Millennials Strike Back @ Byron Bay Writers’ Festival 2017

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The sunshine was confusing for some of the writers from overseas, but as I explained it, winter is when Byron Bay is at it’s best.

This article first appeared on Common Ground.

This year’s Byron Bay Writers Festival welcomed Australian novelists, ageing rock-stars, a philosopher or two and even a war correspondent from The New York Times.

For those of you who haven’t ventured out to a writers festival before you really should go. It’s kind of like Splendour in the Grass, except the average age is doubled, beer is replaced by coffee and the only people moshing are the kids at the front of the stage when they hear Morris Gleitzman has pulled out.

It would be a big three days, but it all started at a panel called, Millennials Strike Back. This is the title of the latest edition of the Griffith Review and it, like the panel, was full of some very smart young authors.

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Karla Ray Whitaker harks from Louisville in Southern USA. She spoke with calm confidence about the challenges faced by the millennial generation amid stagnant wage growth and political discourse that ignores the youth.

Bri Lee, from Brisbane, offered a reading from her essay that dug into sexism in the justice system. Her soon to be released book promises to dig deeper on the topic, I wasn’t the only one rapt by her eloquent insights into the hidden failings of a system that is held in such high regard.

Jennifer Down’s offering to the Griffith Review was s short story that gave a very intimate glimpse into the life of a recent graduate trying to juggle casual work on minimum wage while also grasping for experience in an unpaid internship. It so defines our generation, over educated and under employed. Her story was subtle and moving.

The final word was left for 16 year old Tara Anne. She was on stage having been awarded the 2017 Susie Warrick Young Writers Award. She started with hesitation, a big crowd sitting before her, silent with expectation. She didn’t flinch, she spoke about the importance of anger. That it should not be admonished for being a negative emotion, but rather it should be embraced, to carry a message that others are trying to stifle.

Moving around the site was easy. Big open spaces rolled towards a lake on one side and the shade of the marquees on the other.

Adam Spencer is still the master of making maths and science fun. In a conversation with Lex Hirst, from Penguin Random House, it was staggering to hear about his ability to reach out and impact the next generation. He spoke of giving talks at schools and having up to 50 kids line-up to ask him questions. A big portion of those children have autism, and as Spencer puts it, “For kids on the spectrum, my books about maths and numbers are like pornography.”

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Lunch involved falafels and hummus, there were plenty of options with short lines and impossibly cheerful staff. Well done to all the food sellers.

I only retreated indoors once and that was to see the Foreign Correspondents Club. It was an all-star cast of war correspondents featuring Roger Cohen (New York Times), Christina Lamb (Sunday Times) and John Lyons (The Australian). These veterans of the game have seen unprecedented changes in the media landscape over the past two decades. Their entire platform has not only shifted online, but it’s also sped up. Lamb discussed the pros and cons of instant connectivity, she conceded that being able to report in real-time leaves a reporter open to chasing speed, rather than waiting to get all the information.

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And in a world of fake-news, quality journalism is more important than ever, as Cohen explained; “We live in a cacophony. Focusing on something for three minutes is a challenge, it’s become a cliche. But how then do we sort out what’s going on in Syria? And how it’s linked to Turkey and the Kurds, plus questions of US involvement? These are important issues and it is the job of good journalism to make it engaging. Good journalism is like pornography, you know it when you see it.”

It wouldn’t be an Aussie writers festival without John Safran and David Marr’s booming voices offering their insights and wisdom. They were joined by Kenan Malik on a panel titled Depends What You Mean by Extremist. (It’s the excellent title of Safran’s latest book). They discussed the rise of Wahhabism and its central role in the radicalisation of Islam. They dissected the very blinkered view the Australia media offers of the muslim faith. John Safran didn’t disappoint, recounting stories of his boots-on-the-ground reporting that involved getting front and centre for anti-Islam protests. He seemed constantly surprised at their arguments, at the backgrounds of the supporters and their motivations.

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While my efforts to compare this writers festival with a music festival may not have been all that convincing we can’t forget the big-name-ageing-rockstars that headlined this year’s Byron Writers Festival. Of course I’m talking about Jimmy Barnes and Tex Perkins.

For many, this was the highlight, and from what I saw they didn’t disappoint. They both made a number of appearances and at one point they were on stage together for a discussion with Radio National; Rock’n’Roll Lives. These gods of Aussie rock have both written memoirs; whiles Barnes’ focusses on his early childhood, Perkins’ goes deep into the loud and sweaty heart of his rock hay-day.

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As Barnsey talked about his early touring days, he remembered turning up to towns that could claim to be the country’s most violent, “We played everywhere, to everyone”, he said. From there it got deliciously weird with Tex Perkins reciting the lyrics to Mondo Rock’s, Come Said The Boy, in a languid and guttural voice that only he could muster;” Come said the boy, let’s go down to the sand, Let’s do what we wanna do, let me be a man for you.”

I left the festival exhausted, in mind more than in body. Writing is clearly the focus of a writers festival, but it’s so much more than that, in the end it’s about ideas. Sharing them, discussing them and laying in the grass in the sun thinking about them.

Thank you to all of the organisers and to the many volunteers.

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