Interview: Sweatshop Women in conversation

Making Spaces: Sweatshop Women

Winnie Siulolovao Dunn in conversation with Sydnye Allen and Shirley Le.

Winnie Siulolovao Dunn: Sweatshop Women is an anthology of creative work by women of colour from Western Sydney. It’s a book that was written, edited and designed by women of colour. Why is it important that this anthology exists?

Sydnye Allen: We do not have any existing examples of such literature. Women of colour are still finding out what it is like to have a fully curated literary experience where from beginning to end the writing is shaped by our own voices. Now we have a reference tool that other women of colour can have to feel inspired and empowered by. Sweatshop Women: Volume One is a political statement.

Shirley Le: I grew up in Australia feeling very alienated because I couldn’t comprehend my cultural standing until I encountered the phrase ‘woman of colour’. Through the community of Sweatshop, I began to become critically aware of my being both a woman and Vietnamese-Australian. It is just such a transformative experience to have a book that shows women of colour can have agency and control over our own stories.

Winnie: Sydnye, you wrote a series of poems for the anthology titled, ‘The Best Little Brothel on Parramatta Rd’. Tell us about the process of writing those poems and why you chose to write about brothels. As your editor I know we started off with an essay and then we ended up with a collection of poems instead.

Sydnye: We did! We put a lot of work into that essay too. The poems originated from a completely different project at a poetry workshop with Pakistani-Australian Muslim author Maryam Azam. The process was so interesting to me because I had a limited critical understanding of poetry. I remember thinking how badly I wanted to have a template to show me exactly where to put the words down. I had a lot of encouragement to tell a succinct narrative of my of actual experience living above a brothel. I wanted to express the tension I felt as a mother with a newborn baby interacting with sex workers and their customers in such close proximity.

The compact structure of poetry was an effective way to unpack that kind of experience. The narrator in the poem is a woman of colour. Her son is a person of colour. The men who frequent the brothel are of all different races, most especially White. The sex workers are women of colour too. I think those layers and unconventional spaces are really interesting and I brought those experiences together as a writer of autobiographical fiction.

Winnie: Shirley, you wrote a short piece of prose titled ‘Vietnam Still Remains Vietnam’, what was the process of writing such a story and why did you choose to write it?

Shirley: At the time I wrote this story, my parents and the elder people in the Vietnamese-Australian community were expressing so much hurt, anxiety and anguish over the territorial disputes happening in the South China Sea. My understanding of Vietnam up until this point was heavily influenced by the older generation’s opinions about the Vietnam War.

It really made me question what it means to be Vietnamese-Australian today. I used fiction as a way to process these complex feelings and to answer the question of, ‘Can I feel loss towards something that’s already lost to me?’ I think the answer is yes. Something that is lost to me can be lost again to colonial powers like China. But I honestly didn’t know how I actually felt about the whole thing until I reached the last line of my piece: ‘All my life my mother told me that the entire country of Vietnam was dead to her.’ Even though I don’t always believe that professional writing should be used as a mechanism for therapy this particular story was a bit of catharsis for me.

Sydnye: Picking up on that idea of fiction as a critical but familiar space to unpack complex ideas and emotions; I have a question for Winnie, as the editor of this anthology. When you reflect on the women in our writing community, do you see representation that reflects the original intent of creating Sweatshop Women Collective as a safe space for culturally and linguistically diverse women writers?

Winnie: I’ve always had a clear idea of what a safe space for women of colour could look like. In my final year of university, I ended up removing myself from the Women’s Collective there because they wouldn’t allow the ‘Women Only’ room to have designated time for women of colour. As a Tongan-Australian woman, I was very critical about the fact that I couldn’t cultivate a space for me in an institutional setting that prides itself on education and diversity.

Sweatshop is much bigger now than it was even a year ago. Now Sweatshop consists of mostly women from a combination of Aboriginal, Arab, Asian, African, South American and Pasifika backgrounds who are determined to have complete autonomy over their own stories.

Building on this, is there any time we identify more with our race than with our gender? Or do those two things constantly co-exist?

Sydnye: If we start with the idea that White is normal and the standard then there is an expectation that we don’t need to discuss the intersections between race and gender. It is an assumption of mainstream feminism that we don’t need to talk about Whiteness because Whiteness remains at the centre of everything. As an African-American woman, I’m not just a woman and I’m not just Black. I’m both and I carry that history to Australia where I live now. It is impossible to separate race and gender in the larger context of a colonial society both in America and Australia.

