Peter Polites, writer and the editor of Ornaments from Two Countries: GLBTIQ Stories of Difference from Western Sydney and Regional NSW, is used to placing his audience in confronting situations. He is also the Associate Director of SWEATSHOP, a literacy movement based in Western Sydney devoted to empowering marginalised communities.
In 2014, Polites and his SWEATSHOP colleagues, Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Luke Carman wrote and performed Three Jerks, a sort of live-text play about a string of gang rapes in the western suburbs of Sydney that exacerbate the racial divides in multicultural Australia. It was a fictionalised account of real life, told by ‘a leb, a wog, and a bogan.’ It was controversial, and deliberately provocative, as much of SWEATSHOP’s work is designed to push people into exploring complex and uncomfortable ideas and challenging their own assumptions.
In that audience was Robert Watkins, commissioning publisher from Hachette Australia, who asked Polites if he was interested in writing a book. Off the back of Polite's signing to Hachette, our content director Liam Pieper talked to Polites about SWEATSHOP, activist writing, queer life in Western Sydney, and not handing in your manuscript for ages and ages.
Robert and I hung out a bit and discussed ideas and I told him I wanted to write a noir, a genre piece, and he's like, 'Sounds great'. Then I withheld it from him for a really long time, maybe a year. I was really nervous about it, really insecure, and then something happened in me, maybe something just clicked, and I thought, I'm just going to send him something, and I did, and then he signed me up.
So it's a noir?
It it! It's a queer, Western Sydney noir. There's a main wogboy like me, and he falls a man-fatale, and he kind of loses everything. There are certain classic tropes in the noir, and I'm trying to write it as a metaphor for the children of those post-war migrants and white Australia, really.
The thing about the western suburbs is there is a real prescription upon it as a certain kind of state, there are certain things about and what I really want to unearth are the queer relationships that everyone has, which is huge. There's such a queer world here and the streets and the toilet blocks are prescribed with queer identity in a way that the city and Oxford Street can never be.
It can be a little bit like a theme park, I guess.
It's so comparable to Disneyland—everything is so prescriptive and visible but in the suburbs, when queerness comes, a lot of the time it's layered, it's closeted, it's recognised in a series of signs and miscommunications, and secret signals, which lends itself perfectly to the genre of noir. One thing nobody talks about in writing is research and how important research is in writing.
How does one research a Western Sydney queer noir? I take it you're broadly across the queer experience in Western Sydney, both from your own sexuality and editing Ornaments from Two Countries, so you're something of an expert on Western Sydney GLBTIQ—is that the acronym now?
Yeah, I dunno, that acronym, it's a shopping list. I like to use the term, 'performance of gender and sexuality’, because I think that's much more interesting, it explains a lot more, right?
So you just have to frame your dialogue around the performance of gender and sexuality. There is that research of experience; his experience, my experience, people’s experience—but because I'm writing a novel and a novel has a very specific tradition, I'm actually interested in the history of queer relationships within the novel.
So I look at certain queer relationships in literature and analyse them, and draw my cues from there. There are so many homosocial themes within literature—you can't say that gay people don't exist in literature because even in Australian literature, some of the top male writers are gay, even retrospective reading of the canon can read as homosexual text.
I'm aware of people who have come before me, explicitly queer writers like Jean Genet and Alan Hollinghurst that are built on this self hate that queer writers actually have. And then you have queer writers like Tsiolkas as well, the explicit way he writes, and I understand that there's a queer lineage that I’m coming from, and I'm hoping to contribute to that discourse and maybe even reinscribe it.
You know, I heard theory the other day about coded queer art… like look at Queen—how so much of Freddy Mercury’s music is a coded queer text—Take ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ which can be read as a letter to his mother, telling her he's queer, there are hints about HIV in the song, but in order to talk about those things in pop music, he has to do it in this incredible ornate, rock opera ballad about murder.
When a group of people is marginalised or in some way oppressed, then art has these fascinating ways of creeping out and being produced, like in Soviet Russia, they made a lot of really amazing metaphorical works to escape censorship, and in Iran, some of the best filmmakers in the world are doing their thing with the avenues available to them and producing masterpieces.
So this theory was lamenting the fact that it's safer for queer people to make art now, that they can make art that's uncoded, that don't have these layers of subterfuge and allegory, and something of the history is lost. Do have any thoughts on that?
I think that's a very interesting point, but only for a certain aspect of the community. Do you know what I mean? It’s not safe for a lot of people. The classic example of that is the second season of a web series called ‘I LUV U BUT’ about two queer kids from Arabic speaking backgrounds who have a sham wedding. That represents the artifice and the ornate social mask that those kids have to go under to be queer. Art does do exactly what you're saying, and isn't that the point of art? To represent ornate social relations, and to do that in a coded way.
