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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | August 12, 2020

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Reflections on Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015

Reflections on Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015

| On 23, Aug 2015

2015 sees its fair share of politicians stepping into the fray at the renowned Byron Bay Writers Festival. Read our thoughts on this – and the top 5 books we picked up at the festival.


The Byron Bay Writers Festival is the biggest regional event of its kind – and, supposedly, a good representation of current Australian literature. Judging by the 2015 program, we have sold our literary souls to the government. In the 3 days of the festival Wayne Swan, Anna Bligh, Maxine McKew, and the biggest drawcard of all, Julia Gillard, all paraded their new autobiographies.  Coinciding with Julia’s session, ironically, was Jail for Journalism: Truth-Telling and The First Casualities of War,  a session promoting Kate McClymont’s book on Eddie Obeid, former ALP member that disgraced his party when he was tried for corruption related offences.



There were more ironies. The mass of Julia’s believers who flocked to her tent surprised me, some arriving 4 hours before her session to get a good seat. I heard them gushing afterwards, “she was just like a celebrity.”  In Tim Costello’s book Hope: Moments of inspiration in a challenging world in a chapter titled ‘Obama and the Planet I found the phrase to articulate what I encountered:

… celebrity syndrome that puts brains into negative.

With the exception of Wayne Swan, these politicians-come-authors commanded the prime-time spots.  Forced by an obsession to avoid all political-writer sessions, I strayed into the doldrums, attending sessions Turning to the Dark Side about living well and dying well, and Anxiety and Creativity about the agony of writing.




Then, in Cartooning on the Frontline: Why the Pencil is Mightier than the Sword, First Dog on the Moon (cartoonist for The Guardian) argued against Charlie Hebdo deciding to run the prophet Mohammad, saying that the point is to try and be funny, not to offend.  The panel complained how controlled cartoonists were by our political and cultural climate in drawing what they did stating that religion causes more hassle than politics in Australia, and so they self-censor.




L-R: Sheng Keyi, Annie Zaidi and Miguel Syjuco.


Another tent, another day and I see three young writers – Sheng Keyi, Annie Zaidi and Miguel Syjucoe – each from three different Asian countries speak in a session entitled (ambitiously but fairly) New Asia: The Best Young Writers in Asia Today. All of these writers actively risked their physical wellbeing in speaking out against their governments.  Miguel has been advised not to go home to the Philippines this Christmas and Sheng doesn’t know what repercussions speaking at the Festival might have for her yet.  While Australians can speak out against politicians, not entirely without repercussions it is certainly with little risk to our physical selves. But it seems we are allowing their celebrity to envelope us in a false sense of security, that we have freedom of speech.  Perhaps the pencil is mightier than the sword, but not mightier than the pen.



1.Vera: My Story Robert Hillman

Avoiding the late Wayne Swan session, I attended a book release about the life of Jewish migrant and ABC journalist Vera Wasowski, who boasts such friends as Kerry O’Brien – so much so that Kerry presented the session. It is a testament to the woman, but it felt like the majority of members in the audience were friends of hers – with stories that include meeting both Hitler and Stalin, she’s probably good for conversation.  I sat beside one friend who said she’d lived with Vera in Melbourne but hadn’t been able to catch up with her in years. “She drinks,” she said (a well known fact), “So you have to ring early and I have children to look after in the morning.”  According to Kerry, the book contains half the f-bombs originally written in, leaving about 200.




2. Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now, edited by Julianna Schultz and Jane Camens

Literary festivals should be about discoveries, about emerging talent and increasing culture. This book is made up of essays, poetry, short-stories written by citizens of Asian countries. The book states the term “Asian” is problematic in itself, given it refers to such a diverse group of people, cultures and political climate – and the growing power of “netizens”.  The book is the bare bones of what it is like living in communist China, what political corruption is to the Philippines, and how feminist India is challenging long-held religious ideologies.  Miguel read the following passage in the context of his amusement at Australian’s voicing dissatisfaction about their country’s leaders:

Every nation has its unfair share of dickheads, doucebags, dingleberries and denigrates.  But my country, the Philippines, bests most in democratic tomfoolery.

It is a book that holds inside the bravery and courage that will have you rethinking any complaints you have about Australian politics.


New Asia now


3. Hope: Moments of inspiration in a challenging world, Tim and Merridie Costello

As close as it gets in the top 5 to a politican – Tim Costello is politician Peter Costello’s brother.  His new book contains stories from his travels throughout impoverished countries as CEO for World Vision, where he was left humbled by people’s ability to live a life full of value without first world mass materialism. Tim recounted a story from his book about a village tradition – the richest person holds a large feast for the village that lasts the length of time taken for him to give away all his possessions.  At the end he is rewarded with a gold coat, and starts again at the bottom. “A man who dies rich should be ashamed,” he says of the belief system of the Nagaland people.  “You probably hold similar feasts in Australia,” he is told by a woman to which he says, “I know that we have nothing like that in Australia.”





4.  He Who Must Be Obeid,  Kate McClymont & Linton Lesser

Eddie Obeid was a member of the Australian Labor Party, awarded the Australian Medal of the Order of Australia before he was terminated from the party and the medal withdrawn by the Governor-General. From 2012 to present he is the subject of a investigation in the Independent Commission against Corruption.  Mr Obeid has since pursued a law suit against the publishers, offended by the book which he sees as defamatory.



He whomust be obeid

5. The Anchoress, The Robyn Cadwallader

A historical fiction by Australian author, Robyn Cadwallader.  This is her first novel about a strange Catholic practice in the 13th century where nuns actively gave up life to become closer to God.  They were the living dead, choosing to spend their remaining breaths in impossibly suppressing conditions; small cells, not light, few visitors, no visits outside.  Some cells, says Robyn, had graves dug in them, “just to remind them that they were the living dead.”


The anchoress


And for dessert Let’s Eat: A Cookbook Celebrating Film, Food & Family, Margaret Pomeranz & Phillipa Whitfield Pomeranz

Part-cookbook, part-autobiography.  Filled with stunningly styled food images and tasty recipes, it includes excerpts about her conversations with famous film stars, including an account of one of her worst interviews when she interviewed Harrison Ford. It is an invitation to the table of candidly speaking Margaret, Australia’s best known film critic, with a lot of good food as accompaniment.


lets eat




Photo Credit: Asia Now writers: Griffith Review.  Photo credit for book covers: Angus and Robertson.