01 Feb – Why we must ask: Who is missing? Whose voice is being silenced?

“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.” Arundhati Roy. 

Several months ago, I received an all-expenses paid invitation to attend a South Pacific arts and literature conference in Sydney, Australia. My participation would include giving a reading of my work, and also having a writer conversation with two Pasifika artists I admire.

I have been to two SPACLALS conferences before – in Samoa and in New Zealand – and they were vibrant gatherings of Pasifika and Maori artists and scholars. Both events back in 2012, were rare opportunities to listen and learn from legends in the arts – like Albert Wendt and Konai Helu Thaman – and to meet an exciting range of ‘new’ artists and writers.

The SPACLALS conference held in Samoa, led by Dr Sina Vaai, was a fabulous week of activities that sought to blend academia with artists and the community. It included a session for youth writers to read their work, music and drama interpretations of traditional legends performed by local schools, a wearable arts show put on by design students at the university, and panels where local poets and other creatives in the community shared about their work. The Auckland SPACLALS Hui with Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh at the helm, was a magnificent gathering of artists, writers and scholars all crammed into one room. We were from all walks of life. We sat on the floor, we talked and listened, sang and laughed. These gatherings centered Pasifika stories and voices. It was amazing to be at a literature conference where I actually ‘belonged’ and was not the ‘Other’. I left on a high, exultant at the realisation that I was not alone. There’s others out there like me!  We weren’t all telling the same stories, but in the sharing, there was a unifying strength.

With those positive experiences in mind, I was happy to accept the invite from the newly re-established and rebooted SPACLALS.

As the author of a YA series with an eco-justice message, and as an environmental journalist, I was especially intrigued by the conference topic; ‘The Two Canaries of Climate Change: Islands and Polar Places.’ According to the brief, the conference aimed “to explore the intricate connections between language, literature and ecology that both islands and polar regions uniquely generate and evoke.”

I was also excited because of the host location for the conference. I am woefully ignorant about our Aboriginal and Torres Strait cousins in Australia – their culture, history and present struggles. A quick internet search revealed a multitude of indigenous Australian poets, activists, authors and researchers who are writing, creating and theorising on exactly the topics outlined in the conference summary. I saw this conference as an opportunity for Pasifika writers like myself, to listen and learn, and to find connections with how indigenous Australians are using the arts to address the issues of climate change and eco-justice.

Imagine my surprise then to receive the conference program and find no First Nations artists or scholars presenting. I inquired and was told by organisers that they had asked ONE Aboriginal author to attend but she was not available. They said however that an Elder would be giving a traditional welcome and that they hoped the indigenous Australian perspectives on climate change and cultural adaptation would be one of the topics ‘discussed’ at the conference.

I ask you, how can anyone presume to talk about an indigenous people’s perspective on the land, when no indigenous people from that land are actually at the table??

I conveyed my discomfort and suggested possible names and avenues by which the conference could try to fix this.

The SPACLALS Chair explained that “It is simply an unfortunate fact that no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writer or scholar responded to our Call for Papers”. He assured that after the conference, they would again send out a call and try for a “greater diversity of contributions.” Similarly, at this late stage, time constraints and a limited budget meant that having indigenous Australian contribution to the conference exhibition was difficult.

It was a dejavu moment for me.

Last year there was an arts conference held in Samoa, organised by another regional organisation. The first I heard of it was when I read a critique on social media by a Samoan artist who pointed out that the program had next-to-no local artists (outside of academia), was heavy with presenters from overseas, and that the cost was prohibitive for local tattooists, weavers, painters, carvers, poets etc. She asked about the relevance and impact of such a conference on the Samoan arts community, when so few of us were invited or would be involved. I agreed, noting that I had not been invited either, even though I live here and even though there was a Literature day in the conference program.

Organisers were quick to react with an explanation similar to that offered by the SPACLALS Sydney conference – none of us had submitted a paper. Neither had any of those weavers/tattooists/carvers/painters. They said that if we had put in a paper, then of course we would have been in the program. I then used the example of my invitation to the Two Canaries Conference to point out that a way to get artists to participate, especially artists who wouldn’t normally go to academic art conferences, is to invite them to present or discuss their work, and also waive the registration fee. (In retrospect, the parallels are funny, #NotFunny.)

