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New Asia Now: Miguel Syjuco, Annie Zaidi, and Sheng Keyi

According to New Asia Now contributor Sheng Keyi, there is a saying in China: “If a Chinese person wants to learn about China, they have to learn English.” And the author of speculative novel Death Fugue points to the heavy censorship in the Chinese media and publishing industry.

Keyi should know, Death Fugue has been banned in mainland China.

Many Asian writers have difficulty expressing themselves as a result of either oppression or corruption in their countries.

A common atrocity among the nations of Miguel Syjuco, Annie Zaidi, and Sheng Keyi was the levels of corruption in their societies. They each chose to write openly about the dark, and rarely scrutinized, aspects of particular Asian countries.

They are all part of New Asia Now, a Griffith Review collection of work from young Asian writers, all born after 1970. It is the journal’s most ambitious edition, according to the Griffith Review editor and session chair, Julianne Schultz.

The session began with the three authors reading excerpts of their work, and then they leapt into discussing the socio-political climates of their respective countries.

Filipino author of Illustrado, Syjuco, believes that it is his responsibility, as an artist from the Phillipines, to tell the world about the corruption evident in his country.

When a writer sits down to write they often ask why they are writing, said Syjuco, particularly when they are politically engaged. He hopes his writing will reach out to the next generation so they can take on some of his ideas.

Annie Zaido and Miguel Syjuco, with

Annie Zaidi and Miguel Syjuco, with Griffith Review editor and session chair, Julianne Schultz.

Syjuco’s essay in New Asia Now, Beating Dickheads, shows the parallels and contrasts between Australian and Filipino politics. He talks about how Australians will sit down at breakfast, read the newspaper, and become disillusioned with the state of parliament.

“What a dickhead!” is the usual response to the daily political disgrace, writes Syjuco.

This is, he says, a “defence mechanism” responding to a feeling of helplessness among the electorate. You can elect parliamentarians, but yet not feel any positive shift in society, or that parliamentarians provide an accurate representation of the needs of citizens.

Similarly, in The Phillipines, people feel this way about their governments. The difference, Syjuco said, is that you can go to jail for expressing such beliefs. He believes it would be unlikely that his essay would be published in his country, as it would be considered defamatory.

India presents a similar situation, according to Zaidi, author of Gulab and Love Stories #1 to 14.

In her essay, Embodying Venus, Zaidi writes about the rape of schoolgirls in Ajmer, Rajasthan. The perpetrator took so-called ‘compromising photographs’ and used them to blackmail the victims and their supporters into remaining silent.

Zaidi, who lived a sheltered youth, was taught to be ashamed of nudity, and the rape case galvanized the belief that “this is what happens to girls who go out to meet boys”.

A woman’s body is incessantly commodified, scrutinised, and ultimately shamed, Zaidi said.

She writes that the media gives “fresh reminders of the power cameras have over a woman’s body”.

This was another similarity between India and the Phillipines, Syjuco noted, although he pointed out that one in three women worldwide have been victims of abuse – so this is not only an issue evident in third world countries.

Keyi said, through translator Martin Merz, that while Syjuco and Zaidi were debating which of their nations were more corrupt, she was looking at which of the three – Philippines, India and China – is more rotten.

She said that instances of sexual abuse in China aren’t particularly notable, but there are cases of officials abusing their positions of power to enact violence on women and children.

“The situation for women in China is terrible,” said Keyi.

She read an excerpt from A Little Life, a story based on one of her relatives. It revolves her relative, who despite being unmarried falls pregnant, a fineable offense in China. Keyi said that an impoverished single mother cannot hope to survive in China.

Although A Little Life ends positively, such an outcome could never occur in reality in China, said Keyi.

The authors were asked if the rise of social media has allowed for a democratisation of their messages in the midst of oppression.

“Social media is one of the best tools we have to force freedom of speech and challenge the dogma,” said Syjuco.

Zaidi partly agreed with Syjuco, but pointed out that access to social media is restricted in India, with less that 10 percent of the population having access to the internet.

In China, Keyi believes there is no plurality in her country’s news media as it is dominated by a handful of state-run organisations. Money is frequently used to silence people and journalists are pressured to present a purely positive story.

“Some of what goes on in China can only be reported on when sourced outside of China,” Keyi said.

New Asia Now is clearly providing such a platform for writers and activists to do just that.

Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.

