Khalid Warsame: On the Power Gala

Our Festival blogger Khalid Warsame recaps on our gala Sydney Town Hall event, where Festival guests unpicked power – and how it relates to feminism, generosity, politics and how we see, and interact with, the world.

He reflects on what we lose when we contort ourselves to fit into a world that is shaped for and by those with power.

“This is the work of liberation.” – Aminatou Sow, on feminism.

What do we mean by power? I’ve always had trouble with finding a language for things that I feel mostly in my gut.

As we made our way to the Sydney Town Hall, I had to look up what that word gala meant because, for some reason, I had attached to it a kind of festive air, with bunting and rides and music and large tents full of games. For good measure, I also tried to look up the word ‘power,’ but my phone died before I could do so. Earlier that day, my friend turned to me and said, “It’s such an interesting theme for an event: power.” I asked her what she meant, and she shrugged and said, “I just think it’s a fraught concept nowadays”. I kept on returning to this thought throughout the night.

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“To write about things for which there is no language ...” – Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen’s remarks on uncertainty — on the power of embracing it, playing with it, recognising that its opposite, ‘the certainty of expertise’, is thoroughly boring — hit on this idea of power as this kind of fraught thing that demands a stance that has the appearance of certainty, a thick façade of absolutism, that can be punctured with very small refusals to buy into that.

We lose a lot when we contort ourselves to fit into this world, which is largely shaped by and for those in power and done so for their benefit.

Khalid Warsame

“I’m talking about the intersection of power and generosity.” – Tayari Jones

I once read a book where the author spent a long time splitting hairs over the difference between the words ‘power’ and ‘authority’, but they sort of mean the same thing when people take them to mean the same thing, or when one flows from the other. The radical corollary to that could be found in Tayari Jones’ story about how power, a specific person’s power, can be wielded with care and generosity and thoughtfulness and love so that the exercise of power is indistinguishable from the exercise of generosity.

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After the event, I was trying to find the bathroom. The hallway that led to the bathroom was wide enough for two or three people to walk abreast, but I found my way blocked by a man who, though not at all large in a physical sense, seemed to take up the space of two or three people abreast. He was talking to someone on the phone — talking loudly. I made myself small so as to not inconvenience him or force him to move aside, and I pressed myself against the wall and squeezed by. We were engaged in a discourse of power: his was there, large and looming, radiating outwards, and mine — at least in this scenario — was this small, fleeting thing.

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“We haul our children to parliament, ask them to look into their eyes ... we sanitise and commodify our stories as bargaining chips, trying to find acceptance on their terms...” – Sally Rugg

We lose a lot when we contort ourselves to fit into this world, which is largely shaped by and for those in power and done so for their benefit. Our stories change: our complexities are smoothed over. I would sometimes rather avoid having to think about it: would I have given that small moment in the hallway a second thought had I not just spent over an hour listening to power being dissected, interrogated, and explored? I don’t think so.

“I had started to look at the world with blinkers.”  Warwick Thornton