September 30, 2017
Asia What?: Writers Across Borders – Melbourne Writers Festival
‘One of the most valuable things about coming together is talking about poetry, returning to poetry,’ Christos Tsiolkas says picking up a book by Australian poet Andy Jackson, loaned to him by Vietnamese poet Nha Thuyen, one of the glut of poets sharing this stage.
Ellen van Neervan (Mununjali writer from South East Queensland), Nha Thuyen (Vietnam), Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Indonesia), Martin Villanueva (Philippines), Steven Winduo (PNG), and Daryll Delgado (Philippines) are also on stage, a panel carefully crafted by Francesca Rendle-Short and David Carlin, award-winning Australian writers and founders of the Wrice program.
This lush pan-Asian panel is enjoying the final stages as a whole, completing the Wrice residency, a program that comprised a trip to the Philippines and a second leg to Australia for a mini residency on the Great Ocean Road, and the Melbourne Writers Festival. There’s a rare delicacy in the melding of these voices, each respectfully listening and responding like singular birds, giving inklings of longer conversations played out in private.
Winduo says that ‘being on a residency, coming together, the connectivity has allowed me to find the ‘us’. It’s the ‘us’ versus the ‘me’. Finding the commonality has allowed me to reconsider how I write.’
There can’t help but be discussion of universality when people from disparate backgrounds are brought together to write and to talk. But the danger of overreaching this commonality of experience also plays on the minds of Filipino writers, Delgado and Villanueva.
‘As a new writer you tend to write from your immediate world, your characters come from your immediate world. Writing in English, I don’t want people to be mistaken that I am representative of all Filipinos and their life experience,’ Delgado comments. Likewise, Villanueva doesn’t want Filipino people to be seen as uniform, or himself as an ambassador.
The question of translation at every level is a constant issue in writers’ minds but especially those who are multilingual, and who choose to write in a language other than their own tongue.
‘Must I feel guilty for speaking and writing in English?’ Villanueva asks.
Nha Thuyen who often employs a mixture of English and Vietnamese in her performance says, ‘I start to become polyamorous when it comes to language.’
Van Neervan describes English as a ‘technology’. ‘Since the earliest days of colonisation Aboriginal people have been using English as a tool to convey their needs and to try to make a better future for their people.’ She explains that Aboriginal women as early as the 1830s were writing in English to government officials to try to locate and bring back their children.
With PNG home to an almost unfathomable number of languages and spanning many islands, Winduo describes English as a ‘vessel’. Whereas Delgado sees English as a way of transgressing borders. ‘Within the Philippines there are so many borders.’
The experience of spending time in another country, core to the Wrice journey, is reflected upon, the sense of otherness that can come about. ‘Being a stranger nurtures a curiosity in a place,’ Van Neerven says.
Nha Thuyen says, ‘I didn’t know I was Vietnamese until I went abroad.’ Some reflected on the feeling of otherness experienced by nationals in their own country, even in their own community. How trust and deep connection can transcend spatial and cultural divides, an idea summarised by Van Neervan
‘It’s more than land that connects people.’
September 28, 2017
2017 Melbourne Writers Festival
Asia What?: Indigenous Connections
We are at the Melbourne Writers Festival, at the first session of Asia What? The line-up is impressive; the room is full. Bruce Pascoe joins WrICE Fellow Steven Winduo to discuss the topic of Indigenous Connections. Eugenia Flynn chairs.
It is the first day of Spring, but Flynn points out that it is also the beginning of the Poorneet Tadpole season, one of the seven seasons observed by the Kulin people. This observance situates us on indigenous land—the land of the Kulin Nation. It reminds us that the concept of spring is an imported one.
Throughout this session we are reminded of many such cultural overlays, and few that are benign. But that is not the focus of this discussion. Rather it is a lively and intelligent meditation on indigeneity, on talking back and speaking up, on what we can learn, and how we can be better.
Refuting euro-centric ideas is central to Pascoe’s award-winning book, Dark Emu. Drawing on the accounts of early explorers, Pascoe has assembled evidence of the extensive agricultural and irrigation practices of Australia’s first people. These accounts contradict the terra nullius view of Aboriginal people as hunter-gatherers. Is it unsurprising, he asks, that these accounts never made it into our history books? Pascoe concludes that selective publishing was part of a deliberate and coordinated attempt to devalue the heritage of Australia’s first people.
