Literature and Politics
The House of Representation
Robert Wood invites us to think about the value literature and storytelling can add to the expression of true representation, by giving voice to those who may otherwise be un- or under-represented, and in turn supporting better public policy.
One aspect of what public policy can learn from the creative industries turns on interpretations of ‘representation’. In that word, which comes with suggestions of ‘represent’ and ‘representative’, we see a point of connection between literature and politics, including storytellers and members of parliament. Novels, poems and stories are all said to represent reality or ideas or feelings. Politicians, advisers and bureaucrats represent the voters or the common interest or the nation state. It is the House of Representatives, after all.
You might dismiss this as an unconscious expression in language but there are philosophical roots to representation that extend as far back as Plato in the West and the Upanishads in the East. This is about trying to speak on behalf of something while also being from a constituency. It is not that writers escape reality while politicians embrace it, for both fields are joined by laws and money and social relations. It is that they represent themselves, and each other, in different ways. It is about how representation is expressed.
So what can I, as a literary representative of the creative industries, say to you, as representatives of public policy? How can I be useful? The short answer to that might be about expressing why representation is important to us in how we build a sense of the public; about working together through creative literary expression and imaginative policy to make our world better.
The lesson I have learnt most in my work at the Centre for Stories is that we need different people at the table. The Centre for Stories is a literary arts and cultural organisation that uses storytelling to inspire social cohesion and improve understanding of diverse communities. By getting new types of people involved in our work, we expanded our idea of a public, which then changed what we thought was possible as creative practice. This became a virtuous feedback loop that changed people’s idea of who they are, what is a good life and community, and why that changes our world.
At the Centre, we have seen domestic violence survivors change. We have seen LGBTQI+ youth from the country change. This has not only meant changing the audience, but seeing people grow. For example, we had someone re-orient themselves around a narrative of survival and success as a parent, rather than as a victim of violence. They gained agency. In another way of thinking, they gained a type of citizenship in their own republic of meaning. On another occasion, we set someone on a path of telling the truth of their story by opening up about being gay in country WA. They told people about their sexuality in hostile circumstances as a way to alter our perception of people and place. This was about listening to truth, and the reconciliation one gains with older and younger versions of identity.
In our work, we have seen people become truer representatives of themselves, their communities and their art, simply by making space for them at the table. That is why representation, from a poem to a parliament, matters most of all. From that, we might ask for representation that is true, compassionate, just, aware, and open to being challenged. That might be what it is to live in a welcoming house of representatives in a world that poses policy difficulties on a daily basis.
Start with people to change a public to change the art. In other words, with different voters you get a different common interest, and then you get a different policy. Policy, like literature, is the outcome, and we should not see the public as the thing to change, rather the thing to truly mirror. All these parts move all the time, and so what matters is that creativity, the public and representation are always in flux and flow. Starting with people (representatives) means you end up changing what they do together (a public), and this matters to how that is represented (literature and policy, in this case). It is a simple approach, but in a world of over-egged pudding, we have found it makes our work fun, creative, and enduring. It is a way for public policy and the creative industries to connect and learn from each other. More than anything, they are stories by people about people and for people, all with the idea of enhancing a public we make together.
Robert Wood (BA, BEcon, AM, PhD) is the Creative Director of the Centre for Stories, and Chair of PEN Perth. He has been a Benjamin Franklin Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and an Endeavour Research Fellow at Columbia University. Robert is interested in language, literature, and history. He is the author of two scholarly books – 'History and the Poet: Essays on Australian Poetry', and 'Suburbanism: Poetics' (both from Australian Scholarly Publishing). At present, he is writing about the Indian Ocean with translators in Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata.