A Conversation with Claudia Mancini
by Robert Wood
Claudia Mancini is an arts producer and lady of good taste with a wide range of interests. She thinks there is nothing better than a big bowl of pasta, and, also has a ready supply of home grown cucumbers.
Boundless caught up with Claudia to talk about parents, female role models, AOC, capitalism’s flaws, and DuoLingo.
We are going to talk about being a community arts producer, being mixed race, and the public space we fit into. I know a little about your parents, and, the places they come from – Vietnam and Italy in a national frame of reference; but even more specific locations. I know you interviewed your tiger mum for an event, and, that she has an amazing story of coming to Australia. Can you share something about both your parents for us?
My mother was twenty-one when she travelled by boat from Vietnam to Malaysia as a refugee in the late 1980s, with my eldest brother who was ten days old when they set sail. Then she came to Australia by plane after spending some months in a refugee camp. When she tells this story, she speaks of the pirates who invaded their boat on multiple occasions. In her words, “they were good pirates though, because they only stole possessions. They didn’t harm anyone, and they left water for drinking”. I think that sums up my mother pretty well. Always looking for the best in people, generously giving the benefit of the doubt, and endlessly forgiving when forgiveness seems impossible.
My father emigrated to Australia from a small village a couple of hours northeast of Naples in the late 1960s. Like many migrants, he has devoted his life to working hard to create the opportunities for his children that he was never afforded. I am so grateful to him for this, but what I credit him for most is his conscious decision not to father in the same way his father did. His father was a stoic disciplinarian. Loving, no doubt, but not overtly. My father made the decision to be affectionate towards his children, to tell us he loves us every time we hang up the phone, to write long and heartfelt birthday cards. I consider this an act of courage, and one for which I am deeply appreciative.
I think being mixed is often learning from both those cultures to become your own person who can bring together the best of both people. You have spent time in your ancestral countries, but can you talk about heritage and how the creative industries bring people together?
Heritage is extremely personal, and for me, you are right – it has been about learning from both cultures to become my own person. It is also about much more than simply cultural identity. There are also aspects of class, familial identity, gender identity and the context in which these identities are negotiated. It is not simply about being mixed, being a woman, belonging to a family, coming from a working-class background, or existing in a specific time and place, it is about all of these things simultaneously, how they interact, and how these processes shapes me as a person. I think the creative industries provide people with a forum to explore, embrace, and ultimately celebrate the complexity of heritage and identity. Further, there is opportunity to promote counter-narratives to those one-dimensional and simplified stories typically endorsed by mainstream media. This is particularly important for marginalised groups who are frequently and systemically silenced, such as Indigenous Australians, people from refugee and migrant backgrounds, people experiencing homelessness or mental health challenges, people with disability, religious minorities, and the LGBTIQA+ community. By utilising creative practice and focusing on differences rather than shying away from them, we are able to reach a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the human experience. And in the process, we are inevitably reminded of the things that unite us – love, loss, family, community, loneliness, resilience, grief, and much more.
It is not simply about being mixed, being a woman, belonging to a family, coming from a working-class background, or existing in a specific time and place, it is about all of these things simultaneously, how they interact, and how these processes shapes me as a person.
I think that ties in nicely with this month, being about Perth, which means we have an opportunity to talk about place and home, and how we might work together here even if we come from far away and are guests on land that will always be Noongar. We grew up in similar households with an emphasis on education and career. What do you remember from growing up? Was there a turning point where you thought that you wanted to work in the arts?
Both of my parents were very academic as children, yet continuing their studies was never an option. My mother finished primary school in Vietnam, and my father went as far as year ten, having done about three years of schooling in Australia. They were hyperaware, as many migrants are, of the power of education, and how they had been disadvantaged by their lack of access to it. So, they endeavoured to give their children the best education they could. Before I was in primary school, my mother had already started teaching me how to read. She had spelling and grammar books, and she would spend time teaching me in whatever ways she could, trying to give me a head start. A few years later, I started extracurricular private maths tutoring. It didn’t take long for me to surpass my parent’s level of formal education. So, there quickly came a time where they could no longer assist me academically. They supported me, of course – paying schools fees, taking me to school, countless other chores – but they could never help with homework, proofread assignments, or help with applications, not in high school and certainly not at university. Education was paramount, but the educational institutions and processes were ones that they weren’t familiar with and didn’t necessarily understand. Academia was largely a foreign world to them. When I started a Bachelor of Arts, I think they were hesitant, because they didn’t really understand what I was doing or how I was going to support myself. At that point, they understood “the arts” as painting, theatre, or film. It took some time for them to understand what it is that I wanted to do and what kind of future that held for me. As in all of my creative, academic and professional endeavours, they trusted me to make my own way. But this was a blind trust, and reflecting back as an adult, I am deeply admirable, thankful, and impressed at their capacity to be so open-minded.
For sure, that firm ground that you can stand on and do well from is invaluable. Do you find that working in community arts allows you to express your identity in a distinct way compared to other forums?
