The biennial Tropical Writer’s Festival was held the other weekend in Cairns amid a great wrangle of words, bruised keyboards and wriggling pens. After Richard Flanagan’s recent blistering article regarding the recent bothersome nature of ‘safe’ Australian Writer’s Festivals, we were bracing for a few more verbal assaults on the topic of writers actually having an opinion at a writer’s festival. There was some keen debate, for sure. And so there should be.
But as forums for public debate and discussion vanish throughout the country, … the importance of community events like writers’ festivals only grows in importance. They should not answer either to the mob or to corporations. They should be there for writers and writing, and all that these represent: tolerance, debate, difference.
So writes Flanagan, in an expression of concern after both political writer, Bob Carr and feminist provocateur, Germaine Greer, were uninvited from the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. The reasons given for the sudden change of heart by the Brisbane Theatre Festival establishment were perfunctory and vague enough to raise some ire. Flanagan posits that the political opinions of Bob Carr in his latest book (supposedly an anti-immigration position, but this is also contentious) and the ever-vehement and controversial ideas Greer is likely to come out with have everything to do with this “uninvitation”. He believes the festival management got skittish over sponsorship companies pulling their support for the festival. And we would not want that, would we? Well, no. But the implications are a little scary; it implies that writer’s festivals have fallen victim to the whims of large corporate sponsors whose primary interests are branding and profit. Scary because:
A writer, if they are doing their work properly, rubs against the grain of conventional thinking. Writers are often outcasts, heretics and marginalised. Once upon a time writers’ festivals celebrated them, and with them the values of intellectual freedom and freedom of debate. Writing that mattered wasn’t seen as being about being reassured, comforted, deceived and cosseted in our own opinions. Rather it was, as Kafka put it, the axe that smashes the frozen sea within.
And what a privilege it was to sit in an auditorium this weekend and listen to the likes of Julian Burnside QC, Richard Fidler, Anna Broinowski- all learned, brave, articulate and outspoken (and often unpopular) writers/journalists, all national treasures in waiting—speaking on the topic of “Is Our Demonocracy Working?”. The answer is complex and also very simple. Our democracy is screwed. Dodgy backdoor deals, bread and circuses, smoke and mirrors, migrant/refugee othering, squeezing the living daylights out of wages, worker casualisation, and the corporate-controlled media’s inability or lack of interest in reporting it all correctly. Clearly, the panel felt there is a lot wrong. The government’s response rate to its slavishly tax-paying public is tardy at best, plug-arrogant at worst. Best of all at the democracy debate was Anna Broinowski, who tore the lid off everything with a particularly articulate crowbar, exacting a full five-minute rant on government misrepresentation and shady deals with China, rounding it all off with an expletive grunt defining the state of our political system. The entire crowd were gobsmacked by her rapid summary of the facts as she understands them. She believes we live in a plutocracy, but more meaningfully, it should be named by the more recent term Corporatocracy (or Corpocracy as it is known in short form, and I rather like the ring that new word has because it is so close to the word hypocrisy, which is right on point!)
Richard Flanagan is right. You just don’t get this sort of public rhetoric in Australia very often. It is critical that those who are in a position to comment intelligently on the political landscape are given leave to do so, as often and vehemently as they desire, whether they rock the boat or even sink it, let’s have at it I say. That’s what makes a democracy great; the ability and encouragement to question what is happening, who/what is driving this puppy, and to consider what might be instead. This privilege will be the first to be missed should democracy actually fail us and we fall into an utter and undeniable non-representative position with our government.
Have we developed a culture of non-debate here in Australia? Have we stifled debate entirely in our quest to be polite and respectful to everyone? Are we frittering away our right to say no, I don’t agree by looking the other way all the time when the hard and awkward questions arise? You know.
Very good indeed to have a component of our local writer’s festival dedicated to writing for performance, more specifically theatre. It is rare for any writer’s festival to consider catering to playwrights, but Tropical Writer’s Festival this year offered a masterclass with the venerable Aussie playwright, Hannie Rayson. Many of the JUTE writers attended, which I was so pleased to see. In fact, the masterclass was almost standing room only.
So many other writer’s festivals do not offer a place for playwriting. Writer’s festivals are traditionally for the literary world- not the theatre world. Playwrights travel in different circles entirely, and some ways the world of playwrights is so slight (non-corporate) as to completely slip under the radar. That’s why theatre tends to hold its own festivals and conferences. I’m not especially complaining about this because I believe that because of its small (relatively non-corporate) nature, the theatre world has ironically been able to be more open and sensitive to social change than the literary world.
Mention the politics surrounding cultural misappropriation in playwriting, or the struggle for gender parity in theatre production, or the quest for diversity or blind casting or #metoo in theatre circles and you will be covering some well-worn debate. Literary world? Not so much. I see recurring examples of the literary world in Australia paying zero respect to indigenous calls for their stories not to be mined by non-indigenous writers. Gender parity does not enter into any form of debate for literary festivals I’ve attended, and as for diversity please just check who was on that panel on democracy I just mentioned above; two middle-aged white blokes and a middle-aged white woman were given the floor and the panel was introduced by a middle-aged white bloke and chaired by yet another middle-aged white bloke. Long before Anna Broinowski commented on the lack of diversity on her own panel, I can guarantee every theatre industry person in the room had clocked it.
It is perhaps the difference between Literary Festivals with considerable sponsorship backing, and large book sales and other corporate gravy train concerns hanging in the balance, and Theatre/Playwrights Festivals that enjoy predominantly government rather than corporate sponsorship and who are in the general scheme of things, “small fry”. Have I just discovered why theatre is more useful, powerful and resonant than literature?