In the wake of the cancellation of Byron Writers Festival for a second year in succession, northerly contributor Rebecca Ryall, who was scheduled to be our on-the-ground reporter at the event, has conjured an imagined, envisioned Festival round-up, based on this year’s stellar line-up.
Byron Writers Festival is a smorgasbord of ideas and conversations. This year, having tickets to all three days, I decide to take full advantage of the organising team’s hard work and sample as much as possible of what’s on offer. On Friday, I take my youngest child, aged fifteen, to view the program through their eyes.
We plan a full day, but thankfully most of it is spent in the same venue, and we have a packed lunch so we don’t waste precious time queuing for food. We start over at the Feros Care Marquee for the Secret Senses panel. I am intrigued by the possibilities of a sensuous engagement with the world that does not include hearing, so Fiona Murphy is a definite drawcard for me. The work of Sophie Hardcastle – both written and painted – inspires my child, so we are both engaged by this panel.
The next time slot presents the first challenge, as I spy a scheduling clash – do I want to see Richard Flanagan in conversation with Jennifer Byrne, or attend the panel session in the Greenstone Partners Marquee, discussing what’s off-limits in YA? My kids have loved Isobelle Carmody’s work, and Will Kostakis is lauded for his depictions of diversity in his novels so, much as I am in awe of both Flanagan and Byrne, it’s the Greenstone Partners Marquee for us. I only wish Craig Silvey was there to add his two cents’ worth.
The next session – Consent – I wish could receive a wider audience. I am so glad to have brought my young person to this event, if only for this discussion, though I have the feeling my child has a greater handle on bodily autonomy than I have ever possessed. We stay on for the Women Speaking Frankly panel as I am keen to see Shu-Ling Chua in person, and we are both fans of the work of Ren Alessandra, slam poet extraordinaire. It is great to sit in the sunshine of a perfect day in Byron, having writerly discussions and very little angst. We are too full of the ideas of others to clash about our own.
We queue for coffee and hot chocolate and take a short break to people-watch, before heading over to the Southern Cross University Marquee to see Archie Roach, because one must always take the opportunity to listen to this giant of a man. I have had the opportunity once or twice in the past, but this is a rare treat for my teen. They sit quietly and listen, nodding occasionally and rising to applaud at the conclusion.
It is then time for the final act, and the most anticipated session of the day for us – He, She, They: Talking About Gender. This is, for my money, one of the most artfully curated panels of the entire Festival and definitely one of the most important topics of discussion. We were introduced to Nevo Zisin and their work when they appeared at the Festival a few years ago. I bought several copies of their book; one for us, one to share with family, and one for the school library. I am so excited to see them speak again and to dive into their new book, The Pronoun Lowdown.
Saturday, I bring my lover to the Festival with me. English is his fourth language, so books written in English are often impenetrable to him. The spoken word is much more accessible and he loves an opportunity for deep discussion. We start early, at the Feros Care Marquee for the What Life Has Taught Me discussion, featuring Robert Dessaix (who I expect to be cheeky and irreverent) and Arnold Zable, whose work I have devoured multiple times. The session is a soft entry into the program for the day.
Next up we find good seats at the Southern Cross University Marquee to enjoy Grace Lucas-Pennington’s skilful facilitation of the Elemental: Fire, Earth, Water session, featuring Matthew Evans, Kaya Wilson and Victor Steffensen. From there, we head over to the Greenstone Partners Marquee for Looking Death in the Eye. Danielle Clermajer’s stunning work, Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future, has moved and inspired me, and I am eager to put a face to the name and hear her speak.
We forgo lunch to see Melissa Lucashenko, Arnold Zable (again) and Randa Abdel-Fattah at the Power of Words panel discussion at the Feros Care Marquee, followed by Subversive Behaviour: Art and Activism in the Belongil Room. We conclude our day by listening in silence and stillness to the Thea Astley Address, which this year is presented by Judy Atkinson, our local and esteemed teacher in the field of intergenerational trauma and truth-telling. Whilst there are other sessions scheduled afterwards, we both agree this is the best place to finish. There is much spirited conversation on our drive back over the hills through the late winter sunset.
For the final day of the festival, I carpool from the hills over to the coast, with seven other women from my book club. We are an eclectic bunch, including students, community workers, a forest ranger and an esteemed academic. We have brought lunch, refreshments and reusable coffee cups and most of us have money to buy books. The drive over, taking nearly an hour and a half, gives us ample time to study the program and debate the merits of the schedule. It is an early start, as half of us are eager to see Arnold Zable and the rest keen for Julia Baird and the Luminosity in the Darkest Moments panel discussion, both of which start at 9am. Phosphorescence has done the rounds in our book club, and Arnold is the brother of our beloved local climate and anti-war activist, Benny Zable. We all agree it’s a shame to miss Marcia Langton who appears at the same time as these others, but she is thankfully scheduled for another session later in the day. The ten o’clock session sees our group further fractured and my decision is whether to see Matthew Evans or Danielle Celermajer (Small Green Shoots: Nature and Healing). In the end, I settle on the latter as this panel has the added bonus of being facilitated by Tony Birch. Some of the other literary ladies head over to the Southern Cross University Marquee for the Voicing History’s Untold Stories session.
The Sarah Kanowski fans among us settle in at the First National Byron Pavilion for her chat with Meg Mason; Sorrow and Bliss is next up on our reading list. With my head spinning from all the ideas and stimulation, I take my coffee down to the beach for a short walk and moment of solitude in the shade. The setting of Byron Writers Festival in this beachside location has been a wise choice. The site offers the cushion of soft, sun-drenched grass on which to picnic and natter, and the beach beckons from a short walk away.
We reconvene for lunch on a grassy knoll, comparing book purchases and compiling our list for upcoming readings. The afternoon stretches lazily before us and we are spoiled for choice when it comes to which sessions to attend next. A few of us rush off to find a seat in the Feros Care Marquee for The Sound of Silence: Deafness and Identity session. I so enjoyed Fiona Murphy on Friday and have been captivated by Sophie Li’s story of hearing impairment and finding the deaf community as a young adult. I am also curious about how the panel will be facilitated. I leave the session before the end to get back to Feros Care to see Marcia Langton and Eva Cox on the Trailblazers: Women Who Have Made a Difference panel, and find most of the other book club ladies already in the audience.
It has been a long day for most of us, an even longer weekend for me, so I am happy to stay in my seat for the next two sessions – Scar Tissue: Trauma and Recovery and Think Globally Act Locally. I let the words of the panellists wash over me as I reflect on the three days passed.
It is such a treat to find an event such as this so close to home. The curation of people and ideas is thoughtful and thought provoking and the access to conversation is priceless. Whilst we all mourn the cancellation of the 2021 event, the work of organisers has not been wasted. Each year, the program presents the best new work in Australia today. We may not be blessed to gather in the sun and yarn, but we can still benefit from the behind-the-scenes organisation of this event. Check out the program, investigate the authors, buy books and support the industry in Australia as well as exposing yourself to lives, thoughts and ideas that may be different to your own.