‘This Way Humanity’ was the theme of the Brisbane Writers Festival this year.
I was honoured to moderate a session, The Incredible Uplift of Compassion, a subject that embodied the theme. Authors on the panel were the venerable Tim Costello, vivacious Chicago-based Marvel writer Eve L. Ewing and Ben Hobson, Brisbane-based author of two recent literary fiction novels.
It was a compliment to the panellists that they were invited to share their insights into compassion. They are advocates for, if not also, models of compassion. The full house was likewise privileged to hear from the panellists’ works and lives.
The authors are writers of fiction and non-fiction and are from different places and backgrounds so we heard different perspectives on the uplifting subject of compassion. The panellists were united in choosing a family member as the most compassionate person they know – and two grandparents were accorded this role.
Eve L. Ewing is an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. Her writing is published in The Washington Post, the New Yorker, The New York Times and other salubrious publications. Eve is a dynamo, an activist, and writes on her concerns about racism. She is an award-winning poet, author of Electric Arches – a collection of poetry, prose and visual art, 1919 – poetic reflections on race, segregation and hidden histories and Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and school closings on Chicago’s South Side. She has also written a play. Eve writes the Ironheart series for Marvel Comics. The character of Ironheart, Riri Williams, is a character Eve redesigned and she now has her own comics series. Ironheart fights for the good of humanity, even at risk of her own life. “Those who move with courage make the path for those who live in fear.”
I love Eve’s poem: Sestina with Matthew Henson’s Fur Suit from Electric Arches (2017), part of which is quoted below:
‘The work of the poet
is not unlike the work of being black.
Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory,
the plentitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities. Other days, you wonder if exile would be too lonely
and figure it can’t be worse than thinking you won’t make it home, the fear of your own teeth skidding across the ice.’
Ben Hobson lives in Brisbane and is a writer to watch. He has two new novels published. To Become a Whale is a poignant evocation of a boy’s relationship with his harsh father after the death of his mother. He is trying to survive in the harrowing conditions of the whaling station at Moreton Island, off the coast of Brisbane.
Snake Island was only just published in August and has already been described as the literary thriller of the year. It is told from several points of view, including Caleb who is in prison and his parents, Vernon & Penelope who have abandoned him.
Ben is interested in morality and meaning and explores suffering and good & evil. In Snake Island his character Vernon wonders, “Was there goodness in this world? It didn’t seem there was”.
Tim Costello is from Melbourne and is one of Australia’s wise men. From his new memoir A Lot with a Little, I see a curious, probing intellect. Tim has been a lawyer and church pastor simultaneously – he describes this as being a ‘worker priest’. His legal office was attached to his St Kilda church where he and others tackled systemic issues of homelessness, drugs and mental health challenges.
Tim is an activist committed to ‘greater justice’, a leader, former CEO of World Vision, the last mayor of St Kilda, a gambling reform advocate and has received an Order of Australia. He has just joined the team at the Centre for Public Christianity and feels equally comfortable speaking in religious and secular settings.
Tim shows commitment to and love of family and others and says he follows the example of the Apostle Paul – in being subversive.
It was interesting to see that all our authors used the Exodus story in their writing. Eve used it overtly to structure her book 1919. Tim wrote, “I saw the Exodus story as the dominant story of the USA: slavery, political struggle, escape (on the Mayflower), building a new, more equal society with institutions like a free press … and natural rights to preserve liberty.” Ben wrote about being imprisoned and trapped and the struggle to survive and then escape, and the possibility of building a new life.
All our authors spoke movingly about compassion and its incredible uplift, some were in tears, as were many in the audience
This is my 13th year moderating at the BWF and I love it more each time.
Thanks to Zoe Pollock, Rachel Fry and the other BWF2019 organisers. Throughout the festival there was a great atmosphere of anticipation, excitement and fulfilment.