Dead Letter Club founder Melanie Knight

Dead Letter Club brings convicts to life


The Dead Letter Club has put pen to paper to bring Brisbane’s convicts to life in a literary event with a difference hosted by the Museum of Brisbane.

Dead Letter Club founder Melanie Knight
Dead Letter Club founder Melanie Knight hopes to revive the art of letter-writing through events such as Brisbane’s Convict Edition workshop. Photo: Emma Dillon

The event, dubbed “Life in Irons: Brisbane’s Convict Stories”, took place on Friday night, and marks the first time that Dead Letter Club has been to Brisbane, as part of an East Coast tour.

Dead Letter Club is a writing workshop and the brainchild of Melbourne-based creative Melanie Knight.

The event is a mash-up of creative writing, mystery and low-commitment pen pals; a literary parlour game for writers of any age or skill level.

“Dead Letter Club is a response to the erosion of thoughtful communication and interaction in the wake of text speak and emoji culture,” Ms Knight said.

“It’s a slow communication revolution,” she said.

“Sending a letter is the next best thing to showing up at someone’s door.

“Ink from your pen touches the stationery, your fingers touch the paper, your spit seals the envelope.”

The inspiration for Dead Letter Club came for Ms Knight while she was reading Love in the Time of Cholera, by Columbian author Gabriel García Márquez.

“There is a character [in Love in the Time of Cholera] who is paid to write letters on behalf of people, love letters, break up letters, whatever; the penny dropped and Dead Letter Club appeared,” she said.

Dead Letter Club Life in Irons
Dead Letter Club participants were asked to create a nom de plume for their letter based on the Life in Irons: Brisbane’s Convict Stories exhibition. Photo: Emma Dillon

The Dead Letter Club: Convict Edition was developed in partnership with the Museum of Brisbane to celebrate their Life in Irons Exhibition.

The Life in Irons exhibition looks at the harsh realities of convict life in Brisbane from its founding in 1824 to the penal colony’s closure in 1839.

Renai Grace is the director of the Museum of Brisbane.

“We are always looking for ways to deepen audience engagement with our exhibitions and someone recommended Dead Letter Club as a way for people to really engage and embody the stories of the people that lived through this difficult period in our history,” Ms Grace said.

She said she believed there was great benefit in turning away from today’s many distractions and embracing a return to pen and paper.

“We don’t often force, or allow, ourselves to concentrate so completely on a single act, and that in itself is liberating,” Ms Grace said.

“I haven’t written a personal letter in years… I can’t remember the last time I wrote a letter other than a birthday card.”

“I’m interested in the idea of a ‘slow communication revolution’ as an antidote to today’s technologically enhanced speed and the implied obligation to keep up, so I am keen to learn more.”

Friday night’s attendees were young and old, men and women, experienced writers and novices, but they took to the evening’s theme with enthusiasm.

Mail bags at Dead Letter Club Brisbane
Each person received a black or scarlet skull upon entry, which corresponded with a mail bag at the front of the room. Photo: Emma Dillon

Participants were asked to imagine themselves as a convict, soldier, settler or official in Brisbane’s penal colony and write a letter as that character.

The exact details of how the exchange works are kept closely guarded by Ms Knight, but at the end of the evening, each writer received as many letters back as they had sent.

Brisbane-based writer Bec Davis said she was hoping the event would be good practice for re-embracing to the art of letter-writing.

“I’ve just moved to Brisbane, back from the UK after 20 years away, and I promised everybody back in the UK that I would write them these big long letters,” Ms Davis said.

“But I don’t, I write Facebook messages,” she said.

Her husband Matthew Davis is a pop culture journalist and came to the museum purely to see the Life in Irons exhibition.

“Being British, all of the stories about the British Empire are usually told about the glorious bits,” Mr Davis said.

“I knew that we sent prisoners to the penal colonies, but I didn’t really understand how bad it was,” he said.

Mr Davis said the Life in Irons theme made it an easier task to write in character for Dead Letter Club, because it gave attendees a look into the headspace of Brisbane’s convicts.

Dead Letter Club heads back home to Melbourne for the event’s first birthday on October 10, before the East Coast tour continues through Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra.

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