BM Writers’ Festival – part 2

A week after the Blue Mountains Writers’ festival, the session I keep thinking about is the discussion between Behrouz Boochani, and Safdar Ahmed. Boochani is a Kurdish journalist who wrote ‘No Friend but the Mountains’ whilst in Australian detention on Manus Island. Safdar Ahmed is a refugee advocate who has produced a graphic novel titled ‘Still Alive’ chronicling experiences of refugees at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney. It has recently won Book of the Year, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Multicultural NSW Award, Gold Ledger, Comic Arts Awards of Australia and the CBCA Eve Pownall Award.

Both these authors presented nuanced arguments on the Australian refugee policy as endorsed by both the Liberal and now the Labor government. While many of us have fallen into accepting a worldview which is presented to us as a series of dichotomies, this either/or thinking limits not only our ability to think deeply, it also oversimplifies complex situations so that we are left to choose between only two possible possibilities.

In the case of Australia’s refugee policy, if you are against asylum seekers entering Australia, you will see them as dangerous people, mainly radicalised Muslims who will destabilise society if allowed to enter en masse. On the other hand, if you are advocate for refugees, you are likely to see them as decent, hardworking people who will contribute and be grateful for their chance to stay in Australia. Both views are but our own projections. The expectation of gratefulness places refugees in a position of having to always feel indebted for being ‘allowed’ to settle in a host country when the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees clearly spells out that it is the right (not privilege) of every refugee to seek asylum. In addition, Article 31 also states that refugees have a right not to be punished for illegal entry. As signatories to the convention, we are clearly breaking our international obligations.

Those who of us who are on the side of refugees can easily fall into the role benevolent do-gooders who feel virtuous about our actions. It is what Boochani calls the ‘white saviour culture’.  We only need to think about the recent return of the ‘Biloela family’. There is no doubt that this was an important campaign but beyond the public celebrations and feelings of having ‘won’, there is no structural reform. Hundreds of other asylum seekers still languish in detention. As Boochani says, ‘Nothing has changed. The system is still working, the mentality that condones detaining innocent people is still entrenched, and the detention industry flourishes.’

Ahmed has arrived at a similar position to Boochani. He started the Refugee Art Project with some friends when he began visiting Villawood Detention Centre. Over the years, this project nurtured a strong sense of community and led to the book ‘Still Alive’. This graphic novel does not portray asylum seekers, or himself for that matter, as flawless individuals but presents them as people who deserve asylum for no other reason than that they are stateless and are part of the human race. His work references many readily recognisable iconic images which he subverts to question Australian colonial attitudes.

Boochani’s new book called ‘Freedom, only Freedom’ is published by Bloomsbury. It is due to arrive in bookshops next month.

Ahmed’s book ‘Still Alive’ is available from Twelve Panels Press.

The Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival

I have wanted to attend the Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival for many years. Each year as the dates approached, I found a ‘reason’ why I couldn’t go.

What about the animals while I am away?

I can’t justify spending the money this year.

I should have gone when I was living in the mountains, now it’s too late.

It will take me at least two and a half hours to get there.

I don’t belong to a writerly crowd.

Who am I to think I can go to an event like this?

When I examined each of these thoughts in turn, I realised that I was shying away from the real reason I never went. I felt awkward attending an event on my own and I didn’t want to face discomfort. It was never about the event per se, but the intervals where people stand with their friends, chatting, laughing and having a good time.

I am not someone who can walk into a room and start a conversation. I usually stand on my own like a shag on a rock staring into a drink or trying to focus on some detail on the wall. I could distract myself with my mobile, and sometimes I do, but I am so appalled by such behaviour in others that I can’t bear resorting to it.

Yet if I have a role, I can be gregarious and helpful. I don’t even mind talking to a crowd of people over a microphone. Speaking to a group of two hundred doesn’t faze me at all, it is small groups that I find terrifying. Give me something to do and I will do it. Consequently, you often find me either at the food table or taking plates around, which legitimately allows me to approach people.

