A festival speaking to our times



It’s a small literary festival, taking place every two years in the centre of Australia, that determinedly enters into dialogue with the themes of our times in an ever more inter-connected world.

The pandemic has brought that inter-connectedness into even sharper relief. Our borders may be closed, half our population may be in lockdown but we share, by degrees, the same confounding challenge.

That has seemed since early 2020 more immediate and acute than that other global challenge – the climate crisis – but recent climate-related disasters in quick succession, and the spectre they raise for Australia’s coming summer, are urgently testing that assumption.

In this context festival director Dani Powell, in her fourth iteration of the NT Writers Festival in Alice Springs, homed in on connectedness as the festival theme this year.

And as in previous years, she turned to Arrernte guides as the first story-tellers of this place for an Arrernte concept that would express this theme.

“I’m always looking for something that make sense across cultures,” says Powell – and for something that roots the festival in this place, as only Arrernte language can.

Veronica Perrurle Dobson AM, Arrernte linguist and author (pictured at the 2019 festival, photo by Anna Cadden), proposed “Anpernirrentye”.

She liked it particularly “because of its positivity”, says Powell.

The term* overarches the way Arrernte people think and talk about family – “kin and skin” – but, given how people and Country are indivisible, its embrace is broader, taking in “land, language, culture”.

“I love the way it positions humans in relation to everything else and I came up with ‘everything is connected’ as a simple English version we can run with,” says Powell. 

An unmissable festival event for many will be Mrs Dobson’s presentation on the theme, using sand drawing, including her own extension of the practice employing contrasting coloured sands.

Discussing the theme with her advisory committee and her colleagues at the NT Writers Centre turned up for Powell its many possibilities: connections between people and Country, between species, relationships between family and kin, between communities, between local and global issues.

As these conversations expanded various authors come to mind, and she started searching for others.

“It’s a fantastic curatorial tool to have a theme,” says Powell – it lends itself to cohesiveness in the programming, rather than the festival simply bringing in the latest or most noted authors.

Powell ahead of her first festival as director in 2015, photo from our archive.

She began to put together a “long list” of potential interstate guests, while at same time making a callout to NT writers to respond to the theme with expressions of interest.

Their work too is curated, rather than them being programmed “just because they’re an NT writer”.

With the EOIs coming in, being read by a small panel, Powell turned her mind to what dialogues could be generated between local writers and the authors on her long list. She discussed this with her committee, started reading some books herself, asked colleagues and people in the community to read others and provide her with feedback.

“It’s important that the programming goes beyond my own sensibilities in terms of taste and influences, that it’s more about community ownership,” she says.

She began to put out invitations and has been delighted with the response. Perhaps it’s down in part to there being no international festivals this year, freeing up more writers than usual, but perhaps too it has been because this festival has gained a reputation

Whatever the case, the response to invitations has yielded “a strong, beautiful lineup”, including selections from across the NT.

Such are our times, however, the festival can’t guarantee in-person appearances from all the interstate guests. By coincidence, the lineup includes seven writers hailing from Sydney, currently in the grip of a Covid outbreak, so that programming is in a precarious position.

Powell and her committee are keeping a sharp eye on developments there and elsewhere and will make a decision in two weeks’ time. If writers can’t travel, there will be resort to a mix of video link and live streaming for those sessions.

There’s not room here for a comprehensive overview of what’s in store, but I ask Powell  for some highlights.

First up she mentions Nardi Simpson, a Yuwaalaraay woman (right, photo by L Simpson from author’s website) whom many know from her performing with the vocal duo Stiff Gins. Her debut novel, Song of the Crocodile (Hachette Australia, 2020) has been long-listed and short-listed for a string of awards this year.

“It’s an extraordinary Australian novel,” says Powell, without adding ‘debut’ to her assessment.

Relating an inter-generational family saga unfolding in a fictional small town in Australia, an Indigenous community is Simpson’s focus but her story also “shows the parallel universes at play in this country”, says Powell, in particular with respect to inter-racial relationships, historically and now.

She found it to have strong resonance for people who live in The Centre, really “on theme”, revealing the interconnectedness between past, present and future, as well as between the spirit world – the people who have recently passed – and the living.

The novel will be the focus of a “Book Talk” with Powell herself interviewing the author.

Simpson will also take part in a panel on “Family, kin, community”, “looking at the way we belong to one another, the bonds and binds, the power to harm as well as to heal”.

