Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was the most anticipated writer at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival 2015. Tickets for the day of her appearance sold out and the rush for seats resembled pre-dawn summer swoops on Mediterranean sun lounges.
Luckily the previous sessions were entertaining … Malcolm Knox, Richard McHugh, Sarah Armstrong, Mia Freedman, and I was fortunate in that my neighbour in the marquee, accidentally bought an extra coffee.
But it was all worth it. We remain curious about Julia. Claire Wright was a thoughtful interviewer and a refreshing alternative from the media mainstays whom we’d heard interview Gillard many times before. There is also something to be said for giving people the space to speak without a pressing need for ‘gotcha’ journalism. We may actually learn something. We certainly learned about Gillard’s passion for her current roles, particularly as Chair of The Global Partnership for Education (GPE).
I was struck when Gillard spoke of girls education in sub-Saharan Africa where girls will only start to be educated at early high school level well into the next century. It is important not only so that girls can receive education and training and lead meaningful and contributing lives but also to counter the number of child brides.
Gillard whose misogyny speech garnered huge numbers of viewers and acclaim, said she did not know why Tony Abbott’s speaking in front of the ‘ditch the witch’ and much worse signs ‘was not a career-ending moment’. What if it had been?
Writing is hard work both intellectually and physically, said Gillard. She spent 3-4 weeks on chapter planning. She did not want the book to be full of bile and wanted to emphasise that the bitter-sweetness of politics is outweighed by the latter.
Gillard said she was leaving politics and did. Wayne Swan who also appeared at the festival did not leave politics choosing instead to remain on the backbench, and vocal calling things as he sees them. Another high profile Labor leader who was present was former Queensland premier, Anna Bligh who has weathered cancer to move into a new phase.
Other political, policy and current events were debate by George Megalogenis on the back of his fine TV series, Jonathan Biggins (entertainingly so), Tariq Ali who resonated with the Byron audience and Jane Caro and Erik Jensen. As ever to mention everyone, it would turn into a list.
For me, the fiction and memoists are a huge drawcard.
- Jackie French who has inspired thousands of young people to write. When I mentioned that I mentor one such young person, French asked me for her name, scribbled a message in a book and handed it to me for her.
- Chigozie Obioma who writes of his place, and who did not need friends as a child because his brothers and sisters were his friends, and who took us to West Africa with his story.
- And Jennifer Clement, who puts into her novel, Prayers For The Stolen, the truths from Mexico that can’t easily be reported.
- Michael Robotham who keeps us awake too long.
- The moving launch of Vera. Vera Wasowski’s biography as told by Robert Hillman and launched by Kerry O’Brien.
- The appearances and clear thrill felt by Emma Ashmere whose novel, The Floating Garden gathers praise like flowers as it goes.
These are a few recollections of the Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015 — it’s not easy to know where to end or begin — and I will end and simply to say, happy reading for 2016.