Voices From Elsewhere

February 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm (Conferences, Writing) (, , )

It doesn’t seem like the Wheeler Centre has only been here with us in Melbourne for one year. For me, trying to remember a time before the Wheeler Centre is like trying to remember life before smart phones – you know it existed but you’re not sure how you managed without it, its mere presence a comforting assurance that you only have to reach out to connect… for assistance, for entertainment, for social interaction… Yet here we are, smart phones and all, marking The Wheeler Centre’s first birthday.

I nearly didn’t attend last night’s Gala Night of Storytelling: Voices From Elsewhere. Not to besmirch the fine keynote folks, but there wasn’t a guest that grabbed my area of interest (which leans away from the “literary”) until they announced Sonya Hartnett. You may be pleased to know I’m now offering large helpings of humble pie (dairy-free, of course) – the night was a knock-out and the international guests particularly memorable – if you’d like to form a queue, I’ll serve it up in order.

The storytelling began with Australian icon Mem Fox, who bolstered our spirits with a bittersweet tale of trying to live with courage and patience. As the applause faded and the next guest, Yannick Haenel, stepped up to the podium something magical happened. Yannick told his story in his native tongue, French. He spoke about how it is easier to be candid – to ‘say what we cannot say’ when you are on the other side of the world. In a way this gift of liberating, geographic displacement was also given to the audience as we were suffused in the rhythms and sonance of a language other than English. Part of me did not want to hear the translated story, to stay instead in the place where my heart, not my brain, did the understanding.

Translated, however, I can report that the story was about the lives of Yannick’s grandfathers during World War II – one press-ganged into the German army, the other fleeing to join the resistance; the price that both men paid for their actions in ‘a world where decisions did not exist’, and the silence that they wrapped around it in the days that came after. ‘This is the silence I am thinking about now.

The next Gala guest, John Birmingham, filled the silence a little with his humourous experiences of martial arts, gestures emphasising the violence (and the imaginary smoke bombs) before easing into the story of how being trained in aikido saved his friend’s life, and not in the way you might expect.

Abha Dawesar took us to the crowded streets and trains of India, complete with smatterings of Hindi, and through a story within a story encouraged us to fulfill our destinies by embracing fate.

Murong Xuecun (translated from Mandarin) built the mythical tale of Mr Sheng – a man physically sustained by the mere sight of food dealt an unjust life. I had great joy in watching Murong as the translation was read – he grinned and nodded at each audience reaction, delighted that the humour had surmounted the language barrier.

Sonya Hartnett reflected on trying as a child to reconcile her experience of her mother with the disconnected stories and artifacts of the woman from the time before motherhood. One such story was how, one evening in Greece, her mother responded to a fellow cinema patron with wandering hands by stabbing him in the leg with her hat pin. In trying to make sense of what it means to have a mother who’s stabbed someone, one conclusion Sonya reached was that it was a bit uncomfortable to be left alone in the dark with her.

Sadly, Dagmar Leupold’s story (translated from German) failed to impress upon me in any way. Perhaps something of it was lost in the translation. I struggled to follow the narrative and the different locations referenced, but I understand she was saying something about cute leather ankle boots and their connection with a book cover illustration of a girl ice-skating.

I was soon re-captured by the Gala as Nam Le explored the theme (‘voices from elsewhere’) through the subject of ventriloquism. Some surprising highlights included a cunnilingus joke, and how he tells some less-than-savvy Australians that Bruce Lee is his grandfather. And should they happen to point out that Bruce Lee has two e’s in his surname? ‘We were boat people… we had to leave almost everything behind, even vowels.’

The night was rounded out, and up, with a performance by Archie Roach – a story in both English and his indigenous language sung to the strum of an acoustic guitar.

The Wheeler Centre was recording the Gala – keep an eye on their website to experience the telling of these tales for yourself.

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