Because what organisers did not seem to understand, is that many artists OUTSIDE of academia, are so busy making art and trying to earn a living from it, that we don’t have the time, resources, or inclination to write an academic paper or conference proposal. We also don’t inhabit the same space and so we don’t see the conference notices and calls for proposals.  Academia then misses out on the lush rainforests of creativity just outside the walls of their ivory tower.

Two examples. At the time of the arts conference in Samoa, I was attending tattooing sessions for my cousins who were undergoing their traditional Samoan women’s tattoo, the malu. As we sat in the fale, supporting them throughout the process, we were fortunate to have the Tufuga/tattooist’s father tell us about the symbolism of the inked patterns and the ancestral origins for the ceremonial practises around getting a malu. He is a Judge in the Lands and Titles Court, and well-versed in all things Samoan. I listened to him speak and thought about what an amazing addition he would have been to the arts conference program. What a richness of knowledge and understanding of Samoan art he would have imparted.

That conference program had an overseas scholar speak about weaving in her country.  I thought of the Fine Mats revival program here in Samoa,  initiated nearly 20yrs ago by Women In Business Development Inc (WIBDI), and credited with reviving the art of weaving Ie Sae, Samoan fine mats. I know conference participants would have loved to listen to a master weaver share about her craft and it’s vital importance in our ceremonies and traditions. What a perfect complement that would have been to the scholar’s presentation.

But organisers did not appreciate the feedback. Conference scholars attending from overseas blasted us for being critical, unsupportive of the arts, and just plain old jealous and bitter.

I did not see or hear a single Pasifika artist/scholar from overseas, question why there were so few local artists at the conference. They did not ask, who is missing?

I remembered all this as I made my decision about whether or not to go to the Two Canaries conference in Sydney. There are other Pasifika presenters on the program, but clearly it was not going to be an experience like my previous SPACLALS events.

A few years ago it would have been a tough choice for me.  I have been a token brown woman at the (largely white male) Establishment’s table before. Always I have been grateful for getting one of the few #brownPeople Golden Tickets. I would feel lucky to be invited, thankful for the rare privilege of being included and considered worthy.

It was a Catch 22 situation though because I also hated being the often exoticised and marginalised ‘other’, carrying the doubly nervous burden of being the ‘One’ who had to rep brown writers and if I messed up than I would ‘mess it up for everyone’. And it’s never nice to think that the only reason you are invited, is because you’re the only Samoan woman novelist that’s readily available.

Going to these events rarely translated to book sales so my husband often asked, ‘Why do you go to them for??’ Especially when he would see how anxious they made me. How out of place I always felt.  I would try to explain that I had a responsibility to take a Samoan voice to the table, that I owed much to the artists who had already broken barriers and inspired me and many others. I told him that somewhere out there would be other Samoans/Pasifika watching, listening, hoping for similar inspiration. I thought getting one, or two, or three of us at these kinds of events was the way to address our marginalised place in the canon, in school curriculums, bookstores, libraries and universities.

The discomfort was worth it, I said. Now, I’m not so sure.

I am not the same writer I was 8 years ago when the first of my 9 books was published. I have come to see that arts conferences and lit festivals that don’t center indigenous voices, are not helpful for my career, nor do they improve my writing. They are rarely empowering. An invitation to one is not the golden ticket I used to think it was.

I have been listening and learning. More importantly, I am unlearning. When we know better, then we try to do better.

Because now I wonder, what if being #TheOne comes at the expense of other marginalised voices? What if being #TheOne allows the (usually white) Establishment to feel good about themselves and their ‘commitment’ to diversity and indigenous representation? That by putting a small fraction of their budget into getting you – a faraway brown author –  to come to their conference, they can then neatly sidestep any genuine engagement with the marginalised voices that live all around them?

Now, I ask, what does it mean to be an ally?  Last week thousands of people across Australia gathered to march in support of indigenous rights on what many activists called, ‘Invasion Day’. Crowds chanted, ‘Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land’. It is undeniable that there is gross injustice in how indigenous people of Australia have been treated historically, injustice which continues in many varied ways today. An Australian arts and literature conference with no Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presenters is a clear example.

My choice then was clear. I have withdrawn from the conference and also written to the executive body, ACLALS (The Association for Commonwealth Literature and Studies).

It’s my hope that by going public with these issues, it can raise awareness about the institutional racism embedded in so much of academia and how so often, so many of us participate in reinforcing it, without even realising it. 

