EUGENIA FLYNN: Sense and sensibility
When it comes to the art and community groups Eugenia Flynn is everywhere. Identifying as Aboriginal, Chinese Malaysian and Muslim Eugenia can be found on the board Blak Dot Gallery and Peril Magazine, the committee of Women in the Literary Arts Australia & volunteering for RISE Refugees Survivors and Ex-Detainees. She is also the current CEO of The Social Studio in Collingwood, Melbourne.
When she is not doing all this she is bring another "Australian" narrative to our media through Crikey, The Guardian Australia, The Conversation Australia, Peril Magazine, VICE Magazine, HYSTERIA (UK), Overland, The Lifted Brow, NITV, IndigenousX, and The Victorian Writer.
Taking some time out from her Master's degree (yes, there's more!) Eugenia Flynn caught up with The Pin.
THE PIN. Can you describe your childhood?
EUGENIA FLYNN. Well, we grew up in Adelaide. My parents moved from Darwin to Adelaide a few years before I was born. I have two older sisters who were born in Darwin, and two that were born – my next oldest sibling and I – were born in Adelaide. In Darwin there are lots and lots of mixed race people – particularly Aboriginal and Asian, that’s very very common – and then when you come down south, that’s not as common.
Both of our parents were very strong culturally, so they raised us very culturally strong in both cultures – Chinese/ Malaysian and Aboriginal. We were raised very strong in both cultures. I think from the outside people wanted to push their ideas on us through the things people said or the way that people behaved towards our family. Particularly about Aboriginal people and what it means to be Aboriginal.
I guess those reactions stem from this country which has a very long history of wanting to decide who gets to be Aboriginal. We [Australia] have the colonial legacy of blood quantum’s, that was used in eugenics for things like the stolen generation, which was about breeding out the black, and you know blood quotients were a huge part of that.
Then in neo-colonialism times (I won’t say postcolonial), in the kind of current times, from the first-time Hanson times and Howard years, we then saw that people would want to talk about Aboriginal people in terms of exclusion. Again who can be Aboriginal and who can’t. I think because of the way we look, people would go ‘there’s no way that you’re Aboriginal’, just on the way that you look.
Originally, it was ‘you can’t ever be white because you’ve got black blood in you’ and then it was, ‘you can’t be Aboriginal because you’ve got white blood in you and we think Aboriginal people look like this, they live in the dessert, and you’re only identifying for the benefits’. I think that kind of idea that people wanted to push on us, about what makes an Aboriginal person, had a pretty big effect on me and my siblings growing up.
With your Aboriginal side, who’s your mob and where’s your country?
E. Tiwi and Larrakia, country is up in the top end - Darwin and the Tiwi Islands. The Tiwi Islands are located just off the coast of Darwin.
What ideas around culture, identity and race did your parents instil in you when you were growing up? And did your opinions change or evolve later on?
E. I think lots and lots of different things…I think my dad instilled in us a very strong sense of culture, community and family being very important. He worked at the university and was involved in being political, so we were political from a very young age. You know, 1988 – during the bicentenary celebrations my dad was involved in organising the massive protests and we went across in the bus convoys and protested those celebrations. I would’ve been six at the time. We grew up in a very political household, in terms of the nature of his work.
From my mum’s side – I think that one of things that she really instilled in us was just defying those stereotypes. She was such a feisty woman, a real fighter and she would always challenge the status quo - and people.
For a woman that was born in the 1940s, an Asian woman who migrated in the late 60s to Australia, so many different men tried to …you know. She was stereotyped as a loose woman, as a prostitute because she was Asian. She’d come from Malaysia and Singapore had this kind of stereotype about prostitutes and later on about being a mail order bride or golddigger, particularly during the Rose Hancock years, meant being ridiculed. She just didn’t put up with that and really instilled in us how to be a strong woman.
It's been a really interesting thing to talk to both African men and woman, and Asian men and woman, and talking about how the sexes are seen in our society. In a sense the two are very polarised, for Africans men are seen as this desirable thing and then it's the opposite for Asians whereby women are seen as passive people who you can control essentially. That must have been such a frustrating stereotype to have.
E. Yeah, I think… look definitely. And I think especially true in the Rose Hancock years when that mail order bride/gold digger/promiscuous stereotype a lot of white Australian men were going for sex tourism in Thailand. Me and my sisters would be approached on the street or have things yelled out at us, that kind of thing. Yeah, that’s tough.
Do you think your siblings identify in the same way that you do?
E. It’s so funny you mention that, because I know someone who is also mixed race but they said their brother doesn’t identify as Asian but they do.
No, I think that we are different in that I am very vocal and they’re not, necessarily. Sometimes they are super supportive of what I do. Every now and I think that there is anxiety for them around how vocalised I am, which I completely understand in this society. There is anxiety for everyone when someone is challenging the status quo and you’re in the background. Of course, on some level, that makes them a target, or gives them visibility and publicity in the community that they may not always want. Especially if I write something that is about my family or do something that lots of other people then see, of course people are going to make comments to them, and discuss it with them, and that makes me uncomfortable sometimes. In terms of culture, no we’re all on the same page and I think that is definitely down to the way our parents raised us.
