Writers Vic's Ellen O'Brien spoke to Rafeif Ismail ahead of her workshop: Writing and Intersectionality.
In your workshop, participants will learn about intersectionality and how to write diverse characters and characters of colour in a respectful way. Could you tell us a bit about intersectionality and who you think will benefit from your workshop?
Intersectionality is an analytical framework coined by Dr Kimerlé Crenshaw who is a professor of Law in the United States. Simply put, it’s a way of looking at all the systemic power structures in the world and how they interact and relate to each other.
We all exist in positions of simultaneous power and oppression, so we have power and privilege in certain situations, but we also face institutional oppression in other situations.
You and I, for example. We are both women, so we both face sexism, right?
But for me, the sexism intersects with racism because I’m a black woman, and because of that black womanhood, sexism towards me is radicalised, so it also intersects with anti-blackness to create something called misogynoir, coined which is a kind of sexism and misogyny that non-black people will not face.
So that’s intersectionality. It’s realising that we exist in different spaces and it’s examining how they interact. It’s a way of analysing our relationships with ourselves and with others.
My philosophy in life is to do the least harm possible. I don’t think you can go through life without doing harm, but I’d like to reduce the harm that I do. I try to be as respectful as possible, especially in spaces where I should not speak and should take a step back and let others speak and/or use my privilege to amplify voices.
I’m always on a journey of learning. So, this workshop isn’t just a learning experience for other people. It’s also a journey for me because it’s the first time I’m giving voice to a lot of my own thoughts and theories, as well as the thoughts and theories of so many amazing writers and academics who have come before me.
I hope everyone can benefit. In particular, I really hope that people in situations of institutional power attend this workshop. Through it, we will learn techniques to make literary spaces more accessible, which is what’s needed.
We don’t just need equality, we need equity. We need that accessibility.
How do you negotiate the balance between writing with an artistic and literary purpose, as well as a political purpose, without becoming didactic?
I’ll let you know when I figure that out! I write to write. I write because I have something to say, and I worry about everything else later. I’m trying not to write for an audience at the moment, I’m trying very hard to write for myself. I want to step away from sitting in front of my computer and feeling the gaze of readers who do not exist yet, and whose opinions do not matter because they don’t exist yet. I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for me.
I’m writing the works that I want to see. I want to see works that have a very explicit political message, works that talk about culture and all aspects of identity and the intersection of politics and culture and identity. So that’s what I’m writing. I’m writing what I want to read. I hope that that’s enough in the end.
Are there any writers you think everyone should be reading?
My favourite series at the moment is called 'The Broken Earth Series' by NK Jemisin. It’s a speculative-fiction series. I think everyone should read it at some point, or listen to the audiobook. It is an incredible, incredible work of fiction that is so grounded in reality.
She is the first woman to win the Hugo award three years in a row after being the first black woman to win the Hugo award. This year, her last book in the trilogy, 'The Stone Sky', also won the Nebula prize.
It’s the kind of work that changes a culture, that changes a generation. The 80’s had 'Star Wars' and 'Star Wars' as a movie series changed an entire cultural narrative. NK Jemisin’s 'Broken Earth Trilogy' is that kind of work. It can change a cultural narrative on the same level as 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and Toni Morrison’s 'Beloved'. It’s that kind of writing, but it’s also speculative fiction, which is something we don’t see often in ‘mainstream’ literary spaces.
In the Australian context, I’m making a more conscious effort to read more books by Indigenous writers. I realised that most of my reading list is often American-based. Although I read writers of colour, I’ve noticed I don’t read many Indigenous writers, so I’m making a more conscious effort to do that.
I’ve just finished reading 'Taboo' by Kim Scott which was amazing. And 'Terra Nullius' by Claire G Coleman is absolutely incredible.
I would also recommend the work of Maxine Beneba Clarke, Melissa Lucashenko and Ellen van Neerven. All these amazing writers that exist here and now. Read their works! They’re so good and talented and we are so blessed to live in this world where we get access to this type of writing.
You’re thinking about entering the medical world in a few years’ time, but you’re also leading this double-life as a poet and writer. How do you negotiate that balance?
