WHAT I WANT is for three people to speak to you. Merlinda Bobis, Julie Koh and Mammad Aidani. You may know one of them, three of them, none of them. Whatever. I will speak to you too, I guess. So it’s one of you and four of us.
We are not in any sense united. Merlinda, Julie and Mammad are not my case studies. And our shared hyphenatedness (together we’re Filipino-Iranian-Malaysian-Chinese-Ukrainian-Jewish-Australians, all of us writers) doesn’t make us speak in one voice about how our identities shape – identities…shape…have I put you to sleep? or perhaps you’re into this sort of thing? – what we write and how we are read in this country. We don’t want to talk about identities. This will not be another diversity panel.
Julie is very good on this. In her short story ‘The Fat Girl in History’ from Portable Curiosities (UQP, 2016), the main character is told that to succeed as a writer in Australia she needs to work out which writers she is having a dialogue with:
‘I am not sure I’m having a dialogue with anyone.’
‘You think you’re hollering in the darkness but you’re not. You’re having a conversation with someone but you just don’t know who it is yet.’
‘Maybe it’s Peter Carey,’ I say. ‘People say I remind them of Peter Carey.’
‘He must be after my time.’
‘I haven’t read any Peter Carey.’
I love how random this whole conversation sounds. As if Peter Carey’s name is plucked out of a hat. And being in a dialogue with someone – what a hackneyed, dead expression it turns out to be in this story. The guy who is leaning on the main character, dishing out advice, well…it’s Jack Kerouac, except he is reincarnated as a local, middle-aged lawnmower man. The story makes the idea of inserting yourself, particularly as a non-Anglo, non-white writer, into these locked chains of cultural influence in Australia – tearing the chains if you can, if they let you – feel all-out farcical. Not merely a cliché, but a con, a Ponzi scheme. Julie is of course having many kinds of fun with this story. See P Carey, ‘The Fat Man in History’, 1974.
So, that’s that then, let’s not be in a dialogue. Dialogue is one of these words. Like ‘shhhh’. It shuts things down. We don’t need more dialogues, we need people who can help us think. Or, more precisely, as Mammad puts it, we need to talk to people who think hard and who don’t think like us. And then we need to not run away.
I use first names only for most of this piece – Mammad, Julie, Merlinda. I understand that first names when used without surnames, and without titles, can be and have been used to cut people down, particularly people of colour, to signal a familiarity that is untrue and demeaning, to de-intellectualise. I use first names with the deepest respect because it feels unnatural to do anything else here. I’ve tried and the air stiffens at once, sentences turn shrill. People-to-think-with become ‘ethnic success stories’.
ONE OF MAMMAD’S books has the word ‘suffering’ in its title. Can you think of anything more un-Australian? Mammad is a playwright, scholar, thinker; he consults for The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture. When Mammad works with traumatised refugees, he urges them to conceptualise their experiences. He says, ‘I don’t want to make you feel better. That’s not my role. Emotions are learned. As a refugee, you need to become the person who thinks about ideas of power, brutalisation, totalitarianism, denunciation of individuals.’ I can’t believe my ears when he tells me. What’s with my ears though? It’s just that the words ‘conceptualise’ and ‘refugees’ don’t tend to travel together in one sentence in Australia.
Not to run away. I don’t want to be sanctimonious. This world is too hard and few can live in a constant state of intellectual and moral discomfort. I can’t. Comfort is slogans (Diversity! Ra-Ra!). Comfort is habits, grooves of thought. Comfort is self-representation that reliably gets you laughs or grants. Comfort, for me, is the Griffith Review.
Thinking though needs discomfort. Dust in your eye that can’t be rubbed out. Water will only make it worse. I want Merlinda Bobis, Julie Koh and Mammad Aidani to speak to you because their thinking, their work, de-banalifies the question of difference. They make familiar public narratives about what kind of nation Australia is or could be feel unsettled again. Are they the only ones to do that? Not even remotely.
