The silver anniversary edition of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, straddling the Australian federal election this year, wrapped on Sunday.
A good writers’ festival needs a few things.
An interesting venue…
Carriageworks, Australia’s largest and most significant multi-arts centre in Australia, is where the bulk of events is concentrated. These nineteenth-century former railway workshops once employed several thousand people who built and maintained locomotive engines for Sydney’s burgeoning rail network. Their stories, like those of the creatives who line up to speak every year, are in everything you see and touch.
Carriageworks has great atmosphere, but its spaces are as fickle as Sydney’s peripatetic weather. By day three I’d layered up and hauled out the woollen New Zealand socks that first saw service when I walked the Milford Track. Twenty-six years later, those socks are still capable of dealing with concrete floors.
Things to liven up the commute between the nearest station and venue…
It’s a ten-minute walk from Redfern station, immediately south of Sydney’s CBD, to Carriageworks. En route, there’s free salad greens,
Deterrents to breaking and entering,
and good food and coffee.
There’s the festival itself, of course. 2022 saw the return of international patronage and participation after a two-year drought due to lockdowns and closed borders. Damon Galgut spoke of how The Promise would have been shorter if the main character had been more decisive in honouring her family’s commitment to their black servant.
Cartoonist Art Spiegelman, beamed in from New York City as daylight faded through a window behind him, told us that the Tennessee School Board banned his comic novel, Maus, because it offered no redemption. What did they expect from the son of Holocaust survivors? Sales of Maus have since boomed, apparently.
One of the great things about writers’ festivals is their ability to showcase artists we would otherwise unlikely know of. Many of them are in my backyard. Omar Sakr – a Western Sydney bisexual Muslim poet born to Lebanese and Turkish parents – only felt confident about coming out to his mother when he knew she’d become dependent on his earnings. He’s the one in the middle.
There were a few fizzers. Literary Death Match, a part literary/comedy/game show event where four writers compete in a read off critiqued by celebrity judges, suffered at the hands of a host who hasn’t been in the country long enough to understand what makes us laugh. Australian national treasure, Thomas Keneally, being walked off the stage for exceeding his slot by several minutes, was an awkward moment.
An opportunity to buy books…
The Festival operates on the basis that if you like what you hear, you can buy the authors’ works on site and, if you time it right, have them signed.
We left with a few purchases of our own…
I mentioned a federal election. On 21 May, voters cast aside the alpha-male style of governance, culture wars and obfuscation of the past nine years in favour of a polity that can work across party lines to achieve important goals. Among other things, we elected a raft of bright, professional women who want to do something about climate change, integrity in politics and making Australia a more inclusive society. I had a lightness to my step as I returned for the final day of the Festival, never mind the wet weather.