Twelve months ago against the backdrop of supermarket scrambles for toilet paper and an increasing sense of impending doom, Adelaide Writers’ Week was one of the last of the major literary festivals to be held before the Great Lockdown.
A year later it has been one of the first to emerge into the new COVID world order.
It was therefore self explanatory that Unstable Ground was the theme of the 2021 Adelaide Writers’ Week. So as we gathered in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens for six glorious days last week, it was a case that while some things changed, especially in regards to social distancing measures to keep the health gods happy, much of what makes this such a wonderful literary festival also remained the same.
The iconic vibe of sitting under the trees in the “The Gardens” in Kaurna country listening to scintillilating discussions from local and international audiences is a truly unique element to this event and thankfully was again the centrepiece of Adelaide Writers’Week. The use of streaming technology to enable international and some interstate authors to overcome the current interstate border and COVID restrictions just added to the experience.
While here in Adelaide we have been relatively sheltered from the full extent of the horrors wrought by COVID during the past year, these streaming sessions and the feedback from the international participants provided a stark reminder of just how lucky we actually all were to gather together face to face in most instances to celebrate reading, writing and all things literary. Victorian presenters and authors, having faced the most stringent of the Australian 2020 lockdowns, also revelled in the experience and frankly thought it was a miracle that Adelaide Writers’ Week Director Jo Dyer and her team managed to pull this six day event off (a sentiment on which I totally concur). Even the weather gods gave the event their blessing.
Sitting under the trees in “The Gardens” as the event unfolds each years, always provides one with the sense of having a break away of the stresses and strains of everyday life (curiously a very similar experience when immersed in a good book). However paradoxically the very nature of literary festivals is such that reality – particularly political realities – isn’t that far away.
In 2020 it was the looming catastrophe of COVID, the fallout from the Black Summer bushfires (along with climate change) and the forthcoming 2016 U.S election that dominated the political psyche. In 2021, while COVID and climate change remain hot button topics, it was to be the real time distressing bombshells continuing out of Canberra in relation to the toxic relationship of power and misogyny that ended up dominating the political texture of the past week. Unfortunately a political narrative that still dominates our airwaves, newspapers and social media.
Much has been written by others about the various allegations (and counter claims) that have emerged in recent weeks which I won’t go into detail here. I couldn’t help however but notice the serendipitous timing of the festival program to feature former Prime Ministers Julia Gillard (Women and Leadership?) and Malcolm Turnbull (A Bigger Picture), along with local Liberal powerbroker and former cabinet member Christopher Pyne (The Insider).
While all three were fascinating in their views on the nature of power and politics, the most riveting session for me particularly in the context of the realtime political backdrop, was Louise Milligan’s discussion on her experience as a witness in the Cardinal Pell case, as documented in her latest work Witness. This conversation included a broader commentary on the realities faced by survivors of sexual crime in seeking justice. These observations, made on the Monday, were to become chillingly all too real by the final days of the Adelaide Writers’ Week as the political events continued to unfold.
An unfortunate and perennial issue (for me) of this wonderful literary festival are the program clashes and 2021 Adelaide Writers’ Week was again the case. As a result I missed Katharine Murphy and Laura Tingle’s session on the current state of Australian leadership. I’m convinced their insights would have provided an excellent guide to navigate the storm emanating from Canberra.
Another ongoing and timely theme during Adelaide Writers’ Week 2021, reflected through both non-fiction and fiction works, was that of the Aboriginal and First Nations experience, recognition and reconciliation. It was therefore wonderful to hear from Julie Janson (Benevolence), Nardi Simpson (Song of the Crocodile) and local author Karen Wyld (Where the Fruit Falls), whose fictional works intertwine family, Country and history and the ongoing legacy of Colonialism. This experience also forms the backdrop of the Stuart Rintoul’s biography of a giant among Indigenous leaders, Lowitja O’Donaghue. Rintoul states that right from the outset as he wrote Lowitja, that he wanted to show how her story isn’t just a personal story – it is also a story of the Aboriginal struggle.
A big feature of the 2021 Adelaide Writers’ Week was the focus on local authors, a not surprising factor given the success of Pip Williams (The Dictionary of Lost Words) – the winner of this year’s MUD literary prize, along with Katherine Tamika Arguile (The Things She Owned), Karen Wyld (Where the Fruit Falls), Rachael Mead (The Application of Pressure), Patrick Allington (Rise and Shine), Durkhanai Ayubi (Parwana), Danielle Clode (In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World), and Royce Kurmelovs (Just Money: Misadventures in the Great Australian Debt Trap) among others. In a nod to the Zoom book launches of 2020, the West Stage was given over on Saturday evening for an in person re-launch for these writers. It was a great way to kick off what would be a continuing celebration of South Australian writing and creativity over the event’s six days. By the end of the festival you couldn’t help by note the current strong state of the South Australian literary scene.
This is only just a snapshot of the many highlights for me over festival’s six days. Other stand outs for me included Trent Dalton (All Our Shimmering Skies), Maggie O’Farrell (Hamnet), Julia Baird (Phosphorence), Kate Grenville (A Room Made of Leaves), Christina Lamb (Our Bodies, Their Battlefield), Debra Adelaide (The Innocent Reader: Reflections on Reading and Writing), Tegan Bennett Daylight (The Details: On Love, Death and Reading), Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (The Mountains Sing), Colum McCann (Aperogon), Maaza Mengiste (The Shadow King), Andrew Kong (One Bright Moon), Anne Applebaum (Twilight of Democracy) and Natalie Hayes (Pandora’s Jar). Needless to say the bank balance was seriously challenged in the Book Tent.
Adelaide Writers’ Week is essentially all about the timelessness of story telling in its many guises, something we humans have been doing for millennia. As Karen Wyld reminded us: all the water we drink, see and which falls upon us is what dinosaurs swam in. It’s the same water. Water clearly illustrates the fluidity of time.