A Conversation with Roj Amedi

Interview by Linh Nguyen & Leah Jing McIntosh

Roj Amedi is an editor, writer and strategist. She writes and speaks on a range of issues including politics, the arts, culture, public policy, gender and race. She is a columnist for Right Now and has recently published pieces in The Saturday Paper and Assemble Papers. Roj has spoken at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Footscray Community Arts Centre, Human Rights Law Centre, Castan Centre for Human Rights, The Wheeler Centre, and is a regular host for Cross Pollinate on PBS Radio.

We talked to Roj about finding freedom through education, valuing ethos over politics, and the complexities of pan-POC community.

Read two poems by Roj, 'Apprentice' and 'Green Bananas', here.

You've been an advisor and strategist within the international relations sector; you've worked in magazine editing and publishing; you're a freelance writer; and you also advocate for asylum seeker rights. How did you get to this point, and what have some of the challenges been?

The sheer expression of who I am as a person means that I'm constantly in contrasting and sometimes contradictory roles all at the same time. I embody multiplicity, so it's only natural for that to extend into my work. I think our education and economic systems forces people to select one idea or vision and never move, or never truly embrace their multiplicity.

When I was growing up I was involved in and excited about everything. I think that I'm really lucky not to have anything internally that tells me that I can't do something, because there are just so many structural things that exist to tell me otherwise.

I have experience in international relations, public policy and strategic policy; in radio and writing; I've worked in magazine publishing; I’ve worked in media and communications, and I’ve also been a strategist within the design and creative industries. In between all of those roles I've also volunteered with and had access to various organisations across a wide political spectrum—from the ultra-conservative to the hyper-radical.

With all those experiences, I’m able to really understand the intricacies of people that I disagree with; for example, I was an Air-Force cadet for about 5 years—I spent many summers on an air force base, I have no idea why; I think back to that time & I'm like: it was your summer babe! Why are you wasting your time!—it was really good leadership training. It made me understand hierarchical, patriarchal institutions, so when I reference them, I understand where they're coming from and I understand the sorts of people they attract and why.

How do you navigate working with institutions that might not share your political framework?

Essentially when I meet people I don't put my politics first, I put my ethos first. To a certain degree, I don’t believe in cutting people out because of their politics. Besides, I find most of the time your ethos and your value systems tend to affirm your politics. Someone who wants to be respectful, mindful and kind—who takes time to listen and get to know people—usually has politics that align with mine. But sometimes they don’t, and I have to understand and accept that nuance.

I can't deny that the institutions that I don't agree with still have their place; I want them to be robust, I want them to have credibility, and I want them to play fair. I don't want them to be destroyed because I need my ideas and ideologies kept in check and interrogated. However I draw the line at populist dogma and bigotry—that’s not a contrasting political position, that’s institutionalised oppression.

How do you negotiate being visible in these spaces, where people of colour are often scarce?

Well, I'm white-passing, so due to the structures of racism I don't think that I get the full exposure of the POC experience; but, because of our current cultural and political climate, I do experience bigotry, because I'm a woman from Iraq.

I understand that I need to give myself a break and recognise that I can't change the whole system; often I can only make small differences. I think I make people uncomfortable because I’m very vocal and I have a really strong sense of what our community, societies and justice should look like. I voice my opinion but I want to communicate that in a measured way, and sometimes that is succumbing to respectability. To a certain extent, that's a survival tactic which I’ve acquired—coming to this country with nothing, I felt the only way to emancipate myself was through my education and my ability to communicate. There is a clear and defined method of communicating that reinforces the set hierarchy, and I want to challenge and question that. I think it’s important to understand when to harness rage and passion.

Can you speak to your experience as a former Kurdish refugee from Iraq?

Kurds are one of the largest group of marginalised and displaced ethnic minorities in the world; originally we lived in Northern Iraq and what we know today as Turkey, Syria, Iran. When WWI ended, we signed a treaty—the Treaty of Sèvres—with Western allies, to retain our nationhood and ensure our self-determination, but then the Ottoman Empire kicked up a fuss. The history of my people involves displacement, colonial violence and state violence.

My family hold dear the values of education, knowledge, and critical-self reflection. That ethos of scholarly commitment, academia and introspection is really embedded in the way we lived our lives.

I guess this broader philosophy was also a way of reclaiming—or overcoming, if you could—structural barriers or forms of oppression we faced as a people. As many minoritised people find out very quickly, if the state wants to destroy you, they will destroy you whatever actions you take to yield or maneuver around its violence.

