‘In May this year, Verity La, an Australian arts journal, published a creative non-fiction piece by Stuart Cooke, a white Australian writer and lecturer in creative writing and literary studies at Griffith University. In this piece, a white male narrator has sex with a Filipina woman in Manila and hits pretty much every square on the ‘Filipina fetishization, misogyny, colonialism, and racism’ bingo card. The piece angered people, and rightly so.’ —DJED Press
The tweets below were posted by myself on my personal Twitter account at @eileenchongpoet. I have not edited them except for clear grammatical and spelling errors, or for clarity around references. Remember each tweet is limited to 280 characters. At this point, I would like to position myself, for the sake of clarity and transparency.
I am an Australian poet. I migrated to Australia in 2007 as an adult from Singapore, and I am of Chinese ethnicity. My family have roots in Singapore, Malaysia, and several generations before me, to China. I have native English proficiency, and post-graduate education. I speak conversational Mandarin, but do not identify with China beyond thinking of myself as Chinese diaspora. I have Australian citizenship, and I am not a citizen of any other country.
I am not an academic, or an editor, and I do not currently sit on any boards of any organisations. I write poetry, and essays, and I am the author of eight books, published variously by Australian Poetry, Pitt Street Poetry, Recent Work Press, George Braziller, and I have a book forthcoming with the University of Queensland Press. My work has been recognised on numerous award shortlists over the years.
Yet this is not about me.
It is about the Filipinx-Australian community who have been deeply hurt by the publishing of a creative non-fiction essay, ‘About Lin’, in Verity La, an online literary journal based in Australia. It is about Filipinx-Australia individuals who have spoken up strongly against this, like Eunice Andrada, and Gloria Demillo.
It is not about me. It is not about you. But it is about us, as a literary ecosystem. Racism, sexism, and discrimination hurts everyone.
I want to make clear that by publishing these tweets on Meanjin does not mean that they are absolved from examining their processes and systems. But I am appreciative of their solidarity in recognising the importance of what I had to say around issues of systemic discrimination in our industry, and that they have offered to republish these tweets so that more readers may access what I have said on the matter.
It is my hope that what I have to say will help to open up authentic, engaged discussions between individuals, stakeholders, and organisations in our industry, and will lead to change that recognises the importance of representation of First Nations and people of colour at all levels of the industry.
Speak about these issues with everyone you meet. Change begins with you.
I dare to hope. I hope you will stand with us. I call on you. Stand up.
6 July 2020
1 July 2020
I was asked by a white woman poet friend yesterday to account for my role in the @verityla Stuart Cooke mess. My role was this: I tried for weeks through private emails to the editor to get them to see the piece was problematic. I did everything I could to raise the alarm, within.
I spoke as a friend from the heart. I resigned from the board. I withdrew a poem in protest. I did not make this public. I wanted to protect the writer, the journal, the community. Before further damage was done.
I was reminded by Ed + later by poet friend they have always supported me & gave me work opportunities. As if my work wasn’t worthy on its own merit. With the implicit threat that friendship & favour would be withdrawn if I spoke up. Which it was.
I have spoken up. Privately, then openly. I will have to bear these consequences, privately & professionally. There will be people who take sides. There will be people wary of working with me because I am not a compliant Asian.
But I could not stay silent. Because I have to live with myself. & I am responsible to a community, of poetry, of women, of the BIPOC community, & to younger writers who might not keep writing if I didn’t do my part to push against barriers visible to me.
I am tired. I have been made to feel guilty for speaking up. I have been punished. People make mistakes. They are allowed to make mistakes. This is not about cancel culture. This is about how we ensure pain doesn’t happen again because people in power would not listen.
So yes, I played a role in this. I spoke up quietly, repeatedly. I lay down timelines & facts publicly. I want accountability & honesty. I want the community to heal, & move forward. I don’t want to play this role. I want to write poetry, teach poetry, read poetry.
‘Let them not say: we did not see it.
We saw.’—Let Them Not Say
For the record, I spoke up before to @VerityLa about another problematic piece on 21/3/20. It misrepresented a well-known white woman poet in another creative non-fiction piece written by another white woman. My concerns were heard immediately & the piece taken down.
Why would I have expected that this time would have been different? I do not have the answer. I did not see myself as someone advocating for anything other than what was right by the community. I just wish things had gone differently. So many crossroads. Always the wrong turn.
3 July 2020
When I spoke up about this to #VerityLa, the editor did not see the problem with the piece. It had been already been published & distributed in newsletter. I caught it in one day. I had to undertake the labour of explaining why the piece was problematic to editor on email + call.
