Words by Camilla Patini, ACTWC Blogger in Residence
Can you tell people’s stories for them? Can you speak for other cultures? These were some of the questions posed at the Emerging Writers Festival’s ‘Roadshow Breakfast of the Year’ which was organised in collaboration with Canberra’s literary collective Scissors Paper Pen. On the speaker’s panel were writers Laura Jean McKay (Holiday in Cambodia), Tom Doig (Moron to Moron: Two Men, Two Bikes and One Mongolian Misadventure), Lachlan Brown (Limited Cities), and Zoya Patel (Feminartsy). A the event was veritable blast which, although focused primarily on travel writing, was filled with a wealth of enlightening and thought-provoking discussion on a wide variety of issues and included many humorous anecdotes and useful tips for young, emerging writers.
Having arrived a few minutes late and the discussion being already underway, I missed the introduction but this sentence immediately caught my attention: “Travelling is more than just going places; it is a constant dialogue between your identity and where you are”. Patel’s statement really hit home; personally, having grown up between England, Italy and Australia, national identity is something I reflect on more than anything else. And as I travel more widely, the task of articulating my sense of identity becomes increasingly complicated. This is at once a curse and a privilege.
Patel clearly experiences this internal tussle too but differently, of course: “As a brown person, I’m constantly asked where I’m from, and people don’t usually mean which suburb.” Born to an Indian heritage, she says that there is a constant tension between belonging and feeling like an outsider. She feels anxious about identifying as Indian and, as a writer addressing a primarily middle-class, Western audience, believes that she cannot go to another country and speak for its people. She says that people often expect her to speak for other cultures but that even her family say she cannot speak for them.
Brown interjected with a counter argument, stating that writing necessarily entails a betrayal of what it is you are writing about: “There’s an undercurrent of betrayal in writing because you don’t have an omnipotent, God-like perspective”. He also believes that writers have a moral imperative to write, wherever they are: “If you don’t write, who will?” For Doig, the idea that only the subaltern can speak for themselves leads to narcissism and solipsism in privileged writers. Rather, their role is to strike a balance between trying to belong and feeling like an outsider. He said he tried to do this while travelling through Mongolia. He wanted “to be lost and feel overwhelmed”.
Doig had some great advice for emerging writers too. “If you want to do something don’t sit around and wait for someone to enable that”. He explained how he paid his own way in travel expenses but admitted to borrowing some money from a wealthy friend. He succeeded, however, in impressing upon us how important it is to harness your passion and take initiative. Further advice from the panel was to obtain a good track record of publications before applying for grants, residencies and fellowships. It is also important to develop mentorships with people who can vouch for and support you, to participate in your writing community and to make connections.
But the real lesson? As any university student would know – or indeed anyone who has even been a teenager – getting up early is difficult. Yet after having sleepily crammed my feet into a pair of pointy flats and schlepped off to Lonsdale St that morning, I found myself happy to be up, sipping free coffee and, most importantly, learning new things, all by 8.30am: I can and should do it more often! Getting back to the point, such events are tangible, incontrovertible proof against the charge that nothing happens in Canberra. Musically, theatrically, visually and especially literarily(?) there is plenty going on here. I was delighted to see the event draw together such a fantastic range of people, from novelists and poets to organisations such as rip, Feminartsy and Grapple Publishing.
My one and only quibble was that I would have liked to hear the panel read out a short extract from their work. It might have added more colour and richness to the discussion and given the audience the chance to be introduced to something new (if they had not heard of the writer before). As the dedicated literature student that I am, after the event I did some reading and found that it enriched my experience tenfold. I particularly enjoyed listening to Mckay’s reading of one of her short stories, which you would do well to listen to here.
P.S. If you haven’t stopped by the Scissors Paper Pen blog, do.
Camilla Patini is an undergraduate student at the Australian National University where she studies History and English Literature. She writes book reviews and until recently, a column on love and relationships for Lip Magazine . Her writing has also appeared in Woroni and rippublishing.