Calling the racist a racist: Janaka Malwatta’s blackbirds don’t mate with starlings

Racism is the destruction of human relations and undoes the bonds of life. Newspapers and all versions of news distribution have historically played a key role in the reinforcement of racism and racist stereotyping, especially in empire-colonial countries, and have always been targeted for control, if not established as control, by loci of power.

In Australia, colonial newspapers have been deeply entrenched the ongoing colonisation of Indigenous country, and also perpetrated and maintained the systemic racism towards non-whites embodied in the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act. To be a non-white in the Commonwealth of Australia was not only to be marginalised, but to live a life quite different from ‘whites’ through the iterations of the White Australia policy. And many would convincingly argue that this legacy is still omnipresent in Australian society.

This is not a zeitgeist issue of now, not a ‘PC’ observation (and if it were, it would be one that needed to be made), not an ‘oh, it’s their turn now’ comment, but a brutal reality that has ongoing implications around how Australia functions on official and unofficial social and policy levels. Racism not only exists—it is also a chimera that adapts to the social media generation by adopting different manners, feigning ‘acceptance’ of others, and even ‘enabling’ speech and action that is contrary to its own desires and designs.

Behind some scenes, different things are too frequently thought and said, and it’s this behind-the-scenes ‘demographic’ that I think will be most affected and confronted by Janaka Malwatta’s forceful and verbally adept collection blackbirds don’t mate with starlings. I say ‘verbally’ because the ‘quality’ of ‘spoken word’ poetics that drives its voicings is affirmingly drawn from acts of speaking and hearing, of recounting and repeating, of quoting and juxtaposing, of letting the bigots have their moments and to consequently show themselves up for what they are.

I mention newspapers because the two long sequences on racial discoursing prompted by boxing matches in 1908 in Australia and America between the boxer Jack Johnson and his white opponents become a stage on which violence is enacted in ‘talk’ as much as physical fighting, and on which ‘race wars’ are staged by the media. These poems interplay media comments (mostly racist) and the words and thoughts of the boxers: Johnson is contemplative and committed, while the white boxers Tommy Burns in Australia and Jim Jefferies in America are stooges for a white-imagined race war. Both Burns and Jefferies are voices of white supremacist thinking focalising systemic racism. Boxing (which I personally oppose) becomes a mode of critique and agency in these poems.

I was troubled by Malwatta’s deploying of African American boxer Jack Johnson’s voice, which in some ways is absorbed into an us and them construction of racism: white vs coloured, rather than the voice being re-enacted through, say, the writing of an African American poet—but, in his effort to show the toxicity of a worldwide white vs. coloured racism built out of imperialist colonial white supremacy across all modes of life, I can accept that a point is being made and that it’s one I cannot effectively and justly comment on. In Johnson’s voice we hear of ‘the coloured people of the world’, and if there’s a binary, it was actually created in this sense by white colonial privilege.

But I can listen. And I do. And I can also point out to myself that when I was pacifistically active in the 1980s against a far-right racist group in Western Australia, I inevitably had to create bonds of sympathy with communities that weren’t mine but that I greatly respected and that I felt I could ‘act for’ or ‘on behalf of’ in tearing down racist posters, confronting racists at demonstrations and so on. I am not trying to absorb Malwatta’s position, but to show that his committed, passionate and highly thought-out approach to commenting via many voices in his work (and citing them) is an act of empathy and not appropriation.

I also mention newspapers because in reviewing from a position of embedded white privilege, I am implicated in the act of aestheticising trauma through an act of ‘reviewing’, of making judgement. Trauma caused by the racism I deeply oppose, of course and absolutely, but am nonetheless implicated in via my own broader social and circumstantial ‘history’—of being part of colonial privilege in Australia and in the UK where I have also lived, and, for that matter, the USA.

There are some ‘missteps’ in this book to my mind, such as in the otherwise effective poem ‘lattice screens and inkdrops’ where in their context the lines ‘Traditional owners perform Welcome to/ country for suited City men on a cropped South Bank/ lawn’ possibly miss the agency of the traditional owners who are stating a right and a fact of presence over those ‘suited City men.’ The lines run the risk of seeming to denote an act of appeasement, when such welcomes are inevitably acts of assertion and affirmation.

Malwatta’s experiences as a migrant across different empire configurations of subjugation and abuse (moving from Sri Lanka to Britain to Australia) lead him to search for a way to compare history as it happened with history as it’s constructed (especially through newspapers/the media), and he often does this in surprising and even revelatory ways. His long two-part poem ‘London’, which traces the causes of violence through loss caused by empire, and also through empire-war propagandising (‘desert rat’ as bigotry and ‘desert rat’ as imperial affirmation coming into ‘contact’ with each other), and the impossible life-conditions it engenders across difference, especially in economically despairing circumstances, is confronting and moving.

Malwatta is a skilled and motivated user of tone and tonality in expression, and he shifts between perpetrator and victim with a disturbing but powerful ease: we hear the racists in the hospital, we hear them at the barbecue, and we hear the racism coming from the mouths of white leaders and dissemblers. And we also hear the pain of receiving it, and the determination to refute it and overturn it. Between irony and bluntness there are so many layers of reception. His use of ‘found language’ is perfected in poems wherein a Churchill or Boris Johnson speak their own moral repugnance — their own words that show grotesque hatred and racism of their worldviews, but even as ‘cherrypicked’ and juxtaposed ‘statements’ speak whole cultural discourses. The poise of horror created by Malwatta’s ‘cut and paste’ of voice-quotes is devastating.

The first note in the back of the book says that the work ‘arose from the global response to the terrible murder of George Floyd’, and as such is an act of identification and overturning, and also an act of solidarity out of the trauma. Malwatta topples those colonial statues that the voices of those racist ‘quiet Australians’ (the status quo who were or are also migrants) so defended. Those defenders of colonial privilege who might say, as echoed in ‘how dare they’:

how dare they pull down that statue
how dare they deface war memorials
how dare they call Churchill (the racist) a racist
why don’t they play by the rules

… and that ‘little intervention of ‘the racist’ by the poet is the echo of truth. I stand with the poet, with much respect. I believe I understand the ‘sense of separateness’, even when cosmetically things look more inclusive, and I listen for how it might be addressed.

John Kinsella

John Kinsella’s new work includes the story collection Pushing Back (Transit Lounge, 2021), Saussure's Kaleidoscope Graphology Drawing-Poems (Five Islands Press/Apothecary Archive, 2021) and The Ascension of Sheep: Collected Poems Volume 1 (UWAP, 2022).

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