JAI HO! Caroline Baum on The Jaipur Writers Festival

Booktopia’s Editorial Director Caroline Baum writes about her whirlwind trip to the legendary Jaipur Writers Festival


Every winter writers’ festival needs a chai wallah: a turbanned young man dispensing spicy hot milky cardamom and ginger flavoured tea served in terracotta cups (in the spirit of PM Narendra Modi’s efforts to clean up India, there is no plastic at this festival) before sessions get underway. The air in Jaipur is dry and chilly in January, though the day warms up soon enough under the billowing folds of the block printed canopies of the tents at Diggi Palace.

The other reason for the tea is to calm you after the trauma of the traffic jam that causes a daily surge in your blood pressure. A chaotic entanglement and near collision of tuk tuks, scooters, cars, and the odd elephant or horse (because it is wedding season and these are the transport of choice for grooms). The machines make more noise than a jungle full of wildlife, as everyone fights for lane supremacy. It is incredibly enervating, but one of the strokes of brilliance of the festival put together by William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy is a program of live music to kick off proceedings which restores everyone’s mood to a serene level.

Margaret Atwood delivers the keynote address

Each morning Sanjoy stands like a sentinel at the flower garlanded fountain at the centre of the venue, his long silver hair sitting smoothly below his shoulders, conferring on him the impression of a Sergeant Pepper album cover extra, greeting all and sundry with hands clasped together in the traditional Namaste or a hug. This gesture of welcome and hospitality is hard to beat. How the hell is he not running around in a flurry of last minute crisis management? When I ask he smiles enigmatically and says ‘ My job is done. Now all I have to do is stay out of jail,’ presumably referring to last minute litigation which put the festival’s access to the site in doubt till the very last minute. This is India, after all.

Diggi Palace is a vast site embracing several venues. The first festival event nine years ago which attracted an audience of fourteen people took place in the saffron painted Durbar Hall. Today everyone loves saying they are going to something at the Google Mughal tent because it trips off the tongue so pleasingly, but the superstar action is mostly on the front lawn under softly gathered folds of blue and white cotton. Capacity crowds meant standing room only for Margaret Atwood, Colm Toibin, Stephen Fry, and, biggest of all, French economist Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century), who was the first and last drawcard on one day, talking about inequality. (The only person who may have drawn a bigger crowd in the festival’s exuberant history is Oprah Winfrey, who caused a near stampede and pleased the Delhi ladies in attendance by wearing a sari, a gesture Monsieur Piketty could not compete with.)

And talking of inequality, there is a terrific rule at the festival: everyone is treated the same, without exception. No matter whether you are a writer or a delegate (ie you paid to eat in an exclusive area and have access to slightly better loos) or a sponsor, or even a festival director, seats are allocated on a first come first served basis and you cannot hold them for other people (when Delhi princesses do this by sending their drivers or retainers to sit in the best seats, appearing in all their finery at a later hour for some celebrity writer, disapproval ruffles the crowd like a foul smelling breeze.)

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry

Lunch is a logistical miracle. If you are one of the hundreds of delegates, you have access to another canopied area and a magnificent buffet of Indian dishes, all in plentiful supply. There is no need to queue and nothing runs out. An oven bakes at full tilt, its glowing wood-fired furnace producing parathas, naans and rotis. Pestles grind herbs for freshly made chutneys and sambals of mint and coriander. Desert is churned rose petal ice cream. You sit wherever you like and find yourself having intense conversations with delegates who may be writers, publishers, or passionate readers from Peshawar, Mumbai, Dubai, Toronto and Melbourne. The atmosphere is one of immediate congeniality and vigourous discussion. The place hums like a hive of bookish bees.

As for the one hundred and seventy five sessions running in parallel at six venues (where the size of the crowds over the weekend meant you had to allow fifteen minutes to get from one tent to another; with a surprising strong male presence Australian festivals would kill for and, last year, an average attendance age of 21), the breadth and calibre of writers and the careful curation of sessions is a veritable banquet of the best and emerging talent from across India and the world. Choosing is not easy.

