The two just relate to a greater theme.
I would never want to denigrate this event, because it is a lot of fun and information, I have greatly enjoyed both times I have visited. There are a lot of great authors and events that were well worth buying the ticket. But, lucky for me, all of the events that I wanted to see this year were free.
Well, except the Carpentaria show, that cost money so I didn't end up seeing it, but I heard great things, and I saw the specially designed stage for it, it was really interesting. But, I most wanted to see the "Safe Schools" conversation with Benjamin Law and Lucy Clark, since I am very passionate about how awesome Safe Schools are, read my blog about it if you want to know more; also, the "Writing Aboriginal Stories" panel with Alexis Wright, Claire Coleman & Nakkiah Lui, since I like my writing set in and around Australia, and Aboriginal stories are an enormous, important and inaugural chapter of the Australian story. So, since I was visiting to see these events in particular, choosing to pay money for other events (no matter how great they may be) seemed like a waste of money on my part. I think you should see them, however - and I encourage anyone and everyone to consider checking this festival out. It ended yesterday (at time of writing) but it will come back next year. Mark your calendars, and visit the UPLIT website to get more details about upcoming literary festivals.
But, since I wanted to make a day of it, I did visit two other free events as well, since I wanted a rounded experience. So, I also went to the "Homegrown Tales" panel with Ashley Hay, Ben Hobson & Veny Armanno, all about learning to tell stories based in and around Brisbane; also, the "Published in Oz" panel with Jill Eddington, Melissa Lucashenko & Peter Polites, which spoke about the future of the Australian publishing industry in the face of shifting laws and attitudes.
So, I went to see four events, all of which were free, but I feel they were amazing and would have been well worth paying for, so I feel privileged to have been given the chance to join this year's festival.
However, I honestly didn't know that there was a law saying you can only park within the confines of a parking space. So, because I parked my car illegally, I ended up spending $100 to annul the fine anyway. You win this round Brisbane . . .
But, to the title of this post. What am I talking about? Well, it's something that I have started to perceive recently, which some of the events at this festival helped to solidify and clarify.
The Word of the Day is: 'UNWRITTEN'
Unwritten /un'ritn/ adj. 1. Not written. 2. Not actually expressed, or given form; customary: It is an unwritten rule that you take off your shoes at the door.I chose this word for two reasons. Firstly, today, I want to talk about rights and privileges and how they relate to the concept of culture, but both rights and privileges are often unwritten moral concepts that we take for granted.
Secondly, one of the major issues I want to discuss is about the tales that are not told, or at least, the minority stories that are often hidden between the cracks, left unwritten, and how they relate to the way we perceive culture. So, seeing as how this year's Brisbane Writer's Festival was all about the big and little stories, it seemed appropriate.
See, I did in fact write a post about 'Privilege' and how this word has been hijacked and used for the purposes of insulting other people, dividing people and shutting down communication. But one thing that post didn't cover, and which I am going to uncover and reveal today, is that ever since that post, I have been very dismissive of the entire concept of 'Privilege', and so have most people. The fact of the matter is that people often prescribe privilege to people, or they declare that they lack a privilege which other people have - but they do so without any truth or fact or realism to their claims.
However, lately, I have looked at situations involving ethnic, sexual and ideological minorities, and I have come to understand that Privilege DOES exist . . . but, it's not what most people would call 'Privilege'.
As far as I can see, and am concerned, things like "White Privilege" and "Straight Privilege" and "Cisgendered Privilege", these are often described as the ability to do things without suffering prejudice, freedom to speak or earn or move with greater ease, and a much lesser likelihood to suffer. These are seen as privileges, but it's really not accurate. To explain why, I must first explain what Rights are . . .
See, Rights, in particular human rights, are rights which you have - and in fact, which every natural person has (dependant upon your place) - which cannot be taken away without consequence. Like, people have the right to live, so if I kill someone, I have taken away that right, and I will suffer the consequences of that action. Or, Freedom of Speech, the right to speak without being silenced. We don't have that right here, since there are multitudes of infringements upon that right, but it is meant to be the freedom to speak freely.
In fact, the consequences of inflicting another person's rights are often having my own rights taken away - the freedom to move unobstructed and to live my life as I choose may be taken away, as I may be put in prison if I infringe another person's rights.
A privilege, however, is a little different. A privilege is something that only some people have, which can be taken away without consequence to anyone except the newly unprivileged person.
