Read this week

I’ve never succumbed to the ‘write what you know’ proselytising by some schools of literature—although I am a devout believer in educating oneself on that which you don’t know. If you’re going to write on a subject; if you deign to frame a fictional work around a cultural voice not your own, and your more level-headed friends don’t effectively talk you out of doing so, then be prepared for a gargantuan level of research and immersion. This includes the event of writing as a creative act, irrespective of your intended subjectivity.

When I am sifting through towers of submissions and run across work that reflects an understanding of grammar, syntax and punctuation—natural constraints of any language—and employs these rules to create a solid architecture upon which a writerly pursuit is delivered to a reader or effectively subverts these rules—including the contextual transmutation of characters, letters and punctuation, into unique iconography for deliberate affect—then I am piqued.

Take your time. Finish a poem. Read it aloud to a tree or a cat, any cat will do. Ignore it for a while thereafter. Then, read it silently and aloud anew. Mark where in the poem your past self is tripping up or confusing your current self. Edit as required. Repeat, repeat, then let another writer have a read. This is a rudimentary answer, sure, but it’s a process I, as a writer, do. Of course it’s a great feeling to get an acceptance note, and it’s remarkably easy now to submit work to publications … maybe a little too easy.

…Their books unfold beyond literature (indeed, we are in the age of redefining what a poem ‘is’) to engage other arts and sciences—the loam of collage and cartography, dance and psychology, respectively—and the results are powerful, bewitching, unique publications, each with dazzle that will not help alter the paradigm of contemporary Australian poetry—whatever you feel it is and wherever you feel it needs to go—for the sole reason that they are the contemporary. They are it. Today. These books don’t form this cutwater because they are written by women younger than most anthologised poets or because they’re Asian Australian. Read them: you’ll find they succeed, wildly, on the merits of intense dedication to writing, creativity and curiosity, and not the authors’ identities—a flummoxing obsession that seems to unsettle a deep vein of machismo in Australian poetry. Tangentially, though: so what if cultural identity is a book’s ideological fulcrum? Natalie Harkin’s Dirty Words is a generational game changer.

The word I fixated on in all this wasn’t tolerance, it was politicised. It was used again in the apology, where Grubb says his aim was to ‘depoliticise’ the issue, which makes no sense whatsoever. It is easy to say that everything is political – because it is – but it also makes no sense to describe as depoliticised your public letter to politicians. This is essentially a meaningless word, except that it falsely indicates that someone, typically the victim, is to blame for making a non-issue newsworthy or by otherwise co-opting its intent. We saw this with Yassmin Abdel-Magied recently. To be accused of ‘politicising’ the already political is actually code for grandstanding. And when lives are at stake, as they are in both of these examples, it is a deeply dismissive and condescending word.

Our bodies are inherently political, subject to laws, made the butt of jokes, erased from history, omitted or degraded or caricatured in culture. It is absolutely natural for anyone who is targeted in this way to seek to change those laws and policies, to be actively ‘political’, as opposed to passively.

This isn’t to demonise Ben Grubb, who though flawed, I’d still prefer a million of compared to the likes of Christensen, but simply to make the point that we cannot cede to the language and characterisation of the far right. We are political, and that’s our right.

…Bigotry being, of course, ideological in nature – it is both a set of beliefs, and a learned behaviour. Kids pick it up at home, and are informed by gendered, sexual, and racial ideas embedded in our cultural output. It is a lazy mistake to say a program teaching students about queerness, identity and gender is ideology which children should be protected from when, in reality, they are exposed to our ideological practices and leanings every day. If the TV, movies, books and music they see predominantly feature cis heterosexual Anglo people who behave in so-called ‘traditional’ fashions, this undoubtedly impacts on their beliefs, on what they find valuable and familiar.

As a bisexual man who grew up in a double bind of culturally toxic hetero masculinity – Arab and Australian – and came out of it still wanting to suck dick, allow me to assure you that what you are taught is not enough to fundamentally change who you are. It can, however, make you hate yourself. It can teach you that you deserve that hate, and to be ashamed, and to internalise that violence. Which is why the rate of suicide is so high for queer youth, particularly for indigenous kids, for people of colour and trans kids. It’s why Safe Schools is so important: hate and shame can be unlearned, the cycle of violence and silence can be broken.

