I met Janie Conway in that heady period in the 1970's at the Pram Factory, the actors theatre in Carlton, when we were going to make the world better and we believed we could. When we look back at that time many of us have gone in very different directions. Janie's journey has been surprising but the infectious smile she had then and the value system she lived by remain and have grown. When I saw her again after many years, at my friends Philip Frazer's and Kate Veitch's place in the Northern Rivers area of NSW, she smiled her infectious and radiant smile and the years peeled back.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did. -Bob
The universities of the future will do one thing we do not do today. They will teach the art of self-discovery. There is nothing more fundamental in education (Okri B., 2011: 27).
In May 2012 I gave a lecture for my close friend and colleague Professor Baden Offord at Southern Cross University, where I’d been teaching for over sixteen years. The lecture was for a unit called Australia, Asia and the World that was designed to encourage students to reflect on Australia’s relationship with South East Asia and what this might mean to them in a global sense. On the eve of retirement, I decided to base the lecture on my own story of becoming an academic and how being creative as well as being an activist had influenced this. I was conscious of the way the quote above by Ben Okri, points to education involving, not only the accumulation of knowledge, but a journey of the self.
A core focus of the learning these students were undertaking was in understanding their place in the world as well as the many ways they might find themselves working alongside others during their learning journey. In writing about the links in my own life that had brought me to academia I needed to explore the connections in the circle that links activism, creativity and academia. Looking back at that lecture now, those links are still important but the political climate has changed dramatically and not for the better.
In 1985 I made a decision in a moment of quiet desperation to get a proper job. It was not a decision that I took lightly for at the time I was almost destitute having spent the last two decades trying to make a living from being a musician, a choice of occupation entirely at loggerheads with being a single mother. My son, Tamlin, who was around thirteen-years-old, and I had all our worldly goods in a room at a friend’s house in Balmain while we looked for a place to rent that we could afford. In my quest for security I applied for two things at the same time, a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of Technology, Sydney and accommodation through the Housing Department of New South Wales. I was successful in both and this success remains for me a significant marker of the way I have learnt to negotiate the kind of schizophrenic existence that trying to make a living from the arts in Australia requires of you. As a mature age student applying for university I had to convince the university selection team that I was someone capable of sustained discipline and independent study and at the same time convince the housing department that I was in dire need of assistance. Both were true but I was also so much more than this opposition would seem to imply. Born in 1948 just after WWII and in the year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified, my parents had imbued me with a sense of the possibility for world peace and a belief in the power of people to make a difference. I was someone who, since the advent of the Vietnam War and opposition to my male friends being conscripted into a conflict they didn’t believe in, had come to firmly believe in the right of all humans to a peaceful and harmonious existence.
As a musician in the 1970s and 80s I had been fortunate enough to be part of an intense and heady music scene in Melbourne that spawned such bands as Daddy Cool, Skyhooks, Split Enz, The Sports and The Goanna Band as well as my brothers’ band, The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band. Starting out as a folk singer and then playing alongside songwriters such as Paul Kelly and Shane Howard I had a belief in the power of song to change society. Through the Australian Performing group, which had its headquarters at the Pram Factory in Carlton, I became involved with the Woman’s Theatre Group, which had been formed to create more challenging roles for women in the theatre. It was a very exciting time to be in the arts in Australia.
I started playing electric guitar in a band called Myriad with my son’s father around the same time as Bob Dylan shocked his fans when he ‘went electric’. We had also been banned from Frank Traynors, one of the original folk clubs in Melbourne, for playing electric dulcimer, at the time it seemed like a badge of honour. However, it wasn’t until I formed Stiletto with fellow women musicians Jane Clifton and Marni Sheehan that my electric guitar playing really took off. All the songs were original and written by band members with contributions of lyrics by people like author Helen Garner. We quickly gained a reputation as a feminist band even though we also had two men, Andrew Bell as guitarist and Eddie Van Roosendale as our drummer but with songs like ‘Woman in a Man’s World’ and ‘Premenstrual Blues’ this reputation was probably well deserved. In those days though, my feminism was a popular and active part of the social changes of the time and a lived part the life I lead. Later, when I began to read about feminism in textbooks at university it gave context to a lot of changes I had been part of, but it was also strange to be intellectualizing something that had been a lived part of my life for so long. I never dreamt that my proper job would involve becoming an academic. I was terrified of failure when I first started at university but then, my life, as I had lived it, began to be played out in my studies.