Most of my family were tortured by Saddam Hussein’s police and military force. My dad was imprisoned for over a year due to his political activism. There were the chemical bombings dropped on Kurdish cities, the consequence of Arabisation and internal displacement. All these things forced us to run and hide in the mountains in Kurdistan. At one point I nearly died from dehydration—I was 3 or 4 years old. During this period there was a lot of turmoil, and in that pit of violence we decided to leave. I remember we walked from Iraq to Turkey, lived in Istanbul for a few months, and then walked from Turkey to Greece, where we lived in the slums of Athens.

Eventually we applied for a humanitarian visa to various countries until we were granted one to Australia. It was during this sweet spot in global history where no one really knew who we were, and the current political propaganda against African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers wasn’t as ferocious as we see today. The political body hadn’t been trained to repeat the same tired dehumanising rhetoric against those seeking safety.

Basically, that’s the trajectory of our movement. We were imprisoned; we slept during the day and walked during the nights; we were constantly under the fear of being caught—the military would go through Istanbul and we’d have to hide—there was a lot of racism we experienced along the way, and eventually we had to completely rebuild our lives when we came here.

I think my refugee experience only truly ended about 5 years ago. It only stopped being hard fifteen years into our resettlement. Not only do you have to manage your trauma and deal with the rebuilding of your life, you have other structural issues and inequalities: access to safe housing, education, the repercussions of war on your physical and mental health and having to navigate a system without fully knowing your rights. It’s also a cruel joke because when you finally settle down into a sense of stability, the resilience you have relied upon so heavily gives way and your body sinks into the pain that it has gathered.

You were involved in RISE’s #timetolisten campaign earlier this year, which was about addressing the lack of refugee voices in the refugee advocacy sector. How do you view the current state of the discourse?

Broadly, as a community, as a society—we've failed. People have died in our detention centres because of the actions of our government. People seeking safety have sat there jumping through arbitrary hoops and confusing layers of bureaucracy without any sense of clarity and constant indecision; they’re disenfranchised, isolated, refused healthcare and basic levels of support, with no access to legal representation. People who have merely asked for assistance and want to seek safety are being demonised and used as political pawns. Our governmental institutions don’t have a major vision; they don’t want to achieve anything other than to use people as examples. They are terrified of the complex circumstances we have found ourselves in, and they put the blame back on the people who are being detained.

We have to look at the broader history. People seeking safety have had to face the consequences of violence, genocide and warfare. Often, the conflicts that we see today are the consequences of colonialism and the result of consecutive campaigns of Western intervention—for instance, the backing of dictatorial regimes and states, the huge levels of weapons trading and arms dealing throughout the region and destabilising communities of people across fault lines. We need to understand that Western intervention and diplomacy have often exacerbated tensions and instability across the globe.

The framework of our destructive asylum seeker and refugee regime, and the toxic ideas, which have been established and repeated, are bipartisan. A violent regime like our detention centres have been normalised and upheld within mainstream political discourse.

On the other hand, the second way we’ve failed is by focusing so much on humanizing the story, which often only creates a form of ‘poverty porn’ for people to feel like they’ve listened and empathized and understood the plight of displacement and stateless people. There's the ‘good progressive’ who often fetishizes the struggle, who relies on certain tropes and narratives to raise awareness; they will use sensational examples of success stories as a way to humanize refugees. These campaigns can often be disempowering for refugees themselves. Our humanity as displaced people shouldn’t be based on the products of our output or measured by our productivity in society.

I feel uncomfortable because sometimes I’m forced into that narrative—I’ve been used as an example of assimilation gone 'right', because I’m able to communicate in a particular way, I look a certain way, I’m able to engage in cultural institutions and spaces which people from my background often wouldn’t. I’m seen as someone who has benefited from this kind of 'assimilate or die' dialogue, but what that means is that when I am having a difficult time, or when I need assistance, there isn’t anyone there. I’m supposed to have this unrelenting desire to achieve, to be productive and accomplished no matter what. I feel that I don’t have a choice but to succeed, and that’s really dangerous cycle.

This reminds me of an essay published in the Guardian earlier this year, ‘The Ungrateful Refugee’, which is about the expectations placed on refugees to be ‘eternally thankful’ as beneficiaries of Western benevolence and kindness.

