JM Coetzee has said that “there is only one South”. It is a “unique world” with “unique skies” and “unique heavenly constellations”. But what does he mean by “the South”? And how may it help us address some of the most pressing concerns of our time?

Hosted by the University of Adelaide, Speaking from the South is an unprecedented multi-day public event that brings together leading thinkers and storytellers from diverse regions across the world to ask: What does it mean to speak from the South? The program, running from May 31 to June 5, features public lectures, discussion panels, film screenings, and masterclasses with award-winning authors.

Dr Mandy Treagus, Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide and event co-organiser, says audiences can expect something akin to a blend of two popular local festivals.

“​​Imagine if you had a Writers’ Week in June and combined it with a festival many of us were fond of in the past, the Festival of Ideas. Speaking from the South puts these together, giving people the opportunity to listen to and connect with amazing thinkers, authors, and artists.

“The theme is partly inspired by JM Coetzee’s interest in the South. He’s really tried to shift the focus away from the Global North. When you think about it, all the leading publishers are concentrated in the Northern hemisphere, and they tend to be mostly concerned with topics relating to the Northern hemisphere… This is not very equitable, not very interesting, and not very complete.”

Dr Matthew Hooton, Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide and author of Deloume Road and Typhoon Kingdom, explains: “The South… has been a perpetual other in the world of literature. Writers like Coetzee and [Abdulrazak] Gurnah are changing that, migrating our attention and imaginations ever southward. But it’s not just them. It’s all of us writing and creating in the South.”

The program draws speakers from all over the South to address the unique situations and environments that affect them.

“We have writers from Africa, South America, the Pacific, New Zealand, and a lot of writers from Australia, including several leading Indigenous writers,” says Dr Treagus. 

Nicholas Jose, Emeritus Professor of English and Creative Writing and author of The Idealist, will host the opening night panel with Patricia Grace (Potiki, Chappy), Fabián Martínez Siccardi (Bestias Afuera, “Feeling Southern”), Intan Paramaditha (The Wandering), and Kim Scott (Benang, Taboo). Drawing from their diverse experiences and contexts, they will explore how thinking from the South can enable us to respond to the challenges of global inequality, climate change and colonialism.

Following this discussion, Coetzee will read alongside fellow Nobel Prize-winner Abdulrazak Gurnah. Attendees are encouraged to visit the complementary exhibition at the South Australian Maritime Museum, which showcases a collection of images, maps, archives and artworks relating to the works of Coetzee and Gurnah.

Dr Treagus and Dr Hooton tell InReview that the “Exploding the Archive” session on Saturday evening is not to be missed. Moderated by Dr Maggie Tonkin, this important discussion will bring together leading First Nations artists from Australia and the Pacific, along with South Australian Museum curators, to discuss the violent histories of archival institutions and the processes of repatriation and narrative reclamation. This panel will feature Daniel Riley (artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre), Dan Taulapapa McMullin (Coconut Milk), Natalie Harkin (Archival Poetics), Jared Thomas (author and UniSA Research Fellow), John Carty (Head of Humanities at the SA Museum) and Kim Scott.

There is weirdness and beauty to be found here, a new map of story and thought

Other program highlights include public lectures from leading thinkers from the South. Cameroonian public intellectual and Holdberg Prize-winner Achille Mbembe will give his public lecture on his latest book, The Earthly Community. In it he asks: “Are we capable of inventing… an alternative politics of inhabiting the Earth, of repairing and sharing the planet?”

Public lectures will also be given by Jane Sloane, senior director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program, and Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Masterclasses will be hosted on fiction writing and poetry. Participants will have the opportunity to work with acclaimed authors and poets, including Evelyn Araluen (DROPBEAR), Ali Cobby Eckermann (She Is The Earth), Gail Jones (One Another, Five Bells), and Jennifer Mills (The Airways), among others. 

“Participants will leave with writing tips and exercises, an expansive reading list, and a sense of our guests’ approach to, and perspectives on, creative writing,” explains Dr Hooton.

Saturday morning’s film screening will show WINHANGANHA by Jazz Money, a multidisciplinary artist whose poetry collection, how to make a basket, won the David Unaipon award in 2020. Also showing will be Dan Taulapapa McMullin’s film 100 TIKIs, which explores the Hollywood archive in relation to Pacific culture. 

The final three days will be an academic conference, where researchers and postgraduate students will share new findings within literary studies, social sciences and philosophy.

At its core, the program emphasises the importance of literature and the arts in nurturing and connecting humans through deeply challenging times. Speaking from the South invites people to pay attention to the stories that shape our broad region.

“We don’t just operate in time and space, we operate in time and space and story. That is the way in which a culture thinks,” says Dr Treagus. 

Dr Hooton adds: “The goal isn’t to discover a unified ‘Southern’ voice, but to celebrate the diversity of voices in the South, of the South, from the South … There is weirdness and beauty to be found here, a new map of story and thought, a richness that can only emerge from the unique and varied qualities of the southern hemisphere.”

Speaking from the South forms part of the University of Adelaide’s 150th celebrations. It will be hosted on the North Terrace Campus, between May 31 and June 5, 2024. The program and tickets can be found here.  

Theodora Galanis is a freelance writer and has assisted in convening Speaking from the South.

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