Phillipe Sands @ Melbourne Writers Festival 2016

Written by Tegan Sizer.

‘What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others’ – Nicolas Abraham

I was worried the early Sunday morning timeslot would deter some from experiencing the brilliance that is Phillipe Sands. But, I needn’t have worried as it seems that Sands had drawn a full house for his Melbourne Writers Festival appearance at the wonderful ACMI. He managed three appearances at the festival over 48 hours and I was lucky enough to catch his last presentation, ‘Phillipe Sands: The Origins of Genocide.’ Yeah, I know it’s not the most cheerful of subjects to be talking about early on a weekend morning but it was more than insightful.

Sands is a prolific criminal barrister, working on many of the biggest cases we have seen in recent years—the Iraq Inquiry, anybody heard of it? This is a man who knows his stuff and his stuff just happens to be crimes against humanity. What began as an exploration into the origins of the words ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ quickly turned into something more personal for Sands. The more he researched, the more he found little coincidences that connected his own family to the two men who created those phrases post-World War II. He presented his research and own family story with gusto and just a twinge of sadness—he never spoke to his grandfather about his wartime experiences but boy were they worth talking about.

Photo credit: Tegan Sizer

Sands explored the often under researched relationship between grandparent and grandchild, made especially tricky when that grandparent had experienced trauma. Sands’ point was made with little jargon, weaving everyday language with psychological research that left the audience (an audience of mainly over 55s—I, at 25 years old, stood out like a sore thumb) questioning their own relationships with others.

Sands is a charismatic speaker, the (in my opinion) too-short 60 minutes flew by and I was left wanting more. Sands was joined on stage by esteemed ABC Radio presenter Rafael Epstein who seemed to be just as much in awe of Sands as his audience was. Epstein asked questions that prompted just the right answers without revealing too much of East West Street’s plot.

I want you all to go out and read Sands’ resulting novel, East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”, so I will not reveal any of the captivating things Sands discovers here. Just know that this novel will have you hooked from the beginning.

For me, this was the highlight of a wonderful Melbourne Writers Festival for 2016. I urge you all to do yourselves a favour and read East West Street. No, genocide is not fun to talk about but if we don’t educate ourselves on the past we are doomed to repeat it in the future. And that is exactly what Phillipe Sands is afraid of.

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