‘I remember at high school a prized skill was being able to tell what nasho someone was by looking at them …’ Although Ellena Savage says more, I need to leave that out. Why? Because this is where I need to start. Please, you need to follow me down this rabbithole.
I remember a writing tutor who, after a few meetings, leant in to confide in me (maybe they knew my type, maybe they recognised the thinly veiled childhood experience I was passing off as fiction and maybe, as they were reading about the ‘fictional’ chica in the stories I was giving them, they realised that I was the type of person, a racially bullied-silenced child slash shy adult who wouldn’t say anything). ‘We used to stand by the fence at the playground. We used to point and talk about them. We used to call them,’ they lowered their voice, ‘… the ethnics.’ The almost whispered words. It was like confession. Like I was the priest. The Father. El Padre. In that small tutorial room, they finally unburdened themselves over my writing. I had been given the Foucauldian power ‘to judge, punish, forgive, console and reconcile’. They wanted my absolution.
I remember going to a friend’s uni party. The friends intimidated me almost as much as the house the party was at, a huge white Queenslander. A girl I didn’t know leant in and remarked, ‘Oh, you look so (a blink and a beat) … ethnic.’ Her high-pitched half-laugh that followed wasn’t nice. Nor the blue eyes that quick-blinked innocence. She was clean-cut; wearing a Country Road–like chambray-on-chambray ensemble. She was Stock Aitken Waterman’s Rick Astley crooning ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. I remember my outfit. Cutting my tía’s unwanted long orange-and-yellow-and-black seventies batik wraparound skirt and sewing it into a grunge A-line miniskirt. Saving the waistband to use as a headband to tie back my long (dyed) black hair. The black T-shirt sleeves I’d decorated with colourful pink and black trim. This paired off with my f*ck-off six-hole Doc Martens boots. Jump forwards to my white-tina self now. I say I looked (then) like vlogger Mari from the TV show Vida, but without the BMX-bravado or blue lips to speak up against racial injustice. I wasn’t able to defend my migrant or working-class self, let alone own my ‘ethnic’ look. I remember this repeating often. But I never said anything at all.
Jeanette Winterson writes: ‘I have a memory—true or not true?’
So, every now and then, this person from the past reappears. True. IRL. She is a writer. She exists. Roll up! Roll up! Read all about her in the pa-pers. Search the media! Promoting her latest speculative fiction! Read her articles defending cultural ap-pro-pri-a-tion! Right now, she has turned up in my classes. This is not true. She is not her, but she is her. I recognise her immediately. The tone. The indifference. She’s smart, real smart. She’s Becky Sharp. She commands attention, then one-handedly dismisses you. She doesn’t listen. Talks down to you. Talks over others. She always knows more than everyone. Because she always, always (say it louder now) knows more than you (and you and you). I’ve become wary of her. And a bit scared. Because of the intelligent damage she wields. Because I know in the past how she will hurt others. Because IRL of what she made up.
Winterson again writes: ‘Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out, says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margins of the text?’
Defamation is a curious word meaning ‘false statements that hold persons up to public ridicule or injure their good reputations’. ‘False statements’; ‘false facts’; ‘disregarding the truth’; ‘reckless statements’; ‘ridicule’; ‘harm’; ‘actual malice’. Malice sounds like a term for Alice when she behaves very badly. Like Alice who followed the White Rabbit and went down a rabbithole. Who grew so ridiculously big. Then so ridiculously small. Who sought advice from a caterpillar. Who finally answered back to tell the Red Queen off. Who almost had her head cut off. But instead, she woke up. Awake, Alice realised the story she was part of and helped create was all just a wonderful, curious dream.
‘Her father had named her Alice because he believed this new country to be a Wonderland, where anything was possible if only she went along with his unfailing belief.’ Alice Pung in her memoir Her Father’s Daughter explains how her traumatised father, a Cambodian refugee who survived the Killing Fields, gave her this name and backstory when she was born. So s/he could start anew in Australia. A new Anglo name of a fantastical character to help ease the past. Whitewashing his/her trauma. But intergenerational immigrant refugee stories about new countries and new names are never easy. Like telling the truth.Likehearingthetruth.Letalonewritingit.
sometimes i want to rage dance like little billy elliot to a Town Called Malice. i want to kick at the brick walls and send the toilet door flying. to stomp my six-hole doc martens black boots up and down the ugly streets. to pound the corrugated iron with my chunky little half-Latina half-Hungarian kid fists.
i want you to hear my groans of anger and frustration of an unspoken childhood angst and rage because i can’t even begin to find the words to explain what it felt like. except that back then, i was dismissed. after the dance, i was made to disappear.
Outside, it’s very windy. Trees sway so hard their limbs break. Limbs fall on cars and fences. Trees fall and kill little kids. A friend who lives at Mount Dandenong says trees make a strange low groaning sound the moment they fall. The groan followed by a whoomph. This is the sound of a tree as it falls in the forest.
