There are writers’ festivals that make you want to buy and read more books – and then there are the rare gems that shift every idea you’ve had about everything and leave you wanting to remake the world.
The inaugural Broadside festival, held in Melbourne this past weekend, was billed as a feminist festival – but it was so much more than just one “ism”. And showing up was not enough: panellists regularly implored audiences to use their brains and do the work.
The writer, Call Your Girlfriend host and Tech LadyMafia founder Aminatou Sow decried the “corrosive” nature of modern punditry. She believes the explosion of political podcasts and commentary in recent years indicates “everyone is outsourcing their thinking and their morals”.
Indigenous Australian academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson urged audiences to consider their personal relationship to Indigenous sovereignty and what it means to live on unceded land.
And finally, Monica Lewinsky challenged the audience to control their impulses and respect her boundaries by refraining from tweeting, photographing or otherwise broadcasting her discussion. She earned a standing ovation.
Here were a few things that blew our brains at Broadside.
Feminism is a ‘white woman’s thing’: Aileen Moreton-Robinson
If we really want to decolonise feminism, we need to “centre Mother Earth” and de-centre humans, Moreton-Robinson said, in one of the most talked-about panels of the weekend.
It’s coming up to the 20th anniversary of Moreton-Robinson’s book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, the first published work in Australia to engage in feminism from an Indigenous perspective.
In her panel event on Saturday she explicitly rejected feminism, calling it a “white woman’s thing”.
“I never say I’m a feminist because I’m not part of that,” she said. “My female ancestors have made me what I am, not feminism.”
Feminism – born from western, Enlightenment thinking – was tainted from the beginning, she said. It “wanted to distance itself from nature” and “had to disconnect the woman from nature”.
Survival and hope can only come from a greater connection to the land. “We will not survive while we continually think we are worth more than every other living thing,” she said. “Lots of different cultures have relationships with non-human others. The Earth is not an inert thing. Once you have a concept of that, everything is alive: where you walk, and how you treat the Earth is how you treat every living thing.”
The climate emergency makes Moreton-Robinson’s message even more prescient. And the call to arms? Everyone, feminists included, needs to learn “how to relinquish power.”
The internet will harm you: Jia Tolentino and Zadie Smith
This was the event that had book nerds salivating. Zadie! And Jia! Together in conversation! With two of the brightest minds and liveliest voices in contemporary writing on stage together, expectations were high.
This panel smashed those expectations. The conversation was at such a high level and moved so quickly – encompassing mortality, selfhood, technology and how to be a good person – that you were still digesting one truth bomb as the next landed. Sydney writers’ festival creative director Michaela McGuire called it “one of the best festival sessions I’ve ever seen. What a rare privilege to see two writers so evenly matched in intelligence, curiosity and verve”.
Tolentino writes about the internet for the New Yorker, and is, as they say, extremely online; while fiction writer and essayist Smith – half a generation older – doesn’t use a smartphone and is suspicious of the internet. The conversation between the two on how online has changed the self, captured this dynamic.
Smith started by wondering: “What is so smart about your smartphone? It’s a massive delegation of human capacity.” In this, we lose the capacity to recall information, direct ourselves around streets and towns, and engage with the outside world.
Instead we are in thrall to the internet on our phones – “the mirror of strangers” – and in turn we get “our sense of self from strangers”. From here “the place of retreat [from the judgment of others] becomes smaller, smaller and smaller”.
When we perform our online selves, Smith said, we are seeking affirmation from others that our identity is fixed, solid and OK. “Unseen operators see you looking in the mirror of the internet asking ‘Am I a person?’ – and they are manipulating the shape of the mirror.”
It seems remarkable to Smith that “something that feels as natural as the ocean is only a few years old”. Instead of being glued to her dark mirror, Smith said, “I feel most free dancing among strangers. It might be a 1990s thing. To me, individuation is a kind of hell; the most human thing is to be part of people, less aware of the self. I’m always trying to lose myself.”
She'-E-Os won’t save us – and neither will capitalism
The festival was pervaded by a scepticism towards mainstream feminist campaigns which fight for equal representation in the halls of power. On a panel about feminism and capitalism, Jia Tolentino said the logical end point of feminism “is always anti-capitalism”.
In the United States at the moment, she said, the single most important feminist movements are the Fight for $15, Medicare for All and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In the same discussion, Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto – niece and granddaughter of two former Pakistani prime ministers – expressed contempt for the way women in elite positions use oxygen from activist movements to line their own pockets. “I’m personally offended by the fact that just because we’re women, we should be excited that a Hollywood actress wants to make the same millions as her male co-worker.”
American writer and professor Tressie McMillan Cottom said this “trickle-down feminism” is not sufficiently concerned with the ways in which inequality is produced and reproduced. “I think how scary it is that we cannot imagine another way of living, so we reproduce a system that’s trying to kill us.” She noted the capitalist system is adept at coopting “the work” and “trying to sell it back to you”.
Justice, redistribution and cooperative power are vital for the future of the feminist movement, and of humanity: “You can’t get to those conversations by understanding yourself as an economic subject,” she said. “I can have absolutely no economic value and still have human value. That’s feminism.”
The language of motherhood can be broken and mended
The shattering legacy of colonialism was a recurrent theme of the festival.
“How does one learn to mother when the state is your mother?” Nayuka Gorrie asked in their moving opening address to the festival’s Saturday night gala, Things My Mother Never Told Me. Their talk dealt with the lasting impacts of the stolen generations, particularly the loss of language. They often wonder, “What feelings would I feel that I can’t feel now because of language?”
Aretha Brown, an 18-year-old artist and First Nations education activist, made a similar point. “There’s reasons why forced separations leave long scars,” she said. “I don’t know my history or my stories.”
Gorrie, who is pregnant with twins, said: “I feel the responsibility to mend what has been done to our bloodlines.” It’s a task they’re daunted by, but happily not one they’ll have to do alone. Gorrie’s mother is teaching herself Gunnai/Kurnai, using resources from the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, and has written two picture books for her future grandkids in language.
For dancer and artist Bhenji Ra, motherhood is more about actions than words. Growing up Catholic, her mother “learned her body was a sacred sacrament” but it was also a site “of trauma and abuse”, Ra’s sex at birth did not match her gender identity and she knew her mother struggled with the idea of having a daughter, because she wondered, “How will I protect her from the things I cannot protect myself from?” Ra’s mother didn’t teach her how to be a woman. Instead, “I learned to survive by simply watching her”.
Bhenji Ra is now a mother herself, to a group of young trans women she has come to count as family. She says, “the biggest lesson I can teach them is through actions, the spirit and the body”.