The Sentinel profiles WestWords and its championing of writers from one of Australia’s most dynamic cultural regions, Western Sydney.
“To me it’s the face of contemporary Australia,” says Michael Campbell, executive director of WestWords. “Except a whole lot of the rest of Australia hasn’t quite recognised it yet. The stories people bring with them into the region are amazing; they’re incredible stories and there is a need and a desire to tell them.”
For a certain kind of outsider – if they turn from the harbour or the beach to look in its direction – Sydney’s Western Suburbs still remain a prosaic “unknown” sprawling in the heat haze.
Yet advocates like Campbell are here to vouch for a cultural richness that is vital and determinedly of the now – and, for that matter, tomorrow.
“One in 10 Australians live in the area,” he says, “A tenth of Australia’s population. It has the densest Aboriginal population in Australia. Over half the world’s cultures are represented in Western Sydney. And there are new people coming all the time.”
Based in Parramatta, WestWords is the champion of writing forged in this rapidly evolving, eclectic environment. Their “strategic focus” is young people, facilitating their artistic development through workshops, residencies, fellowships and support.
Says Campbell, “Essentially what it comes down to – it’s a horrible phrase – but a pathway of opportunity that starts for kids in primary school, all the way through to mainstream publication.”
And the scale and scope of WestWords is rapidly expanding – working with a diversity of voices across everything from short-stories to slam poetry.
“It’s like a rolling stone that’s hard to keep up with,” he admits, “because the need for literature development in Western Sydney is so immense.”
Nevertheless, they’ve drawn on conversations with the community of emerging writers to develop a program of remarkable breadth.
The mix includes everything from high-school workshops to African literature development programs, mentorships in the youth justice system and seminars covering the practicalities of survival as a writer.
Unifying it all is the determination to enable self-expression for those who have been, for a long-time, ignored by the wider world.
As Campbell points out, the very act of writing – its graft – is an important, self-defining passage. It’s a process by which identity can be felt, understood, shared.
“You formulate the ideas, you take it through a reflective process, a way to communicate those stories out of yourself – a distillation process,” says Campbell. “And when it becomes outside of yourself is when you write it down. It concretises it, it places it in time and then you look back on it – and reflect and have a dialogue with the story as it is outside of yourself.
“And that’s really important for the creator. It’s also really important for the sharing and the communicating of the story. That’s the medium for which, people beyond yourself, beyond your cohort … can actually gain insight and grow empathy. Because it’s in a form that somebody else can take.
“It’s an intimate act in creation and it’s an intimate act in reading.”
The genesis of the organisation began with author Libby Gleeson. “She saw a great paucity of literature development in Western Sydney,” explains Campbell. “That children and young people were not getting the same opportunity as other, richer parts of Sydney.”
Gleeson lobbied for a grant of $30,000 under the then Rees State Government – which was used to establish the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Development Project in 2007, under the auspices of the Blacktown Arts Centre.
But as Western Sydney rapidly evolved, so too was there a requirement for WestWords – which eventually became an independent company in late 2014/early 2015.
By December 2018, the WestWords Centre for Writing in Parramatta had opened – along with writers’ rooms in Katoomba and Wedderburn (Campbelltown).
Campbell has steered the organisation since 2015. Prior to that was a storied career running the gamut from CEO and arts festival director to principal dancer with the West Australian Ballet.
Literature and writing also figures prominently on his C.V. – he notably co-wrote the opera Madeline Lee, which was nominated for seven Helpmann Awards.
It’s a professional journey that’s been underpinned by a love of unique stories – and storytellers.
“I’m really passionate about the development of distinctive voices,” he says, “Creating the conditions under which distinctive voices, people who have something to say, can in fact say it … is really important. I really believe that’s the role of art and culture.”
In doing so, he and his colleagues have not only had to account for the cultural breadth of Western Sydney but the complexities of sourcing funding for an art form that is unique, not least because – of course – it can take such a long time.
“The funding matrix I work with is complex. There’s also a fundamental difference with a writer, you support the stages of the work. There’s stages of the work which is in part research. Then a first draft, then there’s redrafting and then there’s the process that will launch it to publication. You’re articulating to people who want to support that process.”
As a measure of the significance of his role and leadership, he’s currently a finalist in the Impact 25 Awards, which acknowledges 25 individuals from across Australia who have the greatest social impact: influencers, collaborators and innovators.
And by extension, it’s also recognition of the importance of words – their impact – and the way telling of stories locates a person in time and space.
“[Art] reflects, interprets and distills experience,” Campbell says. “Somebody who is comes as a refugee or an asylum seeker … to be able to see themselves as part of the narrative of Australia is an incredibly important thing so they feel like what they’re bringing is recognised and honoured.”