By KIERAN FINNANE
Talking of story rather than writing opens up the possibilities of a genuine meeting of minds at the annual NT Writers’ Festival, to be held this year in Alice Springs.
Second time round director Dani Powell (right) has put together a program that responds to the rich cultural life of The Centre and draws into it a stimulating range of visiting story-tellers, from the song women of the Gulf Country, whose stories have been gathered in a beautifully illustrated songbook, through Sudanese born spoken-word poet Abe Nouk and Western Sydney novelist Felicity Castagna, to biologist Tim Low (below left), author of best-selling books on nature and conservation, including Where Song Began.
What is immediately striking about Powell’s program is that it looks so unlike other writers’ festivals. Although there are prize-winning authors in the line-up, it didn’t start with them, but rather with a strong sense of this place, Alice Springs / Mparntwe, as a site of story-telling with ancient roots, and also as a contemporary cultural crossroads.
“From there you immediately step outside your accepted idea of what ‘a writer’ is,” says Powell.
“Crossings” looked like a word to hang these thoughts on, around which she could build a program: “It had a sense of journeys, intersections, in this place as the (almost) geographical centre of Australia, but also the world in which we live everyday in terms of cultures and languages.”
With the backing of her advisory group, she took the concept to the Arrernte women who gather at the Akeyulerre healing centre, among them Margaret Kemarre Turner and Amelia Turner.
“We had a big lively meeting, thinking about the word and its various interpretations.”
What the Arrernte women leant towards was an idea of two roads crossing where people can meet and travel on together, expressed as “Iwerre-Atherre”, which is also the term used for “two-ways learning”.
Their discussion also went to their commitment to their language and their wish to explore story-telling in the written form, using Arrernte alongside English. This has led to a round of workshops with them, kicking off next week and led by poet and teacher Leni Shilton – the kind of festival off-shoot the NT Writers’ Centre encourages.
Local children and young people will also benefit from a range of workshops – exploring a sense of place, creating cheeky characters, writing about landscape – as will older writers, led by novelists, poets, creative non-fiction writers. This is about the festival leaving a legacy that is more than a re-inspired reading list or a fleeting stimulating discussion.
And if a writers’ festival suggests to you serious gatherings with rows of seats and guests on microphones, there will be some, but many of the offerings from Crossings / Iwerre-Atherre break out of this mould. The opening (Thursday, 18 May) at dusk in the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens will establish the tone and range. The festival will be sung into life by Arrernte and visiting Gulf Country song women, ushering in readings by guests, including the multi-award winning Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu is his latest); an innovative, multi-lingual Indonesian travel writer Agustinus Wibowo; a young Sydney-Based poet of Filipino descent Eunice Andrada (right), as well as Central Australian writers.
Later that night the festival will go into a theatre, the Totem, for a session called “Mixtape Memoir”, an event borrowed from Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, where writers spin off from a song in their lives. The line-up is mainly local: Sylvia Neale, Catherine Satour, Christopher Raja, Jo Dutton, Glenn Morrison. “It’s a really nice way to learn about who is living in our community,” says Powell. (Also included are Felicity Castagna and Nicole Gill, a science writer from Tasmania.)
Next evening, back to the gardens, for a poetic picnic, hosted by Craig San Roque with backing by Alistair Jackson on an electric fiddle. Guests include the fine Australian poet Anthony Lawrence whose collections have garnered many of Australia’s major poetry prizes, and Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, the Ngaatjatjarra educator, interpreter and linguist, who has recently published a memoir, Pictures from my memory. (Ellis will later be part of a panel on “Language Crossings”, looking at problems and benefits of translation.)
On Saturday morning bird-lovers and word-lovers are invited to start early, for “Up with the Birds”, poetry readings at the Bean Tree Cafe, by Anthony Lawrence, Meg Mooney, Bruce Pascoe, and Darwin’s Kaye Alderhoven. This will be followed by the launch of a book and companion App, Ayeye thipe-akerte – Arrernte stories about birds, by Therese Ryder (right), combining her paintings, stories, and recordings of voice and bird calls. This Arrernte perspective on birds will extend the understanding we may then take from Tim Low as he talks about bird-human relationships in Australia across the eons.
On Sunday morning, Powell couldn’t resist returning to a sell-out event from the 2015 festival, a storied walk along the Todd River, guided once again by Glenn Morrison. Then he was still in the throes of his PhD, a study of the literature of walking in this country. This has now been published by Melbourne University Press, as an academic work, under the title Writing Home: Walking, Literature and Belonging in Australia’s Red Centre, and will be followed later this year by a version for the general reader, Songlines and Fault Lines.
Along this walk, Morrison and guests will encounter four story-tellers offering different accounts of the river and country through time. They are Arrernte women Veronica Dobson and Pat Ansell Dodds; ethno-ecologist Fiona Walsh, who often collaborates with Veronica Dobson (there is a session on their work together) and increasingly is turning to photography and film to explore her subjects; and Alex Nelson, frequent contributor to local media on questions of history, politics and the environment.
Some of what might be drawn from this experience will have been explored in a more conventional festival setting (panel and microphones) the day before, when Bruce Pascoe (left), Kim Mahood (Position Doubtful), Charlie Ward (A Handful of Sand) and Felicity Castagna, address “Crossing Country: recovering, remapping, retelling”, each of these authors having engaged in just such processes to offer new accounts of history and place.
Interspersed with these events and panels (more than I can mention here) are a number of book launches. Apart from Therese Ryder’s, these are: Tjulpu and Walpa from the NPY Women’s Council, tracing the different paths through life of two young girls; two short works, one by local artist Carol Adams, the other by Kimberley-born man Frank Byrne, published by the locally based Ptilotus Press; a debut collection, dew and broken glass, by local poet Penny Drysdale; a song book from Warlpiri women, including audio-links and film, documenting 63 songs from four different song cycles; and an Alice Springs launch for The Crying Place, a novel set in part in remote desert country, by Melbourne-based poet and translator Lia Hills.
As this intense long weekend draws to a close – via a reflection on two very different homecomings from Kim Mahood and Agustinus Wibowo – and those still standing gather at the cafe in the gardens, one thought that might be among the crowd of others is that we better know one another through probing encounters like these and from there, as the Arrernte women from Akeyulerre would have it, can (better) travel on together.
Declaration of interest: I am part of the festival program, with a Q&A session on my book, Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia. I am looking forward to this opportunity for a local conversation.
See here for the full program.
Meeting at the crossing
By KIERAN FINNANE