No longer malleable stuff

The ‘white imagination’ imagines itself as limitless – boundless, colourless, neutral and universal.

Within the white imagination there is an invisible charter of rights that I hear frequently quoted, touted, lauded: it is my right to imagine whatever I want! My imagination is free! So encoded is this invisible charter of rights that insists that the white imagination has no limits, that all peoples and places deemed as ‘other’ become carte blanche – a blank white page for their imaginations to write.

The centre of whiteness, like the margins of otherness it defines, is a socio-cultural construct. And margins – unlike the ways we are cast in the white imagination, are locales of agency, resistance and change; and those within are totally exposed and externally immersed in the centre society that we surround. Margins by nature circle a centre and their voices and actions push inwards to challenge, to destabilise, decentralise and speak up to the centre. When the centre feels the margins pushing in, the invisible charters of rights in the centre’s collective imagination are shouted the loudest.

In the fields of cultural production – writing for example, the centre has felt the challenge, and literary representation has become a hotly contested site as the margins challenge the ‘boundless limits’, neutrality and pernicious insistence that all fiction is benign – that uninformed literary representation of others has no consequence and leaves no legacy. In Australia, settler resistance to challenges to the white imagination – it is right to write different peoples, cultures, places – based only on the accumulation of their knowledge acquired through settler systems of education and transmission, runs high. The changing of the cultural guards causes much unrest from the centre. And, much hope and empowerment from minorities who have seen our communities misrepresented in the many different cells of the white imagination; and in many cases are still living with and speaking back to the legacies of unchecked settler imaginations.

In this discussion I want to make explicit and deconstruct the invisible charter of white rights to representation; and highlight the blind spots, ironies, contradictions and limitations of the white imagination within its own defensive argument. Recent correspondence to Overland in response to a question placed in the final note of the guidelines of the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize evidences this reaction from the largest bastion of identity politics in Australia – the white centre.

One fundamental thing to bear in mind, before I begin to discuss white privilege and voice appropriation is that theft is culturally ingrained in the modern nation of Australia. The invading British diaspora began their history here as thieves of all things Aboriginal, and this intergenerational mentality extends beyond land to all aspects of settler life, and cuts across all facets of modern Australian life and culture. White Australian settler culture is nothing without theft, and this intergenerational mentality extends into the spheres of cultural production and literary culture. Any discussion of why the bloc of white settler identity politics still fails to understand literary appropriation and voice stealing must bear this in mind. Theft is embedded in the settler psyche and the dominance of settler identity politics depends on its continuity, and the control of how others are represented.

The question posed asks: If your entry takes up the voice or experience of a marginalised or vulnerable identity, do you identify yourself as being a part of that community or experience? The reaction to this was swift, and as I pointed out in two earlier essays, part of a larger reaction to calls from minority cultures to stop speaking for us – to stop stealing our voices.

Two recent essays by the settler writer H.C. Gildfind published in Arena are clear examples of the white panic caused when minorities threaten their culture of literary appropriation. Like most white writers Gildfind does not see the need to identify as white, they just launch into their spiel, speaking as if whiteness was/is the universal default position. The normativity of their whiteness and unquestioned right to speak needs no further explanation. Ironically they go on to argue that identity doesn’t matter, but the vested interests and unstated privileges of whiteness drive the argument: “As a writer this question reads both as a directive and a warning: that is, it incites fear in me about what I am allowed to write (and thus allowed to attempt to understand though my work).”

This was until recently an unfamiliar position for the white writer to be placed in. Questioning the limits and neutrality of the white imagination is dangerous but necessary. It’s dangerous because white identity politics has had a long, militaristic, government sanctioned, uninterrupted history of absolving itself of responsibility to any colour, culture or loaded cultural standpoint. It’s necessary if First Nations and minority writers are to have a voice and a space to represent ourselves in Australian literary culture.

I’d like to draw on H.C. Gildfind’s response to elicit the ironies, contradictions and paradoxes of white identity politics and its panic and hysteria over charges of cultural appropriation made by minority peoples. It’s critical to note the contradiction between the individualism of Gildfind’s voice and language, and the universalism implied through it. It is also critical to emphasise in the quote above that white writers already assume the right to attempt to understand others through their work. Not through the experiences and voices of the others themselves, and not through making the space for such communities and peoples to represent themselves. It is also important here to note the implicit assumption that their attempts at understanding the other through their fictional representation will be benign; and that there will be no consequence of the (mis)representation to the community. Settler writers do not usually reside in the communities they represent, and are oblivious to the costs of uninformed representation.

