Faculty of Arts guide to MWF21: part three

Melbourne Writers Festival is proud to partner with the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. In an expert guide to the MWF21 program, academics from the faculty have put together their top picks to inspire research, discussion and debate. This edition includes conversations on poetry, as we celebrate Poetry Month this August.

Associate Professor Jennifer Balint

Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences

I am really excited to hear Tony Birch speak about the campaigns of Aboriginal women at the Boisbouvier Oration. Tony has been working on this for some time, and the letters and petitions have so much to tell us about the claims of justice and injustice made, and alternative visions of the women and their communities. This work speaks as much to today as it does to the past. I will also be tuning in to hear Tony speak about his latest poetry and prose collection, which I’ve loved reading and reminds us of the importance of family and place.

My love affair with poetry was cemented as an undergraduate student at university when I first experienced performance poetry. Most recently, I was fortunate to hear Evelyn Araluen read her powerful poetry at an online event and couldn’t wait to get hold of the published collection. The chance to hear Evelyn Araluen, Maya Hodge, Jazz Money, together with Bridget Caldwell-Bright at First Nations Poets: Tell Us How It Ends is fantastic. The First Nations self-determined programming of MWF is a real strength of this year’s festival. I am looking forward to being challenged by these voices, and to the justice space that they create.

COVID-19 has exposed some difficult truths about Australian society: who is included and who is excluded. Young Muslims have been subject to significant harms, in this crisis and at other times. I am disappointed Randa Abdel-Fattah’s session on her new book, Coming of Age in the War on Terror has had to be cancelled, but I’m looking forward to hearing MP Mehreen Faruqi speak on her recent memoir, Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud.

Professor Rónán McDonald

Gerry Higgins Chair in Irish Studies, School of Culture and Communication

I’m not going to walk past Helen Garner’s Reasonable Doubts. Garner is one of my favourite Australian writers, and a laureate of exactitude and fidelity to truth. She has a reputation for her forensic eye, for never baulking from the unseemly and the messy, whether in herself or the world around her. Her interview with the critic Beejay Silcox dealing with the theme of doubt is doubly tantalising. The truth, as Oscar Wilde reminds us, is never pure and rarely simple. I look forward to hearing Garner’s supple intelligence engage with the theme of ambiguity, complexity and the possibilities of living and writing in a state of productive confusion.

One national institution which might have a role in keeping our minds open and avoiding the perils of premature certainty is our university system, especially its humanities departments. The humanities disciplines have dropped in status in recent years and have suffered at the hands of econometric policy makers who have favoured supposedly ‘jobs-ready graduates’, over inquiring and informed democratic citizens. There have been many, perhaps too many, defences of the humanities, especially from humanities academics, but as one with skin in the game, I will be interested to hear what the panellists in Oh, the Humanities have to say about what we stand to lose as a society as the humane disciplines shrink.

Speaking of defences, the late Peter Steele (1939–2012), a much-admired poet and literature don at the University of Melbourne over many decades, was an eloquent apologist for poetry and the written word. I look forward to hearing what the acclaimed poet Sarah Holland-Batt has to say about how language reconciles us to the world in her Peter Steele Lecture: The Spark of Poetry.

Associate Professor Jennifer Balint is Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences and Associate Professor in Socio-Legal Studies. She came to the University of Melbourne in 2002 and her research expertise is in the area of state crime, genocide and access to justice, with a focus on the constitutive function of law in societies and transitional justice.

Professor Rónán McDonald holds the Gerry Higgins Chair in Irish Studies in the School of Culture and Communication. Between 2010 and 2015 he held the Australian Ireland Fund Chair in Modern Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is widely published in Irish literary studies, with a particular interest in Irish modernism. He also has a research interest in approaches to literary value.

Image: Maya Hodge by Michael Jalaru Torres (Jalaru Photography)