South Asia at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013


I feel the need to apologise for my lack of substantial blogging for the last few months. It’s been weighing heavily on me, I really wanted to write, but I wasn’t reading an South Asian literature! Very unusual for me, I know, but I have been teaching two university courses this semester, one on nineteenth century British literature with some postcolonial texts too, and one on Modernist literature, and no matter how hard I tried I just wasn’t getting through the down-time reading like I used to!

But last weekend I attended the final days of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, held at the Wharf Precinct at Walsh Bay, in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge. The attached photo sure does look glorious, and the weather was good a lot of the time, though it did piss down with rain on my first day there.

South Asian writers are not very well known, on the whole, in Australia. Some filter through, and it seems that right now people still generally remember Aravind Adiga and Kiran Desai, but that’s usually as far as it goes. It’s not surprising, then, that the South Asian representatives at the SWF were few, but quality should trump quantity I suppose (though thinking back to the Jaipur Literature Festival, it did seem to manage both…) I made the trip up to Sydney to see William Dalrymple (for the second time, that I’ve seen at least, at SWF), Pankaj Mishra, Anita Desai, and, though not speaking about her fabulous Indian travel book this time, Desert Places, Robyn Davidson.

I made the deliberate decision not to to attend Dalrymple’s big ticketed event, on his latest book Return of a King, as I knew it would be the same as his solo address at the Jaipur Festival in January. I think he’s a fabulous man, smart and funny and such a good speaker, but I didn’t need to sit through that again. Especially as I’ve recently had my review essay of Return of a King published in the April 2013 print edition of Himal Southasian. But I did attend the session with Dalrymple in conversation with Pankaj Mishra, and that was as entertaining as you could hope it to be. Dalrymple is brilliant at promoting his work, and the best thing about it is that you know that it’s exactly what he’s doing, his main purpose for even being there, but you don’t mind because he makes it seem like the best history class with your favourite teacher, rather than a hard sell. Mishra was also impressive, though rather more aloof. The two got into a good natured spat about the purpose of history. Mishra’s latest work, From the Ruins of Empire, is what most people would call a history. It looks at three important Asian thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and their perspectives on modernity and imperialism, in an attempt to normalise non-western perspectives. But Mishra refused to call it a history. He insisted that as we, as a society, a world, tend not to take any of the lessons of history that are available, what is the purpose of it at all? Trying to put names and order and predictability to human actions, that will always repeat in random or less-random forms, is futile to Mishra. Dalrymple the historian disagreed, and the chair barely had to say anything for the entire session. 

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case in Anita Desai’s session, where she was in conversation with Deborah Levy. I saw her daughter, Kiran, speak at the Jaipur Festival in 2011, and though I had enjoyed The Inheritance of Loss (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard less so) I felt she was one of those writers who should perhaps stick to writing rather than public speaking. If I hadn’t seen Kiran, I may have put her mother Anita’s quiet manner down to advanced age, but it seems something that runs in the family. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, Anita Desai is a beautiful writer, but I don’t know if I came away from her talk any the wiser about anything, really. She is very softly spoken, and the large concert hall she was received in seemed to dwarf her. The chair spoke rather more than a chair should, but this was perhaps unavoidable considering Desai’s answers were usually brief. I was encouraged to read her latest collection of three novellas/long short stories though, The Artist of Disappearance, and will write about them soon.

I enjoyed the Sydney Writers’ Festival, but somehow the enormous crowds and the long queues annoyed me more here than they do at Jaipur. It’s a funny quirk of mine, I am somewhat bristly and intolerant of people and bad service at home, yet when I travel (particularly to India) a mellower side of me comes out. Although it was extended time in India that developed my skill to shout at complete strangers at the least provocation. Perhaps it’s that the SWF charges so much money to attend a lot of the sessions (you have to queue an hour in advance for the free sessions) which are, ultimately, just book promotions a lot of the time. I understand that these things cost money to put on, and that the Jaipur Festival is under a lot of pressure because of its free entry policy, but, like many other aspects of my life, I just found myself in a better mood at the Indian version of events.