I can’t speak for community arts more broadly, because I haven’t been involved with any other community arts organisations as intimately as I have the Centre for Stories. I can speak of the Centre however, and yes, I do find that working in community arts in this particular setting allows me to express my identity in a distinct way. This is because we live and breathe stories. Stories are events that we attach meaning to—experiences that changed us from who we were before, even if only slightly. We see the multitude of stories that make up a person, the stories which are triumphant, devastating or hard lessons learnt. There is an understanding that one person has many stories, and that these stories embody a certain fluidity and can shift and change meaning over time. Sometimes, we work with a storyteller on multiple occasions, and the meaning of their story changes as it is told and retold. And so, in working with stories, there is a beautiful freedom to embrace complexity and contradiction, and to acknowledge that there is never one right answer, never one way of looking at things. To work in this space means that the many aspects of my identity are accepted, held and celebrated, as are those of my colleagues and all of the storytellers with which we work. It is a very special environment to be in on a regular basis.
If that is the positive side of the story, what kind of racism and misogyny have you encountered? What barriers exist to being a woman of colour?
I acknowledge how fortunate I am to live as a woman of colour in this specific time and place. I was born on the tail-end of a time where there was a lot of open discrimination towards Asian people, including the Vietnamese-Australian community. And although I have experienced racism in both subtle and overt ways, it hasn’t been prominent in my life. I think this is partly because of how we have progressed as a nation, but also because of the fact that I am half European and allowed to exist in spaces more peacefully than people who have only Asian heritage. For the most part, my experiences with racism and misogyny have been less about interpersonal experiences and more about broader, structural processes.
The inevitable internalisation of white supremacist and patriarchal values have impacted me in different ways throughout my life, whether that be feelings of inadequacy, shame or embarrassment about my heritage. I recall being embarrassed for many years as a child when my mother would speak Vietnamese on the phone in front of my friends. And now, I am proud to say that this year I have started to learn Vietnamese myself! Of course, I have also experienced immense pressure to conform to Western beauty standards. But, as I’ve gotten older and developed my own understanding of feminist ideology, I have come to fundamentally reject the commodification of women’s bodies that serve the interests of the capitalist system. That’s not to say that I don’t conform or that I am no longer impacted, because I do, and I am, but rather, I am slowly learning not to.
There is an understanding that one person has many stories, and that these stories embody a certain fluidity and can shift and change meaning over time.
Who are your role models then? These might be people who are able to express themselves, or, who buck the trend, speak truth to power, and so on. I am not only thinking of Asian Australians, or mixed race people, or local people in Perth, but also those who are doing good stuff no matter their identity and no matter where they are. After all, you work a lot with storytellers, so I just want to know which stories have really mattered to you.
The people I admire most are the women in my life. These are my family, friends, colleagues, teachers and neighbours. They are mothers, fighters, survivors, organisers and activists who are kind, generous, strong, sensitive, tenacious and dedicated. They are women who get on with it, who don’t take no for an answer, and are true to their values. Their stories matter to me because they are universal stories of struggle and triumph, and they demonstrate what is possible. I try not to be too admirable of anyone in the public eye, because I think it can easily lead to idolising strangers based on a curated, online persona, and not necessarily a real, flawed human. In saying that, I do admire the work of many people. Notably, like many others right now, I am very inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And, I am also floored on a regular basis by author, feminist, activist and academic bell hooks. Mostly, my role model is my mother, because she is authentic, selfless, hard-working, kind, strong and everything else I hope to be.
Building on from that, what would you like to see more of when it comes to community arts? Are there things and ways of being supported by industry and government that we need to promote?
I would like to see more inclusivity at a structural level. There needs to be more people on boards, creative teams and in management who are of colour, from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, have a disability, experience mental health challenges, identify as LGBTQIA+, are from a religious minority, and so on. The fact that any organisation can exist with an entirely white, predominantly male board is proof that structural racism exists, and it’s simply not acceptable. There also needs to be more initiatives to support creative and professional development in the arts – things like mentorships, development grants, and residencies. Our communities are full of talent, but we need the support and infrastructure to develop the next generation of practitioners and arts professionals. Finally, I would like to see more effort from organisations to diversify their audiences and increase accessibility. This might mean providing screenings with subtitles, advertising in other languages, or offering complimentary tickets to community members. These things may not always be possible, but there are strategies that are within each organisation’s capacity which can help to make the arts more accessible to the wider community.
And finally, can you speak to us about your plans, or, any side-hustles that you have at the moment?
I am about halfway through a Master of Counselling. So, I spend a lot of my time reading, researching, and writing about mental health and psychotherapy. I hope to continue working in storytelling after finishing my degree, as well as pursuing some part-time work as a counsellor in the area of women’s health and family services. I am very interested in the crossover of storytelling, psychotherapy, and feminist theory, and I hope to continue to combine the three throughout my academic and professional pursuits. Aside from work and study, I love to intensely commit to hobbies that are way outside of my skillset (currently, I am learning to bake sourdough bread), visit my mum’s cucumber farm, play music with my friends, lay in the Perth sun and read, and obsessively play Duolingo.