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Sydney Writers' Festival Review: Turning the Tide



18 May 2012

A hush fell across the Great Hall, as we bowed our heads and remembered this great land of time. As the whispers settled and the din subdued, a great sense of purpose and history filled my mind. There we were, seated in the very place where the legendary Charlie Perkins started the Freedom Rides all the way back in 1964. And here, at the University of Sydney, we came together to hear the too-often unheard stories of Indigenous authors and poets for the Sydney Writers' Festival Turning the Tide event.

The reflective mood continued as the University's Dr Peter Minter rose to introduce the gathering of celebrated Indigenous writers.

The first panellist at the podium was Larissa Behrendt, who read a section on the 1972 tent embassy protests from her second novel, Legacy. Behrendt considered her work as a way to rid conversations of their political sting, allowing insight through human communion. Particularly in light of the recent wave of tent embassy protests across Brisbane, it was so refreshing to be transported to the human heart of this complex and highly-charged political debate.

Then came Lionel Fogarty, dressed like a rock star, who ignited the calm hall with his explosive presence. Unapologetic, in-your-face and unmistakable, the raucous Fogarty did not disappoint, packing a punch with political messages delivered in his signature 'ungrammatical' style.

"Where did I come from?" Fogarty asked as he took the podium. "I come from a $50 note." With a simple question Fogarty confronted the crowd to question why no one can recall who the Indigenous man on the $50 bill is (David Unaipon, for all those wondering!). Suddenly Fogarty broke into song, his rendition of a Wagga Wagga country song soaring through the hall.

Next Fogarty read his sucker-punch poetry, delivered with an implacable spirit. "I'm black!" he shouted proudly. "I'm an alcoholic, but I'm black. I'm not an alcoholic, but I'm black!". Among it all, his fervent pride at his heritage and an "imagical" sense of "authenticy" shone through.

Rounding out the discussion was Ali Cobby Eckermann, whose mild manner and quiet confidence provided a fittingly pensive mood to end the night. She began by recounting her incredible personal journey to the world of literature. Astoundingly, she only met her mother for the first time 15 years ago. After running away as a teenager, with nowhere to go, Cobby Eckermann arrived by instinct at her mothers' ancestral birthplace. The moving tale reminded me of the incredible spirituality of Indigenous culture, and the complexities of their family relationships.

Reading her poem Circles and Squares, Cobby Eckermann spoke about how her ancestral life moves in circles while being forced into the "white man's world of squares". Yet as Cobby Eckermann herself stressed, "Not all Aboriginal families are in crisis". It's so important not to lose the humanity of these stories, which are often lost amongst the damning news headlines.

As we milled out of the hall I was encouraged to see a smile on every face. It's not always the most comfortable subject, often encountered with downcast eyes, furtive interjections of half-remembered high school histories and apologetic outpourings of guilt. Yet the authors had given us a rare key, unlocking worlds many cannot imagine, to open a channel to connect and change. I only wished we had a lifetime to hear their timeless stories.

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