This article was first published on Michelle Cahill’s blog Negative Capability http://michellecahill.com/2013/07/20/literature-refugees-and-pumpkin-pancake/. Michelle Cahill is a poet, fiction writer and essayist. Her books include The Accidental Cage (Interactive Press, 2006), Ophelia in Harlem (Kilmog Press 2010), Vishvarūpa (5 Islands Press, 2011) and Night Birds (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series 2012). She is currently editor of Mascara Literary Review http://mascarareview.com/.
About two weeks ago as editor of Mascara I was invited to meet with other arts people, the new minister for Arts and Multicultural Affairs (also Immigration) Hon Tony Burke to have some nice food and wine and, according to the invite, ‘chew the fat’ about multicultural literature, Creative Australia, and what not. Well, yes there is an election upcoming but I’m going, if for no other reason than to put a dark-skinned face to migrant writing.
So off I set on Thursday night. Over dinner I find myself quite alone as a literature nerd being completely outnumbered by producers of theatre, film, and directors of migrant arts community centres. There are several arts bureaucrats and Australia Council people there. The Minister is funny, charming, I’m enjoying the pinot noir, the chargrilled haloumi and the pumpkin pancake. A lot of issues come up about the frustrations, limitations, aesthetic considerations.
And though the public relations aspect of this can’t possibly be lost on me I make a few strident points along the lines that literature journals of cultural diversity should receive proactive support. I say that it takes too long to establish the legal entity, the creative and academic networks but when all this relies extensively on individual resources, it is destined to become exhausted. I wonder if this is what happened to Outrider, a journal of multicultural literature which Manfred Jurgensen founded and edited from 1984-1996 (http://www.manfredjurgensen.com.au/outrider-journal-of-multicultural-literature). I also advocate the importance and role of books in comparison to the mainstream art forms. I suggest to the Minister that people are prepared to speak up and write about racism, that literature also needs political representation so that a discourse of resistance to the dominant narratives can inspire stories not bound by clichés, stereotypes and market agendas. I’m not going to stop believing that language too, has power.
The Minister says he likes poetry, which is nice. I drive back home. I get up next day only to read of Kevin Rudd’s PNG Solution, a signatory which is more than likely going to be bounced by the High Court should Rudd win the upcoming election. I get to thinking about the poems I’ve written about asylum.
It’s heartening to read so many writers speaking in outrage on FB and social media against the PM’s policy on asylum. The best news I’ve heard recently is that Hyat, a young Hazara refugee whom I’d met and who spent 12 months in Pontianak detention, Kalimantan and another two years in Indonesia has been resettled to New Zealand. But I fear for so many of the children and adults who are stranded and have been waiting for their cases to be processed as UNHCR struggles with internal bureaucracy and corruption. I’m aware that at the overcrowded Belawan Detention Centre where this photograph was taken, eight Myanmar Buddhist fisherman were beaten to death in April this year.
– Michelle Cahill