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The first step towards artistic freedom is to take it for granted that you exist. Amid a circus of performative representation, remember: You are not an encyclopaedia, you are not apology, you do not have to expound generational trauma, you do not have to hyphenate identifiers in your bio to justify the relevance of your existence.

In 1987, in a Newsweek interview on her Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved, Toni Morrison announced she would not translate for non-Black readers. ‘Dostoevsky wrote for a Russian audience,’ she said, ‘but we’re able to read him. If I’m specific, and I don’t overexplain, then anyone can overhear me’. The most astonishing thing in Morrison’s work is not slavery; for her the ongoing horror of America’s history was assumed knowledge. Most astonishing, always, is her genius. Artistic integrity outshines political currency.

This was not the message I received when, twenty-one, bright-eyed and novel manuscript in hand, I was referred to a group for ‘diverse writers’. Off the bat, they informed me no white Australian would be interested in reading me, and forget fiction, I wasn’t good, but they could admit me into a diverse group of writers on the political conveyor-belt towards financial success. First, I had to write an essay: their suggested topic was ‘how you felt when hijabi women got beaten up in Queensland’. The look on my face compelled them to add, ‘…or an idea of your own’.

The most astonishing thing in Morrison’s work is not slavery … Most astonishing, always, is her genius.

I could have played up my Palestinian heritage, but the unfashionable and tragic reality of displacement is that my family is a few Australian generations deep into indigeneity-amnesia. I had missed ‘the boat’, so to speak. Reluctantly, I drafted a piece on the adolescent confusions of being treated by my peers as a gamut of incompatible Muslim caricatures ranging from social justice warrior to housewife.

They wrote back suggesting I make my language ‘less literary’ and paint one of my friends as ‘a fictional figure of patriarchy made complicated because he is a man of colour from the same community…Anecdotes serve as a telling of truth to a larger matter. As writers, the truth is more important to us than fact’. I quit the group and decided I would rather die unpublished.

Why on earth was I being asked to explain what it feels like to witness violent xenophobia? Every Muslim woman in the world already knows how it feels. And by exaggerating what was really just a faux pas of my friend’s fumbling youth, to what end was I perpetuating the very stereotypes wielded against us? For whom was I writing?

Representation as an artistic goal serves the needs of those who require constant confirmation of your pre-determined image, or they will forget you exist. ‘Orientalism’ is the term Edward Said used to describe Western colonialism’s imagination of Muslims and Arabs. In his eponymous seminal work on the topic, Said stressed that a central tenet of Orientalism is that programs of representation should adopt ‘a liberal veneer’ and encourage the ‘other’ to ‘speak for themselves…But only up to a point, and in a special way’.

Orientalism locks people in the past, ensuring contemporary relevance stems only from how their existence is tangential to the West’s. In the language of modern identity politics, this means fostering fixations on belonging and anti-whiteness that ironically centre the existence of the ‘other’ around their own otherness.

The resultant combative nature of what manages to penetrate is unsurprising, and its intimidating—often silencing—effects are well-known to many a writer besides myself. In the end, as Sheila Ngc Phm observed in a 2018 Meanjin essay on lateral violence within Australia’s writing scene, there are no winners. Only the goals of Orientalism are achieved. ‘With limited space for true diversity,’ writes Phm, even the ‘loudest voices who may have felt like they had to shout down everyone else in order to be heard’ are read by few, remembered by fewer. So, instead, this manifesto aims not to stoke scarcity-mindset rivalries but to whet an insatiable appetite for more of what we love within this art that history has proven to be so powerful when illuminated by a shared and bounteous inner light.

This manifesto aims not to stoke scarcity-mindset rivalries, but to whet an insatiable appetite for more of what we love within this art.

Take Zora Neale Hurston. In an afterword to Hurston’s sublime masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Sherley Anne Williams admired her power in centring self-knowledge despite criticism from her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, mostly men, who were consumed by the fight for political traction within pre-Civil Rights era America. Other portraits of Black women, Williams says, were ‘morally uplifting and politically laudable’, yet provided ‘few insights into character or consciousness. [But when we] go in search of our mother’s gardens, it’s not really to learn who trampled them…we usually know that already…[It’s to learn] what they thought as they sowed’.

Neither Morrison nor Hurston ignored social realities. Their novels are searing commentaries, delivered with such self-illumination and such mighty craft their voices are irrepressible. Blackness and womanhood irradiate their art because these forces were a fact of their existence. Just as a story about being a woman in the patriarchy is more limited than all the stories imaginable through the female gaze, identity is the rich lens through which gaze passes, not just the object gazed upon.


The second step towards artistic freedom, in the words of Virginia Woolf, is money and a room of one’s own.

Money: when the majority of emerging talent in a marginalised community is funnelled towards one ‘diverse writers’ group, this group receives the majority of arts funding for that community. They become the default reservoir drawn upon to fill diversity quotas, regardless of whether or not they promote artist wellbeing and literary excellence.