So we should speak up then, and we should not let the right wing shame us for doing so with words like ‘politicised’ and ‘controversial’. And we should never, ever settle for less, because there is too much at stake. The language we use frames not just the dominant narratives of the day, but also how we see ourselves, and how we are seen. Let this be a reminder then, we have a mantra for a reason, and it is unchanged: we are here, we are queer, we are proud.

At some point in the late 1990s Melbourne’s inner west became a refuge from a city waking from its low-rent slumber. A generation of post–Keating era arts students from Melbourne’s inner north had followed in the footsteps of older artists who, in the 1980s, had crossed the Maribyrnong River in search of cheap studio space and a sense of industrial scale. From Brunswick to Footscray, it’s as if the two locations of Franco Cozzo’s furniture stores index a twenty-year delay between postwar migration and a restless bohemia.

Meanwhile second-generation Vietnamese-Australian artists were arriving in search of a community to catalyse and an available position in Melbourne’s cultural field.

By the early 2000s a somewhat jangled and precarious sense of Footscray-specific urbanity coalesced—or so we told ourselves—at the cross-currents of migrant and bohemian demographics. From the defunct La Scala Cinema to the Snuff Puppets, from the Women’s Circus to the Ethiopian Circus Band, from a chorus line singing ‘I like to be in America’ (S. Sondheim) to ‘I’m goin’ out West where they’ll appreciate me’ (T. Waits), the suburb seemed to follow an old Westside story of growth in the cultural sector.

So for a time, it seemed, to work in Footscray was to be part of a minor avant-garde. And yet ‘capital, like trouble, rides a fast horse’, writes George Alexander. Read: artists are unwitting runners before the horsemen. Artists aren’t the stormtroopers of gentrification, they’re too busy juggling jobs, getting gigs, being caught in the slipstream of a value more abstract than median property prices. Artists are mortgaged to a future that rarely looks good on paper. For those who had walked around taking photos of the minutiae of the street, redevelopment boards were science fiction with the power of performative utterance. Already the old theatre on Barkly Street was being converted into city apartments that promised the kind of upmarket lifestyle locals could only stare at. Already creative entrepreneurs were refitting factory floors to sublet as office-sized studios with pressed wood partitions and tastefully exposed steel brackets. Artists didn’t need to enquire: the watercooler and Artforum magazines in the lobby suggested a strict ‘no sleeping in your studio’ policy was in place. Already the Maribyrnong River, once an estuary for industrial waste, had become river frontage. See a row of townhouses down at the old brickworks, their sliding doors and varnished patios like observation decks onto a pristine industrial wilderness.

Close your eyes and the sound of container trucks could be megafauna at the end of another age. A wake-up call from the Jurassic, a faint reminder this land was formed by lava flows that came all the way from South Australia. To look at the city from this place was to stand at the edge of the third-largest basalt plain in the world. Oral histories show Italians in the 1950s couldn’t believe their luck. Garden soil as black as Pompeii.

…Hoang didn’t catalyse Footscray’s Vietnamese community so much as a group of artists with a similar interest in DIY situationism, which we thought was going through a revival. Such projects would find a niche as ‘community arts’, but we rejected the disciplinary logic of that designation, which we felt had reneged on the class and multicultural politics of earlier, more radical experiments.

People often speak about ‘art and community’ in the context of Footscray art-making, but the space where art and the social overlap is not so easily cordoned off and ghettoised. Art qua art is no art at all; the overlap with ‘the social’ is a question of all art. The overlap is a fruit slice inside the Venn diagram of two overlapping ideas, the bite-mark that faces both ways; the space that throughout the twentieth century invited artist’s manifestos and municipal plans, animateurs and community cultural development workers and economic fantasies and municipal scoping studies—enough writing to fill a museum. Artists have always been caught between the revolutionary promise of a new social art that integrates art and life and the lure of Barbrook’s Class of the New (‘the independents’, ‘the creative class’ etc). No sooner were artists critiquing the alienation of work, the bourgeois home, the suburban rut, than this critique rebounded—kerpow—as flexitime, as loft-living, as unpaid internships and temping in a job you hate, as a permanent performance appraisal and opportunity for promotion. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, it seemed to us that such contradictions might again be outrun (by slow art, local art, art on/as precarious work, community art), that once again art might resist the privatisation of aesthetic experience by bending the rules of the game.

