Art isn’t created in isolation


Art isn’t created in isolation. Even if a writer sits solo at a keyboard tapping in darkness a million miles from the nearest human, she will carry within her the voices of other people. These may be harmonious and discordant, resolved and unresolved, but they will be there. I think this is because in our hearts we are herd creatures and we cannot help but beat a rhythmic call of herd yearning.

Our deepest sense of selves are created and sought through reflection starting from our mother’s eyes and spreading ever outward further and further afield; seeking a sense of who we are, what we can achieve, where we fit in, how we may be loved. We can’t create in isolation, because I think ultimately we create to be seen in the hopes that by being seen we will be accepted for who we truly are.

I didn’t answer the initial Lotus open call because I wanted to write a play. In fact, I was sure I couldn’t write a play.  I answered it because part of me felt creatively invisible.

I’d been writing film for over a decade and my stories have always turned out too Indonesian for Australia and too Australian for Indonesia. I found that I was often having to explain cultural context to collaborators, readers and audience. I have no problem in doing this on any individual project, but gradually over time, almost without me noticing it, my sense of who I was as a child growing up in Jakarta, that sense of my beautiful brown skinned, charcoal haired mother, of being pinched on the cheeks as a child, of spices and a call to prayer, my Sundanese great grandmother, these senses were becoming increasingly foreign to me.

This occurred on a subtle yet profound level. I live in a largely monocultural area of Brisbane. I don’t have many Indonesian friends. I am married to a fierce and gentle Anglo man. My children are entwined from my Anglo father’s genes and that of my husband – they are fair. I love them with all my heart and yet they are not able to reflect back my own cultural make up – instead I must constantly bridge and explain that part of myself so it is understood. So I am understood.

The one most valuable gift I have received from the Lotus project is a rich tribe of people who not only look like me, but who immediately understand my stories because their stories and mine intertwine. We recognise each other’s multi and bicultural experiences.  We effortlessly reflect each other back to each other.

The resultant trust, support and sense of community is the biggest asset Lotus has given me. In particular, my Brisbane Lotus gals are my touchstones. I admire the hell out of them. They stretch, nourish me and make me laugh. We Facebook each other at midnight seeking comfort when we falter or worry our voices are unimportant. We find encouragement and solace in each other.

The fact that I have indeed ended up writing a play is a huge pleasure – a cherry on a cake. It’s a bonus. And I don’t take that lightly.  I love my play. Not because it is perfect, but because it is an artefact that has arisen from my experience of being seen.

Katrina pic

The older I get the more savage I am in my desire to use my art as a cultural cutting tool. I want to hack and slice at the invisible devices that wound me or anyone else. The Lotus workshops held in Sydney included bold creators like Sopa Enari and Michael Mohammed Ahmad who interrogated cultural diversity in Australian theatre. Asking who are we writing for? Who hears our voices? What voices are not heard? And what is the impact of this? These questions moved me and have moulded my nascent understanding of Australian theatre.

I’m hoping that my play, Siti Rubiyah, works on three levels: a surface level where an audience member can come along for a horror story ride; a feminist level that interrogates how patriarchy contorts a woman’s mind and body; and an ethnicity level where the fact that these are all Indonesian characters speaking English to a non-Indonesian audience may reflect something of who I am.

The National Play Festival Lotus workshops begin today. Our public readings are being held in five days. And I’m still lying in bed wondering how I can better hit the mark on any of those levels.

Creatively I’m fearless. I leap from genre and format with a glutton’s appetite. I am not too worried about the freefall or the inevitable possibility of crash landing.  I accept that I will sometimes write crap. This helps take the sting out of it when I do.  I am looking forward to getting into the creative mud with the dramaturge, director and actors at the NPF workshops. After all, story wrestling is the fun bit – I’m eager for it! The fear I have has nothing to do with my writing.

I am physically exhausted. I’ve had a sore throat that doesn’t seem to want to heal. I haven’t slept much.  Back home I work three jobs to support my family, I homeschool my son and I work on my own creative projects. I am a woman in perpetual motion.

My biggest fear is that my body will fray even as I chase the quicksilver of my creative desires.

Katrina Graham

Author: Katrina Graham

Katrina is an Indonesian-Australian who once longed to be a writer so she quit her job as a kindergarten teacher and wrote and directed a short film. It was nominated for Best New Female Filmmaker in Queensland so she wrote another one. It won the Cancer Council Daffodil Day Award and was picked up by Women in Film and TV as one of the top women’s films in Australia. Katrina has been writing ever since. Her cultural blend seeps into her stories with uncontrolled regularity. She writes and directs in a variety of genres and formats including short films, experimental, web series and feature films. Her true love is feminist horror. She is known for her collaborative directing style which embraces instinct and strives to find beauty in all subjects. Siti Rubiyah is her first play.

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