Canberra Writers Festival 2016: Recap

It’s a funny thing about writers festivals: there’s nothing really new to be said about reading and writing – surely we’ve said it all – and yet everything seems to feel new! Why is that? I guess it’s the stimulating environment that festivals create (the repartee that occurs between participants) and that there are always different ways of saying the same things (different spins, angles, perspectives). Whatever it is, I enjoy it and am glad we have our own festival again. (Most of my recent festival experience has been through ABC RN and podcasts!)

It’s all about the content …

For my own benefit, I want to tie up some threads that stood out to me:

  • Historical fiction: if you’ve read my Festival posts (listed at the end of this post), you’ll know that historical fiction was one of the threads that followed me (or I followed!) during the festival. It featured in a few sessions, but particularly in Waking the dead with Paul Daley, Sulari Gentill and Ros Russell. They all talked about the importance of plausibility and authenticity, but I particularly liked Gentill’s statement that historical fiction is about writing “plausible tales” about what might have happened, which gives insight into what did happen. This is what Kate Grenville was about in her controversial The secret river isn’t it? Some historical fiction, though, does focus on what did happen, but these are often told from a particular perspective. And here Gentill made another interesting point. She said her aim is not to present an absolute or rounded version of an historical person but an angle or perspective of that person that is true. This frees her to explore lesser-known sides of or possibilities regarding historical figures that may have been glossed over or ignored in the historical record. Finally, Gentill talked about giving voice to people whose stories are not always told (which made me think of recent Aussie books like Eleanor Limprecht’s Long bay and Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden.) I should add here that while I’m quoting Gentill, these ideas were more widespread – just stated differently.
  • Kim Mahood, Gia MetherellIndigenous authors and issues: the Festival did not have many indigenous authors present. Indeed the Festival was probably not high on diversity all up. My sense is that this is not an unusual situation with Australian literary festivals. Of course, I don’t know how hard our organisers tried in this area, but it’s something worth noting. The only indigenous authors I noticed were Bruce Pascoe (whose session I missed because it clashed with Omar Musa and Jennifer Rayner) and Stan Grant (who didn’t come in the end). However, indigenous issues – and awareness of the sensitivities surrounding “white” people writing on indigenous life – were evident. Kim Mahood’s session was particularly relevant because it directly confronted indigenous-non-indigenous relationships with each other and the land, but in other sessions, such as the book launches for Richard Begbie’s Cotter and Nicholas Hasluck’s The Bradshaw case, audience members asked about indigenous people’s reactions to “white” authors writing about them.  Unfortunately, in neither case was there time for in-depth discussion of the issue.
  • Politics: as I said in one of my posts, politics was a major theme of the festival. There were many sessions and events which focused specifically on this topic – the Hansard Monologues sessions, Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabbe, to name some. I didn’t attend these, though, so can’t comment. However, political issues and ideas underpinned two sessions I attended – Merlinda Bobis, and Jennifer Rayner and Omar Musa. While I love art for art’s sake (to be simplistic about it) and don’t think art has to have a message, I am drawn to writing that has a strong social justice purpose. Merlinda Bobis and Omar Musa are particularly inspiring in this regard. Bobis was passionate about changing our current political narrative from the politics of fear to the politics of caring. Loved it. And, if you know Musa, you’ll know that his passion is that of giving voice to minorities, to the disenfranchised. Both feel strongly that the arts can play a critical role in “saving” or changing us. Keeping a focus on politics – in diverse (!) ways – would be a logical thing for Canberra’s festival.

One of the joys of festivals is the opportunity to discover lesser-known or niche writers among the better known, and this festival did well here. There were the big overseas names like Yann Martel, AC Grayling, and Eimaar McBride, but there were also many wonderful Aussie writers – well-known and not so – to get to know a little better. For me, although I didn’t get to all I’d have liked, the mix was good. If I couldn’t attend one event, there was sure to be another that would be (and turned out to be) just as interesting.

… but the organisation is important too.

The festival had a lovely buzz about it, and from what I saw, it seemed that attendees were engaged and happy to be involved in such a well-organised event. I say well-organised because everything in my experience flowed smoothly, with problems (like my AWOL tickets) being handled pleasantly and without fuss.

