On building digital worlds

I write this from my living room. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and a cup of cold coffee sits to my left while the book I’m reading is visible through the door to my room, tucked comfortably into bed like a spoiled companion. I’m contemplating how our world has changed and how some things have remained the same, or at least find themselves wedged into our day-to-day, adapted, like us, to the times. My terrible habit of making myself a coffee only to forget about it moments later as I busy myself with emails is still there, as is my habit of keeping the book I’m reading burrowed beneath my pillows as I sleep. Some things refuse to go away, even in the face of crises.

Melbourne Writers Festival refuses to go away. Dating back to its first festival, 35 years ago, is a legacy of boldness and fertile imagination. That very first festival founded by Readings’ Mark Rubbo was, in his own words, ‘cobbled together very quickly…and in a matter of months, we raised the money and got the festival going.’ It was a testament to the festival’s founders’ tenacious devotion for something like MWF to exist. The groundswell of support from Melbourne’s reading community ensured that yes, it did exist. And as has Melbourne’s reading community grown, so too has the festival, which is now one of the world’s most celebrated literary events.

At my first MWF, I met Ted Chiang, an author I had only heard of as the writer of the short story which inspired the 2016 film Arrival. He became — and remains — one of my favourite writers, his speculative fiction a masterclass in distilling complex ideas and theories into gripping stories. That same year I encountered Helen Jukes, author of A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, part memoir, part history of bees, and an astute work of literature that made me see the world and myself differently. During last year’s festival, I met Eve L Ewing, a poet, sociologist, and Marvel comic book writer, whose wicked sense of humour and formidable wisdom will stay with me forever. As will former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark’s stirring words on women, equality and power, and celebrated children’s author Julia Donaldson’s telling of The Gruffalo, set deep in the belly of a dark and enchanted forest.

This is not to mention the brilliant Australian writers who have graced our stages, including investigative journalist Louise Milligan’s 2019 conversation with The Saturday Paper’s Martin McKenzie-Murray about the George Pell trial, which ended in a moving standing ovation, and storyteller Paul Kelly’s fascinating discussion with author Maxine Beneba Clarke about the musicality of poetry in 2018.

I could give endless examples of the alchemy that happens when you connect a writer with a reader at a festival, that singular experience of give and take, of generosity from both sides.

This generosity is why literary festivals exist, and it is why the urgency for MWF’s existence remains. Indeed, in these times, for these reasons, it is more urgent than ever before.

In Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, she asks ‘what does it mean to construct digital worlds while the actual world is crumbling before our eyes?’ While the context in which she asks that question isn’t quite the same context in which we might ask it today, it is resonant for the obvious reason: MWF is, for the first time in its 35-year history, producing a wholly online festival in 2020.

Equally exciting and daunting, we hope that by developing a digital world — one where minds meet and generosity remains — we can re-enter the physical world with much the same feeling we get from finishing a good book: one of incandescence, of being changed, of becoming a little wiser to whatever life throws our way.

I hope you’ll join us. MWF needs your support to continue existing, not just this year, but especially this year. We want to be there to champion your favourite writers in whatever version of normal awaits us on the other side of COVID-19; those you know about already and those you would never have heard of had it not been for MWF.

Shelter in Words

In response to the pandemic MWF is transitioning to a digital program for 2020, but we need your financial support to make the Festival happen. If you can, please make a tax-deductible donation today.

Image: Alexis D. Lea