I also ask organisers of conferences of this nature, to please rethink how you engage with and involve artists in the community, and to re-examine this noble academic tradition of a ‘Call for Papers’. What are some other ways you can have artists participate? Perhaps a change in perspective is needed. You are not the Towerkeeper for a select gathering that everyone must Hunger Games battle to be admitted to. Smash down those walls and let the rainforest in. Golden tickets for everybody!  Will it be messy, loud and overwhelming? Even a bit scary for you? Probably. But it can also be glorious.

To other Pasifika (and pretty much any indigenous) artists, writers, poets, scholars – please don’t think that I’m advocating that you boycott all palagi-central conferences! No.  My challenge for you,  is the next time you get an invitation from the Literary Arts/Academic Establishment, to look around and ask:

            * Who is missing?

            * Whose voice is being silenced?

            * Whose story is being centred here?

 Ask yourself, why am I here? And remember, these questions are needed even when we are participating in a (supposedly) Pasifika or indigenous focused event.
Let’s have those conversations. With conference organisers. With academia. With the organisations that are supposed to be advocating for indigenous people and our stories. With each other.

It won’t be easy. We may need to break out of our Pasifika polite and pleasant “respectfulness”. (People may even call you ungrateful, jealous and bitter!)  But as Aboriginal activist and writer Nayuka Gorrie points out, “Activism shouldn’t be polite and shouldn’t make those with power and privilege feel comfortable. The whole point is to redistribute power.” None of us like giving up our power, not even little bits of whatever little power we think we have.

May we all find the strength to ask the uncomfortable questions and have the tough conversations.

Ia manuia.

My letter to SPACLALS is printed below. If you agree that the SPACLALS Two Canaries Conference should have greater representation of indigenous Australian artists and scholars, please take a moment to leave them a comment on their Facebook page: South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies

To the Chair, South Pacific Association of Commonwealth Literature & Language Studies (SPACLALS),

I regret to inform SPACLALS that I must withdraw from attending the ‘Two Canaries’ conference in Sydney.  I apologise for any inconvenience that my late withdrawal may cause to the conference planning. Time and effort went into making the necessary bookings and accommodation arrangements and I appreciate the work of those who carried it out.

This is not a decision that I make lightly as I had been looking forward to participating. However, it would not be ethically or morally right for me to take up limited budgetary funds to attend the conference – when those funds could be used to sponsor the attendance of any number of First Nations/indigenous Australian artists/writers/poets.

I note the explanation regarding the absence of any indigenous Australian presenters, and propose that it is not due to simply “an unfortunate fact that no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writer or scholar” responded to the call for papers.

When no indigenous artist submits a paper to a conference being held in their own country, it is disingenuous to then say – ‘oh well, we put it out there and none of them wanted to do a paper‘…ie it’s not our fault…. Rather, the onus should be on organisers to ask themselves, WHY? What is it about the process that discourages First Nations artists/academics from applying? What is it about where and how this conference was promoted, that it did not reach or appeal to them? That it did not feel welcoming to them?

I remind SPACLALS that I did not submit a paper proposal. Rather I was invited and offered a fully funded trip from Samoa to Sydney, as well as accommodation, a per diem and a writer’s fee. I assume certain other invited writers/poets were also invited under similar circumstances.  If there had been a genuine commitment to the inclusion of First Nations voices, then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, writers and researchers would have been first on the guest list.

I do not presume to know or understand the dynamics of how academia and the arts/literature world operates in Australia. Neither do I have much understanding of how my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cousins choose to engage with the questions posed by the Two Canaries Conference – but a quick internet search reveals a multitude of indigenous Australian poets, activists, authors and researchers who are writing, creating and theorising on exactly the topics outlined in the conference summary. These conference topics include: the storying of displaced cultures, indigenous agencies, ecological conflict, nomadism, and more.

It is deeply troubling then that a SPACLALS conference in Australia – particularly one grounded on the issue of climate change and our literary imaginings of it – has no indigenous Australian voices at the table.

I submit to SPACLALS that a conference of this nature should have centered the perspectives of the indigenous people of the land, rather than having them as an afterthought, when ‘time is tight’ and budgets are limited.

SPACLALS is supposed to be the primary network for “postcolonial and literary studies in the South Pacific”. It’s my hope that by raising these concerns, there can be a dedicated effort to ensure future SPACLALS events are truly representative of all our indigenous voices.

Lani Wendt Young.

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