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There are few moments from my younger years that I remember with perfect recollection. One of those moments, however, was my introduction to Melina Marchetta’s novels. It was in year 7, and my English teacher was discussing the importance of a first sentence in creative writing.
She opened On The Jellicoe Road, and read, “My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die. I counted.”
I just remember thinking, I need to read that book. I did. And that is how I eventually met Josephine Alibrandi, the illegitimate Italian-Australian girl trying to find her place in the world – whilst being equally determined to control her own destiny.
The world met Josie 25 years ago, and to pay tribute to Melina Marchetta’s novel, the Sydney Writer’s Festival mimicked Looking For Alibrandi‘s Have A Say Day. In the novel, year 12 students from city schools get together and give a speech on a topic they’re passionate about.
The panel featured Pia Miranda, who played Josie in the film and acted as the moderator. Speakers included Marchetta herself, Mark DiStefano, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Genevieve Fricker, Brodie Lancaster and Rajith Savanadasa.
Marchetta read out the scene from the novel, recounting the speech by Jacob Coote, who discussed the importance of voting in order to keep the worst party out. It’s funny how even 25 years later, those words still sing true.
Mark DiStefano spoke about his Nonna, and how she did everything without complaint. He spoke about what a role model she is for men everywhere, particular those who scream about oppression in a time of equality.
Rajith, always the writer, spoke about the importance of acknowledging the traditional owners of this land. He spoke about the plight of migrants, culture and politics. He spoke about supporting your fellow human and simply enjoying each other’s company.
Gen Fricker told the story of how she lives in Jacob Cootes house, how she got dumped in a food court to Fergalicious and how she’s always felt stuck between worlds because her appearance doesn’t necessarily match her culture.
Brodie Lancaster spoke about how we see people based on race, and asks why the work of one group is deemed better over another, when they’re not even in the same category.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied spoke about the importances of representation in novels like Does My Head Look Big In This? She also spoke about her sometimes unrequited love for her country, Australia, and how she wishes this country acted better to be inclusive.
This extraordinary group of panelists came together in order to act out a scene from one of the best Australian novels in history, putting their own spin on it and getting to talk about something that made them feel passionate.
It highlights how deeply and diversely this novel, written 25 years ago, still affects its readers. It isn’t the only novel of Marchetta’s that has impacted so deeply, and it certainly won’t be the last.
The Sydney Writer’s Festival celebrates so many stories and genres in different ways, and whilst it is over for 2017, it will be back next year.