The debate over the Horne Prize guidelines shows how far we have to go in the fight to own our own stories.
Yen-Rong Wong

25 Sep 2018 - 1:06 PM  UPDATED 25 Sep 2018 - 1:14 PM

The Horne Prize, an essay prize run by the Saturday Paper,  recently announced a new set of guidelines for entries.

My first reaction to reading the guidelines was, “huh, that’s a good idea”. Perhaps I have been jaded by the number of “Chinese-people-are-infiltrating-our-government-and-society-and-must-be-stopped” articles and books written by white Australians in this year alone, which brashly ignore the nuances of being Chinese and the Chinese diaspora. 

Or perhaps I am simply sick of seeing white people repeatedly co-opt other stories for their own gain without any serious consequence.  

The guidelines (which have since been walked back) said the organisers were not seeking: “Essays by non-Indigenous writers about the experiences of First Nations Australians. Essays about the LGBTQI community written by people without direct experience of this community. Any other writing that purports to represent the experiences of those in any minority community of which the writer is not a member.” 

Cue pandemonium (and the rehashing of the cultural appropriation debate) with David Marr and Anna Funder both withdrawing from judging in protest.

Marr writes “gays [can write] about straights, blacks about whites”, so what’s the issue!?" As if “allowing” those from minority groups to write back to the majority, or the dominant forces at play in society is equal payment for the trauma that has been inflicted on these minorities.  

I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about the experiences of any other minority.

The wording of these guidelines could have been managed a little better, but at its crux was an attempt to balance the historic and entrenched power imbalances that have existed, and continue to exist in a big way in the literary arts.  

I come at this from the perspective of someone who writes mainly memoir and personal essay, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about the experiences of any other minority. I’m only starting to be okay with the notion of writing in my own voice, after so many years of assuming the white gaze as the default. 

This is not to say writers should never write to or about the experiences of others. That being said, if a writer who belongs to a group that holds power in an existing power imbalance wants to write down to, or on behalf of any minority, I would want them to have sat down and seriously thought about their motivations, and if they are truly appropriate for the piece they are about to write.  

It seems to me that the voices railing against political correctness and advocating for “free speech”  (I’m looking at you, Lionel Shriver) stem, at least in part, from being seen to be called out, to be experiencing that uncomfortable feeling of “hm, maybe this thing I thought I was doing isn’t so great after all.” 

White Australian men, in particular, love to harp on about how positions and awards should be given on merit.

Marr’s insistence on judging “by quality” brings about another big issue that does the rounds every few months – the fallacy of meritocracy. White Australia, and white Australian men, in particular, love to harp on about how positions and awards should be given on merit. On the surface, it is a utopian kind of ideal, but in reality, it disregards the power imbalances that make it difficult for anyone who is not a straight, white, cis man to be heard and recognised.   

Some have expressed discomfort at the fact that the now-scrapped guidelines implied complete exclusion for those who did not comply with them. I understand where they’re coming from, but to be very honest – I don’t really care. Minorities have been shut out of dominant discourse for so long that I have very little sympathy if and when the tables are turned (and in this case, they really weren’t turned that far around).   

I’m so sick of having this argument over and over. I’m tired of having to fight for ownership of my own stories.

I want to focus on my own writing, not the writing of others who presume to know what’s best for me and my community. I can’t talk any louder, get any angrier. I guess the only thing I can do is keep writing.

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