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Create NSW, a state government agency that promotes the arts and culture, in the past three years has awarded more than $189 million of taxpayers’ funds to 1830 recipients. Among them is Singaporean-Australian poet, Eileen Chong. Her story is just one that reflects the questionable administrative direction of arts bodies, and not least, their ideologically-driven politics.

Two years ago, academic and poet Stuart Cooke published an essay depicting a sexual relationship between a white Australian man and a Filipina woman in online literary journal Verity La. It provoked a backlash so visceral that it effectively sealed the journal’s demise.

A protracted campaign, spearheaded by Eileen Chong, leveraged social media against Cooke and anyone associated with his story or the journal in which it was published. Not even an allusion to our right to free speech was raised, although Verity La initially tried to keep the piece online, stating in a sputter of defiance: “We believe the piece addresses difficult issues relating to male white privilege in order to critique — rather than exploit — them.”

Yet, the rallying cries of the indignant, the irate and the victimised reverberated. It was into this already febrile climate that Chong cast her net. It was a perfect storm.

Within days, Verity La bowed to pressure to remove Cooke’s apparently offending story and issue the now familiar abject apology of the “cancelled”. Two years on, and the vicious censorship campaign has eviscerated reputations and jobs. There has been no coming back for Verity La. 

Have we really reached such hysterical, risible levels of cancel culture that literary publications are being forced to close?

Exactly why the self-proclaimed cultural warrior was so vituperative is open to conjecture. But as author Lionel Shriver told me in 2016 when she found herself tarred with the racist brush at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival: “It’s a very ugly term to throw at somebody … I think it’s a term that we have to use with care. There are real racists out there, so let’s save it for them.”

Curiously, it was not until a month after the story’s publication that Chong denounced it, labelling it racist and sexist. She then set about cancelling Verity La’s editor, once a friend of Chong, who was suddenly deemed untouchable and a racist. Those who didn’t back Chong were publicly shamed or otherwise generally scared to raise their heads above the parapet.

But considering Chong’s intense condemnation of Cooke’s story, why her delayed response? Three weeks before the story was published, Verity La’s editor had agreed to administer a Create NSW Small Projects Quick Response literary grant of $5000 for Chong through the journal, also a grant recipient.

Chong had asked the editor, as a favour, to administer the money via the journal so it wouldn’t affect her JobKeeper payments. Under an agreement, Chong would deliver a series of “pandemic poems” for Verity La.

It wasn’t until a few days after the funds were transferred that Chong complained that Cooke’s piece — which had been on the website for a month — and the journal and its editor were racist, sexist and harmful. Her allegations triggered staff resignations, sparked by fears of being branded racist, and precipitated Verity La’s temporary closure and ultimate demise.

On Twitter, Chong allegedly defamed the editor personally and the journal generally. Chong resigned from her advisory board role, saying publicly: “I was silenced, gaslighted and ignored, even as I spoke up about Stuart Cooke’s piece being problematic.”

She added the story made her feel “unsafe” as a “woman of colour”.

Shortly thereafter, another literary journal, Meanjin, published a piece by Chong in which she explained why she demanded the Cooke story be taken down: “In this piece, a white male narrator has sex with a Filipina woman in Manila and hits pretty much every square on the ‘Filipina fetishization, misogyny, colonialism, and racism’ bingo card.”

In response, the Spectator called Chong’s piece an empty rant and posed the conundrum that “we’re just meant to accept Chong’s word that the piece employs damaging stereotypes of Filipinas and therefore must be removed”.

 “Of course, there was no consideration of the possibility that the editor …  or the Board might actually believe in freedom of expression as a basic human right. A birthright bestowed on all Australians by our ancestors who fought and died in two World Wars in order to secure it,” it said.

On migrating to Australia in 2007 from her self-described privileged life in Singapore, Chong apparently found the tables turned: she had become the “other”, victimised by white society and, specifically, racist white males, who had to be censored.

Contrary to her assertions, her complaint about the Cooke story had been taken seriously. It went to Verity La’s board and was peer-reviewed by academics and other industry professionals.

Meanwhile, an anonymous open letter sent to Create NSW denounced the journal as a “white supremacist” institution and demanded it be defunded. Several hundred people signed it before it strangely vanished the following day.

Whether Create NSW was involved in its disappearance is unknown, but its website states it is “responsible for furthering Government’s vision for NSW to be known for its bold and exciting arts and culture that engages the community and reflects the state’s rich diversity”. Which would not be in the spirit of such a letter.

As if on cue, Lionel Shriver delivered a scathing critique of open letters, a global phenomenon: “In America, the ‘open letter’ is enjoying quite the formal renaissance. Curiously, recent examples of this newly popular epistolary genre exhibit striking similarities to the ransom note.”

When Verity La tried to publish a couple of months later, Chong bombarded Twitter with outraged posts and deployed writers to ban the journal and withdraw their work while madly tweeting about her own victimisation by white privileged people.

Chong also inexplicably attacked the artistic director of the Canberra Writers’ Festival in August 2020, tweeting it was “a terribly white & right wing line-up of the festival” from a white person. The director is Eurasian.

Chong was very busy, indeed. In one tweet on 5/12/21 she wrote:

“All I will say is that 85% of comments directed at me on Twitter are racialized — well meaning or not — & it is fucking exhausting simply existing as a visibly Asian woman in a white society, writing and working in an industry gatekept by white people & white institutions.”

