Interview #99 — Sumarlinah Raden Winoto
Sumarlinah Winoto is a curator, community organiser and podcast producer. They're also classically trained as a dancer and produce the politics podcast Condemned to the Labyrinth.
Sumarlinah spoke to Nathania about creating opportunities for others to tell their stories, carrying your given name with grace, and the secret to moving through life like a cowboy.
In the editorial that announced Boundless, I was struck by the line
It’s a lifelong task to explain yourself, which parts of you belong to which category, always knowing you’re being deemed as not completely worthy of any full designation.
Why was it important to you and Leah to create space for multiracial identities in Australia?
It is one of the largest growing demographics in Australia. I would argue it’s also one of largest growing demographics globally because of global mobility. And we don’t talk about it often. There’s a lot of discussion in identity politics about people’s ethnic of racial identities, but there’s markedly less discussion about people who are from lots of different places. Creating Boundless is contributing to widening our scope of how we understand racial identity.
You co-host the podcast Condemned to the Labyrinth, which investigates the violence of Australian immigration politics, and shifting understanding of ‘borders;. It launched in May 2018, and has since hosted conversations with Roj Amedi, Samantha Castro, Aran Mylvaganam, Uncle Jack Charles, Lavanya Thavaraj and Shen Nayaranasamy. What have you learned from producing the podcast over the last year?
The biggest lesson from producing Condemned to the Labyrinth was improving my interviewing skills. We were talking about a very heavy topic and it was important to create content that people without a deep understanding prior to listening could still understand.
I had to learn how to have conversations which have substantive content and very specific content. We were facilitating quite complex conversations, and there is a real challenge in being quite niche and also making it accessible for everyone.
Creating Boundless is contributing to widening our scope of how we understand racial identity.
I’m interested in how your curatorial practice and role as a community organiser informs, or ‘talks’ to one other. I recently came across the term “curatorial activism” which was defined by Maura Reilly as the practice of organising art exhibitions with “the...aim of ensuring that certain constituencies of artists are no longer ghettoised or excluded from the master narratives of art. It is a practice that commits itself to counter-hegemonic initiatives that give voice to those who have been historically silenced or omitted altogether—and, as such, focuses almost exclusively on work produced by women, artists of color, non-Euro-Americans, and/or queer artists.”
How do you think being involved in both worlds, and acquiring the different skill sets for each of these, has shaped how you see the world?
As a Venn diagram (which I am very into) curating and organising are two circles which are almost completely overlapping. They are very similar in my mind. Both are about designing and holding spaces for people to feel comfortable. The difference between them are that the participants are different.
Both roles are strongly embedded in empowering participants and creating opportunities for them to tell their own story.
You recently tweeted “the internet is truly an incredible tool and if you are not continuously looking for ways you can maximise it for more social justice you are playing yourself, and everyone else.” What are some of the ways you’ve found the internet to be useful as a tool in taking action, rather than remaining passive?
I think the internet is such an exciting space. It means that we can connect with billions of people across the world. We can support each other and hear each other and find a more complex, more nuanced way of understanding of what it means to be alive. It gives us such a breadth of experiences and understandings, which is very special.
I read a lot. I read a lot on the internet, articles, op-eds and I learn so much. I watch documentaries and absorb lots of information which is at your fingertips. This type of learning builds the framework through which you see the world. The internet has had huge contribution to the way I understand and process everything.
By its harshness and by how untamed it is, the internet has taught me to be more forgiving. So much happens on the internet. I like to use my social media profiles to learn and to create learning opportunities for others.
I share the things I learn from with my friends and followers. This is vital because the things I read are relevant to more people and it’s important that they are exposed to the same learnings. It’s shared learning and it’s about building communities. It is about transparency; I learn a lot from other people when they give me the opportunities to, and I hope to offer that to others, too.
By its harshness and by how untamed it is, the internet has taught me to be more forgiving.
You’re also a dancer. How did you learn, and how has it shaped the way you now move through life?
I was classically trained from age three. I studied ballet until I was 16. My teacher was strict (like all classical dance teachers). She taught me discipline and grace. She always did really beautiful developés (the unfolding of the leg—leading with the knee, followed by the shin and then the foot). I made the fatal mistake of focusing on my thighs too much when I was young. Now they are very strong, but it means that I struggle to make my developés as technical as hers.
Dancers are graceful people with excellent posture. Dancing teaches you to have a low centre of gravity with turned out legs and feet. So physically, dance has made me move through life like a cowboy.
When you dance, you learn a phrase of choreography until you can do it without thinking. This experience is otherworldly, and it gives me a very special sense of freedom. The naturalness of it, the confidence and security you get through practice is something that I have held on to quite closely. I try to approach other aspects of my like in the same way.
You’ve previously written about how your relationship with your name has changed over time. To me, the essay had echoes of Durga Chew-Bose’s ‘How I Learned To Stop Erasing Myself’ in it. Our names can carry (as you mentioned in your piece) ancestry, heritage, pride, responsibility—even sometimes, when passed down like heirlooms or inheritances, the promise of something new. Yet we are often pressured to consider flattening and compartmentalising ourselves for the ease of being understood; the privilege of remaining unquestioned.
What advice would you have for young people growing up in Australia who carry unusual, difficult-to-pronounce, odd-one-out names?
Be graceful – carry it with grace. Honour it and respect it; honouring the people who gave you that name. It’s not about pride, or ownership, but to respect and carry your name with the grace and honour that it deserves.
Growing up, do you have any early memories of realising that creativity – channelling different art forms – could help you respond to the identity crises you were navigating?
I didn’t think about identity. I put it away and didn’t think about it, which is such a privilege. I could because I am white passing. It was too difficult to deal with it amongst all the other trials and tribulations that come with being a teenager. Later on, when I did examine my identity, it wasn’t creativity that helped me think about it. What helps is being able to talk about it. I talked with my friends and connections in the QTPOC community in Melbourne. That helped me take a step back and see my identity through the framework of being a queer person of colour.
I’m sure it informs my creativity a lot but being creative hasn't been a tool for me to unpack it.
It’s not about pride, or ownership, but to respect and carry your name with the grace and honour that it deserves.
Do you have any advice for community organisers?
Be honest. Be vulnerable with yourself, especially if you can’t be vulnerable with others around you (this is especially the case in many professional fields). Listen to yourself the only way to grow is to know where you need to go. Be part of an ongoing process of learning and developing and above all else, listen.
Who are you inspired by?
My aunty—she’s the perfect mix of serious and funny that I aim to be. Chella Man—a trans Asian activist who is also Deaf. Just existing in the world as a visible, public Deaf and trans person of colour. They have all of these things that make them different and they are doing it so beautifully. They very publicly advocate for PDA, which is something that is so beautiful and so needed in the world… people just adoring each other. Lauren Olamina from Octavia E. Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower (also Octavia E. Butler herself).
And the ocean—I love how the ocean is all-enveloping in its serenity and its rage and in every possible emotion.
Be honest. Be vulnerable with yourself, especially if you can’t be vulnerable with others around you…
What are you listening to?
Solange’s new album. It’s compulsory to be listening to that right now.
What are you reading?
Still finishing the Blue Locust on Pink Mountain by Jamie Marina Lau.
How do you practice self-care?
Self-care for me is about respecting yourself. The way you respect everyone else in your life is how you should respect your own body and heart and mind.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I can only describe it as everything and nothing. It is a weird, all-encompassing sentiment, but also it means nothing. It is so intangible.