I moved to Sydney in 1980 with two decades of musical experience that was highly politicised so it was no wonder that when the Rock Against Racism group in Sydney – styled after the same movement in Brixton, London – began to put on concerts, I eagerly joined. Rock Against Racism, Australia organised concerts that provided a platform for up and coming Indigenous bands like, No Fixed Address, Us Mob and Black Lace, marking the beginnings of a burgeoning local Indigenous music scene. My love of reggae music really grew at this time and I learnt to play it from some of the best reggae musicians in Australia. It was a steep learning curve in other ways as well and I learned, first hand, the prejudices encountered by Indigenous people in Australia. As part of Rock Against Racism I also learned about Deaths in Custody amongst Aboriginal Australians and in 1982 travelled to Wee Waa in northwest NSW to investigate the death in custody of Eddie Murray in an outback town in New South Wales called Wee Waa. Eddie had died in custody within hours of being picked up by police. We went there to see how the Rock Against Racism movement could assist Eddie’s family get justice for their son. I wrote a song about it not long afterwards. It was a reggae song and I was lucky enough to be able to perform it as part of Rock Against Racism and to feel as if I was also able to give voice to the injustice of the situation; however Eddie’s family is still looking for justice more than thirty years on.
As soon as I enrolled in university in 1986 my activist tendencies also drew me to student politics. This was the time the Dawkins reforms to education were being introduced by the Labour Party and the beginning of the introduction of student fees. As a mature-age student I felt I had benefitted from the free education that had been instigated by Gough Whitlam’s Labour government and I was appalled at how the party principles had changed. I became involved in demonstrations with my overseas student friends to stop fees being introduced for them. “They’ll start with us,” they said, “then it will be fees everyone.” It was hard to conceive of at the time, but they weren’t wrong. We failed to stop the introduction of fees for overseas students and before long, just like my friends had predicted, everyone was paying for tertiary education. This was the beginning of the neo liberal fee–paying university system all Australian tertiary students experience today but I graduated with a BA in Communications from the University of Technology, Sydney and then went on to complete a Masters in Creative Writing at the same university without paying a single cent. I had many wonderful teachers and mentors: writers like, Stephen Muecke, Dorothy Porter, Drusilla Modjeska and Jan McKemish not only taught me about writing but also helped me put my activism and concerns about Indigenous issues and Human Rights to good use in the academy. When I finished my Masters in 1995 I enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Sydney and having gained a scholarship was able to move up to the north coast where I began teaching at Southern Cross University, first as a casual tutor then in a permanent position as a lecturer then senior lecturer coordinating the writing program.
One of my close friends in my undergraduate years at UTS was a Malaysian student called Debbie Stothard. She was the Overseas Student Officer and I was the Women’s Officer on a fairly conservative Student Association that was affiliated to an even more conservative Student Union at UTS. It was at this time that the Network of Women Students Association (NOWSA) was formed. Both Debbie and I were involved with the beginnings of this organization and the two of us quickly gained a reputation in the Student Association as being on the far left of student politics. We spent many a meeting arguing for the rights of women and overseas students together but after we graduated, Debbie went back to South East Asia and I lost contact with her. I knew she was working with Burmese refugees and I’d heard she was in Thailand; if I met anyone from there I would ask them if they knew her. More than a decade later, I received an email from Debbie asking me what I was doing. When I wrote back telling her I had been coordinating a creative writing program at Southern Cross University she asked me if I wanted to run writing workshops with refugees on the Thai/Burma border. She was coordinator of an NGO called Altsean Burma (Alternative South East Asian Network on Burma) and had been working with Burmese refugees on the Thai/Burma border for the last decade. Within a few months I was on my way to North West Thailand and to another steep learning curve about the politics of Burma (Myanmar) and the ongoing struggle for democracy there.
For Altsean Burma, capacity building, advocacy and leadership skills are central to the work they do and the workshops I have run for them and the resulting publications of women’s stories are part of a much larger vision they have. I have seen the restorative power in having authority over your own story work many times in my life. In particular in the gradual coming to voice of Australian Indigenous literatures in this country and the rise in respect for Indigenous writing both locally and globally via authors like the late Bundjalung and multiple award winning author Dr Ruby Langford Gnibi, as well as Miles Franklin award winners Alexis Wright and Professor Kim Scott. With the workshops on the Thai/Burma border I had a chance to see writing and advocacy work in another context. These workshops were designed to assist refugee women write about their experiences. The stories, published in anthologies and distributed internationally, reveal how the authors have personally grappled with the daily consequences of living under the military regime in Burma. Many of the women who have attended the workshops are stateless citizens having been internally displaced in Burma before fleeing over the border as refugees. Coming from a country where education is a struggle to receive at the best of times, these women know that the training they have received from NGOs is worth a lot. In a hopeful future, the skills they learn will enable them to go back and help the people on the ‘inside’ as they refer to their country, or to participate in a democratised system of government. They have been hoping for this for a long time. Generations have come and gone over the sixty years that the fight for democratic freedom has been going, making it one of the longest running civil wars in the world.
