Monday Musings on Australian literature: the Boundless Festival

Boundless Festival panelLast Saturday, the NSW Writers’ Centre and Bankstown Arts Centre presented Boundless: A Festival of Diverse Writers, which they describe as the “first-ever festival focused on Indigenous and culturally diverse Australian writers and writing”. My first reaction was, Really? Surely not. There was Blak and Bright held last year in Melbourne. But, hmm, that was specifically Indigenous. I couldn’t, quickly anyhow (and that’s relevant in itself), think of anything else. So, Boundless does appear to be the first to combine all of Australia’s culturally diverse writers under one umbrella. This is a worry. However, the good thing is, as the post-festival tweets suggest, that it was a stimulating event.

It was also free, and comprised “performances, readings, panel discussions, audiovisual experiences, and workshops for children and adults.” And, if you haven’t guessed, the Festival’s name references the line “boundless plains to share” from Dorothea Mackellar’s poem “My country”. It’s a great title, having both ironic and aspirational connotations.

So, who was there? And what was the program? According to the website, over 40 artists were involved. I have to admit that I’ve only heard of a few, including:

  • Ivor Indyk, an Australian-born editor and publisher of Polish immigrant parents. He founded Giramondo Publishing.
  • Mirielle Juchau, an Australian Jewish writer, whose novel The world without us was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and NSW Premier’s Literary Award.
  • Julie Koh, an Australian-born writer of Chinese-Malaysian parents, whose short story collection, Portable Curiosities, was shortlisted several awards including a NSW Premier’s Literary Award. Koh was also named as a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist.
  • Benjamin Law, an Australian-born writer and journalist of Hong Kong Chinese parents. His memoir The family Law was adapted for a television series.
  • Hoa Pham, a Vietnamese-Australian writer whose novel, Lady of the realm, I’ll be reviewing soon.
  • Ellen van Neerven, an indigenous Australian writer whom I’ve reviewed here a few times.
  • Markus Zusak, an Australian born writer of German and Austrian parents. I’ve reviewed  his young adult-adult crossover novel, The book thief, here.

I need to say that the listing of artists in the Festival Program did not provide their origin, which is, I guess, about not labelling. However, I felt that readers here might want to know something about their backgrounds because that, presumably, explains their role as presenters at a festival specialising in diversity. I really hope this hasn’t been insensitive of me.

It was a pretty packed program, with some concurrent streams. The sessions included:

  • GetSmART: An insider’s look into the world of book publishing. It was convened by Jennifer Wong, host of Bookish on ABC iView, and involved publishers Chren Byng (HarperCollins), Ivor Indyk (Giramondo), and Robert Watkins (Hachette).
  • Shaping the horizon: Exploring how new writers are “reshaping the landscape and literature of Australia” and its effect on “how we see ourselves as a community”. Convened by Benjamin Law, and involving Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Julie Koh, Peter Polites, and Ellen van Neerven.
  • All in the family: About how to “write about families without offending your own”. It involved Cathy Craigie, Mireille Juchau, Benjamin Law, Omar Sakr, and was convened by Jennifer Wong.

Other events and activities included a pop-up bookstore with book signings (which you’d expect at literary festivals), panels and workshops for children and young adults, film screenings, and a poetry slam.

Just prior to the festival, The Au Review interviewed Benjamin Law who said about the importance of festivals like Boundless:

By some measures, Australia’s one of the most diverse nations on the planet. We’re home to the oldest living, surviving and thriving human cultures and communities bar none, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island storytelling spanning back millennia and continuing to present day. About half of us have parents born overseas and a quarter of us are migrants. One in five speak languages other than English at home. And yet that’s rarely the image of Australia we export or tell ourselves. Showcasing Australian writing in all of its diversity is a vital start.

And answering a question about how he’d define “Australianness” he said:

We’re a happily mongrel nation and one of the most diverse on the planet. And we’re a happy group of contradictions that must be acknowledged: the home to the oldest living human cultures and communities bar none, as well as one of the youngest modern immigrant nations on earth. If you disagree with me, die angry about it.

