Here’s the catch with any writers’ festival: you start with one event that catches your eye, be a it a launch of your favourite author’s new book, or a panel discussion that delves into an argument that you’ve had with your friends for years, and then all of a sudden you’ve bought tickets to at least ten events over the weekend and have called in sick to work the day after. If, like me, you’re likely to wake up with a pounding head and sore eyes, not because you’ve had too much to drink but instead because you’ve stayed up too late reading, then the Melbourne Writers’ Festival [MWF], might be the ideal place for us nightlife outcasts and the dogged (and dog-eared) page turners to meet and explore away from the glaring lights, bars and the thumping house music.
What I particularly enjoy about events such as MWF is that it tends to transcend cultural, class and age enclaves and bring people of all walks of life within a city together. This is due to the truly broad range of ideas and events included in the program but namely because of the affordable range of ticket prices and democratic approach to audience engagement. Sydney Writers’ Festival, for example, allows people to scatter themselves along the wharf like modern day sirens basking on the splintering wood in the warm sun and listen to a talk simulcast over the speaker system for all those who missed out on a spot. But while this breadth of programming is crucial to the intermingling of groups that you wouldn’t otherwise expect to see within the same it also means that the ten-day event and the scores of authors, talks and social events can be quite difficult to navigate. Here, a concise but comprehensive overview of this year’s festival.
Maria Popova: Brain Pickings
Maria Popova may be a name you’re unfamiliar with, but there is no doubt that you’ve stumbled across her hugely popular, democratic online journal Brain Pickings: a cross-disciplinary hub for long form reads and well-informed literary pieces. Think Paris Review meets Reddit, where the online medium has allowed Ms Popova’s unique voice to speak out in a world of communication and information otherwise dominated by the major (but somewhat challenged) print medium. There’s a great shift toward online literature with the rise of blogging and its nice to see writers festivals embrace this and discuss it openly.
I must admit I clicked on this one because of the pun, but what I read actually hugely intrigued me. Especially as a member of Gen-Y facing a daunting future summarised neatly in this year’s federal budget, the sardonic tone of this talk will be a nice respite from the either highly politicised or the apathetic discussions geared toward young people. Who better to explore the subject of soul and dole searching as a young person than Clem Bastow, Tom Doig, Justin Heazlewood (also known as The Bedroom Philosopher), Ben Watt (writer, musician and DJ) and John Safran. For fans of Mr Safran, he’ll also be taking part in a talk about his transition to creative non-fiction in True(man) Capote style, as well as in a live recital in The Radio Hour.
Poetic License: The Power and Limitations of Words
In recent years there’s been a resurgence of spoken world and oral story telling, so it’s amazing to see this shine in the MWF program. I’m particularly excited for Poetic License, which is a cross-generational performance inspired by Aristophanes’ comedic piece The Frogs, drawing on specifically Australian experiences and voices. Christos Tsiolkas, who is wholly respected within the Australian literary community but also internationally for his brutal domestic portraits in The Slap and Barracuda, spoke highly of the performance saying “I was listening, at the edge of my seat, thinking that this is indeed how the world sounds: hybrid, modernist and ancient, popular and classical”.While the MWF is a good way to explore and hear from local talent, it’s nice to see more of an emphasis on world literature, and literature that extends beyond the English-speaking West.
Queer Literary Salon
I love that MWF has brought about the resurgence of the ‘literary salon’, which immediately transports me back to 1920s Paris with Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. Queer literature is another burgeoning literary field, not because it hasn’t existed in the past, but was simply so underappreciated or swept under the rug for so long, so its nice to finally see wider audiences ingesting the genre outside the queer community. The salon will feature Sophie Cunningham, Brooke Hemphill, Philip Hensher, Terry Jaensch, Daniel Witthaus and festival favourite and Manuscript contributor Benjamin Law, who will also be talking about his hilarious small-book Sh*t Asian Mothers Say, as well as leading conversation with Tara Moss about her book The Fictional Woman.
Poetry Live & Direct
Many people claim that poetry is a dying artform, that fewer and fewer younger poets are finding an audience and putting their hand up, but I disagree. A huge movement in the U.S. and in Canada and now in Australia is Slam Poetry which challenges the tenets of classical poetry for a new era. Again this shows a shift away from traditional mediums and to oral story-telling that must be seen live to appreciate. If completely new to the idea, you can check out some moving poetry here, before experiencing it firsthand at MWF with Emilie Zoey Baker and Alia Garbes.
Walk: Melbourne Through Writers’ Eyes
This is a much-needed local guide to your home city and great way to get involved in the festival if you’re not a fan of sitting still in a crowded hall for an entire day. Again this shows how much writers’ festivals can bring together a city, but also bring that city back to its people by giving locals a chance to be the tourist and see their home outside the stress of the morning commute and the rush to get to a friends’ birthday at that dive bar you love and have been to every week for the last year. The walk will be lead by writers and filmmakers Sofija Sefanovic and Lorelei Vashti.
Dave Eggers: Closing Night Address
It seems almost negligible to write a blurb to convince you why I’ve included this event but I’ll try anyhow. Dave Eggers, author of a generation, founder of the 826 Valencia writing project to help get kids between 6 and 18 interested in reading and writing, as well as starting his own online literary journal McSweeney’s. That sits alongside seemingly ubiquitous critical acclaim and popularity for the five non-fiction and 11 fiction books as well as countless New Yorker articles and three screenplays including the much-loved Where the Wild Things Are, based on his own adaptation of the popular children’s book. This blurb fails to contain the literary excitement abounding for this man from this writer, and undoubtedly from the many, many people eager to see him on the 31 August.