Interview by Roanna Gonsalves
Paula Abood is a much-loved and highly respected cultural worker, educator, writer and creative producer. She has made a significant contribution to the arts and to the field of community cultural development over many decades. In 2013 she received the Australia Council for the Arts’ Ros Bower Award for lifetime achievement in community arts and cultural development practice and in 2018 she received a Fellowship for Community Arts and Cultural Development, also from the Australia Council for the Arts. I had the honour of interviewing Paula Abood for The Pacesetters Creative Archives Project for Diversity Arts Australia. The interview was conducted on the 16th of April 2021 on the land of the Darug people, at ICE, Parramatta. Our conversation validated what I have long felt about Paula’s practice across art forms, genres and media: it is guided by a principled, unwavering commitment to anti-colonial, anti-racist feminism, an admirable steadfastness, what in Arabic may be termed sumud. This commitment infuses Paula’s arts practice across literature, theatre, film, as much as it does in the decisions she makes about the ethics of authorship. She rarely foregrounds herself in her work, preferring to co-create with her collaborators and with the many communities she has worked with, preferring to relinquish control, preferring to share power and prestige. I began by asking Paula about the projects that she has felt most intellectually and creatively invested in.
Paula Abood (PA): When I think of significant projects, I think of the impacts they have had on individuals and community members, as well as in terms of creativity and art and in the world: what kinds of work and beauty was produced in that process. Always, the projects with women have been really important for me as an activist and community worker and as writer myself because I’m invested in ensuring that women have spaces to be themselves and to express themselves and to flourish. And that comes from a history of having strong women in my family and feeling that it’s one of the duties, a feminist wajib, I call it, a duty to other women, to children, to everyone.
One of the projects I really loved was The Book of African Australian Stories. We worked with Elders, storytellers and writers in the community across the diversity of African communities. In that project there were Sierra-Leonean, Zambian, Congolese and Somali storytellers. The children were magnificent. On the first day a few children turned up and they were mostly through our contacts, as with a lot of community projects. If community people know you, they’ll send their children along because of the trust and the relationships. And within a few weeks, the room was full of children because word had got round that this was a space for children to learn and to be creative. We called it the third space. It wasn’t home and it wasn’t school. It was a space where children could be free to express themselves. We produced a beautiful children’s storybook that went into libraries and schools.
At the launch I realised the other kinds of things that happen that you don’t think about, the way the parents were thinking about their kids. A lot of the parents had experiences of trauma because of war and conflict. They carried a lot of responsibility, in terms of escape, arrival and trying to find a safe space for themselves and their families. At this launch the children were holding up this book that they had co-written and co-designed and co-led, and the parents were really proud, especially the women, the mamas. A lot of the women we were working with were widows from the war. There are communities that have female-headed households because of war taking their husbands and their sons and their brothers and their fathers. So, for me that project had an impact because it gave the community a sense of the possibilities for a future, for something outside what they had been living. I think that’s really important in this work.
Every project is a valuable project. My first questions are always, “What do you need?” “What do you want?”, “What do you need me to do?”. So having said that, of course, I know there are some projects you invest more years into. I did that with the Afghan Women’s Network in Bankstown. My colleague Rukhshana Sarwar and I worked together on a beautiful book project called The Dobaiti Project. Rukhshana was an academic at Kabul University and a specialist in poetry. I love poetry because it’s not so dependent on literacy in the common l understanding of the term , but about expression. Women from all parts of the community could participate because this project was about oral expression and rhythm. While the Dobaiti form is traditionally a form of love poetry, that project happened to take place around September 11, 2001 when racist attacks on women wearing hijab were common. So of course, after September 11, and the bombing of Afghanistan, it was a space that we really had to ensure was safe and nurturing because the outside was so hostile and violent towards women and girls. In this space, this love poetry form became a form to express grief and loss and displacement and sadness. We published a beautiful book that became a cultural archive for the community because it was a record of particular cultural practices for women around birth, death, life, marriage and raising children. I always remember some of the children of the participating women saying , “Can we do a project next? We want to do a project next”. That’s always a good sign, I think. For me, one of the most important principles of community cultural work is that community are in control and lead and forge the creative vision and the cultural production itself. If that happens, for me, that is working ethically with community because we are not being cultural imperialists. There’s enough of that around. We don’t need to reproduce cultural imperialist practice. I’ve always worked with and beside and stepped back, so that the cultural leadership comes from within, rather than from outside.