"All I know is, I will keep talking about this until rape is stopped, until violence against women does not take place anymore, until the women have laws that will protect them, until the women have political freedom to take part in the political solution. I believe that when the women are given political freedom, when we have rule of law and the protection of law, when women are safe from any form of violence, our country will be peaceful and prosperous..." (Zahau 2007: 7).
This quote is from a story in one of the anthologies describing how rape is a common experience for women from Burma. This is well known amongst those working on Burma but the international community knows little about the dreadful situation many of the ethnic villagers find themselves in. Many countries affiliated with the United Nations also turn a blind eye when their economic interests will be affected by their acknowledgement of the domination of the Burmese military.
"I’m still feeling homesick for the dinner table. I often ask myself why my family is in this situation. Why can’t we live together, why have we been separated? How many homes have a deserted dinner table? If Burma’s political situation will change and guarantee peace, liberty and justice, I will go home and work in a small business. And my father will come home and work for our family. Then we will be so happy and the dinner table will come to life for us forever..." (Kon Chan, 2010: 43).
In this story the metaphor of the dinner table stands in for a family united in peacetime and describes how the stability of many families has been upended by living under the rule of the military junta. The military has been making a show to the outside world that Burma now has democracy. There have been some enormous steps taken towards this in recent times such as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, but, as evidenced by the plight of the Rohingya in Rahkine State, human rights and democracy in Burma still has a long way to go.
I was in Chiang Mai in 2010 when Aung San Suu Kyi was finally freed and lucky enough to share this momentous moment with Debbie and her colleagues. On a cool November evening I made my way down the curling lanes behind the mains streets of Chiang Mai past backpacker lodges and late night supermarkets to a restaurant. I was happy, having just completed the first day of our advanced creative writing workshops and feeling proud that the students from the beginners’ workshops had come this far. When Debbie appeared out of the shadows of the darkened lane and sat down beside me we hugged enthusiastically. The global network of people who have been working towards democracy in Burma is huge and many are still willing to give their lives over to rebuilding the country. In the meantime, they work on the borders both literally and metaphorically waiting for a time when they can come in from the shadows and take up a central position in a fully democratised country. That night, as Debbie and I ate, our talk shifted to the workshops in Mae Sot where I had just been. Mae Sot is often referred to as ‘Little Burma’ because of the number of Burmese already living there. There had been trouble with the Burmese military and ethnic border groups over the river Moei that borders Thailand and Burma. More than thirty thousand refugees had fled into the Mae Sot over a couple of days. We had expected no one would turn up to the workshops as most of the participants had family fleeing the fighting, but there had been a full roll up, though the atmosphere had been tense as participants waited for news of relatives fleeing across the border or caught inside the post election crack down inside Burma. Suddenly Debbie’s phone rang. ‘That’s great, I’ll pass the news on,’ she nodded, and then hung up. Grinning she announced, ‘She’s free!’
At the workshop next morning when I asked how the students felt, enthusiasm rose on a wave of optimism for a future in which Aung San Suu Kyi would once again lead the National League for Democracy. Then we started workshopping. One woman (let’s call her Mie Mie) began her story of fleeing to the border with her family as a young girl. She managed to get through the part where their village was burned to the ground and they had to flee with little but the clothes they stood up in, she described travelling by foot with only rice and bamboo shoots to share amongst the many villagers. Then she stopped, trying several times to read the next paragraph. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she struggled to voice her memories. Eventually, she was able to describe watching as a young mother died beside her ailing baby. She was just a child of ten at the time. When she finished her story everyone in the room was too upset to continue and so we took a break.
Mie Mie was now a community leader from the Karenni National Woman’s Organization based in Mae Hong Son in the northern mountains of Thailand. In the break she handed me a publication that documented cases of violations against Karenni women by the military. Like many of the women in the workshop, Mie Mie often crossed the border gathering statistics and stories of human rights abuses. Able to tell other people’s stories, she had difficulty in telling her own. The report she gave me described how: ‘Forced relocation, displacement, eviction and land confiscation top the list of underlying reasons why people (have) fled to the border’ (KNOW 2010: 21). Sexual abuse, rape, torture, forced arrest, human portering, poverty and starvation are by-products of this but no less impactful.
