Toni Whitmont review: Fatima Bhutto gets the party started at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

by |May 19, 2011

Of all the reactions around the world to the killing of Osama Bin Ladin a couple of weeks ago, one of the most unusual would have come from Chip Rolley the director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Of course, in this part of the world, many people would be happy to have seen bin Laden exit the scene. I have no idea about his personal views on the matter but given Rolley had already organised Fatima Bhutto to give the opening address of the festival – an address presciently billed as “Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” – the timing of both his demise and her speech could not have been better.

Poet, author, critic, dissident and member of one of the most famous political dynasties in the world, Bhutto did not disappoint. Sydney’s glitterati and literati gathered to hear her speak on Tuesday night and speak she did. She was warm, witty, erudite, intelligent and brought a startling and refreshing perspective to the vexed questions of nationhood, power and identity.

According to Bhutto, when it comes to nervous breakdowns, Pakistan, France, the United States and dare I add Australia, are all getting pretty close to tipping point. She reserved special discussion for Pakistan and America, two countries frighteningly similiar in ways that most of their citizens wouldn’t recognise. But she reserved her most seering analysis for her home country, a new nation struggling with identity while its soul is being ripped out by lack of justice and transparency at every level of society. No wonder it is easier to focus on the continual incursions into its territory by US unmanned drones and their deadly toll on unnamed civilians than to grapple with the fading promise of their own nationhood.

In the end, according to Bhutto, bin Laden’s death was made irrelevant by the Arab spring which has shifted the game plan for ever. And not just in the north African and middle eastern states. Conspicuous by his absence at the festival is Chinese writer and poet Liao Yiwu whose exit visa to attend was denied yet again in the attempts by the Chinese government to muzzle independent and dissenting voices. We were treated however to a moving performance by him, recorded not so long ago in Beijing, ably translated by local author Linda Jaivan – and who admitted very nervously to me that she only just finished hours before the function.

Given the theme of the festival – Words. To Live By – the contributionsby Fatima Bhutto and Liao Yiwu couldn’t have been more apt and more powerful.

While Sydney has clearly missed out on being able to meet Lao Yiwu and become immersed in his ideas, we have fallen a little bit in love with Bhutto. She made us laugh, she provoked us and she made us think again about Pakistan. And on a completely shallow note, can I just say that she is almost impossibly beautiful and in her emerald green and vermillion gown, she made all those women at a certain recent wedding in London look like they were going to the local gymkhana.

Words. Precious enough to live by. Dangerous enough to destroy.

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