‘Es el viento, es el viento que sopla violento’
—Hansel y Gretel (en español)
Sara Borjas writes in her poem ‘Lies I Tell’, ‘I make things up that I want for myself: that is the truth.’ True or not true. So you’re in a room. You’ve known about this person, but you don’t know them. Not really. You went to the University of Queensland. You were in the same lit class. They would never recognise you. Not then. Not now. Yet they are familiar. Their book is displayed in the front of the room. You listen to this person/writer talk with a growing sense of anger. You want to stomp. You want to stand up. You want to shout, ‘Off with her head!’ Not once does anyone mention their past. You wait until question time. You ask, ‘Who was the person who wrote that book on display?’ They deflect the question and instead read the blurb off the back. ‘The book won award.’ ‘An award,’ you interrupt. ‘Yes. Australia’s highest literary award. A spark. A 1990s flashback?’ ‘But—’ ‘Hold your tongue!’ Dismissed. End of talk.
This is what is true. A book was written. True. The book won several awards. True. The writer appeared on TV wearing clothes from their culture. True. They performed poems in the accent of their mother tongue. True. The story they wrote about their family was not about their family. True. They do not have an accent. True. Google and you’ll find them somewhere under ‘great Australian literary hoax’. True. The writer now writes that they had a point to make. True. They believe writers are in the business of telling other people’s stories. True. They had to appropriate a culture to show that anyone could assume another nasho and write ethnic lit. True. You are still so angry about this. True.
Racial vilification is all about the act: ‘It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private.’ ‘Act’; ‘likely to offend’; ‘insult’; ‘humiliate’; ‘race’; ‘colour’; ‘national or ethnic origin’; ‘intimidate an/other person’; ‘or some’; ‘or group of people’. It sounds like the act of becoming a villain. Like putting on a costume and makeup. Like young people uploading their videos on TikTok and recounting survivor’s stories in the Holocaust ‘challenge’. If you like this, press the red ♥. I’m like the Queen of Hearts v. Appropriation. To appropriate. To take, take, take, as Jack White sings. Take my clothes country place voice story rights/writes. As the winner takes it all!
Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane (your hometown) Writers Festival (several years ago now) insisted that writers wear many hats. True. She wore a sombrero. True. This week, Becky Sharp turned up once again. To your classes about the ethics of writing and trauma and telling other people’s stories and cultural appropriation. True. She defended Lionel Shriver. She said, ‘She’s an iconoclast.’ True. She said, ‘As a writer she has to wear those different hats.’ True.
You are angry about this. True.
You are electricity.
When asked what it was like growing up another nasho, an ethnic, a mongrel, an ergh yuck, you bloody stinking wog, go home, you sing—it’s like ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’
When asked what it feels like to dance, billy elliot barely mumbles: ‘Like electricity … yeah, electricity.’
When asked how she’s going at Mount Dandenong, my friend says: ‘There’s no electricity. The violent winds blew so many huge gumtrees over. They took down the powerlines. I have no power.’
In his article ‘Arbos’, Teju Cole writes:
Trees grew out of concrete, next to fences, through fences. They seemed to be fighting silent battles or suffering indignities, appeared to emanate strain, stress and heroic endurance. Such twists and torsions, such violent constraint and wild entanglement.
Sometimes explaining the truth, waiting to be heard, demanding justice, bearing witness to testimony, writing about trauma or the lives of the damaged and silenced and marginalised people from your ethnic community, requires strange and curious analogies. Like trees and truths and fairytales and rabbit-holes. Because all writing, like any form of art, from sculpture to dance, always starts off rough. Because this writing you do, sometimes, just takes too much of your electricity. •
Suzanne Hermanoczki is a writer and Creative Writing teacher specialising in immigrants, trauma, and identity. She has a PhD and Master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, where she works.
Sophia Ankel, ‘TikTok creators are pretending to be Holocaust victims in heaven in a new trend dubbed “trauma porn”’, Insider, 24 August 2020, <www.insider.com/tiktok-trend-shows-people-pretending-to-be-holocaust-victims-heaven-2020-8>.
Billy Elliot, directed by Stephen Daldry, Universal Studios, 2001.
Sara Borjas, ‘Lies I Tell’, Poems, 2018 <poets.org/poem/lies-i-tell>, accessed 27 August 2020.
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Millennium Fulcrum Edition 3.0, 2008; Project Gutenberg Ebook. [EBook #11], <www.gutenberg.org/files/11/11-h/11-h.htm>.
Teju Cole, ‘Arbos’, Granta, no. 152, 30 July 2020, <https://granta.com/arbos/?fbclid=IwAR2hN0Dnba6NPZClEDGXLS5TOD7A71XpPS7TEU IprGmA72JaHELmRLNOFE4>.
Helen Dale, ‘Cultural Appropriation Isn’t Real’, Quilette, 11 May 2017, <https://quillette.com/2017/05/11/cultural-appropriation-isnt-real/>.
Maria Elena Fernandez, ‘Why Are Latinx Stories Still So Rare On TV?’, Vulture, 4 April 2019, <www.vulture.com/2019/04/one-day-at-a-time-vida-latinx-tv-representation>