"Voicing Race" appeared to be one of those sessions everybody wanted to attend at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival, perhaps for two reasons. Firstly, the session was hosted by Maxine Beneba Clarke, renowned Australian writer and poet of Afro-Caribbean descent whose short story collection Foreign Soil won the 2013 Victorian Premier's Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the 2015 Indie Book Prize for Best Debut Fiction. To me, the opening quote in this book perfectly conveys what many "writers of colour" intend to do in their exploration of "race" as a literary theme:
"Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it." ~ Chinua Achebe (Nigerian novelist and poet)
In this session, Clarke conversed with two writers -- Jessica Yu (of Chinese descent) and Adolfo Aranjuez (of Filipino descent). Yu and Aranjuez are two of 30 writers under the age of 30 that were chosen to feature at the 30th annual Melbourne Writers Festival. Back in April, there was even a crowd-funding campaign called "30 under 30" to raise 30,000 Australian dollars to help these writers attend some of the world's most famous literary events.
Under Clarke's gentle guidance, Yu and Aranjuez discussed how reading and writing helped them make sense of the world as teenage migrants. Once they realised they can "do something with words", there was no stopping them. Acutely sensitive about the "space" between people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, they set out to explore how people identify themselves and give meaning to words accordingly. As Aranjuez so beautifully described: "Memories have no bodies so they go away. You try to lead them stray, but they leave breadcrumbs everywhere." This well illustrates how one's voice is tied to one's identity, as different identities often lead to considerably different voices and behaviours.
When asked whether "writers of colour" have a distinct sense of mission and approach words differently, Yu said she always tries to explore new opportunities and better narratives that reach cross disciplines and languages. It is very much about diversity. Aranjuez agreed that there are always "gaps" in the literary world. Writers seek ways to cross and balance.
Problem is, particularly in the case of "writers of colour", while one writer cannot and should not be seen as speaking for a race, he or she is often identified by readers and critics as representing the whole "label". In Yu's view, readers and critics often assume writings by "writers of colour" to be of an autobiographical nature and treat them as windows to specific ethnic or cultural experiences. Meanwhile, Aranjuez's research on Disney's animated films suggests an industrial tendency toward "race bending" by having white actors playing/voicing Asian characters.
Perhaps even the term "writers of colour" itself is problematic, as white is also a colour. Instead of being "boxed in" (or worse, assigning themselves as belonging to specific "boxes"), Aranjuez suggested writers should perhaps pursue a sense of "colour-blindness", i.e. no special favours. On the other hand, because society tends to favour certain types of writing, it is important to seek out diverse literary voices and alert people of the differences. In Yu's words, it is the qualities of writers, not their backgrounds, that truly counts. Readers and critics can help to dissolve the current problem of "whitewashing" by changing their reading list and becoming intimate with writers and texts of diverse backgrounds.
Interestingly, throughout the session I constantly thought of Joanna Walsh's famous question "Why must the 'best new writers' always be under 40?" Indeed, when I saw the "30 under 30" crowd-funding campaign earlier this year, I secretly grumbled if it were up to me, I would gladly support a campaign for writers above 40, or between 45 and 60, or even beyond 70. What I learned from this session is that age does not matter. Not at all. The key issue is whether you as a writer can keep a sensitive and sharp mind and remain focused on those issues that matter to you. One does not need to be young to be courageous.