I had checked with the white woman poet misrepresented in the piece around what she felt before speaking up.
She, an established, well known, successful, award-winning white poet, did not feel safe enough to speak up directly to the editor. Digest that.
I mediated for her.
I had to break it down to the editor, & what got through was this: ‘how would you like it if someone posted an unflattering picture of you on Facebook? You’d want them to take it down.’
It took that analogy to get my point through.
I left it with editor after that. The author of that piece revised it & sent revised piece through which I forwarded to the poet who it was about.
I read it. The piece was still problematic. The edits missed the point entirely.
I forwarded it to the poet in question. We discussed it.
We were both in shock.
They didn’t get it. They still didn’t get it.
The poet wrote a short statement which I forwarded to editor, indicating her preference to not have the piece republished.
VL respected that.
When the Cooke piece came out on 18 May I was busy editing my book + we have a terminally ill family member I am helping to care for. I did not read the piece until early June. I did not speak up until 13 June when I was contacted by another poet with concerns from her community.
When I spoke up to editor, I was asked to undertake the labour of explaining why the piece was problematic.
I tried, but I did not have the energy to break it down like I did with the previous piece.
I was asked why I did not speak up immediately when it was first published.
I was told by editor as a woman she saw that the Cooke piece might have been sexist, but of course, she doesn’t see it from the race perspective.
I was speechless.
I did not know you had to be the same race as someone in order to see that something might be racist.
I think I understand why the reaction to my feedback on the Cooke piece was different to the other piece.
The answer is empathy.
The editor could see herself in the position of the white woman poet who had been misrepresented.
She could see & feel the pain it caused.
She could not seem to identify with the Filipino women in the Cooke piece.
She could not see & feel the pain it caused, & continues to cause.
@likhain has shown this pain in her powerful essay. Many of us have spoken about it.
But if we do not look, we cannot see.
The editor wanted to know why I would not undertake the same process of labour towards the Cooke piece as I did with the previous problematic piece.
She could not see that previously I was fighting for someone else, someone who already had credibility & relative power & status.
This time, I was fighting for not just a vulnerable, marginalised, relatively disempowered community.
I was fighting for myself.
I did not have the strength to simultaneously suffer the pain of racism & to explain it to the editor & board.
My emails to the editor & the board were formal & clear, & I provided links to resources on systematic racism, & asked them over & over to think hard about their role in it.
It doesn’t seem like they read those resources. It doesn’t seem like they get it.
In other words, I could not lead them, step by step, to the source of the issue this time around, so they could understand.
I only had the energy to point the way, but they would not listen, would not follow the directions.
& this is the real work.
If you do not authentically, sincerely examine the role you play in a system that is fundamentally flawed, you will continue to be part of the problem.
You can choose to be part of the solution.
But first, you must be able to admit & acknowledge you are part of the problem.
This is what ‘wokeness’ means. It doesn’t mean performing empathy & understanding.
It means really seeing that you, consciously or unconsciously, have benefited from a system that is unequal & unfair.
It means waking up to your own complicity & responsibility.
I have learnt all this, the long & hard way.
I grew up in Singapore as a member of the majority ethnic group, the diasporic Chinese.
Singaporean-Chinese are basically the whites in that society.
I have benefited from that privilege.
It took moving to Australia as an adult migrant to realise that I was the Other.
It took choosing an industry where white people are often the gatekeepers to see the structural barriers in place for people who are different from the majority.
My lessons have been hard earned.
& so I share my journey with you.
Because it shouldn’t take moving to another country, becoming an Other, being hurt yourself, to understand that racism, & other barriers such as gender, class, sexuality, ability, is systemic, institutionalised, & seemingly insurmountable.
You can be a Good White & still cause pain by your participation in a racist system.
You can be part of the solution if you acknowledge you have, consciously or unconsciously, been part of the problem.
Acknowledge it. Apologise. Don’t do it again.
3 July 2020
I don’t wish to exist in a literary community that relies on a whisper network to warn others. Many have fallen through the cracks. If we all have more courage, more accountability, there won’t be a need for a whisper network. There will be more safe spaces, a safe community.
An inclusive community, that comes together. Not us versus them. A community where toxic behaviour won’t be accepted, will be called out, will not be allowed to prey on vulnerable members of this community. We need to take better care of one another.
I don’t have all the answers. No one person will. But I really think this is something the Australian literary community can do together. I think it must. We need this, going forward. We need to make everyone safe, so we can all thrive. Not just the bullies. Not just the strong.
