Aussie Authors of Colour Reading List for 2016

If you want to support anti-racism in Australia, part of that means supporting authors, artists, musicians, writers, intellectuals, journalists, directors and performers that are from racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. It doesn’t mean just consuming our products and being nice, it means reading, listening or watching our work, it means engaging, reviewing and critiquing our work in genuine debates, it means citing, publishing, recording and disseminating our work to people that can use it and it definitely means purchasing it when you have the finances to do so.

If you choose not to support it that’s your choice. But such people lose credibility when they later complain Australia ‘lacks’ diversity, when they aren’t willing to support new and alternative cultural spaces, voices and debates.

I cannot count the number of times highly educated people have told me in all sincerity that Australia and Australians don’t ‘do anything’ on racism. Yet when I ask these individuals to name just 10 Australian authors of colour they invariably fumble. It doesn’t matter if I extend this to living or dead. Yet rather than become ashamed of their ignorance, they instead hold up their geographical illiteracy as proof of our lack. It is geographical because, these same individuals read copious amounts of American and British literature on racism. It is they who do not read ‘anything’ from Australia and then blame Australians for their own narrow reading practices. I have more to say (read: rant) about such people and their effect on anti-racism in Australia, but today I’m going to focus on something more positive and more enjoyable: promoting the work of Australian PoC authors.

What follows isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of works published in 2016/2015. They are just books that stand out for me. They range from teen fiction and accessible non-fiction to difficult, academically rigorous works. I would appreciate further suggestions:

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s When Michael Met Mina is a must read. Abdel-Fattah is a Muslim Australian writer of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage, widely known for her teen fiction (mostly for her bestseller Does my head look big in this?), which focuses on Muslim issues growing up in the West. While When Michael Met Mina continues this theme, it is a far wider treatment of youth, injustice and love that sensitively treats opposing perspectives. Michael and Mina meet initially at a refugee rally … on opposite sides. When Mina wins a scholarship to go to Michael’s private school they collide in unexpected ways. This is the Looking for Alibrandi of our times, but tackling a much more difficult set of tensions emerging from the relations between the individual, culture and society, grounded in a stronger emphasis on character study. We are living in a time when youth’s access to the internet means that they are already having sophisticated political discussions well before previous generations did. This provides a way of entering into these debates from a completely different angle. This should be taught in all Australian high schools.

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s poetry collection Carrying the World spans a decade-long international poetry career. Sometimes described as having ‘Afro-Carribean’ descent, sometimes described as ‘West Indian’, Clarke is one of the rising stars of Australian literature. Combining cutting insight and rage with edifying pathos and grief, each poem is brimming with hard-won wisdom. In the same year she published The Hate Race, an autobiographical account of her experiences of racism in Australian suburbia as both victim and witness. With the humor that emerges in the face absurdity, she details the everyday forms of racism from outright insults and police discrimination to the microaggressions in school, at the hairdressers or at the dermatologist clinic. This needs a wide airing in an age where so many public personalities are quick to deny the existence of racism in Australia.

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For non-fiction fans, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or accident? has to be one of the most important books to be published recently in Australia. Pascoe, of Bunurong and Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage, undermines the assumption that precolonial Aboriginal Australians were hunter-gatherer societies. Using the records and diaries of explorers, Pascoe meticulously dismantles the hunter-gatherer tag, showing evidence of precolonial farming, housing construction, food and clothing production. For those aware of the arguments of colonialism, this further undermines the Terra Nullius doctrine. The book was a joint winner of the 2016 NSW Premier's Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize. It is worth documenting thoroughly considering how widely believed the hunter-gatherer thesis is not only in Australia but elsewhere. When you consider how much of Western philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc. is based on this assumption (and then all the work based on these foundational texts) the argument is far more radical than what appears on surface. Previous work, like Gammage's history of Indigenous land management practices, supports Pascoe's argument, but it is worth supporting further work in this area, especially authored by Indigenous scholars

Last year as well Stan Grant published Talking to My Country: The Book that Every Australian Should Read with Harper Collins. Grant is a Wiradjuri man who is well known and respected in Australia for his journalism on the ABC, SBS and the Seven Network. In 2015 he won a Walkley for his coverage of Indigenous affairs. He is a Managing Editor of National Indigenous Television and Indigenous Affairs Editor at the Guardian. While Grant has built his career on journalistic professionalism and balanced reporting, he was in the spotlight this year for his uncharacteristically direct speech in the IQ2 Racism Debate. This book is equally accessible and challenging and a must read for all Australians that want to actually understand the debates that currently rage on our screens.

