Canberra Writers Festival is powerful, passionate and, yes, political

Genevieve Jacobs 24 July 2020
Adam Liaw

Adam Liaw will open the Canberra Writers Festival. Photos: Supplied.

Programming an event in a pandemic can’t be an easy gig for anyone, and Canberra Writers Festival artistic director Jeanne Ryckmans has had a bit to juggle with in this year like no other.

But the Festival, now in its fourth year, has risen to the challenge and will present a hybrid festival with live elements – almost the only writers festival in Australia to do so.

Ask Ryckmans what it feels like to have a moving feast of restrictions, closures and changes happening before her eyes and she is very clear about the message: “People want the intimacy and intensity of a shared live experience.”

“We’ll do it safely, but we were very conscious of a strong desire from readers to sit in an audience again and be there physically,” she says.

The reimagined Writers Festival runs from 12 to 16 August and reflects, as it must, the realities of COVID-19.

At the time of writing, live events involving Victorian authors are on hold and much has changed from the year of planning that went into this year’s original event.

But there’s an overwhelmingly strong desire on the Festival’s part to keep people engaged with reading (and writing) and Ryckmans says the publishing industry has also been very supportive of an event where people will actually be buying books.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert will talk Big Mammoth Magic on a live stream.

There are 17 live and streamed and 10 streamed-only events, beginning with the headline Hangman’s Supper with chef Adam Liaw. He’ll take as his starting point what you’d choose for your very last dinner on earth.

Among the Canberra connections, the ANU’s Liz Allen wonders Why Does It Take A Catastrophe? with Rebecca Huntley, Peter Greste and Dr Norman Swan, and if you’ve wondered whether we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, Christine Jackman and Sabra Lane reflect on Silence Please!

The Festival’s final event is a Girls’ Night In, featuring former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Jean Kittson, Bridie Jabour, Lizzy Hoo and Chris Ryan.

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem will be part of a live-stream conversation for the Writers Festival.

There are also some huge literary and cultural figures. No less an icon than Gloria Steinem will be talking to ABC board member Kirstin Ferguson, while Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert talks Big Mammoth Magic and finding the joy in creativity.

Singer-songwriter Paul Kelly reflects on the poems he loves that speak to love and death, and Heather Morris, who wrote the best selling The Tattooist of Auschwitz, will be discussing fiction, memory, history and fact.

The programming speaks to current conversations and Ryckmans says the aim is always to be provocative without being controversial.

“We’re examining the things that we’re all questioning at the moment, themes like climate change, leadership, privacy and big tech,” she says.

“Power, Passion and Politics is our point of difference and reflective of Canberra – what is Canberra and who are the locals? What are their preoccupations?”

The Festival seeks to create a world-class literary event, bringing together the best Australian and international writers, thinkers and social and political commentators.

And COVID-19 or no, it will go ahead, proving perhaps that the pen is both mightier than the sword and that there is nothing more important than ideas.

For full program details, visit The Canberra Writers Festival.

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