32 years. That’s how long it’s been since I last set foot on Australia’s east coast. Byron Bay was a soft landing after the long absence, because here was a surfer’s paradise, a gourmet’s paradise, a wine aficionado’s paradise . . . okay, okay so waxing overly lyrical etc., but honestly, you’ll wish you were there too.
Sunset at Byron Bay
Byron Bay’s writers’ festival is indeed a tented sight to behold. VIP’ed my way into the 14th annual one, and they do treat you well. At the Brisbane airport, a man in red bearing my name on a sign drove me south down the highway – you’ll be able to have a sleep, he said – on a smooth, two-hour ride. It was morning when I arrived from Singapore, and customs security was a polite request to step into this line so that the hound patrol could sniff my bags. The indignities of airport security vanish around this adorably cute mutt, and less than two minutes later, you’re on your way.
But the lit life – it was lit, sunlit, those three days by the sea. Everyone told me about the rained out festival a few years prior. Amanda Webster, one of my Australian CityU MFA students cautioned – watch the forecast you might need your wellies (wellington boots) – but I lucked out. Amanda lucked out too because she was also a festival VIP with her just released debut memoir The Boy Who Loved Apples, an account of her son’s anorexia. It’s currently getting the rave reviews it deserves.
Amanda and I met for coffee at Mary Ryan’s (Books, Music & Coffee) the afternoon I arrived, and there was her book, prominently displayed on the front table. It gave me a warm feeling – sentimental – because who forgets seeing your first book in a store window (it’s real, it’s real!) and I was deliriously pleased for her. Hayley, a 2012 student at our CityU MFA and a friend of Amanda’s (2011 cohort) joined us and there we were, not “teacher” or “student,” just three writers on the same lit life journey, lit on coffee, tea, books and music.
A week earlier, we launched Amanda’s book at the summer residency in Hong Kong, alongside three other new titles by the faculty – How To Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position by Tabish Khair (check it out at The Daily Beast’s “Hot Reads”), Of Gods & Strangers, the second book by Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang and Out of This World by Sybil Baker, the writer the Huffington Post calls “one of today’s strongest emerging literary talents.” We at CityU Hong Kong respectfully agree with the accolades these three receive (which is why they’re all on our faculty, duh).
About book launches, it’s fun celebrating the successes of writers I know. It can be as simple as showing up at a friend’s reading or, better yet, buying and reading their book. Yes, of course I’m guilty – I don’t always get around to reading what those others in my lit, lit orbit write. But I try. I like to think I’ll die reading because chances are pretty good that I’ll be in bed.
Meanwhile, inhale. I did, inhale that is, the gloriously fresh air by the Pacific, while musing, yet again, on the state of the planet near the Chinese border. Respiratory ailments are sadly rampant in my part of the world. Byron Bay was a reprieve.
Long walks at sunset on a beach where surfers in wet suits landed. Fresh fish and oysters. Australian Shirazes. The lit life doesn’t get much better than this.
One highlight of this festival by the sea: The Thea Astley lecture. You’ve never heard of Thea Astley? Neither had I, which is another reason for the peregrinations along the lit, lit life because of all the lit you learn.
Factoid about this major Australian author: She sold her first poem using the byline “Phillip Cressy” because men were paid £5 but women only got £3.
The lecture was delivered not by Thea’s ghost but by the living Australian novelist and writer extraordinaire Gail Jones. She spoke about memory, specifically childhood memory, and riffed on that with her uncommon intelligence, wit and humility, apologizing for ever sounding too “teacherly.” Gail and I caught up over a Japanese lunch the next day – yes, Japanese, because I had heard the local establishment served excellent sashimi. We were not disappointed. Is Australia part of Asia? The government says so and at least in that restaurant, I had to agree.
Winner of the Kibble Literary Award, Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Fiction, the Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, The ALS Gold Medal, the Barbara Jefferiss Prize and the Indies Award.
Gail’s latest novel Five Bells (the title echoes a famous poem by Kenneth Slessor) also says so because her Sydney is cosmopolitan, and Asian. I heard her read from it last year in Norwich, England, just before the book’s release, and kept meaning to get it. No excuses, because unlike the first time I met her, many years earlier and read her short story collections, her books are now readily available internationally. The other thing about the international lit, lit life is how often you’re reminded that the book business is really all about distribution – it wasn’t all that long ago that Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and even British authors’ books could be quite hard to obtain if they didn’t have an American publisher.
Global English says, thank you Amazon.
But of course, I hadn’t read it yet and before we met, I found a copy at Mary Ryan’s, conveniently across the road from my hotel. 32 years away from Sydney, a city I used to visit back in the 70’s and what better re-introduction to the city as it is today than in Five Bells.
Radiant. That is the Sydney of this elegant, meditative, lyrical and intelligent book. It made me want to jump on a plane and get there as soon as possible. You will too.
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Join me next week for drinks with Robin Hemley at Knutsford Terrace in Kowloon. He’s the writer who’ll get me back to Australia’s east coast (Melbourne in November) so that another 32 years doesn’t slip by again.
(Sunset photo by the author.)