In an effort to ‘populate or perish’, the absolutely Right and unquestionably Honourable men who ran this country on 24 March, 1966 made a pragmatic, yet momentous, leap towards inclusion and cultural diversity. An illuminating discussion took place in the House of Representatives that led to the passing of the Migration ACT 1966, officially ending the White Australia policy.

Yet more than half a century later, Australia is still imagined as a white country, perpetuated in no small part by the stories we tell ourselves in our media, visual arts, performing arts, television and literature.

This old filter of whiteness through which Australia still sees itself is corrosive and dehumanising. It resulted in the first peoples being officially seen as flora and fauna, not human, until the 1967 referendum. It continues to result in an overwhelming whiteness in positions of power, whether in the public or private sectors, government, the education system, the arts or the media.

…One way to resist and write back to this blinkered view of reality, to imagine ourselves into the Australian imaginary, is to seek out stories and tell stories that train the gaze upon ourselves. To do this is to take a selfie. Not just any selfie, but a literary selfie. More specifically, a literary selfie of the country. To do this is to embrace the primarily visual idea of the selfie as a way of reading, writing, and seeking literature, of valuing self-representation in literature. Literature as selfie manifests the ideas of  ‘presencing’, of agency and of the literary retweet.

..

this book is a selfie: a selfie of a country. And like a selfie, it engages in ‘presencing’, in chronicling what it’s like to live in contemporary Australia. It is an Australian writer exerting agency in telling an Australian story, and in the process, historicising Australia’s connection not just with Europe, but with Asia: a region of which it is an undeniable part. In so doing, it enables and empowers others to ‘retweet’, to be inspired to represent ourselves in Australian stories instead of being represented by others.

‘Presencing’

Questions of Travel spans a period from the 1960s to 2004. It is structured around the lives of Laura, a white-Australian who has the privilege of travelling the world, and Ravi, a refugee from Sri Lanka who has travelled to Australia in starkly different circumstances. Each section cuts back and forth between Laura or Ravi’s lives in asymmetrical and layered, if not quite alternating, chapters. The whole book resonates with aspects of selfie culture.

…in the book, there is a sense of ‘presencing’ that provides a sensuous image of what it is to live in Australia, specifically in Sydney in the twenty-first century. The interactive technologies scholar Martin Gibbs and his colleagues use the term ‘presencing’, blending the words presence and sensing, in relation to selfies, ‘to signify presence, and to communicate an important context and affective situation to a wider social network.’

De Kretser’s work does not reify Australia, but engages in documenting, chronicling, witnessing.

Agency

I will admit that in a literary space where I don’t often see the self-representation of people like myself, one reason I was drawn to this story is because of the teller of the tale. De Kretser is an Australian writer, having migrated here from Sri Lanka decades ago. I don’t intend to look at her work for ways to illuminate biographical experience. Rather, to use biographical detail to understand why I was drawn to the telling of the tale.

I am with Kaitlyn Greenidge when she says, in relation to cultural appropriation, that you have to love a character into existence, even the ones who don’t look like you, and you have to resist being blind to the structures of power that exist in the world which are mirrored in the publishing world. Questions of Travel does both of these things and it is an example of a writer exerting agency, and saying, as the photography theorist Paul Frosh says in relation to selfies, ‘see me showing you me’ – not in autobiography, but in fiction.

Selfies draw attention to the body of the photographer. (The outstretched arm sometimes holding the selfie stick, the craned neck, the effort to get everything framed just right.) The consequence of this is the creation of what Frosh calls the ‘gestural image.’ Rather than inviting voyeurism, selfies show a ‘self enacting itself.’ Questions of Travel is a book written by a writer who is not from what Ghassan Hage terms the White Nation. Rather De Kretser’s work is that of a writer enacting Australia’s ‘multicultural real’, another Hage-ean term.

Questions of Travel draws attention to the long durée, that long tide of history that binds Australia to the landmass closest to it. Like the family resemblances that a selfie reveals, the text from the book quoted above performs a geospatial analeptic move, looking back to Gondwanaland, to Pangea, to the time when this island continent was connected to Asia. It is analeptic in the pharmaceutical sense of a central nervous system stimulant that is restorative, as well as analeptic in the sense of the rhetorical device of the flashback…there is a sense of Australia as a continent recognising its proximity to a wider and ancient social network, not with England, but with Asia. The text not insular and parochial, but outward-looking, and an attempt at a culturing un-cringing.

The literary retweet

And so in the end, this book provides a template for the literary retweet. Returning to Paul Frosh, a major component of the selfie is the fact that it gestures toward what he calls ‘corporeal sociability.’ ‘(T)he selfie invites viewers, in turn, to make conspicuously communicative, gestural responses’ that include taking reaction selfies, or responding through gestures: liking, retweeting, commenting.

From my position as an Indian immigrant in Australia, a writer and scholar, Questions of Travel provided a selfie of a country  that I and people like me could retweet and circulate, contributing to the flow of the literary selfie. In this book I saw a Sri Lankan Australian author writing about Sri Lanka and Australia and our larger world. A self enacting self. A text saying ‘see me showing you me’. Not through autobiography but through the work that only fiction can do. This literary selfie is an extremely powerful thing. And again, on a deeply personal note, I see Michelle De Kretser, a woman, a writer, a person of colour, suggesting that this is what we are as a country today, an imagined nation framed and filtered and shared through an author who is outside of the dominant culture.

