Literature at the heart of city’s pulse

MWF celebrates the exchange of ideas, the capacity for human ingenuity and imagination, as well as building a broad, inclusive literary community in the World’s Most Liveable City

Led by the zealous literary guru and organiser-in-chief Lisa Dempster, this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival had a distinctly grassroots flavour – reflecting the literary preferences of its audiences through the Audience Advocates program and the Digital Suggestion Box. Twelve committee members met on a monthly basis to discuss the format, style and content of the Festival program. Each of us brought a unique literary preference to the table; I’m convinced I represented the naïve youth audience- though I strove at every turn to earn the respect of my more well-read wiser peers.

Shaping Identity

Literature occupies a principal place in a country’s identity. How a country sees itself is both revealed and to a degree, manufactured in literature. In Australia, that relationship is young, but crucial nonetheless.

In The Fatal Shore, the late Robert Hughes comprehensively documents Australia’s birth as Britain’s far flung penal colony in the 18th century. Along with Manning Clarke’s A History of Australia, Hughes’ historical account puts on paper, the chronicles of our great country. Clarke once wrote that “in books lies the soul of the whole past time, the articulate audible voice of the past”. By tracing the lineage and cumulative events that have shaped this country, the authors have, in the same breath as Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country, shaped the identity of Australia- how we see ourselves, and how the world sees us, culturally, socially and politically.

Don Watson’s The Bush, on which he delightfully entertained the audience at length at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, is of the same milieu as Clarke and Hughes. In The Bush, Watson describes the outback and the bush’s importance in the Australian psyche. His own conservationist dispositions might strike the audience as an oxymoron, given his own upbringing as the son of a dairy farmer and grandson of a frontier-man. Watson’s wry observation of Australia being one of the most urban nations in the world, with over ninety percent of our population clustered on the ‘lush coastal fringes’, yet culturally, the idea of being Australian still somehow resides with the vast rural inland – the ‘bush’ – lifestyle of the other ten percent, is an astute cultural observation.

Miles Franklin Award winner Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep might also be described in the same vein, though at an individual level. Laguna’s six-year old protagonist Jimmy Flick battles to grasp the world, the dysfunctional family that is distinctly a by-product of a battered industrial working class struggling to cope with the creative destruction of the global economy, around him. The stage is set in Melbourne’s outer west. For those familiar with the flailing nature of the old manufacturing and industrial hubs in Melbourne, this story and the wider themes of socio-economic depression and dysfunction, strikes a resoundingly deep chord.

It is this function of literature, documenting the growth, perils and trajectory of a nation, sometimes through a macro narrative and other times, through the lens of a confused six-year –old, that places literature at the heart of a city’s pulse.

With a record attendance of 60,000 attendees at the Festival this year, MWF is actively contributing to the city’s fine reputation as a vibrant literary and cultural hub. It has been a great privilege to serve as an Audience Advocate member in 2015 – happy reading!

Amal Varghese was an Audience Advocate for the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival. He holds a Masters in International Relations from the University of Melbourne and is currently completing a Diploma in Languages.

Applications to become an Audience Advocate in 2016 are now open. Click here to find out more.