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Not taking cues from Melbourne and Sydney: Sisonke Msimang on Perth Festival’s Literature & Ideas program

Earlier this year writer Sisonke Msimang was appointed curator of Perth Festival’s 2020 Literature & Ideas program, which will include events with local authors Bruce Pascoe, Melissa Lucashenko and Charlotte Wood, alongside an event with international guest Neil Gaiman. Kelsey Oldham spoke with Msimang about her new curatorial role and the literary scene in Perth.

Tell us a bit about your professional background and how you came to be in your new role as curator of Perth Festival’s Literature & Ideas program.

I am a writer—I’ve published two books since moving to Perth a few years ago with my family. Before turning to full-time writing I worked in human rights and democracy-building, running a philanthropic organisation funded by the billionaire George Soros. So when I was offered the chance to curate this year’s program it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to combine my passion for literature and writing with my commitment to the kinds of big ideas that make societies tick.

How does your  background in political science affect the work you do at the Centre for Stories and, subsequently, the ethos behind the themes and programming of the Literature & Ideas weekend?

Haha! I just couldn’t get it together to do a law degree so I studied politics. To be honest I’m not sure it makes much of a difference. I’m a big believer in the arts and humanities more broadly and I try to focus on how we have conversations that matter to people. The ethos I hope to bring to the festival this year is one of having important conversations in a spirit of generosity.

Perth Writers Festival has had a few different iterations over the past few years, from a four-day festival under long-time program manager Katherine Dorrington to, most recently, two years as a week-long event. In 2020 it will span two days. What is the reason for this smaller, more concentrated program? Can we expect to see the festival retain this format in the future?

We’ve been really lucky this year—we’ve got the weekend sessions, as well as a Lit Crawl taking place on Thursday, as well as a bunch of book club events throughout January and February. So when you add up the amount of offerings we have it definitely stretches out to a four-day cycle. The difference is how we have opted to organise it.

What is the literary community like in Perth, a place that can feel isolated both geographically and spiritually from the publishing scenes in Melbourne and Sydney?

One of the things I really love about Perth is that people here are plugged in and doing incredible collaborations nationally and globally, but increasingly no-one I’m talking to is worried about taking cues from Melbourne and Sydney. In much the same way that those cities have their own wonderful and thriving literary cultures, so do we.

We are so lucky! We have a really interesting set of communities from China, Indonesia, and South East Asia, and this translates in wonderful ways to the arts scene here. The Centre for Stories is an incredible resource, we have world-class museums at our numerous universities, and a thriving theatre scene that keeps writers employed and busy. There are also good number of award-winning writers who live here—from Josephine Wilson to Tim Winton to best-selling crime novelist Dervla McTiernan and A J Betts, who had her book adapted for international television which was a real coup. There is also a discerning set of publishers from Fremantle Press to UWAP, and a new generation of bad-ass book stores like Crow and Rabble Books. I could go on and on!

How can literary events attract people who might not usually engage with writers and ideas in a festival format, rather than just those who are already familiar with them?

This is the challenge all festivals face. We are tackling it by recognising that not all great ideas emanate from books, so inviting comedians and spoken word poets and DJs to talk about ideas. We want to attract a younger demographic and we want to embrace and provide great quality content to the audience that has supported us for all these years. When it comes to ideas and literature you really can embrace the existing audience while inviting a new cohort. I’m really excited about hosting, about being hospitable and welcoming to all our communities.

What are your top three personal highlights from the line-up and why?

I couldn’t possibly answer that. There are so many incredible authors coming—from bestseller Neil Gaiman to the brilliant to Maria Tumarkin whose essays make you weep, to Melissa Lucashenko whose whole catalogue is a piercing assessment of Australia today. And, of course, the local writers like Mohammed Massoud Morsi, whose Palace of Angels (Wild Dingo) is painful and sweet, and Emily Paull and Bindy Pritchard, who both have new short story collections out from Margaret River Press. I can’t choose just three!

What was the last book you read and loved?

Off the program, I loved The Overstory by Richard Powers (Vintage) and Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray). But in terms of the books on the festival program for 2020—well it wouldn’t be fair to answer! After all, the guests might read this and I don’t want to play favourites. Look out for our summer reading list for suggestions on what to read!

Perth Festival’s Literature & Ideas Weekend runs from 21–23 February 2020, with the full program to be announced on 16 January 2020. For more information, see the Perth Festival website.


Category: Features Festivals