Writing While Indigenous/Writing While Chinese
Intersectionality in Oz YA
Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and law academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Ambelin has written and illustrated a number of award winning picture books as well as writing a dystopian series – ‘the Tribe’ – for Young Adults. When not writing or illustrating, Ambelin teaches law and spends time with her family and her dogs.
Rebecca Lim is a writer, illustrator and lawyer based in Melbourne, Australia and is the author of sixteen books for children and YA readers, including Mercy, The Astrologer’s Daughter (a Kirkus Best Book of 2015) and Afterlight. Shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award, Aurealis Award and Davitt Award for YA, her novels have been translated into German, French, Turkish, Portuguese and Polish.
I know I promised you some thoughts a long time ago and I’ve been dragging my heels—maybe because I’m lazy, or maybe because I thought that by putting down what I really think, I’ll never work in this town again. And I probably won’t. But you know what? It’s time other YA authors working in our space—the space of intersectionality—actually joined you in saying what we are really thinking and what we are really facing. So here goes.
Now you and I have had many discussions over the last year about where we are in this country as YA writers and readers. We’re both presently on a working committee that’s trying to pull together a broad range of Australian publishers and industry bodies to offer mentorships, internships or publication opportunities to emerging writers from Indigenous and non-mainstream culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, with the hope that one day this program (whatever shape it might take) might be extended to writers writing from the LGBTIQ perspective, or from the perspective of disability. What I’ve found, approaching often complete strangers in the industry, is that there is a great kindness and willingness to be involved in discussions, but underlying the kindness and the willingness are the (actual) observations: “Diversity is just not on our radar right now” (potential translation: Is it really marketable? Is there a readership?”) and “We just aren’t seeing the manuscripts” (potential translation: Are you people making up the idea that there is a seething mass of unpublished Indigeneous/CALD writers out there?).
My immediate response to comments like that is: “The world’s been diverse since it started” and “There are so many barriers to publication, that even people with law degrees are afraid to go there.” All I can say is—a diverse readership is there. I’ve seen it and I’ve talked to it. So have you. That readership just doesn’t:
- Get to see the full spectrum of stories, and
- May not be aware that it is not getting the full spectrum of stories.
It’s that horrible thing of: If you don’t realise what you’re missing, you may not necessarily notice anything is missing.
Now, Ambelin, you work with Indigenous and refugee teens and I’m regularly asked to speak to kids from the Western suburbs who are not the “mainstream” teens you generally see on Aussie TV. I often ask these kids, who are from places like Africa, India and Polynesia, “Do you ever see stories about yourselves in the library?” And they say no. They are, instead, quite often treated to large displays of books featuring pretty Caucasian girls in beautiful, sweeping dresses. Whole turntable racks of them with accompanying full-blown posters around the walls of the building. It’s not deliberate, but it’s almost a new kind of way to make certain readers feel bad about themselves: to not see you, or your friends, reflected anywhere in the safe space a library or bookshop represents is a little soul-crushing. And this, my friend, is the space in which we work. The readership is being given a fairly consistent message—but I think some of us, just a little, are beginning to push back.
Your YA dystopian trilogy, The Tribe, and my YA novels, The Astrologer’s Daughter, Afterlight and Mercy deliberately feature protagonists who are physically, culturally and socio-economically different from many mainstream heroines. For example, my Eurasian heroine, Avicenna, is poor, overweight and badly facially scarred from a house fire that claimed the life of her father when she was little. Deliberately subverting the whole idea of the “YA angel romance with love triangle,” I made Mercy a bad-tempered creature of spirit who takes over the bodies of other people because she doesn’t have one of her own. Frustrated by the prevailing “bad boy, good boy” dichotomy in paranormal fiction, I deliberately made one of the “hot boys” Satan.
What we both set out to do—and correct me if I’m wrong—is that we consciously make our people look, think and act like a lot of people you don’t necessarily see in books for teens.
Because I’m pre-occupied with layering diverse narratives into the main storyline and dissecting complex issues surrounding casual racism, misogyny and violence against women in my books for young adults, I’ve had Caucasian readers police me on racism, language usage and cultural appropriation. I’ve also been taken to task for not following the rules of writing. Now, I’m certain that most non-Asian writers writing entire series based Asian mythologies are not getting this level of border control from their readership. I’m actually writing from within the lived experience of racism—so to be pulled up on it by someone who has never, and will never, be subjected to racism is quite startling. I’ve also seen instances of Asian readers preferencing narratives and characters that do not reflect their own lives and experiences over books that contain more complex and detailed world building that do—possibly because it’s just mentally easier to read something beachy and fun over something that deals with unpleasant, real-world stuff. In YA, at least, we’ve somehow, wholesale, like a mass hallucination, bought into the dream of someone else’s imagined life/culture being somehow bigger, better or more valuable than our own.
So returning to my query as to where we are as readers and writers of YA in Australia, I can honestly say that you feel more hope than I do that we are at some kind of turning point or cross roads. But regardless of whether readers from diverse backgrounds understand that they are being peddled a manic pixie dream life that does not reflect their own circumstances, but continues to maintain their cultural invisibility and devaluation, I’ll keep pushing for recognition of “own voice” stories and keep making my own work as challenging as I can.
I think I have more hope than you do because I take a longer view. The need to do so is a lesson passed on to me by generations of my people who never stopped looking to a better future even as they lived through the hard, cruel years of the frontier. The current systemic exclusion of diverse voices from YA and children’s literature is an injustice, and I don’t believe injustice can stand forever. Sooner or later, it collapses beneath the weight of its own arrogance. Or perhaps it diminishes slowly, chipped away at by every voice (whether diverse or not) that speaks up for equity in literature. We don’t always get to see the outcomes of our efforts within our own lifetimes. So neither you nor I might be there when that last piece of injustice finally falls away. But fall it will. And there are moments when I think I can hear the shout of triumph that will ring out from thousands when it does, echoing back through time to me. Echoing back past me to those who went before us, and fought in their turn for a world where all stories are heard.
That leaves us, of course, in this imperfect present where we must navigate the many complexities that face minority writers. During a PEN roundtable on equity in YA and kids lit publishing, Fatima Shaik said that “someone who seeks diversity looks for the opinions of people who disagree.” The flipside to that is that speaking out for diversity means you’re often the voice of disagreement in any given literary space. This is not generally an easy or comfortable position to occupy. We make our choices, live with the consequences, and look to the future.
There are many days when I am conscious not only that I am saying something that both I and other diverse writers have already said, but that I am saying something that was said at length by the generation of writers who came before me. And I think of Roxane Gay’s comment that conversations about diversity in publishing are the worst kind of groundhog day. ‘Frustrating’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. So I must be wary of the things to which I give my attention and my energy. My friend Zetta Elliott has reminded me before of Toni Morrison’s assessment that “racism is a distraction.” It’s better, surely, to focus my time on positive initiatives that will make a change in the lives of marginalised peoples. Better to call you, Bec – and swap stories of the latest challenges we each face. In the sharing, hurtful and ignorant comments become something we can laugh about, and we move on to talking of how we can make a difference.
And for all the difficulties, for all the frustrations, for the anger we both feel at the many injustices of this world …
I notice we haven’t run out of ideas yet.
And I don’t believe we ever will.