That night, I watched Aung San Suu Kyi on local television addressing the crowds that flocked to the gate of her villa in Rangoon where she had been under arrest for fifteen of the last 21 years. ‘If we work in unity, we will achieve our goal. We have a lot of things to do’ she told the people that crowded around her (CTV 2010: online). With a conservative estimate of more than 2,000 political activists still in prison and a growing refugee population worldwide, this was an understatement.
After returning to Australia, I met up with Debbie at a forum in Canberra hosted by Australian Parliamentarians for Democracy in Burma and co-convened by Federal MPs. Three speakers were giving presentations that focused on 100 days of parliament in Burma and the ways that government had been conducted since the elections. One of the speakers, was K’Naw Paw, a student from one of the first workshops I had run in 2007. She had worked for the Karen Women’s Organisation as a leadership trainer and was now an executive member and coordinator of their Emerging Leader’s School, travelling to many different countries attending meetings with UN Human Rights Councils and the Commission on the Status of Women, meeting parliamentarians and congress to discuss cross-border humanitarian aid issues.
As a video from Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the Australian parliamentarians and outlined her views on the first one hundred days since the elections I picked up a publication by the Karen Women’s Organisation titled Walking Amongst Sharp Knives: The unsung courage of Karen women village chiefs in conflict areas of Eastern Burma (2010). The title drew me back to the first workshop I had conducted in Mae Sot. Some Karen women outlined a story they wanted to write about a village head forced to make a terrible choice. The junta set up a military base near a village then asked the village head to choose beautiful young girls and send them to military headquarters for training to become beauty queens. Everyone knew this was a lie and they would be forced into sexual and domestic subservience if they went. In the story the village head had sent a girl to the barracks who later, after she was sent home, had committed suicide. The story was to be told from the village head’s point of view, at a point of regret after the young girl had died. When discussing the story I assumed that the village head was a man. The group presenting promptly let me know that she was a woman as most of the male village heads had been killed or joined the resistance forces in the jungle. ‘The women have to do everything,’ they told me, ‘they make all the decisions. If you are an older sister and you decide to run away from this terrible destiny you know your younger sister will have to go in your stead or else the whole village could be annihilated.’ I didn’t ask if the story had come from personal experience, but I understood at a deep level from that moment on, the intensity of the project I was undertaking.
Calmly and confidently K’Naw Paw began her presentation outlining the plight of refugees and displaced people along the border. ‘Rape as a weapon of war continues with impunity in ethnic areas’ she said, and urged them to continue sending cross-border aid to communities along the Thai/Burma border (Altsean Burma, 2010, online). As she took questions from all sides I felt tremendous pride and renewed hope that, through the strength of women like this, true democratic government in Burma was possible. The Burmese women's stories engage with the type of storytelling that articulates that in-between space between the opposition of right and wrong that forces us to look at humanity itself. These women and their stories are ambassadors for a possible Burma that will come close to what Ma Lo dreams for when she writes:
"I believe that one day I will go back to our state and help improve the lives of our people. If I can continue my education I hope that one day I’ll be able to help my community and my country. I know our state is a poor state now, but our state and my life must improve for the better one day..." (Lo 2010: 17).
The workshops I facilitated on the Thai/Burma border played just a tiny part in redressing the dreadful imbalance of power in Burma through the simple act of giving voice. They have also been one of the most rewarding and empowering experiences of my writing life and one way I have been able to bring my academic life, my creativity and my activism together. Since 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the National League for Democracy have been able to participate in the parliamentary governance of their country but there is still a lot of work to do.
Having taught creative writing within the humanities discipline for nearly two decades I have experienced the many ways in which personal activism and creativity when combined with an academic career can be both fruitful as well as fraught. But now things have changed again and the growth of neo liberalism and advanced capitalism is reverberating globally. In the sixteen years that I taught at Southern Cross University I saw massive changes take place in the university sector. I started out teaching face-to face to a maximum of around eighteen students per tutorial. Now technology has changed the way we teach completely with two thirds of our writing students studying externally and while face-to face classes often have twenty-five students and upwards the external ratio of students to teachers is even larger. This trend is part of other massive changes in education across the nation and around the world. I think about all those years ago when we were fighting against student fees and wonder where all the accumulated funds from these fees is going in terms of university resources. Then I think about the women in Burma and the risks they took just to make it to my workshops and I understand how precious our education system is and how we must do all we can to preserve it.
