Writers Across Borders, Melbourne Writers Festival

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Why do we write? was the salient question put to the international writers at Writers Across Borders hosted by WrICE co-founder David Carlin on Friday night.

Carlin brought together the five WrICE fellows from around the Asia Pacific, as well as our own Michele Lee and Alice Pung, to talk about how cultural exchange in writing and ideas works, and to get to the heart of what writing does. The result was a kaleidoscope of ideas about why we are drawn to the act of writing, and how it can serve as a powerful tool to better understand ourselves and the world we live in.

Alice Pung, whose revelation that this year was the first time in Australia she’d ever been on a panel with ‘another Asian,’ let alone six, captured the importance of initiatives like WrICE, with its focus on representation and diversity. Alice spoke about writing in the context of media assumptions around class and race,particularly given the reductive tendency in Australia to stereotype Asian people in populist media, with an often polarising effect. The idea was echoed by Michele Lee, who said a central issue for her when it comes to writing is ‘representation’. Michele said ‘I write to be seen.’

We heard from Lawrence Lacambra Ypil (Larry), an award-winning poet and essayist from the Philippines for whom writing is about the rhythmic process of remembering. ‘I write to return to the past with a critical eye,’ said Larry, ‘to do a kind of remembering that isn’t glossy.’ Eliza Vitri Handayani, an Indonesian writer who published her first novel at the age of 16, also told the audience that for her, writing is about posing the question: ‘can you break free from destructive habits and invent yourself anew?’ For Eliza, who frequently writes about young people on the brink of change, writing is about facing your demons, dealing with trauma and telling painful stories from the past.

Xu Xi, an English language novelist from Hong Kong, and Maggie Tiojakin, esteemed writer and novelist of Indonesia, both spoke of how the act of writing can illuminate human contradiction and give us a means to embrace change, while Dai Fan, a novelist and essayist from China, said writing had become vital to her ability to process difficult emotions. ‘Growing up in China…many emotions were repressed,’ said Fan. ‘It has helped me get through life.’

If asking why is at the heart of writing, then it is also a meditation on what bonds us as writers. This was a panel not about ethnicities or borders, but about what it means to be both writer and human.

Mia Wotherspoon

Protest and rebellion: WrICE writers talk about censorship

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Since the 1980s PEN International has used Empty Chairs to represent writers who couldn’t be present at events – because they were imprisoned, detained, disappeared, threatened or killed. The Protest and Rebellion session at the Melbourne Writers session began with moderator Omar Musa (WrICE 2015) dedicating the empty chair onstage to Andy Hall, who’s awaiting trail after publishing a report on alleged abuses of migrant workers in Thailand.

It was a fitting start to the session: an inspiring discussion about the power of writing and art as a protest tool.

Molly Crabapple started as an artist, drawing pictures as a way of making sense of the world. But she came to prominence when she was arrested during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. “Everything changed for me when Occupy Wall Street occurred,” she said. “I thought protests like that only happened in places like Egypt and the Middle East. I wasn’t aware it could occur in New York.”

Molly started doing art of the Occupy movement. She drew protest posters and gave them to the protesters, and her art appeared on the street the next day.

When the Occupy protest got shut down, she started exploring other protests around the world, first as an artist, then as a journalist.

Eliza Vitri Handayani (WrICE 2016) grew up under the Suharto regime in Indonesia, when there was no freedom of expression or freedom of press. “This creates a culture of fear,” Eliza said. “Everyone knew everything in the media was lies, but they had to live with those lies.” She talked about how her parents had to read her homework to make sure she hadn’t put anything incriminating in there.

Students protested Suharto’s regime for months, and on 21 May 1998, after tens of thousands of university students demanded his resignation, Suharto finally announced his resignation. Eliza was around 16 at the time and she was amazed to be part of a movement that made such a big difference.

“It meant more than a change of government; it meant that it’s okay to be yourself and that you can speak the truth,” Eliza said, adding that, suddenly, people could talk about everything: sexuality, politics and alternate versions of history.

This led Eliza to question what it means to be free, to break away from all things that constrain us, like habits, genetics, parents and so on. She explored this theme in her book From Now On Everything Will Be Different.

