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?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Stella judges on the zeitgeist in Australian fiction

Last week I reported on the longlist for this year’s Stella Prize, and shared an excerpt from the judge’s comments. For today’s Monday Musings, I’m reiterating most of that – for us to think about and discuss:

Reading for the Stella Prize … [is] a sample of the zeitgeist, a look at what is informing our thinking right now …

It feels like a big year for fiction, and our longlist reflects this. … Family relations and the persistence of the past in the present continue to inspire writers, and several books were concerned with the aftermath of trauma, especially sexual violence. Realism continues to dominate Australian fiction, with a few standout departures into other modes.

We wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference.

I’m not aiming here to get into a beat-up about their choices – because we all know that judging in the arts is such a subjective thing – but they did raise the issue, so I thought we could have a little think …

Starting with what they say is dominating contemporary fiction:

  • family relations
  • impact (“persistence”) of the past in the present
  • aftermath of trauma (particularly sexual violence)
  • realism

And then, looking at what they felt they didn’t see much of, which was “otherness and diversity”. They defined this as narratives that:

  • are not based in Australia
  • come from and feature women of colour, LGBTQIA people, Indigenous people (and, presumably, other “differences”, such as people with “disabilities”)
  • are subversive
  • are different

There are a several ways we can look at this. Firstly, do we agree with their assessment of Australian fiction, specifically, of course, that written by women – recognising that they are talking about trends, not exceptions as there will always be those. My sense is that they are right. Certainly, several books in their longlist are about family relationships – particularly fathers and daughters/parents and children – and about how the past continues to impact present behaviours and lives.

Secondly, if we agree with the judges’ assessment, does it matter? I’d say it does, because it suggests that we are not being introduced to the breadth and depth of Australian experience but to a subset of it.

Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Lotus IslandThirdly, if we agree it does matter, why is it so? Is it because this is what publishers think readers want to read? It’s interesting, for example, that the most subversive books in the longlist are probably the two from the small independent publisher, Brow Books (Lau’s Purple mountain on Locust Island, and Tumarkin’s Axiomatic), and that the indigenous work in the list (Lucashenkos’ Too much lip) is published by UQP, a university press which has a history of supporting indigenous writing.

Anyhow, what I’m going to do is share here some books written by women and published last year that I think offer “otherness and diversity”, not, as I said, to say that I think these should have been shortlisted – because I haven’t read all the books the judges did, and I don’t know which ones were submitted anyhow – but just to offer some ideas and to have you offer some back!

  • Glenda Guest’s A week in the life of Cassandra Aberline (Text) (my review), which could be seen to largely fit the zeitgeist/trends the judges identified – family relations, the impact of the past on the present – but it is also about “otherness”, in that the main character is an older woman who has been diagnosed with dementia.
  • Krissy Kneen’s Wintering (Text), which I haven’t read but Kneen does tend to be subversive. Is this book so – or is it simply a variation on Tasmanian Gothic?
  • Margaret Merrilees’ story about lesbians, Big rough stones (Wakefield Press) (my review)
  • Angela Meyer’s dystopian-tending-realism-departing story, A superior spectre (Ventura Press) (my review).

This isn’t what you’d call a lot! I did find a few more by men, but. We see stories all the time about “other” experiences, about the many challenges we are facing as a society – on the news, for a start. Where are they in our fiction?

Now, over to you – and if you’re not Australian, I would of course love to hear what you have to say about “otherness and diversity” in your neck of the woods.

(PS This may not publish, as scheduled, on Monday night AEDST as we are out in the wilds of NE Victoria where internet connection is flakey.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: GenreCon 2017 by Tweet (#gcoz)

GenreCon 2017 BannerFirst off, no, I didn’t attend this year’s GenreCon which took place this weekend past in Brisbane, Queensland. However, I did see many of the tweets that emanated from attendees (using hashtag #GCoz) and found many of them extending beyond the genre focus. So, I thought I’d pass some on.

Not all tweeters identified the sessions their tweet/s related to, so I’m going to “curate” them under issues that interest me! (I will name the tweeter in brackets after their tweet. Note that the quote marks are for the tweeters’ words, which mostly comprise their summary of what they heard rather than a verbatim quote.)

