Review: 2018 Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival

Diverse, fresh, and vivid voices animate this extraordinary writers’ festival.
Review: 2018 Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival

Dias Novita Wuri in conversation with Zoya Patel. Photograph courtesy of the Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Held over four days in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, the 2018 Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival program presented a strong program of marvellous, ethnically diverse, fresh, and vigorous contemporary Australian and International writing.

Small, highly focused and perfectly curated, this writers’ festival is run by Varuna, the National Centre for Writers in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains in partnership with the Sydney Writers’ Festival, with creative director Amy Sambrooke at the helm.


‘Varuna’ is the name of the house that belonged to the acclaimed Australian writers Eleanor Dark and her husband Dr. Eric Dark. After their death, their son, Mick Dark, responding to a suggestion that Varuna could become a national residential centre for writers in memory of his parents, donated the house to the Eleanor Dark Foundation in 1989. As part of its ongoing program, Varuna now runs year round writers’ residencies which nurture and develop contemporary Australian writing, with up to five writers in residence in the  house at any one time.

It is this Varuna residency program, with its increasing focus on inclusivity and on nurturing writers from a range of diverse ethnic backgrounds including Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander writers, which forms the central hub of this remarkable festival.

Rising in the West: Writing from Sydney’s Heart, presented readings by three young writers from ethnically diverse backgrounds, all from Western Sydney. Each of the three writers has been the recipient of a recent residency at Varuna.

Rawah Arja read from her new YA novel, and her vivid, highly accessible, writing exploring the idiosyncracies and ‘weirdness’ of a fictional Lebanese family had the audience in stitches. Stephen Pham’s edgy reading marked the emergence of a strong new contemporary Australian-Vietnamese voice, bringing Australian and Vietnamese words together with choice brand names to create a distinctive mash-up language. His writing is perceptive, and is animated by its acerbic reflections and vivid eye for detail.

The third writer in the session was the one of the most extraordinary revelations of the festival, the poet Omar Sakr. Born in Australia of Turkish and Arab extraction, his use of language is startling, his imagery vivid, powerful and intense. The final poem about his mother, a woman shaped and moulded by violence, was profound and deeply moving, and resonated in the mind for days after the reading.

This memorable session was chaired by the Australian writer Michelle Cahill, herself from an Anglo-Indian background and the Managing Editor of the Literary Journal Mascara which champions the work of Asian Australian, migrant and Aboriginal writers.

Dias Novita Wuri - Feminist Perspectives featured a dialogue between Dias Novita Wuri, a young writer visiting Australia on the 2018 Tulis Australia-Indonesia Writing Exchange and spending five weeks in a residency at Varuna, in conversation with the Varuna alumni, writer Zoya Patel. The two writers spoke about issues affecting them both as young Muslim women writers, one from Indonesia, the other born in Australia with a  Fijian/Indian background. The discussion showed the vital importance of creating space for intercultural feminist dialogue such as this.

Other extraordinary sessions included Tara Westover (USA) talking about her book Educated in conversation with the award-winning writer, James Roy. Tara Westover spoke of her childhood, of being brought up by survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, and of receiving only home schooling. Her quest for education eventually took her to Cambridge University and then Harvard. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this conversation was her insistence on the co-existence of multiple histories, and on the vital importance of  telling your own history, your own story. In the face of the violence that Tara Westover had experienced  from a male family member while she was growing up, and in the face of his consistent gaslighting which led her to doubt her own experiences, the process of writing the novel Educated became a process of reclaiming her own history. The official family-approved history denied her experiences of this violence, instead the highly religious family pronounced her ‘possessed.’ In the aftermath of these experiences of not only violence but also extensive gaslighting, she described the process of writing this book and of uncovering her own version of history as allowing her the opportunity to reinvent herself.

Michelle de Kretser, the acclaimed Australian author born in Sri-Lanka, in a highly entertaining discussion with Stephen Romei, Literary Editor at The Australian, spoke about  her new book The Life to Come, and of the increasing importance of satire in her writing as a tool to puncture complacency.

Eddie Ayres, the writer and musician, in discussion with poet and musician, Kate Fagan spoke about his new book Danger Music. Eddie Ayres, previously known as Emma Ayres was host of Classic FM Breakfast from 2008-2017. Eddie acknowledged his desire for extreme experiences, and discussed several intersecting life journeys. He described cyling solo across the Takla Makan desert, and of travelling to Afghanistan to teach cello in a music school. These geographical journeys were intersected with his discussion of his life journey in his transition from being female to becoming male. This was an eye-opening talk, spanning different countries, cultures, and genders that was distinguished by Eddie Ayres’ openness and generosity in conversation.

2018 Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival
Katoomba, The Blue Mountains, New South Wales.
Friday 27 April to Monday 30 April

Creative Director: Amy Sambrooke
Executive Director: Veechi Stuart

Speakers: Joelle Gergis, Richard Denniss, Omar Sakr, Rawah Arja, Stephen Pham, Lou Johnson, Kit Carstairs, Jenny Mosher, Grace Heifetz, Tara Westover, Dias Novita Wuri, Michelle de Kretser, Kim Scott, and Eddie Ayres.
In conversation with: Michelle Cahill, Angelo Loukakis, Gregg Borschmann, Mark O’ Flynn, James Roy, Zoya Patel, Stephen Romei, Caitlin Maling, and Kate Fagan.


Katie Lavers

Friday 4 May, 2018

About the author

Dr. Katie Lavers is a writer, director, producer and researcher based in Sydney.