I think leadership orgs in AustLit can make this happen. Please, tag them below. Get them to read this. Get them to commit to positive change. Inclusion matters. Diversity matters. Equity matters. This will make Australian literature stronger, more reflective of its people.
Remember the true, warning words of Gwendolyn Brooks:
‘We are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.’
We reap what we sow. We can share what we all grow.
I call on members of the Australian literary community to stand with us. I call on you, if you care about our community, about what it represents—your livelihood, your meaning-making, your reason for living. I call on you, whatever your identity, power, allegiances. I call on you
I call on you, poets, truth-tellers, writers, I call on you, those who love words, I call on you, those who guard these words & shepherd them out into the world so they may light the way for others. I call on you to protect the ones who make these words. I call on you. Stand up.
@AusCouncilArts @CopyrightAgency @writingNSW @Writers_Vic@nlagovau @statelibrarynsw @Library_Vic @AusPoetry @ASAustLit@wheelercentre @AALITRA @FNAWN_ @Asialink_au @VarunaWriters@smallpressau https://twitter.com/nitv/status/1278614389944225795
Literary festivals: how many times have you invited someone, only to have others contact you to tell you quietly, in fear, that they are not safe? How many times have others been hurt by toxic people who are given a platform by your event? How many readers read them, unaware?
I call on you, literary festivals, to examine your commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity. I call on you to ensure these festivals for writers & readers are safe spaces for our reading & writing community. I call on you to step up, to acknowledge you have this responsibility.
I call on you to undertake this commitment of diversity, inclusion, equity, SAFETY, to the community you serve, benefit from, exist for.
To be clear: this is not about cancel culture. This is about stopping toxic behaviour in our industry & community BEFORE anyone even needs to be cancelled. If as a community, we do not tolerate toxic behaviour, much less reward it, people will be held to higher standards of care.
If a space is not safe for one part of a community, it is not a safe space for the entire community. If our industry & communication is safe for all, imagine the words that will come forth, from those who might have been talked over, silenced, left. Imagine what we could create.
I call on everyone to stand for this. I really believe this is possible for Australian literature. It will not happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere. & it starts with speaking our truth. It starts with listening. It starts with public accountability. It starts with you.
Please amplify this thread. Please don’t let my words be buried, scrolled past, forgotten. Our community needs to step up & commit to change. We can’t look away any longer. Make them see, hear, act. Thank you for your support.
‘We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams; —
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.’ —Arthur O’Shaugnessy
6 July 2020
Representation & inclusion & equity & diversity means undertaking a commitment to change systems & mindsets. Not performing empathy, not tokenistic crumbs. It means actual actions towards change. It begins with each individual, & it begins with organisations reforming systems.
Last year, I was asked to come on board a collaborative poetry project involving a large group of diverse poets. I was thrilled. The organiser then said to me that she was excited to make inroads into the Asian community. Were blonde poets told that they would represent blondes?
In 2017, @Toby_Fitch invited me to take part in a poetry project where I would write in response to D. MacKellar’s ‘My Country’. I was very wary. I didn’t know if it was safe for me to do so. I didn’t know if I had any right to respond. I was afraid.
I wrote the first part of my poem, ‘Country’, & sent it to @Toby_Fitch. He encouraged me to say more. I said I was afraid, that I had grown up in a country with strict censorship laws & I didn’t know how to speak up. He encouraged me to try. I wrote this poem eventually—(‘Country’, by Eileen Chong, in Rainforest, it was first published in APJ)
water hole. Concentric
camp rings; spears of rain.
Here the snaking belly
and dust-prints of the lizard.
Rainbow: flint and opal.
Six-pointed stars shine
then fade to white in blue sky.
Smoke like waves or fire.
A man bends over. A woman
leans back. Paperbark cradle.
Paired tracks of the kangaroo.
I don’t know this language.
My music is wrong—nothing
has been written down right.
Mutable. Without shade
or anchor: land too wide
to speak of. I cannot nest; I fly.
Eight hours on a plane
and this is what we get:
Go back to your own country!
Exactly what is that? Or a ‘chink’,
for that matter? They hold signs
and chant. We get back on the bus.
Red brick walls of the prison,
built by proud convicts. They drive us
to the opal factory, tell us the myths
and try to get our money. My mother
buys two polished stones to set
into earrings. I’ve read Shakespeare;
I know opals are bad luck.
Two half-naked Aboriginal men
daubed with white paint are singing
in the carpark. I’m not allowed to stay
and watch. They, too, are moved on. I roll
a new word around my mouth: didgeridoo.
The other day, when I was walking
to the supermarket, a woman
called out to me: Chinese cunt!
