11 August 2023

From Bluey to Schindler's Ark: Canberra Writers Festival to paint 'self portrait' of capital

| Travis Radford
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Beejay Silcox.

Canberra Writers Festival artistic director Beejay Silcox has curated the festival’s constellation of Australian storytellers for the first time. Photo: Canberra Writers Festival.

What do Bluey creator Joe Brumm, award-winning author Thomas Keneally and Wiradjuri journalist Stan Grant have in common? They’ll all be at Canberra Writers Festival.

Staged from Wednesday 16 to Sunday 20 August, the driving theme behind this year’s five-day celebration of Australian (and some international) storytellers is ‘Power Politics Passion’.

Beejay Silcox, award-winning writer, literary critic and first-time artistic director for Canberra Writers Festival (“an absolute dream job”), describes the program as a “self-portrait” of Canberra.

“First Nations Canberra, queer Canberra, political Canberra, entrepreneurial Canberra, all these versions of this beautiful city, I wanted people to find themselves in this program,” she says.

“As a Canberran and someone who deeply loves this city, I think there’s a frustration when nationally we talk about Canberra, it becomes a shorthand for the building on the hill.

“I share that frustration and while important things do happen in that building on the hill, there’s also so much more to the city than that.”

Beejay says the type of ‘politics’ she references in this year’s theme is “little p politics,” to do with the way we live our lives and interact with one another.

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But political boffins, as Beejay calls them, aren’t left out of this year’s program either, with a panel set to discuss the future of the Liberal Party, a live episode of ABC’s Insiders and more.

“It’s really easy to get stuck on all the ways our world, politics, climate, all of those things, are broken. What’s hard is to look at all those things and say, ‘What’s next?’,” Beejay says.

“I’ve tried to imbue that sense of celebrating the stories that we have and the way they tell the story of us, but also the challenge they offer us to do better and to think bigger, to try.”

Among the 129 people, 74 events, 60 conversations, 12 masterclasses, six lunches, two brunches, folk concert and gala dinner, Beejay wants people to be spoiled for choice.

“The feedback that I’ve had from so many readers coming out of the pandemic is they have fallen out of love with books and were sort of culturally paralysed,” she says.

“They didn’t know what to read. They didn’t know how to find their way back to conversation, to themselves, to the books they loved.”

From gothic romance novels to Antarctic adventure stories, guests will have the opportunity to hear from First Nations authors, experimental authors, young debut authors and authors who are household names. “It’s really exciting to be in the same room with Stan Grant or Louise Milligan or Thomas Kenneally,” Beejay says, citing a few of this festival’s highest profile attendees.

“But what’s really exciting to me is to be one of the first people to see a new author talk about their work for the first time, knowing in 30 or 40 years, they will be our new Thomas Kenneally.”

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Beejay encourages festival-goers to immerse themselves in the atmosphere and make a whole weekend of the annual event with their friends, rather than just booking one or two events.

For those too busy or overwhelmed by all the options, Beejay has also put in the legwork and curated her own diverse literary adventure, in the form of the ‘Beejay’s Choice’ pass.

Who is Beejay most excited to see? She’s partial to American fiction writer Lauren Groff, who’s zooming in to discuss her new novel for one of the very first times.

But more than the guests, conversations and masterclasses, writers festivals have a special place in her heart as the platform which changed the course of her life.

“I was sitting in a writers festival audience and I remember looking up on stage and thinking, ‘What a life it would be to be part of that conversation,'” she says.

“Being in that audience really was galvanising for me to make the decision to really try to see if I could make it happen for myself [as a full-time writer].

“Now that I have made it happen and now that I’m in this role, all I want to do is clone myself and put myself back in the audience.”

To view the full program and learn more about Canberra Writers Festival, please visit the festival website.

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