The Way Things Work: Writing, Diversity, Australia

 

Woman

Hard work is etched in my bones.  I see it in my mother’s restless hands, the way she jiggles her knees or bites her fingernails when she sits down to rest. I saw it in the spotlessness of both my grandmothers’ houses – in the way that they never sat down until everything around them was pristine.  As much as I long for the order of these houses, I have learned to sit in the chaos of my home and look only at the screen or book in front of me.  But the restlessness has stayed with me.  I check work emails both earlier and later than I should.  I work early in the morning and later in the evening. Before I had a child, my ideal working hours would have been roughly 8am to 7pm. I’ve been forced to truncate my hours into more or less 9 to 5ish, squeezing in extra hours when I can.

It’s probably no accident that I’ve chosen academia; a field notorious for the limitlessness of the work day. There’s no day too long – working on weekends, before nine and after five are all givens. We do this work because we love it, because it is important and somehow bigger than we are. Academics are idealists and hopeless romantics.  We chip and chip and chip away at things we feel, no, we know, are important and bigger than ourselves.  Being an academic and having a child are so similar.  Both blur the boundaries of work and fun, of relentlessness and boundless energy.  There are no clearly defined boundaries in either.

As an academic woman in the fields of literary studies and creative writing, I have more work to do than my white, male counterparts.  When I teach these subjects, I find myself side-stepping history, having to explain why certain texts are canonical, why they matter, why we should read critically.  But there are times when I just want to wallow – I just want to enjoy the work of TS Eliot or Donald Barthelme, pay attention to the words and ideas and not wonder about the words and ideas of all the women who were writing at the same time. But it is hard to train my mind away from all the words stuck in women’s throats, ‘breeding like adders[1]’ and not wonder if those words made it out into the clarity of daylight. I don’t want to know, like Margaret Atwood knows, that ‘a word after a word / after a word is power[2]’.  I just want to enjoy the story, get swept off in the narrative, take pleasure from the sounds of the words, the pictures they put in my head.

But I can’t not think about that other stuff.  I think about it all the time.  Because, if you’re a feminist researcher, that other stuff – women’s ability to have a room of their own and to be paid to write, as Virginia Woolf argued way back when – is important and all too rare.  We see the results of a lack of room and a lack of money to write in the reading lists of universities, in the anthologies we press into the hands of eager students, in the books our culture publishes and those they reward with reviews and prizes.  To research into literature is to see the inequity each time you look. To enjoy a poem by Eliot or a book by Junot Diaz or a play by Samuel Beckett – it all takes work.  And if, like me, you are a woman researcher and a woman writer, then there is even more work to do. Because no matter how hard I try to stack my own course lists with books by ‘diverse’ writers (a term which has begun to grate, by the way, seeming as it is a more polite word for the ‘Other’) students are always going to go out into the big bad world and see that the books I proscribe only dot the shelves.  The bulk of written words, of written words we are told are good and great and valuable and will outlast us all, are by men.  By white men.  By white straight men. By white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, middle-class men.

And if you are a writer and don’t fit into most or all of the above, and you want to have your work read and valued, then the odds are not in your favour.  So you critique, and you research, and you hope your research gets published, and you talk on panels and give interviews and you labour the point over and over again that there is a lack of diversity in the industry, that whomever is cutting up the pie has a bad knife and a shaky understanding of fractions, and you do this because you realise that you are in a position of privilege, and you love words and you care about the Things that are Bigger than You, and you love it, you really do.

But it’s work, nonetheless.

 

Native(ish)

It took me seven years to realise that I was female with brown skin.  Looking back now, I find it impressive that the people around me were able to hide the fact of my gender and my race for so long. The year I turned seven, my parents had moved me from my primary school in Cloverdale, knee-deep in Perth’s outer, less prosperous suburbs to a school in Karrinyup. Karrinyup is the kind of place that middle-class people like.  The suburb is defined by three socio-cultural points: the beach, Karrinyup Golf Course and Karrinyup Shopping Centre – a light-filled centre which boasts a Myer and a David Jones, facing each other off at the end of a long thoroughfare dotted with designer stores.

