On the Handmaiden’s Tale:  

Except, who does the speaking? And who listens? Trump’s victory has pushed these questions to the forefront of political discourse. Does the echo chamber narrative extend to this kind of basic, grassroots political work, too? How does – or should – the work we carry out negotiate what may appear to be irreconcilable differences in fundamental concepts such as liberty, freedom, equality, justice, and autonomy? Should we try to speak and/or listen to those who do not share our values? Whose responsibility is it – if anybody’s – to take the first steps towards reconciliation? Is it even necessary to reconcile these differences in the pursuit of a peaceful and prosperous society for everybody? Or is this idea too utopian, too unreachable, to even consider seriously?

I have seen many people – myself included, in moments of rage and exhaustion – rightly argue that those who are oppressed should not be required to legitimise a politics of hatred and fear by engaging with it politely or kindly. The oppressed should not have to carry the burden of both navigating oppressive social structures themselves while carefully leading their oppressors out of their myopic beliefs. As historian Charlotte L. Riley (@lottelydia) tweeted, “[the moral high ground, peaceful engagement, asking respectful questions] works solely and only if the people you are opposing actually care about your opinions, your concern, and your wellbeing.” The idea that minority groups should meet the language and behaviour of those who hate them with kindness or compassion is one borne of a certain type of privilege.

After British colonisation, migrants were brought to so-called Australia as indentured labour and like the Indigenous peoples of the land, many of them could not speak English or any other European language. It suited the white colonial strategy of that time. The same people, or others alike, now living in this society have suddenly become a problem for them.

Who is working in your restaurants? Who is doing the labour on your farms? Who runs your cafés? Who are your second generation migrant children working in your hospitals and law firms that were brought up by non–English speaking parents? Will you refuse their labour on the basis that they don’t speak English? Is it acceptable to exclude these people from society?

…Australia wants to breed a white-only society under the guise of so called “multiculturalism” and it is clear that the strategy of our government is to limit and restrict people of colour in settling in Australia.

If a character is anything but white and straight in a mainstream film, then usually the filmmaker is using their race or sexuality to make a point or to underscore a message. As a result, we find ourselves drowning in one-dimensional characters, defined by their ‘otherness’, rather than as complex individuals. The follow-on harm of this is almost impossible to quantify; it tells people who are anything other than white and straight that they are different to the norm – and moreover, that they are solely defined by their point of ‘difference’.

…Whiteness as a default is one thing; whitewashing is its natural extension. The fact is, in film and television, white roles tend to stay white, while non-white roles are seen as more flexible in the casting department.

…Casting directors aren’t the villains here; the real problem is the societal expectation that most roles will be played by white actors, irrespective of the source material. When was the last time you saw a person of colour in a lead role, where their heritage wasn’t their defining feature? Of course, there are exceptions, but they are painfully rare.

Read as a critique of internet discourse, The Perils of “Privilege” is a useful book: sharp, thoughtful, and funny. The online phenomena Bovy observes are both real and troubling. (One of my marginal notes was “God, the internet is annoying.”) But unfortunately that’s not the book Bovy says she’s written. Rather, she declares it to be “an argument against using the concept of privilege to understand and fight against injustice.” Bovy has staked her authority on an assessment of the privilege framework so erroneous that her larger claim — that privilege discourse obstructs social activism, and should be abandoned outright in favor of “real solutions” — verges on incoherence.

It’s true that strangers on the internet viciously taking each other to task for acknowledging the circumstances of their lives without the requisite show of shame probably isn’t a great way to combat injustice. But to call this particular phenomenon “the ‘privilege’ framework” is to ignore the history of the concept of privilege. It dismisses its actual uses in academic and activist circles, and neglects an enormous body of empirical research that studies the problems and effects of privileges on parity and justice in a variety of settings (including workplaces, hospitals, and schools). With a quick disclaimer, Bovy acknowledges, but doesn’t explore, how the framework is useful for “people whose own identities actually match up with the one they’re advocating for, and who are using ‘privilege’ to illustrate their experience” — which raises the question of whether “privilege” is really the problem. What could have been a valuable book about the perils of getting mad online is hamstrung by its ambitions to be something grander.

…I have to object to the narrative Bovy puts forward in The Perils of “Privilege”. The foundation of that narrative rests on two ideas: first, that the meaning of the word “privilege” has only recently changed; and, second, that this semantic drift can be traced to the work of the feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh. Both of these ideas are incorrect. The former is predicated on a peculiar assumption about how language works in society. The word “privilege,” Bovy argues, once signaled “that a rich person was also posh, or old money, versus self-made or otherwise nouveau”: the Astor descendant, not last week’s Powerball winner. But once it was attached to an anti-oppression pedagogy invented in feminist academia, she continues, “privilege” came to mean any kind of unearned advantage, from a winning lottery ticket to above-average height. With this genealogy, Bovy tacitly suggests that the word “privilege” has a real meaning (“a way of specifying that a rich person was also posh, or old money”) and a false one (“all forms of relative advantage”). But this ignores the fact that the meanings of words change over time, not by imperial order of the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary, but through colloquial use. These evolving meanings typically accumulate and overlap, rather than succeed or replace one another. The definitions of abstract nouns like “privilege” are not typically either/or, in other words; more often, they’re both/and.

Just as men are taught not to acknowledge their unearned advantages, McIntosh, as a white person, “had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage,” but “not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” Over time, she compiled a list of observations about “what it is like to have white privilege,” which she describes as “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Forty-six of these unearned assets are described in the paper, including “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time,” “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented,” and “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”

Bovy herself reveals how badly she misunderstands McIntosh’s work when she compares the privilege check with the practice of counting one’s blessings — dreadful “[when] the phrase is […] used to dismiss, say, clinical depression,” but “a useful response to minor unpleasantness.” She also thinks that privilege has more to do with minority resentment than with unearned power that self-replicates across generations. But there is far more to it than this. It is crucial, McIntosh writes, to distinguish “between unearned advantage and conferred dominance”: to understand the problem of privilege in terms of its cumulative power. In fact, the paper incorporates a critique of the term “privilege,” which McIntosh regards as useful but flawed; she even touches on some of the same concerns Bovy voices about the word’s wiggliness. “The word ‘privilege’ carries the connotation of being something everyone must want,” she writes:

Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance, gives permission to control, because of one’s race or sex. The kind of privilege which gives license to some people to be, at best, thoughtless, and at worst, murderous, should not continue to be referred to as a desirable attribute.

It’s unfair to suggest that McIntosh thinks that individual self-awareness is the whole point of the privilege checklist exercise: it was always meant to point back to structural conditions.

…When she’s spoken publicly about privilege work, she herself has tended to talk about it largely as a personal or small group practice, a kind of proto-therapeutic process that, as she told The New Yorker in 2014, “let[s] people testify to their own experience.” In this, privilege work — and, arguably, the larger pedagogy of white anti-racist education — has fallen victim to some of the same structural problems that plagued feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s. An early understanding that consciousness-raising was the first stage in a bigger structural process was downplayed and ignored, perhaps because many of the second-wave texts were, like McIntosh’s paper, circulated in fragments. Indeed, without a programmatic effort to connect the individual emotional inventory to its implications for larger sociopolitical work, what results is a lot of narcissistic “awareness” but little else.

