Alumni Feature September 2015

The Art of Activism

By Diana Jenkins

Diana Jenkins activism Lately I’ve been thinking about my broader social contribution, and I’m afraid I’ve been found badly wanting. I’m not sure any one thing first prompted this examination – motherhood has certainly played a part, and there’s no doubt I’m disillusioned and increasingly alienated by Australian politics too – but it has made me reflect a little more deeply on the sorts of roles writers have played and continue to play in Australian society at large.

Writers should make great activists, being existentially programmed to explore different ideas and articulate their point of view. Many writers are also accustomed to overcoming untold obstacles, often including unpopularity, lack of funding and staggering waiting times in order to get paper pushed across any sort of desk, so you’d think all that would come in handy too. Social media and other digital platforms seem tailor-made vehicles for writers who wish to agitate for change, but are writers a dominant force in shaping contemporary Australian life, and what role are writers playing in helping define this country’s future?



Nakkiah Lui Playwright, writer and actor Nakkiah Lui’s work is inextricably linked to her politics. A Gamillario and Torres Strait Islander woman, hailing from Mount Druitt in Sydney’s West, Lui stars in and co-writes the ABC’s ‘Black Comedy,’ and her last play – Kill the Messenger, a form-defying interrogation of race, class and story – enjoyed a sell-out run at Belvoir Theatre. Lui dislikes being pigeon-holed – the hybridity of her work perhaps reflecting something of her own nature – but it’s hard to resist thinking of her as a potent young activist, especially following her Q & A appearance and speech at Sydney Uni earlier this year. As her star rises, Lui and her particular brand of brazen seems likelier and likelier to be a writer whose impact may just shift the fault-lines of our culture. Here’s hoping.

Patrick White Our only Nobel Laureate for Literature, Patrick White got involved in politics late in his career, agitating for social and political progress throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. His furious letters about the state of Australia, not to mention his direct involvement in the nuclear disarmament movement and other issues defining the political landscape of the day, make for riveting and inspiring reading. White was frequently, colourfully critical of Australia – for which habit he continues to cop posthumous flak – but I love his ire. It’s an impatient shove in the shoulder, reminding me that I should be angry too. I should be doing something too.

Peter Fitzsimons Much more recently, Peter Fitzsimons has just revived the Australian Republican Movement with the kind of urgent defibrillation required to drag a pale, near lifeless thing like the ARM back from the dead. It’s a bold move: our current PM is a committed monarchist (indeed, I wish he’d been forcibly committed for that stupid Prince Phillip fiasco), and the photogenic young royals have apparently enchanted precisely those young Australians one might otherwise have expected to rise up and demand their freedom. But instead of standing by, shaking his head and bemoaning to friends about the ongoing humiliation of it all – which is frankly all I’ve done since voting YES in that sabotaged republican referendum – Fitzsimons has put aside his ridiculous pirate bandanna and chosen to actually do something. He’s a good choice for the ARM, I think…it doesn’t hurt his considerable confidence that he’s a former Wallaby, but if you take the imposing size of the man, combined with his conviction, humour and battle-scarred smarts, well, hopefully he’ll prove impossible to ignore.

Letters cover All told, it was rather heartening listening to Fitzsimons address the National Press Club last weekend as the impassioned new Chair of the ARM. There’s no doubt his accessible writing style – so beloved of his many readers – was in entertaining evidence as he spoke, notwithstanding his repeated claims of being “low-brow.” For whose benefit he kept insisting on these low-brow credentials, I’m really not sure, though curiously Gareth Evans suggests Patrick White also aggressively distanced himself from the title of ‘public intellectual.’ Sigh. It remains my hope – my foolish, foolish hope – that one day Australian writers won’t feel they have to duck the term ‘intellectual’ as though it were a blowfly last seen enthusiastically feasting on a pile of shit. Isn’t it disingenuous of two people of patently formidable intellect to disclaim their advantages so strenuously? It drives me wild.

[Motivated by said irritation, I have just now found a missive in Patrick White: Letters that mollifies me somewhat, suggesting as it does that White’s issue was more a lively suspicion of academic approaches to literature – misgivings I have certainly had occasion to share.]

