Writing and risk is a topic that has preoccupied my thoughts for at least the last few years.
As a writer, the act of stringing together words never feels risky—save, perhaps, for that moment when I sent off the uncorrected proof of my memoir, The Hate Race, to my mother, who after the full week she took to read it told me she thought it was ‘okay’. But visiting VCE literature classes across Victoria over the last two years to speak to students about Foreign Soil, my 2014 book of short fiction, there is one recurring question, which isn’t about the text. This question is generally asked by girl students and students of colour. The question is: Aren’t you afraid?
The first few times I had to seek clarification. Afraid of what? The answer was always different, yet always somehow the same. Afraid you might get hate mail; afraid that people won’t like what you’re saying; afraid people who don’t like your politics will give you bad reviews; afraid people will object to your work, and you’ll get fired. Afraid of your kids reading what you write, and people bullying them because of your politics. Afraid for your mental health, if you keep working with really difficult material.
I think initially I answered one and all truthfully, but frivolously. Maybe I was a tiny bit afraid when I was a really young writer. I feel like most people—but particularly the children of migrants and of migrants of colour—are raised to be ‘good’. To be, or at least appear, grateful—not to be loud or challenging, or rock the boat. This is not just the fear of new arrivants seeking a permanent home, but historically there is, at the very least, a social price for perceived disobedience—civil or otherwise.
Sometimes I’d make light of the question, and tell students about a coach tour I did in Barbados, with my extended family, in 2016. We were winding around the coastal road of the Caribbean island, looking out to the Atlantic Ocean. The bus driver, a local, asked if there were any Jamaicans on the bus. My mum’s family, all born in Guyana (formerly British Guiana) on the coast of South America, nodded to my siblings and me. Our father was born in Jamaica. ‘Troublemakers,’ the tour guide said, shaking his head and tut-tutting. He preceded to tell us his own folkloric rendition of ships full of slaves arriving on the Caribbean islands.
The story went something like this: When the British came to West Africa, they captured thousands upon hundreds of thousands of people as slaves. During the long journey to the Americas, they attempted to ‘break slaves in’. When they sailed through what they call the ‘middle passage’ of the transatlantic slave trade, the ships arrived first at the island of Barbados. The plantation owners boarded the boats and purchased the slaves with the most amiable personalities. Next they stopped at St Lucia, where slave owners again went down to the ports and chose the Africans they felt would be the most obedient. Next, they docked at Martinique, then Dominica, then Guadeloupe, Antigua and Barbuda, Haiti, and last of all, the island of Jamaica.
By the time they got to Jamaica—our driver would have us believe—the plantation owners climbed on board, and the lot left on the boat were the most resistant, rabble-rousing, indignant, riotous, disobedient, outraged lot of black folk to be found on the planet. But what could the plantation masters do, oh Best Beloved. They needed workers. So they looked the slaves up and down, sucked their teeth, shook their heads and said, ‘Fuck. I guess we have to take them.’
My aunties and uncles roared at the joke, then my auntie said ponderously: you know, when we first arrived in England, and there was trouble stirred up with the community, it was always the Jamaicans who stood up to people. They always gathered everyone else around them, and protested or got petitions started. I don’t know where we would have been without them.
I tell students this story partly because it gives them a slice of regional history, to help them with their study of Foreign Soil. Two of the stories are set in 1940’s and 1960’s Jamaica, and many students—many Australians—are completely unfamiliar with the colonisation of the Caribbean region, the genocide perpetrated against the First Nations inhabitants, including the Taíno and the Arawak, and the repopulation of the islands by white colonisers with people stolen from Africa. And partly I tell them this story because they’re teenagers, and I want them to think I have badass in my blood.
I also tell them that any risk I might encounter as a result of my writing is historically comparative. In the days of ships arriving through the middle passage, I would have been killed for putting pen to paper. Sometimes I carry with me to these school sessions a copy of Fred D’Aguiar’s The Longest Memory. I start my reading at page 59:
My schooling began with his youngest child … She was three years older. She always had in her possession soft, rectangular shapes she peered at motionlessly for hours with no breaks. She called them books, and read aloud to me. As much as to herself, to practice and say ‘See what I can do and you can’t.’ Until I asked her how for the umpteenth time … she agreed to show me how, if I promised not to tell a single soul … She called it a book and moved my finger over the words as she sang them: I heard a choir. One day she stopped me and said out of the blue ‘Now you can read, you must learn to write too.’ My hand was a crab walking sideways, and leaving crab tracks, sideways across the page.
