Gamilaroi poet, folklorist and musician Luke Patterson shares his reflections on the 2022 Sydney Writers' Festival Opening Night Address, featuring Jackie Huggins, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Nardi Simpson. Luke is a Juncture fellow with Sydney Review of Books and a member of the 2022 Emerging Writers Festival advisory board. He has written poetry for journals including Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Rabbit and Running Dog.
Uncle Allen sung us in. I heard it. The way his words would rise and fall in topographical declinations part song, part welcome. At first I thought the acoustics were playing tricks on me here in Sydney Town Hall. Unc's voice was ringing in the biggest pipe organ I'd ever seen. I love when the elders do this sing-speak that clears the air…and makes things happen.
I reckon I got a good sense of when something real cultural about to happen. Maybe it’s obvious when three Aboriginal women are about to speak. But in this flash place, in this way that they’re being celebrated, as nationally recognised custodians of our stories, it’s pretty deadly ay!? It’s like I get to witness history unfolding.
If you hadn’t realised you were on sovereign lands after that welcome you certainly did after Jackie Huggins took the stand and gave us a good growly harangue full of love for this country. Her work is invaluable and reminds me how literature and writing can be a luxury for mob. We got lots of other things to worry about like treaty, health, housing, justice and so on. But underneath it all, we have those family stories, generational undercurrents running deep, so entangled with the development of this country.
"But in this flash place, in this way that they’re being celebrated, as nationally recognised custodians of our stories, it’s pretty deadly ay!? It’s like I get to witness history unfolding."
Ali Cobby Eckermann beamed in via video and continued the sing-song impassioned story-telling that is beginning to shape the contours of the evening and the week ahead. Again, we’re given a bit of a growl and there’s so much power to Ali’s craft. But I’m beginning to catch on, like there’s too much love in the way a story is told to just be anger and honesty. Ali is a poet after my own heart, the way she weaves life and art and grief, she says to write with evidence of real experience. Ali’s has me in tears and I just gotta let 'em flow.
By the time Nardi Simpson walked on stage someone could have waved an Aboriginal flag and I would have broken out in chant and howled to the moon just coming off the full. But instead I’m listening to Nardi elaborate on the textured deep-time temporality and musicality of First Nations’ story-telling. Then, Nardi literally picked up a guitar and sung a lullaby to bring us to the conclusion of the official proceedings.
All of it was poetry for me, witnessing this concert-ceremony led by three black sisters occurring in halls full of portraits of fancy white fullas; the way they were picking up and bringing forward themselves and the legacies of our ancestors. There is a growing power in Aboriginal writing and its influence and grassroots work across Australian life.
If tonight was anything to go by, then I reckon the Festival is gonna be a little bit magic. But I’m a bit of a romantic like that, looking for the shimmering of ancestral stories in unlikely but rightful places. I’m excited to see more First Nations talent mobilise our ancestral knowledges and ways of being to reshape the way Australians imagine our collective past and future.