It is a curious exercise preparing material that will make creative writing students question their own biases and knowledges without paralysing them in terms of their own writing at the same time. A subject like ‘Writing across Borders’ could still any imaginative leaps inexperienced (or experienced, now I think about it) writers may make about writing characters who are ‘other’, whether that be race, gender, age, disability and so on.
I have four students out of 36 who identify as having mixed heritage – all the others are Anglo white. It is to be expected in a creative writing university course in this country, and in the Illawarra, where a large segment of the university population studying arts come from white or Anglo-European heritage. I am fourth generation English and Scottish, just for the record.
The students appear interested in the subject and they have found Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance, an engrossing read but when it comes to their own writing, some students have resisted the idea that they need to (or even could) consider stories through a postcolonial lens, one suggested that she didn’t need to think about Aboriginal issues because Aboriginal people have made it quite clear they don’t want non-Aboriginal people to appropriate or tell stories for them.
In the first tutorial I asked them to read a poem from Natalie Harkin’s collection Dirty Words. Harkin’s work is angry and visceral as well as historical and intimate and the collection is a significant publication within Australian literature. The students could appreciate what Harkin was attempting and were quietened by her ability to confound their expectations of poetry.
We then discussed the idea of ‘reply’ (drawing literally on Anne Brewster) and I asked them to write a reply to Harkin, to respond in writing. They did with some fascinating results. As an extension of this, I asked them to then write as though they couldn’t respond, as though they were devoid of an ‘answer’ of any sort. They found this much more difficult and we discussed Ahmed’s argument that sometimes paying attention, listening, might be enough – or at least a start.
And so, the course began.