For the first time ever, I was able to spend the whole weekend at the Perth Writers’ Festival without worrying about children’s music or sport commitments, and without feeling guilty for slipping away on my daughter’s birthday—it didn’t fall on one of the Festival days this year!
I sat in on many thought-provoking and inspiring sessions, and I have too many favourites to even attempt to write summaries of them all. Instead, I thought I’d talk about a few of the sessions that really spoke to me, the ones I identified with in a personal way. I’m hoping to write about them over a couple of blog posts.
I don’t believe I need to introduce Magda Szubanski to anybody as we’ve all seen her on our TV’s in shows such as ‘Fast Forward’ and ‘Kath and Kim’. I was lucky enough to hear her speak twice during the Festival: firstly, at a session called ‘Facing the Fear’, chaired by Jane Cornes, and which also featured Jane Caro and Rosie Waterland; and later, at a session called, ‘Reckoning’, with Kristi Melville.
‘Reckoning’ is also the title of Magda’s memoir about her Polish family history. She wanted to tell the story of her father, who worked as an assassin for the Polish resistance during World War II.
Magda spoke candidly but with enormous warmth and wisdom. She was hilariously down-to-earth, warning the audience she liked to use the ‘F-word’, but what came through was her courage—she’s put herself out there in the public eye and made herself vulnerable. She’s shared her sexuality, her family history, and her personal demons, and by revealing her vulnerability and her humanness, she’s only made herself even more lovable.
At nearly fifty-five years of age, Magda said she feels the best she’s ever felt. She believes that in one’s fifties, one can either contract or open up, and she’s chosen to open up.
‘Do whatever you can to increase the authenticity of your life.’
‘Move towards the fear. Fear is an indicator that you’re on the right path.’
She’s had the luxury of many years of therapy to ‘help bring the unconscious to the conscious’, and because of that privilege, she feels she has a duty to share some of what she’s learned.
Writing the book used every bit of her, she said, and she had to confront uncomfortable things about herself, her weaknesses, including that she was a ‘coward’. (NB: Her word, and certainly not the way I’d describe her.)
Coming out about her sexuality in 2012 was more frightening than publishing her book. She spoke about realising she was gay when she was a teenager, and how terrified she felt at the time because homosexuality was still considered a mental illness (listed in the Psychiatric Diagnostic Manual) and was illegal.
When she came out in 2012, she worried it would affect her work, and therefore her livelihood, but she also wanted to be authentic, and hoped that by sharing her story, she might help alleviate homophobia.
She talked about shame, and called it a ‘horrible form of social control’, and how liberated she felt as soon as she came out of hiding.
‘There is enormous strength in vulnerability.’
‘The more you’re in touch with your weaknesses, the stronger you are.’
She touched on the pressure she felt to write a humorous book, but felt she’d given many years to comedy and wanted to write the story of her forebears. She wasn’t sure if the Australian public would accept this serious side of her, but she wrote it anyway—she stopped work and took out a loan in order to do it.
Her mother was ambivalent when she first told her she’d written a book, and said, ‘What have you gone and blabbed about now?’ But it became a healing experience for her, too, and allowed her to reframe her own story and forgive herself. Her mother keeps a copy of Magda’s book on her bedside table.
In writing the book, she discovered how much she loves to write, and she ended the session by talking a bit about feminism, saying:
‘Feminism isn’t about equality, but about the wholeness of human beings.’
As someone who grew up carrying more than my fair share of shame, Magda’s words spoke to me very personally. Sometimes, after I’ve pressed ‘Publish’ on these blog posts, I feel the fear of self-exposure because I’ve revealed some of my weaknesses. But I’ve experienced the flip side, too—the joy and liberation that comes with sharing a story and seeing it resonate with others.
I’ve come to the conclusion that, deep down, we humans all share the same needs, desires, flaws, and vulnerabilities. But despite the fact we’re all flawed, we’re brought up to feel as if we’re the only person who gets angry, or feels jealous, or has a mental illness, or desires the same sex. So, we fear being honest about ourselves—we don’t want to be judged, or rejected, or ridiculed. We protect ourselves by hiding our weaknesses, and we don’t tell anyone. Because we’re ashamed.
Shame is very isolating, and it inspires me when people like Magda crack that barrier and open up. Then we, the audience, can say, ‘Yes, I feel like that, too,’ and we all know we’re not alone.
As another speaker at the Festival, Jane Caro, said:
‘Those words, ‘Me, too’, are the destroyer of shame.’
If you want to hear Magda speak with Richard Fidler about her book, you can download a podcast here.
And here’s a link to her book, ‘Reckoning‘, which I’ve not yet read but it’s close to the top of my TBR pile.
I took a few photos around and about UWA at the Festival, but, unfortunately, none of Magda.
An ivy ‘lawn’
I love a colonnade.
The organ pipes and window in Winthrop Hall
A mosaic in the foyer of Winthrop Hall.
I had to take a photo of the coat of arms of the University of Tasmania, of which I’m an alumnus, that hangs inside Winthrop Hall.
Iron arch over the main entry to Winthrop Hall.
A popular place that needs no introduction.