My own book The Permanent Resident is a selfie of sorts, not at all intended as a narcissistic gesture, but as gesture of ‘presencing’, connecting with a wider social network, looking outward despite its specificity, exerting agency. It’s an immigrant saying, this is me showing you me. It attempts to fictionalise stories about Indian Australians told by an Indian Australian. In doing so, it could be called a literary retweet. Not in content of course but in a gesture of homage to Questions of Travel, contributing across national borders to the debate around meaning, flow, representation, and self-representation.

She suggests ‘[w]e take back our stories, we occupy the centre, we reverse the gaze, we keep battling.’

Just as sharing and retweeting a visual selfie is enabled by access to the means of production, so too is a literary retweet. I recognise that my own literary selfie is enabled by my very privileged access to and benefit from an agent, a publisher, educational institutions, and literary networks. It is time for a more concerted effort on our parts as readers, writers, seekers and gatekeepers of Australian literature, to think about how the idea of literature as selfie would enable a contemporary Australian literary landscape that is more representative of contemporary Australian life.

Cyrulnik accused other psychologists of subscribing to a kind of psychological determinism, of acting “like car mechanics”, in his words, in their ideas of cause and effect. Cyrulnik described how traumatic events are framed by the narrative given to them, in ways that can exacerbate or mitigate the impact of experiences for the sufferer. The context given for suffering is what determines survival, the feeling of selfhood is shaped by the gaze of others, namely the emotional reactions of people and of the culture around them. Cyrulnik found that, among children who survived the Nazi occupation of France, those who had, like him, joined the resistance suffered the lowest levels of postwar depression. “Did these children join the resistance because they were already more resilient?” he writes, “Or did their narrative identity, or the stories they rehearsed in their heads after the war– ‘I am the boy who at the age of eight, stood up to the German army’– give them a feeling of selfhood that had more in common with a hero than a victim?” Cyrulnik was convinced it was the latter, and devoted his career to freeing children who had endured trauma from the narrative of damage.

It’s not hard to see the link between Cyrulnik’s theories of resilience and storytelling. The power of the story lies in the hands of the storyteller, to see oneself only ever reflected through the eyes of another is to view the self through a distorting lens, this is the shared experience of all those whose place in history has been marginalised. The regime in Sierra Leone worked to eradicate every mention of my father’s name from the public sphere. In writing his story I was able to take control of the narrative of his life, my life, of my family and my country’s story, to write through the lens of our own experience.

The same is true in western literature. Looking back over the span of the last 60 years is to see, on the part of writers whose stories have been pushed to the periphery, the unbroken arc of a joint creative endeavour, one that has been unspoken, has come unasked for with the job description, a collective consciousness fuelled by a collective outrage, one that would refute the mainstream gaze.

For the first generation of African writers who came of age at the same time as their countries, this meant writing Africans into a full existence. For Chinua Achebe, writing Things Fall Apart meant challenging Joseph Conrad’s portrayal of grunting, non-verbal Africans in Heart of Darkness, giving his characters the interior lives and relationships, conflicts and flaws – the very agency and subjectivity that Conrad had denied them. For Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o it meant retrieving his Kikuyu language, the language he had been beaten for speaking as a child undergoing colonial instruction. “I began to write because I did not see myself in literature, and I wanted to see myself there,” said Tsitsi Dangarembga, the Zimbabwean novelist, for the western gaze had passed completely over the heads of black and African women.

The wilful amnesia of a dominant culture that would rather forget its historical transgressions must be challenged…Lost narratives must be retrieved, those that have been omitted must be replaced. We must resist the attempts of others to define us. We take back our stories, we occupy the centre, we reverse the gaze, we keep battling.

…Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, has described the portrayal of the Vietnam war by Hollywood and American writers as “the only time history has been written by the losers”, with Americans appearing as the true victims of the war, overlooking the millions of Vietnamese dead.

…Each generation of writers of African heritage builds on the foundations of the generation that went before. Not only are we taking back our stories, we are reversing the gaze.

…a week after the presidential election, Cornelius Eady, a founder of Cave Canem (a writers’ centre with a focus on African American poets and writers), said with startling foresight: “Right now, as we speak, uptown there are people in a building that are trying to write a narrative about who we are, and who we are supposed to be and what to do about us. When you lose that story or you … allow that narrative to be taken from you, bad things happen. It is our job and our duty to make sure we get to write our own story, the fullness of who we are … in our own language.”

It strikes me as the logical outcome of the widening gulf, both cultural and economic, between the ‘servants’ and the ‘served’ – a willed ignorance to the actual conditions of labour, that extends right through to the uniquely free-floating, disconnected lives of most of the political class. This blinkered complacency is not simply a matter of disconnected public servants or out of touch politicians. It also cuts to the heart of an industry that actively creates and encourages this disconnection; that renders it crucial to what it means to do a service job well; and a society that is overwhelmingly focused on the consumer as its basic political unit. Those doing the work – the wait staff, retail workers, baristas, booksellers, sales assistants, and all the varied standers behind counters – have, in political and moral terms, been disappeared.

This disappearance, as I found out very quickly when I started my first job in a high-end shoe store, is the key to a successful service career. What customers most want is for you to become a charming sort of vacancy, an invisible but enabling extension of their desires, both carefully solicitous of their needs and entirely free of anything that suggests you have needs of your own. It is best to vanish any sense of work in what you do: to move quickly, but not to rush; to be ‘high-energy’, but preferably to not sweat; to never, ever let the customer see that you eat, drink, or do anything that might suggest your materiality; to be emotionally temperate, or resolutely cheerful; to be endlessly obliging and patient with their demands, but be sure to reassure them such demands are welcome and reasonable. Basically, to show yourself to be willingly involved in your own self-abnegation, even as you also dim down or conceal such abnegation in action. Customers, of course, love a ‘character’, but only insofar as that ‘character’ assists in this process of reassurance – the kind of jesterly license allowed to shopkeepers only extends this far. And the best retailer, as the growth of anthropomorphic computer assistants and self-service technologies seems to suggest, is not a person at all.

