on diversity in writing

My last post as ACTWC Blogger in Residence was published last week.

For something that means so much to me, this was EASILY the post I most struggled to write.

An issue I'll always think (and indirectly, write) about.

.....

But where are you REALLY from?

When I applied to be Blogger in Residence in October, I pitched a piece on the importance of diversity in writing. It’s an issue close to my heart, one I want to get ‘right’, so much so that I saved it for my final post.
Very few would deny the importance of diversity, not just in books but in television and film.
Writers Victoria has a history of supporting writers who face barriers in the development of their writing careers, such as regional writers, writers with disability, and writers from culturally and linguistically diverse communities. My memoir piece ‘Love Like Mine’ was published as part of the Diverse Writers CHINA project last year.
The Stella Prize emerged from a panel discussion about the under-representation of women in the literary pages of the major Australian newspapers and as winners of literary prizes. This year, it will release its inaugural Diversity Count.
The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign highlights how diverse books ‘serve as a window and a mirror’ by reflecting the real world and teaching respect, empathy and tolerance. Its vision is: A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.
Episode 1 of Benjamin Law’s memoir-turned-TV-adaptation The Family Law hit over one million views in its first weekend, reigniting much-needed discussion of diversity (or the lack of it) in Australian television.

There are SO many reasons for promoting diversity in writing… for me, it’s personal.
I still remember the moment, eight years ago, when I stumbled across an article by Alice Pung and thought, ‘Wow, someone like me – at last!’ All I want is to pass on that feeling. Like Alice, I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne and went to ‘Mao-Bin U’ [the University of Melbourne]. Her family is Cambodian-Chinese, mine Malaysian-Chinese.
From debut memoir Unpolished Gem, I moved on to Growing Up Asian in Australia (ed. Alice Pung), an anthology of personal accounts, short stories, profiles and poetry by Asian-Australians across generations and Australia. It was the type of book I wish I’d read while growing up. Finding it on my brother’s Year 12 reading list, I was envious but optimistic.
We’ve come a long way.
Glancing around a local bookstore last year, I see Banana Girl (Michele Lee), We Are Here (Cat Thao Nguyen), and Forged From Silver Dollar (Li Feng). Daily Life is publishing a column by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen, which covers topics ranging from being fired to depression, relationships and the irony of not wanting to be seen as a ‘typical Asian’.
It’s the ‘YES, that’s exactly how I feel’ moments that strike me most. To read of experiences we might claim as our own is to feel less alone.
But what happens when we’re expected to represent a particular community? We’re Asian-Australian yet we’re so much more. It’s only one part of our ever-changing identities.
Alice explores misconceptions with ‘ethnic literature’ in The Emerging Writer: Volume 4 and generously shares this piece of advice:
Readers want to feel like you are giving them a voyeuristic glimpse into your world… and not that you are standing on a podium lecturing on ‘Being Asian’ or ‘Being Black.’ If you are going to eat yum cha, don’t tell us every tiny detail of how you use chopsticks to eat authentic soy-braised chicken feet. Tell us about why your brother is silent at the table, why your grandmother won’t cut her little fingernail, and why your parents decided you should get braces at the age of fourteen. Life is not lived as a cultural show, but as a series of small and large decisions that build a character.
We don’t just write about ‘Asian-Australian issues’. If you think we do, then the issues we write about matter to everyone. Put another way, there is no single Asian-Australian experience, just as there is no single Indigenous, queer or person with a disability experience.
The value of seeing the reader’s own experiences reflected in literature cannot be underestimated. The books we choose to read, and publish, matter.

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