Helping minorities find a voice

Sweatshop writers (from left) Winnie Dunn, Phoebe Grainer and Shirley Le will visit Dunedin as...
Sweatshop writers (from left) Winnie Dunn, Phoebe Grainer and Shirley Le will visit Dunedin as part of the NZ Young Writers Festival. Photo: Nate Palmer

Sweatshop is giving culturally and linguistically diverse emerging writers from Western Sydney a voice. Some of its writers are coming to Dunedin as part of the NZ Young Writers Festival. Winnie Dunn and Shirley Le tell Rebecca Fox about their journeys.

Winnie Dunn swore she was a ''real writer'' after winning a principal's prize for a poem when she was 6, but by her own admission she just ''read a lot of books and wrote bad fan-fiction''.

That changed for the Tongan-Australian writer from Mt Druitt, in Western Sydney, when she joined Sweatshop.

''I found purpose in writing about my own lived experiences. Unlike Aotearoa, Pacificas are incredibly unrepresented in Australian literature.''

Sweatshop was created by Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad 10 years ago to use and teach literature to combat racist and classist stereotypes that surrounded indigenous, culturally and linguistically diverse people from Western Sydney.

''It's been going strong ever since.''

It is devoted to empowering groups and individuals through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives.

These initiatives result in publications, films, podcasts, plays, performance readings, exhibitions and arts and cultural seminars which aim to create new and alternative forms of representation for marginalised communities in Western Sydney, and similar communities throughout Australia.

''Sweatshop gives the marginalised a voice and brings our experiences to centre. This is a powerful and revolutionary act that is transforming the world into a more equal and just place.''

The name of the organisation is ''ironic'', Dunn says.

In the foreword of Sweatshop's most popular publication, The Big Black Thing Chapter. 1, Ahmad writes: ''No person who works in Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement comes with a needle and thread but there is a lot of stitching. The goal of Sweatshop is the same as that of any sweatshop, to weave. And just like a sweatshop, most of the people that become involved with us identify as marginalised: young writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds that struggle to have their voices heard and their experiences valued amongst Australia's dominant white culture''.

Dunn got involved in 2016 after meeting Ahmad at a public workshop.

''He was the first person from a culturally and linguistically diverse background I had seen teaching at my university. He was also the first person to ask about my own cultural background.''

Ahmad asked her to join Sweatshop and eventually gave her a job - she is now manager of Sweatshop - and taught her how to think critically and write well.

''Last year, I read his forthcoming novel The Lebs. I think it's one of the best books in Australian literature. His writings and teachings are something I hope to emulate and make my own one day.''

Sweatshop helps young writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in Western...
Sweatshop helps young writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in Western Sydney find a voice. Photo: Nate Palmer

Dunn now takes her writing seriously and writes about her own experiences and the community she lives in.

She wants to change how Pasifika communities are viewed and combat the stereotypes through the genre of autobiographical fiction.

''Pasifika communities are often racially vilified as dangerous, stupid thugs. Turn on the TV or scroll through Netflix and eventually Chris Lilley's minstrel brown-face show Jonah from Tonga will appear. A show based on racist stereotypes that exist around Tongan people.

''Similarly, the place where I live is also vilified. To date, there have only ever been negative and simplistic images in mainstream Australian media and television about the suburb of Mt Druitt. This includes most prominently the 2015 SBS TV series Struggle Street, which was labelled as 'poverty porn' in its depiction of Mt Druitt as a poor, broken city filled with violence, ignorance, drugs, homophobia, racial tension and misogyny.''

These sorts of images have made it difficult for audiences outside of Western Sydney to experience the ''vibrancy, diversity and nuances within one of Australia's most exciting and culturally distinct regions'', she says.

Sweatshop helps young writers by teaching critical thinking and how to use literature to create alternative representations about indigenous, Arab, Asian, South Asian, Pacific and African communities in Western Sydney.

As part of this, Dunn mentors young women in the Diverse Women's Writers Collective.

''I think people of colour's voices are integral to shifting our world into equality and justice. I also think women of colour have a vital and important role in that shift and it's my aim to help strengthen our voices in a world that is also becoming increasingly racist, xenophobic, oriental, colonial, patriarchal and imperial.''

Like Dunn, fellow Sweatshop writer Shirley Le started writing young, completing her first story in year two and submitting it to the school competition for book week.

She got involved in Sweatshop in late 2014 after meeting Ahmad at a local writing competition.

''I'd read his first book, The Tribe, and thought to myself, 'I'd love to produce something like this one day.'''

Le grew up in South Western Sydney, learning English at the local daycare centre. Her parents began taking her to the library when she was 7.

Today, she still writes fiction ''but not so much about fairies and talking lions anymore''.

''These days I'm working on a short story collection about a Vietnamese-Australian woman from Western Sydney growing up and finding her place in the world.''

She writes these stories to add to the growing literature produced by the Vietnamese diaspora since the Vietnam War.

''I often look to writers in the Vietnamese diaspora to feel more at ''home'' and believe literature can be a tool for self-determination for our communities.''

She finds herself constantly inspired by fellow writers in Sweatshop.

''We all come from either indigenous or culturally and linguistically diverse communities and the stories we write are a powerful way to take ownership of our own narratives. Along with learning about writing as a craft, I'm able to engage with other artists of colour and think critically about how we are represented.''

Le advises young writers to connect with other artists in their community and see what conversations are happening.

''Then, ask yourself how your work contributes to your community.''


To see

Tales from the Sweatshop:  A Western Sydney Showcase (Winnie Dunn, Phoebe Grainer and Shirley Le), September 8, 5.30pm-6.30pm, Pioneer Women’s Hall.

Writing Place: A Sweatshop Writing Workshop, Sunday, 10am-noon, Fringe HQ. Colour Between The Lines: Decolonising Literature (Winnie Dunn, Phoebe Grainer, Leki Jackson-Bourke and Miriama Aoake), September 9, 1pm-2pm Fringe HQ.

The Blaming of the Shrew: From the Frontlines of Contemporary Feminism (Shirley Le and others), September 8, 10.30am-11.30am, Otago Pioneer Women’s Hall.

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