Arts / Writers feel the power, politics and the passion

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Tracy Chevalier… best-known as the author of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

“POWER, Politics, Passion” is the triple-headed slogan of the Canberra Writers Festival, but it’s a lot more subtle than it sounds.

According to the festival director, Vickii Cotter, it’s in no way intended as a flashback to the Carnell government’s once-derided “Feel the Power” catchphrase, but is rather an all-encompassing set of ideas.

“In Power, Politics, Passion we have essentially three streams…power doesn’t have to be in politics, but this is a festival that is just starting out finding its feet, so it’s great to have those themes, it helps us to create a brand,” she says.

Cotter says that while “Power” may be expressed in terms of politics, “it’s so broad that it gives us a lot to talk about, like women at work, a session with Virginia Haussegger, Jamila Rizvi and Catherine Fox and women in the media with Kathy Lette, Katharine Murphy and Haussegger”.

Noting “quite a market for writings about military matters”, they’ve programmed a military stream, with writers such as Robert Macklin, Ian McPhedran and Ian Townsend. There’ll also be a crime stream, which can take in power and the passion that she believes underlies the work of all writers.

Directing the event for the second year, Cotter has been working with a team that includes Sydney arts consultant Jennifer Bott, designated “artistic” director for the year, and chair and Canberra “No, Minister” author, Allan Behm.

“After last year we had terrific feedback from the national institutions and the festival has really taken off, she enthuses. Describing it as “a perfect fit for Canberra”, she sees as pluses the fact that we have academics, writers, authors and “amazing buildings” in national institutions that are imposing but still “cosy”, such as Old Parliament House, where the festival offices are located.

There will be more than 100 events, including “in-conversation” sessions, workshops, book launches, themed events and a silent-reading party running at eight national venues.

The opening-night dinner at the Portrait Gallery will feature “a rollicking tale of real food” by gourmet farmer Matthew Evans.

Jane Caro… on a panel called “Women’s Defining Moments in Australian History”.

There will also be a hunt for the elusive French black truffle followed by a gourmet lunch and a truffle-infused author talk by Sunni Overend, at The Truffle Farm, Mount Majura Road, Majura.

For a fledgling festival, Cotter believes the line-up is impressive, with international guests such as London journalist, Reni Eddo-Lodge; Rutger Bregman, deputy editor-in-chief at “Der Spiegel”; German writer and journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit, and Andy Martin, the first surfing correspondent to the London “Times”

Fiction writers from overseas include Tracy Chevalier, best-known as the author of “Girl with a Pearl Earring”; Elizabeth Kostova, whose new novel “The Shadow Land” is set against the culture of Bulgaria, and Samantha Shannon, whose “The Bone Season” series fits into the festival’s science-fiction stream.

Canberra authors appear in the political stream, at book launches and in several workshops, but indigenous writers are conspicuous by their absence, although Cotter assures “CityNews” that a Saturday media workshop is a way “to make a start on creating a more diverse program”.

But, she says, they do carefully try to cater to the newer generation of writers and readers through a young adult literature stream and “great kid shows at the National Library and National Museum of Australia”.

Powerful media identities are to the forefront throughout the program, with the festival’s “Ministry of Truth” session garnering Bregman, Senator Katy Gallagher, Katharine Murphy, George Megalogenis and Tony Jones to navigate a new era of newspeak and fake news. Elsewhere, the “All Stars Panel” will see Tracey Spicer, Richard Fidler and Julia Baird discussing questions of Australian identity.

Closing night ticks a couple of boxes with “Girls Night In: Live and Dangerous”, an onstage event at Llewellyn Hall featuring author Kathy Lette, comedian Jean Kittson, fashion journalist Maggie Alderson, Canberra-raised interviewer Jamila Rizvi and social commentator Jane Caro, who also appears on a panel called “Women’s Defining Moments in Australian History”.

And the feather in the festival’s cap?

That would have to be “The Harry Potter Show with Professor Frankie” on Saturday at the National Library with Prof Frankie Falconette, designed for ages 9-12. It’s free, but you’ll have to book.

The Canberra Writers Festival, Friday, August 25 to Sunday, August 27. Bookings and details at or 132 849.


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