I sat next to a stranger and asked about the earlier sessions I’d missed. “Challenging” came the response. When I prodded a little she said something like “white people were talked about a lot” and made a sweeping circular gesture that framed her face – fair-skinned, light-haired. Her discomfort was evident. I asked if she was a writer. She is. We got distracted by having to move seats, then the panel started. Later I wished we’d had the chance to continue that conversation.
Boundless: a festival of diverse writers, was the first-ever festival of its kind – with a focus on Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) writers. Co-presented by NSW Writer’s Centre and Bankstown Arts Centre and put together with a bunch of collaborators (scroll to bottom of this page to see them), it saw several panel discussions, workshops for aspiring young writers, a multi-media exhibition of poetry by local students, and readings of some works in progress by emerging writers, drawing to a close with the monthly Bankstown Poetry Slam event moved to co-incide with the festival.
I only made it for the second half of the day but did get to see two great panels. The first, ‘Who’s writing who on stage’, was convened by Sheila Pham with Andrea James, Disapol Sevatsila and Aanisa Vylet on the panel. The second, ‘All in the family’, convened by Jennifer Wong and featuring Cathy Craigie, Mireille Juchau, Benjamin Law and Omar Sakr. (Read all their bios and those of the other writers featured here). Across the two panels there were quite a few moments that grabbed me but a couple of themes that really stood out for me.
Compromise vs Accommodation. These words were offered by Aanisa Vylet as a bit of advice (or a warning perhaps) to emerging diverse writers working with major theatre companies or seeking to work in the mainstream, where pressure might be placed on an artist to fashion or edit their work in a certain way for it to appeal to mainstream audiences. I read Aanisa’s message as: compromise is necessary but be careful you’re not writing purely to accommodate those audiences or those theatre companies. That is, that creative control and freedom can still be held by the artist in the act of compromising but that control and freedom is given over in the act of accommodation. I really wanted the panel to unpack this idea a little more and to hear personal, individual experiences on this … but there’s only so much you can cover in an hour.
And on compromise also, Andrea James, a Yorta Yorta/Kurnai playwright, spoke really powerfully about her practice of theatre making being an act of cultural survival. In her words, the theatre is still a “dangerous, uncomfortable and unwelcoming” space for many in her community. She explained that even the staging of her work in theatres is itself an act of compromise, but one she thinks is important to make.
Permissions and Preservation. Jennifer Wong posed a question to the panel about if/how they seek permission from the people their characters/stories are based on before publishing their work. The answers were varied but all pointed to the notion of preservation, with the object of preservation differing for each panellist. Benjamin Law shares his work openly with his family because preserving those relationships is important. Mireille Juchau alluded to preserving the ownership of the stories themselves and the integrity of those to whom they belong – explaining that, as a writer of fiction, she may draw on a memory, a moment, or an interaction to create a new, original story. Cathy Craigie, as a Gomeroi and Anaiwon woman, talked about the cultural importance of seeking permission for some stories, but also about cultural preservation and of the necessity to not tell a story that contains important or sensitive cultural knowledge (like naming a sacred place for example). Omar Sakr doesn’t seek permission but also doesn’t write the life stories of his relatives – even though, he joked, they’d love him to! He talked of early childhood experiences marked not by a tradition of storytelling in the family but by silence and secrets. He said he writes from a place of what he calls “unbelonging”. Again, I wanted the discussion to sit in this space for a little while longer. But that’s always a good thing.. to be left wanting to hear/learn more.
Discomfort (like that experienced by the woman I happened to sit next to in the first session) is not unusual at these sorts of forums, where the issues and discussions often range from challenging to confronting. Earlier this year I wrote about these issues in my wrap of the Beyond Tick Boxes Symposium on Cultural Diversity in the Creative Sector in Sydney. Even since then though – and it’s only been a few months – I feel like we’ve made progress in the way we talk and think about diversity in the arts. I felt like the conversations yesterday were more open, more personal, more nuanced and above everything else, braver than I’ve heard them in the public sphere before. This might be because the speakers were writers – people who are in the business of crafting thoughts and ideas into words and meaning. People who are generally really articulate and eloquent. It may also be because they were talking to a “home crowd” – the audience predominantly CaLD identifying. These could both be contributing factors, but I do think that we’re making progress in the way we talk about diversity in the arts more broadly.
I got a lot out of attending Boundless: hearing a variety of perspectives and personal experiences, learning of activities in the space and discovering exciting, new (for me) writers. I also came away with a little swag of books I can’t wait to dive into. Mostly though I came away with a sense of gratitude towards those artists that speak their minds without fear or self-imposed filters. And grateful for the audiences and attendees that turn up knowing they’ll be challenged or confronted but still keen to be a part of it all. They’re both brave in my eyes and both essential to moving these conversations forward and to approaching a fairer representation of diversity in the arts.