Sydney Writer’s Festival: John Safran’s ‘Depends What You Mean By Extremist’

The Sydney Writer’s Festival is on right now! 

It was hard deciding which talk to attend; we always complain when there aren’t sufficient options to cater for everyone but I always seem to get overwhelmed when there are too many options. I was flip flopping between Roxanne Gay or John Safran but in the end decided on Safran since I’ve actually read one of his books ‘Murder in Mississippi’.

(I even brought my copy of ‘Murder in Mississippi’ for him to sign, which, by the way, is hilarious I highly recommend it, it’s like a modern day ‘In Cold Blood’.)

It was a beautiful day, it’s Sydney weather at it’s finest (you can even see the Harbour Brdige from behind, so this cannot be more Australian). 

The atmosphere was buzzing and the event was well organised, so for someone that’s as anxious and Type A about punctuality as I am, it made my day way more relaxing.

(Also I’m not going to lie, the demographic was very white, very middle-class and very middle-aged so I felt like a child playing dress-up, but you know what, I enjoy these things and I have every right to be here too.)

The bookstore Gleebooks even partnered up with SWF to be the sole provider of ny books discussed at his festival because that’s how you do business damnit. 

And because there is no point attending a book discussion without actual ownership of the book talk, I succumbed to the event atmosphere and purchased my own copy of ‘Depends What You Mean By Extremist’.

It cost me $35 and because I live off second-hand books, that is a lot of money, but it’s part of the experience. Just like you go to a concert and buy an overpriced t-shirt, you go to a writer’s event and buy their book brand-spanking new.

But what about the actual talk you ask?

Safran rambles before he gets to his point and there were so many times that I wanted him to dig deeper because I felt he was just skimming the surface. He does exactly what I do which is give people him and his dog’s entire life story instead of just answering the question but the topic itself is probably too difficult to to be answered nicely in a few sentences without some context.

I also wanted him to make some neat succinct remark about the nature of extremism and the people it attracts. But the topic is too complex to be wrapped up neatly and even Safran points out that this book is just him recounting his adventure with extremism, it’s hardly an academic essay and he’s just had to accept the cognitive dissonance in the rationale of extremists.

The talk was delivered in typical Safran humour; I liked that he was offended when one of the extremists he interviewed had been arrested by the police and he wasn’t interrogated as a key witness (“The newspaper said the police collect over a hundred statements, which means I didn’t even make the Top 100, even though I loved with the man for a year!” Safran indignantly points out to a laughing audience).

I wish I’d come pre-prepared with some questions but I’ll know for next time. I wonder if I would have had a different experience had I read his book beforehand, like would I have found the talk boring because Safran just reiterates everything he’s written about or would I have been able to get more involved. 

But overall, I loved the event and I’m so glad I dragged myself out of bed for this, I’ll definitely be going again next year!


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