Somerset Celebration of Literature

Last Mon­day evening I was sweat­ing bul­lets. Still dazed and daz­zled from five weeks in India, in less than a day I would be fly­ing to the Gold Coast for the Som­er­set Cel­e­bra­tion of Lit­er­a­ture. Although I received mes­sages of sup­port from friends inside and out­side the world of pub­lish­ing, I was still ner­vous. In the nine months since Empire of the Waves: Voy­age of the Moon Child was released I had made sev­er­al school vis­its, but noth­ing on the scale of Som­er­set, Australia’s pre-emi­nent fes­ti­val of children’s lit­er­a­ture. Apart from my friend Yvette Poshoglian, I didn’t real­ly know any oth­er authors. Yet soon I would be spend­ing almost a week with my peers, authors I had long admired from afar, and with so many won­der­ful books to their names.

Yvette assured me my fears were unfound­ed. Indeed, she had attend­ed Som­er­set in 2015, describ­ing it as one of the great­est expe­ri­ences of her career, and cer­tain­ly her great­est fes­ti­val expe­ri­ence.

Yvette was right.

The Som­er­set Cel­e­bra­tion of Lit­er­a­ture proved, with­out doubt, one of the most extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ences of my life. It gave me new friends and allies and mem­o­ries I will not for­get. Whilst sign­ing with a pub­lish­er and releas­ing a book into the world are per­son­al­ly momen­tous, greater still is the com­mu­nal joy of shar­ing one’s words with oth­ers, whether they be fel­low writ­ers, or the thou­sands of young peo­ple who came to Som­er­set to rev­el in our shared love of sto­ries. If the worst part of author life is its all too often soli­tary nature, then Som­er­set is the fairest med­i­cine.

This is going to sound like a Oscar speech now, but I mean it: I loved every minute I spent at Som­er­set, and it passed like the most beau­ti­ful dream. I learned so much from lis­ten­ing to oth­er authors talk about their life and work, and from every con­ver­sa­tion with those who came to meet us. Every ques­tion. Every com­ment. Every quip. The intel­li­gence and imag­i­na­tion the stu­dents and teach­ers shared in each meet­ing inspired and chal­lenged and made me want to be a bet­ter writer. Often, if a con­ver­sa­tion veered into the eccen­tric, I felt as though I were talk­ing to my own younger self. For when I was in Years 5 and 6 I took sto­ries so seri­ous­ly that I lived them as if they were the only thing that mat­tered. Per­haps I was right.

If I pos­sessed a TARDIS or a Time-Turn­er I would have heard every talk by every author in atten­dance. Alas I only saw a num­ber of the authors I had hoped to see, yet from each I learned some­thing new and valu­able about the author’s craft, and learned afresh the pow­er of sto­ries to shape our world, speak truth to pow­er, give mean­ing to our lives, and some­times just to laugh our­selves to tears. Over the three main days of events I was for­tu­nate enough to hear PJ Tier­ney, Lian Tan­ner, Alice Pung, Michael Pry­or, Megan Jacob­son, Tam­my Williams and Les­ley Williams, Gabrielle Toz­er, Frances Watts and C.M. Gray. Now I type out that list, I’m amazed I had the time to hear so many! After all, I also had to pre­pare and give three talks of my own. At my own I was deeply moved to have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss Empire of the Waves with so many won­der­ful young read­ers, and was hon­oured to see those fel­low authors who came to show sol­i­dar­i­ty with me.

Among my peers, I must offer a par­tic­u­lar shout-out to the great Michael Pry­or. On the sec­ond night of the fes­ti­val, a group of hardy stu­dents were assigned this hardy pair of authors, and over lasagna and chips we were tasked with work-shop­ping a scene to be per­formed lat­er in the evening. Michael and I spent a par­tic­u­lar­ly rau­cous and enter­tain­ing time with our team of junior writ­ers, whose imag­i­na­tions equaled – per­haps exceed­ed! – our own for sheer inven­tive­ness. Our intre­pid group devised a scene in which a group of young arche­ol­o­gists (from Bond Uni­ver­si­ty) crash lands in the Egypt­ian desert, there dis­cov­er­ing a secret under­ground rail­way sta­tion where they find a baby in a cob­webbed Lost and Found, and a ghost train that takes them back in time to a show­down with a Pharaoh who at first seems evil, but – in fact! – only wants to spend eter­ni­ty reunit­ed with his miss­ing baby and her mum­mies. That we didn’t win speaks of the cal­i­bre of the oth­er groups in the com­pe­ti­tion (as well as of the nefar­i­ous ends – bribes, threats, sab­o­tage, extor­tion – that oth­er authors will go to in pur­suit of vic­to­ry). As Tris­tan Bancks wrote in his elo­quent reflec­tions on the fes­ti­val, Som­er­set also host­ed a nation­al novel­la-writ­ing com­pe­ti­tion and poet­ry prize, and read­ings from the win­ners’ work “floored the writ­ers in atten­dance.” This is no exag­ger­a­tion. One of the many lessons of my time at Som­er­set is that the future of sto­ry­telling in Aus­tralia is in the best of hands.

