Working with Words: Winnie Dunn

Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer from Mt Druitt and the general manager of Sweatshop writers' collective. She spoke with us about working odd jobs as a teenager, why she doesn't keep a diary, and the difference between writing and creating literature.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Winnie Dunn

The first piece of writing to make me both laugh, cry and feel represented was, The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. For example, 'A Pacific Islander named Banjo is standing with his arms dangling by his sides, a kitchen knife in his right hand and a serrated pocket knife in his left hand. His jaw hangs open and his eyes are filled with the fizz of Coca-Cola.' Banjo my cousin right there, cuz.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

Yes, I was always writing. Writing to me is the act of putting words onto paper, which is an act most people can do. But the act of writing is not the creation of literature. Literature can only happen when a writer is technically able to pull words apart and put them back together in a way that creates an original contribution to knowledge.

As a child I wrote poems about spring, as a teenager I wrote self-hating fanfiction about Edward Cullen and One Direction. As an adult, I create literature that is centred on the very specific, nuanced and original experience of growing up as a mixed-race Tongan-Australian woman from Western Sydney.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

As a teenager, I worked many odd jobs. My first job ever was putting toppings on pizzas at Western Sydney Pizza and Pasta down in Minchinbury. My second job was an IGA cashier in Colyton, where I skipped more days than I actually showed up. My third job was a call centre operator at Westpac Bank up in Concord for the Deceased Estates team, where I sent out many million-dollar cheques in the mail … such a strange thing for a poor Fob girl from Mount Druitt to do. Then I was unemployed throughout my entire undergraduate degree and lived off Centrelink. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to say I’ve had my dream job now for the last four years, which is being a published writer, an editor and an arts worker for an incredible grassroots literacy organisation dedicated to Indigenous and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse writers.

The creation of literature is hard work because it must always be an original contribution to knowledge.

These experiences have helped me come to terms with the intersections of my being, which include class just as much as race and gender. The intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and faith – understanding those intersections and where I sit and move within them – come up in all of the essays I write and are the foundations for my short stories.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d probably be forcibly sucking up to a lot of White academics just to try and get my Masters and PhD. Or I’d probably be working in local government either as an officer, assistant or as a librarian. Something like that. All of these 'what ifs' exists outside of traditional job stereotypes associated with Pacific Islanders, which tells you a lot about my privileges. 

What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing?

That the creation of literature is hard work because it must always be an original contribution to knowledge.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

No. I think diaries are for people like Jane Austen. The sentimental old White types. Diaries have nothing to do with me.  

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Usually when I teach young people about the values of creative writing I give two examples. The first is Maryam Azam’s poetry collection, The Hijab Files. Azam is a Pakistani-Australian Muslim poet from Blacktown. That itself is an experience never before seen in poetry, let alone in literature. Azam is a master wordsmith who I think everyone should know about.

Traditionally, Tongans are oral storytellers, usually through speech, song, dance and symbols. To me, writing is a taboo.

The second book I teach is by Armenian-Australian author Tamar Chnorhokian, who wrote The Diet Starts on Monday. It’s a very relatable book to teenagers and a great example of the use of subtlety, nuance and irony when it comes to the narrator’s voice versus the narrator’s actual speech.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

To me, the act of writing itself is superstitious. I associate writing with Whiteness. Englishmen made the written Tongan language. Traditionally, Tongans are oral storytellers, usually through speech, song, dance and symbols. To me, writing is a taboo.

But as Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe says, 'And let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English. For we intend to do unheard things with it'.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I once wrote about being a lizard after a rich Tinder gronk broke up with me. I would remove it from publication if I could.

Which artist, writer or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

Ya mum, bro.

Portrait of Winnie Dunn

Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer and arts worker from Mt Druitt. She is the general manager of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Sydney University. Winnie’s work has been published in the Sydney Review of Books, the Lifted Brow, the Griffith Review, Meanjin, SBS Life, Southerly and Cordite. She is the editor of several anthologies including Sweatshop Women, The Big Black Thing and Bent Not Broken. Winnie is currently completing her debut novel as the recipient of a 2019 CAL Ignite Grant.

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