Only language can match the permutations and speak to the complexity of a truth. Language doesn’t imitate reality; it creates a reality with glistening shards that shift and refine themselves in the perception of the reader. In the real world, sorrow can seem pointless, political realities, brutally static. The past is impenetrably shrouded; the present is often chaotic; the future is shadows. Language defies all. Like thought itself, language exists in simultaneous time, penetrating experience with the precision of a surgeons’ scalpel, cutting away, going deep, shaping a precise detonation of meaning that occurs glow by glow, or fast and big: an interior fireworks. Words and lines can be set, stanza-by-stanza, like jewels in a casing. A page of prose, graph by graph, should compose a pattern as definite as an equation. Language can tell time while melting, like Dali’s sensual clock.
Writers teach, not writing per se, but how to engage in writing as a process and a means of perception. The actual work of writing is seldom sublime. It’s a struggle that grows more difficult if we avoid it. Writing is often excruciatingly slow and repetitive. Time, in slipping and sliding, makes itself felt and immediate. Words are the way in, but nothing is guaranteed. What writers or readers can do with language, or understand inside it, depends on what they know—on refining their sensibilities, on writing, revising, waiting, reading, writing, as though living in language were life and death. Because it is: writing is certainly life. And writing is death. We practice transformation in reading the story, or writing the novel or poem, that ends perfectly, inevitably, and so continues on its own terms. Art in any form can achieve this paradox, but only language trades completely in the intangible. Letters and words transform according to the cultures in which they are voiced. The shapes of e’s and u’s and o’s mingle and comingle on a flat surface: they’re nothing. They’re not even pigment. There’s no touching, no grasping. The alphabet is a dimensionless dimension. Space and time are inside it, yet every written memory, history, invented sentence, flies in the face of erasure. We can “intervene in the dynamics of loss, insist that sorrow not be meaningless.” Who am I quoting? I’m quoting myself. We write, inevitably, what we most deeply believe, and we teach what is indispensible to us. That’s why teaching (writing) matters.’
‘Diversity is a white word, or as Ghassan Hage describes, a ‘white concept’. It seeks to make sense, through the white lens, of difference by creating, curating and demanding palatable definitions of ‘diversity’ but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness. Terms such as ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’, and ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ (CALD) only normalise whiteness as the example of what it means to be and exist in the world. Therefore the diversity discourse within the cultural sector has only created frames by which diversity is given ‘permission’ to exist under conditional inclusion.This is inclusion that is conditional on predefined, palatable criteria; a means to frame, describe and ultimately prescribe diversity through constructed visibilities.
Just because we exist in a space doesn’t mean we’ve had autonomy in the process by which the existence has occurred. It is not about ‘giving a voice’ — we already have one. It has been systematically silenced. What we are talking about is power and self-determination.
Without rethinking terms we run the risk of already ‘othered’ voices becoming further tokenised through the diversity discourse, rather than the lack there of. We create disposable voices, restricted to exist within the same power structure that excluded them in the first place. It is not good enough to seek being included in the same discursive, epistemic and systemic architectures as mere additions, but it has become urgent and vital to (re)think, (re)conceptualise in order to critically (re)imagine the entire sector.’
- 2209 by Hannah Donnelly
For all authors, and especially for authors who live in the publishing industry’s capital, New York, the continual awareness of a network of traded back pats and favors and blurbs and likes and faves is a background noise that’s hard to ignore, and at times becomes deafening. Authors know we’ll always have to sell another book, and with editors’ and publishers’ hierarchies and jobs constantly in flux, we never know whether the assistant sending a halfway-decent galley for a blurb might one day be the editor who’ll buy our book for six figures. Or whether the publicist we wish we could ignore might be our publicist someday, or whether we’ll end up on a panel with or being judged for an award by an author whose latest book we think deserves a savage pan rather than the lukewarm review we end up writing. Et cetera. Most everyone, except conscientious objectors, the very un-astute, and people with unshakable confidence or inherited wealth, plays the game. Women are less likely than men to fall into almost all these categories. For us, playing the game is less a choice than a default. It’s a part of the job.