Yvette had promised I would feel just like a rock­star, and so I did. Where else in the world are children’s books cel­e­brat­ed with fire­works and food and ice cream and wine? With so much singing and danc­ing and laugh­ter and applause? Even when there were no books left to sign, I was kept busy sign­ing guides, diaries, hats, water bot­tles, t‑shirts, and even one young man’s wal­let. I hope it proves a good omen for us both!

Ulti­mate­ly, the strength of Som­er­set resides in its phi­los­o­phy, and in the gen­eros­i­ty of its hosts and organ­is­ers, not to men­tion an army of vol­un­teers whose mas­tery of the ancient art of cat herd­ing ensured that authors and stu­dents alike were where they need­ed to be through­out the fes­ti­val. I espe­cial­ly want to thank those who staffed the green room and the speak­ing venues. I will miss you, and not just because you helped me when I strug­gled with nespres­so cap­sules. Your encour­age­ment and sup­port were invalu­able. Cru­cial­ly, each author was also allo­cat­ed their own vol­un­teer to intro­duce them to the gath­ered crowds, and I thank Sim­ran for her kind words. (And Sim­ran, your Bey­once was bril­liant!) I also I want to men­tion those hardy road war­riors who drove the authors from venue to venue (espe­cial­ly when we want­ed to snatch just an hour or two of rest between events.) The com­mu­ni­ty spir­it at Som­er­set Col­lege is awe inspir­ing, and in a time when edu­ca­tion in Aus­tralia so often feels under siege, a reminder of what our bet­ter selves can look like, and what we can accom­plish togeth­er.

Indeed, when I heard Dr Michael Bro­hi­er speak to the authors on the night before the fes­ti­val opened I knew I had come to the right place. In the fes­ti­val guide he writes how, “Fred­er­ick Dou­glas, the African-Amer­i­can social reformer, abo­li­tion­ist, ora­tor, writer, and states­man once said, ‘Once you learn to read you will be for­ev­er free.’” Lat­er he explains: “This is the mis­sion of our Fes­ti­val of read­ing and writ­ing; to bring sto­ries to young and not so young minds, through the texts of our authors, poets and song writ­ers and in doing so free­ing their minds for­ev­er.”

From my work research­ing the children’s cul­ture of the DPRK, I am all too aware of the pow­er of words – and indeed even chil­dren’s sto­ries – to enslave young minds, as well as free them. To shack­le or to lib­er­ate? In the end, it comes down to the choic­es we make as indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties and nations. And indeed, as Luka Les­son remind­ed us in his keynote address, and Tam­my and Les­ley Williams remind us in their pow­er­ful dou­ble mem­oir Not Just Black and White, we still have much to learn, even in Aus­tralia. To live in a coun­try where the Som­er­set Cel­e­bra­tion of Lit­er­a­ture is pos­si­ble at all is indeed a gift of lib­er­a­tion, yet we must fight (and write) to nour­ish and main­tain it. Dr Bro­hi­er and his team of staff and vol­un­teers have answered that call. With 20,000 tick­ets sold, and many more young peo­ple spon­sored to attend the fes­ti­val with the sup­port of the school com­mu­ni­ty and donors, the Som­er­set Cel­e­bra­tion does indeed stand as tes­ti­mo­ny to the pow­er of words to free us if we dare be free.

So yes, attend­ing the Cel­e­bra­tion was one of the high­lights of my life. And in case you think my eupho­ria is sim­ply born of inex­pe­ri­ence, I know for cer­tain that the oth­er authors and fes­ti­val vet­er­ans agreed: this was the best Som­er­set ever.

Pho­to cour­tesy of Tris­tan Bancks
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