A message from the associate director

In what meaningful and transformative ways do we attend to the issues of our time?

A perennial question asked throughout history by all who pay attention to the world. Recent events have bluntly highlighted that today’s concerns – the climate crisis, globalisation and capitalism, and racial, cultural and economic inequity – are all connected. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr: injustice anywhere, injustice everywhere.

Frustratingly, the conversations we’re having today about these problems are the same that were had decades ago. Jenny Odell, a guest at this year’s festival, challenges us on this notion of repetition by declaring: ‘if you were reading a book whose pages began to seem more and more similar, until you were reading the same page over and over again, you would put that book down.’

Another perennial question: when we’re not happy with the circumstances of yesterday and today, what can we do to change those of tomorrow? Which book do we pick up next?

To help you decide, this August more than 100 of the world’s most perspicacious writers and thinkers will converge under the banner of the Festival’s theme, Attention. Through its lens they will question who we give our attention to and why, unpack how crises and other major events force us to reconsider how we connect with each other and our environment and, importantly, they will celebrate their books and writing that hold our attention despite the world in which we find ourselves.

Focusing our attention on justice and equity, our opening night will feature Megan Davis, Teela Reid, and Thomas Mayor (Finding the Heart of Our Nation) reflecting on the three years since the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart was presented at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention. This historic moment marked the first step towards what many gathered at that convention considered permanent, positive change in the way First Nations people and their rights were represented at a national level. How far have we come since 2017? And how does Australia, a colonised nation on land which was never ceded, reckon with its history to forge ahead into a more just future?

Bookmarking our festival will be two addresses: Orange Prize-winner Kate Grenville (A Room Made of Leaves) will consider fact and fiction and the ways we can attend to unheard truths to reach a more nuanced understanding of our past and present; meanwhile, American writer and visual artist Jenny Odell (How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy) will contemplate how we redirect our attention towards the things that really matter, and how by doing this we step closer to liberation.

The matchless Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge and its recently released sequel, Olive, Again, will join us for a rare, deep-dive conversation into the heart and mind of her books’ cantankerous heroine. Other literary giants include the celebrated and wickedly funny Anne Enright who will be discussing her novel Actress, and US author Brit Bennett who will delve into her bestselling second book, The Vanishing Half.

The New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright couldn’t have predicted what was to about to unfold when he started working last year on his latest novel, The End of Octobera pandemic thriller. He will discuss the prescience of his work and compare what he suspected might happen if the world was faced with a deadly pandemic with what is actually happening. Speaking to other calamities, Irish author Caoilinn Hughes (The Wild Laughter) and Australian writer James Bradley (The Ghost Species) will explore how crises have shaped their recent work, while Canadian novelist Michael Christie (Greenwood) and author and screenwriter Charlotte McConaghy (The Last Migration) consider extinction as a timely theme in fiction.

Shifting from fiction to fact, climate and renewable energy expert Ketan Joshi (Windfall) will bring his expertise to two panels. He will be joined by writer Judith Brett (Quarterly Essay: The Coal Curse) to unpack the misinformation campaigns waged against the science of climate change, and by social researcher Rebecca Huntley (How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference) and Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen (Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia) to reflect on Australia’s response to the climate crisis.

We will celebrate some of this year’s most anticipated Australian debuts, including Kokomo by Victoria Hannan, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu, and My Tidda, My Sister by Marlee Silva. Indian-born novelist Megha Majumdar will join us to speak about her propulsive first book, A Burning, which provides a vivid portrait of contemporary India’s social and political complexities.

With only four months until the next presidential election in the so-called Land of the Free, the country buckles beneath the weight of the coronavirus disaster and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. Cultural critic Mikki Kendall (Hood Feminism) will speak about the intersectional feminism urgently required in such times of turmoil, and geopolitical forecaster George Friedman (The Storm Before the Calm) will offer an ambitious and sometimes provocative forecast of the future of the United States.

Keeping with politics, two former Australian Prime Ministers – Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbullwill each speak to their latest books. Gillard’s, co-written with Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, shares the experiences and wisdom of several extraordinary women leaders and their careers on the world stage. Turnbull’s is a memoir, detailing his astonishing life and career from journalist, lawyer, and businessman to politician and Australia’s eventual leader.

For much needed escapism, Kevin Kwan follows his immensely successful Crazy Rich Asians trilogy with the first book in a new trilogy, Sex and Vanity; and Casey McQuiston, author of Red, White & Royal Blue, will speak about her big-hearted and whip-smart romantic comedy which became a viral sensation in 2019. On Friday 14 August, join us for some more fun with Jamila Rizvi, Clare Bowditch (Your Own Kind of Girl), and special guest Miranda Tapsell (Top End Girl), as they celebrate the end of the week with a glass of bubbly, honest conversation, and song. Then join us again later that same night to have your iso love conundrums picked apart and maybe solved by Jess McGuire and siblings Benjamin Law and Michelle Law.

Michelle will also feature in our mid-week gala, where six of Australia’s most clear-eyed writers will deliver creative responses to the prompt: are you paying attention? She’ll be joined by Stella Prize–winner Jess Hill (See What You Made Me Do), editor Leah Jing McIntosh, novelist Favel Parrett (There Was Still Love), academic Alison Whittaker (Fire Front), and poet Ellen van Neerven (Throat).

The program will feature brand-new original writing from Helen Garner, Sisonke Msimang, Ali Cobby Eckermann, and Christos Tsiolkas, each of them reflecting on what has held their attention in their lives, their careers, and their writing. Approached with nuanced critique, this series considers how the events of the last few months have shaped, altered, or shaken up the locus of our individual and collective attentions.

Finally, paragon storyteller and award-winning journalist Patrick Radden Keefe will close the festival with an expansive discussion about his latest projects, including the Orwell Prize-winning Say Nothing and his podcast Wind of Change. Radden Keefe will reflect on a lifetime of following the evidence, and the fascinating, compelling, and sometimes outlandish stories that have captured his attention along the way.

And there is much, much more. I hope this program, which is brimming with heart, intellect, and curiosity, is the celebration and refuge you need.

I hope it captures your attention.

See you soon.

Gene Smith
Associate Director

MWF Digital is online 7–16 August. Explore the program.