Yes master. I am sorry. Thank you. For sparing me. I promise never to read and write again. Thank you. I am ungrateful. A wretch who deserves to be a slave. I promised never to open a book or pick up a pen. I compose in my head or aloud, I write nothing down.
I say all this to say that when I’m asked about risk, in terms of the reception of and consequences for work, for me, this risk is comparative not only to contemporary situations in which writers risk state-sanctioned reprimand, discipline, punishment, harm or disappearance for their work, but to the history of risk and writing in my own colonised background.
Around 2011, for a profile that later appeared in Cherrie magazine, I interviewed Ugandan trans-rights activist Victor Mukasa. I remember the complicated logistics of the interview with him—a string of phone numbers to call, several missed interview times. I remember how when we finally spoke, he told me what he most longed for was to own a few things. I have a bag, and in it I have one cup, and one change of clothes, and one set of cutlery, and a blanket … and it’s always packed, that’s how I live, because when there’s a knock on the front door, I have to leave by the back.
In 2015 I attended Australian Writers Week in China. I remember going down to the visa centre on St Kilda Road, and reminding myself, don’t say you’re a writer, don’t say you’re a writer, don’t say you’re a writer. ‘What’s the reason for your trip?’ the person at the counter asked. ‘I’m a writer,’ I immediately said. Then, even more suspiciously, ‘Umm … I mean, I’m going on a “cultural exchange”.’ Lucky I was in possession of a letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, explaining my visit.
In Beijing, during a poetry workshop that I was giving, two participants wrote a poem about the recent disappearing of local human-rights activists. The poem was shared with the class. Afterwards, I was cautioned: if anyone asks about the class, make sure you say that participants could write poems about anything—that you weren’t specifically requiring them to write about the disappearances.
So yes, partly what goes through my mind when I think about writers and risk in Australia is the relative privilege under which I write, and the obligation, because of these freedoms, to keep writing the truth.
Then too, there are the contemporary and local realities that mean these ‘freedoms’, in the sense of the might of the state being deployed against artists and writers, are becoming ever more eroded. In June 2019 Australian federal police raided the homes and offices of Australian journalists, including the home of News Corp’s Annika Smethurst, who had published a story revealing a plan for the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on Australian citizens directly by hacking into critical infrastructure without a warrant. News Corp called the raid a dangerous act of intimidation evidencing the willingness of governments to undermine the Australian public’s right to know. Federal police also raided the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation over the Afghan Files, which utilised leaked Defence documents to reveal allegations of serious misconduct by members of the Australian military in Afghanistan, including unlawful killings.
In an extraordinary act of new media reporting, John Lyons, the head of ABC’s investigative journalism team, live tweeted the entire raid. On ABC’s The Drum he recounted the experience as follows:
There are six AFP officers, and about four ABC lawyers. They have downloaded 9214 documents. I counted them. They are now going through them. They’ve set up a huge screen, and they are going through email by email. It’s quite extraordinary, and as a journalist I feel it’s a real violation … It’s drafts. It’s scripts of stories. I’ve never seen an assault on the media as savage as this one we’re seeing today at the ABC. Right at the moment, the AFP have come into the ABC and have the power now to be going through those 9214 documents and essentially deleting anything they want. They can just decide that that email, or that particular correspondence has never existed. They can change material. They now have the power to go into an email and change what anybody wrote … this would not be allowed to happen in the United States, under their constitution. Why is it allowed to happen in Australia, in 2019?
Before the raid, police had asked for the fingerprints of journalist Dan Oakes and producer Sam Clark, the two ABC employees involved in the series of stories about Australia’s special forces allegedly carrying out unlawful killings in Afghanistan.
