Blak & Bright First Nations Literary Festival 

AAR Tony BirchFrom oral stories to epic novels, spoken word to splendid song, playwriting, poetry and the relearning of traditional languages, Blak & Bright First Nations Literary Festival celebrates cultural storytelling across Melbourne’s CBD this September.

Stan Yarramunua, Tony Birch, Uncle Jim Everett and Evelyn Araluen are among over 60 Blak storytellers who will fill hearts, minds and venues across Melbourne including The Wheeler Centre, Melbourne Museum, RMIT’s Storey Hall, Charcoal Lane and Koorie Heritage Trust, in a four day expression of diverse First Nations writing.

“This year’s Festival features activists, story tellers and writers. Be informed, inspired and entertained by Blak literature, old favourites and new,” said Jane Harrison (Muruwari), Festival Director. “This mostly free festival is an open forum for those to come and be curious about First Nations ideas.”

The Festival opens with a Welcome to Country and ceremonial song with Kulin artists, followed by the Opening Event: Read a Blak Book lately? with Radio National’s Daniel Browning alongside awarded poet Evelyn Araluen, who discuss and review some of the latest and greatest Blak books. Don’t be surprised if an author or two joins in…

In a Festival exclusive, renowned Indigenous Australian author, academic and activist Tony Birch presents an intimate keynote conversation in Smoke Whispers Sorrow. The master of precise and poetic storytelling shares a recent and very personal story of grief.

“As a means of connecting to Country while dealing with personal grief, I decided that the only way to engage with both was first to walk, second to think, and third to write about the experience before losing sense of what I was able to learn about myself and my loss.” – Tony Birch

Things take a political twist with two hot topics up for discussion. In Change the date? A HypotheticalBlaktivists vs Blakademics argue the toss about 26 January, Australia Day. Hosted by Gregory Phillips; Nayuka Gorrie, Jason Tamiru, Yvette Holt and Liza-Mare Syron debate the why and why not of this serious topic and in doing so add in a dollop of blak humour.

In Treaty, Yeah some of Australia’s most lyrical and expressive poets and writers have been asked to pen their responses to the pioneering Victorian treaty undertaking. Ali Cobby Eckermann, Marie Munkara, Uncle Jim Everett and Ellen van Neerven discuss these reckonings under facilitator Lidia Thorpe.

With activist Dr. Gary Foley as the wise guide, the ‘yung’ are given a platform to speak their Blaktivism. Members of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance each present their curated, impassioned talks in Yung Tent Embassy. A program highlight, Charcoal Lane: Quandong and Magpie invites audiences to enjoy a Rosella flower cocktail, Indigenous canapés, music and drinks with the Blak & Bright literati at acclaimed restaurant Charcoal Lane.

Special guest speaker, artist, musician, actor, social worker and businessman Stan Yarramunua (biography A Man Called Yarra), shares the story of his extraordinary life. Hosted by Kylie Belling, with Shelley Ware (Marngrook Footy Show) and a special performance from Wiradjuri Soprano Shauntai Batzke. This event will raise funds for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

In a world dominated by Western philosophies, three extraordinary Blak thinkers, Victoria Grieve-Williams, Gregory Phillips and Uncle Jim Everett converse on Aboriginal Philosophies and Healing with moderator Lauren Gower.

Victoria Grieve-Williams speaks to the concept of Makarrata, a peacemaking process after a conflict which begins with truth-telling as well as the intrinsic generosity of Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal spirituality.

Dr Gregory Phillips, who established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation and has a PhD in Psychology, also shares his learnings alongside Uncle Jim Everett, who has over 50 years of commitment to the Aboriginal struggle and now mentors Aboriginal men, introducing them to traditional ceremonies.

Five First Nations playwrights, five full-length play readings across one day. Blak Mama: Five plays in a day showcases Coconut Woman by Maryanne Sam, Flashblaks by Jacob Boheme, Cottagers andIndians by Drew Hayden Taylor, MiWi 3027 by Glenn Shea and Swim by Ellen van Neerven.

In another program highlight, two autobiographical storytellers, Richard Frankland and Stan Yarramunua share some of the experiences of their extraordinary lives and what is it like to have your life captured within the covers of a book or on stage, for all to see in Larger Than Life with moderator Lenka Vanderboom.

Set within the program are two beautiful events centred around children – Heard a Blak Book read to children? Actor and playwright, Maurial Spearim, will read a selection of adorable, funny, poignant and thoughtful Blak children’s books in the special nest of the Ngarara Place garden.

Whilst Picture tells a thousand words features Gregg Driese who has authored and illustrated many delightful children’s books including Silly Birds and Mad Magpies; and illustrator of the whimsical Once There was a Boy and Banksy collaborator Dub Leffler, will provide an insight into the craft of visual storytelling.

Elsewhere on the program, cultural warrior Vicki Couzens questions why of the approximately 250 traditional languages spoken in 1788 only 13 are still actively being acquired by children and divulges the relearning, reclaiming and re-education of her own language in Language Returned. 

Oral historian, educator and conservationist Dean Stewart invites participants to walk the footsteps of culture, Country and connection in Walkin Country, Walkin Birrarung.  Stewart leads the way unearthing the hidden histories of space and place along the banks of the river now called the Yarra, immersing followers in past and present, black and white, colonial and traditional stories.

The closing event of the festival, The Bogong, invites audiences to feast on stories. Traditionally, when the Bogong moth swarmed in the cool regions of Mount Bogong during summer, local tribes would gather to conduct ceremonies and feast on this protein-rich food source.

It is a celebration and sharing of crafted spoken word pieces from master storytellers, Claire G Coleman, Evelyn Areluen, Laniyuk Garcon, Nelson Baker, Selina Tusitala Marsh (NZ), Nayuka Gorrie, Monica Karo and Jane Harrison.

The 2019 Bright First Nations Literary Festival runs 5 – 8 September. Most events are free, bookings essential. For more information and full program, visit: for details.

Image: Tony Birch (supplied)