Why does no one care about Australian books?’Alright, some overstatement for effect there – the back and forth about literary theory proves that some people do care…this is a small and reflexive group and it tends to keep its conversations to itself. It can sustain civil discussions in Overland and on Radio National’s Books and Arts show, but it’s not a group that has been able to take these discussions into the kinds of spaces where broader social negotiations are taking place. Spaces like ABC Radio 702 and its interstate equivalents, or The Project on Channel 10, or other mainstream platforms – the kinds of platforms through which some thoughtful people might be nudged towards buying books.

…Should there be more literary theory in creative writing courses? Sure, why not. It can’t hurt, and even if you’re not interested you can more or less ignore it. But it’s a second order argument, because either way, Australian readers still won’t pay any attention.

A rupture in friendship seems to be a national disease since Trump’s ascendance, even though we are constantly urged to embrace civility, to talk and listen to each other, especially across differences of racial, ethnic, and class identity.

This is a call for affiliation that requires regarding each other as equals worthy of respect. But our inability to talk across our differences has a long history and a specifically American history that helps to explain why it is so difficult to be friends.

I don’t mean “friends” in the usual way we understand that term as a mostly private relationship of affection between two people, often taking second place to romance and love. Our contemporary notion of friendship is a watered-down and sentimentalized version inherited from classical thinkers who considered friendship the most important and ennobling human relationship.

In the ancient Greek democracy and the Roman republic, on which the Founding Fathers based American democracy, friendship was considered the foundation of all communal civic life and the bedrock of orderly and shared governance.

As a horizontal form of connection, based upon the intimate bond and loyalty of brothers, friendship is the ultimate democratic relationship: people regarding each other as equals with the same rights and obligations, working in cooperation for the common good.

Classical philosophers argued, that because people could not choose their families, familial obligation was a duty and not freely chosen.  They considered romantic passion an unstable, erratic and irrational condition leading to personal mayhem. And in the early periods at least, marriages were usually arranged to enhance and enrich families.

…How, you might ask, did we lose the public civic sense of friendship? Modern secular philosophy, especially liberal thought, emphasizes individual selfhood and autonomy, relegating friendship and ethics to the private realm.

In the late 18th century, for example, Immanuel Kant demoted friendship to a form of distant respect for others while advancing impartial rules to insure justice. In the wake of poststructuralism’s decentering of the Cartesian ego, thinkers have begun to develop relational ethics and theories of intersubjectivity that challenge the traditional one-person focus of psychoanalysis, ego psychology, and liberal political theory.

Popular culture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries reflects this trend in the longevity of TV shows with “achieved” families like Friends, Seinfeld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sex and the City, countless “buddy” films, and the emergence of social media sites like the short-lived “Friendster” and the seemingly immortal Facebook.

We cannot overlook that the classical notion of friendship includes only free-born citizens — white males — and excludes women, who were thought too weak for such a demanding bond, as well as slaves and foreigners, called “barbarians” on account of their indecipherable speech. Aristotle said equality was necessary for friendship. Cicero takes this idea up with a vengeance, recounting how legendary friends were often literally mistaken for each other. A famous story recounts how a prisoner suing for mercy threw herself at the feet of Hephaestion, the bosom buddy of Alexander the Great, who was quite a bit taller than the conqueror. But Alexander, a student of Aristotle’s, refused to correct this faux pas, saying, “He, too, is Alexander.”

…This interchangeability becomes the basis of the golden rule: loving the friend, or the other, as you would love yourself or want to be loved. But it has the strange effect of excluding those, like women, babbling foreigners, or immigrants and “others,” who are not in your group or who do not, literally, look like, sound like or mirror you.

This leaves us with the question: how can we embrace our similarity, as human beings, alongside our differences, as people? Legal scholar Martha Minow calls this the “dilemma of difference.” If we argue for the inclusion of women and others in civic friendship on the basis of their theoretical equality with (mirroring of, being the same as or like) men, we reinscribe masculine norms and ignore differences that characterize many peoples’ realities. Simply including the excluded into the discourse of the dominant order may not sufficiently change or subvert that order. But Western culture finds it difficult to think what is different or not-the-same without creating a hierarchy that disparages and subordinates what is different.

If friendship is to be a useful tool for civic democratic practice, we need to consider whether there is a way to rethink the androcentric dichotomies of sameness and difference, subject and object, self and other in order to level out the differences.

To put this question in more practical terms: can we reconceive equality not as likeness but as a utopian horizon, an evolving parity or equity that rests fluidly or contingently on the embrace of differences? Can we treat those who look or seem different with respect? Can we just be civic friends?

From a bird’s eye view, these works constitute a single project — an attempt to trace the development of Western society and understand its current state by way of literary forms. After all, as Adorno wrote in Philosophy of New Music (1949), “the forms of art reflect the history of man more truthfully than do documents themselves.” In Theory of the Novel (translated by Zakiya Hanafi), Mazzoni regards the novel as symbolic of human thought. For him, fictional worlds embody not only a particular truth but are also a means by which to understand that very truth. As the “primary art practiced in the West, the art that portrays the extensive totality of life,” the novel emphasizes multifacetedness and interdependencies; “[o]nly narrative fiction,” writes Mazzoni, “can show how particular beings are exposed to the world, and how their identity, happiness, and unhappiness depend on the way their paths cross with those of others, and the power of circumstances.”

