In early June, I flew from Brisbane to Western Australia. I had won the Margaret River Short Story Competition and was invited to the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival. Our panel, about the collection Joiner Bay and other stories, was at lunchtime on the Saturday with a small but friendly audience. Emily Paull, Leslie_Thiele and I signed books afterward. My first festival as a participant, I got to wear a lanyard that let me into all sessions and into the VIP room that had plates of the most incredible caramel slice and, later at drinks, some very, very good local gin.
My lovely hosts wanted me to see as much of the area as possible. I still can’t remember if we drove was north or south because being on the west coast threw my already terrible sense of direction. So let’s say it was down: down to the cliffs above the beach at Prevelly where groups of people watched half a dozen surfers bobbing far away on the water. People told me these waves were particularly huge, although I wouldn’t have known the difference. And all these people gazing out to sea weren’t passing through but were stationed there to watch. It was a sunny morning. Dogs were out, and little kids in puffer vests stood against the wind.
Everyone was on the move. Twenty-eight years ago, one of the authors at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, Michael Palin, left London in 1989 with a film crew to make Around the World in 80 Days. He clicked through a slideshow for all the travel die-hards and Monty Python die-hards. In one photo he is seated beside weapons near the border of Pakistan, and he said he has to remind himself of all places he’d never be permitted to go now, but was allowed almost thirty years ago. These days, Palin said, he wants to be away from his family less and less.
Some non-gin highlights from the festival:
- I met Clementine Ford who was so compelling and smart on stage. An audience member asked about the difficulty of navigating commercial toys marketed for boys and those marketed for girls. Ford mentioned the American sitcom Roseanne, a show my parents and sister and I used to watch avidly. In the first episode, Darlene is packing away her childhood things, horrified by what she thinks teenage girls should be interested in. Roseanne tells her that a baseball glove is for a girl as long as a girl is using it. This made complete sense to me as terrific advice that I’ve since stolen to use on my three-year-old daughter, currently super keen on dividing the world (colours, clothes, toys, songs, words, absolutely everything) into things for boys and things for girls. Later, I lined up at Ford’s signing table. Of course, it’s a highlight to remember how passionately I told her as I say goodbye, ‘I’m a big hero!’ I mean to say fan. I’m a big fan.
- I felt moved by Abdi Aden’s story, told in Shining: The story of a lucky man and so disarmed by his jokes on stage. Aden is a very funny man. Over more of those caramel slices, we met in the VIP room. He was finishing his two weeks in Western Australia by flying back east for another sitting with the artist who’ll submit his portrait for the Archibald Prize. Aden was born in Mogadishu and spoke lovingly about his childhood in Somalia even as he replied to an audience question that, no, he can never return to his homeland. I also loved hearing about the vital trust he placed in his co-writer, Robert Hillman.
- Rashida Murphy and I talked about her beautiful cover for The Historian’s Daughter, how she knew what she wanted for it, what she didn’t, and how she spoke up for a cover that wouldn’t feel to her like a cliche.
- At the writers’ party on Saturday night, I recognised Joan London and accosted her. She was so warm, and she kindly listened to my nonsense (again, Joan, excuse me, but I’m a big hero). Joan signed my copy of Gilgamesh while her husband mentioned that the idea for her novel was a setting not far from Margaret River. Finishing the book now, the location of the beautiful southwest is vibrant in my mind. At the end of my trip, I jumped on a train (south?) to Fremantle. It was a public holiday and busy and sunny again. I drank a beer on the water and visited New Edition, and I thought of Edith Clark in Gilgamesh who catches the train to Fremantle with her baby. The world is on the brink of World War Two, and Clark rinses her son’s nappies in a sink near the station before boarding a ship for Europe.
- Speaking about his award-winning Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe gave the audience the image of Charles Sturt riding on horseback, his brother behind him pegging out the land they would take. He told the audience about the largely unknown history of bread and cake in Australia. There is a grain that grows and thrives in sand alone. Pascoe described researchers who do not believe him when he shows evidence of agriculture among pre-colonial, Indigenous societies and those researchers who do not approve of his work. He called for an upending of the way tourism operates in Margaret River and the way sacred sites are treated, particularly the caves that the area is famous for. The festival was almost over, and the auditorium was silent. Pascoe spoke with passion, deliberately and solemnly. ‘You wouldn’t believe it,’ he said, ‘but I’m the happiest person in my house.
Laura Elvery is a writer from Brisbane. Her work has been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Kill Your Darlings, Award Winning Australian Writing and Griffith Review. In 2016, Laura was shortlisted in the Queensland Literary Awards for an unpublished manuscript by an emerging writer. Her story, ‘Joiner Bay’, was the winnner of the 2017 Margaret River Short Story competition, and appears in Joiner Bay and other stories, soon to be published from Margaret River Press.