Since #MeToo, Time’s Up and the cavalcade of personal testimonies being bared in the media and in person, women have been sharing their stories, perspectives and memories more widely and more fearlesslessly than ever before. The effect has been seismic. Movements that give voice to experiences of harassment, sexism, violence and intimidation long buried have been born, and the boundaries of what stories matter are being stretched to include ones often crowded out. Women have been emboldened by the bravery of other women. And writing by women has played a crucial role in this.
The Feminist Writers Festival (FWF) – which started in 2016 and has been held in Melbourne and Geelong – is coming to Sydney for the first time in November. Over three days it will present 40 speakers across 12 panels under the banner “Rewriting the Story”. The theme is a response to the moment the feminist movement is experiencing right now. But it’s also about bringing people together to discuss the work and ideas creating actual social change.
“How do you go from ideas, the wonderful books you’re reading, the great things you’re listening to on the radio to actually creating systemic change?” asks Nikki Anderson, the festival’s director. “How do we rewrite the story? How do we rewrite society, and the structures we’re living with to make it a more equal place for everyone?”
On the three-day line-up there are well-known Australian feminists, writers, academics broadcasters, filmmakers, politicians and activists. The festival’s focus on diversity means it’s presenting what Anderson describes as, “a great cross-section of life and feminist experience”.
“We’re trying to get away from experts up on a stage speaking at people,” says Anderson. “We’ve got longer sessions so that we can really have juicy conversations and have a lot of audience participation. We really do want it to be about conversations.”
Here are some of her picks.
Writing Violence, Writing Change
“As a society and in Australia, in the past five years to a decade, we have been much more open about domestic violence and violence against women,” says Anderson. “And now it’s about how women and non-binary people are taking hold of the narrative and actually writing about it in a way that is meaningful and non-traumatising, and that’s actually about changing the way we write and talk about violence.”
This panel includes Bri Lee, founding editor of Hot Chicks with Big Brains and author of Eggshell Skull, a memoir of sexual assault, and analysis, from the inside as a judge’s associate in the Queensland District Court, of the forboding legal system sexual assault complainaints face.
And lawyer and painter Amani Haydar, whose entry into the 2018 Archibald Prize was a defiant, proud and grief-soaked self portrait inspired by the resilience of her mother, who was killed by Haydar’s father.
“It’s terrible that we still need to be talking about violence, but the fact that there are more and more people writing about it and talking about it and feeling empowered is a really good thing,” says Anderson.
Saturday November 3, 12.30pm–2pm
It’s Personal: Feminism and Narrative Nonfiction
“This links back to taking women’s stories seriously, and particularly personal stories,” says Anderson. “It’s also saying these are not just personal stories, they often feed into bigger societal narratives and bigger-picture thinking.”
The panel will discuss how they challenge the stereotypes of what’s long been considered “women’s nonfiction writing” and how personal stories can affect social change. Come to hear poet and critic Fiona Wright, whose book Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger discusses her experience of anorexia; Dr Anne Summers (who is also opening the festival on Thursday night with an in-conversation with ABC journalist Dr Julia Baird), a leading public feminist, journalist and author (her 1975 book Damned Whores and God’s Police is considered a seminal feminist text) who has worked across politics, media, activism, publishing and business in Australia and overseas; Siv Parker, an award-winning Aboriginal writer and social commentator; and chair Zoya Patel, author of No Country Woman: A Memoir of Not Belonging, which is about race, religion and feminism from the perspective of a migrant in Australia.
“There’s a growing interest in how that tightrope is balanced between the telling of yourself and telling a great story,” says Anderson.
Saturday November 3, 10am–11.30am
Writing and Speaking Indigenous Lives
“I think non-Indigenous Australia is starting to look a bit more fully at the impact of colonisation and the ongoing and longstanding impact on all Australians’ lives of being a settler country,” says Anderson. This session will explore the challenges and joys of speaking up as an Aboriginal woman in Australia. And the different ways of doing it. “It’s a really broad panel,” says Anderson. It includes singer-songwriter Nardi Simpson and journalist Brooke Boney.
Friday November 2, 10am–11.30am
Resist: Words for the Feminist Activist
“You can’t talk about feminism without talking about activism, and writing as a form of resistance,” says Anderson. This panel presents woman who come at activism in different ways. “Eva Cox is old-school and has been firing forever and we owe her such a debt of gratitude for everything she’s done for paving the way.”
She’ll be alongside 20-year-old Winnie Dunn who works at Sweatshop, a literary cooperative run out of Western Sydney University’s Bankstown Campus as part of the Writing and Society Research Centre. “She’s a really strong voice for giving, especially women of colour, space and their own voice,” says Anderson.
Former Greens leader Christine Milne and Shirleen Robertson, who has worked on gay and lesbian, bi- and transgender rights, are also involved in this one. “For all of those women, writing and the activism go hand-in-hand,” says Anderson.
Saturday November 3, 3pm–4.30pm
Film Screening and Q&A: After the Apology With Larissa Behrendt
Director Larissa Behrendt’s After the Apology is a documentary about the continuing and current removal of Aboriginal children from their families. “We’re really happy to have Larissa speaking to the film, but to have Linda Burney MP there to do a Q&A before the screening is a real privilege,” says Anderson.
The federal member for Barton in NSW was the first Aboriginal person to serve in the NSW parliament, and she has long been outspoken about Indigenous rights and about women and violence. “She’s spoken about her personal story of family violence,” she says, “so she’s such a powerful voice to have as part of the festival.”
Friday November 2, 6pm–8.30pm
Legacy Books: Their Impact, Their Legacy, Our Future
At the festival’s closing gala event leading writers will talk about the books that have shaped their activism and their writing selves. “It’s a bunch of women with really different and diverse experiences talking about the books that are important to them and even the books they would have wanted to read when they were younger – the books they are writing now to address those gaps,” says Anderson.
Come to get recommendations from, among others, Ruby Hamad, a journalist (Sydney Morning Herald, ABC News, SBS) and a researcher in media criticism and coverage of Arabs and the Middle East, and Tracey Spicer, a media identity, author, newsreader and journalist. She is behind the Now Australia campaign that is raising money to fund a centre that will fight abuse, sexual harassment and assault in Australian workplaces and connect people in every industry with counseling and legal support.
Saturday November 3, 6pm–7.30pm
The Feminist Writers Festival is on from November 1 to 3. All sessions are being held at UTS Business School, Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, 87 MacArthur Street, Ultimo. Tickets here.