Melbourne Writers Festival Retrospective

MWF-pink_smWith the Melbourne Writers Festival now mere hours behind us, I’d like to have a brief reflection on the various sessions I attended.  Being the bleeding heart that I am, my interest lay more in the political sessions, rather than the industry-oriented ones.  Unfortunately I missed our erstwhile ex-opposition leader Mark Latham’s display, but there was much else on over the ten day festival to entertain and inform.  I attended six events across the course of the festival.

With Esther Anatolitis, Michael Bachelard and Tim Soutphommasane

Racial discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane and Fairfax journalist Michael Bachelard joined Esther Anatolitis for a conversation on Australia’s immigration policy and how it has evolved since the passage of the Race Discrimination Act (1975).  For fairly obvious reasons, much of the talk revolved around the plight of refugees, particularly in Indonesia; Michael Bachelard has recently returned from a correspondent posting in Indonesia.

As an audience member pointed out, the panel really was preaching to the converted on the matter of addressing racial discrimination and treating asylum seekers more humanely*.  And as Australian immigration history, law and policy has been a special interest area of mine since I attended my first political protest** at the age of 10, I didn’t myself learn anything much per se.  Nonetheless, some interesting (and one entirely frustrating) questions about the nature of Australian racism were raised, and the panel attempted to address them.

The topic that most hit home for me was Bachelard’s discussion of how much vilification of asylum seekers and Muslims has become part of the Australian political landscape.  The public responded with outrage to a $5,000 helicopter trip, but barely seems to bat an eyelid at revelations of sex abuse, torture and other violence in offshore detention centres.  Is the media entirely to blame***; are politicians; or are we?  Where does this horrific feedback cycle begin and end?  If anyone can answer that, they deserve some kind of prize.

*Honestly, the bar is so astoundingly low at the moment, “more” humanely could still include any number of privations. In our name.
**That I am aware of. I don’t know if I was taken to any as a small child.
***The audience was particularly keen on blaming Murdoch; the panelists attempted to pull the debate away from him.

With Jennifer Robinson and George Georgiou or Liberty Victoria

Named for a politician I was vaguely aware of, but who seems to have been a pretty awesome guy, the Alan Missen oration is an annual event at the festival and organised by Liberty Victoria.  I was astounded by Jennifer Robinson.  She is who I want to be when I grow up, and she’s not even that much older than me.  What a splendid human being.  A human rights lawyer, part of Julian Assange’s legal team, Robinson spoke eloquently and passionately about the state of human rights in Australia and attacks on freedom of speech globally.

I found the oration quite inspiring and intend to join Liberty Victoria soon.  It also renewed my ambitions and passions in the human rights law area.  Informative and outraging, Robinson’s speech deserves congratulation.  Freedom of speech is at the core of liberal democracy.  Its degredation, and the lack of protection afforded free speech or human rights in Australia generally, deserve our attention.

With Tariq Ali

More familiar with Tariq Ali’s fiction than with his political writing, I was sad to miss out on his discussion about his Islam Quintet.  The quintet is set across various time in the history of Islam and I recommend them.  However, I was very fortunate to instead attend this snippet from Sydney’s upcoming Festival of Dangerous Ideas.  The Dangerous Idea, namely, is that the free market ideology has eroded democratic freedoms, and will continue to do so unless drastic action is taken.

Well, I didn’t really need convincing; it’s very easy to become depressed just thinking about it.  But what was wonderful about Ali’s speech was its inspiration.  Being part of the generation who’s probably going to have to live through the environmental and societal fallout of the planet’s present destructive trajectory, I’ve nonetheless wanted to stay out of actual politics.  My traditional line has been, “No, I want to do some good in the world.”  Ali managed to convince me that I should go into politics, and I left the session feeling gung-ho and ready to go about doing it.  That was the power of his speech.

Unfortunately, being both a dual national and civil servant, I cannot become a politician in Australia at this point.  However, Ali’s speech, despite its dire warning, left me feeling hopeful and renewed my energy to fight for what I believe in.  I thank him wholeheartedly, and look forward to seeing him on ABC’s Q&A tomorrow.

With Joshua Ip, Maggie Tiojakin, Murong Xuecun and Jane Camens.

From their respective homelands of Singapore, Indonesia and China, Joshua Ip, Maggie Tiojakin and Murong Xuecun have contributed to the latest Griffith Review collection with poetry and short stories.  In this panel, we were introduced to their careers, some examples of their work, and the various political and other societal shifts taking place around Asia.

Having some grounding in the supposedly (but apparently not really) dead in the water “Asian Rights” movement, which preferences economic over social and political freedoms, I found this panel educational and interesting.  Exerpts of Ip’s poetry were alternately funny and moving; it is usually best to hear poetry read aloud.  It was enough to make me go out and buy the book immediately upon leaving the session.

With Suki Kim, Anna Broinowski and Nic Low

Possibly the most awkward of the panels I attended, North Korea Uncovered nonetheless was an interesting one to see.  Suki Kim, a South Korean whose recent memoir Without You, There is No Us follows her time teaching Engish to sons of North Korea’s elite, presented an understandably grim view of the country.  Her experience there was obviously deeply affecting, possibly traumatising.  Filmmaker Anna Broinowski, on the other hand, came close to romanticising her experiences there, and truth be told, her time seems to have been spent amongst a different kind of elite; the filmmakers and actors.

I got a sense that Kim was frustrated with Broinowski’s attitude.  Perhaps naivety isn’t the right word, but I think that’s what Kim saw it as.  Kim saw no hope of change in North Korea, no signs even in her two years there of the facade truly cracking, despite the best efforts she could make under the strict controls she lived under; Broinowski believed she had made a difference in the life of her young interpreter by explaining to her about reality television and western society.  Perhaps Kim was less frustrated, though, with Broinowski personally, so much as the western narrative of North Korea in general.

Regardless of the reasons behind Kim’s misgivings, discussion was terse and I’m not sure any of them wanted to be talking to each other.

With Hannie Rayson, Tony Briggs and Richard Watts

It may shock you to hear this, but class is a thing in Australia, and probably becoming more of one.  In stark contrast to the previous panel, Class Act was a relaxed and jovial conversation about class.  Panelists were quick to acknowledge their own class position and privileges, and to acknowledge that the audience, too, was likely composed of fairly bourgeois people.  I mean, it’s the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, for goodness’ sake.

Topics of conversation included whether Australia’s class bounds are more fluid than those of other countries; what class markers exist in Australia; whether it is more difficult for Aboriginal Australians to cross class bounds; and raising awareness of the oft-used invective “bogan” being quite classist.  As with the immigration panel, it was not a particularly revalatory discussion, but it was nonetheless good to listen to.

Overall, with the one exception, the panels I attended at this Melbourne Writer’s Festival were a great success.  I thank the organisers and participants for giving us such a wide range of panels to attend  I’m already looking forward to next year!

About Cecilia Quirk

Cecilia Quirk's ultimate goal in life is to become 'Avatar: The Last Airbender's' Uncle Iroh, or as close a proximation as possible for a redhaired white woman. Or Granny Weatherwax. Or hell, both. She enjoys green tea, long walks, manipulating causality and afternoons at home. She lives in the Magical Kingdom of the Roundabouts and works as a wild gnome herder.
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