…But throughout The Perils of “Privilege”, Bovy mistakes a critique of the online mobilization of the rhetoric of privilege for a refutation of the privilege framework in its entirety, both as a theoretical concept and as a consciousness-raising strategy in anti-oppression work. She also ignores enormous swaths of social science literature — education, psychology, educational psychology, sociology, public health — that utilize the privilege framework in ways that have been consequential in combating a number of forms of discrimination. Considerable work in these fields focuses on the problem of implicit bias, the references and aversions that lay just out of our conscious reach but heavily shape our interactions and decisions. Reflecting on personal experiences and cultivating empathy are both crucially important to challenging the subconscious beliefs that materially enact structural discrimination. We know, for example, that job candidates with names that aren’t perceived as white and/or American receive far fewer interview requests than similarly qualified candidates. We know that white physicians are more likely to ignore acute symptoms in black patients. The privilege framework developed by McIntosh and others can be an incredibly powerful tool in helping people unpack their implicit biases, which can, in turn, change their behavior. (Can, of course, is the keyword here: praxis is only as useful as its practitioners.)

Bovy’s focus on elite academic contexts also leaves readers with the impression that “the ‘privilege’ framework” is only set decoration in a narcissistic ivory tower tableau. “The ‘privilege’ wars all seem to stem, in one way or another, from the campus,” Bovy writes. But her assumption that “the scholarly examination of inequality” is best summed up as “seminar classes por[ing] over theories of power imbalance and symbolic ‘violence’” is bizarre. Whether or not such work has utility (and I think it does), academic inquiry on this subject is multidisciplinary and often undertaken with the hope of providing concrete solutions to real-world problems. What’s more, the elite academic population Bovy identifies as the key constituency for YPIS (i.e., people with privilege lambasting others with privilege) is often a powerful one. Many of those elite college students will outgrow attacking one another’s backgrounds and come to occupy positions of real authority in medicine, in law, and in business; they will ultimately help to set hiring practices, standards of care, and legal precedents. Bovy is certainly right that awareness presages, but does not guarantee, action. But we can’t predict what consequences an increase in sensitivity can have over the long term. Privilege critiques can feel petty and personal, but they’re meant to point to the general level of structural inequality in society, even if this isn’t always clear in the moment they’re delivered.

To be clear, I don’t think that the privilege framework is above criticism. It’s certainly worth asking, for instance, why one of the most popular contemporary tools for justice work places all of the focus on the privileged. (Bovy has observed how this plays out online, but the terms she sets for the book preclude serious engagement with this question.) But its flaws, even if they’re categorical, are symptoms of a larger problem, one that probably can’t be solved just by using different words to talk about it. Peggy McIntosh’s theory was based in the observation that people with power — in her case, the men she worked with — generally don’t like to give it up. This fear of losing power has factored into the most violent episodes in this country’s history, it has shaped our governing structures, and it has perpetuated a hateful discourse of exclusion. The kind of prescription Bovy offers — among her suggestions is “[j]ust don’t be overtly racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory” — is either facile or wildly optimistic.

While I fundamentally disagree with Bovy about the origins of the discourse of privilege and its ongoing efficacy in social justice work, broadly defined, I do agree with many of her conclusions about how the privilege framework operates in online discourse. Like Bovy, I’ve been one acquainted with the night, by which I mean “all this internet bullshit,” and I too have seen how privilege work, however well intentioned, can become an ascetic, even dogmatic effort to regulate our internal lives and their external performative expressions that doesn’t do anyone much good. I agree that the concept can be used as a cudgel that stifles criticism.

‘Talk to me. Say something. Use words I don’t have to go back to college to understand.’ I guess from that, something I’d really love to talk to you about is the role of language in making hierarchies of access and meaning!

‘I desire community with others who’ve been shut out and have often been stripped of the ability to form functional communities due to the trauma that stems from systemic oppression, and who’ve been denied access to education.
… I don’t want to contribute to a structure whose only purpose seems to be the commodification of certain kinds of knowledge and the erasure of others – I want to resist it with all of my might.’

It turns out that much of our sense of reality is attached to particular places, histories and relationships. There were times when I would wake, forgetting that I had moved, the outlines of my bedroom made strange in early morning shadow. It was as if, in those first few seconds of consciousness, another life asserted itself. The one before.

Green came in different shades, eucalypts pale against the tropical hues of memory. The heat was arid rather than humid. I would walk down suburban streets, wondering where all the people were. It took a while for me to get used to the vast, empty spaces that flanked the freeway.

But there were other disorientations. In my first year in Australia, a Pakistani refugee lit himself on fire in Canberra after his application for family reunion was rejected. A Norwegian freighter that had rescued hundreds of Afghans in international waters was not allowed to dock. In a separate incident, politicians declared that children had been thrown into the sea. It was also the year when two planes slammed into the World Trade Centre in New York; on an inner-city street in Melbourne, a scarf was ripped off a woman’s head. A few years later, violence erupted on a sun-drenched beach in Cronulla.

… It does not take long for migrants in Australia to realise that no certificate of citizenship will protect them from anyone who believes that they belong elsewhere. I will always be someone who arrived, ever arriving. I had left.

…It is an odd sensation, the realisation that the past moves on without you. I had counted on certain parts of my life being preserved—ballast against the precariousness of being in another country. It is a conceit. The lives of my family and friends go on, the country of my birth goes on, and things happen despite my absence. It took some time for this no longer to hurt. I come now from elsewhere when I am there, a tourist in the places where I was a child, which must also be home. Yet when I do go home, to where I now live, I come from elsewhere, too.

The novelist Salman Rushdie captured something of this simultaneity in the phrase ‘imaginary homelands’. I remember reading the collection of essays bound under this title, and finally exhaling, relieved from the naming of an affliction. The homeland of my birth is an imagined one, cobbled from memories. But where I live is also an imagined homeland; I will never be native to it, nor will the years compensate.

Migrants inhabit spaces that can only be approximated by language. They represent ‘here’ and ‘there’ at once. The acts of departure and arrival are internalised processes, seldom resolved. Rushdie refers to the migrant experience as a ‘triple disruption’: loss of a sense of place, language and social norms; the very things that shape human beings. ‘The migrant, denied all three, is obliged to find new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human.’
I received this as wisdom, liberating and empowering. But it was complicated by the sense that my presence, the presence of people from elsewhere, causes anxieties that must be mollified. They never are mollified.

It is hard to know how to be a citizen under such circumstances. It does not seem enough to obey the law, pay taxes, vote and work. I’ve crossed the border and exist within, but there seem to be barriers less permeable. My place here feels borrowed, lent, in which case what does being an Australian mean?

The answer is more arbitrary than people realise. A person born in Australia before 25 January 1949 was a British subject regardless of the status of their parents, and even if their family were here as tourists at the time of their birth. Persons born in Australia thereafter, up to 19 August 1986, were automatically Australian citizens. The principle of jus soli was abolished after this date, and persons could only be citizens by birth if at least one parent was an Australian citizen at the time they were born.

In December 2014 the Australian Parliament passed amendments to the Migration Act 1958 so that children born in Australia to an ‘unauthorised maritime arrival’ would find it extremely difficult ever to become Australian citizens. Babies born to ‘unlawful non-citizens’ within the migration zone and at offshore facilities were retrospectively given the same legal status as their parents, and as ‘transitory’ persons were subject to removal.

…In brief, the matter of who gets to be a citizen and remain one is a function of political sentiment. We have seen this overseas, in the way that citizenship has been wielded as a weapon.

