Freedom to read…freedom to write

As I write, hundreds of journalists and writers are in prison.

More than half of those jailed for their work are behind bars in Turkey, China, and Egypt. The pattern reflects a dismal failure by the international community to address a global crisis in freedom of the press.

Founded in 1921, PEN is a worldwide association of writers with a common concern for the art of writing and freedom of expression. PEN groups campaign all around the world on behalf of writers who have been silenced by persecution or imprisonment.

Peter Greste photo

Peter Greste

PEN Perth is one of 147 PEN international centres around the world. As part of its major launch and fundraising effort, PEN Perth will welcome award-winning and internationally recognised foreign correspondent Peter Greste to the city on Thursday 31 May. In 2013, Peter spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison on false charges. PEN International worked alongside thousands of individuals and organisations around the world to campaign for his release.

Joined by Victoria Laurie, Peter will speak to issues of media censorship, freedom of expression in times of war, human rights, the role of writing, and how people can participate as private citizens in safeguarding democracy.

As a former journalist and as a writer, I believe it is essential we speak up for freedom of expression at all times. We must always remember the importance of writing in our society, no matter where we live in the world. Renowned Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk reminds us:

“When another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free”.

I urge you to join up to your local PEN branch to stay informed. PEN Perth is still developing a website, but in the meantime you can follow activities on the Facebook page and subscribe via the Centre for Stories website.

Remembrance and hope

On 25 April I attended my local Anzac Day service to pay respect and remember all Australians who served and died in war and on operational service. It is one of Australia’s most important national occasions, similar to Remembrance Day in the UK and Memorial Day in the US. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

My Grandfather and Great Uncle George were among the first landing troops at Gallipoli. Grandad survived that disastrous campaign and went on to fight throughout the rest of World War One on the western front in Europe. Tragically, we lost Uncle George on the first day.

During the Second World War my father and several uncles served in the air force. So it was probably no surprise when three of my brothers followed them into military service. Personally, I am relived none of them were still in the forces by the time Australia sent troops into Afghanistan and Iraq. So, on Anzac Day I always take time to reflect on the number of Australians currently serving in the military, and those on active service, in different parts of the world.

But Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915.   While it is a day to think about the freedoms that have been won, I also pause and think about the futility of war and how little we have learnt from history.

I meet many people from a refugee background all the time whose families have been impacted by war. I know some of their stories, but others are too traumatised or frightened to speak of their past lives. When I ask them what they most enjoy about living in Australia, the usual answers are freedom and peace. I daresay not too many Australians think about this these days.

Not a week goes by when I don’t think about other what’s going on in different countries. Millions of lives are still affected by different conflicts and war. Countries are still being torn apart over power, religion, culture or other issues. I don’t know the answers, but I continue to hope for a world with more peace, justice and inclusivity for everyone.

Uncle Ray, my Dad and Uncle Blue

Uncle Blue, my Dad and Uncle Ray

Writing is like breathing

I am thrilled for my friend Shokoofeh Azar, who has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

A major literary award, the Stella Prize seeks to recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature and champion cultural change. Named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria Sarah ‘Miles’ Franklin, the prize was awarded for the first time in 2013.

On a previous blog I reviewed Shokoofeh’s book The enlightenment of the greengage tree and I highly recommend it to everyone.

I also recommend listing to a great interview with her on the Stella website. It’s a Q&A format and I just love Shokoofeh’s answers: “First of all, I am a writer because I can’t stop myself writing. Writing, like breathing, is essential to my life. Secondly, it’s the only way I know to fight for my values in Australia and Iran, and for humankind.”

The 2018 Stella Prize winner will be announced this week – on the evening of Thursday 12 April.

Everyone belongs

Yesterday’s Harmony Day, promoting inclusiveness and belonging, brought to an end a week of celebrations around Australia. I was lucky enough to attend several wonderful events celebrating Harmony Day and was inspired to hear of some great initiatives happening in Western Australia.

One of the highlights of the week for me, was seeing a video clip called Same Drum. Recently released by students of Aranmore Catholic College in Perth this three-minute video was created during a series of workshops with students from the Intensive English Centre. It’s sung in three African languages – Swahili, Dinka and Kinyarwanda – as well as English. The project was devised by artist and filmmaker Poppy van Oorde-Grainger. It’s gone viral! I really recommend you take a look.

I attended a major event at Curtin University for the launch of the 2017 Catalyst Report. The Catalyst Youth Summit was held over three days and once again, provided nearly sixty young, multicultural Western Australians the opportunity to build relationships, speak with politicians and work together to develop solutions to issues that face their peers. The report is up on my Research and Reports page.

And lastly, as usual the town of Katanning in the Great Southern region of WA put on a fantastic celebration for Harmony Day. I have a personal connection with Katanning as I wrote a chapter about its extraordinary success with multiculturalism in More to the Story. While I couldn’t get there this year, I have heard the Shire, local businesses and community groups put on a great event full of local food, music, performances, art and activities. With 6,000 people attending over the weekend Katanning knows how to celebrate! Check out the photos on their Facebook page.

