FOB: Fresh Off the Books

By | 1 November 2017

More specifically to my own identity, the only representation of Tongans in Western Sydney, and even Australia, that I had seen growing up was Chris Lilley in brownface yelling, ‘Puck you, miss!’ to every White woman that walked past him. Summer Heights High and Jonah from Tonga included Lilley in brown paint and a black curly wig, speaking in a heavy fob accent, sexually harassing White female teachers and young Pasifika women, beating up his friends, cursing non-stop, picking fights with male teachers and serving time in a juvenile correctional facility. A privileged White man browning his skin, putting on a ‘fob’ accent and acting out the violent, ignorant and demonising stereotypes about my Pasifika community reinforced the stereotypes that give me less social mobility in terms of employment, income and self-determination.

When confronted with such limiting depictions of my tribe, I began to write about the intelligent and hardworking men I grew up around and the feminist matriarchal women who raised me. Writing the literature of being a real Tongan in Western Sydney was about combatting the ‘single narratives’ that Lilley had been propagating. I also read Pasifika novelists, essayists and poets to remind me that my people are more than what racist White men would like me to believe. My favourite Tongan poet is Konai Helu Thaman, who writes of love and of langakali and kakalas in Pacific floods. Thaman’s writing encouraged me to take ownership and pride in my culture’s strong oral history. So that I may take the:

sacred symbol of our oneness 
tie it tightly around [me] 
where it will remain fresh 
in the nourishing flow 
only the sky knows.

During my journey to discover and create empowering representations of my cultural identity, I also found many new examples of literature and art that counteract the simplistic, racist, classist and sexist stereotypes about Western Sydney. As an editor at Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, I had the opportunity to work with people from culturally diverse backgrounds who were writing stories for our new anthology The Big Black Thing.

One poet in The Big Black Thing is Maryam Azam, a Pakistani-Australian Muslim writer. In ‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion,’ Azam writes:

From Platform 1 there was a long tunnel 
to Blacktown Station proper, 
two flights of stairs and three minutes 
to make it to my bus home, I ran 
my heavy school bag banging on my back
while I dodged strangely unhurried public transport patrons 
I was always running as a high school student. 

I almost ran into a hobbling man 
in a plaid shirt untucked, hair unkempt, 
I muttered sorry, stepped aside and kept running 
to the snarl of the f word attached to the word Muslim

We see how Azam has used her personal and cultural knowledge to uplift her own truthful experience as a female Muslim writer from Kellyville.

Another poet in The Big Black Thing is Mary al-Nashy from Lurnea High School. In ‘Different Worlds,’ al-Nashy writes:

I don’t love to cook, but I love to stay in the kitchen because I like to watch my mum when she cooks and I love to help her too. Her favourite dish to cook is dolma, which is narrow eggplant, vine leaves and tomatoes stuffed with rice and meat and it smells of lemon and chili. […] When I go upstairs it feels like living in another world. My sisters are my best friends, we do everything together like shopping at Parramatta Westfield.

When thinking about the writing of specific young women from non-English speaking backgrounds, we see how their identities enable them to create complex stories which move smoothly from the local to the international and from the single to the multiple narrative.

It took two White men for me to finally realise the importance of creative writing as a political act for young women of colour from Western Sydney. The first White man I met on Tinder, and I had an unhealthy fetish with his white skin colour. The second White man I met at Summer Heights High, and he had an unhealthy fetish with my skin colour. Writing is not just about feelings and fantasy and fun – it’s about making an empowering and meaningful contribution to world knowledge. To achieve this, I believe that it is time for marginalised culturally and linguistically diverse communites and writers to reclaim their own stories, subjects and experiences. The kinds of stories, subject and experiences White people like Chris Lilley try to take and demonise for their own profit. Respectfully speaking, it is vital there be space to allow voice of certain people to change stereotypes about their own culture and place – as a sign of empathy, empowerment and respect. Writing for me is about creating literature that broadens the narrow perspectives of my community and identity, and only I can do that for my Tongan tribe because I am Tongan. If that makes me an idiot government leech fob from Mounty, then so be it.

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