In partnership with the State Library of Victoria, The Garret hosts a series of live events with leading Australian writers. This event was recorded on Tuesday 21 May 2019.
In this event, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Magan Magan discuss Growing up African in Australia with host Astrid Edwards and Shantel Wetherall. The discussion explores all angles of Growing Up African in Australia - Maxine's role as editor, Magan's role as editor and contributor, and Shantel's experience as a reader who grew up as part of the African Diaspora.
Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer and poet of Afro-Caribbean descent. She is the author of the Indie and ABIA award-winning short fiction collection Foreign Soil (2014). Her most recent poetry collection Carrying The World won the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry. Maxine is the author of the CBCA winning picture book The Patchwork Bike (a collaboration with Melbourne artist Van T Rudd) and her critically acclaimed memoir The Hate Race is being adapted for stage for Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. She writes for the Saturday Paper.
Magan Magan is a writer and poet who has read work at the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Young Writers Festival, the Emerging Writers Festival and Melbourne Writers Festival. His work has been published in Cordite Poetry Review and the anthologies Shots from the Chamber, Australian Poetry and Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry. Magan's latest book is From Grains to Gold (2018).
Shantel Wetherall is a Melbourne culture writer, presenter and maker. Her work is featured in The Guardian and she produces and hosts Hey Aunty! Podcast.
REBECCA: Good evening everyone. My name is Rebecca Anthony, and I am the Program Manager at State Library Victoria. It's my pleasure to welcome you to The Garret Live at the library,a live recording of The Garrett podcast with tonight Maxine Benneba Clarke, Magan Magan and Shantel Wetherall in conversation with the host of The Garret, Astrid Edwards.
ASTRID: Thank you all so much for being here tonight. Tonight is the one hundredth episode of The Garret, so it is a very, very special night. Oh thank you!
It is a very special night, and as I was just telling Maxine I've wanted to interview Maxine since I became host of The Garret and I was too scared to interview Maxine because she is fiercely intelligent and I was honestly scared that I wouldn't be a good enough interviewer. So personal thanks, Maxine.
I'm also very thrilled to welcome to the stage Magan, a contributor and a co-editor of Growing up African in Australia, and also Shantel Wetherall. Tonight as the hundredth episode we thought we would try something different, so this interview will be co-hosted by Shantel and I. Shantel and I met a few months ago when we were both part of the State Library of Victoria's Bootcamp. So this honestly is a wonderful institution that is really helping writers, creatives and podcasters do everything.
So first, Maxine, what are the ethics involved in pulling together an anthology?
MAXINE: That's a very curly question. I think there are so many and at the same time there are none. You know with this anthology we wanted to... I think it came at a particular time. We had had a conversation in 2016 on Twitter where we talked about some Australian history and the fact that, you know, we weren't necessarily aware of our early African ancestors in terms of people who arrived here on the on the First Fleet and things like that.
And also looking at what was going on in the community in terms of this media beat up around Sudanese gangs, African gangs. And so I think we had a particular purpose for this collection. We wanted Australia to see the diversity of the African community. And around that we had some conversations around what is African Australian, you know, what does that mean? Does that include diaspora? Does that include only people who came here directly from the continent? So those were the kind of I guess early ethical questions we had.
ASTRID: So you said that your purpose is to kind of place this experience, you know, in the contemporary setting, but also did you have goals for, if I can ask, your own professional career, but also all of the writers that you get to put in print for the first time?
MAXINE: I think for me I was very tired of not sharing the stage with African diaspora writers, you know, I'd shared the stage with some incredible international writers, people like Roxane Gay, Tracy K. Smith who's now the US poet laureate. But every time I was on the stage with someone of African descent I would think there are writers here, you know, I know them, I've seen them at my events, why are we not showcasing them? And continually being told they're not here, we can't find them. So I kind of I guess it was a good opportunity to find them so that that conversation doesn't have to happen again. We know they're here, and they're all kind of in this book or many of them are in this book.
ASTRID: Before we kind of broaden it out to all of the different contributions in the work, I just want to remind everybody this is part of a series by Black Inc, there has previously been Growing up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss and Growing up Asian in Australia edited by Alice Pung. And so my question to you Maxine is, did you take advice or were you in contact with Alice or Anita, given their experience doing a similar type of anthology?
MAXINE: I didn't talk to them directly. I know both Alice and Anita, and I've been a long admirer of their work. They have both have been writing for much longer than I have, so I guess in terms of my own work they were kind of inspirations to me in that space. But this was very much I think... It had to be an African diaspora led project. So the first conversations that we had, Magan, Ahmed and I, were really I guess about how do we want to put out submissions? What kind of book does this want to be? I have read and loved both Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia and Growing Up Asian in Australia, but we wanted it to be its own project and I think that's what it needed to be.
ASTRID: I'm very interested in the submission process, but before we get there can you talk about how this became the first in the series that does have co-editors?
MAXINE: I think... both Magan and Ahmed have been involved in the initial Twitter conversation. We met up a couple of times over the course of the two years between actually working on this book and the Twitter conversation, and all three times we had gone, 'Yes we want to work together, this is going to be amazing'. And then of course life took over.
