Monday, 12 March 2018

Where thoughtfulness lives: adelaide writers' week 2018 review

Monday 13 March 2018

It may be Australia’s longest-running literary festival, but Adelaide Writers’ Week shares little resemblance with the big-name east-coast counterparts that followed it a generation later. 

The event’s idiosyncrasies reflect much about the city that gave it birth: august, commodious Adelaide, temperate and traversable, capital of the festival state, with its surrounding circlet of parklands in which the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden could be an understated crown jewel. Far from the air-conditioned concert halls and crowded café venues of the Sydney and Melbourne festivals, Adelaide Writers’ Week passes in the open air and sunshine of this glorious garden. 

And it feels like a gathering in a forest clearing, an enchanted grove. You sit, encircled by a dwarfbrick wall and screens of greenery sun-washed and backlit, presided over by each panel as they hold court beneath the beneficent maternal gaze of Ola Cohn’s 1941 Waikerie limestone statue, a goddess of the glade. Overhead, a lacing of cables, fairy lights, tree branches and blue tarpaulin spans the space between six sentinel lampposts straight out of Narnia. There’s the constant imposition of planes passing above, and sun and shade sweep over you in shifts as the clouds roll on, offering the discussion cheerful or ominous punctuation. ‘That’s global capital,’ jokes the Wheeler Centre’s Michael Williams when a sudden darkness falls at Laleh Khavidi’s mention of gun stock divestment. ‘It doesn’t like what you’re doing.’ Beneath you are humble green plastic chairs like your nan has on the patio and, should they grow too hard on your backside, you’re free to plant yourself on the nearby grassy slope where locals snooze under hats and children periodically frolic a little too loudly. Kick your shoes off, lay back, close your eyes, and let the conversation wash over you. ‘It’s a pretty friendly festival,’ poet Pamela Brown summarises in response to an audience question. ‘The air’s good.’

Mem Fox reads from I’m Australian Too.

It’s simply different. Fanatical volunteers stand smiling guard over the bins, racing to intercede before any recyclable item is denied its rightful reincarnation by mistaken consignment to general waste. The dignified demountable bathrooms offer expensive soap and proper mirrors. For some reason, there’s a joey in the writers’ green room and, occasionally, in the audience.

And, indeed, everything about the event is free and easy. No pressure to attend pre-booked and paid-for sessions. You may come and go as you please between the twin stages that sit companionably close in the riverside park. Follow your fancy through a program as well-balanced and legible as Adelaide’s city grid—from the intimately personal to the sweepingly geopolitical, local to international, grand historical narratives to confessional poetry. Unbound by the confines of the indoors and its attendant fire codes, audiences expand and contract like a breathing organism according to the popularity of the speakers. Events at the more intimate west stage like The Life to Come with the radiant Michelle de Kretser send the crowd fanning out into the wings of shade beyond the garden walls and curling up the slope, while drawcards at the east stage such as insightful international heavyweight Barbara Kingsolver and the delightfully peculiar festival-favourite Robert Dessaix break the banks entirely to engulf the little island of the stage in all directions.

In such a setting, the thirty-third iteration of the festival assembled almost a hundred writers, loosely united, as outgoing director Laura Kroetsch writes in the event programme, by the concept of ‘change.’ Unlike the parkland setting, this theme is a convention endemic to all literary festivals, to any gathering of those most sensitive vessels of social anxiety and conscience that are writers. Aside from helping stimulate the book sales that sustain our wordsmiths, this, it could be said, is what writers’ festivals are for. They are time that attendees collectively set aside to pay attention to the things in our world worth writing about: the troubles plaguing democracy chronicled in a genteel Monday-morning dialogue between British philosopher AC Grayling and local journalist and commentator George Megalogenis. The fury and shame about Australia’s ‘extreme cruelty to refugees’ that inspired beloved and formidable festival dedicatee Mem Fox’s latest book I’m Australian Too. The capitalism-driven environmental destruction foreseen in the fiction of Cory Doctorow, Maja Lunde and Jennifer Mills. The institutional racism and radicalisation contemplated by Laleh Khavidi and Kamila Shamsie. The introspection and commitment to the common good Judith Brett finds missing in contemporary Australian politics. The threat of climate change to Pacific nations such as the Marshall Islands that poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner spoke of. And, most pervasively this year, the sense that somehow it is all going wrong. That meaning, the media, and politics have lost their way. That, in Kingsolver’s words, ‘the rules don’t apply any more.’ As literary critic Sean Hooks once wrote, ‘it’s all going south tout de suite—awry and amuck and astray, combustible, doused in petrol, the fuse already lit.’ 

Of course, attendees at such events tend to broadly agree on these topics, nodding and applauding so vigorously and universally that it is hard at times to understand why no one has done anything about them yet, to remember that this sample isn’t representative. We risk veering into self-congratulation, but we also remind ourselves we are not alone, steel our resolve, and reflect upon solutions. And, occasionally, answers arise. Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose’s eloquent question elicited one such (even more eloquent) answer from Queensland poet Sarah Holland-Batt: ‘Where does poetry sit in a world consumed by material objects, materialism, pragmatism, careerism, professionalism, managerialism, all those –isms?’ asked Rose. ‘How does poetry survive in a world so devoted to the object?’

‘Poetry,’ came Holland-Batt’s answer ‘really is the last […] vestige, the last bastion of a space where every word is consequential, where language is reduced to its most core purpose, to its most exacting, its most particular. A poem is a perfect machine where every word has its use, has its meaning […] Poems are the one place where sane and exacting language lives at the moment, in this morass of fake news and loose use of language.’

In other words, one of the ways we can save the world is: more this. More reading, more thinking, more discussion, more devotees to the compassion and rigour of literature and poetry, where standards of quality are cherished, not abandoned, where ethical engagement with the world persists, where meaning something still means something, where thoughtfulness lives, where we can learn the tools of discernment and critical thinking that allow us to dispatch the dissembling messages of governments and corporations and demand better. 

One of the ways the writers’ week instantiates this impulse is particularly fitting for the state where (white) Australian women first won the right to vote, the birthplace of Australian suffrage. Without explicitly stating it, without excluding anyone, it is on so many levels a festival by and for women. Dedicated this year to a woman writer, set in a garden memorialising the contributions of women, on and around International Women’s Day, it is a worthy alternative to a corporate breakfast agitating for more gender-representative economic inequality. This year the lost diary of Australia’s most influential woman writer Miles Franklin was even found during the proceedings. Among such auspices, it was impossible not to notice the makeup of the crowd—most abundantly middle-aged women, Australia’s largest reading demographic. A woman runs the festival, the discussions are most deftly facilitated by female chairs, and women appear onstage over half the time, often speaking on topics relevant to the cause. 

Next year’s Writers’ Week passes from Laura Kroetsch to Sydney Writers’ Festival CEO Jo Dyer. We can hope that, as an Adelaide native, Dyer will know how to preserve and enhance what makes Writers’ Week so unique and so very important as a home for careful thinking in a world of bombast and bluster.

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