But, before we get started, I’ll share my favourite tweet. It quotes Garth Nix on being an introvert at conferences:

“I just pretend to be the kind of person who likes to talk to people”. (Aiki Flinthart)

For writers

GenreCon is clearly geared to writers more than readers. Consequently the program included sessions like Writing Through Fear with Anna Campbell and Top Ten Tricks and Traps of Publishing Contracts with Alex Adsett, and discussion panels like What Every Writer Ought to Know about their Book Cover.

Tweeters shared advice on how to work within a “genre”, on the need to “know” your genre and its practitioners, and on what to do when your book is published, but I’ll leave those. You can check the hashtag yourself if you are interested. For readers here I’ve chosen other topics …

Americanising text

This is a controversial issue I’ve discussed with Lisa (ANZLitLovers) recently on her blog when she reported on the AALITRA Symposium. I’m not sure who originated the comment, I’m sharing here, but it makes a point: “Nothing throws someone out of a story like a misplaced thong” (Lynette Haines). Or a rubber! I guess tolerance for “Americanisation” depends on the audience you want to attract.

Book covers

Now this is another issue that can get hackles raised, though this didn’t come through in the GenreCon tweets. However, the point made by Escape Publishing/Harlequin publisher, Kate Cuthbert, is interesting:

“Covers are not about the image, they’re about the emotions they evoke” (Jess Irwin).

Cuthbert also apparently said that “Big W accounts for about 40% of Australian book sales, so if they come back and say they won’t stock a book with that cover, you change the cover” (Josh Melican).

And, most worryingly, Cuthbert said that  “Genre fiction has a representational problem which needs to be addressed. If you put a non-white character on the cover, it doesn’t sell as well. That’s a financial reality, but it’s shit. @katydidinoz [ie Kate Cuthbert] has refused to white-wash covers in the past” (Josh Melican).


Angela Slatter, VigilAuthor Angela Slatter discussed awards in her plenary address, which she has now posted on her blog. One tweeter wrote: “The talented @AngelaSlatter discusses the ‘award-effect’ (and reminds us that everyone’s trajectory is different and your journey will not be the same” (Tehani Croft). Croft shared Slatter’s slide:

  • Winning an award does NOT make you a better writer
  • Losing an award does NOT make you a worse writer
  • Awards can be useful but your career will NOT die without them

And, just to make sure the point was clear, Slatter also said “Awards garner media attention … on slow news days” (Tansy Rayner Roberts).

The market

A few other points were tweeted about the market besides the Big W figure above. Most came from the literary agent Alex Adsett. She commented on “the energy put into international rights sales by smaller publishers like Text, particularly compared to less active and larger publishers” (PopFic Doctors). I’m certainly aware through overseas bloggers like Kim (Reading Matters) and Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) that Text is active in promoting their books in England and the USA. They are an inspiring publisher.

Adsett also discussed audiobooks, advising that “Authors retaining audiobook rights is becoming a dealbreaker for big publishers over the last 18 months because of how big audiobooks are becoming” (Claire Parnell). PopFic Doctors tweeted that “audiobooks now account for 1% of the market, which is BIG”. One per cent doesn’t sound big to me, but seems it is.

And finally, also from Adsett, is a comment about genre identification: “Many publishers won’t take horror so Alex will pitch as dark fantasy; can genre be spun as literary?” (Rivqa Rafael). Adsett apparently also said that in Australia, writers don’t need an agent, unlike in the USA, but I wonder if authors, on their own, would all know these finer nuances of pitching? As for Rafael’s question regarding whether “genre can be spun as literary”, I’d say yes, but therein hangs a tale for another day I think.

On writing

There were many sessions on the craft of writing, such as writing fight scenes (for women), developing characters, and writing sex and sexuality in the twenty-first century.

American author Delilah Dawson spoke about writing characters: “Delilah Dawson’s cheat sheet of quick ‘charisma points’ for characters: loyalty, wry humour, nice to kids, kind to animals, artistic in some way” (Jess Irwin) and “Delilah Dawson finds out what your characters most want and what they fear most and this feeds into the climax” (Leife Shallcross).