Winduo agrees. The indigenous people of Papua New Guinea have rarely been given a voice. He believes that communities need to write about their place—to preserve stories of the land and ancestors and to recognise their group, their clan, their tribe. It is these reflections that give meaning and purpose to how communities engage with the world.
‘We need our people’s stories to find our way home, to lay our claim.’
As Flynn points out, indigenous knowledge is tied to its people—people who have survived and resisted. But their culture is not necessarily visible, and certainly, their voices are underrepresented. As Winduo says, ‘Where is the book I can buy and read about it?’
Looking to the future, Pascoe asks what would it look like if all Australians studied an Indigenous curriculum:
‘We need to learn concrete things from Indigenous culture —not feelings, or stories, but the meanings of those stories…[this continent] was managed really well for a long period of time.’
Pascoe suggests indigenous cultures present alternative ways to organise resources. Certainly, there are common elements of indigenous worldview that span, what Winduo calls, ‘the Pacific we all share.’ The focus on ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. The sharing culture. Pascoe asks, ‘What would a world look like where people are rewarded for being good citizens rather than having vast amounts of wealth?’
The question is timely, Winduo suggests, given the consumption pattern of industrial nations has pushed us to the edge.
All agree. It is time to look to indigenous knowledge.
September 27, 2017
The fourth year of RMIT’s Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange Program saw five international writers reunited with Established and Early Career writers Christos Tsiolkas and Ellen van Neerven in Melbourne following a residency in the Philippines earlier in the year. Tsiolkas and van Neerven joined three Emerging Writers, who are all current students of RMIT Writing Programs – Else Fitzgerald, Jennifer Porter and Susie Thatcher, in the Philippines earlier this year, along with five outstanding international writers – Steven Winduo (PNG), Daryll Delgado and Martin Villanueva (The Philippines) Nha Thuyen (Vietnam), Norman Erikson (Indonesia) and Australian documentary filmmaker and RMIT Adjunct Professor, John Hughes.
The writers all reunited for a residency on the Great Ocean Road in August, as well as participating in the Queensland Poetry Festival and Melbourne Writers Festival. The 10 day long residency and public events culminated in key events at MWF, Writers Across Borders, and On Revolution at Deakin Edge on Sunday 3 August where writers shared their experiences and work in front of an appreciative audience of 400.
February 27, 2017
University of the Philippines, Diliman
With Christos Tsiolkas and Norman Erikson Pasaribu
Part 2 of the workshop from Christos Tsiolkas and Norman Erikson Pasaribu focussed on characterisation, where characters come from, how they’re developed, and the work they do for the story.
Tsiolkas says that he starts with a question or issue, then thinks of characters that he can use to tell the story he wants to tell. In The Slap he explores the issue of changing class dynamics in inner Melbourne, associated with the ascendancy of the migrant class, employing a suite of characters to weave a compelling story about how they perceive and react to a central event, how this is influenced by their culture, age and life experience.
The extract he reads from The Slap, is from the point of view of Rosie, a character whose voice he found the most challenging, an Australian woman of Anglo-Celtic origins who experienced post-natal depression (PND) after the birth of her child, Hugo, who she has subsequently become very protective of.
Melissa George playing the character of Rosie, in the TV adaptation of The Slap (Matchbox Pictures) [Image source: http://d3lp4xedbqa8a5.cloudfront.net/s3/digital-cougar-assets/tv-week-logie-awards/2015/01/21/11048/MelissaGeorge_embed2.jpg]
Tsiolkas credits the interviews he conducted with women who had experienced PND with providing the insight necessary to write Rosie, adding that interviewing people for character is ‘a gift’ to be respected and stressing the need for ethical rigour, the importance of letting them know their words might be used.
Tsiolkas also draws on his time in theatre with actors, exploring the physicality of characters, inhabiting their bodies and imagining how they would carry out certain tasks. He says this allowed him to find words that related to Rosie’s body.
In working through characters, Tsiolkas’s office becomes a construction zone, a sea of sticky notes. To each main character he assigns a word (e.g. blood, honour), the pairing serving as a kind of spine upon which to add flesh. This visual cue encourages precision and consistency as he writes his characters.
