It has only been about 20 years since letter writing began its swift and irrevocable decline, but it is, unquestionably, a relic of the past, albeit the not-too-distant past.
Enter Women of Letters, an event founded by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire in 2010 to celebrate “the lost art of letter writing”. Each Women of Letters salon sees five Australian women compose a letter on a set theme and then read it to an audience.
Women of Letters has enjoyed national and international success but I confess that the 2017 Perth Writers Festival edition was my first experience of the event. I’m confident it won’t be my last.
Women of Letters at the State Theatre Centre of WA Courtyard, Saturday 25 February 2017. Photo courtesy Perth International Arts Festival.
Hosted by writer and musician Angie Hart, with a flower-bedecked Hardy an audience-based co-host, the evening’s theme was “A Letter to How I Got it Back”. The five letters generated were variously light-hearted, poetic, engaging and gut-wrenching. Fans of the salon will be aware that recording of any kind is prohibited at Women of Letters events, to encourage the writers to feel safe to be open and honest in their letters. From what I witnessed on Saturday night, it works.
American writer, editor and performer Lindy West read a letter to her husband chronicling the loss and recovery of his lapel pin. A story about the minor grievances that characterise any long-term relationship, the plot is relatively uneventful but West’s sardonic, sarcastic rendition of the lapel pin’s rollercoaster ride from costume jewellery to “real” jewellery and back again had the audience on side from the outset.
“How I got my booty back” is the subject of Perth-based, South African writer Sisonke Msimang’s letter. A vibrant performer, Msimang details the effects of becoming a mother on her physical and mental state. As her pride and joy, her buoyant butt, shrinks away, so too does her sense of self. Msimang never once uses the term “post-natal depression” and yet she tackles the topic head-on with warmth and wit.
Australian songwriter, musician and novelist Holly Throsby addresses her letter to a knife. Quirky? Oh yeah. Throsby, it emerges, has taken up knife-throwing as a hobby. It’s another lost and found, involving an Australian country town, the wrong kind of sand for knife-throw practise, a shorts wearing beachcomber named Lloyd and a metal detector. Throsby’s style is understated, but she charmed the audience with her strange tale.
Holly Throsby speaks to her knife. Photo courtesy Perth International Arts Festival.
It was the youngest panel member, however, whose letter moved me most. Poet Alison Whittaker, a Gomeroi woman from north-western New South Wales, writes to the weight that society says she should lose. Eloquent, direct, unflinching, Whittaker talks of humiliation, rejection and self-hate, of the vomit-soiled details of bulimia. However, it’s a story that ends in a salvation of sorts, with Whittaker choosing pride in her body, fat and all.
Unlike the other letter writers, the final panel member is not a professional writer. Motivational speaker Dana Vulin survived third degree burns to 64% of her body and face, the result of an unprovoked attack in 2012.
Vulin’s writes two letters. The first is set in the early years of recovery – a testament to the pain she is suffering and the heart-breaking wish to have back “the skin [she] was born with.” The second is addressed to that past self. It’s no fairy-tale ending – but she tells of a new life arising from those physical and emotional scars. Vulin’s tale is one of bravery in the face of unimaginable adversity, and struck a chord with audience members and fellow letter-writers alike.
The evening felt like we were afforded a highly engaging peek into the personal lives of five strangers. More than that it made me consider… perhaps I should write a letter.