Everyone thinks that there’s this huge divide between science and art, but there really isn’t. Writing heals, medicine heals. They’re just different ways of healing; at least, that’s what I see. For me, I want to be a doctor because I want to explore the way the body works, the brain works. That’s why I’m studying neuroscience. I want to see our place in the universe, which is why I read a lot of books on astronomy and physics but also read a lot of history and memoir. I write because I want to see how our body works, the way our brain works, and our place in the universe. So they’re not really different to me. They’re both just different pathways to realise the same thing. If I can walk both at once, why not?
Last year you won the prestigious Deborah Cass Prize for 'Almitra Amongst the Ghosts'. As part of that award, you are completing a three-month mentorship with Melissa Lucashenko. What has winning the award meant for you?
Winning the award was life-changing. It has changed the trajectory of my life as a writer. The piece that I sent in – “Almitra Amongst the Ghosts” – was a first in a lot of ways. It was not the first short story that I’ve written, but it was the very first story featuring queer characters that I showed to the public. It was the very first story where I tried to combine parts of my culture and parts of my language within my writing, which is something I desperately want to do and want to continue doing as part of my practice.
Having Melissa as a mentor has been fantastic. We met as part of Melbourne’s Writers Festival and she is an incredible person. I am so, so grateful to have her guidance and mentorship and immense patience with me as I am going through this writing journey. I have great hopes for our continuing mentorship and friendship.
In that vein, I should also mention that I have found a great mentor in Ken Spielman, who was my first ever mentor in writing. I met him through the Centre for Stories as part of the Ways of Being Here program, in 2016, that program culminated into an eponymous anthology published by Margaret River Press, featuring the works of four emerging Western Australian African Writers. His patience and kindness and continuing guidance is also something I very much cherish.
The Deborah Cass Prize for Writing is a way for people of colour, for people of migrant and refugee backgrounds, for people whose voices are regulated to the margins to be able to have space, to have that doorway opened into mainstream literature. That is the Deborah Cass Prize, so for me, it didn’t just change the trajectory of my life, it has also enabled me to help others. I have a cousin in the US – I call him a cousin because Sudanese people call everyone a cousin. He’s eight years old, turning nine. He saw that I was shortlisted for the award and he wants to be a journalist. He sent me a message on WhatsApp, saying 'Do your best! I want to be a journalist and because I saw that you were listed for this award I’m excited, I can now do some writing and start something!' He has started writing right away, after sending that message. To see that, before I even won the award, nothing could be better. Anything I achieve from now on is just a bonus because he has seen representation, which has allowed him to realise that there’s a way for him to follow his path and that’s all that matters. That’s what the Deborah Cass Prize provides. It provides a pathway to change not just one person, but a community and through changing ourselves and our community, we impact the wider community and one day we will see an Australian literary scene that reflects all Australian voices, rather than just one type of Australian voice.
Taking those first steps is so crucial. The awards that provide that first entry into the literary space are so important. I hold so much love and respect for the team who organised the Deborah Cass Prize because it’s so hard to start out and do something like that, something that’s going to change the world. And it does change the world because even if it changes the life of one person, through that a lot of things begin to shift. For them to take the responsibility and the time and effort to do that is incredible.
When did you start writing and when did you know you wanted to use it as a way of expressing yourself?
I’ve always written in some way. I’ve always used art as a form of self-expression.
When I was younger, I had grand dreams of being a poet, being the next Maya Angelou. There were also grand dreams of being a singer, but that did not work out.
The writing that I’m doing now, that I’m still on a journey of learning how to do, that has only been recent. That’s only been since I started reading works by writers of colour and realising that I can write works featuring characters with diverse identities and that my works might matter to someone.
I want to make people feel the same way that my favourite writers make me feel.
I want to make people feel the same way I feel when I pick up one of NK Jemisin’s books, Toni Morrison’s books or Angela Davis’s essays.
I want to make at least one person in the world feel that way. To feel as though they do exist – they have a place to exist – they have a voice, and they should have a voice. That’s what I want and that’s why I started writing.
As women in literature, we are here following in the footsteps of these amazing titans and we are so privileged to be in a time when we can showcase our work and by showcasing our work, honour them for painting the way for us to exist in this space. And that is our responsibility: to make sure this space is accessed by others, as well.
What do you think has been the general response in Australia to the more diverse works that are entering the literary scene?
