Archive for January, 2011

Miracle at La Mama

Something extraordinary occurred in Melbourne on Monday January 24 – but only a small group of people witnessed it.

The event was the remarkable performance of Leslie Lewis Sword in Miracle in Rwanda, a one-woman show that she co-created with director Edward Vilga and which was first performed in New York in 2007.

Miracle in Rwanda tells the true story of Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Tutsi from Rwanda, whose family was brutally slaughtered during the three-month Rwanda Genocide in 1994 that left more than a million Rwandan’s dead.

The performance at La Mama in Carlton was perhaps the last by Leslie and was the only one seen in Australia. It completes Leslie’s mission to perform Miracle in Rwanda across all six continents of the Earth.

This sole Australian performance was brought about by the vision and passion of playwrights Sandra Shotlander and Rosie Johns, who saw Leslie perform Miracle in Rwanda at the Women Playwrights International Conference in November 2009 at the Academy of Theatre in Mumbai.

Rosemary and Sandra knew that Leslie had already performed the play in Europe, Asia, North and South America and Africa and wanted to make Australia the sixth continent, which is why, on their return, they recommended the play to Liz Jones, the artistic director at La Mama, always a generous supporter of WPI.

Then by chance, late last year, Sandra received a letter from Leslie to say that she would be visiting Australia on holiday in January 2011, along with sound engineer Philip Barbe and stage manager Gina Costagliola. The timing was perfect. Liz was able to give Leslie just one night at La Mama, enabling her to complete her mission.

Around 10,000 people have now witnessed this event. I say witnessed, rather than seen, because this was not a show or a retelling; it was a reliving.

This was especially apparent thanks to the intimacy of La Mama, where the 50 or so people – mostly women – were able to see and feel every emotion on Leslie’s face.

The performance begins with Leslie, as Immaculee, wearing three-quarter pants and a loose shirt, a cloth draped simply over her shoulders, introducing herself and her story as one of hope, rather than tragedy. “After all, she says, there is still laughter in the world.”

Behind her, up high, are the black-and-white images of her family, who all died in the genocide. In front of her on the floor, is a 3 X 4 rectangle marked out in white tape. This represents the bathroom at the home of a friend, local pastor and Tutsi sympathizer, where Immaculee hid for three months during the massacre. Immaculee and six others to start with. Two more joined them later, making eight people.

How the eight survived in such a space is a miracle in itself. They took turns standing and sitting, and ate only when the pastor could manage to find food and bring it to them. As Immaculee joked, the fact that they all lost weight made it easier to manage in the confined space.

Faced with the prospect of nothing to do except contemplate the horrors occurring outside the bathroom, Immaculee begs the pastor for some books so she can teach herself English. This and constant prayer, is her mission.

The performance was extraordinary for its portrayal, but also for its message.

Using the sufferings of Jesus as lessons for her own journey from despair to survival and even spiritual resurrection, Immaculee emerges as person not only able to forgive, but who can understand and empathise with her tormentors, and with her faith in God and humanity intact.

Leslie portrays all the characters in Immaculee’s story – her father, the pastor, her fellow bathroom inhabitants, the guard at the French refugee camp to which the eight eventually escape, and even Jesus and Mary, who come to her as visions.

Tears flowed with the applause when the performance concluded, and Leslie received a standing ovation. It hardly seemed adequate.

We were left with a sense of wonder that all these extraordinary women were able to cross paths to present such a story of survival and hope.

The performance also makes one wonder what makes some people sink into despair in adversity or lose their compassion towards others in their bid to ensure their own survival, while others are able to remain hopeful, generous and even optimistic?

On the surface, it is Immaculee’s faith that sees her through. But, without wishing to denigrate those who believe in miracles, I suspect that faith is just a tool that people like Immaculee – who are highly intelligent, courageous and optimistic by nature – employ. Faith was the tool at hand, but if it had been music or poetry, I suspect Immaculee would have employed that just as well, too.

Regardless of whether you believe the miracle of her survival belongs to Immaculee or God, the performance is a reminder of a tragedy that may be otherwise too easily forgotten in the swirl of ever accumulating modern-day tragedies. But more than that, it is a lesson in optimism and in perspective.

The song of the ‘60s that I grew up with, We shall overcome is never truer than in the case of Immaculee. We shall overcome and we can overcome if we remain as Immaculee did – intelligent and compassionate, courageous and determined – and employ all the tools for survival that are at our disposal, whatever they may be.

Left to Tell, by Immaculee Ilibagiza, with Steve Erwin, is available online and in bookstores. For more information, see www.lefttotell.com

Leslie Lewis Sword has performed Miracle in Rwanda over 100 times. Her work has been nominated for an Amnesty International Freedom Expression Award, an Audele award for best solo performance, and honored by numerous prestigious festivals.  In April 2010, Leslie Lewis Sword filmed a leading role in Almost in Love (starring Alan Cumming), an indie feature by director Sam Neave. Last winter, Leslie Lewis Sword played Isaiah Washington’s wife in the upcoming feature film Area Q, helmed by Brazilian director Gerson Sanginitto. Leslie divides her time between Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York. She has a BA from Harvard and an MFA in acting from UCLA.