Her book caused controversy in Indonesia for its critical stance on the government, and the launch of her book at the Ubud Writers Festival was cancelled. But that didn’t stop her. “I printed sections of my book on t-shirts and wore them as a form of protest.”

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During the session, Eliza, Molly and Omar discussed the theme of censorship, which often occurs when governments try to silence voices, views or opinions. But it also occurs when writers and artists self-censor, afraid that if they criticise or write about certain themes they won’t be published, or they won’t receive funding, or their opportunities and tenure will be affected.

“There’s a big difference between censorship and silencing,” Omar said.

Eliza did whatever she had to do in order to be heard, and when her book was to be published, she insisted on seeing the proofs before it went to print. “There’s always the risk it could be changed or censored,” she said.

Molly said, “When you have subverting ideas, to defeat stigma you have to speak louder and lift these people higher; otherwise they get marginalised and the pool of people thinking like that becomes smaller and smaller until those ideas are erased.”

This session was a reminder that in Australia, for the most part, we are very fortunate to enjoy freedom of expression and thought and press.

* You can support this Banned Literature in Translation campaign to help feature short works by writers (from Indonesia and around the world) who have experience bans, censorship or persecution.

Story: Ara Sarafian

Stories from Near and Far: WrICE Launch 2016

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Last night, in the midst of Melbourne Writers Festival, WrICE fellows and alumni gathered in the uber-stylish RMIT Design Hub to kick off the Melbourne-based installment of WrICE 2016 and to bring together friends and fellows of the program in a night of story-telling, song, wine and classic Chinese finger foods. We were fortunate to be joined by our key partners, Copyright Agency, Melbourne Writers Festival, the Emerging Writers Festival, Scribe and PERIL Magazine.

The night was introduced by Lisa Dempster, Artistic Director of Melbourne Writers Festival—who acknowledged the valuable partnership between the festival and the WrICE program—and launched by Professor Andrew MacIntyre, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Global Development at RMIT, who symbolically cut the ribbon to a room of raised wine glasses and applause.

Having the Deputy Vice Chancellor in the room, who himself seemed jubilant to have been invited, made this a night that wasn’t just about celebrating the huge achievements of the program but also about paying homage to the extraordinary status of RMIT as a game-changing international university.

MacIntyre, who mused on the ‘quintessentially global’ nature of RMITs vision and ethos, appeared proud of the exponentially growing goals the WrICE initiative keeps on kickin. Not only is WrICE changing the stories we tell and listen to, it is also creating an environment where collaboration and cross-cultural dialogue is both expected and celebrated, and in the words of MacIntyre, ‘you can just feel the potential.’

We also heard from WrICE alumnus and author of highly-acclaimed novel Our Magic Our, Jennifer Down, who shared how the WrICE experience was hugely influential in supporting her to finish her manuscript and submit it to the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, which she was shortlisted for in 2014.

As one of the emerging WrICE fellows, it filled me with oodles of pride to be able to stand on stage, alongside the likes of Alice Pung, Michele Lee, DAI Fan, Eliza Vitri Handayani, Maggie Tojakin and Larry Ypil­­ – a stunning line-up of acclaimed local and international talent – and read my own writing.

I greedily got my hands on one of the first copies, hot from the Scribe printer, of the brand new WrICE anthologyThe Near and the Far, a collection of 21 previously unpublished pieces from WrICE alumni from across the Asia Pacific including Maxine Beneba Clarke, Cate Kennedy, Xu Xi, Alice Pung and Omar Musa, among others.

This book was reviewed last week in The Australian, a huge achievement for the WrICE team, and officially launches on Sunday at 3pm at Beer Deluxe as part of Melbourne Writers Festival.

Lastly, WrICE directors David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short made the long-awaited announcement for next year’s WrICE participants, who include the much-loved and well established Melbourne author Christos Tsiolkas and award-winning Indigenous Australian writer Ellen van Neerven.

With the involvement of writers like this, the WrICE initiative is shaping up to be both a leading and prestigious opportunity for emerging and established writers at home and abroad.

Mia Wotherspoon

WrICE at the Chinese Writers Festival

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The Chinese Writers Festival, held today at Richmond Library in Melbourne, featured local and international Chinese writers, aiming to showcase Chinese-Australian literary achievements and celebrate diversity in Melbourne’s cultural landscape.

