On Sunday I attended the Aussie Voices panel as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Town Hall Conference. The panel proposed the questions, “Does Australia have a literary voice? Who tells the stories of Australia? And are our literary voices representative of the people of Australia?”
I’ve been thinking about it ever since, because some of the questions it raised relate to things that I am grappling with in my own work.
Tamara Barrett has blogged about the session, and she has some good quotes from the panellists that I missed. What I want to engage with here is the question of how white writers – writers of Anglo descent – can contribute to a diverse voice in Australian literature. It’s something that Barrett raised in her blog post, and that crossed my mind during the panel as well.
Panellist Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the chief editor of Westside Publications and runs creative writing events in Western Sydney; his concern was primarily with ethnic diversity. Stephanie Convery spoke about the dominance of an often semi-autobiographical white realism in Australian fiction. Bruce Pascoe spoke about tracing lines of his own Aboriginal heritage and about the stories he has heard from indigenous people – stories that don’t often emerge in our literature. Lily Yulianti Farid spoke about the perception in Bali that Australian authors must be white.
Tied up in all of this are questions of ethnicity and race. All the panellists concluded explicitly or implied that our literary voice is not representative of Australian diversity in this regard. If we as writers have a responsibility to help the Australian literary voice become more culturally diverse, then, as Barrett asks, “how on earth am I (a boringly-white female) supposed to help create this change?”
After attending the Women in Writing discussion later that same day I started to think about the different elements of diversity.
Ethnicity is not the only facet of Australian diversity, even if in some ways it is the most obvious and the most celebrated. There are other components too; there is diversity of experience, socio-economic background, gender identification, education and cultural engagement.
There is diversity in people’s experience of Australia’s landscape, society and culture, and in the way people write about these elements; there is diversity in where people live, what they do for a living, and what is important to them in their lives.
I do think these many facets of diversity are important. I’m reading Paul D. Carter’s Eleven Seasons at the moment. It’s a book about a white kid who’s into football, with reminders of the sexism that underlies this culture. It’s by a young Anglo male. But the voice of the high school dropout, for whom football is more than just a jingoistic fad, is a voice that I don’t often hear – because of my reading choices. Carter’s book definitely doesn’t encourage a diverse Australian literary voice in terms of ethnicity, but it has a contribution nonetheless.
For Aussie writers who are so “boringly white”, I think that the question should be as much about recognising diversity in our writing and representation of Australia. It’s about remembering, as Ahmad pointed out, that Australia is not a new country – that it is an ancient country, with a rich cultural heritage and history that was here long before the waves of migrants who arrived since the late eighteenth century.
As readers, that means reading widely – the other book I have on the go now is That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott. As writers, perhaps it’s about getting out of our various comfort zones and seeing more of this country in which we live. I think of how much I’ve read that’s set in Melbourne lately, and I wonder, if I had grown up here, would it be easy to forget that the experience of Melbournites is just one tiny part of Australian experience?
To write, then, in a way that pushes the boundaries of the regularly-represented Australia, I know that I’m going to need to research. I’m going to need to ask some hard questions, particularly when it comes to indigenous history in the parts of Australia that are meaningful to me. It is not enough to stay here and write “what I know” at this point in my life: multicultural Melbourne, full of ideas and inspiration, but just one small part of a very big country.