  • White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves

    But here’s the thing: I do know white culture. I know white culture better than most white people know white culture. I know white culture, white history, white politics. I know it better than you because if you knew why you were really in my DMs right now, you’d be embarrassed. Why do I know white culture so well? Because I’m a black woman. And while I, and just about any person of color who has spent their lives in a white supremacist society, know enough about white culture to write a book or two on whiteness and option the bestseller movie rights, y’all know almost nothing about us and even less about yourselves.

    Why? Because you don’t have to.

    I may be coming across as arrogant but honestly, I’m just exhausted. From the moment I was born my life has been steeped in whiteness. Not just the MTV I grew up with or the Disney characters I loved, but the white history I learned from white teachers, the white art I learned to revere above all else, the beauty standards I knew I’d never live up to. I know what songs y’all like the most, who your biggest movie stars are, how you achieve the hottest hairstyles in your magazines, what fashion you’re appropriating. I know what your “ideal” family looks like, what your definition of “American values” is. I know what you find funny and romantic. I know your definitions of success…I had to learn why so many of you think that people like me are why you are poor. I know why you co-opt our movements. I know why you still expect a thank you. I had to learn why your needs are default but mine are “divisive.” I had to learn how to not get suspended by white teachers, how to not get arrested by white cops, how to not get fired by white supervisors.

I know right now why so many of you will feel compelled to make me understand that I’m not talking about you here before you will consider reading further.

And to know all of that about you, I had to learn how race was invented as a function of capitalism to justify the brutality of genocide and forced free labor. I had to learn how slavery was repurposed into the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline. I had to learn how your police force was created to return black people to slavery and maintained to control brown and black populations to manufacture a false sense of white security. I had to learn how the Southern Strategy was able to capitalize on the racism that you dared not see in yourselves, even though we could see it clear as day. I had to learn how the Irish became white when we could not. I had to learn how you could claim to rightfully own stolen land and how you still can today.

You have not had to know these things; even if you studied some of these topics in school, you did not have to know them. People of color, on the other hand, have lost so much when we’ve gotten it wrong. We have been fired for wearing our hair in ways you don’t like, for not hiding our bodies that you decided to hypersexualize, for having too many opinions, for answering too honestly, for using our own accents and dialogue instead of yours, for believing you when you said you didn’t tolerate racism in the workplace, for teaching history you refuse to acknowledge, for celebrating our beauty that you don’t want to see. We have died for walking with a certain swagger, for reaching for our wallets, for asking for help, for speaking with the wrong tone, for giving a menacing look, for playing our music too loud, for not walking away, for walking away, for marching in peace.

…Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance. The dominant culture does not have to see itself to survive because culture will shift to fit its needs. This shift is cheaper and easier when you don’t look too closely at how it’s being accomplished — if you never ask who is picking up the check. And no, you hardly see us at all — even if you love us. You can’t; we don’t exist as whole people in most of the places that you have been getting your information from.

And as much as I’d like you to see me — as much as I’d like systemic racism to simply be a problem of different groups not seeing each other — I need you to see yourself, really see yourself, first. This is the top priority.

And when the election for the extension of White Supremacy was won, I had to watch you say that it was not White Supremacy, it was the economy or it was identity politics or it was the Clinton legacy. And when white people across America started doing Nazi salutes in high school gymnasiums and political gatherings, when white people started adding swastikas to their profile pictures and painting swastikas on walls, I had to watch you turn to the nearest person of color and ask, “how did this happen?”

And while I get it — I understand how the entire history of this blood-soaked racist country and its entrenched self-delusion would lead us here — I do not actually know what it will take to get you to see it as well.