In a session on the British art of biography the quartet assembled was unbeatable: Hannah Rothschild talking about her eccentric great aunt Panonica’s relationship with Thelonious Monk in The Baroness; Ben McIntyre discussing A Spy Among Friends, his new book on Kim Philby (he had audiences spellbound at several sessions); Victoria Glendinning being generous and funny about her new biography of the British founder of modern Singapore, Stanford Thomas Raffles, with Labour MP Tristram Hunt bringing Friedrich Engels to life in Marx’s General.

Other delegates went into raptures about William Dalrymple and Alexander McCall Smith’s raconteur double act, outdoing each other with funny stories like seasoned pros; there was a great fizz around Colm Toibin talking with Armistead Maupin about all things gay with Indian writer R. Raj Rao. On Monday the crowds thinned for a day of more politically focussed discussion of which highlights were a session called From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo with Laleh Khallil (Time in the Shadows) and Molly Crabapple, Niall Ferguson on Henry Kissinger, and a very measured debate on freedom of speech with seven major Indian writers. Colin Thubron was there to talk travel while Vanity Fair writers Alex Shoumatoff and Marie Brenner analysed the renaissance of long form journalism. Atul Gawande moved audiences to tears putting a very personal Indian spin on his bestselling Being Mortal, with his mother sitting in the front row of his sessions while he shared his latest research about healthcare needs in India (where the fastest growing sector of public health is nursing homes, bucking the traditional trend of families living inter-generationally and the young looking after the elderly). Marlon James’s red leather jacket added to his rock star charisma as he held audiences spellbound talking about A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Marlon James

Marlon James

Only one session failed to get to the heart of the matter with too many stars squeezed on to the stage: the cleverly named Selfie featured discussions on the memoir with Stephen Fry, Helen Macdonald, Brigid Keenan, Christina Lamb and Esther Freud – a veritable galaxy, but with insufficient time to shine. Photographers Don McCullin and Steve McCurry added another layer to the program with presentations that emphasized the visual. Poetry and ancient texts were given prime time centre stage slots. Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Gandhi and Pakistan got their moment in the sun. Bollywood made a glamorous appearance. The bookshop (superbly stocked independent Full Circle restored to its traditional role after last year’s outcry when the concession was given to Amazon) did a roaring trade. Rumour has it that attendances reached somewhere near a quarter of a million (including sizeable school and student contingents, with many questions being prefaced by the words ‘I am doing my PhD on your work ….’)

There were swank parties off site at palatial hotels and private homes, and time for short forays into the old city to shop for gemstones and textiles and visit the purdah chambers of the Wind Palace and the staggering Jantar Mantar 17th century observatory. But you didn’t need an observatory to locate the stars during the day: their light shone clear and bright.

Caroline Baum travelled to the Jaipur Literature Festival with the assistance of India Tourism and Marieke’s Art of Living (www.mariekesartofliving.com).

Upcoming events: Three must see talks presented by the Sydney Writers’ Festival this November

Three compelling talks presented by the Sydney Writers’ Festival not to be missed this November:

Literary powerhouse couple Micahel Chabon and Ayelet Waldman interview each other on family and creativity; Pulitzer Prize-winning Geraldine Brooks talks about her new book The Secret Chord and Australian of the Year Rosie Batty chats about her new memoir, A Mother’s Story.

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman In Conversation

Join this power couple of American literature as they interview each other on family and creativity. Find out how their partnership extends across various aspects of their lives, from raising children, to making marriage work and balancing their literary endeavours.

Tuesday November 3, 7.30pm / Seymour Centre, York Theatre / Discover more

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman copy

Geraldine Brooks: The Secret Chord

Kate Evans interviews one of Australia s most celebrated literary icons, Geraldine Brooks. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of  People of the Book, Year of Wonders and March will speak about her new book, The Secret Chord, a compelling portrait of a morally complex hero.

Monday November 3, 6pm /
Seymour Centre, York Theatre / Discover more

Geraldine Brooks 2

Rosie Batty: A Mother’s Story

Hear from one of Australia s most courageous women, Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, as she speaks with Tracey Spicer about her profoundly moving and inspiring life and new memoir, A Mother’s Story.

