the Booker Prize is undoubtably a big deal, but so is an author’s ongoing commitment to craft.
"Dig your fingers deeply into their work, let yourself be greedy with curiosity."
This genre-spanning and generation-spanning impact was epitomised at the opening night, when Evaristo shared her poem Roots published in 1999, which was breathtakingly brilliant. Then on Wednesday, Evaristo discussed her creation of theatre scripts, as well as books such as Lara (1997, 2009), Blonde Roots (2008) and the “alternate universe satire” The Emperors Babe (2001).
Alongside Sisonke Msimang, Evaristo also speaks about being someone who doesn’t say the word failure, because although “failure feels like an admission for defeat” it offers an opportunity for “new discoveries”. She speaks of the years of writing she left behind before creating Girl, Woman, Other, the novel that her younger self would’ve been “mind blown” to read.
My challenge to you, is that during the Festival when you find a writer you love, don’t just grab their prize-winning book. Dig your fingers deeply into their work, let yourself be greedy with curiosity. Thinking back to that Gang of Youths album title, go farther.