On Saturday 17 September, I made my way to the Wheeler Centre to attend the Diverse Women Writers day thought up by Maxine Beneba Clarke and hosted by Writers Victoria. It was the one sunny day we got that week and I was a little annoyed that I'd have to spend it indoors, but it turned out to be worth it.
There had already been a bit of buzz about it on Twitter and I'd been looking forward to meeting up with the few friends I knew were attending, but I was unprepared for the sheer volume of friendly faces and conversations I encountered. I ran into people who had attended my panel at the West Writers Forum earlier this year, former students, twitter friends, guest lecturers, and friends-of-friends, and was introduced to their friends as well. I live-tweeted a lot of the event and in the process ended up connecting with other participants who were doing the same. I even found myself going up to people and commenting on (great) things that they had said, which I rarely do because, extrovert or not, I can be quite shy. But something about being in a space where I didn't have to perform a particular kind of identity for the majority present made that kind of movement and connection easy.
The wonderful Eleanor Jackson was the MC and kept us on track during the panels, which were really half panel, half audience questions. The warmth and inclusiveness with which she kicked off the event set the tone for the rest of the day.
The first speakers, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Jax Jacki Brown spoke about advocacy and activism as part of their writing practice, and the role that identity plays in writing and publication. There were questions raised about having to 'perform' a particular identity for the sake of publication or particular publishers which continued into the next session on pitching, which featured Robert Watkins from Hachette Australia, Aviva Tuffield from Black Inc, and literary agent Jacinta di Mase.
After a windswept lunch we continued to a panel about best practice with Fiona Tuomy, Lian Low, Jane Harrison and Lefa Singleton Norton. Each participant spoke about the demands and requirements of organising events and ensuring representation and accessibility for often marginalised and minoritised groups. The discussion of disability and the minimal effort put into access was discussed at length and it was pointed out that even in that 'inclusive' space, many people had had to remove themselves because the format presented serious difficulties. Just prior to the panel, a participant tweeted about being shaken after having encountered an instance of transphobia. Although the participant were able to get support from the organisers, it's still disgusting that such an incident happened in the first place.
Some of this was discussed during the open forum, when the audience was asked to comment on the day's proceedings and make suggestions for improvements. Overall there seemed to be a feeling that events like this one were useful because of how isolating it often is to be the only non-white, nonbinary, non-male, non-straight person in the room. To be with a cohort with whom we could share multiple intersecting parts of our identities was a relief. There was a discussion of the use of the word 'women' when what was meant was more broadly 'not men', and the possibility of using 'women and nonbinary' as an identifier was floated, which several of the people I spoke to seemed to think would work.
If there was anything I could change, it would have been the use of the word 'diverse'. While discussing us as a group, the word was perfectly appropriate. We were indeed a diverse group. However I, personally, am not diverse. I am a single individual. Arguably, my background and experience may be diverse, but I am still their unique product. One. Not many.
The reason using 'diverse' to speak about an individual bothers me so much is that, used like this, 'diverse' is basically a stand-in for 'not white'. When a panelist says 'I myself am not from a diverse background,' what they're saying is 'I'm white'. My question is, why not go ahead and say that? Or, better yet, why don't they try to understand that they are part of the diversity of humanity and announce themselves as 'Anglo' or 'Anglo-Celtic' or whatever they are? By limiting diversity to not-whiteness, they fall into the same old trap of Othering that the notion of diversity was supposed to combat. It reflects the laziness of the status quo, the swapping out of now inconveniently racist language for more 'appropriate' buzzwords without putting any actual thought into why these words are being used in the first place.
Although this was brought up here and there, the discussion didn't gain much traction, but I expect that if this event is repeated - and similar discussions certainly will be - that it might get some airtime.
Other than that, it was hard to tear myself away from the event even after it was over. I met many wonderful people and, in order to keep some of the momentum going, I've created the DiverseWomenWritersAus list on Twitter. I've started to populate it, but people who fit the bill are welcome to add themselves to it.
Overall it was a wonderful event and I'm glad I spent my Saturday meeting, listening to, connecting with, and learning from such a great group of people.