A Conversation with Robert Wood
BY SUMARLINAH RADEN WINOTO
Robert Wood is a writer interested in suburbs, belonging, history, movement, and food. He has been a Copyright Agency Emerging Critic with the Sydney Review of Books, and an Endeavour Fellow at Columbia University.
Robert has published in a number of Asian journals including Singapore Review of Books, Padmagandha, The Sunflower Collective, Gnosis, Taj Mahal Review, Softblow, and The Tiger Moth Review. At present, he is the Chair of PEN Perth and can be found at www.robertdwood.net. We have previously talked to Robert in 2017.
Robert talks to us about being multi-racial and white-passing in POC spaces, defining ourselves, and maintaining family connections.
One of my favourite Audre Lorde quotes is about her relationship to Grenada: she says she is merely a relative to the place, not from there. Does this resonate with you, as someone floating in the wide wonderful world of the diaspora?
In some sense, I think to be a relative to the place is to be from the place. It is to have a relation to being there. This is not in the nuclear sense, of being son to mother, of being directly descended as if that was the only story or the only lineage or the only patronage that determined the sum of one’s existence and being and belonging. But, it is to think of oneself in a family of resemblance, to being born through uncles and cousins and aunts, not only mothers. In that way, I am from India just as I am from Australia and Scotland. I might well be from other places, but those are the nations that have rightful claim on me as the wider community can understand them. But, I also feel like I am a diasporic subject from the suburb I grew up in – Wembley in Perth in Western Australia (6014) and that I am a post-cosmopolitan subject. And so, I think diaspora is a useful heuristic concept that articulates some aspects of becoming and being, but is not our only way of identifying.
I love this sentiment so much. I think a lot about the work I put in to maintain family ties, and stories that I feel responsible to carry forward in me. How do you balance being in the diaspora and caring for these ties?
I think being in the diaspora means caring for these ties. I come from a big, close-knit family, on both sides, and that means being supportive of all kinds of people and their lives from real estate agents to surf photographers to HR managers to school teachers and youth counselors to café chefs. I think diaspora is a family affair and we interact with a sense of home by thinking about the people who are immediately around us. And, this is to say nothing of the shared rituals that you bring from home and maintain together in thinking about where you belong and why.
Speaking of diasporic experiences, in what ways to you connect yourself to places? What aspects of home do you carry with you?
I grew up in the same house until I was 17. This was with my mother, father and two sisters. My mother’s parents migrated from Singapore and lived with us until they died when I was 10. I had a stable, suburban, rooted upbringing. And, I am very fortunate and thankful for that. There are, of course, other ways to have a good childhood, but for me it was this way. Since then I have moved around and lived in a number of places – Canberra, the Kimberley, Philadelphia, Berlin, Paris, New Delhi, Margaret River, Melbourne, New York, Bombay, Kochi. Sometimes this has been for six months, sometimes three years. In each of these places, I have become connected because of other people that start as strangers and become friends; because of quotidian rituals like finding a chai wallah or a diner or a servo that is three hundred kilometres from anything else; and because of my work routine, where I write wherever I am. And so, I carry with me a sense of hope as well as a desire to learn and to engage and to simply do the work it takes to be a good person taking on a little of the new place in exchange for leaving part of myself behind.
I inhabit worlds just as I contain multitudes.
Sometimes I think being mixed race means being caught in a perpetual identity crisis. How do you navigate a world that struggles to place you? What defines who you are, and what things definitively don’t?
I think identity is an ongoing question that has many answers, and also leads to many more questions. In that way, I think it can be a crisis for some at some points in time, but that it is also gives people space and opportunities. By pointing out that paradox, I want to suggest what identity merely is, but as for myself, how I navigate the world shifts and changes. I inhabit worlds just as I contain multitudes. I navigate the worlds of the family, of work, of friendship, of public, of nation, and they each require different tools from compasses to maps to chalk on the fingers. In defining myself, I do not have definitive terms. There are positions I rest in and come back to, that I find comforting and useful, and yet, I think I grow and move with the times and against time itself. My self-definition then is one of defining selves and this happens as a self-affirmation (‘I am because I do….’) and what others think, as much as what I am not. I do think that there are important elements that make up the periodic table of who I am – language, food, history, experience, community. They all matter for home and belonging, and, this, in some sense, is an important part of my identity.
I love the analogy of a periodic table of self-identity. Identity is so much more, and more fluid than can be described in a few words. Yet, having such a complex understanding of yourself can be ill-suited for a world obsessed with categorisation. How do you challenge being defined by others?