In Mazzoni’s analysis, the novel emerges as a “game of truth.” In 1984, under the pseudonym “Maurice Florence,” the French philosopher Michel Foucault contributed an entry titled “Michel Foucault” to a dictionary of philosophers. In that entry, the term “game of truth” is used to describe the “discursive practices that define what is true and what is false, what form the discourse of truth must take, and who and what the subject and object of knowledge are.” Mazzoni is similarly concerned with the “structures of sense that still shape our discourses today,” namely those of mimesis (imitation) and concept (reflection), whose separation was ratified by Plato in Books II, III, and X of the Republic. Theory of the Novel can be read as a history of mimesis, whose rise coincides with the development of modern aesthetics, according to which truth can be represented in a medium different from that of the concept. In the absence of both meaning and telos from history, it is only the mimetic novel — not the concept — that is still capable of depicting the complexities of human consciousness as well as of society at large. It is a “genre in which one can tell absolutely any story in any way whatsoever.”

Originating in Greece between the sixth and the fourth centuries BCE, the dichotomy of mimesis and concept — as well as that of philosophy and narrative — produced theoretical boundaries and a cultural hegemonic model. As Erich Auerbach explained in Dante: Poet of the Secular World (1929) and, at length, in Mimesis(1946), according to this model, not everything was representable in literature, and certainly not in all kinds of literature. Literary style had to correspond strictly to content, which in turn had societal and political implications; and some content was, for societal or political reasons, simply unrepresentable. Known asStiltrennung (separation of styles), this hierarchization of subject matter, style, and genre was central to the configuration of the novel and its rise.

…Mazzoni is able to contextualize the novel from both historical and synchronic perspectives: he demonstrates the changing forms of the novel through time while further focusing on the internal conflicts of the genre itself, in particular that between mimesis and concept. This permits him to examine the novel and the form of human thought it manifests in Western society from the mid-16th century to the present day from an aesthetic standpoint and, more importantly, as a “theory of human [inter-]action”: “it means that we are attending to the stories of finite beings, whether real or possible, showing the interweaving of their destinies, the happiness or unhappiness that awaits them as they exist in the midst of others and circumstances.” This “existential analytics” of finite beings does eventually require a stronger focus on the cultural, sociological, economical, and political elements that lie at the core of Mazzoni’s historical-philosophical understanding of the novel. Nonetheless, narratological analysis and its categories tackle these same questions “from a timeless point of view,” and they are also part of Mazzoni’s study of the novel.

After his philosophical introduction to the theory of the novel, Mazzoni delineates the “Origin of the Novel” using three parameters: semantics, geography, and history…between 1550 and 1800, the novel slowly became what it is today, “a polymorphic space providing a home for stories of a certain length that do not fall within the confines of more rigidly codified narrative genres.” This terminological framework enables the reader to make sense of the literary struggle between the novel and the romance, and to understand the linguistic and philosophical origin of the contemporary concept of the “novel.” The latter has its origins in the last decades of the 17th century, when the novel “gradually occupied the center of the literary space and became ‘the novel,’ in the emphatic sense, while the romance was pushed to the periphery of the system.”

The geographical metaphor is crucial to his argument: the conflict between periphery and center is dialectical and dynamic, so that “in the course of the eighteenth century, the tradition of the novel gained hegemony and pushed the romance to the outskirts of the system, but the system remained cohesive.” And so it’s not by chance that the third chapter opens with the idea of a “Dialectic of Continuity and Change.” For Mazzoni, all literary genres are fluid entities that are physiologically predisposed to movement and metamorphosis, and, in the process of moving and changing, tell us about hegemonic relations in the world: “‘Center’ and ‘Periphery’ are not aesthetic or quantitative categories: they do not measure the spread or value of the works, but the hegemony of tendencies.”

Up until the 19th century, when mimesis finally reached the private sphere, literary dynamism was controlled by the rigid social and aesthetic rules of the separation of styles. Only in the 19th century did it become possible to address that which “l[ay] close to us,” bringing the particular — “proper names, stories, and personal destinies” — to the center of this new rising literary genre, together with “a new outlook on life and a new idea of beauty.” The political and economic supremacy of the English and French nations extended to literary production, and their interests in the “mimesis of social classes, environments, and objects” and in the “vocabulary of introspection” would shape the form of novels up to the first half of the 20th century,

To demonstrate the fluidity and dynamism of literary forms, Mazzoni highlights traces of the romance — especially the element of melodrama, and the focus on a single (adventurous) character — in 19th-century novels. With respect to the former, Mazzoni posits that the minutiae of the everyday provided enough melodrama for writers such as “Scott, Balzac, or Dickens,” hence, “the problem of making life interesting does not exist, because it is solved a priori.” The narrative purposes of other authors, like Manzoni and Austen, were served by the individual experience of their lead characters — “private disruptions that, however irrelevant or insignificant they may be in the eyes of others, are crucial to the individuals undergoing them.” For Mazzoni, the “generation born between the late 1810s and late 1820s — that of George Eliot, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, and Tolstoy” — can be seen as the precursors to 20th-century Modernism. These writers subjected the hitherto strictly prescribed form of the novel to formal, stylistic, and thematic deformations. Mazzoni discusses specifically new structures (e.g., non-melodramatic narrative), forms (e.g., novel of personal destiny), and functions (e.g., modes of viewing time). At the heart of these pre-Modernist novels lies the rediscovery of “an organic relationship between private and global destinies.” In other words, what distinguished the realist novels published in the second half of the 19th century from those of the first half is a new understanding of life itself.

That new understanding was expressed through a new use of the

‘cornerstones of the novelistic edifice: narrators, plots, and characters […] Flaubert cut the number of the narrator’s opinions and comments down to as few as possible; Dostoevsky granted his characters their freedom, allowing what they said to be just as valuable as the narrator’s words, creating a polyphonic effect.’