Because we have been trying, very, very hard, to show you. None of this — not a single word I’ve written in this essay or in my entire career — is new. People of color have been begging you to see what you are doing and why. We’ve been begging you to see what you came from and the true legacy you have inherited. We’ve begged you to see your boot on our necks as long as it’s been there.

Find yourselves white people. Find yourselves so that you can know what whiteness is. Find yourselves so that you can determine what you want whiteness to be. Find yourselves so that you can stop your loved ones from voting for a definition of whiteness that you no longer want to subscribe to. Find yourselves so that racism no longer surprises you. Find yourselves so that maybe I can try writing fiction for a change.

Find yourselves so that next time you offer up the “white perspective,” you might actually say something that surprises me.

  • Welcome To The Anti-Racism Movement — Here’s What You’ve Missed 

    Your privilege is the biggest risk to this movement.

    That’s right: the biggest risk. The compromises you are willing to make with our lives, the offenses you are willing to brush off, the everyday actions you refuse to investigate, the comfort you take for granted — they all help legitimize and strengthen White Supremacy. Even worse, when you bring that into our movement and refuse to investigate and challenge it, you slow down our fight against White Supremacy and turn many of our efforts against us. When POC say, “check your privilege,” they aren’t saying it for fun — they are saying it because when you bring unexamined privilege into anti-racist spaces, you are bringing in a cancer.

you know what we had before Identity Politics? I’ll tell you.

We had White Dudes.

We had white dudes as the pinnacles of power. We had white dudes on all our TV screens, we had white dudes reporting all our news, we had white dudes writing all our books. Sometimes they were accompanied by attractive white ladies (as all the white dudes were straight). But mostly, we had white dudes.

And if you were not a white dude? You didn’t exist. Laws were not written for you, infrastructure was not built for you, history was not written about you. You did not exist in film, television, or novels. You were not a part of the American dream.

And do you know what has been changing all of that? Do you know what has been saving this country from the monotony and tyranny of white, cis, heterosexual dudes? Identity Politics.

Identity Politics are everything that its critics fear. Identity Politics are decentralizing whiteness, straightness, cis-ness, and maleness. Identity Politics brought you equal marriage, the voting rights act, and abortion access. Identity Politics has got people believing that black is beautiful, that disability is nothing to be ashamed of, that fat people deserve respect, that a woman can say no. Identity politics are forcing the world to consider what it has spent hundreds of years ignoring — everyone else.

Without Identity Politics, we wouldn’t all get along better, we’d just cease to exist. And know, that is primarily what those who decry Identity Politics want. They want the world of the past, where we existed in the shadows, where they never had to consider race or gender, because everything was only about their race and gender. They want a world where nobody raised a hand and said “what about me,” because the only people allowed in the room were those whose needs had already been meet. They want the simplicity and power that comes with being the default.

So yes, Identity Politics are the threat to both the right and the left that its enemies are making it out to be. Because our system is still mostly white dudes, on both sides of the aisle. Their fear isn’t wrong; Identity Politics do threaten their way of life and their idea of progress and unity. Identity Politics will tear down everything they have built because everything they have built is oppressive and exclusionary and wrong.

We are not going back to a time where we were overlooked, dismissed, invalidated, and discounted. We are not going back to not existing. Our Identity Politics are here to stay.

Sometimes I’m a little bummed out that there really aren’t any Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander or People of Colour critics – especially women – to review my work for publications.’ – Nakkiah Lui

Lui’s recent Facebook post reflects the ironies of an arts industry that craves ‘diverse programming’ and ‘new voices’ but lacks the structural frameworks to deliver fundamental change. Everywhere you look Aboriginal writers, actors, musicians and artists are on the rise, and recent festivals like Asia TOPA illustrate the industry’s desire to showcase artists beyond the white canon. Despite these shifts, systemic racism and prejudices pervade, hidden behind marketing material with alluring POC faces splashed across posters and company webpages.

