More like this

A collection of empty chairs on stage at a writers festival, surrounded by a small table, microphones, a banner and a lectern.

Image: Ian Oliver, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The erasure of blak experiences and stories can happen by curating a line-up. Through my work as an emerging exhibitions curator, it is clear when there are gaps in programming. Recently, I followed my passion for writing and ventured into the literary space for the first time. When I sat in the audience for the Canberra Writers Festival panel ‘Breaking The Code of Silence’, I was wondering what the hour would hold and where the conversation would go. I was attending this festival as part of my publishing internship. As a youngfulla, I take every opportunity to step into unfamiliar spaces. Walking into the theatre, I saw the audience and knew what I was getting myself into. The lights dimmed, and the stage lit up the row of white panellists and moderators. There was not a single blak woman on the panel. As I turned around in my seat, I would have said I was one of the only blak women in the audience. I listened to the panellist’s Acknowledgement of Country, I listened to them acknowledge their privilege as white women and say how much they respected the plight of Aboriginal women, who too suffer at the hands of violence. There was a beat of silence, then the moderator swiftly moved into the session.

I was reminded of Black and Blue author Ronnie Gorrie’s response to the latest domestic violence report on Q+A, by speaking about how our women are locked up and our children are taken from us. She went on to say our women were not included in that report. Listening to a panel without any blak representation was deeply troubling. The stories of our women are recorded and out there. I sat despondently listening to the women on the panel recount their stories about their fight for the safety and protection of women in professional spaces, in their daily lives and in the justice system. My eyes watered as I thought of the blak women I know who have been abused, excluded and forgotten, and how their voices were not present that day.

Responsibility is something us mob grow up understanding and upholding. However, it seems that white institutions still grapple with this. As I have learnt (and am still learning), curating line-ups takes work. Having First Nations Curators is a significant first step. The curators are responsible for developing programming for First Nations writers, authors and storytellers to present audiences with our voices and experiences. These roles are critical to ensuring our decision-making and presence in historically un-autonomous spaces. The Melbourne Writers Festival event, ‘The MWF Big Debate: Nihilism Makes Life Worth Living’, disrupted the idea that First Nations Curators could only develop programs for blakfullas. This event saw a range of authors, writers, rappers, activists and storytellers from various backgrounds, cultures and ages debate together, offering new perspectives and connections with one another. The work this festival has done engaging with different blak writers, authors and academics has been particularly progressive. Events such as these are critical to envisioning balanced and thoughtful line-ups. With so many mob championing and uplifting our stories in these spaces, I believe there is unparalleled power in fostering places just for us.

Responsibility is something us mob grow up understanding and upholding. However, it seems that white institutions still grapple with this. 

Working as a curator, though, I quickly understood that our power is within our collectives, self-led festivals and grassroots projects. This is where our sovereignty and safety exist. Whitefullas should create directorial leadership positions to share power with mob otherwise having things like First Nations curators is irrelevant. This is the same in literary spaces. I’d like to see more festivals led and directed by our people. The most empowering writers’ event I attended was the Yung Tent Embassy event for Blak & Bright First Nations Literary Festival; a line-up of young activists, community workers and artists spoke to the crowd about their advocacy and the work they do in the community to protect our people. Overlooking Swanston Street in Naarm (Melbourne), the audience sat underneath the tree outside the State Library, listening to impassioned speeches of frontline voices. After the event, mob mingled together, yarning with one another. I asked my big sister if I could read her speech, and she gave me a copy to keep. I still have it tucked in my shelf. and her words reverberate inside my memory of her power as she recounted her story. She spoke of the blatant racism she frequently experiences as a blak woman in public spaces. Her voice and presence in one of Naarm’s most public spaces was protected by a mostly blak audience with love and understanding. This blak-led festival enabled a space where speakers could feel surrounded by community strength. There is nothing wrong with working within white festivals—however, when we do disrupt festivals to empower our storytellers and develop new programming, we need safety and support for our autonomy.

