Voices of dissent

Writers Festival Cover for MMag
Writers Festival Cover for MMag

Revolution is the theme for this year's Melbourne Writers Festival. A whirlpool of discussion about protest, oppression and war will dominate the stage but the program also promises ideas for change and new directions. Fresh new voices will share their tales of revolt and resistance alongside more established names, and local and international authors will riff on social and political agitations in the past, present and future. M spoke to some of these high-wattage guests about what inspired their latest work and what rebellious act they'd most recently committed.

Kevin Kwan

"My most recent novel, Rich People Problems, is a jet-setting satire that revolves around a tight-knit family fighting over a great inheritance. I was inspired by years of gossip overheard from family members, the novels of Anthony Trollope and Edith Wharton, and most probably watching too much Dynasty in my formative years."

"As for rebellious acts??? My mother, who constantly worries for my future, wanted me to apply for a job at Google or enrol in law school after I finished writing my third novel. Instead, I created a dramatic TV series that will hopefully be fun, risky, and groundbreaking."

Tracey Chevalier

"I was inspired to write At the Edge of the Orchard when I learned that American pioneers grew apples more for drinking than for eating. It made me imagine a bickering couple: he wants apples to eat; she wants brandy to get drunk by. So the battle begins???"

"The most rebellious act I've committed recently was to write 10 postcards to [the] US House Speaker and send them to his home address. They grew increasingly rude. I hate him almost as much as I hate Trump."

Hannah Kent

"Some years ago, I stumbled upon an 1826 newspaper article about an Irish woman called Anne Roche who'd been accused of murdering a young boy unable to walk or speak. It wasn't so much the crime as the woman's reported defence that seized hold of my imagination. Anne said that she'd been attempting to 'cure' the child, calling him a 'fairy changeling' and referring to herself as a 'fairy doctress'. I'd never heard of this particular folk belief, this fairytale, intersecting with reality - and the justice system - in such a brutal way. I wrote The Good People to try to answer my own lingering questions about what kind of woman Anne was and why she did what she did."

"I don't think of myself as a particularly rebellious person. But I do commit small acts that happen to go against, or deliberately disrupt expectations. None of these are groundbreaking or particularly admirable; none are implicitly dangerous or self-sacrificing. But, accumulatively, they challenge certain societal expectations, and sometimes others notice. There are strong messages out there about what a woman should and can be; what a woman should look like; how a woman should feel about herself; and who a woman should love. Sometimes something as simple as refusing to denigrate my body feels like an act of rebellion; and something as simple and as unthinking as kissing my partner in a public place feels revolutionary."

Melissa Lucashenko

"The inspiration for my forthcoming (2018) novel Too Much Lip was a conversation I did with Alice Walker and Alexis Wright in 2015. I went back and read Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland. I saw the parallels between the Black American experience of emerging from slavery with all that violence burnt into their minds and souls, and our Aboriginal experience of emerging from the throes of colonisation to take our rightful place as leaders in our own country. I wanted to write a Bundjalung family saga of intergenerational violence and redemption, with heaps of the biting humour I've seen and heard in the black and prison communities."

"I can't tell you the most rebellious act I've committed lately without inviting arrest, but the second most rebellious thing I did was get out of my car at the lights and confront a man who had a fascist sticker on his Holden ute. It was a stylised figure with an Australian flag giving a 'Heil Hitler' salute. I just had time to tell him he was racist scum before the lights changed. I look like an overweight grey-haired aunty - and I am - but I also have a black belt in karate. And anyway, I'd rather risk attack than go home rehearsing what I 'might' have said in the face of such sickening, blatant racism."

Harriet McKnight

"The initial seed of inspiration for Rain Birds was planted by a fantastic episode of the Radiolab podcast, which featured a story about a man working with migratory white cranes. Growing up on the NSW south coast has had an impact on my life and my writing through teaching me that our natural places are something to be treasured and protected. But the biggest inspiration came from two important women. My grandmother went through her own Alzheimer's journey before she passed away. But it's my mother and the way she quietly renegotiated her role after each of the tiny deaths that made up the progression of her mother's disease that's at the core of this book.

"My quiet rebellion is that I use the swear words I've learnt in a little-known language to mutter at people who tick me off."

Julian Burnside

"My latest book, Watching Out: reflections on justice and injustice is a discussion of aspects of what we call the 'Justice System'. I wrote it because a lot of people really don't understand how the system works, or why it matters. Well, I think the justice system should be open - genuinely open - to everyone, because justice is an ideal everyone values. The problem is that a thing that's valued generally has a high price. Law is expensive. Justice is expensive. It may seem a rebellious idea, but injustice is even more expensive."

"Although I've never thought of myself as rebellious, I guess my most 'rebellious' act, at least as others would have seen it, was to start acting for the luckless and despised, having previously made a good living acting for the big end of town. It didn't strike me as a rebellious act: after all, isn't justice meant to be available to everyone?"

Sally Abbott

"Two things inspired Closing Down. The first is the spiralling dysfunction and absurdity of our political and socio-economic structures, here in Australia and in other countries. I wanted to explore the possibility that we're indeed on an unthinking, careless course towards destruction. The second is something I learned during the final drafting and editing of the novel, when I was caring for a dear friend who was dying of cancer. I saw very clearly that a certain loving kindness, between friends and communities, is often all there is in the end. I wanted to explore this, and the importance of maintaining some hope."