An example of a privilege is: having a car license. Nobody has the right to drive a car, you need a license. If, however, your license expires, you drive the wrong kind of car or you drive unsafely, that is a privilege which can be taken away.
Now, in theory, these are supposed to be fundamentally different. However, in practise, they are not. You can have both your rights and privileges taken away; when you abuse your rights or privileges you may lose your own rights or privileges as a consequence. The basic rule of thumb is that rights are something you are granted upon your birth, and privileges are something you are granted during your lifetime. Although there are some rights, like freedom of movement, which you don't get until you're mature enough . . . look, it's a whole mess.
The problem is that rights are not natural. Religion may declare "we are god's children, and god gives us inherent rights and morals" . . . ha, no.
If I send you to the Jungles of Borneo, and you try to argue with a tiger that you have freedom of movement and freedom of speech, she will bite off your legs and face before you have time to complain about it in the comment section.
In fact, I just looked it up, you won't be eaten by a tiger because although they may have once lived there in the past, any tigers there were hunted to extinction, so even the tigers don't have rights in Borneo, you're more likely to be eaten by a leopard.
Rights are unnatural, human inventions, which are devised and practised by civilized society. They are artificial, written for the purposes of granting freedoms where otherwise, we would still just be fighting over bones. That doesn't mean that they "don't exist", rights do exist, but they exist in a complex and easily broken system which we are constantly working to revise and resolve the myriad issues they face.
So, in practise, rights are just privileges which we have decided, as a community, that everyone should have . . . unless we decide that some people don't. I mean, every Australian has the right to vote however they choose, unless they are under the age of eighteen, or if they don't want to vote at all.
Heck, some of these caveats to rights are written in such a way as to remove rights.
A perfect example of this is marriage. Technically, homosexuals are allowed to get married in Australia, it is equal and fair that any Australian citizen can get married here to a person of their choosing . . . so long as that person is of the opposite sex. A gay man can marry any woman he wants, that's fair, right?
You see, although this is a privilege that is available to everyone, it is also written in a way that excludes the rights and free practises of all people in such a way that certain people are made to suffer.
These caveats, these minor quibbles and these "oh, well, only if you do it properly" styles of rights are the means by which we create privilege.
Currently, Australia is undergoing the preliminary stages towards a postal vote, whereby people will vote on whether or not most people are in favour of marriage equality. As a result, there have been a few "Vote No" campaigns, which have been utter garbage. These campaigns have been utterly ripped apart by news and tabloid programs who have shown that all of the points being made are based on lies and misinformation.
But one "Vote Yes" campaign was actually a protest held outside of a church where a forum was being held, to promote people to Vote No, and these people held up signs and chanted in regards to marriage equality.
Police were called to break up this protest, and some people were arrested, and in response a great many politicians were saying "This is not how the debate should be held. We can disagree and also be respectful"
Now, I have two issues with that.
Firstly, there was no mention of what went on inside the forum, and in fact many news sites reported this as "protests outside a church" when in actuality, they were protesting the forum going on within the church.
Secondly . . . whilst I am perfectly capable of having a respectful and honest debate with you, even if you are a homophobic, transphobic, flat-earther, climate-change denying theist, the reason I can do this is because I have had a lot of practice in this kind of communication. Also, although these values matter to me, I have experience in empathizing with people on the other side, and speaking in a way so as to be understood.
However, not everyone has my experience, and not everyone can do that. Not to mention, a lot of this is questioning the value and quality of personhood of certain kinds of Australian, based upon outdated religions, emotional reactions and adherence to regressive and hateful values. We are asking whether or not they deserve the right to live their life and express their love in a way that will be committed, legalized and accepted by the community as right and fair - and when they get upset at that, we tell them that it's unacceptable.
The fact of the matter is, This is Privilege. The privilege of choice. Straight people in Australia, at time of writing, we can all choose whether this matters to us. We can choose whether we care or not, and we can even choose to ignore this whole issue, because it doesn't matter to us. We can even choose to have respectful and calm debate, even in the face of ignorance. Because we have freedom of choice and (to a very measured degree) freedom of speech. So, we can choose to speak out against this, if we want to.
But, gay people can't. Because they aren't choosing whether or not to engage, they are forced to engage because they are the subject, they are the issue being discussed. And although marriage is a privilege, I do believe that equality is a human rights issue, and when we are having a discussion about people's opinions of whether or not we should have equality - of course people are getting upset!
