Hey cHEwY gum gums.

As we stroll into May, there will be a few painful reminders popping up on my calendar of events that have been cancelled. The major one for me was the Sydney Writers Festival. So instead of dwelling on what should have been, like meeting Dav Pilkey over the weekend hohoho, I’m reflecting on the last 12 years of attending my home city festival, and why it’s important that it returns, bigger and brighter than ever.

For the aspiring writers

Back in 2007 when I started out my writing journey, I went to my first SWF. I got lost on the way to Welsh Bay from Wynyard. I was even more lost, navigating through the different rooms and queue protocols. But once I managed to sit in a session, I became lost in other authors and their words. I tried to attend every session that had to do with the craft of writing, but the queues were so long that I had to pick the ones that mattered. I sat outside doors of packed sessions, listening to authors on the speakers. It’s where I met Rosie, an illustrator/writer who I’m still friends with today.

There is a strong sense of hope that aspiring writers get when their dream is only a few metres away, up on stage. There’s a buzz you get when you have awkward conversations with authors as they sign your book.

I walked away each day, itching to work on my Thai-riffic! manuscript and wanting to be up there on stage. I got my wish within a year when I was on a panel for Growing Up Asian In Australia, my first publication break.

For the authors

In 2012, I had my first shot at SWF Primary School Days program. Hundreds of kids came in all from over Sydney to see 4 authors/illustrators. Gretel Killeen was the MC. I had to follow after Emily Rodda, in the coveted 2nd spot, the one before the lunch break where you had a generous hour for signings and sales. It propelled Thai-riffic! to the Top 5 festival bestsellers list. Last year, R.A Spratt reached the top spot with the Peski Kids. Children books rule!

Authors relish festivals for the sales and buzz generated from their books. You reach so many people. What is there not to like? You get to be a rockstar for half a day, cheering kids up with a signed bookmark and quick hello. But there are other personal perks for me, such as attending the social events, meeting international authors in the green room (it doesn’t make the conversation less awkward but at least there’s no crowd haha) and catching up with local author pals. Yes, I maximise my artist pass haha. I always have this mindset that this festival may be my last one, so why not make the most of it. Even if it was an exhausting week, it was #worth.

For the kids and families

The general public kids program used to just fill in the gaps of a Sunday, until there was an initiative to have its own mini festival. I was there at the beginning, as we took over the other side of Welsh Bay with arts, crafts, story-time readings and a main stage where I ticked off a bucket list thing, introducing Andy Griffiths for a session. I’m proud to see the kids program blossom into a Family Fun Day where kids and kids at heart have a space to absorb stories and be inspired. I love seeing kids and their families getting excited for books. But I get a kick of trying to persuade the reluctant ones to give reading and books a try. It’s the non-fans who come over for a signed book that really chirps me up.

For the people

This festival takes over the city. During the festival week, I love seeing Sydney decorated with SWF banners everywhere. It’s a signal for readers to step out of their houses to connect with other fans and meet authors, whether it’s their favourite or their next one. It’s the dialogue that follows a session, and takes place over tea and scones at the cafe, or during a mingling queue.

In the last decade, it has made attempts to take over greater Sydney, with more regional and suburbia sessions. It has more sessions throughout the year too, to stay in people’s minds.

For the future

In the festival’s absence, the SWF has launched a podcast program with weekly episodes. There’s also an opportunity to donate to protect the its future. While I may be sad about missing out, it can’t compare to the hurt to the SWF organisers who are faced with uncertainty. The arts industry is fragile at the best of times. This morning, Carriageworks, SWF’s main hub, has gone under involuntary administration. I hope they pull through.

I look forward to seeing the Sydney Writers Festival return. This is a festival for everyone. After all, we are storytellers.


About the author

I'm an author, stand-up comedian and teacher. My books include Thai-riffic!, Con-nerd, Punchlines and The Other Christy. I'm a massive Nintendo fan and love eating burgers. Follow me on Twitter or Instagram @oliverwinfree

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