For a more challenging academic work, Suvendrini Perera’s recent book Survival Media: The Politics and Poetics of Mobility and the War in Sri Lanka examines the narratives and movements of survivors of the war in Sri Lanka. She is the Professor of Cultural Analysis at Curtin University and her work engages contemporary critical, cultural and political theory, so expect humanities academic jargon. Nevertheless, Perera is one of the smartest critics of racism and coloniality in Australia precisely because her work crosses many fields, dimensions and disciplines. Her engagement with difficult theory always sheds new light to whatever she is studying, while not losing sight of a broader political project.

Although published in 2015, Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty by University of Minnesota Press, provides a trenchant critique of both critical race and postcolonial theories from an Indigenous perspective. Moreton-Robinson is best known for her book Talkin’ up to the White Woman, which has been read as a ‘black feminist’ work but should also be read as an Indigenous feminist work. She is one of the founders of critical Indigenous studies, which radically challenges what we currently call knowledge. You should also check out her edited collection published in 2016 Critical Indigenous Studies: Engagements in First World Locations by the University of Arizona Press.

Also published in 2015, Ghassan Hage’s Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology, Political Passion and the Radical Imagination by Melbourne University Press, offers a trenchant critique of the global political order. Hage is one of the founders of critical work on race and racism in Australia. In this book he outlines a new concept ‘alter-politics’. In contrast to oppositional politics (what he calls ‘anti-politics’), alter-politics captures the efforts of critical anthropological work to search for alternative forms of existence: alternative economies, alternative ways of living and alternative ways of relating to the earth and each other. The book argues that we need a different kind of political passion for alter-politics and is devoted to creating a space for ‘alter-political passion’. Although theoretically rich, Hage’s work has always been surprisingly accessible. This is more difficult than his earlier work (it is suited to an advanced arts undergrad level and above) but given the sophisticated treatment of a complex subject matter it is still highly accessible.

For a more approachable academic work, Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling published last year by University of Queensland Press takes the fascinating historical case of Eliza Fraser, who was purportedly captured by the Butchulla people, as the starting point for a critical inquiry into how Aboriginal people are represented in colonial storytelling. As a novelist and an academic, Behrendt’s is able to weave her argument through archival records with precision and in accessible prose.

Anita Heiss, coworker with Larissa Behrendt at University of Technology, has published another book last year, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, a love story between an escaped Japanese POW and a woman living in an Aboriginal Mission. This re-writes the second world war from the perspective of the margins of Australian society, showing the kinds of inequalities that pre-exist and are exacerbated by war. It’s also part of a growing dialogue that attempts to bypass the white gaze entirely, which is increasing in art, writing and academic circles. If we want to have vibrant, multicultural and decolonial space, we need to fight for it with works like these.

I've heard of good things about Roanna Gonsalves' The Permanent Resident. From what I could gather, it appears to be a series of short stories inspired by experiences of migration in suburban Australia.  Unfortunately, my local bookstores were all sold out (which is probably a good indication). My copy is on order. You can see an article and a podcast interview with her here.

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I found Populate and Perish, which is a little, debut novella by George Haddad. The book is the winner of the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize 2016 and follows two Lebanese Australian twins , told from the perspective of the gay brother, Nick, returning to Beirut to search for their lost father. Despite some awkward moments, there is a clarity and honesty in his prose that allows the author to deal with difficult themes without overworking them. Haddad is currently editing his first novel.

While you’re at it, you should pre-order Peter Polites’ Down the Hume available on Booktopia. Peter is a multi-talented Greek, gay Aussie who has worked on, in and around multiple art platforms in Western Sydney. He is one of the writers, and Associate Director, of the SWEATSHOP collective in Western Sydney, so expect a challenging raw voice that navigates the urban grittiness and sexual subcultures of Sydney.