Nothing fancy here, just plain description. I like it – though perhaps not everyone would use the terms “happily” and “happy”, not yet anyhow.

Sarah Ayoub, Hate is such a strong wordAlso just before the Festival, wrote about Lebanese-Australian author Sarah Ayoub, who has written two YA novels, Hate is such a strong word and The Yearbook Committee. She speaks about growing up in a mono-cultural part of Sydney where she never experienced racism but, she says, as she grew up:

I started to think about how ethnic enclaves don’t really do much for cultural cohesion. I found that there were so many stereotypes that white people had about my community and there were so many stereotypes that my community had about white people.

Ayoub believes that Australia is now at the forefront of diverse publishing, and names Alice Pung, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Tamar Chnorhokian, Melinda Marchetta, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad as her favourite authors writing about multi-cultural Australia.

So, there’s positivity about how we are going, but to make sure we don’t become complacent, I’ll conclude with a tweet (hashtag #boundless17) from Djed Press:

White facilitation and white programming at festivals is really problematic and not often discussed.

Festivals like Blak and Bright and Boundless are important initiatives on our journey to being a true (and happy) multicultural nation, but as this tweet makes clear we certainly have a way to go yet.

Do you actively seek “diversity” (however YOU define it) in in your reading?

39 thoughts on “Monday Musings on Australian literature: the Boundless Festival

  1. Thank you for this post, Sue. Chennai gets to see just a few literary events every year. So I virtually attend events through your posts.

    I am a free-range reader. Despite that, I have a penchant for Middle-East literature and WoC.

  2. Follow your first link to the program, then hit each writer’s highlighted name, and you’ll go through to a short biography giving each one’s cultural background.
    Looks like an interesting event, pity I live a thousand km away!

    • That’s a form of diversity, I’d say, Guy, but just not the diversity this is about. But, I should have made it clear that I didn’t get to this one. If I had it wouldn’t have been a Monday Musings but a more detailed post in which I would have written more on the content.

  3. That certainly sounds like an interesting event. I’d be pleased to attend, to add more diverse authors and books to my lists and stacks and plans. If I don’t pay attention, things sink into “more and more of the same” in my corner of the reading world. It’s not difficult to find diverse voices when looking out for them, but all too easy to look over or past or through them, when relying on mainstream media and consumers for recommendations, so I’m glad to hear about events and venues like the one you’re describing!

    • Yes, you’ve nailed it on the head Buried. It’s too easy to not “see” diverse writing if you don’t actively look for it. I’m trying to encourage more diversity in my reading group. Have suggested, for a start, at least one indigenous writer a year and are slowly achieving that I think.

      • No, not overlooked by you! And I’m not really fussed. But I raise the point, somewhat mischievously I admit, because the way the conference seems to have been organised. The impression given is that diversity is a) something newly discovered and b) doesn’t include someone like me, who not only is Jewish but has been writing about people with diverse backgrounds (e.g. Sapphires or Silver City) for decades and only recently has published another book on such themes.
        Years ago, when I submitted a piece on the subject the editor was surprised to learn that I wasn’t, as she put it, WASP. Through all this I’ve come to have an inkling of how light-skinned Indigenous people feel when someone of the likes of Andrew Bolt doesn’t count them as ‘true’ Aborigines. In my case I suppose if I had kept the name of Rosenthal there might not have been any confusion. But I kept my first husband’s Cornish name for the sake of my children – they had had enough difficulty, I thought at the time, navigating their own very complicated heritage. Now my thinking on the matter would be different, and I suspect theirs would be too.

        • Oh good, Sara. I wondered if you were referring to your background/subject matter and not being included, but I just wanted to make sure. There were a couple of Jewish writers there, I saw, including Markus Zusak. There could also be something else at play here – age. Ivor Indyk was an “artist” but the faces overall seemed 20s-40s to me. What do you think?

          That’s a good point about names, too, though. We do use that as signposts – wrongly really because they can so mislead. I suspect we all have name stories. I have some good ones in my extended family.