His love of cinema and art also informs his work:
‘in thinking about your work through another medium, it helps you see your character in a new way.’
These influences have no doubt contributed to the effectiveness with which Tsiolkas’s books have been adapted to the screen. There is a visceral grittiness to his characters that translates well to an audiovisual medium.
For Pasaribu, character is his starting point, beginning with a voice, and from this, building a character. Once he has his character he looks for an interesting scene in which to insert them, the scene often becoming the beginning of a story.
‘you have to make the path from the paver’
Once the character is established, the scene or story can be altered, the pavers can be moved around.
In building a character, Pasaribu starts with a secret, the thing hidden, a vulnerability. The character’s secret will ultimately reflect their desires, and their desires will determine how they interact with the world.
The discussion moves to unlikeable characters:
Do you have a character that you don’t like? How do you paint him as human, give the character humanity?
Pasaribu emphasizes the importance of avoiding black and white depictions of characters. Housing them in the grey zone provides complexity and imbues them with the capacity for change. To assist in portraying humanity Pasaribu suggests transplanting the character into a different setting, a setting with the capacity to promote personal growth. This gives an unlikeable character the potential for redemption.
Tsiolkas notes a fear in Australia of unlikable characters and suggests that to be human is to not be completely likeable. Indeed like many characters in The Slap, Rosie has some unlikeable traits, but she is very believable.
I’m reminded of comments I’ve heard repeatedly from readers of The Slap, along the lines of, ‘I just didn’t like any of the characters’. It was a book people could not put down, but one that provoked an almost compulsive distancing of readers from the characters represented. It unsettled people. Was this the type of book they wanted to read if they didn’t like the characters?
In tackling flawed characters, Tsiolkas stresses the importance of exploring the very nature of their humanity. What has brought them to this point?
It would seem that there are few limits on where the reader can be taken in terms of characters behaving badly as long as the reader is given access to the humanity of a character. The characters need to be believable. Perhaps the very believability of the characters in The Slap promotes this oppositional reaction in some readers. Well-written unlikable characters are like peering into a backlit mirror. For some, the imperfections are just too confronting.
To hark back to Pasaribu’s earlier point about translation (in Part 1), whether it be of an unfamiliar language or an unfamiliar character, surely the ultimate point is to ‘make something that wasn’t known, known.’
These two writers provided some great insights and tips in regards to developing character, harvesting their ideas both from real life and the arts, particularly books.
‘Every book I read makes me a better writer.’ C. Tsiolkas.
February 25, 2017
WrICE workshops, University of the Philippines, Diliman
Contemporary Approaches to Nonfiction
with David Carlin and John Hughes
This session examines a particular mode of nonfiction, the essay tradition, which is as strong in film as it is in literature. David and John begin the workshop by questioning where we come from in approaching nonfiction and opening it up for discussion, asking ‘how do we know what we know?’ and ‘who gets to speak?’
David prompts us to consider what kind of nonfiction is demanded by contemporary reality, suggesting that there may be an imperative towards open-endedness, self-questioning, being playful and exploratory. That the essay might be a kind of ‘critical play’. Speaking of his book Our Father Who Wasn’t There, he describes how he wanted the essays to be personal but not in a navel-gazing, self-obsessed way, rather in a way that the individual, himself, is always implicated. David encourages us to think about the epistemological imperative, considering ‘who am I to tell this story?’
John, an independent producer, writer and director whose many acclaimed works include an essay documentary, One Way Street, on the work and life of philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin (a work which John is revisiting during the WrICE exchange) describes his work as often polemical, what he calls ‘advocacy works’, though the essayist dimension is not located in those polemics but rather in the form. Quoting Walter Benjamin, John says ‘storytelling is about the ability to exchange our experiences.’
It is in this spirit of shared exploration that John and David ask the group to participate in a spectrum exercise. The question we are tasked with asking each other, and ourselves, is ‘what do you know about Manila?’ We all rise from our chairs, with the aim being that we will arrange ourselves in a line from who knows the most about Manila to who knows the least. After several minutes of discussion, we settle on an order. Unsurprisingly, having only arrived in Metro Manila for the first time the previous evening, I am at the end of the line with the least knowledge of the city.