RG: You were awarded the Ros Bower Award in 2013, and the Australia Council Community Arts And Cultural Development Fellowship in 2018. As a leader in community arts and cultural development, would you give us a brief history and a sense of being in that space over the last 30 years?
PA: I think the community cultural space is probably one of the least institutionalised spaces. We don’t have much infrastructure. We don’t have many organisations. In fact, individuals become infrastructure, and in some ways, for me in Western Sydney, because I recognise we don’t have that infrastructure, we have to become really adept at getting resources and partnerships and equipment, because we don’t have it. That has its advantages and disadvantages.
The advantages of not being institutionalised, the process is constantly flexible and changes and adapts, and it must adapt to the different contexts of communities you’re working with. The disadvantage is that you get burnt out because you are the infrastructure. Over 30 years, you can look at the changes by the amount of times the terminology has changed: from Community Arts to Community Cultural Development, to Community Arts and Cultural Development, and to Community Cultural Engagement. There are so many different ways of speaking about it and positioning it. Ultimately, if I look at the past 30 years with a critical eye, we have lost a sense of recognition. In terms of maybe 20 years ago, I felt there was more theorising. Theorising is really important in all spaces, because theorising comes from community. I always think the academy catches up with community. Theory comes from community. It is in communities where theories are hatched and tested, talked about and applied as practice.
RG: Would you talk a little bit more about that? How did you come to this realisation?
PA: I first became aware of that when I was working at Immigrant Women’s Speakout in the early 90s. It was a peak immigrant women’s organisation in Western Sydney and a lot of academics used to knock on the door, and say, “We’re doing a study …. “. We were activist in that early 1990s period in every possible way . We commissioned and started our owns kinds of research because we wanted to participate as active agents rather than being studied because there’s a history of colonial feminist models of studying the other. We in no way wanted to participate in that kind of colonial mode of study. So when anyone did partner with us, it was quite obvious to me that, the theory and data, the women who came to see me in those days, they knew what the system was doing. They had a really critical response to it. The problem always is that people who speak out, or respond to oppression often get punished for speaking out, or get marginalised, or completely gaslit, in the terminology of today.
In the early days of my practice, I was aware that theory really does start with community. It’s often third parties who make meaning and a career out of people’s stories and people’s experiences. So in my work, I’ve been really attuned to how I think about theory. My theory is informed by practice and my practice is informed by theory. I don’t necessarily separate the two. I think it’s a false separation. I’ve always been reflective in my practice. So for me the reflective aspect to practice is about action, making theory alive and embodied rather than disembodied and sitting on a bookshelf.
RG: You often describe yourself as an artist, an activist, an educator, cultural worker, theatre maker and producer. We all see you as having this very wide-ranging creative practice, an ethical practice where you ground theory in the spaces of the routine and the every-day. How do you see your work in different media and different art forms informing each other?
PA: I’ve always been a teacher. I’ve always worked in community-based education. So when I started at TAFE in the late 80s, I worked in Outreach, which was the community education unit that is based on the principles of participatory learning, community-led learning, community identified, like Paulo Friere’s model. This model of learning is meaningless if it’s abstracted, or separated out from people’s everyday lived experience.
Teaching and education and learning have been with me since the beginning. My mum was a teacher so I guess her way of raising her eight children informed how learning must be affirming to be meaningful. In my community organising work, my community cultural work, learning, knowledge sharing and knowledge growing has always been inherent. They’ve always been intersecting and informed by each other. And community cultural work is powerful if learning is involved. The most basic learning is learning about yourself. Often using culture, arts and creativity as the tools of learning, opens up new spaces that for many people, formal education has been oppressive and repressive and their learning experiences were really negative, and have been excluded from affirming experiences of education.
