A Peril eye on Lisa “diversity” Dempster’s Melbourne Writers Festival 2014 program


The Melbourne Writers Festival opens this Thursday August 21st, with an opening night address by Australian literary icon Helen Garner.  Literary giant Salman Rushdie will deliver a keynote address on freedom of expression, a very timely and poignant festival highlight considering Australia’s recent debates on freedom of speech and the abandonment of the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.  On a local level, this discussion on freedom of expression will be undertaken in a panel with Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alice Pung and Nick Feik in Talking Points: Bigotry in Australia; as well as an an interactive public forum by human rights media org Right Now in collaboration with MWF – Right Now Forum ; and a panel with Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson – Human Rights in Australia.

Late last year in the The Conversation, Dennis Altman critiqued Australia’s obsession with North Atlantic literary and intellectual culture to the detriment of Australian books and critics.

“But in the literary world there remains an ongoing cultural cringe, combined with a remarkable disinterest in what ideas and writings might be happening outside the Anglosphere, a term popular with the current prime minister.”

The current Prime Minister Tony Abbott who as journalist Susan Wyndham observed “has remade the $600,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in his own image, with a line-up of mostly like-minded judges, including his publisher Louise Adler, conservative columnist Gerard Henderson and former Liberal MP Peter Coleman” announced earlier this year at the Australian Book Industry Awards dinner.

In The Conversation Altman writes that the Melbourne Writers Festival “for the past two years centred the spotlight on overseas, but specifically North-Atlantic, writers.”  He quotes from last year’s festival blurb, emphasising that the festival highlights named literary figures living and working in the US and UK, with the exception of Anne Summers:

“We have captured some of our favourite Festival events on film! Watch our popular keynote addresses delivered by Boris Johnson, Tavi Gevinson, and Anne Summers. See international guests Ophira Eisenberg, Doug Johnstone and Laurent Binet as well as the esteemed literary team from the London review of Books including Colm Tóibín and Andrew O’Hagan.”

However, this year, the Melbourne Writers Festival’s compass has shifted significantly.  In an interview with The Age’s Literary Editor Jason Steger, Lisa Dempster has boldly claimed that “her middle name is diversity”, a new middle name  praised by Steger and testified by this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival robust program.

In Dempster’s Q&A with Peril, she says:

“This year, over 400 authors, thinkers, musicians, experts and creative minds from across Australia and around the world will discuss and debate topics ranging from news and current affairs and international issues, to food, art, history and innovation”

When Peril asked for a brief overview of the festival and what it offers Asian Australian audiences in terms of programming, Dempster answered with the following:

Melbourne Writers Festival has something for everyone, with over 400 events to be held between 21 and 31 August this year.

The 2014 Festival features a number of streams, including:

  • Local Luminaries – featuring new and established Australian authors, poets, publishers and readers
  • World Literature – with writers from Africa, Asia, India, Europe and America, as well as Australia’s own international stars
  • The Agenda – exploring topical issues in society, history and politics, including Russian politics, the Asian century and the history and legacy of WWI
  • Food, Wine and Travel – exploring the world with visiting gastronomes and globetrotters
  • Art, Design and Innovation – exploring a new modality of stories, from creation to sharing, and the gamut of visual expression from pop culture to fine art
  • Music and Performance – including Shakespeare, rock’n’roll style, and a cabaret celebration of Dylan Thomas

This year’s Festival will include a number of events which focus on Asia, including four City to City events. These City to City events will  look at Shanghai, Jakarta, Beijing and Singapore through the eyes of local writers.

A number of well-known Asian Australians will also speak at this year’s Festival, including editor of the anthology, Growing Up Asian in Australia, Alice Pung, and Benjamin Law, co-author of the light-hearted book, Sh*t Asian Mothers Say”.

As an editor with Peril, I am excited with the breadth and range of events that the Melbourne Writers Festival offers.  As an online publication, Peril is also always interested in how other publications, festivals and organisations foster and collaborate on digital conversations.

