WrICE at the Chinese Writers Festival

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The Chinese Writers Festival, held today at Richmond Library in Melbourne, featured local and international Chinese writers, aiming to showcase Chinese-Australian literary achievements and celebrate diversity in Melbourne’s cultural landscape.

“Chinese-Australians now comprise the largest migrant community in Melbourne,” said Kate Larsen, director of Writers Victoria, who was supporting the event. “While being recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature, the majority of Melbourne’s literary activity takes place in English within the central business district,” she added. This bilingual festival gave audiences complete access to all presentations and panel discussions, whether in English or Chinese.

Author Xu Xi (WrICE 2015) and has returned to Australia to again take part in the residency and several literary events. During her keynote address, she talked about her identity. Raised in Hong Kong and speaking English as her first language, Xu Xi has been writing in English since she was a child. She’s the author of ten books, including five novels and five collections of short fiction and essays. These days she splits her time between New York and Hong Kong.

She discussed the intricacies of her Indonesian–Chinese–Hong Kong–American identity as a writer, which resonated well with the audience, many of whom seemed to be interrogating that same question of identity, being Australian or Chinese, Australian-born or immigrants. In the globalised world that we now live in, the question of identity is becoming more and more nuanced.

It is fitting, therefore, that “Identity” is also the theme of the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) this year. “Our identity allows us to think of ourselves as part of a group of similar people, locating us within communities of affinity. Our beliefs, our characteristics, our life experiences and our values inform our identity. Our identities can bring us together or set us apart,” MWF says.

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Also at the Chinese Writers Festival, Alice Pung (WrICE 2016) spoke about reading books when she was young, which rarely, if ever, had Chinese characters set in Australia. “Growing up, I never saw any Asian kids in books, which made me feel like a foreigner despite being born here.”

This was also the crux of the keynote address by Maxine Beneba Clarke (WrICE 2014) at the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Maxine, who is from an Afro-Caribbean background, said non-white children are rendered invisible in Australia. She argued for greater diversity in Australian literature, which should represent all children whether they differ in colour, ethnicity, religion, disability, demographic or whether they’re raised by single or same-sex parents.

“It is the right of every child to see themselves in story,” Maxine said. When kids don’t see themselves in a story, they may feel as though there’s something wrong with them or as though they don’t belong.

Ouyang Yu was another panellist at the Chinese Writers Festival. He’s a contemporary Chinese-Australian author, translator and academic, who came to Australia in 1991 to complete a PhD. During his study he researched Asian characters in Australian literature over a one-hundred-year time frame and he found very little representation of Chinese people. And whatever he did find was bad. This is surprising considering the Chinese people have been involved in Australian society since the Australian Gold Ruses of the mid-nineteenth century (more than 12,000 arrived in 1956 alone).

To date, Ouyang Yu has published eighty books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, literary criticism and literary translation in English and Chinese. But his early writing was “all virtually rejected by publishers”, due to censorship in China. He no longer faces such issues here in Australia, but he said: “Here, there is economic censorship”, where works are not published when there’s no market for them.

Though that hasn’t stopped him. “There may be no money in it, but you’ve got to do what’s in your heart,” he added.

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Alice talked about her experiences doing talks in schools and the children who read her books. “Asian children say it helps their sense of identity,” she said, “because if you don’t see yourself represented, you don’t feel like you belong.” But her books also impact Australian students, who say her books bring them a better understanding about their Asian friends.

These discussions about identity and cultural exchange and understanding are the fundamental tenants on which the WrICE program is founded. The program of “Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange” gives writers the opportunity to spend time in Asia and then Australia, providing them with a deeper understand of each other’s culture, and how to then faithfully represent this understanding in their work.

We read books and literature to learn something about ourselves and the world around us. So, as Xu Xi, Alice and Maxine have all iterated, it’s important that everyone can actually see themselves in books, so they can relate – wherever they are from. It makes people feel like they belong to that society. And for children especially, this is precious.

Story: Ara Sarafian