Celebration of words at New Norcia Writers Festival

Literature merged with art, music, dance and spirituality in a soul-opening embrace at the inaugural New Norcia Writers Festival yesterday.

The festival, conceived by The West Australian literary editor William Yeoman, was set in the grounds of Australia’s only monastic town – New Norcia. The setting, a touch of Europe in the Australian wheatbelt, was well chosen, allowing participants to retreat inside themselves while reaching out in a communal embrace of reading, writing, and art.

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Sessions were spread over the grounds, providing ample photo opportunities for me, as well as a rare chance to be welcomed into the midst of the monastic community. Session one – a reading from Liz Byrski’s non-fiction book In Love and War: Nursing Heroes interspersed with excerpts from Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy in St Gertrude’s Chapel. Moving, thought-provoking and at times funny (for this Lutheran-raised woman, it did feel naughty to hear words  like penis and sex in a church). Byrski’s book is now on my must-read list.

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Session two – a lyrical and contemplative reading from Stephen Scourfield’s book Beautiful Witness, accompanied by interpretive dance by Floeur Alder. She danced for 30 minutes – beautiful to watch. I have no photos here. I forgot to charge my camera before I left, but a kind monk volunteered to charge the battery during this session.

Lunch was in a newer building called The Arcades. After a glass of sparkling New Norcia Blanc de Blanc, we shared a meal. My table companions included a monk – Dom Robert – who revealed a Far North Queensland drawl as he talked – and renowned ballet dancers Alan Alder and Dame Lucette Aldous (parents of Floeur).

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The third and fourth sessions were in the St Ildephonsus Honour Hall and chapel. The former comprised a panel discussion (with Deb Fitzpatrick, Dom Bernard Rooney, Gemma Nisbett and Amanda Ellis) about sense of place in fact and fiction, which prompted an idea for another short story about the notion of home. The latter was a collaborative piece between Scourfield (reading excerpts from his upcoming novel, Bird) and Yeoman (on classical  and steel string guitar).

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The day also included a tour of the Abbey Press and monastery. For me, the final tour was a highlight because seeing the inside of the monastery was a rare privilege – especially the library. I’ll let the pictures below tell the story.

Back home again, we toasted the day with by opening the bottle of Muscat we’d bought from the New Norcia Visitor’s Centre. Tired but content, we recounted a day that will be remembered not for the how-to-write and what-we-write common to most writers festivals, but for reminding us all why we love words.

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Wood blocks in the Abbey Press.
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New Norcia monastery

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First library room

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Music Room – also used for meetings
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Music room
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New Norcia cemetery