Shirley: Race and gender intersect in a way that the racism I face has a sexist element to it and the sexism I face also has a racist element to it. As a Vietnamese woman there are times when many people focus on the fact that because I’m Asian it must automatically mean my body is meant to be ‘small’ and ‘petite’. Then there are times when others will comment on how young Vietnamese people ‘do better in school’ because ‘education is so engrained in our culture’ when really that’s such a generalised and ignorant statement that perpetuates the myth of the model minority. I find those interactions so draining and frustrating. It is really a form of racist and gendered violence used to demand that I put my own understanding of myself aside for White and male expectations. I will always identify as a woman of colour.

Sydnye: During the workshops, we met a lot of famous women of colour writers like Michelle de Kretser, Roanna Gonsalves, Maryam Azam, Michelle Law, Randa Abdel-Fattah and Alison Whittaker. Why is it important that we see other women of colour who already have a number of publications and accolades to their name?

Shirley: It makes me feel emboldened as a woman of colour, who is constantly being told to make myself quieter and smaller, to start disrupting mainstream racist, colonial and sexist narratives. Along with the mentorships and editing I have received, it helps me to keep going when I see myself reflected in the literature I consume. I do want to say that it was also great from a technical perspective. Not every writer follows the same process and not every writer prioritises technically the same things as another writer.

Sydnye: I agree. As a fresh creative writer, it was really helpful to me to see so many prominent women of colour authors who were diverse in race, age, ability and sexuality. I had spent a number of years in academia and it was hard to know where to start. The structured workshops really helped me understand how much women of colour have to navigate unwelcoming spaces, even in creative industries.

The guest facilitators really helped me learn a lot about editing and what makes good writing and how to separate the attachment I felt to an idea from the quality of my work. Through the exercises, I learnt how to put a sentence together in an original way, whilst also being constantly aware of my ego. This kind of thinking has ensured I don’t get in my own way of creating a great piece of literature that says something unique about the African-American woman experience in Australia.

Winnie: What would you recommend as next steps for young women of colour who find themselves reading and writing stories that centre White characters? Any words of advice?

Sydnye: Stop reading those stories. We are often force fed White-centred stories in our schooling and taught that those stories are the examples of the reality of Australian or even global society even when it clearly isn’t. Those kinds of stories reinforce colonial structures that have already indoctrinated women of colour to believe that our role in society is that of an outsider.

Then I would suggest making a conscious decision to start reading stories written by people of colour. There are so many inspiring fundamental texts we can read by women and men of colour as well – all of which can radically transform our ways of thinking and being. I think it is important for women of colour to know that we are not objects or tokens to be used and dispensed. We can apply this knowledge if we are sharing critically conscious texts and stories written for us by people like us.

Shirley: When I was in university, I noticed that many of the texts authored by people of colour included in my reading lists seemed to have the same narrative where the writer of colour ‘goes back’ to their mother country. Those kinds of literatures forced me into a dangerous way of thinking that told me if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, that’s the only story I would be allowed to tell.

It took me such a long time to break out of that and once I did it was really important for me to connect with other Vietnamese-Australian artists and other people of colour from Western Sydney. I needed to find out what kind of conversations were already taking place, what conversations needed to take place and what kind of literature should I be making to contribute to the greater literature of our communities.

Do the research. Take the time. Really think about the types of contributions we are making as women of colour to literature.

Winnie: What do you hope women of colour readers will take away from this book?

Shirley: There is space for everyone even though the industries we operate in tell us otherwise. Sweatshop Women: Volume One is a testament to that.

Sydnye: I hope women of colour, but also everyone really, adds it to their collection and they share it with friends and family who are interested and committed in changing the dominant and violent narrative of colonialism, racism and sexism that tells us good writing from good authors are White.

Also, check out the photographic feature within the book created by Filipino-Australian photographer Bethany Pal and Cambodian-Australian graphic designer Elaine Lim. I think it is such a powerful showcase of the diversity that is inherent in the term ‘women of colour’. I hope other women of colour can see themselves reflected in the many faces that make up our community, and if they don’t, they should definitely be part of the next volume.

Sweatshop Women: Volume One will be launched at the Sydney Writers Festival on 3 May.