Blak Wrap: highlights from the first Victorian Indigenous Literary Festival
Over four days, from 18 – 21 February 2016, the Wheeler Centre hosted Blak & Bright – the inaugural Victorian Indigenous Literary Festival, featuring more than 60 Indigenous writers and artists trading yarns, songs, ideas and advice. Here, festival director Jane Harrison shares some of her highlights from the programme.
The Blak & Bright Festival took a broad view of ‘literature’ by incorporating aspects from our oral storytelling traditions, spoken word, playwriting and songwriting. That doesn’t mean the bright stars of the publishing world were in any way minimised – on the contrary. The festival opening session, by the extraordinary Anita Heiss, gave us 20 comprehensive, clever and very funny reasons to read Blak. Anita had cleverly teamed her 20 reasons with excerpts from 20 books and these were read by our two actors, Pauline Whyman and Greg Fryer. Audience members delighted in being read to. For example #wewritesexy was beautifully brought to life with an excerpt from Paris Dreaming that surely raised the temperature in the Wheeler Centre’s Performance Space! Afterwards, her selected Blak books walked off the shelf at the pop-up Readings store.
In our keynote, Bruce Pascoe made a compelling argument that genre is a western concept that has been imposed on Blak writers. He, of course, is a living example, having been published for decades across many forms (I cannot call them genres, now) of writing.
Our fresh writers – playwright Maurial Spearim, fiction writer Hannah Donnelly, and screenwriter Elijah Louttit – shared their insights on telling cross-generational stories and finding your own voice. The urgency and significance of their work became truly apparent when each young artist shared a piece of their writing, captivating a full house of festival-goers. Our poets, in strong and powerful words of resistance, reclaimed and owned personal, family and community histories that were imbued with a sense of place.
The Blak Gala was joy and spirit encapsulated. The indomitable Kutcha shared his enormous heart out and had the audience up on their feet and singing with him (community); Monica imparted how she used her music to work with young people and how their stories influenced her songwriting (giving back); James Henry took us on a narrative journey through songs, and also talked about his work across events such as the Tanderrum ceremony (reclaiming cultural expression).
In the Editing and Publishing Blak session our Blak editors and publishers spoke of the more long-term process they took in working with Aboriginal writers, versus the deadline focused ‘assembly line’ process that is the norm in mainstream publishing companies.
Across the festival the discussions were frank, thoughtful and generous. As an all Indigenous festival, for everyone, it was as if the panellists had the space and the listening to unpack a range of important ideas with their peers (and a rapt audience). As author Kate Howarth put it, ‘it’s the first literary event where I haven’t had to explain my Aboriginality.’