The inaugural Words on the Waves Writers Festival was held on Darkinjung Country on the NSW Central Coast over the June 2021 long weekend.
The festival was marked by its combination of professionalism and strong sense of hospitality.
The program was exceptionally well curated, ranging from the Climate Changemakers; On Truth, Brains, Money & More; and A Rollicking History to Better the Devil You Know (women’s crime) and more.
The venue at Ocean Beach Surf Life Saving Club at Umina Beach with ocean views provides one of the best settings for a writers’ festival in the world.
I was privileged to moderate the session closest to my heart – literary fiction.
Although Vivian Pham was unable to attend due to illness, Emily Maguire and Nardi Simpson shared how life can be both full of love and catastrophe – and the role that place, family and others can play in this.
These are stories that we need to hear and are hopefully now ready to know and understand.
The three authors are from different places, backgrounds and experiences. They have all written significant works – crafted from pain and empathy, humour and even rage. They all make us care for people who are struggling.
I was unable to predict where any of the novels would take me.
Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay writer who lives in Sydney, Gadigal Country. She is also a musician and performer in the Stiff Gins, composer, playwright and educator.
Song of the Crocodile (Hachette Australia) is her masterful debut novel. It is a lyrical lament and a saga across several generations. It is both harrowing and inspired. It is highly awarded – currently longlisted for the Miles Franklin award and has also been shortlisted for major state and national awards.
A quote (from among many) from the novel that stayed with me is ’How do we begin again, if, first, we don’t let go.’
Emily Maguire also lives in Sydney. She is a well-established and highly regarded writer. Her author peers are quick to sing her praises – professionally and personally. She has written 3 non-fiction books and 6 novels. Previous works, such as An Isolated Incident, have been highly acclaimed and awarded, including in the Miles Franklin and Stella awards.
In her new novel Love Objects (Allen & Unwin) Emily shows the intersection of family and life with power, honesty and compassion.
A quote from the novel that captured the session topic for me is, ‘We rub each other the wrong way, yes, but we don’t abandon each other… Never abandon family’.
Vivian Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian whose father was a boat refugee. The Coconut Children (Vintage) is her debut novel, which she wrote in her teens. This book has already been shortlisted for major state awards and Vivian has won SMH Best Young Novelist of the Year and the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year.
Vivian’s writing is lyrical, sensory – and also funny – and she tells a big, moving story.
A quote from her novel that resonated with me is, ‘Sometimes having hope is as simple as letting yourself forget who you’ve been.’
Through their novels and during the panel session the authors shared a place they know well and how these places may show life on the edges. Living on the edges can lead to trauma and even inherited trauma. A place on the edges could also be a metaphor for the exclusion of the Aboriginal people where it is -‘easier to keep to the edges. Safer too.’ (Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson)
There is a strong home base in the three novels. This could be a house, locality, a special place, even a campfire or symbolic tree. The idea of home is important in these stories. Will in Emily Maguire’s Love Objects remembers, ‘Aunty Nic has always said the house was ours too.’ Home may be the centre of the world and, at its best, can be a place of community and joy. But loss of home, place or family – or threat to it – can create a problem or even a catastrophe. It can lead to lack of safety, displacement or alienation.
The panel topic, Love, Family & Other Catastrophes, is well chosen to highlight the shared elements and concerns of these novels. Love and families can be catastrophic and cause catastrophes. Sometimes it is family who is most likely to cause significant, or even worst-case scenario, calamities. But family may also be the most likely to save each other.
Some characters generate chaos and catastrophe. In these novels, some women hurt others but, in the main, men hurt women, as well as each other. Here, males are the oppressor as well as the victim. ‘Infernos were made for boys like Vince’ (The Coconut Children) and Vince says, ‘when you don’t get love from your family … you and your friends go looking for it outside. There’s so much heart between you. There’s love, and love becomes even bigger trouble.’
In contrast, at the festival, Nardi laughingly told us about the catastrophe that is her character, Aunt Bess. Aunt Bess epitomises both catastrophe and love.
Other characters in these novels also exemplify love. Emily and Nardi shared their thoughts on the day so I will let Vivian speak here through her character in The Coconut Children. Vince ‘wants to love someone right. Love someone out of nothing to have the only thing worth having.’
Recognition of wrong-doing and forgiveness (Vivian challenges us through the words of her character Sonny, ‘could you go on loving someone without ever learning to forgive them?’); hope; and care for others play out to greater and lesser extents in the novels. Will in Love Objects says, ’You don’t help people because they deserve it. You help them because they need help.’
Love of children also features in the novels. It is a normal part of life yet highlights something of deep importance. Aunties feature with affection in Love Objects and Song of the Crocodile.
I always find it fascinating to discover the connections between novels in books I read for a writers’ festival panel. As well as those already mentioned, each of these novels has a character in prison. Why may this be? Another of the connections, a terrible one, is that of rape of young women – which is either intrinsic to the story or happens to a minor character.
Rape is pivotal in The Song of the Crocodile; it comes as a shocking revelation in The Coconut Children and is on the periphery of Love Objects when a schoolgirl is groomed and falls pregnant. However, the exploitation of a consenting sexual encounter is a more prominent concern in Emily’s novel.
The authors’ writing styles and structures – through characters’ different perspectives and viewpoints and incorporation of ‘language’ create an ideal forum for the issues they raise and the characters they share. Symbols of birds, trees, the crocodile and ‘love objects’ themselves are inherent in the works.
In their novels Emily, Nardi and Vivian show how even the most difficult people, or many of those who seem to cause catastrophe, can be loved. Of course, some should always be kept at a distance. The dilemma may become how to love without putting them, oneself and others at risk. Vivian also reminds us that ‘love can make you forget where the world is hurting’.
And so, at times and as we have seen in these stories, love can transform and transcend a catastrophe.
In a very special finale, Nardi sang for us.
Sincere thanks to Emily, Nardi and Vivian for their excellent books, Emily and Nardi for their quick-thinking and thought-provoking responses and to the originators and organisers of this important new writers’ festival, Words on the Waves.
(Photo credit below: Words on the Waves Instagram L-R Nardi Simpson, Emily Maguire, Joy Lawn)