I sought out the literary scene because, as a young person who wrote, that was what I was expected to do. I was raw and insecure about my abilities, and I was desperate to prove myself, to build a portfolio, to earn the title of a “good writer.”
I had internalised messages that told me this was what I had to do to be valuable and important. I wanted to engage with the precarious opportunities and validation the scene offered, and to find a social environment that aided me in understanding how to apparently become a better and more successful writer.
My experiences led me to understate the dynamics that exist within the literary world, an environment superficially focused on positivity, on inclusion, and on the nebulous notion of working together to bring about a fairer future. But within our inherently flawed and exploitative culture, nothing is pure or ethical unless all literary and publishing structures are constantly challenged and contested.
I drew upon the thoughts of queer academic and writer Sara Ahmed to consider ‘how leaving the accepted social paths can be to leave behind support systems, those institutional ways of holding, protecting, nurturing. To leave a support system can mean to become more fragile, less protected from the bumps of ordinary life.’ These are seemingly omnipresent forces, ones that continually impose on the more marginalised people in our society, wearing them down. We can picture this almost comically as a sinister blackened hand, picking and choosing who will be made redundant by our culture’s biases, a continual colonising force that punishes anyone who resists.
It’s been unspeakably tiring having to negotiate my way through particular spaces in the literary world.
For those of us who experience this force personally, it takes many shapes: microaggressions in our day-to-day lives, open acts of discrimination, violence, subtle exclusion. Threats to our well-being made on the basis of our identity must constantly be kept at bay, and we are left in the dark as to how to overcome them. That information is hidden within a structure designed specifically to let us down. These powers result in what we know as ‘tiredness’ – emotional tiredness, social tiredness, even physical strain. It’s a particular kind of malaise, almost a feeling of spiritual wearing down, something that can only be understood by those who live under a social hierarchy that devalues you. And it’s been unspeakably tiring having to negotiate my way through particular spaces in the literary world.
I had my first proper piece published when I was 19 – I am 24 now, only now beginning to be regularly financially compensated for my work. I am a person bound together by my queerness, by my deviance from gender norms, and these things intrinsically affect how I see the world and relate to it (although being white has undoubtedly opened doors to me that are not open to others).
Last year I wrote an article for this journal, ‘Right Place, Right Time: How the Melbourne Voice shuts writers out’. It was an attempt at vocalising a myriad of feelings I’ve had about being on the outside of Australia’s prominent literary cities. It was also the most widely shared article I had ever written, and the first time many other writers had heard of me (I had been frequently published outside the bubble of the literary world – but evidently that work didn’t have any value.)
That piece also spawned several articles in response, the most notorious being Luke Carman’s ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’ for Meanjin. It’s a confounding, spiralling piece that matches Dante’s Inferno in melodrama, and somehow ended up reinforcing the very things I was trying to call out. Would Meanjin have published that same mess of an article if it weren’t written by an older white man with the cachet of having been published before? Would my message have been acknowledged as meaningful without that appropriation? Luke Carman has a history of working with marginalised and otherwise unheard writers in his work with Western Sydney’s SWEATSHOP collective, but he’s still afforded credibility within the literary community. When I was growing up, dividing my time between the far north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide and the Riverina region of Victoria meant that I had no such equivalent.
More to the point, many people failed to realise that ‘Right Place, Right Time’ is not an article entirely about the city of Melbourne, and it’s reductive to insinuate that this is the case: it is about class, cultural capital, connections and the kind of credibility you have to push for if your identity doesn’t fit within an easily categorised mould. It is about the way emerging writers are used and disrespected like washrags.
When I wrote that article, I remember addressing the often lofty submission criteria that literary journals aim for when doing call-outs. They ask for ‘diverse voices’ and people of different backgrounds, but that doesn’t really confront the real work, the deep institutional restructuring that creates conditions for equality. I felt suspicious of the way they went about this – it insinuated that publications aren’t already focused on those issues, and treats them as a secondary concern.