Gildfind cherry-picks across authors of colour (Zadie Smith, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Kelly Bartholomeusz, Prithvi Varatharajan) who rightly argue against western essentialism and ‘orientalism,’ but ultimately their argument turns in on itself in its failure to realise that these are calls generated from within minority communities of writers and scholars to whiteness. It is a call from communities of writers of colour who are immersed in, and highly articulate in white western culture, in a way that white western culture does not and cannot reciprocate without abdicating its position of dominance and without naming its own identity politics.

For solidarity in white identity politics Gildfind relies heavily on white American settler writer Lionel Shriver who has become of late the ambassador of white literary appropriation. Like Gildfind, Shriver likes to argue that her identity doesn’t matter and that it is her right to imagine her own imagination as free, colour blind and limitless. But I think it’s worth of noting that Shriver was born in the former confederate state of North Carolina, a heartland of white hegemony, to a religious family – her father was a Presbyterian minister and academic. It is also worth noting in 2018 in response to Penguin’s attempt to diversify publishing Shriver wrote in the Spectator:

Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books … Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision.

In the article she also said that:

… a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven would be published whether or not the said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.

Do I need to translate the identity or the politics behind this sentiment?

African American writer Claudia Rankine (2015) writes of the limits of the white imagination.

White writers often begin from a place where transcendence is a given – one already has access to all, one already is permitted to inhabit all, to address all. The crisis comes when one’s access is questioned… Because the “favour” of largely white-run literary institutions is founded on an original, if obscured, amassment of racial power: they can always remind you you’re a guest.

The obscured concentration of power Rankine calls out is white identity politics, and its power is often couched behind the culturally chauvinistic language of literary merit, that Shiver’s response to Penguin demonstrates.

In a recent essay critiquing the ‘great white social justice novel’, Sujatha Fernandes speaks to the conflation of what white settlers call ‘literary merit’ with the continued practice of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation in their works. As one of few writers of colour to critique Anna Krien’s novel Act of Grace (2019), Fernandes demonstrates that what settlers call ‘literary merit’ is writing that conforms to their comfort zone, does not name or challenge whiteness, and reinforces racial and cultural stereotypes. Also, when only a white readership/literati judge the literary merit of other white writer’s representations, how can they themselves be informed enough to know if it is a respectful or accurate representation? How can they know this if they too are ignorant of the community being represented? Yet this flimsy argument has apparently gone unchecked and unquestioned until recently.

The second instalment of Gildfind’s essays speaks of provocation.

If publishers want to ‘encourage imaginative and provocative submissions’ (as the competition guidelines claim) then they must avoid overt or covert warnings and directives about what writers may write. If publishers are against cultural appropriation then they must not publish fiction.

Aren’t books like Miles-Franklin winning works such as Benang, That Deadman Dance, Carpentaria, Too Much Lip and The Yield works of fiction? And do any of these works rely for their literary success or merit on appropriation of someone else’s culture? Are they not thought provoking without stealing anyone else’s voice or story?

The irony here is striking. On the one hand a white writer demands the ‘right’ (there’s the invisible charter again) to provoke – presumably through their representations, yet at the same time has difficulty processing their own provocation at the suggestion that their imagination might be limited – that their imagination might not be broader than their level of immersion and acceptance in and familiarity with the community they represent.

It’s important here too, to deconstruct the hypocrisy of the biggest movement of identity politics ever – whiteness. Identity politics can be defined as a group of peoples uniting under a common identity to form and maintain a solidarity of voice; to ensure that the interests of that group are represented. Isn’t that what whiteness does – form a bloc of identity based on unstated colour that assumes universality and the unwritten right to write everyone else? Isn’t whiteness – Anglo-Australianness a culture? In all other ways, we as First Nations peoples, and many other non-white minorities living here, see and hear all around us that whiteness – Australian settlerism is a culture. Isn’t there a flag here with a southern cross and a union jack that many white Australians are attached to? Even proud of? Isn’t there a national day of celebration of white arrival called ‘Australia Day’? And don’t all calls to change the date of that day from January 26, to celebrate an invasion to a date that might be less offensive and more inclusive of First Nations peoples and more recent non-British settler diaspora meet with staunch resistance? Doesn’t that day hold a special place in the heart of Australian white psyche because it marks their beginnings? Accusations of identity politics only appear when the hegemony of white identity politics is threatened.