This year I decided to become savvy. The moment I saw a request for volunteers, I put up my hand. I was thrilled to be accepted. It meant I could spend some time wearing an official T-shirt and lanyard which would give me a role and I would also have time to attend events. It’s what Stephen Covey calls a Win/Win.

It turned out to be much better than that. I met wonderful volunteers with whom I could converse easily, I chatted to speakers informally in the Green Room and I contributed to an event that was an important and enriching experience for everyone. The volunteer role enabled me to start conversations and, as my confidence grew, I continued to seek out more opportunities.

The more I let my vulnerabilities show, the more others disclosed their own sensitivities. Our conversations moved from the superficial to the deeply personal and established connections which I hope will continue well past the festival weekend. It made me realise how important it is to find my own ‘tribe.’

Then there were the writers. The ones I heard spoke with honesty, often self-deprecating humour, and they were generous with their time. There were many sessions running concurrently, which meant I inevitably missed some brilliant speakers. It was a sentiment I heard echoed in the hallways wherever I went. So, although I had some trepidation about attending, by the end of the weekend, I felt energised, inspired and comfortable in my own skin.

I am grateful to Varuna for organising such an eminent event and for their staunch support of Australian writers.

Empty Nest

Ten days ago, I sent off my completed memoir for a manuscript assessment. I have been working on this project consistently since January 2019. It has, however, occupied my thoughts for many years before I was ready write the first sentence.

For someone who has devoted years to this project, the past ten days have felt like an eternity. Does it have merit? How many more edits will it require before I can approach a publisher? Where do I even begin with this next chapter of letting my manuscript go? And the most important question of all – what now?

For three years, I have conducted research, worked on individual scenes, pursued emerging patterns and themes. Several times I have read the manuscript cover to cover and have cut and polished and cut some more. Through this process I have jettisoned some 20,000 words to distil it to its essence. I don’t know whether I have succeeded.

I have put my heart and soul into writing. There were months when words dried up like ink in a misplaced pen. The less I wrote, the more arid my inner landscape became. Then I found my way to a state of flow through the London Writers’ Salon. Once I committed to writing daily, the words cascaded on the page and I completed my first, second and third drafts. I fantasised about working part-time to devote more energy to writing. I wanted a new rhythm to my days and spend happy hours in companionable silence over Zoom with writers from around the world.

But what now? As I am approaching the end of this project, I feel something akin to grief. What if I have nothing more to say? What do I do then? For someone who has the urge to write each day, this is a distressing thought. I have nursed and watched my memoir grow, but it is time to let this fledgling find its wings. When it does, I will have to let it go.

I have no idea how any of this works. Perhaps I need to have more faith. Perhaps I simply need to show up each day. Or perhaps the muse only visits those who have an empty nest to offer.

A cup of tea

Coffee anyone? No problem at all! An espresso, cappuccino, laté or flat white is made to perfection even in the most modest country towns. We admire the young barista, usually male, with a top knot and a few tattoos to show his credentials. The coffee is pushed down with the finest tamper, milk is heated to 60-65degrees and poured with a flick of the wrist to create ornamental flourishes upon the crema.

Now let’s try ordering a cup of tea. If I’m lucky, the water poured over the teabag has actually boiled but if ordered as a takeaway, the milk is added before the tea has had time to brew. The result is tepid, watered-down, and stained milk.

If I sit down at a café and ask for tea, I am likely to get it in a thick coffee cup or a mug. Only tea drinkers seem to understand that the thickness of the cup affects the taste. Should a teapot make an entrance, the ubiquitous teabag still hangs limply within. It is a rare café that keeps tealeaves on its shelves.

Last week, I went out for breakfast with a friend. We chose a well-known establishment which serves excellent meals. As we ordered, I asked the young waitress to tell me how they made their tea. She explained the procedure in great detail without a hint of irony.

