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Meet First Nations Curator Tony Birch

This year, be enthralled by some of the most exciting writers and artists working today in events brought together by First Nations Curators Tony Birch and Ellen van Neerven. You’ll be transported to the frontiers of fiction and plunged into the depths of this colony’s past with events that probe and play with art, myth, sport and more.

A seminal voice in Australian letters, celebrated author Tony Birch (Dark as Last Night, The White Girl) casts fresh light on Australia’s colonial past to tell stories that upend the usual depictions in history books in his events: Ellen van Neerven: Personal Score and Frontier Fictions.

What inspired your events and the topics you wished to explore?

I was aware that the First Nations writer, Ellen van Neerven was working on a new book dealing with sport, and in particular soccer. As both a fan of Ellen and a sports nerd I wanted to have the chance to interview them. We will be speaking about Personal Score. Sport. Culture. Identity. My additional wish-list was more general, wanting to explore issues around Australian literature, both contemporary and historical.

How do you approach curating a series of conversations and selecting panelists?

My approach was to match a theme with authors who would both engage with the idea and compliment each other with regard to their own work. I’m chairing a panel, ‘Frontier Fictions’, and want to discuss how non-Aboriginal fiction writers are engaging with fiction in a colonial setting. I’ll be talking with Paul Daley (Jesustown) and Fiona McFarlane (The Sun Walks Down). While Fiona’s novel in set in nineteenth-century Australia, and Paul’s in the twentieth century, both books raise important questions about history, identity and country.

What comes to mind when you consider the Festival’s theme, “I’ve been away for a while…”

We’ve all been away in recent years. During COVID lockdown in Melbourne, which was quite severe, there was a lot of speculation about what we might learn from the crisis and if we would forge more inclusive communities as a result of our experiences. Now that we are out of lockdowns – but not COVID – I’m not sure that we’ve learned too much of value. Although at a micro/local level, people may have changed their relationships with their neighbours, at a wider level there are more people on the streets, sleeping rough, while many thousands of others are being discriminated against, with higher rentals and cost-of-living increases. Socially and economically, the divisions in Australian society have widened.

What are you most looking forward to at the Festival?

Claire Keegan, Claire Keegan and Claire Keegan. I have read her recent novels, Small Things Like These and Foster, and love both books. I’ve read each book three times and asked myself a writer’s question – ‘how does she do it?’. How does she deliver so much value in novels around one hundred pages each in length? I did already know Keegan’s work and had read her short story collections, Walk the Blue Fields and Antarctica. She is also responsible for producing my all time favourite line of fiction: ‘I drank Fred West’s milk while my sister was fucking the postman’.