Ghassan Hage and Randa Abdel-Fattah on ‘The Racial Politics of Australian Multiculturalism’

Ghassan Hage and Randa Abdel-Fattah on 'The Racial Politics of Australian Multiculturalism'

Ghassan Hage and Randa Abdel-Fattah reflect on the publication of The Racial Politics of Australian Multiculturalism - a combined work celebrating the 25th anniversary of Ghassan's White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society and the 20th anniversary of his Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society.

Ghassan is internationally renowned for his research on the intersection of racism, nationalism and colonialism. He is a professor of anthropology and social theory at the University of Melbourne and a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology in Germany. His most recent sole-authored books include Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical ImaginationIs Racism an Environmental Threat? and The Diasporic Condition: Ethnographic Explorations of the Lebanese in the World.

Randa has appeared on The Garret before Coming of Age in the War on Terror, which was was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards and the NSW Premier's Literary Awards. She is a Future Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University.

In this interview, Astrid quotes Omar Sakr reflecting on the influence Ghassan has had on his poetry, and you can listen to Omar's interview here.

Ghassan Hage and Randa Abdel-Fattah on 'The Racial Politics of Australian Multiculturalism'


ASTRID: Ghassan it is a pleasure to speak with you today. Randa, welcome back to The Garret.

Ghassan, you have just released this extraordinary work that I have here before me, The Racial Politics of Australian Multiculturalism. This is a combination of two of your previous works as well, as a collection of some other shorter writings. Randa, you are one of the people that has helped bring this book together.

A big question to start with, what was the impetus for you to bring your previous works together and that is White Nation that originally came out 25 years ago and Against Paranoid Nationalism that came out 20 years ago?

GHASSAN: Well, it's simply that people are still reading White Nation and Against Paranoid Nationalism and using them in the courses around the world. So I've been since White Nation ran out of publication, there's been a lot of demand internationally. People telling me that all the copies are very expensive, and I was talking about it with an international publisher with Routledge, but then Mohammed Ahmad and others said, ‘White Nation, your writing means so much to us. Why don't you let us publish this?’ The idea grew and more and more attractive to me that it's kind of treated as a bit of an inheritance type publication. It was great from the moment we thought that till it happened, it'd been fantastic.

ASTRID: Inheritance is a word that comes up a lot. I have been looking at some of the commentary around this publication and I know it's being launched at Sydney Writers Festival in a few days, so I feel very lucky to be speaking with you right now. The idea of your writings and your body of work as an inheritance, an inheritance within academia, but also within different communities in Australia, and it's very rare. I speak to a lot of writers and it is very rare. To have a writer, a living writer whose work is associated with that word. I'd like to interrogate that a little bit. What does it mean for you? And then Randa, I'm going to ask you for your perspective, for your work to be treated that way and held in that esteem.

GHASSAN: Well, yes, I'm an anthropologist, so inheritance is something we deal with all the time sort of, and we learn about from the ABC of Anthropology. It had given me a lot of interesting thoughts that say, ‘What does it mean that my work is being inherited?’ Because sometimes people think of inheritance as one way traffic, where inheritance means the older generation giving something to the younger generation. But if you treat inheritance as a form of vertical gift exchange as opposed to horizontal gift exchange, as there is a giving but there is also a receiving, you feel grateful that you are being inherited. Just as you say to someone who is listening well to you, ‘Thank you for listening’. You say to someone who treats what you have written as inheritance, you say, ‘Thank you for inheriting me’. But the thank you, is because it's quite energising really. It's energising to feel that people are taking your work and still doing things with it.

ASTRID: Randa, what are your thoughts on this collection? I think for the listener, could you also describe the role you and the rest of the members of the reference group played in bringing this publication together?

RANDA: Well, I had the honour of being part of a group of writers who wrote the Foreword to the book and it was so special because Ghassan's work, his body of work has really been probably the most influential sort of work, that I have taken on in my own academic life and also my young adult fiction. It's even informed to that unconsciously and consciously as well. So it was a great pleasure to be able to write a Foreword that really sort of contextualise, why this book is still for obvious reasons so important. It's kind of bittersweet when you are in the space of anti-racism, that books on anti-racism are still important to reflect on that as well, that you're still doing that work.