Whether in immigration policies or political campaigns, a contest over citizenship often comes to reflect insecurities rather than clarifying the principles. In Australia, public discourse has engendered the singular perception that citizenship is bestowed. It is encapsulated in the ‘love it or leave’ dictum that meets all sorts of infractions, such as suggesting that Australia Day is an occasion of hurt for Indigenous Australians and should be dropped from the national calendar. ‘Love it or leave’ frames citizenship as compliance with white colonial narratives.

This is a shrunken mindset, but it does reflect the underside of citizenship. In ancient Greece, slavery propped up citizenship. The difference between citizens and non-citizens was designed so that citizens could fulfil their democratic obligations, including those of military necessity, without going into debt. Citizenship was a means of being free, unless you were a woman, a minor, a slave or a foreigner.

Reciprocal bonds morphed along with structures of power, as feudal estates gave way to cities and then nation-states. The rights that accrued to citizenship, such as being able to vote and hold public office, still reflected the economic and social architecture of the time. After the French Revolution, only men who owned property had political rights. In the United States, long after the abolition of slavery, black Americans had to struggle for the vote—and in some states still do.

Citizenship has been a dynamic process. Its contemporary form, based on voluntary allegiance, the rule of law and equality before the law, is a product of human civilisation. Two prevailing views give it shape.

The liberal view organises citizenship around individual entitlements and protection: the architecture of the state in service of the citizen. It is inextricable in this regard from social justice. It is rendered meaningless wherever the state, or some version of it, delivers nothing but violence, corruption, poverty and enslavement. The varied reasons for the current mobilisation of human beings towards the north and west can thus be distilled as a search for citizenship—the right to have rights. No such right exists for persecuted minorities such as Hazara, Rohingya and Yazidi. It is extinguished in Syria.

The republican view, on the other hand, frames citizenship as a set of responsibilities. It emphasises active participation, with citizens as contributors rather than recipients. Certain narratives around ‘the model citizen’ and national identity lend themselves to this view.

The key point of difference between liberal and republican views is whether citizenship, as an obligation, rests on the state or the individual. Mutuality comes closer to how it should be, the very basis of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract. It then bears pondering why in recent times citizenship has become a test for citizens alone, particularly non-white citizens who must always prove themselves. Law-abiding Muslim Australians, for instance, may well ask of authoritarian governments: What of your allegiance to me? What about your part in the contract?

…The xenophobic slur ‘I was born here, you flew here’ does not speak to the legitimacy of Australian citizens. The democratic structures and processes that anti-immigrant Australians hold up as exceptional confer that legitimacy. In any case, as a friend who once worked at the immigration department points out, citizenship applicants develop a more significant understanding of citizenship than those who didn’t have to earn it.

‘You could see it and feel it,’ she says. In one instance, an African family turned up at the department in their best outfits, suit and all. She considers such applications the most satisfying part of her job, and found it particularly moving to be part of a refugee’s journey. The approval of a citizenship application from a person who came on a humanitarian visa brings profound relief, pride and excitement at being able to vote and officially be part of the community. The rush of feeling, my friend says, can be summed up as: ‘I can start my life here now.’ It is this sense of permanence that is the basis for mutuality—the reciprocity that captures the fullness of citizenship. Anything that erodes it diminishes the meaning of citizenship itself.

There were many reasons why I eventually decided to take up citizenship. On some level, becoming an Australian was a formality. I already felt a sense of ownership; once I started saying ‘our Olympic team’, ‘our Cate’, ‘our government’, I knew that I was far gone. I could no longer pretend that the distress I felt over egregious policies against asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians was the distress of an onlooker. Outsiders don’t feel shame, and I did.

Over two hundred pages and just twenty thousand words, Mutter combines biography and autobiography, art writing, and poetry…The kind of book that Mutter is is often labelled by marketing departments as genre-resistant, or ‘uncategorizable’, which is just how Zambreno’s distributor, MIT Press, describes it. These terms are useful in that they assist the commercial proliferation of this kind of literature.

…But these terms are also not useful, in that they marginalise what is in fact a genre, or perhaps more accurately a movement of literature that has been active—and deeply influential—for decades.

Perhaps the ‘genre-resistant’ is continually marginalised because it belongs in some way to the feminist, or to the queer, or to the continental – i.e., despicable to Anglo readers.

In her 1988 book Thinking Through the Body, feminist Jane Gallop writes, “The passage between theory and life story is paved by two non-aligned intellectual movements of the seventies – American feminism and French post-structuralism.” She cites its possible origins in two texts: Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. She says that these books “appeared at the moment this American feminist … was dreaming of such an impossible couple.”

By the nineties, the two movements were clearly intertwined in a number of literary outputs: Duke University feminism, queer theory, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and the feminist novels surrounding it, buzz-genres popular among undergraduate lit students like ‘autotheory’, ‘fictocriticism’, and ‘autofiction’, whose groundwork partly laid the foundations for the success of contemporary literary superstars like Karl Ove Knausgård, Maggie Nelson, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti. More commercially, the melding of the ‘critical’ and the ‘personal’ that is now visible across a vast body of popular arts criticism; the explosion of the intellectual and/or pseudo-scholarly personal essay.

Chris Kraus, who edited Mutter under Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents imprint, is a key actor in ‘legitimising’ this kind of literature, which sits at the edge of theory and life writing or bodily writing. In her 2014 essay ‘The New Universal’ she wrote:

I started the Native Agents series for Semiotext(e) in 1990, when Semiotext(e) was well-known for publishing French theory, with the idea of transferring some of French theory’s legitimacy to some friends in New York, all of them women, who could best be described as post-New York School writers. That is, they wrote about all kinds of things in the first person with a disinterested but always interesting candour.

Writers whose lives and texts embodied the claims about subjectivity that French male theorists were making. And did so with the droll humour that is native to outsiders.

Mutter is unapologetically intellectual, and unapologetically bodily. But while this reader enjoys an intertextual puzzle as much as the next, I found the most compelling threads within Mutterwere those bearing witness to the ordinary; sites of lament and also startling beauty.

…While Zambreno’s biographical research and writing about Darger is excellent, the comparison between this artist—who was effectively denied a place in society by the trauma of his institutionalisation—and the author’s middle-class mother is tenuous.

The obvious connection is that the elegy is a form that is prompted by the sentiment uni sunt: Where are they? Where are those who went before? The institutionalised, as with those housewives who were deprived of ambition or its fulfilment, are missing from our common histories. This work, then, of biography and autobiography, works towards righting (writing) that injustice. It writes the forgotten mothers and the forgotten artists back into existence.

…In a similar vein, I found the problem of metaphor extended to some of Zambreno’s digressions into theoretical literature. In one passage, she writes:

The women in our family threatening to maim or kill each other, often as a joke or expression of affection. I have inherited their brutal language. My mother: I’m going to take you out back and shoot you Katie. My grandmother: Come over here so I can slap you.

Immediately afterwards, and on the same page, she quotes:

Luce Irigaray: If we continue to speak the same language to each other, we are going to reproduce the same history.

The compulsion, here, to frame life writing within the metaphors of psychoanalytic theory, deprives Zambreno’s memories—which are tenderly drawn—of oxygen. By using this quotation from Irigaray’s ludic essay ‘When our Lips Speak Together’—a passionate text challenging psychoanalysis’ prioritisation of the phallus and male subjectivity—Zambreno seems to position these mothers’ dark jokes as evidence of intergenerational complicity with patriarchy. A realthreat. And while that threat is real, and in fact permeates Book of Mutter as it permeates the lives of all women, the labour of proving it here seems unnecessary. Critical interjections like this one make up in large part Mutter’s voice, and at times can feel heavy handed.