Diverse works have always been in the literary scene, just oftentimes stifled by a white-centric white supremacist canon. There are always going to mixed reactions, but I think whether welcomed or not, having these voices in the Australian literary scene is important because Australia is a nation of many faces and our literature should reflect that.
All art is inherently political, and writing is a political act, whether we mean for it to be or not. Even if you say it’s non-political, that’s a political statement within itself.
In our current socio-economic-political climate, having new voices and voices of colour is a statement, and it’s a very powerful statement in this country where we present this facade of multiculturalism to the world, and yet at the same time we treat First Nations folks atrociously, deny people access to the most basic human right of seeking refuge and criminalise emerging communities.
When she was accepting the 2004 Sydney peace prize, one of my favourite authors, Arundhati Roy said, “There’s really no such thing as the “voiceless”: there are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.” We need to bring the voices that have been deliberately silenced or preferably unheard into the light. It’s time to hear them.
What has been your experience with Australia’s education system? Did you find it narrow and lacking in diversity?
Absolutely. When I arrived in Australia, I was about eight years old. I only knew three words in English: red, green and bus. Those were the three words I knew. I could honestly speak more German than I could English at that time because my dad spoke German and my parents tried to teach me things.
I went to an intensive English school for about a year before I went into 'mainstream' education. The Intensive English Centre really focused on language acquisition. It wasn’t that much of a shock to the system because everyone there was from a different background. Everyone was there for similar reasons, whether they were migrants or refugees. This was around 2004-2005, so most of the people there were refugees. We all spoke our own languages, as well as English. But I remember a teacher there telling me not to speak Arabic, for about a year, which actually stopped my relationship with the language a lot. It’s something I’m still unpacking now. Sure, it meant I learnt English in a year, but it irrevocably changed my relationship with Arabic.
What I found really shocking and interesting going into the education system was the restrictions placed on children and the way they read. Coming from the family I come from and space I come from, my parents never limited what I read in Arabic. They didn’t think that things were too mature or too childish. I read what I wanted to read, and at the level, I wanted to read at the time. But libraries in schools had levels. You had to be at a certain level to read certain books. For a long time, because my English language skills weren’t great, I was forced to read picture books. And I say forced because I really didn’t like picture books. I thought, ‘I’m nine (nearly ten) years old, I’m reading Niccolo Machiavelli’s 'The Prince' in Arabic, why are you making me read about a fairy princess who I don’t feel anything towards because she does not represent me?'
During that time, I found comic books as an escape, and that’s how I learnt to read English. I learnt to read English through comic books. They have a political message underneath. And the comics I read all had messages about displacement, overcoming and being different. I used to read a lot of 'X-men' comics and 'Superman' comics both of which really resonated with me.
But my reading list in high school – when I could finally read without having to go through levels – was very white. It was very white-centric. It was very limited and limiting. I only discovered writers of colour when I left high school. And not just when I left high school. I only discovered writers of colour when I was in my second year of university. In English, that is. In Arabic, I was lucky enough to be exposed to Arabic literature and Arabic speaking Sudanese writers. That’s always been a constant.
But writers of colour, especially black writers, in the English language, was not something I had access to. I honestly do think that was because the education system at the time was, and is still, very limited and white-centric.
To see works like Maxine Beneba Clarke’s and Ellen van Neerven’s being taught in schools right now, is an amazing and powerful thing, because six years ago those spaces, those academic institutions, were not a place for young people of colour to explore the world about them in a way that represents them. They were places for us to assimilate.
In short, it was very limiting, and I think things can be better and should be better. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to the young people in this ‘nation’ to make sure that they are able to explore every facet of society in every way and young people seeing themselves represented and seeing their friends and their peers represented is crucial.
Any current projects?
I’m working on two projects. I’m working on a short story collection that I received mentorship in developing as part of the Deborah Cass Prize. 'Almitra Amongst the Ghosts' is a part of that collection.
I’m also working on a speculative-fiction novel, that I’m hoping to finish at some point soon. I’m quite excited about that!
About Rafeif Ismail
Rafeif Ismail, a third culture youth of the Sudanese diaspora, is an emerging writer who aims to explore the themes of home, belonging and Australian identity in the 21st century. Her current project aims to recreate the folktales of her childhood in English. She is committed to writing diverse characters and stories.