Last year I was part of PEN International’s writers festival in New York partly to read, on opening night, asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani’s manifesto, ‘A Letter from Manus Island’, written from immigration detention on Manus Island, where the Iranian-Kurdish journalist had been detained by the Australian Government for six years. His reporting is some of the most vital and courageous journalism to have been produced in relation to the Australian immigration detention regime. Boochani fled Iran after the offices of the publication he worked for were raided, and 11 of his colleagues arrested, some subsequently imprisoned for their work.
Reading aloud this 25-minute account of the non-violent resistance of the men incarcerated on Manus Island, written by a journalist who was then incarcerated by our own government for seeking asylum because his work as a journalist put his life at risk, was a sobering venture, to say the least: literally being the mouthpiece for freedom, because freedom was unavailable.
So I write because I want to honour the historical risk of my ancestors. I write about politically engaged things, because I have the freedom to do so, when so many do not. I, like so many others, write and work partly to try to keep the knocks from the doors of others—and by extension, from my own.
• • •
In 2016 I met a young Sudanese-Australian writer at Brisbane Writers Festival. Yassmin Abdel-Magied had just published her first book, a memoir, Yassmin’s Story. It was one of the first times I’d come across another African diaspora writer at a festival in Australia. We arranged to have coffee together. We met in the foyer of the Mantra hotel, elated that change seemed afoot, congratulating each other for making it, and commiserating with each other about some of the more difficult aspects of being a black woman on the writers festival trail: resistance from audiences, offensive questions, racist assumptions. There were two of us now, we joked. What could possibly go wrong? Later that evening, American novelist Lionel Shriver would perform her now-infamous circus act of a keynote speech on the cultural appropriation debate, complete with sombrero. Abdel-Magied would write a response piece calling for sensitivity and consultation in the writing of other’s voices, and shit would get real.
We all know what happened next. This, I think, is more directly what people mean when they talk about risk. The risk, particularly to writers of colour, advancing unpopular debate, or expressing opinions that run counter to conservative sentiment. Career assassination. Public humiliation. Hit pieces in the national press. The relentless, vulture-like hovering of commentators over their lives, watching and waiting for the next utterance to embellish, amplify, warp and broadcast.
I don’t consider myself to be a journalist, though I’ve written for a newspaper for five years now, and I think the risk for writers in Australia is exponentially borne by journalists and nonfiction writers. When we say, this is real, this is what I think, this is how I feel, there’s an inherent emotional vulnerability, an instant exposure. Saying ‘I don’t like the art you made’ is inherently different from saying: ‘I don’t like the way you think. I don’t like your opinions. I think people should be prevented from hearing them, and I will do my very best to ensure that they are.’
When I talk about a backlash, to clarify, I’m not talking about legitimate literary criticism. Putting any work of art into the public domain can attract criticism, and indeed most at some point do. To illustrate my point, let me quote my favourite criticisms of my work to date. On my Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and CBCA-winning The Patchwork Bike, illustrated by Van T. Rudd:
I did not like certain aspects of this book—namely the Black Lives Matter reference, the crazy brothers jumping on the cop car and the underlying disregard for authority (the law and their mother). While the concept was creative and the illustrations interesting, it was not redeeming enough for me to ever read to my kids again.
Recommended only for parents who want their children to aspire to vandalising police cars. One star.
If I could give this zero stars, I would, It’s a disgusting piece of trash.
Reading terrible reviews of my work on Goodreads has become one of my favourite pastimes, but I’m talking here about sustained personal attacks. Several years ago I interviewed Australian feminist Karen Pickering for a portrait piece in The Saturday Paper. She told me that she’d stopped writing opinion pieces for publications such as the Guardian. ‘You’d know why,’ she said, looking me dead in the eye, and then, ‘Those pieces are a lightning rod for abuse.’ She went on to talk about how the pay is so little, when the personal risk is so high.
Indeed, we have watched the very tangible online backlash against commentators such as Clementine Ford, Ruby Hamad, the doxing of journalist Osman Faruqi, the smearing by The Australian newspaper of writer Benjamin Law.
The comment by Karen Pickering indicates that much excellent conversation is stifled by the risk of backlash, and how it is often the most vulnerable people—Indigenous Australians, women, people of colour—who can least afford the consequences of stepping into the fray.