The ‘uncategorizable’ template holds enormous promise for writers like Zambreno—intellectual, experimental, and deeply feeling—to offer up their lives as a textual thing. The play between philosophy and the body, poetry and life as it is lived, when perfectly balanced, offers the possibility of legitimacy that has historically been denied to authors who skirt the boundaries of sanctioned knowledge and the knowledge that comes from bearing witness to life.

Finding this balance, between theory and style, metaphor and authenticity, is a challenge unique to this mode of writing. Is experience the same as research? Not always, but it can be. Is emotion the true subject of theory? The only way an author can test this is by testing the limits of form.

A continent and its inhabitants are constantly stereotyped by Westerners. In time a generation of writers of that continent respond by questioning those assumptions to claim their stories, tell them in their own voices and to reverse the gaze. Now here were those same writers being told we were somehow puppets. I took a deep breath. I asked the interviewer whether he thought I, as a writer, should ignore the most important thing to happen in a country’s history. I told him that to me it was privilege to find myself in a place where I could write about events of such significance.

…Elif Shafak, the Turkish novelist once prosecuted for insulting Turkishness, says that for her, being political is not a choice. “Non-Western authors have a different relationship with politics from their Western colleagues. Writers from lands where democracy is still an unfulfilled dream, such as Turkey, Pakistan, Nigeria, or Egypt, do not have the luxury of being apolitical.” She talks about her experience at literary festivals where, sometimes to our frustration, we writers who represent places beyond the West tend to be treated as spokespeople rather than artists. What Shafak says is true, but my experience of international literary festivals tells me something more, it tells me about how people in different countries relate to my work and how they view literature.

At the Lahore Literature Festival an audience member asked me: “What are the lessons for Pakistan in your work, Ms. Forna?” The typical questioner perceives me, the writer, as possessed of an outward-looking, social duty.

By contrast, questions from Western readers are far more likely to be personal. In Oxford, I am more likely to be asked if I find writing cathartic. In Britain, interviewers in particular are always keen to seek autobiographical connections between me and my work. In other words, a Western readership tends to be far more interested in the interior worlds of writing and reading. Writing is perceived as a private battle with the individual consciousness.

…There are, of course, authors living and working in this country today who are producing realist fiction which examines how the larger structure of the economy and the actions of the state, both at home and abroad, can circumscribe—even determine—the social, the personal…Their work examines themes of witness, imperialism, displacement, identity, race, the environment, gender. You will be able to name others I am sure. At the same time, the literary traveler cannot help but notice how—both internationally and nationally—political writing mainly emerges from the margins, at the very least from beyond the centre.

But I do believe there is more to the answer of why there is a lack of political novels coming from Western writers relative to other parts of the world—more I mean than the excessive comfort of the Western writer. The answer, or part of the answer, concerns not politics but aesthetics, and that’s really what I want to talk about.

Not long ago I asked an American publisher at the London Book Festival whether she received many manuscripts for political novels. She said no. Aloud I wondered why. “There is an idea that a political novel…” she hesitated, disinclined, I think to be undiplomatic, and so I supplied the answer: “Undermines the literary aesthetic?” “Yes,” she nodded.

Okri says African writers are too deeply wedded to “subject” often at the insistence of their publishers, and here is Forche detailing the opposite experience, of attempts to deter her from “subject” of being told she must avoid the political, partly for reasons of ownership of those subjects, but also because they were considered contrary to poetry’s aesthetic. Neither writer is free, the African (and Indian and Pakistani and what have you) writer is in danger of being bound by place, by circumstance, by obligation. The Western writer is in danger of being bound by notions of aesthetics.

That the aesthetic and the political, or the aesthetic and “subject,” are at odds with each other is to my mind a false opposition. Novels are artificial constructs, they are birthed in blood. Poems, too. Writing is a process of synthesis, the taking of strands from one place and another, the deployment of subject, form and language to fashion something entirely new. All of that doing must be carefully disguised or the illusion is broken. The aesthetic must be honoured above all else, but not to the exclusion of all else. A political novel can fail as a work of art as much as any other novel, but the fact that it is political does not sentence it to failure.

…New writers are often told to write what they know. I tell my students something different. I say write not what you know, but what you want to understand, for it is that enquiry which has sustained me through the years it takes to write a book. The artist Paul Klee described drawing a picture as “taking a line for a walk.” I have often borrowed his words to explain my approach to writing, when I write a novel it is like I am taking a thought for a walk. In each of my books I have tried to answer a question. Typically when I begin a work the question is not fully formed—it takes me most of the writing to figure out exactly what it is. If I am lucky I will have the question and some of the answer by the end. I call myself a political novelist. By political I mean that I examine the world for how events at a macro, the big ‘P’ level, affect ordinary folk at the personal level, the level of the small ‘p.’ Also how choices at the small ‘p’ level can end up changing the big ‘P’ in ways that may be desirable or undesirable.

When I sat down to write my first book, a memoir, the question I wanted to answer was this: How does a country implode? The book covered the years of my childhood, which almost exactly corresponded with Sierra Leone’s birth and evolution into a newly independent state, and the years of my adulthood which witnessed the horror and descent into civil war. At one point in the research I made three chronologies. One of the country’s history, one of my father’s life—he had been a political activist and prisoner—and one of my own life. I superimposed them one on the other, and I saw how every major event in my father’s life came as a result of political decisions or actions at a national level, and so as a consequence did every major event in my childhood.

“Non-fiction reveals the lies, but only metaphor can reveal the truth.” I decided to become a writer of fiction for the greater possibilities afforded by the imagination.

…There are so many reasons to write and to read. For the humor, the thrill, the opportunity to escape. All have their value. Write what you want, I say. But big ‘P’ politics is standing outside the door. A good friend of mine who has been a war correspondent for 30 years told me recently: “I have never seen the world as bad as this. Something big is coming.” For writers living in more immediately beleaguered nations that “something” is already inside the house. Who is better placed in this era of extremist and reductionist ideologies, narrated on the Internet and through social media, who better to challenge self-serving versions of the human story, than we writers, whose work it is to understand and convey nuance and complexity, who can offer a different way of seeing, one which challenges prevailing rhetoric with an alternative vision?

Literature and power cannot be separated. American literature is read around the world not only because of its inherent value, but because the rest of the world always reads the literature of empires. A new development is that the American way of teaching writing is beginning to spread globally. The writing workshop, with all its unexamined assumptions, has spread to Britain and Hong Kong, a model of pedagogy that is also an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself.

Not accidentally, the “workshop” invokes the nobility of craftsmanship, physical (not intellectual) labor — and masculinity. As Junot Díaz and Claire Vaye Watkins have argued, the workshop can be a hostile place for women and people of color.

Reacting against the rising proletarianism of American writing before World War II and the specter of Soviet power, American writer-teachers promoted the idea of creative writing as a defense of the individual and his humanistic expression. Politics and the spirit of collectives would not be in fashion.

What would be in fashion: voice, experience, and showing rather than telling. So it is that workshops typically focus on strategies of the writing “art” that develop character, setting, time, description, theme, voice and, to a lesser extent, plot. Plot is usually seen by workshop writer-teachers, or teacher-writers, as the property of so-called “genre” writing: science fiction, crime, romance, young adult and screenplays — as if literary fiction were not also a genre.