A lot of work done by SWEATSHOP is very in your face, explicit and attention grabbing. How much of that is a reflection of your experience of life and how much is an intentional provocation to better express your message through art?
I think there's several answers to that, and I think Luke or Mohammad would give you different answers to what I would. The first answer would be, our lives kind of are like that, and they are really that extreme, and the second part of that question is, we don't want boring writing. Literature is boring and we want it to reach a community that isn't bored by it. We're also young writers, and young writers have a tendency to be vulgar, extreme—all that stuff. The work is in your face; the experience is not very subtle, but at the same time the art can be.
I think there are subtleties and complexities in Luke's work (An Elegant Young Man, 2013) that if you're not from Western Sydney you just won’t get, you probably are going to miss a good portion in your interpretation of it. Then you've got Mohammad's book (The Tribe, 2014), which is extremely subtle and extremely complex. For example, if you look at the way he describes men and how he describes women, there's no desire—there's no sexism towards women, just bewilderment at the complexity of these alien-like creatures and the men are the ones he keeps for his desire. There's some very complex sociological analysis of gender in his books, which will be invisible for certain readers.
But I see what you mean, our experiences are in-your-face, but part of that is just living in this area, an area which as the highest multicultural community in all of Australia, the highest number of languages spoken, the highest density of Indigenous people in Australia as well. I’m not sure if it's a melting pot or a salad.
A lot of your work seems to play against the idea of stereotype and cariacture. To quote you, you ‘Try to understand the reality outside the media constructions around you and Western Sydney'. But at the same time, as artists, you seem very aware of persona and adept at using it to promote SWEATSHOP and the art that comes out of it as separate to the Australian mainstream. I'm wondering how intentional that is. Did you set out to fight stereotype by creating this hyper realised versions of yourselves through art? Where's the line between branding and stereotype lie?
We're kind of aware of how stereotypes work, and what they are. We're also aware of how the media represents us. But we're also activists in a way. A lot of us in SWEATSHOP have an activist based approach and an activist based background. Part of that frame is also being an artist. Our work isn't a response to the stereotypes that are constructed around us. I think our work, my work, specifically, is about engaging my own subjectivities and my own lived experience within the framework of a broader literary tradition. I hope it is.
If your literary tradition is rooted in activism, where does that activism come from?
Where all activism comes from. The intersections of observing social injustice and rectifying one’s own personal trauma.
Can one rectify one's personal trauma vicariously? By helping others, does that help to defray damage that might have been done to you?
That's 99% of people in social work, basically. Gore Vidal talks about how there are two kinds of writers, the kind who are good with text and good with language and for them it's an easy way to make money and live. You meet lots of them. And then there are people who have these psychic wounds...and guess which group I belong to?
It's a bit of a cliche that writers are tortured, but I think that many good writers have had some kind of formative experience that makes them reframe how they see the world and navigate it, how they think about life and themselves. Having to unmoor from the set of perceptions you were born with and having to establish yourself somewhere down the river gives you a kind of searching quality, which is vital for writers.
This a terrible cliché, but the sad thing about clichés is they ring true, aye? Maybe that's why there's so much interesting writing coming out of Western Sydney right now.
Sometimes when we go to schools, and spend time doing writing with school kids with SWEATSHOP, you just get gems, these two or three lines where you're just like 'I can't beat that.' There's a video on our website called 'On my way to Sierra Leone' and it's the result of a bunch of workshops across Western Sydney, and one school in Balmain which is an affluent area. You learn more about writing from kids writing honestly than you do from reading most other writing.
One thing that gets to me about writing from Western Sydney is that we're really strong on oral traditions; I love the oral vernacular of the people around me. I really dig the way people speak more than anything. That's the thing about SWEATSHOP, is that we love to read aloud, and we criticise each other based on what we've heard as opposed to what we've read.
What I'm trying to do in my manuscript at the moment is get that pulse down, that westie staccato, which is like a broken machine gun, it kind of goes "Da da da! Daddaddadaa! I'm trying to transfer that into the voice of the first person protagonist.
This voice of your protagonist, how much of you is in there?
Of course there's a lot of me in there, but I think the difference between me and him is, this; if you look at a circumference, I as Peter Polites can make 180 degrees of decisions, right? But my protagonist can only make 25 degrees. He is me, but without critical reflection, and the ability to make different choices.
