Express Media, ‘Dialect’ and who can speak? (Part one)



Dialect Cover hi-res

Earlier this year I saw a call-out on the Express Media website for writers with migrant or refugee backgrounds. The racial-specificity of this call-out is something that would have turned me off the program as a teenager.

However as a young adult, I saw an exciting program that offered mentorship, workshops, publication in an anthology and payment but I was unsure of how to interpret the phrase “migrant or refugee backgrounds”. I called up Express Media and asked them if I was the kind of person they were looking for.  I explained that I was an emerging writer, born in Australia whose parents were had migrated to Australia from Malaysia. There was a pause. The voice on the phone stopped and started. Finally he spat it out.

“Well, not…really.”

I laughed off my embarrassment. He laughed too.

“It’s more for first-generation migrants. You seem to be more of a second-generation migrant. Which is most people, isn’t it? Like, my parents are from overseas so that would mean if you could apply then I could apply. I think we were hoping more for refugees in the first place and then to open the door to first-generation migrants after that. You know?”

I didn’t. But I just continued laughing at myself. We ended the phone call with bellies full of mutual laughter and grateful goodbyes.

I put the phone back in its holder with a strange feeling of guilt floating around inside of me. I didn’t even know what a first-generation migrant was. I’d heard that kind of phrase bandied around between politicians and philanthropists on T.V. but I’d never actually used it. When I re-told the story of the phone conversation to one of my Malaysian family friends, he corrected my use of “second-generation migrant” to refer to both himself and myself.

“Nah, second-generation would be if we were born in Malaysia and migrated as kids,” he told me.

“Oh. Does it?” I asked him but I had lost my curiousity about the topic to the vast confusion that I felt about it.

“Yeah. It does,” he said, placing a full stop on the topic.

Doing what all millennials do when the universe seems to withhold its secrets from us, I consulted Wikipedia. The article on “Immigrant generations” published by Wikipedia contained a disclaimer at its head saying that a sociologist was required to confirm the information on the page. Irresponsibly, I read on.

The term first-generation can refer to either people who were born in one country and relocated to another, or to their children born in the country they have relocated to. The term second-generation refers to children of first-generation immigrants, and thus exhibits the same ambiguity. The term 1.5 generation refers specifically to immigrants who arrived to the destination country before adolescence.

I scrolled down and read definitions of 1.75 generation migrants, 2.5 generation migrants etc. It was all very strange, this understanding of race and enculturation as a set of numbers specific enough to warrant up to two decimal places.

Unable to come to any conclusions about where I fitted in and left with more questions than I began with, I sent the organizer of the program, Alia Gabres, an enquiry email and forgot about it.

After the closing date for applications to the program, I received an email telling me that anyone who identified with their background was eligible. My next email to her had an application attached to it.

I was a little late to the first workshop and hurried into the workshop room of the Wheeler Centre with an awareness that my make-up had melted into icing sugar in the heat at the forefront of my mind.

The first thing that struck me about the room was the sheer number of people in it wearing skin that signified an Asian background. It wasn’t something I often experience in a classroom environment, being in the third-year of my Creative Writing/English major.

I apologized for my lateness and ducked into a chair. Alia explained that the program wouldconsist of fortnightly workshops in which guest speakers would help us develop both our writing and performance skills. The later workshops would be conducted by Kat Muscat who would help us refine specific pieces towards publication in the anthology, Dialect, which she would edit and Elwyn Murray would design.

Photo by Rachel Main
Photo by Rachel Main

When we introduced ourselves to each other I realized that there was a wide range of people from all kinds of educational and working backgrounds as well as racial ones in the room.

There was Indira, with a Sri Lankan background and a Scottish accent who was still in high-school, enjoyed fencing and spoke with an articulateness that reached beyond her years. There was Didem, who I was surprised to bump into, having heard of her through conversations with an old English teacher who would often brag about an ex-student who had acted in school plays and was now producing her own play at La Mama under the mentorship of Hannie Rayson.

There was also Ennis, the only male, the only one of us with a full-time job (in advertising) and who enjoyed the writings of Knut Hamsun. I also noted that there were a mix of people who had been born in Vietnam, India and all over as well as those who had been born in Australia with parents from countries such as Bosnia, Italy and Persia.

Over the weeks to come we learnt about different writing styles, attended spoken word performances, were taught by rap artists and finally were encouraged to pitch and submit our own work. I forgot to sleep as I spent a few weeks refining six of my pieces for publication. Most were fictionalized versions of family stories and secrets. Kat worked hard to help me make my work more cohesive, immediate and engaging.

I enjoyed her editing style and began to slowly fall in love with the idea of becoming an editor: a writer that makes another writer’s work better. A tutor and a co-writer of sorts. I plotted and schemed about how I would go about how I would go about becoming this thing.

In the last editing workshop we had with Kat we were informed that the micro fiction pieces (on the theme of underwear) that we had written were to be translated into our native languages. I was excited. My extended family in Malaysia had always found English versions of my work impenetrable. The language barrier had been too much. Having my work translated into the Chinese that was their first language was exciting for me, especially as I had characterized so many of them in my stories.

Though I still didn’t understand the race question and how that played into participating in these workshops, I was simply grateful that my uncles, aunties and cousins would be able to understand the things I wrote at last.

At the moment I am waiting eagerly to attend our final workshop in which we will re-unite for the final time before the launch of the anthology. In this workshop, Alia will teach us about performance poetry (something I am excited about learning from such a great performance poet). And then we launch. It will be sad to end this program but it will be the best possible way to end it. With something beautiful we can all hold in our hands.


The Global Express edition ‘Dialect’ is being launched at the Melbourne City Library on the 18th of September at 6pm. 

Jessica Yu

Author: Jessica Yu

Jessica Yu is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. In 2015, she was selected as one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 under 30. Her writing has been published in The Best Australian Poems, Overland, Cordite, The Lifted Brow, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Saturday Paper and more. She received a 2016-7 ROSL Arts Travel Scholarship to complete a fellowship and present her work with Edinburgh Art Festival 2017, a Glenfern Fellowship and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship. She has spoken about and performed her work at Melbourne Writers Festival, Emerging Writers Festival as well as on Triple R and ABC Radio. She was awarded the Melbourne City Library Young Writer Award (2016), the Young Writers Innovation Prize (2014), the Best of Express Prize for Short Fiction (2014) and the Above Water Prize (2015). She is currently writing her first novel.