Back online almost a year later.
It’s strange to think nearly a year ago we were traipsing across the foho on the outskirts of Dili, following the Stations of the Cross. Thousands of us beneath the shifting light of the heavy leaf and the damp undergrowth. The only sound, the round robin of prayer thrown back and forth between groups of youths along the mountainside.
A lot has happened since then. I have wrapped up my assignment and the boy and I did a trip to Europe over the Christmas break. I was so excited to be somewhere completely new. That thrill of not knowing what to expect and also to see the expected. London was magical, Paris breathtaking, Barcelona inspiring and Rome just ahhhh. The tropical half isle has permanently set my body temperature at about 33 celsius and it was a shock to be in temps that were close to zero. Though, Winters are beautiful and I have missed them. Even now thinking of those shorter days in Sydney when the coats get dusted off and the boots go on for the first time. Pockets thrust deep in pockets and the trees turning.
Timor has it’s seasons too and they are surprisingly discernible. The rainy and the dry, but also a windy season and a respite season where the mornings and evenings are cool, and we pull out the heavier tais to keep us warm at night. Small but significant shifts that let you know the Earth is still turning.
Part of the reason this blog got put aside for a while was that I was thundering through my Masters Thesis. I finished it on a drizzly afternoon in Ubud, Bali in June last year. It was one of the largest pieces of writing I have ever completed and the bliss was astonishing. Now that I know how to structure a large piece of writing, and buoyed by my enthusiasm, I began making big plans for regular writing. Short stories, travelogue essays, critical essays on development. A larger piece like a novel…
Instead, as the habit of writing ended, the same old fears and doubts came in and took it’s place and silenced me into writing nothing. Not even this simple blog. Many of my doubts are about what to write and whether anything I write will be worth reading.
There are the personal anxieties about being good enough. A therapist I saw once during university said the number of young women that expressed ‘not being good enough’ as the root of their procrastination, avoidance, destructive behavior was leading her to think it needed a diagnostic classification. That’s quite likely part of it. But it was also the kind of young woman I was-a mixed race, white-passing Muslim woman of color. Later on when I knew what identity politics (screw you) were, when I found literature and pockets of thought that answered so many of the questions were the irritations and dead-ends I found myself in able to be unpacked. When the spotlight was on the audience who you wanted to be good enough for.
There are the other socio political anxieties. The appalling realization of the circumstances of Australian history and 200 hundred years of institutionalized racism experienced by Indigenous people. Seeing it all differently, the backyard, the bush, the creek, the foundations of the house you played underneath on hot summer days. A contemporary government of both sides that fell over each other to find a morally void solution to the humanitarian crisis of refugees. A post 9-11 society where I experienced the world shift. A terrible moment between a held breath and an exhalation where my friendships, the society I lived in, the communities that grew me up become cautious and fractured. To hesitate before saying it was Eid. To seize up whenever Islam or Muslims were mentioned. To cringe and pray the dude wasn’t brown whenever a criminal act made a headline. Down conversational roads with friends that left me unsettled and alone with that rancid exhalation now come between us. The world had changed and I was expected to explain it and soothe that change for them.
The rise of Islamophobia contributes to an underlying nausea, a motion sickness I feel every day. On the worst days the anger and the hammering defensiveness render me mute. My fingers haven’t a tethered word in them. My voice is all anger and rage and I do not play the good Moderate Muslim role well. I am an angry brown woman and we’re a post-racial society now so there’s no place for you, Harpie.
‘There’s no such thing as Islamophobia.’ Cried the educated bigot.
‘Islam is not a race.’ Said the smug Councillor.
‘Muslims don’t win Nobel Prizes.’ Crowed the atheist.
They just invented soap and all.
On other days I can tinker with my thoughts. Push back with some grounded words. Those are good days. Finding yourself amongst some written words. Fist pumping pushing back against the tide of the grand narrative.
Other days I go back to the giants and giantesses who prop me up a little. The different feminisms that talk about the things you saw your mother, your brother, the brown men and women in your and other brown and black communities go through that had nothing to do with glass ceilings and everything to do with inequality.
In the time I’ve been away from this blog, two incredible books have entered the Australian literary scene. Omar Musas’s ‘Here Come the Dogs’ and recently the Stella prize nominated ‘Foreign Soil’ by Maxine Beneba Clarke. For other writers of color or aspiring writers of color, seeing these books published and appreciated is inspiring and motivating. I remember the first time a school text written by a non-white writer was placed in my hands at 16. It was Bharati Mukherjee’s ‘Wife’. The thrill of familiarity, the understanding, the deep feeling of home, the absence of racism and the recognition in those pages had a lasting effect on me. I felt at home seeing other voices and other stories in print, on real paper with a book jacket and a price tag on the back.
I had read about some readers’ experiments where they would read only female writers for one year. In this article Sunili Govinnage talks about her experiment of reading writers of color for one year. In the intersecting ways in which I find myself in stories and in literature, race is definitely at the forefront. It’s where my synapses tingle and I am drawn into a story where it’s difference makes it familiar. I remember reading a John Berger quote in year 12 that said “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.” It changed my reading and gave me the courage to look for those stories that spoke to me of people and time and places that felt like somewhere I had been already. Where I could recognize the items in the room, the way a couple danced around a painful thing, the way the knees of brown and black children become grey when they play. Instead of looking to books to escape, or transcend where I was, I wanted the opposite. I wanted to feel rooted to where I was. To be made real in a book. To be made visible in a story-even if it isn’t your own.
Ten years on from that John Berger quote and I see the other stories getting a seat at the table. Seeing this and finding communities of readers and writers of the other stories has gone someway to dismantling the fears I had and the paralysis I was experiencing around finding voice, shaping it and finally using it. Every writer or aspiring writer possibly goes through these. But for some, the politics of voice throw up different hurdles. As I became a different reader I found in others courage and in other stories the heroes and heroines I needed and the urge to be a part of that chatter too.