Why specific strategy is needed for the CaLD literary sector
There is currently in Australia’s literary sector a discussion about fair employment, fair payment for authors, and promises of greater funding with the announcement of the National Cultural Policy by the Arts Minister, Hon. Tony Burke. As Jinghua Qian and Jennifer Mills wrote preliminary to a recent discussion on superannuation payments for journal contributors: “Many of us are looking forward to a stronger funding environment and the opportunity to affirm and protect the rights of writers, artists, and other literary journal contributors. Policy-level change is important, but the direct relationships between contributors and the publications that support us are also vital.”
The push for the legal rights of writers to be protected cannot be overlooked and is long overdue. Mills described this as “the fix”. What is also overdue however is the need for specific strategy to protect the CaLD sector of Australian writers and editors. We urgently need policy that recognizes the many ways that structural discrimination diminishes, depletes and compromises writers and editors of colour. Of these writers, the CaLD sector are overlooked by research, theory, activism and policy, which work concurrently.
By CaLD, we refer to the acronym for ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ or ‘cultural and linguistic diversity’. One in every four Australians was born overseas. Linguistic diversity is also significant. One in five people in NSW, where we are based, speak a language other than English (LOTE).
Structural racism is poorly understood because it has not been adequately researched or theorised. It refers to wider political and social disadvantages within society. It normalises historical, cultural and institutional practices that benefit white people and disadvantage people of colour. It also replicates the racial hierarchy established through slavery and colonialism, which values white people as superior.
By structural discrimination we refer to the alarming discrepancy of representation of our cohort in universities, institutions, writers’ festivals, publishing houses, media, paid literary editing positions compared to the demographics of the Australian nation. We also refer to the complete absence of means testing of Government spending that has been allocated to the literary arts. Small CaLD organisations such as Mascara that do not have institutional support are permanently contingent on the ad hoc grants system, peer reviewed which require garnering of popular support bases to fund projects. It is not hard to see how this becomes exploitative. Within the sector, the absence of means testing the distribution of Government funds allocated to the literary arts ends up augmenting the described structural barriers.
It is worthwhile to consider the 2019 National Arts Participation study which was a cornerstone evaluation of the impact of the arts and engagement with the arts. This tool and the data identifies behavioural indexes (page 7: the amount Australians engaged with arts activities,) and attitudinal indexes (page 8: how strongly an individual valued and supported the arts and their perception of the impact of the arts: which included arts funding, creativity, and wellbeing.) The results of NAPS demonstrate that CaLD individuals score significantly higher than average (indexes of 142 and 106 where the average is 100). However, following on from this research there has been substantial occlusions and oversights in researching, measuring and evaluating the discrepancies and inequalities in CaLD participation in the literary arts. The ongoing lack of specific data and ensuing body of research on Australian literary journals leaves a gap in our deeper awareness of the dynamics impacting on vulnerable demographic groups in the literary sector. The CaLD community remain neither proportionately nor commensurably represented in the paid workforce, by which we mean in universities, the state Writers’ Centres, publishing houses, mainstream media. This discrepancy is a fundamental problem and makes them vulnerable to exploitative dynamics, that ends up limiting their repertoire of literary tropes. Our community is very vulnerable to white power.
Yet what does the state of publishing look like? We know it is predominantly, indeed almost exclusively white, with the exception of a handful of CaLD literary editors and journalists, Jinghua Qian works at Overland, Cher Tan at Meanjin. Meanjin’s appointment of Esther Anatolitis, and SRB’s appointment of James Jiang signal new directions; but there are very few South Asian, Caribbean, African editors in the well-established supported paid positions reflecting the cultural tenets of the White Australia Policy, which although it was progressively legally dismantled between 1943 and 1973, unfortunately continues to inform how we see ourselves as a nation. The unspoken/unspeakable racist taboos persist and remain about the colour of skin, which in no way reflects our culture or the authenticity of our voices. Moreover, as Katherine Day writes recently in The Conversation, the corporate powerhouse of publishing spins in a climate of risk, that is notoriously unpredictable and unforgiving.
It is important to note that Mascara editors have not applied for positions with Sydney Review of Books or with Meanjin, Southerly or Westerly, as we see our brief to continue the work we have begun, to develop non-institutional readings of work by First Nations and CaLD writers as a unique and vital contribution to literary criticism.
Race and skin colour are both protected attributes under the Fair Work Act. Under the Fair Work Act what constitutes an adverse action includes offering a potential employee different and unfair terms and conditions for the job compared to other employees. Perhaps we need as an artistic community to reconsider the racialised framing of fair and equitable work.
Same, same? So why do we need more targeted, and thorough research?
In October 2022 we were approached by Catriona Menzies-Pike, then editor of Sydney Review of Books to join SRB’s project on literary journals in an advisory capacity. Specifically, the brief was to provide consultation on their survey of literary journals. The survey’s emphasis was on digital practice, audience engagement and who gets paid for what. It was put to Mascara that the research would provide a detailed account of the current state of literary journals operating as arts organisations – and point to areas of greatest need in terms of funding and other forms of support. The premise of shared interest was that our literary ecology would be less diverse and less interesting without a thriving cohort of journals. Mascara was also informed that SRB’s research will help the Australia Council identify areas for funding priority – and it will help those of us who work on literary journals advocate for our needs. We are so pleased to report that as a result of Mascara’s research and consultation, that SRB have taken up our primary recommendation.
PRIMARY RECOMMENDATION TO SRB
Looking back over past grant applications we noted that we had proposed a diversity survey for literary journals in 2016 to the Australia Council, which was not successful in achieving funding. We were intending to obtain demographic data particularly as concerns the opportunities and participation of the CaLD cohort, their paid and voluntary workloads and correlate this with population demographics.
We provided a specific recommendation to SRB that this is much needed quantitative data under the section on Creative Labour. We noted that questions 57-59 of their draft survey needed to include questions designed to provide information on who is being paid in the sector.
In our proposed questionnaire we had the following questions:
1. Of your paid editorial staff how many identify as First Nations?
2. Of your volunteer editorial staff, how many identify as First Nations?
3. Of your paid editorial staff, how many identify as CaLD?
4. Of your volunteer editorial staff, how many identify as CaLD?
We recommended that the additional sub-questions could be considered:
● If paid, what is the frequency of payment (e.g. salary, stipend per issue)?
● Does your organisation follow any award classifications (e.g Book Industry Award,
iPed rates)? If not, how does your organisation determine payment rates?
Noting that many literary arts workers are also writers we further recommended the following questions addressing creative practice, and issues of burnout and health:
1. How many of your CaLD staff (paid and volunteer) have their own creative practice?
2. How many of your CaLD staff (paid and volunteer) have another job as their main
source of income?
3. For CaLD staff who have a creative practice, have they felt that their work has
negatively impacted on their creative practice?
• What factors have made it difficult for staff to work on their creative
• Lack of time, limited creative capacity with energy going to other
work, lack of support, burnout, or other factors?
4. If you or your CaLD staff have experienced burnout, and/or other mental health
challenges has any support been in place?
We suggest unpacking the breakdown of paid vs unpaid work as follows:
● Which roles are volunteer in the organisation and which roles are paid?
● For CaLD staff who have paid roles but also volunteer their time, approximately how
many hours per fortnight (or what percentage of their total work time) is spent
undertaking unpaid work?
General recommendations on digital practice were also provided by Mascara‘s then team: Anthea Yang, Monique Nair and Michelle Cahill. We note that the subquestions and Creative Practice questions (1-4) that we recommended were not included in SRB’s final survey. This leaves an important gap where further research is needed.
We considered that cultural outcomes of literary journals could also be measured in terms of books
published, which have been associated with the journal. Mascara has over the last 16 years in partnership with publishers co-edited CaLD collections including Contemporary Asian Australian Poets(Puncher and Wattmann), deciBels3 a series of ten poetry chapbooks by CaLD poets (Vagabond Press), and most recently, Resilience (Ultimo Press).
Mascara considered that the above questions are fundamental in 2022-2023 and should be included
in SRB’s survey of literary journals, particularly given that Mascara did not receive funding in 2016 to carry out this research. Despite our rich literary outcomes, the journal relies on the generosity of its CaLD editors, a substantial proportion of which is unpaid labour. We do not believe that our experience is unique for the CaLD sector. Mascara noted that if SRB were to run the questions which we recommended, it would become alarmingly apparent that there is a major discrepancy between CaLD participation at a paid level (far below average) despite the higher than average behavioural and attitudinal indexes for our cohort as recorded in NAPS. We note that NAPS is meant to be used to “inform advocacy, audience development and strategic planning initiatives.”
In conclusion, we identified to SRB that the absence of economic planning and strategy for our cohort warranted targeted questions in SRB’s proposed Survey of Literary Journals. Mascara is a foundational journal that has played an important role in advocacy, research as well as publishing and platforming CaLD writers.