Nakkiah Lui’s success encapsulates these challenges. A twenty-eight-year-old Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman is creating dynamic black theatre and television – painfully absent not that long ago – but there are only white people to review it. Her career rises, and we watch in frenzied adoration, finally seeing ourselves represented in ways that celebrate our humour, spirit and complexity. But the work itself is still valued through a white lens.

As many Aboriginal artists, designers and writers have suggested, these critics want our work, but on their terms. Our views on our own work and how it should be positioned within white institutions is often neglected.

Like Lui, I’m sometimes a little bummed out when an organisation approaches me to develop Indigenous content but words like ‘stolen’ ‘colonisation’ and ‘trauma’ are removed by the end. Mainstream institutions value Indigenous knowledge, but only insofar as it is manipulated to suit specific agendas, leaving those of us who were invited to participate exploited and confused. These scenarios place Aboriginal people under enormous pressure: we can either accept these conditions and compromise our values, or leave the project and lose work and future opportunities.

No critic that I have ever met believes that they are entitled to the final word on a subject. But good critics, passionate critics, are motivated by a desire to be the best audience member that they can be. A critic needs to be informed, enthusiastic, curious and open-minded. This is all I ask of other critics; it’s all I ask of myself. I don’t want to be a judge, or the judge, but I do believe in the democratic function – indeed, the necessity – of making judgements. I believe in the art of speaking back to art; of analysing it, arguing with it, celebrating it, sifting and sorting through its constituent elements. I cannot imagine how I would make sense of the world without art, but nor can I comprehend how I would make sense of art without criticism.

Effective criticism is timely, and alert to the times in which it is made; it forms one strand of a wider public conversation that we are each entitled to join, by virtue of being alive. But in Australia we are all, increasingly, being denied participation in, and exposure to, art and arts criticism. The two go together, never mind the well-worn cliché that artists and critics are sworn enemies.

…it seems to me not much, if any, exaggeration to say that the majority of people who hold power in this country hate artists, hate anyone who thinks about art, and would rather that everyone of such a persuasion gave up, and shut up, for good.

As critic Alison Croggon wrote in this publication late last year, in this country, art “is considered a leisure activity, a luxury for the elite, an entertainment in the most reductive senses of the word, a value-free product”.  As a nation, we are hostile to self-examination, which is a part of what art and arts criticism can do. We don’t want to hear that we are anything but the fair-go larrikins who carry the spirit of the Anzacs in their hearts, or something like that. (These nationalistic myths of bravery and justice feel increasingly threadbare and incoherent.) We want to be entertained, and reassured of our fundamental decency, but not challenged.

Or do we? A critic underestimates the intelligence of an audience at her peril. In fact, I think there is a hunger – a great hunger – among local audiences for work, both Australian and otherwise, that will help us to think through the world that we find ourselves in. But what happens when that work is ignored? When no one is left to write about it, to argue with it, to take it up and wrestle with it?

Some might say that the internet solves the problem: if we can access music, literature, television and film in a single click, then arts critics are unnecessary. But this overlooks the fact that the internet tends to exacerbate, rather than unsettle, hierarchies of attention. The most famous artists and the most profitable works – the hit television shows and franchise movies – are given more coverage than they generally need, or deserve. Riskier, less popular artists and their works are left begging for the scraps and clicks left over from coverage that has to generate revenue before anything else.

…I genuinely despair for the future. I am 35, and I see local artists and arts critics my age and younger – many more than I could count – who are given few to no opportunities to participate in public conversation. There are musicians with no venues to play in, theatre critics with no publications to write for, filmmakers with no cinemas in which to screen their work, writers who cannot afford to write books. This country’s culture is being starved, and with it any opportunity to understand ourselves as something other than subjects of a ruthless economy. We are in crisis.

   Anxiety is an invalid excuse. I fear having to tell people I’m on medication because the second I do, I see my fears written across their faces. The fact that I have to take a dose of something with an unpronounceable name twice a day just to make me feel like I’m residing on some middle ground that makes me capable of mandatory human function immediately sets off alarms that I am a lesser person, lacking independence and radiating unpredictability. All of a sudden I’m the crazy, mentally unstable girl completely incompetent and incapabe of any mundane task in front of me. I don’t even dream of revealing I have a Xanax in my bag in case of emergency, because the one time I mentioned it, the faces of my friends were the same as I’d expect if they saw me shooting up heroin in the bathroom of the bar.