–   Biographical details reproduced  from the program notes for the La Mama performance.

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Fashion at 50

I wrote this one for The Age in 2007, but nothing much has changed, so I think it’s still relevant. How do you solve the dilemma of what to wear as you age?

If, like me, you are struggling to decide if and when you will allow yourself to go grey, you might like to see the site:

Going grey, looking great

Fashionable at 50? Don’t count on it

ALL I wanted was a pretty cotton nightie. But I was standing in a sea of shiny fake satin with shoestring straps and prickly nylon lace, or brushed cotton neck-to-knees with prudish Peter Pan collars and elasticised cuffs.

“Can I help you?” the high-school student posing as a shop-assistant-who-cared asked.

“Have you got something somewhere between Nana and slut?” I asked.

Such is the problem of finding fashion at 50.

We are neither young nor old any more. The trouble is, thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, we don’t feel young or old either.

We feel just right. So why can’t we find anything that looks just right?

This is especially so this year, when the fashion is for maternity-like tops made from Nana’s old curtains. Even my fashion-conscious teenage daughter spurns these. “They look like something you’d wear while you decided whether to keep the baby or not,” she says contemptuously.

In Thailand, where I lived for two-and-a-half years, I was the oldest and fattest person there.

Nothing fitted me, but everything fitted my daughter, who at 14 was the size of a Thai adult. I spent my weekends, the fat chaperone, waiting outside change rooms, wearing my ubiquitous black pants and size XL T-shirt. “We have big size, Madam,” the child-like shop assistants would chant when I went past, offering me tiny T-shirts labelled “L”, which I finally concluded stood for “little”.

Part of the joy of coming home was that I would look normal, perhaps even slim – if I stood next to the right people. So, to celebrate, I decided on a makeover.

Trinny and Susanna from What not to wear had convinced me that long-line jackets were the answer to expanding waistlines and sagging bottoms. So, before we returned home, I visited a sympathetic Thai dressmaker, who made me a range of long-line jackets to wear with pants and matching scarves. I was delighted until I returned home and tried them all on. “I look like the mother-of-the bride,” I wailed.

Not only that, Khun Tim had decided my long-line jackets would be even more slimming if they were tight – so tight that I can’t wear them while driving as I can’t move my arms.

So, in desperation, I type “Fashion at 50” into Google and wait to be rescued. Help comes in the form of bloomerful.com – the online magazine for baby boomers “who are no rush to grow old gracefully”. I guess that’s why they included a story on “How to dress like your teenage daughter and get away with it”.

However, its blog – wellpast50.blogs.com – offers some reassurance.

“It’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it,” it says. True. That’s probably why when Audrey Hepburn was young and poor she owned one nice suit – but 17 different scarves.

“What she did with those scarves was amazing,” her biographer raved.

I own seven scarves, but no matter what I do with them I still look like my mother.

The best advice comes from Sherri Mathieson, author of Forever Cool, writing for Bloomerful, who advises well-past-50s to wear classic styles with quality accessories.

“Aspire to a certain classy refinement – it’s become too rare,” Sherri says.

But her next piece of advice is where it all comes unstuck for me: “Don’t forget that your husband, significant other or date is bound to be part of your image. One of you can detract from the other. You are a ‘set’ as you walk through the door.”

If we are a set, then I need to model myself on Golde, the wife of the Jewish Russian peasant Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, as my husband’s favourite accessory is a Greek fisherman’s hat worn with a black woollen Indian vest.

As he refuses to part with his hat, my fashion choice is now clear.

Unlike Audrey, I only need one scarf, worn over the head and tied firmly under the chin. After all, this is one of the Queen’s favourite looks and she was recently named by Vogue as one of the 50 most glamorous women in the world.

Of course, nobody said whether she was No.1 or No. 50.

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As my story about why I have never won a Walkley seems to be attracting a few visitors, I thought I’d post the one story that I did submit to the Walkley Foundation back in 1992.

When a man is raped by a woman is the first part and Is it possible?, with discussion from commentators of the day, is the second part.

Apologies for the length, but it does say something about how journalism has changed. I don’t think this story could be told as fully and fairly today.

I tried to paste it in here, but it was too big, so here are the links. If they don’t work, and you are still interested, email me and I will send the stories to you.

When a man is raped – by a woman

Is it possible?

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This was published in The Walkley Magazine, in December 2007.

The Walkley Magazine is published by the Walkley Foundation, which is a non-profit body aimed at supporting and encouraging professional and ethical journalism and rewarding excellence in the Australian media. Ironically, they spelled my name wrongly in the published version.

See the link here

p74 cafarella

Here’s what I submitted:




About this time of year, when the Walkley nominations are announced, I begin to feel wistful, because unlike many journalists my age, I have never won a Walkley.

I realise that most scientists have never won a Nobel Prize and do not feel slighted, and that not every actor expects to win an Oscar, and that although teachers may give gold stars, they seldom receive them – nor do they expect to.

