Essay: Sheila Ngoc Phamon Western Sydney

Western Sydney is dead, long live Western Sydney!

This essay was commissioned as part of a joint SRB-UtP project titled Radical Accessibility.

When I was a kid, being named Sheila was embarrassing in exactly the ways you might imagine. It was a daily reminder of my family’s incomprehension of the local patois, which I only became more conscious of the more English I learned. Until I met another Sheila, when I was ten, I didn’t actually believe there were other people in Australia who had the same name as me.

The first Sheila I met was a long-term Cabramatta resident, an older woman who had migrated from England. Funnily enough, this woman’s name was Sheila English, and she worked as an English teacher to refugee and migrant kids in the area. A family friend thought to introduce me to her as a potential tutor, as English was the one subject I couldn’t get any help with at home.

Sheila’s son Jon was a bonafide cultural icon, and so well-known his fame had even penetrated my insular Vietnamese childhood. As a kid I watched at least forty hours of TV a week, like it was a full-time job, because my parents were always busy trying to make ends meet. My weekly viewing at the time included the popular sitcom All Together Now, starring Jon English.

I don’t recall the particulars of my conversation with this Sheila, aside from the fact that it took place at her home in Cabramatta. I probably sat in her living room wearing a pair of fluoro bike shorts and a home-sewn t-shirt. But I seem to recall that after we conversed for a while, she declared I didn’t need the tuition she could offer. Of course, she was right. I was actually at the top of my class.

Beginning with an anecdote is de rigeur for personal essays, and ones about Western Sydney often seem to begin with a racist encounter. I won’t lie, I was tempted. But describing the dirty looks I receive each week from that old white woman at my daughter’s Irish dancing class doesn’t get me very far, and it certainly doesn’t help me answer, ‘What does Western Sydney mean now?’

This is the question I’ve been ruminating on since it was posed to me last year. Despite my longstanding connection to Western Sydney, I have always been careful not to appoint myself as some sort of spokesperson for an area which is vast and evolving – and impossible to essentialise. During the extended lockdown of 2021, however, it seemed necessary to speak up about the impact of the pandemic from my perspective as a resident and observer with training in public health and ethics. What I wrote achieved some cut-through, I think, because it demonstrated another way to discuss Western Sydney. The reception to it indicated a real hunger for new narratives about the area.

To get to what Western Sydney means now, we need to begin in the past, like what happens when two Sheilas meet on stolen land. When I met Sheila English, I didn’t know about Ten Pound Poms, but it wasn’t at all strange for me to meet an English woman in Cabramatta. As far as I knew, everyone came from everywhere in Australia. Unless you were descended from convicts, that is, but back in the day this was hidden family history and not yet a source of perverse pride. I had no concept at all that any Aboriginal people still lived in the area.

There’s a recurring narrative about race relations nowadays that it’s White people versus People of Colour. But that’s not what it was like back in the 80s, 90s and even early 2000s where I grew up, back when Halal Snack Packs were simply known as Snack Packs. For one thing, describing people as White was not the norm. People were generally labelled as Aussies or Skips, Lebs and Nips. Wogs were a notable group as well, and by this time it was a pejorative being proudly reclaimed. There were others who seemed to be none of these exactly, ethnic minorities who were able to escape such flattening group designations. Racism was ever present, of course, yet it was a minor force in my rich, multicultural existence. When I look back on the different kids I grew up alongside, the sum effect was that I understood from a young age how limited these categories were, because they did not describe the full extent of any of us.

My earlier life was disadvantaged in ways which now allows me to write a killer cover letter and tick a number of boxes when applying for arts funding – which is one reason I rarely apply for funding at all. It’s just as well really, since there’s less of it to go around now. Also, these days I reject the idea that having other languages and cultures should even be characterised as disadvantages at all. Perhaps it’s a bit priggish of me but the other thing I don’t apply for is opportunities which require me to prostrate myself before the professional managerial class. Which is what I feel whenever I tick the box for ‘Western Sydney’, a geographic area more than two times the size of Luxembourg.