Craig Silvey (left, photo by Daniel James Grant from the author’s website) is also bound to be a drawcard. Best known for Jasper Jones (Allen & Unwin, 2009), later made into a film directed by Rachel Perkins, Silvey will be talking to his recent novel Honeybee (Allen & Unwin, 2020).

About a young person battling with trauma and gender, a lot of the reception to it has focussed on questioning whether heterosexual male writers can or should be writing about a young trans person, says Powell, “to the point that the book as work of literature has not been adequately examined”.

At the festival he will be interviewed by Teddy McDiarmid, a trans-masculine, non binary local, and will appear in another session with Rick Morton.

Morton is also a guest of the festival as an author in his own right (One Hundred Years of Dirt, MUP, 2018 and My Year of Living Vulnerably, Harper Collins, 2021) and as well is the editor of Black Inc’s forthcoming anthology, Growing in Country Australia.

“It will be good to look at Jasper Jones in this light,” says Powell – with its setting in a small Australian town in the 1960s, its story shaped by small town prejudices.

“It made me think, where do small towns fit in our national imagination?”, again of particular relevance to Alice Springs.

She is also interested in Morton’s recent focus on vulnerability, which he looks at particularly in relation to masculinity, but for Powell it has heightened relevance for our present moment “as humans in relation to everything else”.

Historian Mark McKenna and his publication of Return to Uluru (Black Inc, 2021) was always going to be invited, as the book relates a story that “belongs here” – the shooting at Uluru of Pitjantjatjara man Yokununna by policeman Bill McKinnon, and McKinnon’s exoneration.

In the session focussed on that book, lawyer Russell Goldflam will facilitate a discussion between McKenna (left, photo from the Black Inc website), Traditional Owner Harry Wilson who will speak about the story from his family’s perspective, and filmmaker David Batty, who recorded crucial oral accounts of the Anangu story of the events.

In another session, McKenna will join fellow historian Catherine Bishop, whose new book about missionary Annie Lock (Too much cabbage and Jesus Christ, Wakefield Press) comes out in August, local author Eleanor Hogan (Into the Loneliness, NewSouth Books, 2021, about Daisy Bates and Ernestine Hill) and Fiona Foley, the well-known contemporary Indigenous artist, now author of Biting the Clouds (UQP, 2020), about the colonial-era practice of paying Indigenous workers in opium, described by the publisher as a “groundbreaking work of Indigenous scholarship”.

This panel will be looking at frontier relationships and their challenges.

Powell has also got her fingers crossed on live appearances by Laura Jean MacKay – who won this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction for The Animals in That Country (Scribe, 2020) – and Danielle Celermajer, an academic and author of Summertime (Peguin, 2021).

Given the theme of the festival, the prescient setting of MacKay’s “really wild” work of speculative fiction in a world gripped by pandemic, where humans become able to understand animal communication, and the subtitle of Celermajer’s book, Reflections on a Vanishing Future, say it all.

The festival’s theme image, a photograph by ©Mike Gillam.

A session with Celermajer titled “Animalia” will take place in the Museum of Central Australia where she will be in dialogue with Pintupi ranger Jodie Ward, who will speak to her direct experience of local extinctions, Dr Ken Johnson, who will speak to the museum’s Finlayson collection, and poet Meg Mooney whose work often features native animals of our region.

Apart from all this incisive and imaginative programming, place is what gives the festival its special character, in particular where it can offer a glimpse or experience of Arrernte Country and an orientation to the town that grew up on it, and the histories and cultures engendered in those encounters. Once again, Powell, her committee and colleagues seem set to deliver a fascinating blend of all these elements.

The festival, based at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, is scheduled for 26-29 August, with the full program launched last night and ticket sales now open. Hard copies of the program can be picked up from Red Kangaroo Books as well as various cafes around town.

Photo at top by Oliver Eclipse: Crosslines festival event at Olive Pink Botanic Garden, 2017.


Festival advisory committee members are Sylvia Purrurle Neale, Leni Shilton, Meg Mooney, and Gabriel Curtin.

The author of this article will be a guest at the festival, discussing her book, Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, national security and dissent (UQP, 2020).

Related reading:

Veronica Perrurle Dobson is the author, with John Henderson, of Anpernirrentye Kin and Skin, (IAD Press, 2013), reviewed here.

Dani Powell is also the author of a novel, Return to Dust, UWAP, 2020, reviewed here.


Last updated 23 July 2021, 2.38pm


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