But look around you. By the time most other Australian journalists have been in the business for 30 years or more, they can safely be introduced as “award-winning” – sometimes multi-award winning. If they haven’t won a Walkley or two, they’ve won a Peace Prize, or awards for science journalism or some such.

In fact, for journos of my generation, being introduced as “an award-winning journalist” is so common that as a non award-winning journalist, I now feel compelled to explain myself.

The problem is that like many other non award-winning journalists, I have spent most of my career doing the housework of journalism. In my early days on a suburban newspaper this included council reports, court reports, police reports and human-interest stories that were really glorified captions.

Later, I wrote about women’s issues for the now defunct Accent section of The Age, which although ground-breaking at the time, were not highly valued by the paper or by the reporters who were sometimes assigned to our section. “I am not writing about looking up women’s vaginas,” one female reporter tearfully announced to the editor, upon discovering that she’d been assigned to Accent.

The stories we covered, such as the fight against genital mutilation in Africa, trans-gender issues, rape, abortion, surrogacy and adoption, did not seem to fit any of the Walkley categories at the time, which seemed to favour stories on crime or politics.

Only once did I feel that a story might fit the bill. It was an interview with a man who claimed to have been raped by a woman. He came to Accent because no other journalist believed him, despite having been compensated by the Crimes Compensation Tribunal. The trouble is no one believed me either.

When I resigned from The Age in 1995 to freelance and better juggle family life, the only paid work I had was a weekly column on family issues that had evolved out of a pregnancy diary called “A New Life Journal”, and commissions for monthly cartoons for Playgrouper Magazine and for the Australian edition of New Scientist magazine, where I illustrated the letters on the Antipodes page.

Science was not my forte, but as all freelancers know, it is much better to say yes now and worry later about how you are going to deliver than to say no and deny yourself potential income. I recall on one occasion, the Australian NS editor, Ian Anderson, calling to ask if I could white-out the trees in the cartoon. “Er, there are no trees in Antarctica,” he kindly explained.

Although I was not very good at drawing, years of headline writing and a good sense of humor meant I was good at gags. This ability gave me another string to my bow when writing work was thin on the ground. But while other cartoonists did political cartoons, I did politically correct cartoons – frequently for groups that paid by the dozen, not the hour.

During the 1990s, when “key competences” was the catch phrase, I illustrated lots of training manuals for TAFE colleges, including one on how to be a petrol station attendant.

One particular cartoon involved drawing an attendant hitting an emergency button to stop a smoking motorist from potentially blowing himself up. I drew the attendant looking horrified but was asked to change it to a cheesy grin – as petrol station attendants always had to look positive.

For almost 10 years every month, I also illustrated articles for the Alternative Law Journal, published by the Monash University Law Faculty, extracting laughs from such topics as the Marbo inquiry, homelessness and domestic violence.

As a freelancer, you take whatever comes your way, and much of this also included writing the stories that were used to prop up the ads in the employment section of Saturday’s Age – stories on nurse education or new health appointments, or how one becomes a podiatrist.

Doing the housework of journalism also meant being the travel writer who didn’t go anywhere: writing the fillers about what happens to lost baggage, or the specials being offered by new airlines. In fact, during my brief stint as a contributor to the travel section of The Age, the furthest I went was down to the letter box and back to collect my cheques.

It also meant editing submissions for community groups – 120-page tomes usually written by a committee of 12, and which meant translating phrases such as “consideration of the provision of the implementation of” into plain English. And writing speeches for politicians I would never vote for and working for years for people I never met, because as a contributor only my work was required, not my presence.

As a freelancer, I also learned it was much more economic to interview myself on topical issues, as minimal research was required and there was no chance of being sued and if the story did not sell, there were no disappointed or disgruntled contacts.

Once, when I interviewed myself about being a tribal defective and hating sport, I received a swag of emails from fans, many of which began “Dear Jane, I think I love you.”

Later, I moved from writing to teaching journalism in the suburban newsroom, and then online, for which there are many rewards but no awards.

So, as I raise my glass to the 51st Walkley winners, I would also like to salute the non award-winning journalists – the ones who write the council reports, advertising features, the motoring reports, the real estate, the weather, the briefs and all the other sections that are the foundations of modern newspapers and where the challenge is not to expose corruption or reveal insights, but to find a new way to say the same old thing.

One of the things I tell my community newspaper cadets is that working for a community newspaper provides a great opportunity to sample all styles of journalism and to discover what type they want to be. I hope they will be the Walkley award-winning type. But if not, I can reassure them that whether they win awards or not, they can still win readers, which after all, is surely the most important ambition.



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A gong for hunger story

My story Hungry for more than TV cooking shows, published in The Age opinion page on January 11, was named one of the best articles in Australia by The Week magazine, January 14 edition.

The Week, edited by Hall Greenland, with David Salter as Contributing Editor, describes itself as “a new and unique magazine that distils the most important news and comment from the world’s media into an essential weekend read”.

It is available at newsagents or online via subscription at www.theweek.com.au

The Week, January 14 2011 edition

The Week, January 14 2011 edition cover



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