The thing about my writing is that I literally had a wound when I started writing, I literally was mentally ill, maybe ten years ago. I was hopsitalised and I took a lot of anti-psychotics and anti-depressants and part of me coming out of that was writing. I just wrote down tons and tons of rubbish, maybe 100 thousand words of crap, of my experiences, all that stuff, that was like cheap form of therapy for me, and because of that I could make those 180 degrees of decision-making. If I didn't have that, then the character I'm writing is me, there's no argument about it.
I'm fascinated by that idea that writing gives you faculty to expand who you are.
It's really simple. We had that recent obsession with neuroplasticity, you know, Buddha and neuroplasticity, cross fit and neuroplasticity, vegan-eating and neuroplasticity, but therapy just makes different patterns and routes for your thoughts to go down, and writing as a form of therapy lets you look at your experiences critically and approach them from different ways to reshape your brain. I still do it to this day.
There was this period where I had to go to a friend's funeral and my friend couldn't even be close to her partner because they were part of an extremely close and closeted community, and then I went to work and there experienced this homophobia. And the homophobia didn't get to me, but the idea that my friend couldn't be consoled by her partner at the funeral… I had to pull out my crappy little Samsung and wrote down the experience again to reframe the decision, to reframe my approach to what I was stuck on. It lets you look at the situation as it was and put a different lens on me.
So you started writing when you were ill, ten years ago?
Yeah, I was 26, 25, I'm a late writer, I’m the latest writer you could imagine. I also don't identify as a writer. I'll go to these yuppie gay-dude events and they'll be like, 'What do you do?' and I'll go 'I work in a bar,' and then I'll sufficiently be ignored, which is fine with me, because anyone who ignores you because you work in a bar and are not a writer, then, fuck them right?
Not literally, of course.
Oh...but then you could hate-fuck them, which is some of the greatest joys known to man, aren't they?
You know, that reminds me, there's this movie about this interview with David Foster Wallace where he's like, there's nothing more grotesque than someone going around going 'I'm a writer, I'm a writer'. Have you seen it?
No, but why are you literary hipsters so obsessed with David Foster Wallace?
You are! Admit it!
I promise, no.
Anyway, when it depends very much on the community you're part of. When I’m with my illiterate peasant family, not my immediate family, but the extended family, I don't mind saying 'I write stuff, you know.' But amongst a certain type of people and a certain social class, oh man, it's shameful being a writer. Also, you don't want to give too much away because you might use these people in the future, as characters.
So I guess my next question is...
God man, this is really intimate, answering all these questions. I feel like the next question is going to be 'What are you wearing?'
That was my next question. What are you wearing?
My work uniform. I'm a shift worker, so I write in weird moments and weird times. Take yesterday, I went to bed and woke up about one or two o clock and there's this piece that I've been working on for Men of Letters, and I just finally cracked it last night. I’ve just been writing a bit about it and I've been trying to see what my approach is. And last night, about one o clock in the morning I sat down on my laptop and I cracked it. It really just came to me. That was a real relief when it happened.
Is that typically how it happens for you? You break through a piece and go from there?
There's always an initial hurdle when I have to crack what the voice is, what the structure is, and the what the story is, but once I understand what I'm doing, I can go back there anytime, two years later, two weeks later and still understand the frame of mind that I'm approaching the writing from.
How do you mean? Is it about working out the voice of a particular piece?
You can approach something and try really hard to make it work, and then it's not working, and then something happens, in my mind, it goes 'snap' and starts pouring out juice. It's almost the way a modernist painter works. Once I understand the voice, the mind-set of a particular piece of writing I can inhabit that at any time.
But in this case, with Men of Letters, writing to the 'Woman who Changed your life', won't you be writing from your own mind?
I am! But the voice wasn't working, if that makes sense. I'm writing to my mother, so there's kind of.... there’s a lot there... It's the double pressure of trying to make it good, but then avoiding all the clichés that goes along with writing letters to your mother.
What are those clichés?
What do you think they are? Can you imagine the clichés in writing to your mother? What they'd be?
A great deal of apology, in my case, I guess...
Yeah, ha! I think for me that would be oversentimentality of the mother's experience, the suffering, all that stuff. In this case, I'm trying to write a letter to my mother comparing her to Medea.
Is she going to be there for the show?
I really hope not.
So what's next?
I don't think there will be a point in my life where I'm like, what comes next? I’ll just keep doing stuff. I think my project is, apart from queering Western Sydney, a form of criticism on the Nation State of Australia, and there is a lot to criticise there, you know. And I think I can only do that through fiction.
Really, I hope I can create engaging, interesting shit that doesn't bore people.
Peter Polites is an Associate Director of SWEATSHOP. His first novel will be released by Hachette in 2017.
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