Melbourne Writers Festival 2015 – Looking for the World…

BannerAs you might have seen from my posts at the start of the month (Day One & Day Two), I enjoyed my time at the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival, but this year I wasn’t just there as a member of the public.  You see, over the past few months, I’ve also been attending meetings in my lofty role as an ‘audience advocate’, volunteers chosen from readers all over Melbourne to discuss possible guests and suggest ways in which events might be organised.  I’m not saying I had a lot to do with what eventually made up the festival, but it was fun to get a peek behind the curtains of power, anyway 🙂

One area where I would have particularly liked to have made an impression, of course, was in the promotion of fiction in translation.  While there were some non-Anglophone writers present, including Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan (whose event, alas, I was unable to attend…), there weren’t any really big names, and I didn’t feel that there was a whole lot of promotion in this area, compared to the way other strands of the programme were advertised.  I only really discovered some of the other events after putting in some serious time searching the website…

You can’t always get what you want, of course, but my frustration was exacerbated by seeing what was going on elsewhere in the world.  Over in Edinburgh, there was a huge focus on the rest of the world this year, with Daniel Hahn having cooked up an amazing translation strand, with a whole range of sessions over and beyond the events already scheduled with non-Anglophone writers.  Meanwhile, the recent Brooklyn Book Festival managed to pack more into one day than Melbourne did in the whole festival, with two sessions in particular catching my eye: one brought together László Krasznahorkai, Andrés Neuman and Naja Marie Aidt in the wonderfully named ‘Light and Dark’ session; the other presented five Latin-American writers, with Neuman joining Yuri Herrera, Guadalupe Nettel, Valeria Luiselli and Alejandro Zambra in conversation.  Now, that’s impressive…

So, what do I want to see next year (and every year) when I venture back to the Melbourne event?  My first suggestion would be to have a clear focus on a world literature strand.  While several talks were grouped together, they weren’t really promoted as a group of events in the way other related sessions were, both in the brochure and on the website.  Melbourne is a UNESCO City of Literature: when I see pre-festival best top ten ‘international’ guest lists full of US/UK writers, I do wonder if we deserve that label…

A second idea is to use and promote the talents of translators.  The events held in Edinburgh were, as I’ve heard from many sources, extremely successful, and with many Australian translators working both here and overseas (e.g. David Colmer, Alison Entrekin, Meredith McKinney, Brian Nelson, Chris Andrews), there would be no shortage of people who could appear in a session.  Ideas include the translation ‘slams’, where two translators work on a text in front of a live audience; sessions where writer and translator discuss their shared work, giving insights into both the genesis of the work and its journey into English; and talks with the translator as the star of the show.  Translators are clever, interesting people – and they’re writers.  In my opinion, they’re worthy of being showcased in their own right.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’d love to see a big-name international writer each year to drive this part of the festival.  If the festival’s keynote address had been given by a mid-list, fairly unknown writer, people would have been extremely disappointed, so why should those of us who read books that weren’t originally published in English feel any differently about our main attraction?  In 2012, there was Sjón, in 2013, Andrés Neuman – those are the kinds of writers who need to be brought to Melbourne.  Here’s hoping that next year’s drawcard (or drawcards) will be just as exciting.

But who would people like to see?  It’s a good question…  Haruki Murakami would be top of most people’s list; whether it’ll ever happen is another story.  However, the list doesn’t start and end with Mr. M – here are a few more names I came up with:

Javier Marías – Marie NDiaye – Michel Houellebecq – Yoko Ogawa
Cees Nooteboom –
László Krasznahorkai – Jenny Erpenbeck – Hwang Sok-yong
Kenzaburo Oe – Yoko Tawada –
Alejandro Zambra – Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Mikhail Shishkin – Per Petterson – Peter Stamm –
Daniel Kehlmann
Gerbrand Bakker – Valeria Luiselli – Karl Ove Knausgaard – Judith Hermann

Naja Marie Aidt – Birgit Vanderbeke – Viola Di Grado – Anne Garréta – Can Xue
Kim Young-ha – Mathias Énard – Bae Suah – Ma Jian – Elias Khoury
Juan Gabriel Vásquez – Orhan Pamuk – Enrique Vila-Matas – Minae Mizumura 

Of course, this list is highly personal, and I’m sure those of you out there can add your own favourites to the list – who would you suggest as a non-Anglophone writer who would be good enough to attract a general crowd?  Answers in the usual place, thank you 😉

Don’t get me wrong – I know that the MWF team do a wonderful job in getting the festival off the ground, and I don’t want this to be seen as a grumpy, personal attack.  There are sessions catering to world literature in the festival, so it’s not as if the topic has been completely ignored.  I’m also well aware of the difficulties faced in attracting these people to Melbourne (and getting people in Melbourne in to see them).  However, in my opinion, expanding this part of the programme is a challenge worth taking up, and I’d like to think that the people behind the scenes share that belief.   Here’s hoping that Lisa Dempster and the rest of the MWF team give my ideas some serious thought for the 2016 festival – and that we get to hear from more great writers from all around the world 🙂


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