          In my own case, I retained my name, and our children have hyphenated ones. I don’t think they love that, but my daughter in particular appreciates where it comes from. I didn’t like the idea myself, but on the other hand I was darned if I was not going to be recognised in their name!

  4. Quite a number of old friends mentioned here. WG: it takes me back to my study and “action research” days from the early 1980s including after my commencement/focus on Japanese took me to Japan – during which time Ivor Indyk was basically a constant – either studying a unit of OZ LIT with him (among others) at UoS – and then being comforted in my “exile years” in Japan by the constant arrival of his brilliant literary/journal/anthologies – HEAT. Thank-you.

  5. I’ve been trying to get clear in my own head what upsets me about guys writing about the bush, and of course it’s all so mono-cultural. Which reminds me, Peter Carey has written a really inadequate apology for his failure to include Indigenous characters in any of his (previous) novels. In the Age over the weekend.

    • Oh thanks, Bill, I’ll try to suss that out. Of course, there are some who would say it’s better that he didn’t include indigenous characters, so perhaps his apology isn’t completely inadequate?

      • That’s his excuse – that Gary Foley told him not to. But in fact Foley said Carey shouldn’t presume to speak for Indigenous people, which I agree with. What makes me angry is Carey’s pretence, particularly in Ned Kely, that there are no Indigenous people in Australia.

        • Oh, I do like Deepika’s expression, I think I’m a free-range reader too:)
          I started a diversity page at my blog and was surprised to find just how diverse my Australian reading had been. As has been said, we tend to use surnames as a marker and we don’t always get it right. And we do need to be careful about not labelling people as well.

          Of course, if there’s one thing the citizenship debacle in parliament has taught us, it’s that we may all be more diverse than we think: I checked out mine just recently and discovered that I have three citizenships and not just the one that I knew about – Australian (my favourite), British, and yay! Irish which means I can still have EU citizenship after Brexit!!

        • Funny you should say that. I was once asked to stand for our seat by our local Labor Party (to which I have never belonged). There was no admiration in their request, it was then thought to be a safe Liberal seat and they couldn’t get anyone to do the footslogging required to put up a decent show.

        • Hmmm … I don’t recollect True history in that much detail to recollect that aspect. Does the historical record provide information about Kelly’s experience of or relationship with indigenous people? That’s an interesting question, actually.

        • There has been a continuing presence of Indigenous peoples along the Murray and the Goulburn. It is inconceivable both that Kelly would not have mixed with them, and that a writer fictionalising Kelly’s life would not have had him mixing with them. And yet the only Indigenous people in True History are from the fearsome Qld Native Police.

        • Thanks Bill. Ok, next question, given it’s a long time since I read this, as I recollect it was based on Kelly’s Jerilderie letter? If Kelly didn’t mention indigenous people there, perhaps Carey’s decision is meant to reflect that? If he’d written it third person he could have interrogated attitudes to indigenous people more easily perhaps? Anyhow, your question is a good one.

  6. Yes – I’m tending to read more books by people from diverse backgrounds because I am interested in what they have to say and the stories they tell.

  7. Thanks for this summary, Sue. I’m looking forward to a briefing on the Boundless festival when one of our NSW Writers’ Centre colleagues visits Melbourne later this month. To Sarah Ayoub’s fine list of favourite authors writing about multicultural Australia, I’d add Melanie Cheng, Tony Birch, Roanna Gonsalves and of course Christos Tsiolkas.

    • Thanks Angela. I think Cheng was, and I know Gonsalves was, involved in the festival, but not Birch or Tsiolkas. There were only a couple of indigenous writers, and not many of the “top” recognisable names, which may be because this was a free event so they didn’t have much money to throw around. I’d love to hear what you hear about it if you can remember to come back and say.

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  9. Excellent and informative post WG! Very timely too. Diversity is strength, we like to toot it here in Canada (hopefully not just as a slogan), for we do see lots of writers coming from very different backgrounds. Even just today I was asked to recommend a list of Asian American writers for someone wanting to find her roots. And yes, there are quite a few excellent ones here in N.A.

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