Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 27, 2011

Melbourne Writers’ Festival #1

Oh dear, as a Melbourne Writers’ Festival correspondent, I have slacked off a bit today…

I made a great start: The Spouse and I were up at the crack of dawn so as to be on time for our first session, which was excellent.  We heard Ian Morris talk about his fascinating book Why the West Rules – For Now.  Morris is an eminent classicist and by exploring the patterns of human social development since its very beginnings, he shows how and why development differed in the East and West – and how we might predict the future in the context of the rise of China.  In some ways it builds on ideas about advantageous geography from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, but by graphing the social development of different societies, Morris is able to identify patterns that show how geography drives social development but that social development defines what geography means.

(If that sounds a bit convoluted, I’ve probably misrepresented his argument.  Basically what he says is that it’s not Great Men and Women, or politics or religion that influence social development, its place.  One example that he gave was that for most of human history the Atlantic Ocean acted as a barrier between the old world and the new; it was only about 600 years ago that ships could cross it and expect to return.  Till then the backward parts of the world could not access development elsewhere.  But when improvements in shipping enabled trade, Atlantic crossings transformed Europe, and 19th century steamships expanded trade and the exchange of ideas further.  It was not just that products could be exported from North America, crucially, it was also that North America changed too as it became drawn into the global system).

Using an index of social development, Morris says that no matter what we do, the larger patterns of human history mean that eventually the eastern trajectory will catch up with the west, and he predicts this will happen in 2103.  (He joked about how it’s really good to have a projected date that will occur after he dies so that he doesn’t have to worry about being wrong. He was a very entertaining speaker.)  He also says that the rate of increase in social development will be huge, as much change as there has been since the end of the Ice Age.  This accelerated rate of change means that humanity will be transformed; it has to be.

Finally, and not so cheerily, he’s identified five consistent features associated with societal collapse: mass uncontrollable migration; new epidemic diseases; failure of states; mass famine and climate change.  But what’s different now, because we have nuclear weapons, is that there will be no gradual change.  The next collapse will be like no other. We’ll either experience a complete transformation, or disaster.

After that thought-provoking session, it was time for a more light-hearted MWF event, and so we set off for Movida, on the other side of the CBD…

It’s a bit of a stretch to claim as Steve Grimwade (Director of the MWF) did that because a writers’ festival should be grounded in the culture of its city that festival events should include nice lunches in splendid restaurants because Melbourne is a Foodie’s Paradise.  But there was a whole restaurant full of book-loving foodies who were happy to be there, and lunch at Movida was so nice, and the conversation with lovely people at our table so engaging, and the Tempranillo so persuasive – that … well… when it all went on a bit longer than I expected it to, I felt it would be churlish to dash out and back to Fed Square for my next session.

The Secret RiverNapoleon's DoubleAnd so *blush* I missed Kate Grenville in conversation with Chris Womersley and Tess Gerittsen, talking with Antoni Jach who wrote that wonderful under-rated novel Napoleon’s Double  (see my review).

Fortunately I was able to duck into the festival bookshop and buy an autographed copy of Sarah ThornhillSarah Thornhill, the long-awaited sequel to The Secret River – and I shall do my best to make up for this dereliction of duty by reviewing it toute suite!

My last session of the day was fascinating. Language and Politics in Indigenous Writing sounds like heavy going, but Arnold Zable was a great chair, letting the guests speak for themselves and I came away with new ideas about the importance of our indigenous languages.  As Australian readers will know, there were between 250–300  languages spoken prior to European settlement, and now all but about 20 are endangered because their speakers are dying out and young people haven’t learned them.  This means that a wealth of knowledge (such as the medicinal value of some of our native flora)  and the stories and songlines of our land are being irretrievably lost.

That Deadman Dance Kim Scott, author of the Miles Franklin winning That Deadman Dance talked about his passion for language retrieval.  In his novel he writes in the language of the coloniser (English), in a sort of creole which shows how the Noongar people could adapt languages when it suited them, and in the Noongar language.  By writing in this inclusive way, his work is inevitably political.  But writing fiction means an author can write with layered tools and ways of making meaning and he has been able to create a literary novel that isn’t trapped in a niche.  This way, his work to reclaim the Noongar language is a means of bringing his people’s stories back to their place, to consolidate cultural knowledge and (paradoxically) by sharing it, to strengthen it. (And winning prizes for his novel shines a light on this language retrieval project and will hopefully generate funding for it).