So, thinking. For instance, when I get in touch with Merlinda, she emails me her essays and scholarly work spanning fifteen years and it’s only a tiny fraction of what she’s been up to. Before we talk, I need to have a sense of how much has changed, the roads travelled. Merlinda writes in three languages (Bikol, Filipino and English) – novels, poems, short stories, dramatic pieces for radio and stage; she performs and dances her work. She is also a formidable global scholar as well as a teacher (she taught creative writing at the University of Wollongong for twenty-one years before retiring). I read Merlinda’s work and recognise a multidirectional, wild sprouting of thoughts, forms of ‘grassroots theorising’ as she calls it, always exceeding the box it comes in, non-linear, world-enlarging, not dominated by any one idée fixe or one structure of feeling.
‘Migration story cannot be fixed. It moves all the time for each and every one of us,’ Merlinda says. We’re talking about how much she has thought, said, written, sung, danced, catalysed in the past few decades. ‘The storyteller changes. Their worldview changes. The very style of telling the story changes all the time.’ And that’s just her, she says. Now multiply it by all the other people like her out there. Done? This is the first layer.
‘Migration is about the movement of people, but the reality is we’re also moving as we tell. We’re in fact migrating as we are telling a migration story. The very act of telling is an act of migration.’ Attention: what Merlinda is saying here is not the same as ‘there is no one story of X’. That stuff Australia is down with by now – that is, no such thing as one Indigenous or one Asian-Australian voice-slash-experience-slash-etcetera. So far, so comfy. What Merlinda is talking about now is something else: how thinking and telling are in themselves acts of migration.
It means that, in the telling, a writer, a thinker, an artist, a scholar (often already multiply and painfully displaced) is again leaving a familiar shore, finding themselves out of place, disoriented, their body made to feel precarious, their twenty-one grams of soul most likely on the line. May I slow down here and offer this: in Australia it’s such a bitch to get anywhere for most hyphenated artistic types that once you’re somewhere, why would you be relinquishing any power (perhaps you’d be a fool to) and so you speak from a place of authority and passionate knowledge, your voice needs to carry, your voice needs to walk through walls. Yet to think is to keep moving and doubting. To risk rolling down a hill. In other words, for the writers on the outside who keep on moving, the risks (personal, professional) are always profound. End of the second layer.
Merlinda (to me):
In reading me, the Reader has to budge from their space. I say, ‘Move, Reader. Follow me. Take my hand. Come with me to Philippines into this war.’ The Reader says, ‘I want to hear this story but I want to hear it while I am sitting here in my chair.’ And I say, ‘Move, Reader. Move. We both have to keep on moving.’ Readers think they have come in but I know they haven’t moved, haven’t budged. ‘Reader,’ I say, ‘to read me, you have to be willing to lose something.’
Telling is an act of migration, and so is reading or listening. The book Merlinda is talking about, by the way, with the Philippines and the war in it is called Fish-Hair Woman (Spinifex Press, 2012). In it, Merlinda doesn’t bring migration to Australians, she brings Australians into the space of migration. Australian characters disappear in the Philippines, search for their kin in the ‘total war’ of this irreducibly foreign place. Move, Reader, move. Get out of your chair. Lose yourself. Put your hand in your pocket – see, no maps. Maybe to be fully human is to know what it’s like not to have the language with which to ask for your simplest needs, to know how it feels for speech to be always shadowed by shame or fear. If you’re spared this experience (firstly, hallelujah!), literature is here to help. I don’t know. I am thinking aloud here, Reader; I am out of my chair too.
(It occurs to me: what Merlinda is proposing is dangerous for everyone.)
