For a literary festival that was built around the theme of power, the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which finished up on Sunday night, certainly packed a punch. In fact, its opening salvo, an address given by Pakistan’s Fatima Bhutto, appropriately called Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, set the tone for what was a week long exploration of power and passion.
And the best thing about the festival? The fact that more than 80,000 people who generally indulge in that most solitary of habits – reading – came out in force to talk, gossip, question and think about the writers and books that make their lives rich.
Of course, the weather gods helped enormously by turning on a run of classic Sydney winter days which made those (mainly) dockside venues all glittery and shimmery. Nothing like sitting by the harbour, coffee in hand, and watching your heroes stroll by.
But all is not lost for those of you who for some reason or other didn’t hop on a plane to be there.
For my own part, a couple of the events will stay with me for a long, long time. Maxine McKew did a superb job of drawing out Ingrid Betancourt, Fatima Bhutto and Aminatta Forna, three women who have paid the ultimate price for their countries, in Family Politics. These three women are treasures of compassion and humanity. They left us all electrified.
Both David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) and Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance) were brilliant, despite it has to be said the best endeavours of an extremely self-important interviewer who felt it was his duty to try and out talk them with his own personal opinions.
And AC Grayling, whose The Good Book some 30 years in the making has finally come together as a distillation of inspiration, consolation and wisdom drawn from thousands of years of humanist writings was erudite, accessible and sensible all at the same time.
Gail Dines on the hypersexualisation of youth culture made me want to lock up both my teenage daughter, and my teenage son.
Of course, there were some disappointments. In the same way as seeing the movie can spoil the book, meeting the author can have the same effect. The Tiger’s Wife is a cracker of a first novel (see my review here) for the 20-something Tea Obrecht. Talk to her and you realise that she is, well, 20-something. Best left on paper at this stage of her life.
The climax of the festival was the announcement of the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for fiction. What a field to choose from – Emma Donaghue with Room, Kim Scott with That Deadman Dance, David Mitchell with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Aminatta Forna with The Memory of Love. The first three have been highlights of my reading life over the last 12 months and am cursing now that the Forna novel has been sitting by my bed for months unread. It must be one hell of a book as it triumphed over three of the best to pick up the gong.
Read on for more about The Memory of Love, the judges pick of the best from a week wallowing in all things books.