The Adelaide Writers Week is now underway, after being mired in controversy for inviting Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa, who has called Zelensky “a depraved Zionist”. Louise Adler, the Writers Week director, has defended the festival’s line-up and refused to remove Abulhawa, despite the withdrawal of three Ukrainian authors in protest.
Susan Abulhawa has published a number of novels focusing on the Palestinian fight for liberation, including the bestseller Mornings in Jenin. However, she has been criticised for her inflammatory tweets about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Abulhawa’s tweets include accusations of Zelensky dragging “the whole world into the inferno of WWIII”, and calls to “DeNazify Ukraine”. Just one month after the Russian invasion, in March of last year, she tweeted about Zelensky: “This man is no hero. He’s mad and far more dangerous than Putin.”
Ukrainian authors Kateryna Babkina and Olesya Khrimeychuk, who were scheduled to speak at the event on the impact of the war on civilians, withdrew their appearances in condemnation of Abulhawa’s remarks. Ukrainian-born Australian-based author and historian Maria Tumarkin, who was slated to chair Babkina and Khrimeychuk’s panel, also decided not to attend.
“I’m disappointed those two Ukrainian writers have decided to withdraw because they object to the Twitter feed of one other writer,” said festival director Louise Adler. However, she refused to compromise, saying she believes writers festivals should be “brave spaces”, rather than “safe spaces”.
Abulhawa’s remarks have been denounced by the critics as not reflective of the viewpoint of the wider Adelaide community. Adelaide Premier Peter Malinauskas called her views “patently absurd”, but said he would not withdraw funding from the festival, as such a move would be a step “down a path to Putin’s Russia.”
While the Premier decided it would “take something pretty extraordinary” for his government to withdraw funding, for other sponsors Abulhawa’s remarks prompted them to do just that.
Law firm MinterEllison withdrew their sponsorship of the event in response to Abulhawa, as well as Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd, said “Fuck Israel” and called Zionism a genocidal death cult.
Meanwhile, Abulhawa tweeted her gratitude to Louise Adler and the festival for placing “more value on the integrity of intellectual and cultural public discourse than they do on sponsorship money”.
Frank Fursenko, the President of the Association of Ukrainians in SA, said he was concerned about Abulhawa’s attendance, pointing out that her “extremist” views aligned worryingly with Russian rhetoric about the invasion. South Australia has welcomed hundreds of Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war.
Adler also had a response to the criticism of Abulhawa’s Twitter politics, by pointing to a distinction between her tweets and her writing. Ruth Mackenzie, the Adelaide Festival’s artistic director, agrees: “She’s not invited because of her Twitter account, she’s invited because of her writing.”
Ukrainian author Babkina said of her withdrawal the while she “did not vote for this Ukrainian government myself,” she strongly disagrees with Abulhawa’s blame-game, “The aggressor is and should be always the only one to blame, not the victims.”
“I just can’t participate [in] any kind of event that gives voice to the person doubting Ukrainian sovereignty and legal borders.”
Cover image: Susan Abulhawa
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