As a part of Peril’s partnership with Writers Victoria’s D-Writers CHINA initiative, this month we bring you a guest blog from WVs Director, Kate Larsen.
The idea for D-Writers CHINA came from recognising the size and importance of our Chinese-Australian communities, and from our commitment to support and celebrate all of the State’s writers. This is particularly relevant in Melbourne, where people with Chinese heritage now make up the city’s largest migrant population.
Launching the project has led to a range of discussions with writers, partners and industry colleagues: on cultural identity and what it means to be an Australian writer; on translation and misinterpretation; and on censorship and the lengths some people have to go to get their voices heard.
This is one of the topics we covered at the inaugural Asia-Pacific Writers Forum during last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. The forum (documented by Peril) brought together poets, writers, translators and literary sector workers from around the Asia-Pacific to discuss issues a range of issues experienced across the region – from translation to readership, politics and censorship.
D-Writers CHINA is primarily a project for and about Australian-based writers with Chinese cultural heritage, but conversations about the program tend to move on to a discussion about Chinese writers in China as well and, inevitably, to the censorship they experience there.
The two words – ‘China’ and ‘censorship’ – seem to be inextricably entwined. Thanks to a number of high-profile cases, an outsider’s perspective is of a monolithic monoculture with severely restricted freedom of speech; one that muffles the voices of its writers, who can only speak their minds when they find themselves outside of the dictatorial regime.
It’s true that there can be much higher stakes in terms of censorship in China – where transgressions can lead to imprisonment as easily as arts-funding cuts. But it’s also true that the situation is much more complex than the cliché would have us believe, and that we don’t really have the full picture of what constitutes censorship in China – or, for that matter, the impact it has on the work that its writers produce (both within and outside the country’s borders).
Julie Leyre is a French-Australian writer, educator and founder of the Marco Polo Project, a non-profit organisation exploring collaborative models to develop Chinese literacy. In 2014, he directed the first China-Australia Festival of Digital Literature.
“Censorship does exist in China, and it affects what circulates online. But censorship is not exactly the systematic blanket we tend to imagine,” Leyre said in an interview with Writers Victoria last year.
“There was a study done a few years ago by Harvard researchers, about what does and does not get censored in China. What they found was that calls for collective action were very quickly shut down – but relatively critical arguments were not. Besides, the Chinese censorship machine is decentralised and chaotic, and it changes constantly. You can make reasonable predictions, but you never actually know exactly what will and will not get censored.”
For writers and publishing platforms, then, the issue of censorship can be more about risk management than the content itself. “Will you bother writing a piece that is very likely to get censored?,” Leyre asks, “Will you bother publishing it, and take the risk of the government shutting off access to your whole platform for a while?”
I met with the Australian Embassy in Beijing, which has run an annual Australian Writers’ Week in China for the last seven years – though there is no similar program run by the Chinese Embassy in Australia.
Embassy staff agreed with Leyre on the issue of censorship. “People assume that if you write about real China, then it will be banned,” they said, “but it’s not necessarily the case.”
But that’s not to say that censorship (or more subtle forms of discouragement) doesn’t exist. Part of my own journey to China (supported by the Australia Council for the Arts) was to document the visit in the form of short, site-specific poems and publish them online – my modus operandi as a part-time Twitter-poet-in-residence.
But Twitter is banned in China and difficult to access even through one of the many Virtual Private Networks (VPN). Facebook too. So while I joined Chinese poet Yi Sha (who publishes poetry on Weibo) for a talk on digital literature at the Beijing Bookworm, I couldn’t tweet about it. And I found myself in the unusual position of being a social-media poet without a platform to preach from.
I am stuttered.
The words come out
on the page,
not the world.
Social media has been integral to my development as a poet. The act of writing a tweeting a poem a day over the last six years has enhanced my profile, led to further publication and other opportunities – including my trip to Beijing itself. But it would be much harder for a Chinese-based poet to take the same sort of online journey – or, at least, to take it beyond China’s borders.
In anticipation of my Twitter hiatus, I set up an account on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Little did I know that the time of Weibo was all but over and WeChat is where it’s at – fast, furious and constantly in use. Where Weibo is public (and open to sanction from the government, which has cautioned against microblogs with hidden agendas), WeChat is private – more like Facebook in restricting publication to a circle of friends.
Nonetheless, I remain fascinated by the possibilities of social media and how people use it to get around censorship in different countries.
At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival forum, Linda Jaivin outlined several of the tricks writers use to circumvent the system, such as the Chinese saying dǎ bian qiú, which is a technique in ping pong where the ball is hit on the opponent’s side of the table in such a way that it cannot be defended.
“It means that you’re responding to censorship in such a way that it’s almost impossible to quite pin you down and catch you,” Jaivin explained, “It’s sideways.”
Another saying translates to “point at the mulberry tree while to curse the locust tree”, which refers to when the act of using a metaphor to talk about things, while really meaning something else.
“Writing will always challenge status quo,” Jaivin said in her forum provocation. “And when the status quo fights back, writers have ways of answering.”
Censorship is, of course, a universal issue. Peril’s reporters at the forum also recorded the extreme censorship of language that takes place in Burma, where words like ‘mother’ or ‘rose’ cannot be used because of the inference to Aung Sang Suu Kyii. Writers and poets also can’t refer to a simple ‘sunset’, which could be seen to refer to a general whose name means ‘sun’ – ergo a ‘sunset’ would mean he was being put down.
While extreme, this form of censorship has also resulted in opportunities for creativity and experimentation, leading to a flourishing and renaissance of new and interesting Burmese literature.
In Australia too, we experience censorship in traditionally more subtle ways – those these are starting to become more apparent. With the current government, it can be seen in the lack of reporting asylum seeker boat arrivals and in the new rules that forbid Australia’s detention centre workers from revealing information about they come across while doing their jobs.
It can be seen in the cuts to the ABC and SBS, and in the artist boycott of the Sydney Biennale which led Federal Minister for the Arts George Brandis to demand a policy to threaten the funding of any funded body that refused funding from a corporate sponsor – regardless of whether they object to their business or operating model.
More recently, it can also be seen the shift of funding away from the Australia Council to the Ministry-run National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), with concerns about whether the new fund will be administered independent of political intervention, about equity and diversity in terms of access to funding, and the potential impact on freedom of expression.
Censorship affects us all, every day – in ways large and small. Those of us who write have the potential to both invoke and to address it. As Jaivin said at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival forum, “Good writing makes you question your assumptions about the world.” And that’s what D-Writers CHINA is all about: good writing, good writers, and the importance of all our stories being told.