It’s all well and good to say you welcome diverse voices – but is your publication built on ideologies that challenge the forces that silence diversity, and are you willing to take a critical look at why these people aren’t submitting to your publication in the first place? What factors are dissuading them? Editors need to be actively fighting against the forces at large, doing their research, and making sure their staff and editorial teams are as multifaceted as their freelance contributors are. So this begs the question – what do these kinds of publications stand for in the first place, and what forces are at play here?
The literary world is a colonised world by default.
The literary world is a colonised world by default. Literary publications are rooted in colonisation of order and of language, and stand for narrow points of view – and for cis-ness and hetero-ness. Everything else is categorised as ‘other’, as something strange or exciting. This kind of representation is condescending at best, and comes at a price. It inherently tokenises certain kinds of expression or uses of language. Recently certain English-language organisations and publications have started publishing work that moves outside our traditional understanding of expression – these are baby steps towards decolonising our approach towards words.
While generally it’s fine to value good writing and broad awareness in a publication context, not everyone understands things in the same ways and these forms of communication are not inherently more valuable than all other kinds of media. In addition to this, words are historically bound in inequity. When were women allowed to start learning how to read and write? Apply this same question to almost every other group besides white middle class men of leisure.
In an article for Model View Culture, Kẏra writes:
‘Why do so many people seeking racial justice, female empowerment, and queer liberation still choose to advocate for “diversity” and “inclusion”? They appeal to liberalism. They prevent oppression from being named. They prevent us from speaking truth to power. They make progress sound friendly to those in power. Companies can tokenize women and people of color throughout their advertising. They can get way more credit than they deserve for being not 100% white men. They can profit from the increases in efficiency and productivity associated with more diversity. All of the above ignore the fact that companies needed to have diversity initiatives to make them less overwhelmingly white in the first place; that white people are the ones in the position of being able to grant access in the first place. When we work for justice and liberation, we can’t accept progress that is conditional on being economically beneficial.’
The attitudes that editors and publishers take towards people from ‘non-normative’ backgrounds often reduce them to caricatures. Their thoughts and experiences are not valued unless they offer said publications the cultural capital of diversity. While there are often vague, uninformed, but “good” intentions behind the desire to decolonise an organisation, it takes much more work to uproot the whole institution from the values that are so deeply embedded in Australian culture.
Publications can still be entrenched in heteronormativity, cisness and whiteness while publishing writers from diverse backgrounds.
Publications can still be entrenched in heteronormativity, cisness and whiteness while publishing writers from diverse backgrounds, especially if these voices end up being distilled: softened or altered because they inherently challenge the elitist groundwork the publications are built upon. Editors are often time-poor, money-poor, and poor of resources and knowledge, and don’t know how to go about expanding their contributor base properly, or how to honour different kinds of writing and communication.
Even then, when a good-willed and thoughtful editor is working for a literary publication, failure is inevitable both for a potential writer and for everyone else involved, if they operate under the guise of diversity without giving further thought as to what that means. It’s easy to fall back on writers who are closest (geographically or socially); the easiest connection is someone who will probably be educated, white, and come from a background that allowed them to devote their life to writing and to be visible in that sense. I feel grateful that I know how to write and can do it regularly for literary journals, but I also recognise that it isn’t everything, and not everyone is going to want to engage with social and political issues in similar ways.
These institutions seem like cleanly operating machines from the outside, but someone approaching from an experience of otherness may experience inconsistencies that resemble a fracture, or breaking. Unfortunately, it’s in the social and economic interests of these organisations to uphold their alienating structures. This is not the fault of anyone in particular, so much as it is what it is – the institution doing its job. The process is flawed by nature, entrenched in biases that prioritise certain people, certain expressions, over others. The whole basis of these institutions relies on this shattering, or this moment of dissociation, because they benefit from the architecture they were built around.
I sought out others with personal experiences of being tokenised in literary spaces under the guise of looking for ‘diverse voices’, and spoke to Somayra Ismailjee, a writer from Perth, and Haneen Martin, an artist and curator from Adelaide. Both have had extensive contact with artistic and literary institutions, and speak openly about the intersections of discrimination they have experienced as writers and on the basis of womanhood and race, as well as the respective intersections of both.
