Hilary Mantel, Mad Max and Donald Trump: what we learned from Sydney writers’ festival

Judy Blume, Paul Kelly, George Miller and Tara June Winch were among the guests at Carriageworks, in a welcome return for the beloved event

Rage is a good place to start

After being cancelled last year due to the pandemic, 2021’s Sydney writers’ festival began with fury: an opening address shared by Melissa Lucashenko, Tara June Winch and Evelyn Araluen, and taken by all three as an opportunity to advocate for justice. As Araluen put it: “Aboriginal women know what it is to be silenced, ignored or wilfully misinterpreted by those who do not wish to hear what needs to be said.”

Lucashenko told a parable which had at its core the damage wrought by gentrification, as it “hits country NSW like a freight train”. Winch, stuck in France with a tab open on the Stranded Aussies forum, gave a forceful speech about how Australia looks from afar – violent, racist and in denial – and how uncomfortable it feels for her to be grouped into the “identity crisis” that is “Aussie” in the first place.

Araluen began by acknowledging the long history of disenfranchisement which continues to affect the modern Indigenous community in Redfern, where the festival venue, Carriageworksm sits. “The colony made this ghetto and the colony is now draining it for every ounce of gentrified square footage.” She spoke of climate change, racism, police violence and oppression, and ended with urgency: “I’d like to write lovely, happy, beautiful poems about all of the possibilities that are within our reach, but I don’t think we have enough time.”

Nayuka Gorrie, Estelle Clarke, Keith Quayle, Mali Hermans and Lorna Munro at the Radical Black Futures panel.
(L-R) Nayuka Gorrie, Estelle Clarke, Keith Quayle, Mali Hermans and Lorna Munro at the Radical Black Futures panel. Photograph: Sydney writers festival

The theme of the future continued through to Sunday, when guest curator Nayuka Gorrie hosted a panel featuring Lorna Munro, Mali Hermans, Keith Quayle and Estelle Clarke. “Will we survive white people?” Gorrie asked, a little hopelessly – a question that took on a whole new urgency with one of their babies snuggled in the nook of their arm. “How many colonisations have we [already] survived? How many apocalypses have we survived?” Munro answered. “We have oral stories that link us back to continents shifting, and megafauna … We are the exception of every rule,” she said. “We have to take strength from that”. – Steph Harmon

Interviewing Donald Trump is ‘like riding a bronco’

Father-son dynamics were laid bare in the conversation between the ABC health presenter and Coronacast co-host Dr Norman Swan and Washington-based reporter Jonathan Swan. When host Geraldine Doogue asked Swan Senior if he helped his son prep for that viral interview with Donald Trump last August, Norman nodded, deadpanning it was like assisting on a “school project”. Swan Junior, who was beamed in from the US capital for the event, responded with a vexed expression that was certainly meme-worthy. “I’m going to pay hell for this,” muttered Norman.

The illuminating conversation covered the two journalists’ meteoric rise last year, Norman’s refusal to be on the “drip feed” of government health officials, and how the Swan family banded together when Anna (Jonathan’s sister) suffered a traumatic brain injury while on a family holiday in Italy. Jonathan spoke about the humiliation of his first, sycophantic and widely panned interview with Trump in 2018, and how he meticulously prepared for the 2020 one, which famously skewered the president on his own sword. Interviewing Trump, Swan explained, is “like riding a bronco … Don’t come at him too hard or hostile or he shuts down.”

Conversely, Norman said he became Australia’s most trusted commentator on the Covid pandemic by staying away from power. He claimed there were only half a dozen pandemic experts in Australia and “none of them were giving advice to the commonwealth” last year. “But they were the people I was talking to on a daily basis … I stayed out of the room [of government PR] – it was a deliberate decision.” – Janine Israel

It is ‘disgusting’ to be a woman in politics right now

“I haven’t wanted at all to enter parliament for the last couple of months … Every time I’ve walked in there, my skin literally has crawled with absolute disgust,” said Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, of going to work in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment, assault and bullying. “This parliament actually drips – drips – in white male power and privilege.”

