Books

Winnie Dunn (ed.)
Sweatshop Women: Volume Two

In a white-dominated literary world, writing “the other” becomes a political act. This is, to put it lightly, unfortunate. Regardless, decades of omission have led to a reckoning in which writers of colour have carved out new spaces – those that encourage portrayals of long-ignored experiences, debunk the fallacy that writing should be “universal”, and shun the white gaze.

Sweatshop’s newest anthology, Sweatshop Women: Volume Two, travels on exactly this path. Following on from the much-lauded first volume, this collection is packed with verve and rigour. Edited by Winnie Dunn, with a foreword by Ruby Hamad, the book showcases 22 stories and poems by an ensemble of Western Sydney writers who want to upend the status quo. But what is most powerful about the anthology is that while it acts as a “tool to dismantle” what Audre Lorde termed “the master’s house” – which, as Dunn writes in her introduction, is represented here by the major publishing houses – it also refuses to engage with those structures altogether. By recognising the failures of white liberal “melting pot” discourse, this anthology asserts a simple fact: this is for us, by us.

As such, the writing within is kaleidoscopic. Non-English phrases are often untranslated, and writers don’t automatically reach for explanation, challenging the defaults that come from white literary inheritances. Arms “look like yellow chicken Twisties”; possums are imagined as jinns; a woman thanks Allah for a visa that helps her escape an arranged marriage in Lebanon. The stories themselves are multifaceted: in Shirley Le’s “Train Gods”, a Vietnamese–Australian woman on a train is accosted by a white American preacher, a piece that acts as commentary about the failures and complexities of multiculturalism; while in Divya Venkataraman’s “Syrup”, an Indian–Australian woman contemplates her recent abortion as she prepares for a dinner party. Another story, “No God but God” by Cindy El Sayed, is about a Lebanese–Australian girl who pretends to be Maronite at school to escape Islamophobia.

It’s difficult to spotlight one or two pieces without acknowledging that each one has its own reality to offer. However, the through line of this collection is clear: Sweatshop Women: Volume Two proves itself as another strong addition to a pantheon of books that seek to disrupt the Australian canon and foreground marginalised voices. Its existence will surely pave the way for many more.

Cher Tan

Sweatshop, 200pp, $19.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "Winnie Dunn, Sweatshop Women: Volume Two ".

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Reviewer: Cher Tan

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