Clare Millar interviews Sonia Nair, Program Manager at Melbourne Writers Festival.
What did you study?
I completed a Bachelor of Arts (Journalism) at Monash.
What is the most useful skill you learned in your degree? And what was the most enjoyable part of your studies?
The ability to work under pressure, hah! But that could be more due to my inability to start anything until a few days before the deadline. On a more serious note, we learned to work with many different mediums as budding journalists—TV, radio, print, online—and that adaptability has served me well in my many different day jobs. Through the many essays I had to write, I also learned how to reference multiple sources, synthesise disparate points in pursuit of making a central argument, and organise my thoughts—a skill I draw on in my own writing now.
The most enjoyable part was the people I met throughout, who in turn introduced me to Melbourne. I was an international student, so I was learning how to write within different mediums and learning about Melbourne at the same time.
What does a typical day look like for you? What skills make you successful in doing that?
A typical day in my job changes according to what time of year it is. In the quieter months after the festival, it’s a lot of reading, researching and watching. In the busier months, it’s more active literary programming, where we’re inviting artists to participate in our festival, matching them to venues, devising overarching ideas for panels, collating different streams of the program and working out how they communicate with each other, and choosing the best moderator for a one-on-one conversation—things like that.
No matter what time of year it is, there’s always a lot of admin to do, which I controversially love because I’m a hyper-organised person who is most comfortable ticking off a lengthy to-do list and toggling between multiple different spreadsheets. So I’d say being an organised person with a high attention to detail is crucial to being good at my job, alongside more logistical skills like being a fast and critical reader, a skill I harnessed in my book reviewing days. Having a strong awareness of the cultural landscape and what conversations are taking place is also a very important skill.
How has the pandemic changed your role and the festival as a whole?
I joined Melbourne Writers Festival in the first year it moved to a completely online program due to the pandemic, so that was a huge change that we, as a team, had to grapple with. My role became a lot more about coordinating online recording sessions, captioning sessions for accessibility purposes and working within the confines of a much smaller program because we contracted from our usual 200-plus events schedule to around 50 events. While the core tenets of the job remained the same—reading and programming—the finer details changed. I no longer had to coordinate flights and accommodation, liaise with physical venues, and send out artist itineraries with venue and green room details. As a team, we had to manage the lack of ease, fluidity and creative exchanges that came from being in an office together. At the same time, I had unparalleled access to literary events happening across Australia and the world, and that was very exciting.
How do you make decisions about programming? And what’s it like working with well-known writers?
As an annual literary festival, we’re working off who has released a book in the year leading up to the festival—which is both exciting and limiting. We program collaboratively by reading deeply and broadly, and having conversations with one another on the books and authors that excite us the most, would resonate with our audience, and tap into current societal preoccupations. Personally, I am most excited by unexpected pairings of artists that reveal something deeper about the works and issues being discussed, and artists emerging outside the mould of the straight white male archetype.
While still a dream, it isn’t as exciting working with well-known writers exclusively via email! I didn’t get the chance to rub shoulders with anyone at an artist party or in the green room last year, so am definitely looking forward to doing that this year (fingers crossed).
You’ve had journalism and communications jobs before, not working with books. How were these different to what you do now? And do you feel more at home now?
This is definitely a passion job for me, while my former jobs were undertaken purely for the ability they gave me to pay my rent and advance my career. At the same time, they were all writing jobs, so I learned many different skills that are useful to me now, whether it was deconstructing complex information or project managing the production of large documents and liaising with a number of different people to do that. The main difference to what I do now is I had to learn on the job about the worlds of banking, tax and superannuation, renewable energy, jewellery and real estate, to name a few of the previous fields I used to work across. So I definitely do feel more at home in the world of reading and writing, and less like an impostor.
You also write criticism and speak on radio and on panels. How do you manage your time?
With great difficulty! As mentioned earlier, I’m a notoriously last-minute worker, so it makes for a lot of sleepless nights. I am, paradoxically, extremely organised so I always plot out my deadlines in my diary (still a physical one because I’m archaic) and break down large tasks into smaller ones so it becomes more manageable. I am blessed to be a somewhat fast reader and writer, so that definitely helps, and when I feel particularly unfocused, I work in 45-minute pomodoro blocks of time, which usually allows me to smash out large swathes of reading and writing. I work best when I have a few different things on the go, so I structure my days accordingly.
What do you see for the future of Australian publishing?
More bold, inclusive and representative of the actual Australian population. The gatekeepers of publishing are still non-representative and they will be for a long time because change is slow and painful, but I’m heartened by the slew of writers emerging from the periphery who are dictating the conversation in many ways, and are getting the recognition and acknowledgement they so rightly deserve. In the past year alone, I was especially excited by Cath Moore, Rawah Arja and Lisa Fuller—who have each won accolades for writing middle-grade and YA stories that centre and reflect back to us people who aren’t typically afforded representation in Australian literature—as well as Vivian Pham, Elizabeth Tan, Karen Wyld and S.L. Lim, to name but a few.
I’m also excited by the collective organising that’s happening behind the scenes. Radhiah Chowdhury, who you interviewed last year, is one of the co-founders of a peer support network for First Nations and people of colour in publishing. There can’t be true representation without agency and power, and I hope people from under-represented backgrounds start to ascend the publishing ladder to become the people making the actual decisions. There are so many systemic issues that currently prevent this from happening, from gatekeeping to the lack of viable career pathways in publishing for people who aren’t from privileged backgrounds, but I remain hopeful.
I stumbled across this piece last year where Shakirah Simley, a writer and food activist based in San Francisco, says the following and I couldn’t agree more:
“I don’t really care about diversity,” says Simley, the Bay Area food activist. “I care about equity and I care about justice. Those are two very, very different things.” The idea of diversity, she says, “lets people off the hook — it relies upon tokenisation, and it relies upon appearances by having the presence of folks of colour.” True equity doesn’t happen unless there’s a power shift, “not just having folks of colour at the table, but putting them at the head of the table and having their voices be the ones that are leading.”
And what are you most proud of in your career so far?
I’m proud of being part of a team that delivered a writers festival to a Melbourne audience of readers and writers when we were under stage four lockdown, at a time when we needed to be reminded of the possibilities of literature, thought-provoking conversations and inclusive storytelling.
On a broader scale, I’m proud of continually being an engaged reader and writer despite having not worked in the arts until a year ago. I’m so privileged to work in the position that I do now, but it wouldn’t have happened without me attending literary events day in day out, live-tweeting authors that excited me, continuing to write on the side, and forming connections with Melbourne’s community of readers and writers. There’s a lot of emphasis on working in the arts, but it’s not a feasible, or even desirable, career pathway for everyone and it’s possible (or, sometimes, even easier, in some ways) to be an active literary citizen when you’re not.