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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