Six Moments From Five Years of Melbourne Writers Festival

2017 marks the last for Lisa Dempster as festival director and CEO of MWF. We asked for her favourite moments from an incredible five years at the helm.

Over the last five years I have experienced a million magical Festival moments that I believe could not happen at any place other than at MWF. Here are just a few highlights!

Seeing Melbourne catch Tavi fever and the excitement around the creative teenager was extraordinary, as was her keynote on identity and self confidence. But my favourite moment came during Rookie Day, when 100 teenagers came together to discuss creativity and connection, craft vision boards, and of course, fangirl out. The day ended with wild dancing – the energy was electric.

Tavi Gevinson at MWF 2013. Photo: Carla Gottgens

One of my all-time best Festival nights was the double header of Salman Rushdie and Maria Popova (Brain Pickings). A few days later I interviewed Maria as part of MWF’s Caravan Conversations. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with half a dozen people in the Dumbo Feather caravan, we got to talk intimately with Maria about her routines, creative process and inspirations. I’ll always remember her passionate declaration that ‘literature is life’.

Maria Popova at MWF 2014. Photo: Carla Gottgens

Iconoclast Will Self delivered many thoughtful and provocative moments during his MWF visit. I was lucky to go on a walk with Will and some friends of the Festival, led in his distinctive style of psychogeography. Following Will through the streets around Fed Square, we were led well out of our comfort zones in the best possible way. Seeing Melbourne through Will’s eyes was a special treat.

Will Self at MWF 2015. Photo: Timothy Herbert

In 2016 MWF celebrated Australian literature, and we kicked off with a keynote address by one of Melbourne’s rising stars, Maxine Beneba Clarke. Maxine owned the room, opening with a spoken word performance then delivering an extraordinary oration on race, identity and literature. The crowd was moved to give a standing ovation – it was a perfect, powerful start to the festival.

Maxine Beneba Clarke at MWF 2016. Photo: Timothy Herbert

Jaipur Literature Festival Melbourne was such a fun collaboration for MWF, and I loved how Deakin Edge was transformed with colourful decorations. During India Now, watching young Tamil rapper Sofia Ashraf close the diverse gala of talks, spoken word and dance was an absolute highlight. The audience was rapt in this talented woman giving voice to what it means to be a young creative.

Sofia Ashraf at JLF Melbourne 2017. Photo: Timothy Herbert

Across my tenure MWF has been proud to highlight Asian writers, and this year’s Writers Across Borders (On Revolution) event curated by WrICE was so moving. Responding to the Festival’s theme of revolution, a dozen writers from five countries treated the audience to vignettes of fiction, film, poetry and dance, with some revolutionary calls to action in the mix. Who can forget Christos Tsiolkas’s words – ‘To really listen, that is revolutionary’. The perfect end to a writers festival focused on activism and transformation.

Nhã Thuyên performs while WrICE writers look on at MWF 2017. Photo: Sorell Wilson

Thank you to the writers, staff and volunteers who have worked hard to make MWF such a special event across the last five years. And thank you to the audience members who engage so passionately: the Festival is for you, and would be nothing without you.