As a young aspiring writer, I was troubled by how these workshops, aside from the “art” of writing, did not have anything to say about the matters that concerned me: politics, history, theory, philosophy, ideology. How does one write a poem, a short story or a novel that deals with any of these things? I did not realize at the time that such issues were often beyond the horizon of concern of the workshop because they threatened its very origins.

As an institution, the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that “Show, don’t tell” is universal when it is, in fact, the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male. The identity behind the workshop’s origins is invisible. Like all privileges, this identity is unmarked until it is thrown into relief against that which is marked, visible and outspoken, which is to say me and others like me.

We, the barbarians at the gate, the descendants of Caliban, the ones who have no choice but to speak in the language we have — we come bearing the experiences and ideas the workshop suppresses. We come from the Communist countries America bombed during the Cold War, or where it sponsored counter-Communist efforts. We come from the lands America occupied, invaded or colonized. We come as refugees and immigrants, documented and undocumented. We come from the ghettos, barrios, reservations and borders of America where there are no workshops. We come from the bedrooms and the kitchens of the American home, where we were supposed to stay, and stay silent. We come speaking languages other than English. We come from the margins, where English is broken. We come with financial aid and loans and families that do not understand what “creative writing” is. We come from communities we do not wish to renounce in the name of our individualism. We come wanting to do more than just sell our stories to white audiences. And we come with the desire not just to show, but to tell.

But what is that art that is also political, historical, theoretical, ideological and philosophical? How is it to be taught? It must be taught not only as an isolated craft or a set of techniques. It must be taught in relation to, or within, courses on history, politics, theory and philosophy, as well as ethnic studies, gender studies, queer studies and cultural studies.

The history and aesthetics of the workshop must be made visible rather than assumed, and the capacity of writing to save lives and change the world must be seen not as something that is innate only to the writing but as something that is enabled by, and in turn enables, social movements, revolutions and the struggle for power.

Jolles belongs to the generation of scholars now seen as the precursors of the structuralists: a generation that combined the tools of anthropology and literary theory to investigate the origins of human aesthetic sensibilities. The world they lived in had just been torn apart by revolutions and World War I. It was also rapidly headed for the century’s next major international conflict. Against the sense of fragmentation produced by these political instabilities, as well as by the waves of technological modernization that concurrently overtook the cities in which they lived, these writers sought to better understand the lost traditional world that preceded them, and especially the more traditional patterns of thought and attention that seemed increasingly obsolete. They took much interest in immediate experience: in what it feels like to inhabit our cultural environments, and how our sense of ourselves emerges out of interactions with them.

Heidegger believed that the interactive, relational self-understanding that we develop in our daily lives is ontologically tied to, and revelatory of, our human condition. By contrast, Jolles viewed the habits and metaphors we live by as imperfect working hypotheses about what our surroundings are like. On their account, the forms taken by our relations to our environments are simple and individually limited tools for dealing with a world whose complexity we can never take in all at once — especially not while also dealing with the burdens of the everyday. However, tracking down the working premises of the approximations by which we express ourselves, communicate with others, and explain reality to ourselves, had a value for these thinkers that was independent of such ontological imperfections. They served as implicit proof that the early 20th-century malaise and sense of cognitive fragmentation could be resolved not only through a now impossible-seeming fully synthetic philosophical system, but also through much more local and quotidian means of giving our life a fragile sense of order.

A more full-blown, self-conscious version of these ideas was only formulated by a slightly later generation, which would rephrase the elusive forms and morphologies pursued by Jolles and Propp as “structures.” These later figures — including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Leo Strauss, and Roland Barthes — were also the first to apply this formal approach not only (as did Jolles) to our cultural past, but also to their present-day cultural production. But the forms of their arguments — and the poetic rhetoric in which they are couched — come from this earlier generation of what have come to be called “morphological” scholars, whom many of the early structuralists read and learned from.

Jolles’s biography is not unusual for a Western European scholar of his period. He made forays into Egyptology, theater, dance, Western literature across many languages and periods, and, finally — in the work that would make him most famous — folklore. He extended onto all of these sources a formal curiosity and intellectual generosity that critics otherwise would only accord to works by established geniuses of the Western canon.

…Simple Forms aims to define what Jolles calls the basic “verbal gestures” behind the various ways we tell stories, and the various contexts in which we tell them. Jolles claims to derive all of our contemporary narrative forms and categories from these folk originals, in a way that has bearing not only on their genealogies but also on their current functions.

For Jolles, a “verbal gesture” is a rhetorical form. It is also the set of relations among human beings, as well as between them and their environment, that an utterance calls into being and solidifies. Anticipating J. L. Austin’s theories of performativity, Jolles is deeply sensitive to the fact that what we say and how we say it orients us toward and within our world. Behind each human utterance he senses an implicit worldview and epistemic: an unarticulated but meticulously enacted theory about how we gather knowledge about our world, to what uses we put this knowledge, and how we expect this knowledge to accumulate over time. To put one’s experience into formalized language is, in Jolles’s mind, also to commit oneself to some combination of these aims — and to the mindsets from which they emerge. The best way to understand our own contemporary ways of thinking is, moreover, to trace them back to a select few original “simple forms” from which they stem, and within which lay buried the simplest algorithms of choices and distinctions by which we make sense of our experiences and lives. The forms Jolles includes in this highly selective group are nine in total: “legend,” “saga,” “myth,” “riddle,” “saying,” “case,” “memorabile,” “fairy tale,” and “joke.”

“Where the world thus creates itself for man out of question and answer” — Jolles concludes a few lines later — “this is where the form we shall call myths begins.” He associates myth with the need to imagine the world as coherent and consistently explainable. He also associates it, more particularly, with the need to see this world as ready to yield answers to a receptive human being; so ready, indeed, that in most recorded myths, the question that inspired an answer is only implicit. The world around us accepts our confusion and reaches out to us to help resolve it, maybe even before we are able to properly articulate our confusion’s source. That, for Jolles, is the highest form of the fantasy that myth promotes, explaining its intellectual satisfaction as well as relief that it gives to the person to whom it is told.

The full impact of this phenomenological and relational redefinition of myth is felt in the comparisons it allows Jolles to make to other forms — most surprisingly, perhaps, to the much more insignificant-seeming riddle:

When we compare question and answer in riddle with question and answer in myth, the first thing we notice is the superficial fact that where the form myth gives us the answer, the form riddle gives us the question. Myth is an answer in which the question is implicit; riddle is a question that demands an answer.

Out of this almost trivial, deceptively naïve parallel, Jolles unravels a magisterial account of the riddle as the basic rhetorical form of social boundary setting and community building. If myth sets in place a world whose nonhuman parts strive to explain themselves to human beings, the riddle captures the paradoxical capacity of social groups to be self-enclosed but also porous to strangers. On an immediate, pragmatic level, the riddle establishes forms of social hierarchy and exclusion: “The guesser, for his part, is not someone who answers another’s question, but someone who wishes to be admitted to this wisdom, to be accepted into the group, and who proves with his answer that he is ready for this.” In the larger philosophical terms of Simple Forms, the riddle also depicts a certain idealized balance of protection and inclusiveness: a balance that, according to Jolles, is not only a system of passwords, but an expression of the value of a local community as well as of the people who are as yet outside it.

