Dispatch from the 2010 Brisbane Writers Festival: The Start
On Wednesday evening, the audience collected on the bank of the Brisbane River in one of the State Library of Queensland’s well-appointed auditoriums to find a drum on every seat. It was clear we were in for something unusual. At just the right moment, as our curiosity peaked, a drumbeat sounded. For the next ten minutes or so, we were led in a group performance of various rhythms, breaking down barriers, pulling people of differing backgrounds into the same space, pounding out a common beat. It was delightful, energizing, magical—the single-most interesting beginning to a festival I’ve ever experienced.
In fact, literature is just such a “place without barriers”, the space in which we can all meet, leaving our preconceptions at the door, joining together in exploration, query, and celebration. And this was the central principle of E.C. Osondu’s opening remarks on Wednesday night. In combination with the echo of the collective drumming, his speech was the perfect way to begin this year’s festival, the theme of which is “All Heart”. Osondu is an award-winning Nigerian writer, well known for powerful stories that tap into the drama, the poignancy and, especially, the heart of the African experience.
“Heart”, of course, is another place without barriers, another meeting space, where it’s possible to share, to energise and be energized, to celebrate both commonalities and differences. This interweaving of idea with experience is exactly what a festival should be about; and something Jane O’Hara, the festival’s artistic director, understands very well. This year’s festival is her second in Brisbane. I was so impressed with last year’s offerings, I felt nervous as this year’s festival approached. She had set the bar high, and I wasn’t sure she could top it; but after only the first full day of events this year, I believe she has.
At some point over the last months, O’Hara stumbled across a volume of short stories by African writers. She was so enchanted, so moved, that she felt compelled to invite some of these vibrant writers to Brisbane. Osondu is joined by Yvonne Odhiambo Owuor, the Kenyan writer and another winner of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. While these African writers are featured, they are by no means the only festival participants who represent the idea of “heart”. In the first day alone, it was possible to explore the edge of love and sex with Louise Doughty; to visit the American heartland with Joe Bageant, who—with some hilarious storytelling—offered insight into the history that underlies American religious fundamentalism. Norman Doidge commented on lives changed by the neuroplasticity revolution; Ian Brown spoke tenderly about his love for the unknowable mind of his disabled son; the transgressive Chinese writer Mian Mian discussed the harsh realities at the heart of a changed China; and, in the most engaging of anecdotes, Elif Batuman shared her love for the way Russian novels have intersected with her life. Closer to home, Jessica Rudd and Jessica Watson told personal stories of passion and courage, mixed up with great doses of fun, in a session dedicated to Queensland, A State of Writing.
And this was only Day One.