Khalid Warsame: On the Closing Address

Festival blogger Khalid Warsame reflects on the Closing Address, the power of words and the interiority of images. He asks how many times the beneficiaries of systems of privilege must hear a critique of the systems they maintain before meaningful change is achieved.

1. At the Closing Address of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Artistic Director Michaela McGuire began by repeating the words of Margaret Atwood, who wrote; ‘A word, after a word, after a word is power.’ The auditorium was packed. Next to me was someone I vaguely recognised as a writer from the Festival program. His facial expression was unreadable – he seemed to be paying such close attention. Over the course of the Festival we witnessed people in power being held to account, power being questioned, a new reality being set in concrete. In darkness, light can be as nourishing as food.

 

2. I keep returning to a moment, days ago now, where I was walking to Carriageworks from the Seymour Centre. I had my camera in my pocket, though I hadn’t yet taken a photo. As I passed by the engineering building, the light shifted and bisected two squat hollow tubes that stood in the forecourt of the building. There were pipes and lines and edges – not a rounded corner in sight – and the bright yellow light from the sun fit so neatly into the precisely measured built environment, that I stopped and was startled by it. I had my camera out to take a photo – but in a split second the light shifted again, and the shot was lost. But here I am describing that moment to you now, even though the image refused stability at the time. An aspect of the power of words: to bring the quiet past loudly into the present.

In darkness, light can be as nourishing as food.

Khalid Warsame

3. Jennifer Egan, in her Closing Address explored tangents of this, touching on everything from image culture to experimental and conventional writing. Her address had none of the urgency that we had all felt building up just before her coming on to the stage, but in context, her speech – on her ongoing engagement with technology as a threat – touched on a key line of thought surrounding this present moment in time.

 

4. Her comments on image culture, as opposed to writing, were the ones that have stuck with me. I’m sure I’ve heard before of the connection between modern terrorism and image culture, but the way she built her case and described modern terrorism as an epiphenomenon of image culture surprised me in that way when you hear something that, only in retrospect, is very obvious.

“An aspect of the power of words: to bring the quiet past loudly into the present.”

Khalid Warsame

5. It’s strange that almost immediately after I left the auditorium I began to misremember and forget things. It’s always this way with memory isn’t it? I fixated on a few key points, committed them to memory, and quarrelled about them afterwards. For example: while telling a story of her years in journalism, Egan mentioned she believes that writing is superior to images because images do not contain any interiority, or give a sense of interiority, the way writing can. Immediately, I began to frame an argument against her point in my mind: what about the reflected interiority of images? The way they can, in your reaction to the tension in an image, betray what you’re thinking? The way they always betray the interiority and biases of the photographer? What about the interiority of the audience, of the artist?

 

6. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to sit with words and believe in their power. What do we want them to do? What aspect of power are we talking about? I think we often look at words as agents of persuasion, but how many more people need to be persuaded to take seriously the threats, ogres and charlatans of this world? How many times must the beneficiaries of vast and troubling systems of privileges hear a cogent critique of the systems they maintain through their action and inaction before meaningful change is achieved? What does this change look like? Which words can corral this world into kindness?

 

7. I don’t know.