This is a review of Talking Writing: Who's Writing Who? – a NSW Writers' Centre  discussion and showcase of cultural diversity in Australian writing.

Guest programmed by Sheila Pham, the event featured Michelle Cahill (Letter to Pessoa, Vishvarūpa), Julie Koh (Portable Curiosities, Capital Misfits), Ramon Loyola (I Look For You In Other Truths, The Heaving Pavement: Epistles on an Anxious Life) and Sara Saleh (Wasting the Milk in the Summer) coming along to delve into the ethical conundrums and personal frustrations of writing about and for multicultural Australia.

It's an issue that a lot of people are discussing right now, (not all of them terribly knowledgeable) so we asked academic Dr. Jane Park, an expert in the field to give us her impressions of the event. 

When my friend Julie Koh invited me to Talking Writing: Who’s Writing Who? – a panel of Sydney-based writers of color discussing “why broad representation is important both on and off the page” – I was struck by the neat narrative parallel. Julie and I first met, several years ago in Melbourne, when I was on a panel that explored similar issues around representation for Asian Australians in film. As a Korean American academic whose personal, political, and professional identity has been influenced strongly by the legacy of the Civil Rights movement in the US, it’s been fascinating, and challenging at times, for me to understand how race and racism work in Australia. If anything, in the eight years that I’ve lived here, I have learned to question many of my assumptions about whiteness, nation, and multiculturalism. 

Among these is the concept, unique to America, of a hyphenated, culturally hybrid racial identity. I had internalized this concept to such a degree that when I arrived to take my position at the University of Sydney, I asked the assistant to the Head of School how I could get in touch with members of the Asian Australian Student Association. She looked confused and mentioned there were organizations for Korean, Malaysian, Chinese and other Asian students

. In retrospect, I realize how US-centric it was of me to assume such a student group (based on the US model of antiracist activism and ethnic studies) would exist in Australia. After all, Seinfeld and hip hop made it over here – why not American style popular racial consciousness?

I must admit, though, I still find it odd that there is so little political, social, or intellectual recognition of second-generation people of color in mainstream culture. Especially when there are so many of us here. Sure, it was exhausting having to “represent diversity” at my former institution in the US, and I would probably feel more “free” here if I could pretend I don’t see race, as many people seem able to do quite effortlessly. But there are times when I miss the Benetton style, Affirmative Action identity politics I used to (and still) critique. At least my embodied experience as a racial other and the scholarship that addressed the lives of others like myself was included in university curriculums and acknowledged in the national imaginary, if only to be dismissed as political correctness gone mad by those like Donald Trump and Lionel Shriver (to whom I’ll return later). In contrast, the celebratory mode of cosmetic, cosmopolitan multiculturalism that permeates Australian culture – i.e. I love Thai food but have no Thai friends – cannot imagine someone like me as simultaneously American and Korean. This multiculturalism not only speaks for migrants but also fails to acknowledge the culturally mixed identities and experiences of their children who, tellingly, are also called migrants even if they were born in Australia.

The members of the panel – and based on a quick scan of faces in the room, many of the people in the audience – fit this category of nonwhite first- and second-generation migrant. I felt safe and comfortable in this space, in a way I seldom do in public unless I happen to be in an “ethnic” suburb or with a group of nonwhite friends. I was curious to hear about how fiction writers and poets, Michelle Cahill, Julie Koh, Ramon Loyola and Sara Saleh, were navigating what I imagined to be the lukewarm waters of a predominantly white literary scene. I also felt reassured that the questions would come from a place of empathy with Vietnamese-Australian writer, Sheila Pham, as organizer and chair.

Happily, I was not disappointed.

The panelists had a lot to say, the audience had a lot of questions, and the event went significantly over time with few people seeming to notice, so engrossed were they in what was being expressed. The event began with the writers reading excerpts from their work. Julie and Michelle read radically different kinds of mixed-genre fiction – Julie’s satirical piece played with the limits of auto-fiction and stereotypes while Michelle’s more somber piece tried to imagine the plight of a refugee. In Sara’s poem, the narrator gives a voice and history to her immigrant mother whose subjectivity is denied by an Australian storekeeper, and in Ramon’s, the narrator declares himself a migrante who wants to enter the psychic landscape of the nation.

Sheila deftly wove the group discussion through tricky terrain that got to the heart of what it means to be a writer of color now in the Australian literary scene. Topics she brought up included the role of the panelists’ transnational backgrounds; specific moments that galvanized their turn to writing about ethnic and cultural difference; the relationship between art and activism; how careers in law and medicine helped or didn’t help them to become writers; how they are changing the publishing industry as gatekeepers; and the work that needs to be done to challenge the systemic racism of the publishing industry and cultivate future writers of color.

Some thoughts I took away from the panel that resonated with me and reminded me of talks I’ve had with nonwhite writers and artists in the US:

From Sara: that storytelling is often a more effective way to reach people than advocacy because it touches their hearts; writing can help us face the generational trauma passed down to us from our immigrant parents and form community among those of us who are diasporic; if someone with the cultural background of a character in your story criticizes you, you need to listen to them and give them the space to tell their own stories.

From Michelle: that writing can be a form of healing; the institutionalized racism of Western literature has a long history and women writers of color have always had to struggle with white male gatekeepers but have also produced brilliant fiction from that struggle; we need to speak truth to power but must remember to take care of ourselves and support each other because refusing to be silent about inequality takes a psychological toll.

From Ramon: that it is difficult to know if your work is good or you are being tokenized for having a “different sounding name” – but it is important to keep writing and keep questioning how the standards for “real writers” are determined, by whom and with what consequences, especially in the current climate for the arts; there are things like universal love.

From Julie: that if people are ignoring you, you have to place yourself in the center, and the center can be wherever you are. We cannot separate social context from fiction; the fictional space is also a political one. Fiction is not just about dealing in fakery regardless of what Lionel Shriver and those like her say. Fiction is also about finding truth, and a culturally insensitive approach to representing characters from minority groups distorts that truth. Lionel Shriver could never have written Portable Curiosities.

Lots of applause. I felt energized even though it was now quite late, and I was very hungry.

Afterwards, over a late dinner with Julie and another expat Asian friend, I was surprised, but not altogether shocked to learn that most of the panelists had never met each other before. Based on what I witnessed last week, it’s clear there’s a real need and desire for more of these conversations. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.  

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Jane Park's picture

Jane Park

Dr. Jane Park, Senior Lecturer, has published widely on the social uses of media technologies, the cultural impact of minority representations, and transnational flows of popular film, music, and television, with a particular focus on representations of East Asia and Asian America. Her most recent book is Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).