We return to our seats, now sitting in a circle in the order we were arranged. David and John ask that we go around the circle, from the person who knows the least to the person who knows the most, and each contribute one thing we know about Manila. With each person who speaks, a new detail or memory or impression is added to form a compound image of the city. Some contributions are factual statistics, others deeply personal. I am completely absorbed into the place we are describing in these shared experiences.
With the knowledge we have gained from the exercise, we each begin to work on the opening for an essay about Manila. I find there is an alertness to form piqued by the approach we have taken to collecting information. David explains how we might gather these rich reflections like a magpie, and collapse the ones we found most moving and distill them into our own essays. This process highlights the importance of engaging with people for research, and the value of collective knowledge and the sharing of experiences in contemporary approaches to nonfiction.
This is not Manila in theory: the traffic, mythic in its magnitude, has a taste. But the main arteries – Taft, Aurora – form a stable connection to the city, structures that won’t change anytime soon. Libraries, fireworks, side streets, jeepney routes. She was very young and so brave, taking unknown routes and discovering a whole community living underground. Police precincts, rotundas, eskinitas, outskirts, big shots, grandmothers on Sundays, churches, dungeons, catacombs. A mixture of languages, faiths, cultures. In Chinatown, a crucifix is adorned with Joss sticks, hybrid iconography.
This is a city of opposites that create ironies, a place that feels unlivable until you leave and then want to return. Like your friend’s boyfriend: knowing too much will make you crazy. This is a city where history is contested, doesn’t get talked about. We became a nation with an execution.
She was raised in the middle of old Manila. There were two windows where they could sit and dangle their legs in the afternoon, watching the gang wars in the streets below. Once saw a man stabbed in the stomach, saw his innards spill out – this was the scenery of childhood.
My Manila is not your Manila. Rich Manila and poor Manila. A place for migrants, Manila is where everybody goes. Some statistics: there are 12 million people here in during the day, 10 million at night. There are 13 cities within Metro Manila. Shaped by the people who fill it and the people who leave it, a pastiche, a collage. A city of movement, it does not tolerate stillness. A city that shape shifts but doesn’t spill anything out.
This is a place for survival. So be friendly to security guards and waiters – trust me, this will go a long way.
February 22, 2017
WrICE workshops, University of the Philippines, Diliman
Approaches to Contemporary Poetry
Ellen van Neerven and Nhã Thuyên
In the middle of a classroom, two poets are dancing. Ellen van Neerven and Nhã Thuyên – each holding handwritten signs – face each other and sway, back and forth, retreating and gaining. One sign says contemporary poetry; the other, reader. They are curious then wary, confident then timid. It becomes clear that the dance is a physical rendering of the workshop topic: Approaches to Contemporary Poetry.
There are twenty of us gathered in this classroom at the University of the Philippines – writers, readers, students, teachers – as part of the WrICE workshops, a day of literary events emphasising cultural immersion and exchange.
What is contemporary poetry? How can the reader reach it? Ellen and Thuyên pose these questions and – far from expecting definitive answers – they each spend some time prodding them. Ellen asks: ‘What is the now? How will we know it? When will we know it?’
For Ellen, a First Nations Yugambeh woman, poetry functions to create new archives, new records, new histories – to rewrite the past. She explains that, in her work, there’s not a clear line between what happened then and what’s happening now: ‘The past atrocities are still current atrocities.’
Nhã Thuyên, a Vietnamese poet and publisher, sees language as a living being. Working in close partnership with her translator, Kaitlin Rees – a recent recipient of the Pen/Heim Translation Grant – she is fascinated by how languages work, how they may be made to dance with one another. She describes the Vietnamese and English editions of her book of poetry as sisters. Thuyên shares that she feels a limit, both living and working in her language. She keeps herself distant from Vietnamese by reading in English. She sees her language better from a distance.
As an exercise, a newspaper is passed around and dismembered, its headlines transformed into prose poems and found poetry. Thuyên tells us that every word is out there, just waiting for us to use. Students and teachers step up to the microphone to read their work. Endless possibilities are in its words and lines, but many paths leads back to the news that broke earlier that day: President Trump’s immigration ban.