In my new school I was far away from my grandparents’ houses and far away too, from the houses where my cousins lived further inland.  In my new school the kids were mostly white with yellow hair, whereas in my old school the kids were mostly brown with black hair. In my old school, I had an easy group of friends; in my new school the kids viewed me with scepticism, and through a filter of difference.  It was during a particularly friendless lunch-time that I realised that I was darker, and my surname was more foreign, than anyone else’s.  The difference made me cry, and I remember hiccupping to a teacher, that I was both brown and a girl, and it seemed then, as it does again now, that that was the worst combination you could possibly be.

I am Eurasian, and am one of those people ‘with first and last names on a direct collision course[3]’. Being part European has saved me, I think, from a lot of racism.  I’m not quite Other enough.  I pass.  My parents are now considered middle-class by those around them, and so, as Suki Ali writes, I can and sometimes do pass for an ‘honorary white’, because my ‘social credentials fit in with that of the hegemonic discourses of cultural and national acceptability’.  In most of the places I go I am middled – there are plenty of people who are darker and whiter than me.  I am aware that the shades of acceptance have changed, that Italian and Chinese people are more or less accepted as part of contemporary Australian society, and those whom are Othered now, who are coming from continents like Africa, and countries like Iran and Syria: those, still, with very dark skin; and still, still, those who are Indigenous to this country.

I’m also aware that it is not So Bad to be a woman anymore.  That we’ve turned our critical lens out from just gender to sexuality and gender-queerness.  So while you may still be heckled as a woman on the street, you won’t be as heckled as a lesbian woman or a trans woman might be. I’m aware that I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here, but we all know that these are broad problems.

But there are spaces, and academia is certainly one of them, where I feel again like that seven year old kid: all too aware of my difference and my wrongness.  The further I scramble up the academic ladder, the more rarefied the air becomes.  I might be the only one in meetings with a surname like mine or the only one with dark skin (depending on how much sun I’ve gotten.  I change shades in minutes on a very hot day). The publishing industry is another white space. I have learned this intensely over the last year as I worked with The Stella Prize in creating the Stella Diversity Survey. But just because it is new to me, does not mean that the whiteness of the Australian publishing industry has escaped others.  In a Senate Inquiry to the Arts in Sydney 2015, Eleanor Jackson stated that:

(P)rofessional artist populations are less diverse than the rest of the Australian workforce. People from non-English speaking backgrounds account for 8% of the professional artist population, as compared with 16% of the overall workforce, according to the Australia Council’s research in the 2015 Arts Nation report.

In a searing essay in Sydney Review of Books, writer and editor Michelle Cahill wrote that:

Lucrative literary prizes are governed by a handful of adjudicators appointed from elite coteries who all too often reinforce the superior status of white readings. It is extremely rare that a culturally diverse writer or Aboriginal writer is recognised within one of the mainstream categories.

As Cahill goes on to state, the cost for non-white writers is great, she writes that ‘migrant writers work hard for recognition but rarely benefit from the rewards offered by literary institutions to their white counterparts. This compromises their family lives, their physical and psychological health and their employment.’  But the cost for the rest of our culture is also too high, with Cahill noting that ‘some of our most outstanding poets, writers, and editors have publicly withdrawn, leaving behind only parts of themselves chronicled in the canon.’ Indigenous author Ambelin Kwaymullina writes that ‘in relation to greater publication of Indigenous works, there is not only a lack of opportunities for authors, but a critical lack of Indigenous editorial expertise’.  I find myself saying this about the diversity of the Australian publishing industry: ‘There is so much work to be done’.  But by whom?  The writers I’ve quoted above are all ‘diverse’ writers – and all seem to juggle creative writing with activist work. And what I want to talk about now, what needs to be talked about, is the cost of doing this work.

 

Other/Author

In an article published in Mascara Literary Review, Robert Wood writes, ‘I don’t think I am alone in saying I want readers beyond my ethnicity, contested though that is.’  He asks,

Why can’t ‘Asian Australian’ stories be ‘Australian’ stories? Or why can’t ‘Australian’ stories be Keatingly ‘regional’ or even ‘universal’ precisely because of their particularity? This though is not a new question, but an ongoing concern that need be addressed again and again.

