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What writers festivals say about culture

  • 08 August 2017


The Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) starts on Friday 25 August. It’s a good time to consider what such a festival says about our local cultures, as well as being a perfect time to think about how you relate to that culture.

I, for one, was thrilled to see that there are three streams that speak thoroughly to me and my interests, as well as many other stand-alone sessions that feature writers and editors I admire (and, yes, Dissent Within is one of these!). The streams I’m excited about are Protest and Persist, Asia What?, and Harry Potter Day—the first two probably come as no surprise, given what I tend to write about here. The program works for me as a critical race scholar, a parent, and an Asian Australian living in Melbourne.

Many of the program sessions involve members of the Asian Australian Research Studies Network (AASRN), which I convene. Seeing their insightful, savvy work brought before a larger audience is particularly satisfying.

The ‘Asia What?’ series of events is an excellent example of the thoughtful, challenging conversations fostered by the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC) and having access to the broader MWF community is a boon. Don’t get me started about trying to decide how to get to all these sessions, let alone those featuring Tony Ayres, Shaun Tan and Kyo Maclear, and Kevin “Crazy Rich Asians” Kwan.

As happy as I am about these program elements, I know there will be those who are unhappy and disapproving. There are two reasons for this.

First, there are always those who are unhappy and disapproving.

Second, and less facetiously, cultural festivals occupy always contested terrain. Particularly for literary festivals, there is constant tension around the literary and the popular debates about the diversity of speakers/authors invited—or not. It goes to the foundational issue of what purpose literary festivals serve.

From the start, the premise of literary festivals is exclusive in terms of levels of facility with language and expression. The festival slogan is 'For everyone who reads'. For Asian-Australian writers, speaking at writers festivals to majority–white audiences can be an important, but fraught, experience. These writers can feel that they’re narrowly categorised; only invited to be part of panels about being a migrant or about race.


"Who is listening and participating at these festivals is as important as who is invited to take the stage."


They are often the only person of colour in a session and asked the ‘ethnic’ questions. Ot they are in the