Anthologising the Minority

Article excerpt

Anthologising the Minority

The Same cannot emerge except in relation to the Other; in a diachronic scale, the varieties of Otherness are successively incorporated into the Same by the ongoing displacement of the site of the Other.(1)

Feminist positions on Migrant and Aboriginal women's writing in Australia from the late 1970s onwards are identifiable in the numerous all-female anthologies produced during a period of social and cultural changes which included high-profile feminist activity, Bicentennial celebrations and an enlightened female readership.(2) The overall aims of these anthologies were to demonstrate the diversity of women's writing and to undermine those male-dominated literary hegemonies and reviewing practices which historically and traditionally favoured male writers. Most women editors used Introductions to their anthologies to explain their selection criteria and to set out their particular feminist/political position.

These anthologies generated a variety of criticisms, some of which related to general anthologising practices, such as the process of selection itself, and the construction of new orthodoxies. Other criticisms were aimed specifically at the `literary quality' of all-female anthologies and the `ghettoization' of women writers. Anthologies dedicated to Migrant and Aboriginal women's writing were the subject of similar criticisms but were also accused by male and female reviewers of doubly re-marginalising female minority groups, and lowering literary standards through positive discrimination. A common accusation is that all anthologies create some kind of orthodoxy (a point which is difficult to refute), and that the "anthologomania"(3) of the late 1980s created a mainstream female literary orthodoxy with practices no less restrictive than those of the orthodoxy it sought to deconstruct. Multicultural anthologies are not exempted from these criticisms, as shown by recent critiques of Sneja Gunew's work by Robert Dessaix and John Docker.(4)

More recently, debates about ethnicity and the politics of multiculturalism have further problematised the position of Aboriginal and Migrant women's writing. In the same way that ethnic minorities comprise a multiplicity of positions in relation to the dominant social and cultural institutions in Australia, Migrant and Aboriginal women writers do not necessarily share the same kind of minority or marginalized status in relation to literary hegemonies. Some feminists from various groups have questioned the assimilation into the dominant literary and cultural mainstream of Migrant and Aboriginal women's writing which suggests a position of perpetual victimization and oppression. Some Aboriginal women writers are uncomfortable with the versions of Aboriginality and reconciliation with the dominant culture, reinscribed through mainstream writing and the `acceptable/safe' dreamtime stories, myths and legends.

Difference: Writing by Women (1985), Beyond the Echo: Multicultural Women's Writing (1988), and They're Black and White Issues, published as a new writing supplement in Hecate in 1991, are significant collections that demonstrate the heterogeneity of Migrant women, daughters of Migrants, and Aboriginal women living and writing in contemporary Australia. The selection criteria of Difference and Beyond the Echo and the content of They're Black and White Issues promote different feminist positions in relation to multicultural writing. The political agendas of anthologies dedicated to multicultural women's writing (or the non-gender specific Paperbark: A Collection of Black Australian Writings, 1990) have been influenced by shifting emphases and directions in discussions of ethnicity and/or multicultural politics.

The counter-arguments and defence of Gunew's position have added to the debate about "quality" and literary standards in Australian writing,(5) but Docker and Dessaix have not been alone in their criticisms. …