About 350 writers will be involved in this year’s Melbourne Writers' Festival, which runs for 11 days from August 22. Claire Knox talks to three of them from Melbourne’s west.
ALICE PUNG’S melodic tone lifts slightly when she recalls a childhood memory of Footscray’s shopping mall, the first of its type in Australia when it opened in 1975.
Alice and her grandmother would sit on a bench among the languid junkies, clusters of chatting Vietnamese women and businessmen in ill-fitting suits, observing the concrete madness and waiting for sprawling department store Forges to open.
“We’d sit outside, by a fountain, called Dolphins Alive I think, that has never been in operation while I’ve been alive.”
Pung, a lawyer, teacher and award-winning author, says idiosyncrasies like the fountain and the mall, and the working class and migrant roots so intrinsic to Footscray have shaped her writing immeasurably.
The 31–year-old wooed literary critics, publishers and readers alike with her coming-of-age memoir Unpolished Gem, which scored her the 2007 Newcomer of the Year Award in the Australian Book Industry Awards, following up with Her Father’s Daughter, the poignant tale of her father Kuan’s horrific experiences enduring the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.
Pung’s mother was eight months’ pregnant with Alice, her first child, when she and Kuan arrived in Melbourne. Both Cambodian refugees with Chinese heritage, they had fled war-torn Cambodia and spent a year in a stifling Thai refugee camp.
Now a writer in residence at Melbourne University’s Janet Clarke Hall, Pung will speak to throngs of children, teenagers and teachers at the festival.
Pung says growing up in the west’s bosom meant she perceived its multiculturalism to be the norm.
“Before I went to university I didn’t really realise other places were so different.
“You grow up thinking the rest of Australia is diverse too - brown, black, white, yellow - but it’s not at all, it’s very Anglo-Saxon, particularly in pop culture representation.
“It really is one of the most interesting areas in Melbourne. The culture changes every decade due to the different waves of migration, Greek and Italian, Vietnamese, African, and Indian. Sometimes people ‘talk’ about multi-culturalism, but in Footscray people just live it. There are African people buying Chinese food, Vietnamese eating Indian, it’s not as segregated.
“The west is more diverse than its bad representation and it’s important to move away from the generalisation that it’s grotty. But of course that’s also the drawcard.
“I’m glad I wrote Unpolished Gem at the age
I did, before I had really left the west and before I learnt about literary place and theory, because if
I did know those things the book would have been more contrived and not about family and love and people.”
YARRAVILLE WRITER JOHN WELDON spent his first few years in Australia, after arriving as an English migrant, in a symmetrical brick set of Braybrook commission flats, flanked by factories and weatherboard, working-class homes.
He believes the cultural and physical landscape of the west provided him with a sense of dislocation from other parts of the city, peering through a looking glass which provided the perfect writing environment.
“As a writer it gives you a great place to start from. If you can observe things and put a little bit of distance between you and your subject it helps you to be clearer.”
Growing up as a migrant, Weldon felt he was floating in a grey, murky sea, where he found it hard to identify as English or Australian.
“In literature, there is often an idea of the ‘other’ - you know this is us here and there are those over there and there are those who came to our country on boats. Growing up here you’re certainly outside the mainstream.
“That certainly helped shape the way I looked at institutions, at being a man, being a migrant, even though there wasn’t a huge cultural difference.
“I think a lot of people in the west are constantly in that ‘other’ space, and as a writer or artist that is a huge, huge influence.’’
For Weldon, a tangible symbol of that separation was always the West Gate Bridge, the “idea of having to get over that bridge to get ‘there’.”
“Everywhere you turn in Seddon and Yarraville, or from the Williamstown foreshore, you can see Melbourne looming in the distance.’’
A former Fairfax journalist and a lecturer in professional and creative writing at Victoria University, Weldon will launch his latest novel, Spin Cycle, at the Writers’ Festival.
“It’s a coming-of-age story and a love story, exploring truth and identity. It’s about a man who is about to become a mouse, he’s on the verge of 30, but can he take the next step and grow up or continue to drift.”
He says he has written a slew of short stories set in the west.
“I mean I have a huge working-class chip on my shoulder. I just can’t shift it,” he concedes with a smirk.
“I always wanted to be a writer as a kid, but it just seemed, living in Braybrook, that I may as well have wanted to be an astronaut. I had no idea how I could do it.’’
But Weldon’s flair was recognised and he picked up a column in the Western Times, writing a sports-based commentary on his surrounds, and later filing opinion pieces for The Age (which he still does) and freelancing as a food critic for the same paper.
“Even in my food writing I wrote about the great Vietnamese and Ethiopian places in the western suburbs, which is what they wanted I suppose, that different angle.’’
MURRAY MIDDLETON stands dreamily in a vast and sparse factory room, watching through the ceiling’s glass windows storm clouds roll in over the city skyline.
The building is Kensington’s creative hub the Younghusband, a space Middleton knows intimately, having worked for theatre set design company Scenic Studios, painting sweeping canvas backdrops for Australian Ballet productions like The Nutcracker and Wicked.
The 28-year-old Fitzroy writer has worked in Kensington and Flemington for more than eight years now, in the Younghusband building, at independent book store Wayward Books and now as an integration aide at Mount Alexander College.
Middleton garnered literary recognition after winning The Age short story competition last year for his melancholic tale of a middle-aged newspaper editor and his drug-addicted sister’s journey through central NSW to a rehabilitation centre.
Although much of his writing to date has been set across sweeping rural highways and terrains, he says the grittiness of the inner north-west is now unconsciously seeping into his narratives.
Middleton is compiling an anthology of shorts stories, a number of which are set in the west.
“My time here has had a huge influence… that (Younghusband) building itself is incredible, both visually and culturally. There are so many creative and eccentric people, and I feel like I’ve explored every nook and cranny of it.’’
Click here for further information on the Melbourne Writers Festival.