Sydney Writer's Festival Volunteer Recap
The Sydney Writer’s Festival (SWF) is an annual event that occurs for a week in May where writers (book authors, journalists, prose, poetry, screenwriting etc) come together to discuss the creative process of writing. This years theme was ‘Refuge’. This theme encapsulates the horrific and terrifying events that have occurred worldwide in the last 12 months. It allowed a platform for writers to speak about current events, such as: Trump, #nastywomen, avocado brunches, and Taylor Swift.
I decided to volunteer this year for a number of reasons. The first, I love reading, writing and books. What better way to spend my time than immersing myself in something I am passionate about! Secondly, I have a number of sources who have volunteered previously and loved every minute of it. And thirdly, to step outside my comfort zone, both physically and mentally. I wanted to walk away with a broader understanding of complex issues and more self-confidence.
As a volunteer, I was lucky enough to sit and listen to quite a few talks across the week and learned that the theme ‘refuge’ allowed for a wide focus of topics. Some were downright depressing (such as Nauru, the state of juvenile detention centres, and current politics) while others paved the way for important social issues to be heard (such as LGBTI+, feminism, racism and cultural diversity). From this experience, I now see that writer’s festivals are about exchanging ideas and having conversations facilitated by the written word. Before this, I thought it was a celebration of books and publishers. Boy, was I wrong! A writer’s festival is so much more. It’s a merging of like-minded people, a conversations hub, a space where writer’s can discuss, debate and learn from one another while giving the audience a chance to mull over what they hear, versus what they’ve read, to expand their horizons and reading habits and to ask those burning questions.
It is worth mentioning now that I volunteered six out of the seven days. During this time I managed to sit in on quite a few sessions (vollie tip: always volunteer to do the mic’s or to escort the authors, you get to stay in and listen!) It was during these tasks that I coincidentally and accidently stalked an author around the festival. It all began on Wednesday 24th May. It was the high school day at Roslyn Packer Theatre and I was on microphone duty. The speaker on stage was Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Yassmin is a mechanical engineer and twitter activist who is praised for her work in intersectional feminism and is a voice and advocate for change. She spoke candidly about the blatant sexism she received on the job, her desire to ‘fit in’ with her male co-workers to the point where she would crack ‘women get in the kitchen’ jokes, and would be highly offended when a male would point out she is a female. She spoke to me on a level that perhaps only a female would understand. The desire to be included in the ‘boys club’ is something every female has felt, at one time or another. And yet, Yassmin has since learned to embrace her womanhood and we can learn from her. Yassmin is the voice for change we need, and has been for ten years. At the age of 16, Yassmin founded Youth Without Borders, an organisation which empowers and encourages young people to work together to bring about positive changes in society. This movement sees only the power of change, it does not adhere to patriarchal gender ‘norms’ and neither does Yassmin. Her inspirational work with this organisation, her wit, charm and charisma, transfixed me and I wanted to hear more.
It wasn’t until Friday evening, when she was the moderator for the session ‘Fighting Hislam and Beyond Veiled Cliches’ with Amal Awad and Susan Carland, that I heard her speak again. One of the topics of discussion was about the societal view that you can’t be Muslim and queer. Which, is, of course, absurd! Susan Carland spoke about a lesbian couple who have been banned from their local mosque, by the men, simply because they tried to pray with them. Carland told us that one of the women said: “Why should men take away my God-given rights? Men are not God.” This quote is so relatable to any woman - religious or not - because it is completely true. Men are not God and therefore, men should have no control over the lives of women simply due to their gender. I walked away thinking one thing: Feminism and equality needs to be universal.
It was after this session, of which I only caught the end 20 minutes, I decided that I needed to see Yassmin speak in full. The following morning I pulled myself out of bed hours before I needed to in order to catch ‘All The Girls To The Front’ with Yassmin, Clementine Ford and Tracey Spicer, in conversation with Jan Fran. These ladies did not disappoint! I was (and still am) in awe of each and every one of these women and the hardships they have dealt with, in their personal and professional lives. I wish I had more to say about this event but for me it’s just a blur of emotions - glee, anger, laughter, empowerment, awe, inspiration, more anger, surprise, and more laughing. The most powerful thing I do remember about this session came during audience question time. A young boy asked the panel how to deal with other boys at school who make sexist remarks and/or jokes. Clementine had a brilliant answer. She suggested to do one of two things. The first: ask them to repeat the joke/comment, and once they have, ask them to repeat it again. Generally speaking, repeating sexist or defamatory comments multiple times lessens the appeal and hopefully causes the speaker to realise what they are saying is wrong and inappropriate. The second option is to ask them why they think it’s funny to say that. Ask them to explain the joke or comment which will cause the speaker to rethink what they are saying. Brilliant advice, just brilliant!
After this session, Yassmin had to run off to sit on another panel - what a busy lady! - so she was not available for book signing, much to my dismay! I had bought her book that morning determined to get it signed for my sister (who is a geologist and faces sexism in this industry). Luckily for me, her next session was at the very venue I was rostered on!! Now it really felt like stalking, but I was determined to get my book signed. This session was called ‘The Great Divide’ and featured a panel of speakers who discussed the generation war. More specifically, the #avogate and how young people are lazy. I sat through this debate and conducted my own internal debate: do I get Yassmin’s book signed for myself, or my sister? As I always intended to gift the book to my kickass geologist sister, I felt guilty wanting to get it signed for myself but, after unintentionally following Yassmin around the festival for a few days now I came to realise that I always come away feeling like I have a deeper understanding of a range of complex issues (race, gender, work politics, and social media pitfalls) after hearing her speak. Her professional life as a mechanical engineer on an oil rig speaks to my sister and her geology lifestyle, and yet her charisma and passion for change speaks to me as well. In the end (due to being a poor uni graduate with no job) I had to stick to one book, which I got signed for the both of us!
I am, generally speaking, a fantasy and speculative fiction reader. I don’t often stray too far from these genres (unless it’s YA, but even then, it’s YA fantasy) but I walked away from this writer’s festival with an autobiographical novel and a TBR list that has titles from authors such as: Roxanne Gay, Viola Di Grado, Brit Bennett, Ivan Coyote and many more. All in all, volunteering at the Sydney Writers Festival was such a great experience and I am 100% coming back next year!
All images belong to Jordan Meek or were sourced via creative commons.
Jordan is an avid bookworm who loves nothing more than to curl up with a good book and a cuppa. When this romantic setting eludes her, she can be found writing to-do lists, scheduling, binge-watching tv shows and/or fantasising about what book to read next. She is a freelance editor and proofreader.