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Thursday, 22 May 2008

Auburn Letters with 28 writers from Western Sydney, was launched on Tuesday at the council town hall in Susan Street, Auburn. You can park in an odd-looking multi-storey garage and you pay nothing. The food arrived post-event but I was too busy chatting - with Stephen Brooks - who dubs himself "Cape Coloured" - and missed out.

By chance I met a poetry friend - Bhupen Thakker - and we sat watching Alissar Chidiac's organisational skills bear fruit. Her choreography plus darkness - most lights went down - we were warned beforehand - resulted in an epic performance.

The 'town square' metaphor Chidiac designed worked well. Auburn is a slow sort of place and many of the performers have arrived in Australia from countries where civic life would persist in the town.

The preliminaries were a wee bit long but organisers - Salem Naja key among them - found the way to entice both the mayor - Le Lam - and the minister - Barbara Perry - to the event. A camera was set up among the chairs, which numbered possibly 150 in several rows facing a 'stage' where poets spoke.

It was a bit slow at first - stage nerves - but Bhagavadas Sriskanthadas upped the juice with his powerful voice and deep reserves of - something...

Is it resentment? My friend in Phoenix is from Jordan and when I revealed the photos she said: "Like the hijabs." Many women were covered. Some performers spoke in their first language. But the power was not less for it.

In fact, the singsong voice of Omeima Sukkarieh cut right through any reserves audience members may have had about the professionalism and sincerity displayed on stage. He had Turkish members of the audience chuckling and chatting like love birds.

Other notables on the floor were Stephen Brooks (already mentioned) and young Farid Farid. Danny Gardner - who lives not in Auburn but even further out - in Wentworthville - animated the scene with his gangly frame and serious mien.

Fadeel Khayat, who is Iraqi, is always good value. He often appears around the traps and specialises in poetry about the marshes in the south of his native country.

Funded by Auburn Council, NSW Arts and the Auburn Migrant Resource Centre, Auburn Letters is a nice, neat package featuring script, both English and others.

Inside, it's not all English. Fadi Deeb, the MRC's promotions officer, did a nice job on the cover. The paper is not high-quality. There's a bit of confusion as two poems by the same writer will not be adjacent - this suggests an editorial plan but to me it is slightly irritating.

Notables on stage noted that this year is the International Year of Languages. Barbara Perry, among them, brought forward the necessity of giving first-generation Australians a chance to "find a voice". It is true. Auburn Letters - it's also the name of a group - has about 30 members.

Hearing the Oud on arrival cemented an idea - multiculturalism - that some here may feel to be under seige. Since the December 2005 Cronulla riots, many Arabic-speakers have felt - so many negative stories in the mainstream - isolated by the twin allegiance: to country and to adopted country.

It's not hard to see why. If you're Lebanese or even Chinese it will happen - not infrequently - that walking on the street a car full of young hoons slows down and one passenger leans out the window and screams: "Fucking Chinese!"

This is Australia. Language, said Perry, "often seems as a barrier rather than a bridge". It "defines our worlds" and the event, she hoped, would "put Auburn on the world map".

"Western Sydney is a hotbed for artists and writers," she said. And it's true. The problem is that - if you want to buy or view - you need to go to the centre. To Paddington, Redfern, Surry Hills, Glebe, Darlinghurst. If you want performance poetry or to buy visual art, these suburbs are the place to go.

"I belong to nowhere, nothing, no-one," said one of the poets. "Must I fit my limitless self to your limits?" asked another. "I am my own promised land." "I am enough." Credible and true words, these - but scope for participation in the public sphere is, for many, limited.

At some point I'll read and review the book. For the moment the photos must suffice. Unless you can get to Hickson Road on Saturday 24 May: starting at 9.30am the performance I saw on Tuesday is to be repeated as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival.

The event is - again - free and to take place at the Bangarra Theatre.

Auburn Council Town Hall
Mohamed Youssef


Salem Naja, Auburn Migrant Resource Centre
Mayor of Auburn City, Le Lam
Barbara Perry, Minister for Western Sydney
Choreography by Alissar Chidiac
Stephen Brooks
Fadeel Khayat
Bhagavadas Sriskanthadas


Dorothy Makasa
Ten Ch'in U
Farid Farid
Omeima Sukkarieh

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