It’s 2013 and I’m starstruck at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I’m watching Junot Diaz speak.
‘White supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us,’ Diaz had said in a 2012 interview. On the stage at Deakin Edge, he is at pains to describe the ways that we are all complicit in the maintenance of white supremacy. As a Filipino-Australian in my early twenties, one from a working-class family that had to endure the first Hanson era, Diaz articulates a lot of things that I need to hear. He also drives home a lot of the ideas from postcolonial theory that I’ve recently started reading at uni. He speaks with clarity and heart about his experiences, without occluding the fact that to be a person of colour in the literary world is to be at the whim of a white institution.
I barely see any other non-white people there.
After Diaz’s awe-inspiring fifty-minute talk, the event turns to audience questions. The first question is from an older white gentleman near the front: ‘Why do you swear so much?’
The second question, also from an older white person near the front, is about where he gets his inspiration from. After a short answer, Diaz asks whether there are any questions from up the back, maybe from a student. There are none forthcoming. I want to ask him about how a person of colour can maintain such composure when confronted with an all-pervasive whiteness – about how we can forgive ourselves knowing that we were implicated in maintaining white supremacy. Before I can muster up the courage to ask a question about race in an amphitheatre packed full of white people, Diaz is leaving the stage.
This year, MWF 2016 pushed their diversity stakes further than ever before. Inviting Maxine Beneba Clarke to deliver the opening keynote was a powerful statement. Watching a playback of her speech, I found myself nodding along in recognition: people of colour – especially when they’re children – seldom see themselves reflected in Australia’s national literature. The narratives offered instead are ones that can be alien, different to the experiences we’ve had. We are told, in both subtle and direct ways, that we don’t have a place in our country’s overarching narratives. Beneba Clarke’s own discovery of diverse voices in literature was a revelation – though it took some searching to find stories that resonated with her own. At 19, Beneba Clarke gained the confidence to start writing about characters that weren’t all white. Now, she writes confronting short stories and memoir that lay bare the experiences of underrepresented groups.
We wouldn’t have to look very hard in the 2016 Melbourne Writers’ Festival program to find inspiring speakers outside of the Anglo mould. Following Beneba Clarke’s keynote, AS Patric was awarded the Miles Franklin for Black Rock White City¸ whose protagonists are an immigrant family in Melbourne. The Guardian’s write-up after the opening night lauded an MWF that would be filled with discussion of ‘multiculturalism and immigration, sexuality and gender’; we would see a festival focused on ‘place, identity and belonging’. The representation of diverse writers seemed to be at an all-time high in the festival’s history.
For the most part, though, this year’s MWF played out its ten days in front of a profoundly white audience.
This aspect of writers festivals can be strikingly visible when you’re not white. Beneba Clarke outlines her own experiences in the article Inconvenient Truths, in which she acknowledges the difficulties of being a ‘black woman writer, making work in Australia, for a majority white audience’. She describes how in the white space of a festival, on the many ‘women writers’ panels where she is the only writer of colour, she feels she must either shatter the illusion of a harmonious and diverse milieu of Australian literature, or play along in a game where her race is invisible. ‘We have to choose, they make us choose. Even now, as I write this, I’m letting down the team.’
Organisations like the Melbourne Writers Festival – and the rest of the arts sector – often couch discussions of diversity around representation. This push is driven by questions such as, how do we get more culturally and linguistically diverse people on our stages, on our publishing lists, on our awards shortlists – and at the heart of it all, how do we present a diverse image? I don’t want to take away from the importance of historically colonised arts and literary institutions asking these critical questions, but we need to acknowledge that this is only the very beginning.
If we only ever talk about representation, then we may end up forgetting that these organisations are institutionally white, even while they hold diversity up in the spotlight. What we need to do next is shift the conversation to asking how we can begin to bring in diverse audiences.
Last year, Melbourne Writers Festival obtained a grant to take on Hiroki Kobayashi as a program producer for MWF 2016. Kobayashi’s role was to brainstorm events under the umbrella of MWF to engage underrepresented groups. He co-formulated a program that ran in the City of Greater Dandenong’s libraries. In the pilot year of the program, the focus was on family-friendly events that would bring crowds that are atypical for large cultural institutions like MWF – crowds that were representative of the diversity one finds in areas like Dandenong. Generally when you put something on that will entertain children – and is free! – people come in droves. Kobayashi also programmed writing workshops in the area as a part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, which were in high demand.
On the other side of the city, at the Footscray Community Arts Centre, Eliza Vitri Handayani, Shakira Hussein and Monique Toohey were on the Muslim Feminism panel. Perhaps because of its location, the people on the panel and the topics discussed, the audience that came was visibly more diverse than what one usually finds in Federation Square – younger and less white, more Muslim.
The Melbourne Writers Festival took a risk this year in its attempts to diversify audiences, and ought to continue in future. Arts and literary organisations need to bring these audiences in from the periphery by including them in central events. This will take some serious restructuring of the ways organisations run their programs: in their current form, they may not be wholly amenable to inclusive conversation. The level of English and access to education needed to engage with panel discussions is relatively high, and there is noticeable difference in discussion at white-moderated panels merely sprinkled with ‘diversity’ – the white-polite discussion that was the Asia-Pacific Narratives panel comes to mind. Rajith Savandasa and Larry Ypil had great things to say about expressing their complex identities through writing, while Briohny Doyle was (rightfully) confused as to why she was there. As a result, much of the conversation was about ‘representation in literature’.
I’m not arguing that we do away with panels, or that panels of speakers who come from a broad range of backgrounds aren’t a good thing. But being around Federation Square during MWF this year, it felt like the majority of events were dreamt up by someone who doesn’t think about how this society is founded upon white supremacy – about what it means to be crushed under that, or to be complicit in it. The festival didn’t feel like it was ‘For Everyone Who Reads’; no literary festival I’ve attended ever has.
There is only so far that community engagement programs such as the events around Dandenong and the western suburbs can go. At some point the gatekeepers, and all of the other stakeholders of festivals – from the audiences up to the directorate – will need to look inwards to ask some difficult questions of themselves about the distribution of power in the industry.
I was invited to attend a recent closed forum on this very subject held in the boardroom of the Wheeler Centre, as a part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. In attendance at the forum were people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who have a connection to the literary sector, as well as a couple of Anglo gatekeepers. It was the first time that I’d had a discussion with so many people who are actually affected by issues of diversity, who have experienced systemic exclusion in the arts. It is such a complex problem, but finally coming together and collaborating with others who understand the issue intimately was the first time I’d opened up so much about it. They’re the sorts of conversations that need to continue in the centre of our cultural institutions to begin to create real structural change – and the gatekeepers, arts workers, writers and audiences need to actively listen and take action.