This is what’s been playing out in our culture all along: a curiosity about black sexuality, tempered by both guilt over its demonization and a conscious wish to see it degraded. It’s as old as America, and as old as our movies.
… Finding the source of this fear isn’t difficult. You can read the history of the black penis in this country as a matter of eminent domain: If a slave master owned you, he also owned your body. Slaves were livestock, and their duties included propagating the labor pool. Sex wasn’t pleasure; it was work. Pleasure remained the prerogative of white owners and overseers, who put their penises where they pleased among the bodies they owned. Sex, for them, was power expressed through rape. And one side effect of that power was paranoia: Wouldn’t black revenge include rape? Won’t they want to do this to our women?
So from the time of slavery to the civil rights era, with intermarriage illegal, black men faced every possible violence, including castration and far worse, as both punishment and prevention against even presumed sexual insult. An exchange as common as eye contact, as simple as salutation, could be construed as an assault. Black men were bludgeoned and lynched for so little as speaking to white women.
- Other peoples’ storiesThis is because literary representations are never just benign descriptions; they enter into and shape our national discourse. Coonardoo is a widely acclaimed piece of literature, considered by most to be an important part of Australia’s literary heritage. For this reason, it is one of the books carefully selected to feed the minds of future generations. Thus, Coonardoo’s representation – along with that found in other ‘canonical’ texts – becomes the authoritative narrative of settler colonialism. For many Australians, it is through these texts that they learn about the Aboriginal other.
Since the late eighteenth century – very shortly after the invasion of 1788 – Aboriginal Australians have been a major preoccupation of settler literature. And it is these texts that are used to teach the ‘story’ of Australia.
The powerful legacy of settler representations is now being challenged by Aboriginal storytellers and scholars. The relatively recent emergence of Aboriginal published writing, and with it diverse self-representations of Aboriginal Australia, has ignited significant political and cultural debates.
Black writing has interrupted the unquestioned privilege of whites to represent non-whites in Australia. This has unsettled the settler by rupturing the previous trajectory of writing and representation. In doing so, it has challenged the conceptualisation of the past, present and future with which white Australians were familiar – a construction of time and space in which Aboriginality was contained safely within the margins of settler texts.
This brings us back to the central question: if, on the whole, non-Indigenous people are not reading Indigenous self-representation, how can they write about Indigenous lives and experiences? Put another way, if non-Indigenous people are still only encountering Indigenous people via the works of non-Indigenous writers/historians/filmmakers/artists, then are they really encountering us at all? How can they even think about writing about us if you don’t really know us?
So, what is the way forward? The words of Canadian scholar Margery Fee resonate here: ‘Without a conversation with living First Nations people about what they think and feel about their writing, their culture and their lives, the likelihood that we will have produced bad interpretations arises, as we make ourselves the experts, and them into mute subjects of expertise’ (my emphasis). Fee is right, and her us-and-them framing points to the chasm that exists in Australia.
Over the last decade, the term ‘gaps’ has entered political discourse as a way to describe discrepancies/ distances/ lags between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with the assumption that Indigenous people are always in deficit. These gaps are the ‘conversation’ referred to by Fee – and it is a conversation that can only begin through an engagement with our literature.
This leads me to pose a few questions of my own. Why do you want to write Aboriginal characters? Do you know any Aboriginal people? And if so, how? Have you read any of our books? What is your motivation? Want do you want to say? Whose story is it going to be? Have you sought appropriate permission from the parties involved? What do you hope to achieve through this representation? Finally, why do you want to speak about Aboriginal people when you can never speak for Aboriginal people or be an Aboriginal voice, just like I can’t be a white one, even though, like a lot of Aboriginal people today, I am immersed in settler culture on a daily basis?
I know now that my aunt was correct. Without knowing us, our histories, our stories, it is impossible to ‘write’ an Aboriginal story – any attempt at representation would be merely self-serving cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is not empathy. It is stealing someone else’s story, someone else’s voice.
