Update: Michelle CahillWeek in Review

Who is lobbying for migrant writers?

Last week at the Senate Inquiry into Arts funding held at Parramatta, I spoke on behalf of Mascara Literary Review, which I edit. One of hundreds of submissions, ours represented the interests of the culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) sector of the industry. The panel’s questions held the debate closely to what is widely perceived as the main issue for arts funding: namely that the $104.8 million in Australia Council funding diverted to the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts should be restored. This was no surprise. It’s been my experience that the Australian literary world and the journalists who cover it overlook the more complex perspectives and needs of those who are marginalised in our literary communities.

There are currently only two Australia Council-funded literary journals whose prime focus is diversity: Mascara Literary Review, which was co-founded by myself and Kim Cheng Boey in 2007, and Peril, a magazine whose focus is Asian Australian arts and culture. From the perspective of both Mascara and Peril, the deeply inscribed racial hierarchies that determine cultural privilege are just as important as the politics of funding independent and small to medium arts practice.

Eleanor Jackson, editor of Peril, in her opening statement had this to say:

We remain concerned…that professional artist populations are less diverse than the rest of the Australian workforce. People from non-English speaking backgrounds account for 8% of the professional artist population, as compared with 16% of the overall workforce, according to the Australia Council’s research in the 2015 Arts Nation report. Similar trends can be seen in terms of participation and access to the arts, which concerns us for a nation that purports to have a ‘reputation’ as ‘sophisticated and outward looking’.

In its networks, establishments and canons, Australian literature operates as a white settler narrative. It claims a material and discursive space disproportionately over Aboriginal and other ethnicities, racialising their differences from the presumed universality of its own. Debates over gender and genre tend to overlook the marginalisation of non-dominant ethnicities. Yet it’s clear that superiority is assigned to the Northern European ideal of whiteness, through which difference is organized and ultimately appraised.

Consider how cultural capital is distributed and how authority is assigned. Consider the imbalance in remuneration for editing and media reviewing. Look closely at the literary prize industry – at arts administration, at the privileged and powerful hubs of academia.

Lucrative literary prizes are governed by a handful of adjudicators appointed from elite coteries who all too often reinforce the superior status of white readings. It is extremely rare that a culturally diverse writer or Aboriginal writer is recognised within one of the mainstream categories. This kind of collective evaluation of literary texts invariably turns those who are not privileged by whiteness into passive subjects. How often is an Aboriginal judge appointed to a panel at one of the Premier’s Awards? How often do we read a review of a lesser known migrant writer: Jason Steger’s recent article on Pi O’s Fitzroy: A Memoir is a rare exception.

In a 2014 article for the Wheeler Centre, Filipino Australian Fatima Measham addresses this imbalance:

To put it bluntly, lack of diversity is not a symptom of exclusivity in Australian media; it is the disease. The status quo essentially reflects a form of denialism. Our collective heritage can be traced to more than 270 different ancestries. Over half a million Australians identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. One in four of us were born overseas, and a further fifth of our population have at least one overseas-born parent. That these realities aren’t reflected in the media – the vehicle for much of our political discourse – is problematic.

It is probable that many in the media and the literary community would like existing cultural entitlements to remain intact. But at what cost? At present, migrant writers work hard for recognition but rarely benefit from the rewards offered by literary institutions to their white counterparts. This compromises their family lives, their physical and psychological health and their employment. Some of our most outstanding poets, writers, and editors have publicly withdrawn, leaving behind only parts of themselves chronicled in the canon. I think of Christopher Cyrill, Antigone Kefala and Dîpti Saravanamuttu. I think of Australian academics such as Sudesh Mishra, Kim Cheng Boey, Merlinda Bobis and Ouyang Yu who straddle the demands of a professional life overseas and at home so that their writing can thrive.

We need to acknowledge cultural newcomers and Aboriginal writers into the industry metrics that confer privilege. If we don’t, we remain complicit with racially-based exploitation.

The issue of protection and safety of cultural dialogue should be respected if we are to honour the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and the Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression, to which Australia is a party. It is a mistake to separate the literary from the historical or legal discourses that have constructed nationality. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 and the Multicultural Act of 1988 are defining landmarks for Australian culture. Yet to point to the complex dynamics of institutional racism is a fraught exercise – and so too is raising for discussion the subjective filters and veiled discriminations operating within the literary sector.

In recent years Mascara has located itself as a strategic ‘interceptor’ of the paratexts that reinforce restricted concepts of literary merit through the circuits of legitimation. What do I mean by interceptor? I’m referring to a process that involves social media posts, newsletters and letters to the organisers of events, fellowships and prizes.

