Halfway through this very strange year, I signed on as artistic director of Melbourne Writers Festival and made plans to move from Sydney. This is the second time I’ve moved to Melbourne for professional literary reasons. The first was in 2008, right after I finished uni. For an aspiring writer, there was no better place to be than Melbourne. Writers festivals, nightly book launches at Readings, parties, literary magazines, and parties for literary magazines. It was the city where every bright young thing with literary ambitions came to write and become part of a community that was famous long before its UNESCO designation.
The collision of ideas, identities, cultures, and viewpoints of the artists and writers working back then made Melbourne an incubator for the voices—many of them marginalised and previously sidelined—that now invigorate the public discourse. To blow-ins like me, literary Melbourne was confronting, exhilarating, sometimes intimidating, frequently exhausting, but there was nowhere I’d rather be. It’s a town where to a certain extent you have to drink the Kool-Aid, which is not so bad, as the Kool-Aid is biodynamic and naturally fermented.
Then, I was offered a dream job in Sydney, and so I left.
Of course, you never really leave Melbourne. (Just ask Andrew Bolt). For the four years I served as artistic director of Sydney Writers’ Festival, it was the literary education Melbourne had given me that informed those programs. It was a pleasure and a privilege to encourage audiences to engage with new stories, perspectives and art forms, to take a chance on new writers.
Then the opportunity to move back to Melbourne came up, and I jumped at it, just as Victoria went into its second lockdown. I watched from afar as Victorians shouldered the burden of Australia’s COVID-19 elimination, worried for my friends, but felt confident that if any city in the world could handle this, it was Melbourne.
The literary sector adapted. Booksellers managed to keep their loyal customers’ home libraries well-stocked during the long winter months while taking events online and inventing new ways of celebrating literature on the fly. Writers rallied around their colleagues who were publishing books at the most inopportune time in history, publicly celebrating and promoting their work, and privately doing their best to provide the virtual equivalent of the congratulations and many rounds of drinks that would ordinarily accompany the launch of a new book. My clever colleagues at MWF delivered one of Australia’s first online writers festivals—produced by a small and dedicated team of six, from their bedrooms and lounge rooms—that nonetheless featured an ambitious local and international program of the most exciting writers of the moment. The program was embraced by and captured the attention of not just a city during stage four lockdown, but by bookish types all around the country and overseas.
Both the sector and the city did brilliantly. I’m so proud of my twice-adopted hometown for its incredible sacrifice.
The quiet achievement of this past, locked down year is unsurpassed anywhere in the world, but everyone who lives here knows that. The things that make Melbourne one of the best literary cities in the world are those understated qualities. This is a city that resists hyperbole, to some extent, and is allergic to ostentation.
The heart of literary Melbourne can be found behind the grand neoclassical facade of State Library Victoria, sure, but tucked behind an unassuming corner is the hive of activity that is the Wheeler Centre building; home to Australian Poetry, The City of Literature Office, Emerging Writers’ Festival, Express Media, The Small Press Network, and of course, MWF.
The resident organisations have started trickling back these past weeks—cleaning up and moving desks that were abandoned in haste back in March, welcoming new staff to the building, and setting things in order for the new year.
As I walk to work, I see the city slowly coming back to life all around me. On Swanston Street, temporarily deserted, tenacious little wildflowers are taking advantage of the lull in tourist traffic, poking their way up through cracks in the concrete. They look a little shy, a little tentative, in need of a little sun perhaps—but here in Melbourne we’ve always looked that way.
In 2021 MWF is coming back stronger than ever. We’ve made use of these quiet, post-festival months to reflect on the past and make bold and hopeful plans for the future. MWF won’t look the same next year, but neither will the rest of the world. We can’t wait to welcome writers from across the country to help us try to make sense of this extraordinary year and collectively imagine a new way forward.
Please mark our festival dates of 3 to 12 September in your calendars—we can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on. From everyone at Melbourne Writers Festival, thank you for your incredible support this year, and we wish you a safe and happy summer.
With your support, next year we will provide complimentary tickets to students who may not otherwise have the means to attend the festival, through our Schools’ Program Access Initiative. If you can, please make a tax-deductible donation today.