Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bendigo writers mix it with the nation’s best

BENDIGO WRITERS FESTIVAL: Bendigo's own Lauren Mitchell 
keeping it real. Picture: TOM McWILLIAM

WHERE ya from? It’s a question I find myself asking a lot, as Bendigo grows and people, not only from around the country, but also from around the world, are discovering the special allure of central Victoria and our fair city.
When I first moved from the big smoke in 1989 I remember being told by a born and bred local that it would take 25 years for me to be considered a Bendigonian. Given that milestone is edging ever nearer, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised by the epiphany that took place on the weekend.
It came in the form of the inaugural Bendigo Writers Festival – three incredible days that not only saw eminent names of Australian literature and culture grace the stage of the Capital Theatre, Old Fire Station and the La Trobe Visual Arts Centre, but also gave our wealth of local literary talent a chance to shine on a national stage. And shine they did.
While big names like David Marr, Ita Buttrose and Don Watson drew big crowds to the main auditorium, there was barely a session that didn’t feature a Bendigo writer or thinker either in the role of interviewer or guest.
It was our own Di Dempsey who took to the stage with Ita. Sarah Mayor Cox created a wonderfully intimate experience in her interview with the extraordinary Margo Lanagan, Sue Gillett hosted (among many) a brilliant session with two of Australia’s finest poets, Emily Zoe Baker and Kevin Brophy, and our celebrated children’s author Glenda Millard was part of one of the most talked about sessions of the festival – Young at Heart – alongside, Maureen McCarthy, Doug MacLeod and Craig Smith. I could go on…
But it was in the festival hub that Bendigo was really on show, with back to back sessions featuring some of our region’s finest. It was celebration of Bendigo stories and storytellers, the likes of which this city hasn’t experienced. A highlight for me was Dr Ian Irvine’s conversation with Newstead writer Neil Boyack – a deeply moving half-hour in the presence of a true storyteller with a deep connection to place and those living on the margins. There are a dozen more I could mention.
It culminated on Saturday night with the launch of Scintillae, a 300-page anthology, showcasing almost two decades of local creativity connected to the Professional Writing and Editing program at Bendigo Tafe. It features more than 50 writers, including work from the many writers who have taught over the years, the industry professionals who have mentored students, and of course the long list of graduates who have gone on to make substantial contributions to the world of art, media and literature.
It’s more than a book, it’s a milestone for the arts in Bendigo. A world class publication that is testimony to the importance of having vibrant arts education in our unis and tafes – something we are rapidly and sadly losing.
I was honoured to read at the launch on Saturday night and it was on that stage that my personal epiphany occurred: I am not just a writer, I’m a “Bendigo writer”, and we are mixing it with the very best. Dr Ian Irvine and his editorial team should be commended.
On Sunday afternoon I joined my Addy colleague Lauren Mitchell and Bendigo author Gena McLean on a retro couch for a lively session called the G‘n’Tea Show, a celebration of Bendigo storytelling. There have been many highlights in my writing life, but this one will be hard to top. It was during the session that I was struck by the significance of my weekly column. I’d always asumed the “home” in the title was a brick veneer in Strathfieldsaye, but as I listened to Lauren speak with such passion about her “Dear Bendigo” I realised it goes much deeper. I’ve grown to love this place.
To Rosemary Sorensen and the other organisers of the inaugural festival, who put their necks on the metaphorical chopping block, and to the many festival volunteers, I dip my hat. To the wonderful team at the Capital who looked after us all with such generosity and care, thank you. And to the City of Greater Bendigo who promoted this first festival to the nation I say, please, please can we do it all again next year?
Where am I from, you ask? I’m from Bendigo – the literary capital of the universe.

Published in the Bendigo Advertiser, Tuesday August 14, 2012

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