But I know that things have changed and for us as Arab Australian activists and academics and writers, Ghassan's voice came out at a time when there wasn't that kind of people to look up to, and to aspire to, and to be influenced by. The academic scene was so wide. It still is, but for us, there are so many reasons why this is both an intellectual investment for us but also an emotional and effective one as well.

That means so much to us. And so, I love how Ghassan, puts ‘inheritance’ in both ways. It really does feel that we've been gifted with something and what makes it so much more special for us is that, we can do something with that in our own humble way. I mean, it has been incredible for me to be able to, I feel that every time I approach a topic or I'm trying to think through something, Ghassan's books are usually the books that I find that he's already thought about it in a unique way, in a unique take, and I love that he pushes my thinking on that subject and extends it.

ASTRID: That is such a beautiful compliment to give Randa, you all work together to decide what went in.

So obviously there are two major texts in here, but the other short form writing, this work, it's essentially a reader. This might be the first collection of texts that someone who hasn't started reading long-form works yet, comes to your work. Ghassan, what was the intellectual decision behind what went in?

GHASSAN: I basically chose those texts. I did get some feedback, some of them because as they were written, like editorialising, in the heat of the moment need a different way to contextualise and change certain things, especially in relation to Christchurch. But on the whole choice is as anyone would do this, it involves me asking a question, what is it that I value that has continuity and that creates a certain sense of continuity with previous works? Also, what do I like to leave the wheel in a period where I feel hope is not exactly the most generously distributed commodity in the world?

Let me put it this way, I'm conscious as Randa just said that if you are reading the same anti-racist book, 25 years later, it also means that it hasn't done much work. I mean, you have to think, what kind of work inclusive literature does? It creates at least the community of some form and that's where the inheritance is important because the inheritance is not ethnic or racial. I mean the inheritance, the people who inherit the book, these are people who want to create an alternative community in Australia. They are the inheritors. It's a political inheritance, neither an ethnic or racial.

RANDA: Just picking up on what Ghassan said, I think it was White Nation or maybe Against Paranoid Nationalism, you have to correct me, talks about this narcissistic kind of belonging at the time of the Cronulla riots and how the fact that the Lebanese beach-goers were there and unapologetically enjoying the beach, not embarrassed by it or as they should be, according to the white manager of that space.

Just to give you a sense of why a book like this still resonates, because I remember when we were on email a few months ago, I sent Ghassan a video that had been circulating on Instagram of a large group of Lebanese beach-goers doing the dab , playing the drums, and it was just a huge beach party that was just so Lebanese. It was just so like massive and everyone had different angles of it.

I remember thinking there is so much there to explore, about how much has changed and also how much hasn't, in the way that we can look at the way that, there would still be people observing that and still feeling the same sense that they felt at the time of Cronulla. So it is just to give a sense that, works that really tap into what's happening at that grassroots level. I think all are always going to have that continuity that they live on and the beauty of it is that they can then come into someone's mind as they're scrolling through Instagram and light different kind of light bubble, and I think that's very special about Ghassan's work.

GHASSAN: One of the things that attract me a lot about the fact beside the obvious buzz of hearing Randa, saying nice things about me, but there's also the fact that I find a lot of continuity between my work, the work of Mohammed and many others who are working with this project. One of them is the fact that when races de-valorize your culture, your instinct is to valorize it. But I was always someone who has made a point of not equating valorizing with lack of critique. So there's this capacity to actually look at the rest and say, ‘Yes, our culture is great’, but not without stopping the critique there and rather continuing at making sure that one's own community has to be subjected to a massive critique. The second point very quickly is, there is a critique of whiteness, but there isn't a desire not to have a relation with whiteness. There is here a strong relation to create bridges and create different kind of relationality with white community.

ASTRID: This work is being published by Sweatshop and with the proceeds of this work, you have helped set up two First Nations scholarships with Sweatshop. Again, I speak to a lot of writers and that is not something that is normally done.

GHASSAN: Well. I mean ever since I've been lucky enough financially to be at ease, which is associated with my daughters finishing uni and having their own life. I've been making it, a general thing to wherever I speak in the world is to donate my honorariums. When the publishers offered me money towards the book, first of all I thought, I've published all my life with big academic publishers, Chicago, Europe et cetera, and they don't pay you this kind of money. I said, ‘I don't want that much money, put it towards your organisation’. And they say, ‘Oh, this is how it comes. I said, ‘Okay, well we'll find a way of donating it the same way I've been donating it’.

The Sweatshop people came up with this wonderful idea of writing mentorship. For me it was really the icing on the cake as far as publishing with them, because I have a very strong sense of inheritance. Unreturned gift, when you are living on Indigenous land, you are always in a state of having received something which you have not paid. It's not even a gift in the sense of, ‘They kind of voluntarily...’. It's a stolen gift, that you have to somehow morally negotiate the best way you can. What does it mean to receive a gift that the giver did not give you? What does it mean to return something given that you're not going to just return the land and say, ‘I'm going back home?’.

ASTRID: I have a great deal of respect for everybody who works with Sweatshop. Also, I have just started a PhD looking at barriers in the publishing industry in Australia and you are a sociologist and I would like to ask you a question, what is the role of Sweatshop in the Australian industry because it's a strange and very, very white industry.

GHASSAN: This is part of what I was talking about, about how do you negotiate whiteness without just being anti, but trying to think a relation and there's no escaping the super ego of writing being colonised by whiteness, unless we choose not to write in English and to write in a niche. If we choose to write in English and publish in English, we're writing to a wide white audience. I think Sweatshop seems to be aware of this as far as I know. I think Linda might be better at replying to that. But I think from my perspective, what I like about what Sweatshop produces is precisely, it's not just, I always look at stories and think, wow, great stories. Not just that they're great stories, but it's so great that there is actually someone capable of writing these stories, because they don't write themselves.

When someone makes it in boxing, Mohajer, she's a kickboxer, she's a lesbian. She makes up with her family, sort of makes up with her family by becoming brilliant boxer despite the fact she's lesbian. I mean usually you hear the story but you wouldn't hear that the person who has this experience is capable of fighting. That's what I find really great.

RANDA: Yeah, I think with Sweatshop, as someone who started publishing with white publishers and mainstream establishment publishers, the beauty about Sweatshop is that it's at least a space where you can develop your own voice, you can develop, that self-determination to be able to write without thinking about the double bind of writing for a white audience, for a mainstream audience and all those constraints, which definitely impact on your creativity. So at least it provides a space, where you have mentors and you can just learn how to write. To actually play around and experiment with voice and audience before you're thrown into negotiating that voice for the white establishment because it's not just the publishers, there's also the reviewers. There's a whole industry there that you have to start facing and it takes a lot of work to try and negotiate all those demands on you whilst being true to the story that you want to tell.

ASTRID: There is so much, I mean it's the publishers, the editors, how it is sold and packaged then final readers as well.

I'd like to go back, Ghassan, to something you said a little bit earlier. You made an offhand joke about if a work has to be reissued 25 years later, maybe it didn't change anything. In Australia, there have been quite a few quite important works that have reached a good milestone, a wonderful milestone, and have been brought back into print or reissued. I'm thinking of Talkin Up to the White Woman by Aileen Moreton-Robinson. I'm thinking about, Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss. I'm thinking about Sister Girl by Jackie Huggins and others, that have reached 10, 20, 25-year milestones.

With your vantage point, how do you feel about the need for these things to be reissued and what are your observations on what has changed?

GHASSAN: Yes. I mean, first of all, I mean it's quite interesting that most of the books you mentioned are Indigenous. That's interesting thing. That's one of the main interesting points that have changed, and I haven't accompanied the change in the sense of I've been writing on different issues, but when I wrote White Nation, it was very clear in radical circles that if you're writing on multiculturalism, you don't include in Indigenous cultures in multicultural, because it's just making Indigenous cultures yet another culture that you can be multi about. That was the thing about making for the specificity of the colonial racism, and the colonial encounter, that it is very different from the kind of racism that ethnic immigrants have been subjected to. I think one of the interesting things that definitely you can see an incredible rise in Indigenous writing in the last 25 years that has had massive impact on the public way in which Indigenous Australian cultures are circulating among non-Indigenous people.

But at the same time, if we are talking, I mean here the voice is here, the debate about the voice are happening. I mean, one of the things that I strongly argued for in White Nation is precisely the fact that, I mean not in relation to the voice, but when you have something advocating precisely an Indigenous voice, non-Indigenous voices should dim themselves a little bit. I mean, I'm not saying that you shouldn't have an opinion, but I'd like myself an ethic of not speaking too loudly if you're not Indigenous, I mean it's just a kind of a know-how of learning how to participate without fronting yourself and centering yourself. So that's not happening all around me, sort of colleagues, white people, non-Indigenous people with great positions for the voice or whatever. You might agree 100 per cent with them, but you still feel that's not your voice that I want to hear here, or you shouldn't let your voice dominate the conversation.

