Brisbane Writers Festival 2019 Tony Birch, Melina Marchetta & Melanie Cheng

At this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival I was fortunate to moderate the memorable session, People in the Margins.

Melina Marchetta, Melanie Cheng and Tony Birch discussed their recent novels The Place on Dalhousie, Room for a Stranger and The White Girl respectively to explore the lives of people living on the margins of society. These are stories that we need to hear, and are perhaps now ready, to know and understand.

BWF 19 ‘People in the Margins’ Melanie Cheng, Tony Birch, Melina Marchetta, Joy Lawn (moderator) [Photo UQP]

Melina Marchetta is the greatly loved author of iconic young adult novels such as On the Jellicoe Road (my favourite), Finnikin of the Rock, first in a brilliant fantasy trilogy (also my favourite). And of course, the iconic Looking for Alibrandi (everyone’s favourite).

Melina has moved into writing for adults with Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil and now The Place on Dalhousie (Viking), which follows characters from earlier novels, Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son. These characters are now aged 25.

Melanie Cheng is a comparatively new published writer but she is making a big impact, firstly with Australia Day, her book of short stories, which has been recognised in awards. It explores Australia Day from the viewpoint of characters from diverse backgrounds and beliefs.

Her novel, Room for a Stranger (Text Publishing) looks at the tentative outreaching between two disparate people.

Melanie works as a doctor in Melbourne.

Tony Birch’s writing is assured and direct. I was very moved by his earlier novel Blood, particularly the strength of character and loving heart of his young Aboriginal protagonist, Jesse.

His following novel Ghost River isset in the 1960s where the intersected lives of two adolescent boys and the dispossessed river men play out alongside the Yarra River.

His latest collection of short stories, Common People includes a story titled The White Girl, and The White Girl (UQP) is, of course, also the name of Tony’s new novel.

To begin the session the authors shared where they felt safe, at home and free then launched into discussion about what the margins are – not only physical – and about their characters who could be described as living on the margins.

Family, ancestry and bloodlines have put some of their characters in the margins. In The White Girl the Deanes, then the Kanes attack Aboriginal families. The sons copy their fathers in terrible intergenerational cycles while Aboriginal woman, Odette tries to keep her family safe. In Room for a Stranger Andy, a student from Hong Kong studying in Australia, is limited partly by his parents’ expectations and his mother’s mental illness. Jimmy in The Place on Dalhousie doesn’t know how to be a father because his mother didn’t allow his father into his life and, when he did meet him, found a man only interested in drugs and drink. Jimmy feels he is a “big disappointment in someone’s life”.

Melina and Tony also wrote about grandmothers who are positive and influential matriarchs.

Houses are important in all three novels, as are mementoes or ‘time capsules’. In Room for a Stranger Meg views her shoe boxes of memories; in The White Girl Odette has long-kept letters; and Rosie’s memories and papers are locked in her ex-boyfriend’s shed in The Place on Dalhousie. Personal artefacts may be particularly important for those who feel dispossessed.

Issues of racism and oppression, poverty and sickness and disability are factors that may put people on the margins. In Room for a Stranger Meg is quite frail and awaiting death and Andy is mentally fragile. In The Place on Dalhousie Rosie’s family has a history of cancer, which may threaten her as well. Odette in The White Girl lives with debilitating hip pain and Henry’s disability since his childhood accident has made him a target for bullies, forcing him to become a loner.

Writing fiction can give authors freedom to explore the lives of people in the margins, partly through the exploration of love, hope and trust within family, friends and community, and even sometimes by taking a chance on a stranger.

Melina, Melanie and Tony are writing about important issues and relationships in Australia, crafting them into beautifully formed stories.

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