by Thomas Connelly
This is slightly different; not the review of a performance, but rather of a public lecture. I am not reviewing something entertaining, rather documenting an education.
On Saturday night, June 7, I went to the Founders Room in the Salamanca Arts Centre for Hobart's inaugural PEN lecture. The theme was The Cry of The Excluded. On the stage there was everything required for a public talk. An empty chair sat on stage. A chair that represents the silence, the isolation, the locking away of the persecuted writer. This is a PEN tradition.
PEN stands shoulder to shoulder with, and offers support for, silenced writers. Founded in 1921, the PEN charter was developed in the maelstrom of world war; the aftermath of the First World War, the horrors of the second, and the apocalyptic tensions of the cold war.
Award winning author and human rights advocate Arnold Zable, spoke with the sort of passion that comes from many years of active work with refugees, immigrants, the homeless, the profoundly deaf, black Saturday bushfire survivors, problem gamblers, as well as other groups.
I was moved by his talk and by the stories he related. These distressing images moved me; the father singing lullabies in his dreams, to his dead daughter. Images of war, of villages burning, of random shootings, of torture, of children slipping from the grasp of their parent, and most distressing of all, the image of children disappearing under the waves.
Defeating despair Arnold Zable spoke of a way forward. He mentioned Carl Jung, who looked for meaning in people's comments. Jung concluded that every person has a story. He noted that when this individual story is ignored or rejected, despair arises. One becomes whole when one knows their own story, but most importantly when others truly listen to the individual story. It seems that it is not a coincidence that the stories of the dispossessed are silenced. It is made difficult for journalists and photographers to access and interview individual refugees. It is easier to demonise faceless men and women, as Menzies understood, than to demonise those whose stories we hear and understand.
Zable spoke of the process of talking and listening between the story teller and the writer. This unity of talking and listening works as therapy, as a way to bring a person to wholeness. He told the story of a woman affected by the Victorian bushfires. She told him that the writing workshops were better than counseling and had a restorative power.
‘In counselling sessions I feel I am a client, like I am a victim. When I do this story telling, I feel I am in control.’
This brings me to my final point. In a previous job I was an OH&S representative, and did some research into workplace stress. A paper made the point that it was not hard work that caused stress. The trigger for stress was a lack of control, the inability to see a path into the future. And who in our society most pointedly feels this uncertainty than refugees held by our government in indefinite detention?
‘Even criminals know the date of their release,’, one woman at a detention centre told Arnold.
I was pleased to be at this inaugural PEN Lecture in Hobart. It was a strong start to this new tradition to have the first lecture be given by such a powerful speaker, one who was able to speak with great authority and passion, articulating the cry of the excluded.
The PEN Lectures are an initiative of the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre in partnership with PEN Melbourne and Amnesty International.