Sydney Writers’ Festival: The danger of a single story
As the Sydney Writers Festival comes to a close, I am reminded of the TedTalk by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called The Danger of a Single Story. She recalled how when she was growing up in Nigeria most of the books she read were by British authors and typically depicted blue eyed white characters who had dogs, ate apples and played in the snow. When she started writing, her characters resembled the same characters she grew up reading about. “I didn’t know that people like me could exist in books,” she said. “I had assumed that books, by their very nature, had to have English people in them”. This changed when she read the book Things Fall Apart by the late fellow Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe whose characters were as rich, diverse and colourful as the African continent itself.
The Sydney Writers’ Festival is now more than 20 years old. It prides itself as attracting some of the world’s most curious and compassionate, irreverent but respectful, intelligent and argumentative writers. It markets itself as Australia’s largest celebration of literature, stories and ideas. Now that it has become an adult, it is time it starts acting like an adult and lead change in the arts and culture space. The lack of diverse voices at this year’s Festival is a reminder of why it is important that such a festival, that is a mainstay to the Australian arts and culture scene, needs to lead in this area by giving a platform to stories and ideas from more diverse voices. Diversity has become such a buzz word that it sometimes causes people to switch off when it is introduced into the conversation. It is important that we do not become desensitized to the work we still need to do in this space.
This year’s Festival theme was ‘Lie to Me’. The Festival stated that writers will examine the deceptions necessary for survival, how writing can deceive in an increasingly post-truth world, and the lies we tell ourselves and each other. The Festival said that the theme encourages us to explore the various ways we interact with truth and challenges us to face the ways we deny and avoid reality. But what lies is the Festival continuing to tell itself? Looking at the festival program, there is a sprinkle of diverse voices — enough to keep the critics at bay. Held on stolen lands, the Festival needs to do more to lessen the hints of colonialism and classism that it exudes. From staff and board members that are predominantly white, straight and cisgender to the Festival participants and attendees who also fit this predominant mainstream representation in the Australian arts world. The Festival’s inclusivity is questionable — from holding events predominantly during working hours thereby limiting accessibility to those who can afford to take time off work; to not providing sufficient access to people with disabilities. The Festival should be a trailblazer by ensuring that more writers of colour are present, more First Nations people are involved in the planning of the festival and development of the program and more people with a disability, people who are non-binary and people who are sex and gender diverse are included as part of the festival. This means representation not only on the stage, but in the audience as well.
Allowing groups that have historically experienced, and continue to experience marginalisation, oppression and exclusion onto a platform such as the Sydney Writers’ Festival allows individuals from these groups to tell the stories that only we can tell about our experiences, our hopes, our dreams and our fears. This in turn helps break down stereotypes and power structures. If we only ever hear about a people, place, culture or situation from one point of view, we risk accepting one experience as the whole truth and thereby contribute to the lies we tell ourselves. We face the danger of the single story. On a micro-level, the danger of a single story is that it creates barriers that prevent people from authentically connecting with each other. On a macro-level, the issue is really about power as there are many stories about the dominant culture, and few stories of minority groups. This leads to the perpetuation of stereotypes that stick to groups that are already disempowered leading to further marginalisation.
As preparations for next year’s Festival commence, I call on SWF to consider the following:
Involving First Nations people in the planning of the festival and including them as staff and board members of the festival.
Ensuring all venues are accessible — not just the physical building but planning for diversity of disabilities, including hearing and visually impaired people.
Ensuring that the festival program and summary is available in the major languages spoken in Australia in order to include the one in four Australians that do not speak English at home.
Extending the festival to surrounding regional areas and creating a way for people to participate in the Festival remotely to include the interstate and regional populations.
If this is the festival of ideas and stories, then these ideas and stories should come from Australia’s rich and diverse population.
As Adichie says:
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
About the author
Phoebe Mwanza is the host of The Griot Podcast which can be found on iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Stitcher. The Griot Podcast is a social, political and spiritual commentary examining the deep issues confronting the world through the eyes of Phoebe, The Griot. Infused with humour and personal anecdotes, The Griot Podcast helps us to understand, reflect on and confront the issues facing humanity through the art of storytelling. The Griot Podcast is published weekly. Follow the podcast on social media @griotpodcast and the host @afro_griot or email email@example.com
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