Turtle Reef cover Some writers prefer expressing their activism by embedding their concerns in their writing. Varuna Alumna Jennifer Scoullar, bestselling author of rural romance (as well as a friend of mine), is deeply committed to Australian fauna and flora. Ostensibly writing about country love, Jennifer weaves environmental concerns into the very fabric of all her novels. Sure, there might be a star-crossed romance, hearts aflutter and all that jazz, but there’s always much more at stake: brumbies, endangered reefs and vulnerable billabongs have all played lead roles in her novels.

Richard Flanagan When Richard Flanagan became joint winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction last December, for his Man Booker-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he pledged to donate the entirety of his prize money – $40,000 – to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Flanagan’s move not only ensured a significant contribution to the foundation, but delivered unprecedented publicity for its work to boot. The winner in the children’s fiction category – Bob Graham for Silver Buttons – donated to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC); as several articles noted at the time, both authors neatly emphasised the PM’s shortcomings on both issues during an awards ceremony named for his office. Kapow!

Mateship cover Inaugural Stella Prizewinner Carrie Tiffany’s decision to share $10,000 of the $50,000 prize with her fellow 2013 nominees wasn’t simply a good deed; it was activism, specifically drawing attention to the inability of many authors (and female authors in particular) to earn a living wage from their work. Tiffany’s gift eventually brought about change, too – actual change! The hallowed ground of all activism! – resulting in the establishment the following year of a monetary prize for every nominee. Nicely done, lady.

rally Part of my problem – and I do realise it’s one I have to overcome – is that I’m not much of a joiner. I never have been. I don’t like team sports and I’m wary of groups of people all frothing at the mouth about the same thing – even if that same thing makes me froth at the mouth too. The nature of activism requires either a high public profile, which I don’t have, or a lot of group work, for which I have no talent and some might even say something of an aversion. After voicing my disgust about our treatment of refugees, a friend suggested that I join her Facebook group, which I duly did without thinking twice – a haste I now almost regret. I don’t want to ‘leave the group,’ as Facebook periodically reminds me I’m free to do, but the constant stream of communication and endless requests for my physical presence on the other side of Sydney is really quite intimidating and overwhelming, more so because it’s a group of mothers, because I really don’t know how they’re managing to do it all. I can’t even get through some days with my own kids without wanting to cry, let alone visiting mothers and children in detention and seeing what real problems look like. The group makes me feel completely inadequate, because I am, in fact, completely inadequate. I’m amazed they haven’t kicked me out – they should and no doubt eventually shall.

salvos Because it’s not really okay, is it, to say I care about all these things and people and then do nothing – nothing – to advance the cause of any of them? Oh sure, I donate money. But it’s not enough – especially not on my income. My modest donations will never, ever effect any change whatsoever. And it’s not just my reluctance to join a group that’s stalling my activist drive – it’s the sheer volume of worthy causes and a kind of paralysis in the face of it all. I don’t know where I could make a difference. When I did enquire about one literacy program, they didn’t even want any more volunteers, so that was that. But what of all these other organisations, foundations and groups that need help in one form or another? Refugees (and particularly children) in detention, indigenous literacy rates, climate change, the Great Barrier Reef, violence against women, child abuse, motor neurone disease, addiction, equal pay, marriage equality, sustainable fishing, veteran support, aged care…I do care, I care about all these things and more, and I certainly want to see Australia become a republic as well, but I don’t do.

I don’t know how many of you feel you’re in the same boat (and what a nice, safe, privileged boat ours is, compared to You Know Whose), but time to act remains heavily restricted at the moment. I have a baby, a hyperactive pre-schooler (who’s currently in a wheelchair after breaking his leg rather badly on holidays), a freelance journalism practice and a husband who never gets home before 8 o’clock. I’m constantly exhausted. I’m not getting sufficient time to sleep, exercise, write or even read a book. These things are all essential to my own wellbeing, and if I can’t look after myself properly, I don’t yet feel I’m equipped to look after others (beyond those immediately in my care, and boy, sometimes I feel scarcely able to do that). Attach your own mask before attempting to assist others – you know the drill. And yet…

There is a voice inside me that says I must do better. After all, ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.’ I happen to believe that’s true, and my continued inaction disturbs me. Other people make time – I’m not sure how they do it, but they make time for the things that matter enough. At present, I fear I represent nothing so much as one of my least favourite trends in Australian society: a turning inward, a growing focus on oneself and one’s own tiny tribe at the expense of the greater whole. I won’t bore you by enumerating the myriad ways I see this trend made manifest, but it chills me every time I catch sight of myself as part of it.