ASTRID: It tends to, doesn't it.
MAXINE: Then there was this one meeting we had where finally it's time.
MAGAN: Yeah. And actually before we spoke to you, Ahmed I were both like, well, you know given the whole African gang thing, it made a media portrayal we got to be really important to work with you specifically Maxine, because of your work and what you focus on. But yeah, that was I guess the starting point.
MAXINE: I think as well for myself, you know, this is the second book that I've edited after Best Australian Stories in 2017, but I don't necessarily want to have a career as an editor. So for me it was an opportunity to essentially work with two writers who are really strong writers starting out in their careers, to get a chance for them to have a chance to actually see if this was something they wanted to do.
And also I am African diaspora very removed. You know, my family comes from Africa 400 years ago during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, my parents were born in the Caribbean. And so I didn't feel either like I had necessarily the expertise or the knowledge or wanted... I didn't want to do it on my own. And it seemed very much like something that should be a collective mindset.
ASTRID: Can you just explain to us how you go from this Twitter conversation that you referred to a few times to actually, you know, talking to Black Inc and having a contract and making this being this idea become a book.
MAXINE: So together I think we came up with a list of... You know, usually with these anthologies there are 'who would we love to have in this book?' So I had a list of maybe five to eight people.
MAXINE: In terms of people we knew who had really interesting stories within the community. And I think that's what we went to Black Inc with, our bios, the idea for the book, and you know the names of five people who we'd already spoken to who'd said yes if this happens we would be prepared to put in a story.
MAGAN: And also our our aim and what we wanted to achieve with the book as well we thought would be important to include.
SHANTEL: I absolutely love the origin story of the book. And I was wondering, Magan. You and Ahmed are really well established writers. When you were talking to Maxine about making this book happen, were you always thinking that you would be editing or were you thinking 'I'll be a contributor, Maxine will lead'. How did that sort of get sorted out?
MAGAN: Yeah well, firstly I don't see myself as an established writer. I see myself as an emerging writer. And this links in quite well with wanting to be co-editor, because the experience, so I wanted the experience of, you know, co-editing a book. And working with Maxine was powerful in that way because we could learn so much about the whole process. And as part of being her editors, we could submit our pieces as well. That also gave me the experience of also getting a story there. Plus, co-editing and seeing everything behind the scenes, the whole process.
SHANTEL: Gave you that full 360 view of the process. That's a wonderful development opportunity. I was also wondering... Ahmed's story especially really touched me, and it's a really personal story. as are many throughout the work. And I wondered, Magan, as a contributor and co-editor, how do you tread that fine line between sharing an authentic story and protecting yours and the contributors privacy?
MAGAN: Yeah, I think I always write... For me before I wrote this story I thought, you know, it has to be a conscious decision. First, that I'm going to write this story, I'm going to make a conscious decision about what I'm going share. And in that conscious decision is where you draw the line as to what you will share, what is safe for you to share, what isn't safe you share. With certain stories we asked the contributor if they were certain they wanted to publish this, and I just kind of getting consent and making sure that the contributor understands, you know, the power of sharing the story and also what can happen as a result of sharing a story. Good or bad.
SHANTEL: Especially when you were working Maxine, with a number of contributors who have not been published before.
MAXINE: Yeah, absolutely. And there were a few phone calls, three or four I think, that we kind of had, discussions among ourselves and said you know this writer needs to know, you know, has their family read it? That their community might read it? I think as someone for me who's published particularly a memoir once it's there you have to assume that everyone who you know has read it, even if you don't think they will, or even if they speak English as a second language and you don't think they can access the story. And so those were some discussions we had.
And there was certainly some some bits of pieces that may have been, you know, people may have said, 'Oh well okay, I'll take that little bit out'. But there actually wasn't much of that. I mean, I think by the time people had gotten to the act of actually writing this down and sending it in they were very confident. And because we had no restrictions on content in terms of... We didn't, you know, we didn't say what kind of themes we wanted, people did have the opportunity when sending something to make a conscious decision as to this is the story I really want to tell. So they were quite confident. To my knowledge, you know, they're all quite happy with the stories being in there now.
MAGAN: We kind of got a sense that people were yearning to tell their stories. And that was a big part of the anthology. We got a sense that people were waiting to tell their story and were more than willing to tell their story. But yeah, obviously there are certain things you have to be aware of, like you know, you don't know how anyone's going to interpret your writing. Everything is definitely based on their history, their context, whatever it is. Just small pointers here and there, but people are more... the contributors are willing to share their story.
SHANTEL: That's really wonderful. I was actually going to ask you, the first time that I got hold of a copy of the book just reading your introduction, Maxine, I was like okay no punches are being pulled here. The truth is being told. And I wondered as a result of this really courageous truth telling, have you received any pushback, any bad reviews? Has there been anybody who perhaps wasn't ready for that level of honesty?
MAXINE: I think a little bit. You know, I think when the first reviews came online or pictures of the cover of the book on Twitter... but you know, really kind of just innocuous, 'You can't be African and Australian at the same time. Why is this called Growing Up?' And I just these kind of really ridiculous... you know, how can you even have a conversation around that?
