One of the world’s longest-running writers’ festivals is still going strong in Australia.
I returned from Writers’ Week Adelaide 2014 feeling highly inspired and rejuvenated. It was the equivalent of attending a crash course in creative writing and rapidly discovering a wide range of literary concepts and experiences.
There was something refreshing about exchanging ideas and having thought-provoking discussions about literary works in a beautiful garden, seated on folding chairs or crossed-legs on the grass under a white tent, in the company of thousands of people from all walks of life with similar interests ...
The largest and oldest literary festival in Australia – and, having begun in 1960, one of the longest-running in the world – was held at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden in Adelaide’s city centre last month. The six-day affair that drew 100,000 visitors from Australia and abroad featured free panel sessions presented live and made available online via podcast.
The programme was curated by director Laura Kroetsch and brought together over 90 established and emerging authors from the Asia Pacific, Britain, Europe and North America in more than 80 sessions.
A series of ticketed special events and free Kids’ Days, which attracted hundreds of families, were also held. A bookstore was set up in a tent at the entrance to the garden, carrying books from all participating authors and signings were arranged so readers could get their favourite authors’ autographs. Proceeds from the book sales will be, as usual, used to finance the next festival to ensure that the event remains free.
Various literary creations – fiction, non-fiction and memoirs, specifically – were explored. Embraced by the summer sun and cooled by a gentle breeze, writers took turns taking visitors into their worlds.
“The Critical Distance” with Kerryn Goldsworthy, Jennifer Mills and Jeff Sparrow fired up the first day of the festival with a stimulating discourse on book reviews approached from both sides of the fence. The three discerning panel members drew from their own experiences as writers as well as reviewers.
They debated the credibility of reviews in prestigious print media compared with the dynamic and interactive nature of online reviews, and stressed the importance of writing reviews that benefit authors.
The ideal review should strike a balance between appealing to intellectuals and being easy enough for laymen to relate to, they said. Another wise suggestion was that authors should only extract useful feedback and avoid dwelling on negatives for too long if they want to continue being prolific.
Choosing the best form in which to present one’s writing is critical if you want to maximise impact, said panellists at “A Form”. Australian poets Lisa Jacobson and Mark Tredinnick and Kiwi poet Gregory O’Brien touched on the need to move beyond the widely-used prose novel and verse poetry forms to explore less explored verse novel and prose poetry forms.
In-depth conversations uncovered personal histories, as remarkable individuals moved audiences with discussions of their touching memoirs.
In History Of Silence, Lloyd Jones, a passionate Kiwi writer, narrates his family history that intertwined with the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. Despite revealing sensitive personal information in his memoirs, Jones said that he didn’t feel exposed or vulnerable, as he considers the sharing to be a private transaction with a reader and not a public one.
He also explained how he went the additional mile to research facts, from studying official court documents on his estranged grandmother’s divorce to creating fake family history to get certain parties to open up!
An Australian medical doctor who grapples with mental illness, Kate Richards recounts her plight in Madness, an honest memoir written from the rarely-approached patient’s point of view. As she pointed out, it is hard for patients to communicate with their doctors, as they have to use their brain, the diseased organ itself, for communication.
Her medical qualification is also sometimes a hindrance, she said, as people in her own field tend to assume that she knows more than she actually does.
Syrian-American musician Rayya Elias presented her raw and poignant memoir, Harley Loco, talking about how she descended to failed suicide attempts, drug addictions and prison before finally making the decision to rise above it. In this, creativity helped, becoming her anti-depressant, she said.
The session was conducted by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, Elias’s mentor, best friend and hair salon client (apart from being a singer, Elias was a much sought-after hairstylist for a while) who urged her to write and submit her manuscript for publication.
Audiences were also inspired by fiction writers who shared their out-of-the-box thinking and their visions of how the diverse world of literature could grow.
