Thanks for the memories MWF

I’m feeling a little bit lost today, now that the Melbourne Writers Festival is done and dusted.

I’m sure that all the authors, festival staff, and volunteers are breathing a collective sigh of relief at having orchestrated a most impressive event, coordinating over 300 sessions and 400 authors. I on the other hand am feeling a little bit sad that it’s all over for another year.

So, please indulge me while I tell you about the enlightening, entertaining and at times fiery weekend I had at Stories Unbound.

First up on Saturday was the session Essaying Options featuring an impressive panel of exemplary practitioners of the art of essay writing; Richard Flanagan, Robert Manne, and Marieke Hardy, and panel chair Alison Croggon.

For many years I believed essay writing to be mainly a chore borne by university students, the result of which was often printed on cheap printer paper and mercilessly marked by red pen. Then I discovered Orwell’s work and realised that an essay is so much more than a means of assessment. In their best form they are well researched and carefully constructed pieces aimed at truth-telling and change-making. I liked Richard’s description, that an “essay is a short piece of writing with something wrong with it,” going on to explain: “What’s wrong with it is that it is provisional, they have a humanity, they attempt to devine something about this world.” Essay’s can, over time, effect great change in individuals and in society.

I enjoyed the mixed styles of the Richard, Marieke and Robert. Richard demonstrates a raw, yet well reasoned emotion, Marieke uses a rye humour to engage and Robert places much hope in politics: “Politics is our way of acting collectively. We can’t live without politics if we hope to achieve things…we have to fight for decent politics.” I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the different ways in which they choose their subject matter, how they work to effect their audience, and what they hope to achieve through their work.

As with many of the festival’s sessions, the discussion moved into talk about the internet and it’s effect on humanity, argument and politics. This was a nice lead-in to my second session for the day Assange: Man and Myth, at which the panelists investigated the freedoms and conundrums presented by the internet, particular as it relates to freedom of speech, human rights and journalism.

The session seemed to have lost a little of it’s intended structure, as a result of Andrew Fowler being unable to attend and I suspect his biography The Most Dangerous Man in the World was going to be the anchor of this discussion. Nonetheless Suelette Dreyfuss, Joel Deane and Tracee Hutchison conducted an informative and feisty presentation.

Somewhat to my surprise, this was the most fiery session that I had attended throughout the festival. Suelette was passionate in her defence of Assange, and her complete commitment to WikiLeaks. Joel seemed more focused on the ‘definition’ of Assange: “The question must be asked as to whether or not Julian Assange is a journalist or not” and it was this question that raised the most ire amongst the audience.

At the end of the day, this session was largely a discussion about the ethics of journalism, and in particular the sticky question of protections offered to whisleblowers, a rare breed of informants on which WikiLeaks is heavily reliant. The panel talked around whether Assange was an anarchist, a rule-breaker (Suelette’s assessement), or a rebel-rouser (Joel’s suggestion) and argued heatedly on the need for responsibility in journalism, even in this new type of ‘leaks’ reliant reporting. Tracee expressed her concern: “This seems to me troublesome, this gloves-off approach to free speech, if there is no responsibility taken,” and Suelette disagreed strongly that Assange and WikiLeaks in fact demonstrated great responsibility, although she didn’t really seem to say how this was so.

I walked out of this session quietly pleased to have been privy  to such a passionate debate.

Last up for me on Saturday was a delightful conversation between Julian Burnside and Arnold Zable, and it was a perfect way to finish the day. As Burnside said at the outset, “Arnold is a fine writer, and an amazing storyteller” and he in keeping with this description, Arnold kindly shared the story of his writing, his history, his family and his love of music.

The appeal of this session was simple really…it was fascinating to hear about the moments at the heart of his stories, and how through his travels “moments of amazing symmetry occur, and things just come together.” Each story would seem to have a profound core, an “eloquent episode” that informs it.

In short, I have been enticed by his latest Violin Lessons and so it would seem, this collection of stories is yet another title for my reading list. I’d also have loved to be able to get to a performance of Cafe Scheherazade (adapted by Therese Radic) being shown at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne until the 11 Sept 2011.

I didn’t want the festival be over so I had a last hurrah on Sunday. I was extremely moved by The Pity of War, a session at which the audience was given a perspective of what it is to be at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The presentation focused on the monetary, humanitarian and political costs of remaining at war in these regions, and touched also on the issue of fair and truthful reporting in conflicts such as these.

The recounts, facts and figures gave me chills, and horrified me.

Being challenged to think so deeply really seemed a fitting way to finish off my MWF, and after this session I packed up my notebook and slowly, reluctantly left Federation Square. Until next year.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on Stories Unbound, and that you were able to get to some sessions as well. If you’re interested in hearing any of the sessions, keep an eye on the Melbourne Writers Festival website, as podcasts will be made available over time.

Thanks to MWF for giving me the opportunity to cover the festival, it has been an amazing privilege.


Coming up soon, I’ll be reviewing Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent, and Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee and I’ll be updating my reading list with some new discoveries.

Also, don’t forget to enter the competition to win a copy of Room, by Emma Donoghue. Full details of this month’s give-away can be found here.

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