I think the wonderful thing about books is that the people that would pick up a book like this are usually ready to have that kind of a conversation. I think readers by and large are really generous people, and you read because you want to take a walk in someone else's shoes. It's not to say that the stories are not confronting here and there, but I think... I guess I find that with my books I don't get nearly as much - touch wood - pushback as as you'd think that I would, because these are readers. You know, you're talking to people who are either on the fence I'm wanting to know a little bit more, or they you know they're really invested in a story.
SHANTEL: That's really wonderful. And my final question before I pass it back over to Astrid. As a member of African diaspora myself, I absolutely love the way that I felt. Like, I recognised myself in the book. But I was also educated and expanded so much, especially about the experiences Maxine of... you know, I'm of an Afro Caribbean background as well, the experiences of my African diaspora friends. And I wondered, I know that it was a very specific intention that you wanted it to represent diaspora broadly, but that's such a broad and complex idea. How did you approach making sure that you were representative? Or was that something you even thought of as a burden at the outset?
MAXINE: I think we... Well, initially we had conversations about what constitutes African Australian. You know, in the UK you have this term Black British, which encompasses people who've come from the Caribbean and people who've come from the African continent, anyone with African ancestry. And then of course in the US you have African-American, but in Australia this kind of no equivalent all encompassing term. And what we came up with was that broad definition of, you know, we will leave it open to people who've come here from Africa hundreds of years ago as well as those who've come here yesterday.
I think what we end up with out of the 35 stories was I think 31 of them were... you know, maybe four of them were diaspora stories. So we had a story from a Brazilian Australian, Guido, who's actually in the audience today. We had us two from I think Jamaican Australians and one from a Guyanese descent. And we also had a story that came in right at the last minute that was from someone who found out, you know, identifies as white middle class white family, found out that she was related to two black African convicts on the First Fleet who were former slaves. So kind of you know we've gone from really ... And so I don't think we had, I don't think we had initially when we're reading the stories any kind of quotas or anything like that. And it was right near the end. Did you want to talk a little bit about that?
MAGAN: Yeah. And for me, because being African or Black in Australia is not really defined, it's not as specific as say African-Americans and how they see themselves as being black. That kind of broadness fit well to, I think, my experiences, our experiences, as Africans living in Australia. That f or me fit well. And it also played or contributed to what's real or real experiences and trying to capture that which is real.
MAXINE: And I think was right near the end that we looked at... When we decided what we wanted to go and we said, 'Look. we better stop and look at geography where people are from'. And I think we'd covered every region of Africa except at that stage Central Africa. And then suddenly we got this piece from Inez Trambas whose father comes from the Central African Republic, so it was just serendipitous, you know. And there are, I mean there's so many countries, I was saying I came with a copy of the book in my Uber and then I gave it away because my driver was from Swaziland. And I went, 'If only!' He had the most incredible story. You know, his mum was from Estonia, his dad was from Cape Town, they met in Cape Town and then had to move to Swaziland to escape Apartheid. So I'm going 'Why didn't I meet you six months ago? I could have put you in the book'.
So there are definitely many more locations and stories that we could have included, but just by some kind of serendipitous act I think we got this incredible spread of stories.
MAGAN: It did happen organically for the most part. As we were mapping it out, we were like I guess it works. Yeah quite well.
ASTRID: So this anthology is an anthology of Own Voices, if I can put it in that way. I had the privilege of speaking to Alice Pung on this stage for The Garret last year, and she has a quote about Own Voices that I'd like to read you and get your response. So I'm quoting Alice Pung: 'Own voices is really important but the quality of own voices is also quite important as well'. And this was part of a broader discussion Alice was having about how she always gets asked to edit the work of other writers and she fears that they get published once because they have come from somewhere or they have a particular type of story, but then without being mentored or being edited and being supported they then don't get published again.
So I was wondering about your thoughts, both of you.
MAGAN: Well, I think part of the part of the problem is when those particular writers are getting published, part of why they get published because of that one story, that one idea of who they think they are. And so, if a writer or a writer of colour is not seen as someone who is a person who happens to be from wherever they're from, and that the stories are telling also stories that are normal and stories that can be understood and stories that are also complex, they also are interested in other other things as well. And so I think that part of the issue is writers of colour are not given the, I guess, the capacity or the right to also be interested in other things. Because not only are writers of colour dealing with everything else, with life, grief and family and all of that, but on top of that there's the structural issues of racism and all that.
MAXINE: Yeah, I do think the the danger with these collections is that they get seen as some kind of a special project, you know, that these stories are going to be in some way substandard or not up to scratch because this is... because you've lessened this pool to just African diaspora, or people of Asian descent, or Aboriginal people. And our number one, you know, the reason we didn't really look at where people were from or who they were when submissions came in was our number one criteria was a good story. And I feel like that's the number one criteria for any anthology. And I think the reviews have... some of them have almost been surprised, just like 'Oh, this is a good book. Who would have expected this?'
And I think you know, that can be one of the dangers. People then find it difficult to build on that, because it's seen as, 'Well, obviously you got included in this'. But you know, some of the pieces in here, there are a few pieces in particular that I thought, 'this is the some of the best writing I've seen in the last few years'. But just by people who aren't getting a chance to publish it.