Both poets read to us from their recent collections. Ellen’s poems ‘Whole Lot’ and ‘Chips’, recently published in Comfort Food, are a response to country and identity. She tells us that she doesn’t want to write poetry unless she is trying to unravel a question. ‘I write to connect and be one with that land and language.’
Thuyên reads her poem, ‘Hours of the Ocean’, in Vietnamese. Ellen echoes her in English. The final refrain of the poem is repeated, taking on the weight of so many things: this cross-cultural experience, a Vietnamese and Australian poet sharing their work in a University of the Philippines classroom, a needed response to troubled times.
we should talk to each other, we should talk to each other…
The session ends and we all pile out to the corridor to eat lunch together. In light of what we’ve just experienced, it seems appropriate to return to Ellen’s work, ‘Whole Lot’:
what we eat comes from our roots
if we stop sharing there will be nothing
February 14, 2017
WrICE Workshops, University of the Philippines, Diliman
Christos Tsiolkas and Norman Erikson Pasaribu
The setting for the first workshop is the University of the Philippines in Diliman. There’s a hushed scholarly atmosphere, the audience mostly made up of English department students and academics. The constant thrum of a large air conditioner is regularly broken by the click of an SLR camera.
Norman Erikson Pasaribu, award-winning Indonesian short story and poet, joins multi-award winning novelist, short story writer and playwright, Australian Christos Tsiolkas, at one end of a rectangular table formation to run a workshop exploring approaches to story-telling, with a focus on the use of imagery, language and characterization.
Tsiolkas reads an extract from his novel, The Slap (also adapted for television), in which one of his characters, Rosie, the mother of a young child, has a difficult phone conversation with her mother and recalls her experience of post natal depression.
Pasaribu reads a short story, ‘A lullaby for your long sleep,’ characteristically whimsical (but resonating with political undertones), his fusion of folklore and contemporary storytelling structured as a story within a story.
The two readings couldn’t be more different with Tsiolkas’s narrator firmly grounded in inner urban Melbourne, while Pasaribu’s narrative transcends or subverts the linear story so that it folds back on itself leaving the reader with a sense of dislocation in time and space, despite the tone being conversational and intimate. This promises to be a fascinating two hours.
Part 1 of this blog post will present thoughts on language and imagery, while Part 2 will address characterisation.
LANGUAGE, IMAGERY AND FOLKLORE
Both authors speak of how the length of their works, the structure and the language are determined by the story they want to convey.
Pasaribu remarks that by using simple earnest language, it allows the themes to come to the fore, that it prevents the reader from being distracted by the language. He notes the difficulty in translating his work, largely written in his native Bahasa, into English, that it flows better in Bahasa, however, that ‘the point of translation is to make something that wasn’t known, known.’ His work has been translated into English by Shaffira Gayatri and Syarafina Vidyadhana.
He shares the insight that through his time workshopping in Vigan with international writers, he has learnt that through different languages come different depictions of the world. The nature of the language itself contributes to the story told.
Tsiolkas notes that the structure of the novel has an effect on how he uses language, that with multiple changes in points of view, he is conscious he needs to keep the reader’s interest, so the language, by necessity, becomes very economical. Indeed the writing of both Pasaribu and Tsiolkas is characterized by the careful choice of words to construct simple but powerful sentences. The language is not ‘flowery’, rather it is considered.
Given that Tsiolkas, as an English speaker, is not tackling the same language issues, to him translation becomes a decision about form rather than dialect. He notes that his experience of working with poets and others writing in alternate forms in the past week has shown him a new way of telling stories that he’s keen to experiment with.
This leads to further questions and discussion relating to the form of the story, in particular, Pasaribu’s use of folklore and imagery in his work. He is asked whether the use of mythology is a deliberate device to disguise the political message. Will he still be read in Indonesia if he is more direct? His story from today makes reference to the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66, encapsulated in the following: ‘isn’t the denial of a genocide more heartbreaking than the act of killing itself?’
