A review of this year’s Perth Writers Festival by Jess G
Big Bold Ideas was the theme of this year’s Perth Writers Festival, held from February 23rd– 26th as part of the Perth International Arts Festival. Packed full of passionate and courageous writers covering a multitude of political topics, the cornerstone of the festival was the exploration of cultural diversity and the unique insights that come from our varied backgrounds. With so much to choose from it was a challenge to narrow down just what I could take in!
It’s a shame that the initial introduction to the festival, the booking system, is not easier. A quick look online suggests I’m not the only one who would be glad to see Perth Writers Festival have its own website separate to the PIAF booking site, as the calendar and booking system are not åÊas user-friendly as they could be. To compound the booking issues, some events had the tag ‘Tickets Selling Fast’ when in fact the event had its ‘Allocation Exhausted’, something I later learnt meant that you were still able to purchase tickets at the door. This I sadly learnt too late after friends made alternative plans, believing that they were unable to join me at some of the events. Despite the definite need for improvement on the booking side of things, the Perth Writers Festival never fails to provide when it comes to the content.
For me the Festival began on Friday night when words jumped from the page to the stage at the Courtyard Sessions. Opening up the world of writing with spoken word, song writing, and stage performance, Raw Power and Literary Death Match made the night an exercise in broadening our minds to experience differing view-points. Raw Power saw wordsmiths Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa, Omar Musa, and Ziggy take to the stage to perform spoken word, hip hop and rap that explored the big issues facing women, immigrants, and the Aboriginal people.
Several mentions were made over the course of the night as the performers wondered aloud if they ‘weren’t already preaching to the converted’. In the face of the political news brought to us on a daily basis, it must often seem overwhelming for the wordsmiths working so hard to change people’s minds with their craft. But if nothing else, it was a night to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who could connect with and reassure each other. Ziggy’s enlightening performance observed that when we travel abroad we learn our hellos, pleases, and thankyous, yet very few people in Australia know any one of those words in the local dialects of the Aboriginal people. By the end of the night he had taught the crowd to say ‘Kaya’ (Hello) as he bade us stand and dance along to his own brand of hip hop.
Literary Death Match followed with a panel of guest judges pitting four writers against one another. I must admit to being a little disappointed by this event. Perhaps because Raw Power was so stunningly entertaining – a group of people so used to the performance of their literary works – that the Death Match – pitched as part literary event, part comedy night, part gameshow – didn’t quite stand up to the hype. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable and a great opportunity to sample the works of writers I might not otherwise have read, but perhaps I had higher expectations of an event with the words ‘Death Match’ in the title.
Moving on to Saturday morning and I was keen to dive in to a weekend of writerly pursuits. There can be no better setting for the Writers Festival than the University of Western Australia, with its historic buildings and beautiful gardens. In the spare moments between sessions I wandered the grounds and settled in the shade of one of the expansive fig trees to read a book, and it was just as entrancing as any of the sessions I attended.
The morning began as I familiarised myself with Writers Central and struggled to pick out the sessions that would fill my day. Looking over the schedule it was very clear that by Big Bold Ideas the festival’s organisers were particularly interested in cultural diversity and feminism. But a look at Twitter suggested I wasn’t the only one to notice the lack of representation by LGBTQIA+ writers and their stories; an oversight that will perhaps be addressed at next year’s Festival.
The stand out session for me was Personal Politics featuring Lee Zachariah, Elspeth Muir and Mei Fong. Together the three of them discussed how important the personal story is when bringing national political issues to the forefront. Lee Zachariah hit the election trail whilst dealing with his own marriage breakdown, Elspeth Muir tackled Australia’s alcohol culture whilst dealing with the untimely death of her brother in an alcohol-related incident, and Mei Fong investigated the long term effects of the One Child Policy in China at the same time as exploring her own maternal inclinations. Their personal stories were a way to link the big issues they were tackling to the individual reader. Their stories were moving, and I could only admire the courage it must take to lay your own soul bare in order to bring some of these complex topics back to a place where a reader can relate to them on a more personal level.
I was able to get more hands-on in a workshop session with Jock Serong, ‘Whiskey Monsters and Cardigan Days: Managing the Creative Process’. Jock’s approach to managing the creative process is simple: write to your mood. Write in the fever of a whiskey monster and edit in the collective calm of the cardigan days. His session explored the typical things that stop us from undertaking our writing and how to overcome those barriers. In our group I could identify two main themes to our hurdles: those who had the time but struggled with the psychological aspect of writing and those who didn’t have the time but had an excess of creative ideas. Jock proceeded to teach us through practical writing exercises and personal experience how using our moods to judge what part of our writing we should work on can help us to be productive even in our least productive periods.
I will pass on to my fellow writers a few of the main things Jock recommended when tackling this frustrating and often daily problem. First and most importantly identify your moods and work with them, not against them. If you feel you are lacking in creativity then you may be in the mood to file, catalogue, and create genealogies for your story. Be aware of your moods and how they affect the style and quality of your writing. Secondly, have multiple lines of attack for your writing, so that when one line is not an option, another is. ‘One angle is fatal’ he said. Finally, he laments the concept of ‘writer’s block’. Jock is convinced that writer’s block is more of a writers ‘detour’ and that we don’t have to be writing in a straight line to reach our end destination.
There is so much I could go on to say, but I will simply conclude by saying that the Perth Writers Festival is an excellent opportunity to explore writing technique and finesse with a collection of professionally creative minds. Any aspiring writer should prioritise the Festival and any uninspired reader should explore it. There is so much going on to inspire and to encourage writers at all stages of their journey and I can’t speak highly enough of the guests who took the time to mingle with the crowds, sign books, and share their expertise and experience. My thanks go to them and the organisers of the event for yet another insightful year.