Narrative Frontiers: The future of storytelling

As we move through the 21st Century, and technology evolves, inevitably so does the way we tell stories.

It is important to consider how to tell our stories in this fast-paced era, as well as the way they are distributed.

The panel jumped into a passionate, but friendly debate about the direction of these narrative frontiers.

Mike Jones, head of story development at Portal Entertainment and author of The Transgression Cycle series, is a self-proclaimed ‘platform agnostic’.

He believes the current state of storytelling, including video games and interactive narratives, have come about naturally as new ‘platforms’ have evolved along with society.

His ‘platform agnosticism’ comes from a desire to break from sticking to a particular storytelling tradition, such as solely writing print, novels, plays, and so on. Instead, he says, you should consider the merit of working on platforms popular with current audiences.

Jones said that he didn’t believe in the writer as the embodiment of self-expression; they must be audience-centric.

Nury Vittachi, author of The Curious Diary of Mr Jam, also contributes to Hong Kong Free Press. He crosses narrative platforms and teaches narrative writing to game developers.

But Vittachi doesn’t buy Jones’ audience-centric argument.

Vittachi said that the personal expression of creativity and story is what is most important in writing.

“Narratives are to do with magic, you can’t industrialize magic,” he said.

Vittachi believes that writing a story with the intention of franchising it kills something in the process.

Marc Fennell, ABC RN’s Download this Show presenter and co-host of The Feed on SBS, interjected in good humour: “I think you’re both wrong!”

To Fennell, self-expression is not a bad thing, but he recognised that working within different platforms does require a degree of mindfulness of the audience. Without this, there is the potential that no one will hear your story.

However, if we are to focus primarily on statistics and data on what is ‘popular’ among audiences, Fennell believed that ultimately we miss something important in the process of storytelling.

I tend to align with Fennell’s approach to this topic. The process of writing does not occur in a vacuum. We must always be considerate of our context. With this said, writers need not compromise their integrity (and creativity) to appease the status quo.

It’s important to acknowledge the progression of new storytelling mediums and writing alongside, rather than against, them. Certain people may never get to experience a great story as a result of the chosen medium of the author.

If writers, and indeed all artists, wish to make a career out of their craft, they will inevitably need to work with an industry.

Although, perhaps I’m optimistic in hoping that good narratives will spread their ‘magic’ to audiences without the author having to fall into an addiction to analytics and a profit-driven mindset.

Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.

Out of Africa: The Meaning of Place

There is something very personal about the concept of “place.”

People ascribe meaning to places they visit during their lives, and those places become significant through the time they spent there and by the memories that are made. And through shared language and background, people can find a collective meaning or a disjointed one about place.

Friday afternoon’s conversation Out of Africa brought together Abdi Aden, Russell Eldridge, and Eben Venter to share their diverse experiences about their African birthplaces.

The three men, two of whom are white South Africans, have lives both familiar and different from one another. Aden, whose aptly titled Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man details his life as a Somalian refugee, speaks of a Somalia that thrived, teeming with life and commerce and, above all, happiness.

Aden‘s memories of place are largely tied to language; his book was written in English because, he says, no one in Somalia will want to read about the bad parts of his life there.

English gives Aden a platform to speak his story where otherwise he could not. In this way, his sense of place and more specifically his idea of ‘home’ is just as tied to Australia, where he has built a life for himself, as it is to Somalia where his early years were spent.

These memories were so vivid and bright, and he spoke with such passion. I could almost visualise Somalia as he sees it as he delved into the details of his flight as a refugee to Melbourne. I wonder how a place, which offered so much heartache could still seem beautiful to him.

But that’s the way it is, I think.

‘Place’ is not just experience; we keep close the memories we wish to, and the rest becomes a footnote in a larger piece about our personal life.

The love with which all these men spoke of their home country was evident; each had good memories of their lives in Africa, as well as having experienced a sobering reality that even the most meaningful of places can have a dark side.

Eldridge talks how his novel Harry Mac helped him work through the psychological trauma of having lived in a society that perpetuated institutionalized racism. Set in the 1960s, the book is a coming-of-age story set during South Africa’s tumultuous apartheid era. The story’s background reflects the political turmoil of South Africa as a young boy, Tom, discovers the terrible secrets hidden by the titular character’s father.

South Africa’s apartheid regime also shaped Eldridge’s early life in ways he wouldn’t fully realize until he became removed from it. The government, essentially running a police state, and all of the people around him were practically screaming that everything was normal even while the country committed huge injustices against people of colour.

