I love the moment when you step off the plane and the new place’s air rushes in your face. When I go home to Brisbane after 10 years living in Melbourne, the humidity soaks in deep and quick, and I remember the feeling of being in that atmosphere, a sensation that refuses to be relived by my body when I’m away from it.
When I step into the clear Alice Springs day, the air is powder-dry, shifts lazily and is perfectly cool. I’ve been brought here by the Emerging Writers’ Festival for the Eye of the Storm, a festival put on by the Northern Territory Writers Festival. The next three days will be spent by the dry bed of the Todd River. The red centre, Arrernte land, Alice Springs, Mparntwe, a place I’ve never been and where I have no connections. And the topic of discussion, the theme of the festival, is: finding home.
On the way into town I question the cab driver:
Is that railway line still in use?
Yeah, that’s what the Ghan comes in on.
Look at all this wattle. Do people get hay fever up here?
Yeah, depending on what they’re allergic to; you got your wattle, your salt bush.
(As we drive through a gap in the MacDonnell ranges, which snake along the land in either direction, long and red.)
Are we facing north right now?
Yep, these are the MacDonnell ranges; they lie exactly parallel to the equator.
He tells me the formation was made by a meteorite that hit the earth and skidded along, carving a divot in its wake and forcing the layers of rock to stand up on end. I believe it too, looking at the jagged, vertical strata of red. Later I’m told not to be so gullible.
The afternoon I arrive I walk along the footpath with a plastic bag full of seaweed rice crackers, hummus, coconut yoghurt and bottled water, and jump to see a severed neck or leg or tail protrude from the bunched up body of a kangaroo that’s been stuffed into a hole cut into the bonnet of a dark-blue commodore sedan. Hey, white chick!
That first day, as the dusk comes on and the cool starts to nip, we walk along the riverbed to Olive Pink Botanical Gardens for the opening of the festival. These are unlike any botanical gardens I have seen: we are nestled into the base of the ranges, red dirt under foot and arid-climate trees all around. Little birds dart and hotfoot in the trees above us, as we gather around the stage to hear the first of the weekend’s stories. One by one the performers and festival organisers take to the stage – Margaret Kemarre Turner is seated while her relative, the writer Sylvia Neale, reads a poem co-written by Margaret Kemarre and an absent Maureen Nampijimpa O’Keefe, which tells of the birds (those ones right above us) singing the same song as the land; Ali Cobby Eckermann is seated to read a composition from her book Inside my Mother; Michael Mohammed Ahmad, reads (booms) from his novel, The Tribe – his grandmother’s body, when she holds him near, is like “a plastic bag filled with warm water”.
This mood is at once joyful and raw, and the sincerity and intimacy that proves to be inevitable, no, vital, in telling stories of home, sets the tone for the festival.
Home is a place, it is land, it is family, it is mother, it is the womb. Home is where our deepest secrets hide. It is the stuff we are made of, whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we confess it or not. And it is other things I don’t understand.
In the blue-skied, crisp Saturday morning I listened hard to a panel of Arrernte elders tell an audience what home means to them, in an event called Apmere Ngura Ngurra Ngurraji Home. One of the panellists, Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM, an Akarre woman, writes in her book Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What it Means to be an Aboriginal Person, “We are part of the Land. The Land is us, and we are the Land. That’s how we hold the land.”
How we hold the land. In my life I have used the word ‘hold’ in terms of a loved one; a baby; a concept, an idea or an event I can’t get over. I have held onto moments of joy and happiness, of anger and bitterness. But I have never considered that I might hold the Land. Even though there are places I love deeply – a river junction on the Monaro Plains in southern New South Wales, a creek just north of the Glasshouse Mountains in Queensland, an ocean wall that runs along North Creek in Ballina, northern New South Wales – I am in no way intimate enough with them to feel the sense of responsibility implicit in the statement: That’s how we hold the Land. The image is overwhelming, and in the face of historical and ongoing violence, dispossession and environmental degradation visited upon this land and those who hold it, to say that it makes me feel sorry is wholly inadequate.