ASTRID: Are you allowed to say what your favourite is? Or not, as the editor.?
MAXINE: I think my... I'll say one of my unexpected favourites, because I'm not a religious person. There's a story called 'Power'. It's called 'Power'?
MAGAN: I was just going to say 'Power'.
MAXINE: By a woman called Hope Mathumbu. And it's just a story set in an African church, I think in Melbourne's west. And it's just about this young girl who's in church and she's waiting, she wants the church service to be over because she's waiting to go to her friend's party, and her friend's mum is going to be cooking hotpot, which she's never eaten before. And it's just all of these characters, you know, you have the single mother aunty, who everyone secretly talks about because she's kind of gone down the wrong path or whatever, and you have the young pastor who kind of dresses like Prince and all the girls in the church have a crush on him. It was just this kind of beautiful portrait of community, and a real surprise for me. You know, as an editor I think you really have to undo your own tendencies to kind of go - you know,, I'm not religious I've never been to church or whatever - but this piece is just this beautiful portrait of community.
ASTRID: So both of you, can you tell us... can you take us through how you took these beautiful stories, and maybe what you left out? Like how harsh is that process as editors?
MAGAN: That is a difficult thing to do because there were so many stories that we could have added, that we wanted to add, that we could have added, but any anthology has limitations. And so, that was difficult. And we also had our goal that we said, you know, I mean that we also wanted to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and their history and our relationship to that as settlers as well. And there are stories that kind of perpetuate a stereotype of different people, then they were not going to be part of the story. So just making those decisions, although those weren't so difficult, but also not... Because you want to add more stories, and you know the kind of stories that need to be told and how important this book is
MAXINE: Yeah, I think we felt an extra pressure because of the time that this is coming out. So not that we didn't want difficult stories to be told, but our particular aim was there is a specific narrative about the African Australian community at this point in time, so we want as diverse a collection of stories as possible. And I think you know we got stories about dances, stories about people who wanted to be actors, stories about, you know, just someone who met Nelson Mandela in his local church as a kid, just kind of the variety of stories, a story about learning to play AFL in the schoolyard. And I think it was really exciting.
You know, we had one night where I think we were on the phone for about three and a half hours, and we just had the least of the stories and we would each give our opinion. I think we'd each picked our top twenty, and then we would each have a 'fight pile'. So if no one else agreed with that story - and we were doing this by Skype, I think Ahmed was overseas at the time and we weren't even in the same location, so this kind of Skype conversation - if no one else liked it you could put it on your fight pile, and then you could like really give it a good pitch to go in the book.
And I mean there were pieces in the book that weren't on my pile, as there are pieces in the book that weren't on Magan's. I mean, I really think it is the product of the three of our tastes and the fact that we were able to come to this kind of consensus and advocate for our different tastes and our different sensibilities.
ASTRID: Was there ever a complete disagreement. I mean, I know that you've just had you had the fight pile, which is the work that you could go in and advocate for, but did anyone really advocate against including something?
MAXINE: I don't think so. I mean, there were pieces that we set aside and said, 'We'd like to include this but we need to have a conversation with this author, because this may cause issues for them, like you we need to make sure they understand what publishing this story will do'. I don't think there were.
ASTRID: Can you tell us about the contributor announcement, and you know, what it felt like before you put the stories out into the world, what it felt like to put the names of these established and emerging writers out there.
MAXINE: I think it was pretty incredible. And I think it's the kind of thing where even though we'd made the announcement it was going to happen, you really don't think I know from in the past when I've sent things off to be go into anthologies you really don't think it's ever going to happen. It seems like this kind of bizarre idea of a theme. But yeah, just to be able to see all those names lined up and know that...
And also when you put the contributor announcement out we didn't know, we didn't know if we get ten stories, we didn't know if we'd get one thousand stories. I think we ended up getting about 100 submissions. We have thirty five stories in the book, around eight of them were commissioned, eight or nine of them were commissioned. And so there were far more people that didn't end up in the book than did. And so there was also a sense of... There are more people who are going to see this announcement and not be in the book than you'll see in it. But you know, we've had feedback, people have been really generous and we've had feedback, I've had feedback from people who submitted saying, 'I've read it and I think it's an amazing book, and you know thank you for doing this', which has been really incredible.
MAGAN: I've been getting feedback as well, but also in the lead up to it hen the anthology was announced, just the celebration, like it was it was massive. And I mean people I hadn't seen in years contacted me, you know, and wanted to have a conversation about the anthology and what it was going to be like and all of that. So yeah, it was fantastic.
SHANTEL: That's really wonderful to hear. I noticed that you have a really good mixture of male and female contributors, and also writers who already had a profile and emerging and new writers. Was there a strong imperative to include well-known names? How did you select the eight people whose works were commissioned?
MAXINE: I think for us, not necessarily well-known names because I don't think the eight commission people necessarily are well known, some of them are. But stories where we thought, 'We feel like this person has a really interesting story to tell, we know they've been around for ages and they probably have never had the chance to tell them'.
