Monday musings on Australian literature: Diversity and memoir

Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

Hands up if you’ve read memoirs by First Nations writers, Immigrant writers, Gay writers, Transgender writers, Writers with a disability, and so on? I sure have, and have reviewed several on this blog – including ones by Archie Roach, Marie Munkara, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Alice Pung, Maxine Beneba Clarke, and Jessica White. Black Inc has a whole series – the Growing Up anthologies – devoted to life stories from people of diverse backgrounds. These are excellent for explaining “otherness” to the rest of us.

However, while reading for my recent Monday Musings on the stories we need/want, I came across this comment in the article I used by Lin Li Ng:

BIPOC [Black, Indigenous or People Of Colour] writers are also so often confined to the realms of memoir where they must write about identity, experiences as the ‘other’. And while such texts are necessary and so often relatable for the BIPOC reader, it made me wonder: How much longer BIPOC writers can keep writing about otherness? How much longer must they explain otherness?

It made me stop and think … and decide it was worth highlighting in a separate post.

Lin Li Ng is not a lone voice in this. Last year, SBS ran a competition for writers aged 18 plus ‘to submit a memoir piece of 1000-2000 words on the topic of “Growing up in diverse Australia”‘. It was so successful, they are running it again this year, with the theme, “Between Two Worlds: stories from a diverse Australia”. Again, the request is for a “first-person memoir piece, between 1,000-2,000 words”.

Responding to the 2020 competition, Kelly Bartholomeusz wrote in Overland, “Stop asking ‘diverse writers’ to tell you about their lives”:

It is frustrating to see opportunities for ‘diverse writers’ linked to their willingness to write narrowly about their diversity. This approach disqualifies the many talented writers who have already processed or written about these experiences, and who have bigger visions or better imaginations than to endlessly revisit the same questions.

Bartholomeusz says there’s “nothing inherently wrong with memoir”, and she doesn’t want to “disrespect … writers of colour and First Nations writers who work predominantly in this space”, because this “work has value”. However, writing about one’s life “should not be a condition of entry to the industry, and if it is, it should not be disguised as ‘opportunity’”. Indeed, she says,

Diversity of background doesn’t automatically result in diversity of thought, and a system that requires these voices to answer the same questions ad nauseum is dangling a carrot just out of reach, effectively limiting that which it claims to encourage. 

She also fears that encouraging – if not requiring – writers of diverse background to focus on otherness

will condition aspiring writers to believe that their only value is in their marginalisation and otherness, to be consumed as palatable morsels by predominantly upper-middle-class white audiences who will talk about these stories in bars and over brunch, and who will form a subconscious belief that they understand these experiences because they have read about them.

This final point is one that bothers me when I write posts like these, and when I review works by “diverse” writers. Is it offensive or smug to think that privileged I can “help” by writing these? It niggles at me.

Bartholomeusz also talks about being asked, on a writing scheme application, to detail “ways in which the publishing industry was previously inaccessible” to her. She sees an inherent irony in the question, “as if these factors are easy to categorise and quantify. As if they can be cleanly extracted from the murky swirl of complexity that characterises most non-white Australians’ lives”.

Her arguments are cogent, but First Nations author, Ambelin Kwaymullina, has also talked about the publishing issue, back in 2015. She says:

I’ve had publishers express the sentiment to me that they’d love to publish more diverse voices if only they received more manuscripts. However, given that this approach hasn’t yet resulted in any great increase in diversity, I think it’s perhaps time to conclude that ‘business as usual’ won’t achieve the desired outcome. The existing inequity of opportunity being what it is (especially for Indigenous writers who are most disadvantaged) means that more is required.

She says there is a lack of “Indigenous editorial expertise” resulting in Indigenous writers not having people sensitive to their culture involved in the editing and publishing process. She praised the State Library of Queensland’s black&write! program because it offers “both Indigenous writing fellowships and Indigenous editorial internships”.

Five years later, Lin Li Ng makes a similar point when she says that “diverse” writers don’t have champions in the industry. In other words, people like them, who understand them, who can “advocate for and support” them “with sensitivity”, are not “the gatekeepers with great decision-making power”. There are exceptions, of course – some good publishers supporting more marginalised writers – but they are just that, exceptions.

