Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer from Mt Druitt. She is a Manager and Editor at Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a Bachelor of Arts graduate from Western Sydney University. Over the weekend, Winnie will take part in Literature as Reclamation and Sweatshop Showcase.
When I first joined Sweatshop I was told I couldn’t write. My butt sunk into the red couch as the small kitchenette at Western Sydney University’s (WSU) Bankstown campus stretched out before me like a fini roller.
I remember how far everyone felt. A Vietnamese-Australian woman with short black hair, who introduced herself as Shirley, kept blinking at me as another woman in a sparkly pink hijab, who introduced herself as Maryam, was writing something in her notebook. Felt like looking through the wrong end of a microscope.
Then I looked at Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad, who I had met earlier that week at a WSU writing workshop. Mohammed was wearing a black beret; similar to the hats I had seen in pictures of His Majesty’s Armed Forces in Tonga. He also had strapped under his armpit a white Nike bum bag; similar to all the lads I had seen walking down Carlisle Avenue in Mounty County.
My head was a shaken bottle of Coke bubbling under the lid.
‘Okay.’ I breathed out. Not sure what else to do or where else to go.
Sweatshop knew exactly what to do to improve my writing. I started off with writing one-sentence stories, trying my best to understand how a single sentence could hold a whole and complex beginning/middle/end. I also engaged in critical reading, borrowing texts like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks and White Nation by Ghassan Hage from the university’s library. I also learnt what it meant to represent myself, a mixed-race Tongan-Australian woman from Western Sydney, in a country that completely lacks such nuance understandings of Pacific communities. Sweatshop has taught me many things, but what will always stay with me is the lesson that literature must make an original contribution to knowledge, and that such contributions exist in people of colour.
Sweatshop is my village where I am continuously learning. Feels a lot like home. But if Sweatshop is a village, Australia’s literary scene is an imposing city. One I’m still getting used to. If I’m not with people from Sweatshop I am constantly declining invitations to launch ceremonies, award nights and the odd, ‘just a chill house warming with some readingz. I can pay you like thirty bucks.’
However, having a national/international writing community is still important. For me, the migration of ideas and the awareness of the stories that exist outside of my own have helped me broaden my conceptions of writing, self-representation and publication. Through Sweatshop, I have been able to run a Diverse Women Writers’ Collective, which has a different special guest facilitator each month. Authors like Julie Koh, Roanna Gonsalves, Hoa Pham and Shakira Hussein have given their time, advice and edits to the next generation of writers – creating a nationally recognised community through their advocacy.
There are also other writers I look up to such as: Ellen van Neerven, an author of Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch heritage, who was the Managing Editor of black&write! at the State Library of Queensland; Khalid Warsame, a creative producer at Footscray Community Arts Centre who facilitates the West Writers Group and Jane Harrison, an author of Muruwari descent who facilitates the Blak Writers Group in Melbourne. Their teachings and writings are a constant source of learning and inspiration.
In Tongan we say ‘Ofa atu to those we love. ‘Ofa atu to Sweatshop, to the Blak Writers Group and to the West Writers Group. I can’t wait to join our villages at the Emerging Writers’ Festival this year.
To see this national community of writers in action, a lot of us all be featuring in this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival. See just some of our events below:
Feedback loops – 23 June, 10AM, State Library of Victoria, Conference Centre. Feat: Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Peter Polites, Omar Sakr and Khalid Warsame
On mentorship – 23 June, 10AM, State Library of Victoria, Conference Centre. Feat: Ellen van Neerven and Laniyuk Garcon
Sweatshop showcase – 24 June, 5PM, State Library of Victoria, Conference Centre. Feat: Evelyn Araluen, Maryam Azam, Winnie Dunn, Shirley Le, Stephen Pham and Peter Polites. Hosted by Michael Mohammed Ahmad