I’ve been involved in feminist writing, organising and publishing for around 35 years. In that time I’ve participated in numerous events around women’s, feminist and lesbian writing. I’ve attended international feminist book fairs, a conference on women’s writing in Israel, Sybylla readings, books launches, talked on radio, reviewed books and been published in lit mags and journals in many places. Given that this has been my life, I was somewhat surprised to be asked if there have ever been any women’s writers festivals in Australia?*
And I wondered, how soon forgotten we are.
Salon-A-Muse, March 1982-1985, Melbourne
This was a monthly gathering for feminist artists, writers, playwrights, musicians, comedians and others to present their work to women interested in the arts and culture. At the first meeting about half the potential audience had to be turned away with just 80 squeezing into a terrace house living room. The organisers changed venue several times with monthly audiences in the range of 100-200. It was an extraordinary culturally rich period which followed on from the Women’s Theatre and women’s rock bands of the 1970s. In Canberra Tilly’s became a focus for women’s cultural productions and performances.
Sydney, 1982: The Sydney Women Writers Festival, Seymour Centre
This weekend festival was the first writers’ festival I ever went to. It was an eye-opener to me, a budding writer with hardly any published work. There I heard Antigone Kefala, Anna Couani and met Robyn Rowland, Susan Hampton and Lee Cataldi for the first time. There were readings, writing workshops and panel sessions.
Melbourne, 31 August – 8 September 1985: The Language of Difference: Women Writers’ Week, Abbotsford Convent
In 1984 after being unemployed for 15 months, I applied for the job of the Writing, Theatre and Music Co-ordinator for the New Moods Festival. Part of Victoria’s 150th invasion celebration. I put it that way because from the start I wanted to subvert the idea of Australia’s history of colonisation. On 26 February 1985, we had a one-off session in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria, Doris Lessing Speaks. An event with 800 in the audience, 200 of which were standing-room only tickets.
In September 1985, after many meetings, lots of invitations sent out, the 9-day writers week took place. Opening with keynote addresses from Audre Lorde (USA) and Keri Hulme (NZ/Aotearoa) and session speakers such as Dorothy Hewett, Eva Johnson, Elizabeth Jolley, Hazel Rowley, T. Nappurula Nelson, Diane Bell, Sandra Shotlander and many others. The 9-day festival was filled with sessions on Aboriginal and Islander women’s writing, migration and the mother tongue, class and literature, erotic and lesbian writing as well as sessions on publishing, scriptwriting, experimental writing, the feminist aesthetic and about a dozen book launches. This event occurred a year before the inaugural Melbourne’s Writers’ Festival. An anthology, Difference: Writings by Woman was published and launched at the festival.
Australia wide, 1989 and 1991, Australian Feminist Book Fortnight, 1-17 September 1989, 6-22 September 1991
This national festival of books and writers took two years to organise. On each occasion more than 200 events were held across the country – from Broome to Burnie, Whyalla to Wagga Wagga – as well as multiple events in every capital city. I can’t find the full programs but on one A4 photocopied page there were 31 events in Sydney alone with writers such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Marele Day, Ruby Langford, Dale Spender, Maxine Hong Kingston (USA), Luisa Valezuela (Argentina), Janette Turner Hospital, Beth Yahp, Drusilla Modjeska and more. Part of the purpose of the Fortnight was to promote books written by women to booksellers. To this end we produced 15,000 catalogues containing information about approximately 300 books. Of the 300, 20 were chosen as Feminist Fortnight Favourites and had prominence in a coloured insert in the catalogue. We also produced a double A4 poster with those 20 books reproduced in colour. The catalogues and posters were distributed to bookshops around Australia (in the first year by Penguin, in the second by Random House). Booksellers created window displays, some ran events and readings as well. I recall that the regional events were incredibly popular and in Broome 200 people turned up to the event. I have no idea of the total size of the audience, but it was certainly many thousands.
Melbourne, 27-31 July 1994: 6th International Feminist Book Fair: Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Writing and Publishing, Exhibition Buildings
In 1992 a group of us put together a bid to take to the 5th International Feminist Book Fair in Amsterdam to hold the next IFBF in Melbourne. I presented the bid and we won it. Previous International Feminist Book Fairs had been run in London (1984), Oslo (1986), Montreal (1988), Barcelona (1990) and Amsterdam (1992). Renate Klein had been involved in the 1st IFBF in London, and the London event had been an inspiration for the 1985 Women Writers’ Festival. With Renate’s input in Australia and having attended Montreal, Barcelona and Amsterdam, we were in a good position to organise this event. It was held over 5 days. The first two days were industry days to allow publishers to sell rights and share information with one another, followed by three public days. Over 200 writers participated coming from many countries including China, Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, Vanuatu, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Aboriginal Australia, Romania, Vietnam and publishers from New Zealand/Aotearoa, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Egypt, Spain, Germany, Canada, USA, India and more. Our estimate is that 23,000 people attended. There were book launches and panel session, readings and workshops, as well as the book displays of at least 100 exhibitors. Most events were at the Exhibition Buildings but Mietta’s and other venues also became places of feminist writing and performance. Sadly, there were no more IFBFs after Melbourne. The 6th IFBF produced a sampler booklet of work by around half of the attending writers, 46 international writers and 53 Australian. The anthology, Flying Bookies: International Feminist Writers edited by Sandy Jeffs and Natasha Treloar, was named after Judy Horacek’s cartoon characters which had been produced initially for the AFBF and subsequently on materials for the IFBF.
In addition to these events, I know of a number of small festivals run to highlight the work of women writers. The Lynx Festival in Footscray (late 1982, I think) was one of them. I’m sure there have been others in other parts of Australia.
Story Passions, 3-5 March 2006, North Melbourne Town Hall
The most recent large event I organised was the 15th birthday celebration for Spinifex Press, Story Passions, which took place from Friday to Sunday with forty writers and performers. It began with a panel session on the future of feminism, followed with sessions by novelists, playwrights and poets, by activists, and writers whose focus is politics and health. On the Saturday night six performers presented Swirl which included theatre, monologue, aerials and opera. Sue Ingleton closed the event on Sunday with her wonderful comedy. All sessions were videoed.
This morning a friend told me she had found in a shop, with a closing down sale, a cup engraved with the words: Women’s Art Fair, 1907.
It is all too easy to forget the amazing events that women have organised. On the whole they (we) are written out of history. The Feminist Book Fortnights began in the UK following the 1st International Feminist Book Fair in 1984, Australia picked up the baton, New Zealand’s Listener Women’s Book Festival carried on in the 1990s, and in the mid-1990s, US feminist publishers began creating joint catalogues of feminist writing. In India today, there is a thriving feminist publishing scene, and such presses exist in many places we don’t ever get to hear about.
There are many names left out of this brief run-down, my apologies to all, you are not forgotten. It would be fantastic to get women around Australia to write up similar events that occurred in different states.
Susan Hawthorne was the Writing, Theatre and Music Co-ordinator for the New Moods Festival in 1985. She was a member of the Management Committee of the AFBF from 1988 to 1991 and Chair of the 6th IFBF Management Committee from 1992 to 1996. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, a novel and two works of non-fiction. She is currently Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville and Publisher at Spinifex Press which she and Renate Klein co-founded in 1991.
Susan was recently interviewed by Rob Kennedy on Guys Read Gals blog here.
© Susan Hawthorne, 2013
* This question was posed to AWW by Michaela Bolzan, Creative Director of the Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival, which will be held in Sydney on July 20.