Fiona Wright: On the Opening Address

This year, Fiona Wright joins us this year as one of two Festival bloggers. Here, she recaps the Opening Address, where literary luminaries Alexis Okeowo, André Aciman and Min Jin Lee spoke on the Festival's theme of power. She also shares what it is she loves about Festivals like ours. 

Before the Opening Address I meet up with Yen-Rong Wong at a bar in Redfern – she’s a (kick-arse) writer and editor from Brisbane, who’s come to Sydney for the Festival, who I’ve met online, on social media and through her work, but never before in person. I can’t help but think, this is the thing I love most about festivals: how so many of my writer friends, old and new, are suddenly here at the same time, how we get to catch up and hang out and talk shop like the bunch of over-eager (and low-key alcoholic) nerds that we all are.

Yen-Rong has never been to Carriageworks before and I lived for four years barely two blocks away, so the space feels as familiar as my backyard, and it’s wonderful to see her arching her head to admire it, those huge metal girders, those high windows. (We talk about how to negotiate writing about other people in memoir. I’m going to justify writing about her here by saying: you should read her work). 

I’ve never been to an Opening Address before. There are sparkling dresses, bright red high heels, enough Gorman to fill an entire store.

Alexis Okeowo is electrifying – she talks about working as a foreign correspondent in Uganda, at the age of 22, ‘new to everything’ as she puts it – to full-time work, to paying rent, to buying groceries, as well as to the place. About foreign correspondence as a colonial enterprise, and appropriation of other people’s stories as the actual bread-and-butter of this kind of work. About knowing how easily she – as a woman, a woman of colour, an African – could have been the object, and not the subject of the stories that she tells. She says, prove your worthiness to tell the story, or step back, and let someone better suited take the reins. I love this.

André Aciman is charming and exaggeratedly curmudgeonly, and defends his right to think against the grain, to be suspicious of things that everyone seems to agree upon. He reserves his ire mostly for the two things that he sees as impinging upon his power of free thought: The Elements of Style and literary magazines – or the ‘prescribed language’ and ‘prescribed media’ of contemporary writing. The Elements of Style, he says, favours the concrete, the concise, the resolute and the declarative, the manly men of language, rather than the ‘fancy’, the ambiguous (the long winding sentences that I too love). Magazines, too, can limit what we do. He has the audience in stitches.

Min Jin Lee is warm and self-deprecating, and talks about ordinariness – her childhood, as the ordinary middle sister of two brilliant girls, friendless but not unhappy because, she says, I had my library books and my solitude. She says she writes about people who are plain and unimportant, who only want to have normal lives, and to determine those lives for themselves. She says it took her 23 years to write two novels, and that she thinks of this as unspectacular too.

At the after-party there are gin-and-tonics, and the ice cubes are branded with the sponsor’s initials. They are delicious.

 

Read about Fiona's reading habits here