Stephanie attends festivals: JLF

This weekend the Jaipur Literary Festival came to Melbourne, hosted by the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. This was a free event, with a full day of panels and activities, and so of course Stephanie attended. Below the fold: Writing Travel, and From the Margins to the Mainland.

Due to this weekend being massive, I only made it two panels (and part of a kid’s workshop which a friend was hosting). But I had a lot of emotions and ideas, purchased a book, and caught up with some friends, so all in all it was a perfect one day festival.


The Jaipur Literary Festival is this amazing festival in Jaipur that I’m desperate to attend. It’s free, and takes place over over five days, and if I found SWF compelling and inspirational and (importantly) non-white, then I think JLF will hit those points and more. I really want to go!

So it was fantastic to have this opportunity to attend a small piece of it in Melbourne. In the spirit of JLF the panels were all free (though there was a ticketed gala on Saturday night), made possible by the sponsorship of some organisations.

JLF in Melbourne is also a part of AsiaTopa, the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts, which is ALSO AMAZING.

Tales of Magic and Mystery

I started at this panel; I’d only planned to drop by briefly before dashing off to Writing Travel, but I left earlier than expected when it opened with some white guy talking about his fiction book set in India using Indian magicians. I don’t need that business, even if it later turned out to be good.

The Untrod Path: Writing Travel

This panel was so good! Moderator Sunil Badami was funny and cutting and direct, and made many a pointed comment about the ‘skin colour’ microphones (glaringly obvious on all panelists but one) and other hilarious anti-colonialist comments.

The panelists were Catherine Anderson, Namita Gokhale, and Mishi Saran. The panel jumped around a little because they were directed quite firmly by questions from Sunil, so my write up might jump around a little also.

Namita talked about the future of travel writing being fantastical. Star Wars and Carl Sagan are mapping where travel writing is going, she said, because it’s going into space. I cannot waaaaait.

Catherine talked a little about the past of travel writing, and its four major stages: as documentation in Greece, as pilgrimage in the Middle East, as individual and then as imperialistic and colonial and intelligence gathering.

Mishi spoke of the power dynamics of travelling. Travel isn’t democratic, it’s based on a variety of factors. It’s hard for people to conceive of an Indian woman traveling, especially traveling alone.

I enjoyed Mishi’s highly relatable detour into talking about Mandarin: “You never feel like you’re fully literate in Chinese,” she said, which is so true. All you do when you travel in China is come home with a suitcase full of questions.

Namita spoke about how she travels five or six times a year, almost always at the heart of a literature festival, which heavily influences how she sees a place. (I desperately now want to travel the world via literature festivals.) But the first time she came to Australia, she had first experienced it through Picnic at Hanging Rock, which means that’s the lens through which she now sees Australia. (Related: stay tuned in the very near future for Liz and I talking about our Hanging Rock feelings, colonialism, and Indigenous business.)

Travel, Namita elaborated, is also about how a country presents itself. Take Nepal and Bhutan. Nepal presented itself as cheap, a backpacker’s dream, and now it has a trashed up mountain. Bhutan presented itself as a high-end mystery, seducing the tourist, and maintains strict controls on tourists. And it doesn’t have a trashed up mountain.

I loved Sunil’s moderation. I texted Liz during it with a photo of my notes, telling her I wanted to see this in the moderation guide for Continuum. “There will be time at the end for questions, but because time is limited, please no ruminations or statements. I’ll be listening for that rising intonation.” He said that both at the beginning, and at the end when question time started, and I loved it.

From the Margins to the Mainland

Tony Birch, Sudeep Chakravarti, Roanna Gonsalves, Benjamin Law, mod Jamila Rizvi

I was late to this panel by about 15 minutes, and failed to note who said what. The panel looked at the need to reimagine what Australia looks like, and the problem of authenticity. (I’m confident that my note “What is an authentic white person?” was said by Ben Law; “It’s whiter than a yacht club” was definitely Ben Law.) The panel talked about the concept of mythmaking, and the idea in Australia that the outsider has status, which is in part what leads to the current idea of white, middle-class man as challenged.

There was also a discussion of Masterchef as an export to the world that sends an image of us that we don’t see reflected back to ourselves.

 In Summary

I loved being able to attend these highly non-white panels, that were full of jokes about colonialism, colourism, white privilege and the imposition of identity on us by others. More of this, especially free if possible but I’ll pay for this delightfulness if I need to. Amazing and thoughtful and it’s filled me with ideas and possibilities.

As I’ve written about extensively, the Australian media landscape has a tendency to be really white, and it doesn’t really reflect who lives here and our lives in Australia. It’s great, then, to have this opportunity to meet and listen to artists who are trying to reflect that reality, and that festivals are supporting that. Anyway, more of this, please. And also you should all be attending as many events at AsiaTopa as you can.

Books Purchased: Chasing the Monk’s Shadow, Mishi Saran (about the monk who formed the basis for Tripitaka, the monk in Journey to the West.)

Time spent at the festival: About four hours, with one hour of that drinking coffee with friends and talking about drains and residencies and Singapore and art and poetry.