Falling Through Doors

Aug
25

Calling Australia Home: On Privilege, Taste, and Timing

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This week I branch into a brand new area for me, and that is mainstream critical writing. The other day I read an article, felt irked and then frustrated and then angered by it, and so I wrote a critical response to it. (It’s harsh, but I believe it’s also considered and fair; before writing my response I researched what I could about the writer, including reading other pieces of hers published online.) Then, in an inexplicable act of ballsiness, I submitted my response to the magazine that had published the article in question. I’m not sure why; I was quite certain they would not want to publish it, but I definitely wanted them to read it. An hour later I found in my inbox the quickest and most detailed rejection I have ever received. I’ve included the correspondence with the article below, mostly because I can’t help but feel that the editor’s response directly supports some of the points I’m trying to make.

I would love to hear the thoughts of my minuscule (but exemplary, intelligent, discerning) readership here at Falling Through Doors regarding the piece, the rejection, and/or the issues I raise. This is new terrain for me. Here goes.


Dear Editors, 
I am a past subscriber who has recently moved to Canada. This is a piece in response to an article Overland published online on 17 August (Can I still call Australia home? by Mikaella Clements), which I took issue with for a number of reasons. I realise that my article is substantially longer than what you generally publish online, but I wanted to see if you’d like to publish it, in the spirit of creating a dialogue!

Many thanks in advance for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing back from you regarding my submission.

Kind regards,
Alison Strumberger


In this past week, I feel as though I have become officially distanced from Australia. I claimed back my superannuation, I filed my final tax return, and a friend from Melbourne has come to visit, confirming that we are, in fact, far away.

Among the things that make me feel distanced from Australia are that the government kept more than thirty percent of my super, and that my tax return was six-hundred dollars lighter due to a mandatory Medicare levy—a fee for a service I was never eligible for during my four years in Australia, but which I have to pay simply for having resided de facto with an Australian. And while these things are pains-in-butts, and surprising and inconvenient, they are only problems for me because of my privilege. They are not-too-distant relatives of people complaining that the heater at their cottage is on the fritz, or that their day was thrown off because Whole Foods was out of Peach Karma Sunrise kombucha. In other words, had I not had the resources to move to Australia, had I not had the freedom to travel and study and work in a foreign country of my choice, these would be non-issues. Basically, the factors that make my life among the easiest in the world are the factors that lead to me saying things like “Curse you, Australia!” in the privacy of my own home while shaking my fist at footage of an onion-munching prime minister. There are many people who say those words for far far worse (read: unimaginable, horrifying, heartbreaking) reasons, so in a public sphere I do my best to keep my mouth shut.

Among the things that currently make me feel glad of my new-found distance from Australia are the leaked files on Australia’s offshore detention centre on Nauru, which came to light on 10 August, and an article published by Overland only a week later, on 17 August.

For those not familiar with it, Overland is a Melbourne-based literary and cultural magazine. According to their website, it is their mission to “foster new, original and progressive work exploring the relationship between politics and culture, especially literature.” Other values of theirs include “aesthetic excellence, encouraging contributors to achieve their best,” “providing room for diverse and marginal voices,” and social justice. They publish a quarterly print journal as well as an online magazine. And in the spirit of full disclosure, they have rejected my short fiction on multiple occasions. Make of that what you will.

In the article, entitled “Can I still call Australia home?”, Mikaella Clements describes her experience of attempting to sponsor her British-citizen wife, whom she had married as “a joke and a desperate bid for safety”, to live in Australia. The thesis seems to be that the difficulties they encountered in this process (high fees, the fact that marriage wasn’t the golden ticket she had thought it would be) are indicative of Australia’s xenophobic tendencies. She offers a passing nod to others who suffer from Australia’s questionable policies, such as refugees, asylum seekers, and the stolen generations, and she does manage to state rather superfluously that her experience differs from that of an asylum seeker. She also attempts to tie in her perspective as a member of the LGBT community, as she feels the process would have been easier had Australia’s LGBT politics been less conservative.

I took major issue with this article. And here’s why.