I WAS ON a panel for a good conference last year. (A good conference is a conference that is not hermetically sealed but reaches urgently into the world.) The panel chair was a white, middle-aged woman. I was, I’m afraid, a white, middle-aged woman, whatever my ethno-NESB-firstgen credentials. Two more people from Melbourne were supposed to be on the panel as well: a young man born in Congo who was doing thrilling work as a spoken-word poet, and a formidable woman who curated the Pan Afrikan Poets Café and was a storyteller, educator, broadcaster, dramaturg.
Last minute something came up and the woman couldn’t make it to the panel. The young man sat next to me, next to the two white middle-aged women academics. I could feel his not wanting to be on this kind of panel. The feeling was in my body. It was hot. I could feel his regret: why the hell did he agree to this? I could feel that he felt implicated. His family was in the audience. There was a direct line of sight between him and his father. The audience was mainly but not overwhelmingly white. I hated causing someone to feel this compromised. I was also angry because I was being mis-seen by this young man as some institutionalised zombie, some majority-gatekeeper-Anglo-privileged-academicky thing, while I was no such thing. (Of course, I was no such thing and, I’m afraid, this very thing at once.) Mainly I wanted to cry.
When it was his turn, the young man spoke about deciding where and how he speaks, and with whom he shares his art-making. He was not a poet for hire. He spoke about having no faith in white institutions and about the abiding responsibility he feels to his people, his audiences. He spoke about the world outside of this room – this room, which to him felt like so many other rooms he didn’t want to be in. I was up next. I wondered what to do. I said it felt really uncomfortable to be on this panel. I said I didn’t want to smooth this feeling, hide it or wish it away. I said – and I still don’t know if I really believed it – that this powerful discomfort was where we needed to begin if anything was to change.
‘Look at the banality of the concept of inclusion in Australia,’ Mammad says when we meet. ‘Banality of indifference is disguised as inclusion. Banality. I insist on using this word. It has become entrenched. Any time I witness this kind of inclusion, I feel a sense of intellectual uprootedness.’ He means that inclusion as practiced in Australia circa 2018 makes him feel like a double exile. The word ‘exile’ is no florid metaphor when it comes out of Mammad’s mouth. ‘I am into categories when it comes to displacement’, he says. ‘I have been forced into the position, for the sake of my sanity and integrity if there’s any meaning in either still, to be almost defiant when it comes to the meaning of exile. Exile is the uncompromising distance between where I am and the home to which I cannot return. Whoever can go home is not an exile.’
I first met Mammad at the (good) conference. He was on a panel with three young men who lived the refugee experience and were making art about it. The four of them talked about a short film they had collaborated on. In it a young man, a refugee, is trying to find a place for himself in Melbourne. Finding a place is not the same as finding a job, a flat, a community, a safe harbour of whatever ilk; it doesn’t mean finding a way to fit in. It means making Australia, Melbourne, into a place where you could continue thinking and believing in justice and ideas. A liveable place where your sanity and integrity could be preserved. It means walking your way into the city streets – into them, yes! – in hope that one day that crippling feeling of being out of place can release a part of you.
A slow, austere short film, no dialogue. Not a ‘refugee story’ of the kind we’re used to. Metaphors, abstractions. Melbourne landmarks projected on the young man’s face and body as he is wrung out by anguish. Not images of ruins from Iran, Iraq, Syria, from Bosnia and Kosovo, from Sudan and Somalia, but familiar ‘iconic’ trams and shopping arcades. The city itself, benevolent, banal, is not a backdrop to some other event unfolding – it is the event. The short film was based on a text Mammad wrote in the late 1980s not long after coming to Australia. Not a script, a philosophical text on alienation, exile, looking for your city in another city. It was up to the young men to puzzle a movie out of this text. First they had to find their meaning, then the visual language in which to ferry it.
Mammad says, ‘Thinking is about profound intensity to crack things, to open up consciousness. It is not about a patchy analysis of an issue so we can feel good about it.’
ANOTHER THING MAMMAD says and it lands somewhere in my gut: ‘Inviting yourself in is devastating.’