In pronouncing the author dead in 1967, Roland Barthes was announcing that writing was overwhelmingly white; and whiteness does not identify itself. In his essay, Barthes argues against the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of an author’s identity to distil meaning from the author’s work. In this type of criticism against which he argues, the experiences and biases of the author serve as a definitive ‘explanation’ of the text. For Barthes, however, this method of reading may be apparently tidy and convenient but is actually sloppy and flawed. To give a text an author and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it is to impose a limit on that text.

Barthes’ premise is that each piece of writing contains multiple layers and meanings. In a well-known passage, Barthes draws an analogy between text and textiles, declaring that a ‘text is a tissue or fabric of quotations, drawn from innumerable centres of culture,’ (my emphasis on the euphemism of European colonialism) rather than from one individual experience. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the passions or tastes of the writer; a text’s unity lies not in its origins, or its creator, but in its destination, or its audience. This view aptly sums the long trajectory of European appropriation, blindness to its own cultural standpoint, western literary colonialism, and the consumption of minority cultures by invading, colonising powers.

In closing, it’s worth considering that much of the hysteria of the white identity politics movement around being free to ‘imagine whoever and whatever they want’ exposes whiteness’ fear of seeing itself represented through the eyes of minorities, from our perspectives, which they no longer control. Instead of having control over representations of themselves and all others in relation to themselves, whiteness is now confronted with having to see itself represented through the eyes of those ‘others’ who are exposed to and immersed in all aspects of white settler Australian culture on a daily basis.

In 1857 on a visit to Australia, English author and journalist Frank Fowler noted in his best-known literary work Southern Lights and Shadows (1859) that ‘our fictionists have fallen upon the soil of Australia like so many industrious diggers’. ‘Our’ is identity politics in action as it translates to ‘white British fictionists’. Fowler went on to comment that such ‘diggers’ are turning up ‘much malleable stuff’.

In his analysis of the speed with which white writers began representing and voicing First Nations peoples in colonial literature, the Canadian born literary scholar JJ Healy (1978) pointed out that ‘the Aborigine’ (sic) was ‘definitely considered by settler writers as ‘part of the malleable stuff’. Healy was right in identifying the ongoing trajectory of Aboriginal peoples represented as figments in the white imagination – phenomena of white consciousness and attempts to belong on stolen lands; not the lived reality or diversity of First Nations Australians. His analogy of First Nations peoples considered ‘malleable stuff’, caught in the webs of word of white writers could now extend to all minority groups in Australia.

Australian fictionists may and most likely will still fossick over the stolen lands of the nation but we – First Nations peoples, Peoples of Colour, are no longer the ‘malleable stuff’ of the unchecked settler imagination. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a point in talking about an author’s identity if they were all the same. But this is no longer the case. We’re not dead. And, we’re not white. We write. Our identities matter.

White is a colour. A page is not a neutral cultural object. The white imagination is indeed colour blind. It is blind to its own colour – whiteness; and to its own cultural standpoint that is neither neutral nor universal.

Margins do not just encircle the centre and sit passively at its edges of exclusion and misrepresentation. We moved into its space. Not to be like it, or to speak for it, but to speak to it; to assert our cultural identities – our differences; and most importantly to speak for ourselves.


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Jeanine Leane

Jeanine Leane is a Wiradjuri writer, poet and academic from southwest New South Wales. Her first volume of poetry, Dark Secrets After Dreaming: A.D. 1887-1961 (2010, Presspress) won the Scanlon Prize for Indigenous Poetry, and her first novel, Purple Threads (UQP), won the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous writer. She has a PhD in Australian literature and Aboriginal representation. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Hecate, The Journal for the Association European Studies of Australia, Australian Poetry Journal, Antipodes, Overland and the Australian Book Review. Jeanine has published widely in the area of Aboriginal literature, writing otherness and creative non-fiction and is the recipient of an Australia Research Council Grant on Aboriginal literature. She teaches Creative Writing and Aboriginal Literature at the University of Melbourne. Her second volume of poetry, Walk Back Over was released in 2018 by Cordite Press.

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