Yet Chong’s personal website does not exactly depict someone deprived of opportunity. Rather, it celebrates her achievements. In a nutshell, she has written nine books in 10 years, been shortlisted for numerous prestigious literary awards and several high-profile prizes, and she has served on literary judging panels. Her tweeting is prolific and documents expensive shopping habits and a penchant for high-end restaurants. Is that the profile of a downtrodden author, or indeed, of most authors?

The journal published sporadically in 2021 but, overwhelmed by the drama, went into hibernation this year with no resumption date.

Chong did not deliver the pandemic poems to Verity La, nor have they been sighted elsewhere. So, what happened to the Create NSW grant funds awarded specifically for this creative work?

The grant contract stipulates recipients repay all or part of the funding if they fail to comply with the conditions of funding or fail to provide an acquittal. The work must be completed within three months of receiving funding. At completion, the acquittal confirms the funding has been used for the purpose intended in the application. In Chong’s case, the grant was for “the funded activity”.

For over two years, there have been conflicting replies from Create NSW about whether Chong’s project was acquitted or delivered despite countless inquiries, many of which were ignored. In an email dated 8 November, 2021, a member of the team stated, “the application is currently being acquitted”, another quoted a different date of March 2021, still another stated it was in the process of acquittal.

Most recently, Simon Thomas, director of Communications and Stakeholder Relations, Create NSW replied: “Ms Chong’s project was acquitted on 23 February 2021.”

He explained: “Ms Chong was funded to develop a manuscript of 50 poems. On completion of the funded activity Create NSW was satisfied that Ms Chong successfully met the requirements of the funding.

“Ms Chong provided evidence of the funded activities as part of the acquittal process. How and when the applicant wishes to publicly release the manuscript of poems is at their discretion. Ms Chong received funding for the production of the poems and as previously stated, Create NSW is satisfied that Ms Chong has met the requirements of the funding agreement.”

He failed to articulate if the poems had materialised or moved past the development stage. In fact, the signed contract between Chong and Create NSW never stated “development” but rather referred to her poetry project, Portraits of a Pandemic, as “the Funded Activity”. Chong was required to complete the Funded Activity by the end date of December 31, 2020.

Chong was part of the 2019/20 cohort, but recipients were not publicised, unlike lists in the succeeding years. “We … will ensure this information is uploaded in the coming days,” Thomas and other Create NSW staff repeated, or variations of that, for almost two years. Then, like a revelation, the list became available upon this journalist’s repeated requests in late July 2022. But where are these mystery poems paid for by the taxpayer? 

In 2020/2021, Chong received a windfall: another grant from Create NSW, this time $19,200 to write a “book-length poem” and, a few months later, $49,440 from the Australia Council for the Arts to produce a new book of poetry.

Such was Chong’s joy, she tweeted her appreciation of the grants, thanking Create NSW for funding her project earlier in the year and giving her the impetus to apply for more support.  

Literary largesse seems ever more contingent on ideologically-driven concepts such as race, gender, colonialism, discrimination, victimhood etc.

Governments doling out taxpayer-funded grants obviously want boxes ticked, but at what price is politicised virulence driving this puritan direction?

What are the chances of receiving arts funding if you are not marginalised, or writing about correct issues?

 “The arts community elite has become purely political, and interested only in smashing the patriarchy, decolonisation, intersectionality, gender, climate change, social justice, white privilege and other such sundries,” says Bella d’Abrera, from the Institute of Public Affairs. 

“I do think that there is a real lack of diversity and potential arts projects which are not funded because they do not conform to the current ideology.”

A trawl through Create NSW recipients this year reveals a snapshot of cultural, sexual and gender identity; the climate crisis, including a travel perk to Antarctica; queer themes; poetry including queer, multicultural Australia and what it means to be a migrant as well as an LGBTQI+ person of colour in Australia; intergenerational and imperial, colonial, societal betrayal.

It’s hard not to assume many grant applicants, across the game, are pandering to politicised issues to get projects over the line.

“It follows … that grants will be given to those who reflect the interest of the arts community elite,” says d’Abrera. “There are thousands of highly talented and productive Australian artists who don’t bother applying for grants because they refuse to politicise their art.”

Earlier this year d’Abrera put the case for abolishing the Australia Council for the Arts which has spent $360 million of taxpayers’ money since 2016 on arts projects which were “offensive, divisive and have no appeal to mainstream Australians forced to pay for them”.

 “While Australians are paying $2 a litre for petrol and rising inflation, our hard-earned taxes have paid for a poet to write about bodily functions on toilet paper; an individual who has a penchant for ‘popping nangs’, getting naked and stuffing things up her bottom; a video artist who makes gay pornography; and another who uses our money to talk about ‘fascist behaviours of sectors of Australian community.’”

While many of the successful projects are outrightly self-indulgent and politically shallow, they also encompass a questionable ideological slant. Fringe artists are free to make political statements as they wish, but they should be doing it at their own expense, as d’Abrera says.

Just as the general public, in the name of free speech, should have the choice to make up their own minds about whether they want to read Stuart Cooke’s essay.

Deborah Cassrels was The Australian’s first Bali-based correspondent and has written extensively on refugees, politics, terrorism, crime and social justice. She was nominated for a Walkley Award in 2016 for her work on terrorism in Indonesia. Her first book, a memoir about her journalism in Indonesia, titled “Gods and Demons”, was published in 2020.

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