→ Ben Callinan
I was sitting third row from the front at Federation Square’s Edge Theatre during a session of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Yassmin Abdel-Magied was talking with Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, Min Jin Lee and Micah White about what is was like to live in America under the presidency of Donald Trump.
Part way through the session my concentration drifted away from the hotly contested political debate through the large glass panels that formed the space and towards the vision of the city of Melbourne that sat beyond. The blue sky, the green trees, the brown Yarra, were all there and it was all familiar.
At that moment events in America could not have felt any further away. Instead, what I saw of Melbourne reminded me I was in a singular place filled with its own thoughts, conversations and debates.
Melbourne was named a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008. It was the second city in world given this title after Edinburgh. Melbournians regard their city as Australia’s cultural capital and this title certainty backs up that reputation. As does the number of bookshops and books, magazines and newspapers sold here, more than in any other city in Australia.
Cities of Literature, as part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network must commit to various was of facilitating, integrating and disseminating cultural activities.
The aims of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network may seem dry and too bureaucratic. They seek to promote the creative and cultural industries within a development model locally and as a form of inter-city cooperation internationally.
Yet, under these broad notions are several organisations including The Wheeler Centre, Melbourne Writers Festival and Writers Victoria that provide an outward looking connection between literature at an institutional level and those who write, read and engage with it.
The Wheeler Centre does this by creating a physical focal point where the isolating acts of reading and writing can become spaces for socialising and networking. It takes up a corner of the State Library of Victoria, a building I pass several times a week. I often cross the narrow Little Lonsdale Street, which leads to the entrance to the Wheeler Centre.
I take in the solidness of the entire nineteenth century State Library building and wonder how buildings from that era have permanence more contemporary structures can’t replicate. I pass the green lawns and watch the tourists take photos, the couples lay on the grass in each other’s arms and the office workers enjoy their lunch breaks. I move pass the sculpture of the library sinking into the ground and make my way to RMIT.
The publishing scene in Melbourne is alive and healthy. There have been dark moments in recent years with the collapse of REDGroup closing Borders and Angus & Robertson bookshops, and there was the rise of the ebook sending print book sales into freefall.
Fortunately, sales have somewhat recovered and independent and specialty booksellers have grown out of the REDGroup rubble. Lead by Readings, which was named Bookstore of the Year at the 2016 London Book Fair.
Things are not just good if you are reading and selling books. There are many publishers in Melbourne, from the big players like Penguin Random House and Harper Collins, to independents like Scribe and Black Inc Books.
Melbourne is also home to literary journals including Meanjin Quarterly, The Lifted Brow and Kill Your Darlings. And there’s Sticky Institute who have got any zine needs covered.
Bowen Street is a pedestrian only thoroughfare that allows students access to many of the buildings of RMIT’s city campus. I head to the second level of one of these buildings and enter a space that looks like the set of the 1990s science fiction television show.
This room is the home base of the Bowen Street Press. Where RMIT masters students work together to contribute to Melbourne, City of Literature. We are writers, editors, production managers, marketers and designers. We make zines, anthologies and literary journals. The Bowen Street Press is built out of Melbourne’s love of literature. It is a small press in a city where small presses thrive. It is student-led operation built out of RMIT’s internationally renowned editing and publishing courses.
Students who are engaged with literature run the Bowen Street Press. We are all readers, we attend writers’ festivals and we all buy books. Literature feeds our sense of what Melbourne is.
It is the muddy Yarra River, the busy streets of the Hoddle grid, the grand library and the fine universities. We make books and we read books symbiotically with the Melbourne that surrounds us. Making sure to never forget that this city is forever part of who we are and what we do.