Wordstorm is here…
I drove north from Alice Springs with my wife and two daughters all the way up the Stuart highway to attend WORDSTORM a four-day celebration of words, culture and ideas in the Top End. The festival’s theme is ‘The Fabric of Family’ and I’m curious how writers from the Northern Territory and beyond will describe and share their versions of families.
The 1400 kilometre journey getting to Darwin was instructive. On the way, we passed Barrow Creek famous for the Falconio murder mystery, Wycliffe Well reputedly the sight where aliens appear, Karlu Karlu or the Devil’s Marbles, mysterious, large, granite rocks strewn across the landscape; the rainbow serpent is said to have left her fossilised eggs here. In Tenant Creek, we encountered the genius of Leonardo Di Vinci’s machines. Over fifty three-dimensional realisations of the ideas of Leonardo were on showcase at the civic hall. By the time we set foot at the Mataranka hot springs we felt like we were in the Top End complete with a bull-whip-cracking show.
We spent two nights at Mataranka Homestead and I had time to reflect on what family means to me. For me, family has meant love, vernacular, growth, trust, unconditional love, responsibility, resilience, security, food, respect, a home, but I also realise that not everyone experiences a stable family and families come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes. A boy may have his father’s thumb and a girl may have her mother’s dimples, but they may also inherit their old aunt’s fear of getting into a white, government bus for fear of being taken away, and the girl may carry the family’s Stolen Generation history in her depression. Or, a woman, like Olive Pink, whom we wrote about in the play, THE FIRST GARDEN may lose the love of her life to war and never be able to come to terms with falling in love again or having a family. Sleeping inside each of us are fragments of traumas, or karma, too great to be resolved in one generation. Yet, families continue, pull together and make do, to be the fabric of our society.
A number of writers in the festival have written memoirs and I’m looking forward to seeing how they decipher this topic of family. A well-documented feature of books that deal with family is grief and trauma and as we all know grief and trauma are difficult to articulate when it happens to us. Australian society still grapples with how to help people who carry remnants of inherited, family trauma. While, on one hand, we constantly eulogise and say ‘Lest We Forget’ yet there is so much of our nation’s history that is swept aside, quickly forgotten and left unacknowledged. This festival will bring voice to that which is not often given voice.
I tried to make sense of one type of family in my Young Adult novel, THE BURNING ELEPHANT. The novel deals with various themes including: social turmoil, suicide, migration, class, poverty, gender and adultery. How can a family survive such painful things? This is never spelt out but felt throughout the novel.
THE BURNING ELEPHANT deals with social and religious issues as they impinge on the consciousness of a young Indian boy, who later emigrates to Australia with his father. It is set in Calcutta, in the period leading up to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the violence against the Sikh population which followed. The novel is told from the point of view of the young Govinda, whose father is the headmaster of a local school. It begins with the intrusion into the schoolyard of an elephant that has escaped from its owner, and is shot, then burnt by the police. This violent intrusion into the idyllic world of childhood sets the tone for the novel, which gives the innocent yet knowing perspectives of Govinda in his engagement with the crowded and complex life of Serpent Lane outside the school, his awareness of the breakdown of the relationship between his parents, his sense that his own privileged life is under threat.
WORDSTORM 2016 was curated by the very generous and talented Sally Bothroyd and Fiona Dorrell. These two women have done amazing things for writers here in the territory in a short period of time and this year they have done another stellar job bringing together a diverse group of writers to the Top End to ‘unpack blood-ties, pacts and bonds, and the intricacies of human networks in all their fraught, furious and nourishing forms.’ I wonder how Clare Atkins, Magda Subanski, Beth Yap, Toni Tapp Couts, Richard Glover, Tony Birch, Paul Sedan and Marie Munkara, to name just a few, will talk about the fabric of family. I wonder what family life was like for Indonesian authors Eliza Vitri Handayani and Eka Kurniawan.
Themed panels are the heart of the NT Writers’ Festival, there are also workshops, book launches, performances and more, and these discussions will be had in the intimate Browns Mart Theatre and Courtyard. As a father of three daughters, I want to hear what authors have to say about gender roles, for example, in their families. Are the girls and women still expected to cook for their families, do they get the same opportunities as the boys and the men? I’m equally curious about pets? Do pets feature in the fabric of family?
I’ve been working at Red Kangaroo Bookshop in Alice Springs and I’m equally interested in what readers think too. Who do the readers come to see, what books have impacted on them, what do readers think about family? In these blogs, I’ll endeavour to share with you my personal journey, as I experience the festival first-hand, and I hope that my personal experience will somehow become our collective experience of this exciting, literary festival here in Darwin.
The festival kicks off this evening with the launch of Mary Ann Butler’s award-winning play, BROKEN and then we have the opening ceremony, a welcome to country by Ali Mills, music from South African singer/storyteller Valanga Khoza, poetry from Kathy Mills, readings from Tony Birch, Marie Munkara, Eliza Vitri Handayani, Zohab Zee Khan and to finish the evening we will hear once again from Mary Ann Butler.
– Christopher Raja
Christopher Raja is the Wordstorm 2016 festival blogger. Having migrated to Melbourne from Kolkata in 1986, he now lives and works in Alice Springs. His co-authored play, The First Garden was published by Currency Press in 2012 and shortlisted for the Chief Minister’s Book of the Year in 2014. His debut novel, The Burning Elephant was published by Giramondo in 2015.