Blak & Bright: First Nations Literary Festival is for everyone

Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

Come along to Australia’s only First Nations writers festival, this September in Melbourne.  

Featuring 60 artists across 25 sessions, the four-day Blak & Bright First Nations Literary Festival – Australia’s only literary festival dedicated to showcasing First Nations writers and stories – is on in Melbourne from 5 to 8 September 2019. We chat with Festival Director, playwright, novelist and Muruwari woman, Jane Harrison whose play, Stolen, about the forcible removal of children from their families in the 1960s, premiered in 1998 to local and international acclaim.  

Blak & Bright first ran in 2016, and is now returning for a second outing. Jane says to expect: "storytelling for all: everything from poetry to plays, Elders’ stories around a fire to picture books for children and activists in the Yung Tent Embassy."

Why is the festival important to Australia?  

You could think of Aboriginal Australia’s post-colonial experience in three phases. Firstly invasion and warfare, then a century or two of assimilation and suppression, and now we’re in the third phase where we’re reasserting our cultures and philosophies – [for example] in arts, politics and sport.  

Aboriginal Australians are now celebrating our culture publicly and inviting the rest of Australia to understand and join with us in that celebration. It’s through the arts and stories that we understand ourselves. We have a lot to offer.

It seems timely that this second iteration of Blak & Bright is happening during the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages.  

Language is intrinsically tied to culture and there’s a strong reclamation of language occurring around the country. All sorts of things are tied up in language – knowledges about the natural world, relationships between groups of people. Language means connection, belonging and wellbeing.  

Why is First Nations writing relevant and exciting to literature lovers around the globe?Jane Harrison

The humour, the different perspectives, the incorporation of language, the lyricism, the toughest themes treated with delicacy, the warmth and humanity. Just as our oral storytelling was a way of passing on knowledge, now new forms of cultural expression take on that role. All of us can learn from these narratives.  

It seems like Indigenous writers are starting to gain recognition, particularly on the prize circuit. How far has Australia come in terms of acknowledging the talents of Indigenous writers?  

We just had Melissa Lucashenko win the 2019 Miles Franklin award for her novel Too Much Lip. Alexis Wright is a previous winner (she also won the 2018 Stella Prize) and Kim Scott is a two-time winner. Bruce Pascoe won Book of the Year in the 2016 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Prize for Dark Emu. Leah Purcell won the Victorian Premier’s prize for Literature in 2017. And there’s a bunch of writers snapping at their heels … actually, they’re not snapping as what I see is experienced writers helping newer writers.  

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visual artists are well regarded, Aboriginal literary writers are less well known. Why is that?  

Big question. In remote communities, English may be the fourth language spoken, so there has been a barrier to those storytellers participating in the English speaking and reading literary world – while art speaks all languages.  

Also, the first Aboriginal writers weren’t published until the 1960s: in decades past, I’m not sure publishers were willing to meet First Nations writers in the middle when it came to understanding their voice and ways of self-expression. Now I think there’s a rush and enthusiasm about publishing 'diversity', which helps.  

It’s interesting that there’s a strong First Nations playwriting community (of which I’m also a part) but I’d love it if some of those writers working in theatre and spoken word would cross over to the literary world as there are heaps of opportunities. 

Tell us about the reaction to your own play, Stolen.Blak&Bright logo

The Stolen Generations was a topic well known within the community but not well known outside of it. The 1998 premiere of Stolen came after the 1997 Bringing Them Home Royal Commission into the Stolen Generations report, which put the practice of removal of Aboriginal children by successive governments under the spotlight. Personally, I was surprised by the response to the play, even around the world, but it resonates with other countries that have been colonised – and indeed in countries that colonise. Which is half the world.  

What are the biggest stereotypes that need to be debunked when it comes to Indigenous literature?  

That all First Nations stories are biographical, lived experiences. Yes, there are some amazing memoirs and I’m chuffed to program their authors, but there’s also a lot of imaginative storytelling too. But don’t just take it from me – come along to Blak & Bright and have your favourite stereotype debunked!

So, speaking of coming along, what would you recommend?  

I shouldn’t have favourites! But I’m excited about some of the new events in the program such as:

  • Quandong and Magpie. Hosted at Fitzroy’s social enterprise restaurant, Charcoal Lane, guests will mingle with over 40 festival artists over Indigenous canapes and drinks, serenaded by soprano Shauntai Batzke, with author Stan Yarramunua giving us a glimpse into his extraordinary life.  
  • Then there’s Yung Tent Embassy – I’m excited by their raw soapbox style presentations. The Aboriginal philosophies event – fascinating.  
  • Master storyteller and author of Ghost River, Tony Birch, will share a very intimate address on the topic of his recent grief in one of our keynote events: Smoke Whispers Sorrow.  
  • At Treaty, Yeah writers will share their creative responses to the idea of Treaty.  
  • And The Bogong is a personal favourite. As it’s the last event in the program, at Carlton’s Trade Hall, I can relax and enjoy it.  

Finally, what can you tell us about your role as festival director?

I delivered the first Blak & Bright in 2016. There was enough time in between that iteration and this one for me to forget the challenges! Seriously though, I see it as a privilege to curate a really diverse program that highlights the creativity and voice of our First Nations artists: we have philosophers, healers, academics, directors, actors, opera singers. What I love most is presenting a 100 per cent First Nations Festival that surprises and delights. For example, this year we have Blak Mama: 5 Plays in a Day. Forget Netflix bingeing. Binge on a day of play readings with awesome actors – and it’s free.

Blak & Bright literary festival is on from 5-8 September 2019 in various locations across Melbourne. Most events are free.