As an Indigenous, Asian-Malay, Muslim woman in Australian society, do you feel at times that you either don’t have a voice or that when you do have a voice the pressure is put on you to speak on behalf of everyone that can associate with your identity?
E. I don’t necessarily feel it as a pressure, I feel it’s a responsibility. It’s a responsibility to community, that a lot of people who – particularly in the Aboriginal community feel that sense of responsibility quite keenly. I always try and put forth that I am never trying to represent anybody but myself. The reason why I started writing and doing the work that I do was predominately just to have a different perspective and share a different narrative, and that is, purely and simple. If it strikes a chord with people, that’s great, if it doesn’t then there’s alternative perspective to the blonde hair and blue-eyed version of Australia that’s out there. Though quite often, feel like I stick out like a sore thumb – so it takes a lot of emotional labor, to use a buzzword! It takes a lot to put stuff out there publicly, so every now and then I go, ‘you know what, there’s a lot of things going on here and it makes me feel like I stick out like a sore thumb’ and sometimes I just want to live life and not have to deal with people going, ‘wow, that’s amazing’.
When did your passion for the arts and cultural events begin?
E. I guess from childhood. We always did cultural stuff with my family, from both cultures we always participated in cultural events and all that sort of stuff. I guess one of the things that really had an impact on me was when my eldest sister worked at the Tandanya, the National Indigenous Culture Institute. She just opened up a world for us. My dad moved back to the territory for a couple of years,and my eldest sister (as happens in a lot of families) took on care and responsibilities while my mum worked. Through that she would just take us to Tandanya and we got to hang around a gallery that had all sorts of amazing arts stuff happening and there were just different sorts of things going on. She had a friend who asked me to get involved in radio, so that was probably the first thing I did when I was 15, an Aboriginal radio show, the first one in Adelaide.
From there, I just did lots of different things in the community – helping out on festivals, helping out with events and I was, when I went to uni I studied IT, so I’ve got two degrees in IT. That degree was hard because I was like, ‘this is a big mistake’, and final year I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore!’ and my sister was said, ‘you’ve only got this year left, just do it, and then you’ve got it and then go do what you want’. So I worked in software engineering for a while, not for very long and then my mum passed away. I realised I couldn’t do it anymore, it was a fake life for me, it was just the right time to exit and take some time to grieve. So we did 100 days of grieving, which is a Chinese cultural thing. I was like, I’m just going to take some time out. I thought long and hard and I realised I wanted to do something with the community and met someone who was like, I've got a job for you’, and it just sort of went from there.
In an interview with the Guardian, you said ‘I believe that arts and culture play a big part in anti racism work alongside critical analysis of race and racism in Australia’, can you explain this a bit further and give us an example of your theory in practice?
E. It’s about sharing alternative narratives, and having the people from those communities sharing their narratives in a way that is authentic and real for each other and not about doing it for white people.With that, when you come from a place of strength, and you go ‘we exist over here, outside of the main stream and we’re going to practice our culture, and we’re going to create art and do these things’, you will one; service your own community and two; naturally find an audience with other people because it’s authentic and real. I strongly believe in doing those things for your community, for yourself, and to keep cultural awareness going. When you have all these pockets different authentic narratives that people are creating for themselves and give other people the opportunity to attend and understand that this nation isn’t about white men, basically – white straight men. I think that is important, to have those alternative narratives out there.
One thing that I find very interesting is that you work with Indigenous groups and refugee groups, are there parallels between the two that people may not realise or make sense of?
E. Essentially it’s about a lot of different things, how the two groups parallel I can demonstrate I guess if we look at things purely from the economic perspective of colonialism. So, the British came here because they wanted more resources and land – and they used race to oppress and take land. These systems of oppression can be seen continuing and perpetuated today, in order to maintain Australian wealth that gets generated from the resources that are here, staying in the hands of the descendants of those original oppressors. So, then if we look at what has happened with everything from 1901 ( which was actually, again about resources and economics) - so federation and the white Australia policy and all those sorts of things, it is again about protecting wealth or the British; who then became the Australians. Looking at White Australia Policy and all the different waves of different racially targeted migration policies that we’ve got to right now, with the refugee policy that we have at the moment, that’s about excluding people because we don’t want them to take our jobs and our wealth.
In that way they are two sides of the same coin, because we want to keep oppressing Aboriginal people so we can maintain our control over the resources make money and all those sorts of things and because if they ever rose up they could potentially take back the continent and we would lose of all we’ve got. And, at the same time, we need to close off the borders because we don’t want people who don’t look like us, who aren’t descendants of the British colonisers, to come here and share in our wealth because we want it all for ourselves.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
EUGENIA FLYNN. Sometimes you can let some things go, not everything needs to be a battle.
I don’t have the resources, or emotional ability or time to be able to take on everything effectively. I want to be able to pick my battles or else I’m going to be exhausted all the time. I spent a lot of my younger years just fighting a lot and I think being comfortable enough in your skin to be able to go, ‘okay, that’s someone else's battle over there and this is the little bit I’ve carved out for myself to do’.
You don’t always have to say yes to everything.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Ahmed Sabra