At home with Winnie Dunn

Winnie Dunn is a writer of Tongan descent from Mount Druitt. She is the general manager of Sweatshop Literacy Movement and the editor of several critically acclaimed anthologies, including Sweatshop Women, which is Australia’s first and only publication produced entirely by women of colour. Her work has been published in the Sydney Review of Books, The Saturday Paper, Griffith Review, Meanjin, SBS Voices, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Southerly and Cordite.

At home with Winnie Dunn


ASTRID: Winnie Dunn, welcome to The Garret.

WINNIE: Thank you so much for having me, Astrid.

ASTRID: Now, today, I'd like to talk to you about a number of things. Firstly, your role as editor and how you work with other writers to publish their own words and anthologies, your involvement Sweatshop Literary Movement, and of course, what perhaps is the most exciting, but we haven't got there yet, your forthcoming novel.

WINNIE: Oh, thank you so much. I feel I'm in very good hands and I feel I have very big shoes to fill. You've interviewed amazing people.

ASTRID: Thank you, Winnie. I've been looking forward to interviewing you. Now, we of course, are both in lockdown. You are in Sydney, and I am in Melbourne. That is the way of the world these days, but let's start with your work as an editor.

I have quite the pile of books next to me, you are the editor of Sweatshop Women, volumes one and two, and they came out in 2019 and 2020. You are also one of the co-editors of Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate and Bigotry, which came out in 2021. And in 2022, and I imagine you're working on this right now, you are the forthcoming editor of Another Australia, which is the sequel to After Australia, an anthology that I dearly love. Winnie, first of all, that's four anthologies in four years. That's a big deal.

WINNIE: Yeah, it's a big deal. And actually, the first anthology I ever put my name to was Sweatshops: The Big Black Thing, chapter one, which I think came out in 2018.

ASTRID: Oh, I'm sorry. I missed that one, sorry.

WINNIE: No, it's fine. It's just a lot. If you look at the catalogue of Sweatshop, it's my name is on almost everything, which is quite humbling, but it's just lovely at the same time.

And so with editing, I started under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Mohammed Ahmad. Who is the founder and the director of Sweatshop. I joined Sweatshop in the second half of my second year at university. I'm the first person in my family to go to university, and so that's kind of a big deal – being a woman, being a Tongan and Australian, and being from Mount Druitt, which is a very poor socio-economic suburb. The education that I had with my university background was really important to me and learning is really important to me.

And so, when I met Mohammed, he was just teaching me things that obviously my university curriculum didn't have space for. And just learning about the craft of writing, how to weave words together, how to make a good story. What is a story? Those are the things I learned as part of Sweatshop. Under Mohammed's mentorship, I was really able to flourish and I was able by the time Sweatshop and when volume one came around, I was really set to start editing other writers and giving them advice and giving them feedback, which was really lovely.

And I think important, especially with volume one, because it is Australia's first anthology written, edited, designed and created solely by women of colour. And so, the importance of having a woman of colour editor at the helm of that - mentoring other women of colour with their stories - was really significant. And I think that's why the anthology series did so well.

ASTRID: Will there be a volume three for Sweatshop Women?

WINNIE: No, I think I did all that I could in terms of volume one and two, I think I reached the limit of what I was capable of. I think I also made the statement that I wanted to make – that women of colour have important stories. We have our own stories to tell and our stories are intersectional. The set up really focuses on the genre of autobiographical fiction. And that's the stories that the women want to write. And so the intersections of race, gender, age, class, sexuality, all come into play in autobiographical fiction. We have our own stories and that's the political statement I wanted to make. And I think I achieved that, which is why, as you mentioned with Another Australia, it's kind of me now pushing myself as an editor to see what else I can do.

ASTRID: So for you, what is the role of an editor and what makes an editor great?

WINNIE: The role of an editor is to help a writer craft a story. I think the act of writing, putting down words on page is one action. I think writing a story is another action. And then I think the act of crafting a story can only ever happen with at least two people, the writer and the editor. And I think good writing can only come out of good editing. And so for me, a great editor is one who knows what the writer wants to achieve. Who knows what the writer they're working with is capable of, who knows the important elements of what the writer is trying to get across and then helps the writer see their own work in different perspectives, who helps the writer come to terms with maybe some of their limits and then together push the craft of literature to kind of new heights and something that's more original and nuanced and makes an original contribution to knowledge. I think that partnership between writer and editor is so important and it takes a great editor to make a great writer and it takes a great writer to make a good editor.

ASTRID: A few minutes ago, you said the word political, and as an outsider, who is a white woman who lives in Victoria – although I was raised and spent the first 30 years of my life in Sydney – Sweatshop Literacy Movement is doing something different, deliberately different, than what I see anywhere else in Australian publishing, writing, editing.

When you use the word political, you weren't referring to Sweatshop, you were referring to what people choose to write and the stories that they choose to tell. But would you mind unpicking for me the role of Sweatshop the organisation and also how you as an editor, working with individuals and their words navigate what is political?

WINNIE: That's a really great question. I think there's a lot of mystery and intrigue and maybe some defence or resistance against Sweatshop because it's a cohort of writers who choose to be part of the collective, who want to know what it means to tell a story that makes a great story that makes an original contribution to knowledge and how to get there. And it's about teaching writers who are not represented in the market – they're not represented in Australian literature to the degree that they should be represented in Australian literature because we make up the population.

And so that's where Sweatshop steps in, to kind of foster a relationship with emerging writers so that they can learn how to write their own story, whatever story they wanted to tell, and then help them to put it on the page in the best way possible. We never want to put an emerging writer who is just starting off their career in a situation where they're simply being praised for their work because they're Brown or because they're Black or because they're Indigenous or because they're queer and they happened to also be a person of colour. I think it's racist to overly praise somebody just because they are forcibly marginalized, and just because they happen to be underrepresented. I think with Sweatshop, we really try to communicate to the writers that even though we are forcibly marginalised, even though we are underrepresented. And even though we have a lot of struggles to overcome that the most important thing about being a writer is that you're able to write well. And you're able to write to the best of your abilities, because if you're not doing that, then it's impossible, I think to be a writer because writing should be at the centre or at the soul of your craft. And so that's what Sweatshop is really is about.

We also really focus on autobiographical fiction because we've switched up. What I learned is that all forms of variety is autobiographical fiction. Whether that's Harry Potter, Star Wars, whether that's somebody's memoir or whether that's just an ad you see on a TV, everything comes from within. I think it's a myth that the imagination is endless and you can step in any which way and you can look through the eyes of any person. I think it's a myth that the imagination is endless. I think we only ever know what we know, and we only can never see through ourselves, the writers at Sweatshop, I think really find their own groove. I think when they realise that one, their lived experience is important and it can be a story, but two that they have the freedom to express their lived experience in creative ways. They're not just tied to the truth or the factual truth of themselves. They're only ever tied to their own experience. And the beauty of fiction is that they're able to explore the truth of themselves in many different ways. And I think that's how Sweatshop really navigates the political is that you recognise that you're writing through yourself all the time, but that you have the freedom to explore it in creative ways.

ASTRID: Thank you for that explanation, beautifully articulated. Winnie your next work is going to be the sequel to After Australia. That was really well received anthology by writers of colour and Indigenous writers, edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmed in partnership with Sweatshop, Affirm Press and Diversity Arts Australia. You are going to do the sequel with a whole new bunch of writers. How do you place yourself and your role as editor in this anthology series? And I guess my question underneath that is what is your goal? Because the editor does get to shake these anthologies.

WINNIE: Yeah, a hundred percent. And I actually really like the way that editors can shape anthologies to a degree, right? So the same with The Big Black Thing with Sweatshop Women with Racism, we just come to writers with the theme, or we just come to writers with the parameters set around what I've envisioned the anthology to be. The writers always have the option to say, ‘Yes, that's something I'm definitely interested in. I want to work towards that’. Or they'll say, ‘No, that thing doesn't interest me. I'll wait for the next one’. And I love that kind of report with writers that they're able to pick and choose which theme space to them the most and what anthology they want to put their name to.

And so, in the case of Another Australia, yeah, I had really big shoes to fill. I mean, After Australia was I think the best old anthology, when it came out last year, it was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier's Multicultural Award. It was also shortlisted for one of the best covers, I think, in an award. Which the cover is amazing and so I do have very big shoes to fill, but in saying that the success of After Australia really did enable me to then reach out to a whole bunch of new writers, which I think Australian readers will be really excited to get to know more on an intimate level. We have award-winning journalist, Osman Faruqi. And then we have award-winning poet, Sara Saleh, and again award-winning artists, Amani Haydar, and who I'm most excited about I think is award winning author Nardi Simpson, who is going to lead the collection, which I think is absolutely incredible. And then there's Declan Fry, who's such a renowned book critic and one of the judges on The Stella Prize along with the amazing Sisonke Msimang. And then we have Omar Musa and Shirley Le and Anne-Marie Te Whiu

and Jamie Marina Lau, L-Fresh the Lion and Mohammed Massoud Morsi. They're just such an incredible force that I think this book will really shine when it comes out.

The way that I've shaped Another Australia, is that because After Australia explored speculative fiction, what it means to speculate about the future or about the past or about the present, my idea for Another Australia was that what are the different realities that we all live in as quote unquote Australians? Because what's happening across from me is a vastly different reality to what I'm experiencing, the same as in the case with you in Melbourne, Astrid, what you're experiencing in Melbourne, in the particular place that you live is vastly different to what I'm experiencing in Sydney, living in Fairfield, which was the first LGA to get demonised when the outbreak started.

And so that's been my role as the editor for this anthology to really question the writers that I'm working with, or actually, what do you think Another Australia represents? What kind of realities are you experiencing that nobody else is experiencing, but we're technically all Australians, what does that mean? It's been a really exciting, the responses I've gotten, the creative responses I've gotten have been really exciting. And I just can't wait to share them with everybody. And the idea that the exploration, I think in writing of the lived experience, I think is definitely something to look forward to when the book comes out.

ASTRID: So you've spoken about the editing process and your role as an editor, but flipping it because so many writers listen to The Garret. What does a writer get out of? If I can ask such a leading question being published in anthology like After Australia or Another Australia?

WINNIE: Yeah, that's so interesting because the writers that we're working with are kind of at their peak of their career, they're award-winning writers they're really established. I think what they get out of being part of After Australia or being part of Another Australia is that they're part of a collection that showcases not only them, but their peers. And also, in the sense of After Australia and Another Australia, it is a collection of solely Indigenous writers.

So First Nations Writers and writers who identify as people of colour and that community, or that rapport on the page between the writers, I think is really significant because there's a myth, I think with the image of the writer as this sole person who lives in a cave and just types away, and they come out with this brilliant new piece of art and that the writer is just a lone genius, but I don't think that's the case. I think, especially with First Nations writers and people of colour writers, we really draw out inspiration and our strengths and our stories from our community and from our culture. And so that's, I think what the writers get out of being part of these anthologies is that they can showcase to the Australian readership that we are part of the community and that we do draw inspiration from each other, and that we do draw strength from each other. It also highlights the fact that they are First Nations writers and people of colour writers that Australian readers might not know about. It's also another chance, which I think excites writers a little bit is that they're able to work with another publisher.

After Australia and Another Australia is published and will be published by Affirm Press, which I think is a great publisher. I think the writers just kind of get a little change of pace. They're not working with their regulated as well their regular publishers. I think in a lot of ways, they just get to try something new and they just get to meet their peers in a creative way, I think, which is nice.

ASTRID: You mentioned the idea of the lone writer genius and what a fallacy that is. I agree completely. Nobody is alone genius, who magically comes up with the perfect story that gets published and reaches readers. That's a lie.

But having said that it is a little bit lonely at the moment. We are all in our own little caves, wherever they may be with COVID and a global pandemic, given that you come across so many writers Winnie, and you are obviously working with so many writers, have you noticed anything over the last 18 months or so about how this isolation and this imposition of a pandemic, how is it affecting writers’ creativity?

WINNIE: Yeah, I think fear is the antithesis of creativity. I think fear actually motors the creative spirit and if there's anything I felt and I've seen in my peers and in my mentors is that they have been lot of fear about what's happening now and about what comes next. And I'm also 26 and so I'm quite young. And so, the idea that, and the writers even such a collective that I work with, they're also young. They're either in their early twenties or their mid-twenties, like me or they're in their early thirties. And they're just wondering what to do with the rest of their life, because we've inherited a very broken in many different ways. And so, a lot of fear, a lot of confusion, and I think we've all been really fighting really hard to find that creative spirit, again, it comes and goes, and I think we've just had to learn, that that's just the reality of our situation as writers is that we are more physically alone. There's not a lot of chances to promote publish works in the case of if you're a published writer or there's not a lot of chances for you to promote your book that really dampens the selling of the book. People knowing about the book because new books have such a short shelf life, I think when they come out and you have to really get audiences in those first couple of months. So otherwise it's kind of lost to time.

And so yeah, I think just kind of navigating this kind of ceaseless fear with writers and where to find our creative spirit again, has been something we've all been going through these last 18 months. But I think in terms of the racism anthology, which came out this year and we worked on all of last year. And by we I mean Phoebe Grainer, who is a Djungan woman from far North Queensland and Stephen Pham who is a Vietnamese Australian writer from Cabramatta.

I think that really helped the writers find their creative spirit again. And the fact that we were lucky enough to be able to launch it at the Sydney Writers Festival early this year and that it sold really well. It was in the top 10 bestsellers in the festival, which was incredible. I think that really reinvigorated the writers to find their creative spirit again.

And I think if anything, in this lockdown, especially, we were talking earlier about how hard it's been to concentrate and how hard it's been to find that work life balance again, for me, what I found is that I just buy books with the hope that eventually I'll read it. And so, I encourage all your listeners to just jump on the Sweatshop website, and just buy books, even if you're not in a head space to be creative or read, just buy books, have them sit on your bedside and just that kind of little physical beacon of just hope or something to look forward to, I think has been enough for me to kind of get through the lonely days of this lockdown.

ASTRID: Absolutely, I am also a person who has been ordering books, even though I don't have the mental space to read them at this point of time, but in terms of a bright light to inspire writers and creatives, book sales always help. That is a good way to inspire writers.

Winnie, let's turn to your own work. We've spoken a lot about editing and the role of the editor, but you are also working on your first novel. It's not yet published. I clearly haven't read it. How long have you had this idea and when do you think it's coming out?

WINNIE: Well, that's such a nice question. I feel very humbled by that question because obviously, I'm not a published author as of yet. I feel this question is quite early for me in my career. And I hate to be one of those people that are like, who actually I think there are published author without having the credentials behind them. So, in saying that, yes, I've been working on my manuscript for a really long time. I got a fellowship from the Copyright Agency in 2018 to start kind of seriously working on my novel. I also go to a writing residency thanks to Writing New South Wales at the Varuna Writers house, which was really important to me at the time that I got it. As I said, being mixed race Tongan Australian, I grew up in a house where there was at one point in time, I grew up in a one story house where there was 14 of us living in a one story house with four bedrooms. And so you could imagine how crowded that was. And I only moved out last year. And so having the space to write was really important to me.

And so yeah, I've been working on my manuscript since 2018. It's currently almost at 30,000 words, which I know sounds it's pitiful numbers in the sense of, ‘Oh, you've been working on it since 2018. What's going on’. But for me, I said, I'm quite young. I like to take my time with my writing. I think I do have the time for now as a writer to really sit down, think about what I'm writing, how I'm writing it and what I want to do. And in terms of where my manuscript is at, it really is an exploration of my life and my childhood, but incredibly fictionalised and the space to do that was really exciting for me because I think with minoritised people, we tend to have kind of traumatic childhood. We tend to just have to go through a lot in order to grow up. And so it was really great base to have, to be able to explore these really sad or troubling events in my life as a child, but to give it room to grow in different directions and for me to understand what I went through as a child in different directions and the novel is really set around family and what it means to come from a broken family, broken in the sense of it's a blended family of aunties and of stepmothers and step-brothers, which we don't have words for in Tongan culture of grandmothers, which we also don't have a word for in Tongan. In the Tongan culture there's no word for auntie, grandmother, step-brother, we're all just mums. So, all of the aunties who raised me are my mum and then I have my birth mum, and then I have my step-mum who are my mum's and then I have my grandmother, who is  also my mum. And so exploring how the Tongan family works in a blended broken setting and also in a new setting in Australia. What does that look like?

And so that's where the novel is that at the moment, I'm really wanting the second half of the novel to explore my first year of university and what that was like, because I said, being the first person in my family to go to university, it was quite, the experience was just so new and it was just uncharted territory. And I'd go home every day and my parents would be, ‘What are you studying again? What do you do?’ So yeah, that's where the stories at, at the moment with my novel and I'm hoping to finish it one day.

ASTRID: Earlier, you really spoke yourself down. We you suggested that your normal doesn't mean much your career at 26 is exceptional. And I have all confidence that not only will you finish your novel, but it will be pretty damn spectacular. Winnie, thank you for speaking to me on The Garret today.

WINNIE: No, thank you so much Astrid. It was lovely talking to you.