Winnie Dunn (ed.)
Sweatshop Women: Volume One

More than 20 women show off their work in this anthology from Sweatshop, a Western Sydney literacy movement that supports culturally and linguistically diverse writers. There is an unabashed political agenda at play in Sweatshop Women, with a concerted push by Tongan Australian editor Winnie Dunn to centre hitherto marginalised voices, including those from Indigenous, migrant and refugee backgrounds. The objective is for these women of colour to have a space of their own to counter the structural inequities within the book industry, where white writers of both sexes are statistically more likely to be published and promoted.

Poems, short fiction and memoir are all in the mix. It’s not surprising to encounter stories of casual racism: Ferdous Bahar despairs over the unfavourable reaction to the hijab when her subject applies for a legal assistant position, Meyrnah Khodr’s tale recounts a dismissive teacher’s comments to the Lebanese girls in art class – “You lot just end up getting married once you leave school” – while Joy Adan writes about a little Filipino girl lathering herself in a vain attempt to wash herself white in order to stop being teased. Several stories, such as Naima Ibrahim’s “A Curse and a Prayer”, explore the generational gap: offspring straining for independence against the expectations of their parents, who see these assertions as cultural affronts. Elsewhere the love and tumble of families (“with a hundred cousins”), particularly mother–daughter relationships, are touchingly and forensically captured.

Stark, full-page photographs of all the writers by Bethany Pal and Elaine Lim show young women hailing from Vietnam, Samoa, Sri Lanka and Djungan country in far north Queensland, among others.

While most of the pieces are colourful, clear-eyed snapshots of time, place and race, some feel underdeveloped – perhaps appetisers to longer works in the offing. Still, there’s no doubting the seriousness of the project, and there’s certainly value in Sweatshop Women’s stance against cultural misappropriation. As Michelle Law says in the foreword, this book is “an antidote to all of the stories stolen, appropriated and diluted by White and/or male voices and perspectives. These are the unadulterated words of women of colour at their most authentic and true.”

Thuy On

Western Sydney University, 184pp, $19.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Winnie Dunn (ed.), Sweatshop Women: Volume One". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Thuy On