"Rebellious acts? I'd like to think writing about the dysfunction and absurdity of our political systems counts for something! On a personal note, my partner of 20 years and I have recently celebrated the ninth anniversary of our marriage in Canada. Celebrating a marriage anniversary should not be rebellious or revolutionary but until there's marriage equality in Australia, it feels a little like it is."

Melanie Cheng

"When I was growing up in Hong Kong, my mum - afraid I would know nothing about her country of birth - fed me Australian classics like My Brilliant Career and The Shiralee. I loved these stories and when I came to Melbourne for university I sought out Australian books. I was surprised to find that it was dominated to some extent by historical fiction and bush narratives. When I read Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap it was like a light bulb had been switched on. Here was a book that reflected the Australia I was coming to know. Later I started writing my own short stories set in cities with less traditional Australian protagonists - new migrants and elderly widowers and single mums and people from mixed race backgrounds. The result is my short story collection, Australia Day."

"I'm not a naturally rebellious person - I was often the teacher's pet at school. I think the most rebellious thing I've done recently is quoting our Prime Minister in the front of my book. I wanted to challenge the assertion he made that there's never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. I believe it's important to interrogate what politicians on both sides of politics mean when they make sweeping statements such as this. What we need is an acknowledgment of the diversity and complexity of the society we live in, not another sound bite."

Reni Eddo-Lodge

"I was frustrated at the contextless, ahistorical, defensive and denial-ridden ways in which Britain was talking about race, so I decided to take charge and write a new narrative, one that would set the agenda rather than playing catch up to an inherently warped discussion."

"Publishing my first book (Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race) has been a rebellious experience. I wrote something that lots of people told me not to write. I probably would have had a smoother, quicker and easier time as an author if I'd listened to those risk-adverse people, but I think speaking truth to power on race is worth the precarity."

Emma Viskic

"And Fire Came Down is the sequel to my debut crime novel, Resurrection Bay, and deals with the aftermath of trauma. I began writing it with the vivid image of a scar tree in my mind. Scar trees are living history, their scarred trunks showing where Indigenous people removed bark to create canoes, shields and vessels. I've been drawn to them ever since my father-in-law, a Gunditjmara elder, first showed me one over 20 years ago. The idea of the bark growing inwards to protect, but not erase, the wound is one that resonated strongly with me, as it was a difficult time in my life. When it came to writing And Fire Came Down, using a scar tree as a metaphor for pain and healing was a natural one."

"Rebellious act? I'm a smuggler. It all started with a lumpy op shop coat with torn lining. I was about to head overseas to study, but I had the leanest of budgets and a major problem: my luggage allowance didn't run to books. Reading was the only way I was going to survive two stressful years. The excess baggage quote was more than three months' budget, but the coat cost 50??. I wore it onto the plane, staggering under the weight of the 16 books I'd stuffed into its lining. I've been smuggling books onto planes ever since. These days an e-reader would be more convenient, but paperbacks are my quiet mutiny. Books are important. Books you can touch and leave in hospital waiting rooms, books you can press into someone's hands saying, 'You'll enjoy this'. Plus, I enjoy putting one over the airlines."

Micah White

"My book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for R???evolution,is the call to reinvent activism and this led me to my most rebellious act: my ongoing project to shift the paradigms of protest by challenging the activist orthodoxy. I've been an activist my entire life. Protest is all I've ever known. And so, doing activism against activism - challenging my social movement peers to dream of taking power, not just contesting power - has been my most difficult protest thus far."

Judy Horacek

"The life of cartoons in newspapers and magazines is so brief; I like to give my cartoons another chance at life in this way. I also love seeing what the work looks like as a whole, because it's been done in pieces over a number of years. Arranging them is surprisingly difficult - trying to get a flow through the book, and making sure different topics don't bump uncomfortably against each other. There are some recurring themes in Random Life, such as climate change, zebras and Mondays, but mostly it's random."

"Self-publishing my book: as rebellions go, this isn't huge, but it did take courage. There's a certain defiance and presumptuousness to doing it on your own."

MWF Festival dates: August 25-September 3

There will be more than 300 events and more than 400 guests exploring activism, identity, politics, and change at Federation Square and other locations around Melbourne.

More than a quarter of events in the 10-day program will be free. MWF 2017 is director Lisa Dempster's fifth and final festival. M asked her about some of the highlights of her tenure, "Most involved moments with artists, like taking a walk with Will Self, drinking coffee with Salman Rushdie or hanging out with teen girls when Tavi Gevinson was visiting. I've been proud to showcase Australia's brilliant literary talent, too, inviting Helen Garner, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Kim Scott to deliver opening night addresses. And creating a pop-up Jaipur Literature Festival at Fed Square was particularly fun! Mostly, I have fond memories of so many insightful and provocative conversations and performances that I believe couldn't happen in any place other than at MWF."

Other guests appearing at the festival include overseas writers Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Fisk and Laurie Penny, while local guests include John Safran, Robert Dessaix, Clementine Ford and Christos Tsiolkas.

This story Voices of dissent first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.