Mazzoni notes that, when it came to plots, Flaubert aimed to demolish “the cornerstones of nineteenth-century story lines: the causal connection between the parts and the hierarchy between scenes.” But what ultimately pushed open the road toward Modernism was a new mode of depicting character psychology: “in order to translate the interior life into language, our culture uses the genre of psychological analysis and the monologue: the former specializes in the description of enduring traits; the latter expresses inner conflicts.”

Following this new paradigm, the novel took an inward turn, with “the essential part of a story no longer tak[ing] place in the segment of reality that everyone can see or hear,” as well as an essayistic turn: “The era when Western novels were being loaded with ideas spans the works Tolstoy and Dostoevsky published in the 1860s and those Musil and Broch published in the 1930s.” The final shift was formal:

Form no longer appears consubstantial with content, and thus natural and invisible; instead it draws attention to itself, revealing itself to be artificial mediation, creating a distancing effect on the habits of common sense and on the ordinary way of telling stories.

In the 1930s, however, the “disjointed plots, new ways of imagining the psychic life, and new narrative mediations” of the re-formed Modernist grammar “began to wane.” In the last few pages of his book, Mazzoni attempts to interpret the “Multiple Archipelago” of postmodernist literature and the rise of the new “global” novel after World War II. Despite the limited space given to this crucial aspect, Mazzoni succeeds in shedding light on the literary genealogy “that is still alive at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” This genealogy stems from three main trends:

[M]agic realism, which developed outside Europe during the 1940s […,] the clusters of experimentation that emerged between the late 1950s and the 1970s [… and] the postmodernist narrative in a narrow sense, which developed in the United States between the 1960s and the 1970s.

At the end of the book Mazzoni comes full circle, arguing that the “centrality of existential realism” defines contemporary fiction as much as it defined fiction in the 19th century; these divergent fictional worlds are united by the conviction that “nothing is important but life.” It “would require a transformation comparable to what resulted in the phase of human history whose protracted twilight we are currently living through — the modern age” — to challenge, change, or overcome this primacy of individual lives in the fictional worlds in which they exist.

Language is a powerful tool of social control; as sex became repressed, words linking to the body became taboo. After all, how can we enjoy the sexuality of our bodies, shame free, when the very words we use to talk about them, think about them, or write about them are considered obscene? Ellis Cashmore argued cunt’s banishment to the naughty step is a result of mass sexual censor and the rise of ‘modesty’: “with rules came manners, and with manners came courtesy, and with courtesy came modesty, and the word ‘cunt’ [was] referring to parts of the body that were enclosed, they were secreted away” (The C Word: How We Came To Swear By It, 2017). Women’s sexuality came in for particular censor and punishment, and cunt was an obvious symbol of all puritan rule sought to repress.

…Cunt may be classed as an offensive word, but it’s an ancient and honest one. It’s also the original word; everything else came after. Words for women’s genitals tend to be clinical (vagina, vulva, pudendum, etc.), childlike (tuppence, foof, fairy, minky, Mary, twinkle, etc.), detached (down there, bits, special area, etc.), highly sexual (pussy, fuck hole, etc.), violent (axe wound, penis flytrap, gash, growler, etc.), or refer to unpleasant smells, tastes and appearance (fish taco, bacon sandwich, badly stuffed kebab, bearded clam). Cunt doesn’t convey any of these. Cunt is cunt. Words for the vulva seem to be in a constant state of trying to deny the very thing being described – your genitals aren’t a ‘twinkle’ or ‘fur pie’.

Isn’t it ironic that the oldest, most enduring, direct and honest word for a woman’s genitals is also considered to be the most offensive in the English language?

Welcome to #TeamCunt

Addendum: Cunt does not make a women. Some women have cunts and some women do not. This article has discussed historical understanding of cunt, and historical attitudes that understood gender as binary and violently policed gender constructs as they saw them. Our ancestors had little understanding of gender fluidity and understood cunt as being female. Understanding historical attitudes to gender identity and sexual morphology is essential if we are to fully appreciate how heteronormativity and constructs of the binary of masculine and feminine came to dominate cultural narratives.

We get to attend these elite universities because we survived, “succeeded,” and prevailed against all the forces, obstacles and adversity that white supremacy has yielded and pitted against our independent and collective survivals. We get a token seat at the table because our lives, actions and initiatives are eye-opening, inspiring and profitable performances to potentially maintain white supremacy domestically and globally.

It is a fascinating “experiment” and experience for white folks and even complacent POC who buy into white supremacy, whether intentional or not. They get to learn, benefit and profit from our individual and collective suffering, pain, loss, grief, angst, frustration and/or trauma while protected by their elite privilege and positions of power within such elite institutions.

What of our humanities, well beings and rights, though? What of our constitutional right to the “pursuit of happiness” in America? What of the reparations almost all POC are owed through the violent and oppressive history and legacy of Western colonialism, imperialism and consequential capitalism plaguing our lives and ancestral/native nations and/or communities? Why must we always outperform white folks to be able to have seats at the table at elite institutions, in order for our humanities to be recognized and perhaps even valued? How are we so dehumanized that our main value and acceptance in such elite spaces is based upon how much we can output and produce, inherently commodifying our existences?

…Our lives and livelihoods do not exist to be trauma porn and entertainment for white supremacy’s consumption and consequential profit. We have nothing to prove to have legitimacy, rights, and space for our humanity, survival and even seats at the table in positions of power and privilege. We deserve to be allowed to be “mediocre,” not the best of the best, to make mistakes and have failures and still have our humanity recognized, respected and valued.