In a highly-charged session, “Imagining Worlds”, Aussie writer Catherine Jinks and Kiwi author Elizabeth Knox took the audience on a fascinating journey across genres, from historical and science to supernatural fiction. The quirky award-winning authors emphasised how writers need to create the architecture and beings of their own universes, and how imaginations and memories feed the same part of the brain.
I was awestruck by their ideas, which ranged from extracting dreams and sharing with others to performing “forward recall”, when memories are conjured up from the past and taken right into the future.
Rachel Kushner and Fiona McFarlane, who are well-known for their particularly original debuts, shared their sources of inspiration in “Telling Stories”.
New York-based Kushner explained how she is intrigued by the “long” 20th century; her writing process, she said, is intuitive and not thematic, and listening to people talk gives her the energy of a time or era.
Sydney-born McFarlane used the stories from her growing up years in her eerie debut novel, The Night Guest. The book, published in January this year, “came naturally” to her, shaped by the old stories; interestingly, she used dementia as a narrative device to introduce a child-like sensibility into an adult life.
Both writers captured past landscapes, with Kushner tapping stories about Indian rubber tappers in Mexico for her breakout sophomore effort, The Flamethrowers (which was named a top 10 book of 2013 by The New York Times Book Review), and McFarlane featuring a colonial Fiji setting.
Identity search and gender confusion were explored in “Who Am I?” with panellists Rabih Alameddine and Alison Bechdel. An award-winning graphic memoirist, Bechdel admitted that it was the challenge of dealing with her dysfunctional family and distant parents that prompted her to express herself through writing.
She found it strange how she would go to great lengths to hide her journals during her younger years but now openly shared them with the public in her work. Alameddine, a Lebanese author and painter, chose to work with fiction, as he found it easier to control – for example, he could portray his own character in a 70-year-old female protagonist, he said.
He went on to stress the importance of recording in written form the lifestyles that are not approved of by society’s dominant culture.
“Crime and Cowboys” with Lenny Bartulin and Zoe Ferraris showed how genre fiction could be innovatively used to discuss tricky topics. These two very different authors enlightened participants with their own creative thinking processes.
A native Australian, Bartulin retold the story of Tasmania’s penal colony past through historical fiction written from an aboriginal’s point of view in Infamy, while San Francisco-based Ferraris grapples with Saudi Arabia’s strict gender segregation through a series of crime fiction books. (Ferraris is American but was married at one time to a Saudi citizen and lived in that country.)
The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’s celebrated British storyteller, Alexander McCall Smith, pulled in a big crowd during his two sessions. A witty man who had the audience in constant laughter, McCall Smith related how a newspaper challenged him to write one chapter a day in his early years, which he managed to accomplish – and he has worked at that pace ever since.
His series has sold over 20 million copies and all of his works have been translated into over 40 languages.
McCall Smith also announced his latest literary venture: he is participating in the Austen Project by publishers HarperCollins that has six contemporary authors re-imagining six of Austen’s works for a contemporary audience. McCall Smith is working on Emma.
Gregory O’Brien, a multi-talented Kiwi essayist, anthologist and art curator who made several appearances at the festival, concluded his presence with a reading from His Own Steam: The Work Of Barry Brickell, a book on amazing New Zealand potter Brickell that O’Brien co-authored with sociologist David Craig.
O’Brien also shared what triggered his collections of poems, and accentuated ideas that developed from juxtaposition, getting two things to interact, and being in a state of puzzlement. Part of his writing process, he said, involves connecting with nature and capturing memorable occasions.
After attending over 20 such well-thought out sessions, I could not help feeling as if I had embarked on an enriching journey into exotic places as well as time, and that I was privileged to have had the chance to get to know these diverse characters and their creators. This is definitely an annual event to catch for aspiring and renowned writers alike.
>> Rumaizah Abu Bakar’s prose first appeared in News From Home (Silverfish Books, 2007), a collection of short stories by Malaysian authors; her own debut collection of short fiction and travel stories, The Female Cell (Silverfish Books, 2011), was shortlisted in the 2012 Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards.