literature and identity at the early words

Today I woke up early to go spend some time at the Emerging Writers Festival. I was on the Early Words: Literature and Identity.  The Early Words is a series of panels that have been running at 08:30 this EWF, with breakfast (not vegan) and chats.

I was on this session with the awesome Rosalind McFarlane and Laurie May, both of whom were excellent. I have to mention that Laurie May performed a piece of hers from a few years ago, that she wrote in response to Andrew Bolt and the too white to be aboriginal shit, and she was very disparaging about having written better stuff since then but this piece was amazing. Laurie is at Voices on the Attack in Melbourne on 10 June, and I am going. ARE YOU?

So anyway, this morning’s session was on identity. And this is sort of what I said.

The thing about identity is that it’s in everything. The most objective, well-researched, totally boring article is still, somewhere in there, about identity. And I LOVE IDENTITY. It means understanding oneself, what one knows and what one reinterprets. It’s a constant questioning of a person and their surroundings and their history and their influences.

I’m especially interested in concepts of the other and the normalisation of otherness as identity. That’s about taking someone’s identity and turning it into a point of reference, especially a point of difference.  It’s why I love travelogues and hate them at the same time, because it’s always about one person’s self discovery adventure facilitated by exotic, zen brown people who live life to their fullest because they’re not trapped by the bits and pieces of modern culture. (It’s why I hate hashtag first world problems, by the way. It’s othering and dehumanising and I can get better internet speeds in some developing countries than I can in Australia).EWF artist button 250x250 (1)

But it’s not just about non-fiction; it’s about fiction too. It’s especially prevalent in western fiction, and double especially in science fiction and fantasy.  In SFF, identity can clearly be seen in protagonists and villains; in alien cultures and final frontiers. Novels and films are fictional, but they can still be racist, sexist, hurtful – they’re part of the world, too.

A big element of writing for me is a reflection of the world I see and a reflection of the writing I read; but its also about how I see my world reflected in writing. Everything a person writes fits into their identity somewhere, no matter what that writing is.

Let’s use Tolkien as an example. He never, presumably, lived in a world with hobbits and elves and Gandalf and giant eagles that he could ask favours from. But he was a linguist, And his writing is filled with linguistic experiments and language games and, of course, languages he developed for the hell of it with internally consistent rules. And his Uruk-hai were black and brutal and ugly; and his elves were white and beautiful and ethereal and good. Because he was a product of his times (This is my code for ‘dude was racist’).

And to use a more recent example, Maleficent came out just last month. And passing by on the internet (the Tumblrs) I saw a comment asking what a black man was doing in that movie. It’s true, black people weren’t invented back then. But the real question is, when were dragons invented? (I recommend all people to ask this question of the media they consume)

My identity is pretty firmly embedded in my writing. Even the things that, on the surface, have little to do with my identity still have them in there a little bit. And to help example that, I’m now going to read from a thing I wrote in 2011. It was published in 2012 in an anthology called Steampunked 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Fiction. Now, I’m not an airship captain slash pirate, like the love interest in this story. And I’m certainly not a clerk at the top of the Komtar where airships lash themselves in an alternate universe Malaysia before the race riots. And yet – well. We’ll get to the end and maybe you’ll see what I mean.

[I read the opening of that story. I was shaking even though I wasn’t shaking for the rest of it]

After we all rambled for a bit we split off and each picked a table to chat with. An interesting thing that came out of this discussion for me was how we all defaulted into talking about cultural and ethnic identities. One of the things we had floated before the panel was talking about queer identities. So in my table discussion we had a chat about gender and sexuality, the role of gender binaries in constructing our identities, and then I segued a little bit into what I’m hoping will get explored in this weekend’s triptych of gender and sexuality panels. I think it’s interesting the way we can construct these excellent intricate worlds in SFF and yet still fall back on the same gender binary, or the same assumptions around sexuality. And what does it say that that’s where we stop? How does this representation limit our own identity and the identity constructions of others?

An audience member who works as a therapist talked about working with identities as a therapist. In particular she works with her clients to deconstruct the masks they construct for themselves, the good girl or the rebel, and images like that. I’ve never really considered my identity in this way, so this was great, too! To think about these elements of identity. I would posit that, although there are always Facebook memes and whatever where we identify our identities in this way (introvert, adventurer, and other coded words), we’re not truly ever asked to interrogate these sorts of our identities and where they come from.

Another audience member asked me about how a travelogue can truly be done right. TRAVELOGUES. I love them so much. For me, doing one right, exploring another culture and having a revaluation about oneself can only be “right” when it’s divorced from colonialism and embraces the identities of those with whom one is engaging. It’s the difference between your perfect white face cuddling with a small brown child, or the photo of an Asian man where half his head has been cut off, effectively controlling how the world sees him in a dehumanising way; and centring the experiences of others even as you construct your own. I’m not saying it’s easy and straightforward. It’s not. And as westerners, it’s not something we’re expected to challenge.

Two nights ago I had to do a colonialism check on some photos. The photo we picked was one of a woman and her bike, crossing the road with intent; she was centred in the photo, and the commentary wasn’t ridiculously condescending.

I took the opportunity to mention intersectionality, and was surprised at how many people didn’t know it. It’s an important concept in identity.

4 thoughts on “literature and identity at the early words

  1. Pingback: literature and identity at the early words | Stephanie Lai

  2. merriank

    I’ve just finished reading an eight part Steampunkish romance serial called ‘The Kraken King’ by Meljean Brook. I picked up the installments on Kobo and I think it will be released as a book towards the end of the year. The events of the story unfold in an alternate Australia partly colonised by Japanese who fled Genghis Khan’s successful invasion of Japan. They are permitted their land via treaty with the Indigenous Owners who control the continent and theirs and the smuggler settlements on the west coast are positioned out on the periphery of the landmass because that is their place. I thought of your points about positioning and who gets to be centred or de-centred especially because in this world England is a small country far away, positioned off the edge of the map whose language isn’t really useful to know. This means that (even though I am reading in English) the story is being spoken in Mongolian and French and Nipponese.

    I don’t often comment but I do enjoy reading your blog and appreciate your sharing yourselves. One day I would like to make it to Continuum. I hope all the panels go really well.

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