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Article
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Identity
Writing

Stop asking ‘diverse writers’ to tell you about their lives

Recently a family member sent me some information about the newly announced SBS Emerging Writers’ competition for writers of diverse backgrounds. It was a thoughtful email: I consider myself an emerging writer, and I ostensibly qualify as a member of ‘diverse Australia’. At face value, it appeared a worthwhile initiative.

… from SBS Voices, SBS’s online platform which champions the voices of diverse and often underrepresented Australians, the competition has been created to support the discovery and development of emerging talent and contribute to greater diversity in Australian storytelling.

Interested, I read on.

Writers aged 18 and over are invited to submit a memoir piece of 1000-2000 words on the topic of ‘Growing up in diverse Australia’.

At this point I felt myself begin to disengage, instinctively leaning back in my chair and away from the screen. I am uninterested in writing on this topic for a general audience or for exposure, and I have a growing suspicion of mainstream outlets who solicit these stories. The prescriptive nature of the ‘opportunity’ reminded me, ironically, of my childhood relegation to the playground role of Scary Spice by fair-skinned friends for obvious melanin reasons: too predictable to hurt, but crude enough to be alienating. 

It is frustrating to see opportunities for ‘diverse writers’ linked to their willingness to write narrowly about their diversity. This approach disqualifies the many talented writers who have already processed or written about these experiences, and who have bigger visions or better imaginations than to endlessly revisit the same questions. Who want to see themselves in Australia’s future as well as its past.

I imagine there are also writers who do not wish to revisit their childhoods because they do not want to be retraumatised. I reflect regularly and deeply on my upbringing as a Sri Lankan Australian. I’ve also written about it. It’s worth exploring and rich in its own way, but that does not mean I care to pick it apart in a mainstream public forum, or to hinge my public identity upon it.

Perhaps competitions like these benefit from a clearly defined theme, but why ‘Growing up in diverse Australia?’ Are childhood anecdotes the only valuable contributions writers of diverse backgrounds can make to public discourse? Is this theme so sorely under-addressed (despite several contemporary Australian anthologies with this exact premise) that it needs to be championed at the expense of writers’ other interests and ambitions? Should diverse writers not retain agency to set their own boundaries between their private and public lives?

To go even further, maybe a theme is in itself prohibitive: if the objective is to encourage diverse voices, perhaps those in charge should allow writers to choose where they direct their energy, rather than setting a narrow brief that necessitates a diversion in the name of exposure? Identities and experiences can be communicated in myriad ways. That we must constantly revisit the past speaks to a collective lack of imagination by those in the industry who parrot the term ‘diversity’, as if a kind of mathematically achieved representation is an end in itself. 

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Recently, I’ve been preparing an application for a writers’ scheme for which I’m required to detail the ways in which the publishing industry was previously inaccessible to me. There’s an irony inherent in this question, as if these factors are easy to categorise and quantify. As if they can be cleanly extracted from the murky swirl of complexity that characterises most non-white Australians’ lives.

I’m struck by the reality that I’m being asked to perform a character. The more reductive my performance, the higher my odds of success. I could present myself – despite having conflicting feelings about this term – as a ‘woman of colour’ who has experienced racism, who often lacks confidence in her abilities in a way that’s inseparable from this identity, and who has not always enjoyed the same networks as her white middle-class peers. None of that would be untrue. But I am also a postgraduate-educated, increasingly upper-middle-class Melburnian, with much of the social and geographic capital these facts bring to mind.

Identity and marginalisation are not simple concepts. The ostensible simplicity of the question – how has the industry been inaccessible to you? – obscures the opacity of who receives opportunities and who doesn’t: that I, knowing only my own experience, am arguably not well-positioned to make categorical statements about my own privilege or lack thereof. 

Perhaps these initiatives will allow Australians from diverse backgrounds to find solidarity and inspiration in representation. But we should also consider the possibility that these restrictive briefs and loaded questions will condition aspiring writers to believe that their only value is in their marginalisation and otherness, to be consumed as palatable morsels by predominantly upper-middle-class white audiences who will talk about these stories in bars and over brunch, and who will form a subconscious belief that they understand these experiences because they have read about them.

