Female voices of colour are making a groove on the nation's literary landscape
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Australian feminists of colour are refusing to let their unique literary works be undercut by the mainstream .

Female voices of colour are making a groove on the nation's literary landscape

by Jessie Tu See Profile
Sydney NSW, Australia
4th Mar 2019
Female voices of colour are making a groove on the nation's literary landscape

In November last year, I attended the Feminist Writers Festival at the University of Technology in Sydney. There were two things that dismayed me. Firstly, the audience members at each session were predominantly white Anglo women, and secondly; there was a clear and obvious lack of diverse racial, as well as gender and sexuality representation across all the panels. It reminded me of the scathing essay by Flavia Dzodan in 2011, ‘My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit.’

The most impressive and insightful session was called ‘Writing and speaking Indigenous lives’, where the panelists spoke candidly and powerfully about being ‘purchased’ for their ‘presence’ at official events, of being tokenised and of having their identities measured by the darkness of their skin.

Though I’m not Indigenous, rather, of Asian decent, everything the women on the panel expressed was something I could relate to. The sense of being pre-judged before you open your mouth. Of feeling ‘othered’, despite being another Australian. The quiet anxiety that gathers at the base of my throat, knowing that white Anglo Australians can so readily take away our agency, our voice, and our sovereignty over our own person-hood.

If feminists in Australia won’t promote the work of women of colour, how is there any chance for change in this elusive mainstream that seems, on the outside, so deeply and shapelessly impenetrable?

I’ve always felt myself invisible in my own country. Not just because I rarely saw an Asian female face on television or in movies, but also because I grew up not having read one single book written by someone who occupied an existence, face and space that was remotely similar to mine. Every book I’d ever been forced to study at school was written by an old (majority of which being white) man. I was 18-years old when Alice Pung’s ‘Unpolished Gem’ came out, and for the first time, my existence meant something.

Here was a young woman who expressed experiences I’d gone through myself, and it felt validating, empowering, and such a glorious, easy relief. Here’s the thing — it shouldn’t be so revolutionary. It shouldn’t be a shock, just like having an all-Asian cast of a film (Crazy Rich Asians) should not have been such a sensation, but it was, because in Australia, as in America and most other western democracies, we have a cultural canon of ‘greats’ that belong only to those whom possess a certain skin colour. And if you wear a skin colour that is not beige or white, you will more often than not, be marginalised, trivialised, and pushed to the edges of what is considered worthy and great.

After a feminist activist panel discussion last November, I met a young feminist writer and wanted to ask her about her thoughts regarding issues of representation and identity in women’s writing in Australia.

Winnie Dunn is the General Manager of Sweatshop, a workshop in Parramatta for culturally and linguistically diverse people. She holds a monthly women’s writing workshop (Women’s Collective) that solely focuses on the voices of women who don’t embody the nation’s cultural position of whiteness. I asked her through email about the direction she thinks we need to take to see a more systemic change for the expansion of global and diverse perspectives in our nation’s literary landscape.

She commented that “our personal and political work is often undercut by privileged, mostly White writers, who are praised for their 'genius' when they attempt to write about cultures, classes and ethnicities that are not their own, even as they get it wrong”.

Dunn, 23, who is of Tongan decent, says that through her Women’s Collective, women of colour come together through the differences in their gendered, cultural, sexual and ability experiences. “We are empowered not by coming together and painting ourselves as a homogenous group, we empower each others differences because it is in that difference original contributions to knowledge can be made”.

She further articulated, “it is always a fulfilling challenge to empower marginalised people to bring their own stories to centre, because since birth, the world has taught them that their stories aren't important or aren't valued enough in mainstream media to even try”.

Currently, they have a tremendous group of writers that are shifting the perspective of this literary landscape with prominent writers like Allison Whittaker, Michelle Law and Maxine Beneba Clarke carving out an important and long-lasting legacy for current and future immigrant and culturally diverse artists.

I am excited about the fruition of these new expansive voices and encourage those who identity as culturally and linguistically diverse to contact Sweatshop. There are also a range of brilliant books you can purchase to support the established and emerging canon of writers in Sydney and beyond.

You can find more information at Sweatshop.

Jessie Tu

About Jessie Tu

Jessie Tu is a writer and performer from Sydney, Australia. She was a recipient of the Development Grants from the Australia Council for the Arts in early 2018 and winner of 2017 Joseph Furphy Literary Prize. Between 2016 - 2018, she travelled to New York City to complete her first novel. She has performed at the Sydney Writers Festival and published poems, essays and stories in The Guardian, Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Mascara Literary Review and Southerly. She was a shortlisted prize winner for the International Peter Porter Prize for poetry and runner up in the Deborah Cass Prize in 2017. Her first book of poems,“You should have told me we have nothing left” was published by Vagabond Press in March 2018.

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Sydney NSW, Australia
4th March 2019