Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2016 was extraordinary. We had more attendances and higher ticket sales and book sales than ever before. Literature is alive in Sydney and books, ideas and debate form the beating heart of our city.
Crowds came out en masse to events across suburban Sydney, into the Blue Mountains, and also to regional centres across Australia where sessions were streamed, giving access to remote audiences outside of NSW for the first time. There was a wonderful atmosphere at the Festival hub on Sydney Harbour, with people milling around, seeing events on the heritage wharves, catching up with fellow bibliophiles and reading in the sun.
There were many magical moments. Kate Tempest’s phenomenal Opening blending poetry and politics; Julian Barnes’ astute and personal talk on the limitations of biography; Gloria Steinem appearing in Australia for the first time in over twenty years was like a religious experience for thousands of people, and James Rebanks, the writer and shepherd from England’s Lake District moving our audience to tears. Indigenous writer and activist Stan Grant, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs and environmentalist Bob Brown were just a few of the authors who received standing ovations. Local icons Kerry O’Brien, Sarah Ferguson, George Megalogenis shed some light on Australia’s political past and present and Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales' shared their informative and amusing year in reading. Thousands of children were entertained throughout the week, first of all in our School Days program and collaboration with the Board of Studies, then on the last day of the Festival in the land of Glowtopia, with events for all ages. Hanya Yanagihara’s Closing Address exploring empathy, violence and the nature of art was an incredibly powerful end to the Festival.
What I loved seeing over the week, was all of the writers going to each other’s sessions, supporting each other and forming some fantastic friendships. It was heartening to see Festival-goers soaking up the atmosphere, chatting about sessions and nourished by the ideas. There really was something particularly special this year in the combination of people coming together. It was thanks not just to the authors, but also to our supporters and the book lovers across Sydney and Australia that helped make the Festival such a resounding success.