Interview: Jo Dyer on Writers’ Week 2019

Writers’ Week Director Jo Dyer talks to Glam Adelaide about this year’s line up of speakers and events.

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Interviewed by Tracey Korsten

Former Adelaide girl and Sydney Writers’ Festival Director, Jo Dyer, has launched her first Adelaide Writers’ Week. She generously sat down over a coffee with Glam to chat about the 2019 program.

“Every director brings their own taste and judgement and where I will be shifting the boundaries a little bit is that I have probably a greater interest in non-fiction and contemporary political discourse than Laura [Kroetsch, former Director],” she says. “I’m very interested in deploying all these fabulous minds that we bring to Adelaide in slightly more lateral ways, so that they’re having conversations with each other as well as with the audience. I’m not reinventing any wheels, but it was an area where I thought there was perhaps a little more opportunity than had been previously exploited.”

This year sees four significant new elements to the program: The Zeitgeist Series, Twilight Talks, Opening Address (delivered this year by Ben Okri), and Middle Readers and YA Day. These are all Dyer’s babies

The Zeitgeist Series, puts writers and thinkers together to discuss the burning meta-issues of the day. Wednesday 6 March will see Rage, Rape and Revolution discussed by Sohaila Abdulali, Soraya Chemaly, Lucia Osborne-Crowley and Clare Wright.

“Rather than just have the discussion of ‘Is there a backlash to #metoo’ and pitting men against women, which is a justifiable conversation but is already happening, what I was interested in was the debate which is going on WITHIN feminism about how to respond,” Dyer explains.

“I want to explore the kind of battle lines which are being drawn, often along generation lines. There is this sort of digging in. And perhaps t’was ever thus! I think a lot of young women are less compromising and you can understand why. It’s about time. The fact that we’re having the same debates and discussions decades later is just ridiculous. But then, on the other side, there is this idea of cancelling people. How do women respond to the idea that you can have f**ked up somehow and still come back from that? So, in a broad cultural space, what the hell is going on? I’m interested in hearing how women are talking about that amongst themselves.”

The second Zeitgeist discussion, Reframing the Future, is on 7 March.

“There’s so much horror happening everywhere you look, and this discussion asks: how can we actually reframe the conversation so that it isn’t full of despair and ennui?” Dyer says.

This panel consists of Ndaba Mandela, Professor Megan Davis and Birgitta Jonsdottir, Icelandic artist-turned-politician.

“Jonsdottir looks at her whole political career as being a big, artistic installation. She thinks it’s really important that artists get involved in politics because they are the ones that are actually looking at the world in a different way, from outside the square, which a lot of party apparatchiks do not do. Then we have Ndaba Mandela who is the founder of the African Rising Foundation, which is trying to move away from images of Africa being the mendicant continent. This plank is looking at a much wider movement than just what’s going on in Canberra, Washington or Westminster.”

Dyer’s second major ‘baby’ is the Twilight Talks. Traditionally, Writers’ Week has been a daytime event, mostly during the working week. We’ve all known people who take a week’s leave just to attend! The Twilight Talks are a chance for people to attend in the evening and still take advantage of the wealth of brilliant minds on offer, as well as the fabulous setting, on a warm, summer’s evening.

“Some people will stay from the daily program, but it is also about people on their way home from work. It’s starting at 7pm so you can leave the office at 5.30, have a glass of wine, there’s a DJ playing low-key music Then it’s six or seven writers doing 10 minute spiels. The first one is about pivotal moments. Then the next night is to the theme Telling Truths, which is self-explanatory.”

In fact, Telling Truths is the over-arching theme of this year’s WW.

“This is about the current, contested nature of truth: truthiness; fake news; the ongoing noise around veracity in our storytelling, our newspapers and from our leaders. But it is also about the subjective nature of truth. Your truth is not necessarily my truth. Let’s explore and acknowledge and calibrate that. Let’s have the conversation rather than beating each other over the head with a hashtag!”

Teenagers, older children and their parents will be thrilled with the new Middle Readers and YA Day. This will incorporate a poetry slam, Hear Me Roar! with performers included 12-year-old National Slam Winner, Solli Raphael.

“The kids’ weekend is great, but it’s focussed on very young readers. YA is a huge and growing area. It’s growing both in terms of the books that are being written but also increasingly, young people seeing poetry as a performance-based art. Poetry is having a really interesting resurgence. For young people it often starts as a cathartic form of self-expression, interrogating issues of self-esteem and so forth. We’re trying to fill the gap and make sure that Writers’ Week is for everybody.”

Although bringing new ideas and a fresh perspective, Dyer is keenly aware of the traditional and successful foundations of WW, and the ways in which it differs from other book or writers’ festivals.

“I think WW has, in the past, been a bit more book-focussed. I’m less wedded to the idea that there has to be a book” Dyer goes on to explain that: “Adelaide has traditionally had a focus on literary fiction, and that is absolutely still there in this year’s program, but it has broadened out. The WW audience is very loyal and committed, but also has a great sense of ownership and change is often contested, but that’s fine too. You do want to put your own stamp on it, and that’s what the Director of any festival does. There is a sense that WW could have more of an impact nationally. I’m interested in how WW can position itself. It doesn’t have the critical mass [of Sydney] but it can do things by virtue of its committed audience, its accessibility, its neutrality, its longevity, and its pedigree.”

And what has the Director of Writers’ Week currently got stacked on her bedside table?

“At the moment I’m going back over some of the books that have been programmed for this year in preparation for talking about them in more depth. And I have got my list of post-WW reading ready to go, but I’ll keep that quiet for the moment!”

Adelaide Writers’ Week is part of the Adelaide Festival, running now until 7 March 2017 in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, King William Road, Adelaide. Most events are free, with select ticketed sessions.

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