So for example, Ahmed suggested Keenan MacWilliam who starred on The Saddle Club. I don't know if anyone grew up watching The Saddle Club, but it was like who was that girl on The Saddle Club? She was this random black girl on set! And when we contacted her she said 'Yes, actually that was really hard, being on Australian television as an 11 year old black girl at a time when...' And so she wanted to tell that story.
Another person we included was Faustina Agolley, who used to host Video Hits. You know, we all grew up watching her host Video Hits. And she grew up - you know, her father passed away when she was nine months old, he was African, her mum was Chinese - so she grew up in the Chinese community. And so all these people that we knew there must be a story there, but we didn't also we didn't prescribe the story. We just said, 'Look, we know you're around, we'd love to hear from you. What story would you like to tell?' So I think the story that Faustina submitted about losing her father and growing up in the Chinese community and rediscovering her African roots in her teens was not really probably the story we were expecting to get. So, yeah, there were kind of these few people, maybe five of them, would be names that would be familiar with people, but just people who we thought, 'They've been around but we don't... We feel like we really don't know what their backstory is, and do they have something to say?'
MAGAN: And that's really part of what it is to be African in Australia. Like, those few individuals who are seen but not really known. And the book gave that opportunity to Faustina, I who I grew up watching on TV and The Saddle Club as well, and you kind of learn people's story through that.
SHANTEL: I can absolutely relate to that. I make a podcast for black Australian women, and I was terrified to invite people to be interviewed. But everyone has a story that they're bursting to tell it, and you can just tell from the quality of the contribution... That's so exciting. Did you have any concerns - because of the lack of mainstream representation of writers of African diaspora - that the people you included may become unwitting representatives.
MAGAN: I mean, on one level we have no a choice in that. People put that on you. So, on one level you see it for what it is, and you're like, 'Okay well, dominant Australia will put that on me'. As so we just then put the book out for us. Where do African Australians stand and what's their position in Australia? And you look at wider society, and when you're talking about African gangs or whatever, you can kind of see that for wider society and their moral panic about what it means to be African, and being from here it we serve as a, we function and serve as a purpose to define what it is to be Australian. For wider society, that means you're not Australian, we're Australian by virtue of how we label you. And so that comes through being the model, being a representative, that is also really loaded, because you know people have misconceptions about you based on history and the way this country was established.
MAXINE: I mean I think there are people in the book who are already seen as representatives of their various communities. You know, for example, we have a piece by Daniel Haile-Michael, who was instrumental in changing policing laws. He was a victim of police profiling in West Melbourne, and was involved in the Flemington legal service case against Victoria Police. So he's kind of written... really his piece is about what it does to you to be forced into that position of becoming a community advocate, and maybe not really wanting to but you kind of have to.
We have a piece also by Nyadol Nyuon, who some of you have probably seen on The Drum or on Q&A. But she, you know, she's kind of I guess become a bit of a spokesperson in her community, although she wrote a beautiful piece about her mother. So I mean I feel like we are all naturally forced into that position, but I think the good thing about an anthology is there's thirty five of us, so really you can choose to have your story in this book and never be heard of again, or you can choose to go on panels and talk about your story. There is a lot of leeway to test out the waters, especially for those who've never had their story told before, to either say OK that was that was once and I'm not going to do it again, or to say look I think this is really important and this is work that I want to do.
MAGAN: And because of the diversity of the stories as well you get some who, you know, like Daniel's story is all about racial profiling. We also get Santilla Chingaipe's story about her playing football. So you know, that wide spectrum is there and you can kind of point to those experiences or you know those who are representing, or those who are representing the subjective story of those who aren't responding to what wider society is saying about them.
SHANTEL: When you are dealing with submissions like Daniel's, for instance, and when he's sharing of really personal experience. How do you as editors then help to craft that into a beautiful piece of literature?
MAXINE: So I think there are four or five stories in the book that were taken from interviews. And when we started we did decide that if we did come across a story where someone had a really great story but wasn't confident writing it or didn't have the English skills or for whatever reason preferred to be recorded, that was something we were prepared to do.
So Daniel's story came from a transcript. Ahmed had interviewed him, and we then used that transcript as a basis to craft an essay in consultation with him. And there were some other stories, there's a story by Tinashe Pwiti, who is Zimbabwean, she wrote about her brother who passed away a few years ago, her twin brother. And he was kind of an icon of Melbourne's reggae scene, and it was just a really harrowing story. You know, this story about them kind of coming over to Australia as twins and her ending up being here on her own. And so recording that for me was really difficult, because it was a really really difficult and harrowing story, and I was just sitting there thinking why am I making this person - I mean, I wasn't forcing her to tell the story, but you know, just this sense of almost intrusion, you know, which is different than when someone writes something in and hands it to you.
But I think just being open in that editing process and wanting people to feel comfortable to say, 'Actually, I've decided I don't want to speak to go in now', and to let us know what the important bits were, you know, is there anything in this that is actually non-negotiable? I think it was really important, particularly for people who'd never been edited before. I think being edited is a really peculiar thing, if you've never had someone rearrange your words then it can be quite confronting.
MAGAN: And one of the things that I learnt out of this experience co-editing the book is the importance of voice, but also recognising the other person's - the writer's voice or the contributor's - voice, and to try and highlight that. Try and get their context, understand their context and what they mean and what they want to say.
