Allison Chan and Xia Cui were “bloggers in residence” for the recent Chinese Writers Festival, held in Melbourne by Writers Victoria. In the lead up, both Allison and Xia took time to review works by writers featured in the festival, and tweeted the live conversation as it unfolded.
Here, Allison follows up from the social media wrap up to reflect on the difficult process of “being Chinese” at the festival.
On its face, the Chinese Writers Festival seemed simple: a festival of writers and writing with a relationship to Chinese culture.
The outward spirit was a celebration of this writing and, presumably, its (future? hopeful?) integration with Australian literature.
The predominant theme was “multiculturalism” and an implicit belief that from that behemoth would come reciprocal cultural understanding. Talks of the day responded to allocated questions centred on the concept of a “global subject” and self-identification in a multicultural society. For a more detailed overview of the event, a summary can be found here.
In the course of the festival, however, despite this framing of optimism and positivity, in the struggle to unpack and express diversity and identity, authenticity and specificity, the term “Chinese” (as with any other national identity for that matter) quickly revealed itself as sticky and complex.
Uncomfortable moments emerged, whether in neo-liberal conceptions of multicultural politics, or in challenges to “heritage stories” like the Dream of the Chamber. Whose heritage is this? Who owns the story? The image? The history?
Even in utopian multiculturalism, the desired coexistence and harmony can still require complicity in the erasure of nuance: to be a part of it, we need to uncomplicate our identifications. Questions naturally emerge. Does multiculturalism merely flaunt the exotic Other? How do these multicultural subjects become representative of a culture, bearing the weight of this authenticity? Is anyone a wholly reconciled cultural subject, a perfect “Chinese” capable of being the subject of such single-story festivities?
In the weeks that have followed since the festival, I have experienced a strange exhaustion that has lingered, then moved into a sense of unease and displacement. I have wrestled with the values of cultural communication, diplomacy and friendship reiterated during the festival, particularly in relation to my own subjective experience of the day and my cultural identity.
As a Chinese-Malaysian and a writer, I assumed in “returning” to this community and discussing the meanings of “Chinese-ness” within literature, I might find a kind of home.
Initially excited at the prospect, I wonder now if I ignored my own discomfort at participating in the festival — how do I purport to be a representative voice when I do not identify as Chinese? When probed, I say I am Chinese-Malaysian, yet also with a certain hesitation, an awareness that the term is used for the benefit of others. Like many others with a hyphenated-identity, I anticipate the inevitable reply: “but you don’t really look…”
Undoubtedly the festival offered moments of insight and pleasure – Belinda Jiang’s identification as a “cultural amphibian”, Xu Xi’s unpacking of her own reservations about the term “Chinese”, and Ou Yang Yu’s passionate misgivings on the state of diversity in Australian publishing all stand out as highlights of the day.
And, somehow, the Chinese Writers Festival felt as if it asked writers to present a version of Chinese-ness, a construction of authenticity that failed to grapple with the paradoxes of identity, particularly the paradoxes of a complex and wide-reaching diaspora.
In asking the writers to present this construction, as an audience member, I too felt oddly calcified and orientalised, as if I need to be authentically Chinese, not problematically Chinese in order to engage with the day. Many writers struggled, and then rejected “Chinese” altogether, asserting their identities as writers. Oddly, I wish that I too could have rejected “Chinese” for that day, asserting myself as “audience” or “reader”. Perhaps I might have been able to enjoy it.