‘West Writers Group: Creating a New Wave of Migrant Literature’, by Ennis Cehic

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Photo of Omar Musa by Cultura de Red. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

At the end of the day, you can never escape yourself. It takes time to understand the sentiment of this expression. Time and experience.

As a writer with a migrant background, this is a realisation that can either come early, or late – it just depends on your luck.

Mine came late.

Writing was an act of validation for me. I had to prove I could do it. Not to others, but to myself. I had to ascertain my ability, and the only way I could do it is by writing about anything but my background.

My focus has always been poetry and fiction that deals with the cultural conundrums of the present, not the past. I consciously avoided bringing my background into my work and preferred to write stories about universal themes. My characters had the same names as the Anglo-Saxon people around me. They didn’t feel displaced nor were they ethnically confused.

A migrant writer is typically defined as someone who writes from an aspect of at least two cultures, national identities or languages. In many cases, the migrant writer writes about cultural integration; the difficulty of growing up in a new society; going back to the homeland or experiencing a horrendous war. A predominant theme is displacement – trying to fit into the society they migrated to. Books like Looking for Alibrandi, Growing up Asian in Australia and The Boat are perfect examples of migrant writing in Australia.

But the term ‘migrant writer’ has always irritated me. It pigeonholes a writer into this category: it suggests that they only write about stories set between two cultures; that their single focus is migration and multicultural issues. And despite the fact that they may write about things outside this category, they’re marketed as a ‘migrant writer’ – Asian-Australian, Bosnian-Australian, and so on.

In retrospect, I tried hard not to be a migrant writer.

The me with the Bosnian heritage, the wog from a war-torn country who experienced exile – all of it was put aside to demonstrate to myself that I am made of more than history and suffering.

In 2012 I left Australia on an extended holiday to Europe. This was the first time I re-visited Bosnia and Herzegovina (my homeland) in twenty-one years. My first visit and a subsequent prolonged stay in Sarajevo that lasted for five months had a profound consequence on my writing.

I wrote heavily during this time, chronicling my inner self. I was bringing out what was inside me as truthfully as possible. I was deeply honest in my notepads and realised during the act of writing that I was no longer hiding. In fact, I was opening myself up completely. The fiction I was focusing on began to change too. I started to feel at ease fusing personal characterisation. Creating characters called Adnan rather than Fred or John.

Upon my return, I was eager to make something out of the new work I was embarking on. But I didn’t want to just send stories out to magazines. I wanted to actively engage in conversations with other writers and editors to understand the place of migrant literature in this rapidly globalising world.

West Writers Group

In early 2014—a few months after I returned—I saw a callout for a program called West Writers Group at Footscray Community Arts Centre. This program was aiming to amplify writers and stories from The West; an area in Melbourne with a large ethnic diversity of migrants from Vietnam, China and the former Yugoslavia.

A couple of months after I was accepted into the program, I walked into the Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC) for the official launch. Thirty writers had gathered in a room. I didn’t know a single face and yet I felt like I knew them all. I could sense curiosity. Excitement. It was invisible but thick and palatable like the contagious energy you feel from a roaring crowd at a football match.

And this was The West. Not the wild, wild west – but The West I grew up in. The cool-new Footscray and everything not-so-cool beyond that stretched as far as Melton. Why would anyone want to amplify stories from this poorly developed terrain in Melbourne? A place that I always felt held the ethnic amalgamations of my heritage I avoided writing about so I wouldn’t be labelled a migrant writer.

But The West was no longer the same place. It had grown character, moulded by its vast multicultural makeup that was inspiring a new wave of thinking and creativity. It deserved to be recognised. And these fellow writers and I were here to help tell its story; extract the voices of this majority that is clearly minority in literature.

One part of me was thrilled that I finally found a place where I could explore migrant writing at a deeper level, but the other part was still worried about being pigeonholed, even if I had a strong inkling to understand what a migrant writer from The West really was.

When all the participants arrived, Sam Twyford-Moore, the then-director of Emerging Writers’ Festival and Alia Gabres, our coordinator, introduced themselves and the program. They oozed confidence in the idea. Sam spoke with such contagious excitement that it truly felt like we were part of something culturally significant.

