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, SBS.com.au 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?