Saturday, 14 September 2013

Lisa Dempster / Director, Melbourne Writers Festival

Melbourne Writers Festival, the city’s annual, two-week celebration for writers, readers and thinkers, has just closed.  I asked Lisa Dempster, its director, to reflect on this year's achievements.

I commented that the program seemed to suggest the Festival was intended, in part, as a bridge between East and West. Was that correct? "Yes, it's very important to me that the Melbourne Writers Festival creates a dialogue with our neighbours in Asia. So much of the publishing industry is focused on the US, UK and Europe, but as we live in the Asia-Pacific it's vital that we take part in conversations about the politics and literature of our region also. When planning the program, we think about the conversations that are happening around us and curate topics and speakers that we know will provoke discussion or further the conversation about a particular issue. Given our geographical position, some of these naturally promote dialogue between East and West."

Global Voices was one event clearly focused on encouraging an East-West conversation. It brought together Iranian-born Australian writer and poet Ali Alizadeh, American-Taiwanese Tao Lin, and Australian writer-performer Laura Jean McKay to talk about how they represented, or evaded, different cultures in their writing.  I thought it sounded great, and I wondered how Lisa and her team came up with the idea of bringing together these three writers? "It was a natural fit. Although their writing styles are very different, all of their most recent books are about the intersection between the East and the West, and how people navigate increasingly globalised lives. The discussion was fantastic, and each author brought an interesting perspective to the panel."

Like #Word, Kula Lumpur, (see the post here) Melbourne hosted a chapter of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference - a global enquiry into contemporary writing that has spanned the world from Edinburgh to Beijing, and beyond. One of the EWWC's themes was censorship - a problem in much of Asia. How did Lisa think writers' festivals in countries where free speech is allowed help writers in countries where it isn't? "We can help simply by contributing to the dialogue around writing and censorship. I think in democratic countries we need to be aware of the challenges facing authors working in more restrictive conditions. At the Melbourne Writers Festival we ensure there are empty chairs on stage during events, highlighting authors who cannot be at the Festival because their circumstances don't allow it." 

Ruth Ozeki was one of the big names attending the Festival.  Her novel A Tale For The Time Being is on the Man Booker shortlist(See the post here).  I wondered how she was received in Melbourne, and which other Asian writers, or writers of Asian descent, the audiences wanted to see? "Everyone loved Ruth. In addition to being a brilliant novelist, she's a very interesting woman and a great presenter. Tao Lin also made waves. His work is quite divisive in a lot of ways - he has fans but he also has detractors. A lot of people were curious to come along and meet the man behind the work."

The Festival closed with Marina Warner, an expert on the magic and metaphor of fairy tales, talking about her latest book, Stranger Magic: charmed states and the Arabian Nights, an exploration of the wide-ranging influence of Scheherazade's life-saving tales. Lisa moderated the event.  Had she enjoyed herself? "It was a real treat. Stories are vital to the human condition, as evidenced by our desire to tell and retell stories across centuries. Musing on that idea at the end of the Festival was the ideal way to close a huge eleven days that celebrated stories and storytellers of all kinds!"