SHANTEL: And Magan, how has that changed the way that you work as a writer?
MAGAN: Yeah. Because that was my first ever big editing project that I have done, and so I got to see both, because I prior to that I am a writer, so. I've been writing, I never got to see the process on the other end. So for me, I learned more about voice but also learned that people are as caring about their story as you are. I think that was one of the main big things that I took took from that experience.
MAXINE: The other thing as well is that we did have a very strong editorial team within Black Inc, so we were looking as editors at things like voice, at things like cultural context, at things like structure. In terms of line by line, you know, that kind of correction and crossing the t's and dotting the i's, a lot of that was done in-house. And the Black Inc editing team has had incredible experience, you know, this is their third such anthology, and I think they did a really really good job of working with Black writers, with African diaspora writers, and everyone who worked on the book had a really great experience.
MAGAN: And that's a good reminder, because I've recently co-edited another anthology. And again the process was quite similar. So you know, working voice, working directly with the writer and what they mean, and you know, trying to achieve a goal, but then there is also in-house editors that are looking line by line, or looking at the grammar, looking at, you know, the comma should be there, or do you mean the comma to be there, et cetera.
SHANTEL: It's so good to hear a bit more about the process that you guys used. Just one more on process before I pass over to Astrid.
Maxine, your introduction is so powerful. I learned so much, and there is some good provocation in there I think for us as settlers. Did you write it after the book had been pretty much put together or was it something that you already were working on after your conversations with Ahmed and Magan.
MAXINE: So, I'd written a piece during Black History Month for The Saturday Paper, which at the time - and I now write poetry for them, but at the time I was writing portraits, creative portraits and the occasional article - and this article was during Black History Month in the US, but I was talking about our African Diaspora ancestors here, and all of these figures that Australia really has very little knowledge of. You know, our only known pirate Black Jack Anderson was of African descent, our first bushranger John Black Caesar was of African descent. You know, there were eleven Africans on the First Fleet, this kind of list of African characters who were settlers and who essentially were part of the colonial project of Australia has been lost.
And so I wrote this article, and I think when we were talking about the introduction I said I want to put these things in here, because there's this fallacy that when we talk about African migration to Australia we're only talking about the last twenty or so years. You know, I'm turning 40 this year and I was born here, though I didn't come directly from the African continent. But you know, there's this long history of black migration to this continent, and so we wanted to acknowledge that we are settlers, and we are settlers like everyone else is here on other peoples Black land.
And I think in particular, when you're talking about things like racism and discrimination and othering it was really important for us to acknowledge that. We're not First Peoples here, and even though we share some kind of experiences in terms of discrimination, we have a particular... everyone who is not First Nations has a particular responsibility towards upholding the history of this land.
And so I think we wanted the introduction to start off with that truth, and then also went on to include how we ended up coming up with the idea to put the book together, what we termed as being of African descent and kind of broadening that.
MAGAN: And also, you know, it adds to the conversation about what it means to be Black in Australia. That it is different, you know, being African is fundamentally different because of the, history, yeah, because of the history, and also our experiences living in Australia as Africans. It makes them more complex and it also makes us more accountable.
SHANTEL: I love that. I love that accountability. Wonderful.
ASTRID: I adored the introduction. I am not sure what I expected when I picked up the anthology. Often the introduction by an editor brings together some examples or highlights, some of the most profound stories within the collection. And you shocked me in the best way because you taught me things that I didn't know about the last 200 or so years of Australian history. And so my question to you is not just when you write the introduction but when you were both bringing the collection together, who you think your readers would be and what type of different responses were you hoping to get?
MAXINE: I don't think we ever thought about that. And I don't think I ever think about that really with my other work. You know, I write for everyone. And I guess we may have thought about how... You know, maybe after the fact, about sometimes I did that with my book, how would I read this if I was a migrant Australian as opposed to if I was Anglo Australian? But I don't think that's a conversation we had, we very much wanted it to be a book that was read by anyone, anyone who was... like please everyone just read these stories! Whereas... I mean, I feel like it might have been a different book if we thought a bit more about gearing it towards a particular readership.
MAGAN: Yeah, and it's impossible to gear it towards a particular readership because how do you do that? Unless you're relying on a perception about being African or a perception about writing, it's very difficult to do that. So we didn't really think of that.
MAXINE: I think I guess we knew instinctively that African Australian readers would gravitate to the book anyway because of the content and the fact that it would likely mirror their experiences.
ASTRID: I guess the question was actually provoked in me by You Must Be Layla, which is the new YA fiction book by Yassmin Abdel-Magied. And she was very vocal about writing the work... the work that she didn't have growing up in Australia. It's a work about a young Muslim girl who goes to school, but she didn't see that. And I was privileged to have a conversation, and I said, 'Well, what are your thoughts on people who aren't Muslim growing up in Australia and reading this, because you're changing their world as well, you know, opening it up to everything that Australia is'. It's just that sometimes that's not represented in our literature.