In another of Julie’s short stories from Portable Curiosities, ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’, a yellow man escapes through the movie screen as the popcorned, multi-gen audience watches Return of the White Ninja 3D, in which the man plays Stand-offish Ninja #13. Out in the world, the yellow man writes a book on representations of women in Italian neorealist cinema (his first word out in the world is in fact ‘Fellini’; his speaking parts in films involved him saying ‘You die now’ and ‘Boss Man velly angly’). In time, the book is published and the yellow man is invited to be on a panel with other yellow men ‘who were visiting from abroad to promote books they had written on diverse topics such as Olympic shot-put and the history of chemical warfare.’ The panel starts. ‘What is it like to be yellow?’ asks
Satire in Australia right now is widely perceived as the domain of groups like the Chaser boys and media people who do hot takes. I’ve been called a satirist but I don’t only write satire, and I point that out in interviews. Though perhaps in the market it’s better to be just one thing. Being a literary satirist is better than being a new cool Asian writer. I’m glad that the debate with me is more about satire. I’m many things, and I get the impression some people don’t know what to do with me because no one expects subversive humour from an Asian-Australian woman writer.
‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’ is funny and hard; it pushes the banality of inclusion Mammad is talking about to an absurd place, and so to a place of freedom. I am telling you about Julie’s story and I feel queasy. ‘I thought when I put the last full stop on “The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man”, Julie says (we’re on Skype, no video) ‘that I’d never have to write about it again. That was my intent to get in a fictional essay what I thought about racism against Asian-Australians in this country, to figure out what was bugging me so much and I finally did it and then it’s like, “Now keep talking about it, keep talking about this frigging story.”’ That’s exactly it. I am doing it to her again. Getting her to keep talking about this frigging story.
I found myself talking a lot on diversity panels about the race aspect of my book. Besides being called a satirist, I’ve become marketable in this other way. It’s very tiring. My tiredness results from being constantly reminded of what I look like, and being called on repeatedly to perform my ‘Asianness’. I recently started saying ‘no’ to interviews in which they want me to talk about being a writer of colour or an Asian-Australian woman writer. As you know, I almost didn’t do this interview. The thing is I’ve said it once. I can’t imagine a life in which I have to say the same things over and over.
The sheer repetition. I’ve been thinking about repetition for years, I tell Julie. It may seem like a symptom of a broader cultural stucked-ness, and small fry really compared to all the structural, entrenched, institutionalised, historically over-determined stuff to do with power and powerlessness. But I reckon repetition is a dark horse. It’s wearing people out. Wearing the cultural fabric thin. All those well-intentioned conversations about diversity or privilege, let’s say. What happens when they are put on repeat (and they have been put on repeat)? I’ll tell you what happens. Things of value, important things, become the same shit all over again. Repetition leads to degradation.
Which is another way of say that inviting yourself in is truly devastating, but when you do get invited, what exactly are you invited into?
A couple of years ago I went to a public lecture given by anthropologist Ghassan Hage. Hage is a professor at the university where I teach. The talk was particularly dazzling considering that the day before the lecture Hage (Ghassan?) had left his laptop in an airplane seat pocket and had just two pages of notes, if that, to speak from. I’ve bumped into him subsequently and I’m pleased to report that the wandering laptop was returned to him. There are two things I want to mention about this lecture in which a lot happened (and I agreed and disagreed furiously in turn).
Number one: Hage talked about the relationship between power and the logic of extraction. Certain kinds of individuals and groups are kept in check through the routine extraction of labour and resources from them, which invariably leads to the diminishment of their life force. We are not talking ore and timber. Emotional labour and resources, intellectual, psychic. Two: Hage spoke about frustration as a method for bleeding power out of certain kinds of people. Some desired thing is made to appear accessible when in reality it is not. Jobs, awards, creative opportunities, a level playing field, a post-racial civic space, whatever else the weary heart desires.
