• "Write exactly how you feel rather than what you think you should be saying." (Supplied. )Source: Supplied.
As I got older, I have managed to liberate myself more and more from the restrictions I grew up with. And sometimes, people will tell me that I am "so brave", or ask "how did you manage to do it?"
By
Nadine Chemali

27 Jul 2021 - 8:38 AM  UPDATED 8 Sep 2021 - 3:43 PM

The New Writer's Room Episode 4: Nadine Chemali

In this episode, Caitlin and Candice speak to community worker and SBS Voices writer Nadine Chemali about writing stories that bring characters to life.

Growing up, some kids of migrants in Australia feel like double agents. Our two lives run alongside each other: one that we share only with our friends and the one we share with our extended family and cultural community. That the two worlds shall ever collide seems absurd. Apart from the few fellow cooperatives made up of cousins and the occasional sibling (who are willing to cover for you), your "Western life" and your home life are strictly separate.

I recently read Sonia Nair's essay, My relatives think I live in a sharehouse, but I live with my partner, and one sentence in particular stayed with me:

"Rebelling against tradition is difficult when tradition is what cements my bond with a part of my culture that I feel increasingly divorced from."

I was reminded of the times I also had told my extended family things like "I have moved away for uni" to explain moving out of home; or said that I was still studying when I had very much dropped out of uni with flying colours. 

I am over 40 now and it has taken me that long to build my own community that will care for me and be there for me

I love to write personal essays. I love discussing my life, my culture, my language - I could just never have done this in my 20s. My career as a writer only really blossomed in my 30s. In the past decade, I have written about my queerness, about running away from home, marriage and divorce and being a single mother (and loving it), I can feel the spectre of 20-year-old me, envious of the courage to speak freely. 

As I got older, I have managed to liberate myself more and more from the restrictions I grew up with. And sometimes, people will tell me that I am "so brave", or ask "how did you manage to do it?"

I would like to say I stopped caring - but that is not true. In fact, I care very much. I am still respectful of my culture and traditions, I even flip my septum piercing in my nose so it can't be seen when I go to large family gatherings.

I don't see a point in outright rebellion. I won't change those who are stuck in their ways and I don't want to hurt their sense of identity with my choices.

When I am with family, I am respectful, I don't talk about who I have hooked up with, I don't show off my tattoos, I care for my elders by protecting the traditions they have long defined themselves by.

So how have I "managed to do it"? To become a writer who can discuss my own world? The answer, in short, rests on two things: by building my own support network, then showing my parents I was going to be okay.

The first took time: I am over 40 now and it has taken me that long to build my own community that will care for me and be there for me. I am no longer reliant on the community my family was thrust into when we came to Australia, the kinship we had with aunts and uncles and friends from our background is not who I turn to for support.

When my parents came here, they did not know how to navigate government systems, schooling paperwork, bureaucracy - they were reliant on the community around them to help them. If they were ostracised they would have felt they had no one to turn to.

It isn't like that for me. I don't need Uncle Sameer or Aunty Fazwa to help me with anything; I understand the language and culture of Australia. I can pick up the phone and call a government helpline to get answers between 9am-5pm on any business day. I have my friends, cousins, a partner and their family.

This self-built community shares my stories when they are published, they hold me up and tell me they read my work, they tell me how great it is to hear stories like mine - which are stories just like theirs, really.

Now my parents can celebrate me - the real me - the me they helped shape

As for my parents, they have borne witness to my life, seen that I have a family of my own. They know that I have the support of friends, siblings and cousins (my former double agent collaborators), and that all of us have carved out our own community here.

They aren't worried for us as much anymore, they aren't scared that we will be ostracised and pushed away. So now my parents can celebrate me - the real me - the me they helped shape.

Today I write about my life with a new freedom, a victorious liberation, but it does not come from a lack of care. It's an acceptance that I am writing for me for those like me. 

Nadine Chemali is a special guest on SBS Voices’ new podcast The Writer’s Room, the companion podcast to the SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition. 

SBS wants to hear your story...because there's a writer in all of us. Submit your story of 1000-2000 words that speaks to the beauty and/or challenges of being Between Two Worlds in diverse Australia and you could win up to $5000 and kickstart your career. Entries are open from August 16-September 16. Go to www.sbs.com.au/writers for more information and register here to enter.

Listen to SBS Voices' new podcast, The New Writer’s Room, in the SBS Radio appApple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Trailer: The New Writer's Room

Good writing begins with questions. What does it take to write a good story? How do you get your readers to connect with a character? Each week, co-hosts Caitlin Chang and Candice Chung will speak to writers and authors all about storytelling, and hopefully inspire you to get writing.