“Chinese-Australians now comprise the largest migrant community in Melbourne,” said Kate Larsen, director of Writers Victoria, who was supporting the event. “While being recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature, the majority of Melbourne’s literary activity takes place in English within the central business district,” she added. This bilingual festival gave audiences complete access to all presentations and panel discussions, whether in English or Chinese.

Author Xu Xi (WrICE 2015) and has returned to Australia to again take part in the residency and several literary events. During her keynote address, she talked about her identity. Raised in Hong Kong and speaking English as her first language, Xu Xi has been writing in English since she was a child. She’s the author of ten books, including five novels and five collections of short fiction and essays. These days she splits her time between New York and Hong Kong.

She discussed the intricacies of her Indonesian–Chinese–Hong Kong–American identity as a writer, which resonated well with the audience, many of whom seemed to be interrogating that same question of identity, being Australian or Chinese, Australian-born or immigrants. In the globalised world that we now live in, the question of identity is becoming more and more nuanced.

It is fitting, therefore, that “Identity” is also the theme of the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) this year. “Our identity allows us to think of ourselves as part of a group of similar people, locating us within communities of affinity. Our beliefs, our characteristics, our life experiences and our values inform our identity. Our identities can bring us together or set us apart,” MWF says.

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Also at the Chinese Writers Festival, Alice Pung (WrICE 2016) spoke about reading books when she was young, which rarely, if ever, had Chinese characters set in Australia. “Growing up, I never saw any Asian kids in books, which made me feel like a foreigner despite being born here.”

This was also the crux of the keynote address by Maxine Beneba Clarke (WrICE 2014) at the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Maxine, who is from an Afro-Caribbean background, said non-white children are rendered invisible in Australia. She argued for greater diversity in Australian literature, which should represent all children whether they differ in colour, ethnicity, religion, disability, demographic or whether they’re raised by single or same-sex parents.

“It is the right of every child to see themselves in story,” Maxine said. When kids don’t see themselves in a story, they may feel as though there’s something wrong with them or as though they don’t belong.

Ouyang Yu was another panellist at the Chinese Writers Festival. He’s a contemporary Chinese-Australian author, translator and academic, who came to Australia in 1991 to complete a PhD. During his study he researched Asian characters in Australian literature over a one-hundred-year time frame and he found very little representation of Chinese people. And whatever he did find was bad. This is surprising considering the Chinese people have been involved in Australian society since the Australian Gold Ruses of the mid-nineteenth century (more than 12,000 arrived in 1956 alone).

To date, Ouyang Yu has published eighty books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, literary criticism and literary translation in English and Chinese. But his early writing was “all virtually rejected by publishers”, due to censorship in China. He no longer faces such issues here in Australia, but he said: “Here, there is economic censorship”, where works are not published when there’s no market for them.

Though that hasn’t stopped him. “There may be no money in it, but you’ve got to do what’s in your heart,” he added.

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Alice talked about her experiences doing talks in schools and the children who read her books. “Asian children say it helps their sense of identity,” she said, “because if you don’t see yourself represented, you don’t feel like you belong.” But her books also impact Australian students, who say her books bring them a better understanding about their Asian friends.

These discussions about identity and cultural exchange and understanding are the fundamental tenants on which the WrICE program is founded. The program of “Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange” gives writers the opportunity to spend time in Asia and then Australia, providing them with a deeper understand of each other’s culture, and how to then faithfully represent this understanding in their work.

We read books and literature to learn something about ourselves and the world around us. So, as Xu Xi, Alice and Maxine have all iterated, it’s important that everyone can actually see themselves in books, so they can relate – wherever they are from. It makes people feel like they belong to that society. And for children especially, this is precious.

Story: Ara Sarafian

WrICE: Stories from Near and Far

Monday 29 August
Stories from Near and Far
Celebrate (WrICE) as part of the RMIT Present Tense Program

WrICE, a program of residencies, workshops and events, is building an
international network of writers and writing to foster intercultural conversations, celebrate diversity, and change the stories we tell and listen to.
A stunning line-up of acclaimed and emerging writers from Australia, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines will perform an intercultural collage of readings, introduced by Lisa Dempster, Artistic Director, Melbourne Writers Festival.

