Older LGBTQIA+ storytellers to benefit from new writing program

Varuna's new LGBTQIA+ writing program features Q&A sessions with writers such as Maeve Marsden, who coordinates the Queerstories project. Pictured is a Queerstories event. Photo: Peter Boland/supplied.

A new writers’ program at Varuna – the National Writers’ House aims to amplify the voices of older members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Queer editor Brandon Bear reports.

The voices of older members of the LGBTQIA+ community often feel overlooked in the cultural landscape of literature. While increasingly, stories of coming out, young love and success for LGBTQIA+ people in love and life are making their way to screens, stages and pages, there is less visibility for those who have paved the way for these communities. Amy Sambrooke and Maeve Marsden recently spoke to The Sentinel about a program designed to change that.

The program is the brainchild of Varuna – The National Writers’ House, a well-established centre for identifying and developing talent in Australian writers.

Sambrooke is the Creative Director at Varuna, which is located in Katoomba. She told The Sentinel: “Varuna has been a writers’ centre for over 30 years and holds a significant place in Australian literature and Australian culture.

“Part of what we do is that we identify and support the best Australian writers wherever they may be and whoever they are.”

With over 200 writers a year attending residencies and professional development activities with the centre, their eye on the literary landscape is keen, but they had noticed something was missing.

“We felt there was a gap in this cohort of older and trailblazing LGBTQIA+ writers. We were lucky enough to get funding support from NSW Department of Communities and Justice to run a new program.”

The program is a two-week online writing residency featuring one-on-one mentoring, access to some of Australia’s best contemporary writers and the opportunity to share work with other writers and access the literary community.

Varuna invited Marsden, one of Sydney’s premier names in queer storytelling, to be involved. The writing and theatre luminary will take part in Q&A sessions with participants. Marsden’s own successful writing LGBTQIA+ writing project Queerstories has seen hundreds of people share stories from their queer lives with audiences around Australia.

“There is a word that gets used in the arts: emerging,” Marsden told The Sentinel.

“And the word is so commonly attached to age. The idea that an arts career follows a trajectory where you are emerging when you are young doesn’t account for people who experience marginalisation and exclusion and may not have had the same access to the arts community.

“What excited me about this program was that it was targeted at older emerging artists.”

After her success with Queerstories, Maeve Marsden was thrilled to get involved in Varuna’s new writing program. Photo: Peter Boland/supplied.

“At Queerstories I have had the opportunity to see people who have written the most amazing pieces of nonfiction or memoir who have not been published. It made me so excited to jump into this project.”

The partnership between Marsden and Varuna is unique, in that it places the work of LGBTQIA+ writers within the context of the broader Australian literary landscape. While events that amplify the stories of LGBTQIA+ communities do occur, they are often presented only within queer spaces.

“Our community can focus heavily on youth, and coming out – but what is the story of an older person in a nursing home?“

– Maeve Marsden

Both Sambrooke and Marsden recognise the power and impact that memoir and storytelling may have for these communities, but are quick to point out that they are seeking more than a reflection on history; they are equally excited to explore the contemporary stories of older people.

“It is important to get the experience of older people now. Our community can focus heavily on youth, and coming out – but what is the story of an older person in a nursing home? The stories don’t have to be about the past, they could be about the present. There are different stages of a queer life,” Marsden said.

As younger members of the communities that this program seeks to serve, both creatives understand the importance of working together and seeking expert help to develop a program that meets the needs of the audience, but Sambrooke is confident that Varuna’s legacy ensures they are up to the task.

“I wouldn’t presume to know or speak for the experiences of older members of our community,“ Sambrooke notes, “but my experience is in the development of great writing. We have put together a program that allows people to find their feet and tell their own story in their own way.“

Marsden, meanwhile, says: “Queerness offers us, if we choose to take it, a perspective on the world as an outsider. That allows for a particular kind of critical thinking that people who don’t experience marginalisation don’t always access,” Marsden said.

“What is unique to queerness, is that we are outside of the norm often within our own families. In Australia, queer writers and writing punch about their weight in quality and output.”

While recognising the power that can come from memoir, Amy Sambrooke is hoping to move beyond the history and also uncover contemporary stories from the older queer community. Photo: supplied.

Sambrooke shares her reflections on the unique aspects of Australian stories.

“There are an enormous number of stories to tell, and so many unspoken things in this country. There is so much space for writers to reflect our society back to us, particularly in Australia where there is much to be resolved,” she said.

The two-week online residency will be commence on Monday, 18 July. It is open to NSW-based LGBTQIA+ writers aged 65 and over, as well as LGBTQIA+ First Nations writers aged over 55. Entry is via application and expressions, with expressions of interest closing on Tuesday, 7 June. To find out more or apply visit www.varuna.com.au/online-programs/lgbtqiaplus65onlineprogram.

Brandon Bear is the queer editor of the Sydney Sentinel.

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