If you asked me what ‘Westie’ meant when I was young, I would have struggled to give you a coherent answer. Once I started to spend more time outside of the area though, it became obvious that the Westie label had classist overtones. Eventually someone told me about the mullet and black jeans stereotype, though none of the Aussies I knew looked like that at all. I didn’t necessarily think the term applied to people like Sheila and Jon English either, because I knew they came from England.

The first and only time someone directly referred to me as a Westie was at uni, and it was a back-handed compliment. ‘You don’t sound like a Westie,’ he said. His comment made me bristle but he also hit upon the truth that upwardly mobile kids like me didn’t comfortably fit under the label. When the idea of a Westie was formulated we didn’t quite exist yet, not in large numbers anyway.

It doesn’t surprise me when I see the children of non-white migrants claim the identity of being from Western Sydney; if they grew up in a suburb with some notoriety then all the better. After all, it’s easy to take on the label when one’s roots are not so deep in settler-colonial shame and there’s a bit of cultural and social capital to be claimed. Western Sydney is now a geographic designation which is shorthand for ‘diverse’ – whatever that means – and, among other things, being a ‘diverse’ person from the area implies you are a worthy recipient of institutional largesse, regardless of the specifics of your own biography.

In 2016 I visited a high school in the Penrith area to help run creative writing workshops for the Story Factory. I learned that only a handful of the previous year’s graduates had gone on to uni, despite there being a University of Western Sydney campus right on their doorstep. In contrast, at my semi-selective high school, which I lived close to, almost every kid enrolled in the selective half went onto further study and a good many from the community side as well. At this school, most of the students were White and Aboriginal, whereas at my intensely multicultural high school Asians were over-represented. Finally, I got it: this is what people mean when they talk about ‘Westies’, and this was not what I had experienced at all.

In 1988 Robert Hughes wrote ‘Requiem for a featherweight’, an excoriating critique of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hughes was one of the world’s leading art critics, and his take on Basquiat was hotly debated. By some it was seen as a cheap and unmerciful shot given it was published in response to the death of a promising young Black artist gone too soon. But all these years later it’s an interesting critique to revisit:

The otherwise monochrome Late American Art Industry felt a need to refresh itself with a touch of the “primitive”… the very nature of Basquiat’s success forced him to repeat himself without a chance of development.

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The way our largely ‘monochrome’ cultural institutions bring in young artists of colour to refresh themselves – ‘themselves’ referring to no particular individual, but the superorganism industry. These young artists, who might well be middle-class and educated as Basquiat was (which Hughes noted), have enough understanding of the industry to be drawn into its glamorous orbit; but do not necessarily see, at first anyway, how conditional their positionality might be. Perhaps an anointed few might be granted a place at the court, but the more likely offer is the role of a court jester, novel entertainment until the audience loses interest in the pantomime.

I was 25-years old when Western Sydney started to attract attention as a hotbed of raw artistic and literary talent, the likes of which the otherwise monochrome Australian Literary Industry had apparently never seen before. By this age I had finished two university degrees at Australia’s oldest university; edited a student magazine; published piles of mediocre writing; had lived and worked in London and extensively travelled through Asia and Europe. After I returned to Australia I found a job at the University of Western Sydney and began volunteering for Lifeline in Parramatta, which served the surrounding area. The point is, I was getting good life experience.

I had not formally studied literature beyond high school, so didn’t realise there was some sort of local canon I was meant to try and fight my way into. With other artforms like music and film, critical taste was more influential on what I consumed, yet somehow my love of reading was not so self-conscious. It simply never occurred to me that I wasn’t entitled to read and write what I liked, and engage with other readers and writers, as unschooled as my interactions may have been.

