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Sharing draft works aloud is a personal yet public expression of creativity
The power of the spoken word is able to unite and empower people beyond the written text. Listening to someone pour out their innermost thoughts, in their own voice, creates a bond – not only between the performer and listener, but also amongst the wider audience.
Despite the torrential rain, the atmosphere was buzzing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival Word Lounge: Drafts Unleashed + Slam event. With the lights of Vivid illuminating the Harbour Bridge, a warm pink glow enveloped the casual café setting as a crowd of younger urban professionals mingled alongside older, retired types.
Hosted by Miles Merrill, founder of the Australian Poetry Slam, prose writers and poets were invited to test unpublished or unfinished works, “virgin texts”, on the audience.
Beginning with the author of Gaysia and The Family Law, Benjamin Law spoke of his experiences writing his new black comedy memoir about discovering the trials of life being a queer man in Asia, including travelling in Malaysia to learn about ‘ex-gay reparative theory’.
“I write to be published,” Law explained, as he told the audience of his lack of material. “Tonight, though, I’m going to share the script for the first scene of the new television series in production for The Family Law.“
Detailing an incredibly funny exchange between a typical migrant parent and their Australian-born offspring, Law had the audience in stiches: “My dad works seven days a week, 365 days a year… Chinese people have a different standard for human rights.”
Also speaking from the perspective of an Australian-born young person of migrant heritage was the very hip 2014 Australian Poetry Slam Champion, Zohab Zee Khan. An incredibly tall man, Khan had an incongruous appearance – wearing low-slung jeans, a sideward cap marked ‘dope’ and typical black-framed hipster glasses. Speaking of his experiences growing up as “the only coloured kid at school” in the regional NSW town of Yenda, Khan expressed his passion for writing and his love of “the instant output and gratification” of ‘slamming’.
A 4th generation Australian of Pakistani heritage, Khan and host Merrill bonded on stage over the questions often asked by well-meaning others: ‘Where are you from? No, but where were you born? No, but where are your parents from? No, but what’s your ancestry? You know what I mean.’
Khan detailed how one of his upcoming projects is an hour-long performance piece about “my bored, 19-year-old grandfather in rural Punjab who travelled, jumped on the first boat he found in Bombay and ended up in Australia”.
Khan’s drafts, pieces he had written just before the show, were rhythmical and lyrical, echoing how our thoughts ebb and flow as we create a new work. His reflections on modernity and religion were particularly insightful, resounding with the refrain “God lives inside”.
Showing his cheeky side, Khan concluded, “I perform my hip-hop solely in Punjabi. It’s funny because none of my Punjabi lyrics make any sense, but white people seem to love it.”
Malaysian-Australian rapper and poet Omar Musa, former winner of the Australian Poetry Slam and the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam, and author of the Miles Franklin long-listed Here Come the Dogs, proved to be a highlight of the evening.
“Everyone wants you to be gracious and humble when you get awards or recognition,” Musa said, “But an act of creation is brave and rebellious. When I get accolades, I’m really proud!”
Outlining his creative process in writing his book and the incredible self-doubt he felt Musa recalled the wisdom of another author saying, “Feeling lost as a part of the process means you’re in unchartered territory.”
Influenced by the Australian poet Dorothy Porter, and trying to capture the essence of his home-town of Queanbeyan, Musa detailed how poetry was his access point to prose.
“Poetry is seen as a pretentious, dusty art form, but poetry will only die when humanity does,” Musa said.
More reticent about performing written work, as opposed to lyrics, Musa sees hip-hop as a bridge or “the lived spirit” of poetry.
His drafts, one about the planet and the environment, one about the death of the moon inspired by the execution of the two Australians in Bali, were honest and brave.
Musa’s final work, a deeply personal piece about his Islamic background, was raw, energetic and incredibly powerful. Exploring feelings of disconnect from religion and alienation, this effort from Musa about feeling trapped in the middle – “Too Muslim for them, not enough for them” is especially poignant in modern Australia.
Throughout the evening, host Merrill, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘Find your story’, also announced a draw of sign-ups on the night, audience members who wanted to share their drafts. One female participant shared a short poem inspired by the controversy around the documentary India’s Daughter with the themes of fighting the patriarchy and misogyny received with warm acknowledgement of the need to do more, from the audience.
The only female on the writers’ panel, Melbournian Abigail Ulman spoke about the progression of her book, Hot Little Hands, from six published short stories to a cohesive nine-story collection. Her “emotionally autobiographical” works about adolescent girls and women in their twenties certainly resonated.
Public speaking is said to be one of the most common fears. For these writers and poets to bring the rough sketches of personal ideas to the microphone in front of an audience and bravely test unpublished drafts demonstrates the power and connection that can be formed through this old-world artistry which is receiving a vital resurgence in popularity.