I looked at Colin: our eyes wide
with shock. Then the tears came.
She meant it for both of us, he said.
Yet I am the only one who wears
this face. In Japan, they speak to me
in Japanese. Korean people think
I’m Korean. My Mandarin sounds
Taiwanese. The Chinese ask me
how I learnt the national language.
In Singapore, I am a quitter, a leaver.
In Australia, a new arrival. There’re
so many of you here, you must feel at home—
Home: the shophouse on Victoria Street,
the HDB flat at Sims Drive, the apartment
on Balestier Road, the condominium in Hougang.
My university dormitory room, my first flat
in Bukit Panjang. The tiny bedsit I found after
the divorce. The Emerald Hill cohabitation.
The rental Federation house in Kensington.
The five-bedroom Eastern suburbs mansion with a library.
The multi-million Potts Point apartment with harbour views.
Now, my small flat with a garden and a strip of sky.
Two cats, my books, his records. Our plates, pots and pans.
Framed poems on the walls. At night, we light the lamps.
We drive out of Sydney to a coastal walk.
One foot in front of the other—the track
slopes uphill. Breathe: salt and humidity.
Two girls in hijab pass us. Later
we see them posing for photographs
by the cliffs, the ocean behind them.
Sandstone and sea. Beach and bush.
Outcrop, island. You hear about walkers
who stray and die of thirst or exposure.
Always bring water. Leave enough time
for the return journey. Watch the sun’s path.
You’re on your own. This country cares for no one.
There would be, in total, 12 poems responding to ‘My Country’, by poets from FN, POC, white backgrounds. We had equal time on stage to read & discuss our work, over several events. The poems were published in a sequence in APJ 7.1 by @AusPoetry, together.
Marginalised communities do not benefit on a structural, sustained level from tokenism & performative empathy. Commitment to inclusion, representation, diversity means you change processes to remove barriers to marginalised communities. You address how your systems are broken.
On an individual level, examine how your privilege cloaks you, protects you, allows you to stop fighting inequity when you get tired or overwhelmed. Realise FNPOC, LBGTQIA+, disabled peoples do not get to rest for one minute, even if we are tired. It is heavy. We carry this.
How you can help: support individual artists. Really listen to them. Acknowledge their feelings are valid. Take up the fight with them, not for them. Speak out against discrimination while de-centring yourself. Step aside if you have to, insist your space is filled by them.
A great, recent example of this is when @Jack_Callil & @beckavanagh stepped down from their roles as emerging book critics, demanding the space be filled by FNPOC critics. Speech. Actions. Solidarity. Commitment.
Literary orgs, including industry leaders, funding bodies, lit journals, writers, editors, readers, are all part of the literary ecosystem.
Every choice we make feeds into the system: whether we create it, reinforce it, or attempt to dismantle it.
Stand for change.
P.S. Intersectionality is real. You can have the benefits of privilege even as you face challenges. I am discriminated against as an Asian-Australian woman, but I have the privilege of looking East Asian, of English language proficiency, of my middle-class status, of my sexuality
Use what privilege you have to address systemic inequities & discrimination. Punch up. Use your privilege to shield marginalised people while listening to them, centring their needs. Consider how to support them without speaking over or for them. Make space for them. Do better.
Allies: Call others out on their ingrained prejudices & ask them to commit to doing better. Marginalised people often don’t feel safe or strong enough to do this. That’s where your privilege as allies come in. If you are stronger, with more power, you can use it to help others.
Commit to doing so in large & small ways every day. Whether it’s calling out or refusing to engage in racist talk & behaviour at a party, supporting marginalised communities with time, money, opportunities, or stepping aside to make space for them. Try it. You’ll get better at it.
In 2017, my book Painting Red Orchids shortlisted for the PM Lit Awards. It was my 2nd time shortlisting for the prize. I attended the ceremony in Canberra. The entire day was filled with microaaggresions of racism & sexism. I wrote about it at @Meanjin
I share all these experiences with you, in the hope that you might see: whatever success you see FNPOC or marginalised community members achieve is not because of our difference.
It is in spite of our difference.
Read it again. Digest it. Believe it. Remember it.
Marginalised communities do not start at the same place as mainstream community. There is no level playing field.
We demand inclusion. We demand representation. We demand equity. We demand diversity.
Because our livelihoods, our very lives, & that of our families, depend on it.
We are at a time of great change in the history of human societies. Stand on the side that seeks to include all.
We are not safe as a whole until all of us are safe. We are you, & you are us.
Stand up, if you believe we can be part of a better world. I call on you. Stand up.