Earlier this year, I had the pleasure meeting Winnie Siulolovao Dunn in Sydney, Australia. When we first spoke, we connected through our love for poetry and our respect for the literary works of various writers particularly those from Oceania. Since then, we have had a number talanoa sessions where we connected further through our cultural background as well as our journey via academia. Subsequently, I found out more about the work that she does as a Manager at Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is inspiring. Sweatshop is a literacy movement based in Western Sydney which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. As a daughter whose family hails from Malapo, Kolonga and Kolomotu’a (the Kingdom of Tonga) and as an alumni of Western Sydney University, Winnie shares her voice and her lived experiences with us on this blog. Enjoy the read!
MP = Please share with us, who inspired you to write?
Winnie: When I was a little girl I used to see my nana writing all the time in the lounge room at her house in Mt Druitt. She’d be sitting on top of kafus (blankets) and ngatu (tapacloth) as if it were a throne, writing himi (hymn) after himi, and then turning them into poems. When I think of my writing now and why I do it, that image of my nana always comes to mind. She was the punake of Mt Druitt.
MP = Those memories are heart-warming. What impact has creative writing and the sharing of your narrative made in your life?
Winnie: I think writing about my culture and about my home in Western Sydney has brought me closer to a real critical and conscious community. I remember Dr. Michael Mohammed, the Director for Sweatshop, opened his Bankstown home to the team and I. He cooked us dinner as we all sat in the lounge room and in the backyard talking about work, about politics and about our plans for the weekend. I’d hear bits of Vietnamese, a joke in Greek and numbers being yelled in Arabic. My partner Tan observed all of this and he said to me, ‘Your team is all like a family’ and I agreed. My love for creative writing, for Western Sydney and having a community that feels the same, has greatly impacted my life and the way I tell stories about my life.
MP = I completely understand what you mean. It was good to meet Dr. Michael Mohammed at Western Sydney University earlier this year. It is also inspiring to hear about the space that he is creating for the team. Please tell us more about Sweatshop and your role in the organisation.
Winnie: I am the manager and an editor at Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. It’s mostly admin work but I have a lot of creative flexibility with editing and curating content for our printed anthologies. Sometimes I get sent to schools for five weeks to help low-socio economic ethnic kids feel empowered about their own cultural stories. In one of our workshops, a Pasifika girl named Breeze would flip her long hair at me and say, ‘No one cares about us fobs out here.’ I told her that writing her own story would make people care and understand us, eventually she seemed to take it to heart. I’d see the sweat on her upper lip every time she wrote something in our workshop. When The Big Black Thing was published I went back to Sir Joseph Banks High School to deliver the books. I was walking across the concrete basketball court when I heard someone call out to me. Breeze ran up to me and pointed at the collar of her shirt where a shiny School Captain badge was. She smiled at me, flipped her long hair and said, ‘Now people care.’ I gave her a copy of her book and we hugged each other.
MP = You are working with impact. That is special and a testament to the great work that you and the team at Sweatshop are producing. What have you read recently?
Winnie: Well, on the Western Line train this morning I was reading Professor Ghassan Hage’s White Nation. I had to hide the cover on my lap and hunch over it because I didn’t want people to think I was reading a book about White supremacy. The collection of essay is really about how Ghassan Hage, a man born in Lebanon who migrated to Australia, dissects racism in Australia. He argues that racism in Australia come from White racists and White multiculturalists who both believe they have the final say on who can or cannot enter Australia. It is pretty powerful stuff.
MP = Indeed, it sounds powerful. I will have to access a copy so that I can read through it also. You have recently written an essay, please share more about that.
Winnie: I wrote an essay called From Pacific to Pasifika for the Sydney Review of Books. It explores how my Oceanian and Pasifika community is uplifting itself through literature. It also suggests a bigger need for Pasifika literature in the face of much racism towards our community here in Australia. We need to hear our stories told by our own people. (You can read the whole essay here: https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/from-pacific-to-pasifika/)
MP = The points that you have raised in your essay highlight valid concerns and I am glad that you are speaking your truth. I love how you ended it by stating ‘when marginalised people are given the space to write our own stories, empowerment is always the result’. I concur. You have had a number of speaking engagements this year, may you please share about one of those experiences?
Winnie: Yes, I was lucky enough to speak at many festivals this year around Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney (Australia). Stella Girls Write Up were generous enough to lend me the keynote position for their festival, as well as to open up space for many other Sweatshop artists and curators to run workshops and panels as well. A Tongan student was at one of the festival sessions in Sydney. She sat right in front of me when I was doing my keynote and was smiling so wide it looked like her cheeks were going to fall off. She came up to me after my keynote and said, ‘I’ve never seen a fob do something like that and talk about how great we are. ‘Ofa Lahi Atu. I’m happy I came today.’ I’m thankful to be given such big roles at such a young age and early stage in my career. It’s overwhelming but I just do it because I have found that what I have to share resonates with a lot of young people, and it gives them hope that one day they will be a keynote presenter themselves.
MP = I love that! Yes, I can see how your work inspires young people. You have also recently edited and published in an anthology. Can you please share more details of the book?
Winnie: Thank you. The Big Black Thing is an anthology of Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse writers from all ages and stages. We share stories about Cabramatta manoush, flirty gay bartenders in Birrong, Funny Ethnics in Yagoona, houses in Mombasa, corrupt officers in Tonga and selling handbags Fairfield. Very unheard stories. It was a big learning curve for me to become an editor but I was supported and took on the role with a passion. We launched The Big Black Thing at Sydney Writers’ Festival where it was a packed event. Sweatshop had to chant ‘let them in’ so the kids from Bankstown and Liverpool could come to their own book launch. A lot of people didn’t want to leave, but we got the kids in. As I reflect on that, I think that really speaks about my experience co-editing The Big Black Thing but also the work that I do within Sweatshop.
MP = It sounds very interesting. I look forward reading The Big Black Thing. What lies ahead in 2018 for you?
Winnie: Well, I thought I wanted to do my Masters in 2018 but I think I want to take more time off to gain more life and work experience. As Nana always said to me, ‘Fai `aki e `ilo `oua `e fai `aki e fanongo’ – ‘Do it by knowing not by hearing.’ So I will continue with work at Sweatshop and projects outside of work. For example, I am currently running a Diverse Women’s Writers Collective once a month. It is a small start-up but I am keen to get a publication from the stories that are produced within this collective.
MP = Sounds great. I look forward to hearing more about your work at Sweatshop and with the Diverse Women’s Writers Collective. In closing, what would your words of advice be for the young people following this blog?
Winnie: Nana and Aunty Lahi always said to me, ‘The day you forget Tonga is the day you forget me.’ I want young Pasifika people, and young ethnic kids in general, to enjoy their culture and the lived experiences of those around them as they carve out a path for themselves. For a long time, others have told us what we can and can’t be and these negative stereotypes are perpetuated through different mediums. I think it’s time we take that power back, and it starts by remembering where we come from.
MP = You are passionate about the work that you do and I appreciate that you have shared your perspectives and experiences on this blog. Wishing you all the very best with your future endeavours. I look forward to catching up with you again next time I visit Sydney, Australia. Malo ‘aupito and ‘ofa lahi atu xox
Winnie: Thank you Maryanne for this opportunity to share through our talanoa. ‘Ofa lahi atu!
To connect with Winnie, you can email her on: firstname.lastname@example.org
To visit the Sweatshop website, click on this link: http://sweatshop.ws/
To purchase a copy of the anthology The Big Black Thing you can visit the following website: http://sweatshop.ws/highlights/the-big-black-thing/