A string of questions centred around race relations and immigration were directed at a panel of authors on Q&A’s panel on Monday night.
On the desk with host Tony Jones were John Marsden, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Sofie Laguna, Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Trent Dalton.
Marsden was asked whether his Tomorrow series, starting with the 1993 novel Tomorrow When the War Began, helped raise a generation of Australians who feared foreign invasion.
“I hope not,” Marsden said. “It was written 20 or so years ago when no-one talked about the security of Australia.”
The seven-book series, which was later adapted to a movie, tells the story of a group of Australian teenagers banding together to try to fight a foreign power from invading and occupying Australia.
“I wouldn’t write that book now — not because of a societal view but because of my own horror at the way refugees who have come to Australia have been treated,” he said.
“When I see people who arrive here legitimately seeking refuge and shelter, and they are treated as the scum of the Earth and they are sentenced to awful detention and sometimes death by both major political parties without any apparent scruples or conscience exhibited by those parties, then that would put me in a very different position when it came to writing a book about threats to Australia, because demonising people like that is unforgiveable and it’s disgusting and it’s an ongoing obscenity in our lives.”
Mohammed Ahmad, whose latest novel The Lebs takes on the perspective of young Muslim people in Sydney’s west, disagreed with Marsden, saying he could remember the xenophobia decades ago when Marsden’s Tomorrow series was first published.
“I remember growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney where there was tremendous xenophobia towards the Vietnamese-Australian community,” he said.
“With all due respect, the language of the book and the implications in the book genuinely impacted and damaged the lives of a lot of the young people that I grew up around.
And for me, reading, it’s not about the ability to put words together, it’s about the ability to pull words apart.
“When I pulled the words apart in the Tomorrow series I did interpret a paranoid, white nationalist fantasy about a group of coloured people illegally invading this country, and I always find that narrative deeply ironic because that’s what the white population did to the Indigenous population.”
The Lebs, which Jones described as a visceral account of men at Punchbowl High, describes the male characters’ treatment of women.
“They call them either sluts or virgins and offend a whole group of people there. And they’re also funny, anti-Semitic,” Jones said.
“You have these conflicted and conflicting and sometimes violent characters but I guess the point is here your privilege as a writer to write about them, because they’re real and we never get this perspective.”
In response, Mohammed Ahmad said he was not interested in telling a positive story about Arabs and Muslims simply to counteract all of the negative stories.
“My business as a writer is to represent the truth as I see it. And the truth of the experiences I had growing up is that we had a lot of antisocial behaviour in our community,” he said.
Clarke, whose book The Hate Race is a biographic novel of her experiences with racism growing up, said the way to challenge what she saw as growing perception of African youths as gang members was to diversify the stories told about African communities.
She advocated for a narrative that included a cacophony of experiences about growing up in Australia.
“People helping their dads with their cars or people becoming dancers or actors. This richness of the African-Australian community we’re just not seeing anywhere,” she said.
Laguna, author of The Choke, spoke to her fellow panellists about how their job, as fiction writers, could cut across racial divides in Australia.
Laguna pointed to her reading of The Hate Race, saying her world was expanded by reading about another’s experiences.
“I felt enormous compassion for the struggle you had endured as a child,” she told Clarke.
“Although I was aware of the racism in those particular decades and that decade, I felt it in a much more visceral, personal kind of a way and, I suppose, that is what we have to offer [as writers], isn’t it,” she said.
Marsden said the current negative attention on the African-Australian community was the latest version of a cultural phenomenon which was carried out over generations.
“At the moment it happens to be African people in Melbourne but next year it will be a different group no doubt,” he said.
“It’s been a different group right through my life — it was Greek and Italian people when I was a kid, then it was Vietnamese people and other Asian people, and then it’s African people, and Aboriginal people have been kind of chronically treated in this way for the whole of my life.
“I think we need to look at why as a society we find otherness so difficult and confronting.”