   Anxiety is an invalid excuse. In the eyes of others, it makes me a liar. Lazy. Inadequate. Delusional. Crazy. I can’t say I have a diagnosis because everyone I tell is conditioned to think I’m either a deranged psychopath or I’m faking it because I’m simply too fragile to face life like a normal person; underwhelming unable to walk through a typical routine without having an upper to keep me stable. Do they think I pity myself so much to induce a self-hatred strong enough to keep myself so far from mental catharsis? Do they think I find this fun?

“The editorial by Write magazine editor, Hal Niedzvieki, coming as it does at the start of an issue that is supposed to feature Indigenous writers, completely undermines and attempts to silence those voices and the intent of the issue, which I understood was to provide a space for Indigenous voice and perspectives.

“Given that several of the writers are emerging writers in the early stages of their careers and that they, like other Indigenous writers in the issue, spoke about the importance of Indigenous voice and the harm of appropriation and silencing, the editorial, which called for an ‘Appropriation Prize’ for writers and encourages writers to appropriate another ‘culture’s myths, legends, oral histories, and sacred practices,’ is particularly galling, harmful, and offensive.”

“Winning the Appropriation Prize,” by Niedzvieki, includes the following:

I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so, the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.

My writing advice is in opposition to that traditional axiom. I say: Write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you, who you didn’t grow up with, who don’t share your background, bank balance and expectations. Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize.

STATEMENT ON WRITE MAGAZINE EDITORIAL

I am struggling somewhat to find the words to respectfully articulate my reaction upon seeing the column: at the most generous interpretation it is clueless and thoughtless; at worst, it is offensive and insulting to the many writers featured within the page; it undermines any attempts at space-making or celebration of the writers featured within the pages, and it marks Write magazine as a space that is not safe for indigenous and racialized writers.

I can’t, should not, and will not speak for any indigenous writer, but what I do attempt to do, in my life and in my work, is to listen to others who do not move through the world with my level of privilege. What I have read, what I have learned, and what I believe is the fact that Canada has a long history of settler-colonialism and of cultural and physical appropriation. I vehemently disagree with the notion that cultural appropriation is not real – it exists and it causes real harm. Further, Canada is “exhaustingly white and middle class” not because white writers are afraid to write stories they don’t “know,” but because white writers don’t get out of the way and make space for the multitude of stories to be told by those who aren’t white and middle class. If I can go further – and I am myself white and middle class – we’re not the centre, and we need to stop behaving as such.

As a board and as an organization, we need to be mindful of what frames are put on the work of marginalized voices, and we need to ensure that when we are reaching out to marginalized voices that we are building a respectful space for their work.

Statement from the TWUC Equity Task Force in Response to Niedzviecki editorial “Winning the Appropriation Prize”

We are angry and appalled by the publication of “Winning the Appropriation Prize” by Hal Niedzviecki in the editorial column. In the context of working to recruit writers historically marginalized in the union, this essay contradicts and dismisses the racist systemic barriers faced by Indigenous writers and other racialized writers. This is especially insulting given that this issue features the work of many Indigenous writers.

Cultural appropriation, for Indigenous writers, is often theft of culture. As a concept, a practice and an issue, it has a long and complex history on Turtle Island/in Canada. It is one of the more recent phenomena marking a long history of violent colonial appropriations by settlers against Indigenous peoples.

For Niedzviecki to suggest that cultural appropriation is just a device for our imaginary work is highly problematic and re-entrenches the deeply racist assumptions about art, and about what constitutes giving and taking.

