2014 / Sunday

Take the Road Less Travelled to find the Real Sydney

Esad Mujacevic

Louis Nowra

Louis Nowra

Sydneysiders turned out on an unexpectedly warm autumn day to hear insider stories of their city as seen through the eyes of writers Louis Nowra and Felicity Castagna, and illustrator Antonia Pesenti. The Real Sydney session at the Philharmonia Studio, Walsh Bay, on Friday was chaired by Delia Falconer, herself an acclaimed writer.

A Melbournian, Louis Nowra arrived in Kings Cross some 25 years ago to find that what his home-town tabloids said about Kings Cross was absolutely right. “It was a sinful, notorious, red-light district, but then I discovered there was another part of Kings Cross that I could encounter and write about.” Published last year, Kings Cross: A Biography, unearths hidden treasures of Sydney’s bohemian heartland.

Mr Nowra regaled the audience with tales of illustrious Kings Cross locals, the area’s rich and diverse history … and just how many Australians find their way to this colourful and wicked part of town. But he warns of a slow-moving change occurring as new residents are embraced and gentrification continues. “This has to be; it’s about economics. The reason people came to the Cross in the 1920s and ’30s was because there were flats and they were cheap … but now these people have been priced out.”

However, Kings Cross doesn’t judge those who come to experience what the area has to offer; it doesn’t take the moral high ground, Mr Nowra said. Instead, it embraces individuality and allows people to be who they want to be, surrounded by like-minded people, so they can escape from what was holding them back.

While Felicity Castagna is known as the author of Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia, her latest book, The Incredible Here and Now, tells a story of life in Western Sydney; in particular, Parramatta and its surrounding suburbs. Her passion to write about Parramatta arose when she realised there was little material written about the area other than historical texts. “This part of Sydney has been absent for a long time from our understanding of Sydney.”

The energy that pulses through the commercial and cultural capital of Western Sydney is the same as that of a 15-year-old boy, she said. “Metaphorically, when I think of the place I live, I think of fast cars and guys with saggy pants, and everybody loud and everybody dancing and shouting.”

Ms Castagna has depicted an insider’s view of this cultural hub that is far removed from the usual images of Sydney — the Eastern Suburbs, the CBD and the Inner West. Her book acknowledges the diversity and widely differing lifestyles of its inhabitants in a new look at place and its effects on people.

Antonia Pesenti, an architect and illustrator who has most recently collaborated on a children’s book with Hilary Bell, a playwright and author; they have produced a colourful ABC picturebook, Alphabetical Sydney.

The pair were conscious of telling a story about Sydney that didn’t focus on touristy aspects or well-known areas like the Eastern Suburbs, Ms Pesenti said. Instead, they were “celebrating the edges”.

“We thought it would be powerful for children to be able to see their city in image and in text and connect with them,” she said, and they were careful to ensure that all the elements shown could be found within Sydney.