The Bendigo Writers Festival has had its fair share of controversial figures in its time, but perhaps none more than crime author Maryrose Cuskelly.
Ms Cuskelly was slated to attend the Bendigo Writers Festival in August until she was canned just days ago.
Scheduled to attend three events, but none explicitly discussing her novel, Wedderburn, about a grisly 2014 triple murder in central Victoria, Ms Cuskelly’s withdrawal from the program is unedifying and concerning for anyone who values what a writers festival is all about.
Last year, the Brisbane Writers Festival removed Germaine Greer and former New South Wales premier Bob Carr from its schedule for fear they would be “too controversial”.
Conversely, Mr Carr was welcomed with open arms to Bendigo’s Writers Festival and interviewed by the Weekly’s Steve Kendall, offering his pearls of wisdom to a packed Ulumbarra Theatre.
Our writers festival has a history of offering its stage to contentious figures, with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange the headline act of the 2016 Bendigo Writers Festival, appearing via video link from the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
At the time, Bendigo mayor Rod Fyffe said Mr Assange’s appearance was a boon for the festival and the city.
Cr Fyffe said Assange’s appearance showed that we are contemporary and not afraid of big ideas.
Now that same fearless emphasis on big ideas and contemporariness are notions from a bygone area.
The removal of Ms Cuskelly from the Bendigo Writers Festival threatens its credibility, but also the free exchange of ideas we enjoy in Bendigo, just a month after former Bendigo Weekly journalist Annika Smethurst’s home was raided by the Australian Federal Police, who then had the ABC’s offices in Sydney in their sights.
Writers festivals are built on ideas that are meant to be thought provoking and shouldn’t encourage literary sanitisation.
If the status quo is to oppose any speaker who a small cohort of people object to, then why bother having the Bendigo Writers Festival to begin with?
Inadvertently, the removal of Ms Cuskelly from the festival has given her and Wedderburn more publicity than they would have been likely to otherwise receive.
Ms Cuskelly was brave enough to write the novel and Allen & Unwin published it, despite backlash.
Somehow, the same Bendigo Writers Festival that featured a banished Bob Carr and polarising Julian Assange isn’t going to allow a comparatively little known Australian author to discuss crime writing, violence and how the genre is changing to a couple of hundred people.
Those responsible for Ms Cuskelly’s withdrawal should overturn their decision and reflect on their error in judgment.
Her absence is a great loss to the Bendigo Writers Festival and sets a dangerous precedent for anyone who expresses views that don’t tow the company line .
Sadly, Ms Cuskelly is emblematic of how it has become “safer” to censor and sanitise people who offer a sliver of controversy for whatever reason, rather than listen to and engage with them.
For that, surely we are all worse off.
– NICHOLAS NAKOS
Bendigo Weekly Senior Journalist