MWF: ASIA WHAT? Roundtable

Facilitated by Linh Nguyen

Featuring Sangeetha Thanapal, Shinen Wong and Dominic Golding

Earlier this year, Sangeetha, Shinen, Dominic and I we were all involved in a curatorial consultation with MWF to create an Asia-Pacific Forum, which came to be the Asia What? series of events. Here, I speak to them about the role of literary festivals, the contradictions of the designation ‘Asian’, settler-colonial politics and the body as text.

Hey, Shinen, Sangeetha and Dom! To begin with, can you each introduce yourself and say a little bit about what you do?

Shinen: My name is Shinen Wong. I am of Malaysian Chinese-heritage, currently living in Melbourne—via Sydney, San Francisco, rural New Hampshire (USA), and Singapore. I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My ethnic heritage is more specifically Penang-Peranakan, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka.

For the past 3 years, I have been convening the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC), a small non-partisan community organisation intended to increase engagement and participation of Asian-Australians with civic and political life. The AADC has been focused mostly on community education within Asian Australian communities through meetings, public forums, social media and our blog, co-hosted with Peril Magazine. The AADC was founded in response to the relative paucity of available spaces to work intentionally as Asian-Australians on progressive political concerns outside of the normative ‘multiculturalist’ stance of the major political parties.

Sangeetha: I am Sangeetha Thanapal, a Singaporean-born woman of ethnic Tamil-Indian ancestry. My forefathers were brought to Singapore as ‘coolies’ or indentured labourers. Indentured servitude is a form of labour in which people are employed against their will, under threat, due to debt bondage—it was almost impossible to fulfill or escape from. Indentured labour came about after the abolition of slavery in England. People often did not understand the contracts they were signing, and were shipped off to the colonies (in our case, Singapore) under conditions similar to slavery. My ancestors remained in Singapore and my parents and I were born there. I was educated in Singapore and then the United Kingdom, and now live in Melbourne due to threats to my safety and freedom by the Singapore state. I am—to some extent—an asylum seeker who had the capital and ability to come here on a plane, for which I will be forever grateful.

My creative practice is quite specifically political—it’s meant to challenge and build consciousness. Current global race discourse is a) American-centric and b) white vs the rest—this is not my material experience, where my direct oppressors are Chinese.  When I started my anti-racism work, it was to theorize how racism functions in a country like Singapore, where those holding all the economic, social and political power are not white, but people of colour themselves. I created the term ‘Chinese Privilege’, which situates institutionalized racism within Singapore.

I write fiction and nonfiction work as well; my themes often deal with questions of race, revolution, gender, diaspora and the body. I am also trained as a Bhrathanatyam dancer, as well as in hip-hop and jazz. I see dance as quite a political practice, especially in terms of how transgressive the movement of certain racialized and Othered bodies can be in any given space.

Dominic: I’m Dominic Golding, a Vietnamese adoptee and performance arts worker and disability support worker. I grew up in rural South Australia, and I have 17 years of experience in community cultural development.

My creative work stem from my adoptive experiences and my work in the refugee sector, which began within the Vietnamese community in 2000. I’ve worked at RISE over the last five years on various creative projects.  

 The ‘Asia What?’ series of events is an opportunity for us to shift the perspectives, platforms and discussions that often occur within institutions such as MWF. I’d like to ask, what do you see as the role of literary festivals within the broader cultural sphere? What impact do they have and, more importantly, who are they for?

Dominic: Literary festivals tap into the educated cultural cosmopolitan demographic, and are about selling books. But they also give the public a sense of openness and a place to celebrate words and stories.

Sangeetha: I think literary festivals have their place, but we should not act as if they are some bastion of important and exciting thought. More often than not, ‘celebrity’ is just as huge a factor in who gets visibility as is good writing. To me, festivals are fun—I love listening to and meeting other writers—but I am always cognisant of who has the privilege and the reach to be given a space to be there, who has been excluded, and why.
I think it is necessary to participate and then force these festivals to open up to those who are marginalised. Within the broader sphere, festivals validate certain writers and certain work, and this can have far-reaching impact. Hence, we need to be careful about who we end up inviting and supporting with these events.

