Poor writing: on bogan hunting in the bookshop

Writing about growing up poor, especially on the internet, is like getting into a water balloon fight with an octopus – you launch your projectile out into the world and are immediately slapped in the face with a crap-tonne of slimy missiles in return.

In the past, my welfare-dwelling words have appeared on the ABC and Mamamia sites, and in the Sydney Morning Herald. They’ve covered growing up on Centrelink, difficulties faced by state school kids and Joe Hockey suggesting dole recipients give up ‘beer and ciggies’ to afford a visit to the doctor.

In response, I’ve been called a ‘feral’ on Twitter and worse in the comments sections. That sticks-and-stones rhyme we learned as kids is a lie. I masochistically read every mean-spirited message (along with the lovely supportive ones), then took an extra-large Nutella jar to bed and dry-humped it for a while. The blow was somewhat softened by my having risen in adulthood, thanks to a university education, to the relatively dizzying heights of educated comfortability, but it still hurt like hell. Sure, my household now owns a car and a fridge and an iron and an air conditioner, but the shame of poverty never really leaves you.

Class is a deeply divisive issue in Australia, and one I have been deeply ambivalent about canvassing in my writing career. Should I write what I know, exploit my point of difference, or, mindful of future employers googling me and making snap judgements accordingly, keep the dirty little secret of my feral formative years off the interwebs?

My other feeling on the matter is a sort of chin-jutting obstinacy. Damn it, the plight of poor people should be highlighted in neon, written in the sky and shouted from city rooftops. The viewpoints and merits of welfare recipients are so seldom represented in the media compared to the hordes of politicians, commentators and shock jocks trumpeting about dole bludgers and leaners and beer-drinking bogans who buy booze down at the local Liquorland rather than take their kids to the doctor.

On the rare occasions when a lone voice does pluck up the courage to explain what it’s like living in public housing or from paycheck to paycheck, in the supposed dregs of society, the retribution exacted by conservative media is swift and vicious.

We all saw what happened to Duncan Storrar mere weeks ago when he dared to pipe up on the ABC’s Q&A about the hardship he goes through to care for his family and what a tax break would mean to him. The toastergate media storm that followed chewed up Duncan and spat him out with chilling gusto. When a well-meaning soul started a Kickstarter campaign to chuck a few dollars his way, sections of the media swooped down from their high horses to prove why Duncan was supposedly unworthy of help.

So these stories should be told, my brain reasons, but why, Duncan having been suitably chastised into silence, do I have to be the one to do it? Why aren’t more Australian writers telling their heartbreaking houso stories? Career-killing move? Fear of being labelled a ‘whinger’? Too busy still being poor? Embarrassment? My guess is a combination of all three.

We’re firmly entrenched in the era of writers having to build a ‘platform’ and largely take care of their own marketing. With more and more of our lives being recorded via the internet, and your job prospects relying increasingly on the size of your Twitter following and keeping photos of drunk Saturday nights off Facebook, everyone is acutely aware of digital scrutiny and personal branding.

It’s hard enough to swim out of the poverty vortex as it is, without sabotaging your career aspirations by revealing you come from the wrong side of the tracks. Passing for ‘aspiring managerial class’ is a crucial survival mechanism when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder.

But what about the creative ladder? Here, the problem is not so much closed ranks as a crisis in belief. Growing up in my neighbourhood, no-one actually knew anyone who’d attained the lofty title of Professional. The rich kids were the sons and daughters of hairdressers and plumbers and admin assistants. Kids who wanted to be wildly optimistic dreamed of getting into an accountancy degree at uni. People who created art and literature for a living came from another postcode, possibly another planet. They weren’t actually real.

As a hopelessly bookish kid (and even now), I’ve scoured the library and the bookshop, desperate to find stories of the poor made good, Australian heroes and heroines with whom I could identify and model myself on. Sadly it seems to be sparsely covered territory. Stories not just about poor kids and poor adults, but told by these people. People just like me.

Owning our stories could mean the difference between conveying the true feeling of growing up poor and being a punch line or caricature in some sort of ‘poverty porn’ TV show, aired for people to guffaw over and hate-watch, justifying their prejudices at every turn. Our stories, told with empathy and humour, could move public opinion inch by inch, whether memoirs like Rosie Waterland’s The Anti-Cool Girl or from the somewhat safer realm of fiction.

The safest place of all to tell these stories might be in dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games, where the politics of poverty can be explored away from the clutches of a personal attack by trolls on Twitter. Hey, the story is about another person in another time that hasn’t even happened yet. It’s not me, calm down.

Writers are supposed to unwrap the truth and cradle it in their words for the world to see, whether couched in fact or fiction. I’m still trying to work out how to tell my story, to tell the truth without fear. Or perhaps nothing quite so lofty – to make a living from words and occasionally draw on my past when I write them, untroubled by full-frontal assaults from the creatures under the bridge.

We bogans have tales to tell, and the world could stand to listen. Regardless of who’s doing the telling, I’d like to hear more of them, and I hope I’m not the only one.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rebecca Douglas is an award-winning Adelaide-based writer whose work has been published by The Sydney Morning Herald, Overland, Verandah journal, Tincture, Visible Ink, The Big Issue, ABC The Drum and various other lovely places.

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  1. Great article Rebecca articulating a phenomena that is only increasing at this time in history despite our nation’s wealth. Like you I want to see these stories written in neon across the sky, and like you I carefully assess what and how to say anything regarding my capacity to pay for the lives of both myself and my daughters as I’m accustomed to having the poverty I’ve encountered as a single parent held against me. Thanks for kindling the flame.

  2. Dear Rebecca,

    Anyone who opens an essay with such a fabulously vivid simile should just keep on writing, no matter what !

    And anyone who doesn’t appreciate that talent, well, to hell with them with multiple exclamation marks !!!!

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