Part of what is amazing about this comparison, and others like it throughout Simple Forms, is Jolles’s willingness to see these forms — tonally different as they are — on the same existential plane. Each of them serves an important social and epistemic function that another simple form could not satisfy. Nevertheless, Jolles refuses to see some of these forms as somehow transcending — or enclosing within themselves — the seemingly more minor ones like riddles and proverbs.

The equanimity with which he treats all of these forms, and raises each of them to a parallel (if not always mutually compatible) level of abstraction, irritates Jameson throughout his otherwise laudatory introduction. There is an obvious weakness to Jolles’s exceedingly democratic approach to rhetorical forms: it is caught in an uneasy balance between the equally undesirable poles of formal reductionism and anarchy. Like the worldviews that these forms are supposed to embody and stem from — roughly half of which hinge on some notion of totality, and half of which are much more comfortable with incompleteness and fragmentation — Jolles is caught between taking pride in the completeness of his work, and in the open-ended, loose connections he establishes between its components. Furthermore, he seems unsure what simple form he is himself speaking from: it is unclear throughout the book whether his own account of the origins of our verbal gestures is supposed to awe and assuage us the way a myth might, or to illustrate some larger point about language along the lines of a case study, or perhaps to set up a riddle for which Jolles alone, and his school of thought, can provide answers.

In Jolles’s own time, it might perhaps have seemed possible to resolve these questions by leaning on biological notions of evolution and morphology derived from Darwin on the one hand, and Goethe on the other — both of which would attribute the harmony between these forms, despite their contradictions, to the organic development of human consciousness into which Jolles somehow manages to intuitively tap. In our day and age, the unresolved tensions between these forms seem symptomatic of Jolles’s own confusion about his subject position in relation to these simple forms’ supposedly ancient-yet-also-universal spacetime. In particular, they bespeak his inability to acknowledge some of the very contemporaneous concerns that — as others, such as Walter Benjamin, understood more clearly — appeared to drive much of this early 20th-century folkloristic and anthropological thinking. The ease with which Jolles unselfconsciously dons the mantle of an ancient soothsayer, capable of voicing all of these traditional forms from the inside, is all the more troubling given the political future into which Jolles hurtled himself soon after Simple Forms was completed. Though he opposed Heidegger in many other ways, Jolles, like him, also eventually became a Nazi supporter. As in Heidegger’s case, one might see this turn as a betrayal of the more egalitarian feeling of Jolles’s earlier work, or one might find in this turn a chilling expansion of Jolles’s earlier views and choices. It bears noting, for instance, that his examples come primarily from so-called Aryan ethnic and cultural circles.

Any contemporary return to Jolles’s thinking must therefore be careful about what it recuperates. But as Jameson also suggests in his introduction, to think about and to admit to the similarities between Jolles’s thinking and our own, is thereby also an instructive exercise in critical self-examination about our preferred modes of rhetoric. Jolles’s simple forms are immersive attempts at explaining what it feels like to reach for a certain form of expression and find satisfaction in it — of how a verbal gesture involves a background of extremely generalizable, and even totalizing, expectations. Furthermore, they are humbling accounts of human thought as attempts to reach beyond, but also to compensate for, our cognitive and agential limitations, frequently doing both in the same gesture. As a parallax view of what Rita Felski has called “the uses of literature” — and of the dangers and paradoxes of trying to name and defend the ways we do things with words — Simple Forms speaks to us with surprising directness and insight, both in its strengths and in its weaknesses.

  • So woke By Jeremy Poxon in Overland 

However I suspect that there’s another hidden, murkier reason that this ad got the left – particularly the white, woketivist left – into such a tizzy: because it draws attention to our own always-already co-opted, neutered gestures of resistance.

The ad itself is like an old Marxist professor’s dystopian nightmare: activist youth appear as soulless avatars of trendy-materialistic individualism, engaging in politically meaningless outbursts of dissent and self-empowerment. This is a world where our material manifestations of dissent – slogans, signs, marches – have become empty signifiers, devoid of content, and disconnected from any concrete struggle. It’s a world where the logics of branding and commerce are completely interwoven with all aspects of our daily lives, even our rebellions.

In the individualised, entrepreneurial ethos of neoliberal capitalism, it appears that political participation has become part of our own self-realisation project.

I’d wager that, in part, the commercial struck such a severe nerve precisely because it (albeit unwittingly) called these kinds of shallow, self-serving protest actions into question. It conceptualised activism as a series of acts driven by self-gratification, rather than by genuinely altruistic impulses of philanthropy or social justice. Far from delivering an impact on political outcomes, emphasis is placed on what makes activists feel good, whether that be partying, wearing empowering tees, or consuming woke soft drink. Under magnification, many of our own acts of popular ‘protest’ seem as vacuous and stripped of meaning as Pepsi’s PR brain trust has unwittingly made them out to be.

That’s not to say that populist feel-good protests are bad or pointless, per se, but for all the self-righteous huff doing the rounds in progressive social media, it’s surprising and revealing that no one really wants to have a conversation about their effectiveness or political value. Or, what it means that the traditional boundary between ‘activist’ and ‘consumer’ has become so blurred that both identity categories can comfortably coexist. We like to think that brand and commodity culture is completely divorced from our genuine acts of humanitarianism, but as ads like Pepsi’s remind us, that’s simply no longer the case.

One of the enduring powers of neoliberal capitalism as a global force (to give it its due) is its ability to adapt and incorporate left-wing activism and youthful dissidence – social realms once considered ‘outside’ the consumer economy. How easily our radical movements are harnessed and reshaped for profit! This ad is another grim reminder that, within the contemporary culture industry, social activism has well and truly shifted into a marketable commodity for corporations and individuals alike.

…Corporations and individuals know there’s a mutual social and cultural currency to be earned by branding themselves as woke and progressive. We all want to be recognised as one of the cool kids fighting, partying and consuming on the right side of history. Performances of wokeness can benefit our social standing and increase the viability of our individual projects and products; think about how many social justice proclamations end with links to people’s new album, new video, or new (ahem) hot take. Between the individual and the cause there is a symbiotic relationship of mutual promotion and it can be mighty difficult to determine whether it’s the cause or the activist that most benefits from the deal. In an era when visibility has such currency, when we’re all relentlessly branding and self-promoting, it’s hard to know what’s authentic or insincere, and what’s self-interested or community-minded.

These are the murky, under-discussed consequences of the neoliberal branded self in youth culture and activism. A protest with no publicity or branding probably won’t achieve much, but what actually happens to activism when it’s ‘aided’ by branding techniques and flashy entrepreneurial individualism? To an extent, the market and corporate media demand we be self-interested: crafting woke self-image captures attention, interest, opportunities.

If we are to make substantial claims to community activism or solidarity, we have to do work that’s not so sexy, photo-friendly, or self-affirming. We have to be collectively rather than individually-motivated, work-oriented rather than image-oriented…We have to commit to broader struggles, specific resistances the way that so many activists, unionists and environmentalists do, unheralded, and on our behalf, every single day.

How do we create an oppositional worldview, a consciousness, an identity, a standpoint that exists not only as that struggle which also opposes dehumanization but as that movement which enables creative, expansive self-actualization? – bell hooks

In “The Politics of Radical Black Subjectivity,” bell hooks pondered the meaning of resistance. Resistance, she noted, is an activity connected to the process of coming into subjectivity. It can manifest in fleeting acts of rebellion or in uprisings that subside as spontaneously as they emerge. These resistances are spaces of possibility. For hooks, revolutionary resistances are borne from these acts of rebellion but are marked by critical awakenings that demand the recognition of the subject, new ways of being in the world, and creative social change. Feminism as a diverse body of thought and movement of struggle has and continues to pose radical challenges to the subject of resistance and the many forms resistance takes, and it has been marked by both fleeting acts of rebellion as well as monumental struggles for social change, often operating in concert with one another.