What I’ve learned in my time with The Stella Prize is this: it is difficult, still, to be an ‘Other author’ or a ‘diverse writer’ in Australia.  Other authors are always defined against the idea of greatness which has filtered down from the literary canon, seeping into each and every part of how we judge and value writing. These canonical ideas about writing dominate the marketplace and continually segregate books and their writers along racial and gendered lines.

The Serious Old Male Academics have played too large a part in their relentless promotion of Serious Old Male Authors whose time, frankly, has passed. There is too, the inherent whiteness in popular fiction, books marketed with a gun or a woman in a floppy hat.  And what has become evident to me is that the inherent whiteness of the industry – from academia to publishing houses to editors and agents – means that we still see diverse writers as exotic, marginal and absolutely representative of their race or ethnic background.  The industry demands the performance of race and ethnicity time and again. As Wood goes on to say ‘to constantly be pigeonholed is to undermine the potential reach of specific identities. It says, in other words, you are welcome here but play your role; thanks for coming but we will not accommodate you’

Performance is work.  So, too, is thinking about how to escape the thickets of ideology and industry. For those of us who hold positions in the industry, no matter how small or how tenuous these seem, there is a need to do something about it. To do the research, to speak on panels, to design studies, to edit journals, to work with organisations we like and admire.  I can only speak for myself, about what compels me to do this work.  I do it because it is important, and I do it because I think I should.  That is, I think we all benefit from an industry which is more equitable than the one we currently have.  UK writer Malorie Blackman writes that ‘books allow you to see the world through the eyes of others.’ For her, ‘reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while . . .this is not about writing certain books for certain people, [books by diverse writers) should be read by everybody’.

But as I read essays, articles and reports, as I speak on panels and try to source funding for research, I find myself wondering if my time would be better spent ignoring the white  noise of the industry and, instead, fleshing out my fictional characters on the page, sharpening dialogue, thinking up plotlines. I find myself annoyed at the bank of time I spend writing about the industry instead of writing my way into it. I think about the emotional labour that it takes to constantly butt your head up against something that does not seem to want to give way, and wondering if I, and people like me, would be better off dreaming our wildest dreams and engaging more fully in this thing called creative writing. And I find myself unable to stop thinking about the poems, plays, short stories, essays and novels that do not get written in the time we are taking in staring up at the structural inequality, getting the measure of it, thinking of ways to challenge it. Those adders again.  The throats that must contain them.

But also I know that just because we write the words it does not mean that they will be published, read, valued. It does not mean that people won’t play politics with our books.  It does not mean that writers of colour in Australia will be allowed to be more than representatives of their respective faraway lands.  Or that they will be given the chance to stretch out and inhabit the limits of their own imagination and not be defined by the limits of others’ imaginings.

So I do this work, in spite of my own creative aspirations. I choose to put my energies here for now.  I do it because it is Bigger Than Me.  More Important Than Me.  It feels good and right to be doing this.  It suits my predilection for hard work and it is a place to put my restless energies. I have chosen, in this instance, not to stare solely at my screen, but to look at the mess all around me.  To try and sift my way through it.  There is work to be done.

 

 

 

[1] From ‘Coal’ Audre Lord, 1976.

[2] From ‘Spelling’ Margaret Atwood, 1981

[3] Zadie Smith, White Teeth

[i] The sections the essay is broken into are taken from the title of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s groundbreaking work Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism.

Natalie Kon-yu

Author: Natalie Kon-yu

Natalie Kon-yu is a writer, academic and a commissioning editor of both Just between Us: Australian Writers Tell the Truth about Female Friendship (2013) and Mothers and Others: Why not all Women are Mothers and not all Mothers are the Same (2015). She is a lecturer at Victoria University and she is currently researching gender bias and diversity in Australian literary culture and was the co-director of the Stella Diversity Count in 2016. She also sits on the board of Her Place – Women’s Museum and Heritage Victoria.

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