Essay: Felicity Castagnaon Western Sydney

Hopefully the Future is Dark

Some people say ‘West’ like it is something wrong, like ice-cream that fell in a gutter. I think West is like my brother’s music, too much bass so you end up dancing like your body parts don’t fit together and laughing all at the same time. That’s what West is: shiny cars and loud things, people coming, people going – movement. Those who don’t know any better, they come into the neighbourhood and lock their windows and drive on through, never stopping before they get somewhere else.

These are the first few lines of my second book The Incredible Here and Now. I can’t say that I like them very much. I don’t think they work. The rhythm is great, some of the images too, but really what blows the whole thing is that it’s too restrictive, too reductive an image of what western Sydney is to be that useful.

The problem is that western Sydney is a place but it’s also an idea. You can either try to write to that idea – think Struggle Street, Housos, The Combination, every protest you’ve ever seen on the rooftop of Villawood Detention Centre, every ‘dole bludger’ you’ve seen on A Current Affair – or you can write against it. (I did both in the above passage in case you didn’t notice.)

Here’s another problem: you’re always going to be writing with or against an image that is already too simple. All it does is turn you around and around in circles replicating stories that can’t break out of what the news media does, which is to play to a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable. What that kind of work does, is, in Rebecca Solnit’s words, ‘to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain.”

In that same essay, entitled ‘Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable’, Solnit quotes a line from Virginia Woolf’s diary, written in 1915 after a bout of depression, ‘The Future is dark which is the best way the future can be, I think.’ She uses Woolf’s words as a starting point to discuss the ways in which good art often happens in spaces of darkness, of ambiguity and uncertainty. ‘ Artists ply these regions often negotiating two sides of the line, using what is known in devastating conversation with the unknowable’.

When I think of those popular images of western Sydney I named above I also think of all those other things I know about those spaces; that the Ermington pub featured in Housos has a bistro where the families from the newly developed luxury McMansions by the river behind it sit side by side but in different worlds to the families who come in from the housing commission across the street; that the dark menacing tunnel in Bidwell which features as a place where people buy drugs in the series Struggle Street was also  a site where I watched locals perform an opera as part of Sydney Festival one year; that Villawood Detention Centre was once a somewhat more welcoming place that housed members of my own extended family when it was a hostel for newly arrived migrants; that every time I walk down Church Street in Parramatta I run into artists, professors, engineers, fashionistas, mums I know scurrying between kids and work and so many other people who don’t fit easily into A Current Affair’s latest program on dole bludgers in western Sydney.

When literature from western Sydney finally started to become a thing, or as Geordie Williamson claimed in 2013, emerged ‘as a special kind of shock…as though a Madagascar-sized island suddenly materialised off Sydney Heads,’ a new generation of writers began the important and political work of filling out the spaces of the previous unknown.

I was one of them.

I think it’s fair to say that no one, especially me, knew what we were doing or what the consequences might be. One of the problems, I now realise, is that books are beautiful esoteric things but they are also marketable commodities and marketing, at its essence, is a way of flattening deeply complex and contradictory worlds into a simple storyline. The marketing that happens around literature is complex. It involves things like direct marketing to book shops and festivals, giving author talks and providing copies of books to reviewers. It means that discussions of many of the works from Western Sydney end up with incongruous headlines — such as ‘Life flares in a suburban void,’ for Luke Carman’s experimental and poetic novel An Elegant Young Man. Or there’s the proliferation of panels on western Sydney writing at writers festivals — a move that both indicates that we are part of the mainstream while emphasising that we aren’t at the same time.

This is not to say that we as writers don’t participate in the promotion of our work that plays up to stereotypes of western suburbia. We certainly do. I do, but part of the issue is that it can be difficult to escape and even more difficult to insist on more complex readings of your work that aren’t framed by the ‘known’ images of this place. I’ve had reviewers peg The Incredible Here and Now as a story about the migrant’s journey to belong (it’s not) and my novel No More Boats as a piece of working class fiction (it’s more complicated that that: the protagonist owns a home on acreage in Parramatta and three investment properties despite starting out with nothing).

Recently I gave a student a poor mark on an assessment in my creative writing class. She had written a story from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl who carried herself like Tu Pac and had guns in her house and used phrases like ‘fuck this’ and ‘shit white people’ over and over again. It’s not that I object to the politics or the language or imagery, I tried to explain to her when she came up and spoke to me about it later. It’s just that the character doesn’t feel very authentic, it’s as though you’re writing about the west and about Arabness for an outside white community who might find that stuff entertaining because it’s such a spectacle – because that’s what they expect. ‘I know’ she said, ‘I was told that my work is too white, too not western Sydney, too middle-class sounding, so that’s what I thought I had to do. It’s not really me at all.’ It was an obvious site of trauma and confusion for the student who spent the rest of the term trying to work out what her voice really was: she wrote stories set in alternative worlds, pieces about her experiences walking, travelling, trying to find an affordable place to rent, her fondness for small packets of chips from Aldi. None of that really encompassed the entirety of who she was or what she wanted to say but it got her closer to finding out. Writing without being told what her writing should sound like lessened her anxiety.

I was reminded of a time when I got a low mark on an assessment in an undergraduate course for my misinterpretation of Judith Butler. I had written that Butler says we take our identities on and off like clothes. No the tutor had corrected me. Butler is making the argument that there is an inherent violence that occurs when we are forced into identities. We don’t take them on and off like clothes. Identities can be empowering but there is also a predatory tendency to force identities on us. We all need the capacity to engage in the critical work of thinking about who we are both inside and outside of our identities, and of doing so in a way that resists reducing our lives to a set of binding tropes.