Shinen: Part of the thrill of festivals is in bringing conversations that, in some iterations, are ‘already happening in certain covert or subterranean spaces, and bringing them into the public. On this level, I unreservedly support literary festivals of all kinds. At the same time, as Sangeetha has said, there is no need to pretend that they are necessarily bastions of important or exciting thought, any more than a private conversation between me and a loved one over tea may itself be catalytic in terms of social and political change.

The indebtedness that public events may have to corporate sponsorship, governmental scrutiny and so on may mean that they necessarily cater to a majoritarian impulse; that which is well-received by the majority public. While this is not necessarily ‘bad’, it is problematic insofar as perspectives and voices that are already minoritised have to provide extra labour to make their/our perspectives more palatable and digestible. Perhaps there is some meaning that is lost in translation.

It’s certainly reflected in the title, but one of the main takeaways in our discussion about curating these events was around the ambiguity and tensions inherent in the word ‘Asia’ itself—what, where and who is ‘Asia’?

Sangeetha: This has been one of my long-term criticisms of the term ‘Asian,’ as well as People of Colour (PoC) spaces; proximity to whiteness ensures that the most light-skinned and white-passing amongst us end up with the most visibility and representation. When the term Asian is monopolized by East Asians, where does that leave South and Southeast Asians, who are predominantly Brown?

The word ‘Asian’ becomes synonymous with East Asian, despite the fact that East Asians are complicit in wanting to maintain the cis-hetero-patriarchal white supremacist structure, and often are just as discriminatory towards brown and black people, sometimes even more so, in a bid to assimilate into dominant white culture. East Asians buy and promote the ‘model minority myth’ which is often used against other PoC. So why should they be the face of Asia?

We need to to realise that Asia is a huge continent with thousands of cultures and languages held within it, and simply boiling it down continuously to East Asians is erasure. I think it is important to push back against the domination of East Asians in Asian spaces, and to start centering Black and Brown Asians within them.

Shinen: I have written elsewhere about my own ambivalence about the term ‘Asian’—it’s racialised meanings are highly contingent on a host of historical and geo-political reasons that escape individual agency. As Sangeetha has said, for example, in this country, ‘Asian’ tends to be synonymous with ‘East Asian’ (and Southeast Asian), which may reflect Australia’s proximity to Southeast Asia, and its particular history in relating to Chinese labourers during Gold rush; This is in contrast to the UK, where the term ‘Asian’ is colloquially used to refer to people of South Asian descent, marking the UK’s earlier encounters with and colonisation of the Indian subcontinent (with attendant influences now on British culture).

My sense is that the term ‘Asian’ is meaningful to the extent that it is *useful*, not least of all to Asian-identifying people ourselves. I am ambivalent about the term because it is, by its own linguistic root (meaning ‘Eastern’), necessarily Anglo- or Euro-centric. Asia is ‘Asia’, so-called, because it is East of Europe—the fecund identity politic of moving beyond the cultural cringe of living in Australia, where we are constantly uncertain of our own sovereign capabilities in using language, is still so rooted in unresolved colonial logics on Aboriginal country.

Sangeetha: Shinen’s point about the fluidity of the term ‘Asian’ is quite important. I find PoC to be more useful as a political term (because we are still dealing with a universal white supremacy that threatens us all) than Asian, because the Asian experience depending on your current or ancestral geographical location can vary so widely, that I find there is no point in us talking about an “Asian-Australian” identity. There isn’t one. We are trying to make one out of thin air, and as is the usual case with badly constructed, abstract ideas, it becomes easy to equate those given the most visibility with the term, while continuing to erase others within it.

How has the ‘Asia What?’ program reflected upon or challenged the notion of what ‘Asianess’ connotes?  

Dominic: For me Asia What? was an explorative question, an exclamation. It was to open conversations about how we as Asians (within a very ethnically and diverse community— including indigenous, LGBTI, disabled, older, adopted, skilled migrants etc.,) make work that reflects and challenges notions of being Asian / Asian- Australian, and how Australia has struggled culturally and politically with its northern neighbours.

Shinen: The title “Asia What?” came about when Dominic and I were brainstorming together as the AADC representatives of this partnership with the Melbourne Writers Festival. We were beginning with the question, “What does this even mean? What is this for? Asia…What?”  And so it was. It’s grammatically absurd; It asks for definition at the same time that it precludes the possibility of getting one, given contested identity categories and infinitely fractal contingencies.

