Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sydney Writers’ Festival - a hotbed of stories, ideas, and debate

“Have we got a story for you” was the mantra for the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival and what amazing stories they had.

But what was so wonderful about Sydney Writers’ Festival was that it was more than just fiction. While the kind of fiction that propels you into another world was an integral part of the week, it was also debate and ideas that were also important parts of the festival.

This year politics and feminism were a common thread but then again, it seems that the things that you are passionate about are usually the things that stick out.

I quite like SWF’s approach of bring together authors, journalists and social commentators to discuss a particular theme such as the people behind politics, literary magazines, what feminism means today or political rhetoric. This way, the books were set in a wider context and it was more interesting than just going to multiple book launches.  

My festival journey began with attending the session on the Obama’s campaign and it was great to hear more about how different this campaign.

Obama campaign strategists Joe Rospars and Stephen Muller spoke about how this campaign was unique in that it put Americans back in the middle of the story and allowed them to take ownership of it. They used the campaign to reflect the community back to themselves and creating one of the most electric campaigns in history.    

The strategy built the capacity of ordinary Americans to organise themselves to develop relationships with those in their local community and have conversations about what kind of future they wanted for America.

In a time of political apathy and the dislike of the political “spin” machine at an all time high, the effect was amazing. Rospars and Muller spoke about the ways people involved including organising meetings in their house to talk about issues.

It made me think that in the end, what will be more powerful – a conversation over the fence between neighbours or a professional advert on primetime commercial TV?  

This session left many of us wanting these guys to stay behind in Australia to invigorate the upcoming federal election.

Another theme was feminism; there was Anne Summer’s Misogyny Factor, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina’s new biography, and a discussion about where feminism has gone since the publishing of the Feminist Mystique fifty years ago. Many events were co-presented with the Southbank Centre's Woman of the World Festival which provided us with many great role models who inspired us with their wisdom and passion for a better world.  

It was great to be reminded that feminism is not about hating men but economic and social equity to be able to be in control of your destiny and reproduction.

It was also good to hear about the relationship between women from the developed world and those from developing countries and how it important it is to stand up against issues such as genital mutilation, rape, forced marriages, etc but without taking control but listening and providing support in what way the women in those situations ask for.

Finally, Saturday night saw a packed out session at the Sydney Town Hall with feisty Ruby Wax and Shami Chakrabarti on the panel of five opinionated women.   While it started out about being about Vajazzling it went on to cover the politics of hair, what women do to their bodies and for whom as well as the women’s body as public property. It was a great night and you know it has been a powerful session when people continue to discuss ideas as they walk out.

Sunday was another day filled with sessions on Pride and Prejudice, what it means to have a good life and is rhetoric dead? It was another wonderful day filled with ideas, books and words.

I could go on forever singing the praises of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Their stories, ideas and discussions ring in my ears long after I’ve come home and luckily, the books and podcasts will continue to entertain, move and inspire me until next year.    

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Indian story “Rudali” challenges ideas of western feminism

While Rudali (by Mahasweta Devi) may be a small book, its powerful story covers so many important topics. From abject poverty to the caste system and Indian funeral practices as well as the role of women in a strongly patriarchal society, this story challenges readers on their ideas on poverty and feminism. So powerful is this story that it has been transformed into a play and a movie.

Mahasweta Devi born in 1926 is an Indian author and comes from a family of Brahman writers. Both parents wrote and so did her brother as well as her Devi’s son who became a celebrated author. Mahasweta Devi went on to teach at Bijoygarh College while also becoming a journalist and creative writer. She has also become well known for becoming a social activist and bringing attention to the lives of those who are not economically powerful and don’t have the loudest voices.

Essentially, this story concerns the life of Sanichari.  From the caste she was born into to being unfortunate enough to be born on unlucky Saturday, her life continues to see tragedy. Sanichari sees many of her immediate family pass away leaving her in a permanent state of insecurity. Somehow Sanichari continues to cling tightly to her dignity and this allows her to discover opportunities to allow her to support herself.

The realities of poverty regularly struck me especially when it is written, ‘For them, nothing has ever come easy. Just the daily struggle for a little maize gruel and salt is exhausting. Through motherhood and widowhood, they are tied to the money lender. While those people spend huge sums of money on death ceremonies, just to get prestige….’ This quote really is central to Sanichari story and the community that she is part of as well as her motivation to become a professional mourner. Those that do have money use it to improve their status.

But focusing on poverty, I was often remained that attitude and community were the keys to surviving life’s hardships, such as when Sanichari says ‘in this village everyone is unhappy. They understand suffering’ meaning that suffering is easier to bear if everyone is going through the same thing. Another example was when a lady with a new baby in the village offered to breastfed Sanichari’s infant grandson so she can go and work. Life was so hard for Sanichari but she managed to survive with the help of her community.
After being reunited with a childhood friend, both of them take up on an opportunity to become a professional mourner given to them by Dulan (a money lender who is of the more wealthy class above Sanichari and can be described as “a mover and a shaker”) who suggests that Sanichari should tap into her lifetime of misery and her inability to cry for the deaths of her own family to aid the wealthy in her society to stage an appropriate farewell from this earthly life. As a result the pair is able to work; they are able to gain some income and a bowls of rice as well as the ability to introducing other women of less socially acceptable professions to this way of securing their financial independence.

