Opinion

Omar J. Sakr
Representation and diversity

The city of Santa Fe sits 2200 metres above sea level, my new friend – an older, established writer who has lived here for decades – tells me as we drive along the highway, the Rio Grande a flashing blue knife on one side, ragged sloping bush on the other. I’ve been living here for a month as part of an artist residency, so this fact doesn’t come as a surprise. “Once a Palestinian poet was meant to do a reading here, but on landing, had to be immediately flown away, he was so sick.”

It turns out altitude sickness is a more serious problem than I had realised, perhaps because so far it hasn’t touched my body. I think about this a great deal, the ways in which knowledge can be filtered through skin, what we take for granted, and what is denied to us.

We’re driving up to Taos, which I’m assured is beautiful. That isn’t hard to believe, given every inch of land in New Mexico shines, a glorious desert of breathtaking colour. Despite this, I have to strain not to squirm in my seat. In an email the night before, the writer I was with had told me he read the manuscript I sent him. He thought it was very powerful, but he wanted to discuss “the diversity issue”. There are few sentences that can sink a stone into a stomach as fast as that one, if the body in question is marginalised in some way by race, gender, sexuality or class. I am a bisexual Arab Australian Muslim from Western Sydney, so I sometimes feel as though I have a half-dozen stones in my mouth at any given moment, ready to drop. “You’re in a very fortunate position,” he said. “The diversity thing, it’s all anyone cares about now. You have a real advantage.”

He wasn’t wrong but he wasn’t right either. Sitting next to him, I was tempted to remind him that any so-called advantage comes off the back of an immense, sustained attack on the same communities. That to have attention given to your art – which is by no means guaranteed, it’s mostly ignored anyway – because of the degree to which your community is being oppressed is gross. It’s an inherently dehumanising framework. I was tempted to remind him that tokenism works hand in hand with oppression. This is one of many reasons the work of a marginalised artist goes so much beyond their art: you have to stand within the narrow band of one spotlight and while there build as many lights as you can so you can be seen as fully human, and to shine it on as many others as possible.

As we drove, this writer then said something about white poets being out of favour. He was sincere in this, and said it not in sympathy for those poets, but as if it were an objective fact. While I can’t speak for the American situation, I know this is a feeling many Anglo writers share – a sense of being diminished or cast out by the inclusion of others. I want to focus on the river leaping nearby, making a mockery of its dry surrounds, or the cliffs rising to my right, or the hazy mountains ahead of us – anything other than the familiar disappointment at this conversation – but the weight in my gut won’t allow it.

To succeed by any metric as an artist from a marginalised community is to know that for many people, including your peers, your achievements will never be attributed to skill alone. It is to know that there is in fact a real chance you will be given an opportunity because your people are being oppressed, in a kind of empty gesture towards balance. As if my writing a poem or receiving a residency is ever going to make up for the casualised catastrophe of 94,000 bombs dropped on Middle Eastern peoples in the past three years alone, or as if it will make a dent in centuries worth of demonising orientalism. It is to know that a suit somewhere who sees bodies like yours getting slaughtered will soon turn to you to say, “Speak, wound. Speak.”

To be a writer like this, you are held up as a living beacon: look, here is one alive and thriving; things can’t be that bad, can they? You are encouraged in this instance to trot out the specific discriminatory hurdles you have faced in life, to make it a personal story and not a systemic issue. Ironically, it is the one time we are allowed to be individuals. All of which is to say that yes, sometimes institutions coat a superficial “diversity” layering over themselves in an attempt to be insulated from the real work of substantive, systemic change, but this takes nothing away from the artists who are given that thin chance and manage to make the most of it.

It is important to note that it is a thin and superficial layering of colour over a dominant core of whiteness, one that is only ever reluctantly applied. Despite this, I cannot tell you how many Anglo writers – themselves the authors of many books – have complained about not succeeding with grant applications because of a failure to “tick a box”. I can’t tell you the staggering amount of Indigenous, black, brown, queer and trans writers who don’t succeed either, for innumerable reasons, none of which include insufficient skill. There is only a small gap between the rhetoric of “diverse writers are taking over” and the familiar language of anti-immigration nationalists who speak of non-white peoples as a wave, a surge, a kind of overwhelming totality. Both speak to situations in which an outsized media focus distorts the reality.

Take, for example, a recent survey that revealed Australians believe Muslims make up 12.5 per cent of the population, when the real number is 2.4 per cent. Australians also believed that proportion would rise to 21  per cent by 2020, when the actual projection is only 3 per cent. In a similar way, there is such a paucity of artists of colour and such a hunger for art that speaks to the world in which we live – a world that is fundamentally not white – that more attention is naturally given to the few who make it onto any kind of notable stage. As we’re driving, I’m thinking about how the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the largest prize in the country, has never been won by an Indigenous poet or poet of colour. It has only offered a category for poetry these past five years, however, so for a longer view, we need to look at the next best thing: the state premier’s prizes.

In New South Wales, the Kenneth Slessor prize has been won by Indigenous poets twice in its 37-year history, and never by an immigrant poet of colour. The Queensland, South Australian and Western Australian prizes have each been won by a poet of colour only once in their 13, 31, and 23-year histories respectively. Victoria went 31 years without having one, a streak broken last year by Maxine Beneba Clarke, who was followed this year by Bella Li. That’s a total of seven non-white poets who have won the major poetry book prizes in this country’s literary history, three of them occurring within the past two years. It is by no means an exhaustive review, but these numbers tell their own story.

As a marginalised poet beginning to have some small measure of success, I’m not supposed to talk about this. I am supposed to take what is given, speak as wound, as tragic past come good, and if I should succeed, treat it as the accidental byproduct of a system that took pity on me, never something I had a hand in making. The idea of gratitude – as if we aren’t making money for publishers by catering to a multicultural audience with increased purchasing power, whose demonstrable hunger for our work is the real driving force of change – is often used as an instrument of blunt force to silence those of us considered lucky to even be in the building. To criticise is to be seen as angry and bitter, an easily dismissed emotional creature. Unemotional criticism is reserved for those considered organic to the existing power structures. Yet to benefit from a gross system without acting to change it for the better is to be complicit in all its functions.

None of this is what I wanted to talk about on that drive. I wanted to talk about my work, and the tensions between writing to and around a collective identity from a subjective history, how sometimes a trauma erased needs to be given a body to speak, how love and joy and sex have as equal a right to the mouth. But instead I am once again forced to justify what little I and others have made for ourselves, as though this terrible scarcity is in fact an abundance. But this is part of my work now, too – agitating for more.

Ask any marginalised artist and they will have at the ready a dozen names of other people of colour who helped them get there, or who still need help arriving. It is to them, to people such as Maxine, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Michelle Cahill, to whom I reserve my gratitude. I wish, when asked, that I said to my new friend: Can we speak instead about generation after generation of white authors, white editors, white publishers, white judges of awards? I would like to talk about the white issue.

Instead, I said nothing. After all, he’d read my book. I was grateful. We had been driving for about an hour and yet, in the distance, the mountains seemed as far away as ever.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "A stomach full of stones". Subscribe here.

Omar J. Sakr
is a poet and writer. He is the author of These Wild Houses.