…The second section, “Vulnerability, Speech, and Resistance”, is comprised of pieces that rearticulate subjectivity. The first two pieces can be situated within the larger tradition of feminist poetics of resistance from such poets as Audre Lorde (1984) and Adrienne Rich (1979), both of whom wrote about the necessity of turning silence into action using language. Lorde’s assertion that poetry is about survival, about naming our experiences, and about defying the all-knowing white fathers, surfaces in Sheila Stewart’s poetry, wherein she explores the conditions of speech and the subordination of the female speaking subject.

The poem disrupts patriarchal definitions of feminine subjectivity through its representation in the plural – to feminine subjectivities that spill over the boundaries they are corralled within.

The next two articles in this section further explore the nuances of resistant subjectivities through a politics of vulnerability. Feminist recognition of the vulnerability of the subject and the subject’s relations in the world has prominently surfaced in feminist writings, particularly in those of Judith Butler (2004), to counteract a politic of autonomy that denies the interdependence of subjectivities and bodies.

…In “Invisible Manifesta,” Noel Glover draws attention to how problematic it is that acts of resistance, in order to gain legitimacy, must be “recognized” by a witnessing public that reads the subject as whole, impartial, autonomous, and locatable in identity categories. Glover argues for a politics of resistance that is not so easily visible and that understands subjectivity to be partial, multiple, fractured, vulnerable, interdependent, and rhizomatic. He draws on Donna J. Haraway’s cyborg as the ideal metaphor for a political subjectivity that resists reductive codification by a witnessing public.

…In the final section, “Bodily Resistances,” the authors play with the notions of visibility and invisibility of bodies, and their relegation to the “abject” through colonial imagining, medicalization, de-sexualization, and artistic representation. The discursive production of gendered, racialized and sexed bodies has been a privileged theme in feminist thought, especially within the past twenty years. Scholars have critically examined how certain bodies are deemed dangerous and unruly by epistemic authorities, and consequently either posited as deviant or pushed to the margins of public consciousness. As a result, they have resisted by summoning the lived body in all of its messy, leaky, and sensory corporeality into theory and activism. The creative and scholarly pieces assembled in the final section contribute to this conversation by untangling the webs of Othering and the pathologization of black, disabled and disordered bodies.



A number of positive reviews have already been written about Sovereignty (1). Key to understanding and engaging with this exhibition is a humble engagement with Indigenous knowledges, art and ceremonial practices, and living sovereign First Nations peoples and territories. We are at a crossroads in the journey of settler colonial states, institutions and communities beginning relationships with sovereign First Nations across the lands and waters called Australia. Tokenised representation in all manner of art schools, panels, exhibitions and public programming of local and global Indigenous peoples is normalised. It is nowhere near ideal. The cultural capital gained by settler curators working with, or enabling a guest curated project such as the two at ACCA I mentioned, undo the work of commissioning this kind of exhibition and public programming.

It seems we’ll forever be asking when critical mass—two or more First Nations staff in positions of authority and agency, depending on organisations’ size—will be reached in settler colonial institutions. As Yorta Yorta Nation curator Kimberley Moulton deftly discusses in her Sovereignty catalogue essay, ‘Should we be aiming for a non-colonial or anti-colonial space instead of trying to deconstruct the current imposing hold?’ (2) Moulton describes the continuing colonial constructs within which sovereign Indigenous artists, curators and writers resist and exist: Eurocentric art histories, art spaces, and art attitudes towards Indigenous peoples, territories, knowledges and rights.

The colossal emotional labour and curatorial magic that Paola Balla has brought to this project is without pair. Not only does Sovereignty mark the beginning of restoring Indigenous voice and agency in ‘public’ institutions (I said begin! There is so much to be done), the exhibition features carefully realised spaces for matriarchy, land and community rights and responsibilities, and agency specific to the First Peoples of southeastern Australia. Balla bears witness to contemporary cultural and political life: ‘The sovereignty of Indigenous peoples is being asserted in a cultural revolution of Indigenous activism, action and voice. (…) These actions can be considered expressions of sovereignty itself.’

…this could be the real time of change when at least two exhibitions (including solos) began to take place in the mainstream art institutions that to now continue to reflect and serve the diasporic European diaspora almost exclusively. This could be the time when directors, curators, public programmers, board members and audiences become more reflective of Indigenous peoples. This could be the time when local and global Indigenous curators, directors and public programmers curate exhibitions of their choice, having full agency over budgets and content.

These spaces of relationships outside of a non-Indigenous gaze serve our collective futures and presents, enabling us to imagine possibilities.

…Many of us would like to see commitments to non-tokenised and regular Indigenous art exhibitions, staff, boards and audiences. Significantly, I wish to see settler colonial institutions engage with First Nations governments, artists, curators, writers, languages, knowledges and territories from positions of humility and learning. I wish to see exhibitions and events curated by Indigenous curators and directors from across these lands and waters, and from other territories overseas, particularly Turtle Island/North America, Hawai‘i, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Kanaky/New Caledonia and Taiwan. This is to redress histories of exclusion that continue to now, so we may all become possible together, distinct and hopeful.

I offer my installation work, Absences (2016), in text form below as a respectful honouring of the cultural and political revival of the Wurundjeri people of the wider Kulin Nation. Ia manuia le tou soifua, I wish you all wellbeing.


(i)                                   Here

in Occupied






A European diaspora

holds fast                                             its grip


Presenting                                           Storing

Preserving                                           Knowledges

Bodies                                                  Economies



Gleaned, from homelands over seas


(ii)                                  Here

First Nations peoples across worlds and relations

thrive and endure

incessant recordings of




In European trends

and tongues

In master planned colonies

Arrogantly arriving

In territories


With senses shut

To finely cared for





(iii)                                Here

My brown body            From the moana ocean

Born of fanua country




My brown body            Not an erotic/exotic other

To consume

Humbled by                 Kulin peoples

Biik country

Mana presence

Grow my hair

loa long     loa long     loa long


loa long

Tā moments passing

Keep vā, with

Tupuga ancestors        mount Vaea

healing waters            Loimata     o     Apaula


From before

Our forced inclusion

In German/New Zealand/American

Empires of





Permitted worship

… After their late capitalist ending

Who should die? Whose fair country?



From continuing

dark times

To tread



(iv)                                 Here

Imagine manna forests                      laughing children

Toorook wetlands                               singing communities

Murnong gardens                               dancing welcomes

Wilam households                              flying healthy birds


I see possum skin cloaks

mapping kin and country


I see rivers, forests, villages

drawings, fires, dances, songs


And Wurundjeri culture cherished

sited // cited

centre // place

Know this restoration

In Bunjil and Waa’s embrace


Near the Wurundjeri Land Council

On the bends of

Merri yaluk






Birrarung yaluk

Nourishing Kulin

Since forever

Since Gregorian 1840



confront the often heartbreaking challenge of pairing the desire to live loving and observant lives with a constant struggle to simply survive the historical and ongoing injustices of racism and colonialism.

…to curate my words into a different kind of sound-bite prose – loving reminders that we are sovereign, complex beings with multiple subjectivities and histories – to float between, to step ashore, and that dare us to sink or swim.

