Adelaide Writer’s Week is a national treasure. For starters, it is the largest free writer’s festival in Australia, but most importantly it consistently attracts some of the best minds and writers in the world. And Australian crowds just love it.
For me, Writer’s Week was off to a stimulating start: Breakfast with Papers, a coffee, a comfortable seat in The Star Kitchen and Bar, Adelaide Festival Centre, and a panel of highly credentialed and informed guests to contemplate some of the really big issues facing our planet. I think the organisers were overwhelmed by the turnout as more and more chairs were being ferreted out from around the Adelaide Festival Centre to cater for the larger than anticipated crowd.
The crowd was there to listen to the Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University and award-winning author, Serhii Plokhy; Karachi based journalist and author, Sanam Maher and the deputy editor of ABC News in South Australia, Nick Harmsen who opened the proceedings with some lively discussion. Host Tom Wright tried to find commonalities in the Ukrainian and Pakistani experience and found them in the struggle for national identity, the uneasy relationship with their mutual ally, the United States whose increasingly rogue foreign policy was causing collective palpitations, and of course having to deal with a belligerent neighbour with a nuclear arsenal and territorial greed. The phenomenon of celebrity turned national leader provided for a most interesting discussion with Pakistan’s test cricketer turned Prime Minister, Imran Khan and Ukraine’s comedian turned President, Volodymyr Zelensky being put under the blow torch of scrutiny by all speakers.
After the spirited conversation and questions, Adelaide Festival of Arts co-director, Neil Armfield reserved the final question and comment. He had every reason to feel pleased with what he had just witnessed, commenting on the incredibly high level of intellectual discourse on offer, and the necessity for communities to gather around a coffee and newspapers and to have some really important conversations about the topical issues that affect our planet.
The line-up of writers for Saturday’s session in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden was a real smorgasbord of ideas and topical issues from around the planet – Ireland’s John Boyne, Nigeria’s Chigozie Obioma and Bart van Es from the Netherlands mixed ideas with some of Australia’s finest writers – John Marsden, Christos Tsiolkas and Blanche d’Alpuget. Serhii Plokhy left a resounding impact on me so I joined the audience which numbered in the vicinity of one thousand, to hear him talk about his award-winning book, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy. Quite likely the fascination with the HBO mini-series Chernobyl had a lot to do with the massive size of the crowd, and they weren’t disappointed. Plokhy is erudite and insightful and chair Steven Gale prodded and poked for some pointed responses and got them when Plokhy explained that the Chernobyl disaster was an accident waiting to happen and was an almost conceivable event considering the bureaucratic rottenness of the Soviet Union at the time. Ultimately, Chernobyl was one of the triggers that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This idea was picked up again on Sunday when Serhii Plokhy shared the stage with the Professor of History from Cambridge University, Christopher Clark to contemplate “The Fall of Empires.” Clark is an expert on World War One, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and referred to his book, Iron Kingdom about the fall of Prussia. Plokhy has written an authoritative text about the collapse of the Soviet Union called, The Last Empire. When asked about the lessons to be learnt from these collapsed empires, both authors pointed to similar patterns that seem to be re-emerging when looking at contemporary Russia, China and the US.
This was a really interesting discussion, and it was just one of many. An incredible weekend of literature, history and ideas. And a lot of fun too. I only caught a little bit of Hear Me Roar – a celebration of slam poetry. Great energy. Great fun.
We are so lucky to have such an amazing Festival in Adelaide. And its free.
Review By Bob Becker