Monday 9 November, 8.30pm / Seymour Centre, York Theatre / Discover more

Rosie Batty 2

MAN BOOKER WINNER: Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings wins the 2015 Man Booker Prize

1114-MarlonJames_640x640Marlon James has become the first Jamaican author to win the coveted Man Booker Prize with his incredible novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, a masterfully written novel that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s.

James says ‘The Booker is that thing you hear about, and it just shapes your writing. This is so surreal. I feel like I’m going to wake up or fall into a barrage of tears.’

xa-brief-history-of-seven-killings.jpg.pagespeed.ic._SLViLO_8m (1)

The novel begins in 1976 as seven men storm Bob Marley’s house with machine guns blazing. The reggae superstar survives, but leaves Jamaica the following day, not to return for two years.

Inspired by this near-mythic event, A Brief History of Seven Killings is an imagined oral biography, told by ghosts, witnesses, killers, members of parliament, drug dealers, conmen, beauty queens, FBI and CIA agents, reporters, journalists, and even Keith Richards’ drug dealer.

Marlon James’s dazzling novel is a tour de force. It traverses strange landscapes and shady characters, as motivations are examined – and questions asked – in a masterpiece of imagination.

Grab your copy of A Brief History of Seven Killings here

5 Must See Events at the 2015 Sydney Jewish Writers Festival


My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: In Conversation with Jennifer Teege

avatar.jpg.320x320pxAccidentally discovering she was the granddaughter of Amon Goeth, the brutal Nazi commandant depicted in Schindler’s List, shook German-Nigerian author Jennifer Teege to the core.

Grappling with the haunted past of a perpetrator, the secrets and denial, she embarked on an extraordinary journey of soul-searching to Poland and Israel. She shares her astounding true story and eventual ‘liberation’.

Sunday, August 30 • 5:45pm – 6:45pm

Main Hall (Waverley Library, Bondi Junction)


TV espionage: In Conversation with the creator of Homeland, Prisoners of War & Dig

avatar.jpg.320x320px (1)Gideon Raff wowed audiences worldwide with the gripping and gritty realism of his acclaimed series, the Israeli Prisoners of War (Hatufim) and US adaptation Homeland.

As art eerily imitated life, millions of viewers were confronted for the first time with a messy, brutal and honest representation of the Middle East and America’s war on terror. He brought Israel to mainstream television again with his recent production, Dig. He shares his insights and the story behind his success.

Sunday, August 30 • 3:15pm – 4:15pm

Main Hall (Waverley Library, Bondi Junction)


I love a complex country: Views on Israel

avatar.jpg.320x320px (4)Israel excites, inspires, and vexes. As their hearts beat for Israel, Gideon Raff, Jennifer Teege and one of the world’s foremost experts on Hebrew and Israeli literature Dr Dvir Abramovich, offer their unique vantage points of a country filled with love and loss.

Their distinctive journeys take us over the noise of start-ups, felafel and conflict, to illuminate Israel’s complexities. Three writers reflect on ‘her beauty and her terror’ of a country that stirs our soul.

Saturday, August 29 • 8:30pm – 10:00pm

Main Hall (Waverley Library, Bondi Junction)


The silence of injustice

avatar.jpg.320x320px (3)In Iran, a doctor is considered a criminal for saving lives, and a woman who falls in love is breaking the rules. In Australia, a young Somali man is incarcerated for a terrible crime he did not commit. What hope is there in the face of such prejudice?

Award-winning writers Dr Kooshyar Karimi and Julie Szego discuss how the power of culture and the perils of silence perpetuate injustice.

Sunday, August 30 • 4:30pm – 5:30pm

Main Hall (Waverley Library, Bondi Junction)


Schmoozing in the Eastern Suburbs

avatar.jpg.320x320px (2)From the Hungarian cafes of Double Bay to the mansions of Point Piper, two authors expose the inner workings of two unique subcultures in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. They immerse readers in an intimate world of relationships, scandal, gossip and lies, interspersed with champagne and goulash.

