New ideas, stories and voices shine at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

UNSW Sydney academics and researchers were featured in the weeklong festival that brought a diverse line-up of local and international writers and thinkers to Sydney and beyond.

Stan Grant and George Williams

In a stirring discussion with UNSW Scientia Professor George Williams, former ABC journalist Stan Grant reflected on his decision to step down from hosting duties on Q+A . Photo: Maria Boyadgis

Scores of literary fans passed through the gates of Carriageworks – and other local hubs – for the 2023 Sydney Writers’ Festival, with UNSW in its first year as Premier Partner and exclusive university sponsor of the weeklong event.

UNSW academics and researchers were among the 262 Australian authors and public figures, as well as 18 prominent international guests who celebrated literature, stories and ideas.

The partnership provided an opportunity for UNSW students and staff to engage with some of the world’s best authors to fuel debate, champion diverse voices and spark innovation on the most pressing issues.

“Over the course of a week the Sydney Writers’ Festival created an important space for storytellers and audiences to come together and share ideas,” said Alice Marklew, Acting Director of the Centre for Ideas at UNSW Sydney. “As the new exclusive Education Partner of the festival, UNSW is proud to support this important cultural event. From students gaining experience working on the festival, to academics challenging audiences to engage critically with AI or consider the future of pandemics, the festival has provided unique opportunities for the UNSW community.”

“Stories for the Future” was the overarching theme of the Festival, which included discussions on technology, food, culture, global health and race.

In a stirring discussion with UNSW Scientia Professor George Williams, former ABC journalist Stan Grant reflected on his decision to step down from hosting duties on the ABC television program Q+A due to the barrage of racist and hateful remarks aimed at him and his family. Mr Grant described the week as “bewildering and bruising”.

“Sometimes words just hold us apart from each other…,” he said. “I’ve tried to talk about truth. I’m trying to talk about justice, and I am trying to talk about those things with love and respect. People hear love and they respond with hate. People might see the word respect, but they respond with spite. Words are not enough.”

Toby Walsh

Scientia Professor Toby Walsh. Photo: Maria Boyadgis

Meanwhile, world-leading AI expert, Scientia Professor Toby Walsh, offered an intriguing perspective on our growing reliance on intelligent and autonomous technology and how we ensure AI is harnessed for good rather than evil ends. In a different conversation focusing on our engagement with technology, Prof. Walsh went on to affirm that the need for regulating AI is very clear.

“It’s going to steal our attention; it’s going to blur the distinction between true and false, it’s going to pervert the course of our democracy. How much clearer does it have to be?” Prof. Walsh said.

Professor Brigitta Olubas shared her passion for Australian writer Shirley Hazzard and what she means for literature, and herself. Prof. Olubas is the author of the first authorised biography of the late, iconic writer, Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life.

“To me,” said Prof. Olubas, “Hazzard’s story is a really fascinating story of a young woman making a life for herself. And through extraordinary good fortune, she’s able to do that through the period of the long mid-century, post-World War II, which was a world of literary flourishing. And she created this gilded life for herself by writing beautiful stories. She was an insignificant person who went out into the world and met everybody and found a career that we can’t even really imagine any more.”

Other UNSW speakers included world-leading epidemiologist Professor Raina MacIntyre who examined pandemics through the lens of history, and psychology Professor Ben Newell who provided a provocative look at the role that the unconscious plays in our decisions.

Lecturer in Creative Writing Roanna Gonsalves hosted a moving discussion on Sri Lankan stories, and Professor of Economics Richard Holden debated whether boomers are to blame that younger generations are struggling financially. Prof. Holden argued that it is politicians who are to blame rather than the boomers. “Politicians have done everything wrong when it comes to housing.”

Anandavalli,  Shankari Chandran, Shehan Karunatilaka and Roanna Gonsalves

Anandavalli, Shankari Chandran, Shehan Karunatilaka and Roanna Gonsalves. Photo: Maria Boyadgis

The Kensington campus also played host to American artist and author Jenny Odell, who examined how a world obsessed with productivity can value being alone with one’s thoughts. 

Author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Ms Odell described how reconnecting with our physical environment is the best form of resistance to our modern world driven by technology and profits. 

Referring to her book, she said: “It’s obviously not a book about literally doing nothing, it’s doing nothing from the point of view that sees productivity in a very narrow and specific way.  Resisting the attention economy in my book basically means resisting by changing that frame of reference.”

The main festival site was located at Carriageworks, with suburban and regional programs held at libraries, bookstores, bars and other venues across the state.