Perhaps writers will be conditioned to perform a kind of flattened, self-conscious diversity, led to believe that it is their only opportunity for mainstream success.

There is nothing inherently wrong with memoir, and I mean no disrespect to the many talented writers of colour and First Nations writers who work predominantly in this space. This work has value. But it should not be a condition of entry to the industry, and if it is, it should not be disguised as ‘opportunity’. Diversity of background doesn’t automatically result in diversity of thought, and a system that requires these voices to answer the same questions ad nauseum is dangling a carrot just out of reach, effectively limiting that which it claims to encourage. 

I want to write about the intersections of death and ecology and ethics and decolonisation, and I will not be able to do this with integrity if I am forever expected to tell you about the food eaten by my family, or how I hated my dark body hair, or the times that my friends imitated my mum’s Sri Lankan accent. To me it would be not only boring but also disingenuous, because publicly rehashing these experiences for a mainstream audience is not where my interests lie.

If you truly value my voice, don’t deny me the right to privacy that ‘non-diverse’ writers are granted as a matter of course. Conduct the questionable equations to determine my marginalisation, if you must, but don’t ask me to wade into those murky waters with you. If you are to set a theme, ask me about something else – anything else. Ask me about my thoughts on contemporary education, my experiences of the natural world, my reflections on our political and economic systems, or my hopes for Australia’s future. Even better, support me and other emerging writers to write on subjects of our own choosing, even if at the expense of your narrowly conceived diversity checklist. That is real empowerment. Maybe then we will move closer to a diversity that acknowledges the inherent complexity of identity, respects agency and does away with caricatures. 

 

Image by Doun Rain AKA Tomas Gaspar

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.

Kelly Bartholomeusz is a writer, community development worker and communications specialist living in Melbourne. You can read more about her work at kellybartholomeusz.com.

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Comments

  1. This is a very persuasive and welcome piece of writing. Should be sent to administrators of such schemes everywhere.

  2. Hard agree with this piece. Listened to a webinar recently with two women WoC and every.single.question (except mine) asked them to talk about their backgrounds and their ‘difference’. The academic moderating it was interested in literally nothing else but no doubt thought he was being very woke. I was the only one who asked a question about craft, rather than something about ‘who’ they were rather than what they wrote.

  3. ‘Identity and marginalisation are not simple concepts.’ No, they are not. It’s a shame this still has to be pointed out. Thank you for this considered piece.

  4. “I want to write about the intersections of death and ecology and ethics and decolonisation… Ask me about my thoughts on contemporary education, my experiences of the natural world, my reflections on our political & economic systems, or my hopes for Australia’s future.” A brilliant example of growing up in diverse Australia, but, alas, we won’t get to read it.

  5. that’s the problem with competition and competitions per se – you or i don’t get to choose – house admin does the choosing

  6. This is a great piece. I was drawn particularly to your comment around the choice (or lack of) privacy. This piece really highlights how a narrow focus of ‘diversity’ can further marginalize people who otherwise have broad and interesting stories to share.

  7. I’m reminded of a comment I heard from an American Indian author who lamented that his childhood was mostly a happy one and he was raised in an upper-middle class neighborhood. As it turns out, no one wanted to hear about his life, growing up as a well adjusted, mostly happy child who happened to be a POC. However, whenever he writes fiction about being a sad, oppressed Indian (which he researches), ah! that’s when he gets the attention from publishing.

  8. Thank you so much for writing this. I was asked by my publisher to make my story ‘more cultural’ because of my non-white background and it didn’t sit right with me but I couldn’t form coherent words to explain why. This captures it perfectly.

  9. Loved this piece. I grew up in Western Sydney where there was a large population of diverse cultures. I loved it. I too fit in that term, though I am – you are – we are – Australian should fit us all, under one umbrella. To single marginalised cultures out is to negate them entry into our burgeoning and growing new Diverse Australian Culture.
    I love the different accents, the different foods, the different attitudes. An educated mind is a cultured mind. To me you are not Sri Lankan, but Australian with a point of view that is unique to you. As we all have.
    Thank you for sharing.

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