I‘d like to first kick off with a million thank yous and virtual hugs to everyone who read my last piece. I’m just a dork with a website, a blistering desire to avoid completing the third chapter of my Honours thesis, and at the time, with a whole bunch of feelings. You’ve all made this twenty-two year old very happy.
Apparently we all kicked up enough of a ruckus to make this happen – an impromptu session to discuss the issues that had arisen as a result of Lionel Shriver’s opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. This panel, with Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Rajith Savanadasa, and Suki Kim, was the (our?) right of reply. I was in a session at the time, and I may or may not have almost exclaimed out loud, before panicking and trying to figure out if I could make it. (Of course I made it, by the way). Ironically, this panel was conducted at the same time as Lionel Shriver’s in conversation, perhaps an unintentional but ultimately amusing (at least to me) turn of events.
It is a tricky thing to navigate, this idea of identity – as well as the representation of such identity in works of fiction. It is easy to forget that while fiction may come from and be about the imagination, it still has its roots in some kind of fact. And sometimes, those facts are uncomfortable truths about commonly maligned groups in society. Writing fiction does not give you license to disregard these truths. As Damon Young said earlier this afternoon in one of his panels, we need to exercise courage in our reading practice. This courage comes from a willingness to challenge our very fundamental beliefs, to learn something new.
“None of the writing we do exists in a vacuum,” Yassmin said. Writing can be lonely, and putting words, especially the right words, on paper or on the screen can be unbelievably difficult. But it is selfish not to consider the way others may react to your writing. It is selfish, and it is irresponsible.
You should be able to write whatever character you want, goes the argument. Sure, is the reply. But you must do so with empathy, respect, humility, decency, and an intent to do the character(s) justice. You must listen to those you are writing about. You must acknowledge your responsibility as a writer, as an artist. Rajith and Suki both spoke of this responsibility, and emphasised its importance. “We should expect more of our artists,” Rajith said. We should, and it is disappointing that as it stands, we currently do not.
All three wrestled with issues of identity, of being stuck with a label by virtue of their skin colour. “I’m the woman in a hijab,” Yassmin lamented. “I’m the woman in a hijab in a boxing ring, the woman in a hijab in a racecar, the woman in a hijab on an oil rig.” This identity is something that is foisted onto her, one that means that others see her as the voice of hijabi women everywhere.
Suki went further. “I was invited here as a writer,” she said. “But now I feel like an Asian.” This distinction is minute, but devastating. And to me, it is not a foreign concept, though I don’t think I’d ever heard it verbalised so eloquently. At the end of the day, we all just want to be people. But society deems a ‘person’ to be white, male, straight, abled. Everyone else is an Other. We cannot be just ‘people’.
To buy into Shriver’s argument that ‘there is no set identity’ is to ignore years of history and oppression, especially when it comes to those who have fought so hard and lost so much to retain their identities. For some, these identities are all they have. Surely they are entitled to that much, after their lands have been stolen, and forced to assimilate into a society where they will never truly belong.
To buy into Shriver’s argument is to ignore the fact that authority is of the white gaze. It is white, it is quite often sexist, and it is Orientalist. I know this, because I have suffered from its effects. For those who haven’t, it may be confronting. It should be confronting. It should get everyone thinking about the way they see the world, the way they read, and the way they write. I, of course, have my own prejudices, and I try to work on those as best I can. It’s hard, and it takes time. But just because something is hard (and of course it will be!) doesn’t mean we should give up. It means that perhaps there is something there to be learned, perhaps we will come out the other side having bettered ourselves in ways we didn’t think possible.
Of course, an hour is not enough to unpack the complexities of such a broad and nuanced topic. These conversations have been ongoing for years, and I really don’t know if we are moving forward at all. The world seems to have become more and more divisive, which means that these conversations are all the more important. I can only hope that they will continue all around the world – whether it be between friends, or at a forum like a writers festival. And one day, I hope that we won’t need these conversations – but I know that’s still a long way off. I hope that my children, and their children after them, will grow up in a more just world, a world in which these conversations are met more with understanding than hostility.