I came to university already an activist, having used my creative energies as a singer songwriter for many years. My work on the Thai/Burma border enabled me to use my activism, creativity and academic skills to make a difference both politically in the broader sense as well personally. Since retiring the world has changed even more dramatically travelling rapidly down the road to what many fear will be global annihilation as conservative neo-liberal forces flex their destructive muscles and attempt to undo everything my friends and colleagues have been working towards for decades. In recent times it’s felt like we have been backsliding rapidly towards a time before the year of my birth and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but it has always been my intention to leave a different legacy, envisaging an entirely different future to the one that seems to be looming now. I look back in wonder at the beauty and the naivety of the hope for universal human rights and world peace that I so ardently believed in as a young folk singer of the 1960s.
Ironically the novel I’ve been working on since retiring is a fiction that revolves around a single mother who is the lead singer of a rock band in the 1980s and her struggle to make it in the music industry. It’s called Another Song About Love and accompanying it will be a collection of songs written by myself where the titles of the songs correspond to the chapter titles. My son Tamlin, who was only thirteen when I started as an undergraduate student in Sydney, is now a forty-five-year-old father of five. He is also a musician and a producer and is helping me record and produce the songs that go with the novel. It’s young people like my grandchildren and my students who give me hope for the future and it's a certain kind of relief to know they're willing to take up the baton and continue the vigilance. And so we have entered yet another period of needing to use our activism and our creativity as well as maintaining constant mindfulness of the responsibilities we have towards others and their rights to peace and freedom. Recently the women’s marches that were organized following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States and protesting his onslaught on the basic human rights of so many people including women have also given me cause to hope. It’s been estimated that the marches that took place around the world involved around five million people including women from all walks of life. And so I have come full circle back to days of creativity and activism but this time fully supported by the academic life I have lead both actually and metaphorically. This time the battle is for the life of the planet itself and as take a deep breath and get ready I remember what Mahatma Ghandi wrote in his weekly paper way back in 1925; ‘Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation.’
About the author:
Janie Conway-Herron has enjoyed a twenty-year career as a musician before turning to university study and creative writing. As a senior lecturer at Southern Cross University she taught creative writing and coordinated the writing program there for over a decade. She has had creative and academic work published in a broad range of journals and anthologies and has appeared at conferences and writers festivals both nationally and internationally. Her novel, Beneath the Grace of Clouds was published in 2010. A novel, Another Song About Love, along with a collection of songs of the same title are due for release in 2017.
Altsean Burma 2011 ‘Burma’s 100 days of Parliament: more ‘nays’ than ‘yeas’’ Altsean-Burma: Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma 12 May, at http://www.altsean.org/Press%20Releases/2011/12May11.htm (accessed 30 May 2011)
Aung San, SK 2010 Transcript of video message from ‘100 Days of Parliament forum on Burma’ 12 May 2010, Canberra: Parliament House
Conway-Herron, J., 2011 ‘Freedom to Lead: narrative and advocacy among Burmese women refugees on the Thai Burma Border’, TEXT, Special Issue 12 Leadership in writing and the creative arts (accessed May 14 2012).
Conway-Herron, J., 2007 ‘ Narrative and Advocacy: Burma’s Identity Through its Women’s Voices Australian Folklore Journal Number 22 November 2007, pp Armidale: University of New England, 57-72.
CTV Television 2010, ‘Burma's military junta releases Aung San Suu Kyi’ CTV News 13 November, at http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/World/20101113/burma-kyi-release-101113.
Karen Women Organisation 2010 Walking amongst sharp knives: the unsung courage of Karen women village chiefs in conflict areas of Eastern Burma Mae Hong Son: Karen Women Organization
Karenni National Women’s Organisation 2010 Tales of terror and grief: voices of Karenni women caught in armed conflict Mae Hong Son: Karenni Women’s Organisation in partnership with Isis Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange
Kon Chan, G 2010 ‘The deserted dinner table’ Burma Women’s Voices for Peace Bangkok: Altsean Burma, 40-43
Lo, M 2007 ‘The brass rings’ Burma women’s voices for hope Bangkok: Altsean Burma, 10-17
Okri, B., 201, A Time for New Dreams, London, Sydney, Auckland Johannesburg: Rider
Mahatma Ghandi, Young India, Jan 8 1925 Vol 30 December 1924 – 21 March 1925, http://www.gandhiserve.org/cwmg/VOL030.PDF