While I was lead editor on the Black Inc. project Growing Up African in Australia, this was one of the conversations I had with several of the wonderful contributors of the anthology during the editing process. Shona Kambarami, in her powerful piece ‘Blending Families’, writes of what it’s like when one of the people who created the person you love is a racist who will not recognise your humanity. I remember having conversations with co-curators Magan Magan and Ahmed Yussuf about what our duty of care might be, particularly to young or emerging writers, where their work contained deeply personal revelations that might impact other parts of their lives. The three of us wanted the story ‘Blending Families’ in the anthology—it was powerful, well written, nuanced, heartbreaking. It was an encapsulation of an experience many black people encounter.
Yet we did not want it included at the expense of difficulties for the author’s personal life. I remember slowly dialling Shona’s number, after we’d accepted the piece, sitting at my kitchen table, where I mostly put my end of the book together. Shona answering. Telling her how much we loved the piece, that we really wanted to include it, but that we wanted to be certain, as a first-time published author, that she was fully cognisant of the implications of publishing the piece. You need to assume everyone you know will read it. That might not happen, but it’s best to assume they will. Have a think about what that might mean for you, whether you’re happy to leave the piece as edited, or want to take out some identifiers, or even if you want us to take it out altogether. Whatever you decide is okay.
And again, we had these discussions with contributor Tinashe Pwiti, who wrote about the ice addiction and suicide of her beloved twin brother, Kuda, and of the broader African community’s perceptions on mental health, and resistance to the idea of treatment—how this leads to devastation.
The courage of these writers, many of whom had never been published before, to speak about things that might have borne a personal cost within their families, in order to bring the broader issues to the community, reminded me why I started writing in the first place. Often, the greater the risk, the more important the narrative. The more courageous the writer, the greater the potential for discussion, dissemination and change.
In the book space, the bravery of writers who came before me has mitigated the risk of my work. My memoir The Hate Race was preceded four years earlier by a memoir by Wiradjuri writer Anita Heiss: Am I Black Enough for You? I have recently read Ruby Hamad’s book Brown Tears/White Scars, which cites, among many other sources, Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s 2000 release Talkin’ Up to the White Woman.
I think Moreton-Robinson’s book should be on every high school syllabus and in every library in Australia. My book Foreign Soil, as a globally minded short-fiction collection, followed the publication, some years earlier, of Nam Le’s acclaimed short-fiction collection The Boat. The possibility of my book’s success was tangible because of the wild reception of his. The gritty, queer noir of Greek-Australian writer Peter Polites emerges in the trail blazed by Christos Tsiolkas. Growing Up Asian in Australia came before Growing Up African in Australia. Growing Up Disabled in Australia comes after Growing Up Queer in Australia. Bravery begets bravery, begets bravery. Don’t none of us got here alone.
Although nonfiction is often the most personally risky form of writing, fiction too can do a lot of the heavy lifting. People come to fiction with an open heart and an open mind, ready to step into someone else’s shoes. I have no doubt, for example, that Melissa Lucashenko’s Miles Franklin–winning novel Too Much Lip, as well as being an extraordinary work of fiction, will work its way into the hearts and minds of many Australians, to change the way they think, feel, act and even love.
Speaking of which, I must also mention publishing risk. Times are tight in publishing. Publishers, to make bread, are gravitating towards sure-fire sales: cookbooks by celebrity chefs, adult mindfulness colouring books, supernatural teen dramas, the celebrity memoir. Attempting to have published my collection of short fiction, featuring black African diaspora characters and set in Australia, America, Britain and across the African content and the Americas, was a journey that took years. The story now goes that the book was rejected by every publisher in Australia. That’s not quite the case, but certainly 20 or so. Some of the rejection letters referred to the lack of a market for the book (probably in reference to the traditionally white, tertiary-educated readership for literary fiction, and my mostly black, mostly working-class characters). The question seemed to be: How will we market this as ‘Australian’ fiction? The problem seemed to be that I was black, and that I wrote about black African diaspora people.