To end, though, I’ll return to the content issue. Lin Li Ng says that

texts by diverse writers, as a result of systemic practices, are made to sit on the peripheries of the literary landscape – they are treated as niche, so very unattainable, un-relatable and of little commercial value.

Book cover

So, she is saying, when diverse writers are published they tend to be sidelined as “niche”. This can be partly because their subject matter is deemed to be of narrow or specific interest. It can also be because their style may not be that of the majority culture. Think Shokoofeh Azar’s The enlightenment of the greengage tree (my review), for one – though it did break through, a little. There are works coming from young First Nations and Asian writers, for example, that challenge the norms, but they are not reaching the big markets, and only rarely appear on award long and shortlists. Even the Stella Prize, which aims to support marginalised women writers, will have some books from the more “diverse” end of the spectrum on longlists, but amongst the winners? Not so much.

Things are changing. We are seeing more diverse voices on the screen and stage, not to mention colour-blind casting and storytelling. However, my sense is, particularly when I look at awards lists, which are not the be-all I know, that we have a long way to go yet. And, I admit, I could lift my game – a lot!

Thoughts, anyone?

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Diversity and memoir

  1. Perhaps a way to make a transition from “niche” to mainstream readers, is to persuade the gatekeepers who determine the reading for elementary and secondary school children to include diversity to better represent the students. My grandniece in Seattle told me that her fall 9th grade language arts classes have read Persepolis and The Hate U Give. This is Washington state, so it’s much less likely in Texas or Virginia, but what about Australia?

    • Darn, I replied to this and it didn’t ”take”. Very good point. I think it is improving in Australia, and in fact a recent proposal for updating the curriculum is arguing for more First Nations truth telling for a start, which “should” see more literature by them in the curriculum. Asian cultures have, with First Nations issues, been “cross-curriculum” perspectives for some time now. BUT I don’t know how this translates in terms of reading!

  2. The big commercial publishers are the major offenders, and it’s terribly hard for small publishers to get a look-in. This affects prizes as well as sales. None of which is surprising, but it is a shame.

  3. Yes, there are some very important and moving and wonderful books here. I have read some of them. (So Many Books To Read) It is getting to be that different is the norm. Whatever next? I am amazed by the new book by Ken Haley – The One That Got Away – Ken is in a wheelchair and spent last year locked out of Australia exploring Cuba, Florida, Central America, Caribbean. Now that IS different!

    • Ah Carmel, I just heard him interviewed on the ABC this am, though I was driving and didn’t hear it all. What an amazing story. And he managed to avoid catching the virus.

      So Many Books To Read, indeed.

  4. Being the age I am the first writer I think of is Allan Marshall. He was known for being a writer in a wheelchair, but I think respect for his writing goes beyond that.
    Comparing Indigenous authors Marie Munkara and Melissa Lukashenko, Munkara writes about the difficulties and injustices of Indigenous life; Lukashenko in Too Much Lip writes an ordinary family comedy which happens to be Indigenous, and in fact I think too much was made of it being Indigenous. Anita Heiss is another who writes comedies (RomComs) which happen to be Indigenous, though Heiss being Heiss I imagine she still manages to score a point or two.

    • Ah yes, like you, Bill, I remember Marshall.

      I’m not sure what you mean about Too Much Lip. I saw Kerrie’s family’s Indigeneity as critical to the story. It’s very much about how dispossession creates dysfunction, intergenerational. While there is humour in Too Much Lip, there’s no way I’d call it comedy.

      Heiss’s romcoms have a very specific goal – her ChocLit as she calls it – which is to say that there are urban, professional First Nations people who have dreams similar to those of other Australians (albeit with a cultural overlay.)

      These three authors write in very different settings (from my experience of them: Munkara’s novel (the one I’ve read) is set as I recollect in far north Australian in a predominantly Indigenous community albeit whites wield the power. Her novels tend to be historical fiction I think. Lucashenko’s (the one I’ve read) is set in a country town in which Indigenous people tend to be on the fringe but interacting with other townspeople. She has set other novels in similar settings, and they are contemporary. Heiss’s are also contemporary and are set in urban areas where Indigenous people are the minority and mix daily on an equal (on the surface at least) basis with other urban dwellers.