MAXINE: Yeah absolutely. I mean I think with my work instinctively I'm writing the books that I wanted to read. But you know, I think as well our audience shows us that you know you can't you can't put a put a limit on readership. And certainly, you know, some of the... with my memoir, for example, when that came out I had an email from a father, Anglo Australian father, whose wife had passed away, whose wife was African, and he had Black kids, and he said, 'My kids have tried to tell me about all this stuff in your book and I didn't understand what they were talking about and I feel like this book is I know I know my kids for the first time in my life'. And so I think for those kids, him reading that is powerful. You know that's going to change their lives in the same way that it's changed his. So I think that particularly when you're talking about racism and discrimination in Australia, nothing will change unless everyone is part of the conversation, you know. And I think for my books I do love it when I see kids like me reading the books, but I want everyone to read them.
MAGAN: And the only thing that I thought whilst working on the book, and we kind of had a conversation about that, you know the idea of the content of this book being an angry book, a book that all the stories are about oppression and anger and you know grief and all of that, but our stories are complex and multiple. We are not all the same.
MAXINE: Yeah. And there's this idea you know I think when the stories came in just this delightful... You know, stories about learning football or stories about going away to dance class, or someone wrote a story about their loud Jamaican dad and how embarrassed they used to be of him because he was like the loud Black dad in the neighbourhood, and just that idea that you are sometimes cornered as a Black writer, or even as a migrant writer, into writing what the market is seen to want. And so I guess we like the fact that the writers embrace this idea that they could write about anything. Some people wrote about books, you know. So I think it was just an opportunity for people to write what they wanted.
SHANTEL: I just wanted to ask how, as writers of colour and as writers who are breaking down boundaries a lot of the time, how do you approach engaging with criticism? You know, you want to engage with criticism to some extent perhaps to help you develop, but then you've got to also be aware of the world we live in and sometimes protect ourselves. How do you guys approach that?
MAGAN: Yeah, that's an interesting question because I know a lot of writers spend a lot of time thinking about that. And the way I look at it myself as a writer is how I look at it when it comes to what do I think of a general person. So if the criticism I feel is just negative or it's based on... it's coming from a place that's not mine, you know, I just I just drop it. Otherwise, if it's a critique based on the content, the actual content of what I'm writing, then I'll listen. But you know you got to know what your boundaries are, you've got to know yourself. I feel like being a writer is also being a student of life. And so you got to know your boundaries, know yourself, know what your values are and know what your intention is.
MAXINE: I think very much when work is out there it has its own life, you know, you can't be held responsible for the way other people read things, the way they perceive things. So I think knowing that you're not actually obliged to respond in any way to any kind of criticism. I think criticism is different from trolling, you know. But I think if something is constructive I probably will end up at some stage reading it. I don't really read that many reviews of my work. Sometimes I'll tweet a review of my work and then I'll read it years later and I'll go, 'I tweeted that. I was promoting that without even realising it was a shitty review'. Sorry!
Because I just don't, you know, I think you can't... It's kind of your baby and you've worked on it and it's like having a child, you send it out into the world and you can't... you drive yourself crazy if you try and hold yourself responsible for everything that child is then going to do for the rest of its life.
MAGAN: And in a way it like belongs to the world now. So whatever they take from it is theirs. And it can stay there or it can come and you can take it on. ANd I published my first book last year, and at the start of this year this person emailed me. It's a collection of poems and the theme across the poems is grief. And so a reader emailed me basically telling me that the way I write about grief was wrong, based on their own experiences. And so what do you do when you read that? You know, you let it stay there, because it's not... I don't own the definition of grief, otherwise you can't do much.
But then you get other people reading it who give you really interesting takes on your work, especially on poetry for me. Like a person was reading my work and they had asked me if I had... There is a poem about - because I grew up in public housing - there's a poem about living in the flats, and then they asked me if that actual collection entirely was about that, living in public housing. And I don't know how they got to that point but I thought it was really really interesting because they believed that and that's what it meant for them.
ASTRID: Can you tell us what the most surprising question that you've received in a public forum is about this anthology?
MAXINE: Yeah I don't think there have been any curveballs thus far. Maybe there's going to be one here.
I think that Sydney Writers Festival someone asked - because we had all women on stage just by some chance you know - are there any men in this collection, you know. But it just kind of happened that we were four Black women onstage. But I mean I think there's been o nothing out of the blue thus far.
I'll also point out that we do have Guido in the audience down here, who has a story in the collection. So if anyone wants to ask him a question feel free and I'll hand the mic over.
ASTRID: And we have a question there
QUESTION 1: It's not really about the book, what I'm going to ask. I've been feeling - and maybe it's just a feeling - but you know politically speaking Australia, I've been feeling more and more there is a bigger tension coming from the broader white community towards migrants and Black migrants, consequently, and I believe that's because we are achieving or over achieving within Australian society. So how do you feel that's going to... If that's going to increase and how does that effect us as writers, as professionals in Australia in the next few years. Like you have the Hunter Valley, for instance, with twenty thousand votes for the far right party where it should be a guaranteed Labor vote. So how do you see that?.
ASTRID: You brought politics into it!
QUESTION 1: Of course.
SHANTEL: A small matter.
QUESTION 2: Oh I'll try to answer this. I come from a Jewish European background, mother Russian, father from Poland. They came here and they were despised by the earlier Jews that came here. So it's just a matter of time, absorption.