The first thing that got me was the timing. This piece was published a week after details of the atrocities committed against asylum seekers detained on Nauru were made public. The author is a white, twenty-something Australian woman with mobility, an education, the ability to work, a voice, and—because of Overland—a platform. And she took all those rare and wonderful things and wrote a piece about how things are difficult for her.

The self-professed arrogance, sentimentality, and naiveté she leads the essay with resonate strongly throughout this anecdotal piece. She speaks of missing Melbourne (her hometown) once she had left for the first time. Among the things she missed about Melbourne were “a house with a backyard” and “expensive drinks on rooftop bars.” After discovering how difficult it would be for her partner to get an Australian visa, and feeling “slightly stunned” by the restrictions involved, she texted her mum, and then had nothing to do, so she went out for a drink.

It is clear that the writer didn’t bother to research before writing this account of what she seems to deem a personal tragedy and affront to her freedom. She describes the immigration system as “casually homophobic.” Here’s the deal: Australia offers a “partner” visa (subclasses 820 and 801). I should know: this is the very visa that my partner, Nick (male, Australian), and I (female, Canadian) found so prohibitively pricey that we moved to Canada instead, which we were able to do, because we are white, mobile, middle-class, educated, etc. This visa is described by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection as allowing “the spouse or de facto partner of an Australian citizen, permanent resident or eligible New Zealand citizen to live in Australia.” Had Nick and I been married, our situation would have been just the same. Therefore, the writer and her partner were not, as she puts it, “relegated back to de facto”—de facto is… de facto. Would it not be more discriminatory to include marriage as a prerequisite to application? Yes, Australia’s LGBT+ politics are embarrassingly non-progressive, and this is an enormous and current issue, but this fact does nothing for her argument in this article except to prove that it is ill planned and under researched. (An article on her experience as a member of the LGBT+ community in a place such as Australia would have been timely and appropriate, but she doesn’t take her piece that way.) She says that “marriage to a British citizen isn’t a guarantee you’re able to stay in the UK.” This is a non sequitur. Marriage in not a guarantee in Canada either, where marriage equality also exists. I’m shocked to find that this millennial seems to view marriage (which many are coming to see as an antiquated, flawed, and patriarchal institution) as something that should bestow upon her some kind of special status.

Yes, the visa is very expensive. The exorbitant application fee, though, is not just a “baffling amount of money to twenty-somethings holding down lowly paid jobs”—it’s a baffling amount for anyone. But, it’s a lot less baffling for this young couple earning British pounds and Aussie dollars than it is for a couple earning rupees, riel, baht, or Syrian pounds.

(An Australian de facto visa, by the way, equals 343.25 Melbourne-priced cocktails. I calculated that on my phone just now.)

The writer posits that “when it comes to immigration to Australia, the government has been continually and brutally honest: not here, thank you, no more room, we’re full.” Not really, and not in this case. Immigration in Australia says if you can pay, we’ll give you a shot, but if you really need asylum, and are so desperate that you come by an unsafe or “criminal” means, then there’s no room. Both are shocking in their own ways, but this writer does not draw a clean enough distinction. The crux seems to be that Australia is unfair to the stolen generations, refugees, and white twenty-somethings. Her mention of the two former are passing and superficial, and these individuals who have been long-suffering at the hands of Australians (yes, the Australian government = Australians), deserve infinitely more than a nod from this writer. Twenty and broke does not equal desperate for your life.

In an attempt to cover her backside, she manages to clarify that “in no way does my experience resemble that of someone seeking refuge in Australia.” Then what does it resemble? The very presence of this fleeting sentiment only serves to undermine the point she is attempting to make. This is the worst possible timing for this piece, and shows a remarkable level of hubris that resides in many young Melbourne writers, writing in a clique that suffers from an internal lack of criticism or critique.

By making an example of this young woman’s article, I certainly don’t mean to be a traitor to my trade—young writers need to write and to publish and to develop confidence and to learn to get better, but Overland should have known better than to publish such a—I’m going to say it—lazy piece. Being a young writer is also about being rejected; it’s how you know there’s a road ahead of you until you’re actually “good”, and that road is very, very long. You need to learn how to look at something you’ve written and feel utterly disappointed by it and in yourself. You need to learn which of your words are for sharing, and which are for the trash. Just because you’re a writer, it does not mean that everything you write is even remotely readable. I’m certainly not there yet, and don’t expect to be until much later in life.

