Brisbane Writers Festival has had a controversial few years, and one might be tempted to argue that at this point it’s deliberate, given the choice this year to disinvite outspoken ex-feminist Germaine Greer and anti-immigration advocate Bob Carr.
Censorship seems an odd choice for a festival themed around ‘what the world needs now’. Writers and intellectuals, apparently, are rather sure that what the world needs now is not more censorship. Overall, the consensus from speakers seemed to be that we need intelligent and reasoned discourse, human compassion, and Kon Karapanagiotidis on hand to remind us that there’s still good in the world.
Jackie Ryan - Image © Kylie Thompson
Allowing Geoffrey Robertson Q.C. free reign in his Marion Taylor Opening Address meant that the anti-censorship digs started early, and became a running theme through the festival. Geoffrey’s address, though at times almost railing against the Festival, was a dynamic and engaging ride through some of the lawyer’s most notable cases against censorship, seemingly raising the sacrificial blade before drawing back enough to acknowledge that in some cases, taking away a platform from which only ignorance and hate will be spewed is the only moral choice available.
Dr Karl - Image © Kylie Thompson
Though the issue of censorship was problematic, BWF did some amazing work, bringing together interesting, engaging panels of reasoned thinkers to contemplate the big questions. There was something for everyone, all with an aim to showcasing relevant voices- an all-male panel on men’s mental health, First Nations led conversations on First Nations issues, diverse voices speaking about diversity and culture in writing and the best ways to encourage it, normalised conversations about a transgender woman’s experience… even a chat with Jacqui Lambie, if you’re into that kind of thing. And in ‘The Power of Hope/Arrival by Boat’, when called out for a panel on refugee issues without an actual refugee in sight, Kon K gave an impromptu masterclass in acknowledgement, self-reflection, and a commitment to remedy such oversights in future.
Shireen Morris stole the show in the ‘Nurturing Difference, Advocating Change’ panel; honest, vulnerable, and walking an unenviable tightrope between impassioned support of a cause and awareness that her voice isn’t the most needed one within the conversation. There’s something amazing in watching a woman turn her fury into focused, undeniable conversation, and Shireen was masterful in dismantling the stereotypes around Indigenous rights, never shying from her frustration that respectful acknowledgement is so easily dismissed by our current government.
War Stories panel - Image © Kylie Thompson
There seemed to be a run of scheduling issues, with multiple last minute time and location changes or cancellations, and more than a few guests found themselves wondering if Bob and Germaine had hit up Ebay for a Voodoo doll. But overall, though there was clearly strain and struggle in its execution, BWF worked some magic of its own.
The speakers were open, brutally self-reflective, and more than willing to explore the darker issues in the world, and yet, somehow, hope was the message of the Festival. The world is changing, even if not always for the best. But if the writers and speakers at BWF18 are to be believed, Dumbledore might have had a point when he noted that, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light”.