Now, I am not saying that we should let people get protest and assault and accuse people and create a scene . . . but the attitudes in response are wrong. Because these people were being demonized for being passionate. Not their actions, but their attitude. To me, the better response is:
"Look, I know you're upset. And, frankly, you have every right to be upset, but you don't have the right to break laws or harass others as a result. I know it's hard, and I'm sorry, but this is politics and the only way to change politics is to play politics. This is your chance to fight for what's right, and if you also do that while somehow respecting the people who disagree, then we can get through this painlessly."
Is that the best response? Well, no. Of course not. But, the way people feel is not a choice, their attitude is not a choice, but the actions that result from it are.
And what does this have to do with the Brisbane Writer's Festival? Well, a few things. I mean, the talk about publishing was discussing the rights of writers, and how alterations to how we deal with copyright is disenfranchising writers.
But, most predominantly, the panel on Writing Aboriginal Stories. Now, the main crux of that talk was how we can empower Aboriginal authors by hearing them tell their stories, and how this is changing the balance of power, which is a good thing.
However, some of the commentary, particularly from Nakkiah Lui, a Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal woman, which said that for non-indigenous people, particularly white people, to tell Aboriginal stories was racist.
Now, this bothered me, because the very reason I had gone to the panel was because I was interested in telling Aboriginal stories, or at the very least stories with Aboriginal characters which explored Aboriginal culture in the margins, even whilst the main story wasn't focussed on that aspect.
My point of view is that I write stories set in Australia, and if I did that without ever having an Aboriginal character be the main focus of the story then I would be whitewashing Australia and retelling the Australian story in such a way as to remove Aboriginals from the limelight.
Here, look, full disclosure, okay? I don't want to talk too much about this but, I am currently half-way through a novel, with a young, white, bisexual, female protagonist. Yes, the same one I was working on for last year's NaNoWriMo, Still Life. I have a planned sequels to this story, with different protagonists, one of which I want to be a young, streetwise, Aboriginal skater. The reason why he is Aboriginal is because I have several stories in this series, with a diverse collection of Australian protagonists, all "good guys", and to me, if I had several different protagonists - different heroes - but none of them were Aboriginal, it would be me saying "Aboriginal people can't be heroes". But I don't believe that . . .
I don't want him to be a side character or an "extra", I want him to be the star, because this is Australia and in Australian stories anyone can be a hero.
Now, I don't know if this counts as an "Aboriginal story". Yes, this character will be Aboriginal, but he will be quite Anglicized, and although I will definitely mention some Aboriginal issues about race, class and mental health, they aren't the focus of the story. I mean, it's science-fiction, it's a story about aliens, so I don't know if this is "an Aboriginal story" per se.
However, that's only a result of knowledge. I can't tell you about something I don't know, and I don't know very much about the Aboriginal story. That's why I went to this panel, and why I do research on Aboriginal history and mythology, because I want to learn how to better represent Aboriginals and their stories, because the fact of the matter is that they are a part of our stories, but I want to tell it right.
I actually asked a question to the panel, and I admit I didn't word it very well (I'm better with written words than spoken), but I essentially said:
"I take issue with you saying that 'white people telling Aboriginal stories is racist' because, well, there are more white people, you're a minority, so there will be less of your stories if only you can tell them. Also, what of stories like Pemulwuy's War? A story of an Aboriginal tribesman who blindsided colonial invaders. That's an Aboriginal story, and I am inspired by that story. But if I want that story to be told, would I have to make him white, and whitewash that Aboriginal story, or should I expect you to tell the story for me?"
Like I said, poorly worded. Alexis Wright's response was very well thought out, and I can't remember all of it, but her answer was, basically: "Do you really think you're capable of doing that?"
Which is a fair point, no I don't. The reason I went to the panel was because I want more knowledge, but I don't have it.
Claire Coleman made a fair response which I found the most inspiring, which was basically: "Well, of course you can tell it, but if you don't have the Aboriginal perspective, it wouldn't really even be an Aboriginal story. But, couldn't you retell that story from your perspective?"
Now, I admit, I can't be sure this was her intent, but to me it was inspiring, because it made me realize that the issue from her mind's eye wasn't the story - the story itself was immaterial to the problem - because the true problem was voice. If I write an aboriginal story, and I say "this is an Aborigine's story", and then I start advertising it in the grand world of publishing as one of the many aboriginal stories, then the problem is that there are already so few Aboriginal voices, that by speaking in the crowd I am actually just helping to drown their voices out.
