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The Interrobang: festival guide

Read Monday, 23 Nov 2015

What is The Interrobang, and what are its must-see events? A guide to the festival from Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams.

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So, you will hardly have missed the news that the Wheeler Centre’s fifth birthday year is going out with a bang. Over Friday evening and all day Saturday in the last weekend in November, we’re celebrating the art of asking by holding The Interrobang, our very first Festival of Questions. With an amazing line-up (seriously, we’re pinching ourselves) from the worlds of astronomy, politics, molecular biology, music, journalism and beyond, we’re seeing 2015 out with some of the best of what the Wheeler Centre offers.

Mindful of how much there is to get your head around – and honouring the spirit of a Festival of Questions, I’ve decided to do the Kevin Rudd thing – I’m going to ask and then answer my own questions about the festival.

‘A sentence ending with an interrobang (‽) asks a question in an excited manner, expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question.’

Do you have a favourite guest amongst the festival guests?

No. Of course I don’t. That’s like asking if I have a favourite child, or a favourite sibling, or a favourite refreshing summer cocktail. (Negroni. DM me if you want to know about my kids or siblings.) The point of the thing is the collective experience of engaging with different sessions and guests as they overlap in weird and wonderful ways. But to have Yanis Varoufakis at the end of 2015, answering the questions of a Melbourne audience, is just ridiculous. The writer and comedian behind the best show on television in 2015 is here in the form of the magnificently-jawlined Rob Delaney. And have you read Meghan Daum? Her book of essays, The Unspeakable, is one of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years. It’s amazing. And she’s here in Melbourne talking to Cheryl Freaking Strayed! Plus, there are people whose names might be new to you, but who should be on your radar: Maggie Ryan SandfordGregory Phillips and more. These people are incredible and well worth your time.

I am a serious person who has no time for flim-flam and play. Do endless talkfests actually achieve anything? 

This is an interesting question. Obviously, we believe in the power of well-posed questions and informed conversation, but the Saturday night reflection on the question, ‘Are words more important than actions?’ or one of the several sessions on ethics and the modern world might just scratch your itch in the abstract.

One of the gratifying trends in the questions that people posted online for The Interrobang was a preoccupation with questions of race, privilege and human rights. We should be holding and attending serious-minded discussions on how, as a society, we’re failing refugees. And on feminism. And on our democracy. Our talkfest puts these questions front and centre and provides a space for a serious and engaged public to make its multitude of voices heard.

Does this Interro-thingy have any sessions that will serve my love of the trivial and absurd? 

On the Friday night, we’re kicking things off with an event called Questions on Notice. In the form of an almighty gameshow, members of our brains trust will strut their stuff in a session that’s all about play. Benjamin Law might be asked ‘Do dogs know they’re dogs?’. Nakkiah Lui could be stuck with, ‘Is love or lust a bigger force in the world?’ It promises to be anarchic and a great Friday night out.

I’m overwhelmed with options. What have I missed? 

Nothing. Slow down. Breathe. This isn’t just a big, swirling festival thing. It’s more than two dozen sessions, any one of which will make your week, your month and your year feel better. Are you a word-nerd like me? Mary Norris, the self-professed comma queen and New Yorker proof-reading guru is coming. Did you love People of the Book? Come and see Geraldine Brooks be interviewed by Mark Colvin. Scared of the internet? Alan Brough is interviewing Cory Doctorow. Boom. Not complicated. Just smart people talking about what they know.

I can’t afford to go to everything. Why is the universe so unkind? 

The universe is neither kind nor unkind. I’m sorry to hear you’re so burdened by existential angst. The good news is that two of the spaces at the festival (upstairs at the Athenaeum Theatre, and the Wheeler Centre) are reserved for events that are completely free. At 3.00pm on the Saturday, Alan Duffy answering the question ‘Does the universe have a memory?’ That might suit your particular brand of rhetorical anxiety to a tee.

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