Digitisation and homegrown talent are taking centre stage at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, as the event embraces lessons learnt from coronavirus to be more inclusive.

The annual literary gathering had to cancel last year’s program as the risk of the virus spreading closed down the country’s live events scene.

But it is returning to live audiences from April 26 to May 2, with new artistic director Michael Williams, pictured above, saying the program will be more accessible than ever.

“Frankly, after 2020, I think we’ve all spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of distance and closeness, and the ways in which being physically distant and socially distant changed our experience of being part of the community of which we belong,” said Mr Williams.

“Holding a large-scale live event that brought people back within reach of one another – that was something that we wanted to explicitly celebrate.

“One of the things that lots of cultural organisations learnt from the COVID period was the ways in which a digital component to your programming can render what you do infinitely more accessible for people who aren’t able to get to a live event.

“Things like writer’s workshops, to be able to offer that online rather than only to the few people that can get into the right meeting room, in the right venue, that’s a pretty exciting shift.”

The festival will host 231 live events and a number of online talks and workshops, with crowds in excess of 50,000 anticipated across its venues over the course of the six days. Strict COVID-19 regulations and additional sanitation and cleaning is in place, with the spectre of the cancellation of Byron Bay’s Blues Fest at the forefront of people’s minds.

The writer’s festival boasts over 400 Australian-based speakers appearing live on stage and in line with much of the digitisation of the past 12 months, 15 international writers will join via video-link.

“The absence of international guests and a slightly smaller program meant we had to really make sure every combination of people really counted,” said Mr Williams.

The opening night of last year's SWF at Carriageworks in Eveleigh. (Photo: Supplied)

The opening night of SWF at Carriageworks in Eveleigh in 2018. Last year’s event was scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Supplied)

All events will be considering this year’s theme, Within Reach.

“Our theme this year… highlights the astonishing writers who are shaping Australian literature right now. It recognises those authors who show us an Australia that is not monolithic or static but varied, curious and challenging,” added Mr Williams.

Opening the festival are three First Nations women writers: Melissa Lucashenko and Tara June Winchand – winners of the 2021 Miles Franklin award – and debut poet Evelyn Araluen. Evelyn will be appearing via video from France. The panel will reflect on what writing has brought within their reach in both past and present.

The festival will be the platform in which many books are to be launched.  Sweatshop Writers’ Collective will unveil their new anthology, Racism, brimming with stories from the heartland of multiculturalism and giving a platform to both emerging and established voices.

During the festival, expect to see some unlikely pairings as literary fan favourites share the stage with upcoming writers. Panels feature the likes of Jan Fran & Judith Lucy (Turns Out, I’m Fine), Richard Flanagan (The Living Sea of Waking Dreams) & Laura Tingle. Other pairings include Sarah Krasnostein (The Believer) & Helen Garner (One Day I’ll Remember This), and Kate Holden (The Winter Road) & Louise Milligan (Witness).

The festival will see political commentators and thinkers go head-to-head at The Great Debate, this year where they will consider the question: ‘How good is Australia?’ In the affirmative, Don Watson, Elaine Crombie and Benjamin Law. Arguing the negative will be Nakkiah Lui, Annabel Crabb and David Marr.

“Public conversation in general is not in a great state at the moment, our media, our (…) big public institutions – the nature of the culture war is there is a lot of people sharping at one another and not a lot of genuinely low sound, considered, empathetic, well informed discourse,” said Mr Williams.

“I think it enriches us as a community in this society. It’s a real privilege to be able to put that on.”

The festival rolls out across Sydney venues, at Carriageworks, Sydney Town Hall, Riverside Theatre, City Recital Hall, Chatswood Concourse, and 17 suburban and regional library networks via live broadcasts from the State Library of NSW.

For those outside Sydney and the state, the festivals Live and Local program will broadcast Carriageworks’ main stage events to over 40 community centres and libraries across Australia.

Bookings are essential for all events and ticket prices may vary. Check out the entire program here, with over 50 free events available to attend over the week.

Main image Festival artistic director Michael Williams. Photo: Supplied by SWF.

Words by Aaishah Janif