Writers Across Borders, Melbourne Writers Festival

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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.

Mia Wotherspoon