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Words fluttered by: thoughts on Wordstorm, The NT Writers’ Festival

As the red sun dipped into the azure ocean, the last words from Wordstorm 2010 were carried away by the cool sea breeze as it blew into the Botanical Gardens. Wordstorm, The NT Writers’ Festival, was put to bed and it will be two years before it returns to Darwin, as next year it will be held in a regional or remote location.

Wordstorm 2010

What a great festival it was. Like all festivals, I only saw a fraction of what I wanted to, but what I saw I enjoyed immensely. The location was fantastic and the festival made the most of it, holding readings under beautiful old trees or among the rainforest around the old Wesley Church, the oldest church in Darwin.

I’m teaching a unit on East Timor as part of the Studies in Asia component of SOSE and was lucky enough to find Jose Belo from East Timor at the festival. I quickly whisked away this shy, quietly spoken man to talk to my Year 10 students about his life as a guerrilla fighter, imprisoned and tortured by the Indonesian Military (trained and funded, of course, by various Australian governments). The usually rambunctious class were enthralled from the moment he said: ‘when I was your age I didn’t carry a pen, I carried a gun’. He went onto chart his life under occupation to the present – running an independent newspaper in a country still coming to terms with freedom of all sorts, including press freedom.

I then took Phillip Gwynne to my school to talk to the Year 10 English classes. He was casual and affable, able to bring the conversation to a level the students could relate to and created a rapport that ensured the experience was educational yet fun.

I was fortunate enough to see him again, days later, at the ‘kid’s corner’, an area set aside for authors to read and engage with children. He created stories which enthralled the audience, using the children to enact the story. It was interesting seeing Phillip, known for his more serious young adult and adult fiction, engage with primary school aged children.

For the first time, the annual NT Literary awards ceremony coincided with Wordstorm (and will continue to do so in future). This ensured a large number of attendees, including many visiting writers as all writers were given invitations to the ceremony. The ceremony is held at Parliament house and it’s beautiful to stand on the large grassed balcony overlooking the harbour, sipping on a drink and watching the sun go down. The following night the official opening ceremony was held at Government House, the oldest European building in NT (built between 1870–1878). After brief speeches by Sandra Thibodeaux (Festival Director) and Tom Pauling (the NT administrator), guests were free to mingle and admire the house and gardens of Government house, a privilege not often offered to mere citizens.

Both ceremonies were casual and pleasant experiences that epitomised Wordstorm.

One of the best experiences of Wordstorm was The Writers Tree, a large, shady tree under which sat a number of chairs and a couple of microphones. A variety of writers were slotted in for short readings, all for free. Local and lesser known writers read with the likes of Alice Pung, Nick Earls, Deborah Cheetham, Patrick Allington and Barry Jonsberg, exposing emerging writers to a wider audience and to more well-known writers. There’s something special about reading to an audience including writers you’ve read and admired.

I really enjoyed the Makan Pagi Pusi Breakfast, held on the Saturday morning on the deck of the Wesley Church. Rainforest trees shaded the deck, flowers in bloom added a tropical feel to the atmosphere and the distant trickle of the river was psychologically cooling in the tepid morning. A range of poets from Australia, India and Indonesia let their poems flutter by, soothing and amazing, as we waited for a scrumptious Indonesian breakfast to be served. Admittedly by 9.30, I was getting bloody hungry, as were a number of other people in the audience. Breakfast while the poets performed would have been preferable to waiting until they’d all finished, but gnawing hunger aside, it was a wonderful way to start the day.

I must admit to being a bit of a foodie, so I also attended the Feast of Local Delights, a lunch put on by the well-known writer and gardener Leonie Norrington. The lunch was held at the house at the community garden in the Botanical Gardens. The smorgasbord of green paw paw salad, barramundi rice paper rolls, sweet potato and pumpkin balls, and smoked crocodile were all made from local produce. After the scrumptious meal people toured the garden to see what can be grown in the tropics. The food and tour was great for tourists or locals who may not know much about local food; for anyone who’s already involved in sourcing and cooking locally, there wasn’t a great deal to learn. I was a bit surprised when bottles of orange juice and soda water were trotted out as part of the feast. There are so many great drinks that can be made from local produce – Hibiscus drink, using the flowers of the plant, a Rosella drink, again using the flowers from the plant (which is currently blooming) or even lemongrass or mint drinks.

Perhaps the most famous guest at Wordstorm was Germaine Greer. I didn’t manage to see her, but by all accounts she was fantastic, staying up until midnight talking and signing autographs during the dinner at Pee Wees an the Point. She allowed people to write down questions and attempted to answer them and was described as witty, reflective and entertaining.

True to form, she rocked the boat, lashing out at police for their treatment of an Indigenous man at the museum. A flurry of letters were sent to the NT News about her comments – most negative – but, as always, she created an opening for debate to occur, a debate that needs to occur in the Northern Territory.

Darwin is said to be a casual and relaxed town and Wordstorm was a relaxed and friendly festival. Writers and fans mixed freely, walking around the gardens, sitting at the cafe or hanging out at the bookstall. I doubt if there’s a writers’ festival in Australia with the same atmosphere and friendly vibe. It’s going to be a long two years until the next one.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Rohan Wightman is a Darwin-based writer & teacher. He’s been shortlisted for the NT literary awards four times, including this year. He has been published in Going Down Swinging and has been shortlisted in a few other writing comps and won a few less well-known comps. He started writing when he was young but really hit his stride when writing for Squat It, the magazine of the Squatters Union of Victoria, in the late 80s. He has piles of manuscripts but no publisher. His under construction website is www.rohanwightman.com

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