I’m back from ‘Australia’s premier literary nonfiction festival’ – Reality Bites 2012 – feeling very inspired by the people I met and the writers I heard speak. Who knew that in the hills behind the Sunshine Coast I’d be having some of the most stimulating conversations about the classics I’ve had anywhere? And that I’d hear a high school girl recite an essay about Harry Potter that would move me to tears and renew my faith in the next generation? Who knew I’d watch an adult bribe a room full of year 11 students with candy and think it was just fine? Well all that happened at Reality Bites last weekend. And more.
Here are my five highlights of the weekend (in chronological order):
1. Going to Cooroy’s high school – Noosa District State High School – on Friday afternoon to hear writer Benjamin Law announce the shortlist of the inaugural Mark Tredinnick True Story Award. And then watching as Law entertained a packed auditorium of some 120 students ranging from about 15 to 17 years old and their teachers for an hour and a half. He did this primarily with his irrepressible humour – and with a bag of jelly snakes.
After telling us that the theme of his talk was the lies adults tell you, Law proceeded to debunk three of them, most importantly: ‘Curiosity killed the cat’. Making sure he was speaking responsibly, Law reminded us that there were occasions where curiosity WAS dangerous – eg if we became curious about a storm water drain during a flood – but most of the time a healthy, respectful curiosity about the lives of others is what makes the world goes round. It helps us to connect with each other – because it’s the only way we can find out what’s going on inside other people’s heads. Law overturned three such rules, giving (tossing into a forest of grabbing teenage hands) jelly snakes to any student who correctly guessed (yelled out) the rule he was alluding to.
2. Having thrilling conversations with the passionate readers who gathered at the Cooroy Country Women’s Association hall for tea, scones and classics talk. My favourite moments were when a woman said she loved Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country but thought he needed a good editor. (When I wondered if Joyce also needed an editor for Ulysses she looked horrified. ‘Oh no!’ she said.) When we discussed why Dickens’ Great Expectations was the most frequently set text in Australian high schools. And when a guy said he’d first fallen for the classics – or ‘serious literature’ – when he read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
3. Hearing the winner of the inaugural Mark Tredinnick True Story Award recite her story to the assembled crowd at the opening party some hours later. The winner was 16-year-old Jayde McGrath, who was asked on the spot – and while on stage – to read her story ‘Living With the Boy Who Lived’. Instead of being thrown by this unexpected request, Jayde immediately began not reading but reciting her story, which she knew by heart. Her poise and eloquence coupled with the power and wisdom of her words left us dumbfounded. Over drinks afterwards all we could speak of was this amazing 16-year-old girl who had silenced us with her words and moved most of us to tears.
I asked Jayde if she’d mind if I posted some of her story here and she said totally fine. (Her story is also being published in the local paper, the Noosa News, and I’m sure it will appear elsewhere.) Dianne Batten of Corelli Books in Mooloolaba cleverly thought to ask Jayde for the copy of ‘Living With the Boy Who Lived’ Jayde had brought along – and Dianne very kindly forwarded a copy to me. (Such is the camaraderie of word lovers.) Here’s one of my favourite parts of ‘Living With the Boy Who Lived’:
‘Despite popularity like no other book in history, this book has had its critics, with some labelling it as being sacrilegious or sinful. Yet for me, I suppose that the greatest thing about this series is how each character has taught us something, something that will stay with us forever.
Harry Potter taught me that some things are worth sacrificing everything for.
Ron Weasley taught me that believing in yourself is a hundred times more powerful than luck.
Hermione Granger taught me that an education is a girl’s best asset, even if it doesn’t make you many friends.
Remus Lupin taught me that fear is the only thing I should be afraid of.
Sirius Black taught me that the ones we love never truly leave us.
Albus Dumbledore taught me that good people are not always good.
Draco Malfoy taught me that bad people are not always bad.
Luna Lovegood taught me that weird is, in fact, wonderful.
Dobby taught me that freedom is a gift to be cherished.
The Dursleys taught me that a world without imagination is a dull and drear place.
Molly Weasley taught me that a happy family is not measured in gold.
And Lord Voldemort taught me that a life without love is barely worth living.
Does this sound like a book that is representative of witchcraft and sin?’
4. Hearing emeritus professor of science, technology and society Ian Lowe speak on our ‘Counting the Beans’ panel. Lowe’s measured, calm analysis of climate change and its relation to population growth, the failings of conventional economic models, the limitations of both capitalism and socialism (both are predicated on economic growth, their difference lies in how they conceive the distribution of wealth), among many other things, was incredibly inspiring. He’s an exceptional man with an exceptional mind, capable of synthesising vast amounts of information and across many disciplines, from science to law to economics. And he spoke about morality – which is so rare in these conversations. I’ll be following his work closely from now on.
5. Meeting all the people who came to the festival, from Benjamin Law, John Birmingham and Anna Rose to all the tireless organisers – director Melanie Myers, Annette Hughes, Bernice, Geoffrey Datson – and Dianne Batten, her fellow booksellers and all the book lovers the festival attracted. And housing it all – the very funky brand spanking new (well, two years old) Cooroy Library itself.
Thanks Reality Bites. I’m so glad I could be part of it.