Join us for ideas, inspiration, refreshments. Featuring WrICE writers: Alice Pung,
Eliza Vitri Handayani, Michele Lee, Maggie Tiojakin, Lawrence Ypil, Dai Fan, Xu Xi and more
WrICE is made possible through the generous funding of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

ChineseWritersImage smallFrom near and far flyer

Details
Mon 29 August
6.00pm–8.00pm
RMIT Design Hub
Level 10, Long Room
Cnr Swanston and
Victoria streets
This event is free but registration is essential

MWF event: Queer Literary Salon

Queer Literary Salon

Sunday Sept 4 at 5:30pm, Bella Union

Come out with us and celebrate queer culture in a literary salon that combines revelation with revelry. Join special guests Adolfo Aranjuez, Ivan Coyote, Amy Middleton and Rebecca Shaw for interviews, readings, true tales and live illustrations. Hosted by Geraldine Hickey.

Note: Doors and bar open at 5pm for pre-event drinks; limited seating with plenty of standing room available. 18+ event so ID may be requested.

http://mwf.com.au/session/queer-literary-salon/

Where:
Bella Union
Corner of Victoria St & Lygon St, Melbourne

 

RMIT and WrICE present at MWF: The Near and Far book launch

Book Launch: The Near and Far

Sunday 4 September at 3:00pm, Beer Deluxe

From near and far flyerThe Near and Far collects new and previously unpublished works from established and emerging writers across Australia and the Asia-Pacific, including Maxine Beneba Clarke and 2014/2015 WrICE writer Omar Musa. Join editors David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short at the launch of this exciting anthology.

http://mwf.com.au/session/book-launch-the-near-and-far/

Where:
Beer Deluxe
Federation Square, Flinders Street
Melbourne

WrICE event: Writing Accross Borders, Sept 2

Writing Across Borders panel at the MWF

Friday September 2 at 5:30pm, ACMI the Cube

As part of the 2016 WrICE program, writers from across Asia and Australia will be contributing to the Melbourne Writers Festival in August. The Writing Across Borders event brings together seven WrICE writers on their visit to Melbourne.

ChineseWritersImage smallHow does cultural exchange in writing and ideas work? Fan Dai, Eliza Vitri Handayani, Michele Lee, Alice Pung, Maggie Tiojakin, Xu Xi and Lawrence Lacambra Ypil share their experiences of WrICE, an immersive intercultural program. See WrICE in action in this lively, performative session.

http://mwf.com.au/session/writers-across-borders/

Where:
ACMI, The Cube
Federation Square, Melbourne
The main entrance is from the Fed Square plaza. There is also an entrance, via ramp, from Flinders St. 

WrICE’s Eliza Vitri Handayani at the MWF, Sept 2

Melbourne Writers Festival and WrICE:
Protest & Rebellion panel

September 2 at 1:00pm, ACMI the Cube

ElizaArtist Molly Crabapple came to prominence when she was arrested during the Occupy movement. Eliza Vitri Handayani’s From Now On Everything Will Be Different caused controversy in Indonesia for its critical stance on the government. They discuss the power of art as a protest tool.

http://mwf.com.au/session/protest-rebellion/

Where:
ACMI the Cube, Federation Square, Melbourne
The main entrance is from the Fed Square plaza. There is also an entrance, via ramp, from Flinders St.

August 28: WrICE and the Chinese Writers Festival

From the Mountains to the Sea
10:00am-4:00pm, Richmond Library

On Sunday August 28 two of our WrICE writers will appear at and contribute to the Chinese Writers Festival in Melbourne, Richmond.
XuXi-Tree Cr PAUL HILTONalice
The festival is a bilingual celebration of Chinese and Chinese-Australian writing from the mountains to the sea. Featuring Lei Tao (Xi’an), Xu Xi (New York and Hong Kong), Alice Pung, Ouyang Yu, Belinda Jiang, Wang Ruobing and more.

https://writersvictoria.org.au/civicrm/event/info?id=120&reset=1

Where:
Richmond Library
415 Church St
Richmond