PERHAPS REPETITION OPERATES precisely via a blend of frustration and extraction. You say your thing about being a yellow man, a brown woman, a person with a non-Anglo brain who loves this country and then you say it again and again, wanting to believe that saying what you’re saying is useful, not an act of self-commodification, that it’ll produce something small and real in the world. You keep saying it because it feels like shifting out of this conversation is possible, any minute now you will be invited into conversations you want to be part of, but then the email comes and it is a request for you to join another Diversity Taskforce. For no pay (of course).
This is what Julie, Merlinda, Mammad would rather talk about.
Julie on the state of Oz lit (direct quote):
When I started publishing short stories, I was working against this idea that writing should be very fine, subtle writing, not political at all, because then it becomes too obvious. We can’t stand it when it’s too obvious. I don’t see what the problem is with writing fiction that is clearly political. I was a politics major. I am interested in power. Fineness pervades Australian literature. The reason I write is that I am trying to find some sort of intellectual freedom. I appreciate realism but my view is that unless realist writers do something unexpected, I don’t think it’s the genre of our time. To reflect the crazy world we’re living in, I’ve been compelled to go into absurd, surreal territory or new territory in terms of genre or mixing genres.
Merlinda on the future of Oz lit (summation):
Merlinda has long since had this proposal. Diasporic narratives shouldn’t be subsumed in Australian national literature, disappearing in it like so much pink salt in a pot of boiling water. Diasporic texts should push and prod national literature towards acts of relocation and migration. Not just Australia’s literature, Australia’s English should let itself be soaked in all the living Indigenous languages of the nation, in its thriving diasporic tongues, so it too could be transformed through cross-contamination. There is a great pleasure, not just hope and future, in this opening up.
Mammad on universities and civic society (direct quote):
Universities think they question power. They are the power. Politicians invite us in democracy to attack them. It really is not a big deal. Keeping government in check is not a big deal. University is a place where thinkers need to develop new concepts. And nothing else. Assimilation, integration, multiculturalism, inclusion – these concepts have done their job. We need new concepts. Where are the intellectuals and elites who are doing this work, who are genuinely inclusive? I see the fear in those intellectuals who claim to be brave. I feel totally alienated from them and so from this society. These academics, intellectuals, thought managers, thought sanitisers, have gotten used to saying they have no power. They fail to recognise just how brutally powerful they are.
That’s just three of them. Saying one thing each really. Now multiply it by all the other people like them out there. Done?
Proclaiming that we need to change the conversation (or have different conversations altogether) is by a now cliché of thought. Yet another one! And, besides, how do you do it except in the way Mammad suggests – we need to talk to people who think hard and who don’t think like us. And then we need to not run away. I’ve quoted this before and I am quoting it again because I am beginning to think that running away is kind of institutionalised. I don’t believe in change by committee. I don’t believe in revolutions either (when you are born in a totalitarian state, even if in its post-genocidal phase, the romance of burning barricades is lost on you. All you can smell is the human flesh burning.) I don’t believe in optimism or cynicism. I believe in us falling under each other’s spell, in getting out of the chair for each other.
When Fish-Hair Woman came out in 2012, Merlinda did a reading. She was singing and wailing. A friend of hers said, ‘You ask too much of the audience’. ‘But singing, dancing, I must do it’, Merlinda said. ‘If I don’t, I am not doing justice to the source of the grief. If I don’t, I am injuring people I am writing about. Grief is visceral. You are in front of TV. Syria is on TV. You don’t want to move out of your chair. But then the wailing comes. This is something you cannot stop. Your body cannot fight it. You are infiltrated by grief.’ Merlinda is telling me about that reading and I am cheering (silently). This is a real moment of possibility: a hyphenated artist-thinker locks the door and takes charge of the room. ‘I treat you like a captive audience,’ Merlinda says. ‘Your skin will vibrate with this lament.’ I am excited like a baby. Something about asking ‘too much’ feels to me like a place of hope.