Our first interceptions were in response to requests we received from The Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne to publicise their prizes and awards. From 2012 onwards we began writing to them, asking for them to establish a Migrant Fellowship category. Several positive responses ensued – but, so far, no outcomes. At first we were ignored, but increasingly organisations are sensitive to our social media presence and our newsletters. Interceptions can unmask entitlement and inaugurate dialogue. Our most successful outcome has been the appointment of a South Asian judge, Subhash Jaireth, for the University of Canberra’s Vice Chancellor’s International Prize in Poetry this year. More recently Australian Poetry has responded, offering to host a Diversity Statement and to run a national program of events for Migrants and First Nations in 2016. Though Mascara is not structurally powerful, we can register dissent. But interceptionality is equally about mapping, marking the space of our absence as much as the space of our resistance.

Let’s not forget the lessons we have learned from foundational postcolonial theorists: we know from Spivak that subalterns cannot speak as sovereigns or without mediation; we know from Said that Western discourse created the Orient. The power of language to appear neutral can never be underestimated.

Cultural belonging is often supplementary, provisional and conditional for writers of colour. It needs to be constantly negotiated. Interceptions help us bend the cultural frame to actively re-position ourselves as readers and writers. By doing this we become subjects in the cultural narratives that would otherwise reduce us, tokenising or domesticating our differences. We express our anger, our cynicism, our humour, our fearlessness as a strength. We question the process by which meaning is conveyed and cultural communication is read. We question the power and legitimacy of who is made visible, or invisible; of what is sayable, or what is silenced. Such tactics are wholly pragmatic. Without activism, terms such as post-race and intersectionality remain abstract.

Conversations like this are taking place around the world. Junot Diaz warns that

… these uncomfortable, awkward, stumbling dialogues are absolutely necessary. No matter what their flaws, they’re better than what’s the other option, which is utter, agonizing silence.

In Australia, the literary world benefits from the ripple effects that diverse participation offers, particularly as cultural exchanges with Asia and the global South thrive. Yet individual resources are being exploited at the very levels where sector development and stability is desperately required, placing journals like Mascara and Peril at risk.

To remedy the structural racism in Australian literature we need strategies designed to foster sustainability, development, investment and innovation. We need diversity statements and partnership programs at the level of peak state and federal organisations. Such policies have benefited Aboriginal and regional writers, as well as writers living with disability. At Mascara we have been encouraged by discussions with some organisations in the sector, including Australian Poetry. Who knows whether Mitch Fifield will take on board our recommendations? Either way, we will continue to advocate for sustainability because without policies culturally diverse Australian writers cannot participate fairly in writing this country’s narrative.

Our first essay this week, ‘Who Fries A Crumpet?’ is by Ed Wright, who addresses Michael Farrell’s fourth book of poetry, Cocky’s Joy. This latest volume, he writes, ‘feels like an arrival, the successful culmination of a self-directed apprenticeship. The formal preparations of previous volumes have been completed here in some superbly poised poetry.’ Rebecca Mead and Patricia Duncker join a long line of George Eliot fangirls in Lucy Sussex’s reading of two new books about the Victorian author, The Road to Middlemarch and the novel Sophie and the Sibyl.

They follow in a tradition of Eliot readers, whose involvement in the texts created a broad church of worshipping fandom, something apparent in her lifetime. It began with Lewes, who famously immersed Eliot in the works of Jane Austen before she wrote a single fictional word, and then became her first devoted reader. Appreciative publishers followed, then the reviewers and readers of Scenes from Clerical Life and onwards. They were initially unaware — with the notable exception of Dickens — that a woman had written the book, let alone that woman, who had scandalized literary London and her relatives. Queen Victoria, whose status as exemplary woman and monarch meant she could never meet the author, commissioned artwork depicting scenes from Adam Bede.

In From the Archive this week we turn to ‘Regimes of Reading’, an essay by Ali Alizadeh on John Frow:

The title of the latest collection of essays by John Frow, esteemed cultural and literary scholar and the current University of Sydney Professor of English, is a testimony to both the genre’s unique status – as a non-popular milieu with an established sense of its readership – and to Frow’s formidable skills as an academic writer. The Practice of Value: Essays on Literature in Cultural Studies articulates, with precision and clarity, the book’s argument and content. This is a book specifically about doing value oressaying – from a Latin root, which comes to English via Old French, meaning ‘weighing’ – the matter of literature from the perspective of cultural studies.