Zoe Pollock, chief executive officer, UPLIT/Brisbane Writers Festival

Writing and reading give us the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the experiences and views of others ...

The written word is an amazing thing – not only is it one of our primary forms of communication, but it is an imaginative, never-ending spring of inspiration. Wordsmiths will always have a place in our hearts, if only for the way they can relay thoughts and emotions that resonate – not to mention how they are responsible for the spread of ideas and spurring discussions. The Brisbane Writers Festival is an event that celebrates writers working across all genres, bringing people together to hear about new ideas, stimulate debate and discuss the world of literature as a whole. Zoe Pollock is one of those chiefly responsible for bringing together writers from all walks of life for the festival’s program, and as CEO of UPLIT is constantly engaging and analysing new trends to direct how the festival takes shape in the coming years. We took a minute to chat to Zoe about her highlights of the festival and her predictions for the written word in the future.

What was the first piece of writing that ever had a profound effect on you?
I read Wild Swans by Jung Chang when I was eight years old. It opened my eyes to a vastly different continent and the worlds of the past. I have had a fascination with history and particularly Asian histories ever since.

We’re beyond excited for the Brisbane Writers Festival! When it came to curating the event offering, what was your conceptual ethos behind creating a cohesive program?
The curatorial vision for this year’s festival emerged from the idea of curated worlds. I’m really interested in the impact writers have and the role they play in informing our world views. The election in America last year really highlighted how different our perceptions can be based on what we are reading. I wanted to explore that and really interrogate how writers create knowledge, building our understanding of our inner worlds as much as the outer world we inhabit and ultimately the power of writing to transform.

What would you say are some of the bona fide highlights of this year’s program?
I’m really looking forward to hearing from Frank Dikotter, an amazing historian of Mao’s China, who has uncovered new materials that tell the stories of everyday people leaving under the Communist regime. I’m also super excited to be presenting Catherine Lacey. She is an author to watch, recently listed in Granta’s 40 under 40, a list that comes out once a decade and has consistently predicted the best American authors of a generation. Catherine’s book The Answers is an extremely clever exploration of the world of online dating. If I had to pick one event to attend it would be our ‘Literary Salon: A World Without Writers‘. The ABC’s Richard Glover will host four of our top visiting writers, Adrian Levy, a journalist whose latest book explores the story of Al’Qaida from the inside, Min Jin Lee, a novelist who has written a multi-generational saga called Pachinko about a Korean family living in Japan, Rutger Bregman, founder of the universal wage movement and our very own Ben Law.

The inclusion of live literature events is new in this year’s program – what can you tell us about Carpentaria: A Performance and what it is bringing to the festival?
I wanted to experiment with a different way of presenting literature. The idea behind this experience is that you can literally walk into the world of a book. We chose Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright, a Waanyi woman from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Her book is majestic, sweeping and almost supernatural so we needed to create something large scale to replicate that. Gordon Hookey, a local Brisbane based artist – also of Waanyi heritage – has created a stunning original painting, which will cover a seven and a half-metre high dome, inspired by the home of Angel Day, a character in the book. Inside the Angel’s Palace, Carpentaria: A Performance is a 20 minute adaptation of the novel created by Alethea Beetson. The performance will feature animated projections and a soundscape so you will feel like you have literally walked from the banks of the Brisbane River into the mystical world created by Alexis Wright. 

In what way do you envision the Brisbane Writers Festival creating positive change?
Writing and reading give us the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the experiences and views of others. I think a writers festival is a great way to discover authors you may not yet know and have in-depth discussions around relevant topics. This year’s program is very much about bringing a diversity of voices to the platform and I think there will be some very interesting discussions around some topical issues.

What do you hope people take away from the events and the other elements of the Brisbane Writers Festival?
I hope people find it a stimulating experience. The best writers festivals spark conversations. There are some topics I am still discussing with my friends years after we attended the event! 

Brisbane Writers Festival is celebrating 55 years of activity this year, what is a wild prediction you’d make for what the festival looks like in another 50 years?
Wow, that’s so hard to predict! It is interesting looking back at the first event, which was literally six conversations over one day at the Brisbane Women’s Club. The topics were very industry focussed. I do hope the event is still going in 50 years and I think the audience will very much influence what it looks like. With the changing landscape for writers who knows what that could look like, but I do hope we are still reading novels and long form books in 50 years – the digital age has really impacted the time we have for reading long form works, but they are an important format for developing thinking and deep understanding of a topic. 

What was the last book that you picked up and then couldn’t put down?
It would definitely be The Parcel by Anosh Irani. This novel explores the red light district of Mumbai and in particular the experiences of the third gender or hijras. Anosh will be in conversation with Sarah Kanowski at BWF this year and will also present our closing address. 

What are some words of wisdom that you live by?
For me, it all comes down to an ethos of empathy and respect for others.

The Brisbane Writers Festival will be held at the State Library of Queensland and the adjacent Cultural Precinct from September 6–10. Check out the program here


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