Niedzviecki states: “There is no formula to appropriately appropriating. Instead it’s up to each of us to find the right measures of respect, learning and truth telling.” In making such a statement, he fails to recognize or acknowledge that not all writers play on the same playing field and that “appropriation” is not a fair game, as the page is not a terra nullius, in spite of appearances to a privileged few. Appropriation is thus not a practice that can simply be taken up by anyone at any time. There are historical and colonial relations in place, which we all inherit, each of us differently. The theft of voice, stories, culture, and identity are part of a long-standing settler agenda for cultural genocide and can not be treated lightly. The tongue-in-cheek call for an “Appropriation Prize” is deeply offensive and dismissive of the history of colonization. What will TWUC offer next, a “Best Colonizer” prize?

Also to suggest further in the essay that, “… Indigenous writers, buffeted by history and circumstance, so often must write from what they don’t know”, is both uninformed and offensive, especially when so much Indigenous knowledge has been either erased from the historical record or has already been appropriated without attribution. This statement also partakes of a long-debunked false universalism.

The only statement in the editorial that is accurate is Niedzviecki’s claim, “Indigenous writing is the most vital and compelling force in writing and publishing in Canada today.” In this historical present when we speak of reconciliation, we as a union and as a collective of Canadian/Turtle Island writers must make space and support Indigenous writers.

Hal Niedzviecki’s resignation was the right decision under these appalling circumstances. Frankly, what shocks us most, however, is that this piece was passed by a TWUC editorial committee. This indicates now, in no uncertain terms, the depth of the structural racism, not to mention the lack of historical memory, at TWUC. Either that, or it indicates brazen malice, or extreme negligence. We very much hope this is not the case.

‘a “backlash” as the “centre in literature begins to shift away from the Anglo-American writer towards writers with different backgrounds”.

…too often editors use a euphemism such as ‘taste’ as an excuse for rejecting black authors because they actually mean ‘I am not interested in minority writing'”, and that “when ‘race’ is written about by black or Asian poets it is too often dismissed as something that has been ‘done before’, a criticism which is not generally targeted at those writing about ‘love’ or ‘snow'”.

I believe this to be the case because unoriginal and cliched white poetry finds publishers with dreadful ease whilst unconventional black writing does not,” Nagra told the Guardian.

“That shit was too white,” writes Díaz in the introduction: “Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC – no people of colour – in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of colour in the fiction programme – like none – and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of colour as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc).”

Díaz said his workshop never explored racial identities or how they impacted on writing, that students never talked about race at all, other than to argue that “race discussions” were inappropriate for “a serious writer”. “In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing – of Literature with a capital L – was white, straight and male,”

In my workshop what was defended was not the writing of people of colour but the right of the white writer to write about people of colour without considering the critiques of people of colour. Oh, yes: too white indeed. I could write pages on the unbearable too-whiteness of my workshop – I could write folio, octavo and duodecimo on its terrible whiteness – but you get the idea.”

He stuck it out – others didn’t. And Díaz says things haven’t changed today, 20 years on. “I can’t tell you how often students of colour seek me out during my visits or approach me after readings in order to share with me the racist nonsense they’re facing in their programmes, from both their peers and their professors. In the last 17 years I must have had at least 300 of these conversations, minimum,” he writes.

“The response on the part of those writers and critics who can no longer take the centre ground for granted is to deny the validity of other, alternative voices,” said Forna. “By saying race doesn’t matter and cultural perspective is irrelevant, you’re asserting that those writers have nothing to say and nothing to add. The attacks on the so-called ‘global’ novel are part of the same protectionism. It means the jobs stay with those who already have them.”

“We are often described as performance poets and our work is ‘lively’ or ‘vibrant’,” said Nagra. “I feel frustrated that we are rarely appreciated beyond the content of our poetry, which is viewed as an exotic curiosity. It is rare for our work to be viewed in the context of a serious engagement with forms and traditions of the British canon as we are not fully accepted as part of it.”

Nagra felt that “certain black and Asian poets” were “partially responsible for perpetuating the situation by happily imitating the dominant white style without finding a way to challenge it; we sometimes bleach ourselves to fit in”.

Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.

In my workshop what was defended was not the writing of people of color but the right of the white writer to write about people of color without considering the critiques of people of color.

Oh, yes: too white indeed. I could write pages on the unbearable too-whiteness of my workshop—I could write folio, octavo and duodecimo on its terrible whiteness—but you get the idea.