…We deserve to be heard, to be listened to and to be unconditionally supported in our existences the way white folks do at these elite institutions.

It is long overdue and time for us to no longer remain silent and rise to assert the power of our voices, existences and resistance for our individual and collective liberations. We will not be silenced, oppressed and marginalized any more. Enough is enough; justice is long overdue.

As trans and anti-racist critiques of the now-iconic knitted pink “pussy hats” (worn at Women’s Marches around the world on Jan. 21, 2017) have rightly shown, we need to rethink how we might dream of a common (feminist) language. In place of essentializing ovarian/uterine/vaginal imagery that is all too easily assimilated into the “pink for girls” mainstream, I want to posit a feminist penis: the soft, slow, vulnerable, transferable and mobile opposite to the phallus, that blunt instrument of power which Adrienne Rich called “the crude pestle, the blind / ramrod.” Rather than recapitulating the patriarchal fantasy of the castrating feminist, intent on severing the phallus—or indeed, recapitulating the fantasy of the all-powerful phallus itself—I want to celebrate soft cocks and the films that bring them to our attention.

…Despite the growth in masculinity studies and critical thinking about the “re-masculization” of US culture post-WWII, little attention has been given to the possibility of an alternative to the hard/soft binary.

Alex’s non-binary modulation shifts the terms of the erotic and of the cinematic, defying the gendered (and gendering) gaze, and altering the terms of penetrability and permeability…Corinn Columpar describes this condition, in relation to Shortbus, as “permeability.” She takes up the word used by a former New York City mayor who visits the club in the film and confesses that he was too scared to stand up and support HIV/AIDS patients in the 1980s. He contrasts this with what he calls New Yorkers’ permeability: “their openness to new ideas, new people, and new connections,” as Columpar writes.[ii] Columpar argues further that this permeability, an openness to possibility, was also a condition of Shortbus’s production, as a full devising collaboration between its performers (mainly non-professionals) and director John Cameron Mitchell—but I want to extend that collaborative permeability to reception.

What if film criticism was receptive to, and celebratory of, the beautiful, delicate and soft as non-gendered qualities, both in films and in the way in which they are addressed? As Kiva Reardon has written, film criticism continues to operate an unconscious bias that excludes non-cismale non-white critical voices, creating a feedback system in which only certain kinds of films (and writing about film) are valued…this is indeed unconscious bias, a refusal to see the way in which critical values are not objective and transparent, but subjectively shaped by heteropatriarchy’s dominance (and love of dominance).

Barry Jenkins’ second film Moonlight (2016) demonstrates that hard cock is a racist as well as sexist trope: the film’s protagonist Chiron finds tenderness among men, first as a young boy mentored by Juan, a neighbourhood drug dealer who defies stereotypes of homophobic violence, and later through reciprocal, consensual sexual contact with his school friend Kevin. Presenting exquisite images of Black and Latino masculinity as gentle and vulnerable, the film de-objectifies its characters without desexualising them, running counter to the white racist fetishisation of Black male hardness described in Kobena Mercer’s classic essay on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, “Skin Head Sex Thing.”

staging images that do not re-inscribe masculinity as solely constituted by hardness or aggression….This is particularly significant for the non-essentializing concept of the feminist penis (skin or silicone); The softness of the soft cock detaches it from binary conceptions of masculinity, making it mobile and gender-fluid, just as the concept of intervulnerability and infectiousness renders it a permeable surface rather than a penetrative object.

…the soft cock is also a bond or hinge between the private space to which Euro-Western culture consigns sexuality and embodiment, and the queer, semi-public spaces in which collectivity and permeability defiantly take place: soft spaces, we could call them, rather than safe spaces, LGBTQI+ clubs, salons, bars, squats and shelters that prize vulnerability and intimacy outside the heteronormative dyad or nuclear family.

What’s curious about these soft spaces is that they also spread or diffuse, permeating the more exclusionary spaces around them: Stéphanie has to travel to the countryside to take care of her mother, bringing her new Parisian life with her. In Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior (2014), Shirin has to find a way to reconcile her sexual life, which had taken place in her girlfriend Maxine’s apartment and in queer bars, with her life as a second-generation Iranian-American, and as a filmmaker. As much as the film follows Shirin’s journey, it also follows that of the dildo and harness gifted to her by Maxine, which she takes with her when she leaves her girlfriend, then dumps on the street, then retrieves. Walking through Brooklyn with a harness in hand Shirin begins her permeable life, leading up to the (anti-)climactic announcement to her mother (while her mother treats burns she’s sustained at the family Nowruz party) that she is bisexual.

  • SILOS by Dominic Golding in Runway: Australian Experimental Art 

  • MINIMANUAL OF THE URBAN W.O.C GUERRILLA by Tania Canas in Runway: Australian Experimental Art 

As women of colour (WOC) we are actively and inevitably engaged in violent struggle against ongoing attacks on our epistemic, ontological, political, historical and holistic existence.  Our trenches are not the mountains, they are universities, schools, theatres, media, and the streets. They are sites such as theory, discourse and practice. We are constantly engaged in a struggle that is designed to oppressively wear us out and weed us out.

I am not the first to use the language of war to describe navigating the colonial, Western, neoliberal matrix of power. Terms such as traumatic, violence, trigger, genocide, struggle and oppression. There have been a lineage of woman before me that applied this language…Chicana theorist, Aida Hurtado, identified third-world feminism as a differential form of social movement, “by the time women of colour reach adulthood, we have developed informal political skills to deal with State intervention”. This movement, or navigation, is something she likens to being in modern, urban guerrilla warfare.

