Reading can be a mixed blessing. For anyone who has had the misfortune to glance at the headlines recently, the last few months have felt like a long fever dream, for reasons that extend far beyond the outcome of the US Presidential election or Brexit.

More than 20 million refugees are on the move and another 40 million people are displaced in their own countries, in the largest worldwide humanitarian crisis since 1945. Scientists announced that the Earth reached its highest temperatures in 2016 – for the third year in a row. Millions more people have been left in reduced and uncertain circumstances, and feel that nobody is listening.

In times like these, we have a choice. We can give in to the rising zeitgeist of insular thought and intellectual suspicion or we can look for ways to fight it. Specifically, in this Festival, we look to books, to literature, to new forms of writing, where some of the world’s finest minds have started circling the wagons. Now, more than ever, I think that readers will be turning to literature as a place of refuge.

In a recent speech at the Winter Institute, feminist writer and commentator Roxane Gay said: “Throughout my life books have been my best friends. In bookstores and with books I have been able to forget the cruelties of the world. I have been able to shield myself when I needed safety. I have been able to find solace and joy. I have been able to find sanctuary – a consecrated place, a place of refuge and protection.” Incidentally, Roxane Gay will be a guest at this year’s Festival.

Across the 2017 Festival, some of the world’s most curious and compassionate, irreverent but respectful, intelligent and argumentative writers will be offering up their brilliant works as temporary respite, and interrogating the forces that compel us to come together and find sanctuary.

To open the Festival, three of the world’s most celebrated literary figures will each deliver an address on the theme of refuge.

Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is one of the most dazzling debuts of the past year, a luminous and wise story of young love and friendship, and a big secret in a small town. Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering, and her latest offering, The Green Road, is as characteristically bleak, funny and sentimental as the best of her work. The singular George Saunders, the writer for our time, makes his first visit to Australia with his incendiary first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. This year’s Festival is an embarrassment of riches, and this is only the first event.

Colson Whitehead discusses his 2016 National Book Award-winning novel, the furious and wildly inventive The Underground Railroad, with the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul.

Cult writer Chris Kraus will discuss her provocative body of work with Krissy Kneen, including the controversial auto-fiction I Love Dick, which has been adapted for television by Transparent’s creator Jill Soloway.

At 19, Hisham Matar’s Libyan father was kidnapped and held in a secret prison. Hisham never saw his father again. Peter Carey called his astonishing memoir The Return 'a triumph of art over tyranny'.

Award-winning podcast Slate’s Culture Gabfest will record its first-ever show outside of North America, live from Sydney Town Hall. Beloved Slate critics Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner are like your smartest, funniest friends; friends who happen to know the best in books, film and the arts from around the world before you do.

Elaine Welteroth, the woman who’s making over teen stereotypes as newly appointed editor of Teen Vogue, will talk about why the article 'Donald Trump is Gaslighting America' became the most-read piece in a publication previously known for its stories on dating and lipstick.

Sophie Black will discuss the politics of fear with David Marr, whose new Quarterly Essay The White Queen examines the peculiar power of the fearful in our prosperous nation, and John Safran, whose new book Depends What You Mean by Extremist explores the mad world of misfits who propelled the second coming of Pauline Hanson.

Witness a rare and revealing conversation with two giants of crime fiction – Scotland’s Ian Rankin of Inspector Rebus fame and Australia’s own Michael Robotham. Ian will also appear in conversation in Parramatta with New York Times bestselling author Candice Fox.

In a centrepiece event of the Festival, our own panel of ‘Nasty Women’Brit Bennett, Durga Chew-Bose, Viola Di Grado, Anita Heiss, Chris Kraus and Nadja Spiegelman – take to the stage to share cautionary tales, life lessons and good advice.

Literary luminaries Robert Dessaix, Hannah Kent, Hisham Matar, Ian Rankin and Joy Williams will reveal the books that made them want to become writers, offering an insight into what shaped them, and informed some of today’s most important works.

Celebrated UK neurosurgeon Henry Marsh will discuss his new memoir Admissions, in which he reflects deeply on his 40 years of experience operating on the surgical frontline.

In a special event, writer and photographer Bill Hayes talks to Slate’s Stephen Metcalf about Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, an intimate love letter to New York and his late partner, beloved writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks.

Bernadette Brennan has delved into the career of one of Australia’s most adept and admired authors, Helen Garner with A Writing Life. An all-star cast of Garner admirers – Annabel Crabb, Benjamin Law and Fiona McFarlane – will join Bernadette in conversation with Rebecca Giggs about Garner’s influence.

In Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, Jimmy Barnes will discuss his extraordinary memoir Working Class Boy.

We’re thrilled to be presenting a full day of YA programming in Parramatta for the first time, with international stars Jennifer Niven and Mariko Tamaki headlining a packed program of award-winning Australian authors including Amie Kaufman and Garth Nix. Family Day will return to Walsh Bay, with crowd favourites Lauren Child, Andy Griffiths and Kate DiCamillo.

This year, the Festival has three guest curators: Rebecca Huntley, Peter Polites and Ellen van Neerven, who have enriched the program with their unique vision and interests. You can find our local curators’ events here

In the Darkroom is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi’s extraordinary inquiry into the meaning of identity in the modern world. Susan will deliver our Closing Address, exploring the theme of refuge; from the metaphorical shelter of books, to the basic physical safety that millions seek today. In a not-to-be-missed event, Susan will bring her experience to bear on some of the urgent questions of our age. When is refuge real, and when is it illusory? And who among us doesn’t seek it?

In May, hundreds of inventive, audacious and inquisitive writers from all around the world will lead Sydney in a week-long conversation. We hope you’ll be a part of it.

We hope you find refuge with us.

Michaela McGuire
Artistic Director