Melbourne writers festival deputy chair resigns over Aboriginal and Palestinian solidarity poetry event | Festivals

Melbourne writers festival deputy chair resigns over Aboriginal and Palestinian solidarity poetry event | Festivals

The deputy chair of the Melbourne writers festival, Leslie Reti, has resigned over a poetry session on Aboriginal and Palestinian solidarity in this year’s program.

The festival’s artistic director, Michaela McGuire, has also announced she will not seek to have her contract renewed when it expires in August, for unrelated reasons, and the interim chief executive, Fiona Menzies, is stepping back to a consulting role “for personal reasons”.

Reti took issue with a description of the poetry event in the festival program, which is yet to be published: “Aboriginal and Palestinian solidarity has a long history, a relationship that is more vital than ever in the movement to resist colonialism and speak out against atrocities.”

Reti told the Age the position taken by the curatorial team was “historically untrue and deeply offensive”. The Guardian was unable to reach Reti for comment.

In an interview with ABC radio on Monday, McGuire said Reti had expressed his concerns to her about the line in the program, which he felt rejected the Jewish connection to the land covered by the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Asked by the interviewer, Rafael Epstein, whether the session was the problem that had caused Reti to resign, McGuire said: “That line from that session is the problem.”

But, she said, the session was about the connection between Aboriginal and Palestinian communities, curated by a “self-determined First Nations programmer”, Mykaela Saunders.

“It’s an incredible celebration of the affirmation and care between Aboriginal people and Palestinians,” McGuire said. The correspondence she had seen between the poets was full of “dignity, love, care and respect”.

“This entire event is about Aboriginal and Palestinian solidarity. It’s not for or about anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that, and so it doesn’t make any sense to not mention that in the event copy.”

The Guardian understands the description of the event will not be amended before the program’s publication on 21 March. The festival begins on 6 May.

The organisation’s chair, Alice Hill, said the festival would continue to champion open discourse.

“We recognise, encourage and value the importance of diverse opinions and perspectives among our staff, artists, audiences, the communities we serve and through our program,” she said in a statement.

“We respect and understand Leslie Reti’s decision to step down from the board and are immensely grateful for his dedication and leadership during his tenure.”

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Hill said Menzies had stepped down after less than three months in the role for personal reasons, and would continue her relationship with the festival in a consultancy capacity.

McGuire said she would not seek to renew her contract as artistic director when it expired in August.

The Gaza conflict has also put pressure on another festival director, Louise Adler, over the inclusion of the activist Clementine Ford in the 2024 program for the Adelaide writers’ week, which begins this weekend.

Ford is on tour to promote her book on marriage, I Don’t, but her scheduled appearances at a number of events in the next few weeks have generated complaints, after she published a link on her Facebook page to the log of a group chat of more than 600 Jewish writers and artists.

The Sydney Opera House has come under fire for appointing Ford as co-curator of its All About Women festival, which opens next month. And the philanthropist Debbie Dadon has resigned from the board of Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre over the theatre’s decision to allow a talk by Ford about her book to go ahead.

A Malthouse spokesperson said it had the “utmost respect” for Dadon and accepted and understood her decision to resign.

The Jewish Community Council of South Australia’s spokesperson, Norman Schueler, told the Guardian he was aware of a number of letters that had been sent to the festival by members of the Jewish community, complaining about Ford’s participation.

“I know a lot of people who regularly attend who will not be attending this year given the attitude of the board and management,” he said.

Adler said she had received only one letter complaining about the inclusion of Ford in the program, who has been engaged to appear because of her latest book, not her position on Israel and Palestine.

“She has published four groundbreaking and passionate polemics with Australia’s largest independent publishing company,” Adler said.

“She has been presented at multiple literary festivals around the country for over a decade as an influential writer on sexual politics.”

Ford did not respond to a request for comment.

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