I do think that takes constant work, but also that sometimes you simply have to use the categories that are there. In other words, one must adapt and be open to change and ready to learn as much as one must push against stasis. The categories we use at the moment can be seen as starting points, as ways into conversations that allow us to explore the world together, to enter into lives and ways of seeing that are subject to fluidity and dynamism. I do not refuse the category ‘Indian’ then, but it leads us to other questions: which part of India? What language group? Have you seen the monsoon rain fall on the backwaters as you eat fish curry with red rice on a houseboat? They are all there as long as we are able to keep the conversation going.
In order to honour ourselves and our existence, mixed race people push to have fluidity and nuanced identities recognised. Do you see yourself carrying out this work as well, and in which ways?
Compared to the Francophone, Lusophone and Hispanophone worlds, the Anglophone world mutes the discourse when it comes to being mixed. We do not have an equivalent of ‘mestizo’ for example even as this is a common way of being in the world. And so, it does take work for people to keep articulating their identity in its complex ways. This is not my primary work, even as I respect it and support others who labour for it as well. For me, I find that the best way to honour myself is to honour others, and, I consider myself and always have, a privileged person, not only by gender but class, education, lifestyle, opportunity, consumption. The responsibility then is to make a difference in people’s lives on a daily basis from small acts of random kindness to structural interventions that are going to matter. I care about identity then, but it cannot be the end game without attention to food security, non-violence, ecological safety, and all the other conditions that make it possible to live a good life no matter where you are in the world.
To be an ally is, in some sense, to be a conduit, to be a bridge, to stand in solidarity with people like us in some way but who aren’t us in other ways.
Speaking on the proximity to whiteness, paired with heightened awareness of racism and white supremacy through family, what do you see as the role mixed race people play in being allies to visibly people of colour?
I do think that there are affinities, responsibilities, possibilities mixed race people who pass as white have with mixed race people that are visible as people of colour. But your question also focuses on what the role of the ally is. To be an ally is, in some sense, to be a conduit, to be a bridge, to stand in solidarity with people like us in some way but who aren’t us in other ways. I remember when I was up in the Western Pilbara where I am not from – not Ngarluma or Yindjinbarndi or any other language group. And yet, I had a role to play from driving elders from town to bringing ice back to camp to building yathas (a type of shelter) to cooking traditional food to going out foraging. But, I also was not on the inside of those rituals, or even part of that community in the way other people are. I think being an ally means having the confidence to speak up but also knowing when to be quiet, playing your role without taking up too much space, interviewing people and giving them a platform to say what they need to say. On the issue of race, I will never have some experiences even as I witness and participate and am empathetic to others. That matters too.
My family members run the full colour spectrum when it comes to their embodiment. They experience the world very differently to me, especially in white majority settings. For the most part, I do not get abused based on my skin colour. Occasionally, I will get called ‘dark’ or ‘ethnic’ and I do get stopped by police and for airport explosive tests. I do not really invest in these micro-aggressions because it is not worth my time, regardless of how tiring, boring, and annoying it is. There are bigger fish to fry when it comes to my personal critique of power. As for my identity and how I encounter the world, I am somewhat ambiguous, and, I am ambivalent about that ambiguity. It goes without saying, that I do not only desire to do well in white structures – say the Australian literary bureaucratic establishment, the current university, the Global North – but to negotiate the world as a whole, which for me also includes the traditional culture of in-laws, the educational possibilities of informal teaching, the world as it might come to re-imagine itself.
What does it mean to you to be part of the poc community? What are considerations you have when entering poc spaces?
The POC community I am most part of is my family. I have Ngarluma, Caribbean, Jewish, Chinese, German, people in my family, and we live in Australia, Asia, Europe and America. We are mixed race, and, in that way we make up a POC space. I think the considerations I have are considerations I have whenever I walk into communities that require care, sensitivity and attention. To be kind, to be quiet, to listen, to ask, to observe the conventions, and to do all that while being true to yourself, and imagining what might happen when we open ourselves out to the world.
As mixed race people, belonging is often a substantial part of understanding ourselves, and where we fit in the world. Can you describe important milestones in your life of finding belonging?
