Sunday 23 July 2017

On finding Asian-Australian voices in our nation's memory...

Over at the #GLAMBlogClub, this month's theme is identity. Being a person of colour, specifically an Asian-Australian, racial identity is a topic that I tend to shy away. I was brought up in a multicultural community, singing "We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on Earth we come... we share a dream, and sing with one voice... I am, you are, we are Australian." I also grew up, quite conscious of racism, and even to this day I am super-conscious when I overhear casual racism, and feel personally hurt when I become the target of racial slurs by unknown passers-by - which happens more often than I'd like to admit.

Besides, as far as I was concerned, I was Australian, and anybody who suggested otherwise because of my racial background, wasn't worth engaging in a pointless argument with.

But recently, there's been a growing amount of literature in the field of critical librarianship which analyses and addresses whiteness in the industry. It's something that I've become super-conscious of, and I feel that it's a topic that I should engage with more. The problem is that when I've occasionally brought it up in conversation with colleagues, at best it's acknowledged politely, at worst, I'm accused of invoking identity politics, and playing the race card. I haven't done it in a while, purely because I care about my career and don't want to make any of my colleagues feel offended / upset / guilty / awkward.

I have a lot of admiration for my peers and friends who are actively feminist, especially in addressing the ways that patriarchy is still are present in our society and workplaces. Yes, even the library industry, where over 85% of librarians are women, and yet male librarians still earn $6.9k more on average every year. And yet, I still feel strangely reluctant to speak out when there's a noticeable lack of representation, perhaps not always in our workplace, but certainly in our collections. I don't even sense any kind of solidarity amongst Australian librarians of colour, where I can comfortably discuss these issues to any depth.

I recently attended a talk at the National Library of Australia, outlining two of the exhibitions currently on display. One is an impressive collection of Japanese "kuchi-e" woodblock prints from the Meiji period, and the other is a collection of Chinese propaganda posters from 1949-1976. These, like most collections from the NLA's Asian Collections, are managed by language, focusing on the countries that collections are derived. It also includes Australian works which are published in foreign languages in these countries. And this is all good and important - as a collecting agency, we need to engage and collaborate with our regional neighbours.

However, there's a part of me that's deeply uncomfortable with the "otherness" that is associated with Asian culture in this context. We are looking outward at Asian cultures external to this nation, where there have been plenty of Asian communities and influencers in Australian society since the mid-19th Century. I'm conscious of this in state collections, particularly from my time working in the Northern Territory, and some of the Victorian collecting agencies, such as the State Library of Victoria and the Melbourne Museum. And, of course, the Immigration Museum has done important work in acknowledging the changing face of Australian society over the last two centuries.

And yet, when it comes to our national collections, I am conscious of the absence of these representations, when I browse these organisations that are charged with preserving Australia's national memory. One of my colleagues occasionally teases me about the fact that much of my work involves moving boxes full of papers of dead white people. It's become a reminder to me to keep an eye out for boxes full of papers that may be from people of colour. Their voices may tell a different story of what it means to be Australian. These are important voices, but so far they are literally buried in the stacks - waiting to be heard.

So, what else can I do?

As a Reference Librarian, there are opportunities to shine a light on parts of the collection that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some colleagues in recent years have identified indigenous content that we weren't even aware of, and made important and meaningful connections between them and the communities that they came from. I personally feel like I need to do more delving into the collections, and develop my own familiarity with the voices and stories that lie therein, so that I can then increase the wider awareness of diverse representations in these collections.

But most importantly, I would encourage Asian Australians who have played a part in this nation's history and culture - whether they are writers, artists, politicians, community leaders, etc. - to consider donating their papers, whether they be sketches, diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, computers, hard drives, and so on, to the National Library. It might currently be a place that's full of boxes of papers by dead white dudes, but it doesn't always have to be that way. This way, we can preserve a national memory that's representative of the diversity of Australian culture.

It's a start, anyway.

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