This year, I was excited to speak on two panels, ‘Shelf Care’ and ‘This Song We Sing: New Voices in First Nations Poetry’, for the Melbourne Writers Festival. It had been two years since I last spoke publicly due to Naarm’s hard lockdowns. The night before, I was anxious about joining both international and national authors. I did not sleep. While I sat with these authors it hit me that I was an emerging writer, the youngest and the only blak person. This made me feel uncomfortable. One panellist could sense this, and I am grateful for their support in sharing their questions with me. Though I was excited to be a part of such a line-up, I left the stage feeling a little overlooked by the moderator (who was more familiar with the published authors) and tokenised. The next day, as I joined a line-up of new blak poets, I felt incredibly nervous yet more at ease to make mistakes and take my time. I learnt from these contrasting experiences that festivals should consider inviting more than one blakfulla for panels. A sense of community is important not only to the blak panellists but also the wider festival participants, especially when faced with difficult situations.

With so many mob championing and uplifting our stories in these spaces, I believe there is unparalleled power in fostering places just for us.

Question time can be one of the most uncomfortable experiences as a writer, author, and blak audience member. I’ve heard white people ask the most re-traumatising questions to panellists. I attended a session at the Canberra Writers Festival, ‘You Can Take The Person Out Of The Country’, where panellists talked about their experiences growing up regionally or in suburbia and what this has told them about humanity. The afternoon sun streamed through the window, and Parliament House loomed in the distance. Question time came, and the questions were mostly directed towards Ronnie Gorrie, along the lines of asking what she thought should be done to fix the problem of racism. This was in response to the personal stories she shared on the panel about growing up in the country. Us mob see this playing out all the time; instead of the racism of the individual being addressed, white audiences continue to centre how we, the blakfullas, should try to solve this. This diverts responsibility back onto us, the idea that racism is something we cause. My heart hammered in my chest, my stomach dropped, and I desperately tried to find her eyes to tell her I was here and I was with her. To my continued admiration for Gorrie’s strength, she told the woman she did not have the answers.

When a blak author gets up on a panel, audiences treat them like information centres. Many writers and authors do not travel to festivals to answer complex questions from individuals with their own agendas. Writers come to speak on their books. Perhaps instead of centring personal ignorance, ask the authors about their books and appreciate their generosity in sharing their stories. There is plenty of time after the session to do your research and to learn in the present through active listening. White audiences don’t understand that we are not a homogenous people, and mob don’t always share the same opinions—there needs to be more range in blakfulla speakers across the board in acknowledgement of our differences. After the last session of the festival, I stood outside in the cool night air with Aunty Ronnie which felt like a release of the tension I had been carrying since we arrived. It was the comfort we both needed after a long three days.

Instead of the racism of the individual being addressed, white audiences continue to centre how we, the blakfullas, should try to solve this.

Writing this article has struck me with how far we have to go to create space for blak writers and authors to feel safe and cared for by festivals. At the end of each session, the writers are the people who often walk away re-traumatised, while the crowd and organisers go home with new knowledge and zero accountability. To speak out about our ongoing experiences as blak people is to re-dig into old wounds that stretch back to Invasion. We need safety for our people on the panel and in the audience. These festivals and institutions need to ask themselves whether they truly value the work we are doing in our communities, our stories and our legacies. We come to writers’ festivals because we deserve to be there, to honour our Ancestors and families, and to speak about our deadly books.

The experiences I have had being a part of writers’ festivals have been a mixed bag. I’ve loved the connections I have made with incredible individuals, hated the unsettling feeling of question time, and stewed on how to make these festivals better for us mob. Blakfullas need to assert our autonomy in curating line-ups and blak-led festivals, and be supported while doing so. I write this article understanding that I am a young emerging writer and I have much to learn. However, I believe that proactive change in how we are viewed and treated in the arts is vital for our wellbeing and creative practices. I still searching for the answers to how we can foster these conversations. For now, it is for the festivals to do the work and meet us halfway. We’re not information centres, remember?


Note: In this article, I use ‘blak’ with the acknowledgement that this term was coined by Destiny Deacon. ​


​​This piece was commissioned and edited by KYD First Nations Editor-in-Residence Nadia Johansen, in partnership with State Library of Queensland’s black&write! Indigenous Writing and Editing project.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writers can submit pitches to KYD’s First Nations Editors-in-residence here