Professional morning has a long tradition in parts of India and in Rajasthan in particular. It is seen as important to give the deceased person a good funeral so that in death their status is elevated. I found it interesting that in the days prior to individual's passing away they were not cared for and left to sleep in their own excrement but once they were dead they were given the grandest funerals.  

Many readers refer to this book as a Feminist text because of Sanichari’s ability to (with the help of Dulan) to manipulate the patriarchal culture resulting in her ability to support herself and not rely on men for life’s essentials. In many ways, I struggled with this idea of Rudali being a Feminist book as I never considered working for free for a wealthy landowner (as Sanichari had to do to) to pay a debt as very liberating or even manipulating the patriarchal paradigm as very progressive.

As a feminist who grow up in the west where the focus was on very western issues such as pay equality, abortion rights and an equal distribution of household responsibilities, I often felt uncomfortable when I read about Rudali being regarded a feminist text. When I first began read Rudali, I couldn’t really understand why it was considered feminist. But since finishing the story and thinking about it, my understanding of feminist has grown to appreciate that the struggles and agendas are culturally specific and different depending on where you live. In the West the aim is to push the boundaries of the patriarchal system but in Rudali and in more patriarchal cultures generally, women have to manipulate the system to suit their agenda in the same way that Sanichari does in the story.        
Rudali and the story of Sanichari is defiantly worth reading and joins my long list of great Indian stories. While this book is a challenging one, it provides a lot to talk about, making it an ideal book for a book club and a priority read before your Indian adventure. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hello Miss Kitty

The great thing about mid week meetups with friends is that they remind you that fun times don’t have to be relegated to the weekends. 

So after reading about Miss Kitty Saloon recently, I suggested to a couple of local gals that we check out this Inglewood newbie.

If any of you are familiar with the Inglewood area, you would know that Miss Kitty has replaced the local Italian eatery Avenue Nine. You’d be pleased to know that the space has gone from somewhere that suburbanites would take their grandmother for her 60th birthday lunch (dinner might be getting a bit late) to one that pulls a younger and hippier crowed.

It has an American retro theme without the American sized portions and at Perth Prices.

After forcing ourselves to stop gossiping and to make some choices about what to order we picked some entrees. Being a fan of the smoked salmon, I loved the idea of it being part of the filling of their Buttermilk Buns and let me tell you, they were divine. 

We also ordered a couple of Hot Wing Pancakes and with its grated carrot on top had a rabbit food vibe but tasted amazing and totally unexpected.

Because it was Tuesday and I had a long day at work I went for a Dog ‘n’ a Beer (only available on Tuesdays) and quirky was the only way to describe it. Surrounded by corn chips, my Dog was well presented (sorry, it was too dark to take a photo) and alongside a can of a beer that I’d never heard of, life was good at that point. Being used to the standard Aussie far that is common on Tuesday (i.e. Pizza/burger/fish and chips and a pint) I was kinda hoping for something a little more substantial that would replenish the batteries after a day at work but it tasted good and I could always order another drink as my mates and I chatted about the week in politics.

Before heading home my pals and I couldn't resist dessert. Tess and I shared what I think was a Pecan Pie but it was the shape and size of a mince pie but tasted wonderful. My only criticism is that, while the food was nice, the portion size wasn't worthy of the price tag.

If you live up Inglewood way and want to eat at somewhere cool and different, try Miss Kitty's Saloon – you’ll love it.

Miss Kitty's Saloon on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Going at it alone - what travelling can teach you

2013 began by taking a few weeks off from the day job to travel around Asia doing a whole range of things that I wouldn't normally do at home. From being a marketing intern with a Chinese company that imports Spanish food and wine in Shanghai to writing for a magazine in the South of India, it was the trip of a life time.

While it was only 7 weeks away, it took just under 6 months to organise. Applying and being accepted into the programmes in China and India took a bit of effort, applying for visas required coordination, developing a budget and a savings plan wasn’t too difficult but was securing funding from government and business was something (scored $1450 J) I hadn’t done before, while going to the travel agent had to be the best bit.

Being in a new culture and city with a bunch of new people (these had to be the best bits) meant that I have to be adaptable, self reliant and be comfortable with hanging out/working with a group of people that I wouldn’t normally be around. I also had to find solutions to problems with bank cards, sending stuff home and how to get to airports at odd hours, just to name a few.

But adapting to unexpected situations and having to improvise due to unexpected events have been one of the best bits about travelling alone and while they can be a little scary at the time, you end up look back and laughing.  

Having to adapt to a new workplace and tasks was another really cool challenge that I would do all over again and something that I would recommend to anyone.

Being invigorated and inspired by my time away I have been toying with the idea of moving on from my current position. But while exploring various options there have been several interesting discussions about the value of doing volunteer work and doing something for nothing.

On one side, it was argued that employers “frown on volunteer experiences” and since it wasn't real paid work meant that the skills that you used and/or picked up had no economic value.

Those on the flip side argued that such experiences should be promoted and the skills used highlighted to show transferable “soft skills” and life experience.

Why do things need to be of economic value to be worth something?

It does seem a shame that doing something for nothing whether it is volunteering in Cambodia, taking on marketing luxury brands as an intern in NYC, being a Scout leader in Australia or a stay at home parent is not considered to be a learning experience or evidence that you have developed particular skills because it is not paid.

I hope that one day unpaid experiences will have the same economic value as paid employment and that you don’t need a paid job to show what you can do.   

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