Yesterday I wrested my arm from my crying two-year-old’s grasp and, under a cloud of maternal guilt, made my way to the Diverse Women Writers’ day at Writers Victoria.
After a week spent digesting Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in which she claimed that writing was not about honouring reality but about what you could “get away with” and that, rather than questioning the authenticity of a writer’s voice when they tell a story that is not their own, everybody should simply give them “points for trying”, I was excited at the prospect of brainstorming new ways to promote the publication of diverse voices in Australia.
I was not disappointed. The gathering of such a diverse group of women safeguarded against a descent into the singular narrative observed so often in the mainstream media. Complex dilemmas such as the right of a writer to tell another person’s story were discussed with equanimity and respect. Differing views were expressed, free of condescension and judgement. Maxine Beneba-Clarke was moving and marvellous in a way that only Maxine Beneba-Clarke could be.
But it was not perfect. In spite of Writers Victoria’s best efforts to make the venue accessible to everyone, one or two participants still found the large group format unsuitable for them. Despite a code of conduct being circulated multiple times to participants prior to the event, prejudice still managed to creep in, with one participant making their intolerance known to a couple of other members of the group—a wretched reminder of the monstrous obstacles that lay before us.
But these negative experiences did not detract from what was an overwhelmingly positive and celebratory day. For me, two moments stood out. The first was the story a literary agent told about a young Pakistani migrant whose world was forever changed by reading a book about a Pakistani boy just like him. It reminded me why we had gathered together in the first place—to promote stories which reflect our streets and challenge embedded stereotypes. The second was the heartfelt confession of a writer who had recently moved to Melbourne from Perth. She described the sense of community and acceptance she had gleaned from the day after years playing the role of the quiet uncontroversial migrant in Western Australia.
And this, rather than the isolated negative incidents, is what I will remember from that day. Because if together we achieved only this: giving one new writer the confidence to speak out, then all the efforts of the participants and the Writers Victoria team were well spent.