Three leading lights of international literature have used their opening address at the Sydney Writers' Festival to call for new ways of storytelling to shake anachronistic and discriminatory power structures.

Magazine writer and screenwriter, Alexis Okeowo, challenged the position of the media foreign correspondent as a voice of authority, expertise and objectivity.

The award-winning author of A Moonless, Starless Sky, joined acclaimed novelist André Aciman (Call Me by Your Name and Enigma Variations), and award-winning author Min Jin Lee (Pachinko) on stage at Carriageworks Tuesday night to look at the influence of power on politics, money, sex and identity, and the ability of literature, storytelling and reportage to redress power imbalances in modern times.

Okeowo has been a foreign correspondent for most of her career having started out of college reporting in Uganda.

While journalism has evolved and become more diverse, Okeowo said its roots were problematic, having begun as a colonial enterprise explaining ''the so-called others to the so-called us''. ''Women of colour were always the subjects, never the storytellers.''

There was an uneasy framing, too, in the unbalanced power dynamic between a journalist and subject, she said. ''There are few phrases I cringe at more than 'giving voice' or 'bearing witness' as if journalists are Christopher Columbus on his ship heroically 'discovering' America.''


Yet reporters were often regarded as immediate experts, or, worse, saviours. Subjects from marginalised communities were too often seen as passive, people to whom things happen to.

As the last US presidential election proved that frame was often far from the truth, she said.

Korean-American author Min Jin Lee said she wrote her debut novel Free Food for Millionaires about the people who fascinated her.

''I wanted to write about my ordinary neighbourhood in Elmhurst, Queens, filled with bus drivers, plumbers, church organists, house cleaners, and people who worked for others. So I wrote my novel . . . because I wanted to write about money, class, ambition, and power, and how conventional ideas of such things may not hold up for those who are plain and unimportant.''

Aciman told the opening night audience at Carriageworks that literature gave him the power to think against the grain, against popular opinion.

The enemy of good thinking was factoids, Aciman said, what the dictionary defined as brief or trivial items of news or information.

Information was often just chatter and so he thought it was time for a reckoning, to consider how to write about those people less powerful, with less political currency.

''What if we thought of our work partly as a way to justify why we have the privilege of appropriating someone elses story in the first place, a way to prove our worthiness as the storyteller?'' he asked.

''Which would then lead us to ask how we can respect, dignity, and do justice to a voice, to a life. Which would then probably lead us to wonder sometimes if we are the right person to tell a story, at all, or if someone else could do it better.''

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Linda Morris

Linda Morris is an arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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