Faruqi, who was a civil engineer for 25 years, has had experience in white- and male-dominated workplaces, but has “never felt so marginalised and so sidelined as I do in this parliament”. It happens in insidious ways, but also in blatant ones. “There are so many of my colleagues – MPs outside the Greens – who just can’t get my name right, even after you keep telling them what it is. One person in parliament in a community meeting couldn’t get my name right and just said, ‘We should have simpler names.’”

Women and Politics panel at Sydney Writers festival 2021
‘This parliament drips in white male power and privilege’, says Mehreen Faruqi. Photograph: Prudence Upton

On the panel about women in politics, Faruqi was seated next to former federal Labor MP Kate Ellis, whose timely new book Sex, Lies and Question Time was described by this publication as “a compendium of the shameful treatment of women in parliament released at a time when we can speak of nothing but”. On the panel, Ellis said she grappled every chapter with a central dilemma: “How can I talk about this disgusting experience when I desperately want more women to go into politics? … I don’t want women to want to burn the place down; I want women to try to take the place over.” – Steph Harmon

The Mad Max series of films may never end

As George Miller prepares to shoot the prequel to Mad Max:Fury Road, telling the backstory of the 2015 blockbuster’s fierce female protagonist Furiosa, he spoke with Tim Minchin about what motivates him to keep coming back to the series.

Miller said what makes “the stories pop up again” is the nature of “working in an allegorical world … Even though these films are set in some dystopian future and you basically regress to some neo-medieval structures, they really are about who we are today – they always are.”

The world of the Mad Max series is one that Miller has always strived to give more depth: “If you just tell [the story] on the surface, you’re not going to get that deep stuff ... a lot of spectacle ultimately without much else to go with it.” The upcoming prequel came out of this philosophy, and was written before Fury Road was shot “to help the actors and the crew to give some sort of weight to the world”. The prequel is set to begin filming in June 2021 in New South Wales, as part of what the communications minister has called a “boom in large-scale global productions coming to film in Australia”. – Natasha May

Thomas Keneally ‘did the wrong thing’

“I did the wrong thing in my dumb postcolonial way,” Thomas Keneally admitted, about having written his 1972 novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, from the consciousness of an Aboriginal man. But Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi journalist Stan Grant is “glad the book was written” because “where you have failed it’s revealed to me ... how white people see us, and it’s given me something to write back to.”

An audience member asked: what does it look like to appropriately represent the story of Aboriginal people? Grant said he doesn’t respond to the trope of a person going back to country to find themselves, to heal. “That doesn’t speak to me at all,” Grant said. “I want to live with all of the brutality and the love, the contradiction, the hope and the fear, the hopelessness of it all … There is an assumption that white people should not write about Aboriginal Australia, that they leave that alone. In fact, you do have a right to write the story of this country, but it is a story that begins with us. And you enter into that tradition, you don’t write over that tradition.” – Natasha May

Judy Blume’s best book poured out of her

I got to hear my favourite childhood author say “masturbation in books is still taboo – which is a shame, because it is so good”. Speaking to Judy Blume over Zoom, moderator Sophie Black summed up Blume’s lineup of common themes: “You write about race and bras and periods and religion. Really the stuff you don’t talk about at a dinner party.” But Blume said she “didn’t know” how “politically charged” her books were, or how they would be received. She became one of the most banned authors in America.

Judy Blume at Sydney writers festival 2021.
Judy Blume at the Sydney writers’ festival: ‘Masturbation in books is still taboo.’ Photograph: Jamie Williams

When reading about a girl, her virginity and her pleasure, “there is never sex without punishment”, Blume said. “I thought there should be a book like that. So I wrote it.” That’s why, when her publishers called 1975’s Forever “a book for adults”, Blume “almost killed them”.

