Grace Tame emerges as the star of a rebellious writers’ week

I’ve just spent a week in Radelaide. That’s not a typo. It’s how poet Sara Mansour referred to the 2022 Adelaide Writers’ Week, and it was the perfect description.

Nobody marched in protest or stormed any barricades. But the mood was rebellious. Over and over again, audiences applauded speakers who didn’t like where our leaders were taking us and wanted something completely different.

Grace Tame was the star of Adelaide Writers’ Week.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The star of the show, often touted as an exemplary leader, hadn’t written a book. A big crowd gathered for Grace Tame as she talked with passion about being groomed by the teacher who abused her, about an “an ecosystem of abuse”. She revealed that the person who called her when she became Australian of the Year and warned her not to diss the Prime Minister had threatened to cut off funding for her foundation.

“I have found that certain people, certain groups are more concerned with maintaining power and control than running the country,” she said. But after she stood up to her abuser “my fear about upsetting the apple cart died that day and it sure as hell died publicly standing next to Scott Morrison”.

Her fellow panellists, Stella Prize-winning author of See What You Made Me Do Jess Hill and Writers’ Week director Jo Dyer (about to stand as an independent for the federal seat of Boothby), joined Tame in linking gendered violence to racism, climate change and “everything that is threatening to overwhelm us”. Leadership had failed, and now we had to step up and say “no more”.

According to writer and former Labor MP Barry Jones, we have “a generation of anti-leaders”.Credit:Matt Irwin

That call was echoed in other sessions, even from ex-politicians. Malcolm Turnbull said that every government had to have competence and integrity, and “Scott has shown himself to be lacking in both of them”. He and Kevin Rudd were in furious agreement about the dangerous power of the Murdoch media. Barry Jones said that this is “a generation of anti-leaders”.

Fiction writers were a little different: they focused on the ambiguities of their craft, the need to represent different views, and to let the reader decide. But they had a go too. “Our government, at every single level, hates and mistrusts artists and wishes we wouldn’t exist,” said Charlotte Wood.

Novelist Richard Flanagan didn’t hold back: “The Prime Minister is a man with the emotional intelligence of a hammerhead shark.” We were being corrupted from within, he said, and the two major parties had become disconnected from the Australian people. “Politics should be like a sewerage system. It should work properly, but we shouldn’t have to have our heads in it the whole time.”

What to do? The fiction writers pointed out their task was to ask questions, not provide answers.

Others offered advice. “Support independent politicians and journalists, go on social media,” said journalist Michael West. “Vote, including preferences. Contact your local member,” said Fiona McLeod, author of Easy Lies and Influence. “Think it through,” said Nobel laureate Peter Doherty. “Engage … You can change things with really tiny numbers,” said Barry Jones.

The strongest testimony came from writers who had suffered under other governments. Chinese author Murong Xuecun, now living in Australia, spoke of the surveillance that had dogged him while collecting stories for his book on the Wuhan lockdown, Deadly Quiet City, and his fear he would be jailed or killed.

On the phone in his bugged hotel room, he would hide under the quilt and speak softly. When officials questioned him, he told them he was writing a science-fiction novel.

Most Chinese people don’t resist because they would have to pay too great a price, he said. “They convince themselves that non-resistance is worthwhile or even just.” It’s a conviction that Radelaide is determined to avoid.

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