PIAF: Perth Writers Festival

Carol Flavell Neist

A high point of Perth International Arts Festival is the Writers Festival.
PIAF: Perth Writers Festival

 Image: Hanna Kent speaks on Lore and Legend at PIAF Writers Festival. Image via Perth international Arts Festival, PIAF. 

A high point of Perth International Arts Festival is the Writers Festival, a weekend devoted to matters literary. Several thousand people, including many from interstate and even overseas, swamp the campus of the University of Western Australia for four days. The central quad is turned into something resembling a circus, with tents and food stalls covering the lawn, and people happily munching away while perusing their programs in an effort to see as much as possible and miss as little as possible. However, given that there are four streams running simultaneously, it’s just not possible for one person to see more than a quarter of the offerings.


The principal guest was Ben Rawlence, who delivered the opening address on Thursday night. Sadly, no reviewer was able to cover this event, nor could any of our ArtsHub colleagues be there for Friday or Saturday, but my partner-in-crime Michèle Drouart has written an excellent summary of the closing address by Marwa Al-Sabouni and will also be reporting on her own Writers Festival experiences.

Everything I saw on Sunday was wonderful! I shall just give you a brief taste of three especially good talks.

Lore and Legend:  featuring Peader O’Gullin and Hannah Kent

Firstly, Lore and Legend:  featuring Peader O’Gullin and Hannah Kent.  Both these authors have drawn on folklore in their writings. O’Gullin’s debut novel was The Inferior, which the Times Educational Supplement called ‘a stark, dark tale, written with great energy and confidence and some arresting reflections on human nature.’  Foreign editors liked it too, and over the coming year it is to be translated into eight languages, including Japanese and Korean. He is currently working on a sequel to his YA novel, The Call

O’Gullin’s dark humour had us in stitches: the Irish, it seems, have a bent toward the darker side of life, which is hardly surprising, given the island’s sad history. A black joke that nevertheless got a big laugh featured a man who went to find an otherworldly being to rid him of a hunchback, but instead he met the Devil, who gifted him with a club foot!

Hannah Kent spoke on her love of Icelandic folklore. She has also researched the folklore of the British Isles. She is intrigued by the focus on faery folk and their ambiguous natures, swinging from benevolent to malevolent within a breathspace. Her first novel, the international bestseller, Burial Rites (2013), was translated into 28 languages and was shortlisted for several awards, finally winning The ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year and the Victorian Premier's People's Choice Award, and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, The Good People, is already available in Australia and will be published in the UK and North America this year.

Peader O’Gullin wound up the talk with a dark story of the Shee and the eponymous mounds where they live, which led him into the story of ‘Riddy’s Curse’.  In 1914, an old lady cursed a football team, saying that they would never win again until the current team members had all passed on. The next time that team won the premiership was in 1991!

Rating:  4 stars out of 5

Lore and Legend:  featuring Peader O’Gullin and Hannah Kent

Speakers: Hannah Kent and Peader O'Gullin
Sun 26 Feb 2017 11.30am
PIAF 2017


The Age of Jihad

Geoff Hutchinson interviewed Patrick Cockburn, who spoke on ‘the Age of Jihad’. The Middle East, it seems, is always at war, with everyone claiming that ‘God is on our side’.  (Currently, six wars are in progress in the region!) The soldiers of Isis are well-trained and are masters of taking small steps such as planting half a dozen snipers in a house where they can kill without being killed. President Trump’s attitude toward conflicts in the Middle East is worrisome. It is not impossible that he might change sides by making an alliance with the Syrian Kurds. As a war correspondent, Cockburn has, understandingly, become more and more cynical about governments of all shades. He says that fifteen thousand people have been killed or injured in the conflict so far, but these figures are rarely reported.

A questioner from the floor asked how Russia is involved and what its aims might be. Cockburn replied that Russia wants to become a world power again and may have its eyes on the Iraqi oil fields.

I found Cockburn’s talk so impressive I immediately purchased his book, The Age of Jihad, a weighty tome – and not an optimistic one.

As usual, the Perth Writers Festival offered variety in education and entertainment. The only criticism can be that it wasn’t possible to hear all the wonderful speakers!

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Age of Jihad

Speaker: Geoff Hutchinson interviews Patrick Cockburn
Sun 26 Feb 2017 2.30pm
PIAF 2017


Strange Lands

My last port-of-call was Strange Lands, featuring Alberto Manguel and Malachy Tallack. Both are avid travellers, and Tallack has written a book on mysterious islands. It seems that in some way, all islands are mysterious. They have entranced travellers and writers alike since ancient times. One reason they are mysterious is that non-existent islands somehow find their way into atlases. Our fascination with far-away planets seems to be another manifestation of the same phenomenon of the human psyche. Perhaps part of the fascination is the fact that imaginary places can become idealised and even materialised on maps. Early maps of the USA included a non-existent island that was supposed to be part of the Union! ‘Establishing facts about places that don’t exist is difficult,’ says Malarchy, tongue in cheek. And, of course, some islands are visible at some times and not at others – tide and clouds can hide them from view. In 1975, Great Britain had to remove 123 islands from the maps, only to find that three of them were real and had to be re-instated. Of course, authors since ancient times have populated their islands, real or imaginary, with anything from people who walked on their hands to women who ate penis-shaped sea creatures to ensure fertility!

Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5

Strange Lands

Speakers:Alberto Manguel and Malachy Tallack
Sun 26 Feb 2017 4pm
PIAF 2017

So, it’s all over for another year, but we have plenty of reading  and food for thought to carry us through to the next Perth Writers Festival!

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Carol Flavell Neist has written reviews and feature articles for The Australian, The West Australian, Dance Australia, Music Maker, ArtsWest and Scoop. She was reviews editor for the now defunct Specusphere magazine and, writing as Satima Flavell, has also published poetry and fantasy fiction.