Fiji-born New Zealand writer Nalini Singh’s comment on how to handle hard times in writing was tweeted by many who loved her idea of “squirrels”: “I’m a big fan of having ‘play projects’ aka ‘squirrels’ (you’re working on a hard part in your main project & ‘ooh, squirrel!’) … having these side projects gets you off the treadmill … see where the squirrel leads you … keep it secret to avoid stress.” (Angela Meyer)

Claire G Coleman, Terra NulliusAnother writer who was frequently tweeted was debut indigenous Australian author, Claire G Coleman (Terra nullius). She clearly had a fresh way of saying things, such as this on inspiration: “A lightning bolt of inspiration is when something in one part of your brain collides with something in another part of your brain and they have babies (Tehani Croft). And this on editing: “Nobody finishes editing. Someone just takes it off you one day” (Narrelle Harris). I can relate to that! I often fiddle with my blog posts long after they’ve been published. Author Emma Viskic also entertained with her comment on editing: “I did kill them, or as I like to say: sent them to the farm to play with other happy words” (Elizabeth McKewin). Love it!

And finally, I liked this one on rules, from the aforementioned Adsett:

“if you’re good enough you can break the rules … but you have to show you know what the rules are” (Tansy Rayner Roberts)

On diversity

Several tweets discussed the issue of diversity. It was clearly a big issue at the conference. There were discussions about Romance fiction, whose popularity is increasing, including more diverse characters. Romance writer Jodi McAlister said that “we’re seeing many more narratives for queer characters beyond the coming out narrative. Queer characters are getting love stories as well as stories about dragons and adventures where it’s not about the character being queer, it’s just who they are” (Claire Parnell). In other words, “You shouldn’t need a reason to include diverse characters…” (Daniel de Lorne)

McAlister also said very pointedly that “Those seen as worthy of love in our love stories tells a lot about what our culture values” (Kali Napier). That’s also worth its own post.

Finally, the issue of how to write these diverse characters came up – relating to that issue we’ve discussed here many times regarding white writers writing black characters. Adsett tweeted Claire G. Coleman’s advice: “Don’t write any diverse character you haven’t had a coffee with, aren’t friends with”.

Creative Native, not an attendee I think, didn’t much like this advice, tweeting: “Plenty of people have ‘had a coffee’ or were friends w[ith] Native, disabled, Bipolar, Autistic, Fat me yet still managed to spout harmful nonsense.” Fair enough. It takes more than one coffee, but I suspect Coleman wasn’t being quite that simple. However, Creative Native did give good advice to writers: “Get a Sensitivity Reader w[ith] the marginalised identity/identites you’re writing about – & deal honestly w[ith] criticism (!!!)”. Which is exactly the approach I’ve come to think best …

Phew, this ended up being way longer than I planned. Hopefully my headings and highlighting have enabled you to pick out what interests you without having to read it all!

Did anything interest you?

Monday Musings on Australian literature: the Boundless Festival

Boundless Festival panelLast Saturday, the NSW Writers’ Centre and Bankstown Arts Centre presented Boundless: A Festival of Diverse Writers, which they describe as the “first-ever festival focused on Indigenous and culturally diverse Australian writers and writing”. My first reaction was, Really? Surely not. There was Blak and Bright held last year in Melbourne. But, hmm, that was specifically Indigenous. I couldn’t, quickly anyhow (and that’s relevant in itself), think of anything else. So, Boundless does appear to be the first to combine all of Australia’s culturally diverse writers under one umbrella. This is a worry. However, the good thing is, as the post-festival tweets suggest, that it was a stimulating event.

It was also free, and comprised “performances, readings, panel discussions, audiovisual experiences, and workshops for children and adults.” And, if you haven’t guessed, the Festival’s name references the line “boundless plains to share” from Dorothea Mackellar’s poem “My country”. It’s a great title, having both ironic and aspirational connotations.