But in a city and milieu in which nepotism dominates, and young writers and publishers do little but celebrate each other and publish each other and promote each other, can I really expect this young writer to look at her work and say to herself Yikes! This is sloppy and unfocused? Can I expect Overland to expect more? I lived and wrote in Melbourne for four years. I got a degree from their celebrated university, have been published by some of their respected magazines and journals, and have bumped up against the bristly edges of this self-congratulatory clique time and time again, witnessing minor successes by truly mediocre writers.

The act of this writer writing in an environment that doesn’t challenge her correlates to the larger problem of Australians not challenging the status quo. It is this very conundrum that leads to the exclusive and xenophobic policies referenced by the writer in this piece. She says, “The Australian government prefers to quietly ignore things they don’t like, or shuffle them away”, and I agree with this, but I also feel that this filters down to Australians at the citizen level, transforming on its way into a kind of complacency. How else could an article such as this have been written, and then published, when it was?

My sense after four years in Australia was that Australians in general are lukewarm about their politics and—like many in the Melbourne writing scene—come across as comfortable, unengaged, non-questioning, and therefore lacking depth of conversation. A conversation is ok, as long as it’s the right conversation. While this did not always present itself in one-on-one political conversations, particularly with my Melbourne friends, everyone I ever heard questioned said they didn’t vote for Tony Abbott, which is one example of a recurring refusal as citizens to claim responsibility for the status quo. (I acknowledge that this tendency is not unique to Australia—if I had voted for Stephen Harper way back when I certainly would be loathe to freely admit it.)

Yes, the Nauru files were only recently leaked, but Australians have known about the shameful atrocities committed in these offshore detention camps for years. While some prefer to find their own bizarre ways to justify the situation, many view it as a national tragedy and embarrassment, yet do little beyond discussing it and shaking their heads at the insanity of it. On 30 March 2016, an estimated 50,000 people Australia-wide protested the offshore detention policies. And then what? Wait until the next march is organized a few months down the line, descend on Melbourne State Library and walk a few blocks?

Clements’ article—and Overland having published it—epitomizes whitewashing, which has multiple definitions, the most literal being to make something whiter, and another being the practice in which the experience of a person of colour is appropriated and/or rewritten by a white person. By mentioning her struggles with immigration in the same paragraphs as the plight of those seeking asylum in Australia, she is inadvertently conflating her experience with theirs. She tries to opt out of it with a brief doff of her cap, then goes and resumes her conflation by carelessly giving disproportionate significance and importance to her own experience.

In the midst of a public discussion of human rights violations which have placed Australia’s policies under international scrutiny, here is the voice of a young and naive writer who hasn’t got the facts right, who is complaining about her privilege of mobility, and who seems to hold marriage up as a bastion of legitimacy.

What does it say about the future of quality writing, and the quality of future writing, if people are publishing writing of such poor quality and integrity in a magazine that, while it supports emerging writers, is meant to be discerning and pursuing aesthetic excellence, encouraging contributors to achieve their best? Again, Overland should have known better than to publish this, and it worries me, too, that a young Australian didn’t know better than to write this article at a time such as this. It proves that even young thinkers and writers can be products of the very aspects of Australianism against which this one claims to push.


Dear Alison,

Thank you for sending us ‘Calling Australia Home: On Privilege, Taste and Timing’. While we support the spirit of debate and dialogue, and do appreciate the opportunity to publish multiple perspectives on issues, we are passing on this response for a number of reasons.

First is that we need such responses to be constructive. While Overland as a publication does pride itself on encouraging excellence, the majority of writers we publish online are new writers; sometimes, in fact, the article we publish on Overland is their first publication. We cannot publish a piece that publicly attacks a new writer, and makes a number of assumptions about them and their circumstances, in such a personal way.

Second, while the Nauru Files are damning, it comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following politics in this region that Australia is torturing refugees. We have published many pieces on this issue. But that does not mean that other issues are less worthy of coverage. Given that the majority of Overland staff are queer, and some have had numerous visa issues attempting to bring their partners (particularly when not from a Western country) to Australia, this is an issue that resonates strongly for us, as homophobia is rife in this country, both legislatively and empirically.

