THE DIVERSITY LIE
When those in the literary scene talk about what may be wrong with modern Australian literature, we start and end at diversity. There’s talk about how hard it is to change the space, a recognition of the lack of prominent representative bodies. There is no conversation around access, and who has access to this space. Instead, we suggest it’s simply the addition of those bodies that will counter the reasons they weren’t able to exist in the literary space to begin with.
When I hear answers like this attempting to address the complicated problems of inclusivity, I’m reminded of Gayatri Spivak’s article ‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’. In the work, Spivak writes of how despite the most well-meaning of efforts, the production of western academia is to perpetuate western economic interests.
And the reality of Australian literature is that, despite the most well-meaning efforts, the production of Australian literature it is to perpetuate its whiteness.
Spivak unpacks how certain knowledges are disqualified and ghettoised in specific spaces of our culture, creating “a whole set of knowledges” that have been categorised as “inadequate to their task”. This can be realised in ways as simple as undermining the expertise of someone because their entry point isn’t the same as the clear path of the white middle-class writer. It is the soft touch of self-doubt toward the diverse writer; they lack expertise to comment on anything outside of their ‘lived experience’. Instead, the white writer positions themself as better suited to write on and respond to a range of topics, implying that the diverse writer’s knowledge is not legitimate outside of their communities. Rather, as Spivak writes, the diverse writer presents “naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity.”
In Australian literature this comes through in the realisation that it is imperative to seem more diverse. This realisation is a two-pronged process of manipulation and curation of acceptable knowledge from diverse bodies. The keen interest in publishing memoirs, trauma porn, of child soldier narratives about immigrant African diaspora Australians, is the narrow lens through which we understand Africans, and the status of Africa as a continent. The objective of diversity is met but the displaced Other is still regulated, in a condition that is more palatable to a tradition of imperialist, white-supremacist Australian literary society.
In our industry, this type of representation works as a Trojan Horse; our discourse is not focused on the type of representation but the sole existence of representation. Diversity becomes a defense against dissenters, while carving out what is and isn’t acceptable knowledge through the expression of bodies. Media representation is the way we communicate bodies, media diversity is the way we order bodies, and diversity is the outcome of how we communicate those bodies. And even when our books and media are represented by diverse bodies, those bodies are moderated by those who set the tone of acceptable knowledge, writing and expression. In our media and publishing companies, processes still exist to streamline work through a monoculture of editors, producers, assistant producers, reporters, writers, reviewers etc.
It is the soft touch of self-doubt toward the diverse writer; they lack expertise to comment on anything outside of their ‘lived experience’.
But the answer isn’t just a pure representational politik; it requires recognition of a culture that exists to perpetuate a disqualification of knowledge. Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote in 2015 in Overland about how publishers had rejected her award-winning short-story collection Foreign Soil because of its difficulty. She wrote about her submission to the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards that springboarded her ascent into the mainstream, how she felt her submission was not as easily accessible as the other shortlisted entries. As Clarke says, her submission was written in “patois, broken English and many different vernaculars, with challenging subject matter and primarily black characters.” This was punctuated by the idea that diverse literature simply “doesn’t sell”.
The judges for Clarke’s award weren’t racially diverse. Her work was appreciated for its experimentality, though it contained “difficult subject matter”. But for the work to be recognised it necessitated, as Clarke wrote, an “openness to content and form.”
For a future Australian writing space to evolve and allow for this diversity that’s become the buzzword of the decade, there needs to be a shift away from a purely representational politik: the kind of politics that looks for totems and figures, as opposed to material change. Because the question of ‘how to solve centuries of Australia’s whiteness in the literary space’ cannot simply be answered with ‘with diverse bodies’, there needs to be an understanding of what these cultural and literary institutions have meant for most of their existence: a space for white people. The onus must extend beyond the handful of diverse bodies in the building, and move away from passively accepting that every diverse body is an expert. There needs to be infrastructure that stops relying on shortcuts.
The personal essay has become a space rife with exploitation. The young, diverse writer’s experience is to be consumed by predatory editors who often pay much less than the story is worth. The call-out for diverse writers is too often to express trauma and relive experiences.
This seems to happen like clockwork after traumatic events: terror attacks, political dog-whistling. I recall drafting a piece for an editor who used my position within community as a means to extract information. My proximity to them was transformed into a means of collection.
bell hooks explores the consumption of the Other in Black Looks: Race and Representation, recalling a time when a group of white male students walked by her:
“Seemingly unaware of my presence, these young men talked about their plans to fuck as many girls from other racial ethnic groups as they could ‘catch’ before graduation… To these young males and their buddies, fucking was a way to confront the Other, as well as a way to make themselves over, to leave behind white ‘innocence’ and enter the world of ‘experience.’ As is often the case in this society, they were confident that non-white people had more life experience, were more worldly, sensual, and sexual because they were different.”
