A message from Michaela McGuire

What happens when the entire world is consumed by the same story? The pandemic feels like the first truly global event: everyone is being clobbered by the same problem, at the same time, while we’re all online, all the time.

To open a book is, in this world, a radical act: of learning, of privacy, of self-care, of rebellion, of hope. As readers and writers, the written word is our chosen art form because of its unparalleled power to provide comfort, answers to impossible questions, connection with other minds and viewpoints. To change who we are, and in doing so, change the world.

In periods of uncertainty, when we feel powerless and buffeted by forces outside of our control, we turn to storytellers to help make sense of the world. Here, at Melbourne Writers Festival, we invite you to celebrate our chosen panacea for the time in which we live.

We’ve gathered the finest minds in the country and have issued them a simple challenge: Tell Me How It Ends.

This Festival program stubbornly resists the neat ending. Instead, we’ll contest and interrogate the pre-existing conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and dragged into the harsh light of day. Together, we’ll tackle the tensions of racism, classism, sexism, colonialism and nationalism and imagine a new way forward. This Festival defies the deep desire to impose a narrative structure on chaos. There are no foregone conclusions here—but infinite possibilities.

To find out how the story ends, we need to understand how it began. On Opening Night, an all-star line-up considers this country’s foundational myths. How have our brutal beginnings endured to this day, and how do we reckon with our history of dispossession? When did we start to see ourselves as a bunch of battlers, larrikins and top blokes in the land of the fair go? And what fibs, both big and small, help our leaders stay in power?

This program also recognises that the invasion of this country represented the end for so many members of the world’s longest continuing cultures. For the first time, this year’s festival has been enriched by self-determined programming from two of this country’s most powerful First Nations voices, Bridget Caldwell-Bright and Marcia Langton. In Marcia’s own words, ‘we have invited writers to tell us their deepest thoughts about the predicament of being simultaneously Indigenous people and global citizens in our Brave New World, being an Indigenous person in the midst of so many challenges to our existence and our right to be Indigenous, to be writers and thinkers, the truthtelling that is demanded of us and the insights that Indigenous history, cultures, languages and ways of thinking and being offer to the world.’

For Melbourne Writers Festival’s 35th year, our program features a cast of astonishing writers who are shaping the future of literature in this country and beyond. Helen Garner makes a long-awaited return to the Festival stage to speak with writer and critic Beejay Silcox about the role that doubt plays in her life and work, the literary power of ambiguity, and the art of unknowing. Author Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) and historian Tom Griffiths (The Art of Time Travel) transcend the culture wars to consider the productive conversation emerging around First Nations histories, in conversation with Sally Warhaft. Two of our most beloved and celebrated authors and journalists Julia Baird and Trent Dalton discuss the importance of wonder and where they find it in their lives.

Twice Miles Franklin–shortlisted author Tony Birch emerged from lockdown with two new books that showcase his unsurpassed versatility in both poetry and prose: Whisper Songs and Dark as Last Night. John Safran launches his signature style of gonzo journalism on Big Tobacco in his impressively subtitled new book Puff­ Piece: How Philip Morris set vaping alight (and burned down the English language). Noongar author Claire G Coleman and polymath writer Alison Croggon discuss the ongoing legacy of Australia’s colonial past. Gunai/Kurnai writer Veronica Heritage-Gorrie and activist and thinker Randa Abdel-Fattah examine how modern-day racism is bound to colonisation. Memoirists Lech Blaine and Rick Morton confront the shortcoming of male stoicism in the face of grief and trauma.

Award-winning Wiradyuri writer Anita Heiss talks to Paul Barclay about Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams), her epic new historical novel. Australian screen legend Bryan Brown chats about turning his hand to crime writing in his debut book, Sweet Jimmy. John Doyle sits down with Sam Pang to discuss Blessed: The Breakout Year of Rampaging Roy Slaven, his warm and witty homage to his larger-than-life alter ego.

