Meet the Programming team for the 2020 Melbourne Writers Festival, led by Associate Director Gene Smith and Program Manager Sonia Nair.
Gene is a writer, producer and programmer, and joined the Festival in July 2018 as Program Manager before being appointed Associate Director in late 2019. Prior to moving to Melbourne, he was at Sydney Writers’ Festival coordinating special projects including the festival’s Live & Local live stream program. He has also worked at a number of Australia’s preeminent arts organisations, including Queensland Performing Arts Centre, National Institute of Dramatic Art, Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Sydney Opera House.
Sonia is a writer and critic who has been published by The Lifted Brow, Meanjin and Kill Your Darlings, among others. She has chaired panels and interviewed authors at Melbourne Writers Festival, Emerging Writers’ Festival, Footscray Community Arts Centre and the Wheeler Centre, and blogs about how she never follows her dietary intolerances at Whatever Floats Your Boat. Sonia joined Melbourne Writers Festival as Program Manager in January 2020.
What excites you about your role at MWF?
GS: Connecting Melbourne’s readers with their favourite writers, and providing a space for them to discover new voices they may have never known or considered, is pretty damn exciting. As a keen literary festival-goer myself, that’s definitely my favourite thing about them – the chance to celebrate what I know and love, coupled with the opportunity to be curious and imaginative about what I could love next.
SN: I can’t wait to pair artists together, immerse myself in their work and spend my days with people who are as passionate as I am about books, words and ideas. On a more day-to-day level, I have dedicated reading days in this role which I am over the moon about.
What do you do when you’re not programming a literary festival?
GS: There’s life outside of programming a literary festival? Sounds terrible.
SN: Eat! I have a food blog called Whatever Floats Your Bloat, where I chart every meal I have with a bloat score between 0 and 5 – I have a lot of dietary intolerances, so nearly everything makes me bloated. Otherwise, you can find me napping, reading or binge-watching my latest favourite show.
What is one of your favourite MWF moments?
GS: Without a doubt, it was being hugged by New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Well, it wasn’t so much a hug as it was her using me to stop herself from slipping in a puddle, but it was a moment nonetheless.
SN: There are many – it’s too hard to pick one. Oliver Reeson reading a revelatory essay on toxic masculinity at The Moat at MWF19. Tishani Doshi holding her body in the most precise, considered way I’ve ever seen during a dance performance at the same festival. Hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates read at MWF18. Being in the audience of a scintillating interview between Min Jin Lee and Jess Alice at MWF17. Watching aunties in saris converge upon Federation Square for JLF Melbourne in February 2017.
What is your all-time favourite book or passage, and why?
GS: My favourite passage is the very last paragraph of Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. It is truly a testament to how powerful and emotive words can be if they’re arranged just so. I refuse to choose a favourite book, though Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy occupy this space in my mind as being perfect in every way. I haven’t read them in forever, though, so this claim is very much subject to a re-read (which I need to do soon so I can read the prequel trilogy!).
SN: Ellena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels. I was hooked from the start – I’ve never before read anything so incisive, moving and potent about female friendship, love and class.
Which five guests would you invite to your dream dinner party?
GS: Phoebe Waller-Bridge (for the laughs), Alexander Chee (he once told me he makes a killer Manhattan, and I’d like to be the judge of that), Wanda Sykes (for more laughs), Rebecca Solnit (ashamedly I’ve only started reading her work recently, and if in real-life conversation I can glean even a fraction of her intelligence and incisiveness, then I’ll be many times better than I currently am), and Sigrid Nunez (I challenge anyone to refuse an opportunity to have a Manhattan with this person).
SN: Ruby Tandoh, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Emily Nussbaum, Desiree Akhavan and Tressie McMillan Cottom. I’d be beside myself with nerves but, at the very least, I’d be having some great food because Ruby would’ve designed the menu and talking to Emily Nussbaum about how great Desiree Akhavan’s show The Bisexual is.
Melbourne Writers Festival is on from 7–16 August 2020. The full program will be announced 24 June 2020. Sign up to the MWF eNews for more updates.