Perhaps the greatest joy of writers’ festivals—that is, apart from hearing your favourite authors speak—is discovering and falling head-over-reader-heels in love with stellar authors who otherwise wouldn’t be on your radar.
This happened to me at the Byron Bay Writers Festival with Megan (it appears to be pronounced ‘Mehggan’) Stack, an American foreign correspondent whose speaking eloquence is surpassed only by the eloquence of her writing.
Stack was a last-minute replacement for headline act Fatima Bhutto, whose withdrawal I won’t lie disappointed me greatly. But I also won’t lie when I say that I think Stack was quite possibly an equal or even better author selection.
I caught the last 15 minutes of her one-on-one conversation with Kerry O’Brien and I am still kicking myself for not having made it there for the other 45. Stack is unassuming and softly spoken, but possesses incisive, observation skills which she uses in breathtaking manner. But don’t just take my word for it. As a result of hearing her speak, everyone rushed to the tent to buy her book, Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War. It quite literally sold out (I think it was the only one at the festival to do so) and they had to get a new shipment in.
The two non-fiction world issues-related books that have blown my mind in recent years were 2005’s Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures and 2010’s The Good Soldiers, both of which I’ve discussed in previous blogs. I am just 30 pages into Stack’s book but I have a sneaking suspicion this book is going to join those two in my unofficial reading hall of fame.
I’ve been rabbiting on to anyone who’ll listen about how incredible Stack was to listen to and how avidly I hung on her every word. I’m not alone in that rabbiting, with almost every conversation with other festivalgoers remarking on her sessions and/or her book. Many bought and devoured the book overnight. I was (sadly) too pressed with other commitments to do that, but relished a 15-minute period where I stood roadside reading while waiting for my friends to drive from the pub to pick me up*. They could have taken 30 minutes or longer and I wouldn’t have cared.
So what exactly is Stack’s book about? It’s complicated. And given how little I’ve yet read, I’m perhaps not fit to explain. Instead I’ll include a brief excerpt that they read out on one of the panels:
Here is the truth: It matters, what you do at war. It matters more than you ever want to know. Because countries, like people, have collective consciences and memories and souls, and the violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who we are. The soldiers who don’t die come home again. They bring with them the killers they became on our national behalf, and sit with their polluted memories and broken emotions in our homes and schools and temples. We may wish it were not so, but action amounts to identity. We become what we do. You can tell yourself all the stories you want, but you can’t leave your actions over there. You can’t build a wall and expect to live on the other side of memory. All of that poison seeps back into our soil.
Foreign correspondents are tasked with the job of finding and interpreting the complexities of world issues for those of us tucked safely away at home, and Stack perhaps does this better than any other I’ve encountered before. Her bio outlines that she ‘has reported on war, terrorism, and political Islam from 22 countries since 2001’, that ‘she was awarded the 2006 Overseas Press Club of America’s Hal Boyle Award for best newspaper reporting from abroad’, and that ‘she was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for her Iraq coverage’.
She knows her stuff, and is being recognised for it—I’d bet that that elusive Pulitzer is soon to come. Indeed, I feel more engaged in and enraged about the ‘war on terror’ than ever, but I also, just from hearing her speak and from reading a few pages, feel better informed and equipped to take action as a result.
All weekend I vacillated between envy at how extraordinarily talented a writer she is and simple, slack-jawed awe. Mostly awe. I know it’s a huge call to recommend a book before I’ve completely read and truly reviewed it, but I feel that this book is the exception to the rule. Instead I’m recommending that you buy and read it now. And get yourself to a festival or podcast to hear her talk. Every man in this village might be a liar, but the woman who crafted the book around that adage is extraordinary.
* For the record, they had one beer so were, er, responsibly drinking and driving.