Emerging Writers’ Festival: ‘Between the Covers’

Frustrated bloggers, wannabe writers and the merely curious gathered in the gloomy staff bar at Macquarie University for the EWF event Between the Covers last night. It was reportedly sold out but half the audience chairs were empty. That’s what happens when tickets are free to uni students and it’s a rainy and cold night. 

They should have attended. From the first panel I learned about little tricks for pitching to publishers: spell the publisher’s name correctly for a start and pitch it like you mean it. “Write like you’re dead”, said the author, Michael Mohammed Ahmed in the second session. His passion for western Sydney writers from a culturally diverse background grabbed me. I had seen his latest book, The Lebs, doing the review rounds, but hadn’t read any of them. I bought the book and had it signed but I’m a little wary about reading it. Christos Tsiolkas’s writing takes me inside the heads of misogynistic men and emotionally I don’t like it. I am revolted and horrified to be there. Intellectually and logically I can appreciate his writing but I don’t enjoy it. Similarly, I’m scared but feel a magnetic force pulling me towards The Lebs. 

What resonated for me most during the evening was the importance of writing a sense of place. When I used to teach Geography there was a syllabus dot-point about students learning a sense of place and I found this article by Hugh Mackay illustrated it well. As I think about the novel I’ve barely started to write, I mainly focus on character development and plot, neglecting the place to a large extent. One of the publishers remarked on a pitch with a synopsis which grabbed her through its evocative sense of place, and thankfully the novel lived up to this promise. Even websites have forms that give them flavour, a sense of 'who' they are and what they’re about. 

It was the last session of the evening that brought this sense of place into the heart. I stopped tweeting and taking notes at this time so I could hang onto every word. There were many writers who spoke and I’m sorry not to go through them all but here are the ones who stick with me, as I write the morning after.  

Saba Vasefi started her presentation with a song to celebrate her escape from a country that doesn’t allow women to sing. Through her I gained a small glimpse or life in Iran where girls wear a hijab to school from the age of 7 and learn they are the Forbidden Gender, the title of one of the poems she read. 

Jessica Kirkness provided beautiful descriptive prose describing the sounds she associates with the home of her deaf grandparents. I felt her love for them but also the frustrations from when she was a child. When she was three years old she tested her grandmother’s deafness by yelling and screaming at her Nan’s back to no avail. She stamped her feet in her distress which made her grandmother turn to see Jessica scream “I hate you”. Despite not being heard, the words were understood and made their mark. Later Jessica comforted her grandmother’s tears through the touch learnt from her mother. Jessica's reading of this scene and other moments showed the power of words, touch and a sense of place with depth and feeling that wrapped my heart.

Belinda Lopez took us on a journey of Cuba, a place she felt she knew from her communist grandfather, although he had never been there. She saw some of the truths of which he spoke but the image became fragmented as she talked with locals and learned to dance the salsa with them. She also learned truths about herself when people and their views didn’t fit into the neat box she tried to package them in. There is no such thing as one truth.

The intelligence of Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung was deep and soulful as he crossed themes and digressed often from his central theme of “I think he’s gay”. He spoke of semiotics and the defining and finding of oneself from the words and actions of others but also misreading them as what they symbolise evolves, forever refining, not binding, through an adoption and rejection process.

I am not writing much beyond my academic world at the moment so it is particularly nourishing to have the more creative side of my brain stimulated by a night like this. One day, all my internal musings and scraps of writing will hopefully mature into something worthwhile and publishable. 


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