MAXINE: Yeah. I'm fairly pessimistic on that front. I'm not saying that things won't change, but when you talk about time and you look at African-Americans and you look at the fact that they've been there since slavery you know and we're still having Black kids gunner down on a street, I think the visibility of aesthetic blackness makes things different. And I think, as Guido (Question 1) said, I think things are coming back to... I feel like there was kind of a little tiny bit of hope maybe in the late 1980s, but we seem seems to be like two steps forward and ten steps back at the moment. I don't know what the answer is. You know, I think things like this book actually change the narrative. You know, there is this incredible power words that once you write something down it's undeniable.
ASTRID: It's real.
MAXINE: And so I think just thinking about ways to change the narrative for me is the way forward in a time of great despair.
MAGAN: But we also know that problems with racism or you know... That is not a problem of trying to figure out what the human make up is. It's not about individual people, it's not about persons, it's about power. We know this growing up that those who are in power, anyone that is in power won't just give it up. It's got to be taken. And that is where I think the focus has to be, and the anthology is part of that. And power is shown through language and through many ways, but I think power is a way to...
ASTRID: Including through stories.
MAGAN: Yeah. Yeah.
ASTRID: We had a question over here.
QUESTION 3: Yeah, I think it's more of a comment. I had heard of your book, Maxine, The Hate Race. And I've been guilty of avoiding it because I assumed that it might have been a little bit negative and a bit about politics and so forth. And when I started reading it I just found it so beautifully written and such an important book. And as a teacher I've taught two of the girls who write in your anthology there. And it was really special to read their stories and I'm really happy to have that book to present to other girls I teach of colour. Thank you.
QUESTION 4: Thank you. I am just like three months in Australia, and I'm from Nigeria. While thinking about coming to Australia... So I've been trying to... So because of media, social media, I've been exposed to experiences of African people elsewhere, and so I don't really know much about Africans in Australia, but from what I know about those in America, their African-ness has been merged into one such that they don't see... For example, there was a video I watched and they were asking people, some Americans, that they should name some countries in Africa, and they were like Africa itself is a country not not a continent. So people forget that Africa is composed of over fifty countries. So my question is how do you negotiate such distinction between recognising yourself as an African but also as belonging to a particular culture in Africa, and not make something change or you represent a whole continent when there are differences and variations in the continent itself? Thanks.
MAXINE: I think that's a great question. I guess the danger with a book like this is it is called Growing Up African in Australia, which kind of has this air homogeneity. But I think once you read the stories and you have people talking about their various regions and various kind of pieces of their history, you start to get this broader picture of the different regions. I think that is... I think you're right, that is something that happens as a process of migration. Not necessarily out of intention, but because you migrate somewhere you don't necessarily have access to the food you have back home, to the dress you have back home, to the music you have back home. So some of that naturally dissipates. But I think again just kind of storytelling and knowing where your communities are in Australia. For me, you know, there's organisations like the Caribbean Society of Victoria, you know, that will have a picnic every three months or whatever, and you just go there and it's a park with West Indian people. So finding those organisations that will actually link you up to people from the area that you're from.
But also one of the great things that I think that piece that I talked about that is set in a church in the book, Power, does is... Hope talks about that she never knew that Africans could be Muslims. You know, before she came to Australia she never knew about North Africans. And I certainly... I have times when people, you know, African migrants to Australia will say to me where are you from? And I'll say my parents are Jamaican, and they'll say well you look African. I say, well of course, because the slave trade you know. And so we assume that we know all of these things. Sometimes I actually have to explain, you know, someone stole me from your continent 500 years ago. You know we do actually belong to each other!
And I think part of it is about history. You know, we don't get taught these things often in Australia. I think the conversation we actually had on Twitter initially was about apartheid in South Africa, and the fact that apartheid laws were based on Queensland's Aboriginal Protection Act. You know, South African legislators came to Australia and thought that we were doing such a wonderful job of segregation that they took those laws and used them as as the basis for apartheid laws. And you know, when when we don't learn this history we don't know these things about each other and we don't know these things about our own backgrounds. You know, there is certainly a lot of things I wish I knew about my background that I don't. So I think just having that awareness that you already have of maintaining those links and looking for places to find them.
ASTRID: Are there any further questions?
QUESTION 5: Skipping a little bit the ahead, i t seems that the genre of this book is probably diaspora. Would you like to see writers going into other genres like horror, sci fi yet keeping their diaspora through it? Would you like to edit those sorts of anthologies?
MAINE: I mean I think it would be wonderful to see some of these writers if they want to moving into other areas. You know, we do have poetry in the book as well so there's some people they already have. It's non-fiction poetry, they're still telling their stories, but there are people there that are kind of telling in other kind of forms. So yes, I hope that we can have... and not necessarily anthologies, you know, I would love for every writer to have their own book in 10 years time in whatever genre they choose. I think one of the dangers - and certainly I have witnessed it myself - is that you get migrant writers are allowed to write non-fiction. In particular they're allowed to write grateful migrant stories about how wonderful their lives are now that they're in Australia. And so yeah, to see that genre expanded will be incredible.
ASTRID: Can you all please join me in thanking Maxine, Magan and Shantel.