- “You Always Collected Lovely and Violent Things” — ASIAN CHA Issue 34 Editorial
If the “drift” narrative belongs to any generation proper, it is to those who came of age in the 60s—swept along, however briefly, upon waves of political dissidence; losing and finding themselves in the wake of cataclysmic cultural change. Curiously, however, there has been a resurgence of this narrative over the last five years in fiction written by women; and with it, a fresh crop of literary heroines who appear to drift romantically, geographically or socially. Exuding an ambiguous, radical mystique, these young heroines are ultimately on the periphery of any group, often hitching themselves to dubiously charismatic men. While that trajectory may seem anachronistic—retracing the footsteps of women of an earlier generation, who traveled from the center to the margins only to find that the gender dynamics were often the same—its literary reprisal offers a contemporary take on female agency as contingent, provisional and compromised. As the poet Jana Prikryl argues in the Paris Review, a woman is already “a kind of rootless cosmopolitan—almost by virtue of their exclusion or disadvantage, they can acquire an awareness of their society that’s unavailable to those who have power. … “Gender” is a performance, these ambivalent heroines continually remind us, quotation marks signaling the improvised contingency of the role.
… It is a cliché of postmodernism that, as the past is recycled, cultural trends are chewed up and spat out emptied of their original significance. Yet, coming down via Didion, the wayward daughter trope was already largely deradicalized. What has been inherited instead is an ambivalence to any hard and fast feminism—or, at least, a sense that an empowered heroine is not up to the task of taking the true temperature. Kushner has said that she considers “passivity to be a kind of radical bravery.” This is the kind of counterintuitive stance that brings to mind Didion on assignment: “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.”
Is it too fanciful to imagine these self-effacing heroines as fiction’s New Journalists? Prosecuting by implication, letting others do the talking; always, in the end, “selling somebody out.” If these heroines revolt at all, they do it with stylish understatement. Didion, for her part, never allowed her brand to be sullied with overt ideology; she mocked feminism’s invention of women as a class, caricaturing the movement as an aesthetic of privation, “thin raincoats on bitter nights.” For all their flirtations with the radical, it is as hard to imagine her fictional descendants, these chic outliers, being herded into a groundswell uprising as it is to imagine them being enamored with an entrepreneurial sisterhood.
…Where a drifting man is an anti-hero, an existentialist, a drifting woman is a victim, not imagined to be brimming with the same range of ambivalence; of unruly, contradictory desires that go unpoliced in men.
- Embedded misogyny: the academic erasure of womenIt is time to re-evaluate how we determine whose work is of merit, whose work is funded and published. If a scholar is cloaked in accolades, as The Professor is, but actively ignores everyone other than white male authors and artists, then how comprehensive can his knowledge be? We need to stop thinking of these concerns simply as issues of diversity or inclusion, and rather as the actual foundation of what we call academic knowledge.
In raw terms, academic achievement is a class issue. And much like the notion of ‘excellence’, ‘merit’ is ideological. Therefore, to be in the running for a scholarship, a student must have already had their abilities or potential acknowledged and rewarded within an ideological education system.
Australia’s education system disadvantages students from poorer family backgrounds, and early disadvantage is known to affect post-school ‘outcomes’ (meaning class status, capital). Where the money comes from — and whom it is given to — eventually, necessarily informs what kinds of artwork thrives, and which artists are worth the investment. As French writer and scholar Didier Eribon says, ‘art, culture and education are, undeniably, part of the mechanisms of differentiation between social classes’. And the institutional frameworks underpinning the production of artwork can lead to pernicious political outcomes….The money — and the ideology regulating its circulation — creates conditions for artwork to be produced. The money creates hierarchies and the money assigns value to artwork.
…the mysterious selection process determining which projects are supported by scholarships, and whether or not social equity is or should be a concern of the university, leaves questions about what impact, if any, ‘the university’ will have on the shape and texture of future Australian literature. Who will be rewarded? And for what kinds of work?
With the closure of yet another art school, Lauren Carroll Harris wrote, instead of ‘asking “Can art restructure the world?” I should have been asking “How is the world restructuring art?”‘ Every writer and artist seeking shelter in the rapidly diminishing tertiary humanities departments (for a few years of a small income) should ask themselves the same question.