When we went around to table to introduce ourselves, I could hear so much conviction. We had all earned our paths. We were a product of our environments. A subject of the region that was currently being spotlighted. But beneath the names, all the experiences of these people, I could hear that no one felt like a minority, they were a force. I remember very well leaving that room with so much inspiration that I couldn’t keep still from enthusiasm.

The program

Unlike other programs I was part of, WWG had a solid structure that worked towards an outcome. From March until November we met up fortnightly. One session was devoted to creative writing discussions where we shared and critiqued our work. The other fortnight was devoted to learning from industry professionals. In November, we’d showcase our new work at the Writers Forum; a mini writers’ festival held across an entire day with workshops, panels and performances from us.

Naturally over time, our group dwindled. We started off with about thirty members but by the sixth meeting, it was twenty-five. Then it dropped to twenty, and slowly only about fifteen individuals remained. I expected this. Only those who adored the difficulty—because loving the difficulty of writing is the love of writing—stayed.

Throughout this time, I became more and more aware of the breadth of storytelling that was emerging from this region. The writing wasn’t just limited to writing either. It was storytelling through theatre, dance, music and film by a diverse set of creative individuals.

And we were all here for the same reason; to flesh out stories from The West and it didn’t matter how. The best part was that our subject matter and approach to writing was so diverse. We were telling stories that weren’t restricted, migrant literature that didn’t feel like migrant literature – they encompassed universal themes of life, love, hardships. Tinged with contemporary voices that expressed different human truths.

But, we weren’t really writing about The West.

The West created the energy we needed to write. It brought us together. It gave us a place to think about writing and ourselves. It inspired us to dwell deeper into this art. But the place itself, it didn’t necessarily appear in all of our works. It just became the inspiration we needed.

The diversity of the group gave me the understanding that the physical environment, however defined or undefined does not define the person or their stories. I was a testament to that. And so were most of the writers in this fresh new thing called the West Writers Group.

Towards the end of September 2014, we started to work hard on finalising our official Writers Forum for November. Notable writers such as Christos Tsiolkas, Amra Pajalic and Omar Musa were invited to not only support the program but help us officiate The West as a literary hot bed.

Following a day of workshops, panels and walking tours, we closed the program with reading performances from our group. Earlier that day Omar Musa had remarked on the state of Australian literature by saying, “The literary scene is browning.” I remembered that before I went up on stage, knowing that while I was white, it wasn’t what he meant.

He was proud that the literary scene was finally recognising not a single migrant writer, but a collective of them – and West Writers Group represented this collective force.

SWEATSHOP

Our second year in 2015 became a lot more intimate. We were a much smaller group by this time. But it wasn’t until we were officially visited by authors Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Luke Carman from SWEATSHOP that I realised how distinct our program was. How different it was to programs of such nature, especially SWEATSHOP as the West Writers Group was officially based on theirs.

A literacy movement based at the Western Sydney University, Bankstown Campus, SWEATSHOP is part of the Writing and Society Research Centre that devotes their time and energy to empower marginalised communities in Western Sydney through writing.

It was a day before their performance at the Emerging Writers’ Festival that they came out to run a workshop with us. Renowned for their brutally honest approach to critiquing, the moment they began to speak; we became utterly silent. Silent from curiosity, intrigue and fear.

Their sincere but ruthless method captivated us to the point that when they asked who wants to go first to share their work, we kept quiet.

A few of us finally mustered the courage. When it was my turn, I was excited and stood up. I chose a story about experiencing displacement in my homeland I started to tinker with while living in Sarajevo. I wasn’t even finished with the third sentence when Michael interjected.

Immediately I knew why we were so different. Firstly, from a methodical perspective we were never too critical in our sessions. West Writers Group treaded lightly. We were careful not to insult, to hurt. We never thought that pushing further in would bring us to a deeper feeling. Where SWEATSHOP would tear you down to get the best out of you, we focused on the good only. We didn’t push hard enough to take it to great. To get to that stage where creativity becomes uncomfortable, where fear becomes the true motivator and inspires better outcomes.

