When I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s there was no Asians in Australia on TV. I remember seeing Monkey as the only TV show with regular Asian characters in it. I dreamed of being a writer or an actress. I didn’t even know whether it would be possible, certainly my parents discouraged me from entertaining the idea and there were no signs in my world that an Asian could do such work.
Then I saw an interview with Maxine Hong Kingston on TV. I don’t recall the content of the interview but I remember seeing her with her long silver hair and thinking I wanted to be like her when I grew up. Seeing her made me aware Asians could write. And then when I saw Annette Shun Wah on Eat Carpet on SBS, I learnt Asians could be cool.
All this taught me the importance of having Asian representation in the arts and media. We need to know that it is possible, that our voices and stories are important, they need to be told and heard.
Writer Benjamin Law gives a graphic example of how far behind Australia is in terms of diversity in Australian culture in “Shifting the Balance” a report on cultural diversity in arts leadership. Around 10 per cent of Australians have Asian ancestry, which is the same ratio of African Americans in the United States. “Take a look at black representation in America versus Asian representation here and you’ll see how far we have to go,” Law comments. Former Australian Human Rights commissioner Tim Soutphommasane also remarks in the report, “Where a group in society is invisible…the message is clear. Those in that group are outsiders second class members or even an ‘other’ against which society defines itself.”
It is why I started Peril, an online Asian Australian arts and culture magazine in 2006. At the time it was the only Asian Australian specific publication, now Mascara, Liminal and Pencilled In all champion Asian and non-white voices. I named the magazine Peril as a play on the Yellow Peril. The logo of Hokusai’s tsunami wave was my wish for Asian Australian literary production to reach a critical mass and flood the Australian artistic landscape! This has yet to happen but the literary landscape has shifted a little since Peril’s inception.
Hopefully what we are seeing is not just a moment, it is a movement
There have been some high profile Asian Australian game changing authors such as Nam Le, Alice Pung, and Law, (whose book The Family Law was adapted into a TV show). Successful programs such as the Lotus program for Asian Australian playwrights has seen emerging Asian Australian playwrights having Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company mainstream productions like Jean Tong and Michelle Law. Hopefully what we are seeing is not just a moment, it is a movement.
When Growing up Asian in Australia was released in 2008 Alice Pung was told not to publish her original introduction to the collection because it mentioned the race riots at Lambing Flat where Chinese miners were killed. An industry figure told her it would stop people buying the book at Borders. So Peril published her original introduction instead. Fast forward to the present and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race is a best seller and topical, we can have conversations about race now that were discouraged before.
We still need spaces where CALD voices are foregrounded so the media more accurately reflects Australia
But there still is a way to go. For example, locally CALD people are overwhelmingly under-represented in the leadership of the arts. Out of 200 major arts organisations surveyed in a recent report “Shifting the balance” by Creative Victoria and Diversity Arts Australia , only nine per cent of creative leaders were from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds.
From the report the Fairplay initiative is pairing up arts organisations with industry mentors to devise equity and diversity policies and plans. On the strength of my work with Peril I have been invited to mentor the Emerging Writers Festival and the Wheeler Centre to conduct a diversity audit. Peril and Liminal are now recognised as independent cultural producers by bodies such as Creative Victoria.
But there are still commentators like Lionel Shriver, who are representative of a privileged backlash against cultural sensitivity. She despairs of the world being defined by tick boxes, referring to measures to promote diversity being promoted over literary merit. Shriver and those with similar views fail to recognise their own privilege as it is invisible to them, their freedom to speak and be heard has never been in doubt and is taken for granted.
We still need spaces where CALD voices are foregrounded so the media more accurately reflects Australia and we can really tick all the boxes. Places where we all can be seen and heard. Then we will all know that anything is possible for all of us.
Read the full 'Shifting The Balance' report here.
Hoa Pham is a writer, playwright and founder of Peril Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @hoap