I was beside myself with excitement when I was invited to appear at Eye of the Storm, the NT Writers Festival. This year the festival was held in the heart of the country: Alice Springs. The last time I was in Alice was when we were on our round-Australia trip. We’ve been home for more than five years now – it’s really hard to believe.
As the shuttle bus drove through town, I caught a glimpse of a dusty LandCruiser towing an equally dirty camper trailer and tears welled up in my eyes. I’d forgotten how much I missed it.
The festival was an inspiring blend of ideas, conversations, personalities and landscape. The festival hub was the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens and I sometimes found myself completely distracted by the surroundings and forgetting to concentrate on the talk going on around me.
I had a fan-girl moment when I (finally) met Kim Mahood, whose essay ‘Kartiya are like Toyotas’ is compulsory reading for anyone who has or would like to work in a Aboriginal community. I read Kim’s memoir, Craft for a Dry Lake, on the flight to Alice, so when I met her my mind was still filled with images of her arguing with her alter-ego and dossing down under a starry in the desert a few hundred kilometres north-west of town. I was star-struck.
I made new friends too. The quiet, sweet novelist Jessie Cole won my heart, as did poet and performance artist Candy Royalle. We made a strange threesome, but somehow it worked and we’ve stayed in touch. Mark McLean and I bonded on stage, breaking with convention and reading extracts that we’d chosen from each other’s books. The Emerging Writers’ Festival team packed out the local theatre with Mixtape Memoirs and Mark, Bernard Caleo and I let the local English teachers win the triva competition.
Among the families who were soaking up everything the festival had on offer was one that was travelling around the country, just like we had. They were also reading my book and one of the boys asked his mum if he could meet me. My heart skipped a beat. He reminded me very strongly of my oldest son when we were travelling – all the way from his dirty bare feet to his knotty blond hair.
The highlight for me, though, was a bus tour of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) led by Doris Kngwerreye Stuart and an old mate of mine, Dan Murphy, whom I hadn’t seen for years. Doris and Dan drove us around town and explained to us the history of whtie settlement and its impact on Country. We saw houses, roads and bike tracks that have been built alongside and over the top of sites of huge significance to the Arrernte people. Doris had tears in her eyes as she read her son’s poem, Compromise, and she wasn’t alone. We were asked to stop, listen and think about this country and its first people. It was unspeakably sad, but I climbed off the bus with huge respect for Doris and her extended and adopted family.
I left Alice Springs vowing to come back soon.