Its constructs can be drawn from, reimaged and applied to how one moves through a modern, capitalist, colonial context…Drawing from this manual, other WOC writers and my lived- experience, this piece looks to provide strategies of navigation and survival within intuitionally white spaces in the arts and research.

WHAT IS A GUERRILLA?

As a social-political being, women of colour are positioned in contrast to the patriarchal, colonial and neoliberal regime. We are the ‘third-world looking’, refugees, asylum seekers, ex-detainees, diasporic that exist at the margins and intersections.

“The urban guerrilla is an implacable enemy of the regime, and systematically inflicts damage on the authorities and on the people who dominate the country and exercise power”[2]. This is particularly the case when we exercise autonomy over our collective, self-determination and self-actualisation and retain creative control over our own representation, processes and narratives.

RESISTANCE

“Subordinate people do not have the privilege of explicitness, the luxury of transparency, the presumptive norm of clear and direct communication, free and open debate on a level playing field that the privileged take for granted.”- Conquergood[3]

When I speak about sites of resistance in regards to terrain, it refers to the idea that modern-day resistance fronts exist at a multitude of spaces and sites. As a liberation front, in the ongoing wars of colonialism, we seek control of the means of self, communal representation. We seek matriarchy, decolonisation and the end to racism.

Resistance cannot and does not exist as it did in previous revolutions. Therefore to engage in resistance, as diasporic WOC, we must take something like the Minimanual and reimagine in this context: To situate it within what it means in regards our positionality, our specific time and place. Our resistance must look different. Movements in history have faulted by attempting to forcibly apply a template of revolution in completely different times and places. Resistance will not always look like the way we have historically framed it in the West, it will not look like classical guerrilla warfare, nor even protests on the streets.

Manifestations of resistance for WOC in particular take a different, less overt form. It is a sophisticated yet radical way in which we have learnt to navigate the world. For this reason, our resistance do not always take the overt form nor the most direct response. It is fluid, organised, and omnipresent. “Urban technique can never be permanent, can never defend a fixed base nor remain in any one spot waiting to repel the circle of oppression” explains Marighella. This is because the forces of systemic oppression are aggressive, continuous and stronger than the singular version of us. Therefore we must pick and choose our battles, take time for radical love, know when to retreat, when to hide, when to perform.

…WOC fighting capabilities are often neither understood by white middle class feminists nor leftist activists” explains Hurtado. In 1981 Cherrie Morgana defined US Third World feminism as guerrilla warfare as a ‘way of life’ as a means and method for survival. “Our strategy” she explains, “ is how we cope ”on a daily basis. She continues, “how we measure and weigh what is to be said and when, what is to be done and how, and to whom… daily deciding/risking who it is we can call an ally, call a friend (whatever that person’s skin, sex or sexuality)” We are speaking about oppositional consciousness and creating sites of resistance where we can as a form of power.

TACTICS

I recently read about the idea of Racial Capitalism, which is a process of deriving social and economic value from someone’s racial identity. We are looking at a systemic phenomenon and a value placed on race, but only in terms of how that is defined by Whiteness. This creates a framework to display diversity as ornaments in a white framework. This makes disposable voices of us, as extensions, additions, absorptions that do not challenge the power dynamics that exist.  This makes disposable voices of us. So I would say: beware of superficial aesthetic-only diversity.

To know the tactics however, we must first “know the terrain of the encounter” (Marighella, 1969, p. 14) which will inform us how to strategise – we must know the terrain of discourse, intuition and organisation we find ourselves in.

  • Be wary of placing complete and utter trust upon White institutions, they do not understand the social demands of code switching, and they are limited in their understanding of seeing the holistic, collective and plural version of you that exist outside of how you are presented within that institution. They do not exist for that trust. They have not warranted it, or earned it. And if anything it will be exploited.
  • The other thing is: stay connected to your community. My experience from predominantly White institutions is that they look to incorporate you and assimilate you.
  • If you are going to work for White institutions, do not work entirely in White institutions. Work on other projects too, stay connected to community, do volunteer work – there are so many ways. Working in exclusively White institutions as a POC can be exhausting and traumatic, and can also be a very lonely and increasingly isolating experience. And you will burn out.
  • Also try to understand how the institution works in a structural sense. That will give you a better understanding of your position and also the limits of your negotiating power.
  • Read WOC writers, artists and researchers. Even if you do not have the power to call out things as yet, it is important to know how to name them.
  • Retreat if you need to and save your resources, mental health to fight another day.
  • Guard you and your community’s ideas. They are precious. Academia and the arts, as it currently stands, does not have an inherent right to these narratives.
  • Understand radical self-care. As one of my supervisors said to me recently: know that you do not have to compromise as much as you think you do.

As with every day socio-being you will have to do double the work to be considered even remotely close to the playing field: You will need to publish academically, go to conferences, and understand academic language. However, unlike those absorbed into the ivory tower, those who theorise from above, it is your responsibly to communicate beyond these spaces: blogs, panels, etc. You exist in the in between – WOC as diaspora, as refugee, as in-between practice and theory, community and university to bridge gaps. Resist losing your inbetweenness that which allows you to resist from the intersections- otherwise you will be a lost cause, you’ll be a mascot for whiteness not for us. You will no longer be a guerrilla fighter but a prisoner of war.

CONTINUOUS CONCLUSIONS

To remain calm and cool in the worst of conditions and situations. Never to leave a track or trail. Not to get discouraged” – Marighella/

In institutionally white spaces you will be exploited, the question is how and by what margin, how conscious are you of it? What are you compromising in the process? Take power back through navigation, informed decisions, through refusal, through creating sites of resistance even within exploitative discourse frames.

