Interview #107—Caroline Wood
by Robert Wood
Caroline Wood is the Co-founder and Director of The Centre for Stories. She has degrees in art history and psychology, and, for many years, she worked at The Centre for Water Research at the University of Western Australia.
There, she administered projects that improved the quality of the Derbarl Yerrigan, or Swan River, the main freshwater body in the city of Perth. She has also been the President of Amnesty International in Western Australia, a board member of the Small Press Network, and the publisher of Margaret River Press.
Can you explain your family story?
I come from a family of strong women, beginning with my mother who was the first feminist I knew. I have seven sisters and one brother. My sisters have been involved in civil society activism in Singapore; delivering UN AIDS education programs in India, Africa, and Nepal; starting up schools in Indonesia; fighting for the right of extended Indigenous and other families whose children have been taken into care in Australia; and volunteering in refugee and church organisations in many parts of the world. What is remarkable is many of my sisters are in their late 70s and early 80s and continue to undertake this work.
Our family life growing up was one built around music, literature (Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens), food, religion, and community. We were Roman Catholics and ate fish on Friday, attended Mass regularly, went to confession once a week, and took Holy Communion at Sunday mass. All this was non-negotiable as was studying hard, learning to play a musical instrument, and performing for the stream of relatives who visited on weekends.
As migrants to Malaysia and Singapore from the highly literate and socially conscious state of Kerala (India), my parents were deeply committed to education. Kerala prides itself on having one of the first democratically elected Communist governments in the world, and it continues to have strong leftist, progressive, egalitarian underpinnings throughout all levels of society.
My mother instilled in all of us the need to be financially independent, to find a way to balance work and life, to contribute to the betterment of society, and that the family was the bedrock of stability. As a result all of us have had interesting career paths, and are committed to education. We keep deep connections to family and, in this way, pay tribute to our parents and their heritage.
What was Perth like when you arrived?
I arrived in Perth in August 1974. It was not long after the end of the White Australia policy, the Vietnam War was coming to an end, and it was an interesting time politically with the Whitlam government in power. A year later, I was out putting pamphlets in letterboxes for the Labour party after his sacking, something that I would not have engaged with in Singapore.
Of course there was racism, which I felt particularly when I was applying for work. In those days you called about a job vacancy, and my accent meant I would not get a look in. I was used to racism growing up in Singapore. It might come as a surprise to readers, but I felt less discrimination in Australia than in Singapore. As an Indian, I was subjected to daily racism there.
I moved into a shared house in the inner city suburb of Subiaco and one of my earliest memories was an invitation to a neighbour’s philosophical dinner party. I discovered this was a weekly event where a topic was discussed. It was an eye opener as they sat around in a circle, eating hash cookies, and, on this particular occasion, contemplating the meaning of life.
I enjoyed encountering different cultures in Australia, which were different from that of Singapore. I had never interacted with Greeks, Italians and other Europeans. It was fun, discovering local corner stores, Greek and Italian restaurants and going to the Sunday sessions. Perth in the 1970s, perhaps like the rest of Australia, was socially progressive, politically engaged, and quite open.
Tell us about the building we are in now, and, where it fits in relationship to the area.
We are in The Centre for Stories, which suits the rich, colourful and diverse history of its neighbourhood, Northbridge. Noongar Elder Noel Nannup says the area around this place was made up of a series of freshwater swamps, which was fed by the Swan River. It was therefore a place where Noongars gathered and met for a long time, and continue to.
Northbridge also has a rich migrant history. It was the location of the first Chinese supermarket, the first mosque and was home to the influx of Greek and Italian post-war migrants. The gold boom in the 1890s brought development of hotels, boarding houses, gambling dens, restaurants and cafes.
The von Bibra family were part of this gold boom and they erected three grand houses, one of which we now occupy. The building has had many uses, as a residence, a store and a ‘house of ill repute’ before becoming the first Women’s Health Care House in WA in 1989. This was a safe place, offering a holistic multidisciplinary approach to enhance the health and wellbeing of women. Women who worked at the health centre say that it was a house of happiness, offering encouragement for women to improve their lives.
The Centre for Stories adds a chapter to this rich history as it continues the tradition of offering a safe and inclusive space through its mission of teaching the craft of storytelling and sharing complex stories. These reflect back on those who came before us to consider what makes us who we are today.