He points out that this is a stylistic choice more than a conscious decision about transparency, that the mixing of fable into the story strengthens it. He remarks that historians are already making direct reference to these events in their textbooks. This seems an apt illustration of the potency of the arts in promoting understanding through indirect means. Perhaps the points raised are also a timely reminder of how, in Australia, we have taken for granted the freedom to openly express opinion without fear of retribution. Does this mean that, in Australia, we have had less need to employ folklore and fables in our story-telling, or alternatively, that Anglo-Celtic Australians have become disassociated from their original oral tradition?
I recall a conversation with Pasaribu in which he talked about the Indonesian newspapers reporting folklore as fact, and how quaint that seemed. This discussion goes to the very core of the concept of ‘truth’, how it is affected by context, that culture is context. For many thousands of years humans have used fables or myths both to entertain and to convey the political or social rhetoric of the time, whether to encourage compliance, faithfulness or generosity. Perhaps as an agnostic Anglo-Celtic Australian I have become disconnected from my oral tradition, the folklore and mythology that guided my ancestors.
Another audience member suggests that the story within a story structure is not tolerated well by English speakers and that there is a suspicion of folklore tradition, also proposing that this mode of storytelling is not popular with English readers any more. Pasaribu points to the strong tradition of invoking folklore in Indonesian story telling. Indeed one only needs to scan the shelves of local bookstores to see that this style of story-telling does in fact seem to have a wide following as pointed out by Filipino author Darryl Degano. Its ‘sister’ in predominantly English speaking countries, ‘magical realism,’ is certainly a popular genre in Australia. Indeed, Australian WrICE participant, awarded indigenous poet and short story writer, Ellen Van Neervan, employs elements of magical realism in her anthology Heat and Light to explore political themes.
This poses an interesting reiteration of the point that perhaps we too often look to the west, to the USA and UK for our story-telling techniques, Tsiolkas noting that the incorporation of folklore into story is ‘wonderfully seductive’ and could be effectively used to tell a story in English.
The use of folklore in story-telling among the Asian and Pacific writers on this residency has provided insight and inspiration for the non-indigenous Australian writers, who have been more often influenced by Western practices. It’s a great reminder of the value of this time of cultural exchange provided by the WrICE experience, and how our writing can be enriched and challenged by these connections. Today’s discussion was a taste of this.
February 2, 2017
Five Australian and five Asia-Pacific writers recently travelled to the Philippines in January 2017 for the fourth WrICE collaborative residency, including Australian Established and Early Career writer fellows Christos Tsiolkas and Ellen Van Neerven.
The residency in Vigan enabled the writers to engage in deep cultural exchange of knowledge, creativity, skills and cultural perspectives. This immersive residency was followed by a series of public events and workshops in Manila at The University of the Philippines, Diliman and the Ayala Musuem. Later in the year the writers will all come together again in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.
WrICE Philippines participants include Daryll Delgado (the Philippines), Norman Erikson (Indonesia), Nhã Thuyên (Vietnam), Martin Villanueva (the Philippines), Steven Winduo (Papua New Guinea), Christos Tsiolkas (Australia), Ellen van Neerven (Australia), Else Fitzgerald (Australia), John Hughes (Australia), Jennifer Porter (Australia), Susie Thatcher (Australia), David Carlin (Australia) and Francesca Rendle-Short (Australia).
September 8, 2016
Why do we write? was the salient question put to the international writers at Writers Across Borders hosted by WrICE co-founder David Carlin on Friday night.
Carlin brought together the five WrICE fellows from around the Asia Pacific, as well as our own Michele Lee and Alice Pung, to talk about how cultural exchange in writing and ideas works, and to get to the heart of what writing does. The result was a kaleidoscope of ideas about why we are drawn to the act of writing, and how it can serve as a powerful tool to better understand ourselves and the world we live in.
Alice Pung, whose revelation that this year was the first time in Australia she’d ever been on a panel with ‘another Asian,’ let alone six, captured the importance of initiatives like WrICE, with its focus on representation and diversity. Alice spoke about writing in the context of media assumptions around class and race,particularly given the reductive tendency in Australia to stereotype Asian people in populist media, with an often polarising effect. The idea was echoed by Michele Lee, who said a central issue for her when it comes to writing is ‘representation’. Michele said ‘I write to be seen.’
