by Nance Haxton

The biannual Blak and Bright Festival returns to the Melbourne/Naarm CBD next week featuring renowned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and artists.

With more than 30 events featuring 80 First Nations writers unfolding across The Wheeler Centre, Federation Square and The Capitol from March 13 to 17, it’s the largest festival of its type in Australia.

The 2024 program on the theme Blak Futures Now, celebrates literary expressions from songs to essay, oral stories to epic novels, and plays to poetry. There are special events such as the Tent Embassy at the forecourt of the State Library and the opening night featuring performance artists Kamarra Bell-Wykes and Carly Shepherd.

This year features authors such as keynote speaker Leah Purcell, Tony Birch, Kim Scott and Deborah Cheetham Fraillon.

Festival director and renowned playwright Jane Harrison says this is the fourth time the event will be held.

“We started off in 2016 and probably at that time, first Nations writers weren’t as widely represented at literary events as they are now,” Harrison says.

“I think there’s been an increasing desire to showcase First Nations writers, but ours is different because it’s a hundred percent First Nations writers. So all our moderators are First Nations, all our panellists and everyone involved. A lot of the team behind Blak and Bright are also First Nations.

“And so I think it allows for a different kind of conversation and a different, we can go a little bit deeper, I think, into the subject matter. We don’t have to kind of start at the start. We can go dive in straight away into the topics that are most pertinent and potent.”

She says it’s a great space for exchanging ideas and encouraging groundbreaking work from Indigenous writers.

“Most of our programme is free, which makes it accessible to everyone,” Harrison says. “But we’re also live streaming the programme from the Saturday and Sunday. And so wherever you are in Australia, you can access that at no cost. We really hope people dip in and explore some writers that they probably never sat in front of before, but also old favourites.”

Renowned Burruberongal woman of the Darug Nation, novelist, poet and playwright Julie Janson will launch her latest book Compassion at the festival.

Compassion is a followup to her successful historical novel Benevolence, taking the story of the Aboriginal women of the Hawkesbury River just north of Sydney, forward another 40 years into the mid 1800’s.

Janson will speak on a panel about crime writing, which she says is a great way for Indigenous people to talk about political and social justice themes through storytelling.

She hopes to encourage more Indigenous writers to consider writing crime fiction, where she has found great success with her private investigator character Aunty June.

“I thoroughly enjoyed writing her based on all the mature, feisty, competent First Nations women I’ve known through my life, friends, Aunties and just people that I’ve worked with and often mature Aboriginal women often get short shrift in literature,” Janson says.

“There are a lot of books with some young women in it and some young men in it, but the older generation often gets left behind, the ones that lead us and love us and hold all the families together.

“I thought I’d celebrate some of those Aunties through Aunty June. No victims in my books, I make them all come out on top and just celebrate their resilience and competence and the ability to hold communities together in the face of huge challenges.”