        • Ah, yes, then I largely agree re Heiss. Her point is probably to say young professional urban Indigenous people have similar dreams. She wants Aussies to see that.

          Lucashenko though… I think she’s very much about how “othering” plays out in and affects the communities she knows.

  5. I have to say that my experience of reading Australian novels differs from the critique by Lin Li Ng. If you look at my diversity page, where I list the background of the authors I read, you can see that they come from the four corners of the globe. Yes, some of them are memoirs, but mostly, they’re not. They are novels by people who happen to have diverse backgrounds. I don’t label people by colour because I think that’s offensive, but some of the books listed are by People of Colour too, from African countries, and the Indian subcontinent.
    And, as it happens, I am currently reading a book by a wheelchair user…

    And I’m only one reader. There are plenty more books than the ones I’ve listed, and also, I’ve been hesitant to list some authors there because I haven’t been sure about their background and don’t want to get it wrong.

    I would say that if it’s a good novel, it will get published. Some of these authors have been getting published for years, so it’s not just a recent phenomenon.

    BTW I would say that Shokoofeh Azar did much more than break through a little. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is not a memoir, it’s a fantastic novel and it was a nominee for National Book Award for Translated Literature (2020), the Adelaide Festival Award for Fiction (2020), The Stella Prize Shortlist (2018), and International Booker Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2020). It also sold rights for overseas publication as well.

    • Thanks for this detailed reply, Lisa..

      Yes I knew in mentioning Shokoofeh Azar that she was an exception in terms of making a splash BUT I thought about that “a little” carefully, feeling it did well by those measures but I wasn’t sure it got the sales that a more straightforward Anglo-style narrative with the same credentials would get.

      I wouldn’t label people by colour either but POC commenters can because they are in that space and want to make a point.

      I’m not 100% sure that your diversity page completely negates Lin Li Ng’s argument. It feels true, but I might be wrong, that more “diverse” authors get their start in memoir, or did, anyhow, as I think things are changing, but I don’t have figures to prove it!

      Part of her argument also dealt with how she had personally taken on board definitions of “good” literature as being “western”, from academe etc, which was interesting too.

      • Yeah, well, that may well be an academic narrative going around, amongst students if not amongst the academics teaching them, But in the real world of publishing, publishers all have their niche that sells for them, and cultures that have a long history of books and writing of course are more well-established that cultures that don’t. Indonesia is a class example of that. They have an ancient tradition of Javanese literature, but Indonesian as the lingua franca is recent and at mid C20th independence hardly anybody was literate in it or anything else. One of the great achievements in Indonesia is their rapid progress towards universal literacy, but still there isn’t much of a local publishing industry…

        • True, Lisa. Good points. Are there, though, new undeveloped niches out there that are just not being seen? I don’t know but am prepared to think there are. After all just look at the burgeoning First Nations field. That came out of growing awareness of a gap and positive actions to fill it, starting with UQP.

    • PS Yes, dome of these authors have, but they may be exceptions rather than the rule… Like we all knew Oodgeroo Noonuccal in the 1960s, and one or two others, but how many others were completely ignored? It’s a complicated business with not enough good data in the end to prove one way or another?!

  6. I have often thought this. I also think so many books in translation are about war or horrible circumstances. I’d like to see more novels of similar topics western white people writeabout. I can see how diverse writers must feel but then I wonder if they didn’t write their stories would publishers not publish their books. An interesting topic.

    • Darn it, I tapped out a decent (I think) reply to this while sitting as a passenger in the car and it went poof I think touch how I have no idea.

      Basicslly you last point is their beef. They feel pigeon-holed. Somd do want to write their stories but they don’t want to feel that that’s all that they are seen to offer. Bartholomeusz said that some could, for example, be traumatised by their lives and don’t want to revisit it in their writing.

  7. PS Did you see that Andrew Pippos has won the Readings Prize with Lucky’s? A good example of a migrant story that’s not a memoir, getting published *and* winning a prize!