We determine how the particular resistance in that moment looks like: overt, covert forms, self-preservation. These must be taken into consideration moment to moment. All are different configurations and create different, yet equally significant interventions- to maintain a continuous site of resistance.

With every opportunity ask yourself: can I create a site of resistance here?

Ask: is this safe?

And remember, you are not alone.

  • THE FRAGILITY OF FRIENDSHIP (AND EVERYTHING ELSE)

    observe

    who comes into your life

    during those moments

    you lose

    control

    observe

    what happens to the texture of your writing

    the moment you are

    without

    addressee

    (do you even write at all?)

    i opened the post with the question

    have i forgotten how to write?

    perhaps i have forgotten how to write you

    to say anything to an-other

    or to conjure the object of memory by tricking it into presence

    you:

    the self understood through a linguistic relation

    because there is only relation and no self

    only the “third body” created between entities

    i thought about the slipperiness of relations

    and sunk into the “objective” view of my life

    where everything i’ve ever experienced has meaning simply because it happened

    and i am made up of all these encounters.

    to inhabit the memory is to move beyond good and bad

    the interpretation is silenced by the raw sensory experience of it

    in such moments the self that wants to ward off hurt, abandonment and loss dies

    and all that is left is a bundle of mysterious relations

    the facts of a life, which i experience as pure dissociative joy,

    and my body: a trace of everything that has been lived

    like my words

    which together do not constitute my “work”

    but rather

    are an extension of my body

    a trace of relation

    when the memory becomes vivid there is truth and nothing else

    you understand everything by forgetting who you are

    you become who you are by forgetting who you are

    why write all this?

why write anything

except to document all the ways in which experiences accrue to a body that does not know how to make sense of them

no matter how much ink we spill we will never be able to get at it

the epistemological limitations of relationships

these invisible micro-transferences

the impossibility of ever knowing where someone else is at

or the weird doubt you sometimes feel upon reflection

when you wonder if you ever really knew someone at all

what Lily wanted to understand on the phone was the process by which a friend becomes a stranger

the metaphysical fragility of the categories “friend” and “stranger”

and how the transmogrification of the friend into stranger throws your being into crisis

because who i am is only ever in relation to (you)

‘I did not know what I was doing, and what I also did not know, facing my computer screen and a white wall, slowly turning pale, was that I was becoming a writer. Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place.

Confidence and knowledge, and the “metrics” of evaluation and advancement that saturate our lives in schools, corporations and bureaucracies obscure the mysterious, intuitive and slow — sometimes very slow — ways in which art and scholarship often operate. At a time in which the demand for productivity and the measuring of outputs has increased in the university — indeed, everywhere — it is important to acknowledge how much of what is crucial in the work that matters to us, no matter what our field, can neither be quantified nor accelerated.

In my case, someone looking at me might see that I have published three books in the last three years and think that I am fast-paced and prolific, without realizing that it took 20 years of slow — very slow — thinking and arduous labor to produce those books. What is valuable about my worlds of the arts and humanities is that they create spaces for this type of slow thinking. And by this I mean that we value the arts and humanities not simply for the material possibilities and rewards they may bring, like a Pulitzer Prize. Rather, we should value the arts and humanities for their privileging of the mystery and intuition that makes moments of revelation and innovation possible.

‘Being Asian, on the other hand, is something I have lived with my whole life. My mother said, “When people look at you, they will always see a Chinese girl.” Asian-ness, unlike feminism, is written on my body. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell where ‘personal’ ends and where ‘culture’ begins.

If I am to write memoir, I cannot ignore how being Asian and being female shape my reality. If I control the words, I once thought, I control the story. I now realise I control only part of the story. How we see ourselves, how we want to be seen and how others see us—now and historically—are linked.

As a writer, I continued to explore the tensions between my cultural and sexual identities, and the lack of representation.

…To write is to expose and face yourself, your fears, your insecurities, your doubts, over and over. For many of us, female, of colour, Indigenous, queer and/or living with a disability, the act of writing is risky. It demands the reader sees us as we really are, not who they think we are. Writing is political. It says: ‘This is me.’ It says: ‘My experiences matter.’ It says: ‘You are not alone.’

  • UNLEVELLED by Mindy Gill in Peril Magazine 

    …We live in an unpredictable time, and in this issue we asked you to hold the lens to yourselves, to tell us how you keep up with a world that, even still, equates winning with whiteness.

    It’s no news to any of us that in Australia, the playing field is tiered. Inherently uneven. Equality is not a given thing. It is to be worked hard at—harder still for some more than others. I think of this as the edition comes together. As the works roll in and each piece—including ones we didn’t have room to include—build a loose but definite narrative: an unabridged, unguided history of Australia’s post-colonised migrant beginnings. This defined always by violence, by our colonial present and colonial past.

    …I spoke to my friends whose families shared similar experiences, whose lives were uprooted in the desire to step out into a new, better unknown.

    Others spoke of migration as a matter of survival. A metamorphosis violent, necessary and forced.

    …That inter-generational desire to go out in search of something more—the clarity of the need making up for all that other unknowing. I read about how levelling up from a place between cultures means not always aligning with cultural expectations, and felt my own thread tug.

    I talk with Bella Li about her new book, Argosy, and the idea of the unknown returns again and again. She speaks on her fascination for explorers, their—and her—fierce and inexplicable need to map the unchartered territory. She reminds me that disappearance does not just mean gone. That it goes beyond the act of not existing—becoming an invitation to openness, in life and poetry and art, no matter how painful or confusing the journey.

    There was a gravitational quality to this theme, which pulled in close so many new voices. It was a delight to hear from them, to have them join our orbit, and us theirs.

 

 

 

 

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