Edwina Johnson, director, Byron Writers Festival

I loved the magic world of imagination ...

From August 2–4, more than 140 story creators, idea makers and conversationalists from across the globe will converge for the 2019 Byron Writers Festival. If you’re looking for some inspiration right now, you’ll find it in Edwina Johnson. After being immersed in a world of publishing and literature, Edwina landed in Byron Bay in 2013 as the festival’s director, tasked with bringing together leading writers and thinkers from all over the world to celebrate the written word. In the lead up to this year’s event, Edwina took a few minutes to chat to us about the magic of storytelling and how literature can be a catalyst for change.

Do you remember what first sparked your passion for reading, writing and storytelling?
I remember loving story time at pre-school when I was three, gathering in a circle around the teacher and the book of the day. I can see my 3-year-old self leaning in and listening. I particularly loved it when Mum would read to us as kids. I’m the eldest of four so we would all snuggle up with a picture book and listen to her melodious voice – it made me so happy. I loved ‘Grandmother Lucy Goes for a Picnic’ – when I occasionally come across it in libraries, just seeing the front cover makes my heart sing.

What was the first piece of literature to have a profound effect on you?
Tough one… Meeting Dr Suess as a five-year-old left a profound impression and I still think there is so much wisdom in his books. Other novels I would nominate as having a profound effect include Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park and Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson, both of which I read at school. The former gave me a compelling taste of history in the city of my childhood, the latter gave me wanderlust. I loved the magic world of imagination they both sparked. I also developed an abiding love of John Donne’s poetry at school which I find deeply moving, e.g. from A Valediction Forbidding Mourning:

Our two souls therefore, which are one, 
   Though I must go, endure not yet 
A breach, but an expansion, 
   Like gold to airy thinness beat. 
If they be two, they are two so 
   As stiff twin compasses are two; 
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 
   To move, but doth, if the other do. 

We’re beyond excited for this year’s Byron Writers Festival! When you first started pulling the 2019 program together, what were you hoping to achieve?
So am I! Every year I hope to create a program that inspires people to join us to celebrate storytelling. We aim to gather favourite and compelling writers, both known voices and emerging ones from culturally diverse backgrounds. We also like to sprinkle some music and art through the program and importantly have panels on some of the big issues of the day, whether social, political or environmental.

What would you say are some of the highlights of this year’s Festival? We know that’s a hard task with such a spectacular line-up, so tell us your top three!
This really is hard and actually I normally avoid these questions, likening it to choosing a favourite child! However, if pushed I would nominate:
1. Bruce Pascoe in conversation with Kerry O’Brien
2. Min Jin Lee in conversation with Sarah Kanowski
3. On Fire panel with Chloe Hooper, Stephen Pyne and Peter Watt

I think Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu is one of the most important books to have been published in Australia with extraordinary detail about the very sophisticated Indigenous agricultural practices. Pascoe puts forward an argument for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer label for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians – it should be taught in schools across the country. Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko is a favourite amongst the Festival staff and I think the On Fire panel is going to be a cracker.

One guest that caught our eye in the program is Kurdish-Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani, who is appearing via live stream from Manus Island. What do you think we can expect from his appearance?
We have given the beautiful writer Behrouz Boochani a presence at the Festival for the past three years in the form of the PEN Empty Chair on stage. This year to celebrate the publication of his book ‘No Friend but the Mountains’ we are delighted he will be joining us via live-stream; we just wish it could be in person. I was fortunate enough to see him and his incredible collaborator and translator Omid Tofighian at Sydney Writers’ Festival. The audience was reduced to tears, we stood as one in applause afterward. I think we are in for more of that in Byron.

What do you hope audiences take away from Byron Writers Festival?
We think the Festival can be a catalyst for positive change via new and renewed conversations. One of the comments that we love hearing most from our audience is that they left the Festival with their heads and their hearts full. We always hope to achieve this.

Finally, what was the last book you picked up and couldn’t put down?
There have been two in the past week: Preservation by Jock Serong and Gun Love by Jennifer Clement. I have The Yield by Tara June Winch waiting by my bed next up. Brilliant, talented writers all three and from my interactions with them in Festival land they are also delightful human beings.

Byron Writers Festival takes place on August 2–4 on the grounds of Elements Resort, Byron Bay. For tickets and more information, head to the website.

Image credit: Kate Holmes

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