    • Haha Lisa, I did! Exceptions aren’t the rule though!

      Bartholomeusz’ point was that opportunity for diverse writers is often linked to memoir, or to stories about their lives. Her argument is if you are offering opportunity to diverse writers don’t pin them down to their lives. The underlying implication is that that’s all they have to offer OR that that’s all the rest of us might want to hear from them. If you think about it, many of the diverse background writers we read do write about issues relating to their diverse background? Maybe not all want to but this is the only way they can get published? I don’t know – and of course I’m interested in their experiences (in fiction or non-fiction) – but this seems to be part of the issue these commentators were presenting.

  8. This is such a hard conversation, and of course I’m coming from a U.S. perspective. If a non-white person doesn’t write about their identity and the struggle as it pertains to their identity, they’re often eaten alive by the critics for erasure or sharing a false perspective that ignores the difficulty associated with a race, gender, disability, etc. Zora Neale Hurston died in obscurity for this reason. But, when authors focus on otherness and existing in a white society, they’re often called too “woke” and miss the point of constructing a good story. So, I’m not sure. I think if we’re talking about non-fiction, the author who writes the story that captures the whole picture, and is fair to their whole lived experience, will write a more compelling (and *I hope* more salable) book. It’s too easy to say a good book is a good book and publishers will find them, because at least in the U.S. other barriers exist that prevent a non-white person from getting a foot in the door.

    • Oh that conondum is beautifully expressed Melanie.

      Yes, I think you are right about the “good books will get published” issue here too. Of course dome find a champion and get through but I believe there are barriers here too, as you say. This is what those commentators were both saying.

  9. The Indian-born physician Abraham Verghese has written a couple of memoirs: In My Own Country, about treating AIDS patients in the upper south during the 1990s, and The Tennis Partner, about a young physician struggling with addiction, and ultimately losing to it. I have read the latter, and will read the first. Verghese’s foreign background is never out of the picture in the book, but it is not the main point of the story. Partly this may be because he arrived here as an adult, and one with authority in his workplaces.

    I suspect that with the rate of immigration of skilled professionals, America will see more such books. There ought to be some not just in medical fields but in computer technology and the sciences, for some programmers , engineers, and scientists are excellent writers.

    Verghese also wrote a novel, Cutting for Stone, but it was not good.

    • Ah George, as soon as I saw that name I thought I’ve read Cutting for stone. I’ve reviewed it here too, but you’ll see that while I’m generous it’s a bit lukewarm. His memoirs sound good and, from what you say, more up his alley. Reading different perspectives on professions is interesting and, often, enlightening.

  10. This is a really interesting discussion, and has given me a lot of food for thought! I think it’s important that we read positive stories from marginalised authors that write beyond trauma and oppression, but at the same time we need to understand and honour history as well… There may not be easy answers, but it’s definitely still worth asking the questions! 📚❤️ X x x

    • Thanks Florence . Glad you enjoyed it, and have joined in. I agree with you. For us readers ue uant all ends of the spectrum, don’t we. What the “diverse” writers want is the freedom to write all those ends, and not to be pigeon-holed.

  11. Pingback: Lucky’s, by Andrew Pippos | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  12. There are so many different ways to approach this conversation. It’s true that the preponderance of publications about tired themes of struggle and injustice by people who have been historically sidelined (inside the world of publishing and in the broader world) does lead readers to believe that that’s the only story. It’s also true that overused themes served as a doorway into the publishing world for many writers (I’m thinking, say, of Jhumpa Lahiri, who became known to American readers for the oft-told adjusting-to American-life-immigrant-novel, but who is now writing in Italian and translating her own works on more varied themes). Limitations. Opportunities. So much to think about, and from so many different directions!

    • Yes, well said Buried. Interesting point though about leading “readers to believe that’s the only story”. Is it the readers, or is it more the publishers believing that about readers and not wanting to take the risk. They know these stories sell, as we know they do, and fear others won’t. God analogy re Jhumpa Lahiri – I had read a couple of hers and then gave up because , while well-written, they were variations on a theme.

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