…I loved the concept of grassroots presenters from around the world live-streaming ideas, programs and successes to transform and negotiate local and global neo-liberal mine-fields.  Their stories were spatially distant yet intimate and connected, akin to Leanne Simpson’s islands of decolonial love – a showcase of strategic people-power through the arts for environmental, socio-economic and cultural survival.  It was indeed nourishment for the heart, mind and spirit – one of those small yet potent events that linger.

…an interactive to-and-fro poetic-prose consideration of the archives we live in, and in-between, and those archives we actively create and re-invent in response to State power…an archival-poetic interrogation of the State’s colonial archives.

…I stared into the tiny gaps and cracks and searched for counter-narratives.  Teri Hoskin began the event by acknowledging country and I read some work, including a reflective rant-come-poetic-narrative tracing some of this history, simply titled ‘Cultural Precinct’.  The participants knew little about the site.  They hadn’t had to think critically about the colonial archive or archivisation processes, such as who consigns and classifies the archive, or who determines what is left in and out, and from whose perspective.  They hadn’t had to negotiate these institutions to access family records, and they weren’t aware of the insurmountable data that had been collected and contained within them.  The South Australian Museum boasts the largest collection of Aboriginal records, artifacts and human remains in the world, thanks to the Board of Anthropological Research expeditions comprising inter-disciplinary teams of ‘experts’ in biology, anthropology, pathology, physiology and psychology.  They ‘set up camp’ outside our communities around Australia to take photographs, measure facial features, take blood and hair samples, record genealogies and stories, make plaster body and face casts, collect skulls and bones, and so much more.  The Spring to Action participants, on that beautiful Adelaide day, hadn’t really considered the kinds of dehumanising acts that had taken place within the confines of these sacred-rock walls, or confronted the will of the State to eradicate the ‘Aboriginal problem’ through past measures that controlled and determined the lives of the living, and the remains of the dead.

One month after this Spring to Action event, I was projecting poetry, images and short videos on these very walls with my Unbound Collective sisters for ‘Sovereign Acts – Act 2’.

The work traces ideologies and representations of colonisation, eugenics, assimilation, collections, race, ethics, storytelling.  It asks questions of our capacities as Aboriginal peoples to move beyond ambivalent colonial constructions of identity.  It asks, what are the ethical conditions of collective freedom?

Ali’s original vision for Unbound was to curate a body of experimental work to explore complex ideas of being both bound and free; what we are bound to historically and, as sovereign people, what we choose to (un)bind ourselves to and from, both now and into the future.  We walked silently between these buildings to project our work on the limestone and sandstone walls with handheld projectors.  It was one way to repatriate love and agency back to our families and ancestors who were trapped in the confines of these walls, and as Ali says, in the process of these Sovereign Acts we transform ourselves and our worlds.


This Collective has allowed me to act on my desire to work affectively with space and time in this cultural-precinct public space; to make apparent and instigate the haunting of the haunted spaces and buildings, and to collectively conjure memories and experiences, through all the senses.  Something profound occurred in those performative moments, like we left an indelible imprint on those limestone walls – projecting new narratives beyond its established meaning; our islands of decolonial love.


we are your blind spot

the invisible made visible

the absent made present

with love

we are on Kaurna land.

– Unbound Collective, Sovereign Love Poem #7


Searching for my own history as a Vietnamese refugee brought to the United States by an American war in my country of origin, I had not found much available to me in English, either in the original or in translation. The overwhelming amount of American writing about the war was by Americans, and it was, not surprisingly, about Americans.

There were a few exceptions. Tran Van Dinh was a former diplomat from the South, the Republic of Vietnam, who stayed in America and wrote two novels dealing with the Vietnam War, “No Passenger on the River” (1965) and “Blue Dragon, White Tiger” (1983). As a precocious child who read everything I could about the war, I came across the latter in the public library of San Jose, Calif., my hometown, and was puzzled by its anomalousness. Even then I knew that it was rare to find Vietnamese writers in the United States speaking about this war, or to hear any Vietnamese voices at all in mainstream America.

Immersed in the stories, feelings and memories of the Vietnamese refugee community in which I grew up, I was determined to tell some of those stories, for I knew that Americans as a whole knew very little about them. Only a small cadre of Americans believed that it was necessary and urgent to learn more about Vietnamese voices and experiences, without which a more complete American understanding of the Vietnam War would never happen. American ignorance of Vietnamese history, culture and politics helped draw the United States into a war and a country that it did not comprehend. This pattern of ignorance arguably continues today, both in terms of what Americans continue to ignore about Vietnam and what Americans refuse to know about the Middle East. Literature plays an important role as a corrective to this ignorance.

Thinking back to Tran Van Dinh, I wonder if he was lonely as the only Vietnamese novelist in America of his time. Now we have no shortage of Vietnamese Americans writing in English, as well as translations of Vietnamese-language literature into English. But a lack of knowledge that this literature even exists continues. For most Americans and the world, “Vietnam” means the “Vietnam War,” and the Vietnam War means the American war, with novels written by American men about American soldiers. While their experiences are important, they are hardly representative of the Vietnam War, much less Vietnam.

Vietnam is a country, not a war. One need only read the short story collection “The General Retires,” by the masterful Nguyen Huy Thiep, to understand this. His stories reveal the complexities of postwar life in a disillusioned Vietnam, struggling to rebuild itself and to reconcile the hypocrisies and failures of Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese state with the noble wartime rhetoric of the Communist Party. At the same time, war defined a generation, and its consequences have shaped the generation after, as Ms. Thuy reveals in “The Gangster We Are All Looking For.”

Like much of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature dealing with the war, her novel shows that war affects more than soldiers or men. The Vietnam War was not remarkable in killing more civilians than soldiers, and in turning millions of civilians into refugees whose experiences were much more traumatic than those of the many American soldiers who never actually saw combat. Vietnamese-American literature forces its readers to acknowledge that a narrow definition of war that features only soldiers is inaccurate.

The literature by Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans is out there for anyone who knows how to use Google. But so many here and abroad would rather not know, or when a new Vietnamese author is published, would prefer to say, “At last! A voice for the Vietnamese!” In fact, there are so many voices, for the Vietnamese people are very loud. They just often aren’t heard by those who don’t understand Vietnamese, or those who would prefer to think of Americans when they hear the word “Vietnam,” or those who have room in their course syllabuses for only one Vietnamese book, as is still the case in too many college classes on the Vietnam War, even if that one book is as worthy as Bao Ninh’s novel “The Sorrow of War.” This book is not just a North Vietnamese war classic — it is a classic war novel of any time and any place.


As for the Communist Party of Vietnam, it, too, would rather not hear certain voices. Even Bao Ninh is silenced now, as is his great compatriot, Duong Thu Huong, the disillusioned northern veteran who was exiled for her disturbing postwar anti-Communist novels, books like “Novel Without a Name” and “Paradise of the Blind.” As for Vietnamese-American voices, while we are occasionally heard here — and then often forgotten — we are rarely heard in Vietnam. We are the losers, the traitors, the dissidents or simply the outsiders who see the nothingness behind a party that praises Communism while running the country as a capitalist dictatorship.

Like Le Ly Hayslip, we are caught between sides, Vietnam and America, Vietnamese and English, Communism and capitalism. As difficult as such a situation is, it is good for writers. The discomfort makes us write our stories, again and again, in the hope that we can change what people think of when they hear “Vietnam.”


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