It may have several big names on the list, but the Canberra Writers Festival has come under fire for its distinct lack of both local and diverse authors this year.
The 2020 program, hastily assembled as it became clear it would be the only literary festival to forge ahead this year, includes US feminist and activist Gloria Steinem, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert and British philosopher Alain de Botton on its roster.
Artistic director Jeanne Ryckmans said upon the program's launch that these figures were secured by virtue of the fact that they would be able to appear via Zoom, rather than having to travel to Australia at great expense.
The program also includes Australian writers Rick Morton and Jess Hill, broadcaster Richard Fidler and journalist Peter Greste, among others, in a program of just 26 events over three days.
But Canberra's own literary community has been left scratching its collective head at the almost complete lack of local authors on the program, in a city that boasts a number of big names of its own.
The ACT Writers Centre, the peak body for Canberra's literary scene, took steps on the weekend to distance itself from the festival, publishing an open letter on Twitter stating that it stood "shoulder to shoulder with those expressing dismay at the continued lack of diversity in the Canberra Writers Festival's programming".
"We acknowledge that COVID-19 continues to make the programming and delivery of events extremely challenging. However, the issue of true representation is the civic and professional responsibility of all arts organisations," the letter said.
"We have a duty to create safe and inclusive spaces for our communities, our presenters and our audiences.
"Australia is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Writers festivals - indeed the writing infrastructure as a whole - must recognise, reflect and support that diversity.
"The time for excuses has passed. For matters to improve, we must all do better. Canberra is a truly multicultural city. Our city's writing festival should represent that fact."
The letter also pointed out that the centre had tried several times over the years to engage with the festival organisers, but had not been consulted on programming
The festival team responded with a letter of its own, stating that it had not had any communication with the ACT Writers Centre since 2019.
It also pointed out that this year's event was "the first writers' festival [in Australia] to offer live events in 2020".
But it said the final program was a whittled-down version of what had originally been a much larger program.
"We feel very fortunate to be able to offer our loyal audience a taste of the original 80-plus event program, at a time when storytelling and connection matter more than ever," it said.
"Each year, in determining the program, we shift through hundreds of submissions from authors and publishers and an important consideration is cultural, gender, sexual, geographic and subject matter diversity. Our original program certainly met a high standard of diversity.
"In March, as the world shut down due to the global pandemic, we made a significant leap of faith in deciding to proceed with the festival as a mix of live and streamed events. We had to unpick a full program. In the process, we saw an opportunity to program some big international names who, even without the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, we might not normally attract to Canberra."
Acting interim director for ACT Writers Centre Meg Wilson said she had been particularly surprised and disappointed by this year's lineup, especially since the festival had been criticised in previous years for giving a further platform for politicians to spruik their books.
"I would say this has been a missed opportunity, especially because obviously there are border constraints, COVID has changed how everything operates, but also Zoom has been such a powerful tool and has really increased a lot of the literary sector's accessibility and inclusion," she said.
"We know the incredible talent and different genres that are available in Canberra, so we're not really sure why they don't want to tap into that, and it is definitely something we would love to work with them on, being able to create a more inclusive and diverse program that does support our community and all aspects of it."
Meanwhile, Canberra author Zoya Patel said the 2020 program was typical of a yearly event that had been "imposed on Canberra", rather than reflecting it.
"I think that any festival coming from a place that is known to be as progressive and intellectual as Canberra should really be at the forefront of programming diversity and leading these conversations, not reacting to the local writing community as an afterthought," she said.
"As a local author who's also a writer of colour who writes specifically about issues of diversity, I'm really lucky to have a lot of wonderful opportunities in the Australian literary community, but I've never had an opportunity with Canberra Writers Festival, and the large majority of those kinds of programs that really focus on diversity are coming out of other states and territories."
She said the Canberra Writers Festival was relatively well resourced, and so had no excuse not to reach out further and trust its audience to engage.
"It really sticks out as an organisation that has 'writing' in the name, but doesn't really seem to be connected to the beating heart of the literary industry, which I think actually has really tried to evolve with these conversations in Australia. This is a major focus and that's backed up by the audiences," she said.
"It feels so removed from any kind of Canberra connection, it could happen anywhere. Why don't you pick it up and move it to Goulburn? It would be as relevant. Or just have it at Parliament House and call it what it is, a Canberra Bubble Writers Festival?"
The festival team, it its letter of response to the Writers' Centre, pointed out that attracting wider audiences was in its mandate.
"Part of the Canberra Writers Festival's charter is to attract visitors to Canberra in the heart of winter and to celebrate the uniqueness of Canberra as the centre of Australian government, politics and national power," it said.
Of this, Patel was scathing.
"That doesn't attract anyone to Canberra! I'm sorry, but have you noticed that the national conversation around Canberra has always reviled the fact that we're the seat of the national parliament? That's never been a drawcard," she said.
"I don't know what market research informed that brief."
- The Canberra Writers Festival is on August 12-16. canberrawritersfestival.com.au