When people ask me about the writers who have most influenced me, I generally hem and haw, demur, hesitate, smile coyly, decline to name anyone. If they persist, I might say “George Eliot” or “Nathaniel Hawthorne” or name any of the Russians. Usually, I regret this immediately. What we all think of as influences is complex and changes by the minute. Later, I think, “I should have said Flaubert, or Yeats, or Duras or Melville.” I also admire Milan Kundera and Michael Ondaatje and Arundhati Roy. Perhaps I should have mentioned them. Or kept quiet altogether.
But admiration and influence are quite different things. I might want to write like Michael Ondaatje, but all the admiration in the world won’t make that happen. Nor should it. Influence is not imitation or theft or plagiarism. It is, instead, something that is born of admiration, but goes further. It is something that has been absorbed completely, internalised, and then brought out from the inside, appearing in a different form in a new work.
When I think of influence in this way, my answer changes. I have to say that the writer who has most influenced my own writing is Tillie Olsen in her book Silences. I have absorbed her ideas and feel its presence in every one of my sentences. This is because I might easily have been one of the silent ones she writes about.
Olsen broke onto the writing scene in the U.S. all of a sudden at a crucial moment—the dawn of the feminist era. Her writing is too accessible to be solely academic, and too literary and intelligent to be merely popular. In the early 1960s, she was a woman who had raised her children and then, in a fierce struggle against necessity and obligations, found her voice. She describes her own silences in the following manner:
In the twenty years I bore and reared my children, usually [having] to work on a paid job as well, the simplest circumstances for creation did not exist. Nevertheless writing, the hope of it, was “the air I breathed, so long as I shall breathe at all.” In that hope, there was conscious storing, snatched reading, beginnings of writing, and always “the secret rootlets of reconnaissance.”
Silences had a huge impact on feminist thought, theory and action, influencing such writers as Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Maxine Hong Kingston, and helping to lay the groundwork for the emergence of a new area of study—that of post-colonialism. As Kingston put it, “Tillie Olsen helps those of us condemned to silence—the poor, racial minorities, women—find our voices.” Academic departments began to question the canon, include more women writers, more African-American, Latin American, Chinese-American writers. We all know the result: exciting new departments dedicated to the study of minority writing. And this was happening the world over, not just in America.
Even though injustices still exist and the battles for ‘voice’ must be fought constantly, we now have a language to define the problems, to describe the process and to guide us where we want to go. And like all languages, this language is made up of words as well as silences.
Olsen examines the varieties of silences, looking at censorship and political silences, the silences of the marginal, and also absences that are a kind of silence. At the very centre of her argument, she quotes Olive Schreiner:
What has humanity not lost by suppression and subjection? We have a Shakespeare; but what of the Shakespeares we might have had who passed their life . . . with no glimpse of freedom. . . .? What statesmen, what leaders, what creative intelligence have been lost to humanity because there has been no free trade in their powers and gifts?
Olive Schreiner presents this idea in her 1883 book From Man to Man. Virginia Woolf revisits it in A Room of Her Own in 1929. Tillie Olsen discusses it once again in a 1962 lecture entitled “Silences in Literature”. It applies as much today in South Africa, in England, and in America as it did in the past. It also applies now in Australia.
A terrible silencing has occurred in the last few years in this country, and continues to occur. The government’s policy of mandatory detention for those people who come to Australia seeking refuge is surrounded by many of the varieties of silence that Olsen identifies. The press is discouraged, suppressed, even misled, which means that our knowledge of the situation is incomplete. The centres are far away, hidden, cut off, guarded. There is no possibility for a free exchange of information, for any conversation that might make these desperate people not refugees, but human beings. Human beings with stories. Human beings with a past, a present and hopes for a better future. Just like us.
Such a policy of detention means that, for those seeking refuge, not only is the past questioned, not only is a peaceful future threatened, but the present is also quite cruelly denied. Because, while they wait for the validation of their cases—their stories—they are denied words. TV, radio, letters in and out—none of these are allowed. Words are not allowed. Which means that asylum seekers are not only denied freedom, but they are also condemned to silence. Six months, ten months might pass until the first interview; four, five, six months more might creep by until a favourable judgement; several more until the official letter of approval finally arrives. Words granted, but granted stingily, ungenerously, at a snail’s pace.
The government has been quiet about the issue, holding fast to a cruel platform, promoting fear of outsiders, suggesting that refugees will drain our social resources, that they might in fact be criminals or even terrorists. And while every country has a right to safeguard its borders, there should be humane laws around just what that means. In a letter written to Amanda Vanstone on June 10, 2004, Tom Keneally asked that “other more genuinely liberal democratic means be sought to protect our sovereignty, without sacrificing the beliefs in human dignity which . . .we share as citizens”. Those, like Keneally, who are speaking out are doing so rationally, not radically. They are making a simple call for humanity and social justice.
The press too has been unusually reticent. While attention has been lately given to individual cases, as well as to the recent progress in the government’s position regarding the detention of children, the general policy continues without much comment. This injustice is happening here, right where we live. Our silence makes us complicit.
Asylum seekers have come to our country from desperate circumstances. They leave everything behind, risking imprisonment and death. They give thousands of dollars to people smugglers and journey in rickety boats across unpredictable seas. Seeking asylum. All of this takes courage. Yet when they arrive, their desperation and their will and their courage are ignored. They are looked upon with suspicion. They are isolated from Australian society and from communication and from hope in centres that are really prisons. They are condemned to silence. Eventually they lose hope.
And then they sew their lips together. What more symbolic way to protest the silence they are forced to undergo?
Sydney PEN has broken the silence. They’ve published Another Country, a slim volume that collects the work of over twenty asylum seekers, giving refugees a voice and the chance to tell their own stories of flight and detention. Of the writers included, many have come here precisely because they could not accept the silence imposed on them by their native countries. Distinguished poets and fiction writers, who have fled the censorship and political silencing of tyrannical regimes, land on our shores only to find a similar tyranny. Others—not professional writers—have been ‘called’ to write out of the difficulties of detention, and in—as stated in Rosie Scott’s introduction—“an urgent attempt to reach the outside world and to express their suffering and pain”.
Another Country shows just how eloquent many of these asylum seekers are and what—if we let them—they might offer to Australia. One might be a Shakespeare, another a great statesman, or a leader or a creative intelligence. But their gifts will be lost if we don’t dispel the silence and allow them a voice.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Tillie Olsen framed her argument around women and literature. It mobilised academic women at a crucial moment and contributed to powerful changes in the academy and how we think of the literary canon. Minorities borrowed her argument and set it in other contexts, changing our view of their experiences. Should we expect anything less than similar positive changes if we break the silences around asylum seekers and this unfair policy of mandatory detention? We have nothing to lose. And just think what we might gain. A reputation for being a society that values social justice and humanity. Gratitude from people who have turned to us for help. The talents of people who have already shown much courage and fortitude. Perhaps even a Shakespeare.
In a democracy, we should feel free to challenge the government and the press and each other. In a democracy, every voice should count. Asylum seekers should be allowed theirs, and we should listen. By Adair Jones.
Article first published in Arts Hub in 2005.
(A 25th Anniversary Edition of Silences was published in 2003 by the Feminist Press, New York. For information about the Sydney PEN centre, visit: www.pen.org.au.)