Aïsha Trambas Reviews Sweatshop Women: Volume One Edited by Winnie Dunn

By | 11 June 2020

Though Sweatshop Women’s lingua franca is of course English, language is a constant space of negotiation throughout the anthology, which proudly speaks in many tongues, among which I believe are Gugu Djungan, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Tamil, Samoan, Assyrian, Somali, Lebanese Arabic, Mauritian Creole, Tagalog, Thai and Assyrian. Phoebe Grainer’s ‘Boragee’ is the collection’s opening piece and the sole contribution by a First Nations writer; a vignette of a woman’s labour and impending childbirth which packs so much into its compact form of less than a page. Grainer glides in and out between the coloniser’s tongue and her Language1 seamlessly, with Grainer’s use of Language neither limiting nor pandering to the reader. It just exists. ‘Buna ngkucarnga. I sip the water from the waterhole I lay in.’ Elemental in its attention to water, earth, sky and the warmth of sun and blood, ‘Boragee’ invokes a lineage extending far back in time, and simultaneously far forward, as this child being born ‘will not be the last’. Translation is a strategic tool within Sweatshop Women, with much non-English dialogue or description remaining untranslated, granted its peace, presence and autonomy in whichever brief moments English ceases to dominate. One message is clear: within these pages a white or monolingual reader is not entitled to the time, explanation or justification of these writers in their own creative expression.

I am prompted to also wonder whether, by speaking explicitly against a grain of whiteness and maleness, Sweatshop Women inadvertently participates in a kind of flattening and homogenisation of ‘our’ (women of colour’s) identities and stories, and perhaps buys into a hype that surrounds recently popularised theoretical frameworks such as intersectionality, originated by US legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. The brevity of many works, and the repetitive focus on ‘reclaiming’ certain racialised and gendered experiences around identity — an undoubtedly crucial process both in the private and internal lives of marginalised people, as well as in our artistic representations — feels a little sketch-like in parts and bogged down by the weight of stereotypes which haven’t found the space here to be subverted or interrogated as so much documented or highlighted. For example, Sydnye Allen’s four-part poem ‘Best Little Brothel on Parramatta Road’ is professed to be an unpacking of ‘the intersectional experience of living as an African-American woman in Australia’ by way of Dunn’s introduction. Yet in reading, I can’t say this is the impression I leave the poem with. Its subject matter is sticky: a mother and newborn infant find themselves living in very close proximity to a brothel. However, the poem is replete with generic, well-worn images of ‘an / Asian masseuse [paid] fifty bucks for a happy ending’. Two lines that stay with me are from the climactic first and final meeting between two mothers, a woman who works at the brothel, and the narrator of the poem: ‘I tell her he’s five weeks. What I really want to tell her is that / I’ve never met a sex worker before’. I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth wondering if this admission is included here in intentional irony, or sheer vulnerability and revelation of prior ignorance. The irony and ignorance is that many adults have met and interact regularly with sex workers without realising it, especially considering society’s pervasive stigma against sex work. I understand intersectionality to be useful in analysing the interlocking and compounding experiences of oppression at work in all sites of social interaction and power. However, some questions of sexual, economic and racial power feel enticingly, if superficially, proposed — ‘what is it about rich White men paying for sex?’ — without deeper interrogation.

This anthology is a deliberate and tender offering, a disruption that has come into being out of the numerous literary interventions that have already been or are being published by women of colour from this continent and elsewhere, and a continuation of the many disruptions and representations by women of colour that aren’t published, praised or publicly noted. I see in Sweatshop Women a testimony to the centrality of familial ties, elders, language and place in sustaining our various lives and senses of (un)belonging. These writers have claimed the space to creatively and seriously define themselves on their own terms. I wonder if following this work, Sweatshop’s women might also find space to question whether all terms and frameworks used here are truly terms they’d like to take on in self-definition. In a settler colony struggling with a genocidal crisis of (mis)taken identities, it is no small feat to define ourselves, and we must ask to what ends we do so. ‘Women of colour’ is just one, limited descriptor. It is useful as a succinct political assertion of the collective oppression of non-white women under white supremacy and patriarchy. However, the broad and reactive nature of this term makes the mission of ‘reclaiming our identities’ fraught and dangerous under this umbrella alone. That’s not to mention the exclusivity of this mission in not holding space for people existing outside of binary womanhood who also experience oppression under patriarchy and white supremacy. Dunn states in reference to the portrait series within the book’s middle section, by Bethany Pal and Elaine Lim, that ‘when women of colour gaze upon one another, the lens shifts from fear and hatred to trust and solidarity’. While this optimistic assertion does touch on a true phenomenon of solidarity and comfort that can occur between folks who do or don’t share certain identities, it also feels slightly disingenuous to me in overlooking the many ways in which the very term ‘women of colour’ can be an ill-fitting and constricting garment, a place of erasure and silencing itself. Though it’s a small, extra-textual detail, I do find it interesting that the short bios accompanying each writer’s portrait seem to follow a predetermined script of hyphenated ‘Australian’ identity — all except proudly Djungan woman Phoebe Grainer — which strikes me as somewhat counter the objective of women of colour defining themselves in full autonomy and ‘on their own terms’. Is there space for various Aboriginalities, Indigeneities and Blackness to be fully defined on their own terms here? Is there space to acknowledge the ways in which our communities are often decidedly not in solidarity with one another, the realities of anti-blackness and anti-Indigeneity which are often rife even among communities of colour? Is there space in this mission for people existing outside of binary and colonial concepts of womanhood altogether? For disabled women and femmes of colour? Is there room to define a fuller personhood existing in more than opposition to whiteness and maleness? In any case, with Volume Two of this series recently published, it’s clear that Sweatshop Women are, as Dunn states in her introduction, ‘responsible, in charge, serious’ and committed to building on the intimacy, humour, and literary assertiveness seeded here. And I look forward to witnessing it.

1I use Language with a capital L to pay respects to First Nations languages which have been targeted with historical and ongoing attempted linguicide.

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