The next day, I went along to see them perform at the Melbourne Town Hall. Every writer from the group embodied the story in their performance. They lived it. But every story also had a link to place. This was the second reason they were so different to us. While they told different stories, in different styles and structures, each resonated with Sydney, or more significantly, Bankstown and the milieu of Sydney’s western suburbs they hailed from.

This was not the West Writers Group.

We did not work to tell stories only from The West. Ours was not a literacy movement from a set place. We became bound by the idea of The West but not restricted to it.

Writing from a set place in literature tends to assimilate and inherit the distinguishing characteristics of that particular place. While there were connections in our collective body of work, characteristics that could be defined as The West, on the whole, we told stories from various places.

As much as I loved the work SWEATSHOP were producing, I was happy about the diversity that was emerging from the West Writers Group.

James Robertson-Hirst, a short story writer gave us strange stories set in places that were unlike anything we ever heard. Cher Chidzey tapped into Singaporean politics. Bob Carey-Grieve gave us tales with Scottish characters while I wrote about the egotistical world of advertising, and poetry about the digital impact on society. No one even mentioned Footscray or St Albans. I didn’t either, even though I grew up in St. Albans, and went to high school with one Anglo-Saxon guy called Curtis.

Writers Forum 2015

Over the next couple of months more members of our group left. There was a change in us following the SWEATSHOP workshop. We became openly more critical, even if we didn’t admit it. I think they matured our process and made us hungrier. We dwelled deeper into every story and stuck to this process until our second Writers Forum in November 2015.

This was officially the last time we’d be together. Soon our little group would disband, offer new opportunities to writers from the area to enter the program.

At most of the performances over the period of the program I read poetry: verses about the internet, love and contemporary dilemmas. For that final performance, I chose to read a short story I developed with Kat Muscat during the Global Express Workshop I undertook the year before. Something close to home, a piece to honour The West.

I knowingly did what was expected of me. What the media, readers and literary critics would like to view as migrant literature. I did this because I finally felt at ease writing and reading such material. I no longer felt like classifications of literature mattered, a realisation that was definitely defined by my experience with SWEATSHOP.

The story was set in Sunshine, inspired by my youth when I used to flip burgers in Hungry Jacks. Full of wogs and displacement. I read it with gusto, feeling the story deep within, like I was retelling a memory.

When I heard the applause, I was taken aback. I realised that the people that remained for our performance—locals, other writers, friends and family—wanted to hear this. They wanted tales from the grubby streets of their existence. The incidents they see or live through. They wanted to hear their reality reflected in literature, because there isn’t enough of it.

I wondered how Queanbeyan locals felt when Omar Musa published Here Come the Dogs. How the Bosnian diaspora felt when Aleksandar Hemon wrote The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man. How the Vietnamese community felt when Nam Le published The Boat.

The future

Now, as I reflect upon my experience with the program I no longer feel conflicted. I learnt all I need to do is go further, deep into the art within my heart. Whether it’s considered migrant literature or writing from The West no longer matters to me.

West Writers Group offers a meaningful opportunity to writers of all ages. It helps shape both the identity of individuals and their stories. And on the question of whether there’s even a thing called a West Writer: there might be, there might not.

The area is a place where new energy abounds. Where gentrification is inspiring a new wave of creative thinkers. It’s a region that’s forcing out stories about new perspectives on culture and integration, displacement, hybridity and bilingual conflicts – themes we tend to categorise as themes of migrant literature.

This classification is irrelevant. What’s important is that we find and nurture the voices to tell these stories, because they are stories truly worth telling.


Join Ennis at the Brimbank Writers & Readers Festival this Saturday, 10th September with fellow writers James Robertson-Hirst and Claire Rosslyn Wilson to hear more about the writing from the west.

Ennis Cehic is a writer and creative from Melbourne. Aside from working on brands and ad campaigns, Ennis writes fiction, poetry and essays. He’s been published in The Age, FourW, Retort Magazine, Dialect (Express Media) and is currently writing a collection of travel essays for the New Travelist. He’s a former member of the West Writers Group from Footscray Community Arts Centre.