This is a festival underpinned by a sense of hope. 

Counterintuitive, maybe. After all, any reader – of journalism, of current affairs, of anything about the state of the planet – might struggle with the idea of hope right now. Let’s face it, hope has felt pretty far off over the past year. We’ve been so far apart – both physically and culturally. But isolated in our bubbles, hope mattered more than ever.

And we reached for it through our art form of choice: words. Beautiful, glorious, stupid and serious words. There is no more powerful machine for killing distance than a book. Literature brings us closer to worlds, ideas and voices beyond our own. We walk city streets and have access to conversations that are far outside our daily experience.

This Festival is about celebrating the voices that extended our world when it felt small. It’s about the books that defeated the distance. It’s also a celebration of coming back together as a community. Rejoining one another in the same room for a shared passion: to hear and tell and challenge stories. And that’s what a festival is. It’s there in the name. A celebration. A party, even.

Our theme this year, Within Reach, highlights the astonishing writers who are shaping Australian literature right now. It recognises those authors who show us an Australia that is not monolithic or static but varied, curious and challenging. We have gathered the many diverse and exciting writers who are right here, within our reach – asking questions, raising their voices and defining this culture.

We are no longer subject to the tyranny of distance. The conversation starts here.

Three of the country’s finest writers – two Miles Franklin winners and one of the year’s best debut authors – come together for an Opening Night like no other. Melissa Lucashenko, Tara June Winch (appearing via video) and Evelyn Araluen reflect on what writing has brought within their reach, the writers who preceded them and the new ground they hope to break.

At the other end of the Festival, our Closing Night Address will be delivered by the incomparable David Malouf, whose career-long fascination with the relationships and spaces between things will provide us with parting clarity on the ideas and possibilities within our reach.

And in the days between these two indelible literary events, an unprecedented array of emerging, established and legendary local voices will be heard at our Carriageworks home and beyond. 

The Friday and Saturday nights of the Festival at Sydney Town Hall are a cavalcade of ideas, reveries and carefully designed mayhem. An all-star line-up shares stories of distance and intimacy inspired by the theme, featuring Tony Birch, Geraldine Brooks (via video), Trent Dalton, Ceridwen Dovey, Richard Flanagan, Adam Goodes, Alison Lester, Sisonke Msimang, Michael O’Loughlin, Christos Tsiolkas, Maria Tumarkin and Ellen van Neerven.

Some of our favourite political commentators and thinkers go head-to-head in the SWF Great Debate under the watchful eye of host Jennifer Byrne. Team captains Elaine Crombie and David Marr marshal their troops – Don Watson, Benjamin Law, Annabel Crabb and Nakkiah Lui – to pick apart the question: how good is Australia?

Guitar-wielding poet Paul Kelly brings his singular blend of performance and storytelling to reflect on the words and lyrics that have shaped his career, with some very special surprise guests. And for the Festival’s first ever poetry gala, over a dozen of this country’s finest actors bring their formidable performative skills to a night of poetry recitation designed to console and delight. 

This year’s program has been enriched by two Guest Curators who have each brought their powerful creative vision to the Festival. Nayuka Gorrie and Michael Robotham have designed sessions on bearing witness, confronting hard truths and reaching into the heart of things.

Festival favourite Barrie Cassidy is back with his trademark incisive interview style across four big events that take on everything from China and Canberra to Biden’s US and Scott Ludlam’s new memoir.

We’ve lovingly paired unlikely duos and serendipitous combinations to give fans plenty of their favourites while introducing you to new writers: Sarah Krasnostein & Helen Garner, Jan Fran & Judith Lucy, Richard Flanagan & Laura Tingle, Thomas Keneally & Stan Grant, Bruce Pascoe & Vicky Shukuroglou, James Bradley & Kim Stanley Robinson, Andrew Denton & Michael Robotham, Richard Fidler & Ramona Koval, Anita Heiss & Meg Keneally. We’ve even got Margaret & David!

Through technology, we’ve brought within reach some voices that we’re confident will add to and complement the questions and ideas happening here on our shores. Peter Carey joins the Festival remotely to offer his singular perspective as one of our finest writers. In an unmissable double bill at City Recital Hall, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Kazuo Ishiguro and literary sensation Rachel Cusk are each interviewed from afar about their remarkable careers in letters. Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, author of the bestselling Caste, goes beyond race and class to consider the hierarchies and structural powers that define our world. And legendary writer for children and young adults Judy Blume will be beamed in for her legion of Australian fans to reflect on a lifetime of shaping our reading lives. 

Our much-loved All-Day YA and Family Day are back for a riotous celebration of storytelling and creativity. On Family Day, Kirli Saunders and Dub Leffler teach kids how to care for Country, while Tristan Bancks (great-great-nephew of Ginger Meggs creator Jimmy Bancks) shares four new stories about the iconic red-haired rascal. Children’s storytelling treasure Alison Lester will enchant children and spark nostalgia in parents, while the Big Backyard awaits our youngest visitors with craft and activities galore. Nat Amoore ends the day with a trivia challenge that will put even the biggest bookworms to the test.

All-Day YA reunites Australia’s best YA authors with their biggest fans, sharing stories of resilient teens navigating love, loss and even the afterlife. Gary Lonesborough speaks about his heart-rending queer Indigenous love story The Boy from the Mish. And new stars such as Frances Chapman and beloved favourites including Garth Nix take part in events moderated by the Festival’s Youth Curators.

For all its inbuilt optimism, our theme is not without healthy scepticism, and we’ve refused to relegate conversations to the too-hard basket. Solutions to the problems we’re currently facing – the climate emergency, the global refugee crisis, racism, the failures of public discourse, the death of political accountability – sometimes feel out of reach, so we’ve gathered thinkers, writers and experts we trust to show us the way.

Amidst the serious talk and the quiet contemplation, once again, we’re here for celebration. In a Festival first, we’re holding a Debutante Ball for the COVID Class of 2020 on Closing Night. We’ve gathered those writers of fiction and memoir whose first books were swallowed up by COVID last year for the spin around the dance floor they so duly deserve. We invite you to join us in welcoming these debutantes into literary society in style.

Within the pages of this program, you’ll uncover a wealth of conversations both urgent and contemplative. Names that have filled your bookshelves for a lifetime, and voices and talents you’re discovering for the first time. Characters and stories that made the pandemic that little bit more bearable.

Literature brings ideas and flights of fancy within reach of our everyday life. Brilliant minds bring solutions and possibilities within reach of being realised. A festival brings us within reach of one another again.

And honestly, we can’t wait.  

Michael Williams 
Artistic Director