Noongar Mambara BakitjThere was much more that he had to say, but what I really found inspirational was when he said that the damage done to his people has caused anger and bitterness and a sense of loss, but that he wants to build on the values of his indigenous community  by focussing on recovery and hope.  It was in that spirit that I bought a copy of Noongar Mambara Bakitja bilingual book for my school’s library, and we talked afterwards about how there are fresh opportunities for sharing language and knowledge within the new Australian Curriculum (which gives new authority to the notion of incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives across the curriculum). (Update 6.4.12: I have since used this book with my Year 3 & 4 classes as part of a unit on Aboriginal Legends, and they were enchanted by the story and delighted to try speaking a bit of Noongar themselves.)

Singing Saltwater Country: Journey to the Songlines of CarpentariaJohn Bradley, the second speaker, is an amazing man.  For 30 years he has worked among indigenous people, learning their language and working as a passionate advocate for the preservation of indigenous language.  He says it’s not romantic to do so, it’s recognition that the old people are ‘walking encyclopedias’ and that it is important to take the time and trouble to learn these languages because they are fundamentally oral, ’embedded in the ground’.  Something is lost when they are captured in print, and that it is the intimate act of sharing languages rather than merely recording them that matters. His book is called Singing Saltwater Country: Journey to the Songlines of Carpentaria.

Every Secret ThingThe final speaker was Marie Maraika Munkara, whose book Every Secret Thing won the 2008 David Unaipon Award and the 2010 NT Territory Book of the Year.  It’s a satirical critique of the Aboriginal missions of far northern Australia, and the battles between the Bush Mob and the Mission Mob.  Despite its sharp intent, Munkara made it sound playful and amusing and I bought a copy afterwards.  And to think I went off to the festival without a shopping bag because I thought I wasn’t going to need to buy any new books!

More tomorrow.

PS Sunday morning: I’ve just discovered at The Intrepid Reader a really good summary of a Friday event with Jane Smiley, Gail Jones, Marion Halligan and Elizabeth Stead (chaired by Enza Gandolfo whose debut novel Swimming I reviewed a while ago).  It’s the next best thing to being there.


  1. I am looking forward to seeing Kate Grenville and Kim Scott speaking at the session I am attending today. Next Saturday I am spending the whole day there, but just one session today.

    I thought long and hard about going to the Movida event, but in the end decided against it for two reasons – the first one being cost and the second not wanting to go by myself!


    • Marg, if you read this before you leave, perhaps we could meet up? Late last night I bought a ticket for the Native Titles session and will be there, somewhere near the back. I’ll be wearing a pink and blue Irish tartan scarf so come up and say hello if you see me:)


      • I will look out for you! Would love to meet up!


        • I’ve just read your summary of Friday – and I’ve added a link to it on my post above. Oh, I wish I could have got to that!


          • Thanks for linking! I am finding that it doesn’t matter how many sessions I am going to I am envious of people who have gone to sessions that I am not!


  2. I am extemely envious. It sounds like heaven and I look forward to hearing even more.


  3. Hi Lisa,

    I hope the students and teachers at your school enjoy Noongar Mambara Bakitj – it is a beautiful book (the other book released this year, Mamang, also has some really beautiful artwork)! The sincerely admire the work that Kim Scott and the Wirolmin Noongar Language and Stories Project are doing to revive the Noongar language and to preserve and share these stories with children and adults alike. I completely agree that these books would be wonderful additions to the new National Curriculum.


    • HI Britt, it was fascinating to hear at the MWF today about the process of making these books too. Kim said that they take about seven years to write because the community is involved every step of the way, and this made me realise that this type of shared authorship is becoming common with these types of books. Increasingly the books I buy for the school library that are authored by Aboriginal communities, have pictures of the people involved and a short explanation about them and what country they come from. My kids love finding these communities on the large map that we have of Aboriginal languages and they get a buzz out of seeing that kids have been involved in the book too.


  4. the kim scott is a book I m really looking forwarsd to when it comes out here ,hope some of this is covered by abc books show so can catch on the podcast ,all the best stu


    • They were there recording the sessions I went to, Stu, so if you wait a day or two I’m sure you’ll be able to find it.


  5. Regarding Morris book on the West Rules
    This is a concern to me as I have a book titled
    How the west grew rich
    Rosenberg and Birdzell
    Tauris Publishers London
    ISBN 1-85043-016-0
    Can anyone please confirm no similarities?

    (Private reply sent)


  6. […] Movida Aqui, hidden away upstairs at Level 1 500 Bourke St, where the launch of their cookbook waylaid me from one of my Melbourne Writers Festival events.  Getting there even feels kind-of Spanish, because you make your way down a small alley, and then […]


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