We heard from Lawrence Lacambra Ypil (Larry), an award-winning poet and essayist from the Philippines for whom writing is about the rhythmic process of remembering. ‘I write to return to the past with a critical eye,’ said Larry, ‘to do a kind of remembering that isn’t glossy.’ Eliza Vitri Handayani, an Indonesian writer who published her first novel at the age of 16, also told the audience that for her, writing is about posing the question: ‘can you break free from destructive habits and invent yourself anew?’ For Eliza, who frequently writes about young people on the brink of change, writing is about facing your demons, dealing with trauma and telling painful stories from the past.
Xu Xi, an English language novelist from Hong Kong, and Maggie Tiojakin, esteemed writer and novelist of Indonesia, both spoke of how the act of writing can illuminate human contradiction and give us a means to embrace change, while Dai Fan, a novelist and essayist from China, said writing had become vital to her ability to process difficult emotions. ‘Growing up in China…many emotions were repressed,’ said Fan. ‘It has helped me get through life.’
If asking why is at the heart of writing, then it is also a meditation on what bonds us as writers. This was a panel not about ethnicities or borders, but about what it means to be both writer and human.
September 6, 2016
Since the 1980s PEN International has used Empty Chairs to represent writers who couldn’t be present at events – because they were imprisoned, detained, disappeared, threatened or killed. The Protest and Rebellion session at the Melbourne Writers session began with moderator Omar Musa (WrICE 2015) dedicating the empty chair onstage to Andy Hall, who’s awaiting trail after publishing a report on alleged abuses of migrant workers in Thailand.
It was a fitting start to the session: an inspiring discussion about the power of writing and art as a protest tool.
Molly Crabapple started as an artist, drawing pictures as a way of making sense of the world. But she came to prominence when she was arrested during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. “Everything changed for me when Occupy Wall Street occurred,” she said. “I thought protests like that only happened in places like Egypt and the Middle East. I wasn’t aware it could occur in New York.”
Molly started doing art of the Occupy movement. She drew protest posters and gave them to the protesters, and her art appeared on the street the next day.
When the Occupy protest got shut down, she started exploring other protests around the world, first as an artist, then as a journalist.
Eliza Vitri Handayani (WrICE 2016) grew up under the Suharto regime in Indonesia, when there was no freedom of expression or freedom of press. “This creates a culture of fear,” Eliza said. “Everyone knew everything in the media was lies, but they had to live with those lies.” She talked about how her parents had to read her homework to make sure she hadn’t put anything incriminating in there.
Students protested Suharto’s regime for months, and on 21 May 1998, after tens of thousands of university students demanded his resignation, Suharto finally announced his resignation. Eliza was around 16 at the time and she was amazed to be part of a movement that made such a big difference.
“It meant more than a change of government; it meant that it’s okay to be yourself and that you can speak the truth,” Eliza said, adding that, suddenly, people could talk about everything: sexuality, politics and alternate versions of history.
This led Eliza to question what it means to be free, to break away from all things that constrain us, like habits, genetics, parents and so on. She explored this theme in her book From Now On Everything Will Be Different.
Her book caused controversy in Indonesia for its critical stance on the government, and the launch of her book at the Ubud Writers Festival was cancelled. But that didn’t stop her. “I printed sections of my book on t-shirts and wore them as a form of protest.”
During the session, Eliza, Molly and Omar discussed the theme of censorship, which often occurs when governments try to silence voices, views or opinions. But it also occurs when writers and artists self-censor, afraid that if they criticise or write about certain themes they won’t be published, or they won’t receive funding, or their opportunities and tenure will be affected.
“There’s a big difference between censorship and silencing,” Omar said.
Eliza did whatever she had to do in order to be heard, and when her book was to be published, she insisted on seeing the proofs before it went to print. “There’s always the risk it could be changed or censored,” she said.
Molly said, “When you have subverting ideas, to defeat stigma you have to speak louder and lift these people higher; otherwise they get marginalised and the pool of people thinking like that becomes smaller and smaller until those ideas are erased.”
This session was a reminder that in Australia, for the most part, we are very fortunate to enjoy freedom of expression and thought and press.
* You can support this Banned Literature in Translation campaign to help feature short works by writers (from Indonesia and around the world) who have experience bans, censorship or persecution.
Story: Ara Sarafian