Book Review: “Roots: Home is Who We Are” (@SBSVoices @EasternRegional)

Roots: Home is Who We Are: Voices from the SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition (Hardie Grant, 2021)

When SBS launched its inaugural Emerging Writers’ Competition in August 2020, inviting submissions of short memoirs on the topic of “Growing up in diverse Australia”, there was public outcry led by Melbourne-based writer Kelly Bartholomeusz.

Published by Overland Literary Journal on October 5, 2020, Bartholomeusz’s essay was titled “Stop asking ‘diverse writers’ to tell you about their lives”. Her words are worth quoting to some length:

“It is frustrating to see opportunities for ‘diverse writers’ linked to their willingness to write narrowly about their diversity. This approach disqualifies the many talented writers who have already processed or written about these experiences, and who have bigger visions or better imaginations to endlessly revisit the same questions. Who want to see themselves in Australia’s future as well as its past.”

“I imagine there are also writers who do not wish to revisit their childhoods because they do not want to be retraumatised. I reflect regularly and deeply on my upbringing as a Sri Lankan-Australia. I’ve also written about it. It’s worth exploring and rich in its own way, but that does not mean I care to pick it apart in a mainstream public forum or to hinge my public identity with it.”

Bartholomeusz may have a point, but the 30 short memoirs collected in Roots: Home is Who We Are: Voices from the SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition (2021) – selected from more than 2,000 entries from across the country – are proof that human courage and resilience should never be underestimated.

Contrary to Bartholomeusz’s presumption about mainstream media’s “restrictive briefs and loaded questions”, judges sought and found “courageous and original voices, writing with a sharp take on modern Australian life, and nuanced views on our diverse realities”.

More importantly, instead of “marginalisation and otherness”, these emerging writers have explored universal themes such as place, era, sexuality, religion, neurodiversity and disability, ethnicity and culture, and the myriad ways we can call Australia home.

As the book’s subtitle “Home is Who We Are” suggests, these stories have highlighted individual journeys of self-discovery. They mirror our own life-long attempt to find out who we are – not just defying how others define us, but also seeking an honest way to define ourselves.

Having relentlessly dissected the nature and significance of identity, these writers have empowered and entitled themselves as part of Australia’s future. It is a birthright that they have fiercely defended and will continue to safeguard.

Instead of “retraumatising” themselves, these writers – wielding the Power of Words and supported by families and communities – celebrate our commonalities and embrace our differences as Everyday Australians. In the words of competition judges Melissa Lucashenko and Benjamin Law: “This is storytelling that requires you to see the world from a different perspective.”

These writers have boldly started a conversation about diversity being both an ambition and a strength. Their stories are an invitation to examine our own unique and intimate worlds as Australians. Who are we, and what kind of Australia do we want for ourselves?

Note: This review was originally published under the title “A snapshot of contemporary Australia” by Ranges Trader Star Mail on December 7, 2021, P.10.

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