Sangeetha:  l love that the title itself gets straight to the point of asking what is Asia, and I think that’s a really great starting position for us to start examining what is means to be Asian, Australian, neither, or both.

 Shinen and Sangeetha, I’m really looking forward to your event ‘Asia What? Genealogies of the Body’—I remember you two speaking about wanting to create an event about textual embodiment and the relationship between writing and the body.

Sangeetha: I’ve been interested in the idea of the body as text for a while now. I think about how dark-skinned and fat femmes, including trans and GNC people, often don’t have to do anything except exist for their bodies to be read, interpreted, gauged and found worthless. Public visibility of transgressive bodies seems to be an invitation for others to project their views on us. What does it mean when you don’t have to externalize any thought or words before you are read and interpreted? What does this mean for us as writers and artists whose words and art are not what is being reacted to, but simply our bodies in a space?

I’m a dancer. I have been for a long time and I know how to use my body as a form of expression in a way that combats these daily humiliations. I wanted to also think about how my body expresses resistance to this system.

At the workshop we will be focusing on why our bodies are formed this way, and why we have the hand gestures etc. that we do, and how this speaks to our genealogies. At the same time, we will also be exploring the literal idea of the body as text.

Shinen:  Unlike Sangeetha, I have not, until very recently, had formal training as a dancer. I started dancing at Dancehouse in Carlton through Action Theatre with instructor Dani Cresp. Recently I decided to take a risk and participate in Alchemy Dance, run by the brilliant Anne O’Keefe. It was through this dance work that I became awakened to the sense of my body-in-movement.

 Most of the other folks participating were white, particularly white women, so I found myself very visible as an Asian body, particularly as a queer Southeast Asian, mixed-Chinese-heritage man. I began to be curious about how my body has come to move and dance the way it does. Why do I intuitively want to turn my fingers into mudras? Why do my arms swing the way they do? My body remembers watching Hong Kong gongfu movies when I was young, trying to imitate their moves, remembers my father teaching me Taiji, remembers my first yoga sun salutation which my older brother taught me as a teenager, remembers dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” album as a 5-year-old child (foretelling a life of queerness, really). I’m curious about how the habits of my own life story—the broader cultures that I have lived in and my ancestral lineages—have seeped into my bones; and so began this inquiry into this body as a living and evolving text, one that I craft and hone anew, with practice, discipline, dialogue, restfulness and loving care.

  Dom, you’re appearing in the event ‘Asia What? Beyond Authenticity.’ I’d like to hear what each of you feel and think about the concept of ‘authenticity’ for diasporic, displaced, migrant or minoritized writers.  

Dominic: Authenticity is used most commonly for Asian restaurants, as way to say their cuisine is ‘authentic’. This is also how I see fiction and biographic is sold in Australia, via the covers of books on Asia and Asian stories. What I want to do is throw light onto the “faces” that these text depict as Asian. How can we rewrite these tropes, turn them on their head or rip them to shreds? I want us to rewrite these narratives in a multitude of forms. It’s a bloody long shot, but can we as creatives take down the cultural hang up of the yellow peril?

Shinen: Cultural meaning comes about by properly attending to the contexts in which we are attempting to make or derive meaning. The lust for authenticity seems to come from a mode of being which presumes some unbroken line of pure, unadulterated Culture, or perhaps a kind of homesickness for the familiar in the face of the omnipresent threat of cultural erasure and invisibility. I am more interested in honouring my particular teachers, and the broader network of relations to which I belong and to whom I am indebted, rather than any notion of ‘authenticity’ per se. I honour my memories of cultural exchange and transmission, and also the limitations in my learnings. Sometimes, fidelity to a lineage involves breaking away from it, while bearing full responsibility for the consequences of such a rupture/disruption. I feel liberated to explore alternatives, or to integrate the many disparate influences upon my body and my work. As a gender non-conforming and queer person, I am especially invested in moving beyond authenticity (without denying its validity within its own spheres of concern), to embrace flux and groundlessness as paradoxically more powerful ‘grounds’ for creative futurity.