From parliament to the Supreme Court, Australia’s highest halls of power have been rocked by failures in protecting victim-survivors of sexual assault. Journalists, lawyers, activists and writers argue for structural change, using their own experiences and expertise to imagine a new ending to this all-too-common story. Lawyer Michael Bradley, barrister Rachel Doyle SC, writer Bri Lee and Wiradjuri and Wailwan lawyer Teela Reid discuss the disorder in our courts. Amani Haydar, Jess Hill, Celeste Liddle and Tanya Plibersek join Sophie Black to discuss how policymakers, the law and the media can work together to end the scourge of family violence. 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame has spent the last ten years turning her traumatic experience into advocacy for survivors of child sexual assault. In a Festival highlight, she takes to the stage of the Athenaeum Theatre for a powerful keynote address.

Some of our brightest political commentators tackle the biggest stories of our lives. Human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, former Greens senator Scott Ludlam and Julian Assange’s lawyer Jen Robinson discuss WikiLeaks, free speech and covert power. Editor of The Age Gay Alcorn brings commentators from across the political divide to debate the newest battleground of free speech: cancel culture. She is joined by Louise Adler, Waleed Aly, James Button, Parnell Palme McGuinness and Nyadol Nyuon. A panel of political writers and editors—Annika Smethurst, Lech Blaine and Nick Feik—discuss the larrikin figure in our politics with Jan Fran while Norman Swan, Osman Faruqi and Jamila Rizvi debate public safety, politics and the pandemic with Raf Epstein.

We’re bringing the best of the Festival to Bunjil Place with a new series of events featuring investigative reporter Louise Milligan, former Manus detainee and award-winning author Behrouz Boochani and bestselling children’s book author Morris Gleitzman.

Supplementing the voices of more than 250 Australian writers is a carefully considered cohort of international authors, who’ll be appearing via live-cross at The Capitol. Acclaimed author Maggie Nelson (The Argonauts) talks about her new book On Freedom, an exploration of freedom in the spheres of art, sex, drugs, and climate, with on-stage interviewer Rebecca Harkins-Cross. Regarded as one of America’s great writers and thinkers, and literature’s spiritual leader, Marilynne Robinson joins Michael Williams to discuss her prolific career and Gilead series. In his only Victorian event, Douglas Stuart will reveal how he shaped the world of his Booker Prize–winning novel Shuggie Bain and the book’s runaway popularity in conversation with Anton Enus.

MWF Digital is back, and we’re proud to bring our audience a lovingly curated selection of the world’s most essential literary voices. These ten events featuring luminaries Rachel Cusk, Jhumpa Lahiri, Emma Dabiri, Rumaan Alam, Akala, Natasha Brown, Brandon Taylor, AC Grayling, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Sigrid Nunez are available to watch at your convenience on a pay-what-you-can basis.

For the little readers in your life, we’ve gathered some of the country’s most popular and entertaining children’s authors for MWF Families, an action-packed day of storytelling, live mysteries and illustrator battles. The program features Australian Children’s Laureate Ursula Dubosarsky, poet and illustrator Maxine Beneba Clarke, bestselling and much-loved author Morris Gleitzman, 2020 NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year Kirli Saunders, and many more. The MWF Teens program boasts a selection of Australia’s exceptional YA talent, with topics spanning origin stories, urban fantasies and secret identities being discussed by authors including Garth Nix, Will Kostakis, Leanne Hall, Amie Kaufman, Sophie Gonzales and Gary Lonesborough. Capping off the day is the popular fan-fiction showcase, where YA writers let their imaginations run wild by dropping their favourite characters from pop culture into dystopian scenarios to see if they survive.

Closing the curtain not with a whimper but a resounding bang, an all-Victorian legendary line-up comes together to celebrate the heritage and future of our City of Literature. Join Evelyn Araluen, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Patricia Cornelius, Nayuka Gorrie, Chloe Hooper, Shaun Tan and Maria Tumarkin for an unmissable Closing Night.

Although this festival may have a different ending to the one we boldly and hopefully planned, we’re so proud to share the staggering talent of the authors who have published books in the most unenviable of circumstances. This festival is a long overdue celebration of these writers and their vital work. We hope you’ll join us.

Image: Mia Mala McDonald

Published 22 July, 2021. All information is correct at the time of publication.