And because I am not fully aware of the particulars of what it means to be an Aboriginal person, even if I am drowning them out by trying to encourage learning about Aboriginal culture and persons, I risk ignoring the peculiarities of that perspective.
Like, here is one I have actually managed to learn. Do you know what the Aboriginal word for "Brisbane" is? The answer is, it's a trick question, there is no Aboriginal word for Brisbane. Oh, there are Aboriginal tribes which have words which describe that area, but they have very different boundaries. For instance, the Mianjin people called their place Mian-jin, which essentially meant "pointed place", because it refers to how the river and land are pointed in the part of land called Petries Bight, across from Kangaroo Point. Today, you and I know this place as the Brisbane CBD and Fortitude Valley, it's right on the border of those suburbs but for the people of Mianjin, it wasn't the border, their borders were very different to the ones that the white people mapped.
Not to mention, this is just the word in the Turrbal language, and other tribes would use different languages, since there is no "one" Aboriginal language, there are hundreds, many of which have been lost through the execution of its speakers, or because its descendants were stolen and forced to learn English and become Christian, forgetting the words of their parents and ancestors.
This is something that I know, and have come to understand because I have bothered to do the research, but I guarantee that a lot of people won't. An answer to a simple question like that having such a complex and multi-faceted answer? I didn't even cover all of the other names, partially because I couldn't find them when I did my research, but mostly because I don't even know where to start looking.
A lot of people wouldn't bother learning even that much. They might just say "Yeah, Aboriginals know this place as Yuggera", because there are maps that label the greater Brisbane area as "Yuggera", since that was the name of the tribe that predominantly lived in that area. So, if white people were telling the story of Brisbane, and weren't prepared (like I am) to do all of the necessary research and investigation, then all we would do is poison the well with misinformation.
This gets to Nakkiah's response to this question, her response was basically,
"If you tell Aboriginal stories, no matter the intent, it's still racist because it means we can't talk about our own culture. It ignores that minority." and I could tell that my question did upset her, so I didn't pursue it much further with her.
But what did bother me is that after my question, two other people asked questions with similar queries. One woman was trying to say "these are world stories, not your stories" and was even called out for being dismissive of the issue, and I applaud the speaker, Sandra Phillips, for doing that; and she also said that whilst she disagreed with me, she appreciated that I was trying to learn.
You see, when that questioner responded to the panelists' criticisms with "these are world stories", I agree, it was an attempt to silence the debate, rather than deal with it. She was trying to say that these stories belong to everyone, and of course they do, but this isn't an issue of ownership, it's an issue of authorship.
And that's what I was saying before. Just like how using the word "supremacy" wasn't accurate, and makes the issue seem worse than it is, by calling this issue "racism" it makes people ignore it, because I guarantee that the lady who was talking about world stories, she was not racist. She was just ignorant, she didn't understand the issue, and by calling her racist, she didn't learn anything - in fact, she would dismiss the whole problem, because "if the problem is that I am a racist, but I am not a racist, then the problem does not exist".
But, I did come to understand what they were saying, because of what happened after the panel ended . . .
After the discussion, one of the other questioners came up to me - not the 'world stories' lady, but someone else - and she said "look, I appreciated your question, and I agree with you. This is a complicated issue, isn't it?"
And I did say to her, "yeah, it is, I wish it were easier . . ."
But the thing is, I don't really care that she agrees with me. And look, if the person who asked me that is reading this, I am not saying that your opinion doesn't matter - of course it does, and thank you for reaching out to me to know I wasn't alone and finding a kindred spirit. Personally, I appreciated it. But, ultimately, the issue isn't whether we agree with each other, but whether Aboriginal people agree with us.
See, this is a moment of privilege, and I identified it as soon as it happened. The privilege of ignoring the minority. Because, imagine if I wrote a story about rape victims, right? And then most people came up to me and said "Wow, thank you so much for identifying this issue, you're amazing", however, three rape victims came to me and said: "Your story was incredibly hurtful, it totally ignored how we are mistreated by police, misrepresents how we feel, and how little actual support we have" then, you know what? At that point, I don't care about the majority.
This is my privilege. I can ignore the needs of minorities yet make "most" people happy, and suffer no real consequences even if that makes some miserable, that is a privilege.