Blume’s determination to be honest in her writing started with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Published 50 years ago, it was dubbed too controversial for a library by her children’s elementary school principal, because the book shows Margaret getting her first period – something a child “shouldn’t read”, she was told. “Margaret taught me to forget all the rules about what children can and can’t read, and to write what was my truth and my reality. And so it poured out of me very quickly. When you do that is when you do your best work.” – Rafqa Touma

The audiences haven’t changed

After a year of upheaval, there’s one phenomenon that remains entirely unchanged: the behaviour of a writers’ festival crowd. It doesn’t matter if a host makes the rules clear, there will almost always be one person who marches to the microphone with a notebook open: “Actually this isn’t really a question, it’s more of a comment … ” Nature is healing?

The tone-deaf question hasn’t gone anywhere either. Randa Abdel-Fattah, Jeff Sparrow and Kishor Napier-Raman joined a panel about “cancel culture” on Saturday, and for the most part they were all on the same page: the only people who actually get cancelled in Australia are minorities, and we need more diversity of voices in the public sphere. It all felt a little too easy and insular until question time, when a man from the audience took the microphone with “a slight pivot”.

“In the world of fiction these days, it’s difficult to get published unless you are ‘authentic’,” he began. “Yes we need black writers talking about black stories, but don’t we also need white voices talking about black stories?” As the audience audibly cringed, Abdel-Fattah didn’t miss a beat: “Do we really need more? That’s the canon of English literature, isn’t it? It’s our time now.”

“But then you’re cancelling all of those who want to write them but can’t get published!” the questioner lamented, before a pleasant rebuttal from Napier-Raman: “Maybe the book’s not being published because it’s not very good?” – Steph Harmon

The Wolf Hall trilogy will become a new play

For the past 12 months, Dame Hilary Mantel has been collaborating with actor Ben Miles on a new play, using her celebrated trilogy reimagining of Henry VIII advisor Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light) as source material. It will be the second time the series has made the transition to stage, and the second time Miles will embody the Cromwell character, following the 2013 adaptation of the first two books by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The project – which will be announced formally in coming weeks – was conducted almost entirely via email, due to the UK’s Covid-19 restrictions. It could reach the London stage before the end of 2021.

Invited by the event’s host, the ABC’s Jonathan Green, to revisit the 2013 “plastic princess” controversy, Mantel reflected on how that speech, delivered at a London Review of Books event at the British Museum, was taken out of context by the British tabloid media, prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader at the time, Ed Miliband.

“I got into a lot of trouble,” she said, somewhat lightheartedly. “But I think, what I did was not offend the royal family; I offended the press. I offended the media by telling them not to behave like brutes and to back off and not treat Kate Middleton as they had treated Diana. My plea was to remember that royal people, for all their refinement and elevation, live in animal bodies just like you and me, and they have their personal vulnerabilities, just like all of us, and not to treat them like objects.”

Having said that, Mantel could not resist repeating to her Sydney audience another snippet from that controversial speech, comparing the royal family, from Henry VIII’s time to the present, to the endangered panda. “They’re very expensive to keep; sometimes (but not recently) they have difficulty in breeding, but we love to look at them.” – Kelly Burke

Stan Grant and Paul Kelly.
Stan Grant and Paul Kelly. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Paul Kelly made Stan Grant cry

There was a touching moment during the discussion between “Australia’s unofficial poet laureate”, Paul Kelly, and Stan Grant on Friday night that illustrated the power of words, music and storytelling. It came towards the end, after Kelly played a song called The Magpies, with lyrics written by a New Zealand poet Denis Glover.

As the guitar strains faded, Grant spoke: “That was just beyond eerie for me. Paul and I never talked about that final song. My dad hasn’t been very well lately … and he’s having a hard time,” he said, choking up while Kelly moved to hug him. “And his totem is the magpie. When he wasn’t well he had a dream one night that a magpie was speaking to him in Wiradjuri language, with his dad and his grandfather, and they were telling him that it wasn’t his time to go yet, and I just … I just can’t believe you sang that song.”

After a moving and emotional evening, it was this unexpected connection that demonstrated in real time how words and songs can bring comfort during difficult times. – Shelley Hepworth


Steph Harmon, Janine Israel, Natasha May, Rafqa Touma, Kelly Burke, Shelley Hepworth

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