One of the local-global highlights is the Marco Polo Festival of Digital Literature, a partner of the Melbourne Writers Festival. The festival which runs from August 23 to August 30, will bring together readers, writers and translators from Australia and China through a series of interactive online and in-person events.   In an article for Peril, Marco Polo Festival Co-Director Julien Leyre, a linguist and writer who can speak multiple languages, including Mandarin, calls for optimising Australia’s unique position in integrating European and Asian traditions:

“So on the Chinese side, intellectual integration with the west is already happening, however for us it is yet to take hold. I haven’t yet seen anyone at a Melbourne bookstore engrossed in a book of 19th century Chinese philosophy. I’m not actually sure I could find a book of 19th century Chinese philosophy if I was looking for one – even on kindle or through the Book Depository”

Like Altman, Leyre is also aligned in brokering conversations that is about an interchange of ideas and immersion, one that is outside the Anglosphere.

“So meanwhile, as we support future generations to learn – maybe we can do this: what about inviting more thinkers and speakers from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, or Indonesia, to teach at our schools, write in our magazines, or speak on our public forums. Many of them have been courteous enough to learn English, and make our lives easier – this deserves, at the very least, to reward them with our attention. So when they come, let’s make sure we listen to them carefully.”

Earlier this year, as part of the inaugural Digital Writers Festival (DWF), (Dempster is a pioneer of online literary programming, having founded both the Digital Writers’ Conference and EWFdigital) , Peril was invited to host a conversation with Foreign Soil author and award winning poet Maxine Beneba Clarke in WrICE: Postcard from Singapore.  Instead of a solitary conversation in her hotel room, Maxine gathered together some of the other writers in the residency and facilitated a conversation in Books Actually an independent Singaporean bookshop and publisher.

The WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) program supports cultural immersion in the Asia-Pacific for established and emerging Australian writers, and enabled a cross-pollination of ideas and connection with Asian-based writers at different career stages.  The inaugural program was held over ten days in Penang, Malaysia and Singapore.

Besides Clarke, featured in the DWF conversation were an array of celebrated literary figures –  Singaporean poet Alvin Pang; Malaysian writers and poets Eddin Khoo and Bernice Chauly (who is also the Georgetown Literay Festival Director); Philippines based writer Laurel Fantauzzo; and Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko.

prepsAudiences were encouraged to comment or question using the Twitter hashtag #dwf14.

Steering the conversation behind the Google hangout scenes in Melbourne was DWF Co-Director Connor Tomas O’Brien, who flagged comments and questions as they came through.

While behind the scenes in both countries tweets were flying melissavigorously, further enabling an interactive visual and textual snapshot of the unfolding event.

Edit_Superstar loving live hookupSome of the writers from the residency will be conversing at a Melbourne Writers Festival free event –  Writers Across Borders. Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alvin Pang, Eddin Khoo, Laurel Fantauzzo will share their experience with WrICE Directors Associate Professors Francesca Rendle-Short and David Carlin; and Director of the Writing Program at Yale-NUS College, Singapore – Robin Hemley

Says Maxine Beneba Clarke in her DWF chat :

“The Australian writing community seems divorced from what’s going on in the region.  It’s about fostering a relationship between Australian and Asian writers and building an Asia-Pacific writing community.”

Alvin Pang in the interview also highlighted the importance of regular conversations in order to know books that are being released locally.

eddin khoo and alvin pangHe says,  “[W]e can’t get the books that are out from Australia unless they hit the international bestseller lists.  And I know having gone there so much over the years that there is a lot of really, really good writing from Australia. We don’t even see a fraction of a fraction. We only see what Amazon wants to show us.  Stuff like the spoken word scene, the arts scene, the music scene, unless they get to come out and tour and do really
laurel,alvinwell internationally, we don’t know what’s happening.”

With a great deal of hope and promise, I’m excited about this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival leading the way in shifting Australia’s literary and intellectual compass featuring writers from Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, India, Europe and the Americas as well as Australian literary luminaries.  While we are still discovering the endless possibilities that the digital platform provides, the golden opportunity to see and hear writers live, writers who are not always on international bestseller lists or Amazon’s top picks is an opportunity Melburnians cannot miss.

Author: Lian Low

Lian Low is a writer, editor and spoken word artist. She’s currently at large in Peril‘s outer orbit. Previously editor-in-chief (2010-2014) , prose editor (2009-2014) and on Peril‘s Board until 2016. Find her on http://lianlow.weebly.com/ and Twitter @Lian__Low