Finally, in some ways, this article reads opportunistically – that is, that Overland has not accepted some of your work previously, and you’re taking this opportunity to vent that frustration on this particular writer and article.

It is to be expected that people will not like or agree with every article published in Overland – we are a magazine with a diverse and wide readership with extremely varied interests and concerns. Perhaps this piece I’ve written previously on what it’s like to edit such a publication may be of interest:https://overland.org.au/2015/12/on-new-matilda-and-independent-left-wing-media/

We would of course be willing to reread the piece should you make it more focused on your experiences of Australia’s visa laws and less about your disappointment in Overland or the author of this particular piece.

Sincerely,

Editor, Overland

 

5 Responses to Calling Australia Home: On Privilege, Taste, and Timing

  1. Wow. A response that exemplifies exactly what you’re exposing. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so embarrassing for them/us. Your writing is forensic and insightful though. While I didn’t read the original article, it does sound like it was perhaps well undercooked, at least. I thought your criticism was robust, and that to me is constructive.

    • Thanks so much, Chelsea. The question of constructiveness is an interesting one, and I tend to agree with you that robust critical thought, and hopefully leading readers to a slight change in perspective – or at least some discomfort in the reading of it – can be constructive if approached with an open mind and heart. I suppose that this is what ultimately caused me to fear making this piece public, opening it up to myriad interpretations and being left with the feeling that all I’d done was criticize, rather than providing a path to critical thought. Thank you so much for reading and engaging! xo

  2. For those not coming to this post via Facebook, here are some of the comments this post has garnered over there thus far:

    • “Hmm, I thought was you wrote was really powerful, and uncomfortable. And I’m glad you posted it.”

    • “Very glad you wrote this. I felt it was very constructive and measured. The response from the journal seemed defensive!”

    • “I love the response, fantastic! ‘Make it more about YOUR white person visa hardships, more like the article you’re critiquing, and we might publish yours too – we know that’s your secret wish!!’ Christ, I expected more from Overland. Great article Alison, thanks for sharing.”

    • “Thank you for being vulnerable and strong enough to share your piece and its rejection. Respect.”

    • “A tough read, Alison, but an important one. Shocking response that just confirmed your whole point. Boom!”

  3. I think there are some very valid points in Alison’s main essay. Clements’ spurious conflation of the treatment of returning Australian citizens and their families with the Australian government’s maltreatment of asylum seekers and refugees was appalling. It seems like she says she’s not doing it and then goes ahead and does it (para 15 – “But I do think it’s telling…”). I take issue with the author’s confecting of a kind of spectrum of governmental prejudice, when in fact the issues of returnees and refugees are not linked and to do so is indeed a kind of white-washing. Most importantly on a national scale, the exchange (Alison’s essay and the rejection letter) symbolises a lack of serious discussion in Australia as well as the populous’ lack of self examination and brutal conviction to a cause. It is true that Australians have known about the tragedies of offshore detention and many/some have protested and yet nothing changes at a cultural or political level. The original essay, Alison’s critique and the eventual rejection letter seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  4. Great work, Alison. Very happy that you’re embarking on this new terrain and I guess the first taste of it is usually a pushback. Your critique of Clements’ piece was quite spot on.

    The thing that most interests me is that in her response, the editor asks you to reconsider the tone and content of your critique. Had she accorded the same treatment to Clements’ piece, perhaps a more fine tuned article might have come out of it.

    It is clear to me that the culture of critique and inward reflection are sorely lacking here. I see it a lot in my engagement with young people at uni, and even at the writers’ festivals it’s at best lukewarm and overly self-congratulatory. This is what happens when you live alone, build high walls and never once critique your own role in the grand scheme of things.

    This rejection to me is also a reminder of how voices are erased to lift those of others (more favoured ones) and how ideas and concepts are stolen and not acknowledged or accounted for – truly symbolic of how a lot of things are run here (and in several parts of the world).

    I hope this is good fuel for your next critique. Im looking forward to it 🙂

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