The Aussie literary scene

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

When I lived in Perth, there would be the odd phone call from Eastern states companies calling at what were obscene times of the day in Perth. You’d never believe the degree of surprise, cluelessness, or simply thoughtlessness in response to the annoyance they received on the line from someone who happens to live in Perth and does not share the same hour of the day as them. ‘Why are you angry?’ Err, because Australia does not revolve around Eastern states clocks and perhaps you should have checked the time difference before waking me up (especially if you’re a professional business – act like it)? It’s a simple gesture to check what time it is in the city you are calling, my life revolves around this act now that I live in England; my life has always revolved around this act living in Perth, whether I was trying to contact someone in another state/city, or another country.

I also remember listening, numerous times, to my parents’ own frustration on the line with Eastern states companies. Many companies within Australia don’t ship standard art supplies (and numerous other products) to Perth, did you know that? Since my parents own an art business, I do. I’ve listened many times to their conversations with companies, with lines such as ‘you are aware Perth is part of Australia, aren’t you’, being sarcastically trotted out. Who could blame them. This is not even mentioning event organisers who refuse to acknowledge you exist as an artist because you don’t live in the Eastern states, as my mother has found out too many times.

We’re not talking about simply the logistics of geography. Sure, Australia is a huge country and Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world. Businesses, rightly or wrongly, make business decisions that often cut us off from the rest of Australia (and the rest of the world) to save money (I’m pointing the finger at you, Qantas). Capitalism is as capitalism does. But I’m also talking about a wider issue here – a cultural, artistic and national definition of what it means to be Australian and who is included in that discussion.

Let’s look at the jokes about Perth. Hands up if you’ve grown up in Perth and went to the Eastern states, only to hear the smug, self-congratulatory jokes about your ‘backwater’ of a city and its bogan inhabitants? Look, we Perthites also make these jokes, but we make them lovingly. Even when my friends and I legitimately and seriously critique the problems in Perth, we do so from a position of knowing the city and its people and wanting it to be better because we love it and have grown up there. It is a little bit different when it comes out of the mouths of others.

We all know the problems in Perth: the lack of jobs, the lack of opportunities, the ridiculously high cost of living, the insular attitudes. These are problems faced Australia-wide, yet we are rarely included in the wider national discussion about them, as if this insignificant ‘backwater’ has nothing to add. Economically though, it was fine to ride on the back of our mining boom. You’d understand then why so many in Perth felt this stank of hypocrisy. I find this hypocrisy about as productive or intelligent as the old ‘Sydney vs. Melbourne’ as ‘best city in Australia’ debate. Let me remind you, there are more than two cities in Australia – it is, as I said, a huge country with diverse people.

All of this is a way of introducing a more specific topic within this wider one. I’ve been having long and thoughtful email conversations with writer friends in Perth about the concept of the ‘Aussie literary scene’. More specifically, about how much harder Perth writers have to work just to get their foot in the door with the holy grail of the Eastern states literary scene, where most of the writing gigs and publishing opportunities tend to be. Whether this is acknowledged outright or simply implied, let’s face it, our literary scene is dominated by writers primarily from the Eastern states. Or at least, it is so in the public imagination and ideological conception of the Aussie literary scene, if not in actual statistics. For example, Melbourne is highly regarded as a literary, cultural and artistic centre; Perth is regarded as a cultural backwater. Perhaps these stereotypes have a reason and a truth to them. But they are also recreated and perpetuated by individual and collective practices of writer and editorial communities within the Eastern states.

What do I mean by this? I can only direct you to the lived experience of writers I know in Perth, and a little bit of my own. They fall into the headings of geography, perception and convenience.

Geography: Put simply, a writer growing up in the Eastern states has more opportunities over one in Perth. Being a writer is not easy wherever you happen to live in the world, I think we can all agree on that. But for an Australian writer who wishes to stay in Perth, it’s slim pickings. Not just because Perth itself needs to more aggressively and passionately develop its own literary scene, but also because editors, writers and literary communities in the Eastern states tend to function through cliques that perhaps unwittingly or unthinkingly privilege Melbourne and Sydney writers, and you often feel like the uncool kid in school trying to join the cool gang (and pathetically taking the bread crumbs where they fall). I’m not saying this to be mean or to suggest that I’ve not had supportive and excellent relationships with Eastern states writers and editors. In fact some of my own life experience would negate what I just wrote. But my life experience is just that, only mine.

The geographical politics of this is that Australian literature has, in my opinion, narrowed in focus to the experiences of those who live in certain parts of Australia. I see the same voices in literary magazines and journals. I see the same types of people getting freelancing gigs and columns by media outlets. I see the same people talking to each other online (and if you join in their conversations, there isn’t the same level of intimacy because you are not really part of their community). I worry that geographical distance is making our literary scene insular – and insularity is a problem that I see facing Australians in general. We have to fight it because we are actually so smart and talented. We really are.

Perception: I don’t generally think Australian editors and writers think of you any less or are less willing to give your work a chance, individually speaking, simply because you are not from the Eastern states. In fact, I find the idea quite silly. However, I do think many work under (what I hope is!) an unintentional perception of what literature and writing are based on the instinctual intimacy and knowingness that comes from working with people who share your life experiences and your immediate world.

The terrain of your city, even your suburb or individual home, is its own little universe. The terrain of your Australianness is likewise its own diverse thing. It is human nature to reach for the familiar, for those who reflect your world to you. I do the same too. I also try to challenge myself with the opposite, but this is a conscious act that requires hard work and requires risks. This relates to the next issue of convenience.

Convenience: I’ve been an editor, and still am one. When you have a million deadlines, when you need to get an issue out, when you have other projects of your own you need to attend to, it is so much simpler to fall back on your ‘go to’ writers. I see nothing wrong with this. I’ve become one of those ‘go to’ writers for some of my editors, and let me tell you, I worked damn hard to reach this position – I’ve proven myself. You establish those relationships through hard work, mostly. But I don’t live in a fairy tale of meritocracy where I don’t realise that privilege and convenience come into play too. It requires a conscious, dedicated and responsible effort on the part of editors to not simply give new voices a chance, but to actively seek them out and encourage them, even when they are hiding or hidden. If you are not willing to do that as an editor, you have no business being one. You are doing yourself, your writers, your community and your readers a disservice.

I understand that if you are an editor in Melbourne, for example, it’s just easier to reach for your Melbourne writers, whom you’ve probably known for years, whom are now your friends, whom you went to university with, whom you see at regular literary events and parties, with whom you socialise and share ideas and have coffee and watch your kids grow up. Writers in Perth, or other Australian cities, cannot compete with that, and we know that. We know we have to break the barrier of convenience and perception in order to get our foot in the door. Perhaps some of us give up too easily; but perhaps there needs to be a wider gap in the door. Perhaps convenience is the killer of diversity.

There’s a part of me that feels bad in writing this, mainly because people have been incredibly kind to me (even when I didn’t deserve it), have given me chances, and have allowed me to get my foot in the door. There was also a lot of shit behind the scenes, but I won’t go there because it’s irrelevant now. I don’t seek to create an ‘us vs. them’ debate here. Only to speak honestly about some things that concern me. I feel emotionally and professionally invested in Australia, even if I live in England now. I feel we are so much better than we think we are. So maybe we should be having these difficult conversations more often. After all, we critique that which we love most.

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