WINNIE DUNN: Don't be ashamed of who you are

WINNIE DUNN: Don't be ashamed of who you are

Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer, arts worker and editor from Mount Druitt. It’s important information to know about Dunn as they are two labels she used to hate but will now never shy away from.

Dunn is the manager of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and the literary editor of Sweatshop WomenThe Big Black Thing and Bent not Broken: Ten Years of Creative Writing from the City of Canterbury Bankstown.


WINNIE DUNN. As a mixed-race third generation Tongan Australian woman I grew up in Miller, New South Wales, which is a very low socioeconomic housing commission suburb in Liverpool, South Western Sydney. Not many people from my cultural community have a lot of class privilege or privilege in general, but it was still a great place to live.

“Western Sydney raised me as much as I was being raised in Western Sydney.”

I lived with my parents, grandparents, aunties and my siblings. It was a very close knit and tight family unit, which is generally a very normal living situation for Pacifica-Australians.

When I was about ten years-old I moved to Mount Druitt and have been there ever since. Western Sydney raised me as much as I was being raised in Western Sydney. I have a very close personal connection to the places that I grew up in, which is why I write about them so often. They’re so misrepresented in Australian literature and mainstream television. The way I write about Mount Druitt in particular is to tell a truthful and honest story about what it means to grow up there and to combat class stereotypes about the suburb I live in.

THE PIN. Has it been a conscious decision to stay in Mount Druitt?
Absolutely. I did go through a period of self hatred where I thought to be considered human and to be considered an artist I had to remove myself from Mount Druitt, but that’s changed as I’ve become more critically conscious over the years. It’s also the fact that in Tongan communities it’s so rare for a woman to have the agency or funds to be able to move out of home anyway.

Mount Druitt is a very beautiful place, as awfully as it can be portrayed. I think suburbs like Mount Druitt have a lot of stories within them that nobody is telling, or that nobody has the agency to tell. For me it’s a conscious decision to make art about Mount Druitt within Mount Druitt. If I don’t do it then documentaries like Struggle Street will try to do it for me and depict it as a very violent, poverty porn place to live in. It can be portrayed in more nuanced ways and not through stereotypical classist narratives

I read in a piece you wrote for Overland Journal that growing up you hated identifying as Tongan, what did it take for you to become empowered and proud of your identity?

WD. Growing up my nickname was ‘fie palangi’ which means ‘wanting to be white’ in Tongan. Growing up mixed race and feeling like I was so close to whiteness, I thought I could just pretend I was white and trick people into thinking it. For some reason even as a young, very uneducated person I still knew that my white peers were getting treated a lot better than me. That period lasted a long time and it wasn’t until I joined Sweatshop - Western Sydney Literacy Movement - that it changed. Sweatshop is basically a self determined collective that empowers indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse writers and artists to come to centre with their voice and their art. The term ‘coming to centre’ was coined by African-American feminist bell hooks, who talks about the act of coming to voice. It means that marginalised people come to centre by using their own voice to articulate and dictate the kind of stories they want to tell.

Sweatshop was the most empowering place for me to be as a young writer of my background because nobody had ever told me that Tongan-Australian writing was important.

What drew you to Sweatshop?

WD. At the time I was attending Western Sydney University, and not that I questioned it, but I found it very surprising that all of my teachers were Anglo-Saxon. It is a university that really prides itself on being a diverse tertiary space so I couldn’t understand why all of the students were people of colour but all of the teachers were white. I didn’t really question it until I went to a workshop run by Sweatshop director Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad. It was the first time that I saw a person of colour teaching at a university. I was drawn to that mirroring. I saw somebody from my community, who kind of looked similar to me. To see another person of colour in a position of authority was really empowering.

In Sweatshop I finally found a critically conscious space that was willing to actually teach me something new. At university I was just regurgitating whatever the teachers told me was the right way to read a book or study something. Instead at Sweatshop and with another person of colour I was able to start thinking for myself and thinking independently. The harsh critical feedback I received there was really important to me because it drew me into my state of being critically conscious today.

As part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival 2019 you’re participating in an emerging editors masterclass. When did you take the step from being a writer to an editor?

Image credit: Sweatshop

Image credit: Sweatshop

WD. I started out at Sweatshop as a writer but very quickly started training to be an arts worker and editor. I’ve now been in that training for three years. In that time I’ve edited four books, including my first anthology that I edited mostly on my own. It’s an anthology that showcases solely women of colour writing. Sweatshop has helped me to take the steps to become a writer, arts worker, and editor. For me it’s important for a Tongan-Australian to be represented in all of those aspects of the arts. There’s not a lot of us and the majority of Pacifica-Australians who are in the arts are usually visual artists.

What have you learned from not only editing Sweatshop Women: Volume One, but also the stories featured in it?

WD. I learnt that there is such incredible diversity in the term woman of colour. When we say women of colour we’re not just talking about one homogeneous group of women who don’t look like white women, it’s really about all of the different communities and those within them. I discovered a lot of the inherent diversity in the term and what it means for us to come together and write stories away from the white and patriarchal gaze. A lot of the time women of colour are forced to reiterate their experiences and put themselves in an uncomfortable position because of the white or the patriarchal gaze. To be able to have a safe space for women of colour to tell their stories and to curate that space is really empowering. It’s such an incredible collection of stories and voices that really aren’t given the time of day.

In there a volume two in the works?

WD. Yes! There’s going to be new stories, new poems, and new artworks.

You’ve previously said that your dream is to one day produce a Pacifica anthology, with the creation of Growing Up African in Australia and other anthologies do you feel like it’s now one step closer?

WD. Absolutely. Pacifica communities in Australia only make up around 1% of the population and because of that we’re a bit behind in representation. That’s including the representation of Chris Lilley who played Jonah from Tonga. We all know Chris Lilley is a white guy who puts on brown face and an Afro, and enacts these really racist and violent stereotypes about my community very specifically. It’s my hope that as I get a bit older that one day I will curate an anthology that showcases Pacifica voices and our stories, because the only person doing it at the moment is Chris Lilley.

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?
Don’t be ashamed of being Tongan.

To understand the privileges of being mixed race is nothing to be ashamed of just as much as the oppression of being Pacifica-Australian and more specifically Tongan-Australian is nothing to be ashamed about.

Winnie Dunn is appearing at the National Writers' Conference (22–23 June) as part of the Emerging Writers' Festival in Melbourne (19–29 June). 
Image credit: Supplied
Published May 2019

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