by Fiona McFarlane
On Redfern Street in Redfern, Sydney, there’s an extraordinary place called the Sydney Story Factory. I was invited to give a reading there one night. I was given the address and I knew to look out for ‘Sydney Story Factory’, but when I arrived in Redfern I couldn’t find it; I found, instead, a place calling itself the Martian Embassy. If the residents of Mars were to establish a diplomatic outpost on Earth it might look something like this: a little nonsensical, architecturally speaking, with curving walls, a cavernous ceiling and eerie red light. And I was in the right place – this was, in fact, the Sydney Story Factory, disguised as the Martian Embassy (or maybe it’s the other way around?).
The Sydney Story Factory is a not-for-profit creative writing centre for young people. Volunteer tutors help kids, often from marginalized, Indigenous or non-English speaking backgrounds, write stories of all kinds, and the Factory publishes them in whatever ways it can. Imagine being a child and walking into a Martian Embassy, complete with a store selling Flying Saucer Repair Kits – I love to watch children walk into unconventional spaces and respond with their whole bodies, to see the way their minds flare up as they encounter new possibilities. The Embassy feels like one enormous invitation to creativity, and the people who volunteer there are often writers themselves. They understand the power of story – the magic of reading it, the thrill of creating it.
Over the last year, the writer Debra Adelaide, together with Vintage Books Australia, has edited an anthology called The Simple Act of Reading in which Australian writers like David Malouf and Joan London write about their relationship with books: reading them, discovering them, loving then hating them, hating then loving them, and all the other simple and complicated ways in which readers respond to the words that matter most to them. The Simple Act of Reading was launched in June of this year and all proceeds go to the Sydney Story Factory, which is reason enough to buy it. But the other reason is that it’s a good book.
Anthologies of this kind have the potential to be a little flabby, a little worthy – disparate ideas pulled together under the umbrella of a vague but commendable idea. But for writers, there’s nothing vague about reading – in fact, writers can talk passionately about other people’s books in ways they never can about their own, and I’ve often found it far more illuminating to hear someone talk about a book they love than about a book they’ve written. Reading is, for writers, so specific, so personal, that to write about it is strangely intimate, and that comes through in the anthology’s essays: Luke Davies’ remarkable childhood correspondence with Hergé, the author of Tintin (who I imagine spent a great deal of time communicating with his readers, much like Tove Jansson); Malouf on falling in love with Jane Eyre in tropical Queensland; Geordie Williamson on the uneasy nostalgia of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Many of the contributors, including myself, write at length about transformative childhood reading experiences, but others are wary of the narrative that all writers were precocious readers: Anita Heiss, for example, explores the privilege of that mythology. And as a result, reading as a writer is revealed rather than romanticised.
If you reach the end of the year and find yourself wondering what to buy your picky reader relatives for Christmas, keep The Simple Act of Reading in mind. The Martians will thank you.
Thank you, also, to Southerly, for giving me space to think about other people’s writing this month. It’s been such a pleasure.
Sydney Story Factory: www.sydneystoryfactory.org.au
Sydney Story Factory webstore: http://martianembassy.com.au
The Simple Act of Reading: http://martianembassy.com.au/products/the-simple-act-of-reading