We must consider the damage that certainty about identity does to this community of Western Sydney writers, to any emerging community, in fact, struggling to find its voice in the mainstream: Certainty enacts a form of violence through silencing the kind of complex narratives that happen when we do the harder work of getting out of the images and arguments about western Sydney that we feel comfortable in. The truly radical work now lies in what Teju Cole argues in his own analysis of Solnit, Woolf and their work on artistic darkness as  ‘a form of resistance which opens the deep work that hesitation requires us to engage in.’ The greatest of critical thinkers, Cole argues, are the ones who admit they know nothing. They are the ones who embrace the vital discomfort of uncertainty, of that hesitation and they try to make art in which we are all ‘sitting together in darkness.’

Here’s a quote from an essay by Maria Tumarkin in which she discusses how ‘motherhood memoirs’ often don’t allow for complex readings of motherhood because they are so focussed on warring over, responding to or negating preconceived ideas of motherhood:

they’re a dead end. They lead nowhere. Books or essays written and read into these wars, whether deliberately or not, are rarely enduring. Mostly they replicate clichés – of form, language, thought. They stifle thinking, trap us into an unnecessary, deadening shrillness.

Her argument applies equally to writing about western Sydney and points to a larger problem— that all kinds of identities, whether those be of place or otherwise are both important, emotionally charged, useful, particularly in discussing marginalised peoples, but at the same time incredibly constricting and reductive if we don’t also find ways of writing out of them.

As Solnit argues in her essay on Woolf, there is an overriding urge to take, even our own stories and ‘to reduce, flatten, and simplify what is more expansive, dimensional, and complex than can be easily understood.’ I find that even in interviews where I am directly trying to define my subject position as a western Sydney writer it is almost impossible to explain where I am coming from.

I try to explain that I was born here but left Australia when I was seven to live primarily around the US and that I also spent a lot of time around Asia, mostly Indonesia in my late teens and early twenties  but that I wound up living in Parramatta almost by accident, close to twenty years ago.

I try to explain my cultural background: that my father’s family are Greeks who were exiled from Egypt and migrated to Ethiopia where they intermarried with the Italian community; that my father grew up in a French enclave in  Ethiopia at a time when Italy was trying to maintain its colonial rule of Ethiopia and the English were trying to wrestle Ethiopia from the Italians and Eretria was fighting to separate itself from Ethiopia and that all this meant that my father’s family had lived in British internment camps as enemies of the state, before travelling back across Africa to Egypt and hopping on the first boat out of there. When they arrived in Australia in the late 1950s, they were treated with the usual racism Australians have heaped on successive generations of ‘outsiders’

My mother’s family had migrated from England and Scotland and had never met any non-Anglo migrants before my mother married one. I grew up among several languages and cultures and in many places, not to mention in a family that fought its way unevenly from the working-classes to the middle classes and sometimes even to the upper-middle classes.

None of that really says who I am though. It’s really only just a beginning. I’m sure other writers in western Sydney have just as complicated subject positions they find difficult to talk to and even more difficult to write into their work. I’m searching for those kind of stories all the time, stories that refuse classification or simplification, those that keep mining the darkness of this community’s unknowable depths.

I spoke about this problem recently to a western suburbs visual artist. I lamented that I thought the visual artists were far better off than we, that when I look at the quiet western suburban houses of a photographer like Gary Trinh, or an art installation Marian Abboud has created from images of her family or the intricate designs that Shireen De Ces Jours-ci creates in her metal work I am jealous of the fact that they inherently get to create work that is more nuanced and complex, more open to different interpretations.

You’re totally wrong, my friend informed me. Visual artists in this community have the same issues as writers. Her work, which explores themes of the natural environment, was rejected from a recent exhibition of western Sydney work, because as she put it, environmentalism isn’t western Sydney enough. You can only do that stuff in Newtown. It’s her experience that when the larger festivals commission work in western Sydney they only want stuff that attracts outsiders to some exoticized version of what it means to live out west because the people who pay to come and see stuff here are coming from other communities and want some kind of ‘authentic experience.’

I want to write truly radical work from western Sydney and the only option I think I have is to do what Teju Cole argues we need to do if we are to write into the dark which is to abandon writing that is  ‘loud and hectic (and) can just last for a moment,’ rather than getting to the ‘deepest place, that place of self-recognition, which becomes indistinguishable from other-recognition, which is continuous with world-recognition.’ He argues that the artist must go to the places ‘where something has been quietened’ to allow people to concentrate on a moment. The only thing I can do as a writer is to write books that are made of small moments of time where I look at people in place, up close, engaging in the small acts that define them and therefore allow me to confront what it means to be here, not just in the west, but in the world.

What I do know is that, while once simply writing the west was a threat to the status quo now the real political imperative is to stand in the dark with our eyes wide open, welcoming the uncertain. It is an invitation to undo the ways ‘things are done’ and invite alternatives into the equation. Bad writing has always been about having the last word and leaving others in silence. Good writing opens up a conversation about who we are that may never end.

I look at the work of emerging writers in this community and I can see that there is hope in the darkness they are writing into: Writers like Eda Gunaydin whose work is not confined by the conventions of any one genre and writers like Frances An whose writing is something like what would happen if Kafka met the Vietnamese-Chinese diaspora in Lakemba. I’m looking forward to Chloe Higgins’ forthcoming memoir about the complicated regions between sex and grief and Rawah Arja’s forthcoming YA novel The F Team, which looks at race and belonging in western Sydney while also doing the really radical thing of being wickedly funny. I’m hoping that maybe through their work they can help find the languages to describe our own states of varied experience and come to ideas that reinforce the slippery side of being here, acknowledging that doing so has real power and consequence.