From a young age I reached out to Australian writers like Isobelle Carmody, Morris Gleitzman, Geraldine Brooks and Markus Zusak, who were gracious and generous in their responses, and never made me feel I was somehow unworthy. I didn’t feel stymied by where I was located in Sydney because luckily I loved writing letters and emails as well as making phone calls. Simply put, I liked where I lived. Limitations I felt about geography were usually more about how far Australia was from everywhere else.

All of which is to say that when I was invited to become part of a new writing group for young writers premised on us representing Western Sydney, I wasn’t too sure about it, especially as I wasn’t one for joining groups. But I was curious enough to attend one meeting which confirmed it wasn’t for me. Not that I was so sure of myself I rejected the idea of tutelage – I did feel the need for help with the novel I was writing; it was more the idea of needing patronage which I felt skeptical about. I was also interested in writing that wasn’t necessarily ‘exciting’ but was modelled on the work of writers I read and admired. Ultimately, I wasn’t seeking permission to create, and never believed that my upbringing in the Western suburbs meant I was somehow marked for life.

Multiple realities have existed and continue to co-exist in Western Sydney. But over the years I’ve read and heard many discussions about the area which seem to rewrite my own recollections and experiences. The truth is Australia has many lines of migrant history that pre-date our great Western Sydney moment in literature, including writing in languages other than English. Anyone who claims that no one trod the path before them denies important lineages of thought and action, as well as critical intergenerational dialogue.

Whenever I have touched on Western Sydney’s history in my work, I try to centre the cultural richness and strength of communities; access to universal healthcare and education; selective schools; the role of public libraries; cultural spaces including places of gathering and worship; affordable higher education and universities. I name these specific factors because they all played important roles in my own development, however imperfectly, and a great many other people’s as well. I’d like to think I’m an example of what’s possible when we promote communitarian values and work hard to ensure justice, while honouring agency and the capacity of individuals to seek their own pathways to self transformation. Of course, social infrastructure does not serve everyone evenly and there are ever more pressing challenges to be faced if we want to address inequality and ensure the area remains liveable and healthy. But I want to say that some things have worked, or used to work better. Denying any value in past and current measures which serve our communities in Western Sydney and enable many of us to thrive normalises the erosion of institutions and services, and even suggests that it’s acceptable.

I think about these ideas a lot now that I once again live in the area where I grew up, about five kilometres away from my family home. I own a house here which I bought in 2007 with help from my parents, and it’s where I’ve now chosen to raise my children. I’m within walking distance of the old central library where I first worked after graduating from high school in 1998, which was abandoned when the new light-filled library was opened in 2014. So my connections to this area go back forty years; yet somehow I now find myself occupying the uncomfortable position of being both a local as well as a gentrifier. There’s no denying I’m in a different professional position to almost everyone else in my neighbourhood; the pandemic highlighted this in myriad ways.

For my birthday some years ago, a friend bought me an anthology by writers largely from Western Sydney. The salesperson at the independent bookshop in Newtown had enthusiastically spruiked the book. Yet somehow a book like this isn’t meant for a reader like me. But if not me, then who? A friend who grew up in the area read the same book and said she recognised her younger self in some of the stories. I imagine the audience would also include many middle-class people concerned with being good, as well as younger people of colour who want to believe there’s power in unburdening oneself in print.

As I read through a few of the stories, including some authored by people I knew in real life, the overall effect was that our lives seemed small rather than enlarged. I’m sure there are many ways to read such works, which in any case vary from author to author, but nonetheless it was hard not to feel that, on the whole, the writers felt that it was the fact of being from Western Sydney as a person of colour that determined you would never be enough – rather than attributing these feelings to, say, life under the patriarchy and capitalism.

It may well have reflected their reality but as a reader it was an unedifying experience. I returned the book and for the same price bought small collections of essays by James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, and a novel by WG Sebald. This is exactly how I discovered Lorde’s essay, ‘Learning from the 60s’, which I have since returned to again and again, the way some might return to a psalm.