And look, I think that Nakkiah is wrong and she has every right to feel that way, however, I also have the right to ignore her . . . but, she can't ignore me.
Imagine if she wrote a story about white people, which represented them in a harsh or unfair way, then because the majority of people are white, she would be crucified. But, if I choose to ignore her and her feelings, and write my own stories whilst ignoring her, then unless and until people actually bother to learn and empathize with the way she feels as representative of the Aboriginal Community, then I have the privilege of ignoring her, and not suffering any consequences.
I don't want to do that because I believe that it matters, I would even say I can't do that, because personally I don't think I have that right. As I said in my post about Privilege, it doesn't "feel" like a privilege, because I believe that it tarnishes the right of equality that I hold dear - which is a consequence that hurts my ideals . . . but I know for a fact that most people think I do have that right, and that is the problem. Because I not only have the right intentions, but also the fortitude to write what is true, which includes writing in a way that is not deliberately inaccurate or misleading.
So, I highly doubt she will - she is a famous writer, and busy, so this is in response to Nakkiah Lui. However, it is also relevant to anyone who identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander for whom this is a concern . . .
I want you to know that although I will write original stories with fictional, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander characters, I will only do so in a way that makes it very clear that I am not an authority on Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture, history, people or community - I will make it clear that my message is not "this is an aboriginal person, representative of who they are" but "this is a hero, representative of the fact that aboriginal people can be heroic" - and also that my voice is not representative of any sense of authority in that regard, but merely one person's perspective.
And I guarantee that I will not rewrite, remake or recreate Indigenous Stories, either true and from history, or fictional; told as and/or by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander persons, unless I am doing so, with truth, accuracy and sensitivity, as decided by those who have the experience and knowledge to judge such truth, accuracy and sensitivity, Indigenous persons who know those stories. And be aware that I do this with the knowledge that my goal may be impossible, and I am willing to accept that.
Now some of you may be reading this, and feel as though it is incredibly overblown. I mean, I want to write a science-fiction story with an Aboriginal kid, I am not holding a plebiscite as to their personhood.
(Author's Note: I mean, we already did that. This postal vote on marriage equality was meant to be a plebiscite, but the last time we held a plebiscite, we were deciding whether we should include Indigenous Australians on the census, and let them vote. It's pretty disgusting that we only ever seem to hold plebiscites when we're voting on human rights. Why are we letting things like citizenship, and equality be decided upon by popular opinion?)But anyway . . . if you think this is overblown, well, I don't think you understand the problem. There aren't very many Aboriginal people, and the reason there aren't is because, well, white people decided that they didn't count as people, so they slaughtered them like animals, and treated them like foreigners on their own soil.
And no, I haven't suddenly gone soft, and started falling for White Guilt.
As far as I'm concerned, technically, the Aboriginal people were conquered by the invaders, so unless they're going to take up arms, we just have to accept that as much as they were the "traditional owners", they don't really own it anymore - and from my understanding of their culture and mythology, they never owned it in the first place. I also think it's incredibly silly that we warn indigenous people when a film "may contain images or voices of dead persons", since it's just old superstition based on an outdated religion, and whether it's a new religion like Scientology, or an ancient religion like that of ancestors and the Dreamtime, it's all outdated nonsense as far as I'm concerned - I treat them all equally, and they're all equally stupid.
The issue here isn't that I care more or less about Aboriginals than I do about women, foreigners or gay people (since I have already written stories about them without concern), it's that there are less well-known Aboriginal authors, overall, and if any other minority was that lacking in representation, I would be just as cautious when trying to represent them myself.
And the very day that there are enough such authors, and we are talking about them in such a way that I am well-educated enough to recreate their work faithfully without worrying about misrepresentation, then I will not worry about this thing so much.
But until that day, the fact that they are an underrepresented minority matters.
That's where I got this title from. Because I watched panels chaired entirely by women, I watched conversations with and about gay men and from people of a multitude of minority backgrounds, and we were listening. But, when I looked at the audience, it was still over 90% white people.
I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and if you still think that this is being overstated, then please, don't ask me why . . . I have already explained, I am not an authority on this matter. But, I do suggest you ask someone who is actually living through an Aboriginal Story, someone living such a life, and ask them how they feel.
Because at the moment, I don't understand how they feel, and until I can I am not about to pretend that I do.