I come from a family of strong women…
How and why did you start the Centre for Stories?
Quite by accident, it was very much a concept that was based on emotion and passion rather than a deep and strategically thought out idea. After travelling to many cities around the world, I felt that Perth could do with a vibrant, truly inclusive and safe space for storytelling. I wanted to create a space that reflected the composition of Australia and a space where we could do good work and demonstrate that inclusivity in its true form is rewarding for everybody.
Explain the core purpose and mission of the Centre for people that might not have heard about it.
We are a vibrant, community, literary arts and cultural organisation that uses storytelling to inspire social cohesion and improve understanding of diverse people. We cultivate stories that inspire individuals, spark empathy and challenge intolerance. We work with people whose experiences and perspectives are often marginalised and these have included refugees, migrants, people of colour, sexual minorities, the elderly and people with disabilities. We present high quality stories from these groups and promote excellent craft, unique perspectives and artistic value. We are always looking to collaborate with other people too!
What have been some of the major successes?
Ways of Being Here was a mentoring project for writers of African heritage supported four writers in their writing over a six month period. Rafeif Ismail from this project went on to win the Deborah Cass Prize and has had many successes since, and, Yuot Alaak was shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford Award and has now received a book contract with Fremantle Press. Bright Lights, No City supported storytellers in both oral and written form to share their stories of growing up queer in regional WA. The training workshops were a cathartic experience for all those involved as they shared experiences that people had carried silently for many years.
Saga Sisterhood is a performance based storytelling project for women of South Asian heritage. We have had women from 18-70 take part in the project, many of them had never told a story, and it was an incredibly empowering process. Some of them have elected to share their stories in a live performance at The Blue Room Theatre just up the road. Our success has been around the concept of being open, of engaging with many communities and partnering with many sections of the creative sector.
After travelling to many cities around the world, I felt that Perth could do with a vibrant, truly inclusive and safe space for storytelling.
And what have been some of the challenges?
We want to continue to support, encourage and value the ideas and agency of the many people who come through our doors. This requires people who are committed to our values and ideals and sometimes that can be a challenge. This is about finding people who are not just interested in ticking boxes but those who have a genuine interest in been inclusive, changing how we think about storytelling and value, and continuing to support each other. Another challenge is funding. This is to ensure long-term sustainability and that we are able to run more programs. We need this so that the sector becomes used to different voices and we are not just exhausting the few that already participate. The dependency on project based funding makes long term planning difficult.
Where do you see the Centre now – what is the stage it is in, and, what does the future hold?
I think the future is bright. Since the Centre started we have experienced incredible growth in terms of numbers through our doors, income, projects, and recognition, including with Liminal. The feedback we get is that those who have participated in our projects feel valued and empowered. But, just as critically, they feel it is the first space where they can come into their own. We simply offered a platform for people to become themselves. I think we have achieved what we set out to do. So, going forward, we need to be mindful that we have set a certain standard that we should not compromise.
We will continue to do the good work we are, one of our challenges is gender parity – getting more men involved in our programs. We want these stories to take a life beyond the Centre for the storytellers to work in different formats, be inspired to share new stories and to act as role models for others in their communities.
Looking into the future, one of the key issues for long term sustainability, is the transition from the passion of the Founders to finding someone who is equally passionate to take the Centre forward, I am a strong believer in renewal and handing power to others especially if they are younger, more agile in their thinking and come with fresh new ideas. Ideally I would like to see this happen in the next 3-4 years so I can spend more time with my grandchildren.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers, arts producers, and Asian-Australians?
Keep up to date with what is happening in the sector, be open to partnerships, and be supportive of your peers. Be brave and bold, you won’t die wondering.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I don’t particularly see myself as Asian-Australian. I am less conscious of my racial identity in Australia than I was in Singapore. In Singapore, ethnicity is used as an identifier at all levels of society and is sanctioned by the government. I think I am incredibly lucky to have my heritage. I had parents who instilled in me a pride in our culture. Living as a minority in two multicultural societies (Singapore and Australia) has brought challenges, but not adversity. I am grateful for this complexity because it makes me who I am and I am now able to bring all that together through my work at the Centre.