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Australian Writers Shine At Inaugural Writers’ Festival In London

Jul 04, 2014

Image: High Noon with Clive James. Credit: Courtesy of the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts.

The Australia Council for the Arts was pleased to support the inaugural Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts held in London from 29 May to 1 June.

One of the Council’s aims is to promote Australia as a fearless, culturally ambitious nation. This means we look globally for opportunities to build awareness, respect and markets for our artists. The Australia New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts was a good opportunity to do this for our writers.

With 130 writers and artists as drawcards, the event attracted about 3,000 people over the four days, as well as at the schools program that followed.  Both ticket and book sales exceeded Festival Director, Jon Slack’s expectations.  The festival enabled writers to meet new readers, sell books and develop opportunities to promote their work in the United Kingdom and beyond.  Some of the featured artists took the opportunity to attend other events in the region, including Dublin, Hay and Charleston literary festivals, while some travelled on to other European countries to make their mark.

The festival was opened to a sellout crowd with a welcome by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera and Australian Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe, followed by Tim Winton in conversation with Kirsty Lang. During the festival a diverse list of contemporary Australian writers with a range of experience, such as Anna Funder, shared the stage with young writers like Romy Ash, and well-known British writers, including Fay Weldon. It was this mix that allowed the audience to discover some new, talented Australian writers.

I think Tim Winton captured it well when he told The Australian’s Literary Editor Stephen Romei David Malouf and Peter Carey, a generation older than Winton, had cleared their bits of grass and now writers such as himself, Richard Flanagan and Kate Grenville were clearing theirs. And if this festival allowed a ‘few stragglers” to push forward and claim their own patch of the paddock, it would be a good result.

The opening of the festival was one of the first events the newly appointed High Commissioner, Alexander Downer, officiated. Mr Downer explained at the opening, that the best way to understand a nation is to read its literature, particularly the novels. If the High Commissioner is right, the ANZ Festival of Literature and Arts not only helped writers attending sell books, but hopefully contributed to a better awareness and understanding of both New Zealand and Australia through the words of our writers.

Some of the festival highlights included Kate Forsyth, who wooed the audience with her historical and fantasy fiction; Paul Ham with his non-fiction; Anna Funder and ML Stedman stimulated and challenged audiences in their discussion about their recent award winning books, as did the inimitable Helen Garner.

A stand-out session with Anita Heiss, Bruce Pascoe and Ali Cobby Eckermann on Indigenous Issues in Literature and Arts had the audiences enthralled, as did a panel on first contact, featuring Ali and Bruce again with Witi Ihimaera.

The launch of the Griffith Review: Pacific Highways edition featuring three New Zealand writers was chaired by its editor, Professor Julianne Schultz.  Clive James had a capacity audience both in laughter and tears as he regaled them with his poetry and stories. Unwell as he is, he exited the stage to a standing ovation.

The festival would not have been possible without Jon Slack and his terrific team, a mass of volunteers and a great advisory group who represented the interests of Australian publishing and the writing sector.