Frenzied not strategic: Are we being played in the Pacific?
The essential Chips Mackellar

Backstage as a volunteer at the Brisbane Writers Festival

A role model of mine for social and human rights advocacy, Kon Karapanagiotidis OAM, leads a panel discussion on his book 'The Power of Hope'


BRISBANE – I immediately notice the images to my right – a line of A4 sheets pegged along a string that sways lightly in the gentle breeze of this clear Spring day in Brisbane.

Dancing across a white backdrop is a scattering of handwritten words and slogans: ‘BOOKS’, ‘BAN PLASTIC BAGS AND SINGLE USE STRAWS’ and ‘CONNECTION TO THE PHYSICAL WORLD AROUND US’ as well as ‘UNICORNS’, ‘GARLIC BREAD’ and ‘BIODEGRADABLE GLITTER’.

These are the shared thoughts of patrons who had answered the question, ‘What does the world need now?’ on a public wall at the Brisbane Writers Festival, now in its 56th year.

It’s a timely question as it underpins and encapsulates the reason for my involvement at this year’s festival.

Recognising the opportunities it has afforded Papua New Guinean writers, set in motion by the PNG Attitude family and supported by Paga Hill Development Company, I elected to undertake three days of volunteering as one of my final activities for the MWTE Writer Fellowship 2018.

For me, amongst the many things the world needs now, is respectful collaboration inspiring shared ideas, learning and individual action. It is a premise underlying the momentum of the MWTE literary project and a direct result of my participation as a speaker and panel member at the festivals of 2016 and 2017.

Coordinating an international literary event like this is a mammoth task and what is most apparent is the dedication to teamwork to facilitate a successful event.

I’d also attended the much smaller-scale, stand-alone inaugural Young Adult genre LoveYA Festival in May where the same collaborative spirit applied.

At last year’s Brisbane festival, I presented alongside two Australian authors, Michael Sala and Kerrie Davies. The discussion centred on Sala’s The Restorer (my review here) which since has been nominated for prestigious literary awards, including the Miles Franklin longlist. So I was well acquainted with the festival when it called out for volunteers in July.

I indicated a keen interest to gain practical hands-on experience in all aspects of festival operationsand my deployment as a festival ‘ninja’ was productive and enjoyable, under the supervision of academic, author and volunteer coordinator Meg Vann.

Emphasising respectful interaction, Vann delegated a wide range of tasks that gave insights into how a literary festival may be successfully delivered in Papua New Guinea, should we get the required sponsorship.

There was excellent pre-festival preparation in Brisbane and volunteer briefings were held at the home of the festival, the State Library of Queensland (a podcast was made for people who were unable to attend).

The ninja’s job description was broad - laminating posters, delivering refreshments, escorting patrons to venues, acting as an information booth attendant and dismantling tables and moving chairs.

More complex tasks included monitoring the phones at the Festival’s Merivale Street headquarters, admiring the diplomacy and efficiency of staff notifying patrons of last-minute session cancellations and alternate ticketing arrangements.

Attending to writers and speakers in the Green Room had me feeling nostalgic, whilst the ‘20 pages in 20 minutes’ session with writers and manuscripts reminded me of the hard work required to enter and succeed in this industry.

Accompanying Vann on a walk-through of the festival, I made my first visit to the Queensland Writers Centre. Situated on the library’s second level and delivering the festival’s writing workshops. That morning, Australian author Tony Birch whom I had listened to at the Sydney Writers Festival earlier this year, taught patrons about writing short stories.

Melissa Lucashenko, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, Kate Grenville, Ben Doherty and Sisonke Msimang were amongst the impressive line-up of weiters. Nick Earls and Karl Gislaon, who I’d listened to at their ‘On the Terrace’ writers seminar in April, were also present.

This balance of information, conversation, participation and immersion as an audience member enabled me to laugh, learning and be inspired.

Improving my mood was a delightful chance meeting with PNG Attitude family members Bob Cleland and Maibry Ashton along with good friend Dr Lara Cain Gray, senior librarian of Library For All, an organisation that advocates for PNG-authored publications.

I was also able to attend a session featuring a most remarkable man, a role model of mine for social and human rights advocacy, Kon Karapanagiotidis OAM, founder and chief executive of Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, speaking about his first book, ‘The Power of Hope’ (HarperCollins Australia).

Karapanagiotidis’ message encouraged people to insert themselves in creating change, kindness and favouring leadership centred on doing what is morally right and not what is politically expedient. “Is it fair? Is it just? Is it morally right,” he emphasised. These are what should guide our decision making.

A memorable point of discussion came earlier in the festival through author Jackie Ryan. In-conversation with Melissa Fagan, Ryan canvassed with humour now she wrote a book about Expo ‘88; an event that redefined Brisbane.

The contentious issue of expenditure and priorities for community well-being was explored. Why should we spend money on the arts and cultural activity when that funding could be diverted to society’s basic needs such as health and education? Referencing her book, Ryan suggested that such investment is in fact necessary so life does not become basic and pedestrian.

White NightHaving now experienced both sides of the Brisbane Writers Festival, on stage and backstage, I have gained valuable insights, confidence and practical skills in the operation and delivery of a literary event.

Most notable was the professional and positive environment and the clear communication and appreciation for volunteers. Subsequently, amongst the several thank-you gifts, volunteers were invited to select from a pile of free books.

Having listened to young adult author Ellie Marney at the LoveYA Festival, my selecting her title ‘White Night’ seemed a fitting way to link and conclude a wonderful range of activities in which I had been able to participate for six months through the six-month Paga Hill Development Company-sponsored writer fellowship.

This article was prepared for the My Walk to Equality Writer Fellowship 2018 sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company. The fellowship commenced in mid-March 2018 and will conclude at the end of September 2018. Information and regular updates of activities undertaken by fellowship recipient, Rashmii Bell, may be found here or via Twitter: @amoahfive_oh


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Rashmii Bell

Thank you for reading, Ann.

I really appreciated the opportunity to volunteer and learn alongside an awesome team!

* Ann McLean is the CEO of Brisbane Writers Festival 2018.

Ann McLean

So beautiful to read this. Thanks so much for your participation.

Lindsay F Bond

Not staid as 'basic and pedestrian', is a life that dallies on ripples, dances on waves and dares over ranges. Great report Rashmii. You are a l.e.g.e.n.d.

Rashmii Bell

Pleased to advise I have received a terrific reference statement from Meg Vann. That statement will be made available in the MWTE Writer Fellowship 2018 Report I will prepare (October) and submit to Paga Hill Development Company.

Great news is that Meg has indicated that BWF would be interested to know more about the developing plans to stage a writers festival for PNG, and so has brought BWFs Program Team into the discussion.

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