Art and creativity have been a really important tool for a lot of communities to learn. Community organising is when communities ultimately are mobilising for themselves. I don’t see how you can practise community cultural work without doing all those things, because for me, it’s about communities speaking for themselves. Creative expression is healing, it’s educative, it’s transformative. I know, hearing the stories of First Nations’ people, we settlers have to be quiet and listen, and know that it’s all our responsibilities, one, to listen, and two, to act respectfully in solidarity. So I think that listening and being a conscious person around this work is really important for me.
RG: In a lot of your work, you make visible the entanglements between neoliberalism and race in the current climate. Would you please tell us a little bit about this aspect of your work.
PA: Neo-liberalism extracts the individual from community, extracts from the collective. When this happens in art, we lose sight of histories of struggle. We lose sight of the origins of community work. We lose sight of the histories of agitation, histories of campaigns against systemic racism, systemic misogyny, systemic ableism, systemic transphobia and homophobia. What neo-liberalism effectively does, is privilege the individual over community and the collective. For me, in the formal arts sector, what it does is, makes a cult out of individual artists rather than looking at the work of social justice and how art and culture are tools to change this world, politically culturally, socially. I’m solid about where I stand in terms of the collective, and the community, and working towards change with community.
RG: I would love for you to speak a bit more about how you make visible the invisible workings of neo-liberalism and racial hierarchies that whiteness imposes in the world and how you negotiate all of these different forces that constrain your practice as an artist?
PA: White institutions, white sectors of art whether it’s the screen sector, the ‘LIC’, what I call the Literature Industrial Complex, theatre, all the times I have participated, or just put my little finger in there, I know not to enter with my whole being because of the . . every time I’ve done a project, I have felt harm and I have to spend time recovering. I have a real sense of my story. I don’t write for white audiences, not sure if I even sometimes write for a big Arabic-speaking audience. I probably am writing for a more nuanced, critically informed public. I don’t like when I get asked to translate and gloss, and make my work palatable. I’ve been asked many times to do that and I refuse to do that. I see that as part of the neo-liberal project, that as an individual, my work is a commodity. Everything’s measured in economic indicators, rather than the idea that I have a duty of care to my story.
For many institutions and the creative sector can’t deal with that because their baseline is economic. It’s like what has been happening in universities for years. Neo-liberalisation has made everything a commodity. Learning is a commodity, rather than learning as a pursuit for change and for justice and for equity. I find institutions inherently harmful. A lot of my work in the last 10 years has been around holding institutions to account. It’s their responsibility to not be harmful. It’s not my responsibility to make sure I don’t get hurt or harmed when I enter. Even though, of course, we all have to look after ourselves. I work freelance and with communities. When we set up a project with the community, we must ask, “What do we need to do to make this space safer for people who aren’t here?”
RG: Race, gender, sexuality and class intersect in all the work that you’ve done across different media, and in your speeches, your talks, your practice, your PhD, your latest performance work The Cartographer’s Curse, really everything you do. Would you please talk a little bit more about these intersections.
PA: My first play, the politics of belly dancing was about sexuality, gender, race and colonialism from an anti-colonialist Arab feminist perspective. The play was a choreo-poem. It was the first time I was funded by the Australia Council. I got named in Federal Parliament because of it. I had to answer questions from the minister. Talk about being thrown in the fire the first time! It was produced by the Sydney Arab Feminist Alliance (safa) of which I was one of the founders. We decided to make a play that spoke back to colonial feminism. It was also a critique on the way multicultural arts was deployed in the service of whiteness.
Whenever there was a multicultural festival, they’d ask the Vietnamese community for dances, they’d ask the Greek community for dances, and they’d get a white belly dancer for the Arabic community. That used to piss everyone off, including myself. So it was a real critique of how Arab dance is weaponised against Arab women, so heterosexualized, and so exoticized. For me, it was a really useful tool in looking at the broader histories of colonialism, in terms of appropriation of land, of culture and the ongoing colonialism here and in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Iraq.
