Monday musings on Australian literature: Regional literary festivals
With the Sydney Writers’ Festival kicking off today, I thought it might be interesting to turn our thoughts briefly to the regions. We (well, Aussie readers anyhow) know the big well-established city festivals, in particular Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, but there are also many smaller festivals, some rural, some suburban. In this post I plan to write about some of the rural/regional festivals. You never know, there might be one near you – or one in a location you’d like to visit for your next holiday. Perhaps we can even lure some people from overseas to our interesting smaller towns and regions!
I’m going to list a randomly selected few in the order of their establishment, starting with the oldest. Most of these festivals are shorter than the big city ones, and usually run over a weekend.
- Byron Bay Writers Festival. Established in 1997, this festival is on my bucketlist, partly because it is well-established now but mainly because Byron Bay, on the northern coast of New South Wales, is also a great place to visit. In fact, it apparently started, the website says, when a few locals wondered “whether authors might accept an invitation to spend a winter’s weekend in Byron Bay”. They did! It is now well enough established that it can attract significant Australian and overseas writers. This year’s festival will be held 1-3 August, and one of the featured authors will be Stella Prize winner, Clare Wright.
- Clunes Booktown Festival. Established in 2007 as a one-day event, converting to a two-day festival in 2008. Clunes in a small town in, roughly, central Victoria. It became the 15th accredited member of the International Organisation of Booktowns in 2012, and is the only booktown in the southern hemisphere. (It’s somewhat of a joke, that we Aussies like to claim the biggest, first, only, etc “something” in the southern hemisphere!). This year’s festival was held over the first weekend in May. It is a little different to the others I’ve listed here in that while it has author talks and events, its main focus is the buying and selling of books. However, it does include a literary program which this year included a special feature on book art, and speakers like novelist Alex Miller and historian Henry Reynolds.
- Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival. Established in 2009, this festival is Arts Margaret River’s flagship event. The 2014 festival was held last weekend, 16-18 May, with scheduled speakers including Joan London, Peter Goldsworthy and Graeme Simsion. Associated with the festival is a Short Story Competition, which is run in conjunction with Margaret River Press and results in the publication of an anthology of winning and selected stories. Last year, I reviewed the 2013 anthology, Knitting and other stories, and will review this year’s anthology in the next few months. Margaret River, in southwest Western Australia, is also a beautiful location, famous for wine (among other attractions).
- Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival. Established in 2011, this festival very specifically frames itself as a “readers” and “writers” festival. It has several aims, including the aspiration to be “unique among other literary festivals in using the region’s rich environmental and cultural heritage and the passions of local writers and readers”. Apparently, Peter Carey is its patron. Like Byron Bay and Margaret River, Bellingen on the New South Wales’ mid-coast, is a gorgeous part of the world, making it yet another one I’d love to attend. This year’s festival will be held over the New South Wales long weekend, 6-9 June, and speakers include Alex Miller, Kristina Olsson and, wonderfully, Yolgnu authors from Arnhem Land.
- Batemans Bay Writers Festival. The new kid on the block, this festival is being held for the first time this year on the same long weekend as the Bellingen Festival, but for just two days, 7-8 June. It’s only 2-hours drive from my home but unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be making it. It has a good lineup of speakers, though, including Clare Wright, Debra Adelaide and Marion Halligan, which hopefully augurs well for its becoming a regular event.
These are just a few of the plethora of regional literary festivals in Australia. It may be a product of my random selection, but did you notice that four of these five festivals started in the 2000s? Is this indicative of an increasing interest in and support for books and reading? The answer is probably a little more complex than a simple equation, but I hope there’s something in it!
I haven’t included in the list what I would call a subgroup of these which comprises the festivals devoted to a particular writer, such as the Banjo Paterson Festival (in Orange, NSW), Jane Austen Festival Australia which celebrates all things Regency, and surely the grand-daddy of them all, the Henry Lawson Festival (Grenfell, NSW), which is holding its 57th festival this year. There are also festivals devoted to specific literary forms (such as poetry) and genres (such as romance). I may do a post on them another time.
As I was researching this post, I was sorry to discover that the Kimberley Writers’ Festival, which was to have been held for the 10th time this year, will not be going ahead due, says the organiser Jo Roach, to “changes in government grant funding criteria and reduction in spending by local companies”. She hopes, however, to hold it next year. Such is the difficulty of holding specialised festivals, particularly in remote places like Kununurra.
Finally, there is a festival that is not held in Australia but that has strong Australian associations, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, which will be held for the 11th time this year. Ubud is in Bali and this festival was established by Australian-born Janet DeNeefe “in response to the 2002 Bali bombings”. She says on her website that “it has been named by Harper’s Bazaar, UK, as ‘one of the top Festivals in the world’ and by ABC’s Asia-Pacific network as ‘the next Edinburgh Festival of Asia’.” (The “next” Edinburgh Festival of Asia? Is there another one?). Anyhow, this year’s festival will be held 11-15 October. I first heard of it through blogger Bryce Alcock’s 8-post report on the 2011 festival.
Phew, this ended up being longer than I intended.
Are you a keen attender of literary festivals? And if you are, what makes a good festival for you?