25 Years of WV: message from Tom Cho

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Tom Cho

Photograph of cupcakes, each with the number 25 written on them in icing

Tom Cho was Chairperson of Writers Victoria (then called the Victorian Writers Centre) from 2000 to 2004. Tom shared some of his memories and musings on the organisation’s 25th anniversary celebrations.

“One morning in 2001, three representatives from what was then called the Victorian Writers’ Centre (VWC), attended a meeting with the state Arts Minister of the time, Mary Delahunty.

In this band of three was the Centre’s Director Chris McKenzie, Deputy Chair Chris Wallace-Crabbe and myself, the Chair. We had requested this meeting with the Arts Minister to bring her attention to the organisation and its work.

As we sat down with the Minister in her office, all four of us looked at each other in a mute and mystified way – typically not an ideal start to such a meeting, but it was September 12 in Melbourne and, not that many hours earlier, a second airplane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York.

The Minister said something to the effect that the public would foremost look to writers to interpret what had happened in New York over this surreal stretch of hours. In a way, what she said cut straight through to the point of our meeting and it did so without invoking any bland clichés testifying to “the power of words”.

But then, I find that talk of “the power of words” is usually sentimentalised, overstating the good outcomes from words whilst backgrounding the bad outcomes and diminishing their complexities. That stretch of hours in New York has given rise to many writings, including plenty of pernicious writings that have been used in service of plenty of pernicious acts. Rather than sentimentalising “the power of words”, it seems better to focus on our capacity as writers to use our words to unmask power – most especially, to unveil and confront the power in voices that purport to be universally authoritative and that purport to speak for the good of all.

Supporting writers to do this and other work is largely invisible as activity. Often, like the work of editors, such activity is invisibilised by choice. Other times, it is not very glamorous as activity and so it rarely attracts the attention to bring it out of its largely invisible state. Every written work is, in multiple senses, ghost-written – “haunted” by the works of other writers, but also “haunted” by the work of its largely invisible supporters.

For 25 years, the organisation that has become Writers Victoria has been “a friendly ghost” for the writers in our state, its ghostly presence now in more texts than we could ever count. These texts include the occasional self-produced anthology from years ago, such as the bilingual volume ‘Eat Tongue’ (which, in a roundabout way, led me to be introduced to Chris McKenzie). But of course, these texts mostly comprise the many other works written by the thousands of individuals whom this organisation has supported over its history. These works have found dissemination (in whatever form) and have in turn come to haunt further works.

As well as in texts, this organisation’s ghostly support is also to be found in many a literary career in Victoria. Writers like Arnold Zable, Cate Kennedy, Lisa Jacobson, alicia sometimes, Lee Kofman and myself were once far less visible as practitioners, our own ghostly outlines still very much forming. Our involvement with the Victorian Writers’ Centre (this organisational name now a ghost too) has definitely been to the advantage of our careers. Such involvement has included opportunities to give talks and workshops – and, significantly, this work has always been paid.

Speaking for myself at least, my early VWC involvement led to many further opportunities. I later came to realise that some of these opportunities were cannily engineered, as was the case when Chris McKenzie and Kevin Brophy unexpectedly tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I would consider a nomination as the Chair. This led to a period as Chair that ran from June 2000 until December 2004. But, now that I think of it, quite a few of my VWC opportunities led to crucial flow-on opportunities that arose through apparent chances and coincidences that are entirely in keeping with the spooky uncanniness of such a helpful and friendly ghost.

Now “the old ghost” is 25, which is a long stretch of time for an arts organisation.

This milestone has been an occasion to hear stories from its past, including accounts by the two excellent Directors whom I worked with – Chris McKenzie and Joel Becker. I have also been recalling the ghosts of premises past. During my time as Chair, the organisation moved operating premises twice: from the Broom Factory in Fitzroy to the Meat Market in North Melbourne, and then to the Nicholas Building in Melbourne’s CBD. In those days, the goal of securing suitable operating premises sometimes seemed like an apparition in itself.

This quarter-century-milestone is also an occasion for me to pay my respects to further ghosts associated with this organisation’s history – past ghosts who have literally passed on. These companionable spirits include Lisa Bellear and Liam Davison. Lisa Bellear, a Goernpil woman of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah, was a writer, activist, photographer and broadcaster. She read and discussed her work at VWC poetry readings on numerous occasions. Liam Davison – among the Victorians who recently died on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 – was a long-time novelist and teacher of writing who had many years of association with the VWC. As noted in a Writers Victoria tribute, Liam was even “one of six authors chosen to represent Victoria’s writing community in a series of postcards produced in the early years of the organisation”.

Perhaps this entity that has grown to become Writers Victoria is still, as Chris described it to Mary Delahunty at that 2001 meeting, “a little organisation with a big brief”. But even if little in size, the length of its ghostly shadow has grown longer, and we must all hope that in Victoria’s literary landscape, this organisation’s presence – material and spectral – lives on."