Tara Moss So what to do? Tara Moss wrote a book, The Fictional Woman. The book started many important conversations about representations of women, exposing some of the breathtaking, ongoing misogyny women face and bravely naming the multilayered, highly nuanced nature of violence to which so many girls and women are subjected around the world.

Moss in Syrian camp Moss is now UNICEF Australia’s National Ambassador for Child Survival and has been raising awareness about displaced Syrian children. Much like Fitzsimons, Moss is a multi- and internationally best-selling author, so she’s got clout, and possibly a bit more cash, but it’s not like she’s got more time than I have – she must have even less.

(Hangs head.)

Though I’m no longer in the blogosphere, I suppose blogging affords a small, digital soapbox for those writers who prefer pushing back from behind – particularly writers with a decent profile, whose blogs attract avid followers (and poisonous trolls). While I’m certain my insignificant little blog (decommissioned in 2012) suffered for its lack of singular focus, the variety of content meant I could always open my rant can whenever a particular national issue was getting my goat. No doubt there’s a gross egotism to the idea that anyone would ever be interested in my thoughts on this country’s direction and identity, but don’t writers have to have some sort of steady throb of an ego just to get the job done? Perhaps I’m deluding myself, but at the time it did feel worthwhile: speaking out, putting my position down in words and then putting those posts out into the public domain. It felt like a meaningful act. Some people march and attend rallies; I wrote my heart out. It did feel like a contribution, however small, and it’s a hell of a lot more than I do now.



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  • Interesting piece. Give yourself a break Di. The urge to make a difference will find an outlet when you're ready. And thanks for the plug. I'm 92 k words into my new book. Surely the story will end soon! This time it's broadly about dingoes and refugees.

    Jennifer Scoullar Sunday, 06 September 2015 15:28 Comment Link
  • Another important, thought-provoking piece, Di. Good on you for finding time within the chaos to write it and get it out there to inspire others.

    When I feel overwhelmed by the responsibility to act and underwhelmed by my own commitment to social justice I remind myself that I'm doing a crucial job every day: educating the next generation that these issues do matter and soon it will be their turn to effect change. It started with subtle messaging in conversations, guiding my own young children to consider the impact of their own decisions and actions. It infuriated my two that I never bought them a packet of chips each, they always had to share. As a divorced working mother struggling to pay my bills it was a strategy born out of necessity, but it incorporated messages about healthy eating, wise use of resources, fairness and compromise. Now I have a 12 year old son who's prepared to speak up about injustice when he sees it and a 15 year old daughter who impresses me with her political passion (and I have time to teach Ethics classes at my local public school). My kids give me faith that a next generations may just find solutions for the things we're stuffing up - and the stuff ups we've inherited. On the days when we're all fighting over whose turn it is to unpack the dishwasher it feels like too little, too late - too safe, too 'first world' - but it's got to be better than nothing.

    You have your hands full to overflowing now, but your time will come.

    Deb Rice Tuesday, 08 September 2015 10:23 Comment Link
  • That's one thing I know. Your time will come, Di.

    Jewelene Barrile Tuesday, 08 September 2015 18:42 Comment Link
  • I could relate to your desire to do something and frustrations, and honour your instincts. I've been there. One of the things writers are well-positioned to do is contribute to public discourse by writing to newspapers and journals to express their opinions. If you note their guidelines (eg word limits) it's relatively easy to appear in print, and by doing so you take on the time-honoured mantle of the public intellectual, even if on a small scale. Then organisations like Refugee Action Groups and the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce can often use people to research and write pieces which help their cause. Good luck and trust your feelings.

    Caroline Miley Wednesday, 09 September 2015 20:51 Comment Link
  • Thanks, ladies. I really appreciate your support and perspective both. Jennifer, thanks for illustrating my point! Dingoes and refugees, in amongst rural romance - it's great. Deb, that's a really good point, that we're educating the next generation, and it is a comfort knowing I am doing the best job I can on that front. I hope to become involved in volunteering in the Ethics class once my eldest starts school next year as well.

    Caroline, such good, sensible suggestions, thank you.

    Diana Jenkins Monday, 05 October 2015 14:20 Comment Link

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