All the early work I did was informed by anti-war activism with a group of Arab women, colleagues and friends of mine. We were involved in Palestine human rights and anti-war activism around the first Gulf War. So that play spoke to the contemporary political and cultural issues that were impacting us. For me, it was important in some ways, to develop a diasporic Arab feminist space and language and lexicon.
RG: Would you please talk a little bit about the changes that you’ve seen from that moment, of being first funded by the Australia Council for the politics of belly dancing, to almost thirty years later with your latest theatre work The Cartographer’s Curse, and then to today in 2021?
PA: I think then, say 1993 when my play was first read at the NSW Writers’ Centre, I think the context was one of cultural studies and post-colonial theory, even though I know that word is problematic in the context of places like Australia, where colonialism is alive and cooking every day, and destroying people every day. But in the context of thirty years ago, cultural studies and theories around identity, politics of identity and representation, were really prominent in these spaces.
Edward Said was on the radio on the ABC, and Trinh T. Minh-ha visited. We hosted an event with her. A group of community people and academics came together and started up Xtext , which looked at the intersections of theory and practice and the academy and community. It was premised on what we call intersectionality and the practice of it. When everyone speaks of intersectionality now, there’s a broad understanding of it. But I think people still miss the important political nuance of intersectionality that was borne out of anti-racism practice and anti-racism theories. If you extract that from it, you’re misusing and misrepresenting and appropriating a term that was forged by Black women in the U.S. Thirty years ago, people didn’t talk about intersectionality, but we certainly did and we worked intersectionally. I wrote a piece around about 1993/94 for a magazine, and when I read it now, I think, oh, I’m writing intersectionality because in that piece I explicitly talk about the intersections of gender, race, class and sexuality and the oppressive kinds of practices in mainstream feminist community work, theory and culture.
The trajectory from then to now, is there’s been waves of being really active, to the mid-90s in Australia, when the Howard government arrived, the backlash and the blowback was extreme and of course, a lot of the places where people came together to dialogue antagonisms around gender, race, immigration, colonialism, not forgetting that the attacks on First Nations people primarily, especially in that period were significant. And for me, that’s always the most important kind of beginning that we as settlers, immigrant settlers, daughters and granddaughters of immigrants, must certainly acknowledge and act on.
What I’d like to see is more connectivity to the histories and the genealogies of resistance and theory and radical community work. I know it’s a cliché when people glibly say, “There was no social media then”, but it’s important to acknowledge political cultural activist labour t, like what this project does. Documenting the social archive is really important because there’s continuity in activism, there’s labour that’s never stopped. There’s always been resistance. There’s always been work that speaks back. There’s always been work that has no interest in placating, or entertaining, or being there for a white audience. There’s always been cultural work that’s inherently political. I think a lot of the community cultural work is inherently political because it connects communities to their story, connects them to the political struggle for cultural rights, the right to express yourself in the language of your choice, the right to thrive not just survive.
RG: You’ve mentored many people in the sector, individuals, organisations, communities, groups. Who were your mentors, and what learnings and influences informed the way that you practice and the way you developed your thinking?
PA: My first mentors were my mum and my grandmothers, if I think about the kind of nurturing, nourishing, deep-thinking work I do, I have to say, all my grandparents, my dad, but especially mum. My mum was a real deep thinker. She was a really ethical person. If there’s a dilemma about something, my mum’s values and visions for the world have always informed me deeply.
Outside of the warriors and icons in my own immediate family, I have a big extended Lebanese family and lots of mythical stories that I love because those mythical stories mentor you as well. If there’s a wayward woman in the history of your family, they’re the one you go to. I like to think that they’re looking after us all.