So this critique of white centeredness that was initiated, I don't think it has gone far enough. I was listening to some English people last week, so like we were talking about various things and they were saying to me sort of how wonderful that Britain has, even though they don't agree with the politics of the Conservative Party, but they think it's wonderful that the prime Minister and some of the ministers are people of colour. But then I realised that actually what they were telling me, ‘Isn't it great that English people are capable of having non-white Prime Minister?’ So the imagery of the English, even though the prime minister is not white, I said ‘It was still a white imaginary’. This gives you a sense of the depth of where I think we haven't managed to really undermine that white imagery of the Australians, when we start thinking, ‘No, we have multiculturalism’, because as soon as you use the word ‘have’, you're making it a possession, you are clear in the way and making it white way.

ASTRID: There is so much work more to do. You have made an impact though, earlier this week I interviewed Omar Sakr about his latest poetry collection, non-essential work, and in that collection he dedicates a poem to you, Ghassan, have you read the poem?

GHASASN: I'm not sure which one is that?

ASTRID: It's specifically dedicated to you and it's called ‘For a Country that Cannot Keep Its Children’.

GHASASN: Oh yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Thanks. Yes.

ASTRID: I asked on Omar what influence your work has had on his work, his thinking, and his poetry. And he gave a really eloquent answer. Your work has ‘dramatically expanded his world through the ability to see clearly how power functions’. I thought it was, I wasn't expecting to see the work of an anthropologist and a sociologist in a poetry collection. It was a reminder that all forms of literature are all forms of communication are making changes in people internally, and giving people emotional responses.

My final question to you really is about this for both of you. What is the nexus between academia and literature and art and how we can reach people but also engage with the work and be reached by others?

RANDA: Can I say something very cheeky?

My favourite work from Ghassan is not in that collection. It's called ‘Ultra Politics’. It came out in 2015, I think, and it had an absolutely profound impact on me at a time when I was completely, confused about who I was. Was I an aspiring academic? Was I a writer? Was I an activist? And nobody was able to really satisfactorily give me a sense of how to merge all of those in a way that didn't make me feel I had to choose one.

And it was a Ghassan's work that really brought the idea that you can have political passion in a way that brings the ‘Ultra Politics’, the world where there's the logic of enemy-friend, which is the activist world, which I was trying to reconcile with my writing, where I feel I write from a position of extreme compassion and humanity for my reader that I want them to step into a world where I am okay explaining things and I don't need them to have a degree in anti-racism and critical race theory. Then the academic where I want to just sit and think and be critical in a way that I can not necessarily take a position. I can sit in something that might be a level of discomfort. And it was really Ghassan's work that made me understand that political passion is everywhere and that you don't need to make those choices. I think once you have political passion, then these kinds of artificial boundaries don't matter anymore. They're there and you can just sink into them in a way that feels right.

GHASSN: I think I'm really enjoying this interview. Can we expand it?

I think it's interesting though, as an academic, one of the things you learn as a teacher is how to speak to a multiplicity of audiences. You immediately realise that students have various degrees of theoretical sophistication, various degrees of historical background that may help them understand the class background. And I, either sort of direct your attention to people who you feel you want to talk to or you learn how to speak in such a way, that your work has the potentiality of being taken by an audience, by another audience differently, by another audience differently.

I've often reflected on this, how do we develop this skill of writing and becoming more and more conscious that I'm writing the sentence, but one reader will understand this, but one type of reader will take that from it and one type of reader will take something else. So yeah, it's the art of speaking to multiplicity, which I find always nice in the writing that my colleagues strengths, definitely is a prime example of how this writing to multiplicity work. Because where there's failure is when you have a totally mono conceptualization of the people you are having a relationship with in your writing and speaking.

ASTRID: This is the first time I have spoken with you, Ghassan, and you are a beautiful conversationalist and your words. I wish I could speak to you all day actually.

GHASSAN: Thank you very much. Thank you. And I hope we will get to meet at some point.

ASTRID: Thank you both for your time today.