Society columnist Ros Reines and novelist Eva Novy will amuse and delight you with the stories of worlds unknown, right at our doorstep.

Sunday, August 30 • 5:45pm – 6:45pm

Theatrette (Waverley Library, Bondi Junction)


For more details about this year’s Sydney Jewish Writers Festival head to www.sjwf.org.au

2015 Mudgee Readers’ Festival to kick off this weekend!

The Mudgee Readers’ Festival – now in its sixth year – will welcome a number of big-name authors this weekend.

The line-up includes Don Watson, Ramona Koval, Clare Wright, Steven Carroll, Debra Oswald, Wayne Macauley, Bernard Keane and Emily Rodda.

‘Our aim is to run an event that is warm and friendly, and welcoming to all readers. We are so fortunate to have such an incredible line-up of authors coming to Mudgee this year. Whether you have read the books or not, heard of the authors or not, you will be entertained, inspired and informed. The Mudgee Readers’ Festival brings you some wonderful minds and definitely some of the best talent Australia has to offer.’

Susie Bennett, Chair of MRF said at the program launch

The festival will feature in-depth interviews and panel discussions with authors such as Antonia MurphyRobyn CadwalladerAnna George and Peter Watt. A festival favourite – the Long Lazy Lunch – returns on the Sunday, this year with former host of the ABC Radio National Book Show Ramona Koval.

This year the festival has partnered with literary journal Seizure to host Rant, a dinner event on the Saturday night. Rant will be hosted by Seizure’s David Henley and will feature a stellar collection of authors sharing their thoughts about a topic that really gets their goat. Other feature events – free and open to the public – include a huge second hand book fair on the Saturday, new book sales and signings by the authors across the weekend and a regional author feature, Write Around NSW, on Sunday morning. Young readers will get their own special event with popular author Emily Rodda.

Purchase tickets online through Mudgee Region Tourism.


Booktopia’s John Purcell amongst the big names appearing at the 2015 Bendigo Writers Festival

Booktopia’s resident Book Guru and bestselling author John Purcell heads up an all-star lineup at this year’s Bendigo Writers Festival.

John Marsden, Bob Brown, Alice Pung, Graeme Simsion, John Clarke, Cate KennedyRobert Dessaix, Don Watson, Ellie MarneyLatika Bourke, David Astle, David M Henley, Max Gillies, Paddy O’Reilly, Robyn Davidson, Tariq Ali and The Gourmet Farmer’s Matthew Evans are just a few of the big names featuring in this year’s Bendigo Writers Festival.

Now in its fourth year, the Bendigo Writers Festival has become famous for the close access readers can experience with some of literature’s freshest thinkers, taking place in the heart of Bendigo’s View Street arts precinct.

The festival features more than 70 events in five venues across the August 8 and 9 weekend, from 9.30am on Saturday through to 5.30pm on Sunday.

For more details and to see the full program, go to www.bendigowritersfestival.com.au


The 35th Annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest

They love it when you call them Big Papa.

Wally Collins is congratulated after winning the 2014 Papa title.

Wally Collins wins the 2014 Papa title.

Around this time every year Key West is set upon by mature, heavy-set men with full beards in khakis.


It’s time for the annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest!

Hemingway lived in Key West during the 1930s and local bar Sloppy Joe’s, where Hemingway would often be found holding up the bar, has been holding the contest for an incredible 35 years. Around 125 entrants are expected to jostle for ‘The Papa’.

Sloppy Joe’s says it is “looking for mature, heavy-set men with a full beard”, but adds that “several young lookalikes have participated, and some have actually made it to the finals.”

It warns contestants: “Know your competition. The lookalikes arrive in Hemingway garb. Some wear safari outfits, khakis, and even the excruciatingly hot fisherman’s woollen turtleneck sweater. Some bring their own cheering squad. Most contestants admit (confidentially) that they may never win, but return year after year for the fellowship.”

The lookalike competition is just one part of a week long Papa-palooza that rains down upon at Key West every year, with Marlin fishing and short story competitions, readings, book signings and a “running of the bulls” event.

Click here for all things Hemingway


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