Sunday, 22 June 2014

Sitting In…Indigenous Places with Tony Birch


Last Wednesday night I sat in the front row of the 176 Little Lonsdale St performance space. Evaluation sheets had been placed on each seat, and I realised that I didn't have any expectations.

Truth: I only heard of Tony Birch a few months ago. Nicole Hayes, my writing tutor, brought 'Ghost River' to our group to study, and that set off a series that seems to happen organically once you've noticed something. 'Blood' is in a collection I was reading to research Paddy O'Reilly, who is judging a competition I'd like to enter. A friend in London tweeted about the Frank O'Connor shortlist and I landed on the longlist, and there's Tony. He's the writer in residence on The Wheeler Centre's Weather Stations project, which is enjoying enormous publicity. And there he is on the Writers Victoria program - Author talk. Indigenous Places.

I had no expectations, I just wanted to see and hear him speak.

Because there was a sort of lectern, a Dr. on a stage and we were seated in straight rows, I felt like I was at the start of a lecture, and subsequently that I should take notes. But quickly that compulsion moved from obligation, because I was fascinated, and (importantly) prompted to think. Several times I wandered off from what was being presented because it sparked so much for me to look into later.

At one point I wrote in my notebook, "Awkward eye contact with TB. I think he thinks I'm a stalker starer. Should have sat further back."

But I was in the front row, and I was writing ideas about how to explore issues in my writing; how to explore my place through not just my own, but others' experience of it. I caught myself eye-locked, mouth pursed and nodding thoughtfully, and thought I must look like a complete wanker, but really I felt awake in the way only intelligent, provocative, considered and interesting conversation creates. I felt as though I'd been taken as a plus one to a dinner party and fortuitously sat beside a compelling and sociable guest, and I didn't want to be interrupted.

The overwhelming message I left with was the value of telling stories. That everyone and everywhere (even Glen Waverley) has a story, and we have a responsibility to pass these stories on. Many of the things that connect us to place, and each other, may be small but they are significant. So my notebooks and collages of observations - a man reading a Feng Shui detective novel on the tube to Arsenal; the French girls playing Trivial Pursuit at my local, certain that the English word 'seal' was the correct answer to the question, "What kind of animals are the main characters in Watership Down?" - I felt a validation for continually noting these sorts of things, and my efforts to construct stories around them.

My notes from the session appear as a random set of unrelated topics - from Hiroshima to ACMI and digital storytelling - but they all have hours of meaning for me to rummage in.

At 6.30pm Tony had spoken of Tanderrum, a Wurundjeri practice where the host has to give their guest something of great value. In a sense, participants at Wednesday night's session should leave feeling they had got more than their ticket price's worth. At 9.00pm I sat on my tram, writing, and drew a box around: Tony Birch is an extremely generous host. I knew I'd wake up feeling as though I had more than "got my money's worth". And I missed my stop.

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Sitting In is a series I've started of my experiences at writing, and potentially other, related events. Like my Time Out tracks and Book Comments, these are not meant to be reviews, but reflections.

I'm always interested in feedback or suggestions.

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