For me, the answers to that question often involve place. I discovered I was Australian when I lived in Philadelphia for three years, and, that was partly because this was how the society interpreted me. After that, I discovered I was a colonial subject when I was living in metropolitan Paris, and then it was about becoming Indian when I stayed in New Delhi. Those were all moments in my identity, in learning how to articulate where I was from, and how those conversations overlapped and interacted. Since then, I think I have also learnt the process of finding belonging as a concept, structure, historical reality, rather than any identity that is fixed. I still feel Australian and colonial and Indian, but now the valence has changed from a social definition to a conversation that takes place in Western Australia, New York, and Kerala, which are all regionally specific compared to other sites of recognition. In other words, how I think about finding myself and the context in which I belong change, and, generally, now it is about self-articulation rather than the crowd around me.
When it comes to being mixed, it has always allowed me to have such a rich heritage that overflowed with possibility, and, if anything my inadequacy came from not having enough time, space, opportunity to do it justice.
With being mixed race, there comes privilege, and also lots of invisibilisation. How do you balance the two? What do you think about the connection between mixed race, ethnically ambiguous, and hypersensitivity?
How I perceive myself is a lot more complex than how my barista perceives me, and, over the course of my life I have been asked if I am Argentinian, Mexican, Cuban, American, Morrocan, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Pakistani, and Kashmiri. If people do think I am Indian, they think I am from the North, which is a very different set of cultures, civilisations, communities, languages, peoples than the South, where my family comes from. I have always welcomed this mix up, and not only because I could find reasons to be proud to be from any one of those places. It is because it gives me an opportunity to speak with people either about where I am from or how their day has been or why we recognise each other even though we are from very different places with different possibilities.
Something else I connect to being mixed race is the feeling of never being enough. What does inadequacy mean to you?
I think all people struggle with questions of inadequacy, and not only people with multiple sources of belonging. This is not to say that race is a fantasy or a social construct, for it has real effects in the world. It is though to recognise that there are distinct and unique material expressions for everyone. When it comes to being mixed, it has always allowed me to have such a rich heritage that overflowed with possibility, and, if anything my inadequacy came from not having enough time, space, opportunity to do it justice. It is not that I fail at being Indian or that I fail at being white or I fail at being Australia, nor that I have to choose between the three, but rather can I share in all that complexity and brilliance with the world? The answer to that question is yes, I can share in that, but it takes work (and a little luck) and the kindness of others.
In a similar vein, in a increasingly mobile world, how do you prioritise where you put your energy? In which family members, which cultures, which languages?
In one way, you choose what to focus on. But, in another, the world also chooses for you. It is all a dialogue. I might choose to send a poem to an Australian journal, but they might reject it. But that might simply mean that I send a poem to any number of journals in India, Singapore, France. And, they might accept it, which means you have to constantly readjust where and how you speak, with whom, why and what for. You can put your energy here to there, but it needs to be received as well. I find that enlivening, that conversation, the possibilities of being in the world and not only in oneself, the nation, the categories people think are solid but melt into air once we open the windows.
Our identities as mixed race people is almost like the embodiment of globalization. Do you think these transglobal identities will continue to become more common, and what would that mean for wider societies and cultural literacy?
This is an interesting question. One historical fact that Cassandra Pybus and Judy Johnson both talk about is the presence of African Americans on the First Fleet. Even in Australia, 1788 becomes less of an obsession when you think of Dirk Hartog (1616) and Willem de Vlamingh (1697). I mention this here not only to complicate the nationalist myth and pre-occupations, but also to suggest that globalization has longer roots than we think it does. And in that way the world has always been mixed up. To speak once again of Kerala, if you think about Kochi, it is a port city that has long been a centre for global trade. When King Solomon’s palace in Babylon was to be decorated, ivory was exported through Kochi. When Queen Sheba moved to Jerusalem, spices and sandalwood came from all along the coast, from Calicut to Cranganore and Kovalam. When St Thomas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, arrived in the port of Muziris in CE 52, many locals became Christians, preparing the soil for today’s polytheistic practices. Pliny the Elder talks about it being in decline in the first century AD, which means it was a beating heart long before that. And in myth, the land itself was created when Parasurama threw his axe into the ocean. Having said all that, I do think the movement of people is more common than ever before, and, with that identities shift and change in new and different ways. I for one, choose to be optimistic about it, to embrace what comes after double consciousness, what we might become when we allow ourselves to think beyond borders.
BOUNDLESS IS A NEW PROJECT WHICH CONSIDERS THE EXPERIENCE OF
MIXED-RACE ASIAN-AUSTRALIANS. CURATED BY SUMARLINAH RADEN WINOTO,
‘BOUNDLESS’ WILL SPAN FORMS, A SERIES OF ART, PHOTOGRAPHS & CONVERSATIONS.