Tariro Mavondo is an actor, poet and writer. Her article, ‘The dangers of a single story’, is featured in the new Overland, as part of the CAL Connections series. We spoke to her about her essay, diversity on television, the position of the migrant artist, and performing spoken word poetry.
You begin your essay talking about your childhood. Is it especially important for young people of colour to have characters they can identify with on mainstream television?
Yes, I think it is essential that young Australians of whatever ethnicity and culture sees characters they identify with on mainstream television. If they don’t they are affected at a conscious and subconscious level and this plays out in various areas of people’s lives. Just like if an Anglo child has always seen characters he/she identifies with then it will have psychological and sociological effects. For example, I grew up at a time when there were no barbies of colour and I would play barbies and subconsciously I normalised or socialised the belief system that because I was not blonde and blue-eyed I was ugly. And when I would turn on the TV screen all I would see was white bodies and that made me believe that being white was normal and being black was other. So, because I was not visible or represented on TV at a subconscious level I didn’t feel like I belonged in Australian society.
In your essay, you say that migrants are expected to act in a certain way in Australian society, following ‘an invisible contract’ not to stir things up, but this is precisely the role of an artist. In your experience, in what ways do artists from migrant backgrounds struggle with this?
I think the role of an artist is multifaceted. At times I think it is to entertain and I also think we have a responsibility to stir things up, provoke and challenge the status quo so that we can facilitate positive change. This idea of an invisible contract I find very interesting. There is this belief that Australia is ‘fair dinkum’ but if we look at our political and social structures we will see that this idea is a myth. Politically, Indigenous Australians are not appreciated and valued; they are treated like second-class citizens. The Northern Territory Intervention left our Indigenous Australians powerless and weakened their attempts at self-determination and strengthened the growing rift between Indigenous Australians and other Australians. Also, our policies on ‘boat people’, detention centres, racial profiling by the police are atrocious. And I think the Australians from migrant backgrounds want so much to integrate so we accept this invisible contract and refuse to speak out against the negative things in our society. By doing so, we limit the goals we set ourselves as a nation and refuse to mature quickly from our infant state as a nation. If we all worked together and learnt from history Australia would not only be growing economically but socially and environmentally as well.
I hear that as well as an actor and writer, you are also a spoken word poet. Can you tell us a little bit about this? What do you like about the spoken word form?
Spoken word poetry in Melbourne is a fast growing scene. It is about bringing our words to life. I like to call it ‘moving text’. It is about moving words out of conventional spaces such as libraries into more public spaces to widen interest and participation. I am proud to be a facilitator and a founding member of the Centre of Poetics and Justice (CPJ). CPJ facilitates writing and performance workshops predominately targeting disadvantaged communities, i.e. youth at risk and remote Indigenous communities. CPJ aims to provide a safe platform for people to be heard. I also co-organise Slamalama Ding Dong, a spoken word open slam competition once a month at Trades Hall, Carlton. Slam poetry is designed to get audience excited about poetry. The idea is five judges are randomly picked from the audience and they watch and listen with open ears to a spoken word poet and depending on whether the poems stir emotions in you and the poets writing skills impress you, you mark them accordingly and at the end of the night you have a winner. I am also part of a grassroots collective called Still Waters, a group founded by Zimbabwean-descendant women. It is a storytelling network of women who meet to discuss personal, social, economic and political issues through the medium of storytelling. I love the spoken word because I, like a lot of people, have things to say and demand to be heard publicly.
What have you been up to since graduating from the VCA?
Since graduating at the VCA I have been facilitating writing and performance and movement/dance workshops with different community groups. I am working on an African women’s project in Sydney with renowned director Ros Horin. I have been taking weekend intensive courses to keep up with my craft as an artist. I have been auditioning for theatre, film and television and I am proud to say all my jobs have been colour-blind cast roles! I am looking forward to what the future holds, or, rather, how I will create my future.