So, who was there? And what was the program? According to the website, over 40 artists were involved. I have to admit that I’ve only heard of a few, including:

  • Ivor Indyk, an Australian-born editor and publisher of Polish immigrant parents. He founded Giramondo Publishing.
  • Mirielle Juchau, an Australian Jewish writer, whose novel The world without us was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and NSW Premier’s Literary Award.
  • Julie Koh, an Australian-born writer of Chinese-Malaysian parents, whose short story collection, Portable Curiosities, was shortlisted several awards including a NSW Premier’s Literary Award. Koh was also named as a 2017 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist.
  • Benjamin Law, an Australian-born writer and journalist of Hong Kong Chinese parents. His memoir The family Law was adapted for a television series.
  • Hoa Pham, a Vietnamese-Australian writer whose novel, Lady of the realm, I’ll be reviewing soon.
  • Ellen van Neerven, an indigenous Australian writer whom I’ve reviewed here a few times.
  • Markus Zusak, an Australian born writer of German and Austrian parents. I’ve reviewed  his young adult-adult crossover novel, The book thief, here.

I need to say that the listing of artists in the Festival Program did not provide their origin, which is, I guess, about not labelling. However, I felt that readers here might want to know something about their backgrounds because that, presumably, explains their role as presenters at a festival specialising in diversity. I really hope this hasn’t been insensitive of me.

It was a pretty packed program, with some concurrent streams. The sessions included:

  • GetSmART: An insider’s look into the world of book publishing. It was convened by Jennifer Wong, host of Bookish on ABC iView, and involved publishers Chren Byng (HarperCollins), Ivor Indyk (Giramondo), and Robert Watkins (Hachette).
  • Shaping the horizon: Exploring how new writers are “reshaping the landscape and literature of Australia” and its effect on “how we see ourselves as a community”. Convened by Benjamin Law, and involving Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Julie Koh, Peter Polites, and Ellen van Neerven.
  • All in the family: About how to “write about families without offending your own”. It involved Cathy Craigie, Mireille Juchau, Benjamin Law, Omar Sakr, and was convened by Jennifer Wong.

Other events and activities included a pop-up bookstore with book signings (which you’d expect at literary festivals), panels and workshops for children and young adults, film screenings, and a poetry slam.

Just prior to the festival, The Au Review interviewed Benjamin Law who said about the importance of festivals like Boundless:

By some measures, Australia’s one of the most diverse nations on the planet. We’re home to the oldest living, surviving and thriving human cultures and communities bar none, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island storytelling spanning back millennia and continuing to present day. About half of us have parents born overseas and a quarter of us are migrants. One in five speak languages other than English at home. And yet that’s rarely the image of Australia we export or tell ourselves. Showcasing Australian writing in all of its diversity is a vital start.

And answering a question about how he’d define “Australianness” he said:

We’re a happily mongrel nation and one of the most diverse on the planet. And we’re a happy group of contradictions that must be acknowledged: the home to the oldest living human cultures and communities bar none, as well as one of the youngest modern immigrant nations on earth. If you disagree with me, die angry about it.

Nothing fancy here, just plain description. I like it – though perhaps not everyone would use the terms “happily” and “happy”, not yet anyhow.

Sarah Ayoub, Hate is such a strong wordAlso just before the Festival, wrote about Lebanese-Australian author Sarah Ayoub, who has written two YA novels, Hate is such a strong word and The Yearbook Committee. She speaks about growing up in a mono-cultural part of Sydney where she never experienced racism but, she says, as she grew up:

I started to think about how ethnic enclaves don’t really do much for cultural cohesion. I found that there were so many stereotypes that white people had about my community and there were so many stereotypes that my community had about white people.

Ayoub believes that Australia is now at the forefront of diverse publishing, and names Alice Pung, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Tamar Chnorhokian, Melinda Marchetta, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad as her favourite authors writing about multi-cultural Australia.

So, there’s positivity about how we are going, but to make sure we don’t become complacent, I’ll conclude with a tweet (hashtag #boundless17) from Djed Press:

White facilitation and white programming at festivals is really problematic and not often discussed.

Festivals like Blak and Bright and Boundless are important initiatives on our journey to being a true (and happy) multicultural nation, but as this tweet makes clear we certainly have a way to go yet.

Do you actively seek “diversity” (however YOU define it) in in your reading?