Simply put: I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include me.

…I guess I assumed that a graduate program full of artists dedicated to seeing beyond the world’s masks would be better on the race front—that despite all my previous experience with white-majority institutions the workshop would be an exception. What can I tell you? In those days I must have needed that little fantasy, that little hope that somewhere shit might be better.

Like I said: I was young.

…Another young sister told me that in the entire two years of her workshop the only time people of color showed up in her white peer’s stories was when crime or drugs were somehow involved. And when she tried to bring up the issue in class, tried to suggest readings that might illuminate the madness, her peers shut her down, saying Our workshop is about writing, not political correctness. As always race was the student of color’s problem, not the white class’s. Many of the writers I’ve talked to often finish up by telling me they’re considering quitting their programs. Of course I tell them not to. If you can, please hang in there. We need your work. Desperately.

6

Twenty years since the workshop and what I’m left with now is not bitterness or anger but an abiding sense of loss. Lost time, lost opportunities, lost people. When I think on it now what’s most clear to me is how easily ours could have been a dope workshop. What might have been if we’d had one sympathetic faculty in our fiction program. If we Calibans hadn’t all retreated into our separate bolt holes. If we’d actually been there for each other. What might have been if the other writers of color in the workshop—the ones who were like I don’t want to write about race—had at least been open to discussing why that might be the case. I wonder what work might have been produced had we writers of colors been able to talk across our connections and divides, if we’d all felt safe and accounted for in the workshop, if we’d all been each other’s witnesses. What might have been.

7

Lately I’ve been reading about MFA vs NYC. But for many of us it’s MFA vs POC.

8

To fast-foward: in the end I became a published writer and one of the first things I did with that privilege was join some comrades to help found a workshop for writers of color. The Voices of Our Nation Workshop. A kind of Cave Canum, but for all genres and all people of color. Something right out of my wildest MFA dreams, where writers of colors could gather to develop our art in a safe supportive environment. Where our ideas, critiques, concerns, our craft and, above all, our experiences would be privileged rather than marginalized; encouraged rather than ignored; discussed intelligently rather than trivialized. Where our contributions were not an adjunct to Literature but its core.

 

Stop trying to get an A+ at anything but writing your best work.

Again, this speaks most specifically to women, POC, queers, and other “marginalized” folks. I am going to repeat myself, but this shit bears repeating. Patriarchy (and institutional bigotry) conditions us to operate as if we are constantly working at a deficit. In some ways, this is true. You have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. I have spent most of my life trying to be perfect. The best student. The best dishwasher. The best waitress. The best babysitter. The best dominatrix. The best heroin addict. The best professor. I wanted to be good, as if by being good I might prove that I deserved more than the ephemeral esteem of sexist asshats.

Listen to me: Being good is a terrible handicap to making good work. Stop it right now. Just pick a few secondary categories, like good friend, or good at karaoke. Be careful, however of categories that take into account the wants and needs of other humans. I find opportunities to prove myself alluring. I spent a long time trying to maintain relationships with people who wanted more than I was capable of giving. The truth is, I do need to cancel plans regularly. I need to disappear for a few days or even months to attend to my writing. Friends or lovers who resent this, who interpret it as a personal rejection, are often angry with me. And feeling at a deficit makes me want to work harder to make it up to them. In recent years, I’ve learned the relief of letting go of this debt. It is possible to do so with love. Being a good friend doesn’t mean adhering to your friend’s ideal of a good friend. It means devising your own ideal, and then applying it to friends who share that ideal. This application requires a working knowledge of “boundaries.”

Get comfortable with no. This requires shifting your relationship to no. You are not saying no to an event where you might make an important connection, you are saying yes to your work. You are saying yes to the sleep you need to make good work. You are saying yes to the real relationships you already have and need to nourish and enjoy so that you can be strong enough to withstand the very hard parts of writing and living. You are not saying no to an opportunity; you are saying yes to the revolution. You are not saying no to that person who might be disappointed in you, you are saying yes to a life in which you are not in bondage to the fear of other people’s disappointment.

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