While you are beneficiaries of a very specific and tightly focused Western benevolence and kindness, you are also beneficiaries of colonialism, western military intervention, regional destabilisation, poverty and famine. The other side of this benevolence is centuries worth of oppression, and resettlement is only a stop gap solution to a broader system of inequality and inequity. 

That being said, I don’t want to demonise gratefulness, because I think that being humbled and thankful for your safety is integral to the process of unpacking your own trauma. Holding onto your anger will destroy you. In a way, it reinforces those destructive paradigms that surround you, the silent expectation for you to destroy yourself—and you will destroy yourself if you don’t direct your fury into something productive eventually, because otherwise your anger will just burn you away.

Being grateful and humbled is a continual dialogue that I have with myself, and it’s something I recognize helps me unpack my experiences. I am always taking stock of my good fortune and trying to harness that fullness in meaningful ways. I don’t want to erase that at all.

 The politics around refugees and refugee narratives, particularly in relation to migrant narratives, is complex—Viet Thanh Nguyen has recently written an excellent piece about the essential difference between refugees and immigrants. 

There’s an issue when migrants appropriate the discourse around refugees, or equate their experience to the form of violence which refugees face. That form of statelessness, the subjugation of your personhood under stark, violent bureaucracies, is not the same as being a migrant, which is not to say that the migrant experience isn’t difficult in itself. Similarly, my experience of eventually receiving a humanitarian visa is not the same experience as someone who has been detained in our detention centres – even though we might share the same initial violence that has led to our displacement.

You’re speaking on the panel ‘Decolonial Narratives and the Diaspora’ at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. In programming this event, I wanted to hold a conversation about how dialogues of racial justice in this country must be structured around indigenous sovereignty, and how we, as settlers, are complicit in the processes of colonialism.

I think it's a really difficult thing to unpack— the strange space between being a displaced person due to settler colonialism, but also benefiting from settler colonialism in Australia. 

I've had the benefit of having access to the generosity of some incredible First Nations people, mostly Aboriginal women, who have taught me a lot. Essentially, whatever issue I’m thinking about—whether it be environmentalism, worker’s rights, education equity, or gender justice—I feel that the first thing I should be considering is how can I center the voices, experiences, and knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in these matters? How can I best uphold the self-determination and dignity of First Nations peoples, how am I paying respect to that — is there a way of paying the rent, can we help by easing the emotional labour or tackling the structural inequities?

It’s this constant unpacking. We need to take responsibility and acknowledge the colonial standards that we may overtly or inadvertently reinforce, and try to actively dismantle those structures.

Some of the loudest voices supporting refugee and asylum seeker justice are First Nations people, and they've always had such great courage and generosity. I think it would be a disservice to not continue to strengthen that unity.

I recently listened to your and Bobuq’s Queering the Air episode. You said something that really struck me: I'm really interested about what this generation is going to do about this whole umbrella term, the pan ‘people of colour’ idea. Can you speak more to this? Is there a danger of collapsing a multitude of experiences and identities within the language of POC?

We’ve inherited these terms that were first initiated by black activists and civil rights activists as a way to identify people who are oppressed within the constructs of white supremacy. For me, as a white-passing WOC, I need to acknowledge my privilege within these constructs and how I'm read.

Often, I see this trajectory: someone feels the pain of white supremacy or racism, but they don't yet have the language to describe it. Suddenly, they find this language and then they get very, very loud. I think that this is an important stage—you get loud, you’re angry, and you just want to break down everything— it’s a legitimate place to be in. But I think after that you need to take a step back and understand when to harness your anger, to recognise where and how you hold privilege within the POC community.

If we don’t work within our own specific communities to unpack the hierarchies, prejudices, and internal structures that exist, then I don’t think that we can create this ‘pan’ POC community. We need to centre black voices, to centre Indigenous voices, and dismantle our own anti-blackness and to not perpetuate or reach for whiteness. And by whiteness I mean the social construct that has created a racial hierarchy in our world, and the behaviours that it rewards as well as perpetuates.

I don't want people to feel like they can't engage in dialogue if they don't have all the tools, but you need to learn how to truly listen to others—and sometimes that means knowing when to be silent, when to let others speak. It’s about reflecting on our behaviour and unpacking our own socialisation.