So why do we need specific strategy?
The NAPS tools published by the Australia Council indicates that the CaLD sector has stronger engagement in the arts, support for the arts and appreciation of the arts than some other cohorts, yet it remains a fact that the Australia Council and other funding organisations do not have Specific Strategic Initiatives for our cohort. This has a direct impact on funding outcomes for CaLD literary journals.
Like many other CaLD organisations, we have been navigating the limitations of structural racism in trying to grow and strengthen as a community of writers and critics. Mascara has built on the legacy of CaLD theorists such as Sneja Gunew, but also the creative activist lives of CaLD poets and writers, such as Antigone Kefala, Sudesh Mishra and Dîpti Saravanamuttu. As a community we have needed visionary and symbolic guidance, and continuing lines of leadership. Mascara has been foundational to the pioneering field of creative and critical production and strategic interventions for non-white settlers in Australian literature. However, our ongoing concerns relate to the endemic nature of unpaid labour by CaLD writers and editors and the absence of strategy to improve these conditions. We have noted for many years the absence of strategic planning for our cohort makes it harder for them to break through as writers, to build career pathways or foster agency. The Australia Council and other funding organisations appear to have overlooked the impact of structural racism on the capacity of CaLD writers and editors to participate equitably in the literary arts or to sustain a career in editing, creative writing, literary publishing, literary arts work, or in academia. Under these prevailing conditions it is well described that the CaLD cohort are more vulnerable to tokenising dynamics, to bullying as well as to depletion and burnout.
The cohorts which most often have strategic planning initiatives include First Nations writers, Remote and Regional writers and individual writers and organisations living with disability. Whilst applauding these important initiatives, we cannot fail to notice the absence of strategic planning for our cohort. Without statistical data and strategy that is focused on economic viability and economic planning for the CaLD sector, the publishing industry remains blind to the privileges enabled because of ethnic difference. Further, the industry is equally neutral to the structural problems CaLD literary journals face.
Without strategy for such a significant demographic group of writers, it follows that forms of meritocracy are thrown to the “industry” heavyweights: right wing media, festivals, the generic mainstream, a handful of institutional gatekeepers; literary agents with commercial interests who forge coalitions with the sector. This is effectively silencing significant CaLD literary talent in Australia.
It is time to do better. Australian readers deserve so much more richness and true diversity of literary editing and storytelling.
Mascara’s Proposed Feedback to Writers Australia:
CaLD writers and allies: We need you to be proactive. Writers Australia is now calling for guidance by the expertise of writers and the literature sector. You have the opportunity to make a difference and provide feedback via the form below.
As a small organization, we’ve endeavoured to break ground by opening the conversation across culture and institutions while there have been enormous barriers to funding in the absence of strategy for our cohort. We are vulnerable as writers and arts workers. It is our lives and our bodies that are being exploited by unpaid work and absence of strategy to recognize structural discrimination and its impacts. We need more than bandaids. We therefore make the following recommendations to the sector and we urge our cohort to lobby now by filling in the below form to Writers Australia
At question 1: Given the role of Writers Australia, as determined by Government in the National Cultural Policy (see page 69), what are the top two priorities that Writers Australia should focus on?
1. Specific strategic initiatives for the CaLD community in policy that recognises the extent to which structural discrimination impacts writers and editors of colour. By structural discrimination we refer to the discrepancy of representation of our cohort in universities, institutions, writers’ festivals, publishing houses, media, paid literary editing positions compared to the demographics of the Australian nation. We also refer to the complete absence of means testing of Government spending that has been allocated to the literary arts, augmenting these barriers.
2. A code of behaviour to include respectful conduct on the part of literary organisations and publishers who partner with organisations representing editors and writers of colour. There is no place for erasure, bullying, gas lighting, targeting or scapegoating of POC editors, or POC arts workers as a means to an end where arts funding or outcomes are concerned.
At question 2: What are the measures of success you want to have in place when Writers Australia is evaluated in 2026?
We are aware that the Feedback Form to Writers Australia is now closed. Please contact the Office for the Arts, please email email@example.com,
Formal submissions to Minister for the Arts Hon Tony Burke, OR your local Member for Parliament.
1. Katherine Day, The Conversation September 5, 2022 https://theconversation.com/the-entire-industry-is-based-on-hunches-is-australian-publishing-an-art-a-science-or-a-gamble-189621
2. National Arts Participation Survey 2019 Australia Council for the Arts