So often we either ignore the past or romanticize it, render the reason for unity useless or mythic. We forget that the necessary ingredient needed to make the past work for the future is our energy in the present, metabolizing one into the other. Continuity does not happen automatically, nor is it a passive process.

The constant severing of history is what gives us the illusion of new and fresh starts. As Lorde writes, we need to work hard to ‘metabolise’ the past if we want to create change in the future.

In Root and Branch by Eda Gunaydin (2022), there’s a particular passage which struck a deep chord. In her essay, ‘A Rock Is A Hard Place’, Gunaydin discusses her own conflicting feelings about coming from the area:

…despite having been born here and having been lucky enough to be nourished on Dharug land… none of this is mine, but I have to find a way to be here… Under different circumstances I know that this would be a fecund country, not bleak or alienating at all. This is one of the central puzzles that animates me: how to be here, with no place else, realistically, to go.

Recently I was interviewed for an oral history project by Professor Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen about being a second-generation Vietnamese Australian; all the interviews will be housed in the National Library’s folk collection. I had a lot to say; it took me more than five hours to cover the essentials, including what little I knew of my grandparents’ and parents’ earlier life in Vietnam.

When I started talking about my father’s orphaned, impoverished childhood, I started to cry because it had been so traumatic for him and subsequently traumatic for me constantly to hear about it. But I cried even harder when I started talking about the first time I visited Vietnam in 2010. I described the emotional breakdown I experienced on my second day when I had the crushing realisation that I would never belong in Vietnam, that I didn’t belong anywhere, that I was Australian whether I liked it or not. I sobbed as though this was still a fresh realisation, rather than a memory from more than ten years ago. When I looked over at the professor I saw her eyes were wet with tears, because she understood this grief as well.

In ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, Jorge Luis Borges writes:

…the nationalists pretend to venerate the capacities of the Argentine mind but want to limit the poetic exercises of that mind to a few impoverished local themes, as if we Argentines could only speak of orcillas and estancias and not of the universe.

Yes, this is exactly what has bothered me all along: ‘impoverished local themes’. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Counting and Cracking by S. Shakthidharan, for example, transcends such constraints, beginning as it does by the Georges River before sweeping through time and space to connect one migrant family’s story in Western Sydney to the history of the world.

It was writer Yumna Kassab who recommended Borges’ essay after a long conversation about Western Sydney, a problem she faced as well given she’s also spent most of her life in the area. I read the essay one day as my infant son napped in the car. That’s what’s so beautiful about reading; I could feel revived by a long dead writer from Buenos Aires while sitting in my driveway in Yagoona.

As Humberto Nunez-Faraco explains, Borges believed that Argentine writers did not need to be ‘gauchesque’, because they have legitimate access to a multiplicity of traditions; they do not need to confine themselves to local or nationalistic themes. Borges’ essay helped me appreciate the struggle I felt over the idea of Western Sydney was part of a much longer lineage, a question found in other eras and societies as well.

I don’t call myself a writer from Western Sydney, though I appreciate why other writers and artists do so and with pride. Nowadays I prefer to say I live on Dharug land. After all, I wasn’t born on this country, and ultimately ‘on’ seems more correct than ‘from’, a preposition which suggests a belonging I don’t necessarily feel nor am especially entitled to.

Like ‘Australia’, ‘Western Sydney’ is now a place where many of us live, work, dream and create. But even with its arbitrary borders and limited value as a metaphor for disadvantage, we can still imbue Western Sydney with meanings which help us to articulate and create new futures. Flattening group identities are generally unhelpful, but the converse is that being on the inside of a category creates the opportunity for us to reach out to each other to build solidarity and, in doing so, find alternative ways to flourish.

Western Sydney is a beginning rather than the end. A vast expanse, an evolving idea, a place where many of us have put down our tentative roots. The area exists now because it existed before, and it existed long before that – and the ultimate truth is that most of us have no place else, realistically, to go.

This essay was commissioned as part of a joint SRB-UtP project titled Radical Accessibility.