 

Celebrating Harmony Week

Harmony-Week-Web-Banner

Harmony Week in Western Australia starts today 15 March and runs through to Australia’s Harmony Day on 21 March. Harmony Week is an opportunity for all Western Australians to celebrate our vibrant multicultural State. The fabulous artwork used for this year’s Harmony Week banner is by local artist Alina Tang. Her parents were Vietnamese refugees who came to Australia in the 1980s.

Harmony Day in Australia takes place on the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which started in recognition of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre when police fired on a peaceful demonstration against apartheid in South Africa, killing 69 unarmed protestors.

Harmony Week has become an opportunity for all of us to celebrate our diversity while working to remove barriers that still exist in the community. The message of Harmony Day is everyone belongs. The day aims to engage people to participate in their community, respect cultural and religious diversity and foster sense of belonging for everyone.

Since 1999, more than 70,000 Harmony Day events have been held in childcare centres, schools, community groups, churches, businesses, and federal, state and local government agencies across Australia.

The 2016 census showed Western Australia is one of Australia’s most culturally diverse States. You can see other States results on the website.  I found it particularly interesting to be reminded that one-third (32.2 per cent) of Western Australians are born overseas — that’s the highest percentage of the population for any Australian State or Territory.   Among those born overseas, people from non-main English speaking countries (410,291) outnumbered those from main English speaking countries (387,423) for the first time since the Census began in Western Australia.   What’s it like where you live?

Everyone can join in Harmony Week: community organisations, businesses, State Government agencies, local governments, schools, colleges and universities. More information is available from the Harmony Day and the Office of Multicultural Interests websites.

These websites have suggested activities or events: simple things like organising a morning tea, inviting speakers to your groups or cooking up a variety of different food from different countries at home or with friends.

A Taste of Harmony has some super recipe suggestions from Syria, Turkey, China and Vietnam and so many other places. I’m rather fond of the Iranian Marinated chicken with charred limes on the BBQ myself, but I am yet to tackle Baklava, which I love.

What will you do to celebrate?

 

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is a worldwide event that celebrates women’s achievements, from the political to the social, while calling for gender equality. It has been observed since the early 1900s and is now recognised each year on 8 March.

In Australia, it has just been confirmed that in 2018 the gender pay gap is 22% – which makes me question just how far we have come on the road to gender equality for women. The principle of equal pay for equal work was introduced in my country in 1969, so how can there still be such a disparity?

There is no doubt women from a refugee background face much bigger issues than pay equality. Issues such as persecution, conflict and often violence.   Some of these threats are quite distinct from those that men and boys face. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, 50% of female victims of sexual violence are 15 years old or younger. In the world’s conflict zones 10 million girls are not in school; girls account for only 30% of refugees enrolled in secondary school.

As I enter the last year of my PhD at Curtin University, my research and writing is concentrated on how the stories of refugees are narrated.  I did not set out to focus on women, but that is how my four years of study has turned out.

So, on this International Women’s Day, I am choosing to celebrate by sharing some success stories about women of a refugee background.

While I can’t share the stories from my PhD research yet, I wanted to give you some links to stories from women who have faced much more challenging backgrounds than most of us and yet have found a way to not only survive, but to thrive.

And finally, to gain some insight into what is going on in Western Australia – that could also be applicable in other countries – look at Ishar Multicultural Women’s Health Centre  which encourages the health and wellbeing of women of all ages and from all cultural backgrounds, as well as the Edmund Rice Centre WA.

Sisterworks catering - refugees

Sisterworks Catering – a Melbourne business run by women from a refugee background

Inspiration at Perth Writers Week

Congratulations to Will Yeoman as guest curator of the 2018 Perth Writers Week.

My head is still spinning from all the great writers I heard. And isn’t that what a good festival does?   It inspires us; it educates us and it entertains us. It also provides time for new or different ideas to be presented.

One of the highlights for me was listening to Kim Scott (Taboo) and Helen Garner (Everywhere I look) in conversation.  These are two of Australia’s literary giants.  It was an interesting pairing – but what a rich evening they provided for the sold out crowd at the Octagon Theatre in Perth.   It was also obvious how much they respected and admired each other’s work.

Helen-Garner_Kim-Scott_Hero-768x432

Helen Garner and Kim Scott

Tim Winton’s solo performance about his new book The shepherd’s hut and his powerful interwoven messages that society has failed young boys because they have ­remained trapped in an idea of manhood that is toxic, was fascinating and quite disturbing. I thought about the implications as I made my way home.

I came away inspired from a session with Liz Byrski, Rob Dessaix and Alex Miller, who discussed creativity in later years. They reaffirmed to me that I have a bright future ahead and gave me permission to become more selfish with my own time, say no and even be a little bit rude!

I was lucky enough to interview three women from the Arab world: Manal Al-Sharif, Amal Awad and Tess Woods. With Palestinian, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian heritages the conversation showed the audience life from three different countries and cultures. It was an informative, amusing and sometimes poignant conversation. I recommend all three books – Daring to Drive, Beyond the veiled clichés and Beautiful Messy love.  All would be great book club reads.  I’ll have a review of Daring to Drive up soon, as I spent another hour with Manal in a different session discussing her life and activism in more depth.

So hats off to all in the Perth Writers Week program. Reading ideas abound!

 

Manal Tess and Amal

Manal Al-Sharif, Amal Awad and Tess Woods