Time Out Sydney's Editorial Director Alyx Gorman joins us this year as guest writer, to provide daily wrap-ups of the Festival's most stimulating discussions and exciting events.
In the first of the series, Alyx recaps the 2017 Opening Address, featuring Brit Bennett, Anne Enright and George Saunders.
When do we find ourselves searching for refuge? It’s not something our best selves need to seek.
Last night, for the first time in the Sydney Writers’ Festival’s history, three voices shared the opening address. Each gave the festival’s theme refuge a very different shape. Brit Bennett (The Mothers), Anne Enright (The Green Road) and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) all started at the same point — weakness.
Recently Brit was handed an alarmingly meaty question: "How do you save the future of America?" Although she demurred that perhaps this issue should not be left in her hands, now that she has it, she’s continued to turn it over and over. "This is a really interesting moment to think about the future; when many are occupied thinking about the past. When I think about the problems facing my own country, I keep coming back to that idea [of nostalgia as refuge]. Sixty-three million people voted to elect an ignorant bigot to the highest office of the land, and as I keep going abroad people keep asking me why?"
"Nostalgia is this ancient human emotion has been weaponised and politicised… I think the Trump phenomenon is just one example."
As "one of those terrible millenials", and particularly as a young African American woman, Brit admits she’s more sceptical than most about nostalgia. "I haven't lived long enough to feel nostalgic about much yet," but more than that, "there's no other time in American history [when] it would be better to be me than right now."
"I think we should be sceptical of refuge, which means I think we should be sceptical of what makes us feel safe." She said we should be mindful "when we're seeking shelter from violence or bigotry or hatred, and when we're retreating into our own biases and perspectives, hiding from a world that perplexes us."
Though 'safe spaces' are often used to mock the fragility of young people, Brit suggested "Nostalgia is the ultimate safe space. It's selective remembering that filters history so only the good parts survive. Right now American is governed by nostalgia... Imagining a better past that can never be repeated, because it never existed... Nostalgia produces nothing, it only reproduces itself."
'Good fiction isn't safe. When we write we risk ourselves, when we read, we risk ourselves.'
So how do we move beyond the past? For Brit, it begins with acknowledging complexity. "Memory is complicated. I don't trust simple stories. Even the ones that make me feel good. Especially the ones that make me feel good."
That is why we need fiction, "it rips us out of our world and transports us to another's. Good fiction isn't safe. When we write we risk ourselves, when we read, we risk ourselves."
George Saunders is far less sceptical of refuge, but only because he advocates seeking solace of a different kind. "Refuge is what we need when we learn our resources are insufficient for the business of living," he told us in the final address of the night.
"Each of us has felt how loving and present it is possible to be. So we can't help but notice the moments when we fail in those things." It is during failures of presence, kindness or empathy that we need refuge.
"In Buddhism refuge has a very specific meaning... [It] is the moment a student commits to the path... On a deeper level what he's committing to is truth. He's committing to seek truth and to the notion that truth is actually real."
In George's hands refuge becomes an expansionary technique, "something that helps us grow beyond ourselves." His way of getting there "are the two holy acts of reading and writing." But more particularly, the process of editing. When revisiting and revising a work, when shaping it and changing and improving it, on the page you become a better version of yourself — someone with more insight and empathy. This, George suggests, is also a mark of respect for the reader, "In the process of revision the reader feels your respect for them... Refuge is something we can give, but it's also something we can take. In giving refuge we receive it back."
'Refuge is something we can give, but it's also something we can take. In giving refuge we receive it back.'
Though we can find refuge in mutual truth, we cannot collectively will reality out of existence, George warns. "If a turtle walks into the White House briefing room, and someone says it is a dog, we will notice that the turtle still refuses to bark."
If Brit offered us a thesis for the evening – that refuge can mean fleeing to our basest self, and George proposed its antithesis – that true refuge will only be found through transcending self, then it was Anne Enright’s words, wedged in between them, that gave the night synthesis.
Rather than giving an address, Anne read a remarkable short work of fiction. It told of a relatable moment of middle class suffering – a cancelled flight. Being shuttled to another city, for another flight. Getting lost in a soulless airport at goodness knows what hour. The audience laughed, groaned and empathised as our heroine as she tugged along her hand luggage, wheels clacking behind her. We could feel her longing for scented soap, soft sheets and a reassuring receptionist at the hotel lobby. These minor inconveniences and tediums mounted with stressful speed. Things continued to go wrong for our protagonist as she exited the airport. It all started adding up to something wholly less surmountable — the realisation that our heroine would not get home that night, because she no longer has a home to get to. She’s an asylum seeker, her passport worthless now, waiting in line at a shelter, wondering if her family are up ahead.
From the perspective of most Australians, the refugee crisis feels so far removed. Political forces and media coverage collude to tell us that refugees are very different from us, very separate. We’re told these strange people from strange places yearn for things altogether more impossible to deliver than a nice bath and a good lie down. So why bother?
Last night, both George and Brit told us urgently that fiction can get us closer to truth. Then Anne showed us.
— Alyx Gorman, editorial director of Time Out Sydney
Alyx Gorman is the editorial director of Time Out Australia, and the fashion editor of the Saturday Paper. Alyx has worked for Elle Magazine, the Mamamia Women's Network, Fairfax Media and Oyster Magazine, and written for The Guardian, Meanjin and i-D.