[Published on Meanjin.com.au, August 29 2011]
Stories Unbound was the perfect wind down after a hectic opening weekend of the Writers Festival. For all the discussion of the state of the novel, the decline of the bookshop and the future of the publishing industry, this event reminded us what these debates are really seeking to protect. Bringing together some our finest professional raconteurs, Stories Unbound showcased and celebrated the art of storytelling, which is, of course, what lies at the heart of the festival itself. The candlelight and ample supplies of vino didn’t hurt either.
Transforming the Toff in Town into what host David Astle described as a “cave of wonder,” the night featured a diverse selection of writers, bringing together crime novelist Michael Robotham, humourist Nick Earls, public intellectual Leslie Cannold, poet Tishani Doshi, and local darling and writer-of-all-trades Anna Krien. The only theme? It had to be a personal story, and it had to be told without notes. Those familiar with The Moth, a live storytelling night in New York whose highlights are released as a weekly podcast, would be familiar with the format, albeit with a local flavour. (Those not familiar with The Moth should rectify that, stat – it’s one of my favourites.)
Michael Robotham kicked things off with ‘My Life of Crime,’ relaying his personal experiences of his genre of choice. With great wit, he told us of the only crime he’s ever committed (starting a bushfire at age six which nearly wiped out Gundagai and the dog on the tucker box with it), his crime coverage as a London journalist and his cameo as crime’s victim at the hands of a gun-toting, Republican-voting stalker named Bubba Wilson. Leslie Cannold was next up with ‘My Circumcision Dilemma’. After the birth of her first son, the decision of whether to have him circumcised was one which forced her to re-evaluate her own Jewishness, her principals regarding bio-ethics and the autonomy of the body and the ways in which her choice would inform her son’s sense of identity.
Tishani Doshi was the evening’s only international guest, the daughter of Welsh and Gujarati parents (whose love affair is the subject of her acclaimed first novel, The Pleasure Seekers). Tishani told of her returning to India at the age of 26 and falling in love with a 73-year-old woman named Chandralekha – a choreographer who became something of guru to the young Doshi, whom she “had to travel halfway around the world and back again to find”. Charming and stunningly beautiful, I think the whole audience fell a little bit in love with Tishani too. Brisbanian Nick Earls then gave us ‘The Scrotum and the Hand of God’, an aptly-titled account of how the Pope helped him, with scrotum in palm, to pass his final medicine exam. His frenetic accounts of his family lineage as physicians and their shared stories of medical mishap – including singed pubic hair, hatchets buried in foreheads and livers being tossed out of two-storey windows – had the audience in hysterics.
But it was the by-comparison simple story told by Anna Krien that really killed it for me. Anna’s non-fiction debut Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests has been nominated for every prize in Australia’s literary constellation, and for good reason. I’m halfway through Into the Woods now, and it’s really something else. While working as a cadet for the Age, Anna and her peers were assigned as their final project a group story – to create a portrait of a dying town, cut off from the highway and dwindling as a result. Anna was given the task of interviewing a 90-year-old man in a nursing home, whom she interrupted devouring a packet of “those horrible office biscuits” Monte Carlos. But when Anna finally got to the real question she had to ask – “What’s it like to be dying in a dying town?” – her new friend insisted on showing her just how much life he still had in him, lurching on her 24-year-old self and sticking his 90-year-old tongue into her mouth. Pushing him off and promptly hotfooting it from the nursing home, Anna stumbled outside and into the arms of one of her fellow cadets. “What’s that on your face?” the girl asked, brushing Monte Carlo crumbs from her cheek.
Amidst all the talk flying around this festival about the future of the written word, Stories Unbound showed that it really is just that – a lot of talk. For at the heart of these debates lies storytelling, pure and simple – a practice that transcends the borders of language, of cultures, of history. Storytelling provides us with a way to connect with others, a way to understand our relationship to the world and a way to understand ourselves. It isn’t going anywhere.