The Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF) is a stalwart in this town. It’s that magical, mythical space where many a Brissy writer, myself included, had the realisation that they wanted, needed, to write.
Over the years, it’s grown and changed, moving away from a strictly writerly focus to a space for political and social conversation as well. Sometimes, it works well. Other times, not so much.
Over the last few years, BWF has drawn the ire of many a local word-nerd, bringing controversial voices to the fore and leaving many – arguably more relevant – voices out in the cold. Last year’s opening address saw Lionel Shriver using the opportunity to bemoan the horrors of being a white woman asked to deal respectfully with other cultures – and left a rather bitter trail of destruction in its wake.
L-R: Sarah Schmidt, Kate Mildenhall, Catherine McKinnon, Kari Gislason - Image © Kylie Thompson
This year, BWF has stepped up its game, with a focus on our First Nation authors and academics and the histories and stories that often get overlooked in our nation’s history. Alec Doomadgee gave the opening address, talking about the need for real representation in our fictional words and the importance of seeing yourself, or at least, someone similar to yourself, upon the page and screen. It’s a growing conversational point in the creative industries and one that’s seen actor Ed Skein publicly step down from a role in ‘Hellboy’ to call attention to the whitewashing of ethnically diverse characters in film and television.
Friday was the day for no-punches-pulled conversation about the realities of modern life. John Safran, comedian and social commentator, spent the afternoon talking about extremism in the modern world and the mental gymnastics involved in holding a series of contradictory beliefs. Nancy MacLean spent the evening talking about the shifting face of democracy in American politics and the ways it impacts the rest of the world.
Image © Kylie Thompson
But at its heart, BWF is a festival about writing, and for those not quite ready for the more heavy conversations, there was more than enough to maintain interest. Melbourne author Sarah Schmidt talked about writing through the eyes of notorious American murderess Lizzie Borden, delighting and disgusting crowds with information she learned in her 11-year quest to write ‘See What I Have Done’.
American academic and writer Jesse Ball talked YA, setting fires and the importance of creating characters who are true to themselves rather than what adults feel children should be reading.
Image © Kylie Thompson
But it was Alexis Wright who stole the show this year, with the collaborative performance work around her novel ‘Carpentaria’ wowing audiences throughout the festival. ‘Angel’s Palace’, a collaborative art piece with artist Gordon Hookey, set the tone of the festival, with its gloriously vibrant façade standing out amongst the grey and green of the cultural precinct and looking both out of place and utterly at home. Inside, for those who managed to wrangle themselves a ticket, was a veritable treasure-house: the ideal blend of kick-ass performers, and imagination-revving spectacles of beauty and evocation.
One thing’s for certain: it’ll be interesting to see what direction the festival takes next year.