There were a few issues though, and I’ll share them here because they might be helpful:

  • Advance notice/promotion: many people just did not know about the festival until quite late in the year, which suggests that marketing next time needs to be louder and reach deeper in the Canberra community. I “liked” the Facebook page, and subscribed in other ways, but found the information a little sporadic. I heard others say they didn’t know about it at all until very late.
  • Venues: the venues were great overall in terms of size and comfort – well, the ones I attended (NLA, NPG and Hotel Realm) anyhow – but I did find the widespread nature of the Festival (around the Parliamentary Triangle, Barton and over the lake) a little problematic. You could waste serious Festival time travelling between venues. Some of my session choices were made – and altered – due to this issue. It was a little disappointing, too, that Bookplate at the NLA closed up serving food so early. I think it was about 3.30pm or before on Saturday. With an all-day festival, it would be good to have more food available for longer, as food breaks don’t necessarily happen, depending on chosen sessions, at “normal” times. That said, Bookplate did a good job under pressure – in my experience.
  • Ticketing: I found the structure of the ticketing a little tricky to understand and navigate, particularly for the 5-event package which I opted for. (It was the best option by the time I booked). It wasn’t easy to work out what was available on the package and what had to be ordered separately. I worked out some – such as the Special Event morning tea – but other sessions that I thought were sold out were probably only available individually.

These are minor issues in the scheme of things, because overall it was a friendly, happy, content-rich festival. And it was encouraging to see so many of our cultural institutions and local organisations getting behind it.

So, thanks to the committee, the sponsors, and the volunteers (of course) for an enjoyable and stimulating weekend. And special thanks to Canberra’s literary grand dame, Marion Halligan. She was a real trojan in the number of sessions she took part in – and her input was so nicely relaxed and down-to-earth.

I look forward to doing it all again – in a more organised way – next year! August 25 to 27 is in my diary.

For my previous posts on the Festival you can check out the following links: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

10 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2016: Recap

  1. Thanks for this wrap up, Sue, and well done for your summary about the organisation. I don’t know Canberra very well but I did wonder about the venues because everything is so spread out and public transport is, well, not the best. As for the taxi service, I have never been able to figure out how to call a cab and have ended up walking long distances indeed.
    (The Bendigo Writers Festival is blessed with venues that are all within a stone’s throw of each other, the only exception being the Ullumbarra Theatre).
    Food is often a problem at festivals: local places are usually not used to high demand/high pressure and although organisers want to support their local places for good reasons, they could also consider the picnic box concept. I went to a festival a while back where you could order a boxed lunch in advance and that worked very well for festival goers and presumably the caterers as well because they knew in advance how many to prepare.

    • Thanks Lisa … yes, their survey, asked about the venues. I think it’s an issue because those institutions probably wanted to be involved … it’s good for their profile, but I think it’s probably something they’re going to have to address. You make a good point about challenge for out-of-towners. (Though taxis SHOULD be easy, and we do have uber here too. But these can become a bit expensive.) Your boxed lunch idea is a good one. Hopefully the organisers will see your response. All useful for them I’m sure.

  2. You know my views about historical fiction (too often contains modern actors/sensibilities in a historical setting) and about White writers representing themselves as able to tell Indigenous stories (I’m agin it!). And in passing, I think all fiction is political – accepting the status quo is a political position. But, to take up your point about Indigenous authors, I have been astonished over the last couple of years, ie. via these blogs, to discover how many good, edgy Indigenous authors there are and if there were an Indigenous writers festival I would travel a long way to attend it.

    • Thanks Bill for your mostly not surprising input! You know what I feel about non-indigenous writers completely ignoring indigenous people too! It’s a lot about what you presume you know, don’t you think?

      Of course you’re right that all fiction could be seen as political, but perhaps I could say that some fiction is more political than others!

      Indigenous Writers Festival – well, there was the Blak and Bright Festival earlier this year which I blogged about, but I’m not sure whether that’s going to be an ongoing thing or not.

  3. One of the great pleasures of a festival like this, for me, is the exchange between the specific writers in attendance annually. Sometimes one can see a writer in a given year and have a neutral experience but, then, see them in another panel in another year with a different group (and a different work having brought them there) and it’s a whole ‘nother. Mind you, I agree that locally it seems to be a failing that there’s not a broader representation on the stage (and, also, in the audience), but not everyone seeks to read #diversebooks either. Hopefully that’s beginning to change.

    • Well said Buried. You’re right, the interaction between authors can be really special. And yes, when I made that comment re diversity I did think about the audience. Mr thinks though that you need A start with the presenters. If people think their stories are going to be told they might come. (Though I know in reality, the whole question of who writes, who reads, who attends festivals etc is far more complex than this simple equation isn’t it ?)

  4. I suspect as readers and writers we never get tired of talking about the thing we love most. Also, just like there are no new stories, we don’t tire of all the variations. Great summary of the festival. I enjoyed reading all your posts about it 🙂

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