The Sydney Writers’ Festival launched last night with a fierce celebration of the power of stories of every country and person. The 14th annual Sydney Writers’ Festival launched last night at the Sydney Theatre Company with three powerful testaments with indigenous dance and music expert Clarence Slockee, Chinese author Liao Yiwu and author and Pakistani power dynasty descendent Fatima Bhutto to the power of the writer, and the words that writers work with to describe our world.
Clarence Slockee explained the importance of stories to his people in his Welcome to Country address, pointing out that despite the fact that Australian indigenous history is not written, the rich oral tradition of his people was all about stories, and the Sydney Writers’ Festival is also about the power of stories.
An empty chair and heart-rending poem from Liao Yiwu
The excited mood in the room dipped as Chip Rolley read a letter from Liao Yiwu (pictured here), who was denied his permit to leave China to attend. “There is no greater testament to the power of a writer than the Chinese Government holding him back,” said Rolley.
Yiwu’s letter reminded us all: “The heart can not be imprisoned” and that his heart had flown to be with us at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. A recording was played of Liao Yiwu’s voice reading his “Requiem 1989” poem in Chinese (with Chinese script and translated lines shown on the screen). An empty chair remained on the stage all night to demonstrate the gap caused by Liao Yiwu’s absence.
Chip Rolley welcomed everyone, and introduced this year’s theme of power, and the vision of this year’s program to explore the power of the writer to create worlds, of individuals to impact it, and of technology to change how we understand the world. He shared the hopes of the team behind the festival - that 2011 would be a program that brought everyone “joy, laughter and deep thinking.”
Wit, wisdom and world issues from Fatima Bhutto
The undeniable star of the night was Fatima Bhutto (pictured below), whose reflections on her home country Pakistan’s precarious cultural situation, her wisdom and wit were the ideal launch for a week focused on the words and ways we understand power.
With a talk that addressed Osama Bin Laden, what Pakistan knew, the problematic role of the United States in Pakistani affairs, Bhutto explained the Pakistani love of conspiracy theories and explicitly refused to blame Islam for the serious challenges Pakistan faces. Her words painted a rich and complicated image of the world. In regards to writing, she lamented the epidemic of 500 word answers to the complex problems facing her country: “The NY Times prints two a day.”
Telling Complicated Stories
Bhutto explored the issues plaguing the developing Pakistan and diagnosed the cause of the impending national nervous breakdown as the “fundamental lack of justice… and a national bloodletting for a country consumed with violence.”
But her address went beyond just Pakistan, to reflect on how the United States of America’s similarly imminent national nervous breakdown was compounding and confusing the challenges of the Arab world. She repeatedly reminded the audience of the horror of the American drone bomber raids in Pakistan. She reminded us of the hundreds of nameless and faceless Pakistanis who have died by American hands, or at least by American technology on American orders, this year. Bhutto reminded us of the critical power of words with “We [Pakistan] have lost our codes to articulate our outrage.”
Bhutto wove a colourful and complicated image of a nation not only plagued by awkward international relationships, but full of highly valuable resources and endemic corruption. She explained: “Corruption means something in Pakistan. We’re a nuclear power who missed our millennium goal to eradicate polio not because we don’t have doctors, we do… We’re a nuclear power that can’t run fridges.” But her talk refused to label Pakistan as the only nation on the verge of nervous collapse, and asked the audience to reflect that while Pakistan breakdown symptoms were a “romantic attachment to conspiracy theories”, the United States was suffering theirs with “enthusiastically ambiguous morality.”
You could feel the room thinking as she continued to deny stereotypes, refused to blame any one factor and indicted a range of countries and causes for the state of her nation.
As the crowd clapped their hands hard for ages, you could hear conversations starting all around the hall that continued well out the doors, into the foyer and into the night. It’s going to be a big week of ideas, words and conversations at the 14th annual Sydney Writers’ Festival.
By Rose Powell
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