Outside of that, in the community sector, people like Mary Dimech stand really strong. She was a really important person in the 80s and 90s around multicultural policy for the arts in Australia. More than that, she brought to the community cultural and political space, a strong feminist of colour practice. In the early 90s, she was a real mentor for me because we were reading the same theorists, we had a similar vision about how you work with people in spaces that are nourishing. My first mentors outside of home were First Nations women whom I met in 1987-88 in the context of anti-bicentennial protests. I feel blessed because I was guided to tread carefully on Country. I was guided by Aunties, Elders like Aunty Sylvia Scott, knowledge carriers, intellectuals in the late 80s and early 90s, who intersected my life in both teaching spaces and activist and cultural spaces. Wiradjuri, Gamileroi, Bundjalung women who were writers, theatre makers, teachers, and community organisers. I worked in solidarity around that time and learnt how to work ethically with community, what representation really meant, not just as a word you throw around, but the actual embodiment of self-representation and speaking and listening and being.
RG: What are your hopes for the future of your own practice, but also for the arts, the creative sector in Australia?
PA: I think the work of equity is endless and thankless and disappointing. I have no confidence that systems will change. They’ve been forged on colonialism and genocide and racism. They’re rotten to the core. Over thirty years I have not seen any real sense of justice. I can only speak from my own perspective on that, having worked as an activist, an educator and a community organiser. I’ve worked at policy level, community development level, casework level, writing, I did a PhD, I’ve gone everywhere to try and look at where things can change. My sense of the future means that the systems must be dismantled. That can only happen through First Nations’ peoples and communities leading that, of course.
My sense is, the more we try and hammer away at broken systems, the more broken we become because we’re doing the labour. It sounds hurtful, but for me, with thirty years of learning, I think I feel it can be hurtful because all the things have happened, both the affirming changes but also the changes that have taken us backward, or into a past that is harmful. It’s still, for me, important that those things have happened because it means that we’re more awake to the reality that systems don’t change. They won’t change. So we have to have something completely different, and new, and we’ve talked for thirty years, and everyone’s pretty exhausted. I think it’s time for people to step back and get out of the way. I hope that’s not too depressing.
RG: No. Your words are grounded in such a long, diverse practice across so many media, art forms, and working with individuals and organisations, and so for you to say all of this, it’s powerful. It’s also challenging to think, ‘How do we live?’ if there’s no possibility of change.
PA: I think there are ways of having a system of organising people that doesn’t oppress people. I’ve seen it. People make jokes about cooperatives. People make fun of systems of sharing. People make fun of people who co-write, like collectives that write papers together. It’s as if the authorship of a group-developed paper isn’t as valuable or legitimate in academic circles as a sole author. That’s what’s wrong with this world: that individuals become experts, individuals become cults and celebrities. For me real knowledge comes from groups and collectives. I flourish when there’s a group communal development of creativity, because I always find we bring out the best and the most interesting kinds of things when that happens.
So, if that happens in a creative collective, what can we do, in terms of how we organise resources and live cooperatively? We don’t have a choice with the climate crisis. If we don’t move now, we’ve ensured the destruction of the biosphere, our children, our grandchildren, the forests and all sentient beings. I think what happens is, people are so out of touch with history, with ways of living from before and ways of sharing space, sharing resources, sharing authorship, that people think there’s nothing else. But survival means we have to share and live cooperatively, and stop trying to make celebrities out of ourselves and indvidualising and atomising every possible thing.
RG: Yes, as you so beautifully demonstrated when you wrote about The Cartographer’s Curse in Sydney Review of Books. In the process of creating the work, it was your vision, you brought everyone together, but nowhere have you claimed sole authorship. You do not foreground yourself at all. In fact, you foreground all the work that your collaborators have put in, and to me, that is really the mark of someone who foregrounds the creative collective as a possibility, as an alternative to the kinds of toxic systems that we currently work in.
PA: Well, actually there’s a lot of people who do [the same]. You just don’t see them. In the community, what I know from over 30 years of community work, there’s a lot of people, especially women I have to say, who work as community leaders. They don’t get put up. They never put themselves up. A true community leader doesn’t get up and go, “I’m the community leader.” They don’t have to because the community knows that. For me, there’s a lot of people who work like that, we just don’t ever see them, or hear about them, or read about them, because they’re actually doing the hard work of change.
RG: Absolutely. Well, I’m so glad that you gave us a tiny glimpse into your creative collaborative practice, and the way that you have empowered so many individuals, organisations, and communities. Thank you so much!