Eben Venter deals with a more modern South Africa, as he paints a picture of a remote farm in a desert landscape in Wolf, Wolf. Here he reflects a sort of tension between old and new through a relationship between an old-world patriarch and his gay son.

Wolf, Wolf’s story deals largely with fear, particularly the fear of not becoming a man, and Venter uses the suffocatingly close relationship between this ailing father and his caretaker son to illustrate this tension.

Venter wrote it in Afrikaans because, as he said, that was the way he felt it should be. The language is his mother tongue, and it felt right to him to write it that way, working closely with an English translator to create an entirely new English work.

Perhaps in a way, the story Venter created reveals a layer of anxiety. This is the sort of thing that Eldridge discusses as well — how is anyone meant to contend with the contrast between the happiness of their early life and the slavery that their government imposed on black and coloured South Africans?

How can you reconcile memory and fact?

Experience changes the way that we perceive things that have happened to us, and as time goes on these men all have had something about their homeland to come to terms with.

I’ve left this conversation with a picture of three men for whom place has special significance; like most people they have faced challenges along life’s path, but it is incredible how different their experiences have been when they lived and grew in such similar places.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Julia Gillard at #BBWF2015: Twitter recap

Julia Gillard’s appearance at #BBWF2015 was indeed one of the biggest highlights of the festival this year, where she was greeted with enthusiastic applause and a standing ovation from the crowd.

Her interviewer, historian and author Clare Wright, was openly thrilled to chair the session with the former Prime Minister, and described Gillard as one of her “bucket list” idols. Gillard’s memoir, My Storywas the best-selling political book of 2014 and her reason for appearing at the festival.

The session commenced with Wright noting Gillard’s many accolades, including her current role as the Chair of Global Partnership for Education, and her recent honorary doctorate for  “achievements as a women permitted to education and to social inclusion”.

Gillard’s commitment to education equality is manifested throughout her political career, and during the session she relayed that it was this that gave her drive through difficult times as prime minister. She now focuses on this passion more intensely in her post-political life.

One of Gillard’s big motivations for writing her memoir was to encourage woman to enter into politics despite the problems she encountered in her career. She spoke of the processes she undertook to finish the book so quickly due to her awareness of the anxiety felt by young women around political aspirations.

Gillard’s recount of the now famous ‘misogyny speech‘ was received with laughter, applause and the triumphant sense of nostalgia some get when recalling that momentous day. She told the audience that the speech was unintended, and that she had in fact armed herself with Abbott’s “top ten sexist quotes” in order to prepare for Question Time.

Her staff compiled the list “very quickly”.

“I thought it would be ten questions to me about ‘Oh, aren’t I a hypocrite on sexism for supporting the speaker,'” Gillard reflected.

Wright recalled her own memory of the speech.

“I know many mothers, myself included, who sat down with their daughters and watched that speech and cried together.”

“It was a very bonding moment,” she told Gillard.

Unaware of the impact her speech would have, Gillard told the audience that her mind naturally shifted to other important tasks as she returned to the bench.

The fact that Gillard is a woman was always going to make her time as prime minister unique, particularly as the pioneer in this typically, historically male role.

Gillard told the audience that she never believed that more women in parliament would result in a “nicer or more gentle” place. It was her goal to stand in parliament, fight hard for what she wanted, and dominate it.

Gillard remains intolerant of the sexism for which was often the aim of during her political career.

Gillard’s relief from the scrutiny of politics seemed to embody her, and wove between the words she spoke on the festival stage. It was as if the audience was privy to read between the lines of the Gillard story we think we know, and the story that is only hers to tell.

Without a doubt, Gillard will leave her fingerprint on the world in history. Whether it will be about her limited time as the first female PM (where she also topped the leaderboard on legislative output – little known fact), or the many ventures she will endeavour in the future is the only question.

Wright’s final proposition, and indeed an excellent, insightful question, had Gillard envision her legacy 150 years into the future.

“Um, I hadn’t really thought about the 150 year time horizon. Now I’m feeling dreadfully short term, I feel chastised,” Gillard said.

She recalled a conversation with Paul Keating on the day she packed up the belongings in her office with ironic frailty; life is a but a series of endings.

Kaitlin Liemandt is a Bachelor of Media student at Southern Cross University and has been involved with #BBWF2015 in all things social media.