In the months leading up to my memoir being published, I was riddled with anxiety. No Country Woman is a collection of essays on race, religion and feminism, told through the lens of my experiences growing up as a migrant in Australia.
Race, religion, feminism – given the state of our national politics and the growing culture of extremism when it comes to identity politics, my anxiety wasn’t unwarranted. It wasn’t helped by my dad reading the book, and offering me his first comments – ‘white people will be very confronted by this’.
The ‘this’ he referred to was my angry dismantling of the racism that’s rife in Australian culture, and that has defined my experiences of living in this country since I was three. It’s the racism that meant that school was a daily torment for me growing up, and that forced my parents to grin and bear awful bullying at work on the grounds of their skin colour, because they didn’t trust the authorities to take them seriously.
It’s the racism that means that, to this day, my mother faces Islamophobic harassment and vitriol when she’s just trying to do daily tasks like her grocery shopping, and it’s the racism that meant that my niece came home from daycare when she was four and said she didn’t want to be brown anymore.
At the time, the thought of angry white Australians trolling me on the internet for the statements I make in No Country Woman, was quite frightening. In the book, I call for more than just the ‘tolerance’ or ‘acceptance’ that our politicians so often speak of in relation to cultural diversity.
I want radical change, grounded in reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and focused on dismantling the hierarchy of whiteness that still permeates our schools, or jobs, and our institutions.
I braced myself for the worst, but the worst never came. If anything, my book has made barely a splash when it comes to the white mainstream – instead, the impact it is having is on other migrants like me, who feel relieved and reassured to have a voice that sounds like them to connect with.
At first I was puzzled by this lack of reaction. It’s not like there hasn’t been a continuous barrage of racist incidents all over the media in the months before and since the book was released in August. Just days after its launch, Senator Fraser Anning delivered his vitriolic maiden speech, calling for a return to “European Christian” immigration.
In July, Channel 7 aired what can only be described as racial vilification in their story on so-called ‘African gang-violence’ in Melbourne, beginning what would be a trend of racial profiling and homogenising of South Sudanese Australians that continues to today, and to which no end appears in sight.
In October, Pauline Hanson tabled a motion in Parliament stating that ‘it is ok to be white’ – a ridiculous, tone-deaf and frankly pointless assertion (literally all evidence points to it being incredibly beneficial to be white in this country), that was still only defeated by a slim margin of three votes.
It seems to me that 2018 has been full of incidents reminding us that racial equality is inching further and further from our grasp, and any gains made in decades prior are swiftly being eroded. In my book, I write about arriving in Australia in 1992, in the tail end of Paul Keating’s prime ministership, when the word ‘multiculturalism’ still had a positive connotation.
Our local Muslim community in regional NSW had a deal with the catholic church to use their hall for our Friday prayers, and even though I was bullied in school for being brown, there wasn’t the kind of hostility we face now.
Of course, that was just years before Pauline Hanson’s first time in politics. The hate speech she was elected on started permeating into our daily lives, and often the only way to relieve the stress and frustration we felt as new migrants was to crank Pauline Pantsdown’s parody songs of the politician in the car and let loose (I don’t like it, no, no, no I don’t, never did, I don’t like it – I don’t like anything).
Could I have foreseen that even after being prosecuted and charged with embezzlement, Hanson would once again have a voice in Parliament? That she would be joined by an ever-increasing cohort of far-right racist extremists, who would build on her rhetoric to once again question the rights of citizens like myself to call this country home?
That we would have a government completely resistant to establishing a meaningful Indigenous voice to Parliament, and that after shocking footage of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders being tortured in Don Dale juvenile detention centre, no charges would be laid against the centre’s staff?
The fact that Australia is backpedalling when it comes to ending racism means that I shouldn’t be too surprised that there hasn’t been backlash against my book. Backlash usually occurs when the opposing party feel threatened – but racists in Australia have no reason to feel threatened by the words and experiences of one brown woman. They are experiencing a season of triumph, an era of almost uncontested free reign, where they can air their racist views and have it result in continued detention of asylum seekers, or the vilification of young African men that makes it hard for them to find employment.
My book is nothing more than an annoying mosquito on the flanks of a large, immovable beast.
It might seem strange for an author to yearn for backlash from the public when a book is released. But anger, to me, would signal that that racist individuals and groups have felt the current of change and are resisting it. Instead, the overwhelming sense I get is that the rhetoric of our politicians combined with the global unrest towards immigration and multiculturalism as seen in America (Donald Trump) and the UK (Brexit) means that the tide is in the favour of bigotry and prejudice.
Perhaps the solidarity I’ve experienced from other migrants in the aftermath of No Country Woman being released is more valuable than I realise. If things continue like this, we’ll need each other’s support and comraderie more than ever before.