The entire duration of the panel, Margaret Kemarre Turner’s mobile phone rang off the hook. A friend in the audience eventually took it off her hands and hung up each time it went off. “Calls from her land”, explained the moderator with a smile.
The events of the festival were scheduled one after the other, often in the same space, so there were no clashes. Ideas, voices and threads flowed without interference between the conversations, and sunk in when I took a walk in the gardens to watch the birds or crumple a leaf between my fingers to release its scent.
Directly following the earlier panel discussion, and in the same open-air gazebo under the eucalypts, Veronica Perrurle Dobson did a book talk on Arelhe-kenhe Merrethene – Arrernte Traditional Healing, sharing her knowledge about the healing plants of her land, and telling her own story of having a serious ear condition healed by a man her mother took her to on a remote station as a child.
I was confronted by the generosity of spirit that sharing these personal and cultural stories and knowledges with a mainly white audience must have taken. But, without fail, that spirit of generosity, transparency, respect and sharing was the common thread that tied together most of the conversations I witnessed at the Eye of the Storm.
In fact, I’ve been resisting employing the simile because of its obviousness and availability, but there was a quality to the discussion of the festival that could be well explained by likening it to the eye of a storm. All around us – around each of our stories, around each of our lives, our homes, around the town of Alice and the country of Australia – there is the politics of race and gender and class and culture. Around us, and our identities, there is chaos and complexity, and in real and imagined ways we are divided and different. And although that storm is what our stories are about, I think that in the moment when the story is being told, in the process of forming the words, there is calm and quietness, understanding and empathy.
Seeing a kangaroo carcass stuffed into a hole in the bonnet of a car was different, but it was by no means the most educative experience of the weekend. I was told secrets by strangers in earnest, and I told my secrets back to them. That is an astonishing experience anytime, anywhere, but to have it out of the context of my day-to-day life, in the red centre, Arrernte land, Alice Springs, Mparntwe, a place I’ve never been and where I have no connections, was nothing short of transformative.
The last afternoon of the festival I returned to the hotel, put my bathers on and made my way to the pool (perhaps I was once a Queenslander who scoffed at those who went swimming in weather that didn’t warrant it, deriding them as ‘Victorians’, but now I am what I didn’t understand back then). I lay on my back in the orange late-afternoon sun and read from the “Water” section of Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light. I’d lapped up every word the (Queensland-based) author and editor had spoken during the festival, and I pissed myself at the more satirical elements of her visions of the future as I read.
But it got me thinking seriously, of course. About the future. About the politics and real experiences that rage around the story that van Neerven is telling.
Although there was tenderness and there was intimacy and there was humour at the Eye of the Storm, there was of course much pain and loss and sadness. Home is where we nurture deep wounds from our own pasts and those of our parents and our parents’ parents and all the way back. I heard stories of stolen children, dispossession, war and displacement – experiences I couldn’t even imagine. But as I listened to the people who were sharing these stories, I looked at them and I thought: You are going to fucking change the future of this country. You have to.
And the reason I believe this is that, for me, in order to understand the storm, and find myself and others in it, in order to experience real change in my reality and understanding of the world, I need to listen to what’s gone on in the lives of those around me in the world. Maybe I need to know what the air of their place feels like when it rushes in my face. Maybe it helps to hear the songs of their birds and to smell the scent of their leaves.
I hope to be able to visit Alice Springs again, and indeed other writers festivals around the country. I’m going looking for the stories that can tell me about who we are in this place, and how we might be better.
The Eye of The Storm Literary Festival was held in Alice Springs, from Thursday 18 to Sunday 20 Septemeber, 2015.
This is a FOMO post, part of a series where writers reflect on their experience of literary festivals around the world. To read more like this, click here.
Sophie Allan is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Chart Collective, and the Assistant Prize Manager of the Stella Prize.