Melbourne Writers Festival’s inaugural Asia-Pacific Writers Forum: Part 2


Melbourne Writers FestivalThis is the second part of a three-part report on the Melbourne Writers Festival’s inaugural Asia-Pacific Writers Forum and features responses from Linda Jaivin’s provocation on politics and censorship.

Related: Melbourne Writers Festival’s inaugural Asia-Pacific Writers Forum: Part 1 – Provocation 1 – Translation

Related: Melbourne Writers Festival’s inaugural Asia-Pacific Writers Forum: Part 3 – Provocation 3 – Audience and Readership


Provocation 2 – Politics and censorship

Provocateur: Linda Jaivin

For Linda Jaivin, all good writing is political. She says, “Good writing takes you to places that you might not necessarily feel comfortable going. It makes you see the world through other perspectives. And that can just be the perspective of a person with Asberger’s as in The curious incident of the dog in the night-time. I’m not necessarily talking about crossing-cultures in the sense of crossing national boundaries or that sort of thing. Good writing makes you question your assumptions about the world, they can be societal, they can be personal.   They can be about sex, family life and so on. And the thing is, is that once you question the status quo, once you question assumptions that people have about the world, then you are challenging them, and if they have a position of power then they will not like it”.

“Some of the great sources of censorship historically are religious, political, societal. You can have expressions that can go between those. So, for example when the general patriarchal assumptions about women’s desire and sexuality needing to be controlled were challenged by the writings of Lawrence, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and so on, those books were censored in many, many western societies. So it’s just not about contemporary repressive societies with political censorship. We have had censorship in so many places. My own books have been the subject of banned books discussion in the US. Eat me was one of them that got them going for a while”.

“And so how do the powers that be respond? They have different ways of responding. The most rational one is to engage in debate. But when you feel threatened and when you have the power, you don’t always want to engage in debate and so one way that you can is to shut it down, one possibility of censorship is to quash the debate. You can say ‘This person has no right to speak’ . You can do what the Chinese government often does in spreading terrible misinformation about the person who’s delivering the message that they don’t like. You can burn books, you can forbid books, you can take them off the shelves, for eg in Singapore a month ago, there was a big controversy of a couple of books, including one that was called And Tango makes three about two male penguins who raise a baby male penguin. This was banned from the Singapore library and created a huge kafuffle – within three days they were back on the shelves. You can prevent them more viciously, from being written or published in the first place. The Chinese government have certain rules that will keep certain books from being published”.

How then do writers respond to politics and censorship?

Linda describes the following responses from writers:

i) going underground : where writers under repressive regimes and times went underground and published literature on photocopies; or

ii) going quiet and self-censoring.

However, Linda cautions against condemning another person’s lack of courage under dire circumstances.

“We can be courageous, we can imagine that we can be courageous but we should never condemn other people for not taking the risks with their families, with their lives”.

The extreme to self-censorship is to be fearlessly vocal. According to Linda, there is a Chinese saying which is a technique of ping pong where the ball is hit on the opponent’s side of the table in such a way that it cannot be defended.

“So what it means, to do a dǎ bian qiú, 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. It’s sideways”.

Another saying which translates to “point at the mulberry tree while to curse the locust tree” means that “when you use metaphor you talk about things, but you mean something else”.

“So there’s the fact that writing will always challenge status quos. And when status quos fight back, writers have ways of answering back”.

The following are responses to Linda’s provocation on politics and censorship:

Table 1: Lisa Dempster, Sam Twyford-Moore, John Mateer, Kate Larsen, Hop Dac, Julianna Qian, Eddin Khoo and Jarni Blakkarly.

Table 1 discuss how language can circumvent censorship: in 2010-2011 when the Shanghai GLBTIQ pride first started, there was a lot more coverage in the English language press in the Shanghai Daily, as they were able to avoid censorship and provide a good coverage of events compared to the Chinese language press due to different audience circulation. In Malaysia, there is more sensitivity in the Malay language compared to English. Performance can be a way to circumvent censorship; for eg spontaneous events that aren’t recorded.

In Indonesia there is a lot more press freedom these days in terms of politics, but not very much in terms of religion. However, there has been significant changes over the years, for eg recently a children’s book was published that acknowledged gay and lesbian relationships, and it provoked debate as to the appropriateness of the work, where in the past it would have resulted in physical violence or threats against the publisher.

Malaysian censorship is reaching an apex where it’s becoming desperate and can’t really sustain itself as it is, to an extent where from 2010 to now for nearly four years there’s been a discussion about whether Christians are allowed to use the word ‘Allah’. However, while the Malaysian government is irrational, Malaysians are more open to discussion.

Malaysia looks to Indonesia’s press freedom with admiration. However, literary exchange between the two countries is blocked, even though the language is basically the same, books aren’t published in both countries, they have to be adapted.

Print medium is not doing very well in Malaysia: major newspapers circulate ~ 70,000 copies compared to online news sites getting millions of hits.

Religious and political sensitivity still influences freedoms in Malaysia, for example a film about the insurgency war was initially approved, but then later shut down.

The group discuss social media and how people circumvent censorship in different countries. Recently, the Malaysian government tried to introduce registering Facebook profiles but was widely lampooned. The Malaysian sense of humour is a source of subverting censorship. Unfortunately there are still policing issues for eg, a 17 yr old is currently being investigated for sedition, as he had clicked a like on a “I love israel’ Facebook page.

The group runs out of time before they can discuss the parallel universe of the internet in China.

Table 2: Alvin Pang, Linda Jaivin, Laurel Fantauzzo, Amanda Lee Koe, Nikki Lam, Jiamin Zhao, Zhang Tianpan, Hamish Townsend.