In a 2021 essay for The Atlantic, Ayad Akhtar claimed that a writer ‘must not be cowed by fear…of group exclusion…Group belonging [cannot] redeem her in the form of monetized moral certainty’. He’s right, but rejecting a group that promises one entry into an already exclusive industry comes at a financial cost that the system banks on many marginalised writers not being able to afford.

Critical race theory demands all social progression be liable to scrutiny, the vital question being: cui bono? Who profits?

Identity politics is ‘the system’ in question. Its origins—amplifying the unheard—are admirable. But critical race theory demands all social progression be liable to scrutiny, the vital question being: cui bono? Who profits? Progress is most often made when minority and majority interests align in ways that don’t meaningfully transform structures of power. Who profits when you are paid because your identity is recognised as a viable commodity?

As a multi-hyphenated tongue-twister by the standards of both national censuses and Instagram bios, I understand the moral quandary of deciding whether or not to play the identity game. Bolstered by my non-reliance on writing for income (add girl-in-STEM to the list) and my spiritual belief in writing as an homage to divine Language, I was able to walk away from success in exchange for what felt like my soul.

In the years since, ‘morally uplifting and politically laudable’ portraits dominated my mind’s gallery, as they have the literary world. As Evelyn Araluen brilliantly quips in her luminous anthology, Dropbear, ‘The trope neatly folds conflictual narratives of national subjectivities and external politics into aesthetic production.’ I met framed mirrors but few doors.

Until reading Mindy Gill’s 2022 Australian Book Review essay, ‘The Mire of Identity Politics’, I had attributed my disconnect to bitterness. But Gill incisively points to the patronising tone Australian reviewers take with ‘non-white writers, for want of a better phrase’, particularly the assumption that ‘when a writer eschews literary technique and style, he or she is also rejecting the Western literary tradition… [equating them] with a progressive literary voice’.

This low-threshold-for-praise attitude comes not from a genuine desire to uplift a broader trove of artists, but from an indifference to quality so long as other metrics of value—political, optic, financial—are satisfied. It creates a self-perpetuating reward system that snuffs out talent unaligned with pre-imagined narratives, and undermines the legitimacy of marginalised writers awarded for true brilliance.

If we instead reject the canon, we deny ourselves a powerful tool.

Sculpt a vision for your people with a sharpened, innovative chisel. What better way to revolutionise something than from within? Alexis Wright, author of English-language masterpiece, The Swan Book, is one of several Indigenous writers—alongside other contributors to Mykaela Saunders’ pioneering anthology of First Nations spec-fic, This All Come Back Now—leading the way in virtuosic subversion of this country’s storytelling. If we instead reject the canon, we deny ourselves a powerful tool. We bar ourselves from admission into a rich, evolving and timeless archive. Forced to choose money at the expense of enduring value, time will unmask us as three flag emojis in a trench coat and we will be forgotten.

A room of one’s own: lock out demanding intrusions. As community representative, you will be asked to pick up chores of minority onus—translate your traumas, perform ineffectual anger—for which you’ll be lauded as ‘fierce’ as though every POC’s dream is to be a warrior or Beyoncé.

Chores are systemic distractions. Much less dangerous that you squander your efforts in constant battle than have a moment to think. Woolf’s ‘room’ is the psychological space to consider one’s right not just to diversify the texture of the canon but to expand, experiment and radically transform it forever.


So, you exist, you attain money and room: but why write? What about? Permit me to answer by way of personal entreaty to the young Muslim writer who exists in a literary vacuum across the entire Western hemisphere.

Love of literary excellence is baked into the conception of Islam. The first word revealed in The Quran was: ‘Read!’ Muslims compiled one of the first dictionaries, nine-hundred years before the English. Islamic tradition espouses mastery not eschewal of language devices. Regarded by classical Arabic linguists as a paragon of Arabic literature, The Quran is a formal experiment: several chapters open on combinations of letters without definition, reminders that no language is sufficient medium for an infinite Force.

Penguin Random House scraped together a list of twenty-one contemporary novels about Muslims from their catalogue: twelve are romance, YA or children’s fiction, and literally all six works of literary fiction are about fundamentalism and/or war. Khaled Hosseini is listed twice. This is the representation hard-won for the entire imaginative potential of 1400-year-old ideas shared by a quarter of the global population?

Writers, all writers as yet unimagined: be original in your critique, master your craft, aspire towards the everlasting.

From Charlotte Brontë to Michael Chabon, the Judeo-Christian psyche has inspired thousands of vital inquiries into the eternal. What has literature been denied by distracting writers of the third Abrahamic tradition with the chore of clash-of-culture narratives? What of Islam’s thoughts on reaching the sublime through nature, the sanctity of dreams, or the friction between one’s hyper-labelled body and one’s soul, which escapes all language and binary?

Writers, all writers as yet unimagined: be original in your critique, master your craft, aspire towards the everlasting. Burst onto the scene by sheer force of volume and subversive genius that I might enjoy the life-giving experience of being moved by your work. Great writers have always turned a sharp, often scathing eye to their times, but what distinguishes them is an atemporal quality. What readers stand to gain by treating marginalised writers as potential luminaries in all times and all ideas—rather than static ornaments or otherwise alien adversaries—is immeasurable.