‘We boil the water, take a teabag out of the box, put it in the cup and pour the hot water over it,’ was her enthusiastic reply.

I was reminded of Basil Fawlty and the fresh orange juice. Chef had just opened a new bottle. I had to restrain myself from laughing or telling the young waitress not to worry about the tea and bring me a Screwdriver instead. Alas, the reference would have gone over her head.

I had often wondered why David Herbert included a recipe for a pot of tea in his Complete Perfect Recipes. I found it rather quaint. Perhaps he had similar experiences to mine and wanted to show how easy it is to make a decent cup of tea. For those who are curious, he starts the entry with the following words:

Throw out your teabags and return to the ritual of a real cuppa made from tea leaves!

Fill a kettle with fresh cold water and bring to the boil. When the water has almost reached the boil, pour a little into your teapot, swirl it around and pour it out. Add 2-3 teaspoons of tea leaves to the pot.

When the water is boiling, fill the teapot with boiling water. Put on the lid and leave to brew for 3-5 minutes.

David Herbert

And there we have it, a perfect cup of tea.

The Artist’s date

Last month I watched a live interview with Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. I had read the book five years ago and began writing morning pages. I thought that was a good enough start and resisted putting her other tools to use. It worked for a while and then I lost my way.

After struggling for years with writing a memoir, I came across the London Writers’ Salon. Joining that supportive group of writers has enabled me to commit to daily writing and within a few short months, I have been able to finish the manuscript. I am now in the throes of editing, editing and editing. Who knows how many more edits will be required to make this little gem shine.

Listening to Julia Cameron I realised I needed to revisit the Artist’s Way and recommit to some of her principles. My morning pages were going well but as for the rest of it, I could see I was avoiding key pieces of her advice. Like the artist’s date for example.

Commit yourself to a weekly artist’s date, and then watch your killjoy side try to wriggle out of it.

She was right of course. The idea of an artist’s date is to allow yourself at least two hours a week to have a playdate with yourself, to do something that brings joy and is self-nurturing. It has to be a solitary activity, but dogs are permitted.

The first week I took Zoë to the Botanic Gardens in Orange. I found solace in walking in the rain and enjoyed finding various paths that led to different areas for me to explore. I then wanted to complete the date with lunch at their café, but I was 15 minutes late. Disappointed, I had a piece of cake I didn’t really want. Annoyed at myself, I drank my tea, ate the cake, and left. I wasn’t so sure that this had been a successful date but was willing to have another go the following week.

The next Saturday I began to wriggle and squirm. Still, I was determined to do it. I found that my local cinema was showing Ticket to Paradise with Julia Roberts and George Clooney. Why not? So, I went to see it. Surprisingly, I felt quite comfortable on my own in the cinema but was less than impressed with the movie. The plot was so predicable that I worked out the ending within the first five minutes. Ho hum.

Yesterday, I decided to go for a drive up Mt Canobolas with Zoē. We drove the potholed roads past stunning wineries and beautiful homes. Then I turned left onto the windy road up to the summit only to find that it was closed for redevelopment. I did a three-point turn and headed towards Mt Canobalas Lake instead.

I noted that the café was open, but decided to walk around the lake first. Zoë had to stay on her lead which she didn’t mind as she had plenty of interesting smells to explore. I quite liked being out on the track on my own. There were interesting cloud formations and new growth on trees which I photographed. Yet I was restless within me, even though this was exactly the kind of activity that always soothed my soul. I think I was about three quarters of the way around the lake before I stilled my mind and relaxed into the activity. Time for a cup of tea, I thought. But once again, I missed the opening hours by 15 minutes. Is this an omen?

I have no idea what I will do next week. I’m running out of ideas. There are a couple of art galleries I could visit or maybe there is a free course I can attend. A week to go and I can feel the struggle already.

You are likely to find yourself avoiding your artist dates. Recognise this resistance as a fear of intimacy – self intimacy.

Ok Julia I hear you, but let me tell you, the struggle is real.

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