We also have to understand that our experiences as POC are so varied and different, and we need to take the time to learn each other's histories. The history that is most available to us in Australia is extremely white-washed and limited; we inherit these narratives and foundational myths which are supposed to represent our nationhood. But what happened before that? What happened in the frontier wars? Who are we erasing? Who are the trans activists and the queer activists in the generations that have come before us? As a community, we don't really know about or have a sense of that history, and I think that’s really destructive. If we don’t educate ourselves and learn from our various histories, then we're really kind of perpetuating the same patterns.

It’s difficult work but it's incredibly rewarding work.  

 It's really interesting how much of the language around race and racial politics in Australia has been taken from American discourse. I know that your upcoming podcast, The Rabble, will touch upon some of these themes; can you tell us a little bit more about this project?

The Rabble is going to be a podcast about uncovering and learning from the disruptors. That means learning from your history, and positioning our current discourse in relation to that history, being mindful about where we've come from. Due to globalisation, a lot of the political language we inherit is really US-centric, and we want to move away from that and consider what are our own discourses are, what are our own language is, how we have learned from broader global dialogue.

We really need to interrogate our own history. We're going to be interviewing scholars as well as activists on the frontline. My co-host, Emma Buckley Lennox, is a can-do woman who puts her head down and does amazing work. She comes from a journalism background but will be a practicing lawyer soon, and that kind of knowledge and insight is really important. It's going to be really exciting!

Most people know you through your community work or your writing. However, you also write poetry; we’d love to hear about some of your creative outlets, and how you approach this form of creative expression?

A friend of mine, Mama Alto, was curating a Fringe event called Church — it was an extravaganza of beautiful queer and trans performances —  and she asked me to read something on the night, so I decided to write a completely new piece and performed it on the night. That piece was then featured on Australian Poetry.

I mostly perform in spaces that are queer and run by POC. It’s only recently that people have said to me, you can do art. I’m very lucky to have a such great support networks, friends and creatives who I really admire, who are willing to be confidantes as well as push me to explore something I have been very hesitant to share.

I used to write feverishly when I was younger and poetry was an outlet where I was able to express the experiences of displacement, trauma, pain, loss and sadness in a safe way. Generally I am incredibly stoic and matter of fact about my experiences but with poetry I can give voice and rhythm to this experience. And that voice and rhythm creates a cocoon of sorts where I can speak freely and without being burdened by the projections of others. I often find that when I write poetry, I am mentally scooping from a very, very deep well. It’s a totally different writing experience. 

Do you have any advice for emerging writers? 
Find your supporters and confidantes. Those people who believe in your writing enough to be honest with you and champion you when the time is right. Read far and wide, critically think about why good writing is good. Take notes. Read from writers who have a different lived experience to you. Stay open and thoughtful. Collaborate and support your peers. Envy and competition is rife in the writing community, so counteract that with mutual support and skill sharing. And on a practical level: backup all your work with an external hard drive or a cloud account. Know your legal rights. Create a savings account and invest in your superannuation.

Who inspires you?
Writers, creative, leaders, community builders of colour who are paving the way and expanding possibilities. I cannot even begin to describe how nourishing it is to be in a room with POC who are generous enough to share their ideas with you.

What are you currently reading?

A lot. All the time and constantly. Twitter and Facebook: platforms that are the simultaneous democratisers of political debate and the embodiment of corporate monopoly. Writing by Celeste Liddle, Behrouz Boochani, Nayuka Gorrie. Websites like gal-dem and Black Girl Dangerous. Publications such as N+1, Archer, Overland, The Gentlewoman. In particular ‘Refugee Stasis’ by Omar Robert Hamilton in N+1. Also Chi Tran’s I occupy space, which is to say, I am always grieving, Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Paul Beatty’s Sellout. And I'm just starting my book club’s next book, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera.

What are you currently listening to?

Music from AhMerAhSu, Kandere, DJ Sprinkles, Miss Blanks, Baro, Jlin and SZA.

Podcasts by FiveThirtyEight, Politically ReActive and The Read.

How do you practice self-care? 
Dancing. Nothing helps me process things and find sanctuary as much as dancing does. Pausing for a good meal. Working hard. Taking stock on the daily. Taking a moment to appreciate my good fortune. Writing lists. Making sure I’m investing in all my relationships and covering the basics. Understanding my own capacity and drawing boundaries. Creating relationships of integrity and recognising toxic behaviour. Introspection. 

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you? 
I think it means acknowledging and paying respect to over 60,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander civilisation. It also means finding sanctuary in my multiplicity and appreciating the multitude of influences on my cultural identity.