This year, Sam elected to showcase two of the festival’s writers, who will be taking part in EWF between 26 May – 6 June 2015, as a part of the exchange program with the Bali Emerging Writers Festival.
Omar J. Sakr an Arab Australian poet whose poetry has appeared in a variety of publications including Meanjin, Overland, Cordite Poetry Review, and Carve Magazine/
Here, Omar, respond to our Q&A questions about diversity and representation at the Emerging Writers Festival. Omar provides an important perspective on the inclusion and recognition of writers and audience from culturally diverse backgrounds, heritage and paths.
What do you believe is the role of the arts and EWF in supporting (or otherwise) diverse representations of Australian culture?
A nation’s artistic output ought to be reflective not just of the values that underpin its social structure but also of the broad and diverse array of voices that populate it, especially those which were the first to sing in this country. That is to say, I absolutely think the festival and other organisations in the industry play a role in which stories are heard, which songs are broadcast, and this in turn affects how Australian culture is represented. Has the industry done enough as a whole? No. The overall literary landscape is still predominantly Anglo-Saxon, still overwhelmingly white and male and heteronormative, none of which are adequately reflective either of the quality of talent we have at our disposal or of our population, which is increasingly diverse.
I was dismayed recently to read Peter Kenneally’s piece in Overland, ‘Judging Blind’, which detailed the prevailing whiteness both of poetry prize winners and of the judges themselves in this country. Dismayed still further to read Maria Tumarkin’s article in Right Now, outlining the struggle qualified, creative and academic migrants face in this country to get any kind of recognition. She uses the example of Ouyang Yu, a Chinese Australian author who has published some 70 novels across both his native language and English. Now I like to think as a young poet with two degrees in writing studies that I’m pretty clued in to our literary scene but her article was the first time I’d heard of him, and while that could be just my own ignorance at play, I’m betting the same could be said of a lot of people.
I don’t mean to turn this into a screed, I just wanted to acknowledge that historically, and to a fair degree currently, our publishing record hasn’t been anywhere near as diverse as it could or should be, and that even when writers of diverse background do get published, they’re often marginalized, swept under the rug labelled ‘Arab/Asian/Q( )ueer writer’ or whatever their respective category happens to be, whether determined by them or not. Having acknowledged all of that, I can go on to say that I’m heartened by the emergence and quality of new writers challenging this paradigm; heartened by EWF and its partnership with Indonesia, with the Bali Emerging Writers Festival, as well as its programming choices (more on that later); heartened by the existence of prizes like the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers. Is it enough? No, but the effort is there and the movement is growing. We cannot be denied for much longer, and we will make our voices heard.
Can you give us a brief overview of what you feel this year’s festival offers Asian Australian or other culturally diverse audiences? And, as a participant, do you feel that the Festival actively seeks representation from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) or other historically marginalised groups?
I feel like [these ]questions are similar enough to answer as one. What I will say is this: there are several events I’ve taken notice of that I’m excited even exist, so I’ll go ahead and mention them now. I’ve no interest in thumbing through the program guide to find every single thing, as anyone can do that, so these choices will reflect my own bias. Top of my list is Translation Nation, a storytelling event featuring emerging translators weaving a story together live in five different languages.
Translation has recently become a keen interest of mine, given I was lucky enough to have some poems of mine translated into Arabic and published internationally – a move which has spurred me to start taking lessons to reconnect to my own culture (my own Arabic is as limited as a child’s, and that’s being generous). Knowing my work has been read in another language, one ostensibly my own, has given me a new appreciation of the work that goes into translation and I hope one day to return the gift, to bring Arabic literature into the English world.
Another performance of interest is the Conference Special Event: SWEATSHOP. SWEATSHOP is a Western Sydney based collective of writers led by Michael Mohammed Ahmed, whose work canvasses race, gender, sexuality, class and disability in Australia through the prism of that community. I grew up in Western Sydney and it will always be home to me, so I’m particularly excited for this one.
The same could be said for ‘The Early Words – Queer Tales’, which as a bisexual writer, I’m keen to explore. I know this answer is going too long, which in itself is an indication of how much is on offer, so I’ll try to wrap it up – I’d also like to see ‘black&write: Coming of Age’, which will feature performances from a number of Indigenous writers.
Lastly, but definitely not least, I have huge respect for EWF for having The Pitch Networking Session for Deaf Writers and for having a number of Auslan interpreters available at a range or events. I’ve worked in special needs services as a transcriber for hard of hearing students at UTS and also was responsible for closed captioning across National Geographic Channels and FX on Foxtel for going on two years, so this is definitely close to my heart. So, I think it’s fair to say that EWF is most definitely active in seeking representation from CALD and other marginalized groups, and it should be applauded accordingly.
As part of your involvement in EWF, do you identify as a member of CALD or other historically marginalised group in the media/literary field, and if so – what kind of feedback would you offer to the festival about the relationship between arts programming and diversity?
I call myself an Arab Australian writer because it’s easier than saying half-Lebanese half-Turkish bisexual writer, so yes, I definitely identify with a number of groups in the media/literary field, but as for feedback, I’m not sure I can say much here that the people running the festival don’t already know. I imagine what limitations currently exist do so more as a function of lack of time/funds than any unwillingness on the part of the coordinators. As a writer, and even simply as a participant, an individual, it’s so crucial to see yourself and your culture reflected in art, to know you’re a part of the conversation, you’re not invisible, and so programming of the kind EWF is providing this year is absolutely vital. I only hope it continues, and that the festival continues to grow and to get more funding to enable it to have an even more dynamic and inclusive lineup.
BEWF x EWF is supported by the Commonwealth through the Australia-Indonesia Institute of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.