In a world in which we’ve been desensitised to the shock of war and conflict, in which those two very things are normalised, you sometimes need to slow things down, step outside and put things into perspective. This year at TiNA, I saw an event that did just that. It was the publication of Westside Jnr’s 2010 book: Violence.
Launched fittingly on the International Day of Non-Violence, the book is a collection of writing that arose out of workshops at seven schools in Western Sydney. The workshops were run, in conjunction with the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, as part of the Refugee Action Support Project. Alongside the writing workshops there were forum theatre workshops on bullying, where students learned ways of defusing situations before they escalate.
As someone who works in a school, seeing the video and hearing the speeches from the RAS workshop mentors was empowering. There, in a relatively safe surrounding, people were able to practise their negotiation skills and build confidence in saying what they felt. New skills were found among all attendees; for instance, one Sudanese teenage boy proved so good at negotiating and defusing, he passed some of those skills onto the mentors.
As you would expect from a book of this nature, of young voices first-hand, the writing in Violence is raw. Yet it is for that reason that they are all the more forceful. Names have been withheld to protect people’s privacy, but that only seems to enhance the book, adding a kind of universality to the stories. When read, the effect is powerful.
The stories fluctuate through tenses like many conversations do. Shifting and stilting with each sentence, there’s a certain youthfulness to these voices. The process of writing is also highlighted, through the inclusion of many crossed-out words, or text written in multiple drafts. This concept was also illustrated at the launch when Stanley, a Congolese man of 18, read out his contribution. Short and one-line long, the story was about him as a boy in the Congo seeing a pregnant woman shot. His second story went into more detail, including the image of him running with tears down his face after witnessing the event.
As Stanley said at the launch, writing these stories down was the first time he had ever told the story to anyone; it was also the first time he had read it. He said that just to put the words to the image and voice them aloud was to get them out of his head. It hurt, but it helped.
The rest of the stories in the book are along the same line, simple but heartbreaking. Take, for example, the one in which someone is sitting at school alone. Short and sweet, it hits that feeling more genuinely then any micro-fiction could.
Westside Jnr also includes interviews with local psychologists, and Muslim and Vietnamese centre workers talking about day-to-day encounters with violence. About the stories they hear and the approaches they have for dealing with those stories.
There is also an interview with a photographer who was at the Cronulla riots. He took a photo of some Middle Eastern young men being set upon by a pack of 30 white young men. His description of the mood around that, of the violence of the pack hunt, of his failure to stop it is powerful to read and made me more frustrated and angry about the racism and violence that still exists tody, the kind that leads to inhumane and unjust policies.
The launch ended with an open discussion in which one of the sponsors of the program mentioned how beneficial these kinds of programs were; sponsors were now planning on expanding the program to other regions and cities in New South Wales. Most tellingly, he spoke of how the teachers in the program found children from refugee backgrounds were better students to teach – they wanted to learn, fit in and improve. Having seen the frustration of teachers working with kids who don’t want to work, I can only imagine the joy.
And I think it’s this that we need to remember. The main motivation for coming all the way to Australia from far away places is the desire of people to live in a world free from the violence they have encountered.