Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival
I spent a recent Saturday at the Symposium of the 2017 Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival, an annual event run by the Women’s Club in Sydney. Its theme this year was Women Writing Women. An intimate festival, held in beautiful rooms overlooking Hyde Park, its limited numbers allow for easy mingling between writers and readers. This year, it drew such well-known writers as Delia Falconer, Tegan Bennet Daylight and poet Kate Middleton, launching her most recent collection, Passage (Giramondo, 2017).
Helen Garner – a polarising force
Dr Bernadette Brennan started the day with her fascinating biography, A writing life, Helen Garner and her work (Text 2017). On discovering that there had been no in-depth study of Garner’s oeuvre, despite a writing career spanning over forty years, Brennan changed her mind about doing a ‘bit of a saunter’ through the ideas Garner generated, and gave herself up to rigorous biography. Given complete access to the notes, letters and journals that Garner had produced over this time, she found it a revelation. Amongst the papers was 25 years of correspondence between Garner and her early publisher Hilary McPhee, of McPhee Gribble.
Bernadette talked fluently and engagingly about the polarising nature of much of Garner’s work – is she a champion of women’s voices, or the opposite? Is she a fiction, or non-fiction writer? Brennan brought out the importance of Garner’s taking on taboo topics such as menstruation, childlessness, bodies and sexuality, and the shame and guilt they can engender. Whatever side of the debate a reader falls on, Brennan’s book is an overdue tribute to the importance of Garner’s contribution to Australian literature.
Writing real women and inventing fictional ones
The day included panel discussions on writing real women, and writing fictional women. Dr Karen Lamb brought us some pearls from Thea Astley’s life in her biography, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (UQP 2015), another writer whose contribution to Australian letters had not received due recognition. Who would have known that she watched The Bold And The Beautiful every day, or her particular genius for ‘one-way intimacy’?
On fiction writing, Tegan Bennet Daylight drew us into the creation of her characters – fragments, pieces of herself and others are broken off and, fertile, these will grow in a new setting. Laughter followed her observation that though she would never lift an entire real person to place in her writing, this rule may be forsaken if it’s ‘really good – there’s a wobble in every writer’s moral character!’ Her new book, Six bedrooms (Random House 2015), is a collection of short stories, revisiting teen years – that scorched period where, once passed, we slam the door behind us. She asks, can children escape their backgrounds?
The writer’s lonely life? Not necessarily!
The support of women within the writing community for each other was beautifully illustrated by Lisa Gorton and Kate Middleton’s friendship. When they feel their work is ‘unpublishable’, when the self-doubt rears, they often turn to each other. Gorton’s new novel, The life of houses (Giramondo 2015), takes familiar places and hidden spaces and muses on the powerful relationships between what is seen and unseen, known, or possessed.
The day ended with a glorious reading from members of the Rose Scott Festival committee of parts of Alana Valentine’s play, Letters to Lindy which recently ended a season at the Seymour Centre, Sydney. Alana introduced the reading with a funny and moving account of working with Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton. It was Lindy’s sense of humour which relieved the hurt and pain, the ‘transmitted trauma’, that came in writing it. Lindy still receives over 1000 letters each year, most regretful of things they had once believed. Valentine ended with the observation that theatre is a communal act. In bringing communities together in a public space, allowing for reflection both individually and in relation to each other, it is greater than the sum of its parts. These shared experiences can be used to foster growth and social change.
The Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival is now formally partnered with the Jessie Street National Women’s Library, where I volunteer in writing and editing its quarterly Newsletter. I look forward to attending many future Festivals.