The writing space seeks to consume diverse writers. It is done through the same actions denoted by Spivak with regards to creating acceptable and unacceptable knowledge in our obsession with a representational politik. This consumption of the diverse writer in the mode of acceptable knowledge is an attempt at monolithically viewing a community. The figure becomes representative of their community, no matter how large, and will speak on behalf of all.
The diverse body is shopped for like one gathers one’s groceries. We shop for the opinions, mining for the experience. We reduce their bodies, their opinions, their thoughts to objects viewed under a lens of whiteness. In hooks’ story, the young white men’s desire is to dominate, but similarly, our media seeks to dominate discourse through the use of these bodies.
We need a future where we escape bubblegum wokeness, the strategic placement of diverse bodies in public spaces in a tokenistic effort to showcase diversity. Otherwise, the future will become a process of searching for an authentic voice of representation that is curated by whiteness. Diverse bodies will become nothing but caricatures.
In our current culture of Hot Take Opinions Now, Analysis Never, there is a need for reflection. We need to once again define what good art – and in this case, good writing – is. For that to happen we need to examine the way we consume writing, and what we expect from those writers we read.
At present there has never been more self-awareness over what a writer’s ‘brand’ may be. The audience is no longer being served, but pandered to, with work responding to whatever the audience might be most amenable to. It is the same insincerity we see of major brands, crowbarring social justice into their advertising in an effort to engage with an emerging young demographic interested in, say, climate change.
The point is, we are now professional marketers. We are feverishly working on our Twitter personas almost as hard as we are working on what ends up on the page. And then there is the anxiety of whether the writing will result in more followers. This epidemic is inextricably tied to our influence culture, where the writing is almost secondary to the performance of the writing lifestyle. It is more important to be invited to writers’ festivals than it is to create the work that eventuates in that invitation.
With the popularisation of figures like Caroline Calloway, whose fallen book deal has left her writing to Instagram captions, we have invited conversation about the blurred lines between influencer and writer. In The Guardian, Allegra Hobbs explores that tension, and mentions how Calloway identifies herself as a writer, as opposed to how another journalist has described her as an “Instagram blogger”.
Hobbs writes, “…perhaps Calloway could be forgiven for conflating the work of writing with the work of marketing oneself as a writer. After all, to be a writer today is to make yourself a product for public consumption on the internet, to project an appealing image that contextualizes the actual writing.”
The young, diverse writer’s experience is to be consumed by predatory editors who often pay much less than the story is worth.
The point is, we are now professional marketers. We are feverishly working on our Twitter personas almost as hard as we are working on what ends up on the page.
Our conceptions of how to rise to prominence as a writer usually starts with the question, “are you on Twitter?”, not “what have you written?” or “what are your ideas and what are the topics you’d like to explore?” It is first-year journalism students being told to gain exposure on Twitter to raise their profile. And as Hobbs writes, “in the way that the influencer uses her image to sell her swag, the writer leverages her life to sell her work, to editors and audiences.”
This is why Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power is so powerful. It shows a candid account of the life of the writer: the insecurity, unemployment checks, the financial irregularities and more importantly, the work needed to prosper. It is an answer to the snapshot glances we are fed from influencer writers: it shows the moment before and after the picture.
The book is made up of eight essays written during Barack Obama’s presidency, and between each essay, chronicles points of Coates’ writing career during that period. It is a book that doesn’t try to be polished or pretend the journey was easy, it does the complete opposite. It taught me what not to be as a writer. To separate the ideals of fame and inflated importance from your work. To be comfortable in the knowledge that your work may be unread. This is ultimately what I have come to believe good art and, by extension, good writing does. As Coates explains:
“Art was not an after-school special. Art was not motivational speaking. Art was not sentimental. It had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not bring hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire to not be enrolled in its lie, to not be co-opted by television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.”
On the surface, this may read as a statement of writing as a political imperative. That is true, but when I read this I also think about the lie of the writer’s public persona, the performance of what that life is: the need to mould your work on the whims of hopeful ideals, to placate the self-aware brand the writer has built.
Whether we like to admit it or not, as Hobbs writes, “…there is functionally little difference between a lauded writer with a recognizable avatar and a prominent social-media influencer. The only difference is in the way each metabolizes the experience of influence.”
And in this era of influence, we need to hold onto our work’s purpose more than ever.