Humour is a political strategy in circumventing self-censorship in China. In Burma with extreme censorships in language, words like ‘mother’ or ‘rose’ cannot be used because of the inference to Aung Sang Suu Kyii. “Sunset” cannot be talked about as well as there is a prominent general whose name means ‘Sun”, so “sunset” would mean that he is “going down”. This extreme censorship has led to a huge amount of experimentation with modernism in Burma which has led to a real flourishing and renaissance of very interesting poetry in Burmese literature.

In terms of economic censorship, the group discuss how things can be defunded, for example in Australia, how the Murdoch press and others defend their turf. The Australian Government is slowly defunding the Royal Commission into sexual abuse because of the condemnation against the Catholic church, the reason behind this is speculated to be because Australia’s Catholic Prime Minister is upset.

When state power is diffused, this can lead to a downturn in innovations in language as people can get complacent. The opposite can be seen with the Burmese people who work against this in a literary sense.

“The Burmese bred renaissance was stimulated by censorship. A diffused power can also lead to some sort of complacency and people going ‘Where’s the pressure? I’m a better writer when they are trying to oppress me’.”

In Burma, a lot of the soccer teams are associated with regional military commands. Fans use soccer chants at the games to deliver coded criticism against the military.

Other forms of writing that attract censorship include ‘gay writing’.

In terms of translation – the Yeeyan website was shut down for a while because of its collaboration with The Guardian. As Yeeyan is a community website and the translations are crowdfunded, people are now self-censoring due to this crack-down. Yeeyan is now looking for alternative ways of saying things, without being too direct.

In the Philippines, 168 journalists were murdered since 1986. One can go to jail for libel as it’s a criminal offence – for eg if you insult a celebrity or the ninety-four year old Filipino Defence Minister (“who apparently will never die”) who has a habit of suing anyone who criticises him.

In Australia and other places there are also more subtle means of political and social exclusion of keeping us from each other. For eg., the White Australia policy was a censorship of other sensibilities coming into Australia.

Table 3: Lian Low, Terry Jaensch, David Carlin, Lily Yulianti Farid, Janet de Neefe, Julien Leyre and Francesca Rendle-Short.

In Australia, there is censorship in subtle ways. With the current government, this can be seen by cuts to ABC’s (Australia’s national public broadcaster) funding, and if applying for an arts grant or research fellowship there is a danger of self-censorship. The group debated on whether there is a danger of self-censorship, or whether it is currently occurring. For example when artists boycotted the Sydney Biennale as one of its major sponsor is Transfield (a major contractor involved in running detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island) Federal Minister for the Arts – George Brandis responded by demanding that the Australia Council develop a policy to threaten funding of any Australia Council-funded body that refuses funding by corporate sponsorship or terminates a current funding agreement. This year, Australia’s Federal budget to the arts received heavy cuts as well.

However, should artists rely on government funding? What about Pozible or crowdfunding strategies where artists can raise money from the community? But, is Pozible or crowdfunding strategies sustainable to maintain as an artist? Aren’t projects funded by these campaigns usually project reliant and once-off? As money drawn from crowd-funding campaigns are usually from friends and other artists, it’s not a reliable ongoing means of funding. However, it is one way of circumventing government censorship through funding.

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival and the Makassar International Writers’ Festival have not received any censorship pressures. However, times have changed, where in Indonesia during the Suharto regime from 1967-1998 there was political censorship. However, post 1998 there is more freedom, where censorship isn’t from the State, but comes from civic and radical religious groups (for example against reading Salman Rushdie’s work). Two years ago an eminent progressive US Muslim feminist writer Dr Amina Wadud was invited to speak in Indonesia, but conservative Islamic groups tried to cancel her event.

Most Singaporean gay poets have had issues with their books from the State, with threat of their funding being cut. But one of the poets also won one of Singapore’s major literature prizes, so there’s a strange dichotomy where Singapore wants to present as open and friendly yet are morally conservative.

Singapore’s National Library Board had first threatened to pulp three children’s picture books that deal with alternative families/ same sex parents. The books have now been moved to the adults section amidst widespread protest. According to Terry Jaensch, NLB’s stance was about being “pro-family”, but there was no discussion about homophobia or what’s really happening and why. In Korea, one of their most famous and celebrated poets was found dead at a gay cinema, but the reports did not address his sexuality, which meant that there’s a potential of one aspect of his writing and life that is not addressed at all.

In Malaysia, work can be said in English that cannot be said in Malay, where if the work was read in Malaysia authorities would not take it seriously because it is in English.

When Terry collaborated with Cyril Wong on a book, Cyril disclosed that because the book was published by an Australian publisher, he felt he could say more, he felt freer.

David and Francesca are taking WRiCE to Vietnam next year, and have to navigate different obstacles where boundaries can shift at any points, they’re not sure about the rules, and at times advice given to them have been contradictory.

In China, in terms of censorship, there are high stakes where those transgressing the state can be imprisoned rather than just having their funding cut. However, in Australia, Julien finds that when people talk about China’s censorship, they talk about it as being a bad thing, but there isn’t a deep understanding about what constitutes censorship in China.

* * *

Next week, the final part of the report will feature responses from Laurel Fantauzzo’s provocation on audience and readership. 


Author: Lian Low

Lian Low is a writer, editor and spoken word artist. She’s currently at large in Peril‘s outer orbit. Previously editor-in-chief (2010-2014) , prose editor (2009-2014) and on Peril‘s Board until 2016. Find her on and Twitter @Lian__Low

Your thoughts?