In regards to how institutions regard racism, Haneen says:
‘My day-to-day work is inclusive in hiring me and being a great place to work and letting me be myself always. But there have been multiple instances where I’ve experienced racism and there has been no way of being backed up or reporting it. Then it’s [supposedly] your fault for not having the tools to deal with it…but in the arts it’s worse because you’re expected to be able to perfectly articulate what you’re experiencing.’
Somayra says that publications have sought her out for her background and radical politics, specifically in relation to queer identity and refugees, but have then distilled her words to be safe and cushy for what is essentially a neoliberal audience. She observed that it’s common for publications to operate with a top-down philosophy, granting credibility or social cachet to young writers without honouring what they’re actually saying, or without paying them. This attitude implies that writers should be grateful for the opportunity to be heard, because people within this circle have more value than those outside of it. And this happens the most to non-white, queer, non-cis writers.
In ‘Feeling Depleted?’, Sarah Ahmed affirms these notions:
‘Diversity work is emotional work because in part it is work that has to be repeated, again and again. You encounter a brick wall. Even when a new diversity policy is adopted somehow things stay in place; they keep their place…. I have said this before: things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing.’
The expectation to voice things in a specific way silences people who need the most support. Simply calling for diversity in job descriptions, or actively seeking applicants from non-white or LGBTQI communities to fulfil diversity quotas, doesn’t remove the undertones of oppression that occur in workplace environments. The literary scene is no exception.
In addition, the practice of waiting for pitches and submissions and solely relying on them as a source of content is flawed. Those who have most confidence in their abilities and understanding of the tone of the publication will also have the money and time to know the specific details of what the magazine wants, the style, the kind of sources they’re after. A writer who buys three issues of the mag to pore over their contents and figure out the stylistic thread will benefit more than a writer who reads one or two articles online because they cannot afford to buy it in print. The way writers are engaged by publications shows that diversity on a macro level cannot exist and thrive unless the whole way that these places operate is overhauled.
In trying to think practically about how we can move beyond the diversity argument, I keep returning to the words of Alison Stine, who writes:
‘There are other voices beyond professors. Other kinds of lives, other struggles that are real, vividly imagined, and deserving of time. One of the ways of validating lives is by allowing them space to speak, by setting up your conference or your contest in a way that supports writers who are poor and less connected, in a way that actively looks for them.
This means no submission fees. This means paying your interns – and your writers. This means shorter residencies for writers who will be fired from their jobs if they leave for long, or who have children without nannies. This means searching for writers to celebrate beyond New York and outside of academia. This means putting up flyers for your journal and posters advertising your readings not just at the hipster coffeehouse and AWP elevator, but at community colleges and laundromats, at halfway houses and homeless shelters. This means recognizing that not everyone – including every writer – has internet at home, not everyone has a working printer, not everyone can apply for a grant early or at all, not everyone has an hour of free time, not everyone can write when they are not bone tired or hungry or cold.’
Although Stine writes most pointedly about poor writers, these same ideals for call-outs can be applied to many other people from socially isolated and disenfranchised sexual/racial/gendered demographics. How can we make sure these people are economically empowered, that they know they’re wanted and valued instead of dehumanised through tokenisation and talked down to?
Diversity should be a first step towards decolonisation of words, not an endpoint.
Diversity should be a first step towards decolonisation of words, not an endpoint. We need to centre the most marginalised people, in order to subvert cultural power dynamics that place them at the fringes. ‘Inclusion’ in structures they may not want to be a part of, or will eventually suffer from, is insufficient.
Although the desire for ‘diversity’ is well-intentioned, when it glosses over the real issues it is a bandaid over a bullet hole. The way diversity inclusion operates in practice is insidious, and is rarely carried out in a manner that understands the depth and complexity of the experiences of marginalised people.
As with almost everything I write, I have to conclude with the sentiment that these thoughts are only my own, within my specific context. I am sure many others will have had different experiences within the Australian literary world, be they positive or more dubious. While some of my words carry resentment or disappointment, these sentiments are not directed towards individuals, but at the systems that consistently fail the most vulnerable. We need to let go of the idea that the most valuable sources of information are socially powerful people, entrenched in whiteness and heteronormativity – otherwise any ‘diversity’ will continue to be kept at the margins of dominant cultural structures.