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.
Fabulous post Louise love your words and thoughts. You summed up Magda beautifully. Was my favourite session. Magnificent photos, I visited that ladies room a few times myself xxx
Thanks, Rae. I liked that sign—the room it pointed to was an essential part of the weekend if you wanted to stay comfortable, but it was also a nice, old-fashioned sign.
My daughter often celebrates her birthday on that weekend to (she’d the 26th). I didn’t get to Magda’s events this time but have read her book and one of the (many) things I took away from it (being of a certain age myself) is to just bloody well say what I feel really needs to be said!
Definitely my favourite toilet on campus!
No worries—I understood what you meant!
Yes, my daughter’s birthday is the 22nd, so for a couple of years if there’s been something I’ve really wanted to see, I’ve had to ask permission. It was lovely to be given the weekend off and just wander into any session I desired! (Including the *other* Michelle Crawford!).
A very happy (belated) birthday to your daughter, Louise. Mine is born on 27th 😀
Glad you attended such a wonderful event. Very enriching experience for all of us.
I love reading all your posts Louise… finally I’ve gotten around to commenting! Loved this post… as writers I can relate to sharing our vulnerability. The Perth Writers Festival sounds like it was awesome… congrats you went and enjoyed!
Lovely to hear from you, Leanda—I’m so glad you commented! I found the session about facing the fear and sharing our vulnerability especially inspiring. Everything Magda said, including the quotes above, just reinforced that sharing our stories is so powerful and really helps everyone—reader and writer. I especially loved what they had to say about shame—and none of it was good!
I’ve visited your website, too, and love the title of your website—writing is such a good path towards healing.
“What have you blabbed about now?” So typical of people of that generation. They are very private aren’t they. My parents are exactly the same. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It just made me laugh when I read it. Great post enlightening us further about Magda. I love her. She’s a bit of a genius really.
I agree, Michelle—Magda’s a genius and she should be declared a national treasure! It made me laugh when Magda quoted her mother, too, and she said it in a Scottish accent. Generations before us were a lot more private and took their secrets to their graves with them. I’m glad we talk about things more openly now, and that people like Magda ‘blab’. Things that used to be shameful no longer are, and that’s a good thing. It’s also good that people don’t have to carry these things alone, that we share more. Makes us realise we’re no different to everyone else and that makes us happier! x (PS. Hope you’re enjoying your break from blogging!)
Shared experience is so powerful, whether it is Magda speaking or writing, or Louise Allan 🙂 (I’ve shared your post about saying ‘tell me more’ to your daughter with about three or four of my friends, because I loved the way you were so open and humble about how you struggled, as well as how you found a solution).
Glad you had such a good time at the writers festival. Maybe I’ll make it over to Perth one year (and please do let me know if you decide to come to the Brisbane Writers Festival!) xx
Hi Fi! You’re right—shared experience is powerful. It’s also bonding and necessary. Thanks for your words about my ‘Tell me more’ post, because it wasn’t the easiest to write. I’m thrilled you’ve shared it with others—I think the key to parenting is being open to listening to our kids. The way the our relationship changed almost overnight taught me so much. I’d love to go to Brisbane Writers Festival one year—maybe if Ida’s Children gets published! x
Too many things to comment on here, Louise. A great post. When this memoir first came out I wasn’t sure I’d want to read it. I still haven’t read it, but in recent months I’ve come to feel that it’s one I would be more than happy to read.
I’m astonished, in a way and yet not in another, that she was fearful about coming out in 2012. (Similarly with Ian Thorpe). I, in my naive way, thought that by this century we’d come along well enough (the same-sex marriage issue notwithstanding) that people wouldn’t be fearing impact on their careers.
Anyhow, how lovely that you got to so much of the festival this year. Kids do grow up eventually.
I understand what you’re saying about feeling frightened of coming out in this day and age. Unfortunately, there are still pockets of homophobia, and while the majority of people are accepting, it’s the rejections that hurt. Most people don’t care about someone’s sexuality and only reject you if you’re an arsehole!
Yes, I do understand why really – my question was more a intellectually rhetorical one than a “real” one – and why it’s hard for people in the public eye in particular. Poor Ian had been hounded from quite a young age which sort of boxed him into a corner of denial before he had probably fully sorted out or knew his identity. It’s awful now because as soon as someone of partnering-up age isn’t partnered up and they’re in the public eye, the innuendo starts. And it’s clearly not intended to be kind. If kindness was meant, they (journalists etc) wouldn’t be asking the question in the first place, but just letting each individual be.
I know, they do get hounded. Magda talked about how she came out to her parents after she thought a journalist at a women’s magazine was going to expose her in the mid-1990s. The woman didn’t, but it’s bottom-feeder journalism, isn’t it, and you’re right, it’s not being kind.
Ian Thorpe didn’t have it easy either. Young adulthood is hard enough to cope with, let alone in the spotlight, and let alone coming to terms with homosexuality while under the public gaze. It begs the question, why are we even interested in someone’s sexuality?
PS. It must be 2:25am where you are—Go to bed!
Exactly, what business is it of ours. All that should be of interest is what they do – their profession and perhaps how they use their profession to the betterment of others (if that’s what they do). The rest is none of our business.
If someone wants to keep their sexuality private, they should be able to. And if they want to share it publicly, they should be able to without fear that it will affect their livelihood (as Magda feared).