By Roger Tagholm
London is to have its first ever AusNZ Festival of Literature and Arts next year, thanks to the drive and commitment of organizer Jon Slack of Amphora Arts, who first began thinking about the idea on a trip back to his native Australia in March 2011.
With core funding already secured from the Australian Council for the Arts and Creative New Zealand, the four-day festival will celebrate the best of literature, theater, film and music from and about AusNZ, and will take place in the capital in May 2014.
Slack is expecting up to 50 writers to be involved, as well as film-makers, actors, musicians and chefs, and also UK writers who have either written about the region or who are fans of AusNZ literature. For example, A.S. Byatt recently gave a stunning review of Michelle de Kretser’s novel Questions of Travel, which won the Miles Franklin Award.
“We’re delighted to have the backing of the lead arts funding bodies from both countries,” he said. “There are fantastic artistic achievements from Australians and New Zealanders to build upon, and the potential for further collaboration between these artists and those in Britain is huge. London is the ideal location and we’re going to have a bit of fun with stereotypes while we’re at it. Our hope is that this initiative will unlock unexpected and affecting stories and re-imagine the perception of Australia and New Zealand for everyone.”
To kick things off, a Literary BBQ will be hosted at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, West London on August 29 featuring “great food, live literature, music and short film”, with a line-up that includes some of the rising stars of AusNZ literature. Authors confirmed include Hannah Kent, author of the debut literary thriller Burial Rites (Little, Brown US, Picador UK); Eleanor Catton, whose second novel The Luminaries (Little, Brown US, Granta UK) comes this autumn; Courtney Collins, whose debut novel The Burial (Allen & Unwin US and UK), has been shortlisted for several prizes; and Craig Jones, whose Jasper Jones (Knopf US; Windmill UK) was number six in the Australian Broadcasting Company’s “10 Aussie Books to Read Before You Die.”
Foyles will be the bookseller at the BBQ and a further announcement about the official festival bookseller will be made in due course.
Connecting with Roots
Slack says it was a desire to reconnect with his Australian and New Zealand roots that took him back home in 2010. “I was born in Australia, but my father is from New Zealand and I spent some of my childhood there. I didn’t go with any intention of talking about a festival — I just felt I was drifting away from what was happening in Australia and I wanted to reconnect with it, to open up channels with the kind of work I do here.”
He came to the UK in 2003, having worked in Borders in Adelaide, and after the usual round of temporary work, held various marketing and publicity positions with a number of UK publishers, including Penguin and Transworld. In 2010 he founded Amphora Arts (the name means a vessel-like object which carries the essence or spirit of something) and in the same year established the South Asian Literature Festival with business partner Bhavit Mehta. In 2008 he chaired the Society of Young Publishers and today he mixes conference work with running the Book Marketing Society for Bowker.
“On my trip back I arranged various meetings with writing associations and arts groups, like the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, and gradually the idea of a festival in London took shape. I discovered that people were incredibly receptive to the idea. It suddenly seemed the obvious thing to do. I could see a way of connecting what I do here with things going on in Australia and New Zealand.”
Raising the International Profile for Aussie and Kiwi Lit
With an expat population in London estimated at around 500,000, the initiative makes sense. Slack has hired some expert help in experienced publicist Rina Gill (ex-Random House UK) and festival consultant Vivienne Wordley, who worked on the Emirates Festival of Literature. The General Manager is Trish Wadley and the Creative Producer is Megan Donnelly.
An AusNZ digital community featuring AusNZ cultural news and views is to be launched, with a vibrant social media and blogging network. This website will enable AusNZ writers and artists to feature work and list their events to a dedicated audience within the UK, Europe and beyond.
“The festival is a very exciting initiative which will increase the visibility of Australian books in international markets,” said Jill Eddington, Director of Literature, Australia Council for the Arts. “Australia has a vibrant literary culture with a strong international reputation for quality contemporary writing. The Australia Council provides financial support for many activities that benefit Australian writers both nationally and internationally. This festival will provide a great platform for our writers to connect with readers and reach new audiences around the globe.”
Creative New Zealand Chief Executive Stephen Wainwright said: “We are delighted to be supporting the inaugural Australian and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts with our Australian colleagues. The festival will raise the profile of literature from our two countries, and give our expat communities and Londoners the opportunity to personally engage with Australasian writers, stories, food and wine. This festival also builds nicely on New Zealand’s Guest of Honour presence at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012.”
Slack is hoping that the festival will also showcase indigenous AusNZ literature and those writers who have slipped under the radar and do not have a UK publisher.
Meanwhile, Thomas Kenneally, who won the Booker Prize in 1982 with Schindler’s List and who has won the Miles Franklin twice, has lent his celebrity support, offering the following, slightly tongue-in-cheek perhaps (well, it is the Ashes this week in London)”
“Dear England, we’re going to send you a big present: our Australian and New Zealand writers, film and music makers. It will all be like a series of loveable and brilliant personages emerging from the gift box and invigorating and charming you. It’s about time we got round to startling you, and the moment approaches. May we both enjoy it!”