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"In my ideal world white people would not feel the need to write anymore"

If you want to represent a community, find someone from that community and employ them to do it, argues Sweatshop's Winnie Dunn.

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Category: Conversation
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Winnie Dunn: claiming space

Date: 3 May 2018

Anglo-Australian writers sometimes come to Winnie Dunn for advice.

Well they might. Dunn works at Sweatshop, the Western Sydney Literacy Movement.

They might ask her how to go about writing an Indigenous character, for example, or how to develop stories about Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Dunn’s number one tip?

Don’t.

“It usually ends up with me asking them to explain why they feel the need to write those stories, why they want to take up that space,” Dunn says.

“My argument is always if you actually want to represent a community, then find someone from that community and employ them to do it. They will write the most authentic truthful and engaging story that is totally new and exciting because they have lived that experience.”

Anglo-Australian writers aren’t necessarily insensitive people, Dunn says. “But when they take up that space it means there’s less room for a writer from that community to then write their own story. It’s very colonial and actually damaging, even if the play is well-researched.

“In my ideal world white people would not feel the need to write anymore,” she smiles. “They’d give up all that space for marginalised voices to come to the centre and speak for themselves. But obviously, that’s not going to happen.”

Dunn, whose heritage is Tongan-Australian, took part in a Sydney Writers Festival workshop, Owning Your Story, at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre on Sunday May 6, part of a wider connection between writers living and working in the Liverpool/South West area of Sydney and Casual Powerhouse, which is committed to developing new Australian plays.

With Sweatshop writers Shirley Le, Evelyn Araluen, Omar Sakr, Stephen Pham and Monikka Eliah, Dunn stressed the importance of authentic stories born of lived experience and help empower people to do it.

“We are having a conversation around what it means to write from a marginalised community, what it means to represent yourself and your community, and the importance of self-representation,” Dunn explains.

Sweatshop doesn’t limit itself to writing any particular genre, Dunn says.

“A lot of the work being produced here is autobiographical fiction but the same applies to essays, poetry, playwriting or prose. It’s not about the form, it’s about how well you write it.

“What makes something good is specificity and originality. Sweatshop really believes literature has to be new, exciting and specific. It has to make an original contribution to knowledge. It’s about finding gaps in Australian literature that need to be filled.”

Dunn’s encounter with Sweatshop was as a student.

“I got into the arts because I was doing a BA at Western Sydney University and I was doing some creative writing on the side. But I wasn’t aware then what writing actually was or how important self-representation is,” she says.

She attended a workshop organised by the student newspaper. Its facilitator was Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad, novelist (The Lebs) and the director of Sweatshop.

“I was sitting in the workshop and it clicked suddenly that he was the first facilitator I’ve had who was a person of colour,” Dunn says.

Ahmad invited Dunn to come to more Sweatshop workshops to develop her writing. Now she is employed there two days a week facilitating the writing of others. She is still very much involved in creating her own work, however.

“I write a lot of autobiographical fiction. People ask why I don’t write sci- fi or Young Adult novels or stuff like that. But for me, writing autobiographical fiction means I’m able to produce writing about Pasifika communities in Australia, which doesn’t really exist much in the mainstream.”

New Zealand-Aotearoa and Hawaii are far more advanced in the representation of Pasifika culture than Australia, Dunn adds. “We have a huge gap in that space. It’s like the only representative of Tongan Australia is Chris Lilley, who’s a white guy in black face. So for me to be able to write autobiographical fiction means I can write stories influenced by my own life and my experiences as a Tongan Australian and that can be a marker for my community.”

Dunn is now in the early stages of writing a piece of theatre commissioned by Casula Powerhouse for its 2019 season. The work will also be developed and produced by bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company in partnership with CPAC and staged at Kings Cross Theatre in 2019.

“I start next week, it’s really exciting,” says Dunn, who will receive dramaturgical support from KXT and mentoring from playwright Justin Fleming.

She also has access to a room to write in at CPAC as part of a residency supporting writers from the Liverpool area. “I come from a family of 10 in a one storey house in Mount Druitt so there is not a lot of space to write,” Dunn says.

Her play draws on her own experience growing up in Miller, near Liverpool. “It was a housing commission suburb and I want to write an adult narrator perspective of what it was like to grow up there with a lot of family bunched in together, just the every day experiences, the really humorous and the quite confronting. To be able to tap into that part of my life is really exciting.”

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