When the book unexpectedly took out the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, I found myself on a plane to Sydney for meetings with four publishers in one afternoon. I also have a memoir, I informed them all, titled The Hate Race. I told them I was only five chapters into writing it, but it was a package deal. Fuck it, the door was open and I was grabbing everything I could get. They would have to take both books or neither. One of the publishers asked about a novel. My agent then told all the other publishing houses they would also have to offer me money for a novel. I just smiled and nodded convincingly. The offers then all became three-book deals. Seven years later, I still haven’t written a novel. At one of the publishing houses, I was ushered into a fancy room with a long mahogany table. Ten or so people from publishing, editing and marketing were there. On a screen at the front of the room stood swirly calligraphy and the words ‘Home Truths’. This was the new provisional title they had given my memoir, The Hate Race, about growing up the black child of migrants in white-picket-fence, middle-class Australia, written in vignettes of overt and casual racist aggression. It would sell better that way, they said.
As for the short fiction, publishing this first, this particular house asserted, would ruin my career. Short fiction wouldn’t sell, they stated firmly. Then, when booksellers looked up my sales results before ordering the memoir, they wouldn’t bother ordering many copies. They would give me a bit of money for the short fiction, since other people were interested, and split the stories up as pre-release teasers for the memoir. They would also talk to Women’s Day about a column where I answered questions about racism. It was extremely Mad Men, and one of the weirdest conversations I’d ever had in my life.
The publisher who agreed to publish my books simply said, ‘I like your work, and we’ll do everything we can to give you a successful career.’ I told him one of the other publishers had said I’d ruin my career by putting out short fiction first. That I should just publish the memoir. It was what he replied that swayed me: ‘I think your work is extraordinary, and we’re certain enough to take that risk.’
In the following years that risk would include publishing a poetry collection on themes of slavery, racism and single parenthood, a poverty-themed picture book, The Patchwork Bike, mentioned earlier, illustrated on cardboard scraps by ‘This activist street artist who lives round the corner from me. He hasn’t illustrated before, but he’s fabulous, it will be great!’ and a children’s picture book titled Wide Big World, an early intervention in schoolyard racism.
Then, too, writing what’s effectively commentary as the poet laureate for the national Australian newspaper The Saturday Paper has allowed me to write opinion in a form that’s protected from most abuse. In an opinion piece, I would say: Scott Morrison is a liar, and no kind of Christian at all. In poetry, I say:
oh, look how devout,
in his glossolalia
but beware the false prophet,
for he speaketh in tongue
In an opinion, I might say Fraser Anning, the senator only elected through the votes of 19 people, is stoking violence against people of colour. In poetry, I say:
and by the end
no one dared to say his name
so we called him
because of how they said
it all began
that nineteen votes
let a man
into the halls of parliament
who invoked the crimes of nuremberg
whose words caught
round the necks of folk of colour
and contracted, like rope
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from the protection provided by disguising opinion as poetry, it’s that the risk of backlash is minimised, because bigots don’t read poems.
What do all of these observations on risk, and the writing climate in Australia, add up to? For emerging writers: be brave, make important work, make work that attempts to alter the world for the better. Know the risks, and weigh up whether or not you’re prepared to take them. For publishers: take on projects that challenge and promote, that dismantle the status quo—that disseminate important and unheard voices, that chart new territory or reaffirm important truths.
For readers: please support the work you know almost didn’t get published. Work that already rules out 50 per cent of the readership, because it’s too black, too queer, too feminist or too challenging. Seek out the small but mighty places where writers from the margins can get their start in Australia: places such as the literary magazines Peril, Liminal, Overland, Meanjin, the Blak Brow and IndigenousX. Get to know these writers now. Support freedom of the press, by supporting publications that have a history of excellent and relentless investigative political journalism. To keep writing for you, we need you to keep reading for us. Committed, engaged readers make the risk worthwhile.
One of the good things—perhaps the only good thing, I think, to come out of the 2019 ABC and News Corp raids—was the unanimous disgust and dismay from most quarters at the heavy hand of the state. If you want a world where the truth matters, and writers continue taking risks to get it to you, maintain the rage. •
Note: This was originally presented at the State Library of Victoria in October 2019 as the Writers Victoria the State of the (Writing) Nation Oration.
Maxine Beneba Clarke is the author of the memoir The Hate Race, the short-fiction collection Foreign Soil, the poetry collection Carrying the World, and is the editor of Best Australian Stories 2017. She writes for The Saturday Paper.