Sangeetha: I think authenticity is such a loaded word. It is both exclusionary and redemptive at the same time, which means it occupies a fairly interesting position. To tell the truth, I don’t grapple with issues of authenticity the way many Asian Australian artists do, and that is because I grew up in Asia, with easy access to my people’s culture, language and religion. I speak my second language fairly fluently, and it took me a long while to realize that this was not the common diasporic experience. My connection to my people and my ancestral land is very strong, especially in terms of my understanding of our culture and history. Growing up Tamil in Singapore, there is a strong influence to assimilate into Chineseness, but I have never succumbed to it.

I believe authenticity is an issue borne out of disassociation. There’s this idea that those who grew up outside their motherland must feel some sort of distance from it, which then festers and manifests in them trying to be more ‘authentic.’ Like Dominic says, this comes out as selling yourself to whiteness and white capital in your work. It is definitely a trope, and white people love to consume what they believe to be ‘authentic’ culture, no matter if it is or not, and we ultimately become complicit in selling it.

I think a lot of POC in the West love rediscovering their culture, especially as a way to resist white assimilation, but at the same time, they cannot help but come to it through a colonial viewpoint—even if they are actively resisting the demands of whiteness.

I am interested in authenticity without a gaze, without seeking or requiring validation; within communities and people, in a loving and non-judgmental way, bringing those seeking their roots together with those who have never been uprooted.

Something that we need to address—as diasporic or migrant people living on unceded land in this country—is how we benefit from, and thus are complicit in, the processes of settler-colonialism. I’m looking forward to the conversation that ‘Asia What? Indigenous Connections’ will initiate.

Shinen: At the moment in my own political journey, as a non-Aboriginal person and Southeast Asian migrant to Aboriginal country, I have an interest in how I relate to the pain of ontological erasure—that is, the ongoing genocide and decimation of Aboriginal ways of being, on colonised country, subjected to the rule of colonial law. There are also tensions in how I relate to white people about this, given that we are all settler-colonizers, although I am in the unique position of also being racialized. So, while it is imperative that I work with other non-Aboriginal people (including racialised white folks) about our complicities in colonisation, that work necessarily bumps into other kinds of existential issues around breaking out of the habits of demands upon my ‘Asian-ness’, and those kinds of calls for immigrant assimilation.

Part of that is expressed by working through the karma of what my friend Edwin Ng, a cultural studies and Buddhist scholar-practitioner, has called “intangible heritages”. I am interested in investigating genealogies, honouring the truth of history, and allowing myself to imagine creative futures by making room for what it is that wants to, perhaps needs to, emerge.

Sangeetha: I find allyship discourse at the moment to be quite boring. As it stands, it is now seventy percent cookies and thirty percent self-flagellation, and neither one of those things appeals to me. Where are the accomplices, the collaborators, the disruptors? That’s what I consider as my responsibility to Aboriginal peoples.

I think about the fact that I came here seeking asylum, and Australia gave me a way out of that situation. I am grateful for this, and I‘m not going to pretend that I have not immensely benefitted from the Australian government's preference for the ‘right’ sort of migrant.

At the same time, I am cognizant that it is not the people of the Kulin nations that invited me here, and it should have been. I think it is possible to hold two narratives at one time; that, for me, colonial Australia—which is a country founded on and that continues to function on the genocide of its Indigenous people—saved me from certain imprisonment in Singapore. However, I am incredibly critical of whiteness, white supremacy, settler colonial complicity, and our duty to Aboriginal people. I think my biggest job is to speak to my own, which means to always speak out against anti-Aboriginality amongst Asian and settler populations, and then to support organisations like RISE, which staunchly backs Indigenous rights to this land and want to build a long-lasting relationship with its native people.

What would you like to achieve or create with Asia What? What do you want the audience members to walk away with?

Dominic: This event for MWF 2017 is an attempt to throw up possibilities of re-imaging and rethinking canons about how Asia and Asians are constructed literally and for literacy.

Sangeetha: I just want people to leave with a deep conviction that Asianness is not a concrete concept, that we are a people still finding ourselves, and our place in the world, and that we have so many issues within ourselves that we need to address before we are able to deal with white supremacy in a meaningful manner.



Asia What? Is running on Friday 1 September, from 10am to 6:30pm.
More details here. Facebook event here.