This year’s Festival offered over 400 events – almost 40% free – from 22-28 May at Sydney’s Walsh Bay heritage wharves on the Harbour as well as at the Opera House and Town Hall, and into the suburbs and the Blue Mountains.
Over 450 writers included Pulitzer prize-winning journalists and authors Susan Faludi and Thomas Friedman, feminist writer Roxane Gay, novelist Ha Jin, prize-winning author Anne Enright, crime writer Ian Rankin, 2016 Booker Prize winner, Paul Beatty, and USA National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead,
Appealing across the spectrum of ages, a full day was devoted to young adult fiction at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres while the final day saw a Family Day Precinct at Walsh Bay’s Pier 4/5 offering four unique spaces for junior book worms – including Russ the Story Bus filled with kids books to browse – as well as an event line-up for under-12s.
The festival was tied together by the theme of refuge, the SWF’s Artistic Director Michaela McGuire underlining how “Now, more than ever, I think that readers will be turning to literature as a place of refuge.”
Particular highlights JA attended included Chris Kraus, author of cult classic “I Love Dick” now adapted for TV and which The Guardian described as “the most important book about men and women written in the last century”. Kraus advised writers to always: “Tell the truth, whether non-fiction, fiction or hybrid – put truth on the table so we don’t feel alone; everyone has a different truth… art and life have no separation.”
There was a thought-provoking discussion on climate change by renowned science commentator Dr Karl Kruszelnicki and internationally acclaimed scientist and environmentalist, and former Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery and how kelp farms may assist in addressing the 50 gigatonnes of carbon we emit each year into atmosphere.
Amazing insights into the life of highly regarded neurologist and author Oliver Sacks were revealed by his partner Bill Hayes. Sacks’ astonishing insight into humanity accompanied his love of traditional communication – he wrote in ink and never used a computer.
Another highlight was Henry Marsh who spoke about his memoir Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery of his 40 years on the surgical frontline with candour and insight. One of the best things he believes he ever did for patients as well as their visitors and staff was establish a £40,000 suicide-proof balcony garden in a major hospital, offering a quiet place of comfort and delight as well as support for psychological well-being.
Also of great interest was the discussion of the recent release of Double Exposure: Plays of the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas (print) by its writers and editors Canadian Stephen Orlov and Australian Samah Sabawi. A ground-breaking anthology, the issues which arise in presenting and staging such plays were canvassed.
The “Things You May Have Missed” session featured a number of writers who pulled little known stories from the pages of our history, unveiling surprising and amazing facts. Author of Girt and True Girt David Hunt unveiled some hilarious stories. Who’d have thought that our colonial inheritance included such characters as a cross-dressing bushranger as well as a Jewish bushranger gang that terrorised the Hunter Valley between 1839 and 1841 – except on Saturdays! Also of note was Harry, the first camel used in Australian exploration, who shot dead his owner, the adventurer John Horrocks.
In High Hitler, German writer Norman Ohler presented his first non-fiction work – a book about the untold story of the Third Reich’s use of drugs, which enabled its henchmen to fight for days without sleep and more effectively murder during its campaigns. Blitzed: Drugs In Nazi Germany, also describes Hitler’s reliance on various opiates and the notorious role played by his personal pharmacist. When asked by JA what was an important lesson to be learnt from this dark chapter of history, Ohler advised: “Don’t let government control drugs”.
Also non-fiction is the latest work of award-winning writer Australian Kate Grenville (The Secret River). In The Case Against Fragrance, based on evidence arising from the gold standard of scientific research – peer reviewed papers, she examines the impact of fragrances, perfumes and the array of scents in everyday products such as air fresheners and detergents on asthma, as hormone disrupters and carcinogens. She reported how a Canadian airport now offers a scent-free route through it and government offices there are now scent-free following a court case; how there’s increasing numbers of people leaving jobs because they can’t function in certain workplaces as their colleagues refuse to stop wearing perfumes or aftershaves; and 20% of people leave shops immediately if they are perfumed. She compares it to the attitude of the tobacco industry to passive smoking 20-30 years ago. Apparently a lack of transparency in current labelling laws mean that fragrances can contain a cocktail of up to 200 chemicals. Grenville told JA: “The impact of your use of fragrance on others is as important as its effects on your own body”.
For literature lovers, stayed tuned for more info on the Melbourne Writers Festival which is being held 25 August – 3 September.
Summary by Paula Towers