“First of all, I thought about how to shake things up a little bit,” Guerrera explains.
“I feel everyone on this program is pushing back in some way – and that they’re all really strong in their work, whether it’s writing about themselves or about oppression. They’re pushing back into the mainstream, pushing back on the colony, and really challenging [people], and giving other perspectives.”
In keeping with that message of resistance, the festival’s opening night event will feature Goenpul academic Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, whose books Talkin’ Up to the White Woman and The White Possessive have become seminal texts.
“I wanted someone to open the festival who would bring a big punch – who’s really staunch in their work, and just unapologetic,” Guerrera says. “Her work echoes through every Aboriginal academic, [and] she’s been instrumental in my own understanding of how I position myself in spaces like the arts or academia.
“I also feel like sometimes Adelaide can be a sleepy, complacent place – there’s not a lot of rabble-rousing going on. I really want her to come because I know her words are just so powerful and direct, and I wanted her to speak directly to writers to make sure that they’re hearing and listening to these strong words.”
A similar threads runs through sessions like “Smashing the Glass Cabinet” on October 9, in which artist and curator Nici Cumpston, performer, visual artist and filmmaker Ali Gumillya Baker and singer-songwriter Corey Theatre will explore the challenges of working in and around cultural institutions whose position of trust and influence in the broader community is often at odds with their track record with First Nations peoples.
“They’re occupying not just our land, but our knowledge,” Guerrera says of the role that such “tools of the colony” have played in framing the past and the present.
“There are a lot of Aboriginal people out there speaking about this, and I just wanted to give another platform for that discussion. The three people are incredible and they’ve been doing work in that space – I can’t want to see them sitting at a table, talking about this stuff.”
Like its first program, this year’s Context also seeks to tease out the edges of what we might expect from writers’ festivals in Adelaide, from a zine workshop run by artist and activist Ruby Allegra to the return of participatory long-table discussions, which encourage audience members to join the conversation in a more immediate way than traditional panel formats.
“I think it could be a little more daring — and not just whoever has a book out,” Guerrera says of the typical shape of literary events.
“When I go to these festivals, I want to be stimulated beyond buying whatever the next big book is, you know? But also, locally, it’s about tapping into people who are doing things for themselves. That’s why I chose Soul Lounge,” he says of the monthly, community-led live poetry series that will close Context’s Saturday line-up. “It’s just this amazing night that is organised by local, young People of Colour. Every time I go, I’m moved through the whole spectrum of emotions.”
Guerrera has seen firsthand how both festival stages and more grassroots platforms can help shape new voices and ideas. Last month, he won the Oodgeroo Noonuccal Indigenous Poetry Prize for his poem Unwelcome To Country, which judges Ellen van Neerven and Jazz Money described as a “searing” and “timeless” critique of colonisation’s contemporary impacts.
“The fact [the judges] saw it for what it was – a protest poem – even though I talk about Park Lands and festivals and it feels very ‘Adelaidean’, just shows it can be used anywhere. Because the colony is no different here than anywhere else. And all the things in it, I think every Aboriginal person has experienced or witnessed.”
people think we don’t have to change things – but we have so much to change
Unwelcome To Country is a work that Guerrera first performed at Adelaide Writers’ Week, and sharpened to bracing effect over a number of subsequent festival appearances. “But that’s the power of performing live, isn’t it? It’s definitely been an evolution, and it is in a true sense an Adelaide poem because it’s been at all the Adelaide festivals, and [all the] spoken-word nights where I’ve performed it have shaped it.”
It’s that spirit of questioning and open conversation that Guerrera hopes will be on display throughout Context.
“In Adelaide we accept the status quo